The idea of a “god” involving himself in the affairs of men by coming to the earth is not a novel one. In the Greek culture of New Testament times there were numerous instances in which the “gods” were said to have manifested themselves in human flesh.1 In our own times there are numerous examples of “super-beings” who have intervened in human history. In the movie “E.T.” this being was far from human. Characters like the “Bionic Man” and the “Bionic Woman” are more human than divine. “Superman” and “Wonder Woman” are more “other worldly” and more closely approximate the Greek heroes.
All of our present day “super-beings” offer provide little help when it comes to the doctrine of the incarnation, however. In the first place, these are fictional characters--nobody really believes in them. This predisposes us to doubt the description of our Lord in the New Testament. In addition, these “super-heroes” of our time are vastly different from the person of Christ, who is God incarnate. There is nothing in fact or in fiction in the history of man which matches the mystery of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Humanly speaking, no one anticipated God’s intervention into human history by the birth of a child, born in a manger. Not even Judaism was looking for Messiah to come in this way.2 Furthermore, we have become so accustomed to the biblical narratives of the birth of our Lord and the credal formulations of the doctrines involved that we have often ceased to appreciate the mystery of the incarnation.
If we are to properly appreciate the mystery of the incarnation, we must first come to recognize the importance of the coming of our Lord as God incarnate. For this reason I have chosen to devote this first message on the incarnation to the subject of the importance of the incarnation. Let us consider the reasons why it the doctrine of the incarnation is vital to every one of us.
(1) The Doctrine of the Incarnation Should be the Focus of a Christian Celebration of Christmas.
We are rapidly approaching Christmas. Strangely enough, this is a time of depression, not just for men and women in general, but particularly for Christians. The “let down” is noticeable, I think, for all of us. Some of this is probably the fact that we have spent considerable money and effort to make the celebration of Christmas enjoyable, and yet the returns have been minimal. A great deal of our depression is related to the fact that much of our concentration is turned away from the message of Christ’s incarnation. The great joy of Christmas is inseparably bound with the fact of His incarnation.
It is probably not necessary to remind you that December 25th is hardly to be considered the time when our Lord was actually born. No one really knows the exact date of our Lord’s birth.3 We do know that by the end of the fourth century Christ’s birth was celebrated on January 6th, and then later on, celebration was divided between January 6th and December 25th. In early Rome the Feast of Saturnalia was celebrated for seven days from the 17th of December to the 24th. This festive week was “marked by a spirit of merriment, gift giving to children and other forms of entertainment.”4
Throughout the centuries various elements of pagan celebrations have been included in the observance of Christmas. It is due to these “other-than-Christian” elements that the central focus of Christmas on the incarnation has been obscured. If we are to truly enter into the spirit and celebration of Christmas in Christian worship than we must focus our attention on the event of the incarnation, which is the heart of the Christmas message.
(2) The Doctrine of the Incarnation is Not Only Neglected by Christians Today, It is Under Attack By Those Who Would Call Themselves “Christians.”
While our culture is very open to “super-beings” who are fictional, there has been increased hostility and opposition to the biblical doctrine of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. In history there have been those who have sought to handle the difficulties of the incarnation by sacrificing either the deity of Christ (e.g. the Ebionites) or his humanity (e.g. the Docetists). Quite recently there has been a bold attack on the doctrine of the incarnation made by a group of theologians, whose essays have been published under the title, The Myth of God Incarnate (S.C.M., 1977).5 In no uncertain terms the incarnation is dismissed as a myth, along with other fundamental doctrines of the faith:
Michael Goulder astonishingly attributes belief in the deity of Christ to the supposed influence of Simon Magus on the Church, and also to the psychological impact of Peter’s experience of the (mythical!) resurrection, and the subsequent “power of hysteria within a small community.”6
But what in fact they seem to be doing, at least in the recent symposium, is to evacuate the divine element from Jesus just as surely as they have done it with Scripture. They are denying not merely Nicene and Chalcedonian definitions of Christ but the basic truth which these definitions sought, in the cultural heritage of their own day to express, that Jesus shared to nature of God as well as our nature. They are not reinterpreting traditional Christology but abandoning it.7
“Christianity is always adapting into something which can be believed” is a presupposition of the essayists in this symposium; so much so that it is quoted in the first paragraph of the book. And miracles cannot be believed. The miracles of Jesus must be repudiated, because miracles do not happen: so ran the message of the film Who Was Jesus?, directed by one of the contributors to The Myth of God Incarnate.8
A study of the incarnation of our Lord is therefore not only necessary in order to properly observe Christmas, but also to preserve the purity of sound doctrine, which has come under attack at this very point.
The doctrine of the incarnation provides the Christian with a doctrinal touchstone to determine a departure from orthodoxy:9
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; and this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world (I John 4:1-3).
(3) The Doctrine of the Incarnation is Frequently the Point of Departure for Those Who Reject the Christian Faith.
We have already stated that the doctrine of the incarnation is central to a biblical Christian celebration of Christmas and that it is a truth currently under attack. But the doctrine of the incarnation is also one which is vital to the Christian faith because other biblical doctrines will stand or fall with it. Where men stand on the doctrine of the incarnation often defines the dividing line between orthodoxy and heresy, between true Christianity and the cults:
This is the real stumbling-block in Christianity. It is here that Jews, Moslems, Unitarians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and many of those who feel the difficulties above mentioned (about the virgin birth, the miracles, the atonement, and the resurrection), have come to grief.10
The uniqueness of the Christian faith is directly related to the biblical teaching of the incarnation of Christ:
The Christian doctrine of the incarnation is one of the two central doctrines which set out the unique features of Christian faith in God. Christianity shares with some other religions belief in an infinite and transcendent God, the source of the world’s being and of all its values. It recognizes that in every part of the world, traditions of religious belief and religious experience have made it possible for men and women to enjoy the blessedness of spiritual life and of the knowledge and love of God. But the Christian doctrine of the incarnation expresses the conviction of Christians that this God has made himself known full, specifically and personally, by taking our human nature into himself, by coming amongst us as a particular man, without in any way ceasing to be the eternal and infinite God.11
Perhaps the best way to underscore the importance of the doctrine of the incarnation is to consider the price for putting it aside. The Bible reveals a number of purposes for the incarnation of our Lord. When we do away with the incarnation, these purposes will not be realized. Consider with me the consequences of doing away with the truth of God incarnate.
(1) To Reveal God To Men
In the past, God had revealed Himself through His works (as recorded in the Scriptures), His world (Psalm 19:1-6), and His word (Ps. 19:7-14). In the coming of Christ, God was revealed in the person of Jesus Christ:
God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power (Heb. 1:1-3a).
For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him (John 1:17-18).
Our Lord can therefore say without any hesitation, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). And not only does the Lord Jesus reveal the Father to men, He also reveals men for what they are in God’s sight:
In Him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness; and the darkness did not comprehend it . . . . There was a true light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him (John 1:4-5, 9-10).
Before, God had revealed His standard of righteousness in precept and in principle, but in Christ that standard was revealed in person. The “measure of a man” is the measure of this Man (cf. Eph. 4:13).
The Lord clearly claimed to be the very One whom the apostles represented as the incarnate Son of God (John 1:1; 6:38; II Cor. 8:9; Phil. 2:6,7; Gal. 4:4-5). To refuse to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as God incarnate is therefore to reject all of God’s divine revelation, be that the Old or the New Testament Scriptures (cf. John 5:39-40; 6:45, 68; 8:26, 31-32, 42-47; Matt. 22:29).
It is little wonder, then, that those who reject the biblical teaching of the incarnation also reject the authority of the Scriptures which so emphatically teach this doctrine. James Barr’s words are the logical outworking of his rejection of the doctrine of the incarnation:
My account of the formation of the biblical tradition is an account of a human work. It is man’s statement of his beliefs, the events he has experienced, the stories he has been told, and so on. It has long been customary to align the Bible with concepts like Word of God, or revelation, and on effect has been to align the Bible with a movement from God to man.
It is man who developed the biblical tradition and man who decided when it might be suitably fixed and made canonical. If one wants to use the Word of God type of language, the proper term for the Bible would be Word of Israel, Word of some leading Christians.12
(2) To Redeem Fallen Man
Nothing could be more clearly documented in the Scriptures than the fact that the principle purpose of the incarnation was to save men from their sins:
But when the fulness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons (Gal. 4:4-5).
Rightly, then, Dr. B. B. Warfield concludes:
Eliminate sin as the proximate occasion and redemption as the prime end of the Incarnation, and none of the other relations in which it stands, and none of the other effects which flow from it, will be fulfilled, at least in the measure of their rights.13
The inseparable relationship of the incarnation of Christ and the atonement can be seen at the communion table. In our church we observe the Lord’s ordinance of communion weekly. Here, we are reminded that our salvation has been obtained through the shed blood of Christ on the cross of Calvary. What two elements are used to represent the work of Christ on man’s behalf? They are the bread and the wine. Both these elements are evidence of the necessity of the incarnation. The bread is a symbol of the body--the human body of our Lord which was given for man’s salvation. The unleavened bread reminds us that His body was without sin, which was also a result of the incarnation of our Lord. And the cup symbolizes the blood of our Lord which was shed for the forgiveness of our sins. Blood could not have been shed apart from a human body. Thus, the atonement which our Lord accomplished for us was dependent upon the incarnation. To put in more directly, “apart from the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins” (Heb. 9:22), and apart from a human body, there could be no shedding of blood (cf. Heb. 10:5-10).
We should hardly be surprised that Satan would choose to give his best efforts at undermining the doctrine of the incarnation, for it is foundational to man’s redemption. Dr. Hick, one of the authors of The Myth of God Incarnate, is quick to draw the conclusion that once the incarnation is set aside, Christianity has no special or exclusive claim to redemption:
The problem which has come to the surface in the encounter of Christianity with the other world religions is this: If Jesus was literally God incarnate, and if it is by his death alone that men can be saved, and by their response to him alone that they can appropriate that salvation, then the only doorway to eternal life is the Christian faith. It would follow from this that the large majority of the human race so far have not been saved. But is it credible that the loving God and Father of all men has decreed that only those born within one particular thread of human history shall be saved? (p. 180).14
The entire matter of man’s eternal salvation hinges upon the argument which is found in Romans chapter 5. The question underlying this chapter has to do with how the righteousness of one man, Jesus Christ, is able to save many. The answer is that it was through the sin of one man, Adam (5:12, 14-15) constituted the entire human race to be sinful before God and thus worthy only of His eternal wrath. The solution which God has provided is Christ, the ‘second Adam’ (5:14, I Cor. 15:45), whose righteousness will save all who are “in Him” by faith:
For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. so then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men (Romans 5:17-18).
Satan seeks to undermine man’s salvation by attacking the truths of Romans chapter 5 from both sides. On the one hand he seeks to deceive men so that they will not believe there was any Adam (evolution can be used very effectively here), thus there is no one sinful act which condemns the entire race. The result is that man is no longer a sinner by nature. If man is not a sinner, under divine wrath, then he surely needs no such thing as salvation.
