Advent having begun this Lord’s Day morning, we begin a four Sunday series of morning sermons on the incarnation. It has been some time since I preached an Advent series and I am looking forward to spending these mornings with you speaking of what, I think, we may fairly say is the greatest thing that ever happened. The term incarnation, as you know, is one of those very important Christian terms that is not found in the Bible. The thing is found, of course, but the word is not. It is a word made up of a preposition – “in” – a noun – the Latin word caro meaning “flesh” and, by extension, “manhood,” or “humanity” – and an ending or suffix – “ment” – making the string of parts a new noun. The “infleshment” of the Son of God is what is meant by the term, or “the becoming a human being” of the Son of God. That happened, of course, when he was conceived as a human infant in the womb of Mary, and when he was born as a human baby.
I don’t know that it is still the case, but it once was and I think it may continue to be true to some degree, what Rabbi Duncan, John Duncan of 19th century Presbyterian lore, said about the Reformed and Presbyterian Church of his day.
“We make far too little of the incarnation; the Fathers [he means the early Church Fathers, the ministers and theologians of the first four centuries of Christian history after Pentecost] knew much more of the Incarnate Son. Some of them were oftener at Bethlehem than at Calvary; they had too little of Calvary, but they knew Bethlehem well. They took up the Holy Babe in their arms; they loved Immanuel, God with us. We are not too often at the cross, but we are too seldom at the cradle; and we know too little of the Word made flesh, of the Holy Child Jesus.” [Cited in Moody Stuart, Life of John Duncan, 167]
What Duncan was saying was that while it was entirely proper, at the Reformation and after, to place a greater emphasis on the cross than had been placed upon it in early Christian thinking and preaching – the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ as the means of our salvation – the early church was right to place an equally great emphasis on the incarnation itself, the coming into the world as a man on the part of God the Son, the Second person of the Triune God. And, so thought Duncan, too many Protestants in his day, perhaps also in ours, even Protestant preachers and theologians, assumed the incarnation rather than studied it and pondered it and proclaimed it as not only the presupposition of the cross, what makes the cross powerful to save sinners from sin and death, but the foundation of so much else in Christian faith, hope, and love.
I read Galatians 4:1-7 simply because we have here in vv. 4-5 the teaching or doctrine of the incarnation in outline. God “sent forth his Son,” that is, the Son of God existed before he existed as the child of Mary. He came from somewhere, from heaven, as the Bible often says. He came into the world. This is the doctrine of Jesus Christ’s preexistence. Jesus Christ revealed to us as a man in the four Gospels had existed from eternity past as God the Son. There never was a time when the Son of God was not a person. But God the Son took on human nature – the precise meaning of the term “incarnation” – when he was conceived in the womb of his virgin mother and born of her. There never was a time when the Son was not, but there were endless years before he became a man. He never began to be God but he began to be a man. God became a man in this world and lived as a man and died as a man so that he might redeem men, human beings, from bondage to sin and death. There was a divine person who at a particular point in time, in history, became also and at the same time a human being. The mystery of this is perhaps why Christians do not think about the incarnation as much or as carefully and why they find it easier to emphasize instead the doctrine of the cross. One man dying for others has easily understandable parallels in human life; a soldier who falls on a grenade to protect his buddies or a person who gives up an organ for the sake of the life of someone he loves, and so on. But a person being both the living God, the creator of heaven and earth, and, at the same time, a helpless baby in his mother’s lap is beyond our comprehension; it is a mystery fully as great as that of the one living and true God having three persons, each equally and entirely the same one God and yet distinct from one another.
In the incarnation we have the omnipotent God, all powerful, and the weak, helpless infant in the same person. It isn’t difficult to believe that there is an omnipotent God and that there are helpless babies; what is difficult to believe is that they exist in the same person. We have in Jesus Christ the omniscient God, all knowing, and a baby and eventually a boy and a man, who knows only what human beings can know and must learn all of that as we must learn it. Here we have the omnipresent God, a God who is everywhere, and a baby who, like all human beings, can be at but one place at one time; but both in the same person. Here we have the God who needs nothing and depends upon his creatures for nothing and a baby who needs everything and depends upon his parents for everything necessary for his life, in the same person. How can this be? How can a true human being, with all of his limitations, with all of his finitude, exist in the same person as the infinite and unlimited God? No one knows, but that is precisely what the incarnation means. The two utterly distinct natures so fundamentally different from one another, – one divine (infinite) and the other human (finite) – and the unity of the single person, Jesus Christ, are equally ultimate realities!
But did such a thing ever happen? Has there ever been in this world such a being of utter and infinite mystery? Has God ever come into this world as a human baby and lived a human life? Is the incarnation history or mythology? We begin our Advent series with this question.
