In this Advent season I have now preached three sermons on the incarnation of God the Son: one on its historicity; one on its mystery; and one on its instrument, the Virgin Birth. I conclude this series this morning with a sermon devoted to the demonstration of how the incarnation – God the Son becoming also a man so as to save his people from their sins – serves to shape the Christian faith in utterly unique and wonderful ways.
And it should be no surprise that I have chosen to read a text from Isaiah for Isaiah is the prophet more than any other who foretold the coming of a Messiah who would be both God and Man. It is not for nothing that the great church father, Jerome, referred to him as “Isaiah the evangelist.” We think of four gospels, perhaps we should think of five, Isaiah, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It is in Isaiah we learn, 700 years before his coming, that Christ would be born to a virgin, that he would be called Immanuel, God with us, that he would suffer and die for our sins, and that his kingdom would extend over the entire earth, bringing peace, justice and salvation to all mankind. The text we are about to read is one of many such in Isaiah.
Isaiah has been describing the doom that must come upon Israel for her unbelief. But now, as so often in the prophets, that picture of coming doom is contrasted with a future salvation more wonderful than the previous judgments were terrible. While the rejection of the Lord will lead to the bleakest misery, trust in him will bring at last eternal peace and joy.
You will notice that all the verbs are in the past tense. It is a convention of Hebrew writing to express certainty regarding future events by describing them as already having happened. It is as if the prophet has cast himself forward into the future and is now looking back on what the Lord had done. [Motyer, 98] You find this same convention in the writing of the Apostle Paul, who once famously said that believers in Christ were glorified – that is, were already made perfect in heaven. They have not been, of course, no one has, but it is a future so certain it may be described as already having taken place.
Because of this confidence in the certainty of this future glory, because it is immediately evident to the eye of faith, it is the antidote to the darkness Isaiah has just described; not because it will immediately happen, but because it will certainly happen.
Zebulon and Naphtali, the areas north and south of the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, were the first Israelite territory to fall to the Assyrians when it invaded Israel as the instruments of God’s judgment upon the northern kingdom. The way of the sea is a reference to the fact that these areas were between the lake and the Mediterranean coast.
“Walking in darkness” means living out one’s life while the Lord, as it were, hides his face from his people. It harks back to the darkness of the last verse of the previous chapter; the darkness of divine judgment and of God’s removal of his blessing and presence from his people.
While the remnant of true believers remained small in Israel in the ancient epoch and often since, in the future the community of faithful people will be greatly enlarged. Elsewhere Isaiah will speak of the knowledge of the Lord covering the earth as the waters cover the sea.
“Yoke,” “staff,” and “rod” recall the history of the exodus and “the day of Midian” recalls Gideon’s defeat of the Midianites as we read of it in Judges 6-8. The sense is that those ancient victories will be repeated on a far grander scale.
The end of war and the triumph of the kingdom of God will result from the birth of one individual. He is born – so a human being – but he is given to us by God.
“Wonderful” is virtually equivalent to our word “supernatural.” In Isa. 28:29 it is Yahweh himself who is said to be “wonderful in counsel,” indicating that here too we have something said that can only be said of God. A king must have wisdom to rule justly and this king will have God’s own wisdom. That, if you remember, is precisely what is said again of this coming king in 11:2 and, again, of Jesus in the Gospels.
“Mighty God” is used of Yahweh again in Isa. 10:21 and confirms the obvious meaning of the term in its use here. The son to be born will be the mighty God. He has already said in 7:14 that the one to be born of the virgin will be Immanuel, “God with us,” and he is working out that promise here.
We needn’t invest “Everlasting Father” with Trinitarian overtones and thus create for ourselves the problem of the Son being identified with the Father. The idea here is simply the way in which God is the Father to his people, providing, protecting, and disciplining them because of his love for them.
“Prince of Peace” is a royal title but also reminds us what this figure will bring: shalom, peace and harmony of life under the blessing of God. Peace is the opposite of everything that once was the lot of sinful men as we read in v. 4.
