There is no greater manifestation of the love of Christ for Adam's race, and no gift greater in value, than his sacrifice at Calvary (Jn. 15.13).
Though he was sinless, and therefore undeserving of the death-penalty which sin invokes (Rm. 6.23), Jesus, through the cross, nevertheless became a "propitiation for our sins” (i.e., a wrath-appeaser and sin-coverer; 1 Jn. 4.10), dying for us, that "we might become the righteousness of God in him" (2 Cor. 5.21). It is fitting, then, that every believer express gratitude daily for this immense gift (cf. Heb. 12.2f; Rev. 5.8-10).
However, while no expression of the love of God could ever exceed the gift of Jesus' death, the gift of Jesus' birth might very well rival the cross in magnitude. Indeed, the cross was not the only sacrifice Jesus made for "his friends."
The Golden Text of the Bible
Our Lord famously pronounced:
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life" (Jn. 3.16).
This “golden text of the Bible” has long been connected particularly to the death of Christ. But that is not the only significance of the passage.
In this context, Nicodemus had perceived that Jesus was a “teacher come from God” (Jn. 3.2). While that was indeed partially correct, the Lord was, in truth, more than that, and he wanted the “man of the Pharisees” (v. 1) to understand this.
First, unlike ordinary teachers sent by God, Jesus “came down from heaven” (v. 13) — his origins were heavenly, not earthly (cf. 1 Cor. 15.47). This fact alone distinguishes Jesus as one possessing authority, not merely as a teacher, but as a law-giver (Jn. 3.30-31).
Second, since God himself, through the miraculous conception (Mt. 1.23), has come “down from heaven” to become “flesh and [dwell] among us” (Jn. 1.14), Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must inevitably die, by being “lifted up” on the cross (v. 14-15; cf. Jn. 12.32-33). But unlike the death of ordinary teachers sent by God, Jesus’ death was capable of pardoning the sins of all who believe in him and his message (cf. Isa. 53.5-8; Mt. 26.28). Of course, he could not die without first being born.
Third, Jesus refers to himself as “the only-begotten son” of God (v. 16a) — an expression that alludes to the uniqueness of the life of Jesus (it literally denotes, one of a kind, see Danker, 658). Vine notes that the term was used to indicate that
“he was the sole representative of the Being and character of the One who sent Him” (447).
Indeed, unlike ordinary God-sent teachers, Jesus was uniquely brought into this world (Lk. 1.26-38); uniquely displayed the nature and purpose of God (Jn. 1.18; Heb. 1.3a); uniquely possesses authority over all of creation (Col. 1.15-16; Heb. 1.2, 3b; Mt. 28.18); and uniquely offers eternal life to all believers through his blood (1 Jn. 4.9-10; Heb. 1.3c; Rev. 1.5). He is thus unique from other providentially-gifted teachers, in contradistinction to Nicodemus' perceptions (v. 2). Jesus was special — his advent being the very expression of God's love, God's gift to the world.
Fourth, whereas an ordinary teacher may be believed as to his teaching, Jesus was to be “believed in” (v. 16b). In other words, Nicodemus must become one who
"embraces Jesus, i.e., a conviction, full of joyful trust, that Jesus is the Messiah" (Thayer, 511, emp. added).
The "man of the Pharisees" was thus called upon to embrace the love of God as displayed in the person of Jesus, including his birth, life (character, teaching, and deeds), death, and resurrection.
In short, the death of Jesus was only part of God's gift to the world. The totality of his life — his being sent "into the world" (v. 17) in general — embraces the whole of that gift.
Surely, the significance of the cross and the love displayed in that horrendous sacrifice is readily transparent. But, how might his birth — his coming "down from heaven" and "into the world" — also be a manifestation of the love of God? Was a sacrifice also made when Jesus assumed human form? Consider:
The Nature of the Godhead
There is only “one God” (Deut. 6.4; Jms. 2.19), one “divine nature” (2 Pet. 1.4), a singular “Godhead” (Col. 2.9). Yet, three distinct personalities possess, in unison, that singular nature.
In John 1.1, inspiration declares:
“In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.”
John later identifies “the word” (who was God) as Jesus Christ (Jn. 1.14-18). Hence, though Jesus was God, he was also with God. With regard to this passage, Wayne Jackson observes:
“The preposition pros (“with”) literally means facing, and it reveals a distinction between the two Persons who, in the New Testament, are identified as the Father and the Son” (1993, 35, bold emp. added).
