The Incarnation and The Incarnated: Part 1

The Incarnation – Jesus Becomes Like Us

In Spanish, the word for meat is carne, which comes from the Latin word caro of the same meaning.  Whenever I hear the word incarnation (in + caro) – a word used to describe our Lord Jesus taking on human flesh – I can’t help but think of my made-up word, “meat-ified.”  Jesus was meat-ified and so became like us.  Rather than remaining distant in his celestial abode for all eternity, God traversed the chasm between himself and humanity by becoming a human and moving into the neighborhood.

When you think about it, God is very different from you and me.  Thankfully so, we may add.  To start with, God is eternal – having no beginning and no end.  God is holy, which results in a great deal of fear every time people come in contact with him.  Jacob, Moses, Isaiah – these men all marvel that they have seen the Lord without perishing.  It is a dreadful thing to come face to face with the living God, to paraphrase Hebrews 10.31.  God is all-knowing and perfectly wise.  Sometimes it seems that if you were going to think of all the traits a person could have that would be the opposite of our traits, then you would have God.

Still, the Bible also says that God made us in his image (Genesis 1.27).  God places some of his qualities in us.  We are rational and creative people who use our minds for many wondrous activities.  We are relational and need others to fully realize our potential.  We are responsible moral agents.  But all these qualities and more are but reflections of the true form they take in the Trinity.  When all is said and done, God seems very far away indeed.  That is, until Jesus came.

It’s For Real

Lest there be any confusion, the incarnation is not some metaphor for God being near to us or caring about us as humans.  This incarnation took place in history and we have the testimony of the Gospels and Paul’s writings, which bear witness to the physical nature of the claims.  God truly took on flesh.  There are more historical accounts that prove the existence of Jesus than there are for most other historical men and women whose real lives we take for granted.

The Incarnation

Jesus, though God, was born as a real human being.

Jesus took on flesh, became like us, so that he could save us.  He entered into our reality and situation as one of us so that he could represent us before God, the Father. In Hebrews 2.16-18, the author tells us that Jesus did not come to save the angels.  If he had, he would have become like them.  He came to save humanity, and so he needed to become fully like us.  What makes this claim in Hebrews so powerful is that in the previous chapter, the author goes to great pains to show that Jesus is also fully God.  He created the universe (Heb. 1.2), he is the exact representation of the Father (Heb. 1.3), and he is eternal (Heb. 1.10-12).

The Punishment Fits the Crime

Think of the process like this.  Men and women have sinned and are deserving of death.  This penalty is just and fair because the one we sinned against is God himself.  Just as we would understand that the penalty for punching your neighbor and the penalty for punching a police officer are different, sinning against a human being and sinning against the creator of the universe require distinct punishments.  Since God is eternal and infinite, our punishment is the loss of everything we have – our life.  The psalmist says in Psalm 49.7-9 that no one can pay the price for his or her life.  It is too great.  Since no one has the ability to pay an infinite price -the cost of sinning against an infinite God – we are all doomed.

But Jesus, being God, is infinite.  His life can pay the price for our sins.  And far from being what some have called cosmic child abuse, wherein the Father heaps upon the son all his wrath and judgment, this is an act of love by God for his creation.  The Father didn’t force or coerce Jesus, the Son, into anything.  Jesus, being God, freely chose to offer himself up as a sacrifice for us and for our sins.

God-Man

Jesus, though God, was born as a real human being.

As the previously mentioned passage of Hebrews makes clear, our savior also needed to be like us.  It wasn’t enough for God to sacrifice himself.  The one who stands on our behalf must be like us, one of us.  Therefore, God needed to become human.  He needed to take on flesh and blood.  He needed to walk in our shoes and experience our pain.  Also, he needed to show himself to be a worthy sacrifice by withstanding the temptations that overwhelmed the human race to begin with.  Jesus must be a new Adam, who – when faced with temptation and the opportunity to do things his way instead of God’s way – passed the test.  Though Satan overcame Adam and Eve with tempting offers of greatness through eating a fruit, Jesus withstood the temptations of Satan who offered the exact same things to him while fasting – not eating any fruit – in the wilderness (Matthew 4.1-11).

Jesus was a willing sacrifice.  He chose to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10.45).  Jesus was a proper sacrifice.  As a human being, he could stand in for all humanity as our “head.”  He became the new Adam (Romans 5.12-18). Jesus was a worthy sacrifice who paid for the sins of the world.  He was infinite, eternal, and proven to be righteous and holy.  Only a God-man could be our sacrifice.  So God put on flesh and dwelt among us (John 1.14).  He moved into our neighborhood and took on our need.  Who could ask for a better neighbor?

