It has been said that the cradle of Christ lies in the shadow of the cross. Jesus himself declared that the purpose of his coming was to “give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28, ESV). However, something like the reverse of that great statement is also true. The crucifixion of Christ only makes sense in the light of the cradle.
Certainly, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are among the centerpieces of the Christian faith. Nothing else in all of Christian theology is as close to the heart of the gospel than the death and resurrection of Christ. However, if one were to remove the Christmas story from the pages of Scripture, we would be left without a savior who can truly atone for our sins.
In the last few articles (Part 1 & Part 2), I have laid out a biblical case for the true humanity and deity of Christ. In those posts, I argued that Jesus did not merely appear to be human, but that he truly took on human flesh. By the same token, I gave biblical evidence that Jesus is not just an exalted creature, but that he is truly God. Scripture is quite clear on these points. And yet, there are many people who claim that the Bible tells quite a different story.
Consider this passage from the gospel of John, where Jesus is recorded as saying, “the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28, ESV). This text is often brought up as an objection against the deity of Christ. If the Father is greater than Jesus, so the question goes, how can Jesus be God? Or what about the various passages that speak of Jesus as experiencing limitations, such as when Jesus said that he did not know the timing of certain prophetic events (Mark 13:32), or when he could not identify who had touched him in a crowd (Luke 8:45)? If Jesus did not know everything during his time on earth, how could he be thought of as divine when God is all-knowing? And what about Jesus’ crucifixion? How could one who was killed as a common criminal and died as a mortal man be considered deity when God is all powerful and immortal?
I am convinced that the confusion about these texts stems partly from a lack of reflection on the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. If one divorces the study of the nature of Christ from that of his incarnation, the resulting picture will be inevitably skewed.
The Incarnate Deity
One of the clearest pictures of the incarnation is found in the prologue of John’s gospel. In it, we read, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14, ESV).1 Here, we see the basic outline of the doctrine of the incarnation – God became man. If we read what Paul says in Philippians 2, we get a closer look at the details:
There are several indicators of Jesus’ deity in this text. First, the text implies that Jesus pre-existed his birth in that he took a number of actions prior to his being made in human likeness (considering his equality with God, emptying himself, taking on human nature). These are actions taken by an agent.
Secondly, Jesus is described as being in the form of God. Paul’s Jewish monotheism would have no place for this kind of language apart from the true deity of Jesus.
Finally, Jesus’ actions here are portrayed as an example of humility. This is significant because the way in which this is portrayed is through Jesus’ refusal to take advantage of those rights available to him in his equality with God. This only works as an example of humility if Jesus actually had those rights to begin with. It is no great humility on the part of ordinary humans to acknowledge that they are not equal to God. We are called to imitate this attitude that Jesus had by refraining from exercising our own rights out of deference to others. We have no right to claim equality with God. This is an absolute basement-level starting position for what it means to be humble.
It’s important to note that this passage does not say that Jesus cast off his divinity. Rather, it says he took on mortal human flesh. Jesus did not cease being God, but he chose not to exercise all of the rights that he had as God when he became a man. This is what was meant by Paul when he said that Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Phil. 2:6, ESV).
A Little While Lower
The limitations faced by Jesus in the New Testament, such as the fact that Jesus had to grow “in wisdom and in stature” as a child (Luke 2:52) and apparently did not know everything even as an adult (Mark 13:32, Luke 8:45), were all self-limitations. Remember, Paul wrote that Jesus emptied himself and humbled himself. Moreover, Jesus’ own teaching about himself makes it clear that these limitations were self-imposed. For example, Jesus said that his mortality was something that he chose for himself: “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18, ESV).
But that isn’t the whole story. Paul ends the passage in Philippians 2 by telling us that the humiliation Christ experienced was reversed when the Father exalted him and commanded that all of creation bow before him in worship.
This exultation can also be seen in what is referred to as Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17: “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (ESV).2 There are three stages implicit here that I want you to notice. First, Jesus shared glory with the Father before the creation of the world. This is a description of Jesus’ personal pre-existence, before his incarnation. Secondly, it is implied that something happened after this that caused the glory that Jesus shared with the Father to be “hidden” in some way. This is the stage that was currently ongoing as Jesus spoke this prayer. Finally, Jesus anticipated his own return to that initial state of glory. It is the second stage of the incarnation of Christ that is so often overlooked and misunderstood.
