The Word Became Flesh | John 1:1-18
Brian Hedges | December 18, 2016
I was just reflecting how I appreciate very much the depth that we’ve already witnessed this morning. There was depth to Abi’s testimony, and sharing about her training and what she’s doing. Her passion to reach the lost for Christ. There’s a theological depth and texture to the things that she’s saying. There was depth in Wes’ prayer, that reflected on the glory of the incarnation, and there’s depth in our readings of Scripture, of course, and in the hymns that we have sung.
That is something that we want to be characteristic of us. That we go deep in the truth of Scripture, deep in the truth of the gospel. Not deep for the sake of being smart. Not deep for the sake of being deep. But deep because that depth, that texture, is giving us very specific details and contours about who God is. About who Christ is and what he has done.
Just as, when you love someone, you praise them, you’re specific about the things you appreciate about them, in the same way, it’s the specificity, it’s the depth, it’s the detail about what God has done in Christ that rivets our hearts and thrills our souls with joy. And so, I’m appreciative that that’s been true of us this morning and pray that that will continue to be true as we dig into God’s word.
Let me invite you to turn in your Bibles to the gospel of John. We’ll be in the first chapter. The gospel of John is perhaps the most famous of the gospels, the most well-known and most read of the gospels. The gospel of John is often recommended to seekers and to new believers. It’s been used often to bring people to faith in Christ. That indeed was the Apostle John’s purpose. In John 20:31, he said, “These things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing, you may have life in his name.”
On the other hand, the gospel of John has been the most attractive of the gospels, to those with a mystical bent, or a philosophical bent, or a theological bent because there’s a depth to the gospel of John. Someone once said, that in the gospel of John, a child can wade, as in a pool, but it’s so deep that an elephant can swim. That’s the gospel of John.
John Calvin commented that while the other three gospels show us Christ’s body, John shows us his soul. And there is something unique about the gospel of John. Those who have studied the gospels and read the gospels know that there are many more similarities in Matthew, Mark, and Luke than with John. John was the last of the gospels to be written, and it stands apart as something unique. It gives us a clarity and also a depth to the gospel that is unique in scripture.
Well, this morning, we’re beginning our first installment in a series on the gospel of John. And as with many of our series through books of the Bible, we’re going take a chunk over the next several weeks, and then we’ll return to it at a later period. But this morning we’re beginning an eight-week series on the gospel of John, chapters 1 through 3. And we’re going to begin this morning with the prologue to John’s gospel, in the first 18 verses.
So, let’s read God’s word. John 1, beginning in verse 1.
John 1:1-18: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. 9 The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) 16 For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
This morning, we’re going to look at the incarnation. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas. That’s what we anticipate throughout the Advent season as we enter into the story of God’s old covenant people, who longed for that day when light would come. The world lay in darkness, and the light would come, in answer to God’s promise, and it came in Jesus Christ.
So, this morning, we’re going to look at what John has to teach us about the incarnation, and I want us to see three things:
I. The mystery of the incarnation
II. The grace of the incarnation
III. Our response to the incarnation
I. The mystery of the incarnation
John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
The Word became flesh. And to grasp that, we have to think of who the Word is, and then what it means that the Word became flesh. So, go back to verse 1 and we get John’s introduction to the Word, where he says, “In the beginning was the Word.” Now, that phrase “in the beginning” would have signaled something for any Jewish reader. Because the Hebrew Bible began with those words, “In the beginning…”
And of course, in Genesis 1, we have the record of creation, as God, the eternal God, brought into being the world that he made. But, in John 1, John is using that language to introduce for us the concept of new creation. And just as God created the world, in Genesis 1, through his word. You remember that refrain, “And God said…and there was.” “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” God created through his word. He spoke and things came into existence. In the same way, now, God, through the agency of the Word, brings about new creation.
Now, what is the Word? Or who is the Word? Of course, the Greek word is the word “logos.” Scholars tell us that that term logos was familiar in the Greek schools of philosophy. The Greeks would use that word to refer to the principle of reason or the principle of rationality in the universe. It’s the word of course, from which we get our word “logic.” But the background in John’s theology isn’t Greek philosophy. It’s rather God’s revelation of himself in the Hebrew Old Testament.
New Testament scholar, F.F. Bruce says, “The ‘word of God’ in the Old Testament denotes God in action, especially in creation, revelation and deliverance.”
