The Lord's Day Evening
December 13, 2009
“Christmas Viewed From Afar: Heaven”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Now I'm grateful to Ligon for giving me the honor and privilege this year of preaching a series of three Christmas, or Advent, sermons. And last week we were beginning about as far back from Christmas as we could possibly get, that is in Genesis 3:15 — Christmas from afar in the Garden of Eden where, you remember, God gives that wonderful Gospel promise that the seed of the woman would bruise the head of Satan.
Well tonight we come to again a very familiar passage. I'm trying to think how many times I've preached on this prologue of John's gospel. It's too numerous for me to actually calculate I think tonight, but again, Christmas from afar because this is looking at Christmas from the point of view of heaven. It's standard for us to think that the other gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and particularly Matthew and Luke — describe the Christmas story from below. They describe the manger and Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and so on, but John doesn't begin from below, he begins from above, looking down as it were toward Bethlehem. And we are forced to look, not so much to Bethlehem, but to look beyond Bethlehem to what C. S. Lewis described as a stable - that in that stable and in that manger was someone larger than the whole world.
In the early church, the four creatures that are described in the first chapter of Ezekiel — I'm not standing on this interpretation you understand — but the early church understood the lion and the human being and the ox and the eagle as - those are four creatures that are described in a vision that Ezekiel has in the first chapter — the early church saw those as representative of the four gospels. The lion was Mark and the human figure was Matthew and the ox was Luke and interestingly enough, the eagle was John because the eagle soars high into the clouds and forces you to look upwards. Well that's exactly what John does in this opening prologue tonight. He forces you to look upwards.
Well, before we read the passage, let's look to God in prayer.
Lord our God, we thank You again tonight for the Scriptures that holy men of old wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. We are as needy as ever. Every day we find ourselves in need of Your Word, in need of Your promise, in need of Your gentle rebukes. And we pray tonight that as we read what is a very familiar passage of Scripture, that You would be pleased to come down, to draw near to us, to write Your Word upon our hearts. We want to see Jesus. We want to grasp something of His beauty and splendor and glory. We want our souls to be enraptured and captivated by who He is and the glory of the Gospel. We pray, Lord, by Your Spirit, that You would so help us tonight. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
This is God's holy and inerrant Word:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made. 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.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him. But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
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. (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.’’) And from His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, He has made Him known.”
Amen. May God add His blessing to that reading of His Word.
There are many different ways of looking at this extraordinary passage. It's a passage that's meant, I think, to literally take your breath away. In short, relatively small words, both in English and in Greek, John describes the indescribable: he describes the Incarnation, the infleshment, of the second person of the Trinity.
You’ll notice that seven things are said about Jesus in these opening words of John's prologue. He tells us in verse 1 that Jesus was in the beginning. That is, at the point when creation began, Jesus already had existence. It's an indicator of Jesus’ eternality, that He is eternal. You’ll notice also that John says He was with God, side by side with God, indicating His person or even His personality. John also tells us that He was God, indicating His deity. In verse 3, He is described as the One through whom all things are made — a reference to Jesus as the Creator of everything that is. In verse 4 — “In Him was life” — He's the animator, He is One who gives life, and new life, and spiritual life, to the people of God. He is the “light of men” in verse 4, a reference to the fact that Jesus is the great revealer, the revealer supremely of God and of the Gospel. And in verse 13, we read that “the Word became flesh,” a reference to His incarnation.
Well, it would be more than possible to look at this passage simply from those seven assertions that are made about Jesus, but I want us tonight to look at it from a slightly different perspective. I want us to think about it in terms of three environments, or three contexts, or perhaps three families, that John, the author of the gospel, seems to want us to capture.
I. The environment from which Jesus came.
In the first place, the environment in which Jesus spent eternity — the environment, or the context, in which Jesus spent eternity. John is giving to us here something by way of a symphonic overture to the entire gospel, and as we begin this prologue there is an immediate reference, isn't there, to Genesis chapter 1 — “In the beginning — in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Well, John is saying in the beginning, when heaven and earth was created, there was the Word, there was Jesus, and nothing was made without Him. Everything that is, everything that exists, that has existed and will exist, owes its origin, its being, to Jesus. He is the One who spoke and said, “Let there be,” and there was. He brought the cosmos, the vastness of the universe, into being.
I'm something of a Hubble telescope junkie. I have the application on my iPhone. I love to look at those extraordinary pictures, pictures of parts of the universe that no human being has ever seen before now. Ten years ago it was thought that the universe contained one hundred and twenty-five billion galaxies. Today they talk about billions of billions of galaxies and each galaxy is said to contain a thousand trillion stars. Now, you can't follow that and neither can I. They are numbers that boggle the mind. The vastness, parts of the universe that no human being has ever seen, and Jesus brought it all into being. In all of its complexity, in all of its minuteness, the various particles and forces that make up matter, all owes its origin and existence and being to Jesus.
