The Miracle and Meaning of the Incarnation
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” – 2 Corinthians 8:91
The passage in which this verse is found is not concerned with what might be called “Christology” - that is, the doctrine concerning the person and work of Christ – but it is deeply concerned with some very practical issues, namely, the temporal needs that existed in Jerusalem and the corresponding obligation of the Corinthian Christians to help meet that need, just as their Macedonian brethren had already done. The need that Paul is wanting to meet is great, and so the effort called for to meet that need is also great. And therefore, the giving that needs to be done is going to require some sacrifice on the part of those who do give if the need is to be met. It is for this reason, perhaps, that Paul commends the Macedonian example:
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints – and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord, and then by the will of God to us (2 Cor. 8:1-5).
What is amazing about these verses are the things Paul puts together that we would not normally associate. For example, Paul puts “abundance of joy” with “extreme poverty” and “wealth of generosity” together. Extreme poverty normally does not coexist with abundance of joy and wealth of generosity. Furthermore, this was all in the context of “a severe test of affliction.” And it was a test. The question was whether or not joy and generosity would win out in the midst of affliction and poverty. The Macedonian Christians passed the test with flying colors. And now Paul is encouraging the Corinthian believers to do the same:
Accordingly, we urged Titus that as he had started, so he should complete among you this act of grace. But as you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you – see that you excel in this act of grace also. I say this not as a command, but to prove [test] by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine (vs. 6-8).
Perhaps it should not be surprising that Paul calls this “wealth of generosity” the “grace of God” (cf ver. 1). He emphasizes this aspect of their ministry of giving. In verses 1-8, Paul calls it “grace” four times (the word “favor” in verse 4 in the Greek is charis which is the word for “grace”). It is grace in that it is a gift which God has wrought in them (vs. 1 and 7), and it is grace because it is a gift freely given to those for whom it is intended. But it is also grace because, as Paul goes on to remind them in verse 9, it is a reflection of what our Lord and Savior has himself done for us. And thus Paul gives them the ultimate motivation for giving. As believers, they have received freely the greatest of all gifts – salvation – at the greatest of cost – the humiliation of God, and therefore there is no reason a believer can give that justifies a retreat into a grasping and covetous attitude of mind.
But there is more here than just a motivation to give generously. What Paul is doing here is something a bit more: he is asking them to give sacrificially. We can see this in the reference Paul gives to the Macedonian situation. But we also see it in the motivation given in verse 9. The incarnation of the Son of God was not just a generous gift, it was a sacrificial one.
Moreover, Paul is not just commending a one time sacrifice. The spiritual gifts to which Paul compares the gift of giving in verse 7 were not singularities in the lives of believers, they were characteristics of the life of faith. Even so, the sacrifice to which God called his Son in becoming a man was not just endured at the end. His was a life of sacrifice. His life began in a stable, continued in poverty and hardship, and ended on a Roman cross. In the same way, Paul is calling the Corinthian Christians to a life of sacrifice for others. Once this need is met, they will not have learned how to be like Christ if they revert to a Scrooge mentality.
But how do you get like this? Sacrificing for those we love is one thing, but Paul is asking them to sacrifice for those whom they have never met. This is why verse 9 is so important. We can live sacrificially for others because in doing so we are following Christ. I am imitating him, and in doing so, am pleasing him.
Consider the example of George Washington. It is a miracle that during the Revolution he was able to keep the Continental Army together for so long. It was a miracle because for the most part Congress supported it with little more than empty promises of future pay and supplies. Soldiers went months and years without being paid and in addition to that endured incredible hardship year after year. Winters were the worst (and Valley Forge was only one out of six or seven!). Add to this the fact that Washington lost more battles than he won. But in the end, Washington didn't need to win battles to win the war. He just needed to keep an army in the field long enough to wear the British down. And this he did. And the one of the reasons he was able to pull off such a miracle is because when Washington left Mount Vernon at the beginning of the war, he never went back – not even once – until the successful conclusion of the war 8 years later. He stayed in the field with his troops. He endured their hardships with them. He braved the cold, the hunger, the retreats, the fear, and the defeats right alongside his soldiers until the very end. His ability to identify with his men kept them loyal and persevering until Yorktown in 1781.
