Week 3

John 1:14-18

The Word Became Flesh

1:14 The Word became flesh, and lived amongst us. We saw his glory, such glory as of the one and only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.

This verse begins with an awesome statement. The Word, whom John has previously identified as the Creator God Himself, has now appeared in human flesh. Jesus was a human being like us but, unlike us, His conception did not initiate His life and existence. The tense of the verb that is translated ‘became’ implies an action at a point in time, a real space-time event. Jesus came from heaven as Son of God and now was also fully human. The incarnation is the great miracle without which the rest of the story is mere illusion.[1]

Paul described the fact that ‘the mystery of godliness is great: God was revealed in the flesh’.[2]In Scripture, a mystery is a statement or promise that cannot be understood without further revelation. The fact that God Himself would come in the person of the Messiah was implicit in many prophetic words, being interpreted as such in many Targums (ancient Aramaic paraphrases of the Scriptures), but the implications were too daring and outrageous to imagine.[3] The fact that Jesus was fully human while remaining fully God constitutes the ‘mystery of godliness’, for it is a paradox that defeats human reason (1+1=1). The eternal Word created man, but as Messiah He was made of woman.[4] Our minds cannot comprehend this mystery; the proper response combines faith, trust and worship.

Greek philosophers considered human beings to be composed of flesh and spirit, the former being bad and the latter being good. By contrast, the Bible teaches that the physical body was part of God’s good creation, so Jesus could take on human flesh, bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh, without being corrupted in the process.[5]

David was a prophet of the coming Messiah through his words and also through the events of his life. In Psalm 40 he made a statement that was subsequently taken up by the writer to the Hebrews as being Jesus’ words to the Father prior to His incarnation.[6] The Father had prepared a body for His Son and Jesus accepted it, together with the similar possibilities and limitations of our own bodies. His body began on earth as a single cell in Mary’s womb. In anticipation of this He must have known that, for a significant period of time, His existence in an unconscious state would be totally dependent on the Father’s faithfulness.[7] This relationship of trust in and obedience to the Father was the basis of everything that He did on earth.

The angels who witnessed His birth may have wondered how to address the One whom they had worshipped from the time of their own creation, but who now lay helpless and dependent in the arms of a teenage girl. The answer was that they must worship Him, for He was still fully God.[8] The baby Jesus remained vulnerable and totally reliant on His mother for sustenance. He was a real human baby and not engaged in thinking ‘God-thoughts’. We must assume that, as He grew in wisdom and stature, the Holy Spirit somehow awakened the consciousness of His deity. It is clear that, for the remainder of His earthly life, He lived at ease in the awareness of that dual nature, speaking of God as both His Father and His God.[9]

‘The Word became flesh’ implies a real physical body and a real human nature. Jesus was not God living in the façade of a human body, pretending to be a man, like an actor dressed for a part. Paul’s use of language in Philippians 2:7-8 might cause us confusion, using as it does the terms ‘form’ of a servant, ‘likeness’of men, and ‘in human form’, as if describing human resemblance but not the substance. However the same phrase, ‘in the form of God’,is used in verse 6 of the same chapter, where it obviously refers to Jesus’ eternal and divine nature. Similar language is used when referring to ordinary human beings: Adam begot a son, ‘in his own likeness, after his image’ – meaning another human being.[10]

Jesus’ outward appearance corresponded to His fully human nature. He shared our humanity in every respect: choosing, eating, drinking, sleeping, becoming weary, feeling hungry, speaking, seeing, praying, weeping, suffering pain, being angry, feeling moved with compassion, being tempted in every conceivable way (but without acquiescence), and so forth. Had He not been made like us in every respect, then His offering of Himself for us would have been invalid in relation to God, and He would have been disqualified from acting on our behalf as the great High Priest.[11]

The Word stepped from the eternal state into our space–time continuum. Now, as Messiah, Jesus also stepped out of the pages of the Scriptures, the One who had walked with Adam in the garden, who had visited with Abraham and had wrestled with Jacob, and who had revealed Himself to Isaiah in overwhelming glory.[12]

The phrase ‘and lived among us’ connects with the Exodusaccount: the Greek word (skenoo) used here and translated ‘lived’means to pitch a tent or to live in a tent. Following the departure of the Israelites from Egypt, God revealed His desire to live in their midst and He instructed Moses in the following words: ‘Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell amongst them.’ This arrangement was designed to make it possible for God, in His purity and holiness, to coexist with the people in their sin and corruption without destroying them, a problem that became acute when they worshipped the golden calf. This incident provoked God to say, ‘I will not go up amongst you, for you are a stiff-necked people, lest I consume you on the way.’[13]Yet even before that dreadful event had occurred, God in His grace had already revealed His solution: the Tabernacle.

