Today is the church’s traditional celebration of Epiphany. The church I serve recognizes the “five evangelical feast days” during the Christian year. While Epiphany is not one of them, by gathering for a meal as a congregation, for what we call our “Epiphany Feast,” this event helps us continue to enjoy Christmas into January, as well as marks the beginning of our new year together as yoked-together believers in one local body. I’m posting the essay below (delivered previously this past Advent as a sermon on Christmas) as a reminder that Christmas, and its underlying doctrine of Incarnation, is more than just a day for shopping, that we can toss out to the curb like a dried up, has-been pine tree once the new year hits.
Zap! Like a loop of wires in your house, your mind is only suited to carry a certain level of “current” when it comes to theological truth. The following five truths–more like riddles–will trip the circuit in your brain if you think too hard about them. Yet, contemplating such truths is the perfect antidote for Christmas consumer ‘excess’ and a great way to prepare your heart to receive the Christ this Christmas season.
Truth #1: Changing without Changing. God the Eternal Son, being fully God, and thus without form or body or “human substance” took to Himself in union with His Divine Nature a True Body and Soul and became Man without ceasing to be God. So the mystery of the Incarnation is that our Eternal God, who changes not, changed in the second Person of the Godhead, in the Incarnation, by taking a human nature and adding it to His divine nature.
How something can change and remain unchanging is a truth or a riddle which, if you think about it hard enough, will definitely trip the logic circuits in your brain. Yet, this is the plain teaching of Scripture; consider:
- John 17:5, “And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was.”
- Philippians 2:6-7, “who being in the form of God…took upon him the form of a servant an was made in the likeness of men…”
Truth #2: Infinite Yet Finite. The miraculous riddle of the Incarnation is also seen in this: that the infinite God is now in some form or fashion “confined” or “contained” within the finite limits of a single human nature. This can be compared to the paradox or impossibility of pouring the entire quantity of all the oceans of the world into a single teaspoon.
The great Scottish-American theologian, John Murray, described it this way:
It would have been humiliation for God the Son to have become man under the most ideal conditions…because of the great discrepancy between the majesty of the creator and the humble status of the most exalted creature.
The best image or picture in Scripture of the infinitude of God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, can be found in the first chapter of John, in which we read: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Yet this same Word, this logos (how it reads in the Greek) John says didn’t stay there, but as he writes in v. 14 of John 1, “The word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
Truth #3: Human but Not Sinful. His human nature derives, in space and time, from the humanity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But because this is a miraculous event, carried out by the power of the Holy Spirit, its miraculous character is seen principally in this: God the Son becomes fully human but does not take Mary’s sinful human nature in the miraculous event. It is worth noting that Jesus’ birth was in fact ordinary; it was his conception which was the supernatural and contrary-to-nature miracle.
St. Paul describes the supernatural aspect of the “Virgin Conception” indirectly in Romans 8:3, when he states that Jesus came “…in the likeness of sinful flesh.” John Murray, on this text, says that “the Son of God was sent in that very nature which in every other instance is sinful.”
Scripture highlights the supernatural character of the Virgin Conception in many places, stipulating specifically that Jesus was human, but not sinful. Consider the following:
- Luke 1:35: “Then Mary said unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing that I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.”
- Hebrews 7:24-25, “Wherefore he is able also to save to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth o make intercession for them. For such an high priest became us, who is holy, harmless and undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens.”
Truth #4: Born to Die. Because of this new “limitation” the Incarnation is understood to be a condescension or the first part of what is called Christ’s humiliation. By humiliation we don’t mean that somehow Jesus was embarrassed by becoming human, but that it represented the beginning of his suffering on the cross.
Now it may be argued that Jesus was born to die, just as every other person was born to die. After all, as the saying goes, nothing is as certain as “death and taxes.” Yet, while a death sentence hangs over every child’s head from the moment he is conceived, or takes his first breath, the scythe of the grim reaper hung over the cradle in a special way. Consider the prophetic words spoken to Mary about her son when he was brought to the temple in obedience to the law’s requirement for first born sons; Simeon, after praising God that his “eyes have seen Your salvation,” says to Jesus’ mother, Mary, “Behold this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul, also)…” (Luke 2:34-35).
