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The Incarnation is for ever and not just for Christmas

The Incarnation is for ever and not just for Christmas
Some pastoral implications of the continuing incarnation of the Son of God: Hebrews 2:5-18

By Melvin Tinker
Special to Virtueonline
December 18, 2020

Christians are always involved in a high wire act when it comes to holding to one of the central beliefs of our faith- the incarnation, when God became man without ceasing to be God or, in the words of Gregory Nazianzus, 'What he was not he became, what he was he remained.' One side of the wire which beckons is to emphasise Jesus' humanity at the expense of his divinity so that he becomes less than God (the Arian heresy). The other side into which we can fall is to emphasise his divinity at the expense of his humanity so he become less than human (the heresy of Apollinarianism).

The writer to the Hebrews, however, views Jesus with bifocal vision, seeing Jesus in depth. We are introduced to the Son's divinity at the very outset in chapter 1 and verse 3, 'The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.' That is who the Son was and is and ever will be- God. Then we have Jesus' humanity, 2:17, 'For this reason he [God the Son] had to be made like them fully human in every way.' This means for thirty-three years he would feel everything you and I have ever felt. He felt weak. He grew weary. He knew the attraction of women, the pleasures of food and the warmth of friendship. His feelings got hurt. His feet got tired. His mind got strained.

However, there is even more to it than that, because our human life doesn't begin the moment we are born, but the moment we are conceived. This means that the one who is larger than the universe entered into his universe as a tiny ball of cells- a blastocyst; the one who sustains the world with a Word was sustained by a young woman's womb. We are talking God as foetus; the creator of life being created life. The great fact is that God the Son, took to himself a human body which had exactly the same biochemical composition as our own, the same anatomy, the same physiology, the same central nervous system and so the same sensitivity to pain. God's perfect nature, joined to man's sinless nature in the perfect person we know as Jesus this is the mystery of the incarnation.

However, it is important to affirm that Jesus is still human. God the Son didn't put on humanity like an astronaut puts on a space suit, such that we have 'god in a pod', with his human body enabling him to move around this morally polluted planet for a few years only to be discarded at the ascension. He has taken our humanity with him into heaven, glorified to be sure, but human still the same. In other words the incarnation is for ever and not just for Christmas.That is what the writer to the Hebrews is getting at in 2:9. For a while he was made a 'little lower than the angels', that is living on earth as a man. But now he is 'crowned with glory and honour' in heaven, but it is the same Jesus- God reigning as a man. Hilary of Poitiers in the 4th century describes this heart pounding mystery as follows: ''What worthy return can we make for so great a condescension? The One Only-begotten God, ineffably born of God, entered the Virgin's womb and grew and took the frame of poor humanity. He Who upholds the universe, within Whom and through Whom are all things, was brought forth by common childbirth; He at Whose voice Archangels and Angels tremble, and heaven and earth and all the elements of this world are melted, was heard in childish wailing. The Invisible and Incomprehensible, Whom sight and feeling and touch cannot gauge, was wrapped in a cradle...... He by Whom man was made had nothing to gain by becoming Man; it was our gain that God was incarnate and dwelt among us, making all flesh His home by taking upon Him the flesh of One. '

The question is: why has Jesus retained our humanity? Part of the answer is given in Hebrews 2:17-17, 'For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.'

There are two remarkable entailments of the continuous nature of the incarnation.

1. Because Jesus is fully human he can fully understand us.

It could be objected, 'If Jesus is God, surely he can understand us anyway because God knows and understands everything that is what the word 'omniscient' means- 'all knowing.' But there are different kinds of knowing.

Let me illustrate.

Before my eldest son Christopher was born, I knew some things about fatherhood. I had read a number of books on the subject, I had talked to others who had been fathers and found out from them what it fatherhood involved. Obviously, my relationship with my own father meant that I was able to glean some idea of what you do and don't do as a father. In theory at least, it was possible to know quite a lot of what it means to be a Dad. But in a much deeper and truer sense I didn't really know about fatherhood until the moment little Christopher appeared in the delivery room. That is when my knowing really began because I had become a father. There is a parallel here when we think of God's knowledge of what it is to be human. To know about suffering is one thing, to know suffering- experimentally, is another and in verse 18 we are told that God as man, really suffered and was really tempted or tested. Later in 4:15 we read that he was tested in every way just as we are, but didn't give in to sin and therefore able to fully sympathise with us in our weaknesses.

When we find ourselves struggling wondering if anybody really understands what we are going through- we only have to look at this passage and say, 'Yes, there is- Jesus.' Even as he lay in a manger, surrounded by animals, he was still holding the galaxies in place and bringing new stars into being. He never ceased being God, but he did become human.

