In the New Testament we see God’s covenant in its perfect form. God provided from within Israel and within humanity the fulfillment of his covenant. In Jesus, God comes as the Son (reconciliation) and the Word (revelation)—one “mighty act of the incarnation” (57).
The Word made flesh
In Jesus, the Word became flesh. We need to consider these three important words.
“Word” in the Old Testament is dabar which carries two meanings. It refers to the back or hinterground of something as well as a thing or event itself. When John said that the Word became flesh, he has the tabernacle in mind. It had an outer and inner (hinterground) court. Within the innermost inner court was the ark which housed God’s dabar—the 10 Commandments or debarim (words, history). It’s not surprising to see, in John, Jesus refer to himself twice as the temple.
For the Word to become “flesh” means that “the Word fully participates in human nature and existence” (61). The flesh he became was the flesh of humanity, which he sanctified as he assumed it. “While he, the holy Son of God, because what we are, he became what we are in a different way from us” (63) because he was without sin.
The process by which the word “became” flesh is an utterly unique and “ultimately unfathomable” event whereby the Creator creates creatures out of nothing then chooses to become one of the creatures he made (talk about paradox)! You can look at this event from two perspectives. As the Word condescended to take on our flesh, our flesh was thereby exalted. Reconciliation didn’t begin at the cross—it was rooted in the incarnation. The word “became” refers to a completed event, but this “historical happening remains eternally real and alive” (67, emphasis in the original).
The Son become servant
“Word become flesh” isn’t sufficient enough to fully convey what Jesus did, so we have the additional metaphor of Son become servant. Three Old Testament motifs explain this.
The first motif is servant-son. Jesus refers to this by the title, Son of Man. Drawing from the servant songs of Isaiah along with other passages, we see Jesus (like Israel) as the beloved son and servant of God.
The second motif is ben-bayith or “the son of the house”. This Old Testament expression is used in two senses. It can refer to the son/heir of a household or to the servant of the house who is in charge of the affairs of the household. Joseph in Egypt was referred to in this second sense. Moses was also referred to as ben-bayith in this second sense in the house of God. Jesus is a ben-bayith like Moses, although he transcended the category of servant and was also the son/heir.
The third motif was Adam as son of God. Jesus, like Adam, is God’s son but Jesus did the exact opposite of Adam. Adam took purity and sinned. Jesus took “Adam’s rebellious existence” (73) and condemned sin in the flesh. In doing so, Jesus demonstrated what a true man was.
The classic passage on “Son become servant” is Philippians 2. Although it’s popular to read ekenōsen as “emptying”—that Jesus somehow emptied himself of the independent use of his divine prerogatives, the text doesn’t go that far. It either means “made himself of no reputation” (KJV) or that he emptied himself out of his heavenly form into his earthly form. The humbling of Jesus is the point here. Although there are many texts which tell us about the incarnation, we are never hold how God did it. “that is the miracle of the Holy Spirit” (76, emphasis in the original).
The Descent and ascent of the Son
The liturgical language of descent and ascent the Old Testament is used in the New Testament to speak of baptism. The descent and ascent of Christ, however, is the turning point of this language. He descended to our level in revelation and reconciliation, then ascended “wearing our redeemed humanity and presented it in himself before the face of the Father” (77).
Jesus’ descent was a movement of revelation where the Word of God became a beggar to convince other beggars that God sought to forgive him. More than this, Jesus offered this “actual pardon and reconciliation” (77).
Jesus’ descent was also a movement of reconciliation where the Son of God entered the sin and guilt in humanity’s heart and defeated it.This movement of reconciliation requires that we respond in humiliation and confession.
It’s important to remember that Jesus didn’t accomplish all this by his death alone. Reformers spoke of Jesus’ active and passive obedience to stress that his life, as well as his death, mattered. Jesus actively obeyed his Father in perfect obedience. He passively obeyed by choosing to bear death on our behalf. This is important for us in that both his active and passive obedience was vicarious. “Justification means not simply the non-imputation of our sins through the pardon of Christ, but the positive sharing in his human righteousness” (81). Viewed this way, redemption is far more than a mere forensic category.
That atoning exchange (where Jesus was made, by way of substitution, sin) begins right away with the incarnation, with its assumption of our flesh of sin, its condemnation of sin in the flesh, its sanctification of our humanity through the gift of divine righteousness and sanctification of man in Christ. (63)
We are saved therefore not only by the death of Christ which he suffered for our sakes but by his vicarious life which he lived for our sakes. (81)
This is a new thought for me. My theological furniture was neatly organized into separate rooms—incarnation then atonement. Torrance teases out the implications of incarnation here and recognizes that Jesus’ very assumption of our sinful flesh is the start of the reconciliation of humanity to God which is completed on the cross.
I suppose this would also give new energy to a salvific understanding of Jesus’ life and ministry also. Unlike the creeds, I don’t think it’s enough to state, “he lived, he died, he rose” without taking his teaching seriously.
True man does not sin. True man is man answering in truth the word of God addressed to mankind. Men and women who commit sin, who disobey the word of God, have fallen from their humanity into inhumanity. (73)
This idea has always fascinated me—that sin is dehumanizing. I can’t remember if it was C. S. Lewis or N. T. Wright where I first heard it, but it has stuck with me. If sin is a result of the fall which takes us away from the source of life itself, then sin makes us somehow less than human.