Incarnation as Model for Mission
1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God. 1:2 The Word was with God in the beginning. 1:3 All things were created by him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created. 1:4 In him was life, and the life was the light of mankind. 1:5 And the light shines on in the darkness, but the darkness has not mastered it.
1:14 Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We saw his glory — the glory of the one and only, full of grace and truth, who came from the Father.
1:18 No one has ever seen God. The only one, himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known.
John 1:1-5; 14; 18
It’s Christmas time and generally in church we talk about the birth of Jesus and all that surrounded it. I want to do that here too, but from a slightly different angle; this is something that kind of has to be done if you are using John as your primary Christmas text. You see, John starts out with a completely different Christmas story than Matthew or Luke. Instead of the details of the events surrounding the Nativity scene (including wise men and shepherds and a baby in a manger) we get a wholly different view of Jesus and His entrance into the world. In much the same way Genesis 1 poetically describes GOD imaginatively creating this world, here in John we are given a picture of GOD imaginatively entering into it.
The first few verses of John make is abundantly clear who Jesus is — He is the Word — the LOGOS — who has always been with GOD and who actually is GOD. Not only that — it is by this WORD that all things, all of us, everything we see — hear — feel — were created.
The parallel of these first few verses with Genesis is also quite important (and intriguing). In these verses, we have a deconstruction of the creation event, giving more details to the original story and hinting that something new and different is happening. We immediately come to find the power in GOD’s words at the beginning of time, “Let there be light!” This power is the move of Jesus into our world and it connects immediately what was (creation and history pre-Jesus) with what will be (Jesus bodily arriving as the inaugural event of the coming Kingdom of God).
This is important to keep in mind; we see throughout the Old Testament GOD’s desire to be in relation with people. He walks and talks with Adam and Eve in the garden. He covenants with Abraham. He wrestles with Jacob. He divinely intervenes upon hearing the cries of His oppressed people in Egypt. He fights on their side against the Godless. He identifies one of our heart’s (David’s) with His own. He loves them enough to send messengers to direct their footpaths back to Him. GOD desires a people to call His own, who number as the stars in the sky, and live righteous and just lives before Him.
Looking back to John, and its parallels to our beginnings, it’s GOD as written word that first comes to the Israelites in the form of the law. This didn’t have the desired affect of creating a nation centered around GOD, living righteously and justly before Him. It certainly produced knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20-25) but not life and the people He desired.
His people continued to live selfish lives centered on themselves, missing entirely the spirit of the WORD of GOD for its letter. GOD in WORD only and not flesh was not having the desired affect. Something else had to be done. The mission of GOD, carried out through His WORD acted out via His people was not sufficient.
And this is the part we get back to one of the most excited verses in John (at least to my ears). John continues on with his narrative of the creation event saying that the WORD became flesh. GOD, in the person of Jesus, was moving into our neighborhood. We were finally able to see the glory of GOD with our own eyes. No longer was His presence restricted to a temple or His WORD to a confining — not freeing — law.
This truly was (and still is) a radical change. John tells us that know one ever before had truly seen GOD; in the past people have glimpsed His glory but no one has truly seen Him. The shadow we’d known was coming into clear focus in the person of Jesus — God made flesh.
It’s so exciting to think that in doing this GOD changed the course of history forever. GOD’s mission had a new central expression: incarnation — becoming flesh — moving in with us — being one of us.
A natural question that stems from this is “How does the incarnation — God becoming flesh — affect the ministry of Jesus?” It’s easy for me to say that incarnation is a new expression but if it doesn’t have any affect than it really shouldn’t matter to us. There are two specific affects, thought, that build upon each other and are worth exploring now.
The first affect of the incarnation on the ministry of Jesus is that it made GOD Radically present among His people. No longer did He have to speak through priests and prophets. No longer was His presence confined to one room of a temple. He was actually one of them, living how they lived and doing what they did. For the first 30 years of His life in fact, He blended into the culture.
The second affect builds from the first one. Because Jesus was radically present, He was able to clearly speak directly to the needs of the people. This isn’t to say that before Jesus, GOD didn’t know their needs and didn’t intervene on their behalf or make Himself known; the OT is rife with examples of God meeting the needs of His people. Rather, the lack of distance and religion, and the creation of a relationship, allowed Jesus to directly speak into the hearts of people. No longer was approaching GOD a systematic, religious act but an actually encounter with a living, breathing person that spoke and acted and talked as one of them. The people who believed knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that GOD in Jesus was seeing the deficiency of their lives, specifically where they lacked HIM, and Jesus could directly fill them with His life.
So why should the incarnation and its affect on the ministry of Jesus matter to us? Primarily because Jesus demands incarnation of His follower. John 17:18 says, “Just as you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world.” This is in a prayer of Jesus to His Father about His disciples in which He goes on to include all that believe in Him throughout the ages.
And this might seem scary and hard. We aren’t GOD and we aren’t magically going to be born into a new culture. So how do we go about incarnational mission? Their are some keys to this which lay in an important passage of Paul but first it’s important to discuss the starting point.
To that end, it starts with God and His work in us, of course. John 20:21 reiterates that His people are to be sent people, living in the world as Jesus lived in the Jewish world. It goes on to say that Jesus breathed onto them and they received the Holy Spirit. God is forever our only source for anything we do, particular for that which is done in accordance with His mission. His Holy Spirit, living within us is a must and the source of any “power”, “ability”, “wisdom”, or “knowledge” that we may have.
And Paul goes on to lay out how Jesus did it and how we can follow Him in it:
You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had, 2:6 who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, 2:7 but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. 2:8 He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross! 2:9 As a result God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 2:10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow — in heaven and on earth and under the earth — 2:11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
It starts with an emptying of ourselves. We must be willing to give up all that we are and take on all that Jesus was, sharing in His emptying of Himself to become human. This means getting rid of our own modes of classification. It ceases to be an us/them thing, becoming only us. It ceases to be about our culture versus theirs, instead letting Jesus bleed into the cracks of theirs. Economics no longer matter. Skill or intelligences ceases to be a deal. Even Gender ceases to be a big issue. Incarnation levels the playing field so that God can meet people wherever they are at.
It also means an attitude of service. Paul says Jesus took on the form of a slave and the gospels detail clearly His service to those all around Him. He washed His disciples feet, healed the sick, forgave sins and fed miraculous amounts of food to extremely large crowds. Everything He did and everything He shared was done in an attitude of service to the people He was born into and loved.
He was also obedient to the point of death on a cross. Obedience characterized His mission. John says obedience starts with the Son doing as the Father does (5:19;30) and that Jesus did what pleased the Father (8:28). It goes that we should do the same. And it’s got to be something we are so sold out in that we are willing to even, as Jesus did, give our lives to it.
And there we have an admittedly brief look at the incarnational mission of Jesus and how we are called to participate in it. It leaves me with a few questions worth reflecting on:
For starters it’s worth asking, “am I obeying Jesus and walking in His mission?” It’s not just something that people are called to do by moving overseas. In most cases, at least at the beginning of our walks with Jesus, we don’t need any other calling than that Jesus said “do it”. There are people and groups and cultures all around us that need Jesus and need someone to actually be Him where they are at. Think of your workplace. Or your school. The cool, local coffee shop. Perhaps the local homeless shelter or the street or apartment complex you live in. We are surrounded by people everyday that need Jesus’ love just as much as you do.
If you are walking in His mission, is there a group of people you are particularly called to? It could be someplace or community you find yourself regularly involved in now.
And finally, if so how are you (or how could you be) incarnating Jesus into the lives of these people?