From the November/December 2019 issue of Discern Magazine

The Incarnation: How Christmas Hides Its Meaning

If Christmas is really about the birth of the Son of God, why do so many concentrate on Christmas shopping and whitewashed pagan customs, while so few focus on the incredible, life-changing truth of the incarnation?

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The late theologian R.C. Sproul said, “What we celebrate at Christmas is not so much the birth of a baby, as important as that is, but what’s so significant about the birth of that particular baby is that in this birth we have the incarnation of God Himself.”

But out of the billions who celebrate Christmas from Jerusalem to Japan, how many actually think about the incarnation—about God coming in the flesh?

What people celebrate at Christmas

The number of Google searches gives us an interesting glimpse into what people are thinking about. “Christmas tree” and “Christmas songs” each gets an average of a million monthly searches, while “nativity of Jesus” gets about 3,600. “Christmas gifts” gets 165,000, while “Christmas gifts for Jesus” gets 140. (I realize this isn’t comparing apples to apples, but if Christmas is supposed to be Jesus’ birthday, why isn’t He getting the gifts?)

Interestingly, “Christmas pagan holiday” receives 8,100 searches.

Declining belief that Jesus was born to a virgin

Americans have been among the most ardent promoters of Christmas, but while the number of Americans who celebrate Christmas remains high, the religious aspects of the holiday are in decline. Pew Research Center’s latest survey on the subject was headlined, “Americans Say Religious Aspects of Christmas Are Declining in Public Life.”

The survey found that “not only are some of the more religious aspects of Christmas less prominent in the public sphere, but there are signs that they are on the wane in Americans’ private lives and personal beliefs as well. For instance, there has been a noticeable decline in the percentage of U.S. adults who say they believe that biblical elements of the Christmas story—that Jesus was born to a virgin, for example–reflect historical events that actually occurred.”

This was especially true for the younger generations. For example, Millennials’ belief that Jesus was born to a virgin declined 12 percent in three years, down to 55 percent. Among all generations, the decline was 6 percent, down to 66 percent.

Christmas and non-Christians

Millions of non-Christians have caught the holiday spirit and celebrate Christmas around the world. What does it mean to them? Consider this snapshot of Christmas in Japan:

“Christmas has only been widely celebrated in Japan for the last few decades. It’s still not seen as a religious holiday or celebration as there aren’t many Christians in Japan. Now several customs that came to Japan from the USA such as sending and receiving Christmas Cards and Presents are popular. …

“Christmas Eve is thought of as a romantic day, in which couples spend [time] together and exchange presents. In many ways it resembles Valentine’s Day celebrations in the UK and the USA. Young couples like to go for walks to look at the Christmas lights and have a romantic meal in a restaurant—booking a table on Christmas Eve can be very difficult as it’s so popular!” (

Today, even in traditionally Christian nations, the emphasis of the holiday is on Christmas trees and presents, ornate decorations and customs of whitewashed pagan origins. And don’t forget Santa Claus, elves and flying reindeer.

Where is Christ in all this? Is it any wonder that to most people an emphasis on a foundational biblical truth like the incarnation seems out of place? (Read more about this in our article “Christmas on Trial.”)

What does incarnation mean?

The New King James Version of the Bible doesn’t use the word incarnation, but the concept is found in many places, especially in the writings of the apostle John.

Incarnation comes from the Latin in carne, literally “in flesh.” The Bible tells us many times that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came in human flesh. Consider the beginning of John’s Gospel, which spans prehistory and sets the stage for the work of our God and Savior Jesus Christ:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … All things were made through Him. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 3, 14, emphasis added).

By a miracle beyond our comprehension, the Word came in human flesh among His creatures. Jesus Christ was fully divine and fully human.By a miracle beyond our comprehension, the Word came in human flesh among His creatures. Jesus Christ was fully divine and fully human. The Bible doesn’t show the apostles spending a lot of time on the metaphysical questions that later theologians got lost in. It seems they accepted through faith the revelation that Jesus was God. And man. (See our online article “What Did the Apostles Believe About God?”)

