This past Sunday I received the opportunity to preach, which I haven’t done in some time. I greatly enjoyed it, and thank God that my message was well-received. In my preparations, I wrote a manuscript, and I decided I would upload that as a post. It’s long, mind you, since it’s an entire sermon, but I hope someone can be blessed by it.
Why “In the Flesh?”
Tonight I’ll be starting in 2 John 1:7. I won’t be spending much time there, but I’m using this verse to bring up a particular question. After that, don’t worry, I’ll still be using the Bible, but will focus on a couple other passages to answer that question. So let’s look at it.
“Many deceivers have gone out into the world; they do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist.”
There’s another verse, 1 John 4:2, which likewise says “Every spirit who confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.”
So here’s what I would like to ask. This is question of the entire message. Why is it so important that Jesus came “in the flesh?” Why is this such a big deal that John commands in 2 John 1:9-10 not even to greet or welcome someone teaching otherwise?
Most of you have probably never wondered this, just taking it as a given that Jesus is 100% God and 100% man. You probably take his flesh for granted. If someone disagrees, though you’d seriously condemn their error I doubt you would be able to explain why this is so important, except for “That’s what the Bible says.”
My goal in this sermon is to fix that. I want to, straight from the Bible, answer why it is so vital that Jesus came “in the flesh,” both for our beliefs and for our practical lives.
But before I get into all this, I should quickly explain what “in the flesh” means. When John uses the word “flesh,” he definitely doesn’t mean it at all the way Paul usually does. For Paul, “flesh” usually refers to the sinful and corrupt aspect of human existence. The “flesh” is the part of human life that causes the “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19-21, which include stuff like sexual immorality, idolatry, hatred, ambition, arguments, envy, and promiscuity. This obviously isn’t equal to “the body,” because for example hatred is not something you do with your body but your heart.
When John says Jesus came “in the flesh,” he is saying that Jesus came in a real, physical, human nature with a tangible body. He could be seen, heard, and touched like he said in 1 John 1, and His body wasn’t an illusion or mask like some people were teaching at the time. This is the doctrine of Incarnation. Incarnation means that God become a human being in Jesus Christ. So again, why does it matter so much? Why is it so important that Jesus came in a real human body?
As a good Baptist, I want to address this with three points. The first is why Jesus coming in the flesh is necessary for salvation, and it might not be just the reason you immediately think. The second is why Jesus had to come in the flesh to do anything at all meaningful for us, people who live in flesh. Finally, the third is what practical implications Jesus’ coming in the flesh has for us now.
Flesh and Salvation
So onto the first point. What does Christ coming in the flesh, in real human nature and body, do for our salvation? How did God becoming a baby who needed diapers changed work towards our rescue from sin and death? The first obvious answer is that He came so He could die on the cross. That is part of the answer. But there is more to it. To answer this first question, then, I’ll use Hebrews 2:5-18. If you all want to turn there, I’ll be in it for several minutes. In this passage, the author of Hebrews has just been speaking of how and why Jesus is superior to the angels, due to His divine nature as the Son of God. But at this point he moves into Jesus’ humanity. Even as a human, He an exalted place over the angels. Here’s what it says:
And furthermore, it is not angels who will control the future world we are talking about. For in one place the Scriptures say,
“What are people that you should think of them, or a son of man that you should care for him? Yet you made them only a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You gave them authority over all things.”
Now when it says “all things,” it means nothing is left out. But we have not yet seen all things put under their authority. What we do see is Jesus, who was given a position “a little lower than the angels”; and because he suffered death for us, he is now “crowned with glory and honor.” Yes, by God’s grace, Jesus tasted death for everyone.
God, for whom and through whom everything was made, chose to bring many children into glory. And it was only right that he should make Jesus, through his suffering, a perfect leader, fit to bring them into their salvation. So now Jesus and the ones he makes holy have the same Father. That is why Jesus is not ashamed to call them his brothers and sisters.
