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  • Writer's pictureMarco Inniss

A Devotional on the Excellency of Christ Seen in Christmas by Jonathan Edwards

Infinite Condescension

In this act of taking on human nature, Christ’s infinite condescension [“descending to be with”] wonderfully appeared, that he who was God should become man, that the word should be made flesh, and should take on him a nature infinitely below his original nature. And it appears yet more remarkably in the low circumstances of his incarnation: he was conceived in the womb of a poor young woman, whose poverty appeared in this, when she came to offer sacrifices of her purification, she brought what was allowed of in the law only in case of a person . . . [who] was so poor that she was not able to offer a lamb.

And though his infinite condescension thus appeared in the manner of his incarnation, yet his divine dignity also appeared in it; for though he was conceived in the womb of a poor virgin, yet he was conceived there by the power of the Holy Ghost. And his divine dignity also appeared in the holiness of his conception and birth. Though he was conceived in the womb of one of the corrupt race of mankind, yet he was conceived and born without sin. . . .

His infinite condescension marvelously appeared in the manner of his birth. He was brought forth in a stable because there was no room for them in the inn. The inn was taken up by others who were looked upon as persons of greater account. The Blessed Virgin, being poor and despised, was turned or shut out. Though she was in such extreme circumstances, yet those that counted themselves her betters would not give place to her; and therefore, in the time of her travail, she was forced to betake herself to a stable; and when the child was born, it was wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger. There Christ lay a little infant, and there he eminently appeared as a lamb.

But yet this feeble infant, born thus in a stable, and laid in a manger, was born to conquer and triumph over Satan, that roaring lion. He came to subdue the mighty powers of darkness, and make a show of them openly, and so to restore peace on earth, and to manifest God’s good-will towards men, and to bring glory to God in the highest, according as the end of his birth was declared by the joyful songs of the glorious hosts of angels appearing to the shepherds at the same time that the infant lay in the manger; whereby his divine dignity was manifested. . . .

Though Christ dwelt in poor outward circumstances, whereby his condescension and humility especially appeared, and his majesty was veiled, yet his divine divinity and glory did in many of his acts shine through the veil, and it illustriously appeared, that he was not only the Son of man, but the great God.

Thus, in the circumstances of his infancy, his outward social lowness appeared; yet there was something then to show forth his divine dignity, in the wise men’s being stirred up to come from the east to give honor to him their being led by a miraculous star, and coming and falling down and worshipping him, and presenting him with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. . . .

Christ’s incarnation was a greater and more wonderful thing than ever had yet come to pass. The creation of the world was a very great thing, but not so great as the incarnation of Christ. It was a great thing for God to make the creature, but not so great as for the Creator himself to become a creature. . . . God becoming man was greater than all [previous events in history]. Then the greatest person was born that ever was or ever will be.

Humility and Exaltation

Jonathan Edwards was one of the most important religious figures in the history of American Christianity. He was a theologian, preacher, and prolific writer. The particular contribution of the passage printed here is its balance between contrasting aspects of Christ’s incarnation.

The context that best enables us to see this balance is the way in which most of the selections in this anthology emphasize either the humility seen in Christ’s birth and life, or the exaltation of it, as seen in such miracles as a virgin birth and the appearance of an angelic host and the supernatural guidance of the wise men. Edwards brings both of these together, and seeing how he works this out is the key to our assimilation of the passage. As the template for this balanced picture of the incarnation, Edwards has in mind two biblical metaphors for Jesus—the lamb and the lion.

The way in which Edwards gets us to see the complementary sides of the incarnation is subtle and masterful. The main principle is that of a back-and-forth movement like a pendulum. First Edwards places data before us that demonstrates the humility of Jesus seen in his nativity and incarnation. Then the words but and yet set up a countermovement that rehearses the signs of Christ’s majesty and exalted status. A few of the paragraphs are devoted exclusively to one or the other of these themes, but mainly we need to keep alert within paragraphs to see the swing of the pendulum. This is entirely appropriate, because the humility and exaltation were intertwined on the night of Jesus’s birth and afterward.

Edwards repeatedly uses the word condescension, and we need to understand that this is a theological word and concept, with no hint of the negative connotations that the word holds in common usage today. Christ’s condescension was his descent from a higher divine state to a lower human one, accompanied by his relinquishing of divine privilege in order to accomplish an action (the salvation of people) that strict justice does not require.

The final paragraph steps back from the analysis that has preceded and makes sure that we comprehend the greatness of what has been presented. Having been led to see the complementary facts of Christ’s humility and greatness as seen in Christmas, at the end we are prompted to celebrate those facts.

The takeaway from this meditation is that we need to see that the nativity and incarnation combine opposites (humility and exaltation), and that we need to keep an eye on both as we celebrate the season.

Jonathan Edwards based his sermon “The Excellency of Christ” on Revelation 5:5–6:

And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain. . . .

The creation of the world was a very great thing, but not so great as the incarnation of Christ.

This article is adapted from Journey to Bethlehem: A Treasury of Classic Christian Devotionals by Leland Ryken.

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