Theology Matters: Why Did Christ Take Our Human Nature?

“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 were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-3, 14).

At the heart of the Christian faith is the truth expressed above in St. John’s Gospel – the truth that God the Son became a human being. In doing so, he neither abrogated his eternal divinity nor dissolved his acquired humanity, but was fully God and fully human. And we call this God-man Jesus Christ. It is not for nothing that many Episcopalians, when saying the Creed together, bow low at the words, “By the power of the Holy Spirit, he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man.” This reverence is the liturgical recognition that the Incarnation – the ‘en-flesh-ment,’ – of Christ is the doctrine on which everything else hinges, including his own Death and Resurrection and, in fact, all of human history. The well-known writer and devout Roman Catholic J. R. R. Tolkien called the Incarnation the “eucatastrophe” of history, that is, a ‘good catastrophe’ – a sudden, singular turn of events that ensures a happy, rather than tragic, ending for God’s creation. And St. John, in his first epistle, even goes so far as to call the denial that Jesus has come in the flesh “the spirit of antichrist” (1 John 4:3). The reason for both is that Christ’s Incarnation makes all his subsequent miracles and mighty works of redemption possible.

But why, one might ask? Why did it have to happen this way? Could not God have found a more fitting way to save humanity from sin and death?

            When human beings first disobeyed God millennia ago, they did more than cause offence. God had warned them that the inevitable result of their disobedience would be death, corruption, and separation from him (cf. Genesis 2:17). Repentance would be enough to make restitution for offence given, but it could not heal the corruption that had been contracted like a sickness. Humans become corrupt not just physically, by aging and death, but also spiritually. The first disobedience created a chain reaction, so that humanity as a species gradually descended into more and more destructive behavior toward God and each other.

            Since God lovingly created human beings in his image (Genesis 1:26-27) that they may, likewise, be in loving relationship with him, there were two ways he could not respond to the situation. One the one hand, he could not forcibly prevent them from first disobeying him, as that would make free will, and thus true love, impossible. On the other hand, he could not just sit back idly and watch his beloved image-bearers tear themselves apart. What was God to do?

            Someone had to neutralize the corruption. Someone had to destroy death by death. And this no mere human could do, being themselves corrupted. Likewise no angel, since they lack the perfection required for a sacrifice as well as the physical body necessary for a physical death. God had the power and perfection to do it, but no physical body. The solution was that God himself – specifically the Word, God the Son – in his infinite love as well as infinite power, would take to himself human nature and unite himself to a human body, born of a Virgin (to show that this was no mere man). As God, he would have the purity necessary to make the sacrifice, and as man he would have the shared humanity necessary to give humans the benefits of that sacrifice. As St. Athanasius, the fourth-century bishop of Alexandria, summarized it so well:

And thus, taking from ours that which is like [that is, human nature], since all were liable to the corruption of death, delivering it over to death on behalf of all, he offered it to the Father, doing this in his love for human beings, so that, on the one hand, with all dying in him the law of corruption concerning human beings might be undone (its power being fully expended on his lordly body and no longer having any ground against similar human beings), and, on the other hand, that as human beings had turned toward corruption he might turn them again to incorruptibility and give them life from death, by making the body his own, and by the grace of the resurrection banishing death from them as straw from the fire.[1]

Thus, Christ, man as well as God, became for us a second Adam, to undo the corruption resulting from the disobedience of the first. In St. Paul’s words, “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22).

            Christ did not hesitate to do what had to be done, to do what had previously been unthinkable – God living and dying as a human being and rising again to life forever. Christ took on our human nature because, as the God who made us, he loved us and did not want to see his beloved creatures destroyed forever. Christ took on our human nature so that our incorruptibility and the image of God might be fully restored. Christ took on our human nature so that, after we die, we might be raised again to immortal glory on the Last Day, as he was on the third day. As St. John witnesses, “we know that when he appears we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2). Thus, as St. Athanasius beautifully put it, Christ took on our human nature so that we might share his divine nature.[2]

[1] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, trans. by John Behr (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), 57.

[2] Ibid., 107.

Theology Matters: Importance of Jesus' Suffering and Death

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“What is the great importance of Jesus’ suffering and death?” Another way to formulate this question is to ask, “Why did Jesus have to suffer and die the way he did?” 

For two thousand years the mystery of the cross has occupied the thinking of the greatest Christians: St. Peter, St. Paul, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Richard Hooker…you get the point. There are a lot of them. 

So, “Why the Cross?” Why did Jesus suffer and die in the most excruciating and humiliating way possible? Well, here’s one way to get at the question. 

