Christmas, the Incarnation, and CommunionRelated Media
Christmas is clearly under attack, both from within and without. It is no longer legal (or at least fashionable) to display a nativity scene on public property, or to say things like, “Merry Christmas.” Christmas vacation is now more obliquely called a “winter holiday” or the like. What’s left of Christmas is less about the Newborn Babe and more about a chubby old man in a red suit.
While I am concerned about how the world views Christmas, I am more deeply troubled that all too many Christians fail to fully grasp the importance and implications of the incarnation. And beyond this, that many are willing to allow the celebration of the incarnation to be restricted to one day a year. I believe the importance of the incarnation is worthy of our attention at this season. If we grasp the significance of the incarnation as we should, then we will also conclude that the annual celebration of Christmas is inadequate, and that our celebration of our Lord’s first coming must be enhanced.
In this article I will seek to enhance your understanding and appreciation of the incarnation in a way that results in worship of the Savior (much like that which we find in the birth accounts of Matthew and Luke). To achieve this, I will begin by defining the term “incarnation” as it relates to Christmas. Second, I will summarize some of the reasons the Bible indicates that the incarnation should be important to us. Third, I will turn to the Christian ordinance of communion as God’s mechanism for remembering our Lord’s incarnation and sacrificial death for sinners. I will then encourage the reader to worship our Lord because of His incarnation, and to celebrate His amazing coming much more often than once a year through the divine ordinance of communion.
The Incarnation: What it means
The incarnation refers to the manifestation of the Second Person of the Godhead in human flesh as the Promised Messiah, yet without diminishing His deity. Undiminished deity was, once for all, united with sinless humanity. Through the instrumentality of the virgin birth, Jesus Christ became fully human as well as fully divine.
The Incarnation: Why it is important
The coming Messiah is presented in Scripture as one who is human: the seed of Eve (Genesis 3:15), the seed of Abraham (Genesis 22:18; Galatians 3:16), of Judah (Genesis 49:8-12), and of David (2 Samuel 7:12-13; Matthew 1:1; 22:42; Romans 1:3). At the same time, the coming Messiah is also depicted as God (Micah 5:2; Isaiah 9:6-7). Jesus presses this matter of His being God (Matthew 22: 42-46; John 5:16ff.; 10:10, 36), and His enemies clearly understood this (John 10:33; 19:7).
The incarnation was necessary in order for men to see God, and to behold how God’s perfections manifest themselves in humanity. God was unseen in the Old Testament, and because no man-made image (idol) or created thing could accurately reveal God’s likeness, worshipping these were forbidden (Deuteronomy 4:12-20). With the incarnation of our Lord in human form, God was now manifest in human flesh, so that men could see and touch Him (John 1:14-18; John 1:1-3). In the words of Scripture, Jesus was “God with us” (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23).
The incarnation was accomplished by means of the virgin birth, one of the greatest and most amazing miracles of all time. If the means (the virgin birth) is so significant, then surely the end (the incarnation) is meant to be perceived in a similar way. The virgin birth was necessary not only to produce one who was both God and man, but also to produce one who was without sin (Galatians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; 7:26; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5).
It was necessary for the Savior to take on humanity in order to be perfected by experiencing all the difficulties and temptations of human life. This was also necessary for Him to become a merciful and compassionate High Priest (John 8:46; Luke 4:1-13; Hebrews 2:5-18; 4:14-16; 5:1-10).
The incarnation was necessary so that the Lord Jesus Christ could become our one and only mediator. Note how Paul links our Lord’s mediatorial role with his humanity in 1 Timothy 2:5.
The incarnation was necessary to remedy and reverse the consequences of the fall of Adam, because the Lord Jesus Christ is the “last Adam” (Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:22, 45).
The incarnation is the supreme example of humility (Philippians 2:3-8). The wonder is that our Lord set aside the visible manifestations of His glory and the prerogatives of His position and presented Himself as mere man, and not the most attractive of men, but as one whom men might easily disregard (Isaiah 52:14; 53:2).
The incarnation is an essential part of the gospel, by which men are saved (Acts 2:14-36; 13:16-41; Romans 1:1-4). Belief in the incarnation is essential, so much so that embracing it is a test of orthodoxy (1 John 4:1-3).
The incarnation is a prerequisite to the work of redemption. God had to come to this world in human flesh in order to take our place, dying a substitutionary and sacrificial death to bear the penalty for our sins, and to rise from the dead for our justification (Romans 1:1-4; Galatians 4:4-5).
The Incarnation: How Should it be Celebrated?
I have no objection to focusing on our Lord’s birth at Christmas, or His resurrection at Easter. But I must point out that these holidays are of human origin. Nowhere in Scripture are these days designated as times Christians must observe. But the Bible makes much of the commemoration of important events. In the Old Testament holidays were established and the Israelites were expected (commanded) to observe them. In the case of the twelve stones taken from the middle of the Jordan (Joshua 4:1-9), it was done so that the memory of this crossing and its meaning would be conveyed to the next generation.
