Given what time of year it is and how much attention it will be getting from some, it may come as a surprise to some that the birth of Jesus isn’t frequently mentioned in the New Testament. Of the four gospel authors only Matthew and Luke record what is commonly called the nativity. Outside of the gospels, the birth of Jesus is only explicitly mentioned three times. It’s here we learn that he was “born under the law” (Galatians 4:4), “born in the likeness of men,” (Philippians 2:7), and born to rule the nations with a rod of iron (Revelation 12:5). But there’s no biblical evidence that the birth of Jesus was celebrated annually, in the examples we have of Apostolic preaching it’s not mentioned, and it wasn’t defended the way the death and resurrection of Jesus were. But, while his birth isn’t often named, the incarnation of Jesus is the redemptive act that sets the tone for the entirety of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension. There is no hope without it.
It’s interesting that as a very aged man the Apostle John writes to caution his readers against departing from this very point. In his short second letter John rejoices that some are walking in the truth. Then, like a grandfather in the faith, he exhorts them to walk in love as defined by the commandments of God. Immediately, however, he adds a note of caution: “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2 John 1:7). John cautions them because he’s worried that they will be led astray from the truth they’re committed to and fail to gain what he calls a full reward.
While John’ s words are few they burst with pastoral concern and love. I want to highlight four characteristics of the incarnation of Jesus —:
First, the incarnation is central. The Apostle writes that there are some who do not “confess” the coming of Jesus in the flesh. To “confess” means to affirm or to acknowledge or to agree. Obviously, confession plays an important role in Christianity. After all, Jesus taught that: “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32). And John is saying there are many who do not confess the incarnation. It’s interesting to notice the way he describes them: “Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.” That’s strong language! These people aren’t merely deceived but they themselves are deceivers who through falsehood lead others astray. But more shockingly such a one is described as antichrist — opposed and against all that Christ is. In writing this John is placing the incarnation at the center of Christianity. There’s many things that Christians can disagree on in a spirit of love and even in a way that doesn’t compromise our essential unity. Even as a person with many convictions I don’t need to look down my nose at everyone who disagrees with me and declare them to be outside of the Christian faith. But John is saying “Not here!” To deny the incarnation is to be without the Son and the Father (see verses 8-9).
Second, the incarnation is truth. It’s one thing to say that the incarnation is central to the whole system of Christianity, but it’s another to say that it’s historical fact. One can notice in reading this short letter how obsessed this elderly man is with the truth. Clearly, John doesn’t understand the “teaching of Christ” to be a fable, but the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh is truth. We need to remember this. Unfortunately, at this time of the year the truth oft he incarnation is surrounded by a lot of untruth. Superstition, myth, speculation, and fantasy have worked their way into collective traditions — and no, I’m not talking about Santa Claus. As Christians we can’t afford to let the truth of God manifest in the flesh be eclipsed by falsehood.
Third, the incarnation is specific. Even in a few words John is relating a clear and definitive understanding of the incarnation. For instance, his words here testify to the pre-existence of Jesus prior to the incarnation. This is reminiscent of what he wrote in his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God” (John 1:1-2). His words indicate that it was God who became man and not man who became God. It was Jesus Christ who came in the flesh — who took to himself a human nature: “And the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). Or, as Jesus said: “For I have come down from heaven” (John 6:38). In using his name “Jesus Christ” we’re instructed that the very reason he has come in the flesh is to save his people from sin (see Matthew 1:21). And, interestingly, John writes “coming” and not the past tense “came.” Understood rightly, this shows us that when the Son of God became man — uniting human nature to his person — he did so and so will forever be. Jesus doesn’t shed his humanity in glory, but will remain to all eternity the only Mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ. In these few words from John we have — at least in seed form — the whole doctrine of the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Fourth, the incarnation is effective. The Apostle writes: “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh.” The word “for” indicates a reason or a purpose to what precedes. John has been commending those who walk in the truth, and exhorting them to love one another by walking in the commands of God (verses 4-6). The he gives them a reason why he wants them to do it, “For many deceivers have gone out into the world.” Simply put, John is basing the Christian ethic on the incarnation of Jesus Christ. It’s impossible to love one another as we should if Christ isn’t confessed as coming in the flesh. Why? In part, because God in the flesh has become the example and pattern of our love for one another: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34). But also because it’s through an incarnate Jesus that the grace and mercy of God are given to us to strengthen us in this great duty. After all, as John began his letter: “Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love” (verse 3). So we look to the incarnate God-man for constantly supplies of grace and strength to love one another.
The incarnation of Jesus isn’t something we can take for granted. It’s central, it’s true, it’s specific, and it’s effective. What is necessary is that the church confess this truth every day of the year: God became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ.
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