For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great: He appeared in the flesh, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.
And so ‘when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman…’ (Gal.4:4). The Holy God of Israel… YHWH who had been worshipped throughout the long ages of the Old Testament… and who before that was the Word through which all creation was called into being… the Son who had for everlasting ages delighted in fellowship with the Father through the Spirit - this God who had always been became what He had never been.
We need to be careful. We often talk about God becoming Man. In a sense this is true, but in another, He has always been the Man (Gen.18:2; Jdgs.16:6 & 10, see e.g. Gen. 48:15-16 for the Angel of the Lord). But now He appears in the flesh. The ancient prophecies are finally fulfilled (e.g. Zech.2:10-11, note that the Lord is sending the Lord to live among His people!). Born of a virgin (Is.7:16), God becomes one of us, fully human. Over the years people have wondered if passages such as Rom.8:3 (which speaks of the Son having ‘the likeness of sinful flesh’) are teaching us that He never actually became human… perhaps He only appeared to. But Paul is seeking to distance Christ from sin, not humanity. Christ became fully human. We are not fully human, because we are sinful. Christ takes our humanity, defaced as it is by sin, but not the sin itself. His humanity was real - indeed more real than ours.
The Church struggled for many years to figure out what the Bible meant when it speaks of God becoming flesh. Many mistakes were made along the way. Some thought that He was really just a human who was adopted into the life of God; others suggested that perhaps He took a human body, but not a human spirit or maybe not a human mind (that bit being replaced by His divine nature); or maybe He mingled human nature and divine nature into a third kind of being; or possibly that He became somehow less God in order to fit into humanity? Was He partly God and partly human? How did His human nature and Divine nature relate to each other - were they separate so that Jesus had two centres of self-consciousness that could be in harmony or in tension with each other?
Wrestling through the Bible’s teaching in a way that ensured it was all taken into account and faithfully adhered to, was the subject of many writings, councils and international discussions. After all, how do you talk about something that is an utterly unique experience in the history of creation? The debates get pretty technical and nuanced, but the key conclusions can be summarised like this:
The Scriptures are clear that Jesus remained and therefore is fully and truly God, but He is not exclusively God - He became fully and truly human as well. In order to do justice to the Bible’s teaching, neither of these two natures could be compromised in any way - Jesus doesn’t lose anything of His human-ness or His God-ness in the Incarnation. When you are talking about Jesus, you have to be able to say everything you can about being truly human (i.e. sinlessly human) and about being truly God. And those two natures are not blended or mingled with each other, and they are not changed in any way by virtue of their being brought together in the Person of Christ, they can never be separated or divided. Their difference is not in any way minimised, and the human-ness and the God-ness are both fully present. And yet they are united so deeply and foundationally that there is in fact only One Person who is Jesus Christ (not two persons in one body)! So when Jesus thinks of Himself, He has one self-consciousness (albeit one that operates at two levels). He is the Word become flesh. God experiences everything it means to be human with integrity, ‘from the inside’. It means that when Jesus speaks, God speaks, when Jesus dies God dies.
The Bishops of the day wrote a statement which we call the Chalcedon Definition (it was written in about 3 weeks during 451 at a council at Chalcedon, in modern day Turkey). Having agreed ‘unanimously’ the Church’s belief about Jesus, they simply finished by saying that this is after all what ‘from the beginning the prophets have taught concerning Him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself hath taught us, and as the Symbol of the Fathers hath handed down to us’.
Who was keeping the world going while Jesus was a baby in the manger?
What would you say to someone who suggested that the idea of the Incarnation isn’t unique to Christianity - that there are loads of similar ideas in other religions, and that Christianity was just adopting (copying?) those ideas?
Do you think Jesus’ understanding of the world was limited to that of a first century Galilean? Was he culturally blinded by his place in history, adopting for example a pre-scientific view of the world?
Read Matthew 1:18-25
Periodically Christian leaders and thinkers make comments to the effect that the virgin birth isn’t really necessary, that it didn’t happen, or that it isn’t necessary. What do you make of such statements? What would we lose if we rejected the doctrine of the Virgin Birth?
Do you think it is possible to be a Christian if you don’t think Jesus was born of a virgin? How important is the line in the creed: ‘conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary’?
What is at stake in the dilemma Joseph thinks he is facing in 1:19? Why do you think he decides to divorce Mary ‘quietly’?
v.20: Do you think we should expect God to speak to us in dreams today? Should we pray for and anticipate such experiences? How would we judge whether such an experience was authentic?
What do you think it will cost Mary and Joseph to bow to the will of their God? What can we learn from them about the nature of discipleship?
Why is it important to Matthew that ‘this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet’?
Dear friends, 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. This is how you can recognise the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.
I John 4:1-3
For further reflection:
The Incarnation was never an ‘add-on’, a hitherto un-thought of possibility in response to the reality of sin and the fall. It was always in the mind of God. Just as there was never a time when Christ was not, so there was never a time when He was not going to become fully human.
We often think of the Incarnation as the high-point of God’s revealing Himself through Christ. That revealing of Himself was always ‘fully integrated into the reality of God’ (Bavink, Vol.2, p.277). It isn’t something foisted on God by circumstances outside of Himself, or beyond His control, as if maybe things could have worked out differently and Christ would never have become flesh. It wasn’t a ‘plan B’. Rather it is the primary purpose of creation. Why did Christ create? Whatever else we say, we have to say: ‘So that He could become incarnate’. Creation is what it is, so that it can provide the context for the Incarnation, the place where it could take place. More specifically, man was created in His Image, so that Christ could become Man; Adam was created as a representative of all humanity, so that it could be gathered together under a Second Adam who would take His place and stand in his stead (Rom.5:14).
The God who created and who holds in place the structures of time and space, so designed them that He could enter them, to renew their dignity and destiny. It is worth pondering that creation isn’t so much the arena in which we can become all that we can be, as it is that in which Christ can become all that He can be. In a deep sense, God would not have been fully God without the Incarnation, and indeed all that it entailed in His life, death, resurrection and ascension!