Why Did Christ Need a Body?
God so loved the world that he sent his Son into it. That’s what we celebrate this week: the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnation of God in the flesh — Immanuel, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). So of course, we can ask the question why: Why was the eternal Son of God born in a manger? Why was he enfleshed? Why did he need a body? This obviously is at the very heart of the incarnation. And to explain, here is a sermon clip from John Piper, as we find him preaching his way through the Gospel of John, and particularly as he and the church approached the Christmas season of 2009. Here he is to explain the purpose of Christ’s incarnation.
There is no Christmas story, no traditional birth-of-Jesus story, in the Gospel of John. We’re still in the Gospel of John, still in chapter 6, but we’re stepping back to get a bigger picture now of how Christmas is woven into this Gospel. It doesn’t have a story at the beginning like Luke does and Matthew does. Instead, the Christmas story is woven through the Gospel, and its meaning is given repeatedly in the Gospel.
Veiled in Flesh
It begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). So, all the way back into eternity, there was the Word, and we have this mysterious statement that “the Word was God” and, paradoxically, “the Word was with God.” Was God, with God — and immediately you’re into weighty Trinitarian matters, aren’t you?
You don’t have to go reading theology books to know that’s strange. How can you be God and be with God at the same time? Well, that’s why we are who we are in our Trinitarian theology: The Father is God and the Son is God and the Spirit is God. There’s one God in three persons. They’re with each other, and they’re one.
And in John 1:14, we have Christmas: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:16: “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” So, the eternal Word that had no beginning, never came into being, now, in the fullness of time, becomes flesh. And in that way, the Son of God becomes flesh. The Son of God, the Word — the same person — becomes flesh and, in becoming flesh, reveals God like he had never been revealed before.
So, here we have God (he was God) clothing himself with flesh and the glory of God. The “glory as of the only Son from the Father” is being revealed like that glory had never been revealed before (John 1:14). That’s John’s understanding of Christmas: God the Son comes. He is God, he is with God, he reveals God. And now that revelation is dominant by grace, in grace, full of grace and truth. And “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16). So, Christmas is the eternal Word, the eternal Son, clothing himself with flesh, in order that grace might come to sinners, truth might come to sinners.
God and Sinners Reconciled
Go a little further to John 3:16–17.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
“Christmas is not for condemnation; Christmas is for salvation.”
That’s Christmas and Good Friday all in one. This is the purpose for Christmas: “that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” So, Christmas is not for condemnation; Christmas is for salvation. That’s why he came: not to condemn, but to save.
Near the end of the book, in chapter 18, Jesus is standing before Pilate. This is a weighty interchange between Jesus and Pilate in John 18:36–37:
Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world — to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”
Here’s Christmas: Why were you born? To bear witness to the truth. Another way to say it is that the Son of God, the Word of God, has come into the world, he says here, to bear witness to the truth. Now, what’s the effect, in Jesus’s life and ministry, of bearing witness to the truth? He says very plainly what the effect is. He says in John 8:31–32, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
So, the meaning of Christmas is that the Son of God comes, and he is the truth — “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). And he speaks the truth — “I came to bear witness with my person and my words to what is true, what is ultimately real and true.” And its effect is freedom, liberty, from the guilt of sin, the power of sin, death, Satan, hell, a meaningless life. Oh, the liberty that comes into the life of a person who discovers that Jesus is the truth! He was the way, the truth, and the life. You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
Born That Man No More May Die
Now, the question is, How does that happen? How does he do that? How is it that the truth — the spoken truth of God and the personal truth of God in Jesus — sets people free from sin and condemnation? And now we’re in chapter 6. This is all leading to chapter 6. In John 6:51, Jesus says,
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread [Jesus himself], he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.
That’s Christmas: “I came down from heaven.” Now, link that with John 1:14: “And the Word became flesh.” Why? So that John 6:51 could happen. He came to give his flesh. He came to give his flesh for the life of the world. He came to have flesh that could be pierced by nails. He came to have flesh that could be pierced with a sword and lacerated on his back and a crown of thorns pressed somewhere in the universe — namely, on the fleshy head of the Son of God — and cheeks that could be slapped around, and a beard that could be pulled, and eyes that could be spit upon so that the saliva would drip down. That’s why he came. That’s why he needed flesh: so that he would have something with which to die — something with which to suffer. That’s the only way grace can come to sinners.
“Christ’s life is now in us. Our sins are covered, and we have eternal joy with him.”
And he came full of grace. And “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16). And the reason we have received grace upon grace from the fullness of the incarnate Word is that the incarnate Word came to have flesh so that he could die for sinners. Had he not died for sinners, we wouldn’t have grace; we would have only judgment. And therefore, Christmas is massively and mainly preparation for Good Friday. Don’t isolate this holiday. It’s all of a piece with what he came to do.
Light and Life to All
So, the meaning of Christmas in the Gospel of John is that there was an eternal God in more than one person. We know three when we take all the Bible into account: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Son, the Word, takes on flesh that he might have flesh with which to die. And in giving his flesh for the world, the world can have life because now sins can be forgiven, righteousness can be provided, a substitute is there.
And by faith in him — that is, by eating him; symbolically, we consume him — he becomes our treasure, our food, our life. His life is now in us. Our sins are covered, and we have eternal joy with him.