The Word: God's Self-Revelation in Jesus the Son
You might’ve expected me to say Acts 21. But we’re taking a break for Advent. The next four weeks we’ll study the deity of Jesus Christ and do so from John’s Gospel and Revelation.
True God from True God
The series title is “Jesus, True God from True God.” The words come from the Nicene Creed, written in AD 325. At the time, some insisted that the Son of God was a created being; that while being like God, Jesus couldn’t properly be called God. But the assertions about Jesus in Scripture—John’s Gospel in particular—pressured the church to maintain that Jesus is in fact God in the flesh.
The church read John’s Gospel, and did their utmost to describe[i] the way John spoke about Jesus. He is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through whom all things came into being, both in heaven and in earth; who for us men and for our salvation came down and was incarnate.”[ii] John’s Gospel and Revelation demonstrate why that’s an accurate description of Jesus and remains a test for a right doctrine of God.
Christ’s Deity Is for Life
But this Advent, we’re not just talking doctrine for the sake of doctrine. We’re talking doctrine to serve our worship—all heaven sings in Revelation, “Worthy is the Lamb!” The incarnation of God the Son is also for our humility—what greater condescension than when God becomes a slave? It’s also for our transformation into Jesus’ image—by beholding his glory we’re changed. We need it to understand true love, a love flowing eternally between persons within the Trinity before it ever comes to us. It shapes the gospel order—God comes down to rescue man; not man works his way to God. We need it for our evangelism efforts among those who still reject Jesus’ deity.
But most importantly, we look to the Son’s deity and incarnation for the sake of knowing God. Nothing is more important than knowing God. Jesus prays in John 17:3, “This is eternal life that they may know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent.” Eternal life isn’t mainly about escaping punishment, though that’s included; it’s mainly to know God in his Son, Jesus Christ—to know him, walk with him, and enjoy his presence.
Our sister Jenifer said she now feels the tumor in her abdomen when she lays down. I don’t know what it’s like to have something in my body screaming, “Things aren’t right!”? All I can do is just cry and pray and serve. But I thank God I can reassure my sister of Jesus’ name, Emmanuel: God with us. The doctrine of Christ’s deity and incarnation is for daily life. He’s with us in the joys life offers. He’s with us in the agonizing nights of cancer—in Jesus Christ, we find God himself with us, Emmanuel.
That’s the name Matthew’s Gospel attributes to Jesus. John’s Gospel begins with a different name—the Word. As the other Gospels are, John’s Gospel is a portrait of Jesus. His purpose is clear in 20:31. “These 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.” To develop what he means by Christ and Son of God,[iii] John begins with a story about the Word. Let’s begin reading in John 1:1…
1 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 any thing 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.
The Word: God’s Self Revelation
John begins his story with the Word. Some take this title as a shot against various Greek philosophies, which use the term logos (or “word”) to explain the universe. Others look to first-century Wisdom literature, only to say John ups the stakes when it comes to Jesus. Comparative literature has its place for historical contrast. But plenty of evidence show John’s categories and framework come from the Old Testament.
In the Old Testament, God’s word creates—so also here in John 1:3. God’s word enacts his purpose to redeem the world—so also here in John 1:14. God’s word reveals who God is—so also here in John 1:18. Repeatedly in the Old Testament, God’s word is his self-revelation, his personal expression in creation and redemption.
But here we find that self-revelation reach its summit in the Word who becomes flesh. That’s why verse 17 says, “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” The point isn’t that grace and truth was never known before. Rather, God’s covenant love and faithfulness in the law now reaches its apex in Jesus, the Word made flesh.
1. The Word’s Eternal Existence
But before the Word becomes flesh, what do we learn of him? We learn first of the Word’s eternal existence. Verse 1, “In the beginning was the Word.” John alludes to those famous words from Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” But unlike the heavens and the earth, which came into being, the Word simply was. The Word never had a beginning. He never came into existence. He just was.
Someone could argue, of course—and Arius once did—that verse 1 simply means he preceded creation, not that he was eternal. But the immediate context shows otherwise. Verses 2 and 3: “He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” According to verse 3, only two categories exist in the universe: the Maker and then any thing that was made—angels, matter, energy, galaxies, subatomic particles, everything. The Word belongs to the Maker category.
