The Nature of the Incarnation
And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. (1:14)
Verse 14 is the most concise biblical statement of the Incarnation, and therefore one of Scripture’s most significant verses. The four words with which it begins, the Word became flesh, express the reality that in the Incarnation God took on humanity; the infinite became finite; eternity entered time; the invisible became visible (cf. Col. 1:15); the Creator entered His creation. God revealed Himself to man in the creation (Rom. 1:18–21), the Old Testament Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20–21), and, supremely and most clearly, in Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:1–2). The record of His life and work, and its application and significance for the past, present, and future, is in the New Testament.
As noted in the discussion of 1:1 in chapter 1 of this volume, the concept of the Word was one rich in meaning for both Greeks and Jews. John here clearly stated what he implied earlier in the prologue: Jesus Christ, God’s final Word to mankind (Heb. 1:1–2), became flesh.Sarx (flesh) does not have here the negative moral connotation that it sometimes carries (e.g., Rom. 8:3–9; 13:14; Gal. 5:13, 16–17, 19; Eph. 2:3), but refers to man’s physical being (cf. Matt. 16:17; Rom. 1:3; 1 Cor. 1:26; 2 Cor. 5:16; Gal. 1:16; Eph. 5:29; Phil. 1:22). That He actually became flesh affirms Jesus’ full humanity.
Ginomai (became) does not mean that Christ ceased being the eternal Word when He became a man. Though God is immutable, pure eternal “being” and not “becoming” as all His creatures are, in the Incarnation the unchangeable (Heb. 13:8) God did become fully man, yet remained fully God. He entered the realm of those who are time and space creatures and experienced life as it is for those He created. In the words of the fifth-century church father Cyril of Alexandria,
We do not … assert that there was any change in the nature of the Word when it became flesh, or that it was transformed into an entire man, consisting of soul and body; but we say that the Word, in a manner indescribable and inconceivable, united personally … to himself flesh animated with a reasonable soul, and thus became man and was called the Son of man.… The natures which were brought together to form a true unity were different; but out of both is one Christ and one Son. We do not mean that the difference of the natures is annihilated by reason of this union; but rather that the Deity and Manhood, by their inexpressible and inexplicable concurrence into unity, have produced for us the one Lord and Son Jesus Christ. (cited in Bettenson, Documents, 47)
No wonder Paul wrote of the Incarnation,
By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness:
He who was revealed in the flesh,
Was vindicated in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Proclaimed among the nations,
Believed on in the world,
Taken up in glory. (1 Tim. 3:16)
Charles Wesley also captured the wonder of the Incarnation in his majestic hymn “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”:
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail th’ incarnate Deity!
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Some found the Incarnation so utterly beyond human reason to comprehend that they refused to accept it. The heretical group known as the Docetists (from dokeō; “to seem,” or “to appear”), accepting the dualism of matter and spirit so prevalent in Greek philosophy at that time, held that matter was evil, and spirit was good. Accordingly, they argued that Christ could not have had a material (and hence evil) body. They taught instead either that His body was a phantom, or an apparition, or that the divine Christ spirit descended upon the mere man Jesus at His baptism, then left Him before His crucifixion. Cerinthus, John’s opponent at Ephesus, was a Docetist. John strongly opposed Docetism, which undermines not only the incarnation of Christ, but also His resurrection and substitutionary atonement. As noted earlier in this chapter, in his first epistle he warned,
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. (1 John 4:1–3)
John was so horrified by Cerinthus’s heresy that, as the early church historian Eusebius records,
John the apostle once entered a bath to wash; but ascertaining Cerinthus was within, he leaped out of the place, and fled from the door, not enduring to enter under the same roof with him, and exhorted those with him to do the same, saying, “let us flee, lest the bath fall in, as long as Cerinthus, that enemy of the truth, is within.” (Ecclesiastical History, book III, chap. XXVIII)
The eternal Son not only became man; He also dwelt among men for thirty-three years. Dwelt translates a form of the verb skēnoō, which literally means “to live in a tent.” Jesus Christ’s humanity was not a mere appearance. He took on all the essential attributes of humanity and was “made in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7), “since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14). As the writer of Hebrews goes on to explain, “He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17). And He pitched His tent among us.
