At this time of year, scenes and songs recounting our Lord’s birth in Bethlehem can be heard and witnessed almost everywhere. But how many of us have truly contemplated the meaning of that rude enclosure, those breathtakingly primitive facilities, into which the Second Person of the Godhead descended in coming to this earth?
It helps to bear in mind that, compared to where He came from, the lordliest imperial palace on the planet would have been a tumbledown shack. Neither the residence of Caesar Augustus on the Palatine in Rome, the opulent seat of power for the Parthian kings at Ecbatana in the highlands of Iran, not even the gold-and-jewel-encrusted Forbidden City of the Han emperors of China, could have matched the splendor of the abiding place of the King of Kings in heaven.
But our Lord was not content with a mere comparative humiliation. He chose to come all the way to the bottom—to what was likely a fly-invested, manure-ridden, smelly stable.
One is forced to smile at the many sanitized portrayals of the Nativity so common in both our society and in popular Christian artwork. Snowy-white baby clothes, the infant Savior fast asleep and fully comfortable, the animals all keeping their respectful distance—not likely an accurate depiction of what the initial earthly quarters that housed the human Christ were really like. One thinks of similar, equally ubiquitous images in our circles of Jesus’ second coming—all the saints looking clean and well-dressed as they look upward, with clothes conveying the impression that they all just came out of Sabbath School! More than likely, at least for those about to be translated without seeing death, the faithful who greet our Lord’s return will look (and smell) like a bunch of hippies from the 60s!
This fact of our Lord’s condescension helps us better understand the following Ellen White statement from The Desire of Ages:
It would have been an almost infinite humiliation for the Son of God to take man’s nature, even when Adam stood in his innocence in Eden. But Jesus accepted humanity when the race had been weakened by four thousand years of sin. Like every child of Adam He accepted the results of the working of the great law of heredity. What these results were is shown in the history of His earthly ancestors. He came with such a heredity to share our sorrows and temptations, and to give us the example of a sinless life (1).
Those who believe Jesus in His incarnation took the sinless nature of Adam as it was before the fall, must ask themselves if in fact they are prepared to believe their Lord’s humiliation was “almost” infinite.
The Ellen White statement noted above is, of course, based entirely on the testimony of Scripture. The apostle Paul writes that Jesus was “made of the seed of David according to the flesh” (Rom. 1:3). It doesn’t take much reflection to remember the kind of human nature David possessed, “according to the flesh.” Later in this same epistle the apostle writes:
For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh, That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit (Rom. 8:3-4).
Arguments have raged in certain circles as to whether the word “likeness” in the above passage refers merely to simulation or to actual reality. The New Testament evidence, linguistic and otherwise, is quite persuasive that the word “likeness” refers to reality and not to simulation (see Phil. 2:7), But one need not delve into the Greek to understand what Paul is saying in Romans 8 about the flesh.
First he declares that Jesus “condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3), then goes on in the following verse to state that this demonstration on our Lord’s part was for the purpose of ensuring “that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4). The verses that follow are even clearer that the “flesh” being described in this context is not a reference to what covers our bones, but rather, to a human nature hostile to the divine will:
For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh, but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit...So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God. But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you...Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die; but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live (verses 5,8-9,12-13).
This, in other words, is the human nature in which Jesus “condemned sin” (verse 3). This is how far He stooped in order to save us. He wasn’t content with an “almost” infinite humiliation. His humiliation had to go all the way—all the way down to that smelly stable.
The next time you see a Nativity scene—on the lawn at someone’s home, at a church, perhaps at a local shopping mall—think of the infinite humiliation it represents. Think of Ellen White’s declaration where she writes of our Lord, “He took upon Himself fallen, suffering human nature, degraded and defiled by sin” (2). Think of the power over temptation and wickedness, even in this postmodern world, that this condescension by Jesus makes possible.
What is more, ponder perhaps the extent to which you yourself are willing to leave your comfort zone for the purpose of helping others, in particular those who make you least comfortable. If the God we worship was willing to exchange the throne of the universe for an innkeeper’s manger, how far should we be willing to go in the sacrifice of means, reputation, time, and more for the purpose of placing truth and salvation within the reach of all?
Amid the lights, gifts, festivities, and rightful joy that pervades this time of year, the danger that lurks for even professed Christians is in losing sight of the true “reason for the season,” a phrase often used but not often comprehended. That crude cattle shed in which the Messiah commenced His earthly sojourn betokens more than the material poverty He embraced from His earliest human moments—more even than its jarring reminder that life’s pivotal experiences often don’t announce themselves, something that nameless innkeeper will learn one day when he discovers Who in fact he consigned to those disreputable quarters that busy evening. But more than anything else, that stable represents our Savior’s infinite condescension, the depth to which He was prepared to go to provide the pardon and power needed to save humanity. In the days to come, may our Lord’s self-humiliation motivate us all in our service for Him and for those around us.
1. Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 49.
2. ----SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 4, p. 1147.
Pastor Kevin Paulson holds a Bachelor’s degree in theology from Pacific Union College, a Master of Arts in systematic theology from Loma Linda University, and a Master of Divinity from the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He served the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for ten years as a Bible instructor, evangelist, and local pastor. He writes regularly for Liberty magazine and does script writing for various evangelistic ministries within the denomination. He continues to hold evangelistic and revival meetings throughout the North American Division and beyond, and is a sought-after seminar speaker relative to current issues in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He presently resides in Berrien Springs, Michigan.