What all these titles indicate is that the prophet could not possibly have had in mind any merely earthly king. Nothing like this is was ever said of David, nothing like this was said of any of the good kings of Israel and Judah either in prospect or in retrospect. The figure he has described so far surpasses ordinary human boundaries as to require a figure who is both God and man. [Ridderbos, 102]
That is, if Zebulon and Naphtali were the first to feel the effects of the judgment of the Lord brought by the Assyrians they will as well be the first to feel the effects of this new beginning and the kingdom of this Prince. This came to pass when the Lord began his earthly ministry in Galilee, the area once occupied by those two tribes. That kingdom, begun there, would eventually spread to the entire world. You remember Isaiah describing the triumph of the Lord’s kingdom by saying that the knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.
The reference to the throne of David means that this “child” and “son” mentioned in v. 6 is the promised Messiah.
It is a staple of modern American and Western philosophy, politics, and culture that religion is an aspect of human life in which certain universal principles of human life are embraced and expressed in different ways. In American politics we speak, for example, of “faith-based” initiatives and programs, as if it matters comparatively little what particular form someone’s faith may take. Muslim, Buddhist, Mormon, Christian: they are all the same at least for the purposes of life and political action because they are all at root the expression of the same thing. This is a very new way of thinking but it has become almost the universal way of thinking in elite cultural and the culture of the American university. Our local newspaper has a weekly column in which questions are put to clerics of various religions concerning “faith.” Can people of faith think this, or do that? What do the “faiths” think about this? And so on. The assumption is clearly that people of faith have more in common than in distinction.
In philosophy of religion classes in American universities in recent decades this has become the orthodoxy taught: all religions are simply varying expressions of the same human impulse: call it the search for God, the thirst for transcendence, the need for certainty, whatever. In some cultures, even in some individual people it takes one form, in others another.
In some parts of our culture this religious impulse is viewed positively as the source of many good and hopeful things in human life. Where would we be, it is asked, without religions teaching their adherents to love and care for others, to live honestly, and to work for peace? In the more aggressively secular parts of our culture this religious impulse is viewed with suspicion, if not alarm, as the cause of endless conflict and moral condemnation. Religion divides, we are told; it does not unite. It interferes with our freedom to enjoy our pleasures as we wish. Religion is the last refuge of the spoilsport. We would be better off without it, so say a number of thinkers and writers today. A few years ago researchers reported to a neuroscience conference that they had discovered what they called a “God module,” a part of the brain that affects the intensity of religious belief. They wondered aloud how such dedicated machinery for religion in the brain might have evolved. The obvious point: religious people can’t help themselves, they are simply wired that way. Well, of one thing you can be sure: such researchers are never going to find a “materialist” or an “atheist” module that explains the denial of the existence of God and religious principles as the inevitable result of the evolutionary development of some people’s brain. Again, nothing they can help, it is simply the way they are wired. [P. Johnson, Objections Sustained, 18]
But take my point: whether among those kindly disposed to religion or those hostile to it and dismissive of it as some kind of genetic defect, there remains great prejudice on the part of many against taking seriously the proposal, that used to always be taken seriously in Western culture, that the great religions of the world are mutually exclusive reports of the nature of God, of human life, and of salvation. People nowadays in large numbers want to believe, for example, that Islam and Christianity or Hinduism and Christianity are simply different expressions of the same moral and spiritual impulses that exist in the human mind and heart, each noble in its own way, none false except for those who have chosen another for reasons sufficient to themselves.
It is, of course, not so. It is a touching sentiment that, no matter the immense differences that separate the great religions of the world and, for that matter, that separate those religions from modern secular faiths popular now in Europe and North America, they are, at bottom much the same. We can certainly understand why people in our culture would want to believe that; but it is untrue, emphatically untrue. Christianity differs from both secularism and Islam, from both Hinduism and Judaism at the root. If the Bible is true these other religions are not and vice versa. We cheerfully confess what simple logic compels us to believe. No one can possibly believe that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life and that no one comes to the father but through him and yet believe that all roads lead to God. To confess both is to make an end of reason.
