The Incarnation of Jesus is one of the great mysteries of reality. The idea of the infinite Creator becoming one of his finite creatures baffles the mind and stuns the imagination.
It brings with it some perplexing dichotomies: The eternal God became a temporal human being; the infinite Deity was limited to a man’s body; the all-knowing One needed to learn and grow; the all-powerful Sovereign became a helpless infant in his mother’s arms.
There is mystery here, to be sure, as well as miracle. But mystery isn’t to suggest something weird and illogical that’s best not to think about too much. On the contrary, mystery is meant to inspire awe and wonder at the God whose ways and thoughts are as far above ours as the heavens are above the earth.
Advent is an ideal time to stop and ponder some of the wondrous mysteries of the Incarnation. In the spirit of the season, here are four to meditate on, perhaps one during each week of Advent.
Eternal God yet temporal human
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 any thing made that was made. (John 1:1-3)
So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:57-58)
I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. (Psalm 2:7-8)
God is eternal – such a simple phrase to describe a mind-blowing concept. God has no beginning or end. He doesn’t depend on anything outside of himself for his existence. He didn’t create the universe because he was bored or lonely or needed something to do. In fact, he didn’t need to create anything at all. As Father, Son and Holy Spirit, he has always existed in a perfect, loving relationship within himself. God is the prime mover, the uncaused cause, the ground of being, the author of reality. His name for himself, I Am, reveals his eternal nature – he simply is.
When God speaks of “In the beginning,” he’s accommodating his language to what we can grasp. God has no beginning, but humans are bounded by time and contingent upon God. We along with the entire cosmos exist because God created us – and he didn’t need to but chose to. Outside of God, everyone and everything has a beginning, a middle and an end – billions upon billions of personal, global and cosmic stories that all reflect God’s own grand narrative of creation, fall, redemption and restoration.
At a fateful moment 2,000 years ago, the eternal God entered the story he was crafting on the temporal widescreen of history. The Son of God with no beginning or end became a man bounded by time. He was born of a woman, lived for about 30 years, died on a Roman cross, rose from the dead and returned to the timeless heaven of his Father. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, God the author became a character (indeed, the central character) in the story he was writing. He did this so that he might share in the experience of the characters in his story, become their representative and redeem them for himself.
Infinite yet limited to a human body
“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27)
Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. (Psalm 139:7-10)
And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Luke 24:38-39)
If the first mystery of the Incarnation revolves around time, the second is concerned with space. God is infinite – another simple word for a concept that defies the imagination. Just as eternity exists outside any sense of time, infinity lies beyond any scale of size or location. The vast universe, with its unimaginable distances, billions of stars and galactic superclusters, is nevertheless finite, a drop of water in the hand of its infinite Creator.
Yet even though God is separate from his immense cosmos, existing outside and far beyond it, he also inhabits every corner of it. He is omnipresent, being everywhere at the same time. The Sovereign God superintends every molecule, blade of grass, bird of the air and planetary orbit. He’s intimately involved with every detail of his creation, most especially humans, whom he made in his own image.
As if the infinity and omnipresence of God isn’t mind boggling enough, the Incarnation of Jesus pushes it off the scale. The infinite Son of God, before whom the universe is a speck of dust, became a limited human being, located in one specific place and time. Instead of being everywhere at once, he had to travel by boat or on foot to get where he was going. Even after he rose and reclaimed his infinite authority, he retained his glorified human body with its scars, an eternal reminder of the costly love that saved his people from their sins.
All-knowing yet needing to learn
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9)
How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you. (Psalm 139:17-18)
But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. (John 2: 24-25)
And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favour with God and man. (Luke 2:52)
Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 5:8-10)
The knowledge and wisdom of God are unfathomable, as far beyond human comprehension as the trackless depths of the universe are beyond our own planet. God knows the end from the beginning. His knowledge is exhaustive – he knows every thought, occurrence or possibility that has ever been, will ever be or could ever be. More than that, he ordains all of it according to his wise, sovereign purposes.
Knowing this, it’s understandable how medieval artists often got the Incarnation wrong. They portrayed the baby Jesus with a disturbingly adult expression on his face, two fingers raised in a gesture of peace and inherent authority. It’s as if Jesus were thinking, “I may look like a baby, but I’m your omniscient Creator, and I understand every word in your mouth and every thought in your head.”
But that’s not how the Incarnation happened. Jesus wasn’t pretending to be human; he entered the world as an actual human baby. The all-knowing Son of God had to learn to walk and speak and think and read and write, to feed and clothe himself, to acquire social skills and to run the family carpentry business. As an adult, Jesus came to understand his divine identity. He knew the future and the thoughts of other people. But through normal growth and learning, the omniscient Son experienced humanity from the inside, so that he could be our compassionate representative before the Father.
All-powerful yet a helpless infant
He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names. Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure. (Psalm 147:4-5)
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:11-12)
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Matthew 28:18)
For 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 through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:16-17)
He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. (Hebrews 1:3)
Like the other divine attributes on this list, the power of God is vast, infinite and beyond imagination. God is in fact omnipotent – all-powerful. He spoke the universe and all of reality into existence. Time and space, matter and energy, galaxies and worlds, oceans and continents, animals and people, truth and beauty – he simply said, “Let there be” and it was. Such power dwarfs the wildest human stories of ancient gods or modern superheroes.
When he became human, the Son of God laid all that power aside. The One through whom all things were created became a helpless infant in his mother’s arms, who needed to be held and fed and rocked to sleep. Even as an adult, though he performed powerful miracles, Jesus knew hunger, fatigue, emotional distress and temptation. Through it all, he never once sinned – as an infant, a child, a teen or a young man – a mystery as great as any other, which illustrates the perfect union between God and humanity in the person of Jesus.
After his Resurrection, Jesus declared that he had been given all authority in heaven and on earth. While still retaining his glorified human form, he had also regained the infinite power he shared with the Father and the Holy Spirit since before the creation of the universe. In fact at present, Jesus is sustaining the universe, and everything in it, by his powerful word.
Conclusion: For Christmas and beyond
Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory. (1 Timothy 3:16)
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:5-7)
During the Advent and Christmas season, the church and the world at large turns its attention, however briefly, to the birth of Jesus. However, the astounding mysteries of the Incarnation lift us far beyond the traditions and sentiments of the season. They move us to stand in awe of our God, to wonder and to worship him, not just at Christmastime, but throughout the year and every year.
The eternal, infinite, all-knowing, all-powerful God who holds the cosmos in the palm of his hand became a weak, helpless human baby 2,000 years ago. He did it so that he might enter our experience, become our representative and redeem us to enjoy a perfect, eternal, loving relationship with him and with each other.
The mystery of the Incarnation illuminates the character of God, the depths of his love and his grace, the lengths to which he would go to redeem his people and his creation. It isn’t about a transient, sentimental hope restricted to a few weeks out of the year. Rather, the Incarnation is the bedrock of a secure, lasting hope that will carry us through life and into the presence of God, where we’ll experience the everlasting love, joy and sense of belonging for which he created us.