Now would you please take a Bible from the pockets in the pews in front of you or turn in your own copy of God’s Word to the gospel according to John, chapter 1. John’s gospel, chapter 1. If you are using one of our church Bibles you’ll find that on page 886. Before we read, it is our custom to pray and ask for God to help us understand and believe His holy Word. Let us pray together.
O Lord our God, we are praying now that You would send the Holy Spirit to give us ears to hear what You would say to Your church. In Jesus’ name, amen.
John’s gospel chapter 1, from verse 1. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“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 has been 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, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy and inerrant Word.
More than Mere Sentiment: Anchored in the Christ of Christmas
Now I love, I love Christmas. I love the movies and the music; I love Christmas food, probably more than I ought. I love Christmas presents; I love the mythology of Christmas, the stories that we tell at Christmas time. I love it; I love Christmas. But let me confess to you that every Christmas I have, there’s a war raging in my heart. I find myself battling the easy slide of truth into the undifferentiated mass of tradition. The narratives of Jesus’ birth are not simply part of our Christmas pageantry. The record of Christ’s first coming does not derive its significance from its place among our various Christmas traditions. I must constantly call my heart to attend to the fact of Jesus Christ – solid and hard and real and substantial and true. Unlike almost every other aspect of our Christmas celebrations, however venerable and valuable and beloved they may be, unlike all of them, Jesus Christ is real. His coming is not simply a beautiful story. It is the pivot of history and the axis upon which the destiny of every human soul turns. And so every Christmas time the battle lines are drawn within my own heart and I must reissue the call to arms to fight against the easy march of an overwhelming sentimentality. If Jesus Christ is but one in a cast of many Christmas characters in the romance of the Christmas story, well then we have exchanged the inestimably precious gift, the incarnation of the God-Man can give us, for a cheap imitation toy which, like many a Christmas toy, is soon set aside when the latest new thing catches our eye.
And so I really want to arm you, to garrison your soul, to fight for the grit and the glory, the hard, solid, substantial fact of the coming of Jesus Christ this Christmas. And so to help us with that, we return one last time to John’s prologue as we’ve been working through it in our Advent series – John 1, looking this time at verses 14 to 18; John 1:14-18. Because here, as the apostle brings his prologue to the Gospel to a climax, to a crescendo even, he offers us three things that will anchor our faith in something more than mere sentiment. First he tells us about Jesus’ identity – who He is. Then about Jesus’ historicity – that He is. And then thirdly, about Jesus’ mission – what He came to do. Jesus’ identity – who He is; His historicity – that He is; and His mission – what He came to do. That’s where we’re going.
I. Jesus’ Identity: Who He Is
Let’s think about the first of those, Jesus’ identity – who He is. And if you look at verse 14 and again at verse 18, bracketing our passage, you will see that the apostle John tells us about Jesus’ identity in two distinct yet complementary ways. In verse 14 he talks about Jesus’ true humanity while in verse 18, the accent falls on His perfect deity; His true humanity and His perfect deity.
Jesus’ True Humanity
Let’s think about verse 14 first – Jesus’ true humanity. “The word became flesh.” That is a staggering statement. We could stop here and spend the rest of our time only beginning to comprehend the depths of those words. “The word became flesh.” The Word, John 1:1, we are told is God. All things came into being by His agency and mediation. In verse 3, in verse 6, in verse 10, in verse 12 John uses the same Greek verb to describe the coming into being of the world, of the coming of John the Baptist, and of believers becoming children of God. Verse 3, the world came, John the Baptist came, verse 6, believers become children of God, verse 12. The same verb is used each time. This time, in verse 14, it is used of the Word. Now the Word Himself becomes that which He has never before been. The one by whom all creation takes its being becomes flesh.
