THE incarnation of Christ is a profound mystery. As declared by the apostle Paul, "Great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh" (1 Tim. 3:16).
How the Son of God—who had been with the Father from eternity (1 John 1:1, 2) and who had been the active agent in the creation of the heavens and the earth (John 1:3; Col. 1:15-17; Heb. 1:1, 2)—could vanish from His vast universe and become a tiny cell in Mary's womb, there to grow into a perfect babe, and in due process of time be born into the world in the form and fashion of a child of man, but having a dual nature (a nature both human and divine) is beyond our finite minds either to comprehend or to explain. Truly, as says the servant of the Lord—
In contemplating the incarnation of Christ in humanity, we stand baffled before an unfathomable mystery, that the human mind cannot comprehend. The more we reflect upon it, the more amazing does it appear. How wide is the contrast between the divinity of Christ and the helpless infant in Bethlehem's manger! How can we span the distance between the mighty God and a helpless child? And yet the Creator of worlds, He in whom was the fullness of the Godhead bodily, was manifest in the helpless babe in the manger. Far higher than any of the angels, equal with the Father in dignity and glory, and yet wearing the garb of humanity! Divinity and humanity were mysteriously combined, and man and God became one. It is in this union that we find the hope of our fallen race. Looking upon Christ in humanity, we look upon God, and see in Him the brightness of His glory, the express image of His person.—Signs of the Times, July 30, 1896. Quoted in Questions on Doctrine, pp. 647, 648.
Human reasoning, human philosophy, can never solve the deep mystery of the incarnation of Christ. God only knows its secret. However, in the Bible and in the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy, the Lord has given us information that throws light on certain aspects of this stupendous problem. This information, this light, it is our privilege, yea, our duty, to study. It is of vital importance that we do so. It concerns our eternal salvation. But the investigation of this sacred subject must be entered upon with reverence and godly fear. We must undertake it in a spirit of great humility, and with earnest and sincere prayer. This solemn duty and necessity is clearly presented in the following lines:
The humanity of the Son of God is everything to us. It is the golden chain that binds our souls to Christ, and through Christ to God. This is to be our study. Christ was a real man; He gave proof of His humility in becoming a man. Yet He was God in the flesh. When we approach this subject, we would do well to heed the words spoken by Christ to Moses at the burning bush, "Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place where on thou standest is holy ground." We should come to this study with the humility of a learner, with a contrite heart. And the study of the incarnation of Christ is a fruitful field, which will repay the searcher who digs deep for hidden truth.—Ellen G. White in The Youth's Instructor, Oct. 13, 1898. Quoted in Questions on Doctrine, p. 647.
The sincere, persevering student will find that the study of Christ's incarnation, His death on the cross, and His high-priestly work in the heavenly sanctuary is both rewarding and exhaustible. Through His divinely inspired servant the Lord assures us that—
As the worker studies the life of Christ, and the character of His mission is dwelt upon, each fresh search will reveal something more deeply interesting than has yet been unfolded. The subject is inexhaustible. The study of the incarnation of Christ, His atoning sacrifice and mediatorial work, will employ the mind of the diligent student as long as time shall last."—Gospel Workers, p. 251. (Italics supplied.)
The Pre-existence of Jesus
When studying the subject of the incarnation of Christ it is well to learn first of all what God has revealed to us, through His Word and the writings of His messenger, regarding Christ's existence, nature, and position prior to His birth in Bethlehem.
The Bible makes it crystal clear that Jesus was with God the Father, in heaven, long before He was born into this world. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John show that Christ spoke repeatedly of having been sent by the Father, of having come down from heaven, and of going back to His Father. For instance, in Christ's pastoral prayer shortly before His death on the cross He said, "And now, Q Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was" (John 17:5). And in the first verses of his gospel John declares that Christ ("the Word," as he calls Him) "was with God" "in the beginning"; that "all things were made by him"; and that "without him was not any thing made that was made" (John 1:1-3). Since He was the Creator of all, He existed before all. Therefore, before the creation of the myriads of worlds that swing in space, and the tiny atoms that float in the sunbeams; before the creation of angels and men, and of the creatures living on the land, in the air, and in the sea, Christ was with the Father.
