Imagine this scene with me: you’re at the annual Christmas pageant at a local Christian school. The children’s choir is singing “Away in a Manger” as the newborn standing in for baby Jesus cries unconsolably. Most of the audience is too distracted to notice the irony of the lyrics:
But little Lord Jesus no crying he makesAway in a Manger, Traditional Christmas Carol
While Christmas pageant directors the world over would hope and pray for a silent newborn in their presentations, I’d like to suggest that the image of the newly born Jesus screaming his lungs out is actually one of the most powerful depictions of the theology of Christmas imaginable.
Jesus is human. He is not a spirit appearing to be human. He is truly human. He is also God. He is not just a great prophet, angel, or even a demi-god. He is truly God. Christians believe and teach that God, in the person of Jesus, entered into his creation and took on human flesh. This idea is what Christian theologians refer to as the “incarnation.” Unfortunately, this doctrine is often misunderstood by those who would believe it or caricatured and mocked by those who oppose it. Challenges have been levied against the incarnation ever since the earliest centuries of church history. Even at the time of the writing of the New Testament itself, the apostles were already finding it necessary to correct various mis-understandings about who Jesus is.
The apostle John wrote in the first chapter of his gospel that the Word (Jesus) who was in the beginning with God and who was himself God “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1-18). The same author described Jesus in one of his letters as that “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands” (1 John 1:1). Later in that same epistle, John contrasted two opposing views of Jesus in stark terms:
This statement was directed at a group of proto-gnostic false teachers that had begun to teach that Jesus was not really a flesh-and-blood human being.1 The apostle John responded to this by explicitly rejecting any notion that Christ hadn’t really come in the flesh. His second epistle repeated this warning:
The apostle Paul likewise taught that Jesus had taken on human flesh when he wrote that our Lord “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7). The author of Hebrews also espoused the true physical humanity of Jesus when he wrote, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14).
It’s essential to realize that the biblical teaching regarding Jesus’ humanity is not an incidental detail. As the citation from Hebrews makes clear, Christ’s incarnation is directly related to his redemptive work. The apostles held it as a central fact of their faith and didn’t think twice about identifying those who denied it as deceivers and antichrists. Everything that constitutes what it means to be human is true of Jesus. Jesus wasn’t some kind of superhuman. Scripture teaches that he developed in his mother’s womb and was born as a baby (Luke 2:7), that he required physical sustenance (Luke 4:1-2), and that he grew physically and mentally (Luke 2:52). Baby Jesus did not awaken for the first time with fully developed mental capabilities. He had to learn things. Toddler Jesus needed help lifting heavy objects. He had to grow stronger. Even as an adult, Jesus didn’t know everything. He once called out into a crowd to find out who had touched him (Luke 8:45), and elsewhere flatly admitted that he did not know the exact timing of certain prophetic events (Mark 13:32).
And it doesn’t stop there. The Bible also tells us that Jesus experienced in the full range of human emotions, becoming angry (Mark 3:5), bearing intense agony (Luke 22:44), facing temptation (Luke 4:1-14), and weeping with grief (John 11:35). And in the most decisive event of history, our Lord was crucified on the cross and died as a mortal man (Luke 23:46). Yet, Scripture teaches that he rose bodily from the grave three days later in glory and immortality and remains a full-fledged human even to this day. Listen to Jesus’ words when he appeared to his disciples after the resurrection: “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” (Luke 24:39).2 Furthermore, in the book of Acts, we are told that Christ ascended bodily into heaven and will one day return in the same way that he left (Acts 1:9-11).
An Irreverent Doctrine
To some, Scripture’s description of Jesus’ incarnation is somewhat troubling. To others, it is altogether scandalous. C.S. Lewis referred to the incarnation as “an irreverent doctrine” and to Christianity as “an incurably irreverent religion.”3 Lewis did not mean this in a negative sense, of course. His point, I believe, was that the incarnation of Christ doesn’t fit neatly into a tidy little box. It’s a complex and messy doctrine. God didn’t just stay in heaven and save us with a snap of his fingers. Instead, he quite literally got down into the dirt with us.4 Jesus truly fulfilled the words of the prophet Isaiah, who wrote, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isa. 53:4).
Many have fallen into the trap of thinking that these strong statements regarding Jesus’ humanity prevent us from believing that he could also be divine. This is certainly not the case, as I will attempt to demonstrate in the next article. But for now I want you to stop and consider the full force of the biblical testimony to Christ’s humanity. Jesus could very well have been just like the baby who made a scene at the local Christmas pageant. So, next time you are tempted to become frustrated by the sound of a baby crying, let it remind you of the great distance that our Lord crossed in order to take on flesh and share fully with us in our humanity.
- Gnostics taught that the material world was inherently bad and the spiritual realm was the dwelling place of that which is good. As a consequence, gnostic christology rejected the doctrine that Jesus was truly human, opting instead for a “spirit” Jesus who only appeared to be human.
- See my article “Resurrecting Christian Hope, Part 1” for more on the resurrected body of Jesus.
- J. B. Phillips and C. S. Lewis, Letters to Young Churches: A Translation of the New Testament Epistles (London: Geoffry Bles, 1955), viii.
- I pause here to remind you that this does not mean that Jesus did anything sinful. Scripture is clear that he lived a perfect life (Heb. 4:15). I am just stressing the point that our Lord was not afraid to take on humanity in all of its weaknesses and limitations.
Last modified: June 3, 2021