Part 2

Part 3

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We Hold These Truths to Lack Evidence

The Declaration of Independence, the document that crystallized the American colonists’ understanding of their resolve against English rule, makes a claim about the self-evident rights humans have been given by their creator.

The U.S. Declaration of Independence

The U.S. Declaration of Independence

For an American, the idea that we have certain rights that cannot be revoked is so effectively ingrained into our thinking that it has become a basic assumption in our culture. But what if it weren’t true? What if God has not endowed us with certain unalienable rights? I urge you to momentarily suspend your thoughts about your own rights and try to hear me out on this one. Let’s see if this is a spiritual reality. Leave politics aside for a moment, and I promise to come back to it.

What are rights?

Rights are basically the social, legal, or ethical freedoms or entitlements that humans are said to have. As a Christian, I recognize that, before God, I am not really entitled to anything. If God created me, what obligations does he have towards me? Does he owe me anything? What restrictions can I place on how he deals with me? The honest answer must be – None! I can no more restrict God’s actions towards me than a computer can claim rights against its manufacturer. As a created being, I have no place to speak of rights in relation to my creator.

As a Christian, I recognize that my life is not my own. The Bible teaches me that I was bought with a price – the very life of God in Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 6 &7). I am not my own, but rather I belong to God. If God owns me, can I make claims against him in regards to rights? Of course not. I am bound to him regardless of what he does to me.

As a Christian, I recognize that I was completely hopeless without the saving grace of God through the cross of Christ. I did nothing to earn my salvation. I did nothing to make him love me. God did it all. If this is true, what can he ask of me that I could deny him? The Bible clearly calls me to give up my life completely, daily dying so I may live  for him (Romans 12.1-2; Matthew 10.39; Luke 9.23).

Think of it another way. Does God have the right (entitlement) to ask anything of you that he wishes? Is there anything God cannot ask you to do? Is there anything he is not allowed to do to you?

Can God destroy what he has created? Yes. (cf. Genesis 6; Revelation 20)

Can God expect his people to move where he leads them?  Yes. (consider Abraham, Moses, Israel, Paul)

Can God use your pain for his purposes? Yes. (consider Job, Joseph, Pharaoh, Paul)

God can do anything with you that he pleases. There is no restriction on what he can or cannot do with you and with me. If this is true, it changes our paradigm of life. Anything is possible. There are not limits to what I must say “yes” to when God speaks. When we understand this and submit to it, we finally will experience what it means to worship God fully. Worship is the recognition that God is God and we are not. But when we hold in reserve certain ares of our life or put certain limits on his authority we are saying that in these ways he is not God, but rather we are.

Does this mean we throw out the Declaration of Independence? Well, no. Not totally. The government of is not God, either. Therefore, there are limits to what the government can ask or expect from its citizens. It is immoral for the government to take the life of its citizens without just cause, for example. But it is not wrong because God has endowed us with certain rights. It’s wrong because it would be an infringement on God’s rights and his image in us. Only God has authority over another man’s life. We can see, then, that it’s wrong for a government to kill its citizens, but it would not be wrong for God to send us to a country that did kill its citizens. While the government of that nation would be infringing upon God’s rights, it would not be infringing upon ours.

The Declaration of Independence is, at its heart, a theological document. It is based on one grand theological assertion – God has given us unassailable rights as human beings. Are far as law codes go, this is a pretty good assumption. As far as discipleship goes, its best to leave this idea behind.

The Bible Is A Myth

The Bible is a Myth

I got your attention, didn’t I?

The Bible is a myth, in the truest sense of the word. Usually when we think of the word, images of fairy tales and urban legends come to mind.  But in literary terms, a myth is a story that explains the origin or purpose of a group of people.  It is the overarching explanation of why that group exists and what it should be working towards.

Myths teach us about what it means to be human through stories of heroism, friendship and fidelity, and sacrifice for the greatest of causes.  Myths teach us the ideals that are valued in our culture.  They tell us how to best orient our lives.

The Bible has been called the Great Myth and the True Myth.  What that means is that the Bible is the great drama that explains who God is, who we are, what our purpose is, and how we ought to orient our lives.  Sometimes we forget that, technically speaking, the Bible is largely narrative, or story.  And all of Scripture is part of the epic of God and his work in the world.

