Why It Matters: The Incarnation

The incarnation – like all Christian doctrines – is not for arid, abstract speculation. Instead, the mystery of the incarnation should produce adoring wonder and praise. Nevertheless, only as we seek to understand the incarnation as best we can will we know such wonder and awe. 

The incarnation means that Christ shares fully in our human nature except for sin. While remaining what he eternally was – fully and truly God – he became what he eternally was not – fully and truly human. Our Savior and Friend is true God and true man. The incarnation means that Christ shared in our humanity physically, psychologically, and emotionally. It’s the final aspect I want to dwell on briefly – Christ’s emotional life. Specifically I want to think about the fear – better yet, the terror – Jesus endured as the incarnate Son of God.

The theologian B. B. Warfield once wrote, “It belongs to the truth of our Lord’s humanity that he was subject to all sinless human emotions.” John Calvin put it another way: “Christ has put on our feelings along with our flesh.” Without sin, Jesus experienced the full gamut of our emotional life – joy and sadness, love and hatred, happiness and anger. Jesus was not an emotionless stoic, always unmoved. Never a slave to his emotions, Jesus responded with the appropriate emotion to every circumstance.

On the eve of his crucifixion, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was terrified. As the cross loomed on the horizon, Jesus was gripped with the shuddering horror of being under the unmitigated fury of Almighty God (Mark 14:33). He was to be the sin-bearer. He was to drink down the cup of God’s holy wrath.  Donald Macleod describes the scene vividly, “Immediately after telling his disciples that his soul was filled with mortal fear he turned away from them and set his face towards God: ‘He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed’ (Luke 22:41). There was nowhere else to go. Even the physical circumstances of his prayer make plain that it came out of a soul near the end of its resources. He throws himself prostrate on the ground. He is so exhausted by the first phase of his prayer that ‘an angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him’ (Lk 22:44). And when he resumes his prayer, it is in anguish, praying so earnestly that his sweat falls like drops of blood to the ground….Here is a man pouring out his whole strength, physical and spiritual, into a plea that God would ‘save’ him. It is clear from all accounts that Jesus’ experience of turmoil and anguish was both real and profound. His sorrow was as great as a man could bear, his fear convulsive. He came within a hairsbreadth of break-down. He faced the will of God as raw holiness and it terrified him.”

Why such fear, Jesus? Because, in Gethsemane, the full reality of what it would cost to be the Savior hits home. To be the Savior of sinners, he must be counted “the greatest sinner that ever was” (Luther). At the cross, Jesus saw the sword of divine judgment raised to strike (Zechariah 13:7). On him the horrifying wrath of God would fall. He would taste the wages of sin. On the cross there would be no mercy, no reprieve, no consolation. There couldn’t be, if he was to be our Savior. And on the cross his fear of being forsaken and judged became a reality. His cry of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” was met with the deafening silence of heaven, only to be interrupted by the clamor of scoffers he had come to save. God was present to Jesus, but it was not the presence of a loving Father that he had enjoyed from all eternity.  It was the presence of a holy God letting loose his holy wrath against sin. Jesus was cursed and cast into the outer darkness. The sinless one became sin and on the cross the waters of God’s judgment overwhelmed him.

Fear was an appropriate response in the face of such an horrifying reality. But Christ did not shrink back in fear. Donald Macleod again: “The wonder of the love of Christ for his people is not that for their sake he faced death without fear, but that for their sake he faced it, terrified. Terrified by what he knew, and terrified by what he did not know, he took damnation lovingly.” 

Christ has come in our flesh. He has come to save us from being cursed by becoming a curse for us. In Christ, you will never be forsaken by God because Christ was forsaken for you. Although Christ was horrified at everything the cross meant for him, he set his face on the cross like a flint (Isaiah 50:7) and for the joy set before him, he endured the cross (Hebrews 12:2). He did not turn away in fear or shrink back. He experienced the darkness and horror of Calvary to bring us into the light and joy of heaven. Dear friends! because Christ came and suffered in our place, we need not fear ever being forsaken. Christ bore the horror and reality of judgment for his people. The fear of condemnation is gone because you are in Christ Jesus!

Praise God for the incarnate Christ who saves his people from their sins!