In the Old Testament, God tented with Israel through His glorious presence in the tabernacle (Ex. 40:34–35) and later in the temple (1 Kings 8:10–11), and revealed Himself in some pre-incarnate appearances of Christ (e.g., Gen. 16:7–14; Ex. 3:2; Josh. 5:13–15; Judg. 2:1–4; 6:11–24; 13:3–23; Dan. 3:25; 10:5–6; Zech. 1:11–21). Throughout eternity, God will again tent with His redeemed and glorified people:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell [skēnoō] among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:3–4; cf. 12:12; 13:6)
Though Jesus manifested God’s divine glory during His earthly life with a clarity never before seen, it was still veiled by His human flesh. Peter, James, and John saw a physical manifestation of Jesus’ heavenly glory at the transfiguration, when “His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light” (Matt. 17:2; cf. 2 Peter 1:16–18). That was a preview of the unveiled glory to be seen at His return (Matt. 24:29–30; 25:31; Rev. 19:11–16) and the fullness of His heavenly glory as the only Light of the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:23). But the disciples saw Jesus manifest God’s holy nature primarily by displaying divine attributes, such as truth, wisdom, love, grace, knowledge, power, and holiness.
Jesus manifested the same essential glory as the Father, because as God they possess the same nature (10:30). Despite the claims of false teachers through the centuries, monogenēs (only begotten) does not imply that Jesus was created by God and thus not eternal. The term does not refer to a person’s origin, but describes him as unique, the only one of his kind. Thus Isaac could properly be called Abraham’s monogenēs (Heb. 11:17) even though Abraham had other sons, because Isaac alone was the son of the covenant. Monogenēs distinguishes Christ as the unique Son of God from believers, who are God’s sons in a different sense (1 John 3:2). B. F. Westcott writes, “Christ is the One and only Son, the One to whom the title belongs in a sense completely unique and singular, as distinguished from that in which there are many children of God (vv. 12f.)” (The Gospel According to St. John [Reprint; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978], 12). Jesus’ unique relationship to the Father is a major theme of John’s gospel (cf. 1:18; 3:35; 5:17–23, 26, 36–37; 6:27, 46, 57; 8:16, 18–19, 28, 38, 42, 54; 10:15, 17, 30, 36–38; 12:49–50; 14:6–13, 20–21, 23, 31; 15:9, 15, 23–24; 16:3, 15, 27–28, 32; 17:5, 21, 24–25; 20:21).
Jesus’ manifestation of the divine attributes revealed His essential glory as God’s Son, “for in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Col. 2:9). The two attributes most closely connected with salvation are grace and truth. Scripture teaches that salvation is wholly by believing God’s truth in the gospel, by which one receives His saving grace.
The Jerusalem Council declared, “But we believe that we [Jewish believers] are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they [Gentiles] also are” (Acts 15:11). Apollos “greatly helped those who had believed through grace” (Acts 18:27). Paul described the message he preached as “the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). In Romans 3:24 he wrote that believers are “justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus,” while in Ephesians 1:7 he added, “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace.” Later in that same letter, Paul wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8–9). He reminded Timothy that God “has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity” (2 Tim. 1:9). That same “grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men” (Titus 2:11), with the result that believers “being justified by His grace … would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:7).
There is no salvation grace except to those who believe the truth of the gospel message. Paul reminded the Ephesians, “In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise” (Eph. 1:13). In Colossians 1:5 he defined the gospel as the “word of truth” (cf. James 1:18). Paul expressed to the Thessalonians his thankfulness that “God ha[d] chosen [them] from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth” (2 Thess. 2:13). People are saved when they “come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4; cf. 2 Tim. 2:25). On the other hand, “those who perish” will do so “because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved” (2 Thess. 2:10). Everyone will “be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness” (2 Thess. 2:12).
