The In-fleshment of God
by Skip Ryan
"The Word became flesh and dwelt among us."
Now that Black Friday is behind us, The Season has begun in earnest. So many things are said in columns like this about the Christmas frenzy, about shopping and parties and decorating… all of them to the effect of: why do we do this to ourselves every year? Good question, but I’d rather tell you about something about Christmas that makes me glad.
INCARNATION: In-carne (as in carnivore, meat eater) Carne means flesh; Incarnation means the in-fleshment of God. God came down in flesh. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
In the last several years I keep coming back to the most familiar parts of our faith, but I’m trying to see them in more personal, more “affective” ways, that is, in ways that light up my affections, not just my thoughts.
There is nothing like the Incarnation in any other world religion. I think I heard Tim Keller say once that Christianity is the only religion where God comes in flesh. In the great Eastern religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, the Incarnation is unnecessary: God is already here; He is present in everything. We call this pantheism: pan meaning all or everywhere; theism meaning pertaining to God.
In the great Western religions other than Christianity, that is Judaism and Islam (yes, Islam is Western; it is mono-theist like Christianity and Judaism) the Incarnation is impossible: God would never do this; He would never humiliate Himself by in-fleshment, coming down for us. In Islam, the Incarnation is rank heresy; it’s blasphemous to suggest that God in His greatness would appear as a man.
It’s important to note the exact wording of John 1:14. It doesn’t say that the Word changed into flesh, but that the Word became flesh. The Word didn’t stop being God in order to become man; there was no diminishing of His deity, but rather the acquiring of manhood. Jesus is 100% God and 100% man. But when you do the math, it doesn’t add up: How can 100% and 100% equal 100%?
It took the Church 450 years to begin to figure the Incarnation out. In 451 AD, the Chalcedon Creed, speaking of Jesus said, “The distinction of His natures (i.e. His divine and human natures) is by no means taken away by the union (of them), but rather the property of each nature [is] preserved.” Here’s what that means: the second person of the Trinity is distinctly God, distinctly man, united in one Person, the man, the God, Jesus Christ. Whoa… that’s a mouthful. There’s more: the Son of God remains the infinite and unchangeable Word of God, and yet the infinite enters the finite. The Word became flesh. He did not take on a human body, putting on flesh like a coat over His divinity. His became a human being, without ceasing to be God.
Okay, enough theology. But it’s worth reading over the last paragraph a couple times. To understand the Incarnation, words like these are important. But they can only take you so far. If we only say the words correctly, we’ll never enter into the meaning of them. At some point we have to know, not just think about, this truth. We have to know that which we cannot understand, to know beyond knowing. I think it’s fair to call that “mystery.” Biblically, mystery is that which we can never know until God reveals it, but even then, His revealing will mean we enter into the mystery, not figure it out.
So, this is the stuff of poets. Many have tried to express something of the amazement of the Incarnation. G.K. Chesterton, as he thought of the infant Jesus lying in a barn or a cave with farm animals, said:
The child that was (before) the worlds begun,
The child that played with moon and sun,
Is playing with a little hay.
Or this: “May He who flung the moon and the stars in their place and then plunged into our humanity, bewilder us once again, each and all.”
Jesus, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, plunged into our humanity. God came down. That’s something to think about… No, that’s something to know beyond knowing.
There are many implications of this bewildering truth, each of which is worth an article like this. Here are just a few:
1) Jesus understands, sympathizes with, and helps us in our weaknesses; He was even tempted in all human ways as we are, yet He didn’t succumb. (Heb 4:15-16)
2) Only flesh can die. And only God in-flesh, who never sinned, can shed blood for the sins of others. (Heb 2:17)
3) The Lord’s Supper is very important because it is a way we plunge into the mysterious, but nonetheless real, participation in the broken body and shed blood of Jesus, God and man. (I Cor 10:16)
4) In the Incarnation, God comes down in Jesus to bless the earth and the good endeavors humans do when we plant a tree or paint a portrait or conduct commerce or take a walk in the mountains or sing a happy song. The coming down of God in Jesus is redeeming all the earth.
Please, this Season, think again on these things, but don’t try to figure them out too much. Instead, plunge in by faith.