Secondly, Satan seeks to deceive us as the “last Adam,” Jesus Christ. By corrupting the biblical doctrine of the incarnation Satan can bring us to the “logical” conclusion that since Jesus Christ was not God manifested in the flesh, He was not the one and only means of procuring man’s salvation. One man’s way of getting to heaven is as good as another’s.
Once the doctrine of the incarnation is set aside, the whole matter of redemption through the person and work of Christ is scuttled. And thus we find a great deal of controversy surrounding this vital doctrine.
(3) God’s Initial Purpose for Man, as Well as His Ultimate Purpose, is that Man Will Reign Over His Creation.
When man was created and placed in the Garden of Eden, he was created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). While there is a great deal of discussion about all that is meant by the phrase “in Our image” one aspect of this is that man will, like God, rule:
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Gen. 1:26, emphasis mine).
When Adam fell, all mankind, indeed all creation (cf. Rom. 8:20-22), fell, and chaos resulted. Man’s rule is at best, distorted. God’s promise, both to Israel and to the church, is that His people will be a “kingdom of priests” who will reign with Him (Exod. 19:6; I Pet. 2:5,9; Rev. 1:6; 5:10). This reign will be established when the Messiah comes to the earth to subdue it and to rule over it. The Messiah was to be of the offspring of Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3), of the tribe of Judah (Gen. 49:8-12), and of the seed of David (II Sam. 7:12-16).
In the gospels we find the genealogy of our Lord establishing Him as one of the descendants of Abraham, Judah, and David, as a legal (but not biological) son of Joseph (cf. Matt. 1:1-16; Luke 3:23-38). In the accounts of the birth of our Lord there is a decided emphasis upon the promises which God had made to the Israelites of old, and especially those which pertained to the righteous reign of Messiah:
And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb, and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the “Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and His kingdom will have no end” (Luke 1:30-33; cf. Matt. 2:2, 6; Luke 1:49-54; 68-75).
Strange as it may seem, it was not enough that the second person of the Godhead was truly God--He must also be man in order to fulfill God’s purposes and His promises to man. The reason is that God’s purposes and God’s promises were made to man, as man. It was man who was made in God’s image, and who was destined to rule over His creation. It was a man who must fulfill God’s purposes and promises. Fallen man neither could nor would fulfill God’s purposes, due to his sin. Thus, a new man, a “second Adam” must intervene in human history. This man must also be free from all sin. To fulfill the scriptures He must also be divine (we shall study this more in our next lesson). In order for God’s purposes and promises to be fulfilled, the incarnation must occur. When the incarnation did take place, those who witnessed the event were assured that God’s reign (and thus the reign of the faithful) would now be established on the earth.
The importance of the humanity of Christ (thus, the incarnation) is underscored by the writer to the Hebrews in the second chapter of his epistle. He is writing of the superiority of Christ to the angels. In verses 6-8, he turns to Psalm 8, applying the verses which speak of the dignity and glory of man, in that he has been appointed to “rule over the works of Thy hands” (v. 7b). Not only is the writer using this psalm to speak of Christ, but to speak of Him who will reign as man. In verses 4 and 5 the author goes on to show that it was necessary for the Lord Jesus Christ to take on human flesh in order to minister to His brethren. The Messiah who was to reign, would do so as man.
In the 10th chapter of the epistle to the Hebrews the point is clearly made that the Lord Jesus, of necessity, had to add humanity to His deity:
Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, “Sacrifice and offering Thou hast not desired, But a body Thou hast prepared for Me” (Heb. 10:5).
Do you see the importance of the incarnation to the future hopes of both Israelites and the church? The return of the Lord and the establishment of His kingdom will only occur for men when God does so as man. When our Lord added humanity to His deity, He did so for all eternity. It is as the God-Man that He will return and He will reign, and we with Him. Do away with the incarnation and both the purposes and the promises of God are worthless.
(4) The Present Ministry of Christ is also One Which has Greater Meaning Because of His Incarnation.
Our salvation, accomplished in the past by the death of Christ on the cross and fully realized in His second coming and reign is contingent upon His humanity. In between the past and the future there is yet another ministry which our Lord carries on as man:
For there is one god, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony borne at the proper time (I Tim. 2:5-6, emphasis mine).
At the present time, while the Son waits for the Father’s word to return to the earth and subdue His enemies (cf. I Cor. 15:20-28; Rev. 5). In this present time the Lord Jesus is our advocate with the Father (I John 2:1). His present high priestly role has special relevance to us because He has come to the earth as man, making Him a compassionate and understanding advocate and source of strength and encouragement:
Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted (Heb. 2:17-18).
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4:14-16).
The consequences of denying or rejecting the incarnation of our Lord are substantial, as we have seen. This is due, in part, because our Lord’s incarnation is eternal. What He became in the manger centuries ago, is what He shall forever be--the God-Man. To deny the incarnation is to deny the virgin birth, the miracles of our Lord, His substitutionary atonement, and His bodily resurrection. In effect, to deny the incarnation is to deny all. To accept the incarnation is to believe in all:
It is from misbelief, or at least inadequate belief, about the incarnation that difficulties at other points in the gospel story usually spring. But once the incarnation is grasped as a reality, these other difficulties dissolve . . . . Once we grant that Jesus was divine, it becomes unreasonable to find difficulty in any of this; it is all of a piece, and hangs together completely. The incarnation is in itself an unfathomable mystery, but it makes sense of everything else that the New Testament contains.15
If, indeed, the Bible is correct in teaching us that our destiny is inseparably linked to the person of the Lord Jesus Christ (which Romans 5 and many other texts emphatically demonstrate), then to deny the incarnation is to undermine the very core of our faith.
Incarnation is not just a debate about something which took place 2,000 years ago in history. The issues at hand in the incarnation of our Lord are matters of principle which have very practical ramifications. The broader issue of the incarnation is the relationship between the divine and the human, between the sovereign working of God and the human responsibility of man.
Let me attempt to illustrate what I mean by referring to the issue of the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures. The real question lying behind the issue of the inspiration and infallibility of the Scriptures is whether anything which is dependent upon human participation can be said to be divine and without error. To deny the incarnation is to deny the deity or the humanity (or both) of our Lord. Such a denial is to conclude that it is impossible for our Lord to be both undiminished deity and sinless humanity at the same time. To conclude this about the living Word is to necessitate doing so with the written word.
The underlying principle here is the relationship between the divine and the human. One of the most pressing problems for the Christian is how can God (the divine) indwell and manifest Himself in the human (me). To deny that the divine and human can be joined together in any practical or personal way is to deny the essence of our salvation and sanctification, for when we are born again we become one with God and He with us. To live the spiritual life is to be joined with Him in whatever we do. The Christian is urged to exert himself because of the divine enablement which God has provided, thus merging divinity and humanity, divine power manifested in human weakness (cf. Rom. 12:1-2; II Pet. 1:3-11).
The doctrine of the incarnation implies several truths which the Bible elsewhere verifies. Let us conclude by considering what the incarnation of our Lord implies to us, which we dare not ignore.
(1) The Doctrine of the Incarnation Informs us of the Depravity of Man and of His Desperate Condition Apart from Divine Intervention.
Hopefully it has become clear that the incarnation involved a great condescension on the part of the second person of the Godhead. While there was much humiliation in His death, there was also humiliation in His incarnation (cf. II Cor. 8:9). The fact that God was willing to “stoop” to identifying with man in the incarnation of our Lord is evidence to the utter fallenness of mankind. Surely God would never have considered the incarnation unless there was no possible means by which man could save himself. The incarnation implies what the first three chapters of the Book of Romans boldly asserts--that man was totally, irreversibly, lost, if left to himself. Man neither could, nor would, choose to save himself.
The point is simply to be stated in this way: if the cure requires drastic measures, the ailment is severe. No one would conceive of allowing the doctor to remove a limb to cure an infection which could be treated by antibiotics. But if the ailment were a cancer that would kill the patient, then a limb is gladly sacrificed to preserve the life. No cure is more drastic than that of the incarnation and the cross. Man’s problem of sin is indeed fatal.
(2) The Doctrine of the Incarnation Informs us of God’s Desire and His Ability to Save Fallen Man.
If we would wish to attempt to fathom the love of God for fallen man, let us ponder the wonder of the incarnation. While it is usually to the cross that we turn our attention to ponder the love of God, we must recognize that, as someone has said, “the wood of the cradle and the wood of the cross are the same.” The cradle was but the first step to the cross. And it is by that cradle that we should seek to ponder the willingness and the ability of God to save men from their sins.
(3) The Doctrine of the Incarnation Warns us of the Folly of Rejecting Salvation in Christ and Substituting Our Own Efforts.
I have suggested (and I acknowledge this logical argument may have its flaws) that if man were not hopelessly lost, God would hardly have sent his Son to the cradle or the cross. If the salvation of man takes such drastic measures as a cradle and a cross, surely God is rightly angered by man’s efforts to save himself and thereby rejecting the person and the work of God’s Son. Because God has chosen to save sinners by sending His only begotten Son, surely God is righteous to demand that men find salvation only in His Son. How foolish it is to seek to stand before God in any righteousness which rejects Jesus Christ, God incarnate.
We shall shortly return to our study of the Book of Revelation. When we study chapters 6 and following we must agree with the writer to the Hebrews who has said (in a different context),
For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the furry of fire which will consume the adversaries . . . . It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:26-27, 31).
What a wonderful, and reassuring view of God we have in the cradle, and on the cross. But for those who refuse the Christ of the gospels, they must face the Christ of the Book of Revelation, Who will subdue His enemies.
“Augustine points to the prevailing tradition in the 5th cent. among western churches concerning the birth of Christ and the observance of Christmas. ‘For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; . . . But He was born according to tradition upon December the 25th” (De Trinitate, Bk. IV, Ch. 5).” G. Lambert, “Christmas,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975, 1976), I, p. 804.
5 The major arguments of this book are summarized: (1) The idea of ‘incarnation’, that God became man in Jesus of Nazareth, is a construction built upon the New Testament and not found in it. (2) We must recognize that the idea of ‘incarnation’ is a myth. (3) Jesus was a real man born in normal fashion, a child of Mary and Joseph. He did not exist before his conception and birth. (4) The significance of Jesus lies in his ‘faith-response’ to God. (5) Christ’s Sonship can be seen as a development from the idea of God’s ‘man’ to that of God’s son, by analogy. The later full-blooded conception of God’s only Son was a mistaken development. (6) Jesus is not different in kind from other men. (7) His death was martyrdom which crowned his life and activated his mission. Taken from: George Carey, God Incarnate: Meeting the Contemporary Challenges to a Classic Christian Doctrine (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1978), pp. 7-8.
10 J. I. Packer, Knowing God, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 46. In this 5th chapter, entitled “God Incarnate,” Packer does an excellent job of underscoring the importance of the doctrine of the incarnation.
12 As quoted in The Truth of God Incarnate, pp. 108-109. To deny the incarnation of our Lord necessitates the rejection of divine revelation (the Bible) which clearly teaches it. The normal sequence of events is that the denial of the incarnation is the final step of rejecting divine revelation, not the first step. Usually man begins by denying the authority and the message of the Bible and the final departure is to deny the incarnation. In the preface to the book, The Truth of God Incarnate, Michael Green summarizes the sequence of events which led to the publication of the book, The Myth of God Incarnate.