Jesus Christ was the full expression of God’s grace. All the necessary truth to save is available in Him. He was the full expression of God’s truth, which was only partially revealed in the Old Testament (cf. Col. 2:16–17). What was foreshadowed through prophecy, types, and pictures became substance realized in the person of Christ (cf. Heb. 1:1–2). Therefore He could declare, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.… If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 14:6; 8:31–32).
A vague belief in God apart from the truth about Christ will not result in salvation. As Jesus Himself warned, “Unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). Those who think they are worshiping God, but are ignorant of or reject the fullness of the New Testament teaching about Christ, are deceived, because “he who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him” (John 5:23; cf. 15:23). In his first epistle John affirmed that “whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:23; cf. 2 John 9). Those who reject God’s full revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ will be eternally lost.
Summarizing the magnificence of this verse, Gerald L. Borchert writes,
In analyzing this crucial verse of the Prologue it becomes quickly apparent that this verse is like a great jewel with many facets that spreads it rays of implication into the various dimensions of Christology—the theology of Christ. As a summary of this verse it may be said that the evangelist recognized and bore witness to the fact that the characteristics ascribed only to God by the Old Testament were present in the incarnate Logos, God’s unique messenger to the world, who not only epitomized in person the awesome sense of God’s presence in their midst as a pilgrim people but also evidenced those stabilizing divine qualities God’s people had experienced repeatedly. (John 1–11, The New American Commentary [Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002], 121–22. Italics in original.)
God with Us
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
I wish it were possible to approach John 1:14 as though reading it for the first time. The verse contains something that was new and quite startling when it was first written, and yet for us who read it nearly two thousand years later it has become commonplace. We read: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” This was the great sentence for which the Gospel of John was written. It tells us—inexplicable as it may be—that God became man. Nevertheless, because we have heard that verse from childhood, we read it and are often strangely unmoved.
The Church Fathers
Fortunately, we can capture a sense of the original, shattering newness of this sentence from the writings of the church fathers, particularly those who were converted to Christianity out of paganism. Augustine, who became the greatest theologian of the early church, was no mean scholar. He had drunk deeply at the spring of Platonic philosophy. He had spent years soaking up the religious and philosophical system of the Manichaeans. Yet, as he said later, although he had read all about the Word in non-Christian books—that the Word was God and had been active in the creation of the world—nevertheless, that the “Word became flesh” he had not read there.
Another church father, Junius the younger, has also written of his reaction to first reading these verses. “My father, who was frequently reading the New Testament, and had long observed with grief the progress I had made in infidelity, had put that book in my way in his library, in order to attract my attention, if it might please God to bless his design, though without giving me the least intimation of it. Here, therefore, I unwittingly opened the New Testament thus providentially laid before me. At the very first view, although I was deeply engaged in other thoughts, that grand chapter of the evangelist and apostle presented itself to me—‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God.’ I read part of the chapter, and was so affected that I instantly became struck with the divinity of the argument, and the majesty and authority of the composition, as infinitely surpassing the highest flights of human eloquence. My body shuddered. My mind was in amazement, and I was so agitated the whole day that I scarcely knew who I was. Nor did the agitation cease, but continued till it was at last soothed by a humble faith in him who was made flesh and dwelt among us.”
This was the astounding new thing—that the Word of God could enter into our history as a man so that men could see him. In him men could behold God’s glory.
He Pitched His Tent
Actually, as John wrote this verse he was doubtlessly referring to the great days of Israel’s desert wanderings; and he was making the point that, although those days were great days for Israel, in our day something much better has happened. It involves all men. We know that John was making this contrast, because of an unusual word that occurs in the verse. In English it is the word “dwelling.” We have it in the phrase, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Literally, the phrase means “to dwell in a tent.” So we could also translate the verse: “The Word became flesh, and pitched his tent among us,” or “The Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us.” This last translation is particularly significant because the word refers beyond any question to the portable wilderness tabernacle or temple of the Hebrew nation. The tabernacle was the center of their worship and the most important single object in their camp.