The Word of the Lord, and God by his word in the Old Testament, revealed himself. The Word was his utterance. It was his self-expression. The Word was the means through which he revealed himself, and now John is telling us something very amazing about the Word of God.
I want you to notice the features, or characteristics of the Word. Three attributes of the Word as a Person, and then two things that the Word was involved in, in terms of action. Just notice these in the first several verses.
(1) First of all, there is eternity. In the beginning was the Word. And so John, right here at the beginning of his gospel, is pointing us to the fact that, whoever this Word was, he always was. The Word was in the beginning, right there with God. So, there is eternity.
(2) There is also personality. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.” So, distinction here. And personality. And the idea, as some paraphrases have put it, is the Word here, with God, face to face with God, where there is some kind of personal relationship.
(3) And not only that, there is deity. John says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” So, whoever this Word was, this Word was equal with God, in deity, in divinity.
(4) Then it becomes even more clear, that this Word was the agent of creation. You see that in verse 3. “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” Jesus was the agent through whom God created the world—the Word of God.
(5) And then in verses, 4 and 5, not only creation, but illumination. “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” Just as those opening readings this morning, from the book of Isaiah, alerts us to this longing for the light that would come, so now, John uses this language to describe Jesus. Jesus, the light of the world.
As we study through this gospel and as you read through this gospel, you’ll notice that light and darkness are recurring motifs in the gospel of John. Over and again, John points us to Jesus who is the light of the world.
In verses 6 through 8, there’s almost a parenthetical statement where John, and this is John the Baptist, is introduced as the witness to the light. And then John shows up again later, in this paragraph. Now this foreshadows something that we’ll see next week, in the next paragraph—the witness of John the Baptist to Christ. But the one thing I want you to notice here, is that the Apostle John, in writing this, skillfully weaves together his theological portrayal of the Word. And he weaves that together with historical narrative about John who is a witness to the Word, a witness to the light.
This is just to remind us that what John is giving us here is theological history. He’s giving us a theological portrait of Jesus, the Word of God incarnate, but he’s weaving it with the historical details of John the Baptist, who came on the scene pointing to Jesus the Messiah.
So the Word. We see something about who this Word is and was in those first five verses and then in verse 14, “The Word became flesh.” And it’s interesting the way John words this. He doesn’t simply say that God became man. Of course, he means that, and that’s included, but he uses this word, “flesh” (“sarx”). He uses that word. Why does he use that word? Why doesn’t he just say, “And God became human?” Why does he use the word, “flesh.” Well, that word carries the connotation of human nature, in all of its frailty and weakness. “All flesh is grass, like the grass of the field it perishes,” Isaiah says. And here, John is saying that the Word became flesh.
Now, he doesn’t mean, in any way, that Jesus was personally compromised by personal sin. So, it’s not flesh in that sense. That’s why Paul will say, “In the likeness of sinful flesh.” Because Jesus was without sin in his humanity, but yet his human nature was subject to the conditions of the fall. He was able to suffer. He was able to experience pain and weariness. He was subject to death. And so this was a true human nature.
We’ve got to grasp this, that Jesus, the divine and eternal Word (or we should say, Christ, or the Son, the eternal and divine Word), in the incarnation, took upon himself human flesh. That is, human nature in all of its weakness and frailty, and that is a full and complete human nature. Not merely a body, but a human soul, a human mind. He took our flesh. Now, why did he do that? He did it so that he could redeem our flesh. So that he could redeem us. So that he could save us.
I think it’s helpful for us to think on this, both in terms of theological clarity and also in terms of worship and poetry. You really have to get both of those things together to get the fullness of what John is saying here. I want to give you two quotations this morning, to help. John Calvin, to help us on clarity. And St. Augustine to help us with poetry.
So here’s Calvin’s clarity:
“The plain sense therefore is that the Word begotten of God before all ages, and ever dwelling with the Father, became man. Here there are two chief articles of belief: First, in Christ two natures were united in one person in such a way that one and the same Christ is true God and man. Secondly, the unity of his person does not prevent his natures from remaining distinct, so that the divinity retains whatever is proper to it and the humanity likewise has separately what belongs to it. And so, when Satan has tried through heretics to overturn sane theology with this or that madness, he has always dragged in one or other of these two errors: either that Christ was the Son of God and of man confusedly, so that neither his divinity remained intact nor was he compassed about by the true nature of man; or that he was clothed with flesh as to be double and have two distinct persons.”
