The Significance of Christ’s Humility in His First Visible Advent
Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee,
meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass.
—- Matthew 21:5
One of the themes that stands out so clearly during the Advent/Christmas season of the church year is the strikingly humble circumstances into which Jesus, the eternal Son of God, was born into this world in His first visible advent (coming). The Scriptures teach us that He was born while His earthly parents, in obedience to an imperial decree, were on a road trip away from their home town (Luke 2:3–6); and this, together with the fact that “there was no room for them in the inn” (v. 7b), resulted in the newborn Baby Jesus being laid in a manger (a feeding trough for animals). It is hard to imagine a baby being born in a more humble situation. And while such a lowly birth might seem completely unbefitting the Lord God of the universe, yet it was, indeed, appropriate in light of the purpose for His incarnation, namely, to redeem the whole world of sinful mankind by a humble life and a humble death of perfect submission under the Law of God (Mark 10:45; Galatians 4:4; Philippians 2:7–8).
Though certain people on rare occasions did honor Him as a king (Matthew 2:11; 21:9), Jesus’ outward, visible appearance was not that of an earthly king, let alone the King of all creation. With the exception of what transpired on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1–2), His appearance did not reveal the fullness of the Godhead that always dwelt within Him (Colossians 2:9). Of course, the miracles that Jesus performed did display some quick flashes of His divine glory (John 1:14; 2:11); but because He did not appear to be anything but a humble man, those miracles often caught people by surprise, astounded and amazed them (Matthew 8:27; 9:8). When Jesus miraculously caused the nets of the fishermen to enclose such a large amount of fish that their ships began to sink, Simon Peter said to Jesus: “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:4–9). Being struck with the realization that he was standing before the Lord of glory, Peter felt his complete unworthiness of being even in the presence of Christ. This is similar to how fear consistently gripped believers when holy angels appeared to them, even with cheerful tidings (Luke 1:12–13; 2:9–10; 24:4–5). Consider also how the Children of Israel in the Old Testament were filled with fear when God spoke to them directly from Mount Sinai, and how they asked Moses to speak to them instead. “All the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off. And they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die” (Exodus 20:18–19). It should not, however, be thought that the main reason for Christ’s humiliation was to make Him more “approachable.” Rather, the ultimate purpose was to redeem fallen mankind through His humble submission to the Law of God — the Law’s requirements in His active obedience, and the Law’s declared punishment in His passive obedience.
In His active obedience, Jesus lived a life of sinless perfection under the Law that God had given to men. His earthly life was one of perfect humility because Christ, being God Himself, was above the Law (not bound by its requirements); and yet, according to His human nature, “He humbled Himself” (Philippians 2:8) under the Law in order to redeem us. “When the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the Law, to redeem them that were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Galatians 4:4–5). As a true human being, Jesus humbly took the place of everyone who has ever broken God’s Commandments (namely, all mankind) and completely submitted Himself to all the commands and prohibitions of the moral Law, which requires holiness in thoughts, desires, words and deeds. And as a result of His humble active obedience, accomplished vicariously for the world, all mankind is objectively justified, declared righteous by the Lord —Christ’s righteousness being imputed to them and canceling their guilt. “As by the offense of one [Adam] judgment came upon all men to condemnation, even so by the righteousness of One [Christ] the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of One shall many be made righteous” (Romans 5:18–19).
In His passive obedience, Jesus suffered extreme pain, agony and death in payment for the sins of the world. There was perfect humility involved also in this because, possessing all the attributes of God, He could have easily prevented His human body and soul from enduring any pain at all; those that sought to harm Him could have been completely restrained. But, instead, Jesus allowed His enemies to treat Him in a most cruel and blasphemous manner. “Then did they spit in His face, and buffeted Him; and others smote Him with the palms of their hands, saying, ‘Prophesy unto us, Thou Christ, who is he that smote Thee?’” (Matthew 26:67–68); “and many other things blasphemously spake they against Him” (Luke 22:65). Withholding from Himself the full and constant use of His divine attributes according to His human nature, the only-begotten Son of God humbled Himself and allowed blatantly unjust and wicked people, infinitely weaker and more inferior humans, to inflict upon His true human body unimaginable pain. “Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged Him. And the soldiers platted a crown of thorns and put it on His head, and they put on Him a purple robe and said, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ And they smote Him with their hands” (John 19:1–3). Furthermore, He could have avoided death entirely if He had chosen to do so. But, instead, in order to redeem us, “He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8). Foretelling His coming death, Jesus said: “I lay down My life. …No man taketh it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself” (John 10:17–18). Thus Christ willingly and most humbly drank the full cup of suffering as payment for the transgressions of all mankind. “He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed. …The Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all. …For the transgression of my people was He stricken” (Isaiah 53:5–8). Thus He became “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2). And as the result of Jesus’ humble passive obedience, God’s wrath against sinful mankind was completely satisfied; Christ brought about reconciliation between God and men; and the whole world was justified in His sight (Romans 5:8–10; II Corinthians 5:19).