For he said to God, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters. I will praise you among your assembled people.” He also said, “I will put my trust in him,” that is, “I and the children God has given me.”
Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying. We also know that the Son did not come to help angels; he came to help the descendants of Abraham. Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people. Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested.
This text is, in my opinion, probably the most important text about Jesus’ Incarnation, which, remember, means His coming in human flesh. So I want to go through it and draw out the logic it uses to explain why Jesus’ flesh is so vital to our salvation. But before I get too far, I should point out potential translation confusion. In some Bible versions like the one I’m using, verses 5-8 speak in the plural of “them” or “human beings” or “people”, while many others speak in the singular, saying “him” and “the son of man.” Here the literal words are singular, but they are speaking in a collective sense. The human race is being represented by a singular “man” or “him.” Even the phrase “son of man” in this verse only means a child of humankind, not specifically Jesus.
So here’s the flow of the passage. In seeking to show Jesus’ superiority to the angels on the side of his human nature, the author quotes Psalm 8, where the psalmist is baffled at the dignity God has given the human race even though we are so puny and less beautiful than His other works. He asks how mere men can be important enough to warrant God’s care or attention.
Then he celebrates the high place God has given humanity. He set us up only a little less than the angels for a while, and He gave us glory and honor. He put us in charge of the whole world like we see in Genesis 1:28-30. How could we deserve this? We’re so small.
But what the author of Hebrews points out is that not everything seems to be in our control even though God gave it all to us. There is suffering, sin, and death wreaking havoc on our world. So what’s wrong? Have we completely lost the high position given to us by God?
The answer is kind of like Paul’s “By no means!” See, even though we don’t see humanity in control of the world God gave us, we do see Jesus. He became a human like us in the flesh, and was made lower than the angels for a while. The rest of us may not be in control of the world God gave us, since we were under Satan’s rule, but Jesus was crowned Lord and is forever exalted. He is reigning in glory and honor. But how did He get there? He died for us all, all of the weak humanity. Because He obeyed the Father even to the point of death, He has been crowned king of everything, which means that He has regained control of creation for us all. A human being is on the thone of the world standing in for God, just like God originally intended.
So at this point the author of Hebrews goes a little further in what Jesus did to restore us to this place. He says that it only fitting that God should make Jesus, the source of our salvation, perfect through suffering. Now this doesn’t mean Jesus was sinful and then became perfect, obviously. He says elsewhere in Hebrews that Jesus was without sin. In this case perfect means mature or complete. Jesus wasn’t completely in place to restore fallen people until He Himself had endured the same sufferings that we do, and He had to learn the experience of rejecting sin and living in faith. He became a man, one of us, and had to live by faith like one of us and deal with what we deal with. The only way to heal man’s problems was for the Creator and Sustainer of all life to become a man Himself and fight them back.
Finally, this text tells us that Jesus as a human being had to share our fleshy nature to become our High Priest. A priest stands before God in place of his people, and offers God the sacrifice required. So only a man of flesh-and-blood can represent us, flesh-and-blood people. He had to be like us in every way to minister to the Father on our behalf. For us to be near to God, we need a pure human priest to lead the way. This is the same point behind Paul specifying in 1 Timothy 2:5 that there is only one Mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ. So in last—but not least!—place, Jesus had to become a human being to be our High Priest before God, a work essential to our salvation which continues forever. In fact, this is the key reason we know that Jesus is still human, though that’s definitely a topic for another day.
Anyway, to recap, this is why Jesus became flesh and blood for our salvation. We were supposed to be the rulers of God’s creation, but when we sinned we became subject to death. And when we became subject to death, Satan–who wields death as his power–became a ruler over us. So when Jesus became one of us, when He came in our dying flesh, He started fighting back. He cast out demons and went to war against Satan’s kingdom. He forgave sins and removed Satan’s ground for accusing us before God. Finally, He died. It looked like Satan had beaten Jesus, beaten God, with his weapon of death, but then Jesus rose from the dead. Now Satan has nothing left. No sickness, sin, or death can defeat the Christ who healed, forgave, and rose again. So Jesus, having ascended to heaven, stands now in glory and honor, the conquering human King who has won back humanity’s God-given place as the rulers of this world and defeated Satan who stole that place, and our eternal High Priest representing and substituting for us all in God’s presence.
