If we do not understand the weight of the miracle of the incarnation of Christ, it’s because we do not understand the weight of the holiness of God. The incarnation is shocking. It is outrageous to think that an infinite and holy God would voluntarily become finite to live with unholy sinners. In fact, the incarnation is so appalling that it is the thing that separates Christianity from Islam and Judaism. The Jerusalem Talmud says, “If man claims to be God, he is a liar” (Ta’anit 2:1), while the Quran says, “Allah begets not and was not begotten” (Sura al-Ikhlas 112). Jews and Muslims understand how ludicrous it is to think that a holy God would humiliate himself by becoming human.
The Dreadful Holiness of God
The holiness of God is fearful. But if we want to know God and ourselves, we must begin by seeing how much God loves his holiness and cherishes his purity. If we do not start here, the gospel will become cheap to us. As A.W. Tozer wrote in The Knowledge of the Holy,
“Unless the weight of the burden is felt, the gospel can mean nothing to man; and until he sees a vision of God high and lifted up, there will be no woe and no burden. Low views of God destroy the gospel for all who hold them.”
Under the old covenant, people responded to the holiness of God with awe and reverence. When Moses met the Lord, he “hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (Ex 3:6). Then, years later, when he begged to see God’s glory, God said, “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Ex 33:20). When the ark of the Lord was being brought back to Israel, some men looked inside of it and, as a result, the Lord struck down fifty thousand men. The people despaired, “Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God?” (1 Sam. 6:20). When David was bringing the ark to Jerusalem, one man merely touched it, and God struck him down immediately, “And David was afraid of the Lord that day, and he said, ‘How can the ark of the Lord come to me?’” (2 Sam. 6:9). The nearer Ezekiel approached the throne of the Lord, the less sure his words became: “Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell on my face” (Ez 1:28).
Not only did people tremble at his holiness, the Lord himself frequently spoke about it. Through Isaiah, he said, “Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord, or what man shows him his counsel … All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness” (Is 40:13, 17). When Job finished calling his character into question, the Lord answered from the whirlwind, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? . . . Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:2, 4).
The Incarnation of that Dreadful Holiness
Jesus embodies the holiness of God because he is God and has been with God from the beginning (Jn 1:1-2). This means that, when God acted under the old covenant, Jesus—as part of the Godhead—was right there with him. This is why the incarnation is a shocking miracle. In Christ, God has effected self-disclosure. Our holy God, who told Moses, “for man shall not see me and live,” became incarnate. People saw him and lived.
Our holy God, who struck down a man for touching the ark and another fifty thousand for looking inside of it, became incarnate. People spit upon him and lived. Our holy God, whose throne was so magnificent that Ezekiel failed to find words to describe it, became incarnate. He was born as a baby in a manger, not a throne. Our holy God, who demanded blood sacrifices to atone for sin, became incarnate. He allowed himself to be butchered on a cross.
Our holy God, who asked Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” became incarnate. He was born in an insignificant little town and worked as a mere carpenter in Nazareth.
Incarnation in Our Cities
What does the incarnation mean for us today?
First, the incarnation means that we live in the world, but not of it
As Jesus prayed for his disciples, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (Jn 17:15). In other words, we pursue holy lives of obedience and sacrifice even as we engage in our cities.
Second, the incarnation means that we seek opportunities to deny ourselves
Self-denial is not a popular topic in our culture, but it is the starting point for Christian growth in the mind of Christ. When Jesus became incarnate, he voluntarily denied himself the privileges of being God in order to be mocked and killed (Phil. 2:8). He did this because he longed to redeem us and knew that, in order to accomplish our salvation, the demands of his holiness had to be met. We could not meet them, so he met them for us. We, in turn, are to have the same mind, “do[ing] nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count[ing] others more significant than [our]selves” (Phil. 3:3). We deny ourselves to love others.
Third, the incarnation means that we do not love money
God is the richest being in the universe. Everything is made by him, through him and for him. Yet as he looked upon the world and decided into what family he would come, he chose the poorest of the poor. When Mary and Joseph went to the temple after the birth of Jesus, Luke records, “And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. . . and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons’” (Lk 2:22-24). Under the Law, the regular sacrifice was a lamb, but there was a provision for poor mothers: “If she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons” (Lv 12:8). This is what Mary brought. Jesus, who had all the riches of the world at his disposal, chose to be incarnate into a family that could not even afford a regular sacrifice. Let us not love riches.
Fourth, the incarnation means that we should not overvalue physical beauty
Our culture loves external appearances, but the incarnate Christ chose to come as someone who had no physical beauty or majesty. He is the most glorious person who has ever lived, but we did not recognize his glory. Thousands saw him with their eyes, but they saw nothing with their hearts. We, in turn, must look for beauty in our world with the eyes of our heart. What will we see when we look at the world this way? We will see that, today, the Lord lives in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner. As Jesus taught, when we care for such people, we do this unto him.
Finally, the incarnation means that God is for us
Paul was not merely referring to the crucifixion when he wrote, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:31-32). He was also referring to the incarnation, when Jesus left the side of the Father to become man and accomplish our salvation. The incarnation means that God is for us. Jesus left the Godhead and all the privileges thereof to die. He lived a humiliating and self-denying life to bring us to God, where there are pleasures forevermore (Ps 16:11). He veiled his awful and fearful holiness so that we could touch him, see him, know him, and love him. No longer does he say, “No man can see my face and live.” Today, he says, “See my face and be satisfied” (Ps 17:15).
When we live in light of the incarnation of Christ, our lives will be shocking to others. Although we are sons and daughters of the King, we must humiliate ourselves by serving others. All things may be permissible, but we will deny ourselves certain things or activities so that we can grow in our love for God and others. We will earn money, but we will strategize how to give it away for the sake of the kingdom. Living in a physical world, we will spend more effort on cultivating our inner beauty than our outer beauty. We will trust in the promises of God more than our circumstances because we know he is for us. When we live like this, people will think we are ludicrous. They will find our choices shocking. Yet we will point to the miracle of the incarnation of Christ. Our lives will testify to the great news of Advent. That news is this: Christ has come, God is with us.
Bethany L. Jenkins is the Director of The Gospel Coalition’s Every Square Inch, the Director of Vocational & Career Development at The King’s College, and the Founder of The Park Forum. She previously worked on Wall Street and on Capitol Hill. She received her JD from Columbia Law School and attends Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, where she is a current CFW Fellow and a former Gotham Fellow through the Center for Faith & Work. You can follow her on Twitter.