In this same way, I will be willing to sacrifice if I know that in doing so I am following my Captain, the Lord Jesus Christ. This is one of the reasons the doctrine of the incarnation is so important. If you have a defective doctrine of the incarnation, you are not going to give yourself sacrificially the way Paul is calling you to give. If you think, for example, that the incarnation was only the appearance of weakness, then you are not going to want to sacrifice very much. If you think that because Jesus is also God, he did not feel the pain, the temptations, the weakness, the frustrations, the loneliness, the hunger, the thirst, the rejection, the thorns pressing into his skull, the bone fragments on the leather strap ripping through his flesh, the nails piercing his hands and feet – then you are not going to follow him in the kind of sacrifice he is calling you to.
In other words, theology is very important. I never tire of saying this especially because we live in a time when theological study and thought is marginalized in many quarters. The irony is that many of those who seem to despise theology do so because, as they put it, “It's not applicable to life.” Surely this text shows the folly of such thinking!
But on the other hand, this text also shows us that a study of theology should never be entered into as an end in itself. Theological reflection is not meant to improve our ability to prove to others just how clever we are, or to one-up those who disagree with us. Instead, the true purpose of doctrine is to cause us to come to Christ, to come to know Christ, and to follow and glorify him with our lives.
The doctrine of the incarnation, of which the apostle speaks, is thus a very practical doctrine. Indeed, it serves many purposes besides being a motivation to give to those in need. And a proper consideration of the Son of God coming in flesh ought to arouse our hearts to thankful worship and holy adoration. It is a subject worthy of our consideration and frequent meditation (as it was of the angels, Luke 2:13,14), and which we would now like to reflect upon. Consider with me the miracle and the meaning of the incarnation.
It was a miracle that God stooped so low as to take upon himself a human nature. John Flavel, the Puritan, shows clearly just how marvelous this was. He writes, “The distance between the highest and lowest species of creatures is but a finite distance. The angel and the worm dwell not so far asunder. But for the infinite glorious Creator of all things to become a creature, is a mystery exceeding all human understanding. The distance between God and man is an infinite distance.” The apostle put it this way: “Though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor.”
How could the Son of God become poor? Normally, when we think of someone becoming poor, we assuming that through some unfortunate circumstance they have lost all, or much of, their wealth. Becoming poor means losing what you previously had. Is this what happened to Christ?
Yes and no. Yes, because Christ temporarily lost the glory he had with the Father before the world was (John 17:5). Jesus prayed that his disciples would see his glory in the age to come – a request that would be meaningless if he had that glory while he was upon the earth (John 17:24). And on the cross, he lost fellowship with the Father, as he was forsaken by him while bearing upon himself the sins of his people. So there were some huge things that Christ lost by becoming a man.
But we must emphatically say no, if by “becoming poor” we mean that Christ lost his divine nature. He remained God after he was born as a man. Throughout his ministry, our Lord asserted his equality with the Father (John 10:30), and his divinity in the “I am” passages, such as John 8:58. The apostle John himself wrote, “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. . . . No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known” (1:14,18). He was God. And as God, he ever remained eternal, unchangeable, infinite, and perfect.
However, our Lord became poor, not so much by what he gave up, but by what he added. “Remaining what he was, he became what he was not.” He did not become poor by divesting himself of divinity, but did so by adding to himself “the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3). In doing so, he “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7). He entered in upon all the experiences of humanity by becoming flesh. And thus the Infinite One became finite, experiencing all the infirmities that men face. The All-powerful became weak and helpless. At first an infant, the Creator and Sustainer of all became dependent upon a human mother.