At this point, we see just how important Jesus’ human flesh was to our salvation. If Jesus had no human body, then none of this chain would have worked. There would be no truly human person to represent and substitute on our behalf, healing sickness, forgiving sin, and beating bodily death. No human being would take the throne of creation to restore humanity to their proper place in the world. Satan would still hold the power of death, since without a physical body Christ could have no physical resurrection to remove the sting of physical death. Jesus had to be like us in every way if He was to suffer for us, forgive us, and empathize with us a High Priest before the Father. And without His flesh, He could do not a single one of these things. We’d still be doomed.
Flesh and Human Existence
This brings me to my next point. A creative and curious person could ask, “Why did Christ need a body for all this? Couldn’t He have accomplished all these things in a spiritual way without coming in the flesh?” And of course, when dealing with God, the answer would have to be “Sure He could.” But, to do that He would have had to make us simply spiritual beings without physical bodies. Or He could have made us with bodies that don’t matter, with only the spirit counting for anything, like the ancient Gnostics believed. But that’s not how He chose to create us. He already had the angels who were purely spirit. When God chose to create man, He chose to create a kind of person with a real, physical nature. He made people defined by having bodies.
Some of you may think this is strange. After all, don’t we believe, to supposedly quote C. S. Lewis, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul; you have a body?” Well, no, and Lewis never said this, either. The truth is that God made us equally body and soul, physical and spiritual. The entire Bible shows the importance of this, starting with creation. When God created mankind, He made them from the dust of the earth first, and only then added spiritual life. The physical was an integral part. Then He blessed the first humans in a physical way, giving them rule over the physical world and telling to make babies. He created mankind in His own image, and this actually means something very physical which most people don’t realize.
See, in the ancient cultures surrounding early Israel, a six day building project would represent the construction of a temple to a god. At the end of the six days, an image of the god would be placed in the temple to represent its presence and authority. An visible, material idol was placed there to stand in for the invisible, immaterial deity. So in Genesis 1 we can see that same concept being used by Moses under the inspiration of the Spirit to show all creation as the massive and glorious temple of the one true God. At the end of the construction, He places an image in the temple to carry out His authority on the earth. Just like the idols of the other ancient temples, in this case a physical image–humanity–is created specifically to exercise His authority and care in creation. So even part of what defines our being made in the image of God is precisely the fact that we are physical!
The theme of man’s physical existence goes on and on from that point. In the Law, God chose to set Israel apart by all sorts of physical signs that affected their day to day bodily life. He wanted to them even conform their flesh to His purposes, as proved by food laws, purity and cleanliness laws, laws about property and land, and even laws about going to the bathroom! The primary sign of His covenant was the intimate and very physical cut of circumcision. All through the Law is this theme: God cares about the physical aspect of being human, and even that part is essential to being who He made us to be.
The pattern continues explicitly in the New Testament, for example in Paul’s teaching on sexual immorality. He strongly condemns all fornication, adultery, prostitution, etc because why? Because the body is irrelevant to our life? By no means! He says that the body is for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. According to Paul our flesh counts a lot.
This all culminates in the Christian hope of resurrection. This is the final hope of Christianity as opposed to others. Unlike the Buddhists and Hindus, today’s New Age spiritualities, the Platonists and Gnostics of yesteryear, we do not hope to escape the body to spend eternity in some pure spiritual existence, but God has promised us the resurrection of our bodies, the transformation of corruptible flesh to incorruptible, mortal bodies to immortal ones. He proved this when He raised Jesus from the dead in a body that is still solid to the touch and capable even of eating. And if this resurrection is so important and lies behind our future resurrection, then clearly our bodies matter so much that they were included in God’s salvation for us..