For twenty years John F. Kennedy has been honored on the day of his death. Now, at the request of his family, he will be remembered on his birthday. And, when you stop to think of it, there is precedent for this request. Holidays which honor former presidents fall on their birthday, not the day of their death. It is not really hard to understand the preference of the Kennedy family for we would all prefer to think of happier occasions than that of the death of a loved one.
The recent request of the Kennedy family helps explain why the world would rather celebrate the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ than His death. The only two times some people go to church are Christmas and Easter, a fact which should not be difficult to explain. Each of these holidays draws our attention to pleasant thoughts. The birth of Christ, as the birth of any baby, is a happy occasion. The crucifixion of Christ is an unpleasant thing to remember, and so we fix our attention of the event of His resurrection. The hope of life after death is a pleasant one to ponder, whether we fully believe it or not. And yet the Lord specifically commanded his church to regularly remember Him in His death (cf. Luke 22:19).16
My purpose in pointing out our preference toward Christmas (and Easter) is not to protest the celebration of Christmas but to point out why we may find it difficult to worship our Lord as we should at Christmas. In the first place we do it so seldom. Once a year is simply not often enough to ponder a mystery as profound as the incarnation.17 Secondly, we do not have any specific instructions in the New Testament as to how it should be done, as we do of remembering the Lord’s death at communion (e.g. Matt. 26; Mark 14; Luke 22; Acts 20; I Cor. 11). Third, while the meaning of the death of Christ is frequently and thoroughly expounded in the New Testament (e.g. Rom. 5, 6), the meaning of the incarnation is not as frequently or as thoroughly expounded. Finally, the death of Christ is, of necessity, included as a vital part of the gospel which men and women must believe in order to be saved, while the doctrine of the incarnation (though important) is not.18
All of this results in the fact that the events of the nativity are difficult for us to relate to. We therefore struggle to be able to relate to the accounts of our Lord’s birth. The most relevant thing we have found is to reenact them. This is not a bad thing to do. But even in reliving the birth of our Lord, we may not find a great deal to relate to.
We are not far from the meaning of Christmas in seeking to discover the so-called “spirit of Christmas.” This is a very illusive expression, but it is one which can be sharpened by focusing our attention on those few godly people to whom the coming of the Christ was announced, and who rejoiced in receiving this revelation. The “spirit of Christmas” can also be seen in the spirit of our Lord in coming as the Christ. In this message we shall seek to find the Christmas spirit in the attitudes and actions of men toward Christ, and in the next message we shall consider the attitudes and actions of Christ toward men.
Very little time is spent on the response of the wicked to the coming of the Christ. Herod’s paranoia is reflected in His attempt to put the Savior to death (Matt. 2:1-18). The apathy of all the chief priests and scribes of Jerusalem is evidenced by their failure to travel the few miles required to see the babe sought by the magi, in the place indicated in the Scriptures (Matt. 2:1-12). While these people are mentioned the attention of Matthew and Luke is focused on those who receive a revelation from God regarding the Savior who is born in Bethlehem, and who rejoice in Him as the Savior.
The response of the righteous in the birth narratives can be summed up in a word: faith. In short, those who were informed that the Messiah had come as a babe in a manger believed. By faith Mary believed that God would cause Her to conceive and to bear a child while still a virgin. Joseph was called upon to believe in faith that the child which Mary bore in her womb was not the product of infidelity. By faith the shepherds and the magi believed that a child born in such humble circumstances could be the King of Israel. By faith Simeon and Anna believed that the child they held in their hands would become the Savior of the world and the ruler of Israel.
The faith of the godly who were privileged to behold the Messiah as a babe was not groundless. Neither was it passive. Their faith had its reasons and it’s results. Let us pause to consider both the basis of their faith and the behavior which it produced.
(1) The faith of the godly was based upon divine revelation.
Divine revelation came in various ways. First and foremost was the revelation of the Old Testament. Over and over again, the words, “that it might be fulfilled . . . ” (Matt. 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; Luke 1:20) occur. Some might say that the story was written so as to fabricate fulfillment. It is amazing to observe, however, that some prophecies were fulfilled which were never viewed as such by the Jewish people. For example, there is no evidence that Isaiah 7:14 was ever viewed as a messianic prophecy. Thus, the virgin birth, while an essential part of God’s purpose, was described in the gospels as a fulfillment of prophecy pertaining to Messiah. The same could be said of the reference to Hosea 12:1 (cf. Matt. 2:15).
Without a doubt, the biblical revelation of the Old Testament was the principle means by which God revealed the coming of His Messiah. The inspired utterances of Zacharias and Elizabeth, of Mary, Simeon, and Anna all made reference to the hope of Israel (and the Gentiles, cf. Luke 2:32), based upon God’s covenant promises and the words of the Old Testament prophets. The inspired utterances of Mary, Zacharias, Elizabeth, and Simeon all reveal a familiarity with the Old Testament Scriptures, for they borrow freely from its language and expressions.19
There were other forms of divine revelation which served as a basis for faith as well. There were the angelic announcements to Zacharias (Luke 1:11-20), to Mary (Luke 1:26-37), and to the shepherds (Luke 2:9-14). There was also the revelation of God given to Joseph and the magi in dreams (Matt. 1:20-21; 2:12-13, 19-20). There was the revelation of God which was given through the Spirit-inspired utterances of Elizabeth (Luke 1:41-45), Mary (Luke 1:46-55), Zacharias (Luke 1:67-79), Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:27-38). There are also the more mysterious revelations of God to the magi through “His star in the east” (Matt. 2:2) and to Simeon and Anna, which enabled them to recognize this baby as the Lord’s Christ (Luke 2:26-28, 38).
The faith of those who were privileged to participate in the worship of our Lord at His birth was a faith based upon divine revelation. First and foremost, it was a biblical faith, a faith in the revelation of the Old Testament Scriptures. But secondarily, it was a faith based upon other divine revelations which conformed to, confirmed, and further clarified the revelation of the Scriptures.
(2) The faith of the godly was rooted in divine revelation and it was focused on the future.
It was not as a baby that the Messiah would be the Savior of the world, but as a man. The birth of Jesus in the manger was the first step in the outworking of God’s promise for Messiah. Remember that there was to be a delay of some thirty years before the Lord would begin His public ministry. And, even after His death, burial, and resurrection, we still await the final outworkings of the Messiah’s ministry. Faith is always focused on the future. It is not so much compelled by what is presently apparent, but by what God’s word assures us will be (cf. Heb. 11:1-3).
(3) The faith can be seen at the first Christmas was one that resulted in works.
We know from a number of passages of Scripture that a genuine faith is one which is active and productive, rather than one which is only passive (cf. Eph. 2:10; Phil. 2:12-13; James 1:22-27; 2:14-26). The faith of that first Christmas was evidenced by obedience, worship, and proclamation.
The faith which we find manifested in the original Christmas resulted in obedience. Mary, upon learning that she was to become the mother of the Messiah, expressed her obedient spirit by saying, “I am the Lord’s servant . . . May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38, NIV). Joseph, when he been instructed in his dream, did as he was commanded (Matt. 1:24). Later, when he was told to take Mary and the holy child to Egypt, did so, in the middle of that same night (Matt. 2:14). The shepherds and the magi were not specifically commanded to go to where the Lord Jesus was, but they responded to the revelation they had received and immediately sought to find Him (Matt. 2:1-2; Luke 2:15-16).
When those privileged few found the Messiah of whom they had received divine revelation, they worshipped Him. Only the wise men from afar had gifts to give, for the rest were apparently people of humble means. But what was most important was the spirit of worship which characterized the response of all, rich or poor.
Finally, there was proclamation. A Messiah worthy to be sought after, obeyed, and worshipped, was also worthy of the faith of others. The magi were in no way hesitant to ask Herod where the “king of the Jews” could be found (Matt. 2:1-2), for they expected all in Jerusalem to know of His birth. They would have reported back to Herod had they not been instructed in a dream to do otherwise (Matt. 2:12). Elizabeth and Zacharias had shared their joy and blessings with their neighbors (Luke 1:57-58). Word of the events surrounding the naming of John (the Baptist) quickly spread around the hill country of Judea (Luke 1:64-66). From what we read about the shepherds, it is hard to believe that they did not publicly proclaim what they saw and heard (cf. Luke 2:20). The actions of Simeon and Anna were also done publicly in the temple courts (Luke 2:25-38).
The faith of those who participated in the first Christmas was a faith that was based upon divine revelation, and which was evidenced by obedience to what was commanded or implied, which resulted in worship and proclamation.
One of the dangers we face in considering the faith of men and women at the first Christmas is that we convince ourselves that they had better basis for their faith than we. After all, we can rationalize, Mary was spoken to by the angel of the Lord, Joseph had divinely revealed dreams, and the magi had a revelation in the stars. Let us beware of thinking that this somehow excuses our lack of faith. Our Lord said to Thomas,
Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed” (John 20:29).
It is not without significance that John wrote these words just two verses later:
But these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name (John 20:31).
Do you really think that the sight of a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger was, in and of itself, that compelling? It was only because the angel had revealed that this would be the sign which would demonstrate that this was the One that this was so convincing (Luke 2:12). Apart from the revelation which God had given in the Old Testament and the corroborating revelation He gave at the time of the birth of our Lord, one would hardly have looked for the Christ in a cattle trough!
More than this, the revelation which we have in the two birth narratives of the gospels is much more complete than that which any of the godly who received the baby as the Lord’s Christ ever received. The gospels were written after the ministry, death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord. Only at this time, guided by the Holy Spirit, were all the events of His birth seen as a whole. To the shepherds, or the magi, Simeon or Anna, Joseph or Mary, only pieces of the prophetic picture were revealed. That is why we are twice told that Mary pondered the things which were revealed to her (Luke 2:19, 51). The had but pieces of the prophetic picture, but we have it all, at least so far as the first coming of Christ is concerned.20
Peter was a witness of the majesty and glory of God which belonged to the Son and was briefly revealed at the transfiguration and thus could claim . . .
. . . we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased”--and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain (II Peter 1:16-18).
Because of this manifestation of glory which he personally witnessed, Peter could assure his reader that the written revelation of God was all the more trustworthy. The revelations which God gave to Peter at the transfiguration and those who were participants in the first Christmas not only was intended to be a basis for their faith, but for ours as well.
Furthermore, the faith which we find in those to whom the birth of Messiah was revealed was not perfect either. We need remember only Zacharias, who found it so hard to believe that God would give he and his wife a child in their old age (albeit God had done so for Abram and Sarai) that he requested a sign from God. God honored his request and made silence the sign. Even after seeing and hearing an angel of God, the faith of Zacharias was not without human frailty.
The principle of faith is required in much the same way as it was in the days of our Lord’s incarnation. As a rule, the Jewish community had come to expect Messiah to be revealed in a blaze of glory and splendor. They did not expect Him to be born in a manger into a poor family. This is no doubt why so little (if any) effort was made by the people of Jerusalem, including the chief priests and scribes, made any effort to travel the relatively small distance from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to search for the Messiah. Even though they knew of the prophecy of Micah 5:2 and were informed by the magi, surely Messiah would come to them, and surely His coming would be one of splendor and majesty. They did not expect to find the Creator in a cattle shed. The had become accustomed to look for God in the glorious.
