“[Jesus] . . . was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead . . .” (Rom. 1:3–4). The incarnation is the sine qua non (without which [there is] nothing) of Christianity. The Son of God becoming flesh is an essential truth of the gospel of Jesus the Christ. Paul’s opening statement in his theological treatise to the Romans was far outside of their frame of reference. “Descended from David according to the flesh” suggested the earthiness of a human birth (the actual Greek reads “made of the semen of David”). This was scandalous to the Greeks and Romans. Their gods sometimes took on the form of humanity, but they were above the crudeness of human birth. They sprang forth as fully grown adults. No self-respecting god would suffer the humiliation of human birth.
Nothing captures the humanity, the earthiness, of man like birth. Even in beautiful and sanitized delivery rooms, the birth of a child is graphically earthy. There is pain, agonizing pain. Sweat, blood, human fluid, placenta, a bloody cord . . . these are the characteristics of a nativity. Then there is the nakedness of mother and child.
The birth of Jesus was just like that — just like your birth. The conception of Jesus was different, but His birth was like ours. The carol “Away in a Manger” got one thing wrong: “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying He makes.” As a baby, Jesus not only cried, He was also subject to colic and diaper rash.
Pilate pointed to a Jesus whose flesh had been ripped to the bone by scourging, and he cried to the crowd, “Behold the man!” (John 19:5). Indeed, at that moment Jesus did look pathetically pitiful. People turned their eyes away from the man who had been beaten to a pulp. The gods and goddesses of the ancients underwent neither bloody births nor gory deaths.
It was this man that Paul said was “declared to be the Son of God in power . . . by His resurrection from the dead.” There it is. Paul proclaimed an individual person both man and God. Yet, He was different from all other gods and all other men. The gods of the pantheons of Athens and Rome did not die. And flesh-and-blood men never returned from the grave. Tombs were built as monuments to heroic mortals. The monuments to this God-man were a bloody cross and an empty tomb. No god would boast of a cross, and no man could boast of an empty tomb.
James Henley Thornwell, the erudite nineteenth-century southern theologian, wrote about the death Jesus endured and His resurrection. I keep a copy of one page from his book where I will read it frequently. This is just part of one paragraph:
If He had been less than God, the bitterness of death could not have been passed; never, never could He have emerged from that thick darkness into which He entered when He made His soul an offering for sin. The morning of the third day — and a more glorious morn never dawned upon our earth, forever settled, to all who understood the event, the deity of Jesus. . . . His slumbers in Joseph’s tomb could never have been broken unless He could thunder with a voice like God, and bear the burden of infinite woe. The third day, which proclaimed His triumph, declared Him to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by His resurrection from the dead.
His mission accomplished, Jesus did not shed His resurrected body. With the scars of battle in His hands, feet, and side He ascended. Athanasius, the early church father who fought at great cost for the deity of Jesus, also loved His humanity: “The dust of the earth is at the right hand of the Father.” When He returns one day He will be this same Christ, descended from David according to the flesh and the Son of God.
Pilate cried, “Behold the man!” And then he asked the crowd the question of the ages: “Shall I crucify your King?” (John 19:15). In answer to that question the church has sometimes embraced His humanity, excluding His deity. At other times, the church has embraced His deity, excluding His humanity. To deny either His deity or humanity is a wicked sacrilege from Satan. Many Christians today are rightly offended that their particular denomination has approved abortion or the ordination of practicing homosexuals. However, why weren’t they offended when the same denominations denied the historical reality of the incarnation? Why weren’t they “up in arms” when their ministers, priests, and fellow members said that we must be rid of this myth that Jesus is both man and God? Dear reader, to deny either the humanity or deity of Jesus attacks the gospel at its core. If we deny this sine qua non truth, then any other biblical position we take is useless.