THE DESCENT OF CHRIST TO EARTH
Who is God and what is he like? What are his characteristics and how can we know him? If we believe that there is a Creator, then this Creator must have certain attributes. As Christians, we believe that Christ revealed God to us by the incarnation: the descent of Christ to earth.
God the uncreated Creator
By logic, if God created the universe, he must be outside of the created universe, independent of it, and separate from it. He would be the uncreated Creator. And if so, then God can never be defined in terms of anything physical or related to the 3-dimensional world that we live in. In other words, God must be eternal or infinite. These infinite attributes of God belong to him and no one else.
In the Old Testament, God was called by the name YHWH, or Yahweh, which refers to God’s self-existence. In Exodus 3:14, God said to Moses,
“I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
Since God’s name reflects his being and nature, then this means that God is the only self-existent or self-sufficient Being. This name reflects his eternal or infinite attributes which he alone possesses—they are the very reason that we worship God.
So, what are the infinite attributes of our Creator? Let’s review them quickly.
The infinite attributes of God
Sovereignty: God is the supreme ruler of all created things and events. He is totally independent of the created universe, but fully rules over it.
Omnipotence: The Creator is all powerful. This hardly needs any explanation: the created universe is testimony to the great power of God.
Transcendence: Since God created the physical universe, he is beyond it and not a part of it. Transcendence is not technically an intrinsic attribute, but a state or position in relation to the physical universe.
Omnipresence: God is everywhere at once, he pervades the created universe. ““Do I not fill heaven and earth?” declares the Lord” (Jer. 23:24)
Omniscience: God is all knowing. By logic, if he created all things, then he must have knowledge of all things.
Immutability: This means that God is unchanging. “I the Lord do not change…” (Malachi 3:6)
Light: The Lord is the source of infinite light. This is related to his omnipotence; he is too powerful to behold. We can’t even get close to him; we would be destroyed. “God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords… who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see.” (I Tim 6:16)
Immortality (eternality): The Lord is ever existing, never dying. Only God has life in and of himself. “God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal.” (I Timothy 6:16)
The apostle John began his gospel with this declaration:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)
Later, John describes the descent of Christ to earth:
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
In Philippians, the Apostle Paul also described the descent of Christ to earth:
“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself…” Philippians 2:6-8
Christ appeared in human flesh, something that had never occurred before.
Christ, by highest heaven adored, Christ, the everlasting Lord, late in time behold him come, offspring of the Virgin’s womb: veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail th’incarnate Deity, pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus, our Immanuel. (Charles Wesley, Hark the Herald Angels Sing)
Christ condescended to us
The word condescend has two meanings. The most common usage has a very negative connotation: “to look down upon someone.” None of us likes a condescending person. But the second, less-known meaning is: “to willingly lower oneself to another’s level.” This is exactly what Christ did in the incarnation as he temporarily abandoned his position in heaven and descended to our world. He was Emmanuel, “God with us.”
God’s power under restraint
In our earthly state, we could never live next to an all-powerful God; it would be too overwhelming. Christ possesses the infinite attributes of God, as he was and is God. But when he came to live on earth as a human, he didn’t stop being God, but he scaled down these infinite attributes so that he could live with us. Some theologians say that he concealed his deity under the weakness of the flesh for a time. Other theologians say that God’s eternal attributes were suspended. In any case, he voluntarily gave up his rights as God during his earthly life.
He was “in very nature God,” but he didn’t hold on to his equality with God. He left his powerful position and glory and became human for our sake. Because God is immutable (unchanging) Christ did not change from God to human, but he was “God that took on flesh,” God incarnate. Christ expressed the eternal attributes of God in measures that we can tolerate, because at full strength, they would destroy us in his presence. We are impressed with the power Jesus demonstrated when he was on earth, but even still, his power was under restraint.
The humanity of Christ
Christ, in his descent to earth became one of us. He came in humility, not in glory. His human body developed just like any other human body. As Luke wrote, he grew up from infancy to boyhood to an adult:
And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man. (Luke 2:52)
Looking at the life of Jesus, in no way did he set aside or conceal any of the character attributes of God, including holiness, love, mercy, goodness, justice, truth, and patience. As a human, he demonstrated these in abundance and in full measure. He even took the lowest status possible in human society, that of a servant. And though he was fully human, his immutable and eternal attributes were always there, though hidden for much of the time.
