The eternal Son of God took on flesh and died as a man, all so that death itself would die. Today, Barry Cooper speaks on an awesome reality, recorded in Scripture, that sets the Christian faith apart from all other religions.
If you had to name the biggest difference between Christianity and all other religions, what would it be?
I think the biggest difference is this: it’s only the Christian faith that says “God became a man,” that God took on our humanity.
It’s a radical and startling claim, and theologians call it “the incarnation”. As you’ll know if you’ve ever come across chili con carne – chili with meat – the “carn” bit of incarnation means “meat” or “flesh”. So “the incarnation” refers to the idea of God’s taking on flesh—and not just His taking on a human body but His taking on everything that makes us human, including a human mind and a human soul. Without giving up any of His deity, God the Son took on a true human nature, and so, according to that nature, he walked and talked, ate and slept, experienced the whole range of human emotion, and though he never sinned, did the kinds of things that all human beings do, including suffer and die. As John’s gospel says: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”.
This is such a unique claim that it moved the English poet Edward Shillito to write:
The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.
Unthinkable, surely. But that is the claim of the gospels: that a baby who was born to a virgin in a first century Middle Eastern hick town was God incarnate, and that in His human nature he lived, suffered and died.
The 19th century pastor Charles Spurgeon put it like this:
Infinite and yet an infant.
Eternal and yet born of a woman.
Almighty, and yet nursing at a woman’s breast.
Supporting a universe, and yet needing to be carried in a mother’s arms.
Heir of all things, and yet the carpenter’s despised son.
God the Son had always existed, in eternity, with the Father and the Spirit, in exquisite and joyful unity. So why, two thousand years ago, did God the Son choose to take on our humanity, and subject himself willingly to the thousand natural shocks that our humanity is heir to? This is Athanasius, writing in the fourth century:
…He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us… He, the Mighty One, the Maker of all, He Himself made this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself… Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death [in our place], and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, [death] was thereafter voided of its power for men.
God the Son took on flesh and died, as a man, so that death itself would die.
The logic is this. Death is the penalty for sin. So God the Son lived a sinless life in order that he could then die – according to His human nature and on our behalf – the death we deserve. Because He has taken that penalty on our behalf, we no longer have to take it ourselves. If we have become united to Him by faith, His death was effectively our death. And His resurrection will one day be our resurrection.
Not only that, but his present glory will one day be our glory. The incarnation wasn’t something that happened two thousand years ago, and then ended approximately thirty-three years later. He didn’t lose his physicality or any other part of His human nature when he ascended to be with His Father in heaven, as if it were something to be despised. The Son of God, without giving up His deity, became a perfect man, and is still a perfect man, in glory. The One who now sits enthroned in the heavens is God, yes, but He is also the perfect human being. And we, if we are united to Him by faith, will one day become perfect in our humanity, on the day we see him face to face.
There are a hundred implications of the incarnation, but let me focus on just one more.
If today our goal is to be more like Christ, the incarnation doesn’t just tell us what that should look like – it shows us. Philippians chapter 2 says that Christ “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
From an unapproachable throne to a blood-stained cross.
If self-emptying humility and servanthood is what God the incarnate Son looks like… if that is what a perfect human looks like… then what should our lives look like?