The Great Mystery of Our Savior’s Nativity
“Without controversy great is the mystery of Godliness:
God was manifest in the flesh.”
— I Timothy 3:16
Particularly during this joyous Christmas season, we poor, undeserving sinners have the blessed opportunity once again to examine on the basis of the inerrant and all-sufficient Scriptures (John 8:31–32; 17:17; Ephesians 2:20), to embrace in childlike faith, and to ponder with humble awe and heartfelt gratitude what the apostle Paul identifies in our title-text as the Great Mystery of our Savior’s nativity: “God was manifest in the flesh.”
First, what exactly, according to God’s perfectly clear Word, the only spiritual “lamp unto [our] feet” and “light unto [our] path” (Psalm 119:105), is and is not a mystery? It is to be sharply distinguished from a paradox, which really involves a logical contradiction, literally “speaking against” reason. Since there are absolutely no contradictions in God (Numbers 23:19) or in the Scriptures (John 10:35), a mystery is not contrary to reason; it is simply far beyond human reason (Isaiah 55:9). A mystery is also different from a problem, which calls for more extensive knowledge in order to arrive at its complete solution. What to us sinful mortals is mysterious because of difficulties we encounter in trying to understand it, God knows and understands from eternity because “His understanding is infinite” (Psalm 147:5b). However, in His Word, He occasionally refers to certain truths as “mysteries” or “mysterious” because even we true believers, who “know in part” and still “see through a glass darkly,” lack full knowledge and total comprehension of mysteries of the faith on this side of heaven (I Corinthians 13:9a, 12). Therefore we should not imagine ourselves capable or even entitled to understand them (Romans 11:33–34). Rather, Holy Writ clearly reveals to us the true nature of a divine mystery:
“Now to Him that is of power to stablish you according to my Gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, but now is made manifest, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith” (Romans 16:25–26).
A supernatural mystery of God, then, is that which was previously hidden from mankind, being undiscoverable by natural human reason and senses (cf. I Corinthians 2:14), yet made known to mankind through divine revelation both at a time and in a manner appointed by God Himself (cf. I Corinthians 2:7–14; Ephesians 3:2–6; Colossians 1:25–27).
After Adam and Eve had yielded to the devil’s cunning temptation and willingly disobeyed God’s clear command in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:1–13), all of mankind became sinners (Romans 3:23; 5:12), deserving of eternal death and punishment in hell (Romans 6:23a) and unable to make themselves right with God by the deeds of the Law (Romans 3:20a). God promised to our first parents a Savior, the Seed of the woman, who would crush the devil’s head (Genesis 3:15). Having foreseen (but not willed) the transgression of Adam and Eve, God purposed in eternity already to save fallen mankind by the death of His only-begotten Son (Acts 2:23; I Peter 1:18–20). Since God is “a spirit” (John 4:24a) without “flesh and bones” (Luke 24:39), He manifested, or set forth, His Christ, the anointed Redeemer, by “sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Romans 8:3), “made under the Law” (Galatians 4:4) and, as a true human being, subject to death as man’s substitute to accomplish his redemption (Hebrews 2:14–15; Galatians 4:5). Accordingly, “for this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil” (I John 3:8c).
The incarnation, or simply the in-flesh-ment of the eternal Son of God, “the only-begotten of the Father,” is that divine act by which “the Word was made flesh” (John 1:14) and became man. The event in time which marked “His Son” being “sent forth” by God, “made of a woman” (Galatians 4:4), occurred even before His lowly birth in Bethlehem. It was His miraculous conception by the Holy Ghost (Luke 1:35) in the “womb” of Mary (vv. 30–31), “a virgin” (v. 27), from whom Jesus received His true human body and soul (Hebrews 2:14; cf. Luke 24:39; Matthew 26:38). His human nature was “in all things…made like unto His brethren [the children of men],” not only in its essential makeup “of the same [flesh and blood]” (Hebrews 2:14, 17), but also in its being subject to universal human “infirmities” (Matthew 8:17), yet “without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). At no time and never for a moment did Christ’s human nature subsist for and by itself as a separate person with a personality of its own, but at once, from its inception, from the very moment of its existence, subsisted in the person — not of God “the Father” (John 1:18b), nor of God “the Holy Ghost” (John 14:26), but only of God “the only-begotten [Son] of the Father” (John 1:14, 18b). Thus the miraculous generation of the human nature in the person of the Son of God and the beginning of its union with the divine nature of the Son of God (John 1:14; Luke 1:35; Romans 1:3–4; 9:5) was simultaneous and at God’s appointed moment in time, namely, “when the fulness of the time was come” (Galatians 4:4). With the holy incarnation of Christ in the Virgin Mary began and continued thenceforth for all time and for all eternity the personal union of true God and true man in one undivided and indivisible person, Jesus Christ; for “there is one God, and one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (I Timothy 2:5). The doctrine of the incarnation and all that it entails according to Scripture is truly a “mystery” of the highest order — impossible fully to comprehend and far surpassing our human understanding. Even the true believer’s knowledge of, assent to, and confidence in the mystery that “the Son of Man” is personally the same as “the Son of the Living God” is neither revealed nor understood by the process of human reason, that is, of “flesh and blood” but is the result of divine revelation in God’s Word (Matthew 16:13–17).