We, too, have this same mistaken predisposition and preference. We equate God with glamour, glitter, and glory. We feel that worship is better experienced in settings which have great outward splendor, magnificent buildings, gigantic organs, symphonies and massive choirs. While God does manifest Himself occasionally in glory in the New Testament, this is the exception, not the rule. It is in His incarnation that His outward glory is veiled for a time. When our Lord comes again, that glory will be awesomely visible, but for now the majesty of God is veiled and the Lord of Glory is to be found in a manger, not a majestic temple.
I am saying that we cannot determine God’s presence among us by the splendor of the setting. That is precisely why faith is required. For Abram, faith required him to believe that God was with him in a land that was not yet his possession. It was in God’s promise that Abram must trust. For Joseph, faith was believing that God was with him in an Egyptian prison, suffering for a crime he did not commit. As the 11th chapter of the Book of Hebrews instructs, faith is trusting in God’s word regarding those things which are not yet visible.
Do you believe that God is just as present in your life when you are laid off work as when you receive a promotion? Do you believe that God may be just as much present in your ministry when few turn to Him in faith (as in the case of Isaiah’s ministry, cf. chap. 6) as when many do? Do you believe that God is just as present in the simple acts of devotion and obedience as He is in the sensational? I would insist that we do not naturally think this way. That is why eyes of faith enable us to see what is contrary to outward appearances. Man looks on the outward appearance, but faith looks beyond, based upon the promises of the Word of God.
This was a lesson which Charles Colson learned in a visit to Delaware State Prison. Chuck had been there on an initial visit, at which time he had met Sam Casalvera, a hardened lifer who was in the “hole” at the time. A number of months later, after a team from Prison Fellowship had conducted a seminar, they met again. Sam had come to Christ and had written a poem in honor of Chuck Colson. He tried to read it publicly, but broke down. Chuck finished reading it for Sam. It was this experience which gave Chuck the opportunity to reevaluate what was really significant in his life. Chuck writes,
As I sat on the platform, waiting my turn at the pulpit, my mind began to drift back in time . . . to scholarships and honors earned, cases argued and won, great decisions made from lofty government offices. My life had been the perfect success story, the great American dream fulfilled. But all at once I realized that it was not my success God had used to enable me to help those in this prison, or in hundreds of others just like it. My life of success was not what made this morning so glorious--all my achievements meant nothing in God’s economy. No, the real legacy of my life was my biggest failure--that I was an ex-convict. My greatest humiliation--being sent to prison--was the beginning of God’s greatest use of my life; He chose the one experience in which I could not glory for His glory.21
The error of evangelicalism in this area is betrayed in our approach to evangelism. How was it that God chose to reveal Himself to men, and to whom was the message given and through whom communicated? The answer is simple--to the simple. He revealed the birth of the Messiah to humble shepherds, the magi who were not even Jewish, and to Simeon and Anna, who would hardly have been thought of as significant people. This is consistent with those to whom our Lord spent most of His time, which was offensive to those of “standing” (cf. Mark 2:16-17). This is consistent as well with Paul’s methods and message (cf. I Cor. 1:26-39; 2:1-5).
Why is it the we are so eager to recruit “significant” people to represent Christ and to share their testimonies? Why is it that we are often compelled to reach the “significant” and influential people with the gospel? I would suggest it is because we have lost the “spirit of Christmas,” which is the spirit of faith which is able to see God in the unspectacular, on the basis of His revelation.
If we would have the “spirit of Christmas” than we must demonstrate a spirit of faith, which sees God in instances where His glory is veiled, but where His word tells us He is present nonetheless. My unsaved friend, have you come to trust in the babe in the manger as the Son of God and as the One who became the Savior of the world? That is the claim which the gospel writers make. This is the basis of the faith for which the apostles gave their lives. And this has been the basis of the Christian faith ever since. The Christ in the cattle trough is the Christ of the cross. It is faith in His person (as testified to at His birth) and in His work (as seen at the cross and preached by the apostles) that saves you and me from sin.
My Christian friend, have you come to see God in those events and areas of your life which seem unlikely or unworthy of God’s intervention? The faith of those who participated in the first Christmas was the ability to see the mighty hand of God where the religious leaders of the day could not and would not. The God who was willing to intervene into human history by being born in a cattle shed is the God who is concerned with the seemingly insignificant and inglorious areas of your life. It is here where the Christmas spirit and the Christian faith are most required and most evident.
16 The verb in Luke 22:19 is a present tense imperative (in form it could also be indicative, but that seems unlikely here). The imperative conveys obligation or duty on our part; the present tense, the persistent practice of this celebration. The practice of the early church conforms to this command (cf. Acts 2:42,46; 20:7; I Cor. 11:17-34). This is the reason we, as a church, celebrate communion every week.
17 In explaining his reason for choosing to give his book the title, The Mystery of the Incarnation, Norman Anderson writes in his introduction: “So I use the word ‘mystery’ not because I wish to ‘don the mantle of the mystery devotee’ but simply because I believe it expresses, better than any other term, the fact that we are here face to face with a subject which, by its very nature, the human mind can never fully fathom. But this does not mean that we are in any way exempt from wrestling with it, . . . ” Norman Anderson, The Mystery of the Incarnation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978), p. viii.
18 “The absence of any mention of the Virgin Birth by any other New Testament writer, moreover, proves no more than the fact to which I have already referred, that it did not form part of the apostolic kergyma. It was something that those who already believed in Jesus were taught, not a ground on which they called others to faith.” Ibid, p. 16.
In no way do I wish the reader to think that the incarnation is not important. To reject this truth, inseparably intertwined with vital doctrines such as the virgin birth of our Lord and His impeccability, is a serious heresy. Nevertheless, we must also be willing to observe that the New Testament writers assumed the truths of the incarnation and did not attempt to explain them as fully as they did others, such as the death and resurrection of Christ.
19 Vos writes of the events of the incarnation, “There is in them a close adjustment to the O.T. as to mode of expression used. This feature brings out the continuity between the two revelations. The young dispensation begins with the speech of the fathers. This was inherently fit, but it likewise served the purpose of rendering the revelations easily understandable by those to whom they were proximately addressed, people whose piety had been nurtured on the O.T. Thus the Magnificat is full of reminiscences from the Psalms, and from its O. T. prototype, the prayer-song of Hannah, 1 Sam. 2:1-10.” Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966 [photolithoprinted]), p. 329.
20 There is a lesson to be learned here with regard to the second coming of Christ as well. We should not expect to be given the whole picture, any more than any of the participants in the nativity scene were. And furthermore, we should have faith and act in accord in the light of what revelation we are given (a revelation which is sufficient for our needs), just as the godly of the birth narratives.
This week I was afforded on of those rare occasions when I experienced the exhilaration of the sensation of power. At first I did not even realize it was there. My telephone had been out of order. I could neither receive nor make calls. Only the answering service was receiving my calls. My telephone was dead. Ironically, both Ma Bell and the private vendor we were doing business with agreed on one thing--the answering service had been disconnected.
In a moment of frustration I called a friend who worked for the Bell system, intending only to determine who I was to contact to seek a solution to the problem. I never really knew what his position in the company was. But even though I had called him at home, while he was on vacation, things suddenly began to happen. He kept me on the line and located someone who could help. I was assured that things would begin to move--and they did. Even though it was after 6 p.m., a telephone company supervisor arrived, not to fix the phone, but to assure me that someone was on the way to do so. Within a few minutes the repairman arrived. Slowly it began to dawn on me that this was no ordinary treatment. The supervisor assured me that when "the people upstairs" give orders to fix something, they drop everything else to do so. I was impressed. The paperwork was no longer an issue. That, I was assured, would be dealt with later. Now the only concern was to fix the problem.
The next day the phone was fixed. My only regret is that things cannot always be handled so forcefully.
The reason for the hasty solution to my telephone problem was really quite simple--power. Not my power, but the power of someone whom I knew who had the authority to get things done. Most of us find ourselves on the other end of the spectrum, frustrated by the bureaucracies all about us, governmental and otherwise. When we deal with the government, there is always some other department which is responsible. When we have an error in our billing, it was the computer's fault, and it just doesn't seem fixable. Travel outside our borders only amplifies the problem.
In stark contrast to men, who are striving to gain power and prestige, we find the Second Person of the Godhead, who was willing to lay aside self-interest in order to save men. We can hardly imagine what a concession it would have been for our Lord to have left Heaven, where myriads of angels not only were occupied with praising Him, but eager to carry out His every command, only to descend to earth as a man, and a poor one at that, so that He would become the object of ridicule, and eventually the victim Who was hung upon a Roman cross. This is precisely what happened in the incarnation of our Lord, but the passage which we are dealing with is not found in the gospels, but rather in the epistles, in the Book of Philippians, chapter two.
In our last lesson we considered the "spirit of Christmas" which was evidenced by those godly few to whom Christ's coming was revealed, and who responded in obedient worship and praise. In this message we shall consider another aspect of the "spirit of Christmas," focusing now upon the spirit of the Christ who came to the earth as man, in order to redeem men and to reconcile them in such a way that they will be able to be forgiven of their sins and citizens of His kingdom.
In the second chapter of the Book of Philippians, the apostle Paul calls upon the saints of the city of Philippi to imitate the attitude of our Lord Jesus Christ at His incarnation. The spirit of Christ at the incarnation is thus specifically applied to the Christian life. We will seek to understand and apply the "spirit of Christmas" by considering what is said to have actually occurred, then the attitude of Christ which resulted in His incarnation, and then the application of this attitude in daily Christian experience.
The change which occurs at the time of our Lord's incarnation is of great theological and practical importance. Because of this it is necessary for us to begin by noting what Paul says of our Lord's state before He took on human flesh:
Who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped (Phil. 2:6).
The word "form" used in verse 6 does not merely mean to be God-like. Dr. B. B. Warfield has captured the essence of this expression:
. . . the phraseology which Paul here employs was the popular usage of his day . . . and . . . was accordingly the most natural language for strongly asserting the deity of Christ which could suggest itself to him. . . . "Form" is that body of qualities which constitute Him God, and without which He would not be God. What Paul asserts then, when he says that Christ Jesus existed in the "form of God," is that He had all those characterizing qualities which make God God, the presence of which constitutes God, and in the absence of which God does not exist. He who is "in the form of God," is God.22
Paul is therefore stating that prior to His incarnation our Lord was fully God, possessing all of the attributes of God. This claim is consistent with the teaching of the New Testament:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1).
And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power (Heb. 1:3a).
Rightly, then, can Paul also say in verse 6 that He was equal with God.23
We learn, then, that our Lord our Lord pre-existed His incarnation (John 1:1-5; 8:58; 17:18, 24; II Cor. 8:9; Col. 1:16-17). In this state, He was fully equal with God the Father so far as His deity was concerned (cf. Isa. 9:6; John 1:1; 10:30, 33).
