THIS truth, which, in so many places, the Scriptures plainly assert, is introduced by St. Paul, in the verse now before us, with a declaration of its being a mystery. Besides the primary meaning of this term, which is a secret--"Something not openly published, though perhaps communicated to a few;" its general signification is something hidden, or naturally undiscoverable by human reason, and known only by the revelation of God, "A disclosure of a thing which it would not have entered into the human mind to conceive, but which, being manifested by revelation, is intelligible, as a fact, to the meanest understanding, though the mode of its existence be incomprehensible or above our reason." It is plain then, that in relation to any mystery which [64/65] we are required to believe, the only questions to be asked are these two: Is it revealed? Is it not contrary to reason? And indeed the last might well be dispensed with, if the first be proved; for, however many things relating to God and another state, may be above our reason, we cannot believe that God proclaims them without being well assured that they must be consistent and true.
The doctrine of the incarnation is one of this kind, and which I propose to test by these two questions. The first of which is, Whether the fact itself be revealed. "Without controversy, great is the mystery of godliness," or of religion, "God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory." These are the different passages of our Saviour's life, which the apostle selects as evidencing the doctrine which we assert: that Christ is God; inasmuch as they could only be accounted for on the supposition of Christ's divinity; which, as well as his humanity, he so explicitly sets forth in the words which I first read--"God was manifest in the flesh." Each of these particulars, if enlarged, might furnish argument in proof of this principle doctrine, the incarnation of the Deity. The Spirit justified the high claims of Jesus Christ to be one with the Father, when he descended like a dove upon him at his baptism, and a voice from heaven was [65/66] heard, saying, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." The same attestation was given in all the miracles of his life; and in allusion to which, our Saviour said, "If I by the Spirit of God cast out devils, doubtless the kingdom of God is come nigh unto you." And this attestation of the Spirit was given to the first preachers of Christ's religion to confirm their faith, and to establish their testimony. "God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost." Jesus Christ was seen of angels, when in shining hosts they celebrated his birth, proclaiming to the shepherds the Saviour who was Christ the Lord. Angels directed his journey into Egypt; and they also notified the period of his return. They ministered to him during his temptation in the desert, strengthened him in his last agony, watched at his sepulchre, declared his resurrection, and predicted his future coming. Thus did the celestial spirits bear their ready part in that mystery of redemption, which may well be above the reason of man, since it contains things which even the angels desire to look into.
That God manifest in the flesh was preached unto the Gentiles, and believed on in the world, are truths which the Apostle of the Gentiles might, in his time, assert, and to which our own days continue to bear glorious testimony; for the sound of the Gospel has gone out into all lands, [66/67] and now may be heard, in the ends of the world, that which, at the day of Pentecost, was witnessed at Jerusalem; men of every nation, Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in every quarter of the globe, speaking in every tongue the wonderful works of God, and testifying, by the triumph of the Gospel, over every varied creed, that he who is its author isdivine.
That God manifest in the flesh ascended into glory, was attested by the evidence of those who stood looking up into heaven as the cloud received him out of their sight. It forms a part of the creed which, from that day, the Church has not ceased to repeat, and furnishes ground for the strongest consolation and hope to all those who follow their Saviour here, that in these bodies, changed and glorified, they shall be permitted to follow him hereafter to those blissful mansions which he has gone to prepare. All these facts, connected with the establishment and extension of Christianity, and with the history of its author, should make it abundantly evident, that he who was manifest in the flesh is God. But the distinct and frequent assertion of that truth in the Scriptures ought to satisfy all who receive those Scriptures as the guide of their faith. Not to multiply quotations, St. Paul, in his Epistle to the Colossians, repeats and amplifies the declaration of the text. Of Jesus Christ, he says, that lie is the image of the invisible God, the [67/68] firstborn of every creature; that by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers; all things were created by him, and for him; he is before all things, and by him all things consist--a description which can only belong to God; and that which none can be more full and conclusive. St. John, also, in the beginning of his Gospel, written principally with a view to combat heresies, which even in his time had arisen, asserts, at large, the same thing with St. Paul. Writing of the Word, or Logos, a name attributed to our Saviour, and which, by no subtlety, can be made to apply to any other than to the person of Christ, he asserts that this Word was in the beginning, that it was with God, that it was God. This Word, by whom all things were made, and without whom there was not any thing made that was made--this Almighty creating and life giving power, in whom was life, that is, the very principle and spring of life--this Word was made flesh--made man; and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; and we beheld his glory--the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father.