The Bible also makes it clear that Christ—the mighty, glorious being who was with the Father from the beginning—was God, for in his gospel John says, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1; see also Isa. 9:6). Since He was God, He was essentially the same as the Father.
The following quotations likewise show that from the beginning Christ was with the Father, and that He was God:
In speaking of His pre-existence, Christ carries the mind back through dateless ages. He assures us that there never was a time when He was not in close fellowship with the eternal God. He to whose voice the Jews were then listening had been with God as one brought up with Him.—Ellen G. White in Signs of the Times, Aug. 29, 1900. Quoted in Questions on Doctrine, p. 644.
The Lord Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God, existed from eternity, a distinct person, yet one with the Father. He was the surpassing glory of heaven. He was the commander of the heavenly intelligences, and the adoring homage of the angels was received by Him as his right. This was no robbery of God.—Ellen G. White in Review and Herald, April 5, 1906.
Christ was God essentially, and in the highest sense. He was with God from all eternity, God over all, blessed forevermore.—Ibid.
In Christ is life, original, unborrowed, underived. "He that hath the Son hath life." 1 John 5:12. The divinity of Christ is the believer's assurance of eternal life.—The Desire of Ages, p. 530.
Christ's Voluntary Humiliation
Wonder of wonders, the majestic being who from the beginning was with God, and who was God (John 1:1)—the mighty God, the Creator and upholder of all things (Heb. 1:3)—"was made flesh, and dwelt among us" (John 1:14)! Because of His unfathomable love for lost mankind, He left His throne, came down to earth, clothed His divinity with humanity, lived with us as one with us, and died in our stead, that we might have life (John 10:10).
Speaking of this wonderful voluntary humiliation of the Son of God, the apostle Paul says, "Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross" (Phil. 2:5-8).
Amazed by this wonderful voluntary humiliation of Christ, E. G. White exclaims:
What humility was this! It amazed angels. The tongue can never describe it; the imagination cannot take it in. The eternal Word consented to be made flesh! God became man! It was a wonderful humility.—Review and Herald, July 5, 1887. Quoted in Questions on Doctrine, p. 56. (Italics supplied.)
The voluntary humiliation of Christ went farther than to take human nature.
It would have been an almost infinite humiliation for the Son of God to take man's nature, even when Adam stood in his innocence in Eden. But Jesus accepted humanity when the race had been weakened by four thousand years of sin. Like every child of Adam He accepted the results of the working of the great law of heredity.—The Desire of Ages, p. 49.
In this citation our attention is called to the sad fact that sin has had a deteriorating effect on the human race. When Adam was created he was lofty of stature, with corresponding strength and vitality. We read:
As Adam came forth from the hand of his Creator, he was of noble h[e]ight, and of beautiful symmetry. He was more than twice as tall as men now living upon the earth, and was well proportioned. His features were perfect and beautiful.—The Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 1, p. 25.
Such was not the size, strength, and perfection of the human race when Jesus was born into the world. Four thousand years of reckless violation of the divine laws of nature had greatly reduced the size and impaired the strength and perfection of the human body. Nerves and muscles had been weakened through centuries of indulgence. By permitting the law of heredity toperate in His incarnation, Jesus inherited, from the side of His mother, a body comparable in size to that of the bodies of the men of His day, and was subject to the infirmities and weaknesses of other men. Thus, speaking prophetically of Jesus when He was here on earth, Isaiah declares that He was "a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief," that "surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows" (Isa. 53:3, 4). Referring to this declaration, Matthew says of Jesus: "Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses" (Matt. 8:17). Weymouth's translation reads: "He took on Him our weaknesses, and bore the burden of our diseases." * Thus in this sense the second Adam was not physically identical with the first Adam. It was also in this sense of depreciation in size and vitality that Christ by the law of heredity is said to have taken upon Himself our "fallen nature" (The Desire of Ages, p. 112), "our nature in its deteriorated condition" (Signs of the Times, June 9, 1898).
