Archives For The Incarnation

Translational Living

Mark Beuving —  October 19, 2015 — Leave a comment

Theologians and missiologists often use an important but difficult-to-understand concept: “incarnational living.” Using terms like “incarnational” sometimes makes important concepts like these unnecessarily difficult, so I want to reframe this concept using terminology that will hopefully be a bit more familiar.

“Incarnational” refers to the “incarnation,” the act in which Jesus took on flesh. (You can think of carne asada, grilled meat, and make the connection that Jesus wrapped himself in meat—a gross visual, but pretty literal). With the birth of Jesus, God was becoming man, the Divine Being was embodying himself—taking the form of humanity—and thereby revealing himself to us in a new way. This is the significant even the author of Hebrews praises at the beginning of his letter:

“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our father by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…” (Heb. 1:1–2).

There is something unique about God speaking not in words, but in the human (and yet still divine) person of his Son! And in this miraculous event we have a powerful model of what it looks like to speak to our world about Jesus. So now, in an effort to make sense of what this would look like, let me switch from “incarnation” language to “translation” language. (And in doing so, I’m adapting some thoughts I gleaned from missiologist Andrew Walls.)

When Jesus lived amongst humanity, his very life was an act of translation. He was Immanuel, God with us, the very presence of God in human form. To look at Jesus is to realize, “This is what God is like.” We can use many words to convey what God would be like in human terms, or we can simply look at Jesus. Jesus was God’s greatest act of translation.

Hebrew BibleIn translating the Bible from the Hebrew and Greek in which it was originally written, translators have to ask which words in the new language (let’s just say English) fit with the words in the original language. And this is extremely difficult. For example, Greek has 3 words for “love,” and English has only one word to carry the meaning of all three words. Plus “love” in English is pretty slippery, covering everything from our “love” for breakfast food to our “love” for God. So translation carries all kinds of dangers and possibilities: We can express truth about God in new and exciting ways, but we also run the risk of mis-expressing something about God.

When God translated himself into human form (in Jesus), the translation was perfect. We look at Jesus and see God precisely as God would look were he to live as a human being in the first-century Greco/Roman/Jewish world (which is precisely what was happening).

So God translated himself in Jesus. But Christianity is a faith that requires constant translation. (This, by the way, is entirely unique. For Muslims, reading the Qur’an in a language other than Arabic is not truly reading the Qur’an. Sometime after Jesus, at least some branches of Judaism decided that a non-Hebrew Torah was not truly a Torah. But the Christian faith has had translation at its heart from the very beginning because the entire faith is grounded in God’s act of translation through Jesus.) That means that we must always be translating Jesus into our own context and for our own neighbors.

Suburban StreetYou and I are, in essence, walking translations of what God has done in Jesus. We stand in the midst of our neighborhoods and workplaces and friend-groups as an embodied statement: “This is what Jesus is like.” And just like translating the Bible, this is an extremely difficult task. It requires continuously deepening knowledge of who God is, thorough familiarity with our culture—including its interests, thought forms, and means of expression—and a commitment to “being Jesus” in a deep sense in every situation.

It has been said that you and I are likely the only Bible our neighbors will ever read. And that’s true, but not in a resigned, I-guess-that-will-have-to-do, sense. It’s actually true by God’s design that our neighbors will learn about him through the translation of our lives. You and I are acts of translation. We are God-made-flesh (not exactly like Jesus, but much like him) in the specific culture, setting, and relationships of our moment and our day.

The point is, be a good translation. Be a living, breathing example of what it looks like to be Jesus in your location in the 21st century. Call it incarnational living, call it translational living, call it whatever. God has something to say to the people he has placed around you, and he wants to say it through the details of your life.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:4-7)

Sometimes we’re so familiar with the story, that we don’t see its scandal. Mary was found pregnant out of wedlock in a culture where such shameful deeds were intolerable, and her “Holy Ghost” story would only intensify the ridicule. Instead of stoning his fiancée, Joseph decided to divorce her, but God stopped him in his tracks and convinced him that Mary’s ghost story was true. So the two would have to endure the shame once Mary’s belly could no longer be hidden.

Luckily, Rome called for a census, which required the couple to head out of town to their village of origin: Bethlehem. The tiresome journey provided a soothing respite from public shame. But once they entered Bethlehem, judgmental eyebrows were quickly raised, and the scandal continued. Popular renditions of the Christmas story reflect little historical truth. Jesus was probably not born outside of a commercial “inn”—despite our English translations. The word kataluma can refer to an ancient motel, but its usual translation is “spare room,” not “inn.” It’s also unlikely that there were any commercial inns in a small village like Bethlehem, so the translation “spare room” is probably what Luke intended. So, when Mary and Joseph sought shelter in their hometown of Bethlehem, they probably went to the house of a relative and asked to stay in their “spare room.”

“Sorry,” the relative said, no doubt eying Mary’s expanded waistline. “There’s no space in our kataluma. You’ll have to sleep out with the animals.”

“But Sir,” Joseph pleaded, “my wife is about to have a baby, and…”

“Fiancee! Joseph. She’s your fiancée, not your wife,” his relative interjected with obvious disapproval. “You can sleep out with the animals, if you want. But you cannot come under my roof.”

Extending hospitality to the unwed couple would also extend approval to their actions, and the whole village would soon find out. Joseph’s relative could not risk the shame. So Mary and Joseph remained outside in the courtyard where the animals were kept at night. And then came the pain. Contractions began to knife their way through Mary’s abdomen, while nervous excitement shivered up Joseph’s spine. The piercing pain pacified the stench of the excrement wafting through the air. And the shame of scandal, ridicule, and rejection was drowned out by the jubilant hope of a newborn child.

No doctor, no instruments, no sanitation, and certainly no painkillers. Childbirth in the first century was a risky event. But God endured the shame, the scandal, the risk in order to bring us back to Eden. As Mary grunted and pushed, heaven came crashing down to earth, and Joseph was there to receive him. First some hair and then the head. Shoulders and arms, legs and feet. The One who made the stars would pass from the uterus, down through the vaginal canal, and into Joseph’s nervous hands. His umbilical cord was cut, the blood wiped from his eyes, and remaining amniotic fluid extracted from his lungs. Up and down, the breath of life expanded his lungs, and an urgent wail filled the courtyard and spooked the sheep. After nursing the child to sooth his fear, Mary wrapped her son in cloth and with no crib nearby, she laid him in a feeding trough.

A feeding trough. The One who spoke the universe into existence, who reigns over the nations, who commands history, who created you and me in His own image—chose to be laid in a stone box where animals eat grain. In doing so, God’s relationship with humanity was brought to an uncanny level. The One who made the stars would suckle the breast of a 13-year-old unwed Jewish girl in a small village of a backwater province of the Roman empire. No pomp or prestige, parades or accolades, God stormed creation through a whisper—the illegitimate womb of a young Jewish girl. Shame, scandal, rejection, pain, fear, and humility clothed the birth of Christ, and this is exactly the way He planned it.


Because you cannot care for those who are suffering without entering into their pain. God cares for you. And he knows your pain. Turn to Him. He’s been there.