What’s the real meaning behind why Jesus’ was born? More specifically, what’s so significant about the incarnation?
CNN’s Larry King was once asked what figure from history he would most want to interview. He said it would be Jesus Christ. When asked what he would most like to ask him, King replied, “I would like to ask him if he was indeed virgin-born. The answer to that question would define history for me.”1
It’s fascinating that even a secular Jew like Larry King sees the implications of Jesus’ divine birth. Jesus’ virgin birth as “the Son of God” defines history. After all, if God the Creator was really born in human flesh, then there’s only one question that really matters, namely, “Why did he do that?”
Of course, Jesus answered this question loud and clear by permitting himself to be executed on a Roman cross. And this is how he explained it to his disciples: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
Christmas, then, was the activation of God’s eternal plan to provide the payment of ransom that would rescue sinners from their sin. This made Jesus’ incarnation and virgin birth essential in a number of ways.
1. Payment of a “God-sized” debt
The apostle John wrote,
He [Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2).
This doesn’t mean Jesus’ death supplied atonement for absolutely everyone’s sin. If it did, then everyone would be saved, including those who don’t even believe in Jesus. Reading it that way goes against the rest of the New Testament, including what John himself taught:
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them (John 3:36).
So what John means is that Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross was a sufficient payment to ransom the lives of not just one small select group of people, but as John wrote in Revelation 5:9, “people from every tribe and language and people and nation.”
But how could it? How could the death of just one man pay the sin debt of multitudes the world over?
Well, if Jesus were just a man, then it couldn’t. Even if he were a perfect, sinless man it couldn’t. Were Jesus sinful like us, his sin would instantly disqualify him from making atonement for sin. And even if Jesus were a perfect sinless man, at best he could make atonement for just one other man or woman. But certainly not for millions the world over.
No, the scope of humanity’s sin against the infinite, eternal holiness of God could only be atoned for with a payment sufficient to the infinite debt it had incurred. Only a “God-sized” payment could atone for a “God-sized” debt.
God’s gracious solution was to supply his own payment for our sin. The miracle of the incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas was that moment when God himself, in the person of his eternal Son, stepped into human flesh to be that sacrificial payment for us. As Peter puts it,
You were redeemed…with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake (1 Peter 1:18-20).
The incarnation and virgin birth of Jesus, therefore, demonstrates two important truths which are essential and core to the gospel:
- Being born of a virgin meant that Jesus as a man didn’t share in the inherited sin nature of Adam as the rest of us do.
- It also meant that Jesus didn’t share Adam’s human origin. His origin was divine. He was God himself in human flesh. This made him the only sufficient sacrifice to take away the sin of the world, as John declares.
2. God’s justice toward a “man-made” problem
“So why did God have to sacrifice his own Son? If he’s a loving God, why didn’t he just forgive us?” I’ve heard this objection many times. People think God’s love should allow him to just “forgive and forget.”
Unfortunately, such statements betray a misunderstanding of God’s love, and true love in general. It turns God’s love into some mere capacity for positive feelings towards people. What we need to remember, though, is that God’s love is rooted in his righteousness, which is to say his perfect love for what is good. And this necessarily binds God’s love to his justice.
Here’s another way to look at it. Imagine all of humanity standing before God. Each one must give account to God for the sins he or she has committed. Among the crowd is one Adolf Hitler. Upon Hitler’s turn, the untold horrors of his evil Nazi enterprise are recounted for all to hear. Now imagine that on completion of their review, that God turns to Hitler and says, “Well, since I’m such a loving God I’m just going to forget about all that, Adolf. Welcome into my heaven!” Wouldn’t the rest of humanity seeing this all say the same thing? “That’s not fair…we want justice!”
It’s easy to demand justice when we see the crimes or offences of others. We cry, “It’s not fair” until crimes are met with appropriate payments. Especially when they’re crimes against us. What’s harder to see, however, is that we have all committed crimes against God and others. We have all sinned, and that sin demands a just penalty (Romans 6:23). Our sins demand God’s justice.
But what in the world could supply a sufficient payment for our sin? What penalty could be exacted that would be appropriate to the crime of rejecting and de-throning from our lives our eternal, infinite, holy Creator?
Only a human sacrifice could supply a just payment for human sin. That’s why the writer of Hebrews said,
For this reason he [Jesus] had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement [i.e. payment] for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17).
Our human sin required a human payment. That’s why Jesus’ incarnation was the only solution. Only God could supply a “God-sized” payment for a “God-sized” debt. But only a human being could provide a just payment for a human crime. Only a human payment could be appropriate for a human offense. Anything less wouldn’t be fair. It wouldn’t be just.
The incarnation, therefore, was essential to ensure that the nature of God’s offered sacrifice was appropriate to the payment required. As a man, Jesus could stand in our place, pay our penalty, and die our death.
3. The perfect marriage of grace and justice
One last point is worth mentioning. There are some in the world who want to maintain that Jesus was divine, but somehow less than God. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, believe Jesus’ sacrifice paid for our sins, but that Jesus was a created being; a “god,” but not God. Aside from being unscriptural, a big problem with this view of Jesus is that it robs God of both his grace and justice, and ultimately of his love.
If God created Jesus at some point, even to be his “divine Son” (whatever that means), it would be a gross miscarriage of God’s justice to make Jesus then take the punishment for man’s sin. Even if Jesus did so voluntarily, how would it be just for God to punish another for our sins if that person were innocent? It also couldn’t be called an act of God’s grace, since doing so would not ultimately bear any personal cost to God himself. He would have just foisted the burden onto someone else.
The great truth of the gospel, however, is that because Jesus was himself God the Son, his sacrifice was in essence God taking the penalty for our sin upon himself. The burden of pain brought by our sin was laid on God’s shoulders. The payment exacted for our sin was made by God himself. And the infinite love that exists between the Father and the Son in their mysterious unity within the Trinity means that the burden he bore for us cost him everything.
Only God could be sufficient to supply the payment needed for the sins of the world. Only a man could supply the appropriate payment required for mankind’s sin. Only Jesus incarnation as God and Man allowed him to become that perfect sacrifice that forever secures our peace with God through faith in his blood. The miracle of the incarnation supplies the only foundation for the gospel of God’s love, which inspired Charles Wesley to pen those cherished words:
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, should’st die for me?
I hope that you can slow down in the rush of the Christmas season to reflect on and worship God for the great miracle of Jesus’ incarnation. This is Christmas: that mysterious moment in history when God became a man, so that as man he might become our loving Saviour.
Merry Christmas, indeed!
Originally published Dec 5, 2014, updated Dec 15, 2020.
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- Quoted by Ravi Zacharias, in Just Thinking, RZIM, Winter 1998.