Our text indicates that at the time of His incarnation, something changed. This change is referred to by the word "emptied." The Greek word which the translators of the NASB rendered "emptied" is transliterated Kenosis. This term is translated "made Himself of no reputation" in the King James Version. The NIV renders it "made himself nothing," in my estimation the worst of the three versions. The critical issue for us is what is meant by the term here? What did our Lord "empty" Himself of? What changed when He was "made in the likeness of men" (v. 7)?
Until the last century, there was little question what was meant. It was agreed by Christians that Paul meant the Second Person of the Trinity had added perfect humanity without in any way diminishing His deity. Jesus was no less God (as though He could be), but was now man as well.
A very problem arose, however, which changed matters significantly. Skeptical higher critics came along who concluded that the Bible contained numerous errors. This "scholarly" viewpoint overturned the position of the church held for centuries, namely that the Bible was the inspired, inerrant, word of God. More than this, it directly contradicted our Lord's view of the Old Testament scriptures. These scholars could not dispute the fact that Jesus believed the scriptures to be verbally inspired and wholly true, that David wrote Psalm 110, and that Moses was the (one) author of the Pentateuch.
It was a standoff between the new view of 19th century higher critics and the Lord Jesus. A new interpretation of Philippians 2:5-8 was created, which became known as the "kenosis theory,"24 which was believed to solve the problem. It should be clearly understood that the principle reason for the "kenosis theory" was the need to explain why it was our Lord who was in error, and not the higher critics:
In England, the kenosis theory was first broached by Bishop Gore in 1889, to explain why our Lord was ignorant of what the nineteenth-century higher critics thought they knew about the errors of the Old Testament. Gore's thesis was that in becoming man the Son had given up His divine knowledge of matters of fact, though retaining full divine infallibility on moral issues. In the realm of historical fact, however, He was limited to current Jewish ideas, which He accepted without question, not knowing that they were not all correct.25
As Packer skillfully points out, this "theory" only appears to solve one problem (which didn't need to be solved in the first place), at the cost of creating several others. By following the "kenosis theory" of Gore and others we must conclude that Jesus was not, in His earthly life, fully divine. And, if our Lord abides forever as the God-man, then this "diminished deity" is eternal. Worst of all is the fact that Jesus claimed to be speaking for God (cf. John 7:16; 8:28, 40; 12:49f.). If He was wrong in some of His declarations, why was He not in error in all of them? Packer therefore concludes,
If the kenosis theory is used for the purpose for which Gor used it, it proves too much: it proves that Jesus, having renounced His divine knowledge, was fallible at every point, and that when He claimed that all His teaching was from God he was fooling both Himself and us.26
From the gospels we can see that our Lord did possess all of the attributes of deity, even though He did, at times, choose not to make use of them. Jesus claimed to be divine (John 8, 10), and His disciples regarded Him as such (Luke 9:20; John 6:69; 20:28). Our Lord demonstrated His omniscience when He revealed the condition of Nathaniel's heart and what he was doing before they met (John 1:47-48). He knew the sordid details of the life of the woman at the well (John 4:17ff.). He knew that Lazarus was dead before they arrived at his home town (John 11:11-13). He also knew the unspoken thoughts of His critics (Mark 2:6-8).
If our Lord did not empty (the word kenosis) Himself of His divine attributes, of what did He empty Himself? What did our Lord lay aside in the act of His incarnation? While this is a marvelous and mysterious subject, and one of considerable discussion, I believe that we can identify at least three things which our Lord set aside.
First, our Lord laid aside position. He was and continued to be God, but at His incarnation our Lord stepped down, as it were, from His exalted position beside the Father in glory. Now, instead of assuming the position of the Supreme Ruler, He took the position of the most humble servant.
Second, our Lord laid aside possessions. The apostle Paul spoke of this when he wrote,
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich (II Cor. 8:9).
All of His life our Lord was borrowing things. He was born in a borrowed cattle trough. He rode into Jerusalem on a borrowed beast of burden. He was buried in a borrowed grave. Our Lord, who created all things, laid aside what was rightfully His. Servants are, by the very nature of their position, poor.
Third, our Lord laid aside privilege. A servant does not possess privileges. The master eats first, the servant later. The master has one entrance, the servant another. The master has one dwelling place, the servant one substantially inferior. The master is free to do as he wishes, but the servant has little freedom. All of the privileges which our Lord could have rightfully claimed (such as the praise and worship of men),6 He was willing to set aside.
It would be easy for us to excuse ourselves from applying the truths of these verses by appealing to the chasm of contrast between our Lord and ourselves. After all, we can rationalize, we are not God, so we do not have the position, nor the possessions, nor the privileges which He chose to lay aside. That is quite true. The application to our lives comes in our willingness to lay aside what we do possess and what we are inclined to protect, rather than to put aside.
The "kenosis" of our Lord had application in those areas of our lives in what we have a position of authority--a higher position than others. The kenosis principle instructs us that leadership is not exempt from the servant spirit. In point of fact it is the ideal place to manifest it. After all, who had a greater position of authority than our Lord?
Our Lord's disciples continually sought for the position of power and prestige. Our Lord taught that the way to greatness was through service and self-sacrifice:
And calling them to Himself, Jesus said to them, "You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall become your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many." (Mark 10:42-45)
Thus Peter could later write to church leaders,
. . . nor as Lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. (I Pet. 5:3)
In the Christian life, leadership is a place of service, not of dictatorship. While servanthood may be viewed as a weakness for a leader in the world, it is not so in the church.
Husbands, take note! We do not exercise leadership over our wives by demanding that they serve us, but by serving them. Biblical leadership is never dictatorship. The ideal king and the ideal husband is the servant, who uses his position and power for the benefit of those under his authority, rather than for selfish gratification.
The kenosis principle as applies to those areas where we have equality. Note that it was equality with God that our Lord did not cling to (Phil. 2:6). Our society is absolutely obsessed with equality. Women want equal rights with men. One race wants equal treatment with another. It is true that in the body of Christ all are equal in God's sight. It is likewise true that in our country both sexes, and all races, creeds, and stratas of society should be treated equally. But the kenosis principle instructs us that what we might demand by virtue of our equality, may be that which we are to relinquish in order to be obedient servants.27
The kenosis principle applies to our possessions. For example, you and I do have certain possessions, which may be used for a variety of purposes. We may horde them for a future time, we may use them now for the purpose of our personal pleasure and enjoyment, or we may use them for the benefit of others. You and I also have a great deal of privacy in our society. Our homes are sometimes fortress-like, with fences which build walls between us and our neighbors ("Good fences make good neighbors"). Privacy is a privilege which we possess. You and I may cling to it, or we may lay it aside, so that we can minister to the needs of others, many of whom desperately would love a share of our love and hospitality.
Then, too, we have certain privileges. One of the most obvious is our Christian liberties. We have the freedom to drink wine and to eat meat (cf. I Cor. 8; Rom. 14). Like Adam and Eve, who had a whole garden from which they could freely eat (except for the fruit of the one tree), we have the freedom to enjoy the blessings which God has showered upon us, so long as we do not disobey His word. Yet, as Paul teaches us, these liberties may need to be laid aside, not because they are wrong, but because they fail to achieve what is in the best interest of a brother or sister in the Lord (Rom. 14:13-23).
Paul's purpose in referring to the incarnation of our Lord was not to teach or to defend the doctrine of the incarnation, but to apply it.28 In order to do so he focused these verses on the attitude of our Lord which resulted in the incarnation, and ultimately in His crucifixion. It is the attitude of Christ which Paul urges us to imitate. What then is this attitude?
The attitude of our Lord which we are to imitate is the attitude of a servant. Our Lord was willing to be a servant, indeed a bond-servant (Phil. 2:7), because He possessed the spirit of a servant. His servanthood was evident in two areas.
First, our Lord was the Servant of The Father. In Isaiah 53:13 the Messiah is called "My servant." The Old Testament referred to the Messiah as "the servant" of the Lord (cf. Isa. 53:11; Zech. 3:8). One of the principle duties of a servant is to obey His superior. Thus our Lord obeyed the Father's will in coming to the earth, and especially in dying on the cross (cf. Phil. 2:9; cp. Mark 14:36; Heb. 5:7-8).
Second, our Lord became the servant of men. This is seen in the Lord's words to His disciples, who were more eager to be served than to serve:
For even the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
The most striking illustration of this was when our Lord girded Himself with a towel and washed the feet of His disciples (John 13). This task, considered too menial by the disciples, the Lord did, for He came as a servant. No event in the life of our Lord more pointedly illustrates the attitude of the incarnation as the washing of the disciples' feet.
The servant attitude places the interests of others above that of the servant. The translation of verse 3 in the King James Version wrongly suggests, however, that we are to serve others because they are better than us:
Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves (Phil. 2:3, KJV).
Certainly we cannot say that those for whom our Lord died were better than He? The attitude of a servant does not act on the basis of who is most important, but whose interest is most important. There is a world of difference.
I would like to suggest that the servant spirit, the spirit of our Lord which Paul urges us to imitate, is the key to obedience. Satan was once a glorious angel, beautiful in splendor. But rather than obey God as His servant, he sought to make himself more powerful and more prominent. In doing this, he fell (cf. Isa. 14:12-15; Ezek. 28:12-19). Adam and Eve were placed in the garden to serve God by obeying Him and ruling over His creation. Rather than to obey God, Adam and his wife desired to become like God--to elevate themselves--and thus fell. We, too, have to determine whether or not we will serve God. To serve God means not only that we must obey His will by serving others, placing their interests above self-interest. This, my friend, runs contrary to the spirit of our age. Shirley MacLaine has states this spirit very well:
"The most pleasurable journey you take is through yourself . . . the only sustaining love involvement is with yourself. . . . When you look back on your life and try to figure out where you've been and where you're going, when you look at your work, your love affairs, your marriages, your children, your pain, your happiness--when you examine all that closely, what you really find out is that the only person you really go to bed with is yourself. . . . The only thing you have is working to the consummation of your own identity. And that's what I've been trying to do all my life."29
The servant spirit may be foreign to our culture, but it is foundational to our Christian live and service. It was the servant spirit of our Lord which resulted in His incarnation, and ultimately in His death on the cross of Calvary. I believe that the same is true for us. Until we have the servant spirit we shall not find much taking place in our lives. The servant spirit leads to the servant role, which results in obedience to the will of God and service to others.30
The servant spirit is foundational because the basic reason for our reluctance to unconditionally surrender to God's will is that we are afraid of what it will cost us in terms of position, possessions, and privileges. What comes to your mind when I challenge you, at this very moment, to pray that God's will will be done in your life, no matter what that might be? If you are like me, you immediately think of something you do not wish to give up, something which you do not want to do, somewhere you do not want to go. The mind of Christ begins with a very simple decision, leading to a life-changing commitment. The decision is that nothing in the whole world matters more than being obedient to God. The decision is that in obedience to Him, you will seek from now on to place the best interest of others ahead of self interest, of position, possessions, and privileges. The commitment is that you will do what He wants you to do, be where He wants you to be, give up whatever His will and service to others requires. This is the beginning point for a life of obedience to God and service to others.
Is this not the essence of what the will of God is all about? Did our Lord not teach that the whole Old Testament could be summarized by two statements? We are to love God without reservation, and we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. That is the commitment to a servant's spirit. To serve God by serving others.