Why is this important?

Unlike in ancient times, when people were oriented towards story and drama as vehicles for discerning Truth, the contemporary person tends to expect truth to come almost exclusively in the form of propositional statements.  From math and science to human longing and love, we seem to prefer to process truth in decontextualized forms.  In other words, rather than listen to a story about true friendship to understand the dynamics of it, we expect to learn about it through a list of attributes or a psychological study published in a scholarly journal.

This may or may not be problematic, as a matter of course.  But it is certainly problematic when we approach the Bible as a textbook or even a systematic theology book and look for direct propositional truth statements supporting every facet of our faith.  Even when we find a propositional statement (He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. Romans 4:25), we endanger our understanding of it when we divorce it from the larger narratives of Scripture, and the Narrative of Scripture, which is God’s redemptive plan for his fallen creation.

Using the example passage above, we would not only miss the nuance of the this sublime theological declaration but would also likely misinterpret it.  The background of Genesis 3, both in the Fall of humanity and the promise of a seed, inform why Jesus was willing to die for our sins and how devastating our sinful state was to the creation God so dearly loves.  The testing of Abraham with his only son Isaac gives us a picture of God’s willingness to step into our deepest pain and provide an escape from death.  The Levitical system, with it’s substitutionary sacrifices, is crucial to understanding how it is that Jesus’ death would do anything for our sin.  God’s heart for his wayward bride, Israel (shown throughout the Prophets), makes clear the depth of his desire for our redemption.  The life of Jesus displays his qualifications as a substitute, both in his miraculous birth as the God-man and his sinless life.

Even as I write this, I’m struck by the utter impossibility to conveying the profundity and nuance of these truths in this propositional manner.  Thank goodness we have a reliable and true Myth to engage our minds, our imaginations, and our emotions for the glory of God and the hope of our salvation.

Aren’t All Religions the Same?

I love to read about different religions.  I’m intrigued by the various beliefs and practices that can be found in the world around us.  I have spent countless hours discussing religion with people from different faith backgrounds.  I have studied the major world religions in both a secular university and in my own formal religious education.  That being said, I am no expert on religion, so if what I’m about to share seems off to you, please let me know.

We all hear, whenever the topic comes up in mixed company, someone say that all religions are basically the same.  All religions have prescribed moralities and rituals that mark those off who are adherents from those who are not.  Some even argue that the basic moral structures of all religions are the same.  The underlying assertion is that Christianity is no more “right” than any other religion, or perhaps equally wrong.  The statement usually follows that all religions lead to heaven or that all fail to do so (usually, it is argued, because there is no heaven).

May I politely say that this is a load of bunk?

Nirvana is not heaven, but rather the state of extinguishing desire, urge, thought, and the cycle of rebirth.

Let’s ignore for a moment that some religions deny any form of heaven.  The goal of Buddhism is Nirvana, which is an escape from all desire.  It is not a place, but a state marked by total peace which usually includes the idea of cessation from thought, movement, and action.  In Hinduism, Nirvana is the result of reaching moksha, which as I understand it means the loss of ego, or self, into the all encompassing reality of Brahma. Brahma is not a personal God, but a divine essence of peace and stillness.  Nirvana is the release from the cycle of life and death we call reincarnation into the oblivion of nothingness where self is eradicated and only an ideal of peace remains.  I may be misstating some details, but you get my point.

Let’s ignore for a moment that religions do not paint the same picture of God.  Polytheists worship many gods, whole monotheists only worship one God.  Buddhists don’t really worship a god at all.  Neither do many spiritists.  No two religions seem to agree on who God is (if there is one), how we relate to him (or her), or what this god wants from us.

Let’s ignore for a moment that religions often require conflicting moralities, and therefore cannot be the same.  Many religions we call occultist require human sacrifice and death to appease the gods or spirits while other religions forbid this.  Some religions require the purging of the unbelieving by trial and death – I concede that many religious followers have undertaken this practice, but some do so in defiance to the teachings of their religion where others do it out of the requirements of their religious teachings – while other religions place no expectations on non-adherents.  Some religions require idols while others forbid them.  The list goes on and on.

But the single most striking difference you can find among religions is this –

All religions teach their adherents how to live in order to reach a higher state EXCEPT ONE!

From everything I’ve ever heard or ever read or ever experienced, every religion in the history of the world has been designed to instruct humans in how to act so that they can achieve some desired outcome or existence except Christianity.

