What does it mean that the Word became flesh?
John 1:14 is one of the most important verses in the Bible. It reads: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
The Word did not just appear to be human; the Word became flesh.
This assertion stunned the Greek mind for whom the separation of the divine spirit and the mundane world (flesh, sarx) was an axiom of belief.
But the second phrase is equally stunning for the Jew. This Word dwelt (skenoo) among us and revealed his glory (doxa). This verb for dwelling is employed in the Greek Old Testament for the tabernacle of God.
Christ reveals God’s glory
Christ is the locus of God’s dwelling with Israel as he had dwelt with them in the tabernacle in the desert (Ex. 25:8–9; Zech. 2:10). Hence the glory of God, once restricted to the tabernacle (Ex. 40:34), is now visible in Christ (John 1:14b).
But two things must be noted.
- This experience of glory is concrete. It is not a mystical vision and an inward illumination. The glory of God took up tangible form and was touched.
- This glory was not merely a display of power. For John the deepest irony is how glory is to be found in suffering and humiliation, for in this Gospel, the cross of Christ is again and again described as Jesus’ glorification (John 12:23–24; 13:31). His signs and miracles showed his glory, to be sure, but it is in the cross that the mysterious, unfathomable glory of God is to be found.
Christ reveals God’s grace
It is curious that the word “grace,” so common in the rest of the New Testament, is virtually unused by John and appears only here in the prologue (four times) and then disappears. Following the common understanding of the New Testament, John likely has in mind the generous work of God in sending his Son, which results in our salvation.
Grace is found in God’s coming and working despite the hostility and rejection of the world. Grace is not merely an attribute of God. It is known when someone enjoys his goodness. It is the recipient who knows grace, not the theologian who has studied it.
Christ reveals God’s truth
The more important word for John, however, is “truth.” Most simply it is the opposite of falsehood; but John sees truth as penetrating far deeper.
Truth is the self-disclosure that alone comes from God; truth is not just what is right, but what is divine—and this is right. Thus Jesus can describe himself as the truth (14:6) and likewise say that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth (15:26; 16:13).
Therefore the incarnation of Christ silences the fraudulent voices of the world whose truth claims are inimical to God.
What John 1 meant to the original readers
Throughout this Gospel, it is clear that the apostle John and his community are struggling with the counterclaims of the Jewish synagogue.
In John 9, the healed blind man must decide if he is a follower of Moses or a follower of Jesus. One (apparently) cannot be both (9:28)—or at least that is how John’s opponents are putting it.
John also makes clear here that Moses did indeed play an unparalleled role: He provided the first five books of the Bible, the Torah, which John here calls “the law” (1:17). These are not being discredited, for surely grace and truth came through Moses too. Thus, the Gospel of John does not intend to show that the grace of Christ stands at odds with the revelation of Moses. The law likewise contains the grace of God and is an earlier display of it.
What is at stake here is the exhaustive character of the Christian revelation.
It is interesting that in Exodus 33:18 Moses’ request to see God is denied (33:20; cf. Deut. 4:12); but Jesus has come to us from the very heart of the Father (John 1:18). Indeed, he has seen the Father—and no one else has.
This goes beyond Moses and every other claimant for the truth in the world. Hebrews 3:1–6 carries this same thought: The Son’s revelation cannot by definition have any rivals.
Christ’s revelation is unique for ontological reasons: It is his identity, his being, the essence of who he is that makes his words God’s words. Indeed, Christ is fully God, who in his incarnation is revealing himself to the world.
3 things we can learn from the Word becoming flesh
These verses of Scripture are perhaps some of the most important words ever penned.
The first chapter of John’s Gospel is densely packed with ringing affirmations about:
- Jesus Christ,
- God’s relation to the world, and
- the character of humanity.
Let’s explore each of these.
1. What we can learn about Jesus
In early Christian reflection, the catalyst for thinking about the identity and mission of Christ was the resurrection. Jesus had been vindicated and the truth of his claims was assured, because God had delivered him from the grave.
The fact of the resurrection and the failure of the cross to defeat Jesus becomes the center of New Testament preaching throughout Acts. Peter’s Pentecost speech finds its critical junction at the point where Jesus is described as rescued from the grave: “‘He was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay’ ” (Acts 2:31).
It is the present reality of Christ, his lordship, and his presence in the church that fuel the church’s mission and confidence. This emphasis is evident in Paul’s letters, which manifest virtually no interest in Jesus’ earthly life. Paul writes with passion about the present, empowering lordship of Christ, who is a life-giving Spirit (1 Cor. 15:45) and who is sovereign over the church (Col. 1:18). He describes the future when Jesus in glory will return to the world to redeem his church (1Thess. 5:2).
But it was not long before reflection migrated into the early years of Jesus’ life. The earliest narratives written focused on the Passion story and provided an answer to the pressing question: Why was Jesus crucified? And if he exhibited power over the grave, surely this power was evident during his ministry.
