For God So Loved the World…That He Couldn’t Stay Away (A Christmas Meditation)

For God So Loved the World…That He Couldn’t Stay Away: A Christmas Meditation

This is the heart of the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and therefore of authentic Christianity: the incarnation of God as “one of us.” Take it away and Christianity is little more than a moralistic, therapeutic deism. The incarnation, as event and doctrine, is the distinctive note of the Christian witness and the basis of Christian hope.

But many Christians believe in the incarnation of God in Jesus, but fail to grasp the fullness of it as good news about God. Karl Barth best expressed this good news about God in a nutshell: the humanity of God—the startling title (given his early emphasis on God’s “wholly otherness”) of one of his last books.

If Barth was right, and I believe he was, God was always inclined toward us, always determined in himself, by his free decision, as “He who loves in freedom,” to be for us in Jesus Christ. Thus, we must think of the Son of God, the second person of the Godhead, the Word, as the “Platzhalter” for Jesus Christ in the Trinity.

Many Christians think of the incarnation as God’s rescue mission, its only purpose being to get God the Son onto the cross to change God’s attitude toward us from wrath to love. This does not take the truth of the incarnation seriously enough.

Many other Christians think of the incarnation as God’s identification with us, to reveal himself to us, but they too fail to take the incarnation seriously enough because, for them, too often, the incarnation is something of a charade insofar as it was simply a divine “addition” of an impersonal human nature to the Son’s pristine, impassible divine nature.

If we take the incarnation radically seriously, we must conclude that it was not merely a “Plan B” because of humanity’s rebellion or merely a pretense that made God appear to be one of us, with the “God part” of Jesus remaining incapable of suffering.

I believe the one of the most beautiful, inspiring and truthful pieces of theological literature (which is also profoundly devotional) is Barth’s essay in Church Dogmatics IV/1 entitled “The Way of the Son of God into a Far Country.” There Barth, perhaps almost in spite of himself, grasps and expounds the radicalness of the incarnation. The Son of God, God the Son, God himself in the person of the eternal Word, too leave of the Father’s house and entered into the depths of human misery for our sakes. The result is, for Barth and for me, that God cannot be thought of as untouched, pristine, unaffected by what happened with Jesus Christ.

Because of the incarnation our misery is forever imprinted in the life of God but so is our transformation to glory. The wounds of Jesus (and not just the ones put there by the nails of the cross) are part of God’s life but so is his glorious resurrection. Because of the incarnation God’s grace and glory are part of every human person’s being (in potency) and, with faith, every human is capable of participating in God’s divine life and family forever.

Jesus did not “drop his humanity” when he ascended into heaven; he took his resurrected, glorified (but still wounded) humanity with him and he remains human forever. Because of the incarnation, the event of God’s love, one of us is one of God; our being is God’s and God’s is ours—if we have faith in his Son. There’s no hint of pantheism in that; it’s all due to God’s grace which means God could have remained God without the incarnation. But he chose not to be himself without us.

I believe, with the Eastern churches, that the incarnation was God’s great plan and purpose in creation all along; it was not merely a “rescue mission.” It became a rescue mission, but it would have happened even if humanity had not fallen due to rebellion. The purpose of God toward the world, toward humanity especially, was to join with it and join it with him by becoming one of us so we could become part of him. The original plan (to speak mythically) did not include the cross, but it became part of the plan when humanity rebelled. Because of our rebellion and God’s refusal to give up on his plan, the wounds of Jesus remain forever embedded in God’s life.

What’s the final outcome, the “cash value,” of such a vision of God and the world? It must be that love is the fabric of reality, the heart of what it is all about to be, even for God. This narrative, this story, this eventful reality of the incarnation, if taken fully seriously, cannot help but push aside and out of the way any notion of God as desiring glory above all. Or, rather, it requires a redefinition of “glory” from our fallen notions of it. This truth tells us that Jesus’ wounds are the most glorious thing possible—even for God. The doctrine of God cannot be what it would be without the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus. It is sad that so many Christians disregard this and prefer instead a philosophical idea of God as glorious according to human conceptions of glory—immutable, impassible, apathetic, self-enclosed, infinite (in the sense of incapable of limitations).

My prayer this Christmas is that all Christians will come to grasp the radicalness of the incarnation and allow it to transform their understanding of God as one of us.

 

  • http://synestheticsymphony.wordpress.com Jacob

    You made the statement: “Jesus did not “drop his humanity” when he ascended into heaven; he took his resurrected, glorified (but still wounded) humanity with him and he remains human forever.”

