READ : John 1:1-14
Four brief words in the opening paragraphs of John’s gospel – “the Word became flesh” – describe an event so amazing, so breath-taking, that it changes everything afterwards.
We modern men and women, living as we do in a world of technological marvels, have largely lost our sense of wonder. Early in the nineteenth century the British government established a special committee, the Parliamentary Committee on Railways, to study this new breakthrough in transportation technology involving steam locomotives pulling passenger carriages. Professor William Farish of Cambridge University reported to the committee that the railroads would never amount to much because the human body could not survive speeds in excess of 30 mph!
Just imagine what the professor would think if he could visit our time. I think our world would strike him as nothing short of witchcraft. We travel, not just on the ground, but through the air and even into space. Enter our homes and more wonders await. Turn a dial to make it warm in winter, cool in summer. Flip a switch and night becomes as day. Push a button and listen to a symphony. Push another and watch a drama, comedy or sports contest. Lift an instrument and talk to another person halfway round the world. But we’ve come to accept all these wonders as commonplace. It’s getting harder and harder to amaze people these days.
So listen again to something really amazing, something truly wonderful – i.e., full of wonder. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” What this means is simply this: that the eternal and infinite God, the Creator and Ruler of the universe, at one particular time and in one given place, did really and truly become a man. A specific, individual man: Jesus of Nazareth. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” What e=mc? is to physics, this sentence is to human history It’s one of those simple statements whose implications are so radical it affects everyone and everything that comes after it. Have we grown so cynical, so bored, has this astounding statement become so familiar through repetition that it no longer has the capacity to thrill us?
Think of it – God has become a man. This is the most astonishing news ever related by anyone to anyone! As the great Christian writer Dorothy L. Sayers noted, “We may call that doctrine exhilarating or we may call it devastating; we may call it revelation or we may call it rubbish; but if we call it dull then words have no meaning at all.”
WHO CHRIST IS
Back to England and Cambridge for a moment. Each Christmas Eve a special worship service is held in the chapel of Cambridge University’s King’s College. It is one of the most widely known and listened to worship services in the world. This service of lessons and carols, as it is called, began more than eighty years ago and it follows exactly the same pattern every year. The service’s structure is built around nine scripture lessons – passages drawn from both Old and New Testaments – that tell the biblical story of humanity’s fall into sin, of God’s gracious promises of salvation, and finally of the coming of the Savior into the world at the birth of Jesus Christ. Each of those nine lessons is illustrated by an appropriate carol or song, sung by the justly renowned King’s College choir. But the heart of the service is the divine drama of salvation told in the words of scripture.
The ninth and final lesson to be read each year is John 1:1-14. This magnificent passage climaxes the service. The reader, who by tradition is the chancellor of the University, introduces this lesson with the explanatory phrase, “Saint John unfolds to us the mystery of the Incarnation.” That is exactly what the evangelist does in this rich passage of incalculable importance.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God-children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John 1:1-14, NIV
John’s memorable prologue culminates in this fourteenth verse which expresses the heart of the matter in words of beauty and power. But the “Word” who “became flesh and dwelt among us” is identified earlier, in the chapter’s opening verses, where three great truths about him are affirmed.
- First, John affirms Christ’s eternal existence: “In the beginning was the Word.” Notice: not “In the beginning the Word came into being,” not “The first thing God created in the beginning was the Word.” No, rather, in the beginning the Word simply “was.” When things began to be created at the beginning of everything, the Word already was. Christ already existed. He always did. He is eternal and uncreated. There never was a time when he was not, when God existed but not the Word, the Father without the Son. “This beginning has no beginning,” as Saint Augustine wrote long ago.
- Second, John expresses Christ’s eternal communion with God: “the Word was with God.” Two distinct Persons are mentioned here. One John calls “the Word” and the other he names “God.” But not two distinct Gods. From before all time the Son and the Father, the Word and God, have enjoyed a perfect communion of life and love. They can be distinguished from one another but yet without ever being separated from each other. From all eternity the Persons of the Godhead are not mingled or confused. Neither are they separated or divided, not two gods, not three gods, but one God forever existing as a fellowship of eternal Persons.
- Third, John in his opening words emphasizes Christ’s eternal identity as God: “In the beginning,” he says, “was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” While in some ways the Christ who is the Word is distinguishable from God, yet at the same time he is identical to God in his very nature. Jesus Christ himself is the living, true, eternal God; in being, power and attributes exactly the same as the almighty Creator. And yet he is not another God, a second God. “Here it is better to believe than to attempt to explain” (J.C. Ryle).
WHAT HAS HAPPENED
So this is who the Word is. He is Jesus Christ, eternally God, one with the Father. But now listen again to what he has done: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” John chooses every single syllable in that great sentence with extreme care. He doesn’t say merely that the Word turned into a human or became a man; he says that the Word became flesh. John uses that word for emphasis because in becoming the man Jesus, God took on something that he didn’t possess before. What he became is described as “flesh” in order to emphasize the reality of it all. The Word didn’t just assume a human nature. He wasn’t some kind of hybrid, half-God, half-man. He became flesh, with all the weakness and frailty and limitations that implies. That is to say, he was a man, through and through. Jesus wasn’t human on the outside but secretly God on the inside. No, he was just like us in every way except for sin.
That is exactly how everyone treated him. No one who ever met him in person doubted that he was a real human being. It was not immediately obvious to Jesus’ contemporaries that he was anything more than a man, nor did he approach people wearing his deity “on his sleeve.” He seemed human because he was human, really and truly. So human, in fact, that, far from appearing odd or alien, he attracted people to him wherever he went. They were drawn by his honesty and wisdom and integrity, by his compassion, by his humor, above all, by his love. He was what ordinary folks were looking for. He matched their idea of what a human being ought to be. He was a real man, the real man.
Not only did the Word become flesh, he remained flesh. The incarnation was not a temporary role Jesus decided to play. It was permanent. In fact, he still is flesh today in his risen glorified body, reigning on high with God the Father.
WE HAVE BEHELD HIS GLORY
So far John has been emphasizing who the Word is and what he has done. But in the very last part of this great sentence he turns to our role as witnesses. “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Jesus was Immanuel, “God-with-us,” and he lived among us. Like the tabernacle set up in the middle of Israel’s wilderness camps, with its cloud of glory denoting the presence of God among his people, so the Lord Jesus has come to God’s people now. “We beheld his glory,” says John. When the Word became flesh the physical body of Jesus became God’s true temple, his dwelling place on earth, and the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.
These truths are the very heart of the Christian faith. Christ is God incarnate. The almighty and eternal God has entered human history as a man, the man Jesus of Nazareth. Those who have met him by faith and recognized him for who he is bear witness to his glory. It is impossible to accept what John writes in its full meaning and not become a worshiper of Jesus Christ. You cannot believe the Bible at this point and also accept the teachings of cults or other groups. A host of non-Christian religious systems deny the full deity and significance of Jesus Christ. To do so requires either changing, ignoring, contradicting or rejecting the first chapter of the Gospel of John. You can’t believe what John says and also believe that Jesus was merely some sort of created being with special spiritual powers. You can’t believe what John says and also believe that Jesus was only a good man or an important prophet with a highly developed understanding of God. You can’t believe what John says and be anything other than an orthodox Christian. In the words of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, “It is rashness to search too far into this truth. It is piety to believe it. It is eternal life to know it.”