The Mystery and Glory of the Incarnation
We come to that time of year when many Christians celebrate the incarnation of the Son of God. In thinking about and meditating on the incarnation, below are some truths to keep in mind.
The incarnation has been called the miracle of all miracles.
No one but God could have imagined such a "work". Indeed, God himself could not have performed a more difficult and glorious work than the incarnation of the Son of God.
It is the "highest pitch of God's wisdom, goodness, power, and glory" (James Ussher). Or as Goodwin beautifully puts it: "Heaven and Earth met and kissed one another, namely, God and man" (Works 2.82).
The incarnation should leave us in awe.
Why? Because, as Bavinck says, it is "completely incomprehensible"
to us how God can reveal himself and to some extent make himself known in created beings: eternity in time, immensity in space, infinity in the finite, immutability in change, being in becoming, the all, as it were, in that which is nothing. This mystery cannot be comprehended; it can only be gratefully acknowledged. But mystery and self-contradiction are not synonymous" (RD, 2:49).
The incarnation is the central fact of history and of the church's confession.
"Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh" (1 Tim. 3:16). Even before the Fall, God eternally decided that the Son should assume a human nature, consisting of a body and soul. As the eternal Son, who has no beginning and no end, he has always known that he would become the incarnate one (i.e., "the enfleshed one"). But what does it mean for the Son of God to become incarnate?
The incarnation is an act of the triune God.
All three persons of the Trinity play a role in the incarnation of the Son of God. In short, the authority of the Father, the love of the Son, and the power of the Holy Spirit are all at work in the fashioning of the God-man, Jesus Christ.
Hebrews 10:5 draws on Psalm 40:6 to speak of the body that was prepared for Christ by the Father: "...but a body have you prepared for me..." This writer of Hebrews addresses directly the humanity of Christ, including an important detail of who "prepared" the body the Son was to assume. By "body," the author means, by way of synecdoche (a part for the whole), to refer to the soul as well. In the context of Hebrews 10, the human nature of Christ is necessary for Christ to be able to offer a sacrifice.
The Father "ordained, formed, made fit and able Christ's human nature to undergo, and fulfill that for which he was sent into the world" (William Gouge). God works in this way with all his servants for whom he equips to perform special tasks, most especially his Son who was sent by the Father in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom. 8:3). God prepared a sinless body, and fitted Christ with the requisite gifts and graces to perform the work of a mediator. After all, the Son needed a body in order to offer his body. He needed a body in order that his resurrection body might be the prototype of our resurrection bodies.
If the Father was responsible, as the master architect, for "designing" and "preparing" the body the Son would assume, the Holy Spirit, like a master builder, was responsible for the actual formation of the human nature of Christ in the womb of Mary: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy--the Son of God" (Lk. 1:35). The Holy Spirit bears responsibility for the physical and spiritual life of Jesus (Matt. 1:18, 20). Ussher speaks of Mary's womb as the "Bride-chamber" where the Sprit "knit that indissoluble knot between our human nature and his Deity." What a privilege for the Holy Spirit, fashioning the human nature of Jesus for the work of redemption and therefore future glorification.
The actual decision, however, to assume a human nature belonged to the Son. All that Jesus does for his people must be voluntary, not forced. This includes the decision to take into union with himself a true human nature (body and soul). This decision may be termed "the decision" in terms of its temporal, and ultimately eternal, significance for humanity..
The significance of the incarnation is highlighted by the Trinitarian involvement of God in so great an act.
The incarnation is glorious.
In the unity of Christ's human and divine natures, the greatest distance remains. The creator is identified with a creature. In Christ, one sees eternity and temporality, eternal blessedness and temporal sorrow, omnipotence and weakness, omniscience and ignorance, unchangeableness and mutability, infinity and finitude. All of these contrasting attributes come together in the person of Jesus Christ. As the Puritan Stephen Charnock so eloquently testified:
"What a wonder that two natures infinitely distant should be more intimately united than anything in the world...That the same person should have both a glory and a grief; an infinite joy in the Deity, and an inexpressible sorrow in the humanity! That a God upon a throne should be an infant in a cradle; the thundering Creator be a weeping babe and a suffering man; the incarnation astonishes men upon earth, and angels in heaven."
The incarnation opens up the possibility of communion between God and man.
