We were once watching the late news on TV one evening when a televised report was made of a meeting of religious leaders in South Africa who were called together by the government. The political-oriented religious leaders who came together represented some of the largest institutional churches of the country. These were the pastors, bishops, and leading pundits of churches from which the government wanted some opinions on matters that affected the people.
From where the reporter stationed his camera for some interviews, the focus of the camera was pointed down on the herd of competing religious leaders who scrambled for front role recognition. Once the camera was positioned, the TV news reporter then stepped into the hoard of shoulder-shoving competitors in order to interview some chosen representative of the religious world for the nightly news.
This was certainly a curious sight to behold. These religious leaders were pushing and shoving one another in order to get to the reporter. It was as if all dignity was thrown aside in order that the lucky pastor or bishop could have the camera focused exclusively on him for a nationwide interview that would be broadcast on the evening news.
It was indeed an incredible sight. The pomp and self-promotion of some of the more politically oriented religious leaders of South Africa was clearly revealed. These particular leaders, and the churches they led, had allowed a century of political struggle for the right to vote in a free and fair election, to influence their behavior as supposed leaders of the people of faith of the nation. Fortunately, there are presently a host of humble church leaders who simply stayed home in order not to be a part of such self-promotion. These dedicated religious leaders desired to continue on with their dedicated ministry to help the struggling souls of their communities.
If Saul of Tarsus were here today, and at such a meeting, he too would assume that as a “Pharisee of Pharisees,” he would have been right there in the midst of all those religious leaders. That was the world in which he lived as a young Jewish leader. He had all the pomp and prestige of the religious establishment of the day behind him. He could even have ushered in his Jewish miliary police and orchestrated some order out of the chaos in order that he should be the televised religious leader who was interviewed for the “late night news of Jerusalem.”
However, many years later after Saul transformed into Paul, and after a life that was driven by the gospel of One who threw him off his horse on a Damascus road, Saul, now Paul, was ironically ushered out of a city in Asia for His faith in Jesus. In the midst of a hysterically stirred mob, he was stoned for his faith that he had once persecuted in his youth (At 14:19). Even later on his last trip to Jerusalem, he was again seized by religious fanatics who would have torn him asunder if it were not for a Roman commander who rescued him out of the hands of a mob (At 21:31,32). All this upheaval reveals the true nature of religious leaders who have no concept of the transformational nature of the gospel. However, in view of the extreme change from Saul to Paul, the transformational power of the gospel is also revealed. This is something to behold!
In view of his transformation from religious fanatic to gospel-driven servant, we now know why God called into servanthood a man like Saul of Tarsus. He had all the pomp and prestige in the religious organization of Judaism (Gl 1:13,14). He was a Pharisee of Pharisees—a renowned religious leader and exalted above all those fellow opportunists who would compete with him in religious leadership for an interview on the nightly news (Ph 3:4-6). He even had a ticket to imprison those who would speak out against the predominant religious establishment of Judaism of the day (At 9:1,2). He thus had position, pomp, and certainly, pride that carried him from one city to another persecuting those who had signed up with the humiliated “criminal” who was executed outside Jerusalem about seven or eight years before.
So what must one do to repent of being such an attention-seeking, lordship-craving religious leader as Saul? To what extent must such a person go in order to reveal in his own life that he has truly repented of a life that was so obsessively driven by fanatical religiosity? A humble response to the gospel can be the only motivation to accomplish such a feat in transforming one’s heart. It was certainly not easy for Saul to repent of his life-style of commanding a team of persecutors into the servant leader Paul who gave his life as a living sacrifice for the Jesus he had formerly persecuted (At 22:8).
However, it was not an instantaneous life-style transformation from Saul to Paul. From the day Saul met the Lord on the Damascus road, to the time Barnabas went many years later from Antioch to Tarsus in order to fetch Paul for the mission of proclaiming the gospel, it was at least five years (See At 11:25,26). It took that much time, including three years in an Arabian desert, for Saul to dig out of his inner soul his former misguided religiosity, and especially his lust for notoriety among religious people. He came from the extreme of religiosity in this matter because he had formerly assigned himself to be the “savior of Judaism.” And today, we are not unaware of those who step up to be some “savior of the church” (See Gl 1:13,14). Those who involve themselves in being such are forgetting that the church has only one Savior.
In Paul’s response to the gospel in Damascus, he knew that he had to radically change his heart, thinking and behavior in order to emulate the gospel of the incarnate God who appeared to him in a vision on the Damascus road. So over time, Saul transformed. He transformed into the humble Paul we all know best. He transformed so much that he certainly practiced what he preached in Romans 12:2: “Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”
After his years of repentant transformation in Damascus, the Arabian desert, and Troas of Cilicia, Paul was worthy and ready to be the apostle to the Gentiles. He was ready to accomplish his Christ-given mission as an evangelist of the living Jesus to the Gentiles, Kings, and the household of Israel (At 9:15). He was transformed even to the extent of willingly being humiliated for Jesus for the rest of his life, sometimes being stoned, and continuing on in his mission trips with the threat of death hanging over him as he struggled from one city to another in his mission to both live and preach the gospel. He did all this in order to preach the good news of the crucified Galilean whom he had once considered a condemned religious criminal (See At 14:19; 2 Co 11:16-29; Gl 2:20).