Now that’s so important for us to grasp! One Person, two natures. That’s who the Word who became flesh is. One Person—the eternal, divine Word, who is to be identified with Jesus the Christ, who became flesh. So one Person, two natures. Now, get this. He’s not 50 percent man and 50 percent God. He’s not half God, half man. He’s not a human body with a divine soul. He is 100 percent divine. 100 percent God. And at the same time, 100 percent man with a human body and a human soul.
What Calvin is saying is that what Satan does, to get us away from this (and listen, this is what Satan does to destroy Christmas, to destroy the miracle of the incarnation, to destroy our faith) is he takes away from the divinity or he takes away from the humanity. And either one of those errors compromises the gospel. So we need that theological clarity—one Person, two natures. Fully God. Fully man.
We need the clarity, but we also need the poetry. We need to grasp this deep in our souls, so that we’re thrilled with the wonder of what took place. So listen to St. Augustine:
“The maker of man, he was made man, so that the director of the stars might be a babe at the breast; that bread might be hungry, and the fountain thirsty; that the light might sleep, and the way be weary from a journey; that the truth might be accused by false witnesses, and the judge of the living and the dead be judged by a mortal judge; that justice might be convicted by the unjust, and discipline be scourged with whips; that the cluster of the grapes might be crowned with thorns, and the foundation be hung up on a tree; that strength might grow weak, eternal health be wounded, life die.”
The Word became flesh! The Word became flesh. Just let that sink in. God took to himself, human nature in the Person of his Son.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail incarnate Deity,
Pleased on earth with man to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel.
“Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.” That’s what we celebrate when we celebrate the incarnation, when we celebrate Christmas. The mystery of the incarnation.
Now, what’s the main application point of all this? I’ll give you a couple. First of all, of course, is just to safeguard the doctrine of the incarnation, so that we believe in the true Christ. Christ as he really is.
But, then also this—to understand that Jesus, the Word, is the true revelation of God. He is the true self-expression of God. He is the Word of God. That means that God has revealed himself supremely in Jesus.
So, let’s look at verse 18, where John says, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.”
In the older translations, it says, “The one who is in the bosom of the Father.” And this is using an old idiom. It’s someone who is at someone’s bosom. Someone who was that close. Someone who was intimate. You might think of the beloved disciple who leans on Jesus’ breast at that last supper. There’s an intimacy there. And what John is telling us, is that the Word, who is himself God, who is intimate with the Father, at the bosom of the Father, he has revealed God to us. In Calvin’s words, “the breast of God is laid open to us in the gospel.”
God has opened his heart to us. He has revealed himself to us, and this means that Jesus, the Word of God incarnate, reveals God to us, which means that God is like Jesus. We need to lay hold of that—that God is like Jesus. If you want to know God, the way that you’re going to know God is through his Son. You’re going to know God through Jesus. And there is no other God than the God who has revealed himself to us in and through Jesus. And so if you want a picture of God, you get it in Jesus Christ.
Scottish theologian Thomas Torrance therefore said, “There is in fact no God behind the back of Jesus, no act of God other than the act of Jesus, no God but the God we see and meet in him. Jesus Christ is the open heart of God, the very love and life of God poured out to redeem humankind, the mighty hand and power of God stretched out to heal and save sinners. All things are in God’s hands, but the hands of God and the hands of Jesus, in life and death, are the same.”
Or in Paul’s words, “Great indeed is the mystery of godliness. He was manifested in the flesh” (from 1 Timothy 3:16). The mystery of the incarnation.
II. The grace of the incarnation
Secondly, the grace of the incarnation. You see this also in verse 14, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth.” Now, those two words, grace and truth, also have an Old Testament background.
Do you remember that story in the book of Exodus, where God was ready to wipe out the children of Israel? He was ready to wipe them out because of the golden calf incident. And Moses goes up on the mountain to pray, and he’s interceding for the people of God. He’s asking God not to forsake his people, and Moses makes a daring request. He says, “Lord, show me your glory.” And you remember that the Lord says to him,
“I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” . . .