  • Muslims have the 5 Pillars of belief, practice, and sacrifice to earn the righteous a spot in Paradise.
  • Buddhism has the Noble Eightfold Path which leads the faithful through changes in attitude, action, and finally thought life to a place of enlightenment.
  • Hinduism has its rituals and practices that will bring the lucky few to an escape from the never-ending cycle of life.
  • Paganism (I use the term loosely) has sacrifices and rituals to attain power and connect with the spiritual realm, whether a pantheon or animistic in nature.
  • The list goes on an on…

Only one religion places the hope for an individual’s future on God instead of the person.

All these religions assume that people can work hard enough to gain their deepest desire. In contrast to all this, Christianity stands alone as the religion that denies the possibility that men and women can work hard enough to attain that which they desire.  It is the only religion that proclaims the work has been done on our behalf.  Christianity alone makes the scandalizing assertion that we are all utterly incapable of becoming righteous, so God, in love, became our righteousness for us.  

The hero of Christianity is the Christ, named Jesus.  Jesus is God who became human (not an avatar, a god who simply appears in the flesh).  He lived a perfectly righteous life, meeting all the requirements that we have failed to live up to.  In his death he took all the punishment due us for our wicked and evil actions, thoughts, and motivations – our very rebellion against God.  In his resurrection he defeated death and sin, creating a way for us to have eternal life and to finally attain to the righteousness required by God.  In his current role, he empowers the faithful and intercedes on their behalf as they continue to fall short of his requirements.

You may not believe that these claims are true.  You may reject them.  You may decide that Jesus isn’t real or that he didn’t do what the Bible says he did.  But you cannot say that Christianity is like all the other religions in the world.  It is categorically different.  It is operating from an entirely different point of reference.  It alone places the hope of humanity on the person of Jesus as opposed to the human hoping.

 

Are You a Swimmer or a Surfer?

I remember taking swimming lessons as a kid.  My teacher was a family friend, and my brother and sister and I learned in her pool.  We learned the breast stroke, the back stroke, how to float, and the simple dog paddle.  We even did laps.

I loved swimming.  The feel of the water and the way you could pull yourself through it.  It was and is still exhilarating.

But after practicing strokes and laps for little while, it can get very tiring. One thing is for sure, you have to be very strong to be a good swimmer. Competitive swimmers are in peak physical condition, and it shows. Every muscle is sculpted and ready to burst forth in energy.

Of course, no matter how strong you are, it would be impossible to swim across the Atlantic Ocean.

Image

We “swimmers” often try to cross the ocean in our own strength.

I’ve always wanted to learn to surf.  It looks magical, the way the board glides across the water.  I’m amazed at how gracefully, yet sharply, the surfer can turn in the water and cut back toward a wave.  It must feel kind of like flying.

I wouldn’t say you don’t need to be in tip top shape to be a great surfer, but one thing is for sure –

Surfers rely on the power of the wave to move across the water.  

Image

Surfers don’t drag themselves through the water. They let the wave carry them over it.

I find that many Christians, myself included, tend to be swimmers more than we are surfers.  We know that God wants us to be holy and righteous.  We know that we’re supposed to be increasing in obedience. So what do we do?  We drag ourselves through the water, striving harder and harder to make it across the ocean that separates sinner from saint.  We look at others around us who are stronger “swimmers” than we, and take cues from them on how to achieve better results. The problem is, those betters swimmers have no more chance of reaching the other side than we do.

Why is this?

Paul tells us in Romans 7 that the law is our problem.  When we try harder to be righteous, we do it by looking to the law.  The problem is, our flesh is weak.  When we encounter the law, something inside us (our fallen nature) perverts the process and yields unrighteousness.  I’m not just talking about being legalistic – though that is certainly included here.  I’m talking about looking to the law for power to become righteous and holy.  I’m talking about trying harder to be better.  It may work a little, but the divide is too great and our ability is too small.  As Paul says, we must die to the law so that we might bear fruit for God (Romans 7:4-6).

I think Christians should be more like surfers.  This isn’t a suggestion for passivity and moral lethargy.  Surfing is not easy.  It requires real effort and work.  The effort we exert is not the effort of moving us into righteousness, just as the surfer’s effort is not to propel the surfboard.  The effort is to hold onto the wild and untamable Spirit of God.

What if we were willing to set aside our inability to power our way across the Atlantic Ocean and instead trusted in the Holy Spirit?  What if we rode that wave all the way across the abyss?  What would it look like to trust God and his grace for the power to become righteous, instead of the law?