The first question then, which I have said might properly be asked respecting any doctrine which we are required to believe, is entirely answered in respect to the mystery of the incarnation. It is clearly revealed. God was manifest [68/69] in the flesh. He who was born of a virgin, who was made man, and for the truth of which they who saw him had the evidence of their senses; he was God, for in him dwelt all the fulness of the godhead bodily, that is to say, in his human body. The mode of that wonderful existence is one which involves difficulties that we cannot solve. The revelation of the fact, however, being distinctly made, we are bound to receive and acknowledge it, nor are we excused from doing so, because we are not able to explain it, since the Scriptures themselves reveal it as a mystery.
I shall, therefore, go on to the second question to be asked respecting the doctrine of the incarnation--"Whether it be not contrary to reason to believe that God was manifest in the flesh?" hastening, in conclusion, to consider what is of the highest importance to us, the practical consolations to be derived from the truth, that "God was manifest in the flesh." It is in these, especially, that we shall discover the reason why a doctrine so sublime and mysterious, should be revealed to men; and from a truth which we are apt to consider of little consequence, or of doubtful advantage to be believed, we shall derive grounds of assurance, of faith, and of thankfulness towards God. And we shall be forced to acknowledge, what indeed we are always bound to presume, that the Most High, in giving his revelation, has made nothing known which it is not as [69/70] well our interest as our duty to embrace and believe.
That he who is God should condescend to take upon him the form of man, is a doctrine which is not contrary to reason, as may be shown from many considerations. We cannot, for instance, suppose it improper or absurd that the Almighty Creator should regard, superintend, and visit, an intelligent race of creatures whom he had made in his own image, and set over the works of his hands. But the very idea of God's visiting and manifesting himself to his intelligent offspring, implies necessarily that he should take some form; for God, being a spirit, is invisible, and in this sense, as expressing his spiritual nature, we must understand the declaration, "No man hath seen God at any time." To come as a spirit, would not be to address himself to men's senses; in other words, would be not to manifest himself at all. To be seen, he must surround himself with some material form; he must enshroud his invisible attributes with some visible appearance. In what way then shall he come, so as to make himself visible to man? Shall it be in the pomp and splendour of divinity? in the brightness of his inherent glory, and surrounded with the proofs of his majesty and greatness? This, my brethren, would have been so to blind and dazzle the human vision, that instead of perceiving, men must have been compelled to close their eyes against him. [70/71] For, as it is said in the Epistle ascribed to St. Barnabas, "If they who behold the sun which is to perish, and is the work of God's hands, are unable to look directly against its rays, how could we mortals, seeing God, have been preserved, if he had not come in the flesh; if the only-begotten Son had not revealed him." We are reduced then to this necessity, either to affirm that God cannot or must not appear to his creatures at all, or to admit the principle that he who is a spirit might clothe himself with a visible appearance. That he did so in Paradise, even after mankind had transgressed, must be believed by all who receive the Mosaic history. In the third chapter of Genesis, it is said of our first parents, that "they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden, in the cool of the day; and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden." And such appearances of the Deity to many others, are constantly recorded, and especially to Abraham, of whom it is often said, The Lord appeared to him--the Lord went his way as soon as he had left communing with Abraham--and God left off talking with him--and God went up from Abraham, and many similar expressions. To say that God, in these manifestations, may have assumed the appearance of an angel, is to grant all that we require, since it is to allow that he might take upon him a [71/72] created form. And having allowed this, we are not the judges of what, under any given circumstance, that form should be. Nor can we offer any good reason why God should not prefer to take that very nature which he came to visit, in preference either to one more elevated on the one hand, or more humble on the other. Either was undoubtedly in his power. But, in the language of St. Paul, "Forasmuch as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same: for verily he took not on him the nature of angels, but he took on him the seed of Abraham." How conformable this is to our reason, my brethren, must evidently appear. He who came from heaven to instruct men in their duty, should he not adopt their modes of converse, and mingle with them as one of themselves? He who came to inculcate a new morality, which should restore men to the image in which they were created, how could he better fulfil that purpose, than by taking the same nature with them, in order to exemplify his maxims, and to show forth their practical excellency, in his own living character? But, above all, consider the Son of God as having come on the earth to be the sacrifice and propitiation for our sins; and is it not merely reasonable, but necessary and indispensable also, that he should become man, in order that the same nature which had transgressed should also sustain the guilt, [72/73] and pay the penalty? But to leave what may be called scriptural grounds of consistency and belief, let us go back to the dictates of reason, as independent of revelation; or at least, as not confessedly dependent upon it. That the idea of a spirit assuming a body, is not a doctrine involving inconsistency, and therefore