Within the heart of the Christian faith is an astounding truth. God—who created and sustains the universe—became incarnate. The immortal and perfect Son of God shared our messy, sin-prone death-ridden lives of flesh and blood; he became human, walked with us, suffered with us, and subjected himself to our temptations. Ultimately, he died for us, satisfying God’s wrath, destroying death. While we all exist firmly and squarely on the ‘human’ side of the God-human divide, the incarnation means that we rebels can share in intimate fellowship with God himself through the Spirit of the risen Lord Jesus—now and for all eternity.
What are we supposed to do with this great truth?
Some will urge us to use the incarnation as the basis for an ‘incarnational’ ministry or missionary strategy. That is, our task is to ‘incarnate’ Christ, or the love of Christ, in other people’s lives. This quest to imitate the incarnation is understandable. It’s an attempt to affirm what the incarnation affirms: that God is deeply interested in the physical world, the whole person, and the body as well as the soul. But an attempt to use the incarnation as a direct model for our own ministry or mission is wrong-headed. Although it tries to affirm the incarnation, in the end it trivialises its uniqueness. It puts us in the place where only God can be. If we’re ‘incarnating’ we’re actually being ‘condescending’: coming down from our lofty positions, making God real in the lives of others, bringing Christ from heaven to earth. But if we’re doing that, we’re failing to recognize the truth that we are not, like God, in a high and lofty position. We are sinners in need of grace. The voice of faith tells us that we cannot and must not attempt to ascend to heaven to bring Christ down; our role is simply to confess and to believe that God has done it all for us in Christ (Rom 10:6-8). We always need God’s grace just as much as those we are ministering to. We cannot incarnate anything: we are always the beneficiaries of the incarnation; God is always the subject.1
The incarnation event itself, then, is matchless, unique and unrepeatable. Indeed, it’s the beginning of the most awe-inspiring series of events in the history of God’s dealings with the world. As such, it’s one of those deep truths that we can’t ‘do’—we can only believe it and confess it, as in the Apostle’s Creed. We can’t ourselves become incarnate; we can only stand in awe at the truth that God became one of us; we can only put our trust in the man who is indeed God, and so be saved.
The incarnation does, however, teach us how to live. This is especially the case when the incarnation is placed, as the Bible always does, in the context of Jesus’ ongoing life, death and resurrection. The humility of the incarnation-death-resurrection of Jesus acts, for example, as a model for our own other-person-centred humility (Phil 2:1-11). We cannot claim to follow the Son of God who became incarnate and who died on a cross, while at the same time seeking power or honours or benefits or high positions for ourselves. The incarnation-death-resurrection of Jesus also shows us that God is not detached from our lives, but is intimately interested in our world and in our actions towards others. The true Spirit of God is the Spirit who confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (1 John 4:2). That means we can’t simply wish others well without also seeking to care about their physical needs (e.g. 1 John 3:17-18). The incarnation, in that way, is made real in our lives when we put ourselves at the service of others; when we abandon quests for greatness; when we care for the flesh-and-blood needs of those around us.
This Christmas, then, let’s savour the incomparable incarnation. We cannot repeat it. But we can and should stand in awe of it. Let’s delight in it. Let’s follow through on its implications. And let’s confess it to others.