    Could you clarify that a bit? What are the theological and practical ramifications of his remaining human versus returning to his divinity upon the Ascension?

    • rogereolson

      I tried to make clear that, for me at least, the practical significance is that God is one of us and we (humanity) is “in God.” Thus, salvation is not merely a matter of forgiveness and reconciliation but also of identification and participation. The New Testament is clear that the Son of God, the Word, is still human: “This same Jesus…” and “one mediator…the man Christ Jesus.”

      • CarolJean

        Maybe what you describe is not patripassianism but it sounds like you see the cross as God suffering.

        • rogereolson

          Yes, I do and more. I see it as God dying. As a Christian, of course, I don’t believe “dying” is extinction. It is an experience of transition from one form of life to another one. And I don’t believe God is a single person, so “God dying” does not mean the Godhead dies. Only the Son of God dies on the cross, but because he is God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, his death becomes a moment in the life of God. Because of the cross death is in God (Eberhard Jungel).

          • http://johnmarkhicks.wordpress.com John Mark Hicks

            I think this is what Young notes in The Shack when Papa has the wounds as well. The experience of the Son becomes part of the life of Triune God. It is not patripassianism which would deny the Trinity.

          • Josh

            Eh Roger, in light of God’s self-giving love, what work(s) does Jungel explore the death (suffering and weakness) of God? Are their any other works/scholars that study this particularly that you’ve read?

          • rogereolson

            God as the Mystery of the World is Juengel’s classic work on death in God. It’s not easy reading, though. Others who have worked on the weakness of God include Jurgen Moltmann and John Caputo. There’s a big difference between them, though. For Moltmann, God’s “weakness” is kenotic whereas for Caputo God is by nature a “weak force” of love without omnipotence.

  • Percival

    Yes and Amen.
    The incarnation is such a shocking event that we must meditate on it and plug into it more so that we can be transformed by its power. Thanks for these thoughts. They call for a reread.

  • CarolJean

    Thank you so much for this post!

    A few years ago I tried to read Piper’s “Desiring God” but I could only get through the first chapter because it made me want to vomit. It portrays God as someone who seeks his own glory or as a selfish, egotistical maniac! I couldn’t stomach reading any further although I’m sure there must be some good in that book, I was unable to agree with his main thesis. You thesis, “The purpose of God toward the world, toward humanity especially, was to join with it and join it with him by becoming one of us so we could become part of him”, is so much more in line with the God that I read about in the Bible. His glory is not the motivating factor in what God does but love is what motivates him.

  • Robert Taylor

    It is so important to understand that our identity as human being is linked with what God did in Jesus through the incarnation, the announcement of the kingdom in Jesus’ word and deed, the crucifixion and resurrection.

    Having read your recent comments on atheism and Calvinism I have been struck by the thought that the view of human nature, human significance and human identity is virtually the same whether you are a secular humanist or a Calvinist. A secular humanist view of being human is that we are the end result (so far) of a series of biochemichal reactions and accidents. A consistent Calvinist (and they are a pretty rare breed!) must view being human as the means by which God brings glory to himself by saving some and condemning others. In other words in the one view we are an accident in an accidental universe, and in the other view we are simply a means to an end. In neither view do human beings have any moral, intellectual or personal value at all.

  • http://profanefaith.com profanefaith

    It seems the last half of your article about the incarnation not starting as a rescue plan is a separate line of thinking from Barth. Just wondering what some of the Scriptural trajectories would be behind that Eastern way of seeing the incarnation.

    • rogereolson

      One of them is based on 2 Peter 1:3-4 that explicitly states we (believers) are destined to become (by God’s grace and power) partakers of the divine nature. Surely that could not be only as a result of the fall-redemption. According to the early Greek church fathers Adam and Eve were meant by God to become partakers of the divine nature through growth in the image and likeness of God and the incarnation. I agree that surely must have been God’s plan–out of love to unite creatures made in his own image and likeness with himself and he with them in a union transcending permanent status as mere creatures. Speculative? Perhaps, but a much more glorious and satisfying way of understanding God’s plan and the incarnation? For me, yes. Irenaeus: “The glory of God is man fully alive.” I cannot conceive of Adam and Eve as yet “fully alive.” God must have meant to glorify himself by glorifying them into union with himself beyond mere fellowship. Otherwise, if the fall is what made our elevation to deification possible (2 Peter 1:3-4), then it was indeed a “happy fault” (felix culpa).

  • http://www.debatingobama.blogspot.com greg metzger

    Roger, this is a wonderful meditation and explanation. Thanks for it and prise be to God!