It is, to be sure, no surprise to us that there are similarities in the teaching of the various religions and philosophies. We are hardly required to believe that every other religion is wrong in every respect and clear through. If you are an atheist you have to believe that the religious conviction of human beings, almost universal as it is, is simply one grand mistake from beginning to end. But we Christians are the first to admit that, human beings having been created in the image of the living God, they will think about many things in the same way. We aren’t the only ones to teach that we should treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves, that honesty and humility are virtues, and so on. We are not even the only ones to teach that there is but one living and true God. Muslims and Jews are also monotheists.
But Christianity is not Islam or Judaism or Hinduism and cannot be made to be at root an expression of the same religious impulse. It is, in fact, a dramatically different and mutually exclusive account of God, man, and salvation. And the great reason for this is the incarnation, a doctrine so utterly unique to our faith as Christians, so utterly foreign to every other religion and philosophy, that it sets Christianity apart from all of them, apart at the root, apart from the bottom up.
Let me enumerate some of the ways in which the incarnation shapes the Christian faith into something utterly unlike the other religions of mankind and profoundly different from all the metaphysical and moral thinking of mankind that has been done on what folk imagine to be something other than a religious base.
- First, there is in our faith, unlike all others, an exclusive concentration on a single human person.
For a monotheistic faith, such as Christianity, to concentrate its attention on a man, to worship a man, to find in that man the meaning of life and the possibility of eternal life, is utterly unprecedented. Jesus stands at the very center of history in any authentic Christian account like no other man stands at the center of history according to any other religious or philosophical narrative that has ever been devised in the history of the human race. Listen to Jaroslav Pelikan:
“Regardless of what anyone may personally think or believe about him, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture for almost twenty centuries. If it were possible, with some sort of super-magnet, to pull up out of that history every scrap of metal bearing at least a trace of his name, how much would be left? It is from his birth that most of the human race dates its calendars, it is by his name that millions curse, and in his name that millions pray.” [Jesus through the Centuries, 1]
That we call our religion the Christian faith or Christianity, that we call ourselves Christians is proof of the centrality of this single person to our understanding of everything. We are the followers, the devotees, the worshipers, the servants of Jesus Christ.
Only the incarnation can account for this concentration on a man in a faith that purports to believe in the one living and true God. Only the fact that the child who was born was the Mighty God can account for this strange and wonderful fact that we worship and serve a man. Don’t imagine that the importance of Mohammed to Islam is anything like this or is analogous to this or resembles this. It does not. Christians, when they didn’t know better, used to call Islam Mohammedanism, but we have learned better. That is not a fair designation of the Muslim faith. Mohammed in Islam is not the equivalent of Jesus in Christianity, nor is Buddha his equivalent. Mohammed is a prophet, he is not God, and Muslims do not worship him; indeed they would be highly offended at the suggestion that they do. They worship God alone. In Buddhism Buddha is a teacher of the way; he is not the way, the truth, and the life as Jesus is for us.
Christians worship Jesus of Nazareth because though he was born a baby and lived as a genuine human being, looking indistinguishable from any other human being of his day and time, we know he was and is at the same time the Living God. They look to him for their salvation, this man born of Mary. We believe he holds in his hand the power to grant eternal life to those who trust in him. A human being has this power! This preoccupation with Jesus, this exclusive concentration on his life, his death, his resurrection, his presence with us by the Holy Spirit, and his coming again to judge the world is the very mark of the Christian faith. And there is nothing remotely like this, analogous to this anywhere else in the religious life of mankind or in its philosophizing either. And no wonder; only in Holy Scripture do we find it taught that God has become also a man, that a man has been taken up into the very person of God.
If Jesus Christ be God, the Maker of heaven and earth, a human being, come to suffer and die for us, it follows with rigorous necessity, that he must be the Savior of the world, that there can be no other question of like importance compared to the question of one’s relationship to him. Christians absolutely accept this logic; we always have. Everything is about him precisely because he is the incarnate Son of God.
- Second, the incarnation shows itself the essential core of our Christian faith in that it places a supernatural event at its very heart.
