December 17, 2022 - Incarnation

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Today, as the date draws near when we traditionally celebrate the birth of Jesus, let’s take a closer look at this event we call the Incarnation. As we celebrate Christmas, are we all celebrating the same birth of the same Jesus? It depends on how important you consider the differences to be.


For those who believe in the triune God of historic Christianity, the manger is where the Incarnation takes place: the God of heaven becomes and is born as a human child, without ceasing to be the God who also reigns on the throne of the universe. Jesus Christ is the only child who ever existed before he was born. In his flesh, Christ was conceived by a miraculous act of the Holy Ghost, without the seed of any human male. The mission for which he was born was to live the life we should have lived, and to die the death we should have died.


For many other folks around us with a different belief system, Jesus starts out as a spirit child in the Preexistence, produced by Heavenly Father and a heavenly mother, to be followed by the births of Lucifer and the billions of human spirit children begotten by our Heavenly Father since then. The future role of Savior is then offered to Jesus and also to Lucifer, an offer to be decided by who offers a better plan of salvation. Jesus wins the contest, Lucifer is then denied the privilege of having a physical body, and Jesus proceeds to receive his body.


Already, according to this other belief system out there, this Jesus in the manger is not the “only begotten Son of the Father.” But the Bible makes it crystal clear that God has only one begotten Son. Six times the NT says that Jesus is God’s “only begotten Son” (the Greek word it uses is monogenÄ“s). The most famous example is in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son.” John 1:14: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten of the Father.”


Now here’s where it gets even more complicated. According to this other belief system out there, spirit children are given bodies through the biological process of human conception. But unlike the rest of us, Jesus gets his body from Heavenly Father himself, who they say is an exalted human being who still has a (now glorified) human body. How does this work? As an exalted human with a physical body, Heavenly Father interrupts the marriage of Joseph and Mary temporarily to literally mate with Mary to conceive the human Jesus.


Now, the manger scene is starting to look very different than the manger scene in historic Christianity. According to this approach to the conception of Jesus, Mary is no longer a virgin. (I've got a problem with that!)  There is debate as to whether Heavenly Father gave Mary to Joseph only temporarily, and would take her back as one of his wives in the resurrection, or whether Joseph will be allowed to keep Mary as his eternal companion. But almost all leaders who hold to this belief system deny categorically that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Ghost. Otherwise, they have said it would be dangerous to bestow the Holy Ghost on women, lest they likewise conceive unplanned children.


There is one more, huge problem. If he comes into the world as a spirit child like us, at what point does Jesus become a god? In historic Christianity, Jesus is born already God in the flesh, the same God who simultaneously sits on heaven’s throne. Our Jesus is co-eternal with the Father, and was always God. His origins are “from everlasting," according to Micah 5:2.  But for those who believe that all of us are gods in embryo, Jesus must start out human, and then be exalted to godhood.


So when does Jesus get exalted to godhood? The answer is: much sooner than the rest of us can achieve that level of perfection, but somehow, Jesus must be exalted from where he started out.  According to this other belief system, Jesus is not born God, nor did Jesus exist before he was born as anything other than a spirit-child of God like we were. And according to this belief system, Jesus still must earn his way to godhood, even if he is fast-tracked (as it were) because of his firstborn status with God.


(And why Jesus gets to be Savior of the world is not clear, if he is not already God when he carries out the Atonement. How can Jesus take upon himself the sins of the entire world, if he is merely one solitary finite human being? Historic Christianity teaches that because Jesus is already God in the flesh long before he gets to the cross, Jesus can die for an infinite number of human souls, because God is infinite. If Jesus is not God, he can only die for one person’s sins, and that is only if he himself is without sin of his own.)


If we are really gods in embryo, then to speak of the Incarnation is no big deal that is worth celebrating at Christmas. We all become incarnate deities, if that were true. The truth is that God is not a God with a body of flesh.  That's what makes the Incarnation such a big deal! God is not an exalted man, and we are not gods.


If God was an exalted man with a body of flesh and bone, that’s all the more the reason to ask, What’s the big deal about the Incarnation then, if Christ coming in the flesh is no different from what his Father already did, or if his incarnation is no different from our own incarnation, where we as supposed preexistent spirit children receive a body of flesh?


