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.)
Jesus Christ is Man
John 1:1, 14
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
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.
The last study looked at the first two verses of John’s Gospel, the verses that declare so unequivocably that Jesus is God. We now want to skip ahead to the verse that goes with them and that says in equally certain terms that Jesus is man. That verse is John 1:14. “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.” Jesus is God. Jesus is man. Properly understood, these are the two most important truths to be made about Christ’s person.
A Biblical Doctrine
It is not only in John’s Gospel that we encounter such teaching, of course. These themes are found throughout Scripture. What is more, although they are very profound they are taught in the most natural way and in a totally artless manner.
Take the three places where God the Father describes the Son’s nature by means of two complementary verbs. In the Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah, in a verse that is always much quoted at Christmastime, we read, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6). This verse teaches that the Messiah was to be One who was always God’s Son but who would become man at a particular point in history. Hence, as a child he is born, but as a Son he is given. In Romans 1:3–4 the same teaching occurs. There the apostle Paul writes, “… regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead.” Jesus was made the seed of David, according to the flesh. But he was declared always to have been God’s Son. Finally, in Galatians 4:4–5 we read, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.” As a son, Jesus Christ was sent. Hence, he was always God. Nevertheless, he was made under the law. He became man. The Bible is never hesitant to put the twin truths of the full deity and the true humanity of Jesus Christ together.
What we have taught didactically in these verses is also taught by illustration in various events in Christ’s ministry. For instance, in the next chapter of John’s Gospel we find the Lord Jesus Christ at a wedding (John 2:1–11). Few things could be more truly human than that. Yet, when the wine is exhausted and the family about to be embarrassed, Jesus makes new and better wine of the water that had been standing around in the great stone waterpots that were used for the Jewish washings and purifications. Nothing in the whole chapter is more clearly divine.
On another occasion the disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee from Capernaum to the land of the Gadarenes while Jesus, who was exhausted from the day’s activities, was asleep in the boat. A storm arose that was so intense it frightened even these seasoned fishermen. They awoke Jesus, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” And Jesus stilled the storm. What could be more human than our Lord’s total exhaustion in the boat? But what could be more divine than his stilling of the winds and waves, so that the disciples came to worship him saying, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” (Matt. 8:23–27)? The same twofold nature of the Lord Jesus Christ is illustrated throughout the Gospels right down to the accounts of his death and resurrection. Nothing could be more human than his death by crucifixion. Nothing could be more divine than the darkening of the sky, the tearing of the veil of the temple, the opening of the graves of the saints buried near Jerusalem, and the final triumphant rending of the tomb on that first Easter morning.
We must not make the mistake of thinking of Jesus as being merely a divine man or, on the other hand, of being merely a human God. Jesus is the God-man; and this means that he is fully and uniquely God as well as being perfectly man. He is God with us, God for us, God in us. As man he is the One who has experienced all the trials, joys, sufferings, losses, gains, temptations, and vicissitudes of this life. All this is involved in these two important verses of John 1.
Able to Die
Why are these truths important? Or, more particularly, since we discussed the divinity of Jesus Christ in our previous study, why is the humanity of Jesus Christ important? There are several reasons.
First, the incarnation made it possible for Jesus Christ to die. This is easy to see. It is what the author of Hebrews is thinking of when he writes, “Because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: ‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, “Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—I have come to do your will, O God” ’ ” (Heb. 10:4–7). A body made it possible for Jesus Christ to die.
It is always difficult to find an adequate illustration of the incarnation itself. But it is not so hard to find an illustration of this aspect of it. A body was the vehicle of Christ’s earthly ministry. Take a man who is called by God to do medical missionary work in a distant corner of Africa. His person and his willingness are one thing. But his training is another. Thus, the man will submit to years of training, gaining medical knowledge and at times even a bit of seminary training, so that to his person and original intention he adds that which is necessary for him to do the work. It is exactly what Jesus Christ did. In the beginning, in the eternal counsels of God, before there was a world or a lost race of men, Jesus foresaw all human history and knew that he was to redeem the race. Thus, in the fullness of time, in the days of Herod, he assumed a body so that he could offer up that body as the perfect sacrifice for man’s sin.
