In the Christmas season, those who are followers of Jesus tend to concentrate their cognitive efforts on the inexplicable miracle of the condescension of the eternal Son of God to appear in human flesh and blood. Our minds gravitate to the baby in the manger. Christ becomes the focus of our praise and worship so that our sermons and songs all consider the visitation of God to his people. This is not wrong, by any means. And yet sometimes we may get the impression that when the infant Savior burst onto the foreground of world history, God the Father and the Holy Spirit were relaxing backstage, enjoying some much-needed time off.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The triune God works indivisibly, indeed inseparably in this universe, so that the eternal plan of God is always worked out uniformly by each of the divine persons. They distinctively will the same outcomes and desire the same results, so that they each personally possess and act out a single divine will, just as they share a single divine nature. Father, Son, and Spirit, we are told in Scripture, work together in creation (Gen 1:1–3; John 1:3; Col 1:15–17), redemption and salvation (Titus 3:4–7), the Christian life (1 Cor 12:4–6; Eph 4:4–6), and in the accomplishment of human history (Jesus’ revelation to John is permeated with references to the three divine persons, beginning with Rev 1:9–10). The incarnation of the Son of God, while proper to the Son himself, is something in which each of the divine persons is intimately and uniformly involved.
God the Father and the Incarnation
God the Father was at work in the incarnation in sending his Son from the heavenly realm. It was the eternal will of the Father to send forth his Son.
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son,” (Gal 4:4). “In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me: I delight to do your will, O my God…’” (Psalm 40:6–8).
The sending of the Son took place according to the eternal plan of God enacted at just the right time. In contrast to God’s displeasure with empty sacrifices, the incarnation of the Son brought delight to the Father, because it was done according to his will.
The sending of the Son was a demonstration of the love of God the Father for humanity.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life,” (John 3:16).
The word “so” in John 3:16 doesn’t describe how much God loved the world, but the way in which God loved the world. The Father’s love for us compelled him to send forth his Son from heaven. Ryan Rippee says, “In the incarnation, the Father’s love has gone public (1 John 4:9).” Part of this act of love was the desire of the Father to reveal himself to humanity in the person of Christ.
“No one has ever seen God; the only [begotten] God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known,” (John 1:18).
But the Father was not merely at work in the distant realm of the highest heavens. He was also at work in this world, right here on the dusty ground. God the Father overshadowed Mary with his glorious presence while the physical being of Jesus was forming in her womb (Luke 1:35). The same term is used in Exodus 40:35 where the radiance of God’s glory rested above the tabernacle, and later in the Gospels at Jesus’ transfiguration, when God the Father spoke of his divine pleasure in his beloved Son (Matt 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:34).
While we don’t know exactly all that this overshadowing entails, it at least means that Jesus’ heavenly Father was neither distant nor apathetic concerning his Son’s prenatal human life. He was a true Father. He watched over both Jesus’ mother and his Son in utero. The Father gave his Son from heaven to humanity, not in an uncaring abandonment but in an intimate, loving, protective supervision of his early life. The Father took joy in his Son’s willing acceptance and accomplishment of this stage of his eternal plan of salvation, and with joy watched over his Son, now human, growing in a human womb. When Mary cradled baby Jesus in her soft embrace, the eternal Father enveloped his Son in his everlasting arms (Deut 33:27).
God the Spirit and the Incarnation
One might ask, what was the Spirit of God doing in the incarnation? The answer is that the Spirit was doing the same thing we see him doing throughout the rest of Scripture: giving life. At the creation of humanity, God breathed his breath of life into Adam and he became a living creature (Gen 2:7).
“When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground,” (Psalm 104:30).
The Spirit was at work in the conception of Jesus within Mary (Matt 1:20). When Mary asked Gabriel how it was possible for her to have a child while still a virgin, the angel responded, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you…” (Luke 1:35). The same Greek term for “come upon” is used in Acts 1:8 of the Spirit of God coming upon the disciples of Christ at Pentecost. In the OT the Spirit temporarily came upon a number of individuals to accomplish miraculous, supernatural works. So also here, the Spirit indwelt Mary to accomplish the supernatural work of the conception of the human person of Christ. The Spirit formed the inward parts of Christ, knitting him together in his mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13). The Holy Spirit gave life to the human Jesus, who was at the same time the eternal Son of God.