He was not made. He simply was absolute, eternal reality. A child sometimes asks, “Daddy, where did God come from?” He didn’t come from anywhere. He didn’t get to be God. He just is and has always been; everything else came from him. John puts the Word into that category. Now his human nature did come into being—that’s verse 14. But John’s point in verse 1 is careful: before there was anything made, the Word simply was.
2. Personal Communion with God the Father
Second, we learn of the Word’s personal communion with God the Father. Verse 1, “and the Word was with God.” Already verse 3 introduced the Word’s agency: “all things were made through him.” At the same time, verse 3 preserves the Word’s God-ness—he wasn’t made. Together with verse 1, we begin to see the Word’s distinct personality. He is eternal. He is Creator. But John also describes him in personal relation with God, and in particular God the Father.
In John’s writings the title “God,” especially with the definite article in Greek, refers to God the Father. Verse 14 will clarify this Father/Son dynamic by identifying the Word as “the only Son from the Father.” Verse 18 helps too by describing the Son as “at the Father’s side” or “in the Father’s bosom.” Jesus’ prayer in John 17:5 helps as well: “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory I had with you before the world existed.” So when we read, “and the Word was with God,” it shows a personal distinction between the Word and God the Father.
The Word (also called the Son in verse 14) exists in eternal relation with the Father; and their relationship is a fountain of glory and love like no other. Jesus describes it as “glory I had with you before the world existed.” In John 17:24, Jesus prays, “Father I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”
Question: what was God doing before he created the universe? According to Jesus, loving himself. God’s love for us had a beginning. But we can never say the Father’s love for the Son had a beginning. The Word/Son forever exists in a relationship of love with the Father. What Jesus brings out in his prayer is that this eternal, divine love expresses itself in mutual glory. The Father clothes the Son in glory, because the Son, who images the Father’s glory, is his delight.
The true God is a relational being, which makes him very different from, say, the single-person god of Islam. Islam teaches that Allah is a solitary monad, with unity only. He has no need of a son, they say. He cannot be a relational being, they say. But if God is a monad, he can’t be truly loving. Love is something one person has for another. Allah actually needs man to fight for his cause in order to express love.
So, when the Qu’ran says Allah is loving, the language of “love” actually disguises tyranny and neediness. But the God of Christianity needs nobody to express love. The Father loves his Son quite apart from creation. Which should amaze us all the more that he chooses to love us, rebels as we are, and bring us into his love. That’s why Jesus prayed the way he did and died the way he did—to bring us to God who is love, even to enjoy the glory resulting from the Father’s love for the Son. This is all John 17, if you want to read it later. I’m just using it to explain how the Word’s eternal relationship with the Father helps us know God, his love, and our salvation.
3. The Word’s Divine Nature as God
Third, we learn of the Word’s divine nature as God. End of verse 1, “and the Word was God.” John implied the Word’s deity before. Now he gets explicit: the Word was God. In other words, the Word is both distinct in person from the Father and one with the Father in the divine essence or being…
Unless, you choose to translate the verse as Jehovah’s Witnesses do. Jehovah’s Witnesses have The New World Translation. Unitarians will do the same. If you look at John 1:1 in their translations it says, “the Word was a god.” He was divine-like, angelic perhaps, but he definitely wasn’t the God, according to them.
However, you already know that can’t be a good translation from verse 3. Angelic beings were made. Anything less than God was made. And the Word wasn’t made. He fits in the God category. He’s not just a god. He is the Creator God. Verse 18 helps as well: “No one has ever seen God, the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” There too the Word is distinct in person—he’s at the Father’s side; and as the “only God” he possesses what’s divine.[iv] Context helps.
But it may also help reassure you that in Greek, the word “God” at the end of verse 1 is best understood qualitatively.[v] As I said before, when “God” appears with the article in Greek, it regularly refers to God the Father. But John drops the article here and orders the sentence to preserve the personal distinction he just made. If he kept the article, his next statement would mean the Word was the Father. But that’s not what he wants to say. So he drops the article and orders the sentence to assert something about the Son’s nature rather than his identity.
Let me simplify all that with a paraphrase of verse 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God the Father, and what God the Father was, namely, God, that the Word was too.” That captures the gist of what John asserts. He carefully maintains the distinct persons of Father and Son in the one divine essence.