What a stoop this was! It is no wonder that theologians have called this the humiliation of Christ. He was humiliated beyond our comprehension. For not only was he born in conditions that were less than favorable – such as being born in a stable of poor and obscure parentage – but in the fact that he was made in the “likeness of sinful flesh” – not that he was sinful, but that Christ in his humanity experienced all the bodily and psychological effects that sin has wrought on the human race. Sickness, weakness, suffering, temptation, persecution, loneliness, mental agony: all these became the lot of the Son of God. The fact that he who once enjoyed the praise of angels stooped to bear the insults of wicked men surely shows us the poverty which Christ endured for the sake of his people. He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He trod the wine-press alone. It was in this way, then, that he became poor.
We need to realize that this was a literal event. The Son of God actually became a human person by being “conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary” (to use the language of the Westminster Shorter Catechism). He did not, as some of the ancient heretics maintained, merely parade in human flesh like a wolf in sheep's clothing. He was not God masquerading as a man. Nor did he simply appear as if he were as man, as the Docetists believed (cf. 1 John 4:2,3). This was as much an event of history as the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. This is the mystery of the gospel: “God was manifest in the flesh” (1 Tim. 3:16, KJV). The gospel is not a nice story that merely teaches lessons about how to be nice to others. The gospel is predicated upon the fact that God himself invaded human history in the person of his Son to set things right, to restore mankind, to do what man could not.
But we also need to realize that this was a supernatural event. Some people don't want even to consider the possibility that historical and supernatural can go together. And indeed, if you begin on the assumption that the universe is a closed system – or that God does not exist – then these two things cannot go together. Naturalism is the only possibility. However, we believe that there are very good reasons to believe not only that God exists, but that God rules the universe. And if this is so, it would be strange to rule out the possibility of the supernatural.
Thus, the Christian has no problem in affirming that the Son of God did not become man by being begotten in the ordinary way through a father and mother. Instead, he was begotten by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary, as predicted in OT prophesy (Isa. 7:14; cf. Micah 5:2). The Spirit of God, in some mysterious way, formed the flesh of Christ out of Mary's substance, so that he is completely human, although remaining the Son of God (Lk. 1:35).
This was not the creation of a new being: the fact that this is called an incarnation underscores the fact of Christ's preexistence as the eternal Son of God (Gal. 4:4; Jn. 1:14). The Word that was in the beginning assumed human nature and was made flesh, so that he became both fully man and fully God (cf. Rom. 1:3,4).
When some people talk about “divine revelation” they like to say that God has mainly revealed himself in events rather than in words. And they like to say that it honors Christ to say that God's greatest revelation has not come to us in the pages of a book, like the Bible, but through the events in history concerning the Son of God, like the incarnation and crucifixion, and so on. Of course, they do this to get around worrisome things like “verbal inspiration” and “inerrancy.” But the problem with this is that such a view of Divine revelation is incomplete. We are not about to deny that God has revealed himself in history, and ultimately in the person of his Son – in fact, we glory in it. But events need to be interpreted; without interpretation, they have no real meaning.
When we come then to the incarnation and ask the question, “Why was Christ born into the world?” we must begin not with our own ideas but with what God has indeed revealed in the pages of Scripture. And in our text, the apostle is very exact as to the meaning of the incarnation. He says: “For your sake he became poor, that you by his poverty might become rich.” That is the reason why Christ came into the world, why he was born in such a low condition, why he suffered as he did, and died an accursed death on the Cross, why he endured the wrath of God and was buried for a time (Shorter Catechism). It was for our sakes, that we might be rich.
There are three ways in which Christ's humiliation created the wealth of his people.
First, Christ's birth was necessary for the redemption of his people. We, being fallen, have forfeited any right to redeem ourselves, and are hopelessly bound under the wrath of God against sin. We would not redeem ourselves anyway, since in the disposition of our hearts we are alienated against God (Rom. 8:7). And we cannot redeem ourselves on account of the strictness of God's law, both in its precepts and penalty.