Theologian John Murray writes this about the mind-blowing paradox that Jesus was “born to die.” He says, “It would have been humiliation for God the Son to have become man under the most ideal conditions…because of the great discrepancy between the majesty of the creator and the humble status of (even) the most exalted creature.” But of course, Jesus was not born under the most ideal circumstances. Nor was he born for “exalted creatures.” He did not clothe his divine person with humanity for the sake of good people; as the angel reported to Joseph, He came to save His people from their sins.
St. Paul said something similar when he wrote in Romans 5:6-8, “For while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person–though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die–but God shows His love for us in this that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
Truth #5: Obedient Yet Omnipotent. This final truth is perhaps the hardest to grasp of all, and certainly requires faith in God to embrace and rest in it. The truth is that because He was born to die, the Incarnation is seen by the writers of the Bible to be a matter of the obedience and submission of God the Son to God the Father.
That’s right: God the Son submits, and in that submission, is sub-ordinate (second in order, literally) to God the Father. If not, then the entire meaning of Son and Father go by the wayside. The Son’s Obedience is in no way contradictory to His Omnipotence, but they cohere in a riddle which both perplexes and delights all who embrace God as He is Pleased to reveal Himself. After all, Christmas didn’t start in Bethlehem, nor was our Glorious God somehow caught off guard when Caesar Augustus determined that “all the world should e taxed.”
Rather, from eternity Past, the Father, in His glorious dignity as the First Member of the Trinity, SENDS the Son to accomplish our Redemption; and the Son, in His glorious dignity as the Second Member of the Trinity, OBEYS the Father and is SENT for Our Salvation. It is in this sense, in part, then, that we are to understand how it was that the Son was “slain from the foundation of the world.”
Yet, lest we forget, it would be a mistake to assume that because Jesus is GOD THE SON, his “obedience” was somehow forced. On the contrary, as God the eternal Son, He delighted to do the Father’s Will, for what God the Son desired was nothing less than what the Father and the Spirit desired, for he was, and is, indeed, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, fully and perfectly God.
A hint of this can be seen in the memorable prayer from the Garden which Jesus uttered in his Incarnate Existence; contemplating the coming hour of trial, and his bearing the wrath of God for wicked people, Jesus entered the Garden called Gethsemane with his disciples. Scripture says in Luke 24:
“And he was withdrawn from them about a stone’s cast, and kneeled down and prayed, saying, Father if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless, not my will but thine be done.”
While this passage reveals Jesus praying, in one sense, in the eclipsed capacity of his Incarnate Self (Philippians 2:6-7), in his human nature as “fully Man” to God the Father; it also reveals a pattern which Jesus had practiced from all eternity. That pattern is nothing short of His submission, as Son, to the Father’s Perfect Plan.
It would not be speculation, then, to assert that this prayer, by good and necessary inference, would have been uttered by God the Son even before His incarnation. Hence, this final truth is almost incomprehensible, yet glorious in its profound and mysterious beauty: God the Son was both omnipotent and obedient in the Incarnation.
Theology, inasmuch as it is the study of God, is not complicated, but refreshing. Yet, as has been said of John’s Gospel, that it is simple enough for a child to play in, and deep enough for an elephant to swim in, so it is true of the whole scope of the study of God. There are depths here which will not soon be reached–nay, not even in many lifetimes.
By contemplating these five riddles of the incarnation, and dwelling upon them, we see both the greatness of our Three-Person God, and His Miraculous Plan of Redemption, which entailed, in the fulness of time, God (the Father) sending forth His Son to be born of a woman, born under the law, that we who were under the law might be redeemed.
The good news is that if these truths didn’t “blow the circuits of our minds,” it is likely that we would have reduced God to some manageable form or notion, one which would may have added to our comfort, but at the cost of domesticating and blaspheming the Incomprehensible God.
Besides, the best worship stems from a speechless heart and mind which, after plumbing the depths of the divine majesty, puts hand over mouth, and then lifts its head and sings, “Hosanna! Hallelujah! Christ has come! Let us worship Him!”
*Image credit: here
edited: updated truth #4 on 1/7/17, which had an incomplete ending.