He Came Down from Heaven
John 1:1–3, 14–18
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. . . .
14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’ ”) 16 For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
We believe in Jesus. That’s the title of our five-week series to kick off 2016. Our focus is the person and work of Christ. The Nicene Creed, which was first drafted in 325 A.D., then updated in 381, then accepted in 451, begins with this brief word about the Father:
We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.
Then the heart and lion’s share of the creed focuss on Jesus, and serves to structure our five-part sermon series:
And [we believe] in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, begotten from the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made; of the same essence as the Father. Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven [our topic for this morning]; he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary, and was made human [next week we’ll look at Jesus’s human life].
He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried [week three we’ll focus on the his death]. The third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures. He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father [week four will be his resurrection and ascension]. He will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead. His kingdom will never end. [Fifth and finally, we’ll focus on Jesus’s Second Coming]
(The last section of the creed turns to the Holy Spirit. We also believe in the Holy Spirit, and that his main work — not his only work — is to glorify Jesus (John 16:14). We think he would be very happy with a five-week series that focuses each week on Jesus.)
But this morning, we set the table for his life and death and resurrection and return by turning to “the incarnation.”
What Is the Incarnation?
The incarnation refers literally to the in-fleshing of the Son of God — putting on human flesh and becoming man. The doctrine of the incarnation says that the eternal second person of the Trinity took on humanity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. A helpful way to remember the key aspects of the incarnation is John 1:14: “The Word became flesh.”
So let me walk you through this summary of the incarnation. First, “the Word,” then “became,” then “flesh” — and we’ll close by drawing out some of the magnificent implications of Jesus’s incarnation for our lives.
The Word refers to the eternal Son of God who was “in the beginning with God” and who himself is God (John 1:1). From eternity past until he took on humanity, the Son of God existed in perfect love, joy, and harmony in the fellowship of the Trinity. Like the Father and the Spirit, he was spirit and had no material substance. But at the incarnation, the eternal Word entered into creation as human. He became a first-century Jew.
This is what we’ve just celebrated at Christmas — the incarnation of Christ, God becoming man. Christmas is not simply the celebration of Jesus’s birth. Unlike the rest of us, Jesus’s story doesn’t begin with his birth.
Prior to our earthly beginnings, we simply did not exist. But it is not so with the Son of God. His “coming forth is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2). Unlike every other human birth, Jesus’s was not a beginning, but a becoming. It wasn’t his start, but his commission. He was not created; he came.
No other human in the history of the world shares in this peculiar glory. As remarkable as his virgin birth is, his preexistence sets him apart even more distinctively. The New Testament teaches three important things about “the Word” who became flesh.
1. He existed before the incarnation.
The Word existed before he was made man at the incarnation. Jesus himself made the claim, so stunning — and even offensive to first-century Jewish sentiments, so offensive that “they picked up stones to throw at him” — when he said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58–59).
True as it was, this jarring reality didn’t go over much better in John 6. “‘What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?’ . . . After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:62, 66).
But those who were given eyes to see the glory didn’t turn back; their number would eventually include Paul and the author of Hebrews. Melchizedek, who lived a thousand years before Jesus, resembled the Son of God by “having neither beginning of days nor end of life” (Hebrews 7:3). And Israel’s wilderness generation “drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4).
Beyond that, four New Testament refrains join the chorus that the person of Christ existed long before that first Christmas.
Mark’s Gospel opens under the banner of Jesus as Yahweh himself come to earth (Mark 1:1–3). He came from outside the created realm, into our world, to bring God’s long-promised rescue. “The Son of Man came . . . to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28; also Mark 10:45 and Luke 19:10). In John, the language of coming, as in John 6:62, is descending. “The Son of Man descended from heaven” (John 3:13). Mere humans don’t descend; they begin. But Jesus came down from heaven.
Again, Paul and Hebrews follow in the Gospel wake. “Christ came into the world” (Hebrews 10:5), and in one of the most terse and potent gospel summaries, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). Related to coming is manifestation. “He was manifested in the flesh” (1 Timothy 3:16). “He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you” (1 Peter 1:20). He came.
He Was Sent
Prophets were sent without preexisting, but not so with God’s own Son. He was sent from outside the world of flesh, into it, to redeem his people. The context is fundamentally different when we’re talking about sending the eternal Son, rather than mere human messengers.
In the parable of the tenants, the owner of the vineyard, at long last, sent his “beloved son” (Mark 12:6), decisively distinct in relationship from the other servants he had sent prior. “When the fullness of time had come,” Paul writes in Galatians 4:4, “God sent forth his Son, born of woman.” God didn’t take an already born human and send him forth; he sent forth his own divine Son to be human. Likewise, in the sacrifice of his Son, God did what we non-preexistent humans could not do for ourselves: “By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3). He was sent.
He Was Given
Third, and perhaps most memorably, the preexistent Christ was given. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). The sacrifice of Christ loses all its force as an expression of God’s love if Jesus did not preexist his incarnation.
The Mount Everest of biblical promises presupposes the Son’s preexistence in saying that God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32). He was given.