On one occasion, Paul essentially upbraided some disciples who were fearful of his possible murder in Jerusalem. He responded to their concerns, “What do you mean by weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (At 21:13). This is certainly the extent to which a true gospel response will take us in our thinking and living. It is as John also explained, “Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life” (Rv 2:10).
Since it took the Lord Jesus unto death to bring us into His realm of the redeemed, then it should be no surprise that it will take us, as Paul and John, unto death to be redeemed into eternal glory. In fact, Jesus would remind all of us of the following: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me, cannot be My disciple” (Lk 14:27).
From the pomp of notoriety in a religious system that encouraged such, to poverty and death in the shadow of a cross, Paul was driven to transform. Only because he was eventually transformed to be a servant of Jesus could he have been qualified to write the following remarkable statement in reference to his transformational repentance from pompous persecuting Pharisee to a gospel-preaching suffering servant of Jesus who would die for the gospel message he preached:
“I [Paul] say the truth in Christ, I do not lie, my conscience also bearing witness with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Rm 9:1-3).
As leaders of God’s people, we must continue to pray as David: “Keep back Your servant also from presumptuous sins. Do not let them have dominion over me” (Ps 19:13; see Nm 15:30). We need to cease presuming to be somewhat in view of the One who emptied Himself from being God in the spirit to being Jesus in the flesh on a cross (See Ph 2:5-8). The more we grow in our knowledge of the extent to which the Son of God went in His incarnation, the more we are overwhelmingly stirred to transform ourselves into being a humble servant of our reigning King.
We must admit that we are often everything but what the Holy Spirit revealed that our relationships should be with one another in the body of Christ and with our King. We struggle to live “the mind of Christ” since we have joined with Him on His incarnational journey to the cross. The mind of the incarnate Son of God often seems beyond our reach. We even think that sometimes we are on the wrong road. We are like Peter when Jesus had turned His face toward Jerusalem, knowing that He was now on the final road to the cross. Peter earnestly tried to dissuade Jesus from His destiny, and thus implore Him to make a U-turn. But Jesus rebuked Peter: “Get behind me, Satan?” (Mt 16:23).
Peter had just assumed the mind of Satan in order to turn Jesus from doing that for which He was incarnate in the flesh. At that time, Jesus reprimanded Peter, “You do not have in mind the things of God” (Mt 16:23). And so we also often harbor in our minds the ways of the world on a road that incurs a cross that leads to our humiliation with Jesus. Nevertheless, we must not despair in knowing that we are still not what we want to be, or where we will eventually find our own destiny. We are walking in life with the mind of Christ that we know we should have (Ph 2:5). So we struggle on in appreciation for God’s grace and the profound example that Jesus has already passed down this road.
There is encouragement in the midst of our struggle in knowing that our Lord Jesus knows our predicament. He went down this road of struggle long before we signed up for the journey. Therefore, the gospel example that the incarnate Son of God left with us must be the road map by which we are motivated and directed to transform our own lives. In our case, we must thank God that the Son was not detoured by the plea of Peter. He continued on His journey, not only to Jerusalem, but also to the humiliation of the cross.
Unfortunately, the influence of the world—and Jesus knows this—often hinders us from following His example. His bar sometimes seems to be too high. He gave up being in spirit, and in the form of God, in order to incarnate into flesh through which nails would eventually be driven (Jn 1:1,2,14). This is an extreme example. Nevertheless, we must confess that we would not for one moment sacrifice His extreme example for anything less. After everything was eventually revealed to Peter by the Holy Spirit, neither would he. We fully understand that the Son of God had to take this extreme journey from spirit to flesh, and then to the cross, for us. His journey, therefore, was a necessary suffering for us because it involved all our sins at His expense.
A. Following the options:
If we believe that God is asking too much for us to go on this incarnational journey with His Son, or if we fail to allow Him to motivate us to transform our own lives, then we will often do one of two options: First, we will simply ignore Jesus and move on and enjoy the things of the world. Or second, we will begin the process of transforming into that which we believe He wants us to be. If we choose the second option, then hang on. The road is filled with the potholes of trials and suffering. The transformational journey with Jesus will not be easy. As in the words of Jesus in reference to His own incarnational journey, suffering will be involved along the entire journey (See Mk 8:31).
If our faith moves us to take the road of the second option, then we will allow ourselves to be transformed into the image of Jesus. If we do not want to go down this road, then we will often seek out or establish some religious group of like-minded “faith only” people who have resigned themselves from the incarnational journey (See Js 2:14-26). Such people usually establish a convenient fellowship for their superficial religiosity, which fellowship will accept all non-transformed religionists who want to masquerade as Christians.
It is simply the spirit of idolatry, that if one feels frustrated emotionally concerning his faith, he will often create a god in his mind who is pleased with his existing behavior. He will then establish a ceremonialized religion of rites and rituals that will give him some emotional relief that he is doing just fine as he is.