This means Jesus had to become flesh. If Jesus didn’t become flesh, then we poor humans who God designed in such a fleshy way would be hopeless. When bodies are in trouble, what can they gain from pure spirit? It would be all over our heads and irrelevant to this bodily life God created for us. At best we could only be half saved, with our souls rescued and our bodies abandoned, leaving us incomplete for eternity. So Hebrews is right. Since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus had to become like His brothers in every way. He had to save bodies, not just souls.
Flesh and Loving Thy Neighbor
But this brings me to my third point. We should rejoice that God Himself, the Creator of all who is who He is and dwells in heaven, loved us so much that He was willing to become a real, fleshy human being to save us. I mean, it’s ridiculous when you really think about it. This glorious and unfathomable God became a helpless baby. He cried for food. He pooped and needed diaper changes. He got confused and scared when His mommy left the room. He tumbled around learning to walk. He made silly sound while learning to talk. He did chores, got hot, got cold, got hungry, and experienced hardship. In fact, since Joseph kind of disappears from the Bible by Jesus’ adulthood and on the cross Jesus gave care of Mary to John, Joseph probably died. If so Jesus suffered the pain of losing His stepfather. He grew up and went through puberty, probably getting embarrassing acne and for all we know maybe even crushing on some pretty Jewish girl. He learned to be a handyman and worked with tools in the hot sun to make a living. Then He got baptized, a sign of repenting from sin, in front of a bunch of people even though He was sinless. He gave up food for 40 whole days, being tempted by His growling stomach to cheat and poof up something to eat. From that point on He spent over three years meeting people of all kinds, with every disease and injury known to man, to have mercy on them. He witnessed bruised and broken bodies, disgusting to sight and smell. He associated with the worst of sinners and people of the lowest situation. He helped the poor and the needy in their distress. Finally He suffered and died with criminals and was buried like any other dead man. All of this, He did for us and for our salvation, out of gratuitous love. We ought to be completely grateful, humbled, and worshipful that He submitted to all this so that we could be rescued from it.
But that, praise be to God for it, is still not my third point. My third point can be found in Philippians 2:4-11. My third point, the real life application, is that we should do the same thing that Jesus did. We should suffer all of this to rescue others. Here’s what those verses say:
Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.
Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
and gave him the name above all other names,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
This is what we learn from the Incarnation, from the fact that Jesus Christ came in the flesh. He humbled Himself and lived among those in the depths of sin and death. So go thou and do likewise. Jesus descended to a stable, so can we not enter the slums? Jesus got up close and personal with people who had leprosy, a disease that leads to bruising and loss of body parts. So should we.
I remember once when I was a pretty young that I told my dad I couldn’t possibly work with people so diseased or injured that they looked really gross. I just didn’t think I could handle it. As a good father should have, he rebuked me and asked how I was supposed to follow Jesus’ example. I never forgot that, and in working on this sermon I remembered it and realized how profound that rebuke was. This is the same lesson we learn in Jesus’ coming in the flesh for us. He got down in the dirt to help us, so we should get down in the dirt to help others. Jesus, as I mentioned earlier, went through puberty for us. As someone only 20 years old myself, I remember well that process and think that alone was enough of a sacrifice to teach us that God means business.
I don’t want this to stay abstract, either. I want to cut right to the real life implications of what I’m saying. If Jesus was willing to come so far down for us, we ought to really be working that kind of humble love into our lives. So think for a moment. When was the last time you visited someone who was sick, someone outside of your close family? When have you visited someone in prison, someone who however evil he may be would still be as sympathetic as any villain on Once Upon a Time if you knew his story?