The Tabernacle was a sacred and protected space at the centre of the camp where God in His holiness could live in the midst of His redeemed but still imperfect people. They still had to keep at a certain distance in order to protect it from contamination and themselves from danger, but nevertheless God was present among them. The Holy of Holies was its inner sanctuary, separated from the Holy Place by an embroidered thick curtain. The glory of God, the Shekinah (linguistically related to ‘dwell’), was manifested above the Ark of the Covenant, above the Mercy Seat, a plate of pure gold that covered the Ark. Repeated rituals and sacrifices were required in order to maintain the holiness of the Tabernacle, keeping it fit for the continuing presence of God. Each year, on the Day of Atonement, blood was sprinkled on the Mercy Seat, symbolically covering the peoples’ sin and purifying them from its pollution.

John drew on this prophetic picture when he indicated that the Word pitched His tent among us. It is important not to misinterpret the metaphor and think of Jesus as being God camouflaged in a human body. Paul used the same analogy of a tent to describe his own body, in order to emphasise that He was on a journey from the visible to the invisible, the temporal to the eternal. Jesus came from the eternal and invisible realm and took on flesh in order to live in this temporal and visible world.[14] Jesus’ physical body was the true sanctuary, containing the very presence of God. Many years later, John wonderingly recalled that he and others had seen, heard and examined the Word of Life and had even touched the one who was God incarnate in human flesh.[15] Only those who really desired to see could recognise the glory that Jesus displayed through His words and actions. It was hidden from those who chose darkness rather than light, blinded by their prejudices and personal ambitions.[16]

Jesus did not need to keep people at a distance in order to preserve their safety, nor did He fear contamination. Holiness and health flowed from Him when He touched those suffering from conditions that would cause ritual uncleanness (leprosy, bodily discharge and death).[17] He welcomed and interacted with people whose sinful behaviour or reputations had made them outcasts in society. In consequence, He was criticised for being a friend to tax collectors and sinners.[18]

Jesus offered His sinless human body on the cross on our behalf in order to provide permanent cleansing, forgiveness, and life for us. When He died, the great dividing curtain that barred the way to the Holy of Holies in the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The writer to the Hebrews explained that Jesus’ body in death became the torn curtain and opened the new and living way into the Father’s presence, the holiest place of all. He died, the just for the unjust, in order to bring us to God.[19]

Jesus is the glory of the God of Israel. Moses was not permitted to see the face of God, but the glory of God was revealed in the face of Jesus the Messiah.[20] John was one of three disciples who saw Jesus transfigured. This event was probably on John’s mind when he wrote the words, ‘we saw his glory’, and also when he penned the introduction to his first epistle.[21] John was also present at the cross and saw Jesus being lifted up. It was probably only after Jesus’ resurrection that John understood the crucifixion as the means by which He would be lifted up in glory. Many years later John would have a revelation of Jesus as the glorified Son of Man, and would be completely overwhelmed.[22]

1:15-18 John testified about him. He cried out, saying, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me has surpassed me, for he was before me.”’ From his fullness we all received grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses. Grace and truth were realised through Jesus Christ. No one has seen God at any time. The one and only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has declared him.

John again refers to John the Baptist, this time in the company of Moses, and now sandwiched between the two references to grace and truth. ‘The law … given through Moses’ refers to the covenant that God made with the nation of Israel and which they undertook to obey, as recorded in Exodus. It was initially described as the Book of the Law, to which further instructions were added in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, together with accounts of how that Law was transgressed. God chose Israel to be the channel through which the Messiah, the seed promised to Abraham, would come, in order to bring blessing to the whole world. One of the chief purposes of the Law was to keep Israel separate from the pagan nations. They were to be a holy nation, living in loyalty to the covenant with their God. The era of the Law was, therefore, time-limited and moved towards its appointed goal through the succeeding centuries.[23]

John reminds his readers, and us, that the era of the Law extended from Moses to John the Baptist, and contained many prophecies and promises of the coming Messiah. John the Baptist testified that a new age had dawned in the person of the One who had existed before him in eternity and in glory.[24] Jesus, the prophet like Moses, had arrived in flesh, and John was the appointed witness to this dramatic and climactic event. Moses had faithfully played his God-given role in the process of salvation history that had now reached its goal.

The translators of some English translations of the Bible – such as the King James Version, the New King James Version and the Amplified Bible – have inserted ‘but’ between ‘the law was given through Moses’ and ‘grace and truth came by Jesus Christ’,as if a negative point is being made. This is to misunderstand the dynamic of the single story of the Bible. A necessary phase had now come to a conclusion and, having served its purpose, gave way to the following chapters for which it had been the essential preparation. Paul wrote, ‘For Christ is the fulfilment [Greek telos] of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.’ Telos means either ‘goal’ or ‘end/completion’,and both meanings are present in this quotation from Romans and are also inferred here in John’s Gospel.[25]

The God of Moses and of Israel is one and the same as the God and Father of the Lord Jesus; grace and truth figure prominently in the account of God’s dealings with Israel. In the aftermath of the great sin of worshipping the golden calf, Moses asked God for a revelation of His glory. The LORD responded by making all His goodness pass before Moses and proclaiming:

‘The LORD! The LORD, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness and truth, keeping loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and disobedience and sin; and who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the children’s children, on the third and on the fourth generation.’ [26]

Grace and truth were by no means absent in the former days, but now the author of grace and truth had come, embodying them and revealing their full extent. There is an inherent paradox between grace and truth, managed somewhat differently in the Torah and the Gospels. We will see how Jesus handled this tension in his encounters with various people, without minimising either.

