The Witnesses to the Incarnation
John testified about Him and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’ ” For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. (1:15–16)
In keeping with his purpose in writing his gospel (20:31), John brought in other witnesses to the truth about the divine, preexistent, incarnate Word, the Lord Jesus Christ. He first called on John the Baptist, who also testified about Him and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’ ” John’s testimony will be related in more detail beginning in verse 19. Here the apostle John merely summarizes it. John the Baptist, of course, had died long before this gospel was written. But as noted in chapter 2 of this volume, there was still a John the Baptist cult in existence. So as he did in verse 8, the apostle notes John the Baptist’s inferiority to Christ—this time in the Baptist’s own words. In contrast to some of his followers, he understood clearly and accepted gladly his subordinate role.
That John cried out speaks of the bold, public nature of his witness to Jesus; he was “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, make His paths straight!’ ” (Matt. 3:3). He was the herald, proclaiming the arrival of the Messiah, and calling people to repent and prepare their hearts to receive Him. Acknowledging Jesus’ preeminence John said of Him, “He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.” Jesus, the Expected (lit., “coming”) One (Matt. 11:3; Luke 7:19–20; John 6:14) came after John in time; He was born six months later (Luke 1:26) and began His public ministry after John began his. Yet, as John acknowledged, Jesus had a higher rank than he did, for He existed before him. The reference here, as in verses 1 and 2, is to Jesus’ eternal preexistence (cf. 8:58).
Then John called on the testimony of believers, including himself and all who have received the fullness of blessing from the one who is “full of grace and truth” (v. 14). Because in Christ “all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Col. 2:9), He provides for all His people’s needs (Rom. 5:2; Eph. 4:12–13; Col. 1:28; 2:10; 2 Peter 1:3). That abundant supply will never be exhausted or diminished; grace will continually follow grace in a limitless, never-ending flow (cf. 2 Cor. 12:9; Eph. 2:7).
16 Following the reference to John the Baptist in v. 15, the evangelist resumes his line of thought from v. 14. The one and only Son is “full of grace” (v. 14), and out of his “fullness” they had all “received one blessing after another.” Not only had they received grace when they came to him in faith, but their experience of the goodness of God was one of continuous blessedness. The NIV rendering of charin anti charitos (“one blessing after another”; lit., “grace instead of grace”) makes clear the progressive blessings that come in the Christian life. Each experience of the grace of God is replaced by the next, like the manna that came fresh every morning. John’s point is that at the heart of new life in Christ is a constant supply of grace. It is interesting that John uses the term “grace” only here in the prologue (vv. 14, 16–17) and no place else. (Contrast the writings of Paul, who uses charis, GK 5921, over one hundred times in his letters.)
1:16 All who believe on the Lord Jesus receive supplies of spiritual strength out of His fullness. His fullness is so great that He can provide for all Christians in all countries and in all ages. The expression grace for grace probably means “grace upon grace” or “abundant grace.” Here grace means God’s gracious favor which He showers on His beloved children.
The Unique Christ
John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ ” From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.
In France every child who goes to Sunday school learns John 3:16, as children do the world over. He recites it like this: “Car Dieu a tant aimé le monde qu’il a donné son Fils unique.” Literally translated this means: “For God loved the world so much that he gave his unique Son.” Unique means being without a like or equal, single in kind or excellence, matchless. It is an important word, and it is particularly important at just this point in our study since it occurs twice in the space of five verses. In Greek the word is monogenes; the New International Version says “One and Only”; the French say unique. In each case, however, the same teaching is in view.
In verse 14 John speaks of having beheld Christ’s glory, “the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father.” In verse 18 we are told, “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” We see at once, then, that Jesus is unique because there is no one quite like him (in fact, with the exception of the Father himself, not at all like him) and because he can do for men what no one else can do.
Jesus is unique in every aspect of his being. He is unique in his person, birth, doctrine, works, miracles, death, resurrection, and future triumphs. In the verses that are included within these two uses of the word in John’s first chapter (vv. 15–18), four things are singled out particularly: (1) Jesus is unique in his origins; (2) he is unique as the channel of God’s blessings; (3) he is unique as the source of grace and truth; and (4) he is unique because he is the only one in whom you and I may see God. We need to look at each of these carefully.
Unique in His Origin
In the first place, Jesus Christ is unique in his origins, for John the Baptist, who is actually speaking these words, declares, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me’ ” (v. 15).
