The Heart Of It All (Part 4): The Incarnation & The Life of the Savior
Christian claim #4: “I believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord, very God of very God, who for us came down from heaven and was incarnate.”
Linda Ellis tells us that the most important element on any tombstone is the dash. “It matters not how much we own, the cars…the house…the cash. What matters is how we live and love, and how we spend our dash.”
Lots of people have noticed that the early Christian creeds seem to skip from the birth of Jesus to his sacrificial death. “Born of the virgin Mary” ends one line, “suffered under Pontius Pilate” begins the next. Yet 4 Gospels tell us that Christ made a world of difference in the space between his birth and death.
And this is crucially important. Christ did not come simply to die for us. In the words of William Jefferson, “dying is the easy part.” Christians believe that Christ came to live for us.
And what kind of difference did He make? A number of books have issued forth from the press in recent years–such as David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions and Jonathan Hill’s What Has Christianity Ever Done For us?–detailing the many ways Christianity has made the world a better place, and correcting caricatures of Christian history. Yet this history only bears the fruit; as D. James Kennedy & Jerry Newcombe point out in What if Jesus Had Never Been Born?, it is the life of Christ which serves as the root.
20 years ago, my high school Bible teacher Dr. Kenny Barfield introduced me to this profoundly important history. I still have my copy of his detailed research notes he graciously provided his students. While more information has been discovered in the intervening years, the evidence only corroborates his findings. What I have learned from this Godly man I now pass on to you.
The Inherent Value of Every Person: Children, Women, & the Elderly
The ancient world was a dangerous time and place in which to be born. One study places the infant mortality rate in Israel at 30% (in late antiquity), and even higher if one considers those who died before the age of 19. Even earlier, child sacrifice was not uncommon in pagan Samaritan rituals. In ancient Rome, a common practice involved the “setting out” of unwanted children–unwanted due to deformity, gender discrimination, fear-based omens (such as being born a twin), and the like. Many of these children died from exposure, while those who survived often became slaves.
But Jesus taught and practiced a different way–teaching us to value the lives of our children. The Gospels make note that people were bringing little children to Jesus “that he might touch them” (Mark 10:13; Luke 18:15). Against what the disciples considered standard protocol, Jesus said “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 19:14). And Christians forever took notice. A second century letter addressed to Diognetus says that Christians “marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring.” By Constantinian edict in 312, and through laws clarified in the sixth-century Code of Justinian, child exposure and abandonment were criminalized as children were given legal status in their own right. Christians founded orphanages, and became known for seeking out orphaned children to raise as their own.
Women suffered severe discrimination in many parts of the ancient world, and female children were far more likely to be abandoned. Yet the New Testament provides not only a theocentric reason for human equality (since we are all made in the image of God) but also a christocentric reason. “There is no male and female,” writes the Apostle Paul, “for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
Care for the widowed and the elderly was not always a high priority in some parts of the ancient world, as, indeed, is the case in some parts of the contemporary world. But Jesus saw value in those most in need of aid. He raised the son of a widow, used another as the virtuous paradigm in comparison to the religious leaders of his day, and made sure his own mother was cared for in the wake of his own death. Jesus railed against religious customs which “devoured widows houses” or that allowed people to circumvent their responsibilities to provide care for their parents. The followers of Jesus took note. Paul’s first letter to Timothy outlines the high honor given to older men and women, as well as the care of widows. “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his own household” continues Paul, “he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim 5:8).
The non-Christian world took notice as well. The second-century satirist Lucian claimed that an imprisoned Christian was constantly visited by others of the Christian community–a people he describes as “poor wretches…aged widows and orphan children” (Passing of Peregrinus 12-13).
The End of Mistreatment: Slavery & Cruel Sporting Events
Slaves made up as much as 40% of the Italian populace in the first century before Christ, and nearly half of these slaves were owned by the top 1%. The mortality rate among these slaves was morbid indeed; a slave was lucky to outlive their teen years, since the average age at death for a slave in the city of Rome was 17 1/2 years. Treatment of slaves varied from place to place, but mistreatment (and, in some case, severe) was not uncommon. Ask any Christian–or any school child for that matter– “why did Jesus die?” and you will get a number of interesting answers. But ask “why did Jesus live?” and you might receive blank stares.
Ask any Christian–or any school child for that matter– “why did Jesus die?” and you will get a number of interesting answers. But ask “why did Jesus live?” and you might receive blank stares.