What makes this high priest special is that he was also the sacrificial victim which means he suffered what we will never have to suffer and therefore understands perfectly from the inside unimaginable suffering. Professor Donald Macleod lays out for us some of the implications of this deep truth, ''Let us never imagine that God does not understand us. God's Son took our nature. He entered our experience. He knows what physical pain is. He knows what emotional and spiritual pain is. He knows what the loss of God is. He stood in the outer darkness: in the place where there is no comfort; in the place of the absolute 'Why?' where, needing God as no man ever needed God. He cried and God was not there. Bearing a burden such as the world has never known, and left comfortless. We never go beyond his pain. Our darkness is never more intense than his. Our 'Why's' are never more bewildered. Sometimes, when we ask, 'Why me?' part of His answer is, 'Me too!''

One of the features we have as human beings is the ability to remember. We have a past which we can bring into the present by recalling it through our memory. Here's the thing: Jesus in heaven still has a memory. He perfectly remembers what he went through, all the joys as well as the sorrows, but because he is in glory it doesn't cause him any distress for he is able to place all those experiences into their proper place in God's eternal plan and be at peace. Therefore, when we come to him with our burdens he knows exactly what we are talking about for he remembers going through such things himself.

Furthermore, when we do come to him, says the writer, he is merciful to us, sympathising or 'feeling' for us. Such feelings are human feelings, like the one's he showed on earth: compassion for the widow who stood weeping beside her only son's coffin, the deep unsettling experienced beside the grave of Lazarus, the tenderness he showed to his mother Mary, as he hung on the cross and asked his disciple John to look after her. They are real human emotions he has for us and flow from his kind, generous heart like streams of balm and mercy to our troubled souls.

Just think for a moment of our failures, and sins. Time and time again we let God down. Time and time again we revisit the sins we thought we had forsaken. And so time and time again we wonder: will this be the time he will say, 'I have had enough of you'? Not according to our writer who tells us he is a merciful high priest and has been we where have been. His feelings towards his brothers and sisters who feel crushed by their sin are very different to his feelings towards those who don't care less. He feels for us in our infirmities. Far from our sins driving him away from us in disgust, they cause him to draw ever closer to us in mercy.

In his profoundly moving exposition of Christ's high priestly office in Hebrews, the Puritan Thomas Goodwin shows how Jesus empathises with us far more than even the closest friend, 'Your very sins move him to pity more than anger...it is true, his pity in increased all the more towards you, just like the heart of a father to a child that has some terrible disease....his hatred shall fall only upon the sin, to free you from its ruin and destruction, his very compassion is drawn out more and more to you and this is as much as when you fall under the influence of sin as under any other affliction. Therefore, don't be afraid, 'What shall separate us from Christ's love?'

Jesus doesn't hold back from us one ounce of his love because of our sin just as he didn't hold back one drop of blood because of our sin. This is how Jonathan Edwards preached this sublime truth: 'God in Christ allows such little, poor creatures as you are to come to him, to love communion with him, and to maintain a communication of love with him. You may go to God and tell him how you love him and open your heart and he will accept it....He is come down from heaven and has taken upon him the human nature in purpose, that he might be near to you and might be, as it were your companion.'

2. Because Jesus is fully God he can fully help us: 'he is able to help those being tested.'

At this point it might occur to us to ask: 'If Jesus is bodily in heaven then how can he help us here on earth? Furthermore, there is only one of him, so how can he personally attend to millions of Christians all over the world and throughout the ages all at once? Doesn't his humanity limit him, as it did while he was on earth, after all, if he was in Jerusalem healing someone he couldn't be in Nazareth healing someone else at the same time?' This is where the other aspect of our belief about Jesus comes in- he is not only a real man, but truly God and therefore has all the attributes of God.

God is not limited by time and space as we are since he exists 'outside' time and space. God's essence is equally and fully everywhere at everytime- what is known as the immensity of God. Consequently, even while God the Son was on earth in the person of Jesus, he was equally present by virtue of his essence everywhere else, 'upholding the universe by the word of his power'. This is referred to as the extra Calvinisticum. Here are the words of John Calvin himself on the matter; 'For even if the Word in his immeasurable essence united with the nature of man into one person, we do not imagine that he was confined therein. Here is something marvellous: the Son of God descended from heaven in such a way that, without leaving heaven, he willed to be borne in the virgin's womb, to go about the earth, and to hang upon the cross; yet he continuously filled the world even as he had done from the beginning!'

Let's take this one step further: just as before and during his time on earth God the Son was also everywhere at everytime acting as God because he is God, now he does the same, but there is an added extra, he is also a man and so can be present with us as God and feel for us as a human. Transcending space and time, he can, as it were, project himself into 'space and time' and so be as personally present with us as he was in the upper room with his disciples. This lies behind the wonderful imagery of the Risen and Ascended Lord moving amongst the lampstands, the churches, of Asia Minor in the first three chapters of the Book of Revelation. Bodily present in heaven, Jesus is personally present with his people on earth.

'Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate Deity Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel', wrote Charles Wesley, the wonder is that he is still pleased to dwell as man so that men can dwell with God.

Melvin Tinker is Director of Theology, The Christ Church Network, Hull. He is the author of 'Veiled in Flesh: The Incarnation-What it Means and Why it Matters (Inter Varsity Press, 2019)

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