And John is saying, particularly to his audience, that Jesus is greater than wisdom itself, the wisdom that existed at the very beginning of creation, the wisdom that is the complexity of creation — it's a reference. The very fact that John uses this expression, “the Word,” is a reference to Proverbs chapter 8, which refers to the wisdom that is creation itself, and Jesus is greater than that wisdom. He is greater than John the Baptist because John the Baptist has just said that Jesus existed before John the Baptist. Now we know from Luke's gospel, and Ligon has just recently preached on this very passage, that John was born before Jesus and yet John says Jesus existed before John and He is greater than Moses. The law comes through Moses, but if you want to see grace, if you want to taste grace upon grace upon grace upon grace, then it comes through Jesus Christ, because He was God and is God and ever will be God.
However you define God, in terms of His essence or in terms of His attributes — that He knows everything, that He is everywhere present, and that He is all powerful — and all of these belong to Jesus by right because He is God. He's not just a god.
You may be familiar, as I am, that the Jehovah's Witness bible translates this passage by saying that Jesus was “a god” with a small “g,” a reference to the fact that maybe He has divine-like qualities but that He is not God. They are drawing attention to the fact that John, in the Greek, drops out the definite article. He doesn't say “Jesus was the God.” John could not have written “Jesus was the God” because that would then itself give rise to another heresy because there is more than one who is the one God because the Father is God and the Spirit is God and Jesus is God, but there is only one God. And in the simplicity of Greek and English grammar, John is trying to say something that is beyond our comprehension. John doesn't mean that Jesus was “a god” because he writes the gospel telling us expressly in the twentieth chapter that the reason he writes this gospel is that you might believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that three verses after Thomas’ extraordinary confession where he says about Jesus, “My Lord and my God.” Jesus is God as the Nicene Creed from the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD summarized - “of the same substance of the Father by whom all things are made.”
But it's more than that. It's not simply that Jesus is God, but He's God with God. “The Word was with God and the Word was God.” There's only one God but there's more than one who is that one God. And in the plurality of the one God, there is Jesus who is God and He is with God, side by side with God, or as the preposition could mean, towards God, in fellowship with God, in a personal relationship with God. They looked into each other's eyes and kept that stare and there was no shame. And from all eternity, there is this rapport, there is this bond, there is this loving embrace of the Father and of the Son, in communion, in reciprocal love for each other.
You know, when you first get hold of the Gospel, and John seems to speak about this when he writes his first epistle — he talks about the various stages of spiritual growth and development. You remember in 1 John he writes to fathers and he writes to young men and he writes to children, and it seems as though John is identifying stages of spiritual growth. He tells the young men, for example, that they have overcome the wicked one, they have overcome the devil, they have made some progress in sanctification. He tells the children that they have come to know Him whom they now call Father.
But when he writes to the older men he says, “You've come to know Him who was from the beginning.” And there comes a stage in our Christian lives and it's particularly, I think, meaningful at this time of year, at Christmas when we focus our attention on the nativity, that we begin to contemplate that there is more to Jesus than a baby lying in a manger. There is more to Jesus than a man dying on a cross. There is more to Jesus than a man rising from the dead, because He always has been. And even during His incarnation He was in fellowship and communion and in a relationship with His human body, the God-Man, and you've come to know Him who was from the beginning.
That's what I want for Christmas. That's what I want above everything else — that I would come in some small way to know Him, to really know Him. Not in the sense of understanding the relationship between the divine and human natures of Jesus, not in a way that I can understand the relationship that the Son had with the Father from all eternity — we merely glimpse at that and we glimpse in holy wonder and adoration that He who has been with the Father in a loving embrace from all eternity would condescend for the likes of us, for sinners like you and me. He who had breathed that perfect air of that communion with the Father came into a fallen, sinful world, surrounded by all of its sins and ugly temptations. That's the environment, that's the context, in which He had been from all eternity.
II. The environment into which He came.
But there's a second context here, and that is the environment into which He came. There is the environment in which He was, but there is the environment into which He came. John summarizes it there in verse 14 — “The Word, the eternal Word, the Word who was God and with God, the Word who made everything there is, the Word became flesh.” He didn't cease to be God. He always remained God. But in addition to being God, He takes to Himself human flesh and a human soul in the frailty of human existence, no more poignantly described than a baby lying in a manger. “God,” as Wesley poetically puts it, “contracted to a span from your elbow to the tip of your middle finger — God contracted to a span.”
