October 24, 2021
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
In the sermons I’ve preached here of late and from time to time I have considered a few of the most fundamental convictions of our Xian faith; the basics, if you will. I began, if you remember, with the reality of sin in human life: the presupposition of everything in the Bible’s exposition of God’s grace and his work of salvation. This sin – universal, destructive, and intractable in every human life – is what makes salvation necessary and what gives it its form. The cruel bondage of every human soul to sin is what makes salvation a gift of God’s love and a work of God’s power, a matter of atonement, divine forgiveness, and the transformation of life. But as one of the pillars upon which the Christian faith rests, the biblical doctrine of sin and of man as a sinner, leads inevitably to every other part of the system of truth. Human culture would never have got to relativism or pluralism; to racism; to modern western theories of human sexuality; if we had simply embraced from the heart the biblical teaching – obviously truthful as it is – of man as an inveterate rebel against God, bent on pleasing himself rather than others, and a slave to every manner of unworthy attitudes, thoughts, and actions. That is the nature of these fundamentals: they are so integral to the entire Christian faith, that the rest of the system, the entire Christian religion and its way of life, comes in train.
Tonight, another of these fundamentals, these pillars upon which our faith rests and will forever rest. Our subject is the incarnation of God the Son: the second person of the Holy Trinity coming into the world as a man himself, not to be served, but to serve and give his life a ransom for many. One of the most beautiful and consequential accounts of the incarnation is our text this evening: Philippians 2:1-11.
v.6 Carmen Christi or “Hymn of Christ” is the traditional title of vv. 6-11 and that for two reasons. First, it has long been thought that these verses were not original to Paul but are in fact the citation of an already existing Christian hymn or a selection from that hymn. Of course, it is possible that even if these verses stand alone as a hymn, Paul was their author. Luther was a preacher, theologian, and hymn-writer; perhaps Paul was as well. Second, as the editors of the NIV indicated by placing the text in poetic form, which the ESV editors did not, while it is not possible to prove beyond doubt that the text of vv. 6-11 is a poem, it is difficult to deny the strongly poetic qualities of the passage. [Silva, 93]
v.8 J.B. Phillips captures some of the sense when he renders the phrase “and the death he died was the death of a common criminal.” Many innocent men have been put to death. Many men in those days were crucified. Life was cheap in the Greco-Roman world of the first century, as it is in many places of our world today. When, in the previous century, the rebellion against Rome led by the slave Spartacus was finally put down, thousands of his followers were crucified as an example to others and, in most cases, those unfortunate men hung in agony much longer than Jesus did. But you cannot measure the suffering of Christ or the enormity of the punishment he endured by the pain of the nails in his hands and feet or the terrible thirst that was perhaps the worst feature of crucifixion. His suffering can be measured only by the distance that separated that ignominy, that mockery, that desolation, and that physical torture from the perfection, the glory, the honor, and the infinite love and joy that was the life of the Son of God in heaven and in the eternal fellowship of the Triune God. To travel from the paradise of Trinitarian joy and glory to Calvary, to be spit upon and murdered by profane and evil men, one’s own creatures (and all of that while bearing the wrath of God, his holy vengeance against our sin), that is the humiliation of the Son of God. Or as John Duncan, the famous “Rabbi Duncan” of Scottish Presbyterianism put it: “The form of God – the form of a servant! What a stoop that was!” [Just a Talker, 23]
v.11 For Paul, monotheism – belief in only one God – is not compromised by the confession of Jesus Christ as God. Jesus is Yahweh, as the NT never tires of reminding us! And so to confess his Lordship to the glory of God the Father can only be done on the assumption of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity: the one living and true God who exists in three persons. So far, the Word of God.
We have the entire doctrine of the incarnation here, all its major parts. No details, of which there are few in any case, but the entire doctrine. 1) We have Christ’s pre-existence, his life as God the Son before he came into the world. “Who being God…” 2) We have a strong, unmistakable affirmation that Jesus of Nazareth is nothing else than and nothing less than Almighty God himself. “Who being in very nature God…,” which is the sense of the word “form” in v. 6. 3) This God became a man. The person who was in the very form of God, is the same person who died on the cross. We do not have two persons, one human, one divine; but one person with two natures; one original, one added later. As John Bunyan has Mr. Greatheart say in Part II of Pilgrim’s Progress:
“He of whom I am now to speak is One that has not his fellow. He has two natures in one Person, plain to be distinguished, impossible to be divided.”