Of course, since He is true God, Jesus’ first visible advent could have included a show of His great power and glory. He could have demanded that all people serve Him and could have severely punished all who refused to humble themselves before Him. But He did not do that because He had not come to be served but to do the serving —even laying down His life as a ransom for our sins (Mark 10:45). How appropriate it was, therefore, that the circumstances attending His birth were so humble! “Christ the Lord…lying in a manger” (Luke 2:11–12)! “Christ Jesus…being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:5–7). Such humility was also demonstrated when He entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday in meekness and lowliness riding upon the colt of an ass (Mark 11:1–11). And that notable event had been specifically foretold in a detailed Messianic prophecy recorded by inspiration of the Holy Ghost through the pen of the Prophet Zechariah, in which the Christian Church is told to rejoice greatly in the coming of her humble Savior-King. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, thy King cometh unto thee; He is just and having salvation, lowly, and riding upon an ass and upon a colt, the foal of an ass” (Zechariah 9:9).
Christ’s state of humiliation —in which, according to His human nature, He did not always and fully use the divine attributes that belonged to Him from all eternity (John 17:5) and had been communicated to His human nature (Matthew 28:18; John 5:26–27)— began at the time of His incarnation, when the eternal Son of God was conceived by the Holy Ghost in the Virgin Mary (Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:35) and “was made flesh” (John 1:14). Furthermore, the humility of Christ was only possible because of His human nature, since the nature of God cannot be changed or humbled (Malachi 3:6). However, the humiliation itself should not be identified with, or defined as, Christ becoming a true man. For, indeed, He is still a man even now, as He will be for all eternity; but He is no more humbled. After accomplishing the redemption of the world, Jesus entered into His state of exaltation, in which the Second Person of the Trinity, also according to His human nature, not only possesses, but now fully and constantly uses all the divine attributes (Ephesians 1:20–23; Philippians 2:9–11) that belong to God the Father and God the Holy Ghost. So then on the Last Day, when Christ returns in His second visible advent to judge the world in righteousness (Acts 17:31) according to His Word (John 12:48), it will be in glory (not humility) and in power (not in weakness). “When the Son of Man shall come in His glory and all the holy angels with Him, then shall He sit upon the throne of His glory” (Matthew 25:31). “Then shall they see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27).
Even though His state of humiliation was long ago in the past, and even though there will be no more humbling in the future for our Lord Jesus Christ, it is important for us still to remember and meditate upon the significance of His humility—the humility that was so clearly demonstrated in His first visible advent (His birth in Bethlehem). As has already been mentioned, Christ accomplished His entire work of redemption (both His active and passive obedience) by humbling Himself under the Law of God, by bearing and by satisfying both its holy demands and its dreadful curse as our Substitute.
But an additional point that should not be overlooked is that the Bible directs us to the humility of Christ as a pattern that we are to follow in our lives. The Apostle Peter writes: “Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow His steps; who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth; who, when He was reviled, reviled not again; when He suffered, He threatened not but committed Himself to Him that judgeth righteously” (I Peter 2:21–23). And St. Paul emphasizes the humility of Christ as a model for us, showing us how to manifest humble, unselfish love in our dealings with one another. He writes: “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but 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 and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:3–8). Remember also how Jesus exhorted His disciples to follow His example in their loving, humble service toward one another, saying: “Ye call Me Master and Lord; and ye say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. …A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are My disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:13–15, 34–35).
May the Lord bless us all with profitable meditation upon our Savior’s humility as we focus upon His first visible advent, so that we grow in our appreciation for all that He did and endured to save us from our sins, and so that we are moved, out of gratitude for His love toward us (I John 4:19), to follow His example of humble, unselfish love toward our neighbor (vv. 10-11)!
— P. E. B.