It is possible on a theoretical level at least that this verse could have three meanings. William Barclay points out that since Jesus was actually six months younger than John, the Baptist could be saying, “He who is my junior in age has been advanced before me.” John could also be saying, “I was in the field before Jesus, I occupied the center of the stage before he did; my hand was laid to the work before his was; but all that I was doing was to prepare the way for his coming; I was only the advance guard of the main force and the herald of the king.” John could have been saying either of those two things. But in actual fact it is highly unlikely that these were any more than fleeting thoughts in his mind. John the Baptist was impressed with the uniqueness of Christ’s person, and the phrase should therefore mean (as the evangelist intends it to mean) that Jesus was entirely without historical origins. He was preexistent. This is clearly the equivalent of declaring him to be God.
Unique in his origins! How exalted this makes the Lord Jesus! Donald Grey Barnhouse has written in The Cross through the Open Tomb: “The history of every other human being begins at birth: but the Lord Jesus Christ exists eternally as the Second Person of the Godhead. Before He was born at Bethlehem, He lived; He was one with the Father in essence and being. Before He came to earth as a baby, He walked among men and revealed Himself to them. The Old Testament, which was completed four centuries before His birth, contains many stories of His appearing among men before He came as babe, child, and man.” Abraham saw Christ in his day; for Jesus declared, “Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). He later added, “before Abraham was born, I am” (v. 58). Isaiah saw Jesus when he had his vision of the Lord high and lifted up (Isa. 6:1–3), for John refers to this vision, saying, “Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him” (John 12:41). There were others.
It is no wonder, therefore, that in almost every instance in which the writers of the New Testament refer in depth to Christ’s person they refer almost instinctively to his preexistence. The author of Hebrews begins by writing: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe” (Heb. 1:1–2). Paul in the Book of Philippians writes: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:5–8).
Some people consider Jesus Christ only a man, and indeed he is a man. Some point to him only as an example, and he is that also. But if that is all you can see in Jesus Christ, then your view of him is entirely misleading. For the first and most important thing to be said about him is that he is without any historical beginnings and that this is the equivalent of calling him God. Everything he did and said takes its meaning from this great truth and flows from it.
Source of All Blessings
The second point made in these verses is that Jesus is the unique channel of all God’s material and spiritual blessings. This is what is meant when we are told, “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another” (v. 16).
On one level this verse is a statement that all men have been recipients of God’s grace. This is “common grace,” the type of grace discussed previously. Everything truly good that comes into your life—health, prosperity, knowledge, friendships, good times, whatever it is—comes from God. This is true whether or not you recognize him as the source of such blessings.
In the Book of Hosea there is a story that illustrates this truth. Hosea was a preacher, and God had told Hosea to marry a woman who was to prove unfaithful to him. He was to do this as an illustration of the relationship between God and Israel because God had taken Israel to himself as a wife and she had proved unfaithful spiritually. The object and goal of the illustration was that Hosea was to remain faithful to her and love her, even after she had left him, because God remains faithful even when people turn from him to serve other gods.
The time came, some years after Hosea’s wife had left, that she fell into poverty and ended up living with a man who no longer had enough money to take care of her. At this point God said, “Hosea, I want you to go down to the marketplace and buy the things she needs, because that is the way I do with my people. They run away from me, and I pay the bills.” So we read in Hosea, “Their mother has been unfaithful and has conceived them in disgrace. She said, ‘I will go after my lovers, who give me my food and my water, my wool and my linen, my oil and my drink.’ … She has not acknowledged that I was the one who gave her the grain, the new wine and oil, who lavished on her the silver and gold” (Hos. 2:5, 8). So it is! We run from God, but he pays the bills; he still takes care of us. He takes care of you. We need to learn that Jesus Christ is unique as the source of all material and spiritual blessings, even when we fail to acknowledge his goodness or thank him for them.
There is another sense in which Jesus is the source of all blessing, however. He himself is a blessing; and the true Christian—not the non-Christian—has an opportunity to be enriched by him personally. We are apt to tire of his presence because of the sin in us and to be lured by the pleasures of the world. The world does have pleasures. The trouble is simply that they do not satisfy us long or satisfy us completely. They are much like a Chinese dinner: you eat it, it tastes good, but an hour later you are hungry again. Jesus Christ is not like that. He said, “If you are thirsty, come to me and I will give you satisfying water. If you are hungry come to me; I am the bread of life. He who drinks of me and feeds on me will never hunger and never thirst.” Have you done that? Are you doing that today?