Colossians 2:9 says, “For in him (meaning Christ) dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (the Greek word here is somatikōs). What would the point of that verse be, if God already has a human body somewhere else? Why would all the fullness of Heavenly Father dwell bodily in Christ, if God already has his own body? How does that work? No, Colossians 2:9 only makes sense if God is the one-and-only triune God. Paul’s point here is that in Christ is the only place where God resides bodily. In every other place or person in all the universe, God dwells only through his Spirit. Paul’s word to the Colossians makes it clear that the Incarnation (God becoming flesh) is a truly big deal. It is huge. It is unprecedented and unparalleled.


And how do we explain what Paul says to the Philippians? He tells them in chapter 2 that although Christ “was in the form of God, he did not count / reckon equality with God a harpagmos (a thing to be grasped or clutched or grabbed for).” Instead, Christ “emptied himself” by humbling himself to become one of us, even the lowliest of servants, humbling himself all the way to death on a criminal’s cross.


Emptied himself of what? Christ gave up all the benefits and privileges he had as God before he came to earth to be conceived and given a human body like one of us. That means that before he came to earth, Christ had all of these benefits and privileges. If you follow the facts here, unless you believe that Jesus was always God from before time began (as the Bible teaches in Micah 5:2), you end up instead having to invent some previous life where Jesus earned his godhood. No, the simplest explanation is the best. Jesus is the one true God, who sets aside all the advantages of being God to come to earth as the ultimate Undercover Boss.


Only Christ and the Spirit were preexistent with God. Did God change by becoming one of us, by becoming flesh? No, having a body was not a fundamental part of God’s nature, but is part of the amazing phenomenon of what happened in the conception and birth of Christ. Yes, before Mary, his body did not exist, but unlike us, Christ has always existed and was always God. (Jesus says to God in John 17:5, “Glorify thou me with the glory I had with thee before the world existed.”) Some even theorize that appearances of God in human form in the OT were actually preincarnate appearances of Christ. (I take no position on that theory, but it’s possible.)


What all did God set aside to come down here? To begin with, God laid aside his non-transferable attributes. God is all-powerful, omnipresent, and all-knowing. When he became one of us, God laid all of that aside. To live the life we should have lived, as our substitute, God in the flesh had to live under the same conditions under which Adam could have and should have obeyed God.


So when he was tempted in the desert, Jesus had to resist the temptation to cheat and use his all-powerful ability as God to satisfy his hunger and turn stones into bread. Jesus had to live by faith. That means he could not know where his next meal was coming from. He had to lay his all-knowing power aside. Jesus says that no one knows the day or the hour of his coming, not even the Son himself (Mark 13:32). Yes, Jesus had flashes of supernatural knowledge, but no more than what is available to us through the power of the Holy Ghost. Jesus had to function with limited knowledge, like we do. Jesus also had to function with the physical limitations of a human body. He could not be everywhere at once. He laid that power aside. When trying to touch and heal the crowds, Jesus wore out. Although at least twice he healed people from a distance, Jesus could not personally heal everyone.


Furthermore, God gave up his place of comfort and joy on the throne of heaven.  He did that, to descend to a world that was anything but heaven. God Incarnate was born into a world of danger, dirt, and disease. He was not born in a royal palace. As soon as he was born, God Incarnate was placed in a lowly feeding trough, surrounded by flies and cattle manure. Here we have the ultimate Undercover Boss, come to earth to see with his own human eyes what life is like down here.


And what did God experience here? Jesus experienced every kind of pain that we experience. Jesus experienced the pain of rejection, the pain of grief and loss, the pain of betrayal. He experienced hard work. Jesus experienced frustration when he saw with human eyes the mess that we have made of this world. Finally, Jesus experienced the pain of the cross, and all of the physical torture and psychological humiliation that went with it. And on that cross, Jesus also suffered the eternal pain of hell for billions of souls. Jesus lived the life we should have lived, and died the death we should have died.


Jesus also experienced every temptation we will ever experience. Hebrews 4:15 says about Jesus, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Jesus experienced the urge to kill, the urge to take what was not his when no one was looking, the urge to lie in order to hide the inconvenient truth. Jesus experienced sexual temptation of all kinds, gay and straight.  He was "tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin."


In the desert, Jesus also experienced temptations that we will never face, like the temptation to turns stones into bread to satisfy 40 days without food (I’ve never been tempted to do that). Jesus was offered power over all the kingdoms of the earth in exchange for a little bit of worship (nobody ever offered me that). But the amazing fact is that Jesus never caved in to any of those temptations. Peter lived with Jesus 24/7 for 3 years (if there was dirt on Jesus, Peter would have seen it), but Peter testifies that “he committed no sin.” (1 Peter 2:22) Jesus did what Adam should have done, without help from his divine nature (remember, he laid that aside). By doing so, by living a life without sin, God in the flesh won the victory for every one of us.


