The Word Became Flesh
December 25, 2022 Speaker: Bret Rogers
Topic: Advent Passage: John 1:1–18
Scott Swain, President of RTS in Orlando—he has a small book called The Trinity: An Introduction. In it, he focuses “on the patterns of naming the triune God in Scripture.” Before he gets there, though, he outlines three major goals for doing theology. We do theology first to make us “more fluent readers of Holy Scripture.” The Holy Spirit then uses Scripture to “form in us the image of Jesus Christ.” Theology also promotes our “fellowship with God himself,” God being “the sovereign good” that we pursue in doing theology.[i] The goals of theology, then, are fluency in Scripture, formation in Christ-likeness, and fellowship with God.
I want to pursue those same goals today. We will study the first few verses of John’s Gospel; and I want you to become fluent in understanding the claims John makes about Jesus. More than that, I want the Holy Spirit to form in us the image of Jesus. The incarnation should form in us his humility, for example. But ultimately, I want you to enjoy fellowship with God.
Our brother Brian has felt a tumor growing in his lungs. Our sister Debbie has been walking closely with a daughter battling leukemia. Ann is helping Gene as various illnesses weaken his body. Another sister learned hard news about lymphoma. Others of you face hardships in marriage or with wayward children. Some of you suffer under a dark cloud due to the consequences of sin. Some of you feel weary of all that must be done. Maybe others of you will have an empty seat at the table this afternoon, one that would’ve been filled by a loved one.
Thank God we’re not left to these things alone. God is with us. He’s with us in joy. He’s with us in cancer. He’s with us in suffering. He’s with us at work and at home. In Jesus, we have Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” That’s the name Matthew gives Jesus. John’s Gospel begins with a different name—the Word. And his goal is fellowship with God as well. 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 help you know God and experience life with God, 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.
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 shows that John’s backdrop is the Old Testament.
In the Old Testament, God’s word creates—so also here in 1:3. God’s word enacts his purpose to redeem the world—so also here in 1:14. God’s word also reveals who God is—so also here in 1:18. Repeatedly, God’s word is his self-revelation, his personal expression in creation and redemption. But here that self-revelation reaches 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 Jesus. Rather, God’s covenant love and faithfulness revealed 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.
Now, a man named Arius once argued—and some still do today—that verse 1 means he preceded creation but 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.” Only two categories exist in the universe: the Maker and then any thing that was made—angels, matter, energy, galaxies, giraffes, frogs, subatomic particles, everything. The Word belongs to the Maker category.
Children sometimes ask, “Where did God come from?” He didn’t come from anywhere. He didn’t get to be God. He just is. Everything else came from him. John puts the Word in that category, the Creator category. To be clear, Jesus’ 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.” In John’s writings the title “God,” especially with the definite article in Greek, refers to God the Father. That’s who’s in view alongside the Word. Verse 14 will clarify this relationship further: the Word is “the only Son from the Father.” Verse 18 also helps: the Son is “at the Father’s side.” Or, later in 17:5, Jesus’ prayer clarifies even more: “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,” we’re seeing a personal distinction between the Word and God the Father. And since the Word had no beginning, he must exist in eternal relation to the Father. But listen again to the way Jesus speaks of that relationship. In 17:5 he had a “glory with the Father before the world existed. Then in 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.”
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 glorification. 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. 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” really 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 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.
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.” So, according to verse 1, the Word is both distinct in person from the Father and one with the Father in the divinity, in God-ness…
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. 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. As I said before, when “God” appears with the article in Greek, it normally 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.[ii]
Let me simplify 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’s the gist of verse 1. The Spirit, speaking through John, maintains the distinct persons of Father and Son in the one divine essence.
That’s 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 one name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Triune God is our confession from the beginning. Any teaching that doesn’t recognize the Trinity or doesn’t confess Jesus as God, isn’t true. Folks say they accept Jesus all the time—he’s a popular guy. But if they aren’t willing to call him God and worship him, then they don’t know the true Jesus. 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.
