We were over an abyss

You probably all know the legend of the rider who crossed the frozen Lake of Constance by night without knowing it. When he reached the opposite shore and was told whence he came, he broke down horrified. This is the human situation when the sky opens and the earth is bright, when we may hear: By grace you have been saved! In such a moment we are like that terrified rider. When we hear this word we involuntarily look back, do we not, asking ourselves: Where have I been? Over an abyss, in mortal danger! What did I do? The most foolish thing I ever attempted! What happened? I was doomed and miraculously escaped and now I am safe! You ask, Do we really live in such danger? Yes, we live on the brink of death. But we have been saved. Look at our Savior, and at our salvation! Look at Jesus Christ on the cross. . . . Do you know for whose sake he is hanging there? For our sake – because of our sin – sharing our captivity – burdened with our suffering! He nails our life to the cross. This is how God had to deal with us. From this darkness he has saved us. He who is not shattered after hearing this news may not yet have grasped the word of God: “By grace you have been saved!”

– Karl Barth, Deliverance to the Captives (quoted by Fleming Rutledge in The Crucifixion)

Why a virgin birth?

The top three answers are on the board, Evangel family. Why was the Messiah born of a virgin?

Christian: to fulfill the prophecy from Isa 7:14. {ding!}
Christiana: Uhhhhhh… {buzz! X}
Junior: Hmmm… {buzz! XX}
Jonny: Because . . . Mary was a virgin. {buzz! XXX}

Kitson family, you have a chance to steal. Why was the Messiah born of a virgin?

Jake: Jesus? {buzz! X}

I suspect many of us could offer several reasons why the incarnation was necessary (Gal 4:4-5 & Heb 2:14-18), but most of us would begin to sweat profusely if we had to explain the point of the virgin birth. The difficulty, of course, lies in the fact that both Matthew and Luke assert Christ’s supernatural birth but neither of them explains the significance of the miracle. Some might infer that a virgin birth was required for the Son’s incarnation and/or for his sinless incarnation, but those explanations are far from certain.

So why the virgin birth? In The Person of Christ, Donald Macleod acknowledges that like all the miracles in Jesus’ life, the virgin birth functions as a sign and draws from Karl Barth to offer three theological reflections on the virgin birth:

First, it is highlighting the essentially supernatural character of Jesus and the gospel. Alluding to Barth again, the virgin birth is posted on guard at the door of the mystery of Christmas; and none of us must think of hurrying past it. It stands on the threshold of the New Testament, blatantly supernatural, defying our rationalism, informing us that all that follows belongs to the same order as itself and that if we find it offensive there is no point in proceeding further. If our faith staggers at the virgin birth what is it going to make of the feeding of the five thousand, the stilling of the tempest, the raising of Lazarus, the transfiguration, the resurrection and, above all, the astonishing self-consciousness of Jesus? . . .

Secondly, the virgin birth is a sign of God’s judgment on human nature. The race needs a redeemer, but cannot itself produce one: not by its own decision or desire, not by the processes of education and civilization, not as a precipitate of its own evolution. The redeemer must come from the outside. Here, as elsewhere, ‘all things are of God.’ He provides the lamb (Gn 22:8). Barth is exactly right: ‘Human nature possesses no capacity for becoming the human nature of Jesus Christ.

Thirdly, the virgin birth is a sign that Jesus Christ is a new beginning. He is not a development of anything that has gone before. He is a divine intrusion: the last, great, culminating eruption of the power of God into the plight of man: ‘Man is involved only in the form of non-willing, non-achieving, non-creative, non-sovereign man, only in the form of man who can merely receive, merely be ready, merely let something be done to and with himself.’

Come and worship.

Reflecting on the incarnation (5)

…this is the most profound incognito and the most impenetrable of recognition that can be…

Christ indeed could not divest himself of godhead, but he kept it concealed for a time, that it might not be seen, under the weakness of the flesh. Hence he laid aside his glory in the view of men, not by lessening it, but by concealing it.

-John Calvin (1509-1564)

…this is the most profound incognito and the most impenetrable of recognition that can be; for the contrast between God and an isolated individual human being is the greatest possible contrast; it is infinitely qualitative. This, however, is His will, His free will, and therefore it is an incognito maintained by omnipotence.

-Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel

Reflecting on the incarnation (4)

…capable of death in one nature and incapable of it in the other.

Since then the properties of both natures and substances were preserved and co-existed in One Person, humility was embraced by majesty, weakness by strength, mortality by eternity; and to pay the debt of our condition the inviolable nature was united to a passible nature; so that, as was necessary for our healing, there was one and the same “Mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ,” who was capable of death in one nature and incapable of it in the other. In the complete and perfect nature, therefore, of very man, very God was born – complete in what belonged to Him, complete in what belonged to us.