If you have once known the Lord Jesus Christ and have turned back to the world’s pleasure for a time, I guarantee that the world will prove increasingly insipid and empty to you. One hymnwriter knew this experience at one point in his life, and he has left us a poignant verse about it. He wrote:
How tedious and tasteless the hours
When Jesus no longer I see!
Sweet prospects, sweet birds, and sweet flowers,
Have all lost their sweetness for me!
Is that your experience? It need not be, for you can turn to Christ again and find him truly satisfying. Another hymn writer composed a verse which tells the other side of the story.
Hast thou heard Him, seen Him, known Him?
Is not thine a captured heart?
Chief among ten thousand own Him,
Joyful, choose the better part.
What has stript the seeming beauty
From the idols of the earth?
not a sense of right or duty,
But the sight of peerless worth.
Draw and win and fill completely,
Till the cup o’er flow the brim;
What have we to do with idols
Who have companied with Him?
Jesus! Unique in his origins, unique as the source of all material and spiritual blessings.
Knowledge of God
Finally, in verses 17 and 18 the apostle John records two other things about the uniqueness of Jesus. First, he says that Jesus is unique as the source of grace and truth. “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (v. 17).
This verse suggests a contrast that gives the words “grace and truth” a slightly different meaning than they had three verses earlier. The contrast is between the law with all its regulations and the new era of salvation by grace through faith apart from the works of the law that has come with Jesus Christ. It is a great contrast. Under the law, God demands righteousness from people; under grace, he gives it to people. Under law, righteousness is based on Moses and good works; under grace, it is based on Christ and Christ’s character. Under law, blessings accompany obedience; under grace, God bestows his blessings as a free gift. The law is powerless to secure righteousness and life for a sinful race. Grace came in its fullness with Christ’s death and resurrection to make sinners righteous before God.
Then, in the last place, we are told that the Lord Jesus Christ is unique because he is the only One in whom you and I may see God. John puts it like this: “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known” (v. 18).
No one in the ancient world would have disagreed with the first part of that statement—“No one has ever seen God”—for, as William Barclay notes in his commentary, “In the ancient world men were fascinated and depressed and frustrated by what they regarded as the infinite distance and the utter unknowability of God. … Xenophanes had said, ‘Guesswork is over all.’ Plato had said, ‘Never man and God can meet.’ Celsus had laughed at the way that the Christians called God ‘Father,’ because ‘God is away beyond everything.’ At the best, Apuleius said, men could catch a glimpse of God as a lightning flash lights up a dark night—one split second of illumination, and then the dark.” Even the Jews would have thought this way, for they knew that God had spoken to Moses in the Old Testament, saying, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Exod. 33:20). There would have been no disagreement at all when John the Baptist declared that no one could see God.
Yet John did not stop with that statement. It is true that no man can see God and live, as God said to Moses; but it is also true that in Christ God came to men in a way that enabled men to know him. In Jesus Christ the character of God may be known. There is no true knowledge of God apart from him. Do you want to believe that God is loving? Good! But do not base your belief on some fantasy of your imagination. What could be less reliable than that? Instead, base it on the revelation of God’s love in Christ and at Calvary. Do you want to believe that God is powerful, able to bring a transformation in your life? If so, do not depend on your own wishful thinking. Look to Jesus Christ. He will reveal it; because the same One who died for your sin also rose again in power and now lives to apply that same death-conquering power to the lives of those who follow him. Are you searching for wisdom? Look to the One who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our “righteousness, holiness and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).
What is your reaction to these things? Do you know the truth of them personally? One of the most memorable sermons that I have ever come across was preached by the late Emil Brunner at the Fraumünster Kirche in Zurich, Switzerland. It was based on the phrase “faith, hope, and love.” The points were these. Every man has a past, a present, and a future. Every man has a problem in his past, a problem in his present, and a problem in his future. The problem in our past is sin, but God has an answer to that problem. The answer is faith, faith in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. The problem in our future is death, but God has an answer to that problem also. The answer to that problem is hope, hope in Christ’s return based on the fact of his historical resurrection and his promises. The problem in our present is hate, and God’s answer to that problem is love. It is the love of Christ lived out in the lives of those who trust him.
Brunner was entirely right. And he was right not only in highlighting the three great problems; he was right in pointing to the unique Christ as the answer. Has Christ become the answer to the problems in your life? He is the only One who will ever answer them completely.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). John 1–11 (p. 44). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Mounce, R. H. (2007). John. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke–Acts (Revised Edition) (Vol. 10, p. 374). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1468). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 97–102). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.