And, of course, the same thing was prophesied in the ancient Scriptures and is said in many different ways in the New Testament. The Word, by whom all things were made, and who was God, became flesh and dwelt among men, as we read in the prologue of the Gospel of John. So it was that Thomas, monotheist to the backbone, stood before a man and cried, “My Lord and my God!” 4) We’re not done. In the fourth place, God became a man for a very specific reason. God became a man not to prove that he could do it; nor to have some mythic adventure that would be the stuff of tales for ever after; not to interfere willy-nilly in the affairs of men as the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses were supposed to do. The living and true God became a man to suffer and to die for men because nothing less would avail to reconcile sinful men to a holy God. The incarnation had a specific purpose, and that purpose was the salvation of human beings. 5) Having completed his work of dying for our sins, the Lord rose from the dead and returned to heaven. He is now in heaven – the God-Man – and his glory as God the Son is no longer hidden. 6) Finally, the Son of God continues to be the incarnate Son. It is Jesus of Nazareth whom the world will confess on the great day, Jesus the man who is also God. He will not lay aside his human nature or ever cease to be the man he became when he was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary. He has gone to heaven and will come from heaven, Paul says here, as the God-Man. The incarnation never ends.
Now, let’s remind ourselves what the incarnation is and what it means. The first thing we must say is that the incarnation is an event, by which I mean it is history, something that happened in the world. Extraordinary history as it is and must be, utterly unique as it must be among the run of events that make up the history of this world, it is in this important respect like every other thing that has ever happened in the history of mankind. On such and such a day, in the womb of a Jewish virgin, Jesus of Nazareth began to be. The creator of heaven and earth became a creature; Adam’s maker became Adam’s son. It happened in time and space. This occurrence or happening is why they call us Christians; why Jesus Christ is the sum and substance of our faith, our hope, and our life. It is this fact that makes the birth of Christ, which we celebrate every year at Advent, what Alfred Edersheim called “the world’s greatest event.” [The Life and Times…, 185] Dorothy Sayers, the English novelist and playwright put it more strongly still. Understanding what it must mean that God himself had become a baby boy she described the birth of Christ as “the only thing that has ever really happened.” “When you understand this,” she wrote, “you will understand all prophecies and all history.”
A visit to earth from heaven, the Creator himself appearing incognito, willing to endure the most horrific trials if only he might win the salvation of his people from sin and death. We can call this history of the incarnation exhilarating or fascinating or even devastating, but if we call it dull or uninteresting there must be something deeply wrong with us! All human stories of adventure, of sacrificial love, of desperate battles pale in comparison to this! You can hear the wonder in Paul’s voice in vv. 6-11. The most remarkable thing has happened. After all, Paul himself once despised the Christians and loathed their message. But now he knows that he has breathtaking news to share with the world. The greatest thing that might ever happen has actually happened! This was news to shout from the housetops, to ponder, and to sing joyfully with a full heart!
No other religion or human philosophy makes such an astonishing claim. None other rests so completely on extraordinary events that occurred in the ordinary run of history. The other religions have their founders – Confucius or Buddha or Mohammed or L. Ron Hubbard – they have their doctrines and their teachers – but no one claims, or has ever claimed, that any of these is God, the creator of heaven and earth. That is Christianity’s exclusive and distinctive message: that its founder, God himself, entered the world as a man. And it doesn’t simply assert that it is so. It asserts that our Savior appeared in the world when Augustus was emperor, when Quirinius was governor, and when Herod was Rome’s client king of Judea; that he died and rose again when Tiberius was emperor and Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor. The biblical account of the incarnation leads with its chin; it makes a host of historical assertions; it makes them in a hundred ways both great and small, it situates the incarnation in the history of the Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds at the end of one millennium and the beginning of another; and it confirms all of this with masses of eyewitness testimony.
Of course it was utterly unprecedented history, shocking, paradigm- shattering. The early Christians themselves were stunned by what had happened. They had not anticipated this! They were hoping for the Messiah, but they had not understood that he would be God himself! Indeed, it does not appear in the four Gospels that even the Lord’s innermost circle of disciples, the Twelve, realized that there had been an incarnation until after the resurrection. They had no categories by which to understand this unprecedented development in the history of salvation. It is this historical foundation that, through the ages, has given Christianity its immense persuasive power. The incarnation is not an idea; it is not a doctrine; it was an event! Or, as the German historian, Leopold van Ranke put it, history wie eigentlich gewesen, as it actually happened!
Now, the second thing we must say about the incarnation is this: it is history that changes everything! Typical among modern skeptics, John Hick, some years ago a prominent religious pluralist, admitted this in his book, The Metaphor of God Incarnate. As the title of his book indicated, Hick was happy to accept the incarnation as a religious idea, a metaphor for God’s nearness to man. But he would have nothing to do with it as history, as something that actually happened. Why? Because Hick fully understood that if the incarnation were history, we would all have to become Christians, accept that Christianity is alone the truth about salvation, the Christian faith alone the way to find peace with God and eternal life. As a modern man, he most assuredly did not want to believe that! Hick was like the French intellectual who said, “I believe everything in the Apostles’ Creed, except the phrase, ‘He suffered under Pontius Pilate.’” [Montgomery, Where is History Going? 1] That, you see, would make Jesus Christ an actual figure of history and that would mean I have to forsake my own ideas, believe him, follow him, accept his teaching, and obey his commandments!