Thus, the Gospels explore other questions: What was the character of God’s presence with Jesus on earth? How do we explain his messianic role in Judaism?
The work of Mark, Matthew, and Luke began to answer these questions, but there was one more line of inquiry that pressed Christological reflection a step further: Did Jesus have a preexistence?
Matthew and Luke’s nativity stories open this discussion directly, but it was left to John to give a full theological explanation. The first part of John is the most complete and the most explicit study of Christ’s preexistence in the New Testament.
The significance of Jesus is not merely in his ability to be a powerful worker of mighty deeds. Nor is it in his wisdom as a great teacher. Rather, Jesus is God-become-flesh. That is, the phenomenon of Jesus Christ is a phenomenon unlike anything the world has witnessed before. He is God-in-descent, God stepping into the context of humanity.
In more technical terms, Jesus has an ontological divinity. His being, his essence, his very nature is one with God. This is to be compared with an ethical divinity, in which Jesus is valued or aligned with God—as evidenced in what he does.
This may at first seem obvious to those who have been nurtured in the Christian environment, but today it simply cannot be assumed that men and women truly understand the Christological implications of John’s incarnational theology. Springing from this doctrine of the high divinity of Jesus—a divinity anchored to preexistence—comes a host of theological themes that I must press home when I apply this text.
John’s understanding of revelation lifts Jesus’ words above those of a prophet and any human being. The voice of Jesus becomes the voice of God. It is for this reason that Jesus can tell Philip that seeing him is equivalent to seeing the Father (14:9). This is also why Thomas, at the close of the Gospel, can give Jesus the high acclaim, “My Lord and my God” (20:28). In a similar fashion, John’s understanding of redemption now becomes a divine work that parallels Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:19: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ.”
Redemption is thus no divinely inspired human event that sets out to placate God. Redemption is God himself at work in the world, achieving his own goals for repairing the consequences of sin and bringing humanity back into relationship with himself.
To sum up, therefore, Jesus must be explained in terms of his unique origin and mission, and this explanation must be forged with a clear understanding of his unity with the Father.
2. What we learn about God’s relationship to the world
High on John’s theological agenda is his interest in explaining the rejection of Jesus by Judaism and the world—a rejection leading to the cross.
For John this does not mean that Jesus failed in any way; rather, it uncovers the character of the world (a place of darkness) and discloses how the world reacts whenever it is penetrated by the light.
John’s worldview is strictly dualistic: The forces of light and darkness, good and evil, God and Satan are arrayed against one another to such a degree that there can be no compromise.
No intermingling. No association.
John’s theology of the world is his vehicle for explaining Jesus’ rejection by Judaism (1:11), the failure of most to understand the things of God (1:10), and the hostility of the world in general when the things of God are brought to the fore (1:5).
John writes, “Light has come into the world, but [people] loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (3:19). In short, darkness is a theological description that betrays the world’s commitments and confusions. For this reason Nicodemus, who can barely understand Jesus, comes “at night” (3:2). And after Judas betrays Jesus, he departs the Upper Room into the night (13:30). These are literary devices John employs to tell us about the environment in which these two men live and work: “But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them” (11:10 nrsv).
The world, then, is not a neutral place, a place of open inquiry and curiosity about God. As I bring this passage into the modern world, I need to keep John’s cosmology, his theology of the world, foremost in my thinking.
The world is opposed to the light. Yet despite the world’s hopeless and hostile condition, still, God loves the world and has entered it in order to save it (3:16–17).
The world is thus a theological term for humanity set against God. “God so loved the world” is not about God’s love for nature, but God’s love for those arrayed against him.
3. What we learn about the possibilities for humanity
John’s third message is his theology of hope. The desperate condition of humanity is set against the goodness of God and his overtures toward the world in Christ. This alone, this supernatural intervention, is the only possibility for men and women today.
The darkness of the world cannot defeat the Word (1:5) because the Word created the world and understands everything that has gone into it (1:3). In 2:24–25 Jesus is celebrated by many who witnessed his signs at Passover, but then John provides a remarkable commentary about Jesus’ savvy understanding of this shallow popularity: He understood all people and understood what was in each one of them.
This is the hope to which John clings: Despite the fallenness and corruption of humanity—a corruption at the very heart of things, despite the hostility of humanity to God—nevertheless God empowers men and women to be transformed and become his children (1:12).
This is hope: that despite the darkness, One Light shined and this Light worked to illumine others. Despite the darkness, the glory of God radiated in the world (1:14b), displaying the grace and truth of the Father (1:14a).
This is an essentially modern message because we live in a culture that is looking for hope. For some, hope has been anchored in human systems and possibilities. For younger generations, there often seems to be no hope, and as they look at their world, they feel despair. The key here is that I must proclaim a Christological eschatology, an ultimate and final message that is anchored in the possibilities brought about through God in Christ.
This post is adapted from Gary Burge's online course on the book of John, available soon. Take a look at the free preview:
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