************ Sermon on Belgic Confession Article 18 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on November 8, 2009
Belgic Confession Article 18
"The Incarnation." That is our sermon title today. Most people outside of the church have no idea what the incarnation is and get it confused with the Hindu idea of reincarnation. As for those within the church, many think of this as a phrase that we dig out only at Christmas. The incarnation, however, is no mere phrase; it was a climatic, redemptive event. How climatic? Scripture tells us that at the moment of the incarnation, heaven and earth fell into a hushed silence as God did something He had never done before – and then heaven and earth broke out into a song of praise.
What is the incarnation? The incarnation is when the eternal Son of God took to Himself a truly human nature (Heidelberg Catechism, Q & A 35). It is when "the Word became flesh" (Jn 1:14). We are talking about the conception and birth of Christ Jesus as a man.
Let me remind you of where we are at in the Belgic Confession of Faith. We are in that section of the Confession that deals with the doctrine of Christ. Article 16, if you remember, deals with salvation planned – God's eternal decree of election. Article 17 deals with salvation promised – God's promise that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent's head. Article 18 begins our look at salvation accomplished.
I The Mystery of Godliness
A So, then, how is salvation accomplished? It begins with the incarnation. It begins with Jesus taking on human flesh. In Galatians 4, Paul says this happened "when the time had fully come" (Gal 4:4). The Belgic Confession understands this to mean God did this "at the time set by Him." When the ages reached their fulness, when the time had come according to God's eternal plan, the Son was born of the virgin Mary.
B In his letter to Timothy, Paul calls the incarnation "the mystery of godliness" (1 Tim 3:16). We must never cease to be amazed by the incarnation. It must always fill us with wonder, as one theologian put it, that "He Who was without a mother in heaven was without a father on earth." Think about it: the Word of God Himself, the First and the Last, the Alpha and the Omega, Him Who is and Who was and Who is to come, the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, He Who being very nature God, made Himself nothing by taking on human flesh. The Self-existent came into Being. The Uncreated became created. He Who gives riches became poor. He emptied Himself of His Glory and was made in human likeness (see Jn 1:1; Rev 1; Col 1; Phil 2). Why? So the salvation planned by God and promised by God could be accomplished by God.
II The Reality of the Incarnation
A As you perhaps know, the early church was filled with Jewish people and culture. This Jewish connection is mentioned in the second last paragraph of Article 18:
-that he is "fruit of the loins of David" according to the fleshAs Jesus Himself said, "salvation is from the Jews" (Jn 4:22). It is clear from all of this that the Savior was born into a very Jewish history, lineage, and culture.
-"born of the seed of David" according to the flesh
-"fruit of the womb of the virgin Mary"
-"born of a woman"
-"the seed of David"
-"a shoot from the root of Jesse"
-"the offspring of Judah," having descended from the Jews according to the flesh
-"from the seed of Abraham"– for he "assumed Abraham's seed" and was "made like his brothers except for sin."
The Jews had no problems with Jesus' humanity. They knew Him to be a carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James (Mk 6:3). Their problems started when Jesus claimed to be divine, when He said that He and the Father were one (Jn 10:30), when He said His kingdom was in heaven and not on earth (Jn 18:36). This claim to divinity offended and enraged the Jews. They believed in one God – Who was high and holy and almighty and definitely NOT a carpenter from Nazareth. In spite of the sensibilities of the Jews, the early church affirmed the full divinity of Jesus in numerous church councils. The Belgic Confession follows the teachings of Scripture and the early church and affirms the full divinity of Jesus. Remember what was said in Article 10:
We believe that Jesus Christ ... is one in essence with the Father; coeternal ... He is the true eternal God, the Almighty, Whom we invoke, worship, and serve.Jesus – with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit – is someone we invoke, worship, and serve BECAUSE HE IS GOD!
B The early church was also filled with Greek people and culture. In fact, Greek culture and influence were to be found in most of the then known world. So, for example, exiled Jews in Egypt soaked up Greek philosophy, language, and religion. And the Old Testament had to be translated into Greek for Jews who could no longer read, speak, or understand Hebrew. Furthermore, Jesus and His apostles undoubtedly spoke both Aramaic and Greek. And, when the New Testament was written the chosen language was common Greek rather than the Hebrew of the Old Testament Scriptures.
