December 25, 2016
What’s the Big Deal about the Incarnation?
Some of you remember the controversy Starbucks created last year when they changed their coffee cups for the holidays. For years, they had rather obvious Christmas cups, complete with snowflakes, snowmen, sleds, ribbons and ornaments. But horror of horrors, last year, they introduced a simple, red coffee cup. It made the rounds on social media. People were deeply distressed, even offended – clearly, this was a war on Christmas.
Seizing the opportunity, competitor Dunkin’ Donuts soon introduced their 2015 coffee cup with, as usual, the word Joy – of course in red and green with evergreen boughs in the form of a wreath. It was clearly a shot across the bow of Starbucks and their sacrilegious red, minimalist cups. Dunkin’ Donuts even released this statement with the unveiling of their Joy cups: “For many years Dunkin’ Donuts has served coffee in festive cups featuring the word ‘joy’ as part of our annual celebration of the season and holiday offerings. We believe this conveys the happiness and spirit of the holiday season in a way that resonates with our guests.” Yay, Christmas was saved.
Apparently, with the public outcry, Starbucks got the message and returned to their Christmas cups this year – again, with snow, ornaments and lights. Crisis averted, and Christians could breathe easy and return to buy their $4 cups of coffee, like your Venti Iced Skinny Hazelnut Macchiato, Sugar-Free Syrup, Extra Shot, Light Ice, No Whip drinks. I don’t know what most of those words mean.
There rather obvious question is this – in what way does snowflakes, snowmen, ribbons, evergreen wreaths, ornaments and lights put Christmas on display? Certainly they remind us of trees and gifts and winter and lights and Santa and Rudolph. But, shockingly, did you know none of those things appear in the biblical narrative? There’s no mention of cattle lowing or ox and that other animal either. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but since the shepherds were in the fields watching their flocks by night, it’s doubtful it was winter. Most scholars suggest Jesus was actually born in Spring. But that’s okay – we don’t know the actual date, so December 25 is fine.
And so, here you are this Christmas morning, I suppose celebrating Christian Christmas. What is it that makes Christmas Christian? It’s crazy, isn’t it – having to qualify the word Christmas with the word Christian. So here’s the question today – in the midst of all the celebrations of Christmas, red cups and all that, what is its true meaning? Again, I know most of us know – that’s why we’re here – to celebrate the birth of Jesus. But, the question I want to ask is – what’s the big deal about the incarnation of Jesus Christ? In short, what’s the big deal about Christmas – about Jesus being born, anyway?
I’m so thankful you’re here today. Having sung rich Christian Christmas carols, I want to take a few minutes this morning to answer that question – obviously not exhaustively, but hopefully encouragingly. We’re going to look at the what of the incarnation, the why of the incarnation, and the extent of the incarnation. Let’s start with what it was – that is, what makes Christmas so special to believers. What makes Christmas Christian?
We read about it in the Christmas narratives in Matthew and Luke. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary, and we assume Joseph. Obviously, first to Mary in Luke 1. She’s still single – not yet married to Joseph – and in fact, still a virgin. Luke makes a big deal of this. He says:
26 Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth,
27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.
28 And coming in, he said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
29 But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was.
30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God.
31 “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus.
32 “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David;
33 and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.”
34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
35 The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.”
So throughout the emphasis is on the fact Mary was a virgin, and that Jesus was to be born of a virgin. In fact, the Holy Spirit would come upon her, the power of the Most High would overshadow her. Then in Matthew, when we read an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph. You see, while Joseph and Mary were betrothed, that is, engaged, and before the physical consummation of marriage, she was found to be with child – pregnant. Look at the account:
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.
19 And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly.
20 But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.
21 “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”
22 Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 “BEHOLD, THE VIRGIN SHALL BE WITH CHILD AND SHALL BEAR A SON, AND THEY SHALL CALL HIS NAME IMMANUEL,” which translated means, “GOD WITH US.”
24 And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife,
25 but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.
I know those are familiar passages, but notice again the emphasis on Mary being a virgin – resulting in what we call the virgin birth of Jesus, which brought about what we call the incarnation. The pre-existent Son of God became the Son of Man – He took on human flesh. We know John 1, in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh. That’s what God-incarnate means – God in flesh. When Jesus was born, He became the God-man – fully God and fully man. Notice some keys phrases in those two passages. In Luke, Gabriel said He will be great and be called the Son of the Most High. He ends with, the holy child we be called the Son of God.