In all, the tabernacle was about forty-five feet long and about fifteen feet wide; that is, it was three times as long as it was wide. And it was divided into two distinct parts, the inner section being in the form of a square fifteen feet by fifteen feet, and the outer section being twice as long as it was wide. It was made of boards covered with curtains. The inner chamber contained the ark of the covenant. The outer chamber contained the golden altar of incense, the table of shewbread, and the golden candlestick. This entire structure stood in a courtyard surrounded by curtains of pure linen rising to a height of over eight feet. The courtyard measured 175 feet long and about 87 feet wide. In the courtyard there was a great brazen altar for sacrifices and a laver for purifications.
Everything about the tabernacle—its dimensions, furnishings, colors, functions, and arrangement—was designed to communicate spiritual truth. Hence, many of its functions were previews of the functions Jesus Christ would fulfill when he eventually pitched his tent among us. We can list several of the more obvious parallels.
- The tabernacle was the center of Israel’s camp. We see this in the laws ordering the distribution of the various tribes in the Jewish encampment as recorded in the early chapters of the Book of Numbers. On the eastern side of the tabernacle were the tribes of Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. These set out first when the nation began to break camp. On the south were Reuben, Simeon, and Gad. These marched second. After these tribes came the Levites, who surrounded the tabernacle in the encampment. Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin were on the west. Dan, Asher, and Naphtali always camped to the north. These came last when the people were on the move. We see this position of the tabernacle reinforced by the instructions given to the Levites for their place in the march; for we read in Numbers 2:17, “Then the Tent of Meeting and the camp of the Levites will set out in the middle of the camps. They will set out in the same order as they encamp, each in his own place under his standard.” This is highly significant in reference to Jesus Christ, for he is the center of the Christian encampment. He is our gathering place. This is why Jesus could say, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). He told his disciples: “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matt. 18:20).
- The tabernacle was the place where the law of Moses was preserved. The first two tables of stone, which had been given to Moses by God, were broken (Exodus 32); but the second set was deposited in the ark of the covenant within the Holy of Holies of the tabernacle for safekeeping. This also speaks to us of Christ Jesus. Speaking of his perfect obedience to God and of his perfect keeping of the law, the Lord Jesus Christ said, “for I always do what pleases him” (John 8:29). In the same manner Psalm 40 is prophesying Christ’s perfect obedience when it reports him as saying, “I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart” (Ps. 40:8).
- The tabernacle was the dwelling place of God. This was no doubt largely symbolic during the Old Testament period, although it was symbolized in a very striking way. Within the Holy of Holies, between the wings of the cherubim that stretched out over the covering of the ark of the covenant, there was the shekinah glory that symbolized God’s presence. The shekinah was what we would call “light.” At times it was hidden by the cloud that spread out over the tabernacle. At other times it flashed out in judgment against some evil in the camp of Israel. The glory within the Holy of Holies symbolized the presence of God. Thus, John, who knew that God had been revealed in the flesh in Jesus, could write, “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father.”
- Because the tabernacle was the place where God dwelt among his people, it was also the place of revelation. It was the place where God met with men and spoke to them. For this reason the tabernacle was also called “the tent of meeting,” a phrase that occurs scores of times in the Old Testament.
The second tabernacle, Jesus Christ, is the place where God meets with men today and speaks to them. If you have ever visited a mint, you know that the coins manufactured there are produced by large presses that stamp out a whole sheet of coins at one time. A sheet of silver or alloy is fed into the machine, there is a clump, and a shower of coins tumbles out into a basket. I am told that a skilled engraver can take a coin, examine it under a magnifying glass, and tell not only the actual die from which the coin came but even the condition of the die, which cannot be seen where it is within the press. It is on the basis of such an examination that the dies are replaced when they show signs of wear. In the same way, we cannot see God. The Bible reports God as saying to Moses: “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Exod. 33:20). Yet God is revealed to us perfectly in Jesus, in whom we see the Father. The Bible tells us that, like the coin from the mint, he is the “exact representation” of God’s invisible person (Heb. 1:3).