This is what we find throughout Scripture. The very name “Jesus” looks forward to an act of saving significance. For the angel said of Mary, “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Jesus himself spoke of the suffering that was to come (Mark 8:31; 9:31), linking the success of his mission to the crucifixion: “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). At several places in John’s Gospel the crucifixion is spoken of as that vital “time” for which Christ came and to which his ministry inflexibly proceeded (John 2:4; 7:30; 8:20; 13:1; 17:1).
Moreover, the death of Jesus is in a real sense the theme of the Old Testament also. The Old Testament sacrifices prefigure Christ’s suffering, and the prophets explicitly foretell it. Paul teaches that Abraham was saved by faith in Christ (Gal. 3:8, 16). Jesus taught the downcast Emmaus disciples that the Old Testament foretold his death and resurrection: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). In the light of these texts it is not wrong to say that the most important reason for the incarnation of Jesus is that it made it possible for him to die. This death was the focal point of world and biblical history.
Able to Understand
There is also a second reason why it was important for the eternal Son of God to become man. The fact that Jesus Christ took upon himself all that men are and know and experience also made it possible for him to be touched with the feelings of our infirmities, as the author of Hebrews says. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Heb. 4:15–16). Jesus knew and experienced (in a way that we can understand) what it meant to be man.
J. B. Phillips, the translator who stands behind one of the modern paraphrases of the New Testament and some of the Old Testament books, tells how he was impressed with the deeply human nature of Christ’s sufferings as he went about his task of translating the Gospels. He says, “The record of the behaviour of Jesus on the way to the cross and of the crucifixion itself is almost unbearable, chiefly because it is so intensely human. If, as I believe, this was indeed God focused in a human being, we can see for ourselves that here is no play acting; this is the real thing. There are no supernatural advantages for this man. No celestial rescue party delivered Him from the power of evil men, and His agony was not mitigated by any superhuman anaesthetic. We can only guess what frightful anguish of mind and spirit wrung from him the terrible words ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ But the cry ‘It is finished!’ cannot be one of despair. It does not even mean ‘It is all over.’ It means ‘It has been completed’—and the terrifying task of doing God’s will to the bitter end had been fully and finally accomplished.”
It is this suffering that enables us to know that Jesus experienced all that we experience—the weariness, disappointments, misunderstandings, and the pain of this life—and so is able to understand and help all those who are his own and are so tempted.
Third, by becoming man Jesus has also provided us with an example of how the life that is fully pleasing to the Father should be lived. Being what we are, this is most important.
I often have been asked by people who are concerned with the state of the church today why it is that so many of the young men who go to seminary (even a good seminary, for that matter) come out of it without much of a message and without much of an ability to lead the churches they eventually serve. This is good questioning. As I have thought about it, I have come to feel that one of the main reasons is that they lack an adequate example of what the Christian ministry can be. They have never had contact with a strong church or with an intelligent preaching ministry that is Bible-centered and faithful to the great themes of the gospel. So, lacking an example, they wander about in their approach and fail to provide strong leadership.
Now, what is true for the ministry is true for other fields also—business, law, medicine, scholarship, and so on—and it is true spiritually. Thus, Jesus became man in order to go through all sorts of situations with all sorts of people in order that we might be provided with a pattern upon which our Christian life can be constructed.
Do you remember ever having seen a sampler? I mean those patterns of needlework containing the alphabet by which children of a generation or two ago used to learn to read and write. That is what Christ is for us. He is our sampler, our example. We are to pattern our attempts to write out the Christian life on him. I find it interesting that Peter uses the word for “sampler” or “copybook” when he says, “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). In other words, by means of Jesus Christ’s becoming man God wrote the characters of love and righteousness large so that we by his grace might copy them.