This Christmas season a humanist organization, the American Atheists, is spending money for billboard space near the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel in New York City. The billboard went up November 23rd and will remain for a month. The billboard depicts a typical nativity scene – the infant Christ with his mother and father and the animals in the stable – but the sign reads: “We know it’s a myth.” “Atheists hurt themselves and others like them by remaining silent about what they know to be true,” said Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists.
“We know it’s a myth.” They mean, of course, the incarnation. They don’t think that it is a myth that some baby boy was born in Bethlehem. The myth is that this particular baby was, in truth, the Son of God, the maker of heaven and earth. The myth is that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of a virgin. The myth is that this baby came into the world to save his people from their sins. The myth is the Christmas story as it is told in the Bible, summarized here in Galatians 4:4-5, and as it has been believed in the Christian church these two thousand years.
And, to be sure, we are hardly surprised that many do think it a myth – an ancient legend with a spiritual lesson or moral – including many who would nevertheless call themselves Christians. And it is not terribly difficult to understand why they think the Christmas story is not history in the ordinary sense of the term, but that the major plot lines of the story – God entering the world, a virgin mother, angels appearing to shepherds, wise men from the east following the star – somehow were invented over time and came to be believed by gullible people who should have known better. The fact is this is what we Christians believe about much of the history of the gods proclaimed in other religions, from Greco-roman myths to the stories of gods and heroes found in the Hindu epics, from some of the narratives of the founding of Islam to the tales of the Book of Mormon. It shouldn’t be hard for us to understand why others would think the history told in the Bible is mythology in precisely the same way and for the same reasons that we regard the religious beliefs of many others as mythological, legendary, and unhistorical. We don’t think the Vedic Verses or the Upanishads of Hinduism relate true, real history: events that actually unfolded in the world. We don’t think that the Book of Mormon is a reliable account of the settlement of people in North America. So why should people believe our utterly amazing account of the birth of Jesus Christ?
After all, in a day like ours, in a scientific age such as ours, don’t we know by now that virgins cannot bear children, that angels are the fabrications of overactive imaginations, and that stars, at indescribably vast distances from earth, don’t direct someone’s steps to a location as precise as the village of Bethlehem, a few miles south of Jerusalem? To many people in our culture it is as obvious as that. Of course the Christmas story is a myth. It is a beautiful, delightful myth, but it is a myth; it is not history obviously.
But, of course, it isn’t obvious at all. Very clever people, scientists and other highly educated folk among them, thoughtful people, intelligent people, and they by the millions, are as sure that Jesus was born to a virgin in Bethlehem and that angels announced his birth to shepherds as they are that the earth revolves around the sun. The American Atheist association would like to believe, of course, that believing the Christmas story is the sign of a weak mind, but it is not so. It has never been so. Some of the greatest thinkers in the history of mankind have had no doubt that the Christmas story as narrated in Matthew and Luke and summarized here in Galatians 4 is history in the ordinary sense of the term; an account of things that actually happened.
I don’t believe that people speak in tongues today as they did in the days of the New Testament though many Christians think they do. I don’t believe that miraculous healing occurs today, though many Christians say it does. I don’t believe that the supernatural power to predict the future is given today, though many Christians claim that it is. I think there is a great deal of gullibility among some religious people, including Christian people, and I think there is a lot of tommyrot spoken and written by Christians who ought to know better. But I have no doubt whatsoever that the Christmas history unfolded as it is narrated in Holy Scripture and that, therefore, the incarnation is an event in history.
This morning I want simply to review a few of the reasons for this confidence and to explain why Christians should not be troubled by the fact that many think the Christmas history and the doctrine of the incarnation that rests upon it is in fact a myth, an ancient legend only. It has always been so. Since the very first proclaiming of the Christian message there have been those who have dismissed it as a concocted story. In fact there is no significant argument against the historicity of the incarnation of which I am aware that you cannot find being made in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries of the Christian era.
- The first reason for our confidence in the historicity of the incarnation is its narrative in the Bible.
As you know, the account of the birth of the Lord Jesus as it is found in two of the four Gospels is not only straightforward, Spartan, and in every respect a narrative obviously meant to be taken seriously as history – an account of things that happened – it is directly related to the political circumstances of Palestine and Judea at the time as well as to circumstances in the imperial world of Rome at the change of eras. The biblical history is set firmly in the social context of that world as we know it not only from the Bible but from the extensive literature of the period and historical research done in the ages since. The birth of the Lord Jesus happened when Herod was the client king of Judea and Quirinius was the Roman governor of the province of Syria. We know a great deal about Herod and we know somewhat of Quirinius. And it happened when Augustus was the emperor of the Roman Empire and we know a great deal about him as well. It happened in connection with taxation, at a time when Herod was losing what little was left of his mind, and when the Jewish people were desperate for a Messiah, oppressed as they had been for centuries by foreign powers, but were not looking for the sort of Messiah that God chose to send them. The Christmas narrative, the story of the incarnation is related in Holy Scripture as history, as events that unfolded in the world in the same sense that Augustus’ reign was unfolding, in the same sense that the Jews were taxed, and in the same sense that King Herod was losing his mind. We know the circumstances of the world at that time. They are the circumstances as the Bible reports them.
