Big Idea: Because God became human, we have the Savior we need.
We’re just days away from Christmas, which is strange. The last time I checked the weather is forecast to be about 8℃. That’s crazy. If you’re from around here, you know how strange the weather has been this winter. I don’t know whether to be happy or to be concerned.
It’s also strange for another reason, at least for me. Every year at Christmas I’m filled with a jumble of emotions. I’m excited about it, but if I’m honest, I’m also stressed by it. I’m not alone either. A survey in England found that Christmas is up there with divorce, moving house and changing jobs as the sixth most stressful life event —and it happens every year. So I have mixed emotions. It’s happy, but it’s also stressful.
It’s also a little strange for me spiritually. I’ve been trying to think about why. I think it’s because it’s easy to lose the original Christmas story in the middle of all the busyness and celebrations. Not only that, but the Christmas story can either become overly familiar, or overly strange. Angels, shepherds, mangers — it can either be something that’s old hat, or something that we find hard to swallow.
That’s why we’ve been looking at the old story in a new way. We want to do this because some of us aren’t familiar with the Christmas story. We also want to do it because some of us are overly familiar with the Christmas story, and we need to see it with fresh eyes.
So as we close our Christmas series, I want to look at a fancy term and what it means for us. Here’s the fancy term: incarnation. That’s not too hard, right? And here’s what the term means: God the Son took on human nature. That’s easy to say, but there’s a lot to unpack here.
The Bible teaches that God eternally exists as three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each person is fully God, and there is one God. See if that almost blows your brain circuits. It’s a unique and mysterious reality: there is one God, and that God exists in three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit.
Even more amazingly, the Bible teaches that the Son took upon himself human nature. God the Son himself became a Jewish artisan named Jesus. There is no equivalent to this in any other world religion. It’s astounding. The passage we just read talks about this. It says this about Jesus:
…though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:6-7)
Let’s unpack that.
- “Though he was in the form of God…” — I like how the NIV translates this: “who, being in very nature God…” Jesus is God. From all eternity, he shared in the glory of God. Jesus himself talked about this when he prayed, “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5). Hebrews 1:3 says of Jesus, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3). Jesus is God.
- “Did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped…” — This means that Jesus didn’t try to cling to his rights as God. Although he is God, he didn’t use his rights as God for his own selfish advantage.
- He “emptied himself…” It’s not that he stopped being God. He actually added to it: he became both God and man. He took upon himself a human nature. In becoming human, he didn’t lose his divine nature, but neither did he use its benefits. One old preacher put it this way: “Christ, indeed could not divest himself of Godhead; but he kept it concealed for a time … he laid aside his glory in the view of men, not by lessening it, but by concealing it” (John Calvin).
- “Taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” — What this means is that God the Son became human. Again, this will blow your circuits. God became a real human being. In every respect, he was fully human. He had a human body, with all its feelings and limitations. He had a human mind, and had to learn just like we do. He had a human soul and every kind of human emotion. The only part of humanity that he didn’t take on was our sinful nature. “God, without ever ceasing to be God, actually became what he created” (The Incarnation of God).
Jesus wasn’t half God and half human; he was and is fully God and fully human.
This is truly amazing. One person writes:
It would have been humiliation for the Son of God to have become man under the most ideal conditions, humiliation because of the discrepancy between God and his creation, between the majesty of the Creator on one hand, and the most humble status of the most dignified creature on the other. But it was not such an incarnation that took place. The Son of God was sent and came into this world of sin, misery, and each. These describe the situation into which he came. (John Murray)
So that’s what the word “incarnation” means. It’s “the act of God the Son whereby he took to himself a human nature” (Wayne Grudem).
It’s important to understand this. I don’t mean to say that it’s easy to understand. In fact, if you don’t have questions about what we’ve just talked about, then you may not have been listening closely enough. It’s truly amazing stuff. Somebody’s said that the incarnation is the “great central fact of the world” (John Williamson Nevin). This amazing fact is at the very center of the Christian faith. Joshua Harris says:
The idea of God being a human—a bundle of muscle, bones, and fluid—is scandalous. Hands. Arms. Feet. Body hair. Sweat glands. How can this possibly be? This is, without question, the greatest miracle recorded in Scripture [my comment: with the possible exception of the resurrection]…God the Son, existing for all eternity, now became dependent, floating in the amniotic fluid of a female womb. The One by whose power the whole world is sustained, now nourished by an umbilical cord. The God-man would have a bellybutton.
When I was a high school student I took electricity class. I think I took it, in part, because I wanted to see sparks fly. One day I got bored with the circuit I was building and thought I would liven things up. I purposely caused a short circuit, and got what I’d been looking for: sparks and loud noises.
