Christmas (along with Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost) is one of five “evangelical feast days” that celebrate key moments in the Son of God’s saving mission.
On these days, the church turns its attention in a special way to the redemptive historical events that mark “the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4; Eph 1:10): the time that realizes God’s saving purpose and therefore that decisively determines all other times for the people of God (Rom 6; Col 2:9-10; 3:1-4). As we approach Christmas, it is worth reflecting upon the incarnation, the first epochal moment in the saving mission of the Son of God.
Reflecting theologically on the incarnation requires that we consider three topics: (1) the uniqueness of the incarnation in relation to other historical events, (2) the nature of the incarnation, and (3) ends of the incarnation. Following some brief comments on the first two topics, I will focus a bit more fully on the third.
The uniqueness of the incarnation
Although the incarnation fulfills various Old Testament promises and prophecies, most notably those related to the Davidic Covenant, the incarnation does not follow from prior historical antecedents. The incarnation is a “new thing,” an event that exists in a class by itself. The incarnation is a mystery, once hidden but now revealed: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh” (1 Tim 3:16).
For this reason, it is (strictly speaking) improper to classify under the label of “incarnation” any events or activities that happened before or after the coming of the Son of God in the flesh (see Todd Billings’s excellent discussion of this point). In a proper sense, there is and only ever will be one incarnation: the incarnation of the Son of God. Though the incarnation opens up new ways of seeing and acting in the world (see Luke 1:46-55), Christmas is not the occasion for launching an “incarnational” social program. Christmas is the glad announcement that God’s saving program has begun in the incarnation and it is the announcement that God’s saving program will be consummated when the incarnate one returns (Heb 9:26, 28).
The nature of the incarnation
The uniqueness of the incarnation follows from the nature of the incarnation. The incarnation is a divine invasion of human history from outside of human history: “I have come down from heaven …,” the Lord repeatedly declares (John 6:38; 10:36). Unlike prophets and apostles who are called by God from their mothers’ wombs into their vocations as ambassadors of God’s word (Jer 1:5; Gal 1:15), the eternal Son is sent from the Father’s side into his mother’s womb to assume human nature into union with his divine person: “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman” (Gal 4:4).
This divine invasion is necessitated by the human race’s impotence to deliver itself from its self-imposed state of sadness and misery, an impotence signified in the fact that a human father has no role to play in Jesus’ conception in Mary’s womb (similarly, see Rom 8:3). The incarnation reveals that only God can help us. And the incarnation reveals that God has indeed helped us by stooping down to become one of us. “In Christ two natures met to be thy cure” (George Herbert).
Ends of the incarnation
To speak of “ends” of the incarnation is to speak of “reasons” for the incarnation, to address Anselm’s question, “Why the God-man?” The Bible presents at least five answers to this question.
First, the Son of God became incarnate in order to become the kinsman-redeemer to God’s elect children. “It is not angels that he helps,” according to the author of Hebrews. “He helps the offspring of Abraham” (Heb 2:16). In order for the Son of God to help us, God’s law requires that he assume a kinship relationship to us (Lev 25:25), that he assume the nature of his siblings: “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” (Heb 2:17).
Second, the Son of God became incarnate in order to satisfy our debt to God’s law. By nature and by choice we were slave-debtors to God’s law, having failed to fulfill all that the law requires and being liable to bear the full extent of the law’s curse. Through the incarnation of his beloved Son, God made provision to satisfy our debts. “God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal 4:4-5).
Third, the Son of God became incarnate in order to secure our adoption as God’s sons and daughters. Not only is the incarnation ordered to our redemption, it is also ordered to our adoption. The one who is Son of God by nature assumed our lowly human state in order that we might become sons and daughters of God by grace: “God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, … so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4.5).
Fourth, the Son of God became incarnate in order “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). The incarnation of the Son of God was the first strike in God’s plan to vanquish the devil and his kingdom (Heb 2:14). The incarnation put the principalities and powers of this age on notice (consider Herod’s response!). Luther’s hymn well summarizes this incarnational end:
The Son obeyed his Father’s will,
Was born of virgin mother;
And God’s good pleasure to fulfill,
He came to be my brother.
His royal pow’r disguised he bore;
A servant’s form, like mine, he wore
To lead the devil captive.
Fifth, the Son of God became incarnate in order that he might be worshiped as the firstborn son among a family of redeemed siblings (Rom 8:29). The ultimate end of the incarnation of the Son of God is the glory of the incarnate Son of God (Ps 2:7-8; Col 1:18; Heb 1.2). Thus Thomas Goodwin observes: “God’s chief end was not to bring Christ into the world for us, but us for Christ. He is worth all creatures. And God contrived all things that do fall out, and even redemption itself, for the setting forth of Christ’s glory, more than our salvation.”
Throughout the year the church sings and celebrates the saving mission of God’s beloved Son. As we celebrate the first moment in that saving mission at Christmas, let us celebrate the glorious ends of the incarnation as well. Above all, let us celebrate him (Matt 2:11; Heb 1:6).
This article first appeared on Reformation 21.