How does God tell us to celebrate the incarnation?

There is no command to celebrate the incarnation. We are commanded to remember the death of our Savior (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). Of course, the Son of God could not have died if He had not come in the flesh, but the biblical focus is not on the conception (which many churches today celebrate on March 25 as the Feast of the Annunciation) or birth of Christ (which most celebrate Dec. 25).

See why these dates are surely incorrect and why God does not sanction these days in our article “The Birth of Jesus.”

The New Testament Church continued to celebrate the same festivals of God given throughout the Bible. See more in our free booklet From Holidays to Holy Days: God’s Plan for You.

What do we need to know about the incarnation of Christ?

The Bible teaches us many things about the life of Jesus Christ, and how it should impact our lives. Here are a few:

  • Jesus’ life reflected God the Father perfectly (John 14:7-10).
  • He said the Father is greater (John 14:28)—He willingly and happily subordinated Himself to the Father. He glorifies the Father.
  • And the Father gives honor to the Son and wants all to honor the Son (John 5:21-23).
  • As Thomas did, we should all acknowledge Jesus as “my Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).
  • Hebrews 1:1-4 shows who the Son was, why He came and what He has returned to.
  • While here on earth, He emptied Himself of outward glory (Philippians 2:5-11; John 17:5). Yet He has all the fullness of the Godhead (Colossians 2:9).
  • The Son of God wants us to walk as He walked, to imitate Him so we can become like Him (1 John 2:6; 3:1-3). Jesus Christ is not ashamed to call us brethren; through Him, God wants to bring “many sons to glory” (Hebrews 2:10-11).
  • He was willing to be dependent, to be tempted and to suffer, yet remained obedient and sinless.
  • He can sympathize with our weaknesses since He “was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16).

The incarnation and Christ’s suffering and death

By becoming human, Jesus was able to fulfill God’s plan to reconcile us sinful humans to Himself.By becoming human, Jesus was able to fulfill God’s plan to reconcile us sinful humans to Himself. Jesus did this by suffering for us and paying our death penalty for us.

The book of Hebrews describes what Jesus Christ went through to be our High Priest.

He, “in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, … was heard because of His godly fear, though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (Hebrews 5:7-9).

The incarnation vs. gnosticism

The apostle John, writing at the end of the first century, saw heresy creeping into the Church. He strove to expose a false doctrine that denied that Christ was fully human.

“By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world” (1 John 4:2-3).

Despite John’s attempts to nip it in the bud, this false doctrine developed into a full-blown heresy known as gnosticism. You can get more background on this in our article about 1 John.

The incarnation vs. antichrist

John even equated denying that Jesus came in the flesh with being against Christ—antichrist.

“For many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist” (2 John 1:7).

John was referring to anyone working against Christ, but of course people today use the term antichrist in a more limited way. Antichrist is now used to describe one specific man working evil in the end times, the one the Bible refers to as the false prophet and the man of sin. You can read more about this in our article “Will You Recognize the Antichrist?

The incarnation and you

The incarnation of Jesus Christ—His willingness to live this physical life, to deeply understand and empathize with our sufferings and to give His very life for each of us—is awesome and encouraging. It should motivate us to respond.

What does He expect in response? Not a day of commercialized paganism, but a lifetime of change and conversion.

A zealous few will take the time to study more about the specific steps God instructs us to take by downloading our free booklet Change Your Life!

Will you be among them?

About the Author

Mike Bennett

Mike Bennett

Mike Bennett is editorial content manager for the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, in the Dallas, Texas, area. He coordinates the Life, Hope & Truth website, Discern magazine, the Daily Bible Verse Blog and the Life, Hope & Truth Weekly Newsletter (including World Watch Weekly). He is also part of the Personal Correspondence team of ministers who have the privilege of answering questions sent to Life, Hope & Truth.

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