But, much more, it is history reported in such a way in Holy Scripture that it comes with its own self-authenticating authority. You will often hear that there were other super-natural birth narratives in the mythology of the ancient world. The idea is that since such stories were told in other religions it is not so surprising that Christianity should have its own supernatural birth narrative. There were indeed stories from pagan sources of the love of various gods for mortal women and of the birth of demi-gods and heroes as a result of such amorous divine-human unions. But these stories are very, very different in both style and substance from the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. What is more, they are not, in fact, accounts of a virgin birth. There is nothing like that in the ancient religious literature, mythical or otherwise.
This is what C.S. Lewis meant when he observed – a man, by the way, who knew as much about ancient mythology as any scholar alive in his day or in ours – that knowing myths as he did he could confidently say that the birth narratives of Jesus Christ are not myths. They don’t sound or read like myths. They aren’t like myths in their substance. They read and sound like history; that is their substance and that is what they are.
What is more, taking the Bible and the New Testament as a whole and reading the birth narratives as part of that entire history, a great many men and women have found it impossible to believe that these stories are concocted, and that they are not meant to be something other than a faithful rendition by honest men of what actually happened.
One has only to compare Matthew 1 and 2 and Luke 1 and 2 to the fables that began to be circulated in Christian circles in the 2nd and 3rd centuries to appreciate how utterly different the biblical accounts are from myths that developed to teach or to emphasize or to confirm some religious idea or doctrine. The so-called Christian writers of these fables meant them to be taken seriously, but no one did who had an ounce of good sense and today the difference between the one kind of account and the other is so perfectly obvious that though millions upon millions and hundreds of millions believe the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke to be true and authentic history, nobody believes the accounts we find in the documents that make up what is nowadays called The New Testament Apocrypha. The account of the birth of Jesus Christ is, in fact, utterly unlike any other account of a remarkable birth in ancient literature and utterly unlike any myth that has come down to us from the ancient world.
Add to this the importance placed upon eyewitness testimony in the New Testament and the insistence found everywhere on the veracity of the gospel history. Remember, for example, the Apostle Paul’s famous admission that if the gospel history is not true, is not real history, if it is not a fact in the ordinary sense of the term, then Christians are of all people most to be pitied. It has been impossible for many readers of the New Testament to conclude that they are reading anything else but history pure and simple, remarkable, wonderful, and unprecedented as that history may be. The Bible and its utterly convincing narrative is proof of the incarnation.
- Second, we have reason to have confidence in the history of the incarnation because of its place in the Christian faith as a whole.
People come to believe that the Christian account of reality is true via many pathways. Some find in it the only genuinely honest reckoning with the condition of mankind and of each and every human being as a moral creature. They come to the Christian faith because it makes sense of their world and of their own lives and experience. Some embrace it because of its account of the natural world and its origin and meaning. They are looking for the meaning of existence and find it persuasively presented in Christianity. Some find it in its doctrine of salvation, utterly unique as it is but, at the same time, alone able to answer the great questions and solve the great problems of human life and doing so in a manner relentlessly honest. They come to the Christian faith aware of their sin and guilt and mesmerized by the perfect solution offered in the gospel of Christ, a solution that neither minimizes the problem nor contrives a cheap or non-serious solution, as is the case with every other religion and philosophy of life. Others come to the Christian faith because it has the capacity to fill their hearts with love, peace, and joy. It alone, of all the religions, is the story of a great love and the power of that love to restore fallen human life. They come to Christianity because they are empty and see in it the way to be filled.
And once the Christian faith is embraced, the incarnation is embraced with it as fundamental to it and essential to the entire system of truth that it proclaims. If the incarnation is denied there is no particular reason to continue to believe anything else: that there is a personal God who made the world or that he created human beings in his image. If the incarnation is denied what possible solution can be offered to the problem of human sin and guilt? Without the incarnation, the genius of the gospel, the perfect answer it offers to the punishing problems of human life, the hope it provides of eternal life all hang suspended in mid-air. There is neither reason for us to credit the Christian faith nor to think that the earliest Christians had any reason to credit it either. Christianity is the deepest human philosophy that has ever been known to human beings. It is the most influential ethical code by which human beings have ever sought to govern their behavior. And it is the most powerful conception of the relationship between God and the world and between God and man that has ever been discovered by the human race. But without the incarnation all of that is left without any reasonable explanation for how it appeared or why it conquered the world.