As the eternal God, Christ already knew what we go through in this life. He had seen it all, multiplied billions of times, from his throne in heaven.  (He still does!) But in the Incarnation, God came down and personally experienced it. He saw it through our eyes. He endured it in our shoes.


What kind of person did God become? It was at that great “General Conference” that we call the Council of Nicea in 325 AD that we officially began to put the truth of the Incarnation into words. We had already begun to unpack the Biblical teaching about God into a framework that we called the Trinity. But it was here at Nicea that we as God’s Church made it clear that Christ was and is “of one substance with the Father,” and that he was “begotten, not made.” In other words, Christ was not part of the creation, like we are; he was one with the Creator. Christ and his Heavenly Father are not merely one in purpose, but are one God. God’s Church gathered at Nicea did not invent all this; we simply unpacked what was already there in God’s word.


After the Council of Nicea, there was a long Greek philosophical debate, as God’s church sought to better understand the nature of the Incarnation. How do we explain a man who has both divine and human natures? First, someone theorized that God completely replaced the human spirit and personality of Christ with the divine nature, as if Christ were just a human shell with a divine Spirit inside. The Church said No to that theory. Next, the Church debated the idea that Christ had 2 separate personalities, as if Christ were a sort of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The Church found that idea to be unacceptable as well. Next, someone theorized that Christ was a mixture of divine and human, a third type of being. Again, the Church said No to that idea.


Finally, the Church held another “General Conference” or Council at Chalcedon in 451 AD to spell out as best as anyone could explain how divine and human natures came together in Christ. Here’s how they decided to describe what we know and what we can deduce about Christ. They said that Christ was “perfect in Godhead” and “perfect in manhood,” not half God and half human, but “truly God and truly human.” They say he had “a rational soul and body, one substance with the Father in Godhead, and…one substance with us in manhood, like us in all things except sin.” They say that Christ was “made known in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation, the difference of the natures being by no means removed because of the union.” They say he was “not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, only-begotten, divine Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.”


That’s the formula that God’s church put together at Chalcedon. The description given here of how Christ could be fully God and fully human and still be one person without mixing the two natures together was called the “Hypostatic Union.” All of that debate did a better job ruling out what was not true about Christ than it did figuring out what exactly was true about Christ or how it can be true. But who can fully understand God’s nature? All we can ultimately rely on is what God has explicitly revealed to us. If we needed to know more, God would have told us explicitly.  God gave us enough to figure it out.


That’s the Incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas! No Christmas carol says it better than the song “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” It says, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see! Hail the incarnate Deity! Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Immanuel.” Charles Wesley, the writer of this carol, sings that Jesus is our Immanuel, which means our “God With Us.” He sings that in Jesus, we see the “incarnate Deity.” We see the invisible God, “veiled in flesh” that we could see. If God the Father is invisible and does not have a body of flesh, then Jesus Christ becomes our one and only place to see this God, veiled in visible flesh.


We also hear the Incarnation celebrated explicitly in the words of the song “Mary, Did You Know?”, where it says, “When you kiss your little baby, you’ve kissed the face of God” – not the face of a god, but the face of the one true triune God.


The Incarnation is truly worth celebrating in this season. It is a huge deal! It has never happened before. The invisible God had never taken on a body of flesh until that miraculous conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary, followed by that night he was born in Bethlehem and placed in the manger. That night when the timeless eternal God steps into our world of space and time is an all-time historic event, rivaled only by the day that Jesus took away our sin, and the morning that Jesus conquered death by rising from the dead. Wouldn’t you have loved to have been one of the angels in the sky on the scene that night who had a front-row seat to the rollout of the Incarnation?


But how do we know that all of this really happened? To know that this was God, in the flesh of this newborn child, only the Holy Ghost can convince us. But did the surrounding events really happen? Was Jesus really born in Bethlehem? Was there a census? Was there a star? Were there Magi from the East? How do we know this wasn’t all made up, and what would that do to the credibility of the Gospel narrative? What evidence do we have to the truth of these events? We’ll talk about that evidence for the truth of the Christmas story next time on Biblical Words and World!  Merry Christmas!