Is there no divinely designated time and means by which the incarnation and the substitutionary death of our Lord are to be remembered? The answer is a very clear “Yes!” The answer is the celebration of communion, which the New Testament church observed weekly (Acts 2:42-47; 20:7; 1 Corinthians 11:17-34). There are many who suggest that such a regular observance of communion diminishes its significance. I would differ strongly. Is the remembrance of our Lord’s incarnation and saving work at Calvary ever wearisome? If so, that says much about us that is not favorable (see Isaiah 43:22-24; 1 John 5:3).
Sadly, most Christians fail to recognize the observance of communion as the celebration, both of our Lord’s miraculous incarnation and of His death. The two elements are closely related, but they symbolize two essential aspects of our Lord’s saving work. The bread symbolizes our Lord’s incarnation; the wine commemorates His death in the sinner’s place. How often I have heard it said, “This bread is a symbol of the body of our Lord that was broken for us on the cross.” This can only be based on the rendering of 1 Corinthians 11:24 in the King James Version: “Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you. . . .” Virtually all modern translations recognize that important manuscripts do not contain the Greek word rendered broken. But this is not merely a matter of debate on the basis of textual criticism. It is a matter of faithfulness to the Scriptures. Consider these three lines of evidence.
First of all, in his gospel account John makes a point of the fact that Jesus’ body was not broken, and this was in order to fulfill Scripture.
32 So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the two men who had been crucified with Jesus, first the one and then the other. 33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and blood and water flowed out immediately. 35 And the person who saw it has testified (and his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth), so that you also may believe. 36 For these things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled, “Not a bone of his will be broken.” 37 And again another scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced” (John 19:32-37, NET).
Second, note carefully what Jesus Himself said as He gave the bread and wine to His disciples:
19 Then he took bread, and after giving thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And in the same way he took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:19-20, NET).
Jesus Himself did not speak of His body as “broken” at the Last Supper, but rather as “given” (Luke 22:19). The emphasis is on the fact that Jesus’ body was given for men, but it was not broken. Quite the contrary, as we can see from the contrast between the broken legs of those crucified beside Jesus and our Lord Himself.
Third, the author of the Book of Hebrews places great emphasis on the necessity of a body that is uniquely suited for a sacrifice that will deal with sin once for all:
1 For the law possesses a shadow of the good things to come but not the reality itself, and is therefore completely unable, by the same sacrifices offered continually, year after year, to perfect those who come to worship. 2 For otherwise would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers would have been purified once for all and so have no further consciousness of sin? 3 But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year after year. 4 For the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sins. 5 So when he came into the world, he said, “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me. 6 “Whole burnt offerings and sin-offerings you took no delight in. 7 “Then I said, ‘Here I am: I have come — it is written of me in the scroll of the book — to do your will, O God.’” 8 When he says above, “Sacrifices and offerings and whole burnt offerings and sin-offerings you did not desire nor did you take delight in them” (which are offered according to the law), 9 then he says, “Here I am: I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first to establish the second. 10 By his will we have been made holy through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all (Hebrews 10:1-10, NET1; underscoring mine).
The wine does symbolize our Lord’s death, but the bread symbolizes His body, which resulted from His incarnation, by way of the virgin birth. Did Jesus “break” the bread? Of course! How else was He to divide it among His disciples? He broke it just as He did in the feeding of the 5,000 (Matthew 14:19, using the same word). The symbolism of the bread, then, is not in its being broken when distributed, but in its being unleavened -- sinless. It is our Lord’s sinless innocence which makes His death applicable to all who will receive it.
So here are some things to think about during this Christmas season and beyond. First, the bread at communion symbolizes the incarnation of our Lord Jesus, which uniquely qualified Him to die for the sins of men. Apart from taking on human flesh He could not die as man, for man. Unless He was God incarnate He could not be the “last Adam,” reversing the effects of the first Adam’s sin, for those who believe (Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:22, 45; Hebrews 5:4-18). The bread is unleavened, and we know that leaven is often a symbol for sin in the Bible. The unleavened bread symbolizes the sinless nature of the body of our Lord. He is both God and man. He is the only “man” who can die for others, because He has no sin.
Second, the incarnation of our Lord is to be celebrated on a regular basis, every time we observe communion. The incarnation is to be celebrated in the context of the saving work of our Lord. Thus, communion is a proclamation of the fundamental truths of the gospel, truths which we dare not forget, and truths which those who are lost must embrace. Christ Jesus came to earth in sinless, human flesh, to live a life of complete obedience to the Father, and ultimately to die in the sinner’s place, bearing God’s wrath, so that all who accept His work may be saved.
Third, the perfect Second Person of the Trinity set aside the glories of heaven and His divine privileges, taking on humanity in order to come to dwell in a fallen world. The God who always kept men at arm’s length in the Old Testament has now drawn near in the person of the Son, touching and being touched (John 1:14-18; 1 John 1:1-3). And all this was in view of the cross, where the sins of men would prompt them to reject Him and to cry out for His death, preferring a terrorist (Barabbas) to the Son of God. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound to the believers ear.”
And so, as you celebrate Christmas this year, I challenge you to focus on the incarnation, that great and foundational event which made the saving work of our Lord possible. And, may I suggest that you refuse to settle for a “once a year” celebration of this incredible event. Let every communion you observe be a celebration of the invasion of planet earth by the perfect God-man, for the purpose of saving us from our sins, so that ultimately we may take on His nature (Ephesians 4:20-24; Colossians 3:1-14; 2 Peter 1:4).