I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth. Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a person is the antichrist – denying the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.
(I John 2:21-22)
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are - yet he did not sin.
We saw in our last study that the Church has often struggled to grasp in its entirety what the Bible teaches about Christ becoming flesh. He takes to Himself our humanity, but in such a way that it remains without sin. Such a humanity could only be produced by a miraculous new creation by the Holy Spirit. It could never have resulted from a birth like that of other people (see Jn.3:6). It requires something utterly beyond the restrictions of normal biological process; indeed so far beyond them that the Lord suggests it is at the very margins of possibility, in ‘the deepest depths … the highest heights’ (Is.7:10). We have seen how difficult it is to conceptualise something that stretches the limits of creation!
The Incarnation is a sign of God’s redemptive intent, but it is also a sign of God’s judgement. It is the cosmic declaration that humanity needs a Redeemer, but that it cannot produce one from within itself. We will never evolve to a point where we can redeem ourselves. There must be a decisive intrusion from outside, a fundamental new beginning. This is what the ‘Virgin Birth’ achieves. As He is conceived by Mary through the Holy Spirit, Christ is able to enter with integrity into the history of humanity (Lk.1:35). It is critical that Christ takes our humanity. As the ancient theologians of the Church taught: what is not assumed cannot be healed (John of Damascus, The Orthodox Faith III:6; see Heb.2:14-17). Yet He must also stand apart from our sin and guilt. He must remain holy in the deepest sense of the word (Heb.7:26; Lk.1:35). If His humanity is breached by His sinning, we can only shudder to think what this would mean for the unity of His Being. The Man who is God would have sinned. Could the Holy! Holy! Holy! God survive such violation? All reality would implode!
Yet while we must maintain the purity and righteousness of Christ in His humanity, we must also recognise that the Incarnation is deeply connected with the fact of human sin (Matt.1:21; Lk.1:68; Matt.20:28; Jn.1:29; Gal.4:4-5). His wider ministry of mediation has been continued since before the creation, but in the incarnation that mediation takes on a specific redemptive form, that will be inevitably connected to sacrifice. Jesus takes on a human life so that He can die a human death. In this sense too, the Incarnation is both a sign of judgement and of God’s redemptive intent. For in Christ, He bears that judgement against the sinfulness of humanity, that we might become the righteousness of God (II Cor.5:21). Only the incarnation could allow for such a deep transaction. ‘If He is not fully God He is not able to deal with sin; but if not a Man, He has no blood to shed (Acts 20:28)’. Only through the incarnation could the gloriously righteous Lord of Creation be crucified for that creation’s redemption (I Cor.2:8). Here is the wisdom, grace and power of our God displayed. Here we bow in worship, and offer our bodies in turn as a living sacrifice holy and pleasing to God, which is after all our true and proper worship (Rom.12:1).
While the Incarnation of the holy God is a sign of judgement, but it is also a sign of hope. As a human Jesus re-calibrates the destiny of this creation of which He is now a part, hauling it back from the brink of chaos and destruction, drawing it through judgement and into a future that is already inaugurated in His own resurrection. We see in Jesus not only what we are, but what we will be. As the 19th Century Scottish theologian John Duncan puts it: ‘the dust of the earth is on the throne of heaven’. In His glorified humanity we are confronted with our destiny, for as we were created in such a way that Christ might participate in our human nature, so we were created in such a way that we might participate in His Divine nature (II Pet.1:4). It has led some to wonder whether the Incarnation should best be understood as the humanisation of the Divine, or the divinisation of the human… The incarnation might be central to our vision of God, but it must also be central to our vision of humanity.
Do you think it matters how we envisage the relationship between the God-ness and the human-ness of Jesus?
Read I John 4:1-3. Why does John make the Incarnation the test case for authentic Christianity? Do you agree with Him?
How should our vision of the future shape our life here and now? How can we help one another to make sure it does in fact have that effect?
Read Philippians 2:5-11
Paul is using the experience of Christ in His incarnation to provide an example for Christian life and relationships (v.5). What do you think he is encouraging in Christian living? How does Jesus’ example compel us?
What does it mean to say that Christ made Himself nothing (v.7)? Some translations (e.g. ESV) speak here of Jesus emptying Himself? What is Paul getting at?
Why is Jesus made ‘in human likeness’, and found ‘in appearance as a man’? Is Paul suggesting that Jesus isn’t quite ‘fully’ human?
How do you feel about the Christian life being framed in terms of ‘obedience’?
Is there anything in our own experience of Christianity that corresponds to Jesus’ exaltation? If you think there is, what is it? How does the prospect of it impact you?
Hasn’t Jesus always been exalted? How can this be seen as a ‘new’ experience for Him (v.9)?
What is the significance of Paul’s citing Is.45:22-24 in this section of Philippians?
His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.
II Peter 1:3-4
For further reflection:
Over the centuries Mary has attracted a lot of unwanted attention. In spite of her confession of her own need for a Saviour (Lk.1:47), some have insisted that she must have been sinless herself if she was the ‘God-bearer’. Over the centuries legends grew up, and there was increasing confusion about Mary and her role in bringing Christ into His world. As with everything, the key is to make sure that what we believe is actually what is taught by the Apostles - no matter how plausible it might otherwise seem! That is what Mary would have wanted.
Ignatius was the first Bishop of Antioch (as in Acts 11:19-27) toward the end of the first century. Many Christians we read about in the NT were still alive, including Mary. Ignatius, deeply captivated by Jesus, writes a letter ‘…to the Christ-bearing Mary: Please comfort and console me who am a novice ... For I have heard things too wonderful to tell respecting your [son] Jesus, and … I desire with my whole heart to obtain from you information concerning these things [for you] were intimate with Him, and were acquainted with [all] His secrets…’.
Mary’s response is gently but firmly to direct Ignatius back solely to the Apostle’s teaching: The lowly handmaid of Christ Jesus to Ignatius, her beloved fellow-disciple. The things which you have heard and learned from John concerning Jesus are true. Believe them, cling to them, and hold fast the profession of that Christianity which you have embraced, and conform your habits and life to your profession. Now I will come with John to visit you, and those who are with you. Stand fast in the faith … do not let the fierceness of persecution move you, but let your spirit be strong and rejoice in God your Saviour. Amen.
This is wise pastoral counsel, and we do well to listen to it even today.