The Incarnation: God Within Reach
December 1, 2005 - Richard Bewes traces his Christian heritage to Sept. 26, 1882, when his grandfather, Thomas Bewes, then 14, put his trust in Christ at a D.L. Moody meeting and later became a minister. Born to missionary parents in Africa, Richard Bewes followed his family's Christian example. He retired as rector of All Souls Church in London in November 2004 after serving for 21 years. The author of more than 20 books, Bewes ministers around the world with his wife, Liz. He recently discussed with Decision the miracle of Christmas and the meaning of the Incarnation.
by Jim Dailey
Q: Why do many churches in England use the prologue to the Gospel of John, rather than one of the other Gospel accounts, as their traditional Christmas Scripture reading?
A: The prologue to John's Gospel has been part of the English church culture for a number of years now. Churches all around the country love to end up with John 1:1-14, the great prologue about the logos [Word] with its focus on Christ coming into our world and into the darkness of our situation. So that has become very much a part of our church "feel," our church ethos, at Christmastime, particularly.
It's not inappropriate that here in the northern hemisphere we get Christmas coming in wintertime, because that speaks very much to us of the light. Sometimes we'll have carols by candlelight, and as we read the lessons and sing, we'll have as many as 500 candles lit to emphasize the wonder and the brightness of the Christ of Christmas coming into our dark world.
Q: Although we typically think of the incarnation—God becoming flesh in the person of Christ—as a Christmas event, wasn't it in the mind and heart of God from all eternity?
A: Exactly. And it is very important for us to remember this, because many people think that Jesus began halfway through history. John's Gospel comes as a welcome and very important reminder to us that Jesus goes right back to the very beginning. He was part of the very Godhead from the start. It is very important for us to get that message across to those who don't believe in the truth of the Trinity.
Sometimes people ask me, "Where does Jesus begin?" I remind them of that great theologian Athanasius, who said 16 centuries ago: "The only system of thought into which Jesus Christ will fit is the one in which He is the starting point." If we don't understand that, we are like the man who is doing up his shirt buttons and starts with the wrong button. He thinks it will work out all right in the end, but it won't. Those who do not begin with Jesus at the very center of their thinking will never make sense of the universe. Athanasius also said, "The logos is the logic of the universe." He meant that Christ, the logos, God's Word, is the explanation and reason behind the whole of the universe.
Q: There is always the wonderful anticipation of the Messiah throughout the Old Testament.
A: Very much so. I love Isaiah 6, because it is quoted in John 12:40. John says, "He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts" (NIV). Then it says that Isaiah said this because he "saw Jesus' glory and spoke about Him" (John 12:41, NIV). John obviously interprets Isaiah 6 as the pre-incarnate Christ in glory.
Q: John's prologue gives us a sense of suffering as well as wonder, doesn't it?
A: Part of the pain of Christmas, actually, is that He comes to His own people and His own don't recognize Him. There are so many today who don't recognize Him. There is great pain there. But there is also great power there because "to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right [the power] to become children of God" (John 1:12, NIV). So there is enormous power at Christmastime. When you get to John 1:14 and read that the "Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us" (NIV), it's breathtaking. It's like the managing director becoming the office boy or like a famous actress queuing up for a ticket to one of her own films. In John 1:14 God is being brought down to us, yet without being shrunk.
Q: And that's really the wonder of Christmas—the glory of the Son of God and the Son of Man in one person.
A: Again, that's wonderful. In Daniel 7, the most quoted Old Testament chapter in the New Testament, you read that the Son of Man is being presented before the Father, yet He has overtones of divinity and only undertones of humanity there.
My sister, who read classics at the University of Cambridge, noted that Plato and others get so near the truth of God revealing Himself in a person, but then you turn a page, and they miss the truth completely. This only emphasizes that the truth has to be revealed to us. And it is, of course, in the Scriptures. That's what Christmas is: a revelation of God—in Jesus and His love for the world, in a person, in a baby. As St. Augustine said, "This child of the manger fills the world." He does fill the world. In fact, the Apostle Paul goes further and says in Ephesians 4:10, "He who descended [by which he means the coming of Jesus at Bethlehem] is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe" (Ephesians 4:10, NIV).
Q: Yet so many people fail to see the wonder of Christ. Christmas is little more than another holiday to them. Why is that?
A: I suppose it's the same reason that caused King Herod to be anxious. There is a debate at Christmas that asks, "Who is this Person in the manger?" There is a displacement. If He is the King, then someone else cannot be king. That caused Herod's anxiety. When those wise men came, they acknowledged that Jesus was the King. They came as Gentiles from the outside world. You would think that God would tell the Jewish hierarchy first, but God chose Gentiles. Or you would think that the Roman Emperor would have been informed that a little boy had been born in his reign, but instead, it was the shepherds. It is very simple; those who were poor in spirit saw this truth and received it. The disadvantaged welcomed it, as did the blind, the crippled, the outsiders. The irony is that you can be well within the establishment and the church and still miss it. You have to have the heart of a child to receive it.
Q: Why is it hard for some to admit that they need a Savior?
A: It's because of the human pride. We don't like to think that we need to be saved from anything particularly. We like to feel like we can make it on our own. We can send men to the moon, but we can't find a way to God.
Q: As the God/Man, Jesus continues to work on our behalf.
A: And what is so wonderful is that in Heaven, we don't have an ex-man there. Jesus is still fully man—a glorified man, but He is man. In that sense, He understands exactly our situation and our needs. Hebrews 7:25 says, "He always lives to intercede" (NIV) for us. I take that to mean not that He is on His knees praying exactly, but that He is right at the center of the place of power. He has the ear of the Father. Every time I come through Christ with my needs, requests and anxieties, I am assured of a hearing. He ushers me into the presence of the Lord and supports my case. In that sense, He is the great High Priest on my behalf. He knows my situation exactly—He has been where I am.
Q: He even sympathizes with our weaknesses.
A: We are assured of that in Hebrews. It means that when we are going through hard times, bereavement or sorrow, or when we are facing ill health, privation or persecution, He knows it. He has trodden the shores of Galilee; He has seen people firsthand. He has gone into their homes. He has seen it and felt it there.
Q: The incarnation, in essence, is God coming near to us as man.
A: Yes, it is wonderful! We need this revelation, because some people see God in a kind of pantheistic way, identifying Him with nature. They say that He was conceived as the god of the rivers, the rocks or the stones. Such a god is very near to people but is such a tiny god. Others see Him as very great, immutable, majestic and all-encompassing, yet distant and inaccessible. The truth and the event of the Incarnation—God coming to us as a tangible human and the great God of all the universe brought within reach, without being shrunk—is the miracle of Christmas.