Occasionally I am tempted to wonder if there is a limit to the number of Christmas sermons that can be preached. However, by Sunday, I will have given six talks in and around the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke and I still won’t really have touched on what is, in many ways, the big issue. Who precisely is Jesus? Is He simply a baby? Or is He God come to earth? Or both?

Many groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses would have a high view of Jesus but stop short of regarding Him as divine. Does that matter? Can we agree to differ? Likewise, throughout church history, others such as the Gnostics (see last week’s blog) have denied that Jesus had two natures regarding the physical and divine as fundamentally incompatible. Was Irenaeus wrong to spend such a long time critiquing this in his work Against Heresies?

In terms of the Christmas story, the virgin birth is essential here. Of course, it seems like a ludicrous concept to modern ears but I really have no problem with it. If it is possible for God to create human life at the outset then there is no inherent reason why He should not create life again within a mother’s womb. And in terms of Jesus’ identity, the virgin birth is utterly essential. If Jesus was born as any other human being, then He can only be human. Similarly, if He simply appeared on earth, one might be inclined to question His humanity. The Spirit bringing life within Mary’s womb implies the two natures of Jesus- He is the God-man. And contrary to popular opinion, the church was quick to recognise this fact. Jesus makes direct claims to divinity- it is impossible to read “Before Abraham was, I AM.” (John 8:58) in any other way. He does things- calms storms, raises the dead, forgives sins- that only God can do. And His earliest disciples were unable to explain Him in any other way than Him being a divine man- the Word which was God became flesh. (John 1:1,14). As they looked back, they realised that the coming of a divine figure had been prophesied. Hebrews 1 picks up references to a shadowy character in the Old Testament who is distinct from God yet nevertheless is described as God- see Psalm 45 as an example. At Christmas, this shadowy figure has appeared in full light.

Of course there is mystery in terms of the inner working of a man with two natures- although it is possible to do some reflecting on this. Bruce Ware’s book The Man Christ Jesus is excellent- and I fairly shamelessly borrowed from it for this sermon last year.

It may be that you agree that Jesus is the God-man, but why does it matter? Would anything change if Jesus were simply a great King or Prophet and not God? Would it matter if He had been born as a result of a normal sexual relationship? Equally would it make any difference if Jesus only appeared to be human? The answer to this is yes- it makes a huge difference.

Why does it matter that Jesus is divine? Lots of answers could be given but let me restrict myself to two. It matters because of revelation and salvation. Only if Jesus is God Himself can He authentically reveal God to us. If Jesus were less than divine, we would still be somewhat in the dark as to the character of God. But this side of Christmas, we know with certainty what God is like: He is exactly like Jesus. And if our sense of God’s character is different from what Jesus is like then our thinking has become skewed. Every time we read the Gospels we are seeing what the Creator of the universe is like. But it is only possible to say that if Jesus is fully God.

Without Jesus’ divinity, the whole of Jesus’ mission is swept away. Both Gospel writers who give us an account of Jesus’ birth are keen for us to know that Jesus comes as a Saviour. Matthew explains that this is the reason for Jesus’ name- He will save His people from their sins. Luke includes the message of the angels to the shepherds- the good news is that a Saviour has been born. But if Jesus is only human then how can He save us? If He simply has a human descent then He is caught up in the lineage of Adam and shares in his sin. To use the John Newton image that I’ve flogged to death recently- if Jesus isn’t divine, then He isn’t the one who comes to rescue us from the hole into which we have fallen. He is in the hole with us- unable to get Himself or us out. Jesus’ divinity is essential for our salvation.

But so is His humanity. Who can pay for human sin but a human being? Only if Jesus is fully human can He be our representative and bear our sin on the cross. In order for our salvation to be achieved, Jesus had in some sense to be free of human lineage but also had to be part of human lineage. He needed to be a God-man.

In addition, the writer to the Hebrews, who does so much to establish Jesus’ divinity in chapter one of his letter, subsequently labours to show Jesus’ humanity in chapter two. In part this is so that Jesus can make atonement for us. But it is also so that He can be a sympathetic high priest: “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (2:18). This would repay more thought and meditation. It is easy to assume that temptation was easy for Jesus to face because He was God. But this is to underplay His human nature- the agonies of temptation were real enough for Him. It is one of the things that Christians alone can say. When we face pain and temptation, we can turn to the One in heaven who can say “I know…”

What glorious balance the Christian message has. It really is beautiful in its perfection. As CS Lewis says- it would be impossible to invent. And what is most glorious of all is that Jesus’ identity perfectly meets our need for salvation, revelation and sympathy. He can do that only because He is the God-man. It is why we sing:

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see

Hail the Incarnate Deity!

Pleased as man with man to dwell

Jesus our Immanuel.

Hark! The herald angels sing

‘Glory to the new-born King’