On Christmas Day we customarily gather together in God’s House to celebrate, properly speaking, the Feast of God the Father, who in love for fallen mankind “sent the Son to be the Savior of the world” (I John 4:14); and on the calendar of our church year we refer to this day as The Feast of the Nativity of our Lord, a celebration of the time, circumstances, and manner of both the conception and birth of our Lord for us sinful human beings. Matthew’s Gospel account includes both of these events in what the Holy Ghost called “the birth of Jesus Christ” (Matthew 1:18). For Joseph of Nazareth, who was regarded as Jesus’ “father of record” before men (cf. Luke 3:23; 4:22), both Jesus’ conception and impending birth constituted a mystery of the utmost seriousness. For that “just man,” upon learning that his espoused wife, Mary, was “with child,” came to the completely reasonable conclusion (according to what man’s wisdom dictated) that she had been unfaithful to him and that therefore he was entitled to “put her away privily” (Matthew 1:18–19). And, although she had no doubt informed him of Gabriel’s visit (Luke 1:26ff.) and of the angel’s answer to her quite reasonable question, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man” (v. 34), indicating that she would be “with child of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 1:18), Joseph had discounted that explanation as implausible according to human reason. It took the angel’s very specific explanation to him, including reference to Isaiah’s prophecy (7:14), to convince him of this divine mystery, to put to rest his fear about the whole scenario (Matthew 1:20), and to induce him to continue in the married estate with his dear wife, who was innocent of any wrongdoing (v. 24). All of this was motivated in Joseph by the Gospel message that Mary’s child would “save His people from their sins” (v. 21).
“The fulness of the time” (Galatians 4:4) for the manifestation of this “mystery” continued to unfold itself when the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, issued a decree that a census was to be conducted throughout his empire and that everyone was to travel to his ancestral city to be counted and recorded. That decree caused Joseph, together with his late-term pregnant Mary, to travel “unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David” (Luke 2:1–5). There, “the Lord our Righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:5–6), “the King of kings and Lord of lords” (I Timothy 6:15), humbled Himself to be “born” of His mother Mary according to His human nature (Isaiah 9:6; Luke 2:11) as a true man, and as a descendant of King David, in great poverty for the sake of the world’s salvation; for “[Christ Jesus] made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself” (Philippians 2:7–8). Instead of the circumstances of His nativity being suitable for a king, a barnyard stable was His first home; and a manger, or feeding trough for common animals, filled with coarse hay, was His crib. “And so it was that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:6–7).
What a miracle, yea, what a “mystery” indeed, that “though He was rich, yet for [our] sakes He Became poor, that [we] through His poverty might be rich!” (II Corinthians 8:9). Yet, “in Him” ––from the moment of His conception and now also in this visible newborn Babe of Bethlehem–– “all the fulness of the Godhead,” the divine nature, the whole and entire God, dwelled, not outside of, not beside, the flesh, but “bodily” (Colossians 2:9) —in the flesh, in the human nature of Jesus Christ in His bodily form. This was truly “Emmanuel…God with us” (Matthew 1:23; cf. Isaiah 7:14), the newborn infant Jesus, lying in a manger, God as Man, for us a Savior! How crystal clear was the angel’s message to the shepherds on Bethlehem’s fields: “For unto you is born this day…a Savior, which is Christ the Lord!” (Luke 2:11).
Was this “appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ,” in order to make manifest God’s “own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began” (II Timothy 1:9–10), truly necessary? Yes! Jesus had to be true man as well as true God in order for Him to be our Savior. It was necessary for Christ to be true man in order to take the place of all people under the Law of God (Galatians 4:4), and also to be true God in order to fulfill perfectly by His active obedience the requirements of God’s legislative justice (Leviticus 19:2) on their behalf and thus to earn righteousness for all mankind (Romans 5:18b, 19b). It was also necessary for Christ to be true man in order to be subject to “the wages of sin” (Romans 6:23a) and to suffer and die under the Law as a transgressor (Isaiah 53:12) for all men (Hebrews 2:9b, 14), and also to be true God in order that His passive obedience would perfectly satisfy God’s punitive justice (Ezekiel 18:4, 20a; Romans 6:23a) in their stead. Thus Christ “His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree” (I Peter 2:24) to pay the penalty of the guilt of all mankind and to free them from the curse of the Law (Isaiah 53:4–6; Galatians 3:13; Hebrews 2:15).
