“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” We miss the full force of John’s Advent announcement if we understand “flesh” as “body” or “human nature.” In the Bible, flesh names a particular quality of human life. It is Scripture’s global term for the physical and moral condition of postlapsarian existence.
Flesh is liable to sickness and decay. Flesh trembles, hungers, thirsts, yearns, wastes away. Flesh is vulnerable and porous, a wind that passes and never returns, grass that withers as soon as it grows, its glory a fading flower. Flesh corrupts the earth. Emissions from the flesh spread defilement. Flesh cannot do the good, cannot inherit the kingdom, cannot be justified. A mind set on flesh cannot please God. Flesh is slave to sin, a citizen of the kingdom of death. The arm of flesh cannot save. Passions germinate in flesh and yield the fruit of death. Flesh works impurity, idolatry, strife, anger, factions, envy, addiction. To become an Israelite, a man cuts off his flesh, but Paul says even Torah is neutralized by flesh. Flesh is weak, perishable, shameful. Flesh fails and falls, flesh fears, flesh dies.
All this the eternal Word assumes when he becomes flesh. God the Word makes all that flesh is heir to God’s own, so God can speak his Word through flesh—God’s speaks his creative Word in frailty, his glory in shame, his life in death. The incarnation is the human declension of the divine Word: By assuming flesh, the Word enters into a “genitive” relation with the human condition. Our infirmities become his. He possesses flesh to make our weakness the weakness of God, our shame God’s shame, our death the death of God.
The incarnation is not an act of mere sympathy. The Word becomes flesh to transform it from within, to transfigure flesh through the cross and resurrection. In death, the Word is sown in weakness, perishability, mortality, shame, but in his death to flesh God begins to work reconciliation. He is raised with power, with immortality and imperishability, with eternal glory undiminished and undiminishable, no longer flesh but wholly infused with the Spirit.
The Word assumes flesh to become the prototype of renewed human being. Early Christians spoke of this as “deification”: God becomes man, so that man might become God. Humans are “deified” as they take on the properties and attributes of God, as they live God’s life. God is, for instance, impassible, and by the incarnation divine impassibility is kneaded into human nature. Impassible doesn’t mean “unfeeling.” Rather, for deified humans, as for Jesus, no obstacle can frustrate their burning love for God and for others. They are impassible because of the overwhelming force of their passion for the Father and his Word.
Deification takes place within the flesh. Flesh doesn’t disappear on Easter or Pentecost, but the resurrection doesn’t restore the status quo ante either. By dying and rising in flesh, the Word shares the life of the Spirit with creatures who remain in the flesh. God made flesh his, so that flesh in all its helplessness might manifest the life of God’s Spirit. Thus the incarnation impresses its paradoxical duality on Paul’s experience: “I was crucified with Christ and I no longer live but he lives in me.” Paul remains in flesh, but “the life I live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2). And Paul’s ministry is also formed by the logic of the Logos incarnate. Outwardly he decays, while inwardly he is renewed day by day. In the flesh, he is afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, struck down. He carries the dying of Jesus. Because he is in the Spirit, he is not crushed, not despairing, not forsaken, not destroyed. He bears the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus is shown forth in “our mortal flesh” (2 Corinthians 4). The Word spoken in Jesus’ flesh continues to speak in the battered body of the apostle.
That Word speaks still, in the church that, as Christ’s body, bears the stigmata of Christ. The Word carried our flesh to the cross to make flesh cruciform. God is made flesh to make flesh God’s. The Word is made flesh to make flesh witness. This is the final cause of the incarnation: The Word made martyr.
Peter J. Leithart is pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Athanasius (Baker Academic).
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