  • Bob Brown

    The purpose of God toward the world, toward humanity especially, was to join with it and join it with him by becoming one of us so we could become part of him.

    I do believe that God created man in His image in order for there to be a wonderful fellowship and communion in the Spirit. Coud you share where you get the idea that God planned all along to take on a human form from Scripture?

    When God first designed the concept of creating creatures with free will, He no doubt saw the risks of creatures using that freedom to rebel and not love Him or the creation. I believe in foreknowledge and believe that God foresaw that freedom would eventully be used in a wrong way. He went ahead with creating creatures with free will FOREKNOWING angels would rebel and then lead humans to rebel. FOREKNOWING about this rebellion in advance, He designed how He would deal with it and thus conceived “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.”

    Even now Jesus abides in me and I in Him. Isn’t that what God intended from the beginning? Regenerating my spirit and indwelling my spirit by the Holy Spirit allows God to reestablish union with humans which was His intention from the beginning. But I’ll need Scripture to believe that God intended to take on a human form….forever….apart from the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world”. TIA

  • Bev Mitchell

    I woke up this morning with these thoughts running through my head. I think they agree with your very uplifting piece. May God richly bless you in this special season. Bev

    The Holy Spirit is present in all humans in the sense that God is always drawing his creatures to Himself, willing that none should perish, wanting all people to have the same fellowship that prevails among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our resistance is all that stands in the way. This resistance easily becomes rebellion, but this does not change the fact that the Spirit is always calling. When the gospel is heard, read or observed in the life of another human being, the agreement between the true gospel (not some human version) and the Spirit makes the call of God particularly strong. However, we can still resist. 

    Coincident with the call of the Holy Spirit, we hear the devil’s choir singing its theme song: “It’s all about me, me, me. Nobody but me, me, me.” The Spirit’s response to this is “Let me move the centre of your being from you to Christ, for it is in Him that you will live, move and have your being.” When we stop resisting (repent) the Holy Spirit moves us into Christ – moves Christ into us. The Spirit of God is now in us. However, because we have yet to move from our current body to our resurrected (recreated) body we constantly are called to yield to the Spirit until all the ME is replaced by Christ- this takes a lifetime and it is called “spiritual formation”, ” growing in grace” etc. While we are in this life and yielding to the Holy Spirit, we are kept in Him and nothing can snatch us out of His hand. Being “preserved” carries to much of the sense of being “pickled”. Being “kept” has a much more active sense and is truer to reality and the scripture.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    Roger: Thanks for the ‘Christmas Meditation.” It causes one to think deeply. In my opinion, your personal commentary was equally as valuable as was that of Barth.

  • http://lifeandbuilding.com Kyle

    “If we take the incarnation radically seriously, we must conclude that it was not merely a “Plan B” because of humanity’s rebellion or merely a pretense that made God appear to be one of us, with the “God part” of Jesus remaining incapable of suffering.”

    This is a great post! This really highlights the point that God has a purpose beyond redemption. The church is God’s masterpiece. I understand the church more along the lines of what you speak of here rather than JUST an assembly or gathering of believers. Paul uses ‘Body of Christ’ in a much more significant way than some Christians today who casually refer to a body of believers.

    Both Watchman Nee and Witness Lee speak similarly about the greatness of the incarnation in relation to God’s economy and eternal purpose. Have you read any of their writings in this matter?

    Watchman Nee said somewhere that redemption was a remedial necessity. Witness Lee said once, “the incarnation of Christ is closely related to the purpose of God in creating man.”

    • rogereolson

      Many spiritually minded Christians throughout history have thought along these lines. I have found my inspiration (beyond scripture itself, of course) in the Greek fathers (especially Irenaeus, Athanasius and the Cappadocians), John Wesley, the Pietists, Barth and Moltmann. I haven’t delved into Witness Lee and see no need to. I read Watchman Nee years ago and found him almost esoteric.

  • http://profanefaith.com profanefaith

    I appreciate the exposure to an unfamiliar viewpoint, have always been enriched by Orthodox perspective.

  • drwayman

    Dr. Olson – I want to thank you for this Christmas meditation. I appreciate your desire to fully express God’s love for the world in sending Jesus.

    In some of my discussions with others, I attempt to use analogies to express biblical truths. Obviously, analogies are fraught with miscommunication, especially if one takes the analogies to far.

    I recently used an analogy to express God’s sovereignty by using a human as analogous to God. I was summarily dismissed because “one can’t use a human to describe God, as He is so other…” While I certainly agree that God is other, using human terms to describe God, IMHO, is not a bad way to describe some of our understanding of God.

