Alexander Maclaren (1826-1910) has been referred as the prince of expositors. His ability to dissect the Word of God was incredible, proved by the fact that his sermons are still read over one-hundred years after his death. Maclaren preached through much of the Bible throughout his ministry, and his insights have been of helping to illuminate the Scriptures for generations.
The following sermon, Some Reasons Why the Word Became Flesh, takes a closer look at why Jesus had to come in the flesh and what His coming accomplished. This sermon is taken from Maclaren’s book The Conquering Christ, and Other Sermons.
Some Reasons Why the Word Became Flesh
“He is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, I will declare Thy name unto My brethren, in the midst of the Church will I sing praise to Thee. And again, I will put My trust in Him. And again. Behold I and the children which God hath given Me.” –Hebrews 2:11-13
“Ashamed to call them brethren “—why should He be? It is no condescension to acknowledge the fact of brotherhood with humanity, any more than it is humiliation to be born. But there was a Man who emptied and humbled Himself by being “found in fashion as a man,” and for whom it was infinite condescension to call us His brethren. We can say of a prince that he is not ashamed to call his subjects friends, and to sit down to eat with them, but it would be absurd to say so of one of the subjects in reference to his fellows. The full, lofty truth of the first chapter of this Epistle underlies that word “ashamed,” which is meaningless unless Jesus was the “effulgence of the Father’s glory, and the very image of His substance.” Only on that understanding are His birth and enrollment of Himself among us men the transcendent instances of His loving self-abasement.
The writer quotes three Old Testament passages which he regards as prophetic of our Lord’s identifying of Himself with humanity.
It is no part of my present purpose to inquire into the principles on which the writer asserts the Messianic reference of the passages quoted. I desire rather to point out that these three cited sayings deal with three different aspects of our Lord’s manhood, and of the purpose of His incarnation, and that, therefore, they unitedly give, if not a complete, yet a comprehensive answer to the question. Why did God become Man? The first of them shows us our Lord assuming manhood in order to declare God to men; the second gives the purpose of His incarnation as being the providing of a Pattern of the devout life for men; and the third presents it as being the bringing of men into the relationship of sons.
1. Jesus is Man that He may declare God to men.
The first quotation in our text is taken from that psalm whence our Lord drew the awful words which pierced the darkness and broke the silence as He hung on the cross, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” The psalm springing directly from the heart of one sorely afflicted (whether David or another, and whether the sufferer be the ideal of the nation or no, matter nothing for the purpose of the writer of the Epistle), and referring in the consciousness of the psalmist to his own feelings in the midst of his sorrows, has yet been so moulded into language a world too wide for the psalmist’s case, and corresponding in a number of minute details—such as the parting of the vesture by lot, the piercing of the hands and feet, and the mockery of the passers-by—with the facts of the crucifixion, that we cannot fail to perceive the figure of the Man of sorrows, the Prince of all the afflicted, shimmering through the words of the single sufferer who pours out his plaint in the psalm, whether he himself was conscious or no that his words portrayed anything more than his own misery. Every true mourner’s cries fit the lips of every other, and every lesser sorrow may be regarded as a miniature of the greatest, which is Christ’s. But in these laments of the psalmist we shall miss their deepest pathos unless we recognize something more than this mere general correspondence of grief with grief, heart answering to heart, deep answering to deep across the ages, because all hearts are alike, and hear in them the tones of prophecy speaking through the possibly unconscious psalmist. The words quoted in our text are those in which he grasps in faith the certainty of deliverance, and vows that, delivered, he will magnify his delivering God among his brethren. Sorrow had driven him to supplication. Supplication and sorrow had brought deliverance. The experience of all three had fitted him to speak with fuller assurance and insight of the Name of God, and thankfulness for all had put a new song into the lips that had groaned and prayed. Therefore his thankfulness must needs pass into proclamation to all around of what God would do, and in the estimate of faith had already done, for his soul, even while sorrow pressed on him. And is not this true of Jesus and of His earthly life? Was He not made perfect by suffering, not indeed in regard of His own moral nature, but in reference to His fitness to be the Author of eternal salvation to us? His fullest declaration of the Father’s name was only possible after and by reason of His sufferings and ascended glory, as He Himself has taught us when He prayed, and said, “I have declared Thy name, and will declare it.”