- The tabernacle was also the place where sacrifices were made. In the outer court of the tabernacle, on the east side near the only opening into the courtyard, stood the brazen altar on which sacrifices burned continually. For anyone approaching the tabernacle from outside, this was the first of the furnishings of the tabernacle seen by him. This was significant, for it indicated that there is no approach to God except by means of the sacrifice. “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness [of sin]” (Heb. 9:22; cf. Lev. 17:11). In the same way, today there is no approach to God except through faith in the sacrifice provided by Jesus Christ, who in the tabernacle of his flesh offered himself up on Calvary.
This is the answer to the supreme question of man in all ages of human history. It is far more important than any scientific question or political question. How can a sinful man, corrupt by nature, approach a holy God? We all need God, but how can we find him? How can we come close enough to him to understand him? How can we become acceptable before him? How can we know forgiveness for sin? How can we know God’s peace? How can we find fellowship with the One in whom we live and move and have our being? The answer is in the tabernacle and in the Christ whom the tabernacle prefigures. At the cross of Christ the perfect sacrifice is performed; Jesus dies in our place. He is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. On the basis of his sacrifice, we who were once children of wrath have now become God’s children and can approach God the Father.
- Finally, the tabernacle was the place where the people of Israel worshiped. We worship in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ today. The people of Israel brought their sacrifices to the tabernacle, gave their gifts there, and asked their questions. On occasion they were summoned to hear the voice of God. Their priests ministered in the temple enclosure. In the same way, we gather around the person of our Lord, who regulates our worship and receives our homage. It is through Jesus alone that we have access by one Spirit unto the Father (Eph. 2:18).
Thou art the Way: to thee alone
From sin and death we flee;
And he who would the Father seek
Must seek him, Lord, by thee.
Thou art the Truth: thy Word alone
True wisdom can impart;
Thou only canst inform the mind,
And purify the heart.
Thou art the Life; the rending tomb
Proclaims thy conquering arm,
And those who put their trust in thee
Nor death nor hell shall harm.
Thou art the Way, the Truth, the Life:
Grant us that Way to know,
That Truth to keep, that Life to win,
Whose joys eternal flow.
Christ’s Glory Beheld
The final point of our study is that when Jesus Christ pitched his tent among us, he did so in order that men and women might see him and thus come to know God. John indicates this when he observes: “And we beheld his glory.”
This happened in a very literal way with the first disciples about whom John is certainly speaking in this verse, for they saw the glory of Jesus during the days of his flesh. We must not miss the point that John has constructed his account of the first momentous week in the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ to emphasize this great truth. Beginning with the nineteenth verse of this chapter, John begins an account of the most important events of seven consecutive days, beginning with the day on which John the Baptist received the delegation of priests and Levites from Jerusalem and ending on the day in which Jesus changed the water into wine at Cana of Galilee in the presence of his disciples. Significantly enough, the story of the wedding (and therefore also the story of the events of this first week) ends with the statement: “This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him” (John 2:11). This was the reason for his coming. He came that men might see his glory and believe on him.
It is also true, however, that the experience of the early disciples is duplicated in all who believe in the Lord of glory today, for Paul writes of the experience of all Christians when he says that “we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).
Is that your experience? Have you beheld the glory of the eternal Son of God who tabernacled among us and who is revealed to us today by means of his Holy Spirit? If it is, then you are called upon to bear a witness to him, as John and the other disciples did. Can you testify to what he has done for you and in your life? I can testify to what Christ has done for me. I look at the second chapter of Ephesians and find myself placed among those who were “dead in … transgressions and sins … gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts” but of whom it can now be said, “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions” (Eph. 6:1–6). He lifted my vision to see Christ, who is altogether lovely, and has drawn me toward himself with bonds of love, so that now I seek to serve him and exalt his name before men.