And John’s point isn’t simply that the coming of Jesus meant that He took the appearance of humanity. No, He became flesh. He didn’t simply put on a body like a new set of clothes. Human nature was not a superficial addition to His essential self. No, when Jesus was born, the person who was and remained still the eternal Word, the only begotten Son of the Father, filling the universe, upholding it by the Word of His power, this one was the same one who was held helpless, vulnerable, dependent, cradling in the arms of the virgin. John is telling us that in the womb of the virgin Mary, vast immensity divine and the frailty of our full humanity were permanently, irrevocably united. Not mixed together to become something new – neither God nor man, nor superficially linked, but irrevocably joined so that as our catechism puts it, “Jesus became man and so was and continues to be both God and man in two distinct natures and one person forever.” Or as my old professor, Donald Macleod has put it, “At the most basic level, the incarnation means that Christ took a true human body, the same in all essential respects as our own. It grew,” he says, “from zygote to fetus to infant child to adolescent to man. It had the same nutritional and environmental needs. It had the same chemistry, the same anatomy, the same physiology. It was not an illusion but was real and tangible. The incarnation was not a theophany, the temporary assumption by God of a human appearance. It was a genuine entering upon the possibility of all those experiences to which our bodies expose ourselves – hunger and thirst, weariness and pain, seeing and hearing, flogging, crucifixion, death, and burial.” The Word became flesh.
Actually, when John uses that expression he’s using it for shorthand for all that inheres in human nature, not just a body as though the word assumes human flesh, a body merely as an empty shell, but as our Catechism also reminds us, He assumes “a true body and a reasonable soul.” All that is human was Christ’s, is Christ’s. That means normal human emotion, normal human will and intellect and personality. Every faculty that inheres in the soul and is essential to the definition of a human being, all of them are His. And so in John 1:14 we are told “the Word became flesh,” it is telling us that the totality of human nature, in every respect, the same as ours, sin excepted, was what was assumed by the divine Word.
Absolute Submission to the Lordship of Christ
And that means, as we face the demands of Jesus Christ for our absolute submission to His Lordship, those are the claims of the Christian Gospel. He doesn’t ask to enter into equal partnership with us. He claims sovereign rule over you and demands your absolute surrender to Him. And yet as we hear those claims and demands, John 1:14 helps us see that the one who makes those demands is one who has been touched with the feeling of our infirmities. It is one who has descended down, all the way down into the depths of our humanity, our weakness, our frailty, our sorrows, our losses, our grief, our pain, even down into the grave for us. The Word became flesh. He became a man, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” one whose body was “pierced for our transgressions,” one who could say that “My soul is troubled, even unto death,” one who was derelict and abandoned and would cry out in forsakenness to the heavens. The one who claims Lordship over you is one who knows. He knows. He has fathomed every depth. He’s walked in every shadow. He has borne every grief. And so when He claims Lordship over you, you can gladly surrender to Him knowing that in Him you have a Savior, a great High Priest, who is not unable to sympathize with us in our weaknesses but who has been tempted and tested in every point as we are yet without sin. How gladly will the heart that begins to grasp the wonder of the union of deity with humanity in Christ, how gladly will that heart bow down and adore Him, casting our crowns at His feet when we realize that the Lion of the tribe of Judah who is the Lord Almighty, our great King, is the Lamb of God who was pierced for us, who knows, who understands, who has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. We will gladly and joyfully bow before Him. And so verse 14 focuses our eyes on His humanity.
Jesus’ Perfect Deity
Verse 18 turns our attention to His deity. Verse 18, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side,” or if you’re using an older translation it puts verse 18 a little differently; I think rightly. It reads, “No one has ever seen God; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared him (or made him) known.” That’s where the rich language of the creeds comes from. That’s where our best hymn texts, our best Christmas carols, get their phraseology. “God of God, Light of Light; lo, He abhors not the virgin’s womb. Very God, begotten not created, O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!” Jesus is God; the only begotten Son of the Father. We were, all of us, begotten naturally by our parents, begotten spiritually if we are Christians in the new birth by the Word and Spirit of God. Jesus Christ is begotten eternally in the fellowship of the blessed Trinity. He is the Son, John says, who has always lived “at the Father’s side” or better, “at the bosom of the Father.” Heart to heart with the Father and with the Spirit in being and in essence and in nature, one; in love and in fellowship and delight, one.