There is great mystery in the Christian faith, to be sure. Our doctrine of God is full of mystery, as must be the case if we are to believe in the God who is revealed in Holy Scripture. Given the greatness of God and his distance above us, his infinity and our finitude, we would be, should be more surprised if there were not features of the biblical message that did not leave us standing with hands over our mouths, baffled before what we cannot comprehend. Such is the incarnation of God the Son. It fits perfectly the biblical world view, the biblical view of God, and of the greatness of his salvation.
The incarnation of the Son of God stands or falls with the Christian faith in its entirety, but that faith has been so convincing, so attractive, and so compelling to such vast multitudes of human beings that they have found it quite easy to think it so much more likely that the Christmas history be true than that the Christian faith be false. And that conclusion gains strength every time, as invariably happens, the critic, atheist or religious, cannot explain the world or his own life without borrowing from the Christian faith himself. This is why atheism attracts so few. It offers no compelling explanation of what human beings must explain and no persuasive answer to the questions human beings must ask and no convincing solutions to the problems every human being faces. The Christian faith in its entirety is proof of the incarnation.
- Third, our confidence in the history of the incarnation, of the appearance of the living God in human nature, rests upon the person of Jesus Christ himself.
The incarnation, of course, stands or falls with the person of Jesus himself. He is either the God/Man or he is not the person who is presented to us in the Gospels and in the rest of the New Testament. The Christ we meet in the pages of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the Christ who is presented to us as the Savior of sinners and the Judge of all the earth in the Letters of the Apostle Paul, the Christ who is presented to us in his majesty as the King of Kings in the Book of Revelation is the incarnate Christ, the God/Man.
One does not typically first learn of the incarnation and then encounter Christ himself in the pages of Holy Scripture or in one’s heart by the Holy Spirit. One meets the Lord, is overtaken by the authority, the beauty, the power, and the goodness of his person and finds the explanation for the Jesus Christ he has come to know in the incarnation. This person, this Jesus, must be both God and man, unlike any other person who has ever lived, for he is both with us and of us and at the same time so infinitely far above and beyond us. This individual must be the eternal God who, for love’s sake, became a man to live and die for men and to secure their salvation. Otherwise we cannot explain him, his life, his power, or his authority over us. The incarnation is the key that unlocks the grand puzzle that is Jesus Christ, that explains his perfect deity and his perfect humanity at one and the same time. It is the incarnation that explains the Jesus Christ we have come to know through the Scriptures and by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, once one has encountered Christ, only the incarnation is an adequate explanation for him.
There is a seamless connection between the Christmas history and the doctrine of the incarnation on the one hand, and the rest of the history of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ in the Gospels and the doctrine of Christ as we are given it in the rest of the New Testament. One cannot remove the incarnation without the entire, utterly convincing history and doctrine of Jesus collapsing. But it cannot collapse because Jesus Christ, the God/Man himself is so utterly and indisputably real! The Lord Christ himself, as he is known both from Scripture and in the Christian heart, is proof of the incarnation.
Oh yes; we have reason enough to credit the history of the incarnation; to believe that the living God did enter the world as a human being through the womb of his virgin mother. The testimony of the Bible is unimpeachable, it stands or falls with the Christian faith itself which we have a thousand reasons to believe is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And it is the only possible explanation for the life of Jesus of Nazareth whom we have met and whom we know as the Son of God and the Savior of the world, the majesty of whose person is known as really to us today across the ages as surely as it was known to those who witnessed his ministry and his life face to face.
Men and women have always disbelieved this but then there are many things human beings will not believe for reasons that have nothing to do with the facts! And one unassailable fact is that Christianity erupted onto the world stage in the first century precisely because so many people, including a great many intelligent, well educated people who were completely skeptical about the claims of other religions were convinced that the astonishing history of the incarnation was just that, astonishing history, what had actually occurred in the world.
So let us begin here: the incarnation of God the Son was an event in history as real as the rule of the Emperor Augustus, the governorship of Quirinius, or the taxes that client states and people were required to pay to the imperial treasury. And given that fact, surely it is fair to say the incarnation is the greatest thing that ever happened, a thing more important to every human being in the world than anything else could conceivably be: that God came into the world as a man to save sinners, which we all are!
And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A baby in an ox’s stall?
The maker of the stars and sea
Become a child on earth for me?
Yes; it is true. No myth this. Pure, unadulterated history!