This is also the curse of legalized religiosity. The non-transformed have contented themselves to believe that if they have meritoriously performed certain legal ceremonies on Sunday morning, whether biblical or traditional, then they are good before God. Such is the belief and behavior of one who truly does not comprehend or appreciate the incarnational offering of the Son of God. Such folks do not realize that they are on a road that will eventually take them into an eternal destruction from the presence of God (See 2 Th 1:6-9).
But if we are to follow in the footsteps of Jesus’ incarnate feet, then we are headed down a road of metaphorical cross-bearing, and sometimes to a literal cross in our end. This is exactly what Jesus had in mind when He admonished Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan” (Mt 16:23). Peter was rebuked by Jesus because he did not understand the destiny of his friend Jesus. But when he eventually understood all the truth of the gospel, he was willing to follow his friend in suffering until the end of his own life. And as tradition reveals, Peter suffered death by crucifixion at the end of his journey.
B. A voice out of heaven:
But the preceding option of creating a god and religion after our own desires is no option at all. It is not if we seek a better existence in what the Bible describes as an abundant life along our present journey and in heaven at our final destination (Jn 10:10). The price that Jesus paid in order to come from heaven in order to take us back there is simply overwhelming. We are compelled to follow Him. We cannot, therefore, ignore Him or the price He paid.
Here’s why. If we would view the incarnation of the Son of God from the perspective of God the Father in heaven, then the incarnation into the flesh of a baby in a barn in Bethlehem would be a humiliation, not simply an act of humility. But this is difficult for human minds to comprehend. What God would willingly transform Himself into the carnal flesh of those He created (Cl 1:16)? And as if that were not enough, this God would allow His incarnate body to be humiliated publicly on a cross at the hands of pompous religionists who cried out for His crucifixion.
Living incarnationally, therefore, assumes that we also would be willing to be publicly humiliated for being in fellowship with this God. It was this public humiliation about which Jesus spoke to His disciples in Mark 9 on His way to Jerusalem. It was this subject that repulsed Peter. At that time during His earthly ministry, Jesus was bearing a cross in His preaching and teaching. This ministry began at least three years before He was eventually nailed to a literal cross. It was only on His final journey to Jerusalem that He spoke of His suffering and final humiliating end, which end Peter had a difficult time accepting.
It is the cross of living the incarnation throughout our lives that is in Jesus warning to His disciples: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (Mt 16:24). Is this not that about which Jesus also warned those who would dare take up this life-bearing cross in order to follow Jesus unto our own end? “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you” (Jn 15:18).
The hate of the world is inherit in bearing the cross of the mind of Christ. If one cannot live with this, but at the same time live with some “level” of faith that soothes his conscience, then he will create a god in his mind that he is convinced will allow him to live in a world that does not hate him for his beliefs and behavior. He can thus live with peace of mind, knowing that all his worldly friends will not criticize him for living out his mediocre faith. But in reference to having in us the mind of Christ, it is worth the cross-bearing in order to life with the incredible hope that comes with the cross.
C. The Divine humiliation:
Nevertheless, before we would reach for that cross in order to follow Jesus on a road that ends at the corner of cross and humiliation, there is one historical statement we must first seriously consider. We must consider the Divine humiliation that Jesus had to undergo during His arrest, and then during His trials as He stood before the worldly-minded Jewish Sanhedrin.
The following historical statement was written by Luke. It was written in reference to the maltreatment that Jesus received while He stood before some religionists who presumptuously assumed that they were representatives for God: “The men who held Jesus began mocking and beating Him” (Lk 22:63).
The Greek verb tense in this verse is not brought out fully in the English translation. The verb tense in Greek is past participle. Properly translated, the past participle would justifiably be translated, “they kept on beating Him.” It was not just one slap on the face of Jesus, but a continuous beating of His face, His head and His back. And this was all done by religious people who presumed to be righteous before God, and thus behaving as the supposed their god wanted them to behave (See Rm 10:1-3).
The men who constrained Jesus simply kept on striking Him, one strike after another. Not only did they brutalize His body with one merciless strike after another, they also humiliated Him by spitting in His face (Mt 26:67; Mk 14:65). Therefore, are we willing to take up the same cross that Jesus had to bear on His road to His own execution? We need to seriously consider this before we claim the name “Christian.”
All of us might reconsider why we are disciples of such a One who was willing to give up being in spirit that could not be beaten with human hands, in order to incarnate into this world of flesh that could be spit upon and continuously beaten. Therefore, before we jump up and down on Sunday morning crying out, “Jesus, Jesus,” we should probably be falling on our faces, prostrate on the floor in tearful worship of thanksgiving.
As previously stated, unless we comprehend the extent of His incarnation, we will have little motivation to proceed further in our own struggle to transform our inner souls. We will often go to a comfortable limit in our own transformation, to a spiritual plateau with which we can live, on which there is no inherit hate by the world. We can then find solace within ourselves throughout the rest of our lives with our own self-satisfying religiosity. So do we really want to follow the mandate of the Holy Spirit, who said, “Present your bodies a living sacrifice” (Rm 12:1)? Or, is this too much for which to ask? Would God really expect us to emulate the mind of His Son to the point that it would stir up the hate of the world?