That’s in Exodus 33, and then in the next chapter, in Exodus 34, God places Moses in the cleft of the rock, and God’s presence passes before Moses, and Moses seeks just the back parts. He sees just the reflection, but he hears a voice proclaiming the name of the Lord. And a voice says this, in Exodus 34:5-6:
“The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…’”
Mark those two words, “steadfast love” and “faithfulness.” The scholars tell us, I’ve got a quote here from F.F. Bruce, I won’t read it, but scholars tell us that those words, steadfast love and faithfulness, in Hebrew, correspond to John’s words in Greek, grace and truth.
The grace of God, the truth of God—grace and faithfulness, steadfast love and faithfulness—those two things come together and are revealed for us supremely in Jesus Christ. John said, “We’ve seen his glory!” Moses wanted to see his glory, and God said, “You can’t see my face and live.” But then John says, “We have seen his face. We’ve seen his glory. We’ve seen the Word made flesh. We beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. Full of steadfast love and faithfulness.”
And so there’s the revelation of grace in the incarnation. I want you to notice two things about this grace. We can call these two things: The fullness of grace and the newness of grace.
(1) Notice it says, “He was full of grace and truth,” and then in verse 16, he says, “Of his fullness, we have all received grace upon grace.”
That word, “fullness” is an important word. It carries the idea of fullness or overflowing from a fountain. The fullness of a fountain. And so, in Christ, a fountain of grace is open for you and me to drink. A fountain of grace.
I will quote Calvin again. There’s a beautiful passage from Calvin’s commentary of these verses. Listen to what he says, “In God, indeed, is the fountain of life, righteousness, power, and wisdom; but this fountain is hidden and inaccessible to us. Yet in Christ the wealth of all these things is laid before us that we may seek them in him. Of his own will he is ready to flow to us, if only we make way for him by faith. He declares briefly that we should not seek any blessing at all outside Christ. But this sentence consists of several clauses. First he shows that we are all utterly destitute and empty of spiritual blessings. For Christ is rich that he may help our failure, support our poverty and satisfy our hunger and thirst. Secondly, he warns us that so soon as we forsake Christ we seek in vain the slightest morsel of good, since God has willed that whatever is good shall dwell in him alone. Therefore, we shall find angels and men dry, heaven empty, the earth barren and all things worthless if we want to partake of God’s gifts otherwise than through Christ. Thirdly, he reminds us that we need not fear that we shall lack anything if only we draw from the fullness of Christ, which is in every way so perfect that we shall find it to be an inexhaustible fountain indeed.”
The fullness of grace. Do you ever get the holiday blues? Do you ever feel a little bit empty during the Christmas season? The reunion with family just wasn’t quite what you were hoping for? You didn’t get the gift you wanted in your more selfish moment.
People struggle with depression during the holidays. Do you know why? Because, if you’re celebrating Christmas and forgetting this, “Heaven is empty and earth is barren.” There’s no fullness outside of Christ. Friends, drink from the fountain. Drink from the fountain, and the fountain is Christ. In Christ there is a fullness of grace. Everything we need to satisfy the deep hungers and thirst of our soul, it’s in Christ.
The fullness of grace, then secondly,
(2) The newness of grace, or we might call this “new covenant” grace.
So insightful! Verses 16 and 17: “For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” And that little word, “upon” is a preposition that carries the idea, really, of “instead of,” or “in place of.” Grace instead of grace. Grace in place of grace. And verse 17 explains it: “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
There was grace, in the law, in the old covenant. But, in Jesus Christ, there’s a new grace that fulfills and displaces the old grace. Grace in place of grace. Grace instead of grace. The law given through Moses, but grace and truth through Jesus Christ.
Think of it like this. My oldest son, Stephen, is an artist. Many of you, perhaps, have seen some of his art on Facebook. He’s really good. Stephen has a method. He frequently will do this. He’ll be working on something, and he always begins with an outline. An outline of a sketch. He’ll be drawing a new character or a new portrait and he’ll get the outline done and sometimes he’ll actually post the beginnings of the portrait, or the beginnings of the sketch.
Sometimes he’ll run into our room and say, “Hey, here’s the outline of what I’m working on.” And I mean, he’ll spend 8, 10, 12 hours on one of these things. The outline is a true expression of Stephen’s creative ability. But, when the portrait is finished, there’s a fullness to it. And it’s so much better, because now there are these life-like eyes. Now, there’s shading and there’s texture and you can actually see that this is what he was after, all along.
