December is the season when tinsel-haloed angels draped in bedsheets announce the birth of Christ to bathrobe-clad shepherds on the church stage. There is a kind of charm in the way we tell the nativity story that might fool people into thinking that it is merely a rustic folktale. But the Bible’s account of the birth of Christ is not a children’s story. It is a record of history and an act of divine revelation.
Luke begins his recounting of the Nativity story by anchoring the story to a particular place at a moment of time. Luke starts his telling, “in the days of Herod, king of Judea” (Luke 1:5). Its true beginning, however, is much earlier than this. Earlier than the reign of Herod. Earlier than the prophets who predicted Jesus’ coming. Even earlier than the promise made in the Garden that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). Indeed, one might even say that this is a story without a beginning since, in the beginning, Jesus Christ, who is the Word, already was (John 1:1).
God, who has no beginning, entered time and space in the person of Jesus Christ. The God, who already was, took to Himself a human nature that He did not previously possess. The theological word for this is incarnation. It is a word that basically means “to become flesh.”
The Gospels describe the incarnation of Christ as a historical fact. But the Scriptures also point out that it was a revelatory event. The author of the letter to the Hebrews says that God has “spoken to us by his Son” and that Jesus is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Heb. 1:1, 3). This assertion does more than claim that Jesus is God in human form. It distinguishes Jesus from the Father, just as John does when he says that the Word was “with God” and also “was God” (John 1:1).
Poet Richard Crashaw captured the mystery of our Lord’s birth with these words:
Welcome, all Wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span.
Summer to winter, day in night,
Heaven in earth, and God in man.
But the Son of God was not born simply to make a poetic statement about God. His humanity does more than translate the divine into human terms. Jesus was born to die and rise again. Without the cross and the resurrection, Jesus’ translation of the divine nature into human experience would be little more than a babble to us. Without the deliverance which the Savior’s death and resurrection secured, the portrait of God that the incarnation provides would be meaningless. We would suppress its truth, just as we push down the things that God has revealed about Himself “from what has been made” (Rom. 1:20).
Jesus is also much more than a moral example. Without the cross’s power to cover sin and “put to death” whatever belongs to the sinful nature, the incarnation is like a virtuoso’s musical score, beautiful to hear but impossible to perform (Col 3:5). Viewing Christ as little more than a moral example reduces Him to a mere recapitulation of the law instead of its fulfillment. We may, like John, be able to look and touch (1 John 1:1), but we would never be able to follow. Jesus took on a human nature not only to correct our false perceptions about what God is like but to rescue us from the sin which was the cause of this distortion in the first place.
When Christmas comes around, there is an unfortunate tendency to co-opt the nativity story for other purposes by placing it within frameworks that diminish its bearing on the Bible’s theology of atonement. It has been portrayed as a morality play about the plight of refugees, divine lobbying for the Pro-Life platform, an argument for showing hospitality, a statement about the role of women in the church, and much more. Perhaps the account of Christ’s birth has implications for all these concerns, but they are not its primary point. The main point of the nativity is that God became human.
The doctrine of the incarnation does not teach that the God merely took up residence in the man Jesus, who was subsequently elevated to a divine status. Neither does it assert that God only appeared to be a human. Instead, this teaching of the Church asserts that the incarnate Christ was both truly God and truly man. His divine nature did not alter his human nature and his humanity did not diminish his divinity.
The incarnation is fundamental to the Christian faith because it is the foundation of Christ’s atoning work. Jesus was made in human likeness so that he could suffer and die on the cross for our sins (Phil. 2:7–8). The fact that Jesus was made like us ensures that he is able to be a merciful high priest, one who understands and sympathizes with our struggle against temptation (Heb. 2:17–18). Christ’s true humanity also meant that he could suffer in our place by taking on himself the penalty for our sin. Though he was tempted like us in every point, Jesus was without sin (Heb. 4:15). This enabled him to go beyond sympathy and provide a genuine remedy for our transgressions through the shedding of his blood.
Jesus was, as the old confession says, “very God of very God.” Jesus shared our humanity, “so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:14). To accomplish this Jesus had to be made like us. As Hebrews 2:17 says, “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.”
Jesus does not merely sympathize with our suffering and provide an example of what holiness looks like. He took our sin upon Himself. Jesus’ humanity meant that He could be pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities. His punishment brought us peace. By His wounds, we are healed. Jesus’ life was an offering for sin. His death was the price paid to the law in compensation for our sins. Because we have been united with Christ in His death, we can also share the hope of His resurrection (Isa. 53:11–12).
When we separate Christmas from the cross, all that remains is a charming story about a babe in a manger. It may be a tale fit for children, but it has no value for broken sinners. The Nativity of Christ is more than a sweet story. It was a cosmic revolution that shook creation to its very foundation. It brought about a change in the Person of Christ so that He became what He previously was not, without ceasing to be what He was before. Still God, but now in the flesh. There was never a time when the Word was not, but there was a time when the Word had not yet become flesh. Unto us has been born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Let all the tinseled angels shout this news to bathrobed shepherds everywhere. This is no tale but a fact of history. Our God has come. Clothed in human nature. And we will never be the same.