You notice the contrasts that John has set up. The Light has come into the darkness; the Creator has come into His creation. Isn't that an astonishing sentence that John gives us in verse 10? “He was in the world and the world was made by Him.” Just think about that. He is in the world, finite- a little infant, perhaps no longer than eighteen inches long, and He made the world. It takes your breath away. The Light comes into the darkness; the Creator comes into His creation; Messiah comes to His people, and at every single point there is rejection. The darkness tries to overcome the Light; creation rises in hostility against Him; His people do not know Him. It's almost, it's almost parallel isn't it, with what Paul is saying in Romans chapter 1 when he's talking about creation and he's talking about the revelation of God that is to be found in creation and there's this blindness. The natural man doesn't see this creation. This revelation, it's not, Paul says, it's not because there is some inadequacy in the revelation itself. It's because of the sinfulness of man's heart that he holds down that revelation in unrighteousness. And John is saying something very similar here. It's not because of a lack of clarity about who Jesus is. The fault does not lie in the lack of clarity that there was in Jesus. The fault lies in the human heart.
Do you remember in C. S. Lewis’, The Last Battle, and Lewis describes that scene where there are those nasty little dwarfs, and the dwarfs are being fed in a stable and they've been given lavish provisions, but they spit it out and they grumble about these stable provisions and the dwarfs are for the dwarfs. They say over and over and over. And Lewis says, “Their prison is only in their minds, and yet they are in that prison and so afraid of being taken in, that they cannot be taken out.” What an extraordinary insight that is. They’re so afraid of being taken in, that they cannot be taken out. They’re locked in this prison of rejection. And that's exactly what John is describing.
He comes into the world and the world refuses Him - the very fact that He's born in a stable because there was no room for Him in the inn. At the very outset, at this very entry point into the world, at His exit point, He's hoisted above the ground as though the ground is rejecting Him. The sun darkened its face as though the sunlight is rejecting Him. And as He takes our place, and takes our sin upon Himself, He hears that ultimate word of rejection and He cries, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
This is the environment into which He came, an environment of sin and an environment of rejection. You mothers who have daughters who are expecting their first child, you want them to be born in the Suites at River Oaks, or Baptist, or UMC, or MethodistHospital — some other establishment that you trust. You want the finest medics. And Jesus is born in a stable and made to lie down in a feeding trough for you, for me.
There's the environment in which He had always been, there's the environment into which He came, and then John is saying there's the environment that He longs to bring us in to.
III. The environment that Jesus longs to bring us in to.
But you see in verses 12 and 13 — “To all who did receive Him, who believed on His name, He gave the right to become the children of God.” And then He says, “Who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” He came into a world where men and women reject Him and he uses, John is using language here that he is going to use again in the third chapter when he describes Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus. “Unless a man is born from above, he cannot enter, he cannot see, the kingdom of God.”
When we first discover the Gospel, we think we've discovered it, and then when we get down on our knees and give thanks to God, we realize that it was the Gospel that discovered us. It was the grace of God that found us and brought us out of our sin and misery and into union and fellowship with the Lord Jesus. To be born, not of the will of men, not of the will of the flesh, but of the will of God.
Why did Jesus come into the world? That's a great, great question. That's perhaps the greatest question we can ask in the next couple of weeks. Why the God-Man? Why did Jesus have to become a human being? Why did He have to endure what He endured? Why did He have to come from the environment that He had been for all eternity into this sinful world?
The answer: To bring sinners like you and me into fellowship with His Father and with Him and with the Holy Spirit.
You know we sing about that, don't we, a lot. Over the next couple of weeks we’ll sing Charles Wesley. I was listening to it in the car coming down to church tonight — “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” “Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth,” that's what Wesley says. Why did Jesus become a man? Why was the Word made flesh? To give us second birth, to bring us out of our sin and misery and the darkness of our condition into fellowship with God, by the sovereign, energizing power of God's Holy Spirit.
We sing it, don't we, in Phillips Brooks’ hymn, “Little Town of Bethlehem.” “Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.” Not of the will of the flesh and not of the will of man, but of God. And that's what Christmas means — that God has so loved us, even in our sin and misery, that He was prepared to send His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him, should not perish, but have everlasting life - that we might know what it is to have Christ in us, the hope of glory.
I'm ashamed that I'm not completely bowled over by that. I'm ashamed that every emotion in my body doesn't rise in jubilation to that because it doesn't get any better than that. It doesn't get any better than that — that Christmas is God's answer to sin and death and the grave and hell, and says, in Jesus Christ, there is victory, and there is eternal life, and there is a joy that is unspeakable and full of glory.
And I trust, I trust tonight that if you’re here and you’re not a believer, you've not put your trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, I urge you tonight to do just that — to cast your entire selves on the mercy of God in Jesus Christ, because He says, “Whosoever comes unto Me, I will in no wise cast out.”
Our Father in heaven, we thank You again for this Word. We pray that You would now write it deeply upon our hearts and that we might, as a consequence, love the Lord Jesus more and more and more. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
Please stand. Receive the Lord's benediction.
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with each one of you, now and forever more. Amen.
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