D. A necessary elimination:
Since through His incarnational behavior Jesus lived in a manner that drew multitudes to Himself, those of the religious establishment of that day came to the conclusion that they had to rid the religious community of such a person. His influence was at the time becoming quite overpowering. Multitudes were starting to follow Him (Mt 4:23-25).
And besides this, the common people could see a stark difference between the behavior of Jesus and the arrogant behavior of their own self-righteous religious leaders. Therefore, the religious leaders determined that it was necessary to humiliate Jesus publicly because He lived so much in conflict with them in their own self-righteous behavior. In fact, they determined to go beyond humiliation, to a scheme of murder: “Then from that day forth they took counsel together to kill Him” (Jn 11:53).
The religious leaders actually identified themselves as wolves among the people. They did so because they came to the conclusion that they had to extract from the religious community the One they considered to be in competition with their positions. This Radical Rabbi exposed the very core nature of the religion of Judaism, of which they were the leader. Subsequently, the “theological police” (the Pharisees) cried out before Pontus Pilate that this Jesus, this rebel against their religion, must be extracted from society through execution.
Would we join such a gang of pompous religionists who would cry out that nails be driven through the flesh of this incarnate God (Mt 27:23)? Would we even join in with just one slap on His face? If we seek to live after a self-constructed religiosity as the Pharisees, then we have already joined in with this “church” of humiliators. We have already delivered our first slap. And with every willful sin against Him, we keep on beating away.
If fact, if we have joined in with a manufactured religiosity after our own desires that is contrary to incarnational membership after Jesus, then our slaps on the face of Jesus happen every Sunday morning when we come together with one another for some concert of self-entertainment, or to meritoriously perform some system of ceremonies that renders us with self-righteousness until next Sunday morning.
E. Inherent criticism of incarnational discipleship:
Sometimes we are spiritual humbugs who have little comprehension of the good news of the actual incarnation of the Son of God. Those disciples who truly seek to live incarnationally as Jesus are often the object of unjust criticism. The “Pharisees” who lead among us are quick to criticize incarnational servants because these disciples are often the only ones who are doing anything in response to Jesus. So we must not forget that cross-bearing inherently induces criticism. It is as Jesus alerted His disciples, “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you” (Jn 15:18).
Many of the critics, on the other hand, are just sitting idly by warming some bench on Sunday morning. The saying is still true that if you are criticized as a true disciple of Jesus, then you are probably doing something right, or at least doing something, which makes you a disciple, that is, a follower of Jesus. Those who suppose themselves to be Christians, but are not criticized, are usually not doing anything, though they claim to be disciples of the incarnate Son of God.
We must not forget that incarnational living embarrasses those who suppose themselves to be Christians, but have contented themselves with a nominal life of faith, or are consumed with thinking and behavior that is more self-righteous than incarnational.
We must not forget that the Pharisees were very religious people. Nevertheless, in their religiosity they kept on beating on the flesh of the incarnate God at the time of His trials. Sometimes we ourselves beat on this incarnate God by the dysfunctional conduct of our own lives. We must constantly remind ourselves, therefore, that every willful sin we commit is a strike against the incarnate body of the Son of God. Nevertheless, because of God’s grace, we must understand that He had to be spit upon for our sins (Rm 5:8).
We simply forget that when the Father possibly called from heaven to His Son on earth on the first Sunday morning after the Son’s resurrection, the Son was not able to give a glowing report of numbers in attendance at “His local church.”
The Father could have inquired from heaven, “What now is the first Sunday attendance of Your church for which You have worked so hard for over three years to establish, and finally humiliate Yourself on a cross?”
The Son could only have replied, “Just Me. Everyone else has fled.”
Now consider the fact that some are so audacious as to claim that in their arrogance and self-righteous religiosity they are disciples of this humiliated Church Leader from whom an entire membership fled (See Mt 26:56). The membership fled regardless of the fact that the Leader lived out the very gospel for which He came into the world to reveal. This may answer the question as to why some preachers preach little on the subject of the incarnation. The subject does not produce a church house full of contributors who are willing to take up a cross and follow a humiliated Founder.
Living the gospel of Jesus inherently conflicts with our desire to have a great following, or have others focus their attention on us. Being Christian and being narcissistic are at the extreme ends of the behavioral continuum. The first disciples fled because at the time they did not understand fully the implications of the crucifixional humiliation of the incarnate Son of God. But we do. We have in our hands the Textbook that explains in graphic detail the entirety of the incarnational journey of the Son of God. When the Son of God returned to heaven after His incarnational journey, the Holy Spirit took away all our excuses that were based on ignorance. We could never again claim ignorance if we possessed a copy of this Textbook that explains the incarnational journey of the Son of God in detail.
Please keep in mind that in the past we have generally focused on the cross, making the cross of Jesus all about ourselves. We proclaim, “Jesus died for our sins!” And He did. We add, “We are redeemed by the cross!” And we are. We continue, “Because He was crucified for us, we are destined for heaven!” And WE are! The sacrificial crucifixion was for us, and thus the cross was about us.
But hang on. The incarnation was all about Him giving up being God and coming in the flesh of man. In our faith, it is where we place the most emphasis: on the cross or on the incarnation. In placing so much emphasis on ourselves and our sins, we must not forget that the cross was made possible because the incarnation was first about Him giving up being God in order to be flesh for us (Jn 1:1,2,14).
