The Incarnation and the Physical

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One of the most central doctrines of the Christian faith is the doctrine of the incarnation. The claim that God the Son not only came into our world, but united himself with our world. The claim that God not only revealed himself to us, as he had already done in the OT, but that God became one of us. That God became truly human. That he came here physically. That he was born of a woman (Gal 4:4), that he lived and breathed, that he worked, that he walked and talked, that he ate and drank, that he slept, that God was truly human in every sense of the word.

The incarnation tells us that God not only came into our physical universe, but put on the physical. That he put on flesh. 

But what is so important about this fact? What is so important about God becoming truly man, being physical and material? Certainly the realness of Jesus’ humanity was important to the cross. Jesus had to literally (not spiritually) die and rise for our salvation. Had he not truly died, then we would not be saved. And had he not truly risen, we would have no hope.

But is the significance of the incarnation limited only to salvation? I would answer “no”. In fact, I would say that the incarnation speaks volumes about who God is and what he cares about. Let me explain.

I think that incarnation says something very important about God’s attitude toward the physical; toward the material. Namely, that God loves his material creation; that he thinks it “is good”; that his interest in our universe isn’t simply to get us out, or to remove us from the world. God doesn’t want to “rapture” us out of the world, in other words.

Actually, what the incarnation explains is that God wants to come into this world, not to get us out of it, but to transform it into a dwelling place for himself and for his creation. The reality of the incarnation tells us that God and the physical aren’t enemies, and that the great goal of God is that he would dwell on the earth, with his people.

In other words, the very reality that Jesus is the God-man, tells us that God has created the physical universe as a home for both him and man. He created the cosmos, that “the dwelling place of God…[would be] with man” (Rev 21:3). And so the incarnation tells us that the physical is inherently “good”, and that God doesn’t desire to remove us from it, but to enhance and beautify it! It tells us that God doesn’t want to do away with our physical bodies, but he wants to glorify them.

In short, God loves material, and we should too! That, is the beauty of the incarnation; the beauty of the God-man.

Theologian Robert Barron has much to add to this thought. He sees the incarnation as the central tenet of Christianity. Barron says this about the incarnation:

The incarnation tells central truths about God and us. If God became human without ceasing to be God and without compromising the integrity of the creature that he became, God must not be a competitor with his creation… God… enters into our creation, [and] the world is thereby enhanced and elevated. The God capable of the incarnation is not a competitive supreme being but rather, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, the sheer act of being itself, that which grounds and sustains all of creation, the way a singer sustains a song.

And the incarnation tells us the most important truth about ourselves: we are destined for divinization. The church fathers never tired of repeating this phrase as a sort of summary of Christian belief: Deus fit homo ut homo fieret Dues (God became human so that humans might become God). God condescended to enter into flesh that our flesh might partake of the divine life, that we might participate in the love that holds the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in communion. And this is why Christianity is the greatest humanism that has ever appeared, indeed that could ever appear.

God became a man, that his entire creation might be redeemed. This is the truth of the incarnation: that God cares about his creation, and means to bring us into the “divine life”.

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Did God need to create the world to get more glory?

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Did God need to create us to get glory? In one way, this question is very simple: no he didn’t. But in another way, it’s a little more complicated.

The reason it’s complicated is because the Bible tells us why God created the world: He created it for his glory. In Isaiah 43:6-7, God says, “Bring My sons from far away, and My daughters from the ends of the earth—everyone called by My name and created for My glory”. Psalm 19:1 tells us that even creation and “the heavens declare the glory of God”. Contrastly, Paul explains that sin at its root is failing to bring glory to God — for though mankind “knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or show gratitude…Claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man, birds, four-footed animals, and reptiles” (Rom 1:22-23). And “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). So we were created to glorify God, and humanity fell because we all failed to do this. 

But there is another side to this question that we need to address; because we must assume that God did not have to create anything to be anymore glorious than he already is. Jesus, while praying before his death, says in John 17:5, “Father, glorify Me in Your presence with that glory I had with You before the world existed“. Jesus makes an important clarification, that the Godhead already had glory before the creation of the world. The Trinitarian community had eternal, infinite, unceasing glory before any of us ever existed. Paul says in Acts 17:24-25, “the God who made the world and everything in it—He is Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in shrines made by hands. Neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything”. So God is not served by human hands, and he does not need us. This means that creation couldn’t possibly add to God’s eternal glory even if we wanted it to. God’s glory is totally self-sustained within his triune existence. 

So while the Bible affirms that God created all things for his glory, it also affirms that God has sufficient glory within his Trinitarian being to never create a single thing! How do we reconcile these two truths?

I think the key here is to see creation is an overflow and expression of God’s glory. What I mean is that because God had such perfect love within himself, such infinite fellowship, and such eternal greatness, that it brimmed over. And the triune God wanted to create a world through which to further express and share this glory. So when the Bible tells us that we were created for God’s glory, it means that we were created to express and reveal this triune joy. We were created to be God’s icons, and to manifest the love so infinitely and perfectly expressed in the Godhead. In a very real way, all of creation is an overflow of the perfect triune life within God. That’s why we are created in God’s image (Gen 1:26-27). We were created to further manifest, display, and reveal the glory so greatly displayed in the triune God. This also makes sense when we consider God’s first act with Adam, which was to give him a person with which to share love and unity (Gen 2:24). Is not marriage a display of the unity and love found between the Father, Son, and Spirit? I think so. So creation then is an overflow, a brimming over, an expression and revelation of the glory already found in the Godhead.

John Owen explains this well, saying, “The Father’s love for the Son is the fountain and the prototype of all love…and all love in the creation was introduced from this fountain to give a shadow and resemblance of it”. Richard Sibbes also says, “the Father so enjoyed his fellowship with his Son that he wanted to have the goodness of it spread out and communicated or shared with others.  The creation was a free choice borne out of nothing but love”.

For a more expansive view of how this affects our view of the gospel, and the purpose of the Christian life, I’d invite you to listen to this sermon I gave on God’s glory, The Purpose of the Christian Life.

John Piper also has a good small series of videos on this concept over at Desiring God: http://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/the-devotional-on-glory