God has come to the human race many times and in many ways. He came to form Adam from the dust, and he came walking in the garden after Adam sinned. He came to deliver Israel from Egypt, descended on Sinai to give the Law, and led Israel through the wilderness into the land. He came in judgment when his people polluted the holy land, and he came to stir the heart of Cyrus to let them go. Biblical history is filled with advents of God.
Yet the advent of the Word is new, because the Creator Word that is with God and is God “became flesh and tabernacled among us” (1:14).
God was visible and tangible enough to wrestle with Jacob at Peniel, but he has never done this before. He had appeared as a man, but has never been conceived as a man. As Word, he invented human language; now, he learns human language. He ate and drank with Abraham, but he never needed to eat and drink. He had entered human life, but he had never lived a human life. There were many advents before, but never before was there an advent in flesh.
A coming in “flesh” is not simply an advent “as man.” In Scripture, “flesh” has a more specific connotation. It’s the biblical name for “the weakness of the human. . . . It is the way we are vulnerable, exposed.” We are flesh because “our life is subject to touch, that is, to what gives pleasure and pain, gives joy, and makes wounding possible” (Theodore Jennings, Jr.). The Word makes himself weak and exposes himself to pain. If you prick him, he bleeds; if you tickle him, he laughs; if you crucify him, he dies. To say the Word becomes flesh is to say the Word becomes woundable and dwells among us.
Unfallen Adam was limited and vulnerable, but sin introduced a more severe, apparently permanent limitation: We die. Even before sin, Adam could suffer pain; after sin, he will certainly suffer the pain of death. “Flesh” is the biblical name for this postlapsarian dilapidated human condition. In becoming flesh, the Word shares our life-in-death, and not simply as a sympathetic spectator. The Word who is life and light comes under the shadow of death. God pitched his tent in Israel, but now the Word becomes mortal and dwells among us.
Our flesh is sinful flesh because our lives are determined by desire for pleasure and avoidance of pain. We live in fear of death and death’s siblingsloss, diminishment, rejection, pain, wounds, disappointment. Fear makes us cower, but often enough it turns us violent and abusive. We escape shame by blaming others. We guard our reputations and establish our tinpot justice by returning insult for insult and slander for slander. To cheat death, we strive to be heroes, and our ambition tramples whoever ventures into our path. Flesh leaves a Guernica of damage in its wake. Fearing death, we spread death.
Because the Word becomes mortal, he is tempted to retaliate, scapegoat, lash out, trample rivals, return evil for evil, protect his own life by destroying others. He doesn’t. He is unimpressed with death’s tortures. He doesn’t accuse but becomes the accused. He doesn’t make scapegoats but becomes a scapegoat. He doesn’t recoil when enemies strike or shrink back when they condemn him to death. He loves his persecutors and does good to those who hate him. In his life-long passion, he relentlessly obeys his Father, even to death on a cross.
The Word becomes flesh, but in the flesh he lives the life of the Spirit. For the first time in history, we see a man comfortable in his creaturehood. In just this way, the Word lives the first fully human life and lays it down in the first fully human death.
It’s an admirable way to live, but it doesn’t seem to work. At the cross, death appears to be the victor after all, killing the one man who didn’t fear. But in the resurrection, the Spirit triumphs over flesh, as Jesus enters fully into the life of the Spirit, beyond death, beyond fear of death, beyond flesh. He conquers flesh by offering his flesh; he defeats death by death. He becomes the last Adam who is also the first glorified Adam.
The Word becomes flesh to continue to dwell among us, so that he can put our sinful flesh to death. He plants the seed of the Spirit in flesh to produce the Spirit’s fruit, so that we can live the life of the Spirit even in flesh. The unprecedented advent of the Word in flesh is the beginning of an unprecedented human possibility: We too become fully human as we live by faith in the Son of God who gave his flesh for us.