The Value of Life
The fourth reason why the incarnation was important is that through it God sanctified the value of human life in a way that had not been done previously. Before the coming of Jesus Christ, life in the ancient world was cheap; and it seems that, with the departure from biblical values and biblical principles that we see about us, life is becoming increasingly cheap today.
What makes life cheap? War makes it cheap. There is plenty of war today. The continuing reports of battle deaths numb us as to the destiny of the individual. The same thing is true of traffic deaths or deaths as the result of crime. Moreover, I personally believe that the laws that have legalized abortion have also had this effect and will have it increasingly in years ahead.
What will offset this cheapening of human life? Only the values that Christianity brings! Christianity values life, first, because God gave it and, second, because the Lord Jesus Christ sanctified it by assuming a full human nature by means of the incarnation. Jesus Christ became like you.
Does that mean anything to you personally? It should make you thankful. It should lead you to bow down before the Lord Jesus Christ and worship him deeply as your Savior. Martin Luther was a great expositor of John’s Gospel, as I mentioned in the opening chapter, and at this point in his commentary he tells a story from folklore that illustrates this principle. He says that there was once a stubborn and unspiritual man—Luther called him “a coarse and brutal lout”—who showed absolutely no reverence for any of the great truths of Christianity. When the words “And was made man” were sung in church, this man neither crossed himself nor removed his hat, both of which were common practice in the Roman church of that day. When the creeds were recited the man would not kneel. Luther says, “Then the devil stepped up to him and hit him so hard it made his head spin. He [the devil] cursed him gruesomely and said: ‘May hell consume you. … If God had become an angel like me and the congregation sang: “God was made an angel,” I would bend not only my knees but my whole body to the ground! … And you vile human creature, you stand there like a stick or a stone. You hear that God did not become an angel but a man like you, and you just stand there like a stick of wood!’ ” The story is fictional, of course. Yet it does make the point. Apart from the grace of God we all stand before the most tremendous truths of God’s Word as impervious blocks of stone. Yet we should respond to them.
Do we respond? Do you? You should lift up your heart and also your voice in praise of a God who can come from the infinite distance and glories of heaven down to a world such as ours in order that he might redeem us and lead us back to himself. The incarnation is the second greatest truth in the Bible. The greatest is that this God who became man could also love us enough to go to the cross and die for us personally.
The Word Became Flesh
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 1:14)
The exodus of Israel was one of the great mass migrations of history, when over two million Israelites left their bondage in Egypt. At first, this great caravan would have had a certain splendor, laden down as it was with the treasures of the Nile. But before long in the desert, the Israelites would have looked more and more like refugees: they became dirty, disheveled, and increasingly disorganized. But even then, the Israelites possessed a glory that made them the marvel of the world. At the center of their camp was the tabernacle of the Lord, over which rested the cloud of fire that God sent to guide his people. Inside was the ark of the covenant, with the glory of the Lord filling the tabernacle.
Christians are likewise unimpressive during our pilgrim journey through this desert world. But like the Israelites, the Christian church has the glory of God in its midst. John writes, “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 1:14).
The Incarnation of Christ
It was to make this great statement that the Gospel of John was written. John’s prologue has been telling of Christ’s coming to the world in theological terms. He began by stating that Jesus is the eternal Word who was with God before the beginning. The Word came as a light into darkness. Now, John 1:14 tells us how this happened: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
This verse states the doctrine of the incarnation of Christ. Jesus Christ was born of the virgin Mary in the stable at Bethlehem. But the second person of the Trinity did not come into being at this birth. John says at the start of his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word,” and then at a certain time, “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). God the Son—the Word—did not come to existence in his incarnation, but he became a human being in addition to a divine being. Westminster Confession 8.2 explains, “The Son of God, … being very and eternal God, … did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon him man’s nature, with all the essential properties, and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin.” Christ’s incarnation means that the Son of God became a human in the fullest sense, without losing any of his divinity. Paul teaches, “In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). Likewise, Jesus is sinless without losing his full humanity. His is uncorrupted, true humanity.
