Message 9, Why the God-Man: The Mystery of the Incarnation:
Jesus is the eternal Word of God in human flesh. In the opening of John’s gospel, we learn that the Son of God became something He was not—a man. At the same time, He remained what He always was—the second person of the Trinity. As the God-Man, Jesus is one person with complete yet distinct divine and human natures. The biblical account of the incarnation raises one of the most important questions ever to be asked: Why the God-Man? In this session, Dr. Stephen Nichols unpacks the central role of the incarnation for understanding the person and work of Christ.
My topic is “Why the God Man?” There are any number of places that we could turn to in the Gospels to get that answer. Anywhere in the Bible, in fact. But we’re going to look in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 5, at verse 17. Luke’s Gospel, chapter 5, verse 17. Even though we are in chapter 5 in the Gospel of Luke, we are relatively early on in the public ministry of Christ.
In fact, the parallel passage to this, in Mark, is Mark chapter 2. Prior to this point, we have had testimony of who Jesus is. We’ve had the testimony of His genealogy. We’ve had His own testimony, when He went into the synagogue and read from the scroll that was handed to Him. We’ve had His testimony of a few episodes, and that testimony of Him had spread abroad. So we find Him in a house, a very crowded house, and we find this event. Verse 17, Luke tells us:
“On one of the those days, as He was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the Law were sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with Him to heal. Behold, some men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were seeking to bring him in and lay him before Jesus, but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and they let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus.
And when He saw their faith, He said, ‘Man, your sins are forgiven you.’ And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, ‘Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ When Jesus perceived their thoughts, He answered them, ‘Why do you question in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, “Your sins are forgiven you,” or to say, “Rise and walk”?
But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,’ — He said to the man who was paralyzed — ‘I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.’ And immediately he rose up before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home, glorifying God. And amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, ‘We have seen extraordinary things today.’”
This is God’s historic, and holy, and true Word. This is a narrative. We interpret narratives like we would interpret any narrative text. There’s the setting. This is a rather interesting setting. It’s a house. We don’t know much about this house. We’re led to believe that this is a house where we would expect to find Jesus. It says He was at the house, as if this was a regular place for Him to be. So we have the setting of a house.
We have the characters in the story. We have the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law. In literature, literature scholars will speak of “flat” characters and “round” characters. Flat characters always behave a certain way in the text. There’s no real surprises to them. They wander onto the stage and you know exactly what they’re going to do before they do it. And you know what they’re going to say before they say it. And this is the role of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law in the Gospels.
No matter what the incident is, you know what they’re going to say about it. And so here they are, the naysayers. Do you remember the Muppets? Do you remember the old men up in the opera balcony? Those are the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law. “We’ve seen this before! You don’t impress us!” There are the friends. This is an interesting group of friends. Mark’s account tells us that this crowd was so great they even crowded out the door.
You can picture it in your mind’s eye, can’t you? They’ve spilled out of the room. They’ve filled the doorway. They’re standing out in the street. And so these friends — Mark adds the details that there are four of them — and these friends have an idea. Now on the one hand, we can applaud them for their perseverance. “We must get this paralyzed friend of ours in front of Jesus so that he can be healed.” You must applaud their perseverance.
But let’s think this through. “We’re going to carry a paralyzed man on a bed up onto a roof of a house.” I’m thinking that maybe he was hanging out with these friends before he was paralyzed — see where I’m going with this? — and they had a similar bright idea. And there are either tiles on this roof or it’s a hard-baked clay, over thatch, over wooden beams. And they start deconstructing the roof. And they break off a piece of the tile, shake it loose, and set it aside.
And another one, and another one. And Jesus is in this house, and He’s teaching, and the house is crowded to the gills. And dust now starts falling on the people gathered in the house. And the little straw stubble that is up there, the thatch, starts to break loose and fall down upon the crowd. And all of a sudden the sun breaks in through the roof of the house.
And somewhere, these adventurous friends had found some rope, and they tied knots to the corners of the boards that were probably draped with some kind of linen that served as this man’s portable bed, and they slowly lower him right in front of Jesus. I think at this point Jesus probably stopped teaching, and is watching what’s happening.
When they’re finally done, and the paralyzed man is in front of Jesus, Jesus says, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” Now, this gets a response from the Pharisees. I would love to know what is the internal response of the paralyzed man. “Thank you, but in case you did not notice, there’s another reason that I’m in front of you, and it has to do with the four guys up on the roof, and the fact that I can’t get off of this bed.” But there’s nothing in the text that indicates that at all. If Jesus came to heal people, He didn’t have to be God.