unreasonable, may then be inferred from the wide reception which has been given to the doctrine of the transmigration of the soul. We know the great extent to which that creed has been received in past ages; and even now almost all the nations of the East, except the Mahometans, believe the metempsychosis as the most important article of their faith. According to this doctrine, the soul, or living principle of man, that which constitutes his identity, is never at rest; for no sooner does it leave its old habitation than it enters a new one. And this transmigration may be into animals of a higher or lower grade, for purposes connected with punishment or reward. We believe no such doctrine, for no such is revealed, neither are its proofs submitted to our senses. And these are sufficient reasons why we should reject it. For it is one thing to say of the revealed doctrines of religion, that they are not contrary to reason of impossible; another to assert of all opinions, that because they are not impossible, they are religious and true. On the contrary, it would seem to be a corruption of the true doctrine of the return of [73/74] the soul into a new body of glory, or into one of corruption after the resurrection, to suffer or to be rewarded according to its deserts in its probationary state. The purpose for which I adduce this opinion of the transmigration of the soul, so analagous to the true doctrine of the resurrection, and. prevailing generally where that is known, is to show how universal is the belief, that a separate spirit may assume a visible form, and thence to draw the conclusion, that this belief is not contrary to reason; for reason is the common dictate of all mankind, and nothing which contradicts it could ever be generally received. But if it be not contrary to reason to believe the doctrine of the re-embodying of the separated human soul, neither does it appear why it should be contrary to reason to believe that the Divine essence should assume a created body. And here indeed, so far as the common consent of mankind is concerned, all the systems of Pagan superstition, and of Heathen mythology, come in support of the credibility of the incarnation. To recount the various fables sanctified by religious belief, in which the gods were supposed to have taken the forms of animals and of men, would be to go over the whole surface of the refined system of classic mythology, or the grosser fictions of barbarous creeds. Take away, for instance, from the splendid legend which Homer has left us, all that relates to the transformation of the gods to the [74/75] characters and appearances of men, and you remove the whole machinery of the poem, and totally change its structure. According to the belief of those early ages, derived undoubtedly, by corrupted tradition, from God's frequent manifestations of himself to the patriarchs, as recorded in the Scriptures of the Old Testament, the gods always interested themselves in the affairs of men, and in order to fulfil their purposes of kindness or of wrath, constantly assumed the human or some other created form. The natives of India give credit to similar fictions, and in their belief of many incarnations of their god Veeshnoo, they make it evident that the idea of the Deity appearing in our nature, is not one which we are permitted to call impossible or incredible. The words of Bishop Horsley on this subject are worthy of attention. "The inseparable and necessary connexion between the incarnation of the Son of God and the doctrine of atonement, "constitutes an essential difference between the awful mystery of the incarnation in the Christian system, and those avatars in the superstitious religion of the Indian Brahmin, which have been compared with it; but in which it is profanely mimicked, rather than imitated. Yet the comparison is not unfounded, nor without its use, if it be conducted with due reverence and circumspection. In those impious incoherent fables, as in all the Pagan mythology and in the worst [75/76] of the Pagan rites, vestiges are discernable of the history, the revelations, and the rites, of the earliest patriarchal ages; and thus the worst corruptions of idolatry may be brought to bear an indirect testimony to the truth of revelation."
"In the numerous successive incarnations of Veeshnoo, the deity is embodied for subordinate and partial purposes, altogether unworthy of that manner of interference. The incarnation of Christ was for a purpose which God only could accomplish, and which God himself could accomplish in no other way. It was for the execution of a plan which Divine wisdom alone could contrive; Divine love and Almighty power could alone effect. It was to rescue those from endless misery, whom Divine justice demanded for its victims."--"It is that wonderful scheme in which mercy and truth are made to kiss each other, when the same God, who in one person, exacts the punishment, in another himself sustains it, and thus makes his own mercy pay the satisfaction to his own justice."
The subject has been sufficiently illustrated to show that in the Christian doctrine of the in-carnation, there is nothing incredible, impossible, or repugnant to the common and universal belief of mankind; whether the same be derived from tradition, or from the exercise of natural reason. Still if any who would call themselves Christians reject the belief that God was manifest in the [76/77] flesh, because it is a mystery which they cannot fully explain, they may, with equal wisdom, reject the belief of their own existence; they may refuse to believe that they are nourished by the food they eat; or they may deny that the plant, the blossom, and the fruit, spring from the perishing seed which they cast into the earth; for all these truths are mysteries to us, though certified beyond dispute by our certain knowledge, and our uniform experience. Taking for granted, then, the truth proposed to the faith of Christians in this assertion of St. Paul, that "God was manifest in the flesh," I proceed to consider the importance of our believing it, on account of its consolations and practical advantages.
