God in a Manger
The power of the Messiah’s humility might be the most surprising thing about Christmas.
By Dan Schaeffer
Christmas has become such a monumental event that it’s almost too big to define. But for Christians, it’s still about remembering the time in history when God entered our little corner of the universe in an amazing way. In theological terms, we use the word “incarnation” to describe this event. Or we try to simplify the phenomenon the season commemorates by merely saying, “This is when God became a man.” Then we turn from the manger, thinking, Ah, now I understand—and go on with our festivities.
But no. We don’t understand.
Not even a little.
It’s actually impossible to understand in our human minds what happened 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, Palestine—that tiny corner of Rome’s empire. Trying to understand the reality of Jesus’ birth by just looking at the nativity scene is a little like trying to give an insightful synopsis of a football game after missing the whole first half and then studying the halftime show. Unless you understand who “little baby Jesus” was and what He was up to before the day of His birth, you’ll never understand the angels’ glorious celebration of what the average person would have seen as simply the unimportant (and even depressing) experiences of a young Jewish family.
The Mystery of the Incarnation
In his letter to the Christians in Philippi, the apostle Paul wrote some amazing Christmas commentary that often flies under our Advent radar, yet tells us more about the real meaning of Christmas than many verses more commonly associated with the season. Speaking about humility, he urged the believers to “have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and [was] made in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:5-7). When Paul refers to Christ’s incarnation as a human being on this earth, he prefaces the idea with the reminder that He eternally existed before as God, not man.
The word “incarnation” comes from the Greek word keno (from which we get the theological term Kenosis), which refers to an “emptying.” It describes someone of great position who is brought low, voluntarily laying aside his high rank and becoming as nothing in comparison with his prior dignity. Compare this to the President of the United States or another leader of a wealthy country leaving behind all authority, rank, power, and bodyguards, and moving to an impoverished Third-World country as an unknown homeless vagrant. In choosing to subsist in near-starvation and subjecting himself to the perils of roving bands of thieves and murderers, he would be “emptying” himself.
That’s an everyday example of self-emptying transformation—but it wouldn’t even be close to what Paul is talking about. When he says that Jesus “existed in the form of God,” he uses the Greek word morphe. It means that what you look like on the outside corresponds perfectly to what you really are. You are in essence what you are in appearance. If we see a zebra at a zoo, we’re looking at the morphe of the zebra; what it looks like is what it truly is. Whereas, if someone dresses up in even a very convincing zebra costume, we are seeing the appearance of a zebra, not its morphe. Jesus didn’t just look like God; He was always God. As Paul tells us, before that amazing day when everything changed—before becoming a tiny fetus within a young woman—Jesus was in every way and eternally God.
The infant Messiah was a Being of another kind and place who took on a new nature—a human one—yet without changing who He was innately and eternally. In a hypostatic union, the two natures of humanity and divinity combined to form one. Jesus, God from all eternity, whom angels worship, who dwelt in unapproachable light and whom no human had ever truly seen (1 Tim. 6:16), left behind His infinitely glorious state by choice and humbled Himself.
And that is what the Christmas fuss is really all about. What does it mean that God became a man—that He who created everything by His power, and in whom all creation reflects His personal glory, emptied Himself?
In the Beginning
The first words of John’s gospel tell us that Jesus, the Word of God, was one with the Father in the beginning of time; that “all things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being” (John 1:1-2). All that we see with our eyes, our microscopes, our telescopes, and far beyond was spoken into existence through His omnipotence.
We know through current scientific data that the visible universe contains an estimated 100 billion galaxies, each with a diameter millions of trillions of miles wide, and each galaxy contains hundreds of billions of stars. That means the universe is home to more than a billion trillion stars. To put those astronomical numbers in perspective, circling the earth seven times in one second would require traveling at the speed of light (186,000 miles/second)—but even at that speed, crossing the known universe would take at least 28 billion years! Even more mind-boggling is that most scientists agree the universe is expanding.
The energy and power in those trillions of stars is unfathomable. Our own solar system’s rather modest star, the sun, heats the earth and creates all the energy that drives our weather systems—with only one-billionth of its energy. Over one million earths would fit inside it, yet it’s only average in size; the largest known star, VY Canis Majoris, is about 2,100 times larger. That means 9,200,000,000 of our suns would fit inside it.
The Son of God made these; He gave them their power! And we’re looking only at creative power—just a tiny fraction of all the power belonging to the Creator, who is infinitely greater and more glorious than the wonderful things He made.
It was this Creator who emptied Himself of all that glory and power so that He might enter a tiny planet in the Milky Way, in an insignificant backwater part of the Middle East—coming into the world just like us: as a vulnerable baby.
That tiny infant, struggling out of His mother and sleeping His first night in a feed trough, was still truly and completely God—having set aside His glory, but not His essence. He who was “the image of the invisible God” also became “the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15-17). He who holds all things together by His power allowed Himself to be so helpless that His very existence depended upon a humble human being.
It may not be hard for some to believe that our Creator loved us and wanted us closer to Him, even while our sin had created a deep rift between us. But what should be an absolute wonder to us all is the lengths to which He was willing to go to bridge that chasm so He could be with us. The manger scene is a shocking monument to the love of our God and His commitment to bringing His creation back to Him.
Another Kind of Power
Though Jesus came to us in the mantle of weakness, there was no weakness in the way He came to us. Only infinite power could work this miracle. Our human bodies contain an estimated 100 trillion complex cells. We are marvels of the most complex kind of engineering. Just imagine trying to humble yourself into becoming the single microscopic cell you began life as.
What kind of knowledge, creativity, and power did it take for the eternal Creator to become an infant, without becoming one less bit God than He was before? How would you fit all the massive oceans of the world into a miniature thimble? How would you fit all the power of the universe into a strand of DNA? How could He “who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23) confine Himself to a human womb and yet still be able to fill everything? There is power in His humility. Was this act any less of a miracle than when He made everything out of nothing?
In Jesus, humility and weakness aren’t the same thing. In us they often are; we must be humble enough to acknowledge our weakness so that God’s power can be made complete in us. Yet from the beginning, Christ’s human frailty was born of His great strength. He who is immeasurable in His greatness was willing to be contained in a bundle so light you could have lifted Him with one hand. He who knows all things and sees every activity in galaxies invisible to us, allowed His mind to be limited to an infant’s. He whose very spoken word caused the universe to come into existence allowed Himself to cry out in unintelligible phrases, unable to communicate even His most basic needs. He who has legions of mighty angels under His control entrusted His well-being to a poor carpenter and his teenaged wife.
This is your Creator!
So on Christmas, as you contemplate the tiny baby in the center of the Nativity scene, consider the heights from which He came and the breadth of the power He wielded from before all time. Consider that no one in all of history has ever given up more or gone to such lengths for the sake of love. Even before He lived His life beside us—and then sacrificed it for us in yet another miraculous act of grace—He showed us the mystery of His matchless love, even as a crying newborn lying in a manger.
Dan Schaeffer is the author of In Search of the Real Spirit of Christmas.