If Jesus came to alleviate oppressive economic and political structures, He didn’t have to be God. Even if Jesus came to raise the dead, He did not have to be God. Prophets before him had done that, and apostles after Him will do that. Why the God-Man? It’s very simple. I will reveal the answer now: Christ the God-Man came to forgive sins, because that’s our problem. We think a man paralyzed and totally dependent on these four friends to get him everywhere, we think that’s his problem.
And that is not his problem. We meet lepers, we meet tax collectors, we meet parents of children who are dying in the pages of these Gospels, and none of that is the problem. Jesus looks at this man, and He knows immediately what his true problem is, and He came to solve it. Because only He can. Because only He is the God-Man.
The Pharisees rarely get it right, but here they get it right. “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Did they know that they were making a case for the deity of Christ? Jesus senses what is going on here and He says, “Why do you question in your hearts? Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or would it be easier to say, ‘Rise up and walk.’?”
Now, be careful. That’s a trick question. We think it’s easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” because there’s no way to empirically verify that. “Your sins are forgiven. Your sins are forgiven. Your sins are forgiven, too. Even you who chose to sit up in the balcony before the foundations of the earth were formed, your sins are forgiven you, too.”
But there’s empirical means to either verify and validate, or invalidate, the statement, “Rise.” But the harder of the two questions is “Your sins are forgiven you.” It would’ve been easy if this man had just been set down and Jesus said, “Rise.”
In fact, He’s been performing miracle, after miracle, after miracle. And that’s why the house is bulging at the seams — “because we’re here to see what will Jesus do next.” No, the harder thing, the much harder thing is to say, “Forgiveness of sins.” “But to show,” Jesus says, “but to show that the Son of Man” — and this is the first time He uses that phrase of Himself. It’s an Old Testament phrase. This is Christ in all the Scriptures. It goes back to Daniel. This is a Messianic title, the “Son of Man” — and to show that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins, He does empirically verifiable miracles. “Rise.”
Not a delegated authority from Christ to the apostles. An authority that has been delegated to Him from the Father on His Messianic mission to make the Father known. And as a prophet, in a prophetic role as the true Prophet, like all prophets He performs miracles to attest to His prophetic office. But the prophets aren’t out forgiving sins. And how does this man respond? Immediately he rises up before them, and he picks up his bed and he goes home. And then we’re told, as he goes home, he’s glorifying God.
Now, we need to stop and see this. This statement I made: “Why the God-Man? Christ came as the God-Man to forgive sins.” There are two things behind that, and they both have to do with God. Why must we have our sins forgiven? And the answer is very simple: because of the wrath of God. The sins, the guilt; we can figure that out. We’re pretty good at anesthetizing ourselves to our true condition. We’re pretty good at rationalizing our sins away. What’s behind our sins is the penalty of our sins, and that we can do nothing about.
As much as we try to avoid it, or ignore it, or pretend like it’s not a reality, it is the ultimate reality that every human being must deal with — the wrath of God. Paul presents it to us in Romans chapter 1. In Romans 1, he gives us the gospel and, immediately after the giving of the gospel and the statement of the gospel, what does Paul say? “For the wrath of God is revealed.” Once the introduction to Romans is concluded, and he’s beginning to make his point and make his way through the doctrines of grace, the very first thing he introduces us to is the wrath of God.
That is our problem. It’s not sickness. It’s not disability. It’s not the oppressive Romans. It’s not the oppressive Pharisees. Our problem is the wrath of God. Paul will move on in Romans chapter 5 to tell us that we have peace with God. The wrath is removed. We are no longer enemies, but now we are friends. We who were far off have been reconciled. We are brought near. And what is in between? What is in between is Christ and His propitiation, His sacrifice on our behalf, His act of obedience in securing for us the forgiveness of sins and the giving of us, the imputing to us of His righteousness.
And it is Christ alone who is in between our move from the wrath of God to peace with God. Behind this expression of sins is the wrath of God. Make no mistake about it.
I was just looking at a sermon preached by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in London in 1943, and in that sermon, he makes a comment about the social sciences of the day. And he said, “The social sciences of the day have tried to help us see that our condition is not all that bad.” I’m sorry, it was not 1943. I transposed my dates. It was 1934. 1934 in London. “The social sciences of our day have helped us to see” — he’s being sarcastic — “that our condition is not all that bad.” And within a few years is unleashed a torrent of evil to show us how wrong social scientists were.
Think about, in our own day, the many voices that try to speak to us about the human condition. The general starting point is that we are basically good. They have done a pretty good job — please note my sarcasm — in helping people see that their condition is really not that bad. And yet here’s a man who was helpless, who could not even walk. And in his physical disability is a picture of all of us in our helplessness. We just camouflage it. And whatever we think our need is, our need is to satisfy our problem, and our problem is the wrath of God.