The Greek mindset that pervades western culture tends to emphasise truth as accurate information. John, with his Hebrew worldview, would have embraced a wider range of meaning. Truth as we encounter it in the Hebrew Scriptures also emphasises faithfulness within a covenant relationship. The Hebrew word emet, in the passage quoted from Exodus 34, is variously rendered ‘truth’ or ‘faithfulness’in different English versions of the Bible.[27] By living a life of faithful love, complete trust and total obedience to the Father, Jesus modelled the true and appropriate relationship between creature and Creator.[28] Jesus asserted that He, personally, is that truth and that He had come to bear witness to the truth – namely, how the Father purposed to restore His Kingdom on earth through the obedience of His Son.[29]

The metaphor in John’s statement ‘in the bosom[leaning on the breast]of’,had its origins in his own personal experience at the Passover supper where he describes how the disciple whom Jesus loved reclined next to Jesus and physically leaned against Him. Other leading disciples such as Peter and Andrew are included by name, but John’s name does not appear in the text. It seems that John preferred anonymity and chose to describe himself simply in terms of his relationship to Jesus.[30] This human picture helps us to understand the nature of the unity between the Father and the Son.[31] The one and only Son, ‘who is in the bosom of the Father’,[32] has declared him.

Prior to the crucifixion Jesus promised His disciples that it would soon be possible for them to share that same intimacy with the Father.[33] Paul explained that God dwells ‘in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen, nor can see’. We now see the glory of God (the Father) in the face of Jesus the Messiah. John was subsequently given a revelation that, at the end of time, the Father Himself will make His dwelling with us and we shall see His face.[34]

[1] Luke 1:31-35; Matt. 1:20-23; John 3:13.

[2] 1 Tim. 3:16.

[3] Risto Santala, The Messiah in the Old Testament in the light of Rabbinical writings, pp. 84-92.

[4] Gen. 2:7, 21-23; 3:15; 1 Cor. 11:7-12; Luke 1:34-35.

[5] Gen. 2:23, Luke 24:38-39; Eph. 5:30.

[6] Ps. 40:6-8; Heb. 10:5-10.

[7] John 17:5; Ps. 16:8-11; Acts 2:25-31.

[8] Heb. 1:6; Luke 2:13-14.

[9] Luke 2:45-52; John 20:17; c.f. Heb. 1:8-9.

[10] Gen. 5:3.

[11] Heb. 2:17-18; 4:14-16; 5:6-10.

[12] Gen. 2:8; 3:8; 18:1-33; 32:24-30; Isa. 6:1-5; c.f. John 12:37-41.

[13] Exod. 25:8; 29:42-46; 32:4-6; 33:3.

[14] 2 Cor. 5:1-9; John 17:5, 24; 2:19-22.

[15] 1 John 1:1-3.

[16] John 3:19-21; 5:36-44; 9:39-41.

[17] Hag. 2:11-14; Luke 5:12-13; 8:43-56.

[18] John 8:2-11; Luke 19:1-10; Matt. 11:19.

[19] Matt. 27:50-53; Heb. 10:19-22; John 14:6; 1 Pet. 3:18.

[20] Exod. 33:17-23; John 12:41; 2 Cor. 4:6.

[21] Luke 9:28-36; John 1:14; 1 John 1:1-3; 2 Pet. 1:16-18.

[22] Rev. 1:10-18.

[23] Gal. 3:16-19; 4:4-5.

[24] Deut. 18:15, 18-19; Mal. 4:4-5; John 5:46; 7:40.

[25] Rom. 10:4.

[26] Ps. 103:1-14; Exod. 34:6-7.

[27] Among many other instances, see Gen. 32:10 and Ps. 108:4.

[28] John 17:4; 18:37-38; 5:19-20.

[29] John 14:1-11; 19:36-37.

[30] John 13:23.

[31] John: 17:24.

[32] John 1:18.

[33] John 14:23; 16:25-28; 17:24-26.

[34] 1 Tim. 6:13-16; 2 Cor. 4:6; Rev. 21:1-7; Rev. 22:1-5.

Reflection: John had a close relationship with Jesus, even leaning on His chest at supper in the Upper Room. He was aware of Jesus’ deep love for him. When he encountered the glorified Jesus in Revelation chapter 1 John was overwhelmed and fell at His feet as if dead. Do you experience awe and intimacy with Jesus simultaneously or only one aspect of His identity? Do you choose one side of the truth because it seems more attractive and ignore the challenge of the other aspect?

Prayer: Lord, sometimes I select the more comfortable side of the truth about who you are. I see that this is creating God from my own preferences and imagination. I want to worship you as you have revealed yourself to be – absolutely holy and amazingly loving. Please help me to live today and every day in the awareness of this truth

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