Because Christ clothed His divinity with humanity and bore the physical infirmities and weaknesses of mankind, some are inclined to believe that He came into the world with the propensities of sin, like all the sons and daughters of Adam. This, we believe, is contrary to the information given us in the Bible and in the writings of the Spirit of Prophecy. Note carefully the following statement from the inspired pen:
Be careful, exceedingly careful, as to how you dwell upon the human nature of Christ. Do not set Him before the people as a man with the propensities of sin. He is the second Adam. The first Adam was created a pure, sinless being, without a taint of sin upon Him; he was in the image of God. He could fall, and he did fall through transgressing. Because of sin his posterity was born with inherent propensities of disobedience. But Jesus Christ was the only begotten Son of God. He took upon Himself human nature, and was tempted in all points as human nature is tempted. He could have sinned; He could have fallen, but not for one moment was there in Him an evil propensity. He was assailed with temptations in the wilderness, as Adam was assailed with temptations in Eden.—The SDA Bible Commentary, Ellen G. White Comments, on John 1:1-3, 14, p. 1128.
There are several thoughts in the above quotation that stand out in bold relief:
1. The first Adam was created a pure, sinless being, without a taint of sin upon him.o
2. Because of Adam's sin, his posterity is born into the world with inherent propensities of disobedience.
3. Jesus Christ—the only-begotten Son of God, and the second Adam—came into the world, as did the first Adam, without an evil propensity. "Do not set Him before the people as a man with the propensities of sin."
The blessed truth that Christ came into the world without a taint of sin upon Him is emphasized in the following quotations:
"He was born without a taint of sin, but came into the world in like manner as the human family."—Letter 97, 1898. Quoted in Questions on Doctrine, p. 659.
He [Christ] was to take His position at the head of humanity by taking the nature but not the sinfulness of man.—The SDA Bible Commentary, Ellen G. White Comments, on Heb. 2:14-18, p. 925.
He was a mighty petitioner, not possessing the passions of our human, fallen natures, but compassed with like infirmities, tempted in all points even as we are.—Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 509. (Italics supplied.)
He is a brother in our infirmities, but not in possessing like passions.—Ibid., p. 202. (Italics supplied.)
Not a taint of corruption was upon Him.— Quoted in Questions on Doctrine, p. 61.
This all-important fact that Christ was holy and sinless from His birth is clearly taught in the Bible. In announcing to Mary the birth of Jesus, the angel Gabriel called Him "that holy thing which shall be born of thee" (Luke 1:35). The apostle Paul declares that Christ "knew no sin" (2 Cor. 5:21), and that He was "holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners" (Heb. 7: 26). Peter speaks of Him as "a lamb without blemish and without spot" (1 Peter 1:19). And Jesus Himself said, "Which of you convinceth me of sin?" (John 8:46).
Had Jesus come into the world with a stain of sin upon Him, with inclinations and propensities to evil, He would have been, like all the children of Adam (see Rom. 5:12), under the condemnation of death for His own deplorable condition, and in need of an atonement. Thank God, this was not the case!
Christ took upon Him the form of sinful man, clothing His divinity with humanity. But He was holy, even as God is holy. He was the sin-bearer, needing no atonement. Had He not been without spot or stain of sin, He could not have been the Saviour of mankind. One with God in purity and holiness, He was able to make a propitiation for the sins of the world.—Ellen G. White in The Youth's Instructor, Sept. 21, 1899.
The expression that "Christ took upon Him the form of sinful man" must not be construed to mean that Jesus came into the world tainted with sin. He had the form and fashion of a man, but, as we have already learned, and as the quoted lines themselves clearly affirm, He was without a stain of sin.