The precepts of God require the obedience of the heart, and not just external conformity. A man might be outwardly blameless before men, yet there has never been a man that has been able to constantly love God with all the heart.
On the other hand, the penalty of the law of God requires infinite satisfaction, sin being committed against a Being of infinite glory. No man is able to do this. Therefore, help must come from other quarters. And so it did; God came to redeem us from the curse under which we had fallen. But it was necessary for God to become a man in order to redeem us. In order for human people to be redeemed, sin must be dealt with and expiated in their nature (cf. Heb. 2:9, ff). That is the very reason why the blood of bulls and of goats would never suffice to take away sin (Heb. 10:1-10). Angels are not redeemed because Christ did not become an angel. But men are redeemed because the Word became flesh. Further, not only must God become man because man sinned, but he must do so because the penalty of sin is death. Christ had to be born that he might die and so redeem us to God.
Not only so, but in order that men might be redeemed, a ransom must be provided that would sufficiently cover all the sins of those who would be redeemed. Thus, not only must the redeemer be man, but he must also be God. For only God could provide such a ransom that could cover the sins of those who would believe. And so we see the absolute necessity of the incarnation. No mere man or woman could ever redeem others, no matter how perfect he or she might be. This is an act which only God can accomplish. As Loraine Boettner has well said, “It was for [the purpose of redemption] that He became incarnate, so that, as God dwelling in a human body, God clothed in human flesh, He might assume man's place before the law and satisfy Divine justice. Only a truly human person could suffer and die, and only a truly Divine person could give that suffering infinite value.”
Redemption has really brought unimaginable wealth to the people of God: forgiveness, a right standing before God, adoption into his family, an inheritance with the saints, eternal felicity and everlasting happiness. Who could ask for or desire more than that? What greater blessings could ever be enjoyed than those enjoyed by the elect? Christ died, not to give us corruptible riches, but everlasting treasure, which can never lose its luster and which can never be taken away from us.
And this, my friends, is what separates the true evangelical religion of Christ from the false gospel propagated by false prophets. Christ did not die to elevate human nature: he died to give us life. He did not die merely to set for us an example, but to redeem us to God. Do you believe this? Is this your hope? Is this the source of your confidence, that Christ died for you?
The second way in which we are made rich by the humiliation of Christ is that through Christ's identification with us in all the trials and temptations through which his people pass, so that he can truly sympathize with them in all the vicissitudes, trials, and temptations of life. He experienced them to their utmost, yet without sin. This is something that the writer of Hebrews especially wanted to emphasize: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are; yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). In moral temptations, in physical suffering, in mental agony caused by loneliness, desertion, calumny, persecution, he can sympathize with all his people, for he endured them all. “Jesus wept.” This cannot but yield great encouragement to suffering people, for there is no condition in which he cannot help.
Finally, we are made rich through the incarnation because through the Word becoming flesh, we have the most full revelation of God to men. We cannot see God who is Spirit (Jn. 1:18). But in Christ, we have a full revelation of the Divine being to men, “for in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). In Christ, the glory of God appears to men. He has revealed God to man in a most full and concrete way. What Abraham never saw, what Moses was not allowed to see, we see in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. He who beholds Christ beholds God (Jn. 14:9).
And this is true even today when we cannot behold Jesus with our eyes. But we can behold him in the Word, the Scriptures of the New Covenant. We can see him in the Gospels, hear his word and watch him heal the multitudes and die the appointed death on the cross. We can see these events interpreted for us by his apostles in the epistles. And we can read the Old Covenant through the New and see Christ there.
Behold the Man who was born to die for sinners! May the Lord grant us eyes of faith to see him and hearts of repentance to please him and feet of obedience that follow him in ways of sacrifice. He gave up more than we could possibly imagine so that we could be richer than we could possibly imagine. What he asks us to give is nothing in comparison. And he gave so much more. So follow him. May the incarnation lead us to a new level of sacrificial following of our Lord.
1All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).