Further, in Matthew, the angel says Mary will bear a son – that is, the human woman will bear a Son by the Holy Spirit such that the Son will be called Immanuel – God with us. So, what’s the big deal about the incarnation? Well first, when Jesus was born, He was the God-man – fully God, fully man. God-incarnate, Immanuel – God with us. So that’s what happened on the first Christmas. But that leads to the next question – why? Why did the second person of the Trinity – the Son of God – become the Son of Man? Several reasons could be given:
He became a man so that He would be tempted in every way we are, yet be without sin.
He became a man so that in His temptations, He would then be able to aid those who are similarly tempted. We read these great words in Hebrews 4:
15 For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.
16 Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Jesus became our great High Priest who can sympathize with us when we are tempted – we can go to Him with confidence to find mercy when we fail and find grace to help when we’re tempted – when we have a need. Jesus can do that because of the incarnation.
Further, He became a man so that He may suffer. Again, in Hebrews 2, we read, “For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through suffering.” Through His sufferings as a man, Jesus was made mature and the perfect one to represent us to God. I’ve said it this way before – as the one and only God-man, Jesus is the perfect one to represent God to man, and man to God. There is only one mediator between man and God – the man Christ Jesus. This is the incredible news of the why of the incarnation.
You see, ultimately, Jesus became a man so that He might give His life in the flesh for us. The Christmas story we just read in Matthew and Luke both say, call Him Jesus, because, He will save His people from their sins. In our study of Mark, we’re about to get to the theme verse – Jesus says, “For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Again, back to Hebrews 2 as to why Jesus took on flesh:
9 But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.
14 Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil,
15 and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.
16 For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham.
17 Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.
18 For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted.
Do you see how those verses bring it all together? He came in the flesh on the first Christmas since the children – that’s us – are flesh. He partook of the same so that He could defeat the one who had the power of death – through His death and resurrection. And through that, to free us who have subject to the slavery of fear and sin all our lives. He had to be made like us in all things – did you notice that – He had to take on flesh so that He could be a merciful and faithful High Priest and so that He might make propitiation for sins. And as a result, He is able to come to our aid when we’re tempted – having overcome sin in the flesh.
This is incredible. Red coffee cup – are you kidding me? Listen – this is why the truth of Christmas is so important – and by the way, non-negotiable. Jesus was born of a virgin to take on flesh – God incarnate, Immanuel, God with us. There are certain things we hold loosely in the Christian faith. But there are orthodox truths which we must hold tightly and never let go. The virgin birth of Jesus is non-negotiable. You see, as such, He was born the God-man –without the sinful flesh of Adam’s race – He was perfect – and the only perfect one to die for imperfect humanity.
So that’s what Christmas is about – the incarnation – Jesus wrapping Himself in human flesh. And as the perfect God-man, to suffer and die for us. What an incredible sacrifice. But that leads to the third thing I want us to look at – the extent of the incarnation. I could ask it this way – how long did Jesus take on human flesh? Was it for 33 years, or a little longer?
It occurred to me a few weeks ago at a Wednesday Night Chapel that I had never really taught on this before. How do I know? I made the comment that Jesus is still the God-man – He is still fully God and fully man – and there was an audible gasp and the air was immediately sucked out of the room. What do you mean Jesus is still human? I thought He was only human when He walked on the earth. But after His resurrection and ascension, He went back to being fully God, right? Well, that is true, but it doesn’t contain the full truth.
You see, the Scripture is clear that after the resurrection, Jesus still possessed His human body. It’s obvious Jesus was a man before the cross, right? I mean, we read He was born of woman. He was reared in the home of Joseph and Mary, such that later He was the called son of Mary and Joseph, the carpenter. Luke even tells us He grew in wisdom and stature as a man. That means, in His humanity, Jesus still had to learn to walk and talk and the normal things kids need to learn. Hebrews even tells us He learned obedience in ever-increasing measure. That doesn’t mean He was ever disobedient – just that He learned, as any child would, obedience as He grew.
We also read He experienced the same human needs we face – He was hungry and needed to eat. He was thirsty, needed to drink. He was tired, needed to rest or sleep. He experienced a range of emotions as we do – only without sin. He cried; He was at times angry; He marveled at people; He felt compassion; He was exasperated with His disciples. Of course, the greatest sign of His humanity is He died. When He was beaten, when He was pierced through His hands and feet, and His side, He bled. And there came a time when He stopped breathing and died.