Strip away the religious husk and all religions of man, save Christianity, are an exercise in the natural and ordinary effort and achievement of human beings. Religion, in other words, adds a gloss to nature but it leaves it fundamentally unchanged. But at bottom the other religions of mankind and the various moral philosophies are simply alternate forms the message: Do this and do that and the result will be this or that. Rewards are offered for good works as those works are variously defined in one faith or another, one moral philosophy or another. It may be claimed that God revealed the particular obligations and guarantees the particular rewards, but the nub of the faith is that we do in order to get. What is more we do what we are able to do. We are well used to that; the principle of effort and reward is, and often properly, found everywhere in human life. So it is entirely natural for men and women to conceive of their lives and then their eternal life ultimately in these terms. So natural that Christians themselves must struggle against that tendency.
But it is utterly different in the Christian faith. At its center stands a phenomenal event, an utterly supernatural event, a miracle: a child born who is the Mighty God; God becoming also a human being by means of the conception of his human nature in the womb of a virgin, a single divine person becoming at the same time an authentic human being.
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.
It is so miraculous that no one really understands this or can. We can confess the truth, but we cannot comprehend it. There is nothing like this in other faiths or philosophies. The miraculous, the supernatural is not fundamental to their vision of reality. There are some miraculous elements in Islam and Hinduism, but they are peripheral; they could be removed without a fundamental change to the religion. But that is precisely what one cannot do with the Christian faith. You cannot leave the supernatural, the miraculous out. Our faith as Christians is precisely the story of a great miracle, of an extraordinary event that occurred in human history. And so it becomes precisely the conviction in the hearts of Christians that the miraculous elements of the biblical history, from the exodus to the resurrection of the Lord to the healing of the sick by the Lord’s apostles are essential to the history of our faith. They are our faith in the truest sense. God himself actively at work in the life and history of mankind. Without the miraculous we have nothing to believe. Christianity without the miraculous, and especially without its greatest miracle, without the incarnation, is denatured. It is transformed into little more than another form of human do-goodism, mostly worthless; certainly nothing life-changing. But encounter with the God-Man, hope in the worldwide reign of the Prince of Peace is another thing altogether!
- Third, the incarnation shapes our faith in every way because it establishes the pattern of our salvation.
The incarnate Son of God is not only the Savior of sinners, he is himself the salvation. What is salvation? It is the work of God by which fallen, sinful human beings are raised to eternal life and eventually conformed to the image of God’s Son and made to be like Jesus Christ as a human being. It isn’t 40 virgins in Paradise; it isn’t absorption into the world’s soul; it certainly isn’t simply the satisfaction of having lived a good life. It is the moral and metaphysical perfection of our human nature in its fullness, body and soul.
Christ lived and died and rose again, and it is the Christian faith to believe that those who trust in him, who love him, will do the same: they will live in the world, they will die, and they will rise again on the great day, perfect souls in perfect bodies to live in righteousness forever just as he does.
He not only purchased our freedom from the guilt and power of sin by his death on the cross, the Lord Jesus went before us, the Scripture says; he opened the way for us to follow and he established the pattern of life that would be true for us as well. He is in heaven now and Paul says that everyone trusts in him is, in principle, already there with him. He is a man in heaven and we shall be human beings – men and women – in heaven at the last. His rose with an immortal body and because he did we shall someday have such a body ourselves. He is, the Scripture says, the firstfruits of those who sleep. The zeal of the Lord of hosts, not the paltry efforts of mere human beings, accomplished this and only it could!
Again, no other faith has this hope, so fully human and worldly in the best sense of the word. It is specific and definite because it is rooted in the life history of an individual who has already lived and died and risen again in this world. We are saved to be like him; we live the Christian life by striving to be like him; and we face death in the confidence that our experience will be as his was, death followed by resurrection and eternal life. He meets us at the beginning of life – when we gain eternal life by trusting in him – he meets us along the way and he meets us at the end. His life becomes our life more and more. No wonder they call us Christians!
- Fourth the incarnation proves itself the heartbeat of our faith because it invests in every aspect of our understanding of life the power of God’s love.
The incarnation, the central event of history and the presupposition of the cross and the empty tomb as events powerful to save not just one man but the entire world, was itself an act of great sacrifice motivated by an indescribably great love. At the very center of our faith lies the love of God for his unworthy people and the great sacrifice of Christ’s humiliation, his coming into the world unrecognized as the Creator of heaven and earth to be scorned, rejected and finally murdered by his own creatures. This was love.