When John speaks of our “flesh,” he does not refer to our sinful nature, as is Paul’s meaning of this term, but simply our human nature. John means that Jesus gained a human body, which enabled him to suffer death for us. Jesus also possessed a human mind and heart; he felt all that we feel, including sorrow and joy, weariness and temptation. Because of this, he is able to sympathize with us in our trials. Moreover, Jesus lived a human life in the same world in which we live. He was born and grew up as a boy. He learned a trade in his father’s carpenter shop. He had friends and neighbors; he paid taxes and was subject to the governing authorities. Because he truly lived as we live, Jesus sets an example for us to follow. These, then, are the three main reasons why “the Word became flesh”: to die, to sympathize with us, and to show us how to live.
This is the most stupendous news that could ever be reported. C. S. Lewis said: “The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. They say that God became Man.… He goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him.” Paul writes, “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: [God] was manifested in the flesh” (1 Tim. 3:16).
We do not understand how one person can be both God and man. But the Bible shows that Jesus possesses two distinct natures—one divine, one human—without any mingling or confusion between them. The Greek mythologies spoke of gods who came down to earth for a while, until they got tired and returned to the clouds. But nowhere in the ancient world was there any idea of God’s becoming man, the Word’s taking up flesh.
Lo, within a manger lies
He who built the starry skies …
Thus to come from highest bliss
Down to such a world as this!”
What does this say about God’s desire for our salvation—that he actually stepped into our world and became one of us? This shows the value of every human life, given the dignity that God gave to humans above all other creatures. First God created us in his own image (Gen. 1:26); then he sent his own Son to become a Son of Man, so that we might become in him the sons and daughters of God.
He Tabernacled among Us
John tells us not merely that “the Word became flesh,” but also that he “dwelt among us.” This phrase employs a verb form of the Greek word for tabernacle (eskenosen). Literally, John writes, “The Word tabernacled among us.” Undoubtedly John is directing us back to the exodus, when God dwelt among the Israelites in the tabernacle.
The tabernacle was a tent structure about forty-five feet long and fifteen feet wide. It had three areas: the outer courtyard where priests made sacrifices and washed themselves before entering; an outer room (the Holy Place) housing the golden candlestick, the table of showbread, and the altar of incense; and an inner room (the Most Holy Place) containing the ark of the covenant, where God himself dwelt. Everything about the tabernacle was symbolic of spiritual realities and especially of Jesus Christ, who came as God’s true tabernacle. We should take note of some of the most obvious parallels.
First, the tabernacle was given for Israel’s wilderness journey. So it was for Jesus. This present world was not Jesus’ true home; he was passing through on the way to a better world to come. During his life, Jesus lived as a pilgrim: he said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20). The same is true for us through our union with Christ: we no longer belong to this desert world, but pass through it to the Promised Land just as Israel passed through the desert.
Second, the tabernacle was humble in appearance. Its outward appearance paled in comparison to the pyramids of Egypt or the ziggurats of Babylon. The tabernacle was made of hides. Looking on it from the outside, you would see nothing glittering and no great artistry. The same was true of Jesus. A hymn exhorts, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see.” A. W. Pink remarks: “He came, unattended by any imposing retinue of angels. To the unbelieving gaze of Israel He had no form nor comeliness; and when they beheld Him, their unanointed eyes saw in Him no beauty that they should desire Him.”5Third, the tabernacle was at the center of Israel’s camp. Numbers 2:17 tells us, “The tent of meeting shall set out, with the camp of the Levites in the midst of the camps.” The various tribes of Israel camped all around the tabernacle, with the Lord at their center. James Montgomery Boice points out, “This is highly significant in reference to Jesus Christ, for he is the center of the Christian encampment. He is our gathering place.” Jesus must always be at the center of everything we do, everything we believe, and everything for which we hope. In Jesus Christ, God has tabernacled with us.