But of course, after He was buried, He was raised from the dead. Okay, you say, that must be when He shed His human flesh – His human cloak – His human body, right? Not exactly. Remember, when they came to the tomb, His body wasn’t there. Not only that, consider these verses – all after the resurrection:
When Jesus first appeared to the disciples, Thomas was not there. When they told Thomas they had seen the resurrected Jesus, he said he wouldn’t believe unless he was able to put his finger in the nail prints and his hand in Jesus side. Sure enough, about a week later, Jesus appeared again and said to Thomas, “Reach here with your finger, and see My hand; reach here with your hand and put it into My side…” In His resurrected body, Jesus still bore the marks of crucifixion.
In Luke 24, He appeared to the disciples, and we read:
36 He Himself stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be to you.”
37 But they were startled and frightened and thought that they were seeing a spirit.
38 And He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?
39 “See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
40 And when He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet.
41 While they still could not believe it because of their joy and amazement, He said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”
42 They gave Him a piece of a broiled fish;
43 and He took it and ate it before them.
He clearly wanted them to know it was He in the flesh. Most assuredly, He was in His resurrected body – the first fruits of those who sleep in Jesus. Meaning, we too, will be raised from the dead and receive glorified, physical bodies. But it’s clear Jesus had a physical body after the resurrection. Meaning, He was still the God-man. But what about after the ascension? Maybe when He ascended, He left the body behind – thanks Jesus, I don’t need the flesh anymore. Is that it? I don’t think so. Consider the ascension itself. In Acts 1, He took the disciples out to the Mount of Olives. He’s walking along with them, giving His final instructions which include the Great Commission. Then we read these words:
10 And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them.
11 They also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.”
Again, the clear indication is He will return in the same, glorified, risen, physical body. Still not convinced? A couple final passages. It’s decades in the future after the ascension. The Apostle John has been exiled to the Island of Patmos where he will receive and write what we call the Book of Revelation. In chapter 1, John has his vision of Jesus, and we read these words:
12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands;
13 and in the middle of the lampstands I saw one like a son of man, clothed in a robe reaching to the feet, and girded across His chest with a golden sash.
14 His head and His hair were white like white wool, like snow; and His eyes were like a flame of fire.
15 His feet were like burnished bronze, when it has been made to glow in a furnace, and His voice was like the sound of many waters.
Glorified, magnificent, majestic? Yes. Risen human body – it appears so – one like a son of man. One final passage. In Revelation 4, John has been called up to heaven to receive the revelation. The first scene to capture his eyes is the throne of God, surrounded by the four living creatures who cease not to proclaim, Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty. As John looks, he sees a scroll in the hand of Him who sits on the throne. We’re in chapter 5 now. A search is made throughout heaven, indeed all creation, to find one worthy to take the scroll, and open its seals. No one was found worthy, so John began to weep. But an angel came to him, and we pick up the story in verse 4:
4 Then I began to weep greatly because no one was found worthy to open the book or to look into it;
5 and one of the elders said to me, “Stop weeping; behold, the Lion that is from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has overcome so as to open the book and its seven seals.”
6 And I saw between the throne (with the four living creatures) and the elders a Lamb standing, as if slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God, sent out into all the earth.
Certainly there is much imagery there – but here’s the thing I want you to see. After the resurrection, Jesus bore in His physical, glorified body the marks of crucifixion. Now in heaven, decades later, He still does. So what’s my point? Well, first I thought it was okay to talk about Jesus today since it is His birthday we are celebrating. But, I go back to the question of the morning – what’s the big deal about the incarnation? Well, first, it was through the divine birth of the Son of God that Jesus became the God-man – the only one worthy to represent God to man, and man to God. The only one worthy to die on the cross for our sins. That’s Christian Christmas – that’s God’s gift toward us. But further, we often think, appropriately, of the great sacrifice Jesus made on the cross – bearing the sins of His people. But the indication in Scripture is that when Jesus became the God-man – when He took on human flesh – it was an eternal decision. He is still the God-man. What’s the big deal about the incarnation? I’m not sure we will ever fully comprehend the sacrifice Jesus made for us that first Christmas.