And so, we will not flee from our responsibility to be changed by what the Son of God personally did for us in giving up being in the form of God in order to be humiliated on a cross for us. We will thus continually remind ourselves that if we behave arrogantly, then we have already fled from the gospel nature of the incarnate Son of God who humiliated Himself in order that we be as He did.
The word “incarnation” means “to be made in the bodily flesh of man.” This word can only be applied to God coming in the flesh of man, for God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have always existed eternally in the spirit. In reference specifically to Jesus, the Son of God, that which was in spirit in eternity was revealed in this world in the flesh of man, whom Joseph and Mary named “Jesus” (Mt 1:21).
The Holy Spirit gave us a commentary on this gospel journey of the Son of God in Philippians 2:5-11. This commentary begins with the following statement: “Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus” (Ph 2:5). Before He explained the incarnational journey of the Son of God, the Holy Spirit first stated that everyone who would be a Christian must think and behave after the example of the incarnational sacrifice of the Son of God. The Spirit emphasized the importance of this thinking and behavior in reference to the continued transformation of our lives in response to the grace of God (See Rm 12:2).
In Philippians 2:6, the Spirit continued to explain, “Who [that is, the Son of God], being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God” (Ph 2:6). Jesus was previously in the nature of God. However, He did not consider this equality with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as the one God in spirit something to be continually grasped. He did not because all people of this world would continue dead in their sins if there were no incarnational offering for them (See Rm 3:10). Therefore, through His incarnational sacrifice, the Son of God was willing, on our behalf, to give up His eternal equality in spirit with the Father and Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit, through the apostle John, further informs us what happened through the incarnation of the Son of God into the flesh of man: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). The preceding Philippian 2:6 statement revealed that the Word initially “existed in the form of God.” So as one with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Word—this was Jesus in the flesh before He was born into this world—was God. He was one with God, and thus existed in the nature of God.
However, the Holy Spirit continued to explain through John, “He was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made” (Jn 1:2,3). The Holy Spirit revealed this work of the Son while He was in spirit with God before the creation: “For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him” (Cl 1:16). In order words, the world and all mankind were created for the purpose of the Son of God. We were created in order that the love of God eventually be manifested in history through the incarnation of the Son of God (See Gl 4:4).
In the beginning when all things were created, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit said, “Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness” (Gn 1:29). In this statement God was not saying that the image of God before creation was physical as that which we see in man. If the Son of God were in any way physical in eternity, then there would have been no such thing as an incarnation of the Son of God into the flesh of men. We must remember that God is Spirit (Jn 4:24). He is not flesh. Therefore, the extent of the incarnation of the Son of God is in the fact that He, in the spirit, had to be revealed in this world in the same flesh into which He originally created humanity from dust of the earth (Gn 2:7).
The preceding is exactly what the Holy Spirit continued to reveal in the context of Philippians 2: “But He [the Son of God] made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant and being made in the likeness of men” (Ph 2:7). And in the incarnate form of the flesh of man, “He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Ph 2:8). If there were no incarnation, therefore, then there would have been no cross, for a spirit cannot be crucified. And if there were no incarnational offering for our sins, then all of us would be without any hope in this world.
Incarnation means that the Son of God took upon Himself that which would be able to suffer crucifixion. We would indeed have a shallow understanding of the cross, if we did not first comprehend the magnitude of the incarnational suffering of the Son of God on the cross.
The incarnational crucifixion of Jesus’ body on the cross was His destiny. It was His destiny from the time the very first word was spoken in reference to creating humanity in the beginning. Even before the Son of God created Adam and Eve, He knew that all people would sin (See Rm 3:10). Therefore, we would assume that before He spoke the first word to create, He had already planned to be incarnate in the flesh in order to suffer crucifixion for our sins.
We must keep in mind that we cannot fully understand the extent of the cross until we understand to the best of our ability the extremity of the incarnational sacrifice of the Son of God coming into the flesh of man. The extremity of the incarnation reveals the extreme love that Jesus has for us.
When we consider our own response to the gospel, therefore, we must understand that our obedience is not a matter of conforming to laws of obedience in order that we might legally, according to law, justify ourselves before God (See Gl 2:16). On the contrary, our obedience must be the result of our gratitude for what the Son of God did for us through His incarnation into our flesh in order to go to the cross for us. The Spirit explained this in the following statement of the apostle Paul: “For all things are for your sakes [that is, all things in reference to our salvation], so that the grace that is reaching many people may cause thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God” (2 Co 4:15). It was by grace that God extended to us His Son who was destined to suffer on the cross. It is this grace that motivates us to respond with thanksgiving to our crucified Savior.
It was because of the love of God that the Son of God was incarnate into the flesh of man for our salvation (See Rm 5:8). This revelation of God in the flesh came as a result of the fact that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” (Jn 3:16). When we understand this tremendous amount of love that was revealed through the incarnate Son of God for our behalf, then we are compelled to respond to Jesus’ gospel journey into this world.