I urge you, my dear reader, do not read on without making a decision, without a commitment. Do not make the decision lightly. But do not make it by default either. The primary reason for our stunted growth and service is right here: we have not surrendered self-interest to God.
I urge you to do so now.
The mind of Christ is diametrically opposed to what the world calls success. To the world success is gaining power, prestige, and possessions. Significance is measured in terms of how far above others you can get and how many are below you. In the Bible, success is measured in terms of how much you have given up and how many you are willing to serve.
The mind of Christ also flatly contradicts the means which the world employs to become successful. Assertiveness and aggressiveness are highly valued, especially in the world of business. No wonder the words of our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount sound so strange to our ears:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God (Matt. 5:3-9).
May God give us the mind of Christ, the servant spirit, which leads to obeying God and serving men. That, my friend, is the Christmas spirit--the spirit of Christ.
23 There is disagreement among some scholars about this matter of equality. Those who would deny the deity of our Lord would have to conclude that equality was not something possessed by our Lord which He could have clung to as His possession, but rather something which He did not possess but might have sought to grasp. The original term which is rendered "grasped" by the NASB could, in some contexts, mean "to grasp in order to gain" as well as "to grasp in order to maintain." The context, along with other passages makes it clear that it is the latter meaning which is intended.
24 The doctrine of the kenosis is to be differentiated from the "kenosis theory." The doctrine of the kenosis deals with the whole question of the meaning of the Greek word which is translated "emptied" in the NASB and transliterated kenosis. The "kenosis theory" is the relatively recent view which seeks to show that at the incarnation our Lord set aside at least some of His divine attributes. In other words, the "kenosis theory" enables men to view some of Jesus' views as human, but not divine. This enables them to attribute error to Him in His view of the Old Testament scriptures.
28 It is important to point out that liberals such as those who authored the book, The Myth of God Incarnate basically believe that the claim that Jesus was God was only the mistaken notion of the apostles and the early church, which was attached to the true gospel message. Jesus did not really believe this, or teach it, they would insist, but the New Testament writers simply wove this myth into their writings. It is interesting to note the in Philippians chapter two, Paul's purpose was not to prove the deity of Christ, a task which would have been required if the liberal theologians are correct. Philippians 2:5-8 is hardly an apologetic passage, but rather is applicational. This strongly implies that Paul felt no need to convince early Christians of the deity and the humanity of our Lord, but could safely assume this belief as universally held.
30 I must say here that there is a crucial difference between what is our right (equality, Christian liberty, etc.), and what is right. While we should always be willing to surrender our personal rights, we dare not surrender what is right. Thus, Paul had Timothy circumcised (although he had the right to remain uncircumcised) in order to enhance his ministry (Acts 16:3). Titus, on the other hand, he refused to have circumcised, because the Judaizers insisted that circumcision was necessary for his salvation (cf. Gal. 2:3-5). Paul had certain rights as a Roman citizen. When the surrender of these rights would be a surrender of what was right, he refused to surrender it (cf. Acts 16:35-40). Especially in the area of civil rights, we must be careful to determine if what is right is also insisting upon one's rights.
There are some events which precipitate a series of events. For example, the bombing of Pearl Harbor initiated aroused the “sleeping giant” with a zeal hardly imagined by the Japanese at the time of the attack. A decision made by the Supreme Court can set a precedent which will bring about radical changes. Other events prove to be the climax of a series of events. The dropping of the atomic bomb on two Japanese cities shocked the Japanese into surrender.
The incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ was both a climax and a commencement, and more. In and of itself the incarnation of Christ was a wonderfully event, unique and never again to be repeated. The incarnation is more than an event, it is based upon a principle evident long before the birth of our Lord. The incarnation of our Lord thus has tremendous implications, but these have all too often been neglected. This week I was cleaning out a closet in my office and I happened to find an article dealing with the implications of the incarnation. Listen to what the writer said: “The central problem of popular Evangelical Christianity is its failure to comprehend the full implications of the Incarnation.”31
The purpose of this lesson to explore the personal implications of the incarnation. How the principle of incarnation is to be worked out in practice in your life and mine. In the next lesson we will explore the implications of the incarnation for the church corporately. What I have to say in this lesson and the next is not necessarily familiar ground. That may be due to the fact that it is ground which some of us have neglected to cover as we should. This necessitates that you carefully think through what I am saying. May God’s Spirit guide us as we seek to discover how to daily apply the incarnation to our daily lives.
The first step in understanding the implications of the incarnation is to see that in addition to the incarnation being a particular event--the coming of the Christ--it is also a principle.32 In the incarnation of our Lord, God chose to manifest Himself in the human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. The principle of incarnation is more general: God has chosen to manifest Himself through humanity.
The principle of incarnation--God’s self-revelation through humanity--is first evident in the creation of man in the garden of Eden. In Genesis 1:26 we are told that God created man in His own image. Man was created as a reflection of God in certain aspects.33 Ironically and tragically the image and likeness of God in man was distorted as a result of man’s fall, when Adam and Eve attempted to be like God by disobedience to His word. It is by our obedience to God’s word that we are not only godly, but God-like. Conversely, it is by our disobedience to God’s word that we distort God’s image in us.
Often (though not always) in the Old Testament, God revealed Himself in human form. For example, contrary to the representations of artists and the images in our own minds, angels were distinctly human in appearance. Even the “Angel of the Lord,” who is considered by many (including myself) to be a pre-incarnate manifestation of the second person of the Godhead, appeared in human form (cf. Gen 16:7-14; 32:22-32). The human appearance of these angels was so convincingly human that those who saw them assumed at first that they were only men. The homosexuals of Sodom and Gomorrah were so convinced of the humanity of the two angels they wanted to have sexual relations with them (cf. Gen. 19:1-5).
In addition to God’s revelation through angels who looked (and acted, cf. Gen. 32:24-25) like men,34 God often described Himself in terms which are called anthropomorphisms. God is thus described in human terms. His omniscience is described in terms of His eyes. His omnipotence is described in terms of His ‘strong arms.’ God’s revelation of Himself through the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, is consistent with the principle of incarnation. A divine revelation is communicated and preserved through both divine activity (the Holy Spirit) and human instrumentality (cf. II Pet. 1:21).
The ultimate instance of incarnation is in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ:
No man has seen the Father at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him (John 1:18).
God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son [literally, “in Son”] . . . . And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature . . . . (Heb. 1:1-3).
The principle of incarnation applies to every Christian personally.35 God has not only chosen to reveal Himself in the person of Jesus Christ, but also personally through the godly lives of His saints. A dictionary definition of the verb incarnate is “to give actual form, to make real.”36 In more contemporary vernacular to incarnate is to “flesh out,” to bring a person, a trait, or a truth to life. This is precisely what is intended by the principle of incarnation. God intends to bring His character to life through the godly lives of Christians:
As Thou didst send Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world (John 17:18; cf. also 20:21).
You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts (II Cor. 3:2-3).
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves . . . always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body (II Cor. 4:7, 10).
While the wording of Philippians 2:15 is not as specific as in the verses above, it is apparent that this text assumes that God’s purpose for Christians is that we in our personal walk with Him before men, reveal God to men. We are to display the character of God.
We must be careful to distinguish between the Christian’s obligation to communicate the message of the gospel to men from our duty to reveal something of God Himself by holy living. Our humanity is more essential to the latter duty than to the former. God is able to convey His will and His commands to men without human instrumentality. He spoke through Balaam’s ass and from the burning bush. The character of God is uniquely displayed by men as godliness is demonstrated in men. Quite frankly, we have paid much more attention to the communication of God’s message than we have of God’s character.
We must be careful also to distinguish between the incarnation of our Lord and the principle of incarnation as it relates to us. In the first place, the Lord Jesus was God, and at His initiative He added humanity to His deity. We, on the other hand, have become one with God because He sought us out and gave us new birth through His Spirit. Secondly, in our Lord’s incarnation perfect humanity was added to His undiminished deity. We are neither divine nor sinlessly human. We are sinful human beings who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ and who have become one with God through new birth. We are not “gods;” rather God is in us and we in Him (cf. John 17:21-23). It is one thing to become “partakers of the divine nature” (II Pet. 1:4) and quite another to fully possess a divine nature (Heb. 1:3). He is the Vine; we are the branches (John 15:5). He is the Son of God (Heb. 1:8); we are sons of God (John 1:12; Rom. 8:14).
Our Lord has been one with the Father eternally (cf. John 1:1-3). In the person of Jesus Christ, He added perfect humanity to His undiminished deity in history. Although created in God’s image, our sins have separated us from God. We become one with God only in the person of Jesus Christ. In Him, our sins are forgiven. In Him we enter into a union with God. The Holy Spirit who brought about the conception of our Lord in Mary’s womb also regenerates men and gives them new birth (Titus 3:5-6). The Holy Spirit also indwells the Christian, enabling him to manifest godly character, the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22-23). In this way God has made it possible for sinful humanity to enter into union and communion with God.
We must also be careful to distinguish between our humanity and our depravity. Some seem to have concluded, with the ancient Greeks, that man’s spirit is good, while the flesh is inherently evil. In Romans chapter 7 Paul teaches that the flesh is not evil, it is weak, overpowered by sin. In the Book of Galatians Paul reminds us that it is possible to serve God in the flesh:
“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me” (Gal. 2:2).
The fall of man has constituted him as a fallen creature, whose flesh is overpowered by sin. The death of Christ has achieved the redemption of the flesh, so that the Christian, in his body, may glorify God:
And if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who indwells you. So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh (Rom. 8:10-12).
Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a harlot is one body with her? For He says, “The two will become one flesh.” But the one who joins himself to the Lord is one spirit with Him. Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body (I Cor. 6:16-20).
The fact that God has chosen to manifest Himself through Christians has some sobering implications. In the first place, if God is to be manifested to men, His children must live godly lives. To continue to live in sin is not only a contradiction (Romans 6), it is also a gross misrepresentation of God. No wonder God takes sin in the lives of His children so seriously, even though these sins have been covered by the blood of Christ! Discipline is a necessity if men are to properly represent God.
I can now better appreciate these sobering words of the prophet Samuel to disobedient Saul: “For rebellion is as the sin of divination, And insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry” (I Sam. 15:23).
Idolatry was an abomination to God because any man-made idol was a misrepresentation of Him, a defamation of His character. So, too, disobedience (insubordination) is an abomination to God, for when His children are in disobedience they defame the character of the God whom they are called to represent: “Be ye holy, for I am Holy” (Lev. 11:44ff.; I Pet. 1:16).
We have been made stewards of the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ. We are responsible to convey this message to men. But beyond this, we are also commissioned with the task of living godly lives which manifest the character of God--His kindness, His love, His holiness, His mercy, His justice.
Our Lord was the “living Word.” In Hebrews 1:1-3 we are told that the Lord is the final word of God to men. Our Lord described His purpose in life as fulfilling the Old Testament Law of God (Matt. 5:17). Many of us need to begin by learning the Word of God, but beyond this we must see that the principle of incarnation demands that we live it:
If you love Me, you will keep my commandments (John 14:15).
Like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation (I Pet. 2:2).
But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in what he does (James 1:22-25).