The fourth refrain in the New Testament about the preexistence of Christ is “became,” and we’ll move to that in just a moment. But we have more to say about the Word than that he existed before the incarnation.
2. He existed before creation.
But not only did Christ preexist that first Christmas; he also preexisted all creation. It’s difficult to imagine the New Testament being any clearer on this account. The Nicene Creed confesses he was “begotten from the Father before all ages” on the firm foundation of Scripture.
John’s Gospel opens with the declaration,
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. (John 1:1–3)
Human flesh didn’t become the Word. The eternal Word became flesh. And all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. So also, Colossians 1:16–17:
By him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created though him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
And so Jesus prays in John 17:5, “Now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.”
3. He is pre-existent because he is God.
That Christ existed before his incarnation, and even before the foundation of the world, is finally a function of his divinity. He is first and last, Alpha and Omega (Revelation 1:8), because he is God. “No formal distinction can be made between deity and preexistence” (Donald Macleod, Person of Christ, 57).
So let it be well established that when we begin with “the Word,” we begin with God. God became man. But what, then, does it mean that he “became”?
Became does not mean that he ceased to be God. In becoming man, he did not forsake his divine nature. Rather, what it means is that he became man by taking on human nature in addition to his divine nature. Addition, not subtraction.
It is essential to the incarnation — and important in all Christian theology — to recognize that divinity and humanity are not mutually exclusive. The Son of God didn’t have to pick between being God and being man. He could be both at the same time. The eternal Word became human. He was 100% God, and then became 100% man, without ceasing to be 100% God.
On its own, “becoming” wouldn’t necessitate preexistence. The key is to ask what he was before he became. He was divinely rich, and became humanly poor (2 Corinthians 8:9). He was in “the form of God,” then took “the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:6–7). One who was infinitely high, because he was God, became a little lower than the angels, because he became man (Hebrews 2:9).
His “becoming” was not a ceasing to be what he had been previously, but a “taking on” (Philippians 2:7) of human flesh and blood. The fully divine Son added full humanity to his person.
Flesh isn’t merely a reference to the human body but the entirety of what makes up humanity — body, mind, emotions, and will. Hebrews 2:17 and 4:15 teach that to save human beings Jesus had to be made like us “in every respect” except our sin. In the incarnation, everything proper to humanity was united to the Son of God. The Son of God didn’t only become like man; he actually became truly and fully human.
Which means Jesus has a human body, emotions, mind, and will. And this in no way compromises his deity. When the Word became flesh, he did not merely become human in part. He fully became truly human.
Jesus’s Human Body
It is clear enough from the New Testament that Jesus has a human body. “The Word became flesh” means at least this, and more. Jesus’s humanity is one of the first tests of orthodoxy (1 John 4:2; 2 John 7). Jesus was born (Luke 2:7). He grew (Luke 2:40, 52). He grew tired (John 4:6) and got thirsty (John 19:28) and hungry (Matthew 4:2). He became physically weak (Matthew 4:11; Luke 23:26). He died (Luke 23:46). And he had a real human body after his resurrection (Luke 24:39; John 20:20, 27).
Jesus’s Human Emotions
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus clearly displays human emotions. When Jesus heard the centurion’s words of faith, “he marveled” (Matthew 8:10). He says in Matthew 26:38 that his “soul is very sorrowful, even to death.” In John 11:33–35, Jesus is “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” and even weeps. He says in John 12:27, “Now is my soul troubled,” and in John 13:21, he is “troubled in his spirit.” The author to the Hebrews writes that “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7).
John Calvin memorably summed it up: “Christ has put on our feelings along with our flesh.”
Jesus’s Human Mind
Jesus also has a human mind. Two key texts make this undeniable:
Luke 2:52: “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.”
Mark 13:32: “Concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
The second verse, of course, is striking. For Christians who clearly affirm Jesus’s deity, Mark 13:32 seems like trouble. But what looks difficult at first glance proves to be a glorious confirmation of Jesus’s humanity and a very helpful piece in knowing the full humanity of Christ.
If Jesus is God and God knows everything, how can Jesus not know when his second coming will be?
In addition to being fully divine, Jesus is fully human. He has both an infinite, divine mind and a finite, human mind. He can be said not to know things because he is human and finite — human minds are not omniscient. And Jesus can be said to know all things (John 21:17) because he is divine and infinite in his knowledge.
Paradoxical as it seems, we must affirm that Jesus both knows all things and doesn’t know all things. For the unique, two-natured person of Christ, this is no contradiction but a peculiar glory of the God-man.
Jesus’s Human Will
Now, trickiest of all, Jesus not only has a divine will but also a human will. This took the church the longest to wrestle with. Two wills — one divine and one human. Two key texts mention his human will:
John 6:38: “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.”
Matthew 26:39: “Not as I will, but as you will.”
