Why the Incarnation is the greatest miracle
Talking with a Muslim friend
"Faheed, do you believe we can have a relationship with Allah?”
“Certainly not in the way you think of. Allah is too great and transcendent to stoop so low as to have a relationship with his creation. Maybe, we can have a relationship with Allah like a slave to a master but certainly not as a child to a father.”
“Is this why it is so unspeakable for a Muslim to consider Jesus as God? Because for God to become human would be the ultimate act of humility?
“Yes, exactly right. How could Allah do something so humbling? How could the transcendent come down that far? No, he cannot. He would not.”
This is a snippet of a conversation I had with a Muslim friend of mine a few years ago. In it, I began to understand why the idea of the incarnation elicited such a strong reaction from many of the Muslims that I knew. In fact, it is this idea that has stumped many people, both religious and non-religious. Do you mean to tell me that God became a man? That a human being was actually God? That doesn’t seem like a thing that an all-powerful God would do.
But it is this very reality that makes the gospel story so powerful, so glorious. My Muslim friend was right. For God to take on human form would be the ultimate act of humility. It would mean that God was condescending to us in order to accomplish something. For those in Christian circles, the Christmas story may have lost this sense of wonder for us. Of course God became man. What else is new? But it is in this very reality that salvation becomes possible for sinners like us.
Was C.S. Lewis right?
If I was to ask you what you believed the greatest miracle was, what would you say? Perhaps you would point to the resurrection of Jesus. But was this really the greatest miracle? C.S. Lewis famously said, “The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation… Every other miracle prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this…. It was the central event in the history of the Earth—the very thing that the whole story has been about” (Miracles, chapter 14). To Lewis, it was the act of God becoming man that was at the center of God’s plan of redemption. The resurrection was a powerful miracle; however, many people were raised from the dead in the bible. In fact, all believers will be raised at the end of time. But there was only one time when the God of the universe took on human flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory (John 1).
The ultimate act of humility
Humility is the act of not clinging to something that is ours and instead using it for the benefit of others. This is exactly what God did. Perhaps Paul said it best when he stated that “though Jesus was in the form of God, he 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” (Phil. 2:6-7). In the moment of the Incarnation, the eternal took on finite form, the transcendent became imminent, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in the human form of Jesus Christ.
God has always been in the business of condescending to our level to reveal himself to us. In the Old Testament, whenever God spoke to people, he took on their human language. Whenever he gave a vision of himself, it was always in pictures that frail humans could understand. I think of Isaiah 6 when the prophet beholds the glory of God and he sees the train of God’s robe filling the temple. All of these are human metaphors for God’s greatness. God was condescending so that he might reveal who he is to limited, sinful, broken human beings. It was the Incarnation that was the ultimate act of condescending and, therefore, was the ultimate revelation of who God is. “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father” (John 14:9).
To be a worthy substitute
But why did God humble himself and become a human being? Because in order to manifest his glory in the salvation of sinners, that sin must be paid for. Either we pay for our sin or someone else takes our sin and pays for it in our place. In order to accomplish this, Jesus had to become human to be a worthy substitute. Many have baffled as to why Jesus needed to be baptized by John when he had not sinned. John even questions this when Jesus asks to be baptized. What was Jesus’ response? “It must be done in order to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). In other words, Jesus needed to stand in our place. By being baptized, he is fulfilling all the righteousness that would be required of us. So, in the Incarnation, Jesus fulfilled all righteousness, making him a worthy substitute for mankind.
And how did he fulfill his role as our substitute? By dying in our place. As Peter explains, “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, so that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). Hebrews shows why Jesus needed to die in our place. He is the mediator of a new covenant. The first covenant was filled with the temporary and inadequate sacrifices of bulls and goats because “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22). But Christ “appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:25). God became man, lived a perfect life, and died a sacrificial death in our place so that we might experience forgiveness and salvation. Without the incarnation, salvation would not be possible.
To raise us up with him
With that said, Christ not only died for us but was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven. And by doing so, he guaranteed not only his own exaltation but the exaltation of all he died for. Once again Jesus will come and gather all his people to himself. We await a savior who will “transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:20). We will sit with him in an exalted position (Rev. 3:21). Creation will be set “free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). He will “restore all things” (Acts 3:21) and, in the same way that the glorious humbled himself, the humbled will be glorified. That means us! “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:4).
Our very hope for the future rests in the Incarnation. Without Jesus coming as a man, living a perfect life, dying in our place, rising from the dead, and ascending into heaven, we would have no hope for life after death. But if we have been crucified with Christ, we are also raised with him (Eph. 2). The Incarnation was a rescue mission that not only freed us from the penalty of sin but guaranteed us eternal life and joy forever.
God came down the mountain
The gospel is the story of a God who was willing to humble himself in order to save sinners like you and me. The Incarnation is at the heart of this story. In fact, Peter’s statement shows the purpose for the death of Christ: “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, so that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18).
My Muslim friend was right. This is a scandalous idea. That God would become man is ridiculous. But this is where the claim of Christianity sets people free. In my friend’s worldview (like most others), God is at the top of a mountain and we are all trying to climb up the mountain to get to him. However, this is the scandal of grace and the power of the Incarnation. In the gospel, God didn’t wait for us to make it up the mountain. In fact, we couldn’t make it up the mountain if we tried for eternity. Instead, God came down the mountain. He came down and rescued those who couldn’t make it on their own. This is the greatest miracle. This is the story of the Incarnation. This is what changes everything.
Let us not miss the opportunity to celebrate the great miracle: to come in wonder and worship before the One who humbled himself to become a baby, a child, a human; who descended into his own creation so that by ascending again he might lift it up with him from decay and bondage into glory and freedom.