The God who became one of us

Nat Clarke | Dec 24th, 2010

At this time of year, Christmas decorations usually begin appearing in supermarkets and department stores — months too early in my opinion. However, they do serve the purpose of bringing Christmas to the forefront of our minds and in particular they remind us of Jesus' birth some 2000 years ago. But why did Jesus need to be human? The letter to the Hebrews gives us some clues. Firstly, Jesus shared in our humanity in order to destroy the devil and to free us from our fear of death (Heb 2:14-15). Secondly, it was so that he could become our merciful and faithful High Priest (2:17). Thirdly, so that he might make atonement for our sins (2:17). Fourthly, so that he can help us when we are tempted (2:18). Jesus shared our humanity for our sake, to bring us salvation, restoring us into a full relationship with God.

Jesus' identity and ours

But how does Jesus' incarnation shape our identity? Paul tells us how in his letter to the Philippians:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross! (Phil 2:5-8)

This passage tells us that our attitude needs to be the same as that of Christ in his incarnation. Christ’s identity in his incarnation needs to shape our attitude and our identity now.

Humility and 'rights'

How does this work? Are we meant to think of ourselves as God come to earth as a man? Obviously not. The point is that we are to be humble, just like Jesus, and lay down our 'rights' in order to love others.

In the Western world, the phrase 'human rights' is very popular. In fact, one of the United Nations' main objectives is to protect the basic 'human rights' of all people. These rights include food, shelter, and freedom from slavery, exploitation and torture.[1] The idea of 'human rights' is most prevalent in countries with a Christian heritage such as America and Australia.

However, what Philippians says is that Jesus, the very person we are meant to imitate, gave up his rights! Jesus has always had the right to sit on the throne and to be worshiped as the Almighty Creator, the King of heaven and earth. But Jesus gave up his right to the status and privileges of being God. He humbled himself to the point of being a man. And not just any man: a poor Galilean peasant, who suffered, was despised and deserted by his friends, and then crucified on a Roman cross as a common criminal. God the Son didn't have to do this. He chose to do this.

As Christians, Jesus' actions should shape the way we talk about our 'rights'. As helpful as some may say the 'right to life' slogan has been in protecting unborn babies, I think the term does more harm than good. We don't have a 'right to life' or a 'right to equal pay' or a 'right to freedom' or a 'right to vote'. When we talk about 'rights' it’s all about ourselves; it's very self-centred. But, if we have the attitude of Jesus, we will think of the needs others above our own (2:4). A much better word to use for this is 'love'. We should love people and treat them with dignity and respect because God made them in his image and he loves them, not because they have inherent 'rights'. We have no rights. Everything we are and have is a gift given to us purely by the grace and love of God. We don't have a right to life or a right to love. We have life and are loved because God in his loving-kindness chooses to give them to us.

Moreover, as Christians, whatever 'rights' we may have we lay down in the service of our King. This means we will make costly decisions for the sake of Jesus, his Kingdom, his people, and the lost. We will lay down our 'right' to comfort, a nice home, a safe neighbourhood, and a good school for our kids. If needs be, we will consider all such things dispensable for the cause of Christ.

Glory and reverence

Another way the incarnation shapes our identity is that it tells us that we are glorious. This may seem at odds with my first point but it’s not. Blaise Pascal famously wrote that humans are both "the glory and the garbage of the universe".[2]

This tension is clear in the Bible. The Bible says we are "fearfully yet wonderfully made" (Ps 139:14). We are made in "the image and likeness of God" and declared to be "very good" (Gen 1:26-31). Yet, because of the Fall, we are now also sinners, wicked from birth, full of darkness and evil (Ps 50:5; Matt 7:11; Rom 3 etc). In this sense we have a 'dual-nature'. We are both the glory and the garbage of the universe.

We come to understand our dual nature in Jesus' incarnation. Firstly, we see clearly that we are the "garbage" of the universe. Our sin is a lot worse than we think; see what great lengths God went to in order to save us? So great is our sin that he sent his Son to earth to suffer the limits of our humanity and go to the cross for us. There was no other way.

Secondly, the incarnation shows us our "glory". Because Jesus was fully man, yet perfect, he shows us the true glory of man. Jesus shows us what we were made to be. He shows us what we one day will be if we are in him — when we are resurrected and given a new body like his (1 Cor 15:35-49, especially 15:41). We will be without sin. We will love God and love each perfectly. The incarnation tells us that this is not just possible, but definite! The incarnation shows us how glorious humanity really is and challenges us to become more human. It says to us, "This is who you really are — now become that!"

This has profound implications for how we should think about ourselves and treat other people. The incarnation provides the foundation for love and humility. It means that each person who is in Christ has been created by God, is loved by God, and is glorious. This means we have a responsibility to treat people with dignity and respect as fellow image-bearers of God. It also means we have a framework by which to look at ourselves and others with a massive amount of awe and reverence and yet not be content to leave ourselves or others as they are because there is still 'garbage' mixed in with the 'glory' that needs restoring.

Jesus' incarnation is not just necessary for our salvation. It also gives us the reason, the example, and the impetus to lay down our lives and give up our rights in order to love people and serve them. That's what it means to be glorious; that's what it means to be fully human.

[1] See the UN Declaration of Human Rights: http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/ (accessed 22 July 2009).

[2] Blaise Pascal, Pensées (trans. Roger Ariew; Indianapolis, Indiana: Hacket Publishing, 2004 [1658]), p 36.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2009 edition of SALT magazine.

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