Love may be a virtue in other religions and human philosophies, but it is far more for us. It is the very heart of our faith and the cause of the whole drama of our salvation. Other religions may teach us to love God, but none other makes God’s love for us the explanation of everything. None other makes our love for God a direct reply to his love for us. No other religion dares to say, “We love him because he first loved us” because divine love in action on behalf of sinful human beings is not the engine that drives the entire narrative in any other faith as it does in ours. But Christ came into the world because God so loved the world; Christ went to the cross because he had come into the world on an errand of love. The entire Christian life can thus be summarized as simply love for God and love for man because the Christian life is a life of imitating Jesus Christ who is the incarnation of God’s mighty and indescribably beautiful love. No wonder Paul should so sternly write, “A curse on all those who do not love our Lord Jesus Christ.” How can you not love the one who loved you at such terrible cost to himself? Love is the very principle of our faith and life.
- Fifth and finally the incarnation lies at the root of our faith, gives it its form and its energy because it alone accounts for the Christian faith as a missionary experience and missionary enterprise.
No religion and no philosophy produces a missionary compulsion as Christianity always has and does still today. And this is because Christ himself was a missionary. He left his home and went to the world precisely to bring it the salvation it needed. “A child was born, a son was given.” And then he placed his followers under the solemn obligation to do the same: to go the world, to all its peoples and make from them disciples of the Lord Jesus. It is the sort of thing that Christians discover by an almost indefinable instinct. They meet Jesus and feel themselves obliged to tell others about him. His coming into the world, his making common cause with us, his reaching out to us, sacrificing himself for our salvation; no one can embrace this reality and remain indifferent to those around him or her. And so it has been from the very beginning. Christ’s disciples have been his witnesses, his advocates spreading out into the world with a message that is all about him: who he is and what he has done.
One of the most remarkable figures of the 20th century – who knows, perhaps the most remarkable – was the Indian Christian Sundar Singh. Born in 1899 into an affluent Sikh family he grew up to hate Christianity as a foreign religion, the religion of the British who had conquered and occupied his homeland. Once, expressing his hostility to Christianity, he publicly burned a copy of the Gospel. But shortly thereafter, at fifteen years of age, suddenly and utterly unexpectedly, he became a Christian himself, incurring of course the contempt and eventually the ostracism of his entire family. Shortly after that he was convinced that the Lord Jesus was calling him to be a wandering preacher, a sadhu. For the rest of his life he traveled through India, Nepal, and Tibet facing every kind of hardship and danger to preach the good news of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. No one knows where or how he died, but in all likelihood he died violently on the last of his missionary journeys.
On one occasion Sundar Singh visited a Hindu college and was asked there by one of the professors what he had found in Christianity that he hadn’t in Hinduism. Singh replied, “I have Christ.” “Yes, I know,” the lecturer replied impatiently, “but what particular principle or doctrine have you found that you did not have before?”
“The particular thing I have found,” replied Sundar Singh, “is Christ.” [cf. Stott, The Incomparable Christ, 16] And he spent the rest of his life telling others of this Christ whom he had found, or, better, who had found him. How can a single person born in Palestine in 4 B.C. become suddenly and utterly unexpectedly that important to a Hindu teenager nearly 2000 years later? There is no way unless the person, Jesus of Nazareth, is also, at one and the same time, the living God, the Maker of heaven and earth, and the judge of all men; unless he who began his earthly life as a human baby was none other than the Mighty God and Everlasting Father. If he is that, then to know him is, must be, to know all things. If he is life, then obviously life is to be found in him and in him alone.
He has no rivals because he is the God man. He has no successors for the same reason. He strides across history because human history, the history of the world, is his own divine plan and purpose that are unfolding. He draws near to human beings to care for them in their needs and love them in their sin because he is God and God is love and because he is a perfect man and perfect manhood is manhood dominated by love.
The Christian faith, in utter distinction from all other faiths and philosophies of men, is the perfectly logical and reasonable and inevitable outworking of one supremely mysterious and ineffable fact: in Jesus Christ the living God became also a man so that he might be the savior of the world.