As One of Us
It is one of best-known facts of Bible; yet it is shrouded in mystery. Its details are rehearsed every year in preaching, reading and song; yet they defy our comprehension. The virgin birth - or, more accurately, the virginal conception - of the Lord Jesus Christ is the point at which the transcendence and immanence of God converge and they do so in a way that defines the destiny of the universe. The sheer wonder of it all is well captured in the words of a Graham Kendrick hymn:
Oh what a mystery I see, what marvellous design,
That God should come as one of us, a Son in David's line.
Flesh of our flesh, of woman born, our humanness he owns;
And for a world of wickedness, his guiltless blood atones.
In a stroke he captures the marvel of the incarnation and at the same time signals why it matters and where it ultimately leads. And that's where the Apostles' Creed takes us in its next major clause. Having confessed our belief in the God of the Bible, the Creed goes on to say, 'I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary'. It is, as Karl Barth has said, the great miracle that stands guard at the beginning Christ's earthly life and ministry and the salvation it would accomplish, counterbalanced at the other end by the miracle of the resurrection.
Seen in those terms, Tolkien fans can't help but be reminded of the scene at Moriah Gate in The Fellowship of the Ring. Frodo and his little band are hopelessly hemmed in on every side: the mountains are in front of them - too high and wide to traverse or circumvent - their enemies are behind them and a sinister creature is lurking in the lake beneath them. But before them stands Moriah Gate - the supernatural portal that guards the path through the mines to safety on the other side and their only hope of escape. But in the real world it's the supernatural conception of Jesus that is the true gate that guards the path to human salvation and glory beyond!
The language employed by the Creed is carefully chosen, giving on the one hand the Lord's earthly name, 'Jesus' - which designates him as God's promised Saviour - while at the same time including what J.I. Packer calls his 'official name' - the title 'Christ'. This highlights the threefold office of Prophet, Priest and King through which we discover what salvation entails: knowing God, being reconciled to him and submitting to his saving, sovereign rule. Given that these offices had been in existence for millennia among God's people, but could do no more than give a preview of God's plan of redemption, we begin to appreciate why they take on a whole new significance when all three are occupied by the One who is not only 'Jesus Christ' but also, God's 'only Son, our Lord'. God's Saviour, the Jesus of history, is none other than his Son from eternity! The Son who not only entered our world in a unique way, but did so by becoming the unique Person who is uniquely qualified to bring the salvation God had promised and which our race so desperately needs.
God had already dropped astonishing hints which flagged up in advance the uniqueness of both this Person and his coming. Isaiah has many references to the promised Messiah which leave little doubt to the divine dimension to his being and the manner of his coming into the world. The 'sign of Immanuel' (Isa 7.14) speaking of a virgin who 'will be with child' is one and the extraordinary child with the names of God (9.6) is another. But all these previews seemed too amazing to be true - as Peter said after the event, 'Even the angels of heaven long to look into these things' (1Pe 1.12). It is only when we reach the Gospels that we discover their denouement. First with the eyewitness accounts of Matthew and Luke - which included testimony from Mary herself - we get the bare miraculous facts (Mt 1.18-21; Lk 26-38; 2.1-7). Then in John we get the breath-taking explanation: 'The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us' (Jn 1.14). The eternal Logos introduced in the opening words of the Prologue is the Jesus expounded in the Gospel that follows - the Son of God in human flesh!
From the perspective of the 21st Century 'Christian' West, people might be forgiven for thinking, 'Why does all this stuff really matter?' It makes for a cute story that is retold and re-enacted Christmas after Christmas and for great music, as box-office takings of Handel's Messiah bear testimony year on year; but is there more to it?
The angels of heaven must tear their hair out (metaphorically) as the great truths of Handel's oratorio sit like feathers on the minds and hearts of its hearers. So too as countless parents look on with glowing admiration for their child's performance of the Nativity, but with zero appreciation of the events it represents. But then must they not be even more exasperated by preachers who do so little to open the eyes of their congregations to the awesome wonder of what took place when Jesus came?
The sad corollary of all this is a view of 'Christian' salvation evacuated of all credible substance - a view that becomes but a variation on the theme of 'salvation from below' that is shared by every world religion. The uniqueness of the Christian gospel hinges on the uniqueness of Christ the Saviour it proclaims. A uniqueness majestically captured by John at the beginning of his Gospel as 'salvation from above' through a Saviour who has come literally from another world to bring deliverance. There are at least three things in John's summary of the incarnation that not only spell out its glory (which John saw), but also hold the key to its gospel hope in the One of whom he speaks.
A Saviour Who Has the Capacity to Save
When we hear John say, 'the Word became flesh' it is of course the Word to whom we have been introduced in the opening lines of the Gospel. The same Word who 'was God and who was with God', who in the beginning simply 'was' (Jn 1.1). The limitations of language struggle to express the depth and wonder of the eternal realities John has in mind, the mystery of God himself.
He uses the language of deity in relation to the Word/Logos: most obviously that he simply 'was God'. But more than that, he says quite simply that when time began, the Word already 'was' - he already had existence: he was the being One. Or, to put it another way, the underived existence that is God's by nature also belongs to the Logos. The Word is God.
