Why the Incarnation Matters: Meditations for Christians Who Forget
“Word of the Father, late in flesh appearing.” Millions of people will sing these words from the classic advent carol “O Come, All Ye Faithful” in the ensuing weeks leading up to Christmas. As always, many of these voices will belong to unbelievers, who every year join in celebrating a story they have either outright rejected or don’t understand. But what about believers? Do we understand the story ourselves?
As Christians, this season is as good a time as any to seriously ask ourselves if we grasp the theology that undergirds Christmas: the incarnation. John’s Gospel puts it so simply: the Word was God (1:1) and the Word became flesh (1:14). Jesus Christ, though being the eternal Son of God, became man “and so was, and continueth to be, God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, forever.” It’s this incarnation truth that we celebrate this time of year. Do we understand why? Why does it matter that Jesus Christ is both God and man? Why is this a fact worth singing about? Let me offer five brief reasons for your reflection.
- The fact that Jesus is God means that he is worthy and worth it. He is worthy of our praise and adoration. He is worth our time and attention. So many lost and misguided people throughout the years have turned to false hopes, such as charismatic and influential teachers or religious gurus who seemed to have the answers. Hours are lost and much money is given to these people who ultimately can offer no peace. These all far short because they are fallen, lost, and misguided sinners like their followers. Jesus, however, is the only religious leader in history who has ever made good on all of His promises. Jesus as God means He will never let us down. He will not fail us, indeed He cannot fail us. Because Jesus is God, He is our hope and desire.
- The fact that Jesus is man means that God is approachable. It’s one thing to know there is a God out there who can’t fail us, but that only matters to us if that God is one we can come to. In his bare essence, in his splendor and glory, no one can see the Father and live. But now “we have seen His glory” (John 1:14). Now we can know Him. Jesus is the access point to God. He is the way, the truth, and the life, no one can come to the Father except through Him—but the breathtaking point here is that you can come to the Father at all.
- The fact that Jesus is man means God is relatable. He is not aloof to your troubles and anxieties. He can relate. Hebrews says that He is the one can sympathize with every weakness (Hebrews 4:15). He doesn’t try to pretend to be one of us. He is one of us. In the 1970s, Italian singer Adriano Celentano did a little social experiment: he released a song in an American accent singing what He thought sounded like English to prove his point that all English songs become hits in Italy. The song is called “Prisencolinensinainciusol” and like its title all the lyrics are gibberish. But Celentano was right: the song was a hit, topping at number 2 in the European, non English-speaking charts. If you were to hear it you would think it’s ridiculous. It seems like a joke. Because he’s trying and yet so far from being able to speak your language. Jesus is not like that. He is not God living in some far-off land trying to “pass” for human, trying to pass for being someone like you. He doesn’t try to pass for being a man. He became flesh, and dwelt among us.
- The fact that Jesus is God means that He can sustain God’s wrath and thus secure our salvation. Man cannot bear God’s wrath. Man is extinguished like a faintly burning candle at the breath of God’s holy and just wrath. At the cross, Christ can sustain the searing torture— not simply of nails and spear, but of divine judgment—because He Himself is divine. And likewise He can defeat death and rise on the third day because He holds the keys of death. He is over and above and before death.
- And yet all that Jesus did on the cross and through the empty tomb mean nothing if He didn’t do them in your place. You see, the fact that Jesus is man means that He can be your substitute. None of his work can be applied to you unless it is done for you, as you, representing you. Good Friday and Easter Sunday are meaningless without Christmas morning. The incarnation is the key to our salvation: “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). Towards the end of seminary, I was flying to candidate at a church near my hometown. My luggage got lost in transit and I was hours away from preaching with nothing to wear! My brother, Dave, offered to lend me his sports coat. Dave, bless him, is a good deal trimmer than me and though a kind gesture, his jacket wouldn’t have fit. He might be my brother, but he’s not my brother “in every respect.” Since he’s not a brother to me in every respect, he was unable to step in during my time of need. And yet Jesus comes in our flesh, as our substitute, to step in and help in our greatest distress. He comes to the cradle always with a view always to the cross.
One of the problems that Christians encounter at Christmas is that the story is all too familiar. We have heard it all before. We assume we “get it.” And so we can read John’s prologue, or sing incarnation theology in the great Christmas carols, and not even bat an eye, nor does our heart skip a beat. And so we need reminders, like the five points listed above, to stir our soul in humility and gratitude and worship to the God who would become like us in every respect. The 17th-century German intellectual Franciscus Junius, Jr., tells the story of his conversion by reading the opening of John’s gospel for the very first time: “My body shuddered; my mind was in amazement, and I was so agitated the whole day that I scarcely knew who I was; nor did the agitation cease, but continued till it was at last soothed by a humble faith in him who was made flesh and dwelt among us.”
We need to come to the Christmas story with fresh eyes and a ready heart, because this is the reality: there is a trouble in your soul that no amount of money, fame, sex, drugs, counseling, prescriptions, entertainment, diet, sports, friends, family, philanthropy, or Facebook can fix. There is an agitation in our hearts that can only be soothed by a humble faith in him who was made flesh and dwelt among us. O come, let us adore Him.
Jonathan Landry Cruse is the pastor of Community Presbyterian Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and an author. His newest book, from which this article is adapted, is What Happens When We Worship, published by Reformed Heritage Books, and is used here with permission. He is also a hymn writer whose works can be found at www.HymnsOfDevotion.com.
 Westminster Shorter Catechism 21
 As quoted in James Montgomery Boice, The Coming of the Light (John 1–4), Boice Expositional Commentary 15 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 86.