This is why Christians confess that God is Trinity—one God in three persons, Father, Son, and Spirit (though we won’t touch on the Spirit today). You need to understand this to know God as he really is. Christians are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Triune God is our confession from the get go. Any teaching that doesn’t recognize the Trinity or doesn’t confess Jesus Christ is God, isn’t true and promotes a false god. Folks say they accept Jesus all the time—he’s a really popular guy in our society—but if they aren’t willing to call him God and worship him as God, then they don’t know the true Jesus.
As C. S. Lewis once wrote,
I’m trying…to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that…I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That’s the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said wouldn’t be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he’s a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let’s not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
According to John 1:1, the Word is distinct from the Father in person yet one with the Father in being, in God-ness. Then comes one of the most remarkable sentences in all Scripture, which leads us to one further point about the Word…
4. The Word Became Flesh
Fourth, the Word became flesh. Verse 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.”
Let me clarify what that does not mean. Some people will go to Philippians 2, “…though [Christ] was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself…” They’ll take that phrase, “emptied himself,” and say something like, “the Son of God renounced his divine attributes to become truly human.” That’s not true.
That’s not true for several reasons. It truncates the Son’s deity—if God the Son renounces any divine attribute, he’s no longer God. It also mistakes the person of the Son in Philippians 2 for his divine nature. Meaning, the self-emptying in Philippians 2 isn’t an emptying of what’s divine. The self-emptying has to do with the person of the Son taking the form of a slave, which Paul goes on to explain.
The remarkable point of Philippians 2 is that this One, who forever and always exists in the form of God—that One sets aside his rights to be seen as God and assumes the form of a servant while still being God. Baby in the manger, Yes, while upholding the universe by the word of his power. Nothing changed in his divine nature when he took on flesh. Wow! That makes the Son’s humility shine brightly! Glorious God the Son, Creator of all things, worthy of all worship—yet he chooses to serve. Nobody sees his veiled glory, but he serves them anyway, even unto death on a cross…
When John says, “the Word became flesh,” he doesn’t mean the Word forfeited or limited any of his God-ness. He means the Word added to himself a human nature, such that he’s now truly God and truly man. Not deity turned into man. Not man swallowed up by deity. But one person with two natures: truly God and truly man. When the Word adds humanity to what he had always been before, John witnesses a peculiar glory. “Glory,” he says, “as of an only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” We’re spending all next week on how John witnesses God’s glory in Jesus.
The gospel order: God came down to save man; not man works his way to God.
For now, just be amazed that God the Son took on humanity. That’s an amazing mystery the gospel confronts us with. That’s a claim that makes Christianity unique. Our God is unlike the god of Islam, who can’t be closely involved with creation. He’s unlike the god of Docetism, who can only disguise himself as human. He’s unlike the god of Deism, who doesn’t make himself known to us. He’s unlike the god of all other religions, who requires man to work his way up to him.
No, our God condescends. He comes down. He makes himself known. He enters the world he made. He is high; but he also draws near. He identifies with our humanity. He even becomes one of us to save us from our desperate predicament. That’s the gospel order the incarnation teaches: not man works his way to God or man becomes a god; but God comes down to save man.
To know Jesus is to know God. Believe in Jesus; become a child of God.
And when God the Son comes down in the person of Jesus, we can know God. That’s why John finishes the intro with, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” If you want someone who tells the whole story about God, don’t look to a Muhammad or a Joseph Smith or an angel from heaven or your favorite preacher even. Look to Jesus Christ!
Knowing God isn’t a mystery. He’s not hiding from you. He communicates glory to us. He gives the written word; he sends the Living Word. If you’re searching for God, don’t look further than Jesus Christ. To know Jesus is to know God.
If you don’t know God, the problem isn’t that God is far away. Rather, sin is keeping you from seeing his glory. That’s how John puts it in the rest of the passage. John compares the world to darkness in verse 5. In John’s Gospel, the world represents the whole system of rebellion against God, the whole of humanity walking in a moral darkness. The moral darkness is so bad that people don’t recognize their Maker.
Verse 10 says, “[God’s Son, the Word, the Light] he was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world didn’t know him. He came to his own, and his own people didn’t receive him.” Why? Why didn’t they receive him? Because they love their evil deeds—John 3:19. They’re slaves to sin—John 8:34. Their father is the devil—John 8:44. And they love the praise of man—John 5:44. Moral darkness.