By rigorous necessity, the incarnation includes within itself the entire Christian faith. No one can accept it as true history and fail to realize its immense and inevitable implications. No matter how unwelcome to modern thought, accept this as history and the most important questions of life are immediately answered. Believe the incarnation and everything else follows as necessary consequences!
We are living amidst another tremendous upheaval in western culture and in western Christianity. Churches all over the western world are dividing over issues of sexual identity and other dimensions of sexual ethics; over pluralism or, perhaps more honestly, over whether it is necessary to believe in eternal judgment; and so on. Storm clouds are gathering over both the culture and the church as ethical and theological positions that have long served as the foundation of the Christian west are now widely abandoned and despised. But, as many thoughtful people saw with perfect clarity long ago, none of this should surprise us. These accommodations by Christians and Christian churches were inevitable. Once the historical fact of the incarnation was questioned and then denied, once the incarnation became an idea rather than a historical event, once it was made possible for so-called Christians to deny that Jesus was God himself, now with a human nature, and in that nature would return to judge the world, it was only a matter of time before the rest of the Christian faith would be called into question, both its theology and its ethics. The incarnation, as a fact of divine revelation and a fact of history, is a sentinel posted around the whole of our faith and if removed, the enemy can and will walk in unmolested. Remove the incarnation and there will soon be nothing left to speak of. It is the heart of Christian faith and of the Christian life, its foundation, its method, its motivation, and its reward. Deny it and soon you will deny it all. The die was cast in American Christianity a long time ago!
The early critics of Christianity, such as Celsus, against whom Origen wrote, realized that the incarnation was the heart of the Christian message and the power of Christian faith. And so they attacked the very idea of incarnation furiously, however little they understood either the nature of it or the reason for it. Celsus sneered:
“What is the purpose of such a descent on the part of God? Was it in order to learn what was going on among men? Doesn’t God know everything?” [Cited in Wilken, Spirit of Early Christian Thought, 10]
Accept the incarnation you except it all. It must be so and people through the ages have been very acute in drawing that conclusion. The incarnation must be denied, Jesus of Nazareth must be otherwise explained, or else only an idiot would refuse to follow him. If Jesus is God and died for sinners, then every human being must confess him Lord and fall at his feet!
The third thing we should remind ourselves concerning the incarnation is its deep and impenetrable mystery. We are used to reciting the fact in the Creed: “Who for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” Reciting them as often as we do, the words roll off our tongue. We scarcely ever ponder their meaning. But what they mean, while clear at a certain level, lies utterly beyond us. And what is more, Holy Scripture does nothing to help us penetrate the mystery. One person with two natures, one divine, one human. That is an absolutely accurate summary of the biblical evidence. But what on earth does that mean? Remember, natures don’t know, don’t choose, don’t feel, don’t speak, don’t act. Persons do all those things and Jesus Christ is but one person. He has always been and will always be one person. How does the same person know everything and be ignorant of many things? How is the same person omnipotent and powerless? How is the same person omnipresent and limited to one place at a time? How is the same person immortal and mortal? I don’t know and you don’t know and no one knows. The Bible offers no explanation.
When you think of it, if ever there were truth that required an explanation this was it! Jews had imbibed monotheism with their mother’s milk. Then to say that the man, Jesus of Nazareth, was God himself was bound to cause confusion and scandal. Of course it would! Surely somewhere in the last 27 books of the Bible we would read at least that a person with two natures, each of which remains inviolate, is a great mystery and cannot be explained to mere men. But we don’t get even that. We are never given so much as a hint as to how Jesus himself experienced the two natures in his one person or how each nature retained its integrity so that neither his deity nor his humanity was changed into something else. The same person: true man and true God. Here at the foundation of our faith is something so remarkable, something so far beyond the powers of our intellect to understand, that while we can say the words, we know very little of what they mean.
Let me ask you: When you hear Jesus ask his disciples who touched him, because he felt power going out of him but did not know why – this in the episode of the woman with the issue of blood – does it occur to you that the same Jesus also knew every thought in that dear woman’s head? When you think of the Lord Christ on the cross, is your mind alive to the fact that he was bearing his own wrath against our sin? Do you stop to wonder that while he was hanging on that Roman gibbet outside the walls of Jerusalem, he was at the same moment present everywhere in this vast universe of ours? Does it occur to you that at the moment he died, he was brimming with eternal life? Have you realized that when he cried out in despair, “My God, my God, why are you forsaking me?” he was, at that moment, in some ineffable way forsaking himself? The doctrine of the Holy Trinity and of the incarnation require it to be so! This is the mystery of the incarnation; this is the height and depth of the great thing that God did for us and for our salvation.