    Your Christmas post, shows that. God, Himself, put His one and only Son, into humanity so that we could understand what God is like. Jesus reminds us that those who have seen Him has seen the Father. The Hebrews author also tells us that the Son is the exact representation of God’s being. So, if God chose to use humanity (in an analogy so to speak) to relay what He is like, it certainly seems plausible to me that we can do the same. Especially since we are made in God’s image.

    Again, thank you for such a poignant and thoughtful post :-)

    • Margaret

      I appreciate your wording: God, Himself, put His one and only Son, into humanity so that we could understand what God is like. Jesus reminds us that those who have seen Him has seen the Father. The Hebrews author also tells us that the Son is the exact representation of God’s being.

      This fits the Trinity of the New Testament, the Trinity as it was understood during the first three or four centuries of church history. God himself did not die. God sent his Son to die. But then God himself raised his Son from the dead.

      The later doctrine, making God himself (or themselves) to be three Persons instead of one, creates unnecessary confusion.

      For example, Dr. Olson said in a previous post that he has corrected students (and others) when they use “God” and “Jesus” interchangeably (e.g., “when God said to his disciples). … Whenever the word “God” is used in Christian theology, without “the Son” or “the Holy Spirit” following, it is the Father who is meant.

      Whatever may be said about Christian theology, it is a fact that in the Bible, the word “God” is never followed by “the Son” or “the Spirit,” so the confusion is unnecessary.

      Clarke cites a quotation from Athanasius that I greatly appreciated:

      When all things are done by God, through Christ, in the Holy Spirit; I see the undivided operation of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: Yet do I not therefore confound together, him by whom, and him through whom, and him in whom all is worked; as to be forced to run the three Persons into one.

      This suggests that Athanasius believed in the Trinity of the Bible, rather than the later doctrine of tri-unity.

      • rogereolson

        Huh? Athanasius would definitely not be on your side! You are being too literalistic about the word “God.” When the Bible says Jesus is “Lord” it clearly means “God” as “kyrios” was ONLY used of God by Jewish people and at least most of the writers of the Bible were Jewish.

        • Margaret

          It’s true that whenever the name “YHWH” appears in the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint substitutes the word “kyrios”.

          But the title “kyrios” (translating the Hebrew adonai) is also used of Abraham (Genesis 24:9), Pharaoh (Gen. 40:1), Joseph (Gen. 42:33), Nabal (1 Sam. 25:14), Saul (1 Sam. 256:15), and Ahab (1 Kings 18:14) – among others. [I checked the Septuagint on-line to make sure.]

          So when Paul speaks of “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:17), he isn’t talking about “the God of God.” Nor does “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:3) mean “the God and Father of God.”

          Clarke quotes Irenaeus on the Christian’s belief

          In one God, the Supreme Governor of all, of whom are all things; … and in the Son of God, Jesus Christ our Lord, by whom are all things; and in the Spirit of God, which hath in every generation manifested unto men the dispensations both of the Father and the Son, according to the will of God.

          That perfectly describes the Trinity of the New Testament, and eliminates all need for confusion.

          • rogereolson

            If one believes that Jesus Christ is the one “by whom all things are” he or she is affirming the Godness of Jesus Christ. I think we are mired in semantics here. It’s a waste of time, I think. The English word “God” simply means “the Deity.” If Jesus divine, then he is Deity, then he is “God.”

  • Fred

    “For God So Loved the World…That He Couldn’t Stay Away”

    I love that statement. Thanks.

  • Bob G

    Dr Olson,
    Thank you for this wonderful post! It is consistent with what my old pastor used to say: “God’s glory is in His grace,” and “God is more glorified by what He does for you than what you do for him.”
    Thank you for such a deep meditation and articulation of these truths.
    God Bless you. You are appreciated.

  • Robert

    Hello Roger,

    Great post. One of the things that I really enjoy about the incarnation is that I can talk to others who hold different theological views than I do (e.g. Catholics and Eastern Orthodox) and despite our differences we can rejoice together and be in awe about the incarnation.

    One other thing regarding the incarnation, it is late now, but something I have sometimes done in order to stimulate discussion of the incarnation during the Christmas season is to say to people: “Happy Incarnation Day!” Once they gather themselves after their initial confusion, it gives great opportunity to talk directly about the incarnation and about who that baby in that manger really was!

    So while I know it’s late,

    Happy Incarnation Day to you Roger,

    Robert

    • rogereolson

      Thanks and to you, too.


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