Q: What Was the Incarnation?
The incarnation was the quiet eruption in the middle of history of a mercy that defies comprehension—when, as C. S. Lewis put it, God wrote himself into the story.
He left the throne for the mud. The supernatural became natural. Heaven clothed itself with earth. “And the word became flesh…” (John 1:14). Not, he “created” flesh, though that’s true. “Became” flesh.
Moderate grace would have said: I’ll meet you halfway. Lavish grace said: I’ll come all the way. He didn’t say, I’ll strengthen what you are. He said, I’ll become what you are.
The great theologian of the incarnation, St. Athanasius (298–373), wrote:
He descended that he might raise us up. He went down to corruption, that corruption might put on immortality. He became weak for us, that we might rise with power. He descended to death, that he might bestow on us immortality, and give life to the dead. Finally, he became man, that we who die as men might live again, and that death should no more reign over us.
God With Us
At Christmastime we at Crossway join with our readers, authors, and other partners around the globe to celebrate the Savior’s birth. May we take a few unhurried moments of sober reflection to remember what we’re celebrating? We are rejoicing in the culmination of all of human history, at which point—as Chesterton put it—“the hands that had made the sun and the stars were too small to reach the huge heads of cattle.”
“The culmination of all of human history”? Isn’t that a bit audacious, something of an overstatement?
Well, consider the storyline of the Bible. The Bible opens with God with mankind in happy fellowship (Gen. 3:8). God with us. The Bible ends there, too (Rev. 21:3). But given all the mess in between the first three chapters of the Bible and the last three, how do we get from one to the other?
Christmas, that’s how. “‘And they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us)” (Matt. 1:23).
We lived in happy fellowship with God in Eden, but broke it by our sin. God the Son lived in happy fellowship with God in heaven, but broke it by choice. He then suffered in our place, receiving our punishment for sin, to restore our fellowship with God.
The Strangest Temple of All
One way to understand the incarnation is through the temple theme. Consider what John was saying when he remarked, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). “Dwelt” here is the verb form of the Greek noun meaning tent or tabernacle (skene). Original readers of John’s Gospel familiar with the Old Testament would immediately think of the portable temple, the tabernacle, transferred throughout the wilderness in their wanderings between Egypt and the promised land. The Word tabernacled among us.
But what was a tabernacle? What was a temple?
Unlike some other elements of Jewish faith, a temple was not unique to Judaism. Virtually every ancient religion had a temple of some kind. Even here, within ten miles of Crossway, we have a Buddhist temple, a Hindu temple, and a Mormon temple.
The temple, for Judaism and other religions, was a tangible, physical location where the immortal met the mortal, where the supernatural and the natural collided, where the eternal and the temporal intersected, where the sacred and the profane stood face to face. Nowhere else could this happen. The temple was where the divine and the fleshly could meet—never to mix, but to come into brief contact with one another.
Snowballing through the Old Testament was the development of the theme of the presence of God among his people, a presence centered in the most sacred of Jewish places: the tabernacle and then the temple.
It was here in this movable temple that God dwelt among his people (Exod. 25:8). It was here that glory rested. Fellowship with God briefly resumed. The tabernacle was a miniature Garden of Eden, complete with a sky-blue ceiling and a lampstand decorated like a flourishing tree. The glory of Eden was briefly—inadequately, but truly—restored. In Isaiah 40:6-8, human flesh and God’s word had already been clustered together, but there it was to erect an absolute antithesis between human flesh and God’s word—“All flesh is grass” and “the grass withers,” whereas “the word of our God will stand forever.” Human flesh is transient; divine word is eternal.
But at the center of all of human history, the divine and the fleshly did mix. The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us. He became what we are, and then died, so that we might become what he is, and live.
What Christmas Means
In the Old Testament, then, the supernatural collided with the natural in a physical building, where, with severely limited access, humans could meet with God in his glory. In the New Testament the supernatural collided with the natural in a physical body, where, with unlimited access, humans could meet with God in his glory.
The Old Testament temple repelled the sick, deformed, and unclean. The New Testament temple attracted the sick, deformed, and unclean.
In Old Testament times, God’s presence lived in a building built by carpenters. In the New Testament, God's presence lived in a body as a carpenter.
We no longer enter into a temple of wood and stone to meet with God; God entered into a temple of flesh and blood to meet with us.
He didn’t meet us halfway. He came to us. The Word became flesh. He left nothing to chance.
That’s the incarnation. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas.