Ten Turning Points: God In the Flesh

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From the series, Ten Turning Points That Make All the Difference

God came to earth as a human. There is much mystery in that. Recently I looked at how it was possible for God and man to subsist together in one person. That question has an answer, but that answer could never tell the whole story. Today I will take an all-too-brief look at why he came. I explored this some time ago in a series where I said,

There’s one remaining question I want to consider: why did he come in the flesh?

I’ll take a detour on the way there and mention the great controversy over this in the second century and later. Today the typical question is, how can you believe Jesus was God? Then, however, you would be just as likely to hear, how can you believe Jesus was a man? It was common in the day to think of spirit and matter as opposed to one another, and to regard the spiritual world as good and the physical world as bad. This belief was typical of Gnosticism. From the Greek to know, Gnosticism includes a range of spiritual/philosophical systems which shared this belief in the good/bad polarity of spirit and matter, as well as a hierarchy of gods or god-like beings, and salvation through attaining secret knowledge. Manichaeism was a particularly influential form of Gnosticism for several centuries.

Another prominent version was docetism, from the Greek for to seem. Docetism was some Gnostics’ answer to the question, “how could a good God take on bad physical form?” Jesus only seemed to be human, they said; he only seemed to be in the flesh. Docetism was beginning to appear on the scene in the late first century, so we don’t have to wonder whether it was right; we have the apostle John’s opinion in 1 John 4:1-3 and 2 John 7.

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.

For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.

Clear enough? Jesus was God in the flesh. (Most Christian theologians would say he still is in the flesh; that is, still in his resurrection body.)

The Docetists’ answer was wrong because their question was wrong. I wrote last time in this series that Jesus affirmed humanness by coming as one of us. He also affirmed the goodness of his creation, and of living in it.

Christianity is a religion of the spirit: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). It is at the same time the most physical of all religions. Our story begins with a good physical creation, it continues through God’s interactions with humans in real historical events, it comes to a climax when God himself takes on physical form, and today God calls us to offer our bodies as reasonable sacrifices to God (Romans 12:1,2), which is our spiritual service of worship. The spiritual does not happen apart from the physical.

This has a direct application to how we worship, by the way. It is a mistake to think we can worship God with just the heart and not with the body. The body and heart are connected. Our posture in worship cannot be the same as our posture sprawled on the couch watching a movie. There is a reason we bow our heads to pray, or sometimes we stand and lift our hands, or sometimes we kneel.

Christ suffered in the flesh, as we all know. We suffer here, too. He died to redeem our world of the effects of sin: not just to redeem sinners, but all of creation (Romans 8:18-25). In the end it, too, will be made whole again. It will not be made “spiritual,” it will be made whole and right as a physical reality. God created it good, and he has a good future for it.

So we too who live in the flesh, who trust in Christ, will be made whole again in physical resurrection bodies. Our future is not to become clouds or vapors or wisps; and it is not to become angels, either. It is to live in physical bodies: glorified physical bodies, having our failings and the curse of sin removed, but still part of God’s good physical creation.