The mercy of God in the Incarnation

December 21, 2010

Judgment and mercy are meant to fit together like a hand in a glove. If a full picture of God’s heart in judgment and mercy could be painted, judgment would be the canvas on which the colors of mercy would be brushed. It’s not possible to biblically talk about one while ignoring the other. As I discussed in my last post on the judgment of God in the Incarnation, division and judgment centered around the person of Christ was the bold message of John the Baptist. The Incarnation marked a massive season change for Israel - they were about to be indicted by God in the flesh! Though Israel could never measure up, mercy came without cost (Isaiah 55:1-3) and one could still be saved from the coming “unquenchable fire” into the promises made to Abraham. However, inheritance of those promises was no longer based on ethnicity. Participation in the covenant blessings required continual repentance and belief in the Coming One.

In contemplating the mercy that God has extended in the person of Christ, we must remember that God could have completely divorced and destroyed Israel long ago for their rebellion. In the law given to Moses, fatal curses were pronounced for Israel’s disobedience (Deuteronomy 28). Though disobedience fills the pages of their history, God has never made a complete end of His chosen people. His concern for His own glory was always motivated by His love for the fathers and the faithful remnant with in the nation (Romans 11:28), which incited His faithfulness to the promises made to Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. Through the Incarnation, the LORD paved the way of mercy with a new covenant that would ultimately turn the descendants of Jacob back to Him forever. In the fullness of time, the Deliverer came to offer them the deliverance they were seeking, if they were willing to accept Him on His terms. What was His motivation? Kindness and deep concern for the apple of His eye (Deuteronomy 32:10). Despite their rejection, the Bridegroom would never be content to part with His betrothed bride (Jeremiah 3:14). Through the Incarnation, God brought forth Israel’s Deliverer - Mercy in the flesh - someone that Adam’s lineage could never produce by itself.

As we ponder the Incarnation, it’s so easy to forget about the full context of the story and the almost unfathomable significance of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob personally visiting His chosen people. The burning One who had appeared to Moses on Sinai was now wrapped in garments of flesh, talking with His own people and pleading His case with them face-to-face. In contrast to our modern-day, superficial view of the Incarnation, God’s deep concern and care for His creation goes far beyond a shallow deliverance and forgiveness of man’s sin or even a display of miraculous power for a more comfortable existence. Though the healing and deliverance we see in the gospels are glorious and are small displays of the wealth of the mercies of God, there was something much greater on His mind when He decided to take on flesh. God came near to aid Israel personally. The full picture of God's mercy is still being painted on His canvas as the end of the age unfolds. God’s mercy is exhibited the most in His faithfulness to His covenants with Israel despite their consistent unfaithfulness to Him.

Before Jesus’ birth, Mary prophesied that His coming forth was because of God’s mercy and His remembrance of the covenant with Abraham where He was promised that in him all of the nations would be blessed (Genesis 12:3):

“He has helped His servant Israel, In remembrance of His mercy, As He spoke to our fathers, To Abraham and to his seed forever.””
(Luke 1:54-55 NKJV)

Zacharias, father of John the Baptist, spoke of the same mercy at his son’s birth:

““Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, For He has visited and redeemed His people, And has raised up a horn of salvation for us In the house of His servant David, To perform the mercy promised to our fathers And to remember His holy covenant, The oath which He swore to our father Abraham: To grant us that we, Being delivered from the hand of our enemies, Might serve Him without fear,”
(Luke 1:68-69, 72-74 NKJV)

I’m just beginning to see how the wonder of the Incarnation can send us reeling deeper into gratitude and abandonment when the full biblical story is in view. The history of Israel throughout the Old Testament was not a preface to the “more important” story of forgiveness in the New Testament. The New Testament assumes the same gospel as the Old Testament. God’s chronicle with Israel is the vehicle He has used throughout history to make Himself known, and the riches of God’s mercy towards Israel have been put on display in the Incarnation. However, the story does not come to its climax or end there. That same Man from Nazareth will put mercy on display for all of the nations to see when He delivers Israel in a second “exodus” drama at the end of the age and sits enthroned in Jerusalem to be universally worshipped as God Himself. In fact, this is the way God has chosen to cause the entire world to know that Jesus is the LORD, and that there is no other God besides Him.

Though God came near in the Incarnation primarily for His people Israel (Matthew 10:6; Matthew 15:24), the descendants of Jacob had always been ordained to be a light to the rest of the nations for the glory of the one true God. Yet today the rest of the nations actually have more understanding of the LORD through the person of Christ. The apostle Paul calls this a mystery (Romans 11:25). It wasn’t until after the ascension of Jesus that the early church widely recognized that God had extended the promise of covenant inclusion and salvation from unquenchable fire to the Gentiles (Acts 15:14, Ephesians 3:6). By having the same faith as Abraham, we can now, as fellow members of God’s household (Ephesians 2:19), set our hope fully on the day Jesus returns (1 Peter 1:13) to fulfill His promises to Israel and be worshipped by all creation:

“and that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy, as it is written: “For this reason I will confess to You among the Gentiles, And sing to Your name. ”And again he says: “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with His people!” And again: “Praise the LORD, all you Gentiles! Laud Him, all you peoples!” And again, Isaiah says: “There shall be a root of Jesse; And He who shall rise to reign over the Gentiles, In Him the Gentiles shall hope.””
(Romans 15:9-12 NKJV)

The helpless Babe lying in the feeding trough can only fill us with momentary sentiment this Christmas without the backdrop of Adam’s transgression, God’s promise of judgment on it, the promise of the restoration of His dwelling through His acts with the nation of Israel, and the ancient hope that the faithful have clung to since that dreadful day in the garden – the restoration of all things in the heavens and on the earth to their original glory by the hand of the Seed, the Christ, the Anointed One (Genesis 3:15; Acts 3:19-21).

For God to take on human flesh is the most merciful thing He could do to draw all of humanity back to Himself and obtain our voluntary love and obedience. Promises spoken in times past to a tiny people group only have now been loudly decreed to the entire world. Instead of destroying us as our sins deserve, the Mighty One of Jacob is has openly displayed the riches of His grace and mercy (Ephesians 2:4). The salvation of God and promises made to Abraham are now available to heathen who had never heard of His fame or stood in awe of His deeds. The bush that burned with flames of fire is now approachable as a 20-inch helpless human frame. And through that Child, God will ultimately fulfill His word to Israel by causing them to be provoked to jealousy by Gentiles - those who were never direct recipients of the promises God made (Romans 11:11). I've discovered that understanding this epic story has enormous devotional value, and causes me to love the "Man with the plan" (forgive the cheesy pun). Could there be any greater revelation of mercy towards rebellious Israel and ultimately to all of sinful humanity?

As you meditate on the Incarnation this season, may the Lord grant you wisdom and insight into the greater story of His mercy and covenant faithfulness, and may it propel you into a new place of worship and esteem for the glory of God in the face of Christ.

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About the author

Joshua Hawkins is a pastor, Bible teacher, and content creator for disciples of Jesus from College Station, Texas. He co-hosts The Apocalyptic Gospel Podcast, a weekly audio show exploring how a first century Jew would have understood the Gospel. He's also an all-around tech nerd and enjoys road cycling.

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