Now, the Greeks had the opposite problem of the Jews. Their tradition included many gods: a god of war, a god of harvest, a god of love, a god of thunder, a god for every city and tribe and people and nation. This made it easy for them to accept Jesus' claim to divinity. So they had no problem with adding Jesus to their long list of gods. On the other hand, they found it hard to accept that Jesus was also a man. To them it was extreme foolishness to think of a god as being crucified (1 Cor 1:23). Likewise, the teaching of Christ's resurrection seemed outrageous to them. You may remember that the Apostle Paul's speech to the Greek philosophers of Athens was going rather well until he came to the part about Christ's resurrection (Acts 17:31-32).
Now, how did some of the Greek Christians get around this problem of Christ's humanity? Their answer was that the Son of God did not really take on human flesh, but only seemed to take on human flesh. According to this philosophy, Jesus was not really human; it only seemed like He was. This heresy is known as "Docetism," from the Greek word "to appear, to seem." According to this heresy, Jesus only seems to be man; in actual fact He really isn't.
Because of Docetism, the early creeds of the Christian church always mention the very human events of Christ's life. The Apostles' and Nicene Creeds, for instance, insist that Jesus was born of the virgin Mary, that He suffered, that He was crucified, that He died, that He was buried. Many of the early church councils also made a special point of condemning the ever-recurring forms of Docetism that appeared in the church.
Article 18 faithfully follows the teachings of Scripture and the early church and affirms the full humanity of Jesus. It says:
The Son took the "form of a servant" and was made in the "likeness of man," truly assuming a real human nature, with all its weaknesses, except for sin; being conceived in the womb of the blessed virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, without male participation.
Here in Article 18 we find the first of the Belgic Confession's three rejections of the teachings of the Anabaptists who – according to the Confession – "deny that Christ assumed human flesh from His mother." Whoever was in mind, they certainly were not the same as those we identify as Anabaptists today. We do know that at the time when the Belgic Confession was written, some of the Anabaptists were very radical. Menno Simons, for instance, called the incarnation "anti-Christian doctrine."
C Two times in Article 18 we are told that Jesus was fully human in every way, "except for sin." How is this possible? If Jesus was born of a sinful woman, and if sin is a hereditary disease that infects even infants in their mother's womb, how come Jesus was born without sin? Here is the answer:
He was "conceived in the womb of the blessed virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, without male participation."We notice two things. First, Jesus was conceived without male participation. Second, Jesus was conceived by the power of the sanctifying Spirit. Therefore, He was born without sin.
D Jesus assumed a real human nature. How real was it? Well, He has flesh and blood as we do. Like us, Jesus' body grew from an embryo, to a fetus, to a baby, to a toddler – all the way to a full-grown man. Scripture abounds with references to the full humanity of Christ: Jesus became hungry, thirsty, tired; He slept, experienced pain, and died.
Jesus assumed a real human nature. How real was it? Well, He also assumed a real human soul. Think back to the story of Adam's creation. What did God do? God formed Adam's body from the dust of the earth. Then, God breathed into Adam's nostrils the breath of life – what we know as a soul – and Adam became a living being. Body and soul – those were the two parts of Adam's humanity. Body and soul – those are also the two parts of Christ's humanity. As the Belgic Confession puts it in Article 18:
And he not only assumed human nature as far as the body is concerned but also a real human soul, in order that he might be a real human being.Christ, the second Adam, was like the first Adam in every way – except for sin.
E Let us not forget the why of the incarnation. Let us not forget why the eternal Son of God took to Himself a truly human nature. Let us not forget why Jesus assumed a real human body and a real human soul. In order "to save." As was said by someone, "The cross always stands near the manger."
The incarnation was not one option among many. It was a necessity. First of all, it was part of God's eternal plan. Second, it was man as body and soul that had fallen, so Jesus had to take on body and soul in order to save both. If Jesus had only a true human body, our souls would be lost forever. If Jesus had only a true human soul, our bodies would be lost forever. So, we confess that we have a Savior Who is truly human so we truly can be saved.
God has a plan – to save His elect. God made a promise – that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent's head. Step one in accomplishing this plan and promise: God sent His Son, born of a real human mother, with a real human body and a real human soul.
(Phil 2:6-8) Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, (7) but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. (8) And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross!
It is said that one-fifth of the world's population watched the television broadcast of the first man setting foot on the moon. This was an incredible achievement which is still difficult to believe. Something even more astonishing happened, however, when the eternal Son of God set foot on earth. For, at that time, God Himself became "God with us."
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