Beholding His Glory
The tabernacle was also called the tent of meeting. It was the place where the people met with God and saw the shekinah glory cloud that shined from within (shekinah = “radiance”). John applies this to Christ’s coming: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” Hebrews 1:3 makes the same connection: “He is the radiance of the glory of God.”
This supplies a workable definition of a Christian. A Christian is someone who sees in Jesus the glory of God. Others may see him as a valued teacher, a social reformer, or even a pitiful victim. But a Christian reads the Gospels and sees glory in Jesus Christ, so that he worships him and yields his life as Jesus’ disciple. This is what Andrew said to his brother, Simon Peter: “We have found the Messiah” (John 1:41). Later, when the crowds were leaving Jesus because he didn’t teach what they wanted to hear, Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life[;] … you are the Holy One of God” (6:68–69). Seeing this makes you a Christian. The word that John uses for “we have seen” (theaomai) has a rich meaning, including the idea of personal contact and interaction; it is elsewhere used for stopping by someone’s place of abode in order to “see” the person (Rom. 15:24). John means that believers commune with Christ in his glory. This is what makes us Christians, and also makes Christianity so exciting as our growing faith discovers his glory more and more.
Given what we earlier observed about Jesus’ humble appearance, it might seem odd to say that we see glory in him. So what glory does John have in mind when he speaks of the glory revealed in Jesus? Many different answers have been given. Some think this refers to the transfiguration, when Jesus was revealed in full splendor on the mount before three of his disciples. This certainly was a display of glory, but the fact that John omits it from his Gospel suggests that he has other things in mind. Others point to Jesus’ miracles—his healings, his ability to feed thousands with a few fish and loaves, and his power even to raise the dead. John tells us that the miracles “manifested his glory” (John 2:11), showing his divine power and sublime compassion. John devotes the first half of his Gospel to presenting what has been called The Book of Signs, that is, a record of the miracles that pointed to Christ’s glory.
But there is another answer to this question about Jesus’ glory. Jesus showed the glory of God not merely through the power of his divine nature, but also in his human nature through a humble, obedient, servant life. To us, a glorious person is one who rises above the crowds, ascending to a place of wealth and prominence. But Jesus showed us higher glory. Though he had the power that created galaxies, he subjected himself to human scorn and abuse. He allowed his heart to break as he wept over Jerusalem. He allowed his body to be broken—his hands and feet nailed to a cross by creatures he had made—and he gave up his life so that we might live.
The truth is that at first glance, Jesus was not very glorious. He had his moments, but what did he accomplish? Leon Morris assesses Jesus’ earthly achievement: “He preached to a few people in an outlying province of an ancient, long since vanished empire. Even there he was not often in the capital, the center of affairs, but in a remote country area. He taught a few people, gathered a few disciples, did an uncertain number of miracles, aroused a great number of enemies, was betrayed by one close follower and disowned by another, and died on a cross. Where is the glory?”
This reminds me of a character in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, whom the author doubtless intended to reflect hidden glory like that of Jesus Christ. Aragorn was a man with a weathered appearance whom many considered strange and unsavory. Unknown to the townsfolk who shunned him, he had gained this visage through his ceaseless labors for their defense. It turned out that Aragorn was in fact the rightful king of all those lands, in exile awaiting the appointed time to reveal his claims. Tolkien honored Aragorn with a poem, the first two lines of which could be equally spoken of Jesus Christ:
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost.
Jesus may have seemed to wander, but no one could have moved with a greater purpose. And though he did not glitter with gold, he bore a glory that is greater by far—the glory of humble obedience to the will of God. At the end of his mission, on the night of his arrest, Jesus prayed to the Father: “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do” (John 17:4). His was the humble glory of an obedient life.