God’s infinite attributes in Jesus the Son of God
Let’s go through these attributes one by one and see how great was Christ’s sacrifice when he descended to earth:
He temporarily but willingly set aside (or concealed) his full sovereignty when he was born into humanity. As a baby, he was a helpless infant under the care of Joseph and his mother Mary. He experienced everything that any human would, including injustice, difficulties, and the effects of human sin and anger. On many occasions he revealed his sovereign deity by performing miracles. But he voluntarily lived within the confines of his human body and earthly environment and became vulnerable to all the uncertainties and dangers of earthly life. The fact that he led such a life of prayer is proof of this—as a human, he consulted his Father constantly. Again, he did not relinquish his sovereignty, he temporarily gave up his rights to it.
Although as God, Christ was omnipotent, he dramatically “throttled down” his power to a scale that humans could handle. Christ didn’t need to prove his omnipotent power to us in his descent to earth, as he had already demonstrated it by the creation of the universe. There were occasions on which Christ chose to display his infinite power, such as the calming of the sea, and the raising of the dead. He didn’t do overpowering acts of creation as an unlimited show of power just to impress people. But he performed miracles that deeply moved the lives of people who were in despair and in need of a touch from God.
Jesus performed miracles so that the people could see that he was from God: “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.” (John 14:11) When Jesus performed miracles, he was not at the very limit of his powers, he was very constrained and subdued compared to what he actually could do.
Christ purposely came down from a transcendent existence outside the created universe to live in the 3-dimensional world we live in, from the position of uncreated Creator to live in the created world. So, he intentionally descended (or condescended) to our physical location to become visible and tangible to us. On one occasion Christ was transfigured, and his veil of humanity was lifted for three disciples to see his deity (Matthew 17:1-8). Because transcendence is more of a description of position in relation to the physical world rather than an innate attribute, we could say that Christ did in fact give this up without any change to his eternal deity.
Jesus as a man was clearly not omnipresent or everywhere at once. By his own choice Christ was confined to a human body, identical to those of other humans, to live within the bounds of time and space. But on several occasions, he showed that he could transcend the physical world and be present at different locations at the same time. He could “see” others when he wasn’t physically present. It amazes me that Jesus and his disciples walked wherever they went—over hundreds of miles of rough dirt roads on foot during any given week! He could’ve dispensed with the trouble and miraculously transported himself, but he didn’t.
As God, Christ was omniscient, but as a human he chose to live with the same information and within the same terms that we all live. He could have accessed any and all of his knowledge in any situation, but he condescended to our level by living with us in our humble state. On occasion he accessed his omniscience and displayed the foreknowledge of certain events—he could read people’s minds. But again, he throttled this power down so that he would not overpower or overly frighten people. Also on occasion he asked people for information. Was it because he lacked information? No, he wanted to live with us on our terms.
Although as God, Jesus’ Spirit and his nature were unchanging, his body was subject to the changing conditions of this world. He faced the uncertainties of weather, human conflict, and unpredictable social and political forces. And yet in spite of this he remained surprisingly calm and in control of his own will and actions. In his own character and being he did not change.
When Christ came to earth, the infinite light and energy of God was throttled down so that people could “see” God in Jesus. He was the image of God in a visible form that we as humans could see. If Jesus had displayed the full light of God, we would all have been destroyed. What people saw was not the blazing infinite energy of the all-powerful Creator, but God’s light in a form tailored to us: Christ the light of the world. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
As God, he was immortal, but in becoming human he became mortal. This is the most baffling historical event that we know of: the eternal God in mortal human flesh. It is a great mystery that the immortal Spirit of God came to live in a mortal human body. Most Christians believe that this is the greatest sacrifice Christ made. In fact, he came for the very purpose of dying—that was his mission. Christ temporarily set aside his immortality and eternality as God. He descended to the world of fallen and mortal humanity which was under the curse of death. When Christ died, God of course didn’t die, as he is eternal. But the Messiah, the Son of God died a real death, and through this death he paid the price for all sin.
As Jesus approached his death we see that he was determined to carry out this mission. He voluntarily accepted shame and dishonor. Although he suffered greatly in going to the cross, he went willingly. This demonstrates even more how the great and eternal power of God in Christ was under restraint. He could have destroyed his persecutors easily, and they were surprised by his self-control during his arrest and trial. But he submitted to their cruelty and out of love gave his life so that we could live.
Jesus returns to the Father
Shortly before his death, Jesus prayed to the Father:
I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began. (John 17:5)
Jesus knew that he was about to die, rise again, then go back to the Father. Christ would then bask in the power and glory that he shared with the Father before his descent to earth. And of course when Jesus did rise from the dead he proved his deity—the grave could not hold him because it is impossible for God to die.
The closer we look, the more we see how great a sacrifice Christ made in his descent to earth! He truly descended to our level in every way, and even beyond, by giving his life for us. Is he not worthy of our total love and devotion?
Lord, we stand in awe at your great sacrifice of coming to Earth, and we thank you for living with us and speaking to us so we can know you.