And what John is teaching us here, is that the law was a true expression of God. It was a true expression of his character, but it was God’s character in its barest outline form. But in Jesus Christ we have the full portrait. More than that, in Jesus Christ, the portrait, the self-expression of God has come to life, and you see God with a human face.
There was grace in the law, but fullness of grace, newness of grace, new covenant grace, grace and truth in Jesus Christ. And that’s why, throughout the gospel of John we’ll see this replacement theme. Here’s Jesus. And he comes to the temple and he cleanses it and he enigmatically says, “Tear the temple down, and in three days I’ll raise it up.” Why? Because the old temple is to be replaced by a new temple.
He feeds the crowds in the wilderness with bread, and he talks about bread from heaven. And he alludes to the story of Moses who fed the people of God with manna, with bread from heaven, but he says, “I’m the true bread from heaven. Eat me. You’ll have eternal life.”
And you can see that over and over again in the gospel of John. Here’s an old covenant, Old Testament picture, an image that revealed something of God in outline form, and Jesus comes and says, “I’m the real deal. That was the shadow. I am the substance. That was the outline. I am the full portrait.”
The law, with grace, came through Moses. But grace and truth and all of its fullness and all of its newness revealed in Jesus Christ. The grace of the incarnation.
I love the way Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 8:9. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”
III. Our response to the incarnation
So, we’ve seen the mystery. We’ve seen the grace. Now, briefly, I’m at the end—our response. How do we respond to the incarnation? What is our response?
Well, look at the middle paragraph. We’ve looked at the beginning of this paragraph, we’ve looked at the end. Look at the middle section, verses 9-13. “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
Those verses show us that there are two possible responses to Jesus, the Word made flesh. You can either “receive him not” or you can “receive him.” And really, he tells us the same thing in three ways. That this is the response we should make. We should receive him. We should believe in his name, and we must be born of him. Three ways of saying essentially the same thing.
The first two, receiving him and believing in his name, that really describes the human response. That is our response to the gospel. To believe Christ, to welcome him. “Let every heart prepare him room,” as Isaac Watts said in that old hymn. Receive Christ into your heart and into your life. Welcome him, and believe in his name. Put your faith, your trust, all your confidence in him. Receive him. That’s describing it from the human perspective. But it also means that something divine and supernatural is happening at the same time. You are born of God. And so here it is from the divine perspective. We’ll see more about what John means by this, being born of God, when we look at the conversation with Nicodemus in John 3.
Being born from above. A new birth. A second birth. This is what we need. And this is our response to the incarnation and this is the intention of God in the incarnation. This is how what Jesus came to do in his incarnation is personally applied and made real in our hearts and lives.
So I’ll end with these words from Charles Wesley. We’ve already sung these this morning.
Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Ris’n with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that we no more may die,
Born to raise us from the earth,
Born to give us second birth.
How are you born again? How are you brought into the family of God? By the miracle of God’s grace and as you receive him and believe in him.
And so the final question for us all this morning is simply this. Have you received him? Do you believe in his name? Do you believe in the mystery and the grace, the incarnation? The Word who became flesh and dwelt among us? I hope you do. But, if you don’t, if you don’t believe, you can. Right now. God will give the gift of faith. Turn to him now.
Thank you, Father, for the great love that you had for the world, that you sent your Son, your one and only Son. Thank you, Lord Jesus, that you, the eternal Word of the Father, the express image of the Father, the Word through whom the worlds were framed, took to yourself full and complete human nature. And in that human nature lived an obedient life, died an atoning death, and then rose in victorious resurrection power to bring about new creation. To make us, who were the sons and daughters of Adam, the children of wrath as the rest of mankind, and make us children of God, the miracle of new birth. May we wonder at the glory and the grace of your incarnation this morning.
Thank you that you apply these things to our hearts by your Spirit. Thank you that you’ve given us the gospel in verbal form through your word and in visual form, at your table, where we take and eat the body and blood of Jesus in these emblems. And so as we come to the table to take the bread, to take the juice, we do so with faith in what you have done for us, Lord Jesus. And we do so, relying on the power of your Spirit. The Spirit who binds us to you. Meet with us now, in Jesus’ name.