Likewise, Paul's expression "God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh" (Rom. 8:3) must not be interpreted to mean that God sent His Son in sinful flesh. A likeness is a resemblance, a similarity, a similitude, a semblance, a form, an external appearance (see A Dictionary of English Synonyms, by Richard Soul), and not something absolutely the same as another thing. A photograph of a person, for instance, is a likeness of the outward appearance of the person who sat for it, but it is not otherwise a likeness of that person. So with the flesh of Christ. It resembled the flesh of the men around Him, but it was free from the taint of sin.
If Jesus had come into the world tainted and polluted with sin He could not have chosen to return to His Father without dying. The fact that He could have gone back to His Father without dying is evidence that He was pure and holy. This fact is clearly stated in the following reference to Christ in Gethsemane:
The fate of humanity trembled in the balance. Christ might even now refuse to drink the cup apportioned to guilty man. It was not yet too late. He might wipe the bloody sweat from His brow, and leave man to perish in his iniquity. He might say, Let the transgressor receive the penalty of his sin, and I will go back to My Father.—The Desire of Ages, p. 690.
This quotation reveals not only the fact that Christ had no inborn sin or pollution for which He had to die but also the fact that Jesus did not have to die for lost humanity. He could have chosen to return to His Father without dying, and to leave the doomed sinners to perish in their sins. But, thank God, He did not choose to do so. Because of His undying love for His wayward children, He chose to assume the guilt of their sins, and to die on the cruel cross in their stead. He could not save Himself if He wanted to save others. Therefore He gave His own life in order that others might live. It was His own choice. He offered Himself, dear reader, in order that you and I might live.
Occasionally, when it is pointed out that Jesus came into this world without any propensity to sin, someone will ask, "How then could He be tempted?" The answer is simple: He was tempted the same as Adam was tempted. Adam was created pure and holy, without any inclination to sin, yet he could be tempted. He was tempted; and he fell. Jesus likewise could be tempted. So fierce was the temptation that He "resisted unto blood" (see Hebrews 12:3, 4). But He did not fall. Therein lies our hope for eternal life.
Commenting on these vital truths, Francis D. Nichol says:
Adam in Eden had a human nature, which from the first moment of his existence was capable of sin. But Adam in Eden was spotless until that day that he exercised his will in the wrong way and drew sin into his bosom. . . .
Our father Adam lost the battle with the tempter, not because he had a "desperately wicked" heart—he came from the Creator's hand perfect—but because he wrongly exercised his free will and drew wickedness into his heart. And we, his children, have followed in his steps. Christ, the "last Adam," won the battle with the tempter, and we, through His promised forgiveness and power, may also win. Adam could have won, but he lost. Christ could have lost, but He won. Therein lies the startling contrast. . . .
Christ won despite the fact that He took on Him "the likeness of sinful flesh," with all that that implies of the baleful and weakening effects of sin on the body and nervous system of man and its evil effects on his environment—"can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?"
In other words, Adventists believe that Christ, the "last Adam," possessed, on His human side, a nature like that of the "first man Adam," a nature free of any defiling taint of sin, but capable of responding to sin, and that that nature was handicapped by the debilitating effects of four thousand years of sin's inroads on man's body and nervous system and environment. . . .
We feel that we do the greater honor to Christ, without charging Him with any taint of sin, by believing that though He could have exercised His free will to sin, He did not; that although He felt the full force of temptation, even as we must, He set His will on the side of His Father instead of yielding it to the devil. Temptation assailed Him but found no response in His heart. Said He, "The prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me." John 14:30. He "loved righteousness, and hated iniquity." Heb. 1:9. In that sense was He most truly "separate from sinners." Heb. 7:26. Unreservedly we accept the words of Holy Writ that Christ "knew no sin." 2 Cor. 5:21.—Answers to Objections, pp. 392, 393.
* Weymouth's New Testament in Modern Speech by Richard Francis Weymouth. Copyright by Harper and Brothers. Used by permission.