For starters, we would need to have the same trust in God’s provision of grace to help us overcome our sin that we have in his grace to forgive our sin.  What requires more grace?  To forgive or to empower us to live holy lives?  I would vote the latter on personal experience alone.

Next, we need to trust God’s work in us to achieve his purposes for us. It would be silly to think that we know better than God how to be holy.  In fact, the Galatians were called fools for turning from faith to the law after salvation (Galatians 3:1ff).  They trusted themselves and their abilities more than God’s.  And we do the same thing.

We certainly need to be patient with ourselves, not despairing when we do fail.  I have seen despondency set in on a person to the point that they feel the flames of Hell licking their heels.  But God tells us there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). Rather than focusing on our sin in times of desperation, God invites us to focus on Jesus and the great Throne of Grace (Hebrews 4:14-16).

When we look at it this way, it is obviously futile to keep on the “try harder” track.  I know that I default to that method over and over again. I’m tired of swimming.  I want to surf!

3 Reasons You Don’t Like “Community”

The Church is many things.  It is a building – built on the foundation of the prophets and apostles.  It is a family – children adopted by the loving father through the sacrifice of the firstborn son, Jesus Christ.  It is also a body – each member functioning differently but in a cohesive  unit under it’s head, Jesus.

But the Church us also a community.  And more so than this, each local church is a community.  And as much as we hate to admit it, we don’t like that.  Why?

  1. The Cost – Community has a lot of benefits like combined resources,
    Community has it's costs

    Community has it’s costs

    help when you need it, and companionship.  But these come at a cost.  To benefit from combined resources, I must relinquish my hold on at least some of my personal resources. This includes money, time, emotional reserves, and much more.  To receive help when I need it, I must also be willing to help others when they need it.  This requires sacrifice of the above mentioned resources, but also the pain of entering into other people’s problems.  And companionship, while a benefit, risks the possibility of breaking down both the physical and relational walls that I’ve built in order to make myself feel less vulnerable and open to frustration and pain.  If people get inside my walls, they will see the parts of me that I’d rather were left unseen.  All of these realities (and more) cost me my wealth, my emotional security, and my pride.  Ouch.

  2. The Accountability – Even when the costs don’t deter us, we often chafe at the idea of being held accountable to someone else, and especially a group of people. Communities function best when the members are self-sacrificing and purposefully pursuing a common goal.  When one member steps out of line, the role of the community is to provide pressure to bring that person back to the stated ideals and purposes of the community.  This sounds harsh, but every community that intends to survive and thrive must operate this way.  And when the goals are directed by God, the need for accountability increases.  We can’t afford to let sin, anger, malice, and jealousy interrupt God’s purposes for the church.  With this accountability comes the dirty word, discipline.  And nobody loves that.
  3. The Mess – Sometimes if feels like it would be much easier if the church were more like a business.  If someone isn’t performing well, move them (or remove them).  If someone better comes along for a role, replace the previous person no matter what sacrifices they’ve made  to serve in the past.  If one person is angry at another, just push it aside and get the work done.  But in a community, these things don’t work. People matter.  Hearts matter.  Relationships matter.  And therein lies the mess. Challenges must be worked through instead of simply dealt with.  People will get hurt.  Boundaries will be crossed.  Bruises will be common.

    Considering the costs, the accountability, and the messiness, community life can be hard.

    Considering the costs, the accountability, and the messiness, community life can be hard.

Considering the costs, the accountability, and the messiness, why even bother with community anyway?  Can’t we just bypass all of this and avoid many of the problems that come with community?  Is it even worth it?

Of course, the answer is that community is totally worth it.  For starters, this is the environment from which our great hope for our salvation arose.  Jesus entered into community at great cost, with accountability to all humanity and his Father in heaven, and steeped in messiness.  Taking up our cross daily is, in part, the process of living in relationship with other fallen human beings.  Not only does Jesus model it, but it is the environment in which he chose to place the great hope of our purpose, our commission.  The Church is the method God chose to use to spread his work of salvation throughout the Earth.  And finally, all of the challenges of community make us more like Jesus, who learned righteousness through suffering.  Sure, it isn’t the level of suffering that Jesus endured on the cross, but being in community with other believers is a honing and sharpening reality.  It makes us better.

community-buildingSo, yes – community is hard.  But stick in there.  The benefits are worth it.