What, then, is this office of declaring the name of the Father? That name is not the mere syllables by which men address God, but is the manifested character, as always in Scripture. Therefore the declaration of it must be by acts more than by words. And so the highest revelation of God must be by a human life, A personal God can only be revealed by a person. He can only be shown to men by a life. Words, however beautiful, tender, true, and self-evidencing, will not suffice. They represent men’s thinkings, but they can never certify God’s fact. They may suggest hopes, fears, peradventures; but unless we have a living person, whose deeds on the plain level of history are the manifestation of God, our thoughts of Him will neither be solid with certainty nor sweet with healing and comfort. Our highest conceptions of God must be moulded after the analogy of the only spiritual existence of which we have experience, namely, the human, and the anthropomorphism, against which we are often solemnly warned, is a necessity of thought, and in its purest forms is the most worthy idea of the infinite God. It may be gross or refined, but it is inevitable. Man was made in the image of God and that fact guarantees the truth of the conceptions of God which think of His infinite perfection as the reality of which our limited and stained manhood is yet the image, distorted and diminished though it be. The analogy is such, that the brightness of the Father’s glory can be mirrored and manifested in a human life. The life of Jesus is the making visible for men of the glory of the invisible God.
The human life that reveals God must be more than human. It is not enough for us to think of Jesus as revealing God in the manner in which saints have done. Only when we believe in His Divinity does His humanity assume for us revealing power.
What is the substance of His declaration of God? The “attributes,” as they are called, of supreme Being, such as omniscience, omnipotence, and other majestic appendages of Divinity, which are the opposites of the characteristics of finite humanity, are but superficial, not of the essence of the Name. They are but the fringe of the light; the central brightness is a milder light than blazes in these. High above these forms of power, tower the moral attributes of purity and righteousness. But when we have passed through the outer court of the former and the holy place of the latter, there is yet a veil to be lifted, and within it there is a mercy-seat, and above it the still presence of the Glory, filling the shrine with uncoruscating rays of lambent light. God is Power. That has been the belief and the dread of the world from of old. God is Righteousness. That has been the faith of purer souls, and the half-stifled witness of conscience. God is Love. That is the new message which Christ has brought by something better than saying so, even by living that gentle life of pity, and dying that death of sacrifice, and telling us, for the interpretation of both, “He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father.” God has wisdom, power, eternal Being, and so on; but God is Love. These other mighty things are but the “attributes” of the love which is Himself.
All other means of knowing God are imperfect. Nature gives but ambiguous responses, and while ” the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord,” it is no less true that much in it seems to speak of either malignant or thwarted beneficent power, and might well be the support of dualism or of atheism. Nature needs to be interpreted in the light of Christ’s revelation of God before it yields clear evidence of the love of God. History and our own intuitions do little to supply the deficiency. These, and all other sources apart from Christ, are like the fragmentary inscriptions in some ruined temple, from which may be pieced together, by much pains and at much risk of error, some more or less incomplete and illegible records of the gods once enshrined there. But the whole name is in Jesus Christ given for reading by the least learned, in whom all the syllables which were uttered at sundry times and divers manners, and of which the broken echoes have been reverberating confusedly in men’s ears, are gathered into one majestic full-toned Name. All other sources of knowledge of God fail in certainty. They yield only assertions which may or may not be true. At the best, we are relegated to peradventures and guesses and theories if we turn away from Jesus Christ. Men said that there was land away across the Atlantic for centuries before Columbus went and brought back its products. He discovers who proves. Christ has not merely spoken to us beautiful and sacred things about God, as saint, philosopher, or poet might do, but He has shown us God; and henceforward, to those who receive Him, the Unknown Root of all being is not a hypothesis, a great Perhaps, a dread or a hope, as the case may be, but the most certain of all facts, of Whom and of whose love we may be surer than we can be of aught besides but our own being.
If Jesus Christ has not declared God’s name to His brethren, we have no knowledge of that name. It is becoming more and more plain with every day that the tendencies of thought now are bringing us full front with this alternative—either Jesus Christ or none. Either He has shown us God, and in His light we see light, or we are left to grope in the dark. Either God is manifested in Him, or there is no manifestation at all. Unless “the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, hath declared Him,” no man hath seen God at any time. Deism or Theism will not sustain itself against the corrosion of the acid of the modern spirit. Men may reject Christ’s revelation of God, and still say, “We think,” “We hope,” or “We fear;” but they cannot say, “We know,” unless they accept His “Verily, verily, I say unto you.” Either He has shown us God, or God is a mere sound which tells little and assures of less. The educated mind of England is confronted with this choice—either God manifest in the flesh; or a God who is at the best “a stream of tendency not ourselves, that makes for righteousness;” or a great unknown somewhat, of whom, or rather of which, we know only that it cannot be known. From all these cheerless and nebulous thoughts we turn to Jesus, and as we hear Him saying, “I will declare Thy name unto My brethren,” we see the sun again instead of the doleful grey that veiled our sky, and regain a God who loves and pities; a God of whom we can be certain; a God who has an ear, a heart, and a hand; a God whom in Christ, and in Christ alone, we can know, and whom to know is life eternal.