The Son, to use Warfield's words, "descended an infinite distance to reach man's highest conceivable exaltation" (Phil. 2:6-11). God cannot commune with man except by some form of voluntary condescension. Such a divine stooping in the incarnation is not only voluntary but also the most glorious possibility, because through Christ we are brought to God.
After all, if Jesus were in all things only a man, he would be at an infinite distance from God just as we are. In the same way, if Jesus were in all things only God, he would be at an infinite distance from us. As the Mediator, however, he bridges the gap between the infinite God and finite man. All that belongs to God, Jesus possesses. All that makes someone truly human, Jesus possesses. We would be hard-pressed to improve upon this testimony by Charnock:
"He had both the nature which had offended, and that nature which was offended: a nature to please God, and a nature to pleasure us: a nature, whereby he experimentally knew the excellency of God, which was injured, and understood the glory due to him, and consequently the greatness of the offence, which was to be measured by the dignity of his person: and a nature whereby he might be sensible of the miseries contracted by, and endure the calamities due to the offender, that he might both have compassion on him, and make due satisfaction for him. He had two distinct natures capable of the affections and sentiments of the two persons he was to accord; he was a just judge of the rights of the one, and the demerit of the other."
Jesus learned and Jesus knew all things; Jesus died and Jesus gives life to all living creatures; Jesus drank from his mother's breasts and Jesus provided his mother the milk to feed him. Only the incarnation of the Son of God can explain such statements. Thus we say, with Martin Luther:
"All praise to Thee, eternal God,
Who, clothed in garb of flesh and blood,
Dost take a manger for Thy throne,
While worlds on worlds are Thine alone.
The incarnation of the Son of God means that Jesus is forever God and man.
He does not - indeed, he cannot - relinquish his humanity after ascending into heaven, as many Christians have imagined and still do today. The union is indissoluble; he is raised the Son of God in power, according to his humanity (Rom. 1:4).
This shows us just how much God loves "flesh" (i.e., human nature). God forever identifies with humanity because of the incarnation. Thus, heaven will one day be a "fleshly" place in the New Heavens and New Earth. Not at all "sinful," but certainly a place where we will be truly human, because we will be perfectly conformed, in body and soul, to the man, Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:20-21; 1 Cor. 15:49).
Indwelling sin will be utterly abolished. For bodies and souls to be redeemed, Jesus had to possess a body and soul, since whatever is not assumed by Jesus cannot be healed. One is not more important than the other, as though we yearn for the day when we can shed our bodies and live as "free-floating" souls. Far from it. We yearn for the day when our bodies and souls are both transformed into the likeness of Christ's glorious body (1 Jn. 3:2 "...we shall be like him"...).
The incarnation explains why heaven will be forever.
Because we (both body and soul) are united to Jesus Christ, our husband (who possesses both body and soul), heaven can never end. One of two things would have to happen: Jesus would have to pass out of existence; or, God would have to sin. Both are impossibilities. Why would God have to sin? Because God would have to allow divorce, which he hates (Mal. 2:16), for us to pass out of existence. The union between the bride and the husband in heaven is guaranteed by God's resolve, as well as Christ's too, to maintain the union that cannot be broken.
The law of God will be kept in heaven by both Christ and his people. We, who enter our Sabbath rest (Heb. 4:11), will not only love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (i.e., first, second, and third commandments), but we will also love our bridegroom (i.e., seventh commandment). The type of love that Christ shall have for his spouse will keep us utterly safe from wanting any other love.
The incarnation is to be imitated.
Paul writes, "Have this mind among yourselves," before describing all that was involved in the Son of God humbling himself to death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:5-11). After the words, "Christ our Redeemer," the words, "Christ our Example," are most precious to Christians. We are not told to imitate a beggar in order to exemplify humility, but rather to imitate a glorious God. The Christian grace of humility begins by imitating the incarnation of the Son of God. To imitate the incarnation we must understand it; and to understand it, we must meditate on it. Yes, indeed, great is the mystery of our religion:
"Man's maker was made man,
that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother's breast;
that the Bread might hunger,
the Fountain thirst,
the Light sleep,
the Way be tired on its journey;
that the Truth might be accused of false witness,
the Teacher be beaten with whips,
the Foundation be suspended on wood;
that Strength might grow weak;
that the Healer might be wounded;
that Life might die."
- Augustine of Hippo
* This post is a revised (edited) version of a chapter (4) from Knowing Christ.