Jesus taught a new way of conceiving our relationships toward one another. He questioned the very heart of those who wished to be “master” of over another, rather than seeking to be a servant of all. In terms of ethnic origin, Jesus taught that all who belong to God are brothers and sisters to Christ and to one another. He challenged his Jewish contemporaries with an illustration in which the virtuous exemplar was a Samaritan, and angered his own people with tales of God’s mercy and compassion toward those outside the circle of religious and social acceptability. He offered healing and salvation regardless of social class. To those who owed (or were owed) a sizeable debt (which often led to slavery), Jesus taught the principle of forgiveness, and love of neighbor over the love of money. The very concept of “lording over others” was not to characterize the people of God; instead, all the world would know we are Christians by our love for each other.
And the followers of Jesus took notice. For those in master-servant relationships demanded by legal or cultural custom, the teaching of Christ necessitated a kind of treatment which included the seeds for emancipation. For example, the letter to the Colossians states “Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven” (Col 4:1). How long does it take before one realizes that our “master” in heaven does not treat us as slaves, but as His very own children? The Apostle Paul writes a letter to his friend Philemon concerning his slave, Onesimus, who is returning to Philemon (perhaps with Paul’s letter in hand). Paul calls Onesimus “my child” and “my very heart,” a man “very dear to me.” Even if Onesimus owes money or has done any wrong, Paul demands that Philemon take Onesimus back “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother,” since Onesimus is to Philemon “a fellow man and…a brother in the Lord” (Philemon 16).
Those on the social margins were attracted to early Christianity. Catholic tradition claims that three of the popes in the first three centuries were former slaves. When the modern abolitionist movement took shape, it was no coincidence that the British abolitionist William Wilberforce–along with as many as 2/3rds of his American counterparts–were ministers. Shortly before his death in 1791, John Wesley wrote to William Wilberforce:
Unless the divine power has raised you up to be as “Athanasius against the world,” I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy, which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them stronger than God? O be not weary of well-doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.
The American Civil war pitted brother against brother, and Southern Christians are often cited as counter-evidence for the link between Christianity and the end of slavery. But even Robert E. Lee expressed the view that “slavery as an institution, is a moral and political evil in any country,” and some have linked this view to reflection on his Christian faith.
Consider cruel sporting events, such as gladiator combat. During a four-month celebration for the Emperor Trajan, as many as 10,000 gladiators fought in the arena, and 11,000 animals were killed. Christians were often thrown into the arena to be eaten by wild animals. People watched this for sport! Yet a number of factors led Constantine to issue an edict forbidding gladiatorial combat in 325, though the edict had little effect. That is until the late 4th century when Telemachus, a monk, apparently tried to stop a gladiatorial combat and was stoned–by the crowd!–for interrupting their sport. The Christian emperor Honorius was moved at the martyrdom of Telemachus, and banned all gladiator combat.
Writing in 1944, Will Durant offered these poignant words:
There is no greater drama in human record than the sight of a few Christians, scorned or oppressed by a succession of emperors, bearing all trials with a fierce tenacity, multiplying quietly, building order while their enemies generated chaos, fighting the sword with the word, brutality with hope, and at last defeating the strongest state that history has known. Caesar and Christ had met in the arena, and Christ had won.
The Future of Charity: Mercy & Compassion
In one final judgment scene, Jesus presents a single criteria: whether we cared for the hurting among us. “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Jesus has in mind not himself–but others. “As you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
Christians took notice. There is a strong Christian background to many of the organized charities and hospitals in history. From the Salvation Army to the YMCA, from St. Francis of Assisi to Mother Theresa, from Florence Nightingale to Louis Pasteur–Christianity has played a crucial role in the formation of organized care for others. Just think of the closest hospital to where you live…is the name Baptist or Methodist or something similar attached? The Council of Nicea challenged bishops to start hospitals for all in need. And they did. Out of love for Christ, Christians have influenced the world for good when it comes to caring for the needy among us.
Getting the Point
Christianity is compelling. And the life of Jesus cries out for imitation. That was always the intention.
Ask any Christian–or any school child for that matter– “why did Jesus die?” and you will get a number of interesting answers. But ask “why did Jesus live?” and you might receive blank stares. This shouldn’t be. Jesus did not simply come to work a plan. He came to show us how to live, and to reveal the very character of God.
That’s right. Do we think that God is pictured as some old crank perpetually in a bad mood, always waking up on the wrong side of the cloud, until one day around the middle of the Bible He changed his mood and decided to become a Christian? If so, let the story of Christ change how you think about God. The point of the incarnation is to highlight the character of God. To be like Jesus…is to be like God.
(Photo credit: Multiplication of the Loaves & Fishes, Giovanni Lanfranco, 1582-1647)
Nathan Guy believes the passionate pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty culminates in Jesus Christ. He received formal training in philosophy, theology, biblical studies, and cultural & political ethics from Oxford, Cambridge, and the LSE. Nathan lives in Searcy, Arkansas, where he teaches in the College of Bible & Ministry at Harding University.