The Spirit also worked to testify to the coming of the Messiah, the Son of God, into the world through his ministry of filling. When Elizabeth heard the voice of Mary, baby John leapt inside her womb, and “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit,” (Luke 1:41). Elizabeth’s proclamation in Luke 1:42–45 should likely be viewed as prophetic utterance resulting from the Spirit’s filling. Later, when Zechariah received back his speech after the birth of John, he was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied about his son’s role in preparing the way for the Lord (Luke 1:67–79).
After the birth of Jesus, when he was taken to be presented at the temple for his dedication, the Holy Spirit was upon Simeon, initiating prophetic utterance about God’s plan of salvation through Jesus (Luke 2:25–35). Anna the prophetess also spoke of the birth of Christ “to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem,” (Luke 2:38), presumably through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God was not only involved in the prenatal conception and construction of the humanity of Christ, he was constantly igniting the hearts of those around the child to testify to the presence of their incarnate Savior.
God the Son and the Incarnation
Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus. As the baby in the manger is the focal point in all Christmas pageants, so the Son is center-stage in the incarnation. It is most appropriately the wonder of his humanity that is highlighted at this time of year. The eternal God enfleshed and dwelling among us is the primary topic that energizes and excites our hearts, and it is a beautiful truth on which to meditate. But since we are focusing here on the divine life of the Father, Son, and Spirit, I want to ponder the work of the eternal Son in the incarnation. Although he was helpless as a human baby, he was neither helpless nor passive in the incarnation. He took on flesh both willingly and joyfully.
The incarnation was an outworking of the one will of God, that will which can be said to properly be the will of God the Father which he eternally communicates to the Son and the Spirit. As God the Father eternally possesses life in himself, so he gave to the Son also to have life in himself before the creation of the cosmos, outside of time and space (John 5:26). While the Father and Son share one will, their orientation toward that will is distinctive. The will is properly the Father’s which is communicated to the Son; the Son accomplishes and executes that will in full union with the Father. Although they have a distinctive orientation toward the will of the Father, their will is one and the same, just as their nature is numerically one.
The eternal plan of redemption is a personal property of God the Father in which the Son and Spirit share and accomplish in this world (Eph 1:3–14). The Father eternally willed the coming of the Son into the world, and the Son with that same divine will freely and voluntarily came into the world, taking on human flesh. Before Christ’s incarnation, the Spirit revealed through the Psalmist the eternal disposition of the Son toward the Father: “I delight to do your will, O my God…” (Psalm 40:8). Jesus wasn’t forced to come to earth, he did it willingly.
Notice also that the incarnation wasn’t repugnant to the Son. He didn’t loathe the idea of coming to earth. In fact, quite the opposite. He delighted in the incarnation (Psalm 40:8). Stepping into this world of sin and brokenness didn’t mean for the Son of God that he lived his life in a constant state of sadness or frustration of the condition of his creation. His heart was filled with joy to accomplish the work that his Father had given him. On the night Jesus was betrayed, while still in the upper room with his disciples, Jesus spoke repeatedly about imparting his joy to his disciples, that their joy would be made full (John 15:11; 16:20–24; 17:13). God the Father did not oppressively force the Son to be born in Bethlehem. The Father lovingly sent and Jesus willingly and joyfully came, a luminous ray piercing into this darkened realm.
The Trinitarian Shape of Christmas
In the incarnation of Christ, we see the triune God at work. The Father sent his Son from the highest realm of glory. In sending his Son he demonstrated his love for humanity. Yet he continued to lovingly watch over both Mary and Jesus, surrounding them with his presence and overshadowing them with his glory. The Spirit of God was at work giving life to the human person of Jesus in his conception and prenatal development. The Spirit also testified through individuals through his filling ministry to the coming of the Messiah. The Son of God willingly and joyfully took on human flesh, not as a result of coercion but in loving and volitional union with his Father.
The birth of Jesus in the manger of Bethlehem was an act of divine will and divine delight. May we marvel in this Christmas season at the work of the triune God in the manifestation of the eternal Son in human flesh.
Jonathan J. Routley (JJ) serves as Professor of Bible and Theology at Emmaus Bible College in Dubuque, Iowa. JJ also serves on the Board of Directors for the Associates for Biblical Research (ABR). He holds a ThM in Theology from Western Seminary (Portland, OR), and is currently pursuing a PhD in Theological Studies from Columbia International University. JJ and his family reside in Dubuque, Iowa.