Of course, for many of us the answer to both of this might be “Never.” Because we don’t do what Jesus did. Instead of humbling ourselves in obedience and stepping down from our comfort, we build up walls and separate ourselves from the lowest parts of this world. We try to protect our families from that bad world out there by not associating too much with prostitutes, drug users, homeless bums, and just rude poor people who smoke too much, even though this is precisely the kind of person Jesus sought out. We have all sorts of excuses, and I want you all to think for a moment if you do this at all.
The call of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is to get away from this secluded, protected world of our own making. We are told to have the same attitude as Jesus, who left the eternal glory of His Father to help slimy rich guys who cheat the commoner along with poor women who sell their bodies for extra cash. So we ought to be doing the same kinds of things, going to hospitals, prisons, orphanages, ghettos, slums, and poverty-stricken communities in landfills. We have to become part of these groups, these peoples, not sharing in any of their sins but sharing completely in their relationships. Just like Jesus made His home among our miserable race, we should be willing even to make our home within the worst nations, regions, or neighborhoods. And why? To love them and show them Christ, who humbled Himself to an even greater extent.
Naturally, we do not all have the same precise call in fulfilling this mission. Some of you parents may simply need to interact with the marginalized parents and their children at school. Some of you might need to get into prison ministry, or to start a ministry for visiting hospitalized people without families or friends. Perhaps you should get involved with one of the food pantries around, or if you know where to find one a rehab group or organization. I suspect at least a couple of you may be required to move, maybe to a third world tribe, a persecuted land, or even a crime-infested inner city. After all, people in all these places I’ve mentioned need to be helped, both body and soul, by Spirit-led believers who can share with them not only blessings for the moment but blessings for eternity in Christ.
I know, though, that these are serious callings. I also know that it is bold of me to say what I am saying, that every single one of you has some way that you are obligated in the Lord to radically humble yourselves into the depths of our broken world to bless others. And it’s a scary demand. If we do these things, Jesus promises we run the risk of being hurt physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. In some cases–if we’re doing it right–our lives may end up at stake. But where God’s call is high, His grace is even higher. See, if we are following the example of our Lord Jesus in His Incarnation, when He came in the flesh for us, then we can know for certain that God will do the same thing for us in the end that He did for Jesus. And what did He do? He vindicated Him. He raised Him from the dead and highly exalted Him, proving that He was in the right the whole time and giving Him power and authority. And God has promised to do the same thing for us. The same Spirit who raised Jesus will raise us, and if we humble ourselves we will be exalted in due time. In the end, God will publicly declare our righteousness and prove it by our good works, and He will give us authority in His kingdom. So we don’t have to be afraid. We don’t have to worry. The worst that could possibly happen if we follow Jesus in this way is that we could die, which we know will be undone in our physical bodies at the end. Because Jesus came in the flesh.
The Call to Believe
But of course, if you don’t have that same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead, you won’t be raised. In that case there would be no hope and there is good reason for you to fear. If you are not united to Jesus Christ in the likeness of His dead and resurrection, then you are still under the one who holds the power of death, that is, the Devil. And if you merely say, “Lord, Lord,” but don’t actually do the Father’s will in imitating the love of Jesus in His coming in the flesh, listen to what Jesus says in Matthew 25:31-46,
“But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’
“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’
“Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’
“And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’
“And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.”
So if you are one of these goats who claims to follow Jesus but really doesn’t, or if you don’t even acknowledge Jesus as Lord at all, then you have no other choice. I’ve told you how much God loved you that He went through the whole course of human life, from dirty diapers to acne to death itself, to free you and bring you to Himself. And as we saw in Hebrews 2, He did everything that was needed to save you, since we humans were all trapped by death and couldn’t save ourselves. Now it is finished, like Jesus said on the cross. He’s done it all and by tasting death for everyone He reconciled everyone to God. So as I step down, I assume they’ll move into invitation. Which means you should repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord. You will be saved. Then just like Jesus came down from heaven, come down to this altar and arrange to be baptized, so that by experiencing this sign of Jesus’ death and resurrection you can start your own journey to follow after His life of humble love.