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2. Jesus is Man that He may show to men the life of devout trust.
“And again, I will put My trust in Him.” This quotation is from Isaiah 8. The prophet, like the sufferer in the former passage, speaks his own devout dependence on God, apparently with no consciousness of any prophetic reference in his words. Our writer sees in Isaiah a foreshadowing of Jesus. The whole prophetic order was a prophecy of the Prophet. This prophet, exalted as he was to declare the will of God, at a crisis of the nation’s history, standing before his generation in the fulness of inspiration, feels himself not absolved from the necessity of devout dependence on God. That sense of dependence and exercise of faith are part of the prophetic ideal. He who declares God’s name to his brethren must share with his brethren the emotions of personal religion, which may all be summed up in that one of trust or faith.
This, too, is true of Jesus. He is one of us, and His brotherhood is shown in that He too lived the life which He lived in the flesh by faith in God. He is not only the Object, but also the Pattern, of faith. Many orthodox believers in the Divinity of our Lord are too much afraid of giving due weight to that aspect of His manhood. There is much confusion in many minds, in which there is no proper belief either in Christ’s true manhood or in His proper Divinity, but only in a strange amalgam of both, in which each element neutralizes to some extent the characteristics of the other. Hence men who do see clearly the real humanity of Jesus and nothing more, will shatter such perplexed belief.
Perfect manhood is dependent manhood. A reasonable creature who does not live by faith is a monster arrogating the prerogative of God, and therein assuming the likeness of the devil. Christ’s perfect manhood did not release Him from, but bound Him to, the exercise of faith. Nor did His true Deity make faith impossible to His manhood. Christ’s perfect manhood perfected His faith, and in some aspects modified it. His trust had no relation to the consciousness of sin, and no element either of repentance or of longing for pardon. But it had relation to the consciousness of need, and was in Him, as in us, the condition of continual derivation of life and power from the Father. Himself has said, “I live through the Father,” and the indwelling Divinity of the Son did not make superfluous the influx of the Father’s life into His manhood by the channel of faith. His faith was unlike ours, in that it was steady. Our hands tremble with the very pulses of our blood, as we hold the telescope which shows us the things not seen. His hand knew no tremor or perturbation from throbbing flesh, and no mist dimmed His vision. Our faith is often interrupted, and is like an intermittent spring. His was a perennial flow.
Christ’s perfect faith brought forth perfect fruits in His life, issuing, as it did, in obedience which was perfect in purity of motive, in gladness of submission, and in completeness of the resulting deeds as well as in its continuity, through His life. “I do always the things that please Him,” was His own summing up of His activity. Was that arrogant and ignorant self-satisfaction, or the true utterance of a manhood which, in its absolute non-participation in the universal consciousness of defect and transgression, stands unique, and demands the supposition of something more than manhood in Him? That perfect faith further issued in unbroken communion. Like two metal plates of which the surfaces are so true that when brought together they adhere, the Father and the Son were inseparably united, in the trustful and obedient consciousness of Jesus. Thus our Lord not only comes among us to show us God, but also to show us the true glory and strength of man, and to let us see how Divine a thing our nature may be made when it is knit to the Divine by faith. He teaches us the possibilities of faith, both in itself and in its ennobling effect on life. Out of His example we may take both shame an encouragement—shame when we measure our poor, purblind, feeble, and interrupted faith against His, and encouragement when we raise our hopes to the height of the revelation in it of what ours may become. The staff that He leaned on He has bequeathed to us, who still travel the rough road where His footprints are yet visible. The shield which He bore, unpierced and undinted by all the fiery darts that struck it, He has left for us to brace on our arms. The Captain and Perfecter of faith was once in the arena where we wrestle and fight. He conquered because He ever said, “I will put My trust in Him;” and we too shall be victors, if we look away from all besides, and up to Him where He now sits enthroned, the object and the pattern of our trust. “This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.”