The principle of incarnation corrects false distinctions between what is sacred and what is secular. The ancient Greeks distinguished between the body and the spirit. The spirit, they believed, was pure and wholesome and good. On the other hand they believed the body was evil. With their minds, the Greeks pursued what was noble and good. With their bodies, they practiced all kinds of vices. The two could not be reconciled, they rationalized, so one could enjoy the pleasures of both bodily sins and intellectual pursuits. This was a sophisticated way of justifying sin.
In Romans chapter 6 Paul established the biblical and logical basis for a lifestyle which puts away sins and practices righteousness. In Romans chapter 7, however, Paul described his agony over his utter defeat in striving to practice in his body what his spirit aspired to do. His dilemma was that sin was able to overpower his flesh, thus driving him to do the very things he despised. His solution was not to settle for the solution of his Greek contemporaries, however. What was impossible for him through his own efforts was possible through the power of God provided in the person of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:1-4). By walking in the Spirit, the Christian can experience in both body and spirit obedience to the law of God. In effect, Paul was referring to one aspect of the principle of incarnation--the need for miraculous power. It is not only necessary, but possible, for God manifest Himself in men who are “in Christ” and who “walk in the Spirit.”
The miraculous element has always been required to implement the principle of incarnation. A miraculous origin was required for both Adam (made from the dust) and Eve (made from Adam’s rib). Throughout the Messianic line there were miraculous births, such as that of Isaac, who was born of parents too old to bear a child (cf. Romans 4). The birth of John the Baptist was miraculous (Luke 1), and, in particular, the birth of our Lord. Not only was the birth of our Lord accomplished miraculously, but so was His life an evidence of the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit.
There is only one way in which you and I can ever manifest anything of the character of God in our lives and that is through the miraculous power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.37 We, too, have been miraculously begotten of the Holy Spirit when we were saved (cf. Titus 3:5-6). So it is that the apostle Paul could write to the Colossians,
And for this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me (Col. 1:29).
There are several implications to the miraculous element underlying the principle of incarnation. The first is that no Christian has the right to excuse his sin on the basis of his humanity. “Well, I’m only human. . . ”
I cannot tell you how many versions of this excuse I’ve heard during my years of ministry. But that, my friend, is a denial of the principle of incarnation. More strongly put, that is a lie! Our Lord said,
“I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
The apostle Paul has written:
No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it (I Cor. 10:13).
I can do all things through Him who strengthens me (Phil. 4:13).
The apostle Peter has written:
Seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, in order that by them you might become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust. Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge . . . . (II Pet. 1:3-5)
The truth of the matter is that God has not only required His sons to live in a way that is consistent with His character and our calling, He has also provided the miraculous power to do so. It is this mighty working of God in and through us which motivates diligence on our part:
So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13).
The practical outworking of the principle of incarnation is, in the final analysis, a mystery:
Of this church I was made a minister . . . that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations . . . which is Christ in you, the hope of glory (Col. 1:25-27).
And by common confession great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh, Was vindicated in the Spirit, Beheld by angels, Proclaimed among the nations, Believed on in the world, Taken up in glory (I Tim. 3:16).
Incarnation involves mystery. Theologians will never cease to discuss what it means for man to be created in God’s image. Try as we may, we will never be able to separate the sinless humanity of our Lord from His undiminished deity. The fact that in Christ two natures have been joined forever is inscrutable. The same can be said of the principle of incarnation in the process of God’s revelation in the Scriptures. In the Bible we have a mysterious blend of divine and human activity. Some seek to emphasize the divine to the extreme that the biblical authors are mere scribes, taking dictation. This is hardly acceptable. Others see the process as largely human--also unacceptable.
The implications of the “mysterious” character of incarnation are numerous. In the first place, we must cease to agonize about whether or not what we are doing is of our humanity or of God. The principle of incarnation suggests that it is both. Now, of course we can act “out of the flesh,” which is the opposite of “walking in the Spirit (cf. Rom. 8:1-8). But the principle of incarnation necessitates that God can and does manifest Himself in our flesh, that is in our bodies.
Romans 8, Philippians 2:12-13, Colossians 1:29 and II Peter 1:3-11 all indicate that the Christian is to diligently strive to please God in our human bodies because God is not only indwelling them, but because He is also, through His Spirit, empowering us. When we persist at attempting to identify what is human and what is divine, we deny the principle of incarnation which is at work within us. We are simply to strive to be obedient, recognizing that “apart from Him, we can do nothing” (John 15:5), and that it is He who is at work in us “to will and to do His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13). It is time to stop analyzing and to start applying the incarnation, for it is and will always be a mystery as to how deity and humanity can be joined inseparably.
Because incarnation is mysterious we must reject the temptation to try to live the Christian life by formulas. Instead, we must practice living by faith. There is a world of difference between what is magic and what is mystery. Incarnation is mysterious, but it is not magic. Magic seeks to produce the same results every time a certain sequence of events is followed. God does not work magically in incarnation, but mysteriously. This means that while one of his servants is obedient and may become prosperous, another may likewise be obedient and become poor. It means that we cannot spell out magical formulas which will guarantee results, either in one’s personal life, or in the life of the church (i.e. church growth). There are no seven magical steps to knowing God’s will, or six secrets to effective prayer, or five steps to powerful sermons.
Let me give a biblical illustration of what I am trying to say. In spite of his disbelief and that of the church which prayed for him, Peter was delivered from a maximum security cell, and the execution which Herod had planned for him on the next day (Acts 12:4-17). The magic mentality would suggest that Peter had some wonderful methodology, which could be marketed so that other Christians could employ it also. He could have written a best selling book, outlining the steps to deliverance. I am convinced that countless Christians would line up to buy a copy.
Notice, however, that Peter had little to do with his escape, and the church could hardly receive much credit, either. And even more importantly, James, the brother of John, did not fare so well (Acts 12:2). Would we dare to say that Peter and the Church were so spiritual that they could secure his release, but not sufficiently spiritual to do so for James? The point is simply that there are no success formulas which produce the same results for every Christian. That would be magic, but God works by means of the principle of incarnation, which is mysterious and miraculous, but not magic.
There is only one way to practice the principle of incarnation, and that is by faith. It begins with a personal faith in Jesus Christ as your Savior. By this act of faith you are born again, and you become one with God in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. And by faith you continue to walk in the power of His Holy Spirit, knowing that you are able to obey and to manifest His divine character, because it is He who is in you and who works through you.
May we rejoice and praise God because He has chosen to become one with us in Christ. And may we serve Him, knowing that the mystery of incarnation is a wonder which He has privileged us to experience each day.
32 Some may be distressed at the use of the term “incarnation” to designate a principle, as opposed to the event of the incarnation at the coming of Christ. It should be observed, however, that there is no biblical use of the term at all. “Incarnation” is not to be found in a concordance. This term, like the term “trinity,” is one which we have utilized to designate a biblical truth. I therefore feel justified in using the term “incarnation” for an event (the coming of our Lord in human flesh) and a principle, a principle which underlies the event.
33 The reader is probably well aware of the fact that just how man reflects the “image of God” is debated, but that is not our concern here. What is agreed upon is that man in some way reveals God. The fall of man in the garden was the result of man striving to become God-like by an act of disobedience, resulting in the distortion of his God-likeness.
34 Interestingly enough, the “man” with whom Jacob wrestled in Genesis 32 is called “God,” but not identified as an angel in the text (cf. vss. 24, 28, 30). Also, if the “sons of God” in Genesis 6 are angels, as a number of scholars maintain, the angels indeed act like men, even engaging in sex and having children.
35 I do not wish to give the impression that the principle of incarnation applies to individuals only after the coming of Christ. This principle is simply the continuation of the purpose of God as evidenced in His creation of man “in His image” (Gen. 1:26). There are numerous Old Testament passages which reflect this (cf. Psalm 82:6). My purpose is to stress the principle of incarnation through individual saints in this age.
37 I have written of this in my series entitled, “Highlights in the Life of Christ.” The church corporately is commanded to go into all the world and make disciples of all men. Just as no one believer is commanded to go to every part of the world, so no one believer has the sole responsibility of making a disciple. Disciple-making is the corporate task of the church. Thus the emphasis in the New Testament on our “one another” responsibilities. The error stems from seeking to imitate Christ in a way that no man should do. Likewise with leadership. In Matthew 23:1-12 our Lord warns His disciples about presuming to take His place in areas (such as positions and titles of leadership, vss. 8-12) which only He is worthy to hold.
American Christianity has been described by Theodore Roszak as “privately engaging but socially irrelevant.”38 There are a number of reasons for this tragic state of affairs. Infiltrating and finally capturing the major seminaries, liberalism gained control of many of the mainline denominations. These liberal churches ceased to preach the gospel and devoted their energies to meeting the social needs of men. In reaction, evangelical churches separated themselves from liberalism, establishing new denominations, waging war against the liberals, generally avoiding the social needs of men and often withdrawing within the safety of the church walls. The result was the failure of the evangelical church to penetrate the unsaved community in which it was located. The church not only failed to reproduce itself, but its activities were disdainfully labeled “churchianity.”
About this time the “electronic church” was born out of the technological revolution and the resulting mass media. When the gospel was preached and people were saved, they felt little obligation to become a part of a local church. If they were “turned off” by the local church, new converts could simply “tune in” each week. A small contribution of money was a tempting alternative to the commitment required by church membership.
One deficiency with this kind of Christianity is that entertainment is often more prominent than edification. Fellowship and worship are also minimal.
Responding to the failures of the church, parachurch organizations also arose. They took up the neglected tasks of evangelism, engaging the world in conversation about Christ, and converting many. All too often, those involved in ministry through such organizations had become disillusioned with the church and had little commitment or involvement themselves, so it was no wonder that a number of those who were converted did not join evangelical churches either. The result of these and other factors is a kind of Christianity which is “privately engaging but socially irrelevant.”
In our previous study we discussed the implications of the incarnation for our personal lives. In this study we will explore the implications of the incarnation for Christians corporately. The irrelevance of contemporary Christianity is due, in large part, to its failure to understand and to apply the implications of the incarnation for the church. Let us approach this study prayerfully, asking God to keep us from error and to guide us into His truth.
God has chosen not only to manifest Himself through human flesh individually (through our Lord, first and foremost, and through individual saints), but also through men corporately. Look once again at the text we have previously referred to:
Then God said, “Let us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them (Gen. 1:26-27).
Notice the use of the plural pronouns here: “us,” “Our,” and “them.” The plural, when used in reference to God is no doubt at least and allusion to the doctrine of the Trintiy.39 The image of God may very well be reflected in man’s work of ruling over His creation. But I believe that God’s image is somehow reflected in the fact that God created man as male and female, and that together, they were to rule over creation. If this is true, God chose, at the very beginning, to manifest Himself through plurality--man and woman--ruling over creation.
While God chose one man, Abraham, through whom the promised redeemer would come (Gen. 3:15), He chose to raise up a nation from his descendants (Gen. 12:1-3). It was through the nation Israel that God purposed to reveal Himself:
“‘For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy; for I am holy. And you shall not make yourselves unclean with any of the swarming things that swarm on the earth. For I am the Lord, who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; thus you shall be holy for I am holy’”(Lev. 11:44-45; cf. 19:2; 20:7).