We tend to think that glory requires the pomp and glitter of this world—gold medals, trophies, great stock portfolios, and showy houses. But God shows us through Jesus that real glory is not like that: it does not depend on pageantry and show. Real glory is seen in humble service out of devotion to God. Morris says of Jesus:
Where people needed help, he helped them. Where there were sick, he healed them. Where there were ignorant folk, he taught them. Where there were hungry people, he fed them. All the time, he was seeking the needy. He did not haunt the palaces of kings and governors. He was not found in the high places of the earth.… All his life he was among God’s little people, those who in one way or another felt their need. And wherever there was need, he was found doing lowly service. That is what Christ came to do. And that is glory.
This means that we, too, can lead glorious lives. We do not possess Jesus’ divine power to perform miracles—although we do have great power in prayers offered in his name. But through the Holy Spirit, as Christ lives in us, we have power to deny ourselves, serving sacrificially out of God-given love. We, too, can help. We can heal. We can teach. We can feed. We can take in the lost. We can bind up broken hearts. Through faith, we can be Christlike, bearing his glory before the world.
The story is told of two brothers named Taylor. The older son set out to make a name and achieve glory for his family. So he entered politics, served in Parliament, and became a man of considerable power. The younger brother turned his back on worldly glory, having seen the greater glory of Christ. He went to China, spending his entire life bringing the gospel to that land. His name was Hudson Taylor, and when he died his name was revered on every continent by all who loved the Lord. One writer tells of looking for information about his politician brother. Years afterward, his encyclopedia listing provided no information about his high offices and achievements in Parliament. It read only, “The brother of Hudson Taylor.”
This is how it is for God’s heroes. If you read the “hall of faith” in Hebrews 11, you will find the names of people who were nobodies in the world but great in the eyes of God: Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Samuel, and others. Many were persecuted and even put to death. “They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of [them] the world was not worthy” (Heb. 11:37–38). But because of the humble obedience of their faith, they achieved a glory that the world can never reach. Hebrews 11:16 says, “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God.” That is glory, and we can have it, too.
Full of Grace and Truth
John concludes this great verse, saying, “We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Here are two specific aspects of God’s glory that Jesus revealed: his grace and his truth.
I mentioned a number of ways in which the tabernacle symbolizes the Lord Jesus, but one that I omitted is that the tabernacle was where the sacrifices were made to atone for sin. From the time of our first parents—Adam and Eve—God had revealed that the wages of sin would be death (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:23). Sin is not just a little dysfunction among ourselves; it is a violation of God’s law and an offense to his perfect holiness. Therefore, sin must be punished with death. But in his grace—his unmerited mercy and favor—God has provided a Sacrifice to die in our place. This was symbolized at the tabernacle, where bulls and sheep and goats were brought to bear the punishment that the people’s sin deserved. Those sacrifices pointed forward to Jesus Christ, whose cross is the true tabernacle, revealing the grace of God to sinners by his death on the cross.
The cross was the greatest display of the glory of God’s grace. On the very brink of his entry into Jerusalem, starting the final countdown to his crucifixion, Jesus said to his disciples, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23). Jesus was not talking about the hosannas that would greet his entry. The people were looking for him to be glorified by an ascent to military and political power. William Barclay writes, “By glorified they meant that the subjected kingdoms of the earth would grovel before the conqueror’s feet; by glorified He meant crucified.”
To the world, the cross was the most shameful of all things. It involved physical torture, personal humiliation, and a cursed death. This was God’s way of showing us the true shame of our sin. But because the perfect Son of God died in this way for us, the cross displays the grace of God to the highest glory of his name. I mentioned earlier that a Christian is one who sees the glory of God in the person of Christ. But now we see that it is especially by seeing the glory of God’s grace in the cross that we are saved. Is the cross your glory? Is it your hope? Is it the place where your sins were put away and God’s glory shines into your heart? Unless you have believed on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins, there is no heavenly glory for you, but only the shame of the guilt that you will eternally bear. Paul speaks for every Christian heart when he exclaims, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14).