3. Jesus is Man that He may bring men into the family of sons of God.
“Behold I and the children which God hath given Me.” These words are taken from the immediate context of the last quotation. In their original application, the prophet speaks of himself and of his family, and of the little group of disciples who had been drawn to him, as being associated with him as God’s witnesses—the salt of the nation, which but for them would perish in its rottenness. The writer of the Epistle sees in that Israel within Israel a shadow of the New Testament Church, and in the prophet’s humility, which united these little ones, who had received natural life or spiritual impulse from him, with himself in his prophetic office, some hint of the greater condescension of Christ, who in like manner bestows life on those who trust Him, and lifts them to a wondrous participation in His Sonship to God and in His work for men. We can scarcely say that this quotation stands on the same level as the first of the passages quoted. It gives an illustration rather than an actual type or prophecy, and is analogy rather than purposed foreshadowing. The change from “brethren,” as in the first quotation, to “children” is to be noticed. Isaiah was parent, and “the children” were partly his family and partly his followers. Christians receive spiritual life from Christ, but God is the Father and Christ is the elder Brother. “Children” does not refer to relationship in the same sphere as “brethren” does. The latter means kindred by a common manhood; the former, kindred by possession of the same spiritual life. While Christ is Source of spiritual life for us. He Himself lives through the Father; and since the paradox that the Father hath given Him to have life in Himself is true, the more common representation of brotherhood with Him and this of sonship are equally in accordance with the facts. We have, then, presented in this final clause, the effect of the Incarnation as being power to us to become sons of God. The three clauses of our text give a regular progress of idea. Christ becomes Man to show us God. In His humanity He lives, like us, by faith. The result of his identifying Himself with us as our Brother is that we are identified with Him as children of God. The former clauses dealt with Christ’s becoming like us, this with our becoming like Him.
Our Lord, then, becomes Man that through Him men may receive a new life which is His own. That impartation of a new Divine life is the deepest truth and the richest gift of the gospel. Do not be satisfied with any less conception of what God gives us in the unspeakable gift of His Son than this, that He therein gives to all who accept Jesus in faith a spark of His own life, which will transform our deadness into quick and joyous sensibility and activity worthy of its source. But for that gift of life more than incarnation is needed. Jesus Christ can only impart His life on condition of His death. The alabaster box must be broken, though so precious, and though the light of the pure spirit within shone lustrous and softened through it, in order that the house may be filled with the odor of the ointment. By His death He puts Death to death, and takes away the hindrances to the bestowal of the true life.
Again, He becomes Man that men may, by the communication of His life, become sons of God. Since He is the Son, those who receive life from Him enter thereby into the relationship of sons. They are God’s children, being Christ’s brethren. They are brought into a new unity, and being members of one family are one by a sacreder oneness than the possession of a common humanity. The brotherhood of men will only become a reality to which men’s institutions and sentiments will correspond, when it rests on the fatherhood of God, realized through faith in that elder Brother, who grudges nothing to the prodigal sons, but Himself has come to seek them and bring them back. Further, Jesus is Man that men may become sharers in His prerogatives and offices. As Isaiah gathered his children and scholars into a family, and gave them to partake in his prophetic office, and to be ” for signs and wonders,” so Christ gathers us into marvelous oneness with Himself. He becomes like us in our lowliness and flesh of sin, that we may become like Him in His glory and perfection. The identification of Jesus and His disciples is represented in Scripture with extraordinary boldness, as being like the ineffable union of the Father with the Son; as being faintly shadowed by the vital relation of head and body; as being closer and more inward than the union of husband and wife, who are but “one flesh,” while “he that is joined to the Lord is one spirit.” Accordingly, the same names are applied to them and to Him. Is He the Light of the world? So are they. Is He the Anointed? So are they. The Christian Church is the prolongation of the life of Christ on earth, and while the great sacrifice which He has made once for all on the cross cannot be repeated, copied, or paralleled, and needs no repetition, there are aspects even of His sufferings in which His servants have to fill up their measure for the sake of the brethren. The union is as of the graft into the tree, with the difference that here it is not the good graft which is inserted in the wild stock, but the wild slip which is introduced into the good tree and partakes both of its root and fatness.
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Further, Christ is Man that He may present His family at last to God. If we love and trust Him, He will hold us in His strong and tender grasp, and never part from us till He presents us at last faultless and joyful before the presence of His and our Father—
“No wanderer lost,
A family in heaven.”
The sum of the whole matter is this. There is but one way of knowing God. All else is darkness and uncertainty, shifting as cloud-rack, and unsubstantial as it. God has spoken to us in the Son. If we see Christ, we see God. There is but one noble, peaceful, worthy life for man—a life of faith in Him, who is at once the Object and the Example of our faith, and believing in whom we believe in the Father also. There is but one fountain of life opened in this graveyard of a world, of whose waters whosoever drinks shall “have in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.” There is but one way of becoming sons of God. Christ our Brother is the Revealer of God, the Pattern of devotion, the Source and Upholder of life. Listen to Him declaring the name of the Father. Put your trust in Him, for you trust in God when you have faith in Christ. Open your heart that His life may flow into your death. Then His strong hand will hold you up, and at last He will acknowledge you for His in the presence of the Father and of the holy angels, and will point to you, saved, glorified, and like Himself, with the triumphant words, “Behold I and the children whom God hath given Me.”