John also uses the language of relationship: 'the Word was with God' - pros ton theon. He was 'towards' God in eternal relationship - turned out from himself towards another in perfect loving devotion. Although of necessity equal with God [the Father], because he shares the same essential deity, he nevertheless devotes himself to him.
This is the 'Word' who 'became flesh'. He is none other than the eternal Son of God - spoken of again by John three chapters later when he says, 'For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son...' (Jn 3.16). It was the second Person of the godhead who, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, was joined mysteriously to her 'flesh', sharing her DNA and bringing into being the God-man. As Donald MacLeod has put it, 'created, not ex nihilo, but ex Maria'.
In the extraordinary nanosecond in history, the infinity and eternity of God was joined to all the limitations of space and time in our humanity. He was made like us in everything apart from our sin. But in that instant as well, there came into existence the only Person with the capacity to do what God required to usher in salvation.
That incredible capacity began to shine through as Jesus embarked upon his earthly ministry. The man from Nazareth had the ability to heal the sick, feed the hungry, control the elements, walk on water and even raise the dead. So astonishing was he that not only was he mobbed by curious crowds, but the more discerning among them asked the question, 'Who is this? Even the wind and waves obey him!' (Mk 4.41). A question which is finally answered at Caesarea Philippi when Peter makes the astounding confession, 'You are the Christ the Son of the living God' (Mt 16.16). Behind the veil of a finite humanity lies the infinite capacity of God himself.
The full weight of significance bound up with that fact only becomes apparent on the cross. When Jesus goes to his death as the 'Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world' (Jn 1.29), the only way his sacrifice can provide an atonement of global and pan-historical dimensions is if he is more than just a man. In terms of equivalence, the death of a single human being who was perfect in every way would secure the salvation of another single human being; but no more. It is only because Jesus is not merely man, but God-man that he has the capacity to redeem the great multitude who will be with him in glory. Again to borrow from Barth, he came as God for man.
A Saviour Who Has the Authority to Save
We are entitled to ask, 'What gives Jesus the authority to promise salvation to those who trust him?' After all, the world throughout its history has been full of self-appointed 'saviours' who are just that: 'self-appointed' - they have no authority to actually provide what they claim to offer.
In one sense the question has been answered already in what we have said about Jesus' being 'God in human flesh', but there is more to it. His authority to act as Saviour also resides in the fact that he is 'God in human flesh' - he had to become one of us. And that's exactly what John tells us: 'The Word became flesh' - he took human flesh; not that of some other life-form. He might have come as an angel - which to our mind might have seemed more dignified and appropriate - but if that had been so he could not have saved.
The writer of Hebrews puts his finger of it when he says in a relation to a salvation that is genuine and will deliver what we need:
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death - that is, the devil - and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham's descendants. For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people (He 2.14-17)
His authority to save resides in the fact that he is not merely God sent from God; but that he is sent as man who corresponds perfectly to those he came to save and to their need. All they are not, he is and everything they are incapable of doing, he does. The good news of the gospel is not merely that Jesus came as God for man, but that he also came as perfect man for God!
A Saviour Who Can Be Trusted to Save
The great unspoken implication of what the Creed goes to such pains to express is that only such a Saviour can truly save! But what the Creed does not articulate, John does in the way he concludes this statement: the Word was 'full of grace and truth.'
It would be easy for us to try and pour our own meaning into those words and perhaps not be far off the mark; but it's only as we appreciate their background that we appreciate their weight. The same pairing of words, but in their Hebrew equivalent, is found in the Old Testament where they carry the sense of 'unfailing love and faithfulness' - God's covenant love and covenant loyalty.
It's seen, for example, in Proverbs: 'Let [God's] love and [God's] faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart' (Pr 3.3). In other words, in the midst of our own inescapable sin and failure as we make our way through life, our constant hope is in God's great salvation and his never-failing faithfulness to his covenant promise. We know that we will never find peace with God through what we try to do for him - however well-intentioned - but rather in what he has done for us and covenanted to us in the gospel.
In its Old Testament context that hope rests on a promise that was yet to be fulfilled; but in the New Testament it rests on all that Jesus is and on everything he has done to actually secure redemption for all who trust him. The only way we can be sure that our salvation is real is when we know that the One we trust has both the capacity and the authority to save!
Through the incarnation, Jesus became 'God for man and man for God' in order that he might ultimately become 'the Saviour of world!'
Before a person submits to surgery, they would want to be sure it would be real a surgeon who was going to carry out the operation. How much more, then, if we are going to stake our entire existence in time and eternity on someone's claim to be able to grant us eternal salvation should we want to be sure we can trust him!
Mark Johnston is pastor of Trinity Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Richhill, Northern Ireland, and a trustee of the Banner of Truth Trust. He is author of several books, including Our Creed: For Every Culture and Every Generation.
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"Venite Adoremus: The Creedal Hymnody of Christmastide" by Sean Morris
The Theology of Christmas, with James Boice, Donald Barnhouse, Philip Ryken, and Richard Phillips
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Note: This article was originally published on reformation21 in June 2008