Jesus first glorifies God’s grace to us, but then he leads us into the glory of God’s truth. This is yet another feature of the tabernacle: it was the place where God’s Word was revealed. The tablets of the Ten Commandments were kept in the tabernacle. And Moses came there to receive God’s Word for the people.
Once, Moses asked for a more intimate revelation: “Please show me your glory,” he said (Ex. 33:18). God replied, “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (33:20). But Jesus Christ is a better tabernacle. “The Word became flesh” so that God could show us his face. Paul explains, “God … has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
People ask: How can we know God? We answer: Jesus Christ came into this world to show us the glory of the truth of God in a human face. Therefore, to reject Jesus is to reject the truth about God. But if we receive Jesus, we come into the knowledge of God for the salvation of our souls.
Moreover, Jesus left us his Word in the Bible. It, too, is now our glory. We hold in a book the truth of God in all its glory, provided for us through the ancient prophets and the apostles of Jesus Christ. If we have seen God’s glory in the face of Christ, and if we have received God’s grace at the cross of Christ, then let us love and desire the knowledge of God’s truth through the Word of Christ, so that we might glorify God through our lives of humble, obedient, and Christlike service.
God is calling you to do that. God is calling you to minister, feed, teach, visit, heal, and witness in Christ’s name with the particular gifts and opportunities you possess. Will you answer that call? If you will, through faith in Christ, God’s own glory will rest on your life, and the glory of the Savior, Jesus Christ, will shine out from you.
14 We now come to the most concise statement in Scripture regarding the incarnation. With eloquent simplicity born of brevity, John proclaims, “The Word became flesh.” The philosophical mind may have taken no exception to John’s teaching on the Logos up until this point. But any idea of the Logos (the eternal Reason) entering into our human estate would run counter to the fundamental Greek axiom that the gods were detached and separate from the struggles and heartaches of humanity (see Morris’s extended note, 115–26, on the Logos). By declaring that “the Word became flesh,” John answered the Docetics, who, while acknowledging that Jesus of Nazareth was divine, could not bring themselves to accept the fact that he was also fully human. They would claim that he only appeared (dokeō, GK 1506; used intransitively it means “to seem”) to be a real man. Throughout history Christian orthodoxy has always maintained the full humanity of Jesus, as well as his complete deity. He is the God-man. The incarnation is the embodiment of God in human form as Christ. In becoming human Jesus did not diminish in any way what he was before. While the voluntary restrictions of becoming human led him to resist any independent expression of his divine power, he was in no way less God by becoming human. He became what we are without relinquishing what he always has been and must be.
John goes on to say that the eternal Logos (God the Son) came and lived for a while (“made his dwelling”) among us. The reference is to his earthly ministry as Jesus of Nazareth. The verb skēnoō (GK 5012) means “to live in a tent [skēnē; GK 5008],” i.e., to take up a temporary abode. The term would call to mind the wilderness trek of Israel during which time God took up his abode in the tabernacle, or Tent of Meeting. During the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, his followers recognized in him the very presence of God. He was the shekinah glory, the visible expression of the glory of God. He was, as the writer of Hebrews puts it, “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Heb 1:3). The glory that his followers “saw” (a weak translation of theaomai, “to behold,” GK 2517, from theōria, “an appearance or spectacle,” GK 2556) was the glory of the one and only Son. The KJV’s “only begotten” incorrectly suggests that monogenēs (GK 3666) is derived from gennaō (“to beget,” GK 1164) rather than from ginomai (in this context, “to be born,” GK 1181). John is saying that the Son is unique, the only one of a kind. God has as sons all who have been adopted into his family on the basis of personal faith, but Jesus is the Son of God sui generis (unique). He came from the Father, “full of grace and truth” (the phrase modifies “the Word” or “the one and only Son” rather than “glory” as some have suggested). These two great Christian terms reflect the unmerited favor of a God who, true to his essential character, gives of himself for the eternal benefit of humanity.