It doesn’t take long for the average news reader perusing today’s articles to come across a shocking revelation: Scandals are all around us. Of course there are the expected political and financial scandals, but as of late, the sex scandals are front and center. If it isn’t this actor, news anchor or figurehead, it is that politician or producer who is falling from grace with a headline we have to censor for our children.
Would it surprise you to learn that the circumstances surrounding Christmas were also scandalous and provocative? In fact, why do Christians make such a big fuss about Christmas? Is it that important that Jesus was born—and born of a virgin?
The birth of Jesus is known doctrinally as the Incarnation. The Latin verb incarno is derived from two words “in” & “carno,” meaning quite literally “to make into flesh.” My Spanish-speaking friends can attest to “carne” being translated “meat” (Just recently I had some carne asada tacos, which were probably the best I’ve ever had). In a literal sense, Jesus came “in the meat”—that is, in the flesh. He was clothed in humanity. Jesus didn’t come into existence when He was born to Mary and Joseph—He has existed from before creation (John 1:1-18; Colossians 1:16-17; 1 Peter 1:20; John 17:5).
The Nicene Creed affirms that Jesus: "came down from heaven, and was incarnate." You could theologically use the phrase “pre-existent.” This idea alone speaks to Jesus’ deity. Donald Macleod points out, “No formal distinction can be made between deity and preexistence” (Person of Christ, 57).
But why is the Incarnation so important?
CENTRAL TO THE CHRISTIAN FAITH
Spurgeon said, “The birth of Jesus is the grandest light of history, the sun in the heavens of all time. It is the pole star of human destiny, the hinge of chronology, the meeting place of the waters of the past and the future.”
More than a festive way to spend our late Decembers, the doctrine of the Incarnation is perhaps the central truth in Christian doctrine.
It is found in almost every Christian creed or statement of faith (which, incidentally, should all be based upon Scripture). In fact, here is from our statement of faith at Shoreline Church:
"We believe in the person of Jesus Christ, God’s only begotten Son, conceived by the Holy Spirit. We believe in His virgin birth, sinless life, miracles and teachings, His substitutionary atoning death, bodily resurrection, ascension into heaven, perpetual intercession for His people and personal, visible return to earth."
Even the Apostles’ Creed communicates the Incarnation very succinctly:
"I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:
And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord:
who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary…"
Those are very important phrases: "God's only begotten Son." "Conceived by the Holy Spirit." "A Virgin birth."
These are a part of the doctrine we call The Incarnation: That Jesus, pre-existent and fully God, was conceived of the Virgin with a real, tangible, physical body.
Sometimes we have this false notion that Jesus kind of floated along and wasn't really a man. Incidentally, John the Apostle combated a group of people that believed Jesus was God but not fully man. They emphasized the deity of Christ but disavowed His humanity. But that is what the doctrine of the Incarnation is all about. It is so important that we believe it and practically understand it.
Jesus Christ was born of a woman. He was born to parents. He had uncles, aunts and cousins. He hungered. He thirsted. He got tired. He fell asleep. He yawned. He had internal organs and hands and feet and hair. His family was a part of a tribe of people in Israel. His family had traditions and beliefs. They celebrated holidays. They celebrated birthdays and traditions and sat around and had conversations. They laughed and cried and talked together.
The application of this is powerful: God wanted to identify with us! When I read the genealogy of Jesus, I am just so blown away that there are actual, real people listed! The Father loves us enough to send His Son to become one of us!!
Augustine of Hippo brilliantly and poetically asserts:
“Man’s maker was made man that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breast; that the Bread might hunger, the Fountain thirst, the Light sleep, the Way be tired on its journey; that Truth might be accused of false witnesses, the Teacher be beaten with whips, the Foundation be suspended on wood; that Strength might grow weak; that the Healer might be wounded; that Life might die.”
The Incarnation is such a difficult and powerful doctrine that sometimes we tiptoe around it as Christians. Or we completely ignore it: We emphasize the crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and the imminent return of Jesus. But we don't emphasize the Incarnation as much as we really should. However, this is a touchstone doctrine to determine those who hold to the orthodox Christian faith and who are part of aberrant cult groups. The Incarnation is a doctrine that is consistently attacked by those who would desire to dismantle the Christian faith, and quite frankly, is one of the more peculiar and difficult doctrines to articulate and provide apologetic backing for.
Nevertheless there are many who will attack Christianity, and namely Christ, and there are really only two areas of supposed weakness to aim for: either His historical, proven resurrection, which was corroborated by hundreds of witnesses and a brevity of church history, or His miraculous birth to the Virgin Mary, which was witnessed really only by Mary, Joseph, the starry host and some simple shepherds. Which do you think the doubters aim their sights on?
How can you tell if someone is genuinely a Christian or part of a cult? Start with what they believe about the Incarnation!
The Apostle John explains in the New Testament that if you are a true Christian, you will acknowledge the Incarnation as reliably true:
"Beloved, 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. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; and this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world" (I John 4:1-3).
It is insightful that Jews, Muslims, Unitarians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and other aberrant groups, which purport to be under the banner of Christianity, but are not orthodox, all falter and stumble on this one truth.
BORN OF A VIRGIN
The Bible is silent about Jesus' life after 12 years old all the way through His late teens and 20s, until He comes on the scene with John the Baptist around the matured age of 30. Some people try to speculate what Jesus did during that time, but when the Bible is silent, it is important that we be silent as well.