You say, “Is that something special?” Not at all. It is merely the experience of every true believer. To the giving of such a testimony each of us is called. What a vision! The glory of Jesus Christ! What a task! To make him known to a darkened and sinful world!
Grace and Truth
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Dr. Francis Schaeffer, founder of the L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland, tells a story about a prominent American government leader. He had been invited to address a group of student leaders in Washington and had chosen to speak on the theme of restoring values in our culture. When he had finished there was a moment of silence. Then one student arose—a man from Harvard University—and asked, “Sir, upon what base do you build your values?” It was a brilliant question but a tragic moment for the speaker, for he simply looked down and replied, “I do not know.” Here was a man who was calling upon the youth of America to return to a system of moral values, but he was offering them nothing to build upon. As Dr. Schaeffer remarks, he was a man trying to tell his hearers not to steal the company funds and run off to Morocco and yet giving no reason why they should not.
We miss the point of the illustration if we think that the experience of the speaker was unique. It is not unique at all. In fact, it is typical of millions of persons in our day who earnestly want to believe in a system of values and yet have no real basis for their beliefs. They are confused about life. They do not know what is right or wrong, true or false. They want to believe that there is a thing called truth. They want to believe that there is a God who is full of love and is gracious. They want to believe that life has meaning. But they have no valid basis for any of these beliefs. To these people the Bible speaks with special relevance when it says that there is a basis for the demands of ethics, belief in goodness, and truth.
What is the basis? This is the point of what is perhaps the most important theological statement in John’s Gospel, the statement contained in the verse that we have already been considering: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The verse states that Jesus Christ is the basis on which we can know that God is good and that the universe has meaning.
The first thing that John says was revealed in Jesus Christ was grace, God’s grace. Because of this we know that God is gracious. What is grace? Grace is simply the unmerited favor of God toward humanity. The New Scofield Bible says, “Grace is the kindness and love of God our Savior toward man.” Dr. Harry A. Ironside wrote, “Grace is the very opposite of merit. … Grace is not only undeserved favor, but it is favor shown to the one who has deserved the very opposite.” The Bible expresses it when it says that “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). In other words, God is gracious toward us, not on the basis of what we have done but solely because it is his nature to be gracious.
In one sense, of course, all men are recipients of God’s grace. That is what theologians have called “common grace.” When the human race sinned in Adam, the entire race came under judgment. The race deserved nothing. God did not owe it anything. If God had simply taken Adam and Eve in the moment they had sinned and cast them into the lake of fire, he would still have been just; and the angels could still have sung,
Holy, holy, holy
is the Lord God Almighty,
who was, and is, and is to come.
Moreover, if God had allowed the race to increase to an extent similar to what it has increased to today, and then had brushed it aside into everlasting torment and judgment, God would have been just even then. This is a most important truth. God does not owe man anything. Consequently, all the blessings that people enjoy are the result of God’s grace.
Let me put this as clearly as I am able to before we move on. If you are not a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, you are a recipient of God’s common grace whether you acknowledge it or not. If you enjoy good health, that is common grace. If you are not on the poverty rolls but instead enjoy the comfort of a home and plenty to eat, that is common grace. If you have a good job and are able to hold it down because of your natural abilities and hard work, that is common grace. The list could be endless. There is no person living who has not been the recipient of God’s common grace in some way. If you think that it is not of grace that you receive your blessings but that you deserve them, you are merely showing your ignorance of spiritual things.
Yet, if such grace is wonderful, the grace that is shown in Jesus Christ is even more wonderful. This is “saving grace,” for this is a grace that does not spare men merely for a certain limited time; it redeems them for time and eternity. It transforms them from what the Bible calls “children of wrath” into God’s sons.