The first which I shall notice, is the vast dignity which it gives to the character of Jesus Christ, and the infinite value which it imparts to that offering which he made of himself for us. He is the propitiation for our sins, the sacrifice by whom we have received the atonement. Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse, devoted, sacrificed, for us. In the ancient Church this great sacrifice was typified by the offering up of bulls and goats, and inferior animals; and by these, as they were offered according to God's appointment, the conscience of the worshippers was appeased. But if they could look for pardon in the strength of such an offering; how much rather may we approach with confidence [77/78] the throne of the Most High, looking for grace and reconciliation, who are sprinkled and purified by the blood of a Victim infinitely more noble. "For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh; how much more shall the blood of Christ, who, through the eternal Spirit, offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?" This is the first argument to be derived for our consolation from believing that he who was manifest in the flesh was God.
But since he who was our sacrifice is also our High Priest, to plead the atonement which he has made for our sins, we derive consolation, in the second place, from this consideration, that our High Priest is God. The high priests among men were continually changing by reason of death, but this, because he continueth ever, hath an unchangeable priesthood. Wherefore he is able also to save to the uttermost them that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them. Besides, every high priest taken from among men is compassed with infirmity; and therefore he ought, as for the people, so also for himself, to offer for sins. But in Jesus Christ, God manifest in the flesh, we have an High Priest who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners; who needeth not daily, as those high [78/79] priests, to offer up sacrifice for his own sins, and then for the people's; for this he did once when he offered up himself. The law, says St. Paul, maketh men high priests, which have infirmity; but the word of God's oath, which was since the law, maketh the Son, who is consecrated for evermore, the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him. What a sufficient, all-powerful, and availing Intercessor, have we, my brethren, in him who has gone to appear in the presence of God in our behalf. Take away from his twofold character, either his nature as man, or his attributes as God, and we have no longer such an advocate as we require. It is necessary that he should be man, that he might participate in all our weaknesses and frailties; know what man has to overcome in his contest for holiness; and sympathize in all his sorrows and trials; and being God, it is in his power to sustain and defend us, that we be not tempted above what we are able to bear, but with the temptation to make a way for our escape. But he who is our sacrifice and our High Priest, our Intercessor and our Saviour, is also our Judge. For the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the-Son. He who, as at this time, came to redeem us, is the same that will come to be our Judge. There is something congenial to our minds in the thought of appealing to one who knoweth whereof we are. made, having felt as we have felt, [79/80] been subject to all our hindrances and fears, and been tempted as we have been. If we were making an appeal to one of our fellow men, we would seize upon any point of similarity between his character and ours, with a view to move and affect him. In addressing a human judge, we would appeal to his own experience of human temptation, and to his own sense of human weakness, to awaken his compassion for human errors. We would carry home to his bosom all those circumstances of temptation and of infirmity, of contest between duty and desire, of which he himself was sensible, and which he would be compelled to acknowledge as palliatives of the fault; and we would conjure him not rigorously to require from a weak and sinful nature that perfection of obedience which, in its present state, we must rather hope for and desire, than expect to attain.
Applied to Jesus Christ, this form of supplication, and this hope of sympathy, are just. He felt our infirmities, and was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. "In all things it behooved him to be made like unto his brethren; and in that he himself hath suffered, being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted." We are permitted to address him as our elder brother, and in the humbled confession of a broken and a contrite heart, to plead before him who knows our frame, our sorrow for [80/81] our transgressions, and for those gradual steps of temptation or neglect which led to their commission. Mourning over our errors and wanderings, it is our privilege to supplicate him to spare us, and be merciful to us, and not to deal with us according to our sins, nor to repay us according to our iniquities. And if our penitence be sincere, and if our supplication be made in faith, we may rejoice in the assurance that he will consider our weakness and pardon our guilt. This be our consolation, my brethren, when we regard Jesus Christ as man--as manifest in our flesh--as made like unto his brethren: And when, with all these sympathies, and all this feeling of our infirmities with which, in our thoughts, we are permitted to invest him, we regard him also as God, how should we raise our voice in thanksgiving and in praise for this great mystery of our religion; and trust in his hands our cause, who, as our Almighty Advocate, can plead before his Father and our Father, his perfect sacrifice for the sins and the demerits of his imperfect brethren.
These are the consolations of that mystery which the Scriptures offer to our faith; consolations which they, who reject the incarnation of God, and consequently the divinity of Jesus Christ, can never enjoy. Let us beware then, my brethren, how we fritter away this great doctrine that God was manifest in the flesh. Let us cling to that creed which apostles professed, and sustained by [81/82] which, the noble army of martyrs triumphed in death. Let us never give up to the sophistry of objectors, this great truth of our religion, that our Redeemer, he who, as at this time, visited our world, and took upon him our nature, is divine. Let us never yield to any human art or device this scriptural consolation, that Jesus Christ listens to our prayers with the sympathy and the tenderness of man; that he intercedes in our behalf with the dignity and with the authority of God.