So, we’ll leave it there, with this altogether too brief review. We are familiar with this doctrine. But is it as central to our conviction and our identity, and the daily feelings of our souls, as it is central to the Christian faith? Is it a constant encouragement and inspiration to us? Is it the pulse beat of our daily lives? It should be. For us, for a gathering of Christian believers such as this one, the incarnation can never be simply a theological idea; nor can it be simply a remarkable event in history. It is so wonderful, this thing that happened; it is so extraordinary, that it should live in our souls, and it ought to make us extraordinary too!
Think of what this must mean for you and for me? We hardly know ourselves, you and I. We admit we are sinners needing salvation. But we don’t know the half – no, that is absurd! – we don’t know 99% of our sinfulness. We struggle with this sin or that, from time to time, but most of the time, we haven’t a clue! How do I know this about you? Well I know it about myself, and I have heard it from many of you, and anyone can observe it who opens his eyes upon human life. It’s easy enough to prove.
First, while we hardly ever think about this, while it hardly ever makes us red in the face, we would be absolutely mortified, we couldn’t face people at all, if they knew what was going on in our heads all day long. And we know perfectly well that we are blissfully unaware, most of the time, of all that foolishness and small-mindedness and selfishness and impurity and stupidity that fills up our inner life day after day. But God sees it all and all the time.
Second, most of our sins and the worst of them almost all the time are sins of omission: the attitudes, the thoughts, the words, and the deeds that we ought to have or have done but do not or did not; indeed, what most of the time we never imagined doing. But God knows perfectly well what we could be and ought to be, but hardly ever really care to be. That is who we are, you and I. But we are the ones that God came into the world and into our life to save! We are the ones who brought him down so far; we are the ones who exposed him to such humiliation; and we are the ones who took him to the cross. That utterly extraordinary thing, that deepest of all mysteries was for us, for the bunch of ingrates in this room! That is something that ought to change us and move us, don’t you think?
Most of us have at some time, and many of us have many times, experienced the power of love. We have felt how it lifts us up, how it elates us and transforms our thoughts and feelings. We know how happy love can make us. We know very well how much better people we are when we are under the spell of love. Well, this was love – for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son – and no one can fail to see what sort of love, what power of love, what ecstasy of love this demonstration of God’s love and Christ’s love ought to produce in us. If it does not, it can only be because we are not thinking of what it was that God did because he loved us and how completely he had to forget what sort of people we are to love us as he did. This extraordinary and utterly mysterious thing was what was required for him to save us from ourselves! This incarnation should be sending chills down our spine every moment of every day; or, at least, sometime every day. To think what our future should have been and would have been; then to think of what it will be instead, that world of everlasting joy and goodness; all because God the Son came into the world to die the death of a common criminal on our behalf. Herein is love that God himself, of all persons, God himself should have laid down his life for his friends! We will never plumb the depths of God’s love for us; but we will go much deeper than we have if we think about it every day.
And, finally, there is this. If the incarnation means anything at all to us, if it has an impact in our hearts at all like the impact it ought to have, it will put an end to any doubt whatsoever that God has saved us to the uttermost and made absolutely certain our place in heaven. No one can consider what God did; no one can ponder the incarnation and then believe that our sins are too great for God to forgive; or that God could not love such persons as we are. The greatest thing that ever happened or could have happened, happened for the express purpose of delivering us from our sins, now and forever, expunging the guilt of them and freeing us from the power of them. When God himself, the Creator of heaven and earth, came into the world to rescue us from ourselves; when God the Son became a man to give his life a ransom for many; this made for a salvation beyond doubt. If we are Christians, if we believe the incarnate Christ, what we say, must say, and must believe with all our hearts is that the incarnation made it certain not only that we may be saved, but that we are saved, that we must be saved, and that we cannot by any possibility be anything but saved. No matter the mess our lives may be at this or any other moment, we’re soon to be in heaven living in perfect happiness forever. How could it not be so when God did this for us? I say, the incarnation is the most extraordinary thing that ever happened; the most spectacular, the most breathtaking, the most wonderful thing; and far and away the most consequential thing that ever happened. And for those of us who know that, that knowledge should have extraordinary consequences in our lives. We should stand out, you and I, as people notable for their humility, for their gratitude, and for their love, both for God and for others. The incarnation is the heart of our faith and so it should be – profoundly, seriously, joyfully, and constantly – the faith of our hearts! “Who loved me and gave himself for me!”
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