But it’s not just the forgiveness of sins as the reason why Christ came, because there is a bigger end in view, and it is right here in this text. It’s what the man did as he was going home, and that is he glorified God. So we need to amend our statement: “Jesus Christ, the God-Man, came to forgive sins for the glory of God.” That is why Christ came, and that is why Jesus is the God-Man. Dr. Hamilton spoke of the covenant of redemption — that eternal pact, that covenant within the Godhead that Jesus the Son would become incarnate, would literally “take on flesh.”
He, who was truly God, would become truly man so that He alone could be our Mediator. St. Anselm said it so well in the Middle Ages; that “it is in the deity of Christ, that Christ is God, that we see that His sacrifice is of infinite value and that it is able, sufficient, to pay for sin.” But it would not be just of God to simply forgive sin — the sin that humanity committed — if it was not, in fact, paid for by a man. And so Christ, as the God-Man, alone pays for the penalty of our sin.
There are the friends, there are the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law, there’s the paralyzed man, there’s Jesus. There’s another character into all of this, and it’s the crowd. Do you see what happens to them in verse 26? They say — Amazement, amazement has seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe. They were grasping what was transpiring before their very eyes. They were grasping that this was no mere healing, but this is a demonstration of something they had never seen before — that before them was one who had an authority that far outdistanced the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law, that had far outdistanced anyone who had come before Him, and this One with authority was now in their midst.
Oh, there’s mystery here. We should not expect to bump into anything but mystery if we’re talking about the God-Man. And so this son of Joseph and Mary, who’s standing before them, has unprecedented and unparalleled authority.
It’s a moment I’m coming to appreciate more and more in the life of Luther. We’re anticipating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. 500 years old and still growing strong. We like to celebrate the Luther of the 95 Theses, the brave bold monk with mallet in hand, standing before the Schlosskirche door nailing the 95 Theses and beginning it all. We love to celebrate Luther standing at the Diet of Worms and there taking his courageous stand. We celebrate the hymn writer. We celebrate Luther the pastor.
I’ve been drawn more and more to Luther the old man. In January of 1546, he was feeling his years. He writes to a friend that he is old, worn out, half-eyed — might have had cataracts, I don’t know — and worn out and “I just want to be left in peace.” He wrote that letter in January of 1546.
Peace would not come for Luther. Back in his hometown, the town of his birth, Eisleben, there was a conflict among some officials — some of these were Luther’s heirs — and this conflict was beginning to spread, a bit like a wildfire. And this would threaten the town council, and this could very well threaten the church itself there in Luther’s hometown. And this could not be. Luther needed to go. It’s not a long trip to go from Wittenberg to Eisleben — about 40 kilometers or so.
But it was a harsh winter and the conditions were difficult. And Luther makes his way to Halle, and then he tries to cross over a river. An ice float had come down and had knocked into the dock and had dislodged the dock, and they were unable to send the boats across. And Luther and his party decided that they would cross this river anyway and, in the process of getting into the boats in a precarious way, they got wet and all of their provisions got wet.
And Luther was an old man, and this was freezing cold water, and Luther developed pneumonia. And he holed up there for while as he tried to recover, and then he made his way to Eisleben. He recovered for a bit at Eisleben and then a fire broke out in his room. Attendants had to come and put it out.
And the room had not been well cared for, and the plaster was breaking off of some of the walls and, during the middle of the night, some plaster dislodged, and a rock — and maybe Luther, he could be prone to exaggeration — he says, “A rock that was this big” fell right next to Dr. Martin Luther’s head in the middle of the night.
And all this makes its way back to Katy, and she’s frantic and worried about her husband, and worry spills all over the pages of the letter. And Luther gets it and he writes back to her in typical Lutheran — Luther fashion, and he says, “Katy, do not be anxious. I have a caretaker who is better than you.” Now hold on a second! Wait for the punchline! “I have a caretaker who’s better than you and all the angels, and He lies in a manger and He nurses at His mother’s breast, and He sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”
Luther was wrapping his head around the Incarnation, the God-Man. Oh, the irony. Isn’t it? The shepherds bowing down before a baby in a manger and saying, “This is our Savior.” Do you not see the irony of that? Of a helpless infant? The mystery of the Incarnation. And Luther is clinging to this in his last days. And his life is ebbing out of him.
He’s never able to make it back to Wittenberg, and he dies there in Eisleben. And, before he dies, he has one more sermon in him and, as a good Lutheran, he has a quote from the Psalms and a quote from the New Testament. And the quote from the Psalms is Psalm 68:19 to 20: “Our God is a God of salvation.” Our God is a God of salvation. And how does that salvation come to us?
And then, believe it or not — maybe Luther was watching a football game on television and he saw the banner flung over the balcony — John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Because the God-Man alone can forgive sins. And it is to the glory of God. And we have seen amazing things today.