What is the greatest miracle in the entire Bible? How would you answer that question, and how would you make a case for your response? Perhaps the greatest miracle is the resurrection of Christ. According to 1 Corinthians 15, Christ’s resurrection is certainly of first importance. The faith stands or falls with the resurrection. If faith in the resurrection is granted, then the other miracle stories are not really hard to believe. But there is a miracle that surpasses them all, including the resurrection—or, more precisely, one that encompasses the resurrection and much more.
The incarnation—God coming in the flesh—is the greatest miracle in Scripture. God did not just become flesh, but he became human. The original Christmas is the grandest miracle there ever was. The meaning of the incarnation, that the true God became true man, was scandalous to most ancient people, as it remains today. In fact, people still tend to undermine or ignore either Jesus’ full divinity or his full humanity.
By incarnation, I mean the whole Christ event—not just his birth, but his whole life, including his death and resurrection. His death and resurrection are of utmost importance only because he is the incarnate God, the God-man. The Word, or Son, of God, true God himself, became and remains true man. The incarnation embraces the whole descent and ascent.
One of the most important questions that we could spend this time of year contemplating is the age-old question, “Why did God become man?” In some ways, the answer is short and simple: for our salvation. But that doesn’t explain much. “Why did God become man?” is a complex question that raises all sorts of related questions.
First of all, what do we mean when we say that God became man? Did he just become “like” a man? Was he a divine mind just walking around in a human costume of flesh? Hebrews 2:17 claims that he was made like his brothers “according to all things” so that he might atone for their sins. So whatever it means to be human, whatever is essential to human nature—that is what God became in Christ.
Second, what does it mean, what does it accomplish for us, that he became man? Or, a question from a slightly different angle: Could God have saved us without becoming human? Could he have simply pronounced us forgiven? I suppose so, if final salvation is only about the forgiveness of sins. But is it?
Why did God become man? An old and venerable answer goes like this: “The Son of God became man so that we might become God.” What do you think of that statement? It comes from the church father, Athanasius of Alexandria (ca. 296–373), in his book On the Incarnation of the Word (54.3). The sentiment is quite similar to this statement: God has acted on your behalf so that “you might become sharers in the divine nature.” This latter phrase, of course, comes from Scripture (2 Pet. 1:4). If we add “like” and say that we were made to become “like God,” we can see even more clearly all the passages in Scripture that place before our eyes the goal of becoming like God and being formed into the image of Christ, and so on.
From this perspective, God accomplishes the salvation of creation by becoming a part of creation in order to bring creation back to God. Salvation is not merely about forgiveness of sin and “going to heaven” and whatever we normally mean by that phrase. It is about union with God in Christ. It is about participation and communion with the divine. The idea is that no mere creature can unite us to God, so the redeemer of creation has to be fully God; and unless he fully takes on human nature, he cannot redeem the entire human being or nature. God redeemed human nature by becoming human and by passing through every stage of bodily existence. He didn’t just appear as an adult or even a child, but “he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.”
Paul expresses what God has done in Christ thus: he “recapitulates all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10). That is, Christ sums up in himself all things in heaven and on earth. This scriptural idea becomes a dominant theme in the early church fathers, who, in effect, provide commentary on passages such as Ephesians 1:10 and 2 Peter 1:4. Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 130–ca. 200) put it this way: “For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God” (Against Heresies III.xix.1).
Finally, the effect of the incarnation is cosmic. It is the grandest miracle because it is on the grandest scale. God becoming human lifts humanity—and indeed, creation—back into fellowship with God. Again, Irenaeus: The Word of God is the one “who in the last times was made man, existing in this world, and who in an invisible manner contains all things created, and is inherent in the entire creation, since the Word of God governs and arranges all things; and therefore he came to his own in a visible manner, and was made flesh, and hung upon the tree, that he might ‘recapitulate all things in himself’ [Eph. 1:10]” (Against Heresies V.xviii.3).
This idea of the incarnation as a saving act, uniting the human with the divine, runs as a thread through church history and even appears in Protestant hymns, as seen in these select verses of the famous Methodist hymn, “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” (Charles Wesley).
Christ, by highest Heav’n adored;
Christ the everlasting Lord;
Late in time, behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’ incarnate Deity,
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.
Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display Thy saving pow’r,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.
Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.
Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the inner man:
Oh, to all Thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.
So we have an answer to our question, Why did God become man? The gospel tells of the one God who is infinite beauty, power, love, goodness, and communion; who enjoys both difference and participation; who, out of sheer and free grace, created; who emptied himself and united himself to creation; who became human so that humanity might become like God; who died to kill death; who created us for eternal fellowship with him. This is why God became man.