But if you believe in Jesus—if you embrace Jesus’ claim to be God—John says in verse 12 that he will “give you the right to become children of God.” That’s why he became flesh. He took on humanity, so that through the cross, he would make those who weren’t God’s children, God’s children. In and through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we come to know the true God—even better, God makes us his children. He’s the light of God’s glory who comes to jolt us from moral darkness. Believe Jesus is the God who came to save you, and he will bring you with him into the Father’s bosom.
Consider how the Son's condescension compels humility in you.
Lastly, consider how the Word’s humble descent compels humility. History knows no greater condescension than God the Son becoming man. He set aside his right to be seen as glorious and even became a servant. The Son doesn’t cling to the place of honor, though he could. He willingly forfeits the rights to serve our eternal good.
Paul applies his condescension to the Christian life in Philippians 2. He says, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, didn’t count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
The glory of the Son’s incarnation (as well as its goal) motivates the church to serve the interests of others. Does it motivate you? How so? What does that humble spirit look like with your church family? What’s it like with your spouse? With your children? With your parents? With your employees? With your students? Can they see mind of Christ producing a temperament of self-emptying to serve another’s well-being? Beloved, such a mind is ours in Christ Jesus. By grace we can now act upon it. When you eat the Supper together, remember the Word became flesh. Rejoice that God came down. And consider how the Son’s humility might compel you.
[i]In other words, the Creed was less a development beyond New Testament teaching, and more so a description of how the New Testament spoke about the nature of God. See the discussion in Andreas J. Köstenberger and Scott R. Swain, Father, Son and Spirit: The Trinity in John’s Gospel, NSBT 24 (Downers Grove: IVP, 2008), 21-22.
[ii]John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches, 3rd ed. (Louisville: WJK, 1982), 30-31.
[iii]The designation, “Son of God,” in relation to Jesus can take on several different meanings throughout Scripture. Jesus can be “Son of God” by virtue of being the new Adam (Luke 3:38; cf. 1 John 3:8), the ultimate Israel (Exod 4:22-23; Hos 11:1; Matt 2:15), the promised Davidic King (2 Sam 7:13-14; Isa 9:6; Luke 1:32-33; John 1:41), and the Messiah (Ps 2:7; Acts 13:33; Heb 1:5; 5:5). John’s Gospel stresses an additional nuance, namely, Jesus is “Son of God” by virtue of his eternal relationship with the Father, being distinct in person from and yet one in essence with the Father. Hence, not just Messiah but divine Messiah, not just Christ but Son of God.
[iv]On the textual integrity of John’s prologue, especially in relation to the ascription of theos to Jesus in John 1:1 and John 1:18, see Brian J. Wright, “Jesus as THEOS: A Textual Examination,” in Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament Manuscripts, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence, ed. Daniel B. Wallace, Text and Canon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011), 229-66.
[v]For the grammar of John 1:1c (και θεὸς ἦν ὁ λογος), including a careful discussion of the abuse of Colwell’s Rule, see Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 257-70. Wallace carefully exposes that rejecting the translation of John 1:1c, “and the Word was a god,” cannot be based on an appeal to Colwell’s Rule as it has been so often misunderstood. Then, after clarifying and refining Colwell’s Rule, Wallace applies his findings to John 1:1c. According to his study, the predicate θεός in John 1:1c cannot be indefinite or definite. Rather, on both grammatical and theological grounds θεός must be qualitative. To quote Wallace at length, “[That qeo,j is qualitative] is true both grammatically (for the largest proportion of pre-verbal anarthrous predicate nominatives fall into this category) and theologically (both the theology of the Fourth Gospel and of the NT as a whole). There is a balance between the Word’s deity, which was already present in the beginning (ἐν ἀρχῇ…θεὸς ἦν [1:1], and his humanity, which was added later (σὰρξ ἐγένετο [1:14]). The grammatical structure of these two statements mirrors each other; both emphasize the nature of the Word, rather than his identity. But θεός was his nature from eternity (hence, εἰμί is used), while σάρξ was added at the incarnation (hence, γίνομαι is used). Such an option does not at all impugn the deity of Christ. Rather, it stresses that, although the person of Christ is not the person of the Father, their essence is identical…The idea of a qualitative θεός here is that the Word had all the attributes and qualities that “the God” (of 1:1b) had. In other words, he shared the essence of the Father, though they differed in person.” Ibid., 269.
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