-Leo of Rome (400-461)

Reflecting on the incarnation (3)

…Christ is as truly man as the meanest of our race.

…as the tabernacle after all was as truly a tent as the humblest in the camp of Israel, so Christ is as truly man as the meanest of our race. The blood which flows in the veins of the Hottentot, or springs under the lash from the back of an American slave, is that ‘one’ same blood which flows in the veins of the Son of God.

-Alexander Stewart, 19th century Scottish preacher

Reflecting on the incarnation (2)

What a wonder is it, that two natures infinitely distant, should be more intimately united than anything in the world…

What a wonder is it, that two natures infinitely distant, should be more intimately united than anything in the world; and yet without any confusion! That the same person should have both a glory and a grief; an infinite joy in the Deity and an inexpressible sorrow in the humanity! That a God upon a throne should be an infant in a cradle; the thundering Creator be a weeping babe and a suffering man, are such expressions of mighty power, as well as condescending love, that they astonish men upon earth, and angels in heaven.

-Stephen Charnock (1628-1680)

Reflecting on the incarnation

At one and the same time…as Man He was living a human life, and as Word He was sustaining the life of the universe…

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. {John 1:14, NAS}

‘Tis the season for some theological reflection! Check back every day this week (M-F) for thought-provoking quotes on the incarnation. We lead off with a personal favorite from a previous post:

The Word was not hedged in by His body, nor did His presence in the body prevent His being present elsewhere as well. When He moved His body He did not cease also to direct the universe by His Mind and might. No. The marvelous truth is that being the Word, so far from being Himself contained by anything, He actually contained all things Himself.

. . . At one and the same time—this is the wonder—as Man He was living a human life, and as Word He was sustaining the life of the universe, and as Son He was in constant union with the Father. Not even His birth from a virgin, therefore, changed Him in any way, nor was He defiled by being in the body.

Athanasius, On the Incarnation

Pipe & Pencil(5): Did Christ have one will or two?

Jesus had ordinary human desires, longings, preferences, and aspirations. Just as truly, he had human aversions. Under these influences he made decisions and pursued options in the same way as we do ourselves.

561px-kremser_schmidt_-_christus_am_oelbergDid Christ have two wills corresponding to his two natures (human & divine) or did he have one will uniting the two natures? This is the kind of question that sounds custom-made for theology eggheads. Most of us have given less thought to this question than we have to the enigma of God’s ability to create an immovable object or the number of angels that can occupy a minuscule space.

But how significant and relevant it is for us to affirm that Christ had two wills! Consider the depth this bit of theology would add to concepts like prayer, obedience, the work of redemption, and our sympathetic high priest:

Jesus had ordinary human desires, longings, preferences, and aspirations. Just as truly, he had human aversions. Under these influences he made decisions and pursued options in the same way as we do ourselves.

This is clearly indicated in the Scriptures, not least in the way they distinguish between the will of Jesus and the will of God. This appears in, for example, John 6:38, ‘I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.’ Such language presupposes . . . the logical possibility that Jesus’ natural preferences (based on personal self-interest) might not always coincide with the wishes of the Father. . . The Servant consults not his own interests but the interests of others (Phil 2:4). This climaxes in Gethsemane, where the dilemma becomes almost unbearably acute. At a very basic level, Jesus does not want this ‘cup’. His whole nature shrinks from it, and as he speaks to his Father he becomes acutely aware that there are two wills (and two ways): there is ‘my will’ and there is ‘thy will’. Nor did Jesus find it easy to be reconciled to the Father’s will. It literally terrified him, because here was the concentrated essence of the mysterium tremendum.  It was eerie. It was overwhelming. It was uncanny. Jesus’ victory consisted not in merging his will with that of the Father or even in wanting specifically what the Father wanted. It came from choosing the Father’s will rather than, and even over against, his own. He willed what he did not want…

-Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ, 179-180.

Pipe & Pencil (2): the felt weakness of Jesus

Christ has put on our feelings as well as our flesh.

Christ has put on our feelings as well as our flesh. -John Calvin

In his discussion of the incarnation, Macleod turns his attention to our Lord’s human emotions. Perhaps most poignant are his reflections on Christ’s experience through his time of suffering in Gethsemane and on the cross.