Furthermore, Genesis 1.1 reads: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Here, the term, God, is plural in number, while the verb, created, is singular. Thus, Moses likely is depicting multiple divine personalities acting as a singular unit. Just as a husband and his wife are two beings, yet called “one flesh” (Gen. 2.24), so Father (Eph. 1.3), Son/Word (Heb. 1.8; Jn. 1.1), and Holy Spirit (Acts 5.3-4) are distinct, yet “one” (1 Jn. 5.7).
The Father-Son Relationship
In order to understand the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ birth, we must comprehend the relationship between the first and second persons of the Godhead in particular — i.e., the “Father,” and the “Son.”
Contrary to the doctrine of “eternal sonship,” Jesus was not always God’s “son.” As observed earlier, prior to his incarnation, Jesus was known as “the word” (Jn. 1.1). He would not be called the “son of God” until his incarnation.
First, a father-son relationship implies (1) an act of creation or begetting; and (2) a hierarchy of authority — a son being subordinate to his father.
Yet, prior to his birth, Jesus was neither created (he is “from everlasting” — Micah 5.2; cf. Isa. 9.6), nor subordinate to the Father. Hence, before his birth, the father-son relationship in the Godhead simply did not exist.
Second, the sacred text affirms that Jesus became the “son” of God on a certain day — i.e., when his flesh (not his spirit) was “begotten” of the Father in the miraculous conception. “You are my son, today I have begotten you” (Heb. 1.5a).
It was on this day (when the Father “begot” him) that the Father could say, “I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son” (Heb. 1.5b). Prior to that day, however, Jesus had not been created or begotten by God, for deity cannot be formed (cf. Isa. 43.10); deity just is (cf. Jn. 8.58; Ps. 80.2; Isa. 57.15; Col. 1.16).
How, then, could Jesus, who was neither created nor in any way begotten of God in eternity, be called his “son”?
Certainly, the Old Testament occasionally refers to the coming Messiah as the “son” in a prophetic sense (Ps. 2.12). Yet, the Lord clarifies that the father-son relationship would not truly be forged until the day the Father actually conceived Jesus’ flesh in Mary’s womb (Ps. 2.7; Lk. 1.31-35). Observe especially, in Luke’s text, that it was only after the “Holy Spirit” came upon Mary and the “power of the Highest” overshadowed her that Jesus would “therefore (as a result)” be “called the son of God” (v. 35). The incarnation of Christ, then, at which his flesh was begotten of the Father, made him a “son.”
Third, before his birth, Jesus was equal in rank and glory with the father — not in subordination to him.
(1) The pre-incarnate messiah was God’s “companion” — a word which denotes, an associate man, an equal partner (Zech. 13.7).
(2) He was given the designation, “everlasting father” (Isa. 9.6), for he and the father were equal partners in the creation of all things (Col. 1.15-17; Jn. 1.3; Heb. 1.2).
(3) Furthermore, before the incarnation, Jesus shared the father’s glory (Jn. 17.5), though that was diminished somewhat during his lifetime (see below).
He was (and now is) “the brightness of his glory and the express image of his person” (Heb. 1.3) — expressions which, respectively, denote “the radiance shining forth from the source of light” and the “exact representation and embodiment” of the Father himself (Bruce, 5-6). There was nothing dimmer or inferior about the glory of the Lord in the presence of the Father — he was (and now is) a carbon-copy in terms of majesty and renown!
(4) Though Jesus was “equal with God,” he did not feel compelled to retain that equality (Phil. 2.6). Instead, he “made himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2.7).
At this point — being begotten by the father into human form — a change in rank occurred, and the Lord became a subordinate son. At his birth, then, the Father-Son relationship was freshly forged, which had not existed prior to that time.
The Consequences of the Advent
In light of these points, let us reflect upon the consequences of the birth of Christ.
In particular, Jesus’ birth demanded at least two staggering sacrifices. By coming to earth, our Lord lost his riches and his rank.
First, before the incarnation, Jesus “was rich” (2 Cor. 8.9a). Afterward, however, “he became poor” (2 Cor. 8.9b). In heaven, the Lord had experienced neither pain nor need. On earth, conversely, he was homeless (Lk. 9.58), and “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53.3). What a change this must have been!
No wonder the Lord described his incarnation as a descent (Jn. 3.13) — not directionally (for heaven is a spiritual environment, not of this plane of existence, cf. Jn. 18.36; Lk. 17.21), but qualitatively. Though Scripture frequently alludes to heaven as “up” and earth as “down” (cf. 2 Kgs. 2.1; Ps. 14.2; Mt. 28.2; Lk. 24.51), these descriptions refer to the relative worthiness of heaven and earth — heaven being superior (above), earth inferior (below). Indeed, leaving the splendor of heaven to endure the squalor of earth is certainly a significant sacrifice.
