The Promise of Incarnation
What hope did the young woman sprawled in the dust have? None from the law. The holiness codes of her people were clear: she was guilty, and the crowd around her was prepared to administer the required death penalty.
But on that day, holiness wasn't contained in a code but a flesh-and-blood person. Holiness bent down near the woman, using His finger to write on the ground. “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” Jesus said to those who brought the adulterous woman to Him. At those words the crowd dispersed.
This account, given to us by John (in chapter 8) is a vivid example of the way John presents Jesus, whom he describes in John 1:14 as “full of grace and truth.” That verse turns the world on its theological head and opens a new reality when it comes to understanding the nature of holiness.
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” John tells us, and that Word was “the one and only Son.” Let’s look at the way that God becoming flesh matters so much for the way that Christians perceive holiness. (It really matters.)
The Word Made Flesh
Many who first heard John’s claim that the Word was made flesh would have thought it to be absurd. Significant schools of thought in the ancient world (Stoicism among Greeks, and Philo’s philosophy among Jews) drew a clear distinction between things like words and flesh. In that world, words were associated with eternal, unchanging principles. And for those of us who live in the flesh, we know that there’s nothing unchanging about our growing and aging bodies.
For the Jewish philosopher Philo, who lived at the time of Jesus, the concept of “word” referred to an abstract principle of truth. Truth was a concept, or a logical proposition. The English word logic is derived from logos, which is the Greek term John claimed had become flesh in the person of Jesus. Logic is primarily about the clear and consistent correlation of ideas, thoughts, or concepts. How could logic—pure thought or idea—become a living, flesh-and-blood person? Pure thought was eternal, but carpenters from insignificant villages like Nazareth were not.
It is interesting that John would choose the terms he does to introduce us to Jesus. If you didn’t pick up on the radical thing John is saying, it goes something like this: The truth of the universe and the holiness of God have become flesh! Truth didn’t remain abstract. Truth is a Person, rather than a proposition.
Truth is a Person, rather than a proposition.
John doesn’t abandon the Word as a way of describing Jesus, as if to say that flesh has overcome the Word. The Word is still eternal, the essence of holiness, as true as truth can be. The same Word spoken at the beginnings of creation is the Word that now brings new creation. The Word that “was with God” and “was God” is still God and with God–but has now come to be with creation as well.
In coming to be with creation, the holiness of God and the truth of the universe take on skin and bones, which makes things take a fascinating turn. The Christian confession about God is among religions and philosophies unique—yes, odd—because it maintains that an eternal God of endless possibilities was revealed fully to us in the flesh of Jesus.
The notion that the purity of eternal truth could reside among us humans as a human was absurd on its face. For the woman lying in the dust, encircled by her accusers who clutched rocks in their hands, the odd reality of the Word become flesh was profoundly good news. Only a person could kneel beside her.
The Word Made Flesh
The Word-made-flesh was not good news for only her, though. It is good news for all of creation, because this is the way God has opted to redeem and sanctify us.
At the heart of the Christian faith is this enduring reality: God came to be with us, rather than remaining abstract. When the Word of God was spoken, it was spoken as flesh, as a Person, rather than passed down as a set of disembodied ideas or concepts. Truth is not a disembodied set of propositions, but the in-the-flesh person, Jesus of Nazareth.
What is hopeful for our generation is that it resists turning the Christian faith into yet another proposition to contend among a world that seems obsessed with competing propositions. The church in many areas is becoming more anxious about how the ideas of Christian faith will be able to compete in the public arena of ideas. The hope is here: Christian faith does not need to compete among the world of propositions, because it is not a proposition.
Christianity is the way of following the flesh-and-blood carpenter from Nazareth, who touched broken bodies for the sake of healing and who opened His arms to outcasts for the sake of redemption. Once the Word became flesh, it became a way of life, an embodied pattern of holy living in the likeness of Jesus.
One of the aspects of abstract ideas is that they can often be formed into an ideology. An ideology is the potent combination of idea and logos, an idea-logos-y. They are the essence of adherence to abstractions as truth. Ideologies are advanced as they overcome other ideologies for the sake of being proven right over their rivals.
Since the Word became flesh, it is entirely unnatural to think of Christian faith as an ideology. Christians were not given a set of ideas or the Word in abstraction; we were given the Word made flesh, and His name is Jesus.
All of our concepts of holiness, propositions, and ideologies need to be understood and reexamined in light of the things Jesus did and the things Jesus said in the flesh.
I suspect the crowd in John 8 thought they were acting for the sake of holiness. Adultery had no place among a holy people. Theirs was an ideology of holiness, and that ideology needed to be defended by stoning a woman who was a threat to the code. As Jesus encounters them, though, the holiness of flesh and blood explodes upon the ideological holiness code. He stoops near the woman and begins to draw in the dirt, asking who among the crowd was without sin. He did this in-the-flesh thing, and asked this particular in-the-flesh question, and it opened a pattern for the way of holiness.
If holiness was a mere ideology, it may have made sense for that crowd to pick up stones and defend it. But holiness in flesh and blood opens a new and particular way, and calls disciples to walk in the way of Jesus.
When the Word of God became flesh in the person of Jesus, it was holiness embodied, and that holiness challenged conceptual notions of holiness. In the light of holiness ideologies, Jesus was either a threat to the ideology, or He redefines our ideas of holiness through His on-the-ground, in-the-flesh actions.
The promise of the incarnation calls us away from the temptation to make Christian faith into a set of propositions to be defended, and opens a way of holiness into which we are discipled.
Tim Gaines serves as a theology and ethics professor at Trevecca Nazarene University.