  1. S. Lewis rightly points out that this world is enemy-occupied territory and the Christian story is all about how the world’s rightful king has slipped clandestinely behind enemy lines. Jesus, of course, is that rightful king. He is God in the flesh, and he is calling all of his followers to “take part in a great campaign of sabotage” (Mere Christianity). I like the militaristic imagery that Lewis uses because it illustrates both what the Jews were looking for in their Messiah, and who Jesus really is.

The Jews believed that when the Messiah arrived he’d regroup the scattered tribes of Israel, getting them into good fighting condition, and then mount a victorious military campaign against Israel’s enemies—namely the Romans. Well, Jesus does regroup the scattered tribes, albeit in a symbolic way. He gathers twelve disciples around himself. And he says and does things to get his followers into good fighting condition. He does this not by teaching them guerilla warfare or hand to hand combat, but by teaching them how to do spiritual warfare. He gives them authority over the devil (Matthew 10:1; Luke 9:1,10:17). He not only teaches his followers spiritual warfare, he also leads them into battle. Jesus has come into the world to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8b).

For the most part the Jews missed it. They didn’t recognize their Messiah when he came. But the devil didn’t miss his arrival. He recognized him. Almost as soon as the king has landed the enemy goes on the march against him.

Remember that peach of a man named Herod? When he gets word from wise men that there’s been a “child born king of the Jews,” he’s frightened, “and all Jerusalem [is frightened] with him,” says St. Matthew. (Let the reader understand.) Herod is the king and he’s not about to let a little child upset his gig. So he goes after Jesus, but fails to cut him down. However, he slaughters many innocent children in the attempt (Matthew 2:1-18). Like I said, “Great guy.”

The combat resumes after Jesus’ baptism. The devil goes out to meet him in the wilderness. He’s clever with his timing too. He meets Jesus after he’s fasted forty days and nights. Jesus is famished. How would you like to meet the devil when you’re exhausted? I wouldn’t want to meet him if I were well rested. Anyway, the enemy comes at Jesus with one cunning temptation after another, but he successfully resists, and the devil leaves him—for the time being (Matthew 4). 

Then Jesus enters public ministry. From the beginning he’s opposed. Of course, there are those who cheer him, but they grow fewer and fewer as his mission unfolds. Jesus goes to his hometown. Time to celebrate the boy-made-good, right? Hardly. They take offense at him. In return, Jesus is amazed at their unbelief and his ministry among them is hindered because of it (Matthew 13: 54-58). Ultimately, Jesus is a man with real authority, which threatens the Pharisees, and so they plot to kill him (Matthew 12:14).

By the time we reach the Passion narrative(s), all the evil forces, seemingly every form of human sin and dysfunction, come out to meet Jesus. Judas, one of the twelve, betrays him. The other disciples fall asleep in his greatest hour of need. Peter denies even knowing him. The Sanhedrin, meant to be a dispenser of justice, carries out an act of great injustice. Pontius Pilate knows the truth, but he refuses to follow through on it. The temple and Roman guards, full of blood lust, unleash on him a grotesque beating. Finally, as this innocent man hangs naked, nailed to a stake of wood, there’s the crowd standing by to mock him (Matthew 27).

“By his own goodness and perfection, Jesus draws out the ugliness of human sin” (Bishop Robert Barron). It’s a bleak picture of the human race, isn’t it? And please don’t start with any nonsense that you’re the one exception. Friend, be honest with yourself. I mean really honest with yourself. You’ve supped with the devil. We all have. We’ve all crucified this innocent man.

Jesus is crushed by the evil of the world. He dies. He’s buried.

If that’s the end of the story, the answer to “What is the great importance of Jesus’ suffering and death?” is “It’s of no importance whatsoever” (1 Corinthians 15:13-19). But thanks be to God it’s not the end of the story! In the resurrection, Jesus conquers evil with God’s love. When he returns to those who had abandoned him, he speaks peace, shalom, to them (John 20:19). Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God has swallowed up all human sin. The cross of Jesus shows us our sin. “The author of life came, and you killed him,” says St. Peter (Acts 3:15). But in the resurrection of Jesus, God conquers the sin of the world with his infinitely greater hesed, i.e. loving-kindness and tender mercy.

What is the great importance of Jesus’ suffering and death? We’re saved because of it. The cross saves us because Jesus becomes “sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21). He absorbs sin into himself, and by his resurrection God has canceled the debt of sin.

“We adore you, O Christ, and we bless You, because by Your holy cross, You have redeemed the world” (Stations of the Cross). Amen.

 

 

Posted by The Rev. David Miller with

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