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Christ's Humiliation

Stephen D. Doe

You're the last kid picked, the one they call "four eyes" or "stupid." When you come up to bat, everyone whispers that you'll strike out-and you do. Humiliated, you sit back down on the bench and wish you could disappear. Sometimes the words and experiences of life can sting like alcohol on a raw wound.

Humiliation comes when others mock you, make fun of you, point out real or supposed flaws in how you look, who your parents were, where you were born, or how much money you have or don't have. Humiliation comes to almost everyone at some time in life, and it always hurts.

Here is a startling thought: Jesus Christ was humiliated because he was born a human being! Part of what brought humiliation to the Son of God was becoming a part of mankind.

Jesus Christ faced humiliation because, being God, he took to himself "a true body, and a reasonable soul" (Shorter Catechism, Q. 22). This aspect of Christ's humiliation is spelled out in Question 27 of the Shorter Catechism, and it helps us look at the birth of Jesus Christ in a new way:

Q. Wherein did Christ's humiliation consist?
A. Christ's humiliation consisted in his being born, and that in a low condition, made under the law, undergoing the miseries of this life, the wrath of God, and the cursed death of the cross; in being buried, and continuing under the power of death for a time.

Jesus was not born into a wealthy family; he faced the humiliation of poverty. We know this because Joseph and Mary offered the sacrifice of the poor for purification (Luke 2:22-24; cf. Lev. 12:6-8). Jesus was the lawgiver and loved the law of God (Ps. 119:97), yet he had to live as though he needed the law to keep him from sin, being subject to the very law he gave (Gal. 4:4). He faced the sufferings of this fallen world as though he were simply another of Adam's sin-cursed descendants (Heb. 2:14-18; 4:15). Although he was completely innocent, the holy Son of God had the wrath of God poured out on him for the sin of others (Isa. 53; 1 Pet. 2:24; 2 Cor. 5:21). The one who was the prince of life submitted to the indignities of death (Acts 2:24, 27; Phil. 2:8). We can understand these phrases, but we quickly slip over that first one: "Christ's humiliation consisted in his being born."

The Larger Catechism, Question 47, says more fully:

Q. How did Christ humble himself in his conception and birth?
A. Christ humbled himself in his conception and birth, in that, being from all eternity the Son of God, in the bosom of the Father, he was pleased in the fullness of time to become the son of man, made of a woman of low estate, and to be born of her; with divers circumstances of more than ordinary abasement.

Jesus Christ, the Creator, determined to become a creature in order to save his sinful people (Matt. 1:21). The Lord of glory "made Himself of no reputation" (Phil. 2:7) by becoming one of us.

It may not seem to be that big a step down for God to become a man. After all, isn't man just "a little lower than the angels" (Ps. 8:5)? Aren't human beings made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27)? How can "being born" be part of Christ's humiliation? The Word becoming "flesh" (John 1:14) cannot be that humiliating for the Son of God, can it?

Man is indeed the "crown of creation" because he is made in God's image, but he is still a creature, a finite being, made in time and subject to death. We do not make ourselves (Pss. 100:3; 139:13-16), but Jesus Christ is the mighty Creator through whom all things were made (John 1:3). We receive our life from God, but Jesus Christ had life within himself (John 5:26). We are wisps of vapor and fading flowers in the brevity of our lives (Ps. 103:15-16), while the Son of God exhibits "the power of an endless life" (Heb. 7:16). Yet he came to lay down his life willingly as the atoning sacrifice for his chosen ones, for no one could take his life from him (John 10:15-18). Whatever gifts we have, have been given to us (1 Cor. 4:7). But Jesus Christ has all virtue and perfection inherently, that is, because of who he is, the fullness of the Godhead in bodily form (Col. 2:9).

Starr Meade has tried to capture this vast distance between the Creator and the creature:

God is much greater than man. If you changed from being a human being to being a one-celled creature in the sea, it would not be nearly so big a step down as for God to become man. That is because you and the one-celled creature are both finite (having limits).... The Son of God is infinite (having no limits) and uncreated. To become a man, Christ limited Himself for a time so He could live on this earth. He is God, needing nothing, but by becoming man He took on a created body with ordinary human needs. (Training Hearts, Teaching Minds, pp. 91-92)

Perhaps some of the wonder of Christ's birth is dimmed for us because we think too highly of ourselves. We compare ourselves with the rest of creation and see that we are superior in intellect and abilities. We look at our cultural achievements and reckon that man is great in himself, rather than because we bear the image of God. It is true that we see the gifts and graces of God in the human beings he made. But we must remember that we are only creatures, utterly dependent, frail, and transient, while Jesus Christ has been from all eternity the self-existent, all-creating Son of God. His existence is dependent on no one. His glory as the second person of the Trinity has always been, preceding time or creation. Yet he became man. He entered time. He freely submitted to all that this world offers. He was born.

The seventeenth-century English poet Richard Crashaw captured a bit of this overwhelming act of condescension and humiliation on the part of the Son of God:

Poor world (said I) what wilt thou do
To entertain this starry stranger?
Is this the best thou canst bestow?
A cold and not too cleanly manger?
Content, ye powers of heav'n and earth
To fit a bed for this huge birth.
Welcome, all wonders in one night!
Eternity shut in a span,
Summer in winter, day in night,
Heaven in earth, and God in man,
Great little One! Whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.

The closing line, "Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth," reminds us that the humiliation of Christ "being born" in his merciful condescension was necessary for our exaltation as the children of God (John 1:12). The Nicene Creed puts it this way: that Christ "for us and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man." The impetus behind this wonderful incarnation of the Son of God was the need we had as a fallen race for a Second Adam.

God did not leave all mankind "to perish in the estate of sin and misery," but "did enter into a covenant of grace to deliver [the elect] out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a Redeemer" (Shorter Catechism, Q. 20). Jesus Christ, the Creator, had to undergo the humiliation of being born because he, as the Second Adam, had to be truly of the earth while still being of heaven. For the covenant of grace to deal with our sin as human beings, the Redeemer had to be a human being with "a true body, and a reasonable soul," while also being the eternal God. The glory of the covenant shines brightly in the humiliation of God's Son being born as we are into this fallen world, yet himself being "holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners" (Heb. 7:26) and exalted to the Father's right hand (Heb. 1:3; 8:1).

When we think about the incarnation of the Son of God, it is no time for sentiment about how sweet baby Jesus must have looked. Rather, it is a time for wonder, worship, and fear that the Lord Jesus Christ was made man and dwelt among us, full of glory, grace, and truth (John 1:14). The incarnate Son of God is the man whom the Father has appointed to judge the world in righteousness (Acts 17:31). It is the man Christ Jesus who is the one Mediator between the holy God and sinful men (1 Tim. 2:5). In being made a little lower than the angels (that is, becoming one of us), he has brought many sons of Adam to glory and is not ashamed to call us "brethren" (Heb. 2:9-11). Wonder of wonders, Christ being born in humiliation has lifted sinners of the earth to heaven, as heaven stooped to earth. This we confess when we sing:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly-minded,
for with blessing in his hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.

The author is pastor of Bethel Reformed Presbyterian Church in Fredericksburg, Va. He quotes the NKJV.

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