It feels a little like this as we look at this topic. To think that God the Son would become human is something that’s almost incomprehensible. I never want to lose my amazement that this could be true.
Today, with the rest of the time that we have, I want to answer the question, “So what?” What difference does this make for us? And here’s what I want to tell you: Because God became human, we have the Savior we need. Let me repeat that: Because God became human, we have the Savior we need. Because God became human, he can do three things for us: show us, save us, and represent us. Let’s look at each one of these.
Because God became human, he could show us.
Because God became human, he could show us. Show us what, you ask? He could show us two things: what God is like, and what restored humanity is like.
Because God became human, he could show us what God is like. There are atheists out there, but most people have a sense that there is a God or some kind of higher power out there. A study this past year found that 73% of Canadians still believe that God or a higher power exists. The challenge is: how do we know what this God or higher power is like? That’s where the incarnation comes in. The Bible says that if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. Jesus said this himself. One of his followers once asked him, “Show us the Father.” In other words, show us God. Jesus answered: “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:7). He also said, “If you knew me, you would know my Father also” (John 8:19).
Here’s what Charles Spurgeon, the great preacher from London, England from the 1800s, said about this: “In every incident of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the Lord’s Anointed, there is much of God to be seen.” You see so much of God’s character:
- His humility: that he was willing to set aside his rights and serve us. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45)
- His wisdom: even today, skeptics acknowledge that his teaching is incomparable. Luke 2:47 says, “All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47). Matthew 7:28-29 says, “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.”
- His power: his ability to feed huge crowds with just a small amount of bread and fish; his ability to calm storms, cast out demons, heal the sick, and raise the dead. Matthew 8:27 asks, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”
- His love: his willingness to love us so much that he was willing to wash the feet of his followers, not to mention die for them. “Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
His attitude toward sinners: he ate with them, and was called their friend.
Spurgeon says: “I cannot go through the whole life of Jesus Christ—it is impossible, for time would fail us—but if you will, yourselves, select any single incident in which Jesus appears, whether in the chamber of sickness or at the grave, whether in weakness or in power, you shall, in each case, behold the Glory of God!”
Jesus is the ultimate, final, and decisive revelation of what God is like. Who better to reveal God than someone who is God, but is also someone that people saw, touched, and heard with their own eyes?
Someone once mused about the reason why it’s impossible to know God. He thought that if there is a God, and he created us, then the difference between God and man would be so vast that no human could know God, any more than Hamlet could know his author-creator William Shakespeare. But as the thought about this, he realized that there is a way. He realized that Shakespeare could have written himself in to the play and dialogued with Hamlet. And then he realized that this is essentially what God did with us at Christmas: he wrote himself into our story. He entered the story, so to speak, so that we could see what God is like.
That’s what Jesus shows us. He shows us what God is like. But that’s not all. Because God became human, he could also show us what restored humanity is like. I like what one writer (Hans Rookmaaker) said about what Jesus came to do: “Jesus didn’t come to make us Christian; Jesus came to make us fully human.” Jesus came to restore our humanity. Another author and pastor (Dick Staub) calls Jesus the great humanizer, the beginning of a new human race. In fact, you could argue that following Jesus is “an apprenticeship with Jesus toward recovering our humanity and, through his Spirit, helping our neighbors do the same” (Zack Eswine). As we follow Jesus, we learn from him what it means to be human.
This is why so many Scriptures talk of following his example:
Whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. (1 John 2:6)
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:21)
You’ve never met the perfect person — until you meet Jesus. He shows us what God’s intention for humanity was in the first place. Not only that, he shows us what we will become as we’re restored. Our goal should be to live like Christ did. Jesus had to become human to be our pattern and example. Of course, it’s impossible for us to follow Jesus’ example because we have a sin nature, but the Bible teaches that God gives us his Spirit to enable us. Once the Spirit begins his work in us, we begin the process of being changed into Jesus’ likeness (2 Corinthians 3:18) and conformed to the image of God’s Son (Romans 8:29).
God shows us though Jesus. He shows us what he is like; he also shows us what we will become.
Because God became human, he could save us.
The Bible tells us that there’s something drastically wrong with this world: sin. Sin is so serious that it was like unleashing a virus. Sin has an act of cosmic treason that it plunged humanity and the whole world into disarray. Just open the newspaper or visit the hospital, and you’ll see all the results of sin. We’re still feeling its effects today.