A great example of such a transformation is John Newton. In his very early years Newton had been raised in a Christian home in England; but his parents died when he was only six years old and he was sent to live with an unbelieving relative. There Christianity was mocked, and he was abused. Finally, to escape these conditions, Newton ran away to sea, joining the British navy. He fell into gross sin; it gained a hold on him. He eventually deserted the navy and went to one of the worst areas of Africa. As he tells it, he went there for only one purpose and that was “to sin his fill.”
In Africa Newton fell in with a Portuguese slave trader. When the trader went away on slave-hunting expeditions, as he often did, the power in the compound passed to the slave trader’s African wife. She hated white men and took out her venom on Newton. He was cruelly abused, so much so that at times he was forced to eat his food off the dusty floor like a dog.
After a time Newton fled from the compound and made his way to the coast, where he signaled a slave ship. The captain of the ship was disappointed at first when he learned that Newton had no ivory to sell. But when he found that Newton could navigate a vessel, he made Newton a shipmate. Even then Newton got into trouble. One day he broke into the ship’s supply of rum and got so drunk that he fell overboard and would have drowned if an officer had not saved him by thrusting a harpoon into his thigh and hauling him back into the ship. The harpoon made such a wound that years later Newton could still put his hand into the fist-sized opening.
Near the end of one voyage, as they were nearing Scotland, the ship ran afoul of bad weather, was blown off course, and began to sink. Newton was sent down into the hold to work the pumps. He was terrified. He thought surely the ship would sink and he would drown. For days he worked the pumps, and as he pumped the water out of the hold he began to cry out to God. Bible verses about God’s love and the death of Christ that he had heard as a child and thought he had forgotten came to his memory, and as he remembered them he was miraculously transformed. He was born again. When the storm had passed and he was again in England, he went on to become a highly educated preacher and teacher of the Word of God in that country, even preaching before the queen. It was of this storm and this conversion that William Cowper, the poet, wrote:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Newton himself, who, through this experience, became in England a great proclaimer of God’s grace, declared:
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
Newton was a great preacher of grace, and the fact is not at all surprising. For he had learned, as all Christians have learned, that God is exceedingly gracious. He had been assured of this as he had thought upon the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ through whom God’s grace is known.
The second aspect of God’s nature that John speaks of in this verse is truth. John tells us that this too is revealed in Jesus Christ. Truth is a great word in John’s writings. In all it occurs about twenty-four times. This is the first reference, and in almost every case (including this one) it is related to the character of God.
We find this in the rest of the Bible also. For instance, we read in Deuteronomy and Isaiah that God is truth (Deut. 32:4; Isa. 65:16). We read that God desires truth in our inward parts (Ps. 51:6). We are told that the Lord hates a lying tongue (Prov. 6:17). Jesus declared that he was himself the truth: “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). Jesus called the Holy Spirit the Spirit of truth (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13). He spoke of the Word of God as the truth (John 17:17). When we put all these statements together we find that God the Father is truth, that God the Son is truth, that God the Holy Spirit is truth, and that everything that takes its nature from God is also characterized by truth. In other words, truth is of the character of God. We who are Christians must, therefore, for that very reason, take our stand upon it.
We do not deal with the opinions of men when we deal with Christian doctrine. We deal with truth. Thus, a person’s eternal destiny depends upon his relationship to the eternal truth in Jesus Christ.
I have been impressed by the extent to which we have seen the opposite of this in our day. That is, we have entered a period of history in which truth is supposed to be relative and in which no system of ideas is recognized by the majority of all men to be binding. I am impressed too by the fact that all the great present-day apologists have seen this.
One man who has been pointing this out is Francis A. Schaeffer. He points out that people no longer believe in truth. They did believe in truth before the impact of the philosophy of Hegel. In that day, if one fact was true, the opposite of that fact was believed to be false. There was antithesis, and what was true or false then was believed to be true or false forever. After Hegel, the idea grew that reality was to be represented not by what is true as opposed to what is false but rather by what is true now or, worse yet, by what is true only for the individual. Under this system my truth is not necessarily your truth, and what is true for me now may not be true for me tomorrow.