And thanks be to Him as our Redeemer for the blessed result! For in view of Christ’s all-sufficient, vicarious satisfaction of divine justice (Romans 3:25; I John 2:2), already accomplished “from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8c) and carried out in time according to the sure Messianic prophecies penned by inspiration of the Holy Ghost (Genesis 3:15; Isaiah 7:14; 9:6; Galatians 4:4–5), God fully and freely forgave the sins of all mankind, “reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them” (II Corinthians 5:19a), and declared even the “ungodly” righteous in His sight for Christ’s sake (Romans 4:5). “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men!” (Luke 2:14). These are the “good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” (v. 10), “the Word of reconciliation” (II Corinthians 5:19b) by which God the Holy Ghost works saving faith in the hearts of men —also in yours and in mine— the personal assurance and confidence of the heart that, “being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1), through the merits of the newborn Babe, through “God…manifest in the flesh.”
How tremendous and incredible is this “mystery,” of such great moment and of such great importance for us that the Holy Ghost uses the Greek word “mega” in our title-text to describe it! “His name shall be called Wonderful” (Isaiah 9:6c), a “miracle” child born “unto us!” (v. 6a). And this amazing “mystery” is to have the agreement and consent of us all, received in childlike faith without question; for this divine mystery is most certainly true “without controversy.” There can be no legitimate argument about it! We therefore reject and condemn all false teachers, both of ancient times (for example, Nestorius and his followers, Eutyches and his sects) and of modern times (the Reformed camp, especially the Calvinist groups), who argue in opposition to the sole norm of Holy Scripture concerning any facet of the profound mystery of Christ’s conception and birth and any facet of the doctrine of Christ that establishes without question that the Jesus of Bethlehem’s manger is true God and true man in one undivided and indivisible person. We, who by the Lord of all grace are “fellow-citizens with the saints and of the household of God, and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets,” confess together of “Jesus Christ…the Chief Cornerstone” of His Church (Ephesians 2:20) in the words of the Nicene Creed: “…who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners!” (I Timothy 1:15).
And finally we see in our title-text that this “mystery” of the incarnate Christ and of His visible appearing at His birth is not of secular philosophy nor of human speculation (cf. Colossians 2:8), but is “of Godliness,” literally, “the of-the-Godliness mystery,” a mystery belonging to the doctrine of God and the doctrine of Christ, essential to the one Christian religion, to the only saving religion of “the glorious Gospel of the blessed God” (I Timothy 1:11), “who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time” (I Timothy 2:5–6). This is the rock-solid, foundation-truth (Matthew 16:18; I Corinthians 3:11) upon which is built “the Church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28) in the person of Jesus Christ according to His human nature, “in the body of His flesh through death” to reconcile the whole world to God (Colossians 1:21–22; cf. Romans 5:10a). For “the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanseth us from all sin” (I John 1:7b). This is the glorious “truth” that every true believer knows on the basis of Scripture, accepts as true, trusts with firm confidence, and also confesses before men as the fruit of His God-wrought faith.
Therefore, let us not merely wonder at these marvelous things which we have seen and heard (Luke 2:18), as if the Gospel news of our Lord’s birth is of passing interest only during the holy Christmas season, but may we, like Mary, genuinely ponder them in our hearts (v. 19), truly receiving for ourselves by sincere faith the great love of God graciously and visibly displayed for us poor sinners in His Son — for the forgiveness of our sins and for our life everlasting (I John 4:9–10, 16a). Let us, not only on Christmas Day but throughout our lives, as Godly evidence of gratefully “liv[ing] in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25), “[make] known abroad,” as did the shepherds of Bethlehem (Luke 2:17), and “[glorify] and [praise] God” (v. 20) for, the Great Mystery of the conception and birth of our Lord Jesus Christ: “God was manifest in the flesh.”
To Thee, then, O Jesus, this day of Thy birth,
be glory and honor through heaven and earth,
true Godhead incarnate, omnipotent Word!
Oh, come, let us adore Him: Christ, the Lord!
(TLH 102, 4)
— Jason A. Mabe, Seminarian
(Submitted through his Pastor)