To think that all-powerful God submits to human fear & weakness! Macleod is worth quoting at length:

But the narrative [concerning Gethsemane] does not owe its force to the adjectives alone. The whole account resonates the acutest torment and anguish. This appears, for example, in the fact that he took Peter, James, and John with him, not merely for companionship but so that they might watch and pray with him. It was of paramount importance for himself, for the universe and for mankind that he should not fail in his task, and the temptations that beset him on the eve of his agony represented a real threat to the completion of his obedience. Hell would do — was doing — all in its power to divert him from the Father’s will. Hence the supreme urgency of watching and praying; and hence the need for the prayers of others. Could there be a more impressive witness to the felt weakness of Jesus than his turning to those frail human beings and saying to them, “I need your prayers!”?

In the event they failed him. He had to watch and pray alone. Had the redemption of the world depended on the diligence of the disciples (or even on their staying awake) it would never have been accomplished . . . But the impressive thing is that he turned to them at all. How deep must have been his need and his fear!

…It is clear from all the accounts that Jesus’ experience of turmoil and anguish was both real and profound. His sorrow was as great as a man could bear, his fear convulsive, his astonishment well-nigh paralyzing. He came within a hairsbreadth of break-down. He faced the will of God as raw holiness, the mysterium tremendum in its most acute form: and it terrified him…

When Moses saw the glory of God on Mt. Sinai so terrifying was the sight that he trembled with fear (Heb 12:21). But that was God in covenant: God in grace. What Christ saw in Gethsemane was God with sword raised (Zech 13:7; Mat 26:31). The sight was unbearable. In a few short hours, he, the Last Adam, would stand before that God answering for the sin of the world: indeed, identified with the sin of the world (2Cor 5:21). He became, as Luther said, ‘the greatest sinner that ever was’ (cf. Gal 3:13). Consequently, to quote Luther again, ‘No one ever feared death so much as this man.’ He feared it because for him it was no sleep (1Thess 4;13), but the wages of sin: death with the sting; death unmodified and unmitigated; death as involving all that sin deserved. He, alone, would face it without a [covering], providing by his dying the only covering for the world, but doing so as a holocaust, totally exposed to God’s abhorrence of sin.. And he would face death without God…deprived of the one solace and the one resource which had always been there.

The wonder of the love of Christ for his people is not that for their sake he faced death without fear, but that for their sake he faced it, terrified. Terrified by what he knew, and terrified by what he did not know, he took damnation lovingly. 

-Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ, 173-175.
(emphasis added)

Grab your pipe & your pencil

The transfiguration showed not only what he would become but what we would become.

For some time now I’ve felt the need to read through a good book on Christology–first, to push back the horizons of my ignorance; second, and more importantly, to feed my soul. In his introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, C. S. Lewis wrote:

I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.

This has certainly been true for me as I work my way through The Person of Christ by Donald Macleod. I honestly don’t know how many people would share my experience in this book–sometimes you “happen” to come along the right book at just the right time. Regardless, Macleod’s has been that book for me which is one of the reasons I’ll periodically pass on some of the more challenging and/or meaningful portions here.

One more thing. For those who might like to find their heart singing over some challenging theology but don’t know how or where to start, maybe look here or here.

Here, then, is an excerpt from the chapter “Christ, The Son of God” on the relevance of Jesus’ transfiguration (pipe & pencil not included):

…[the transfiguration] has an on-going ministry. For Jesus, the trauma is past: he has entered into his rest. For us, it is not past. We are still struggling and suffering. To that situation the transfiguration still speaks, because it discloses not only the glory eternally possessed by the Lord, and not only the glory for which, as incarnate Mediator, he was destined, but also the glory of his people . . . The transfiguration showed not only what he would become but what we would become. The New Testament makes this connection explicitly. We are to be where he is (Jn 17:24). Our bodies are to be conformed exactly to his (Phil 3:21). We, in him, are to become sharers in the divine nature (2Pet 1:4). For Jesus on the Mount, this vision of what lay beyond the cross, not only for himself but for his people, would have been an immeasurable encouragement.

A. M. Ramsey relates this to the twin concepts, opsis and theiosis. Opsis is the spiritual vision which beholds the glory of the Lord. Theiosis is the transfiguring process which results: we are changed into the same image (2Cor 3:18), transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:2), and one day we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is (1Jn 3:2). This goes back to the core of God’s own redemptive determination: to conform all his people to the image of his Son (Rom 8:29). Yet, as the sequel to the transfiguration shows, neither opsis nor theiosis goes on in ideal circumstances. We have to go down from the Mount to the demon-possessed valley. It is there that we must practice opsis; and only there that we can experience theiosis.

-Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ, 107.
[emphasis added]

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