The Man and the Birds Illustration

man and birds

(Note:  This is the fifth Christmas article I wrote and posted on this blog.  The first one was about the Gospel accounts of the Christmas story and the second one was about the visit by the Magi , both written in December 2015. The third one was a devotional on some non-traditional Christmas verses in December 2017 and another one was about holiday reflections on God’s presence at work in late November 2018.  In late December 2019, I reflected on our family visits at Christmas.)

There is a well-known illustration of the incarnation that is often shared at Christmastime called “The Man & The Birds”.  I recall hearing it for the first time as a young Christian in the late ‘70s.  Click on this link to listen to a five-minute audio version of Paul Harvey telling this story in his heart-warming style.

The end of the story focuses on a man who comes to realize that he would have to change into a bird in order to help other birds find shelter in a winter storm.  This simple analogy helped the man who had no faith to understand why God needed to send his son Jesus to be Immanuel – God with us.

For some reason I got to thinking about it last night on the way to chapel.  I do appreciate the main point of the story.  If a man could become a bird, he could speak to the lost birds in their own language and lead them to safety, just as God became man at the birth of Jesus so that He could teach us (who are also lost) and lead us all to safety.

However, the more I thought about it, it occurred to me that there is so much more to the incarnation that what this illustration implies.  Without tearing it down, let me try to add to the story a little bit with my own sanctified imagination.

There must be both a man and a man-bird in this story

The first thing I wondered to myself was, “What became of the man after he turned into a bird?”  Was it just a temporary gig, or did he stay a bird the rest of his life?

This strange question ties in with my theologically incomplete understanding of the Christmas story that I had as a child, which was summed up in the phrase, “God became a man.”  Only much later did I learn the orthodox truth that God the Father did not become a baby.

When Jesus was born, God the Father did not cease to exist.  Through an immaculate conception with Mary, He gave birth a Son who was his equal in essence but unique in person.  Jesus was and is fully man and fully divine.  He invites us to relate to God as Father in the same way that He did during his time on earth.  This is a rather essential biblical principle when discussing and living out in practical terms the doctrine of the Trinity.

To make this a more theologically sound illustration, the man must remain a man (representing God the Father)  and yet become a bird-man (representing Jesus) in order to save the birds.

Adding more theological depth to the illustration

The second thought I had is that the illustration does not go into nearly enough detail to explain the nature and result of the incarnation.  However, if we were to flesh out the man and the birds illustration to properly reflect and parallel the full implications of the incarnation, we would have to make some adjustments.

Here is what I would add:

  • The man-bird would have to start out as a fertilized egg in a nest, get hatched, grow up, learn to fly, and then try to help the birds caught in a storm later on.
  • As a man-bird, he would be 100% bird in every respect; he would also be fully man. However, he would willingly lay aside the glory of his humanness. (See Phil 2:5-8.)
  • Although some would follow him, most of the birds he would try to teach would oppose him and want him dead, since he was calling himself equal with man.
  • This man-bird would be betrayed by one of his own flock, and he would willingly die for the sins of all birds.
  • This man-bird would rise from the dead, appear to his followers for a short time, and depart to be with the man who sent him until it was time for all things to end.
  • One day, this man-bird would return to judge the living and the dead; he would reign forever as King of all the birds, and sit at the right hand of his father.

This is no longer a five-minute illustration, but perhaps the story is a bit more complete.

My intent was not to ruin a perfectly good analogy that has been told for decades.  I simply wanted to point out that there is much more to the biblical doctrine of the incarnation than what we normally think.  Jesus did not merely come to earth to show us the way to safety.

Yes, Jesus did show us the way.  He is the way, the truth, and the life.  Jesus also came to die for you and me, and He is coming again to reign.  These are worth celebrating at Christmas!

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015.  He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor.  Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.