Jesus’ love offering for us in His crucifixion for our sins inspires our love response to Him in preaching the message of the gospel to others: “For the love of Christ compels us, because we judge that if one died for all, then all died” (2 Co 5:14). All of us must be compelled by the love and grace of God that was revealed through the incarnate Son of God. We cannot appreciate the gospel of the crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and sovereign reign of the Son of God, if we do not understand His incarnation into the flesh of man.
We must confess that it is quite incomprehensible to consider the eternal Word in the spirit “materializing” into a single cell in the womb of a woman in order to become life in the flesh. But what other answer do we have for the Savior being such before He was born into this world? When Paul wrote, “Let this mind be in you what was also in Christ Jesus,” the ramifications of such a statement are certainly unsettling to all of us who would seek to reverse the incarnational order of the One after whom we call ourselves disciples (Ph 2:5). But when John the Baptist considered such a thing, he continued to eat grasshoppers and lay down his head at night on a stone pillow (Mt 3:4). He incarnationally lived in order to introduce into the world the incarnational Savior. Paul likewise discarded all his advancements in religion, considering even his own life a minimal sacrifice to pay in gratitude for the incredible sacrifice of the one-cell God who eternally paid the incarnational sacrifice to bring him also into eternity (Ph 3:6; see Rm 9:1-3).
After Paul’s introductory statement in Philippians 2:15 concerning our transformation into the mind and behavior of the incarnate Christ, he carried on in his explanation of the incarnational journey of God the Son. He reminded the Philippians of the gospel sacrifice of the eternal Spirit who impregnated the seed of woman (See Ph 2:5-11). If our Savior could humble Himself to this extreme, then certainly there is absolutely no occasion for those who claim to be His disciples to exalt themselves above one another. We can now better understand the rebuke that the incarnate Word levelled against some of His disciples while they were still comprehending the incarnate God who stood in their midst:
“Whoever desires to be great among you will be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be the first will be the bondservant of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mk 10:43-45).
F. A call for belief:
If our postulations concerning the incarnation of God the Son are anywhere near to being the truth of the matter, then we are brought to some inevitable conclusions. If the incarnation began with a single cell in the womb of a woman, then God is calling for us to have faith in what may seem quite impossible to believe. But then we recall what the Holy Spirit said of such matters: “Without faith it is impossible to please Him” (Hb 11:6).
To those who have no desire to believe, then these matters possibly sound like a fictitious fairy tale that was written to entertain the fantasies of men who have imaginary minds. If we desire to believe, however, no matter how difficult it may be to comprehend any aspect of the incarnation, we still conclude that it is more reasonable to believe.
It is more reasonable to believe because it is quite unreasonable to conclude that our existence is the result of “creative” matter in motion. We thus believe that the incarnation was also for the purpose of sifting out of eternal existence those who have no desire to believe, and thus no desire to live by the gospel of the incarnation.
It is not that we must understand all the specifics that occurred in the incarnation. It is only necessary to believe that it happened and that the result thereof was that the saving Son of God was born into the world He created in order to be a prepared sacrificial body that would be offered for the atonement of our sins.
Because we have realized the hopelessness of our predicament in this world of sin, we want to believe. We cry out for deliverance from this wicked and painful world of suffering. Because of His love for us, He responded to our desperate cries. Out of love, therefore, He paid the price for our redemption from this world by making an incarnational journey into this world. He desired to be in the form of our humble flesh by which He could fellowship with us His brethren. The nail-torn flesh of the cross, therefore, measured the extent of His love for us.
We are simply held in awe at such a thing as this. We realize that the magnitude of the incarnation is overwhelming. It is so overwhelming that it could have only been in the mind of a God of love who so loved us. Not even in the wildest imagination of the most devout monk could such a thing have been conceived. For this reason, we can only conclude that the incarnation of God the Son to be only that which the one true and living God could do.
[End of series on the incarnation. Wait for the book announcement on Facebook.]
Since there was an incredible sacrifice on the part of the Son of God to become man in the flesh, then we must allow our assumptions concerning the impregnation of Mary to proceed to the beginnings of human life. We must assume something that is quite incredible, if not incomprehensible, but indeed true. When the Son of God gave up being in the form of God in the spirit, He humbled Himself to the minute flesh of a single-celled egg in the womb of Mary.
God the Son who created every living cell became that which He created. In His incarnational journey, He started with a single cell. In order to begin His journey, He joined with the single Spirit-chosen cell of a woman in order to begin the nine-month gestation period of woman. The incarnation began with God the Son connecting with one human cell in the flesh in order to create something wonderful for eternity.
In order to create that which was awesome and eternal, the Son was willing to begin with that which was small, and the most humble of presentations in order to come into the world He created. We see the power of the Son of God in this marvel of the minute. He in the size of only one human cell was far more powerful than billions people who are composed of trillions of collective cells in human bodies throughout the world. He was God in a single cell.
We might suppose that at the moment God the Son was ready for His incarnational journey into this world, the Holy Spirit signalled to the Son in heaven, and said, “The fullness of time has come. Therefore, come on. I have a single cell of flesh selected for You.”
We could then suppose that God the Son would have responded from heaven, “If all I get to begin My incarnational ministry is only one single cell of flesh in the womb of a woman, then that is all I need.”