Jesus has an infinite, divine will that he shares with his Father. And he has a finite, human will that, while being an authentic human will, is perfectly in sync with and submissive to the divine will, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus’s Human Home
That Jesus took on full humanity — body and mind and affections and will — also means he entered into our world and surroundings, and with it, the pain of relationships, the difficulties of disciplemaking, and the aggravations of everyday life. He shared our world and environment. He worked a “secular” job for decades before there was any “public ministry.” Think of that! The Son of God lived on the planet in relative obscurity for over three decades. Don’t give up because you’re laboring in obscurity.
That Jesus became fully human also means he took on human sexuality. Which means Jesus knows what it’s like to have sexuality but not to express it sinfully. You don’t have to have sex to be fully human. And Jesus never married — which means that you don’t have be married to be fully human.
Jesus knows what it’s like to be human, to be finite, to be frail. Hebrews 2:17 and 4:15 says that he is like us in every respect — except for sin. Jesus lived a perfect human life, a life totally without sin.
What the Incarnation Means for You
So the Word became flesh.
The Word: the eternal second person of the Trinity, God himself, fully divine
Became: without ceasing to be God, he took full humanity to his person, such that two full, unconfused, unchanged, undivided, inseparable natures are united together in one person
Flesh: fully human, in body, emotions, mind, will, and surroundings
This is the incarnation: two whole and uncompromised natures in one spectacular person. The significance of the Creator becoming a creature alongside of us is greater than we can fully trace out, but let’s close with seven implications for our lives, among many more.
1) You can be human.
The incarnation sanctifies our humanity. Humanity and divinity are not at odds, but complementary. God created humanity — and then became human. Humanity is good, made in the image of God. It is not a sin to be human. It is sin to rebel against God. Don’t feel guilty about being human; glory in it. This also means the gospel is relevant to our whole humanity. Not just our souls, but also our minds. And our bodies.
2) You can be ordinary.
The incarnation sanctifies the normalcy of our lives, like work and family and hygiene and eating and exercise — all the normal, boring things we need to do everyday to be human. Jesus lived three decades on earth in relative obscurity as a common laborer. Your life doesn’t need to feel spectacular. You are freed from the demand to be dramatic. Your life doesn’t need to be celebrated. God himself walked the earth for thirty-some years and hardly anyone took notice.
3) You are not alone in your pain.
God himself knows what it’s like to suffer the pains and losses of life in a fallen world. Jesus knows what it’s like to be abandoned and betrayed. He knows what it’s like to suffer loss. He knows what it’s like to grieve as human (A secondary point here is that you can be single. Jesus never married. God himself when he became human never had sex. The human life of Jesus is a testament that you don’t need marriage and sex to be fully human.)
4) You can fight and defeat sin.
In the incarnation, we see the possibility of living in holiness and righteousness. None of us is perfect like Jesus, and none of us will live from now until the end of today without some sinful attitude or action. However, what the incarnate life of Christ demonstrates for us is that is it is possible for humans, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to resist temptation and have victory over sin.
Never once, as we observe him struggle with temptation, do we see him deriving comfort from the fact of his own impeccability [which means inability to sin]. All that we see is his having recourse to the very same weapons as are available to ourselves: the company of his fellow-believers (Mark 14:33), the word of God (Matthew 4:4), and prayer (Mark 14:35). (Macleod, Person of Christ, 230)
5) You can be saved.
There is a reason he became fully human: “for us and for our salvation,” as the church creeds read. The incarnation was not for show, but to save. He is not only our sovereign by virtue of being God, but now also, made possible by being man, he is our sacrifice and substitute. He is not only our creator, but also our redeemer. He is the Lamb who was slain. He died for sins, not his own.
How amazing that the divine Son of God would not just take on part of our humanity but all of it — and then take that true humanity all the way to the cross for us. Jesus took a human body to save our bodies. And he took a human mind to save our minds. Without becoming man in his emotions, he could not have saved our emotions. And without taking a human will, he could not save our will. In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus, “That which he has not assumed he has not healed.” He assumed it all, and saved it all.
He became man in full so that he might save us in full. And so the incarnation is an eternal testimony that the fully divine Son and his Father are unswervingly for us. The incarnation is permanent proof that Jesus, in perfect harmony with his Father, is unstoppably for us. He has demonstrated his love for us in that while we were still sinners, he took our nature to his one person and died for us.
6) You can know God.
Jesus is the revelation of God.
John 1:18: No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
John 14:8–9: “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”
John 12:45: “whoever sees me sees him who sent me”
This is why he is “the Word.” He is God communicating himself to us. He is God revealing himself to us, so fully and richly that it’s not just a word proposition but a Word person. He is God’s full and final Word to humanity. Human can know God because God became human.
7) You can be truly happy.
God has made the human heart in such a way that it will never be eternally content with what is only human. Finitude can’t slake our thirst for the infinite.
And yet, in our finite humanity, we were made to ache for a point of correspondence with the divine. God was glorious long before he became a man in Jesus. But we are human beings, and unincarnate deity doesn’t connect with us in the same way as the God who became human. The conception of a god who never became man (like Allah) will not satisfy the human soul like the God who did.
You can be truly happy because no one person satisfies the complex longings of the human heart like the God-man.