Too, though Jesus shared the father’s glory previously (Jn. 17.5), that glory waned slightly when he became a man (Jn. 14.28; 1.14; cf. Isa. 53.2-3). In fact, upon taking human form, Jesus “made himself of no reputation” (Phil. 2.7). This expression has to do with emptying himself of his privileges — that is, though he retained his divine nature and powers, those powers were no longer to be used for his own splendor, or of his own accord. Instead, the Lord “gave up His glory with the Father, in order to take a servant form” (Strong, 703). The possessor of all became the possessor of little!
But the loss of these heavenly riches — however extensive — was largely temporary, for not only has the Lord returned to sit on God’s “right hand in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1.20), but God “also has highly exalted him and given him the name which is above every name” (Phil. 2.9). Since his ascension, he has reentered “into his glory” (Lk. 24.26), was “received upon into glory” (1 Tim. 3.16), and shall one day “come in his glory” to “sit on the throne of his glory” (Mt. 25.31-32). Hence, the glory he lost on earth has since returned with a vengeance.
Still, his willingness to exchange glory for lowliness, praise for pillory, friendliness for persecution, riches for poverty, joy for sorrow, health for sickness, life for death, etc. — all for our benefit — the human mind cannot fathom the depths of the sea-change, nor adequately appreciate the love it must have taken to volunteer for the descent!
Second, by his birth, the Lord sacrificed his rank in the Godhead. No longer was he “equal with God,” for he instead “humbled himself [lowered himself] and became obedient to the point of death” (Phil. 2.8; cf. Heb. 5.8).
Indeed, when he “came into the world,” and a “body” was “prepared for” him by the father, he was, from that moment on, obliged “to do” God’s “will” (Heb. 10.5-7), not his own (Lk. 22.42). In fact, at his birth, he not only became subordinate to the father, but he was also “made a little lower than the angels” (Heb. 2.9)—his own creation!—at least temporarily.
He was subordinate to the father during his earthly sojourn (Heb. 10.9); he retains that submissive “son” status even now, after his exaltation (cf. 1 Cor. 11.3; Acts 9.20; 1 Tim. 2.5; Heb. 2.9-11; Rm. 8.17, 29); and, perhaps inexplicably, the son of God will continue to be “subjected” to the Father, even after time turns into eternity (1 Cor. 15.27-28). Interestingly, the word, "subjected" (hupotasso), came from a military background, denoting to rank under. Hence, the “son himself” will continue to be a grade below the Father, so that the Father “may be all in all.”
Whether that will be a voluntary submission, in which Jesus chooses to spend eternity on par with us, his brethren, or whether that will be an obligatory submission, resulting as a natural consequence of assuming human form, we cannot tell.
Either way, his birth — worthy of the adoration of man and angels alike (Lk. 2.13-20)! — may have
“entailed an abiding submission to the Father, which, except for man’s sinfulness, otherwise would never have been” (Jackson, 2017)!
Who, with clean conscience, could spurn such a wondrous gift?
Think of this, in closing. The master of man became man’s servant (Mt. 20.28; cf. Col. 1.16-17); the supplier of all needs, himself, felt need (cf. Heb. 1.3; Mt. 4.1ff); the one who was obeyed became obedient. Such sacrifices lock the lips in silent wonder!
But perhaps the marvelousness of it all is merely amplified by our own carnal predilections. To us, the Lord’s sacrifices of sacred rank and heavenly riches are extraordinary, meriting at least some indecision on his part. To him, however, those riches and that rank were as nothing compared to the value of humanity (Phil. 2.6). There was no hesitation on his part to “come down from heaven” and “into the world” to serve us; how, then, in the name of all that is good, could we ever leave room for hesitation to serve him? He left heaven behind for us; surely, the least we could do, is to leave the world behind for him (Mt. 19.29; 6.19ff; 1 Jn. 2.15-17; Col. 3.1ff).
“Only fear the Lord, and serve him in truth with all your heart; for consider what great things he has done for you” (1 Sam. 12.24; cf. Rm. 12.1; Heb. 9.14)!
Bruce, F. F. The New International Commentary On The New Testament: The Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1984. Danker, Frederick William (et al.). Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, Third Edition, 2000. Jackson, Wayne. "A Breathtaking View of the Love of Christ." ChristianCourier.com. Access date: February 3, 2017. https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/156-breathtaking-view-of-the-love-of-christ-a Jackson, Wayne. Notes From the Margin of My Bible, Volume II: New Testament. Stockton, CA: Courier Publications, 1993. Strong, A. H. Systematic Theology. Old Tappen, NJ: Revell, 1976. Thayer, J. H. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. T. & T. Clark, 1958. Vine, W.E. Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1985.