Since this is our speculative summation of what may have occurred, then we can now understand the announcement nine months later by an angel to some shepherds in the middle of the night:
“Do not fear, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy that will be to all the people. For to you a Savior is born this day in the city of David, who is Christ the Lord” (Lk 2:10,11).
It was not simply a body that was born from woman, and then Christ the Lord indwelt the body at the time of birth. On the contrary, He was already “Christ the Lord” at the time of birth. Our assumption, therefore, has moved on to the reality that “Christ the Lord” waited nine months in the womb of woman in order to come forth as the Savior of the world. He was not born to be the Christ. He was already the Christ at the time of His birth.
We now better understand the following words of John: “The Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). And then, “the Word was made flesh” in the womb of Mary (Jn 1:14). The incarnate Word was already in the flesh for nine months, waiting to be born into this world as the Savior of the world.
After Mary and Joseph had made the strenuous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, “the days were completed for her to give birth” (Lk 2:6). The unborn Savior had carried Mary safely for nine months until the time of His entrance into this world. Though she was many months into her pregnancy at the time when her long journey to Bethlehem began, Mary was able to ride a donkey the great distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem without having a premature birth along the way. It was the unborn Savior in her womb who carried her safely to His place of birth. The prophecy of Micah 5:2 had to be fulfilled. The Savior would be born in the chosen city of Bethlehem.
But we would speculate of things before the journey of Mary to Bethlehem. We would go back to the initial incarnation of the Word in the single cell of the Spirit-impregnated Mary. The unborn Son of God would surely not have allowed anything to happen to Mary throughout her nine-month pregnancy. It is for this reason that we must surmise that He carried her all the way from conception “by the Holy Spirit” to the city of Bethlehem and His very birth in a manger.
We must now go to the very beginning of the incarnation, back to the moment that God the Son came into the flesh of man. We are back to what the angel announced to Joseph. The One who was “conceived” “of the Holy Spirit” now resided the seed that was in the womb of Mary.
In the natural conception of a human being in the womb of a woman, the single cell egg (seed) of the woman is sparked into life by the fertilization of the sperm of a man. The process of cell replication then begins which results in the birth of a person.
Before the birth, and in the case of the incarnation of the Savior of the world, the process of the one cell splitting into two cells marked the beginning of His life. Though the spark of life that ignites the beginning of a human being comes from the sperm of a man, in the case of Mary, we must bypass the sperm of man on earth. Joseph had nothing to do with the beginning of the incarnation. The birth of the Savior of the world would come from a virgin, that is, from a woman who had had no sexual intercourse with a man (See Is 7:14; Mt 1:23; Lk 1:27). Therefore, we must search for another answer as to how the seed of Mary began the process of cell replication that eventually resulted in the birth of the Savior as a person into this world.
The statement “of the Holy Spirit” was spoken to Joseph in order to inform and settle his nerves. The angel wanted to spare him from any guilt or questions concerning the fidelity of Mary. It was a statement of reassurance. In this “miraculous conception,” the Holy Spirit had taken the impregnation of Mary into His own hands. Joseph was only a bystander to witness the marvel of the Holy Spirit at work in the womb of Mary in order to prepare the incarnate Savior to the world through birth. From the time of the incarnational impregnation by the Holy Spirit, therefore, Joseph and Mary could only behold and wonder at what was transpiring in her womb.
And now we are left in wonder concerning the impregnating miracle of the Holy Spirit that set in motion the multiplying of the single seed of woman that resided in the womb of Mary. The body of Mary produced the seed when the fullness of time came for the Christ and Savior would come into the world through birth. An angel explained to Mary what would happen to begin the process: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Lk 1:35).
Assuredly, many eggs in the womb of Mary had passed through the natural menstrual periods of Mary’s early life. But there was one Seed that was special and chosen and begotten “by the Holy Spirit.” It would be this chosen Seed who would take all of us into eternity. It would be this chosen Seed who fulfilled the prophesied Seed of woman who would crush the head of Satan (See Gn 3:15).
So our wonder goes deeper into the process of what transpired during the impregnation. We come to the conclusion that that which was “of the Holy Spirit” could only have come from the direct touch of the Spirit on the single-cell seed of woman. It could have been that the Holy Spirit created the sperm that fertilized the seed of woman. This postulation would still remain true to the revelation of the phrase “of the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit would have been the creator of the sperm, and thus the fetus that was now in the womb of Mary was fertilized “by the Holy Spirit.” We must also assume that the Holy Spirit simply set in motion the chosen seed that was provided by Mary. He then allowed the natural process of human development to continue from there.
What is important to remember is that there was more in what transpired in the womb of Mary than just the natural fertilization of the seed of a woman. The selection of the chosen male seed of Mary was not a random choice. The DNA genetics of the chosen egg of Mary was specific and intentional. We would conclude, therefore, that the Holy Spirit Himself sparked the process of the natural multiplication of the single egg cell of Mary, whether by a created sperm or directly through His own power to intervene in the natural process of the fertilization. We will never know for sure.
