Posted by: Johnold Strey | December 30, 2009

Luther on “The Word Became Flesh”

The following quotation comes from the American Edition of Luther’s Works, Volume 22, a collection of Luther’s sermons on the Gospel of John (chapters 1-4).  This sermon excerpt expounds on the first phrase of John 1:14: “The Word became flesh.”  I offer it here as devotional reading for the 12 days of Christmas.

In our text the Word gets a new name. Earlier in our chapter the evangelist called the Word God, then a Light which came into the world and created the world and yet was not accepted by the world. Now he uses the term “flesh.” He condescends to assume my flesh and blood, my body and soul. He does not become an angel or another magnificent creature; He becomes man. This is a token of God’s mercy to wretched human beings; the human heart cannot grasp or understand, let alone express it. …

The dear church fathers took particular delight in these words; they set great store by them, and they praised God, as we read here and there in their books, for the great honor conferred on us when He humbled himself and assumed our flesh and blood. In Heb. 2:16 we hear: “He did not take on Himself the nature of angels, but humbled Himself and He took on the seed of Abraham.” He became our flesh and blood. Who can express this adequately? The angels are much holier than we poor sinners, and yet He adopted our nature and became incarnate from the flesh and blood of the Virgin Mary.

This fact elicited the awe of St. Bernard and gave rise to many fine thoughts, found especially in his devotions. He gave it as his opinion that this had caused the archfiend Lucifer’s fall and eviction from heaven. Perhaps Lucifer, so St. Bernard supposed, had fore-knowledge of God’s eternal resolution to become a man in time, and not an angel. This provoked his insolence against God. He was aware, of course, that he was a creature more beautiful and excellent in appearance than man. This also aroused his envy of mankind; he begrudged man the high honor of God’s assumption of human nature. This vexed him and his companions. They became envious when they learned that God would despise them and assume human nature. Therefore Lucifer and his hosts fell and were driven out of heaven. …

Although these ideas expressed by St. Bernard do not constitute an article of faith, they do sound plausible. It is indeed annoying to our nature to see God Himself take on this poor, feeble, and corrupt human nature, and disdain the holy, glorious, angelic nature. Thus St. Bernard’s heart and mind gave free play to his reflections on the words of our text, and his meditations betoken his wondering delight over them. That is also what he wants to convey to and impress on us.

The dear fathers, I say, were amazed that the divine majesty assumed every aspect of this bag of worms, our human nature, except sin and guiltiness of death. He ate, drank, slept, waked, etc.; but He was not born in sin as we were. To be sure, this is so indescribable and inexplicable that anyone who really believes it must needs wonder. Yes, heaven, earth, and every creature must be awe-stricken at the thought that God should regard man dearer and nobler than an angel, although man is really a wretched creature by comparison. God’s preference for the human nature over the angelic might well arouse envy. But all this should make us meditate on the great glory that is ours. For the angels in heaven rejoice over the incarnation. This is why they constantly surround the Lord and serve Him. This is why they were about His grave when He arose from the dead.

Therefore the holy fathers had good reason to contemplate these words so much: “And was made man.” It would not be out of place for us still to weep for joy. Even if I should never be saved—which God forbid!—this thought would still fill me with joy: that Christ, who is of my flesh, blood, and soul, is sitting in heaven at the right hand of God the Father, and that such an honor has been conferred on my frame, flesh, and blood. As St. Bernard further deliberated on these words, he derived some very comforting thoughts from them. He said: “Now I can see that God my Lord is not angry with me; for He is my flesh and blood and sits at the right hand of the heavenly Father as Lord over all creatures. If He were ill-disposed toward me, He would not have taken on my flesh and blood.” We, too, should contemplate these words, “And was made man,” with reverent awe and sing them with long notes as is done in church. This is proper and right, since all our comfort and joy against sin, death, devil, hell, and despair revolve about them and nothing else. …

It is certain that if anyone could speak these words “And the Word became flesh” in true faith and with strong confidence in hours of the greatest temptation, he would be delivered from his trouble and distress; for the devil fears these words when they are uttered by a believer. I have often read and also witnessed it myself that many, when alarmed and distraught, spoke these words “And the Word became flesh” and at the same time made the sign of the cross, and thereby routed the devil. Belief in these words was so powerful that it overcame the world and the devil. There is another story or legend which is told about the devil. He was listening unmoved as the initial words of the Gospel of St. John were being read: “In the beginning was the Word.” But when the words “And the Word became flesh” were pronounced, he vanished. And again, whether this story is truth or fiction, the fact remains that the devil will surely take to his heels before anyone who speaks or meditates on these words in true faith. That the Son of God is the Light and Life of mankind is a thought he can bear. He chuckles contentedly inside himself when he observes that man does not accept Christ, as St. John declared in verse eleven of our chapter. But the words “God became man” knock all his thoughts to pieces. …

Therefore we should constantly have such and similar words in our heart and on our lips. We should learn not to argue with the devil when he tempts us; for he surpasses us by far in might, cunning, and understanding—even of Holy Scripture. We should beat him off curtly with the words “The Word became flesh” or “I am a Christian” or “I believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” Then see what he will accomplish! …

To summarize, no angel, much less a prophet or apostle, can fully express the truth that the eternal Son of God, who, according to Is. 53:9 and 1 Peter 2:22, “committed no sin, and no guile was found on His lips,” and, for that reason, was not guilty of death, yet became incarnate for our comfort and salvation. Yes, He became a curse and sin for us, in order to deliver us from the eternal curse and to justify us (Gal. 3:13; Rom. 8:3; 2 Cor. 5:21).

Thus the evangelist John preached of the Word, which was in the beginning, which was with God the Father, which was eternal God with the Father, through which all things were created, which was the Life and Light of mankind shining into the darkness, which came into the world, which dwelt among men, and, in spite of this, was not recognized by man. However, that He might be made manifest, God sent John the Baptist to go before Him to bear witness of Him. But the great multitude paid John’s testimony no heed. And when Christ came into His own, preached, and wrought miracles, His own did not accept Him. But to those who did receive Him He gave power to become the children of God.

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Responses

  1. Be silent, fiend! There sits my Friend,
    My flesh and blood, high in the heav’ns enthron-ed.
    What Thou dost smite The Prince of might
    From Jacob’s stem with honours high hath own-ed.

    Verse OT5 of “O Jesus Christ, Your Manger Is” in CW Handbook.


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