So what about that glorious descent? As the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, how does a virgin girl become pregnant? Was she really a virgin or did Jesus have a dishonorable dad that Joseph didn’t know about? If that was the case, would it change anything? I would answer a resounding YES! But first we have to ask, “Why a virgin?”
And there isn't something more scandalous than a teenage girl who is supposed to be a virgin telling everyone she has become pregnant with God's child. Joseph and Mary were both under the scrutiny of society for their "out of wedlock affair," but they both knew the reality of the angelic message: This was no ordinary child. He was the Son of the Most High, and His name meant "salvation." Mary and Joseph were literally pregnant with excitement, wonder, fear and the weight of responsibility of raising God’s only Son.
The prophet Isaiah foretold what to look for with the arrival of Messiah:
"Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel" (Isaiah 7:14).
Is it really that important that the Savior be born of a virgin? Some would say that the Hebrew word used here, almah in Hebrew, in Isaiah 7:14 can be "virgin," but it can also be “young maiden.” And they are correct; the same word can be used in both contexts. However, there are a few reasons why I believe it really doesn’t matter. The skeptics love to say, "AHA! So Mary wasn't really a virgin. She was just a young girl." But in context, Isaiah is addressing the entire nation of Israel with a very important announcement. As one scholar said:
"In verse 14, the Hebrew word for ‘behold’ is a word which draws attention to an event which could be past, present, or future. However, grammatically, whenever 'behold' is used with the Hebrew present particle, it always refers to a future event. That is the case here. Not only is the birth future, but the very conception is future. The key point of this should not be missed. God is promising that the House of David cannot be deposed or lose its identity until the birth of a virgin-born son. Again, this requires that Messiah be born prior to the destruction of the temple and its genealogical records in 70 A.D."
Though rendered “young girl,” in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, a document known as the Septuagint, the word used by the 70 scholars is emphatically, parthenos, the Greek word for "virgin."
Plus, why would God explain that the sign of this important birth would be marked by simply a younger girl having a baby? That is, and was, very typical, so that would make God's sign very common and easy to miss. Not exactly the most significant way to usher in the Savior of the world!
Jacob Neusner, considered by many to be the leading scholar in Judaism today— widely regarded and respected—wrote a book called The Incarnation of God. Neusner asserts that the Old Testament does speak of God coming in flesh as a human being in human history. Mind you—this is a man who does not worship Jesus as God. He’s an orthodox Jew. When asked about the implications, he basically admits in the book that this does crack the door – more than crack the door, I would say kick it wide open – for belief in Jesus as the one everyone was waiting for, and God was promising God coming in human flesh.
What’s curious about this is he also says that many rabbis who initially studied the Bible agreed that it did teach that God was coming into human history as a man. So there have been Jews throughout the course of history who are awaiting the coming of God in human flesh as a man. That’s why, when Jesus came, many did worship him as God and accept that he is the One they have been waiting for— God come into human history, born of a woman who was a virgin in the town of Bethlehem before the destruction of the temple.
WHY JESUS CAME
The implications of the Incarnation are far reaching, but here are four reasons Jesus came:
1. To Reveal the Father
Jesus came to reveal the character and nature of God (John 1:14; 14:9; Hebrews 1:1-3).
2. To Redeem Mankind
Jesus was born under the law to redeem those under the law (Galatians 4:5; Luke 19:10; 1 Tim 1:15; 1 John 4:10).
3. To Reign Over Creation
Jesus’ reign will have no end. It began before creation and was partially realized when He was crowned at Calvary bearing a crown of thorns. His first coming was to bring salvation from the penalty and power of sin—His second coming will bring salvation from the presence of sin. His rule and reign will culminate when He returns (Luke 1:33; Revelation 11:15; 2 Samuel 7:13; Hebrews 1:8).
4. To Relate to Us
Jesus is fully acquainted with the full spectrum of humanity (Hebrews 4:14-16; Philippians 2:6-11).
What an amazing reality: Jesus became one of us. Sometimes it is hard for me to walk in someone else’s shoes. I don’t know what it is like to bury my child. I don’t know what it feels like to be served divorce papers. I’m not quite sure how unemployment feels. I haven’t had to listen to the doctor give me a concerning prognosis. I’m unacquainted with the burden of chronic pain.
It is incredibly reassuring when you’re struggling and someone comes up and says, “I’ve walked in your shoes, and I can relate to your exact situation. I understand. I can empathize. You’ll make it through, because I did.”
How encouraging! And yet this is what God has done. He isn’t the manager who sits in the office; He’s the one who puts on the apron and joins the team on the sales floor. Jesus is acquainted with our sorrows, with our suffering. He knows the lure of temptation and the fear of standing alone in righteousness. He can relate to being mocked, spit on, rejected by friends. Jesus understands what it means to lose someone you dearly love and to weep for them. He can sympathize with those who were misrepresented or judged or forgotten or mistaken or abandoned or beaten or shamed or lied about or divorced, because the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, "Only the humble believe him and rejoice that God is so free and so marvelous that he does wonders where people despair, that he takes what is little and lowly and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly...God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.”
As we have just celebrated the Christmas season this year, let’s not neglect the power and truth of the Incarnation in the year ahead.