And of course verses 14 and verse 18 are speaking about the same person, aren’t they? Truly man in the full array of our personhood and humanity, yet fully almighty, omnipotent God, “infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” – Jesus Christ. John’s point is that the man of Galilee is the Lord of glory. His point is that the virgin’s child is the only begotten God. The crucified Jew is the sovereign Jehovah. The God we worship is Jesus Christ. We do not merely admire Him a great man; we adore Him the God-Man. Jesus’ identity.
II. Jesus’ Historicity: That He Is
Then notice, secondly, Jesus’ historicity; His historicity – that He is; the fact of Him. It’s a theme that our passage emphasizes again in two ways. First, verse 15, coming back again to John the Baptist’s ministry, the Gospel wants to highlight the concrete, historical stage onto which the miracle of the incarnation exploded. It took place in real time, in a real place, among real people. And John, you could imagine John saying the words recorded of him here, pointing to Jesus, standing right there, bearing witness to the fact of Him – “This is Him, right here!” If verse 14 and verse 18 tell us about the coming of Jesus from 30,000 feet, from altitude, God-Man, here’s His identity – verse 15 talks about the same event, the coming of Jesus Christ, from the perspective of someone with boots on the ground recounting its occurrence like breaking news. “This is he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is preferred before me for he was before me.’ This is the one. Here he is. Breaking news!”
Jesus Christ: The Central Fact of Global History
The coming of Jesus Christ is real and true, a fact of history that can be plotted in a timeline. Peloponnesian Wars, the sacking of Rome, the moon landing, the assassination of JFK, 9-11, the birth of Jesus Christ. It is true truth, which means that the Christian faith is irreducibly historical and therefore cannot be dismissed from the public sphere into the realm of the private and the subjective. It can’t be true for you and not true for me. It simply won’t work to say that science and history provide facts while Christianity offers dogma. No, not at all. John’s claim is that the coming of Jesus Christ is a fact as true as the general theory of relativity and the fall of the Berlin Wall. God Almighty took flesh and stood on the streets of Palestine and therefore it is a fact that demands to be reckoned with by everyone, everywhere. We preach Him to all not because it works for me and who knows, maybe it will work for you too. We preach Him to all because He really came and really lived and died and rose and now reigns and everyone everywhere needs to know. It’s true for me, it’s true for your neighbor, it’s true for the guy down the street, it’s true at Butler-Snow, it’s true at Broad Street Bakery, it’s true if you’re white, it’s true if you’re black, it’s true if you were born a Muslim living in Riyadh or a Taoist living in Japan or an Episcopalian living in Schenectady–I just said that because I like to say “Schenectady.” It’s true in Sudan, and it’s true in Jackson, Mississippi. It’s true for me; it’s true for you. The global fact of the incarnation and the crucifixion and the resurrection and the reign of Jesus Christ compels us to tell the world because it is a world-changing truth. No wonder John 1:29 we find John the Baptist unable to contain himself when he comes face to face with the God-Man. “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” he said. No wonder. It is a wonder that any of us who believe the same thing do not join John in that same glorious declaration bringing the same good news to the ends of the earth. How easily, brothers and sisters, we shrug at the old news of the coming of the God-Man. It is electric news that ought to thrill our hearts and compel us from these four walls to the ends of the earth to say, “I have good news for you! This day a Savior is born – Christ the Lord!”
Jesus Christ: The Central Fact of Biblical History
Not only, however, is Jesus the central fact of history, He’s also, John tells us, a central fact of Biblical history; not just of global history but Biblical history, salvation history revealed and recorded in the Scriptures. Look at the text. Verses 16 and 17 – “For from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.” A better translation might be, “grace for grace; grace replacing grace; grace instead of grace; old grace giving way to new grace.” In light of verse 17, it’s clear John means the grace of one era of salvation history giving way to another, the grace of a fuller era. The grace that came through Moses giving way to its fulfillment in the grace that comes in the new covenant by Jesus Christ. “The Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” What Moses promised, Jesus performed. What Moses typified, Jesus exemplified. What Moses taught, Jesus embodied. The point is, Jesus is the central fact not just of world history but of Bible history so that not only must you know Him if you are to make sense of your world, you must understand His centrality to Scripture if you are to make sense of the Bible. The coming of Jesus is the key, the central locking system, that will open the whole Scripture to you and show how it hangs together. The old pointing to Him; the new explaining His coming.
