SEVERAL YEARS AGO a friend sent me a life-changing Christmas card. On the front was this simple statement, “Many Men Have Claimed To Be God.”
Underneath appeared the pictures of famous men like Ghengis Khan, Augustus Caesar, Pharaoh, Alexander the Great, and important Hindu Gurus like Maharishi Mahesh Yogi—all men with substantial egos and great ambitions for worldly prominence. As I thought of the outlandish claims of these long-forgotten mortals, the absurdity of their ambitions seemed humorous.
I opened the card. In stark black print on glossy-white card stock this single phrase appeared.
“But Only One God Has Claimed To Be Man.”
That is the astounding message that we celebrate at Christmas.
It was an austere, hypeless, message—simple, yet profound. The real God expressed his greatness by descending, becoming less than He was, by emptying himself of the perks and prerogatives of deity, by taking the lowest place in total anonymity.
By contrast, we pursue greatness by ascending, lifting ourselves up, pretending we are something that we are not. In the process we express what the Bible calls the “mind of the flesh.”
A great chasm separates these two mindsets. It is the wasteland that separates Heaven from Hell. It is the distance that separates life with God at the center or life without Him. It is the difference between living in the social context of the church of the living God or life lived in a selfish, fallen world.
Over the years I have found myself thinking about this card. The implications are staggering. God goes up by descending. Fallen man, in his futility, lifts himself up only to be resisted and ultimately cast down by God. “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
Christ’s descent can only be understood and appreciated to the degree that we meditate on His greatness. The last two centuries have shed much light on the immensity of creation and, therefore, the greatness of the God who created it.
To display the majesty and glory of His power, Christ created a universe of unimaginable proportions. Our minuscule size, relative to its enormity, is thoroughly humbling.
Distances in the universe are so immense that we measure them in light years—the distance light travels at 186,000 miles per second for an entire year. To put it in perspective, light will circle the earth 7.5 times in one second. Summed up, a light-year is approximately 6 Trillion miles—a distance our minds cannot fathom, and this is only one light-year. The nearest star is 4.3 light-years distant.
In addition, numerous galaxies exist outside our own Milky Way. Many are thousands of light-years across and filled with millions of stars, some 1,000 times larger than our sun. From some of the other galaxies, our galaxy, the Milky Way, is not even visible, despite the fact that, at the most recent estimates, it contains 100 billion stars. The nearest galaxy, Andromeda, is 750,000 light-years away. At this writing, the furthest known galaxy is 1,000,000,000 (1 billion) light-years away.
All of this means one thing. We are small. Compared to the universe our solar system is unimaginably tiny, and our own earth even smaller. The sun is a good reference point. It is 866,000 miles in diameter. Although there are stars 1,000 times larger than the sun, the sun is 1,250,000 times larger than the earth. It lies 33,000 light-years from the center of our Milky Way, of which it is a part, and at its current speed, would take 225 million years just to orbit the Milky Way.
All of this, the Bible reminds us, Christ spoke into existence by His word of naked power.
When modern science began to grasp these figures, and the minuteness of our solar system (let alone our planet and we human beings) skepticism abounded. How could God have any interest in creatures this small and insignificant? R.L. Dabney (1820-98), chaplain to Stonewall Jackson, and influential Southern Presbyterian theologian answered these objections with this prescient statement.
“When once it was found that this earth was a very small planet in our system, it would appear very absurd, that the Lord of all this host of worlds should die for a little speck among them…[But] next to God’s immensity, no world is really great, and all are infinitesimally small.[i]”
Dabney’s argument was simple. If the universe, although billions of light-years across, is finite and God is infinite, our universe, despite its size, also withers into something absurdly small. Anything finite next to something infinite, no matter how large, contracts into comparative insignificance. The conclusion? From God’s perspective, even the universe is infinitely small.
I have labored these facts to make this point: Christ is so great in power and majesty that, at His mere word of command, all of this appeared. He spoke the universe into existence. Moreover, this is an incomplete revelation of His infinite power. The energy/power in the Universe is finite. But God has an infinite reserve of power. Now maybe we can understand why John, the apostle most intimate with Jesus in His humanity, when he saw Him in His glory on the Island of Patmos, fell before Him as though dead (Rev. 1:17). Maybe now we can appreciate Paul’s words in Phil. 2 when he said, “Who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped.”
Here is the miracle and wonder of the incarnation. It is what we celebrate at Christmas. This baby, who condescended to lie in a manger (a cattle feeding trough) was the infinite, eternal Logos—omnipotent, omniscient, and glorious beyond our power to imagine. So great is he that none of us can behold him in his ascended glory and survive.
This God lowered Himself, emptied himself, and descended an infinite distance to save us. This is why Paul described his love as that which “surpasses knowledge” (Eph. 3:17).
As the Christmas card so eloquently stated, “Many men have claimed to be God, But only once has God claimed to be man.”
“For the sun to fall from its sphere, and be degraded into a wandering atom; for an angel to be turned out of heaven, and be converted into a silly fly or worm, had been no such great abasement; for they were but creatures before, and so they would abide still, though in an inferior order or species of creatures. The distance betwixt the highest and lowest species of creatures is but a finite distance. The angel and the worm dwell not so far apart. But for the infinite glorious Creator of all things, to become a creature is a mystery exceeding all human understanding. The distance between God and the highest order of creatures is an infinite distance.”The Works of John Flavel, Vol 1, pg 226
The implications are obvious.
First, humility. We are not as important as we think we are.
Second, love. We ought to love one another as God has loved us—with humility—“counting others more important than ourselves.”
Third, hope. God’s greatness is the foundation of our eternal hope.
Fourth, accountability. Our current knowledge of the universe enhances our accounting to God. “To he that has been given much, much will be expected.”
[i]Dabney, R. L. (1996). Topical lectures on Scripture. Index created by Christian Classics Foundation. (electronic ed. based on the Banner of Truth 1985 ed.). Simpsonville SC: Christian Classics Foundation.