The biblical teaching about the incarnation perfectly accounts for the limitations that Jesus experienced. Jesus was not limited because he was a mere creature, but because he chose to take on human flesh and identify fully with us in our weakness. Going back to the question about the text from John 14, we see that the incarnation makes sense of Jesus’ remark to his disciples that the Father was greater than he. Jesus’ description of his relationship to the Father in this passage was not in terms of nature but position.
In the prior verses, Jesus had been telling his disciples about the necessity of his departure from them. It is in the context of his return to the Father that Jesus spoke of him as greater. In other words, Jesus was not saying that the Father was better than he, but higher. It is quite easy to see why Jesus might say this given the fact of the incarnation. In voluntarily emptying himself and veiling the glory that he shared with the Father, he condescended (lowered himself) to take on human nature. In fact, Jesus’ words here show us that he understood his lower position to be only temporary. His whole point in this passage was that his disciples should have been rejoicing that he was leaving them because that meant he was actually about to go back to where the Father was. And if we take what Jesus prayed to the Father in John 17 into account, we are able to see that Jesus was anticipating being glorified with the Father again, just as he was prior to the creation of the world.
Incarnation and Atonement
The temporary nature of the second stage of Christ’s incarnation was also confirmed by the author of Hebrews:
According to this passage, Jesus’ humiliation was temporary (“for a little while”). And in the same way that Paul in Philippians linked the humility of Christ to his being “obedient to the point of death” (Phil. 2:8, ESV), the author of Hebrews explicitly taught that Jesus’ intent in assuming this lower position was so that he could accomplish redemption by dying on our behalf. Continuing on in Hebrews, we read an even clearer statement of this connection:
The motivation for the Son of God to take on human flesh was in order that he might identify fully with us. More specifically, it was so that he could die in our place. Taking on mortal human flesh made possible the redemption that Jesus purchased with his blood. Not only that, Jesus’ death on the cross provided the means for the defeat of Satan and his dark forces. The apostle Paul put it this way, “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15, NIV). It was the very death of Christ which accomplished the salvation of his people and simultaneously sealed the defeat of evil. This is what the incarnation is all about.
The Divine Savior
The incarnation is the glue that holds together the divinity and humanity of Christ. It is also what makes the Christian gospel possible to begin with. This is what I meant when I said that the cross of Christ only makes sense in the light of the cradle. If Jesus did not truly take on human nature, but only appeared to do so, then his death on the cross could not truly be a substitutionary sacrifice for human sinners. Likewise, if Jesus was not truly God, but was just a good person, then his sacrifice would not have been sufficient to atone for the sins of the world.
The Bible teaches that all people have sinned (Rom. 3:23) and that we all deserve death because of our sin (Rom. 6:23). Left to our own devices, we could never save ourselves from the consequences of our sin. But the good news is that God sent his Son as the very first Christmas gift in order to redeem the good creation that was marred by sin and death. Jesus, the God-Man, lived a sinless life (Heb. 4:15), and as a result, he was the perfect sacrifice (1 Pet. 1:19). As Paul put it, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21, ESV).
This is the glorious gospel of the incarnation – the true message of Christmas. God, in the person of Jesus, became human and died on the cross to deal with sin and to disarm the dark forces of this world. This is how we can have peace with God and be freed from the dominion of the devil: by surrendering ourselves to the Lordship of King Jesus and putting our faith in him (Acts 3:19, Rom. 10:9). The salvation offered by Jesus is not something we can work for: it is a gift (Eph. 2:8-9). Nor is there any other way for us to be made right with God. As Peter declared, “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12, ESV).
Other Parts in This Series
- The “Word” (logos in Greek) is a title that John uses for Jesus. This is made evident when John says that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” and then goes on in the next few verses to describe John the Baptist’s annunciation of the coming of Jesus.
- Consider how Jesus describes himself as sharing glory with the Father. How can one who is not God share glory with God? The biblical answer is that they can not. In Isaiah 42:8, God explicitly states that he does not share his glory with anyone else: “my glory I give to no other” (ESV).