By David F. Watson —
In Nazareth, there is a large church built over the traditional site of Mary’s house. It is called the Church of the Annunciation. Tradition holds that the angel Gabriel spoke to Mary here: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:30-33).
Mary, of course, wishes to know how this will happen since she is a virgin. Gabriel responds, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (1:35). Mary responds, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (1:38).
The Word Became Flesh Here. Within the Church of the Annunciation there is an altar that sits atop the site where this event is thought to have taken place. It bears a remarkable inscription: Verbum caro hic factum est, or, in English, “The Word became flesh here.” There is a stunning particularity to this claim. The Word became flesh here – amidst the stone, wood, smoke, fire, and flesh of an ancient village. God is the God of all times and places, but his redemptive work began at a particular time and in a particular place, through the obedience of a particular young woman who responded in faith over fear.
This very claim has so vexed Christianity’s cultured despisers that it has come to be called the “scandal of particularity.” In the midst of so many claims to truth and revelation in our world, how dare we say that the perfect union of God and humanity by which the redemption of all creation took place happened here, and nowhere else? But there it is, carved in stone: Verbum caro hic factum est. It happened, Christians insist. It happened here.
The particularity of this event matters. Today, Nazareth is a busy city of over 75,000 people, but in the first century it was an obscure village with a population of probably less than 500. Nathaniel asks Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). God did not choose Rome or Alexandria or Athens, these cities of renown and high culture, in which to become flesh. God chose a backwater village on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire as the staging ground for the redemption of the world. He did not need the power of Rome, the literary culture of Alexandria, the philosophy of Athens. “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:27).
God does not see as humans see (1 Samuel 16:7). Our vision is obscured by sin in its various manifestations: pride, selfish ambition, the elevation of sensory pleasure, and greed, to name a few. Perhaps this is why we humans have such a hard time accepting this Jesus, born of a virgin, hailing from Nazareth, a carpenter raised by a carpenter, a wandering preacher who had no place to lay his head, loved, hated, worshiped, and betrayed. He did not provide a form of government or a manifesto but spoke in pictures about the kingdom of God. He told his followers they must take up the cross, that they would be hated on his account, and he himself was executed upon the cross, the “slave’s punishment.” After he rose from the dead, he entrusted the news of his resurrection to two women, one of whom he had freed from seven demons. He went back to those obscure few who followed him in his ministry and then left his mission in the hands of fishermen, tax collectors, and zealots.
It is unsurprising that so many have rejected this Jesus. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are his ways our ways (Isaiah 55:8). Within the last three centuries, many have tried to tell us that the significance of Jesus is not that God became human, that within Jesus is a union of divine and human, or that through his death and resurrection we are forgiven and free from sin. Rather, they have said, Jesus was a supremely wise person, along the lines of Socrates or Confucius. They might suggest that Jesus had an acute “God consciousness.” His spiritual sensitivity and perceptiveness toward the will of God gave him insights much like those wise sages who have existed across the centuries. We should listen to what he taught and live accordingly, rather than focusing on these ancient myths of incarnation, atonement, and resurrection.
This purveyor of wisdom, a sage among sages, even a politically radical Jesus, is a safe, manageable, comprehensible figure. He is here to make us wiser people, to improve our lives, to reform society. If his words seem strange to us, don’t worry. It is easy enough to shape his teachings into the values we already affirm, and myriad authors stand at the ready to help us do so.
Such a Jesus is simply too weak, too cerebral, too bound by the narrowness of modernity to do us any good. Jesus did not come first and foremost to teach us. He came to save us, and his teaching serves the end of salvation. Flannery O’Connor once said of the resurrection of Christ, “If it’s just a symbol, to hell with it.” I would say the same thing of the incarnation. If it’s just a symbol, metaphor, or myth, then so was my baptism. A wise sage cannot save us from sin and death. Only the incarnate God can do that. The real Jesus does not simply want to make us wise, but holy. The real Jesus will not simply reform society, but renew all of creation. The real Jesus offers us not just a better life, but new life.
The Incarnate God and New Life. Perhaps part of the problem is that we do not accurately perceive the need for new life in Christ. According to Ligonier Ministries’ recent report called “The State of Theology,” 43 percent of evangelical Christians in the U.S. agree with the statement, “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God.” Put differently, almost half of all evangelicals reject the doctrine of the incarnation. Equally significant, however, is that 65 percent of evangelicals believe that everyone is born innocent in the eyes of God. In other words, they reject the doctrine of original sin.
If we drill down into the doctrines of the incarnation and original sin very far, it becomes apparent that they are closely connected. Let’s start with Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Another way of putting this is to say that, even though Christ did not sin, he took on full humanity, which means he took on sinful human nature. Because he did this, we can take on righteousness, which is an aspect of God’s nature. Put still another way, in Christ, God took on what is evil in us so that we might take on what is perfect in him.
As Gregory of Nazianzus wrote, “What is not assumed is not healed.” God has redeemed us – healed us from the corruption of sin and death – by uniting fallen humanity and perfect deity in one person, Jesus Christ. Christ did not sin, but was perfectly obedient to the Father, and he took upon himself what we deserve (death) so that we might receive what only he deserves (righteousness and eternal life). If there is some aspect of human life that God did not take on in Jesus Christ, that aspect of our life is still fallen. But Christ was truly and fully human, even while he was truly and fully divine. We can thus experience full salvation, both forgiveness of our sins and freedom from the power of sin.
One might ask why the all-powerful God could not simply wave away our sin and its consequences, rather than actually becoming human, living a perfect life, dying on the cross, and then rising from the dead. Such a scenario would involve what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” If God were simply to dispense with sin as if blowing on a dandelion, the unavoidable conclusion would be that sin really doesn’t matter. But you and I know that isn’t true. Sin has consequences. We see and feel them every day. Lies, violence, exploitation, betrayal – these kinds of actions cause us pain because they are violations of creation’s moral order. They are the opposite of love, and to say that God has wrath in the face of these sins is another way of saying that God is love. The destruction of his beloved creatures through the corruption of sin and its consequences is intolerable. Were it tolerable, if God simply did not care, it would mean that God does not love us.
Yet God does love us, and so he must deal with sin and its consequences. There are many ways in which God could have dealt with sin. He could simply have willed us out of existence. He could have consigned us wholesale to eternal punishment. The wrath of God is nothing with which to be trifled. But God is love – pure, unselfish, eternal love. So rather than imposing upon us the just consequences of our sin, God took these consequences upon himself, and in so doing, he set us free.
Creation and New Creation. John’s gospel teaches us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. … And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-4, 14).
Everything was created through the Word. Life and light came into being through the Word. And this very Word, the source of all things, also became the source of redemption for us. As Athanasius put it, “[T]he renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.” The creative Word of God is the agent of the new creation.
What is not assumed is not healed, but God assumed our full humanity so that we can be healed fully of sin and death. It is the greatest act of love imaginable, given by a perfect God to the broken, the undeserving, the sinful, the selfish – in other words, to all of us. If we but say yes to God, we can be healed. And God wants to heal us. God wants us in the new creation. That is why he became one of us.
David F. Watson is Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is the author of several books, including Scripture and the Life of God (Seedbed), and lead editor of Firebrand (firebrandmag.com). Illustration: The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), a realist painter and the son of a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. It is found in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Public domain.