Increasingly secularism, political agendas, and competing spiritualties seem to silence the voice of God calling people to “come, and follow me.”
Real World Gospel
Christ’s incarnational mission
By Rick Mc'Edward
When I see the world around me, I often wonder how people will be able to catch a glimpse of Jesus or make a decision to follow God. Increasingly secularism, political agendas, and competing spiritualties seem to silence the voice of God calling people to “come, and follow me.”
Those around us need to know God and His love, and need to understand Jesus’ sacrifice and message. How can we be more like Jesus in order to reveal Him to others in our neighborhoods, or to the billions from other religions who don’t yet know Him?
Jesus’ life is an example of beauty and simplicity that has power to guide our mission today. Lessons from the incarnational ministry of Jesus are an antidote for busy and often distracted disciples.
Incarnation and Mission
Two names stick out in the angel’s message to Joseph: Jesus was to be His name (and a fact, for Yahweh would save); Immanuel was His mission, for Immanuel means “God with us” (Matt. 1:23).
The mystery of the Incarnation cannot be underestimated. There was a tremendous sense of expectancy at the time of Christ’s birth. Messianic expectation was the buzzword of the time. Daniel’s prophecies were highly regarded in Judaism, affirming the arrival time of the new king. Jews expected a deliverer who would free them from the hated Romans. Messiah would be a liberator. But first century A.D. Jews did not get what they expected.
What they actually saw was a picture of God completely different from anything they expected. Consequently, they did not recognize the Messiah when He came. Even today it’s important to pay attention to Christ’s incarnation. In fact, six essential characteristics of the Incarnation provide a solid foundation for mission.
1. God came down: God condescended to be with us; He became human. In so doing, Jesus presents a different picture of God, a God who is interested in us and whose love for His creation drives Him to be with us.
In Eden, before the Fall, God had fellowshipped personally with His creation. After the Fall, while direct interaction of God with humanity happened at key moments, God interacted primarily through providence and revelation, but rarely face to face.
The sanctuary was provided as a picture of God’s love and plan of salvation; but even that was an inadequate substitute. The Incarnation demonstrates what “God with us” truly means.
2. God made Himself nothing: I never got this one. Remember Paul speaking about Christ, “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Phil. 2:6, 7)?
God not only stepped down to be human, He chose to be born in poverty, to take the role of a servant. He made Himself nothing for us. Jesus later clarified that He had not come to be served, “but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). That caught many by surprise. People expected a conqueror; instead they got a servant. This led to His summary rejection by many.
3. He identified with us: Jesus lived everyday life as a real person, and experienced the same limitations we feel today. He felt grief and joy, knew hunger and sleeplessness, experienced friendship and rejection. Christ had to get dressed, take baths, and deal with cuts and bruises. First century A.D. Palestine had mosquitoes, flies, and roaches; Jesus had to deal with them and other unsavory realities of life.
Jesus was fully human. His incarnation demonstrated to the universe a God who so identified with creation that He became one with us.
Jesus also identified with His own culture. He was born in a Jewish home; He went through Jewish rites of passage. In growing up, He learned the ways of life and practiced the culture of His Jewish ancestry. He extended Himself to learn an earthly culture in order to reveal God’s love to those whom God had chosen to receive His revelation.
4. Jesus came as a baby: He came to earth as a learner, not an expert. Christ was the God-man. If ever there was a rationale for someone to present himself as having all of life’s pieces figured out, Jesus could have done it. Jesus chose to come as an infant and experience childhood, and grow into adulthood. He did not have to be a learner, but He humbled Himself from the standpoint of heaven in order to be relevant to a world that, unfortunately, was not ready to receive Him.
5. Jesus touched the physical needs of people before their spiritual ones: An incarnational presence would not be complete without meeting the real needs of people. Jesus understood their hunger and thirst. He healed their diseases. He touched them, cast out demons, and performed miracles. Jesus displayed compassion for people at the level of their physical and emotional pain.
You remember Ellen White’s famous quote: “Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Savior mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, ‘Follow Me.’ . . . The poor are to be relieved, the sick cared for, the sorrowing and the bereaved comforted, the ignorant instructed, the inexperienced counseled.”*
6. When He spoke, Jesus talked in ways that could be understood: He told stories, parables, and proverbs. He related to people in ways of familiarity. He used images from agriculture and other walks of life that were familiar to people living in the first century A.D. He told stories about shepherds, stewards, and bosses. In each of the stories Jesus communicated important truth in ways His audience could grasp.
Jesus met people where they were. He practiced the discipline of communicating eternal truths based on His hearers’ readiness to receive. Jesus wanted His message to be heard, so He used everyday experiences familiar to those listening.
His Mission and Ours
With a great passion for humanity, Jesus gave it all up. Consider what Jesus lost in coming to this earth. Think about the heavenly courts, the peace of dwelling in the divine throne room, the magnificent angel choruses, the beauty and splendor and majesty of the Father’s presence. This was all part of His routine. He was protected from privations, disease, and consequences of living on a fallen planet. He had perfect communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit; millions of angels stood ready to serve His every needs. Could Christ, the Son of God, have accomplished this phase of the plan of salvation from heaven?
No He could not. His Incarnation could not be a celestial pose. The road to our salvation involved poverty, danger, and the earthy smells of an animal shelter full of dung and flies. The sights, sounds, and smells of real life were all around Him. What an uncomfortable entrance this must have been for the King of the universe.
I wonder if Jesus ever hit His thumb with a hammer while working in Joseph’s carpenter’s shop. I wonder about His boyhood and the hustle and bustle of His neighborhood in Nazareth.
As an adult He had no job; He never married; and He was homeless. He wandered with His followers from place to place, at times all night outside under the starlit countryside of Palestine.
Yet all these disadvantages could not dampen His love for us. He literally gave up everything in order to save us. Jesus relinquished Himself to a criminal’s death for the twofold purpose of revealing, on a grand scale, His love for us in order to stand in our place and consummate the plan of salvation that had been under way already for thousands of years.
His mission was selfless. He suffered as a human, He was tempted as a human, and He lived without sin or compromise.
How would our mission change if we took this incarnational approach?
Rick McEdward is director of the Global Mission Centers at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and lives with his wife, Marcia, in Laurel, Maryland, United States.
*?Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), p. 143.