4. The Word Became Flesh
Fourth, the Word became flesh. Now comes one of the most remarkable sentences in Scripture. 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 some of his divine attributes to become human.” That’s not right.
For several reasons. It truncates the Son’s deity, for starters—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. 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.
That’s also why John says, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” That word, “dwelt,” means he “tabernacled” among us. In Exodus, God displayed his glory in the tabernacle. Moses said his glory filled the tabernacle. In a far greater sense, God’s glory now fills the person of Jesus. In Jesus, we see God spreading his glory-tent among us. And because of that, John witnesses a peculiar glory. “Glory,” he says, “as of an only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
That’s an amazing mystery the gospel confronts us with. It’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 God.
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 becomes one of us to save us from our desperate predicament. That’s the gospel order of the incarnation—not man working his way to God; not man becoming a god; but God coming down to save man.
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. Look to Jesus Christ! Knowing God isn’t a mystery. He’s not hiding from you. 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 Jesus, we come to know the true God. Believe Jesus is the God who came to save you, and he will bring you to the Father’s bosom.
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.
Philippians 2 applies Jesus’ humility to the Christian. It 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. How is it motivating you? J. I. Packer words are fitting. This comes from his book Knowing God. He says,
We talk glibly of the ‘Christmas spirit,’ rarely meaning more by this than sentimental jollity on a family basis. But what we have said makes it clear that the phrase should in fact carry tremendous weight of meaning. It ought to mean the reproducing in human lives of the temper of him who for our sakes became poor at the first Christmas. And the Christmas spirit itself ought to be the mark of every Christian all the year round. It is our shame and disgrace today that so many Christians—I will be more specific: so many of the soundest and most orthodox Christians—go through this world in the spirit of the priest and the Levite in our Lord’s parable, seeing human needs all around them, but (after pious wish, and perhaps a prayer, that God might meet those needs) averting their eyes and passing by on the other side. That is not the Christmas spirit. Nor is it the spirit of those Christians—alas, they are many—whose ambition in life seems limited to building a nice middle-class Christian home, and making nice middle-class Christian friends, and bringing up their children in nice middle-class Christian ways, and who leave the submiddle-class sections of the community, Christian and non-Christian, to get on by themselves. The Christmas spirit does not shine out in the Christian snob. For the Christmas spirit is the spirit of those who, like their Master, live their whole lives on the principle of making themselves poor…to enrich their fellow humans, giving time, trouble, care and concern, to do good to others—and not just to their own friends—in whatever way there seems need.[iii]
Beloved, 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 the mind of Christ producing a temperament of self-emptying to serve another’s well-being?
Consider the affront that Jesus’ humility is to the world’s vision of strength. The world equates strength with domination. But what do we find in Jesus? He’s King of the world, and yet he stoops to serve the world. He doesn’t assert his power at the expense of others; he uses his power to serve and to save others.
Consider how the humility of Jesus informs the way we go about our mission. Christianity does not advance the gospel by taking the lives of others. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world and its success does not depend on physical strength or military power. Christ’s kingdom advances through humble means—like compassionate gospel preaching and suffering in the path of servant-hearted love.
Or consider what humility looks like with your neighbors. Humbling ourselves will mean looking for opportunities to serve them. It will mean leaving the comforts of your home to meet them, or perhaps inviting them into your home to feed them. Humility takes up the life of another—with all its needs and messiness—and makes it our own.
Wherever you may be, growing in humility will not come merely by looking at yourself, or even by merely changing a few behaviors. Growing in humility will only come with taking long looks at Christ and learning to rejoice in the ways he has come for you. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Have you seen his glory? It is a glory as of the only Son from the Father full of grace and truth.
He has come for you. Whatever you’re facing today—whatever dark cloud it is, whatever suffering lies ahead in 2023, whatever mess that is us—God has not left us without hope. He willingly stepped into your world. He willingly came to experience what you experience and do it without sin, so that you may have life in his name. As we come to the Supper now, savor these wonderful truths again.
[i] Scott Swain, The Trinity: An Introduction (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 18.
[ii] See Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 257-70.
[iii] J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: IVP, 1973), 63-64.