This article was originally written for Christ Hold Fast.
Over the last several months (well, years, really), I have been greatly moved by the ministry of Alexander Maclaren. His sermons have greatly influenced my own, perhaps not linguistically (or grammatically) but definitely thematically. The Scottish churchman who is mostly known for his profound expositions of Scripture was, dare I say, possessed by Christ, and everywhere sought to bring to the fore the incalculable benefits we who are united to him are made to share and enjoy. And, perhaps, of all the truths about Christ that is worthy perpetual reflection is one which Maclaren brings to bear during the course of a sermon entitled, “The Troubled Christ.” Taking the scene of the death of Jesus’s dear friend Lazarus, Maclaren proceeds comment on the harmony of the Lord’s deity and humanity. In a very affecting passage, Maclaren says that within Jesus’s marvelous frame are “inextricably interwoven are the weakness of the Man and the omnipotence of the God.”1
Throughout the Gospels, there are countless vignettes which aver precisely what Maclaren is getting at here, namely, the emotion of the Lord Jesus. Of course, the most stirring one is that which Maclaren uses as his text, the scene of Jesus weeping over Lazarus’s death in John 11. But among the more keen details we can glean from this familiar pericope is Maclaren’s observation that it is precisely Jesus’s emotions which not only suggest his but also his deity, too. Why else would we care about an ordinary man weeping graveside if not for the fact that this “ordinary man” is, indeed, the extraordinary Savior? Such is Maclaren’s assertion, when he writes:
What would it matter to me that a man, however good, however important in the development of the world’s history, was moved with the common emotions of humanity? But when I can say to myself that the hungry, thirsty, weary, sleeping Christ is God manifest in the flesh, and when I can further think that He who so entered into the limits of humanity as that He could be surprised, and so shared our tremulous nature as that He could be grieved and glad and indignant, was the Son of God, I know, and, with adoring reverent, say “Lo! This is our God” — this, and not an impassive monster, far away from our experiences, and, therefore, from our love, but dwelling with us and one of us, that we may be drawn near to Him.
It is part of the great mystery of His work for the world that He must necessarily take upon Himself the sin and the guilt from which He delivers us. He does not stand by the river’s bank and stretch out a dry hand to the men fighting in the flood, but He Himself plunges in to rescue them . . . He Himself bare the sickness that He was to bear away; that He endured the griefs which He was to alleviate; that He bowed His dead to the death which He was to abolish; that He entered into the grave which He was to burst; and so, having passed through all, He became the Deliverer of all.2
These words are resounding and affecting. Maclaren’s wonderful exaltation of Christ being the type of Savior who dives in after drowning sinners is among the most stirring in the entire gospel. When you are flailing in the life’s stormy seas, the gospel promises that you actually don’t have a swimming instructor close by. That might sound like the very opposite of good news — but, in fact, that’d be the worst news there is. Instead, as Chad Bird suggests, what the gospel does promise, however, is a God who hurls himself into the waves to come after us. God in Christ is more like a divinely-sent lifeguard than anything else. Chad writes:
When you’re drowning, Jesus isn’t a swimming coach who stands on the shore shouting instructions. He doesn’t tell you, “Suck it up. You got this.” He is the Savior who sticks beside you, who holds your head above water, who swims you to shore . . . God doesn’t want you merely to weather the storms of life. He puts his life inside you, he puts you inside him, and there you are safe, no matter what happens.
That exact image is precisely what Christ has done by taking on (and in) himself all the horrid, horrendous filth of our realm. He has thrust himself into a world that is wrecked and ruined. God’s creation is crestfallen, marred by the scandal that our first parents invited when they decided being “like God” was better than being with God. And it is to in selfsame horrors that God is enfleshed. Such is what forms, perhaps, the most remarkable truths in the gospel.
God is no an “impassive monster” who is unfamiliar with our horrendous ailments. Rather, in Christ, God familiarizes himself with our suffering and becomes particularly attuned to the fragility of fallen humanity. In Christ, the Creator of all comes encased in vulnerable flesh. In Christ, God the Father “took into himself our frailties, our sicknesses, our sins,” Chad writes elsewhere. “He became as we are to that we might become as he is.”3 The One by whose breath all the distant unreachable galaxies were formed for the sake of his glory is the same One who walked on this third rock from the sun and got dust between his toes and dirt under his fingernails. The same hands that hung every solar system in its place and set every star in its course came to earth and became susceptible to splinters and callouses and ingrown toenails.
But such is the God of the gospel of our salvation. A God who inhabits our world of ruin and woe and sickness and grief. A God who is okay with subjecting all his divinity to become enfleshed in the limits of humanity. A God who familiarizes himself with all the infirmities with which we are cursed that he might become the curse for us. (Heb 4:14–16; Gal 3:13)
Alexander Maclaren, The God of the Amen: And Other Sermons (London: Alexander & Shepheard, 1891), 132.
Ibid., 131, 137–38.
Chad Bird, Night Driving: Notes from a Prodigal Soul (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), 140.