The mystery of the incarnation
If you were visiting someone in a nursing home and they asked you to read them the Christmas story, you would probably read from the early chapters of either Luke’s or Matthew’s Gospel.
We usually think that these events are described in those Gospels and that Mark and John are silent on this part of Jesus’ history.
However we can easily overlook the fact that John has a very profound, if brief, statement about Jesus’ birth: ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us’ (John 1:14).
Someone not familiar with the Bible could easily read this without realising that it referred to Jesus’ birth, but without doubt it does.
A brief explanation will set the scene. John at the beginning of this chapter speaks about something or someone called ‘the Word’. We do not need to read far to see what John has in mind. It is indeed a person: one who is with God and yet was God.
Of course, it is the Lord Jesus Christ and we are told of his distinct being, ‘he was with God’. When you are with someone, you are not that person, you are different from them. We are also told of his deity, ‘he was God’.
Here is the mystery of the Trinity. The Bible clearly speaks of one God who exists in three distinct persons — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — though the Spirit is not mentioned here.
It is not my purpose to attempt an explanation of that great mystery, but simply to lay the groundwork for looking at verse 14 and the incarnation — or coming in human nature — of the Son of God.
The Word was the Lord Jesus Christ, who existed from all eternity with the Father and the Spirit. He filled heaven and earth; he was, as God, spirit. He could never be confined in any way, yet verse 14 says, ‘The Word became flesh’.
In other words, the Lord Jesus as God became human. He took real flesh and blood and lived on earth for about 33 years. John doesn’t give any details about Jesus’ birth — that is clearly described in Luke’s account. But the simple fact declared here is absolutely staggering: the almighty God, creator of heaven and earth, was made flesh.
The one who was infinite, eternal and a spirit without any body was made man. Indeed, he entered this world as a baby, born as helpless as any other baby.
Just think of the enormous change. Before his birth, he filled the universe without any limits; at his birth, he was confined to a tiny body. Before his birth, he was all powerful upholding all things; at his birth, he became totally dependent on his Father.
Before his birth, he enjoyed all the glory and splendour of heaven; at his birth, he was surrounded by the smell and mess of a stable. In all this, he never ceased to be God, but in addition to his deity he became fully human.
Why was this necessary? Evidently his humanity was just as important as his deity in order to accomplish his mission. And what was his mission? Paul puts it like this in 1 Timothy 1:15: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’.
The title given to Jesus in John 1 of ‘the Word’ suggests communication; we normally communicate by words. The sum of what God wanted to say to the human race at that time was found in Jesus Christ.
Jesus not only tells us what God wants to say to us, he embodies what God wants to say. God said it eloquently at Bethlehem; he sent his Son into the world to save sinners.
When we grasp that, it is humbling, because it tells us very clearly that we are sinners. If we were not sinners, there would have been no need for Jesus to come. But we are sinners — all of us.
We are sinners by birth, by nature and by practice. If that were the end of the story, we would be without hope. But that is not the end of the story — just the beginning.
You might think that, if Jesus was God, surely he could have saved us without the need for such humiliation as was shown at Bethlehem. However, because of the holy character of God, there was no other way.
God has given us his laws and those laws must be upheld. When we drive, we are grateful for traffic laws. If speed limits were never upheld, we would not feel safe on our roads, but all laws must be upheld.
You might argue that often people speed and are not caught. That is true, but the existence of laws still has some restraining effect on the way people drive. With God’s laws, it often seems that people break them and get away with it, but be sure that one day all sin will be punished.
There is coming a day of judgement, when all of us will stand before God and give account to him for our sins. God can never ignore sins, but the wonder of the gospel is that Jesus came to take the punishment we deserve, and if we truly believe in him then our sins will be forgiven.
What has this to do with Jesus’ birth? Everything! For Jesus to take sin’s punishment he had to die, because ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Romans 6:23). In order to die he had to be human; you can’t put a spirit to death.
So Jesus humbled himself by taking flesh and blood. Actually, his humanity served other purposes too. He came to teach us about God and salvation. He came to demonstrate divine power by performing miracles. He came to demonstrate what it was like to live a life of perfect obedience to God’s commandments.
All of these required that he become a man. Therefore, we must never see Jesus’ birth as an end in itself. It was a means to an end. From the time he entered the world it was inevitable that he would die. In the words of the title of a book by J. B. Philips, he was Born crucified.
It is very easy to read the accounts of Jesus’ birth in Luke and Matthew and become sentimentally attached to the stories. Don’t misunderstand me, they are wonderful accounts. But the typical Christmas nativity scenes can almost encourage us to lose sight of the purpose of Jesus’ birth — the salvation of sinners.
When you see baby Jesus in the manger, are you taken up with thoughts of a sweet infant, or are you amazed at the condescension of almighty God in humbling himself to enter this world in such lowly circumstances? Are you filled with praise at the thought that he came to save sinners?
An even more important question — are you one of those sinners that Jesus came to save? Has he saved you from your sins? If you humble yourself, confess your sins and ask for forgiveness through Christ, you may indeed know that you are forgiven and brought into a right relationship with God.
What a wonderful Christmas that would make! Then you will indeed praise God that the Word became flesh!