The Sacrifice of the Incarnation
I remember the day I left home for Bible college. It was filled with anticipation, excitement—and a deep sense of loss. Deep down, I knew that, with all of the possibilities opening up in front of me, what I was moving toward came with a price. In order to go to school, I had to leave home. And, for me, that meant I was leaving a lot.
This idea was significant for me. But, it is essential both the Christmas story and the larger biblical story to realize that Christ had to leave something else in order to come here. This is what the apostle Paul captured when he wrote Philippians 2:6a:
… Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God …
This statement confronts us with an idea of tremendous significance—He “existed in the form of God.” This phrase speaks of a reality that was present before time began. Before the creation of the universe. Before the collapse of the human race. Notice a couple of words that are critical to our exploration of the person of Christ.
Existed. The first important word is “existed,” the Greek huparcho. This term conveys great strength because it has two very significant implications.
The first implication is that Christ existed prior to His conception in Mary’s womb. The necessity of this pre-existence is found in John 1:1 which tells us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The “Word” of John 1:1 (logos) is clearly the Christ, because v.14 tells us that this Word “became flesh, and dwelt among us…” The apostle Paul takes it even further in Colossians 1:17, writing, “He (Christ) is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” There can be no question that when Paul says that Christ existed in the form of God, it embraces real, genuine pre-existence.
The second implication is that huparcho not only teaches prior existence, it speaks of eternal existence. It is not just that Christ is—but that He was, He is, and He forever will be. This necessary implication is also confirmed in the scriptures as Micah 5:2 prophetically spoke of Christ saying, “His goings forth are from long ago, From the days of eternity.”
As challenging as it is for finite people like us to grasp, Jesus did not just show up in Bethlehem. He did not just come into being when conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary. He came into His earthly experience from somewhere else—somewhere He had been from all eternity past in the presence of the Father.
Form. The second key word in Philippians 2:6 is “form.” It is another critical word in Paul’s Christmas story. “Form” is the Greek word morphe, and it can feel a little counterintuitive to us. When we hear the word form, our tendency is to think about shape. About external appearance. In construction, for example, “forms” are used to pour concrete foundations for houses, and those forms give the footings or foundations shape. Similarly, a dress “form” is a specially-made female torso for dressmakers to use in making garments. Those ideas clearly point us to thinking about shape when we think about “form.”
However, morphe goes much deeper than surface shapes. It stresses the inner essence or reality of something, not the outward appearance. It is an expression that captures the idea of “being.” What is the point? By saying that in eternity past Christ exited in the “form” of God, Paul is expressing in the strongest possible terms the complete and absolute deity of Jesus Christ. Jesus is not like God—He is God. He does not picture deity—He possesses deity. This idea is clearly reflected in Hebrews 1:3:
“And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,”
“The exact representation of His (God’s) nature” is the key phrase. The Bible teaches us that “God is spirit” (John 4:24), and as such is hidden from our sight. The only way that we could see the “essence” of God would be if that essence arrived in visible form. And, only God could be (or come) in the form of God. Jesus claimed that very thing for Himself, seen in John 5:18, “For this reason therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.” Christ was fully and completely God in eternity past, and displayed that perfect God-ness on the Mount of Transfiguration when the veil of flesh was lowered and the glory of Christ was displayed. That scene caused Simon Peter to write:
For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased”—and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain. (2 Peter 1:16-18)
Here, we are reminded of the eternal nature of Christ as the second person of the Trinity. We see the eternal reality of Jesus’ equality with the Father in John 17:5, where the Savior prayed:
“Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.”
This, however, is not just a rehashing of orthodox theology. It is far more personal and far more critical. Critical to the Christmas story is the declaration that, far from being just another baby, the Christ was God in human flesh. This is the necessary truth of the incarnation of Jesus, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, which Matthew affirms in Matthew 1:22-23:
Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “BEHOLD, THE VIRGIN SHALL BE WITH CHILD AND SHALL BEAR A SON, AND THEY SHALL CALL HIS NAME IMMANUEL,” which translated means, “GOD WITH US.”
Only if Jesus is truly God could He come to earth and be Immanuel—God with us. For the mission and message of Christ to make any sense at all, we must begin by seeing Him not only as the Son of God, but as God the Son.
However, all of that matters little if Christ had not been willing to lay aside that heavenly place and position. His mission in coming for us was in the very least a mission of self-sacrifice—laying His life down for us on the cross. As such, it shouldn’t surprise us that this sacrifice did not begin on the cross or in Bethlehem. Christ began that sacrifice by willingly giving up what was His to take hold of us.
Adapted from Before Christmas: The Story of Jesus from the Beginning of Time to the Manger by Bill Crowder (Discovery House 2019)