If we would allow ourselves to wonder beyond the definition of our words and our understanding of natural childbirth, then we must consider the Gnostics of the third and fourth centuries who found it most difficult to believe that God in the light could touch the material world that they considered to be all evil. In the birth of the Son of God, the Gnostics affirmed that a body was presented to the world by Mary through natural birth, a body in which the spirit of Christ indwelt at the time Jesus began His ministry until His death on the cross. But the Gnostics could not imagine beyond this material world. They simply concluded that Deity infused Himself into the body of Jesus when the man Jesus began His ministry. The Christ then forsook the body at the cross when Jesus “gave up His spirit” to the Father (Jn. 19:30).
The Gnostics’ conclusions end up in a theological quagmire that leads to nonsense that contradicts so many clear statements in Scripture, particularly those statements wherein Jesus said, “I and My Father are one” (Jn 10:30). “He who has see Me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9).
The Son of God and the body of flesh were so connected that Jesus in the preceding statements used the material to represent metaphorically the spirit that was beyond the physical flesh. The Gnostics, as so many today, found it quite difficult to believe in a God who could so embody Himself on earth in a manner that He would remain one with God the Father in heaven. Nevertheless, through the incarnation, the embodiment of God the Son would be so complete that we would conclude that the Son of God had come on an epic journey from heaven. From being in the light with God the Father, God the Son journeyed into the flesh of man in a world of darkness. The Gnostics simply concluded that gods do not do such things.
In the John 10:30 and 14:9 statements above Jesus was not indicating that the Father was also flesh as Jesus at the time He made the statements. If this indeed were what Jesus meant, then He Himself would have denied His own incarnation. His “incarnation” would have simply been a parallel transfer from a heavenly appearance in bodily form to an earthly appearance in the form of a man. But this thought is infinitesimally far beyond the truth of the incarnation. All those who believe that God the Father in heaven has a nose and eyes simply deny the incarnation of God the Son into the flesh of man, which flesh included a nose and eyes.
On the contrary, the Son of God, “being in the form of God [in the spirit], did not consider it robbery to be equal with God. But He made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant and being made in the likeness of men” (Ph 2:6,7). At the beginning of the incarnation, the Son did transfer out of the realm of the heavenly. However, it was a transfer of spirit into the flesh of man.
The Son of God in eternity was not in eternity in the form of flesh, and then became the flesh of man on earth. Therefore, at the time of incarnation, God the Father did not exist in a fleshly form in heaven. When we see Jesus through the written record of the New Testament Scriptures, we see the character of the Father who is spirit, not the appearance of some god we would create after our own fleshly image. That which the Son of God revealed in the person of Jesus was the personality of the eternal God the Father, in whose presence He was before His incarnation into the flesh of man. God in the spirit simply embodied Himself in the flesh of man.
If we are allowed to take your minds on an adventure into that about which we know little, then bear with the speculations that follow. When we discuss those things concerning the interaction of God with His creation, we feel quite inadequate to explain such with the words of our dictionary. We thus understand the possible frustrations on the part of the Holy Spirit when He was restricted to search through our dictionary in order to reveal to us those functions of God that were and are far beyond our comprehension.
For example, Paul was once “caught up even to the third heaven” (2 Co 12:2). He “was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words which it is not lawful for a man to speak” (1 Co 12:4). The words were not lawful to speak simply because they were heavenly words that had no earthly definitions of the things that were revealed to him. We feel the same in using earthly words to explain the heavenly in reference to the incarnation. Therefore, we must know from here on in our discussions of this subject that we are confined to the definitions of our finite words that the Spirit used to excite our minds to the fact that God in the spirit indeed came in the flesh of man.
A. Conceived of the Holy Spirit:
Our understanding of the incarnation begins with the Holy Spirit recording the following words for us: “His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found with child by the Holy Spirit” (Mt 1:18). The Holy Spirit wanted us to know that the unborn children in the womb of Mary was “by the Holy Spirit.”
The Spirit’s narrative of the subject then continues with the pronouncement of an angel who came in a dream to Joseph, the betrothed husband to Mary: “Do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 1:20). The Greek word in both statements is ek, meaning “from.” The miraculous conception was the result of the direct work that came from the Holy Spirit.
Now we must stumble into the realm of speculation concerning the “materialization” of God in the spirit into the flesh of man. We reserve our dogmatism on this matter for other subjects. But at the same time, that which happened in incarnation must in some way be explained in order that we be humbled by the overwhelming sacrifice that was made on the part of the Son of God. It was not just a body that was torn with nails on a cross outside Jerusalem. It was the destiny of a Creator who agonized at the end of a sacrificial journey in order to collect us for Himself for eternity. He was the One who originally created the flesh through which nails could be driven (Cl 1:16). And it was in flesh and blood that He agonizingly suffered on our behalf.
The angel’s words, “of [by] the Holy Spirit,” will take our minds on a journey of marvelous wonder that is most incomprehensible for finite minds. As soon as the angel said, “of the Holy Spirit,” our thinking must disengage from the natural processes of birth in order to focus on the supernatural. Therefore, we begin our quest to understand what was embedded in this utterance by reflecting on the Hebrews 10:5 statement: “A body You have prepared for Me.” How was this body prepared? How can we ever connect the dots between “of the Holy Spirit” and “a body You have prepared for Me”?