On God Becoming Man

It’s been said over and over again and yet, ironically, it appears to be an increasingly forgotten notion: remember the reason for the season. Christmas is, primarily and supremely, a celebration of the incarnation of God. This is not merely a celebration of Jesus’ birth but a celebration of God’s own assumption of the human flesh (contra docetism). What often happens, when we’re not focused on our new toys, is we focus too deeply on Jesus’ own coming to dwell with us and not on his purpose for coming. Do not get me wrong. The Christmas season is one for celebrating and praising the arrival of God on this earth. But unfortunately, we have a habit of segmenting the birth of Jesus off from the rest of the story.

The question I want to put before you is this: Why was Jesus born? I do not mean what was his purpose in coming. I mean  Centuries ago Gregory of Nyssa posed the same question: “why did God take a tedious, circuitous route, submit to a bodily nature, enter life through birth, pass through the various stages of development, and finally taste death…Could he not have remained in his transcendent and divine glory, and saved man by a command, renouncing such circuitous routes?” (Address on Religious Instruction, 15). This is a legitimate question and it’s one which I have heard posed a number of times: if God is all powerful, why couldn’t God just forgive us? Why was it necessary to become man and die as a sacrifice for sins? Indeed, this was the view which the Greeks had. Aristotle, for example, saw the chasm between God and man so great that any sort of reconciliation, friendship, or redemption was absurd.

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We can find one answer to Gregory of Nyssa’s question in the notion of goodness. As T. Oden has highlighted, goodness by nature communicates itself. Thus, redemption is inherently tied to a process in which God communicates with man on a relational and empathetic level. He became like them in every way in order to bring about the salvation plan. First, notice that the incarnation demands that Christ knows our human predicament. He not only knows it in his divine omniscience but God has experienced what it means to be beaten, rejected, tortured, and killed. Gregory Of Nazianzen stated it well in saying that the Christ the judge “measures all by comparison with his own suffering, so that he may know our condition by his own, and how much is demanded of us, and how much we yield” (Theol. Orat. XXX.6). Similarly, Paul writes in 1 Cor 8.9, “Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” Secondly, notice that the author of Hebrews has a strong emphasis on what is actually necessary. Scripturally, in order to save man he needed to take on that nature.

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. (Heb 2.17-18)

This brings us right into agreement with Athanasius who argued that his coming as a man was necessary for redemption. Indeed, the idea of a god becoming a man was repulsive to the Greeks (and the later docetists). But as Athanasius argued, full humanity needed to be assumed by God for it to be cured: “it was naturally consequent that the physician and Saviour should appear in what had come to be, in order also to cure the things that were. For this cause, then, he has become a man…” Further, if death was both bodily and spiritual the only way to rid the consequence of death was to take up both those natures (On the Incarnation, 44).

Finally, we can state qualitatively that God’s nature is compassionate. The incarnation was a stepping down of God into the human situation for the sake of sharing in our temptations, trials, struggles, pain, and death. One of the early hymns of the early Church worshiped Jesus for just that:

Who being in very nature God
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! (Phil 2.6-8)

This hymn makes the incarnation/birth stories even more remarkable. Both Matthew and Luke are presenting us a new king and ruler. And, yet, this new ruler assumes the role of nothing! He takes the nature of a slave (the Greek word doulos means slave, not servant). It presents a king who is exalted because he died!

According to Calvin, “the sole purpose of Christ’s incarnation was our redemption.” The purpose of Christmas is not to celebrate Christ’s birth as if it is to be segmented off from the death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus. They are, indeed, inherently tied together. As much as we are celebrating his birth, let us celebrate what that birth was for. Why did the incarnation occur? In Augustine’s words, “That men might be born of God, God was first born of them” (Homily on John II.15).