While we are interested in knowing that God chose to reveal Himself through men corporately in the Old Testament, our primary concern is to demonstrate that He has purposed to do likewise in this age in and through the church. A number of New Testament passages reveal this truth:
And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20).
The “you” of these verses is not singular, but plural. Our Lord was not giving individual instructions here, for who could, as an individual, do all that is commanded here? Neither is the “you” referring only to the eleven disciples, for they did not fulfill this commission either. Furthermore, when our Lord said, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (v. 20), it is clearly implied that the “you” refers to the church in the days after the apostles had passed from the scene. My point is that our Lord gave the church the great commission corporately. It is the church corporate to whom the great commission was given and thus it is the church corporately which must fulfill it.41
The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach (Acts 1:1).
Luke’s introduction to the Book of Acts reflects the fact that it is the church corporately which, as the body of Christ, continues to live out the life of Christ in the world since His ascension. The remainder of the Book of Acts is consistent with this theme of Christ’s “incarnation” through the church. Just as our Lord’s birth was supernaturally brought about by the Holy Spirit (Lu. 1:35), so the church was born miraculously through the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 1:4-5; 2:1-4). As our Lord was empowered by the Spirit (e.g. Lu. 4:1), so the church has been endowed with the power of the Holy Spirit, manifested by spiritual gifts (I Cor. 12; Rom. 12:3-8; Eph. 4:7-16; I Pet. 4:10-11).
In order that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places (Eph. 3:10).
God not only has chosen to manifest Himself (His wisdom) through the church to men, but also to the angelic hosts, fallen and unfallen. The principle of incarnation is applied to the benefit of men, but there is more here than “meets the eye.”
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (I Pet. 2:9).
And so, not only did God choose to manifest Himself through the nation Israel, He has also chosen to manifest Himself through the church. In the present age, God has joined both Jew and Gentile in one new body, the church, breaking down former barriers:
For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups [Jews and Gentiles] into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity (Eph. 2:14-16).
There are various ways in which the church corporately manifests God (in particular, the person of Christ, since the church is His body). As you might expect, there is an overlap of the personal and the corporate manifestation of God. Below are some of the ways incarnation is practically demonstrated through the church.
(1) The church manifests Christ by its godly character and conduct.
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body (I Cor. 6:19-20).
Hopefully, you are astute enough to have observed that the context of I Cor. 6:19-20 is that of one’s personal conduct. How, then, does this passage relate to corporate holiness? Not only are we individually temples of the Holy Spirit, but we are collectively a temple as well. In the same book, the apostle Paul wrote:
Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are (I Cor. 3:16-17).
In the context of I Corinthians 3, Paul is stressing the character of the church as a whole. In particular, Paul is warning those who are leaders or would be leaders that they will suffer dire consequences for adversely affecting the church, which some in Corinth were guilty of doing (cf. 4:4-13; II Cor. 11:12-15).
The backdrop to Paul’s words in I Corinthians 6 can be found in chapter 5, where a professing Corinthian Christian was known by the church to be living with his father’s wife (5:1-2). Paul first conveys his response, which was to commit this man to divine chastening by delivering him over to Satan (5:4-5). He then went on to rebuke the church for not expelling this man themselves (5:9-13).
The character of Christ is to be manifested in and through the church. One corporate expression of God’s holiness is the painful, but necessary, practice of church discipline, just as Paul has indicated in I Corinthians chapter 5. To allow sin to go unchecked in the church is to corrupt the church corporately:
Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (I Cor. 5:6b-8).
Holiness is not only to be preserved in the church, but also is to be practiced outside the church:
“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how will it be made salty again? It is good for nothing any more, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do men light a lamp, and put it under the peck-measure, but on the lampstand; and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5:13-16).
Admittedly, this passage refers to personal righteousness, but it can hardly exclude corporate holiness. The church ought to serve as a preserving, purifying agent in the community. While we may not all agree as to how this should be accomplished in a given circumstance, we should all be able to agree that we have an obligation as a church to promote righteousness in the world in which we live.
The church is not only to manifest Christ by its character, but also by its conduct. As Luke suggests in his introduction to the Book of Acts, what our Lord began to do and to teach, the church continued to do and teach, through the power of the Spirit of God. As our Lord sought to minister to the physical needs of men, such as by the feeding of the 5,000 (John 6), so the church concerned itself with feeding the widows (Acts 6). Our Lord’s ministry to men provides us with a pattern for ministry to those about us.
(2) The church manifests Christ when it gathers corporately.
When the church gathers as a corporate body it does so primarily for mutual edification, fellowship, and worship. Our Lord ministered to His disciples for several years, teaching, encouraging, and admonishing them. Through the church and the mutual ministry which takes place in its gatherings, the body of Christ is built up, equipped for ministry (Ephesians 4). Thus, the guideline for participation in the church meeting is that it be edifying (I Cor. 14:3, 12-19, 26).
As our Lord had intimate communion with His disciples, so the church comes together to have fellowship with Christ and with one another (cf. Acts 2:42). As our Lord continually communed with the Father, so the church corporately gathers for worship (cf. Acts 2:47). Through His Spirit, God indwells the church (Eph. 2:22). God particularly indwells the church in its praises, just as was the case in Israel of old:
Yet Thou art holy, O Thou who art enthroned [lit. dost inhabit] the praises of Israel (Ps. 22:3).
(3) The church manifests Christ when it disperses and infiltrates the community.
Unfortunately, the church has misunderstood and misapplied our Lord’s words, recorded in Matt. 18:20:
“For where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst.”
The context of this statement is the matter of church discipline. The Lord did not mean that He was with the assembled church in a greater degree than when they were dispersed. We seemingly have drawn this conclusion. Consequently, the church avoids infiltrating the unbelieving community, often under the guise of “separation.” Paul puts this matter to rest very clearly when he writes,
I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters; for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler--not even to eat with such a one (I Cor. 5:9-11).
Paul informs us that separation is a matter of avoiding those who profess to know Christ but deny Him in their persistent practice of sin, without repentance. We have made the doctrine of separation an excuse to avoid contact with the world. We hide behind stained glass windows, consoling ourselves by occasionally inviting a pagan friend or neighbor to church, knowing few will ever show up. The principle of incarnation demands much more than this from the church.
At His incarnation, our Lord identified Himself with fallen humanity. He was criticized by the “religious leaders” because of this, for they expected Messiah to shun sinners. Our Lord, however, came to save sinners, and thus had to come into intimate contact with them (cf. Mark 2:16-17). Peter had to be dramatically shown that intimate contact with those he considered “unclean” was a necessary part of his Christian commitment and calling (Acts 10). You and I, my friend, need to learn the same lesson. The world about us will not find God in this building, primarily because they will not come into this building. The principle of incarnation demands that we take God to lost men, by dispersing and identifying with the lost, yet without imitating them.
Because of the principle of incarnation our Lord prayed, “I do not ask Thee to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15).
So, too, the writer to the Hebrews urges us to go “outside the camp:”
Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Hence, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach (Heb. 13:12-13).
From this text we can see that we not only come to church to seek His presence, but we also go from church, outside the camp, to go “to Him.” The church therefore manifests Christ in its gathering and in its dispersing.
The church is a corporate manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ. It practices the principle of incarnation when it demonstrates and promotes that which is consistent with His character. It manifests Him when it practices those things which He Himself did while on the earth. It manifests Him by gathering together and by going “outside the camp.” As we conclude this message let me leave you with three specific areas of application.
First, let me urge you be become a part of His church.
I am not speaking about church membership in the traditional sense. I am not encouraging you to join this church or any other church at the moment. I am exhorting you to be very certain that you are a member of the church universal, the body of Christ. The universal church can only be joined by a personal commitment of faith in the person of Jesus Christ, who died for the church, and who is the Savior of every true member of His church. There is no way that you can have a part in the corporate manifestation of Christ without first trusting in Him and thus becoming a member of His body. If you have never made this commitment, or if you are not certain of this, I can not urge you with any greater sense of urgency than I do at this moment. Confess to Him that you are a sinner, deserving of His wrath, devoid of any righteousness worthy of His approval. Acknowledge your faith in His death in your place. Trust only in His righteousness, rather than in your works, and you will become a member of His body, the church universal.
Second, make a commitment to a local church.
While we have benefited greatly from the electronic church and from parachurch organizations, the New Testament writers never conceived of anyone coming to faith in Christ apart from becoming an active participant in the local church. Thus, Luke can describe the salvation of souls as “being added to the church” (Acts 2:47). The local church needs you as badly as you need it. You need the ministry of others, just as others need the ministry God has given you in and through the church (cf. I Cor. 12-14; Eph. 4).
Third, we need to make a commitment as a local church.
All too often the local church has fallen into the sinful trap of corporate selfishness and self-interest. The church begins to build its own empires (membership, ministries, money). The church begins to demand that its members become involved in the church’s activities so much that the saints are kept from infiltrating the world and penetrating it with the gospel message. We need to corporately have the “mind of Christ” which Paul spoke of in Philippians chapter 2, not seeking our own interests, but those of others.
Just the other day I read of a church which had a large building program under way, with a large sum of money already set aside. Construction was about to begin when word reached the church of the terrible earthquake which struck Guatemala, leaving many churches with no place to meet. As a congregation this church in America was convicted that it had no good reason to build a more comfortable place to meet when those churches in Guatemala had no place at all in which to meet. They drastically modified their plans, reducing their construction to bare minimums. The largest portion of the money set aside for their building was sent to Guatemala, along with a commitment to match this with a similar amount. That, my friend, is the mind of Christ, manifested corporately. May God grant that we, too, as a church may have this mind.
Let us seek not only to be faithful as a church in gathering together (Heb. 10:24-25), but also in going “outside the camp,” practicing the principle of incarnation as we disperse and infiltrate our community for our Lord Jesus Christ.
I honestly do not know what our Lord would have our church do as a church to penetrate this community and to practice the principle of incarnation. This is a matter about which the elders and others are praying. Let us all begin by praying that our community would see something of our Lord because we are here, as a church, in this place.
39 There is a “plural of majesty” and this may be the primary sense in which the plurals are employed in reference to God. While the plural pronouns “us” and Our” do not prove the doctrine of the Trinity, they certainly leave room for it.
40 The passages in Isaiah certainly refer primarily to our Lord, the Servant (cf. Isa. 42:1). Israel was also known as the servant of Jehovah (Isa. 41:8-9), and thus was to be a “light to the Gentiles.” What Israel failed to do as a nation, the Lord Jesus Christ, Israel’s Messiah did (cf. Lu. 2:32; 4:16-21). It is also evident that the early church saw the Isaiah passages as applying to God’s people corporately, in addition to their fulfillment in Christ (cf. Acts 13:47; 26:23).
41 Many have erred here, using the great commission as the proof-text for personal discipleship. While personal discipleship may be one expression of our personal obedience to this commission, it is not the essence of it. The great commission was given to the church corporate. The reason is because it can only be fulfilled collectively. The tasks involved in this command are various, and thus the church, the body of Christ, has been diversely gifted, equipped, and called in order to fulfill it.