What could reverse the effects of sin in this world? The Bible says that because sin entered the world through a man, and so it has to be reversed through a man. But no man throughout history has been able to reverse the effects of sin, because each man and woman throughout history has been infected by sin. For someone to reverse sin, they would have to be human, and to have been unaffected by sin nature. And that’s exactly what happened with Jesus. He’s one of us. Hebrews 2:16-17 says:
For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. (Hebrews 2:16-17)
If Jesus wanted to save the angels, he would have had to become an angel. But he didn’t. He wanted to save humanity, so he became human. Hebrews says that this allowed Jesus to do two things: to serve as our high priest — we’ll get to that in a minute — and to deal with our sins through his death. Because he’s one of us, he was able to die for our sins. “Unless Christ was fully man, he could not have died to pay the penalty for man’s sins. He could not have been a substitute sacrifice for us…” (Wayne Grudem). This is a huge topic, but we needed someone to do two things for us. One: we needed someone to obey the requirements of the law perfectly in our place as our representative. Second: we needed someone to take our place and suffer the punishment that was due to us.
One preacher says:
No creature was capable of this. Only Jesus Christ could be our substitute. It had to be someone who was totally man, to pay man’s penalty and totally God, to have victory over death…He had to be the perfect combination of total God and total man. (John MacArthur)
Jesus had to become like us to become our substitute, our representative. It seems like a long time ago now that the Blue Jays were in the playoffs. You’ll remember some of the tense games in which someone would get on base, and Gibbons would send someone to run in his place. It’s called a pinch runner — a player substituted for the player on base because he’s faster or otherwise more skilled at base-running than the original player. That’s Jesus. He has been put in to live and die in our place, to do what we could have never done for ourselves.
I really appreciate how comprehensive his substitution was for us:
Jesus took a human body to save our bodies. And he took a human mind to save our minds. Without becoming man in his emotions, he could not have saved our emotions. And without taking a human will, he could not save our will. In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus, “That which he has not assumed he has not healed.” (David Matthis)
But he assumed it all, so that all of us could be healed.
This gives me great hope. Helmut Thielicke says:
It happened thus— God came down to you and searched for you. It happened thus— he became your brother. It happened thus— he planted himself in the abyss which yawned between you and him, which you had torn open in defiance. It happened thus— he placed himself in the same rank as you, he was found to be in the likeness of man (Philippians 2:7), he is tempted as you and I (Hebrews 4:15), and endures the Evil One with you, and at your side. It happened thus— he takes your loneliness upon his shoulders (Mark 15:34), dies your death, tastes your fear (Mark 14:33), has endured captivity (Luke 22:47ff.) and taken it captive (Ephesians 4:8).
Jesus has done all of this for us.
So why did Jesus become human? Because God became human, we have the Savior we need, because it meant he could show us, and save us. But there’s one more thing.
Because God became human, he could represent us.
We’ve already started to look at this. In ancient Israel, a high priest stood as the representative of people before God. The priest represented the people to God. To represent the people, he had to be like the people.
We just looked at Hebrews 2, which says:
Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2:17-18)
A couple of chapters later in Hebrews, we learn what this means for us:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:15-16)
New York pastor Tim Keller gives an example that helps me understand what this means. As a pastor, he helped a lot of people who were going through hard times. He’d think he understood, but then he went through a medical crisis of his own. He came down with thyroid cancer and experienced the weight of sickness like never before. Listen to what he says:
You don’t know how many times I sat with people, prayed with them before they got wheeled in, how many times I held their hand. In some ways as a pastor I must say I was conceited enough to believe I knew more about this than doctors did, because when you’re doctors and medical people, you’re there. You’re seeing it all the time, but you kind of get … It’s your job.
I was a pastor. I was there to weep with the people and to pray with the people and to be with the people. I thought I understood, but when I was finally wheeled in on that table, I realized I really didn’t understand what it was like. Till I experienced that darkness, I realized, “So this is what depression is like. You really can’t do anything about it.”
And then he brings us to Jesus:
The point of this passage, in fact, one of the main points of the Bible, is unlike what any other religion tells you about God. Christianity says God has been on any table you’ve been on, and God has been through any darkness you’ve been through and more. Therefore, you can trust him. Therefore, you can rely on him. Therefore, he understands. Have you been betrayed? Have you been lonely? Have you been broke? Have you been facing death? So has he.
Jesus is our great high priest. He’s been there. Because he’s human, he’s able to represent us before God, because he’s been there with us. He knows what it’s like. Jesus is compassionate because he’s been through what we have, except without sin. He understands what it’s like.
Let’s wrap this up.
The incarnation is astounding news. It means that God himself became human: fully God and fully human at the same time. Because God became human, we have the Savior we need, because he can show us, save us, and represent us.
That means that in Jesus, you have everything you need. Through Jesus you can know what God is like, and what his intentions are for you. You can know what restored humanity is like. If you trust him, you can see what he will make of you. Not only that, but because God became human, he is able to save you. And he can represent you, because he understands you.
Two responses: Worship him. Submit to him, maybe for the first time. He’s the Savior we need.