“But what does that mean for our day?” you may ask. The answer is that we are dealing with truth, real truth, when we present the claims of Jesus Christ and of Christianity. What happens most often when you testify to the saving power of the Lord Jesus Christ today? Isn’t it true that the most common reaction is simply: “Fine; that’s good for you. I’m glad it helps you, but, after all, what you say is only relatively true. If something else helps me, then that is perfectly valid also.” This is the view we need to fight against.
C.S. Lewis is another Christian apologist who saw the changing attitudes toward truth. Here is an example of his insight from the first of The Screwtape Letters, in which a senior devil named Screwtape gives some basic instruction to a junior tempter named Wormwood: “I note what you say about guiding your patient’s reading and taking care that he sees a good deal of his materialist friend. But are you not being a trifle naive? It sounds as if you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of Enemy’s clutches. That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning. But what with the weekly press and other such weapons we have largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily ‘true’ or ‘false,’ but as ‘academic’ or ‘practical,’ ‘outworn’ or ‘contemporary,’ ‘conventional’ or ‘ruthless.’ Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church.”
That is true. For today, even in the books of theology, we are presented with the idea that Christian doctrine is not so much true as it is helpful. And the conclusion is that you can take it or leave it, sift it or drop it, all according to its practical value to you personally. This is diabolical. It is not the philosophical basis of Christianity.
Instead, when you come to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, you come to a declaration that certain things are really true for all time, whatever they may mean to you personally. And furthermore, we are told that it is on the basis of such truth that you as an individual will be forced to give a reckoning.
You say, “But what are these truths?” Let me give you a summary. First, there is the truth about man. We have been hearing for generations that man is doing better and better, and that given time enough things will turn out all right and all his problems will be solved. How foolish! Given enough time things will turn out exactly as they have been turning out since the beginning of the world. The reason for this is that there is something wrong in the heart of man. The Bible calls it sin. It may also be called rebellion, selfishness, pride, or any number of similar words. It is the same principle. The truth about man is that man carries his greatest problem about within him.
People always want to blame someone else, even the devil. There is a wonderful story about a little girl called Mary Ann who one day got into a fight with her brother. The mother stopped the fighting by yanking Mary up sharply and sitting her down in a corner. She asked, “Mary Ann, why did you let the devil put it into your heart to pull your brother’s hair and kick his shins?” Mary Ann thought a minute and then said, “Well, maybe the devil did put it into my head to pull brother’s hair, but kicking his shins was my own idea.” That was tremendous theology, and it shows what is wrong with the world. It is not what the devil, the environment, or our history makes us do that makes the world such a bad place, but it is what we do. The truth about the problems of man is that man himself is the problem.
The second truth that we receive from Christianity is the truth about God. This is most necessary, for there are profound misconceptions about him. People think of God as removed, arbitrary, unconcerned, indulgent. But God declares that he is love and truth and justice and that he cares enough about men and women to die for them in order to bring them back to himself.
There is the truth about the atonement. People look to the death of Jesus and call it an example of a man who was deluded but who meant well. Others call it a tragedy. Some call it a demonstration of outstanding courage. That is not what the atonement means. It is true that there are aspects of Christ’s death that relate to us as a moving example. Peter writes to encourage those who were suffering from persecution in his day, saying, “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example” (1 Peter 2:21). But even as he says this he takes pains to point out the real meaning of the death of Christ by showing that it was essentially a death for others. “Christ suffered for you.” And he immediately adds, as if to give that meaning, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). That is the truth about the atonement. Christ died for us in order that “whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Do you believe these things? The truth about them did not come to the world through philosophy or through any other form of human speculation. Truth came into the world through Jesus Christ. It is recorded for men in the Bible. Your eternal destiny will depend upon the way you respond to it and upon whether or not you will commit yourself to Jesus Christ. Will you do it? To do it is to learn that God is indeed gracious and to uncover the only valid basis for truth and sound morality.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). John 1–11 (pp. 39–43). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 85–96). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.