Many of us have been looking for all the wrong things in all the wrong places. We’re looking for experiences, we’re looking for supernatural encounters, we’re reading our Bibles with the latest breaking news or maybe even, perish the thought, the Left Behind books in our hands. We’ve been looking in Scripture for diet plans and parenting advice and guidance on politics or education or economics and it’s not that Scripture does not have something to say to many of those subjects, but it is rather that the burden of the Bible is John 1:29. The burden of the whole Bible, the grace of the old covenant and the grace of the new, the burden of the whole Bible is John 1:29, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Jesus Christ shines on every page, grace upon grace for you in the Word of God from Genesis to Revelation. That’s John’s point – central to history; central to Scripture.
III. Jesus’ Mission: What He came To Do
The identity of Christ, the historicity of Christ, then finally the ministry of Christ. Why did He come? What did He come to do? So what that the God-Man stepped into the world. And again, two quick answers. Verse 14 one more time. First of all, we learn that though we can’t get to God, in Christ, God has come to us, all the way down to us. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” He came to dwell among us. The word is “tabernacle among us.” He pitched His tent among us. It’s the word of course you will know, used of the tent of meeting and later, eventually the temple, where God met with Israel. His glory was shining around and atonement and sacrifice and priesthood was provided for the people of God. And John is saying to us there is still a tent of meeting whose doors are open to all who would know God. It is now Jesus Christ. Here is the one place where God has come down, available, accessible in Him to you. You can’t get to Him. No logic of yours, no labor of yours will bring you to God. The good news is that God has come to you in Jesus and there you can know Him.
Seeing God in the Face of Jesus Christ
And that’s the last thing to see in verse 18 one more time. We’re told though we cannot see God in Christ God makes Himself known. Look at verse 18 – “No one has ever seen God, but the only God, who is in the Father’s bosom, He has made Him known.” He has made Him known. Skip Ryan tells the story of a mom whose daughter is busy drawing one afternoon and when she asks her what she’s drawing the little girl replies that she’s drawing a picture of God. The mom, rather tactfully, delicately says, “Well sweetheart, no one really knows what God looks like,” to which the reply comes back, “Well they will once I’m through!” God is invisible. We can’t see Him, we can’t draw Him. God doesn’t look like anything. No one has ever seen God but we can know Him because God, the only begotten, has made Him known. The word John uses is the word from which we get our word “exegesis.” Jesus is the exegesis of the Father; He’s the exposition of the heart of God. In Jesus Christ the heart and character of God beating with love for you has been made known. As Michael Ramsey once put it, “In God, there is nothing un-Christlike at all.” In God, there is nothing un-Christlike at all.
You want to know what God is like? You want to know God? You may meet Him for yourself in Jesus Christ. Trace the contours of His character. You can see them all in His Son. Learn to discern the shape of the heart of the Father for you in the Rabbi of Galilee, in the wretch of Golgotha, and in the Lord of glory – Jesus Christ. Behold, your God, with nail marks in His hands and feet, the Word made flesh. And as you take in the wonder of it, won’t you bend your knee to Him anew? Won’t you turn from your bankrupt self to your only Savior? And won’t you come and join the angels and the whole church in adoration and praise? Let us pray together.
Thank You, Father, that You have given Your Son, Your only Son, the Son whom You love, for us. What a display of love for wretched rebel sinners You have made in the gift of the God-Man. We relinquish now all claim to personal lordship, casting our crowns at the feet of our true King and blessing Him, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is our only refuge, our only hope, our only Savior, our only eternal Friend. And so we rest on Him, in Jesus’ name, amen.