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.