“Prophecies of His Essence (Advent in Prophecy)”
John 1:1-14, Genesis 1:1, Exodus 40:34-35
December 25, 2016
At Christmas God pitched his tent among us.
I. He was God (Genesis 1:1, John 1:1-5)
II. And he pitched his tent among us (Exodus 40:34-35, John 1:14)
Last night we looked at the Bethlehem and Galilee prophecies and concluded with candlelight, celebrating that Jesus had come into the world to dispel darkness. This morning we continue that celebration by looking at the essence of what God did at Christmas, which, put a little poetically, is that he pitched his tent among us. He kept the big promise of the big story. In Jesus, the dwelling of God is with man. A little bit ago we saw John 1:1-14, the prologue to John’s Gospel. We’re going to study the first few verses and see that Jesus was God and then in verse 14 we’ll see that he pitched his tent among us.
So, John 1:1-5 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
The Gospel of John begins way earlier than any of the other Gospels. It begins where the Old Testament does. Genesis 1:1 in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. John 1:1, in the beginning was the Word. In the beginning was God the Son, and it was through him all things were made. There is no doubt John uses the phrase on purpose to take us back to that moment. This is the beginning of anything about which anything can be said, a beginning not just before but long before the creation of the world, a beginning in eternity past. At that time, John says, if you can call it time, the Word existed. The Word is part of eternity and was there with God before the world began.
But what, exactly, or who, exactly is ‘the Word’? The underlying Greek, logos, was used widely in Greek culture and philosophy. To Heraclitus, in 560 B.C., logos was already the principle of order which allowed the universe to exist. He said that nothing moves with aimless feet, that in all the events of life there is a purpose and a design, and the logos is the controlling power behind that order. Furthermore, logos within a man is what enables him to choose right from wrong and to know truth when he sees it. In this system logos essentially replaces God as the source of all things, including man’s core identity. At the same time, in Greek philosophy, logos became specifically the embodiment of reason, the root of our English word ‘logic.’ And, In common everyday usage, Greek speakers used this word to mean speech, expression, message, or communication, so that “word” is seen by many as the best translation.
This fits with our other source of insight into ‘logos’, which is the Hebrew Old Testament. There the ‘word’ of God denoted God-in-action, especially, according to F. F. Bruce, in creation, revelation and deliverance. When God speaks to a prophet it is ‘the Word of the Lord.’ And by ‘the word of the Lord’ the heavens were made.’ God simply speaks and his powerful word creates. That same word works deliverance or judgment, and yet when some of his people faced illness and death, God ‘sent forth his word and healed them.”
John is saying that in the beginning, when the universe was brought into existence, this divine word by which made it was already there, in fellowship with God. John chooses an unusual word for ‘with,’ one normally translated ‘toward,’ and only used as ‘with’ when a person is with a person, usually in a fairly intimate relationship. John is hinting that the ‘Word’ he is talking about is a person intimate ‘with’ God and yet distinguishable from God.
So the Word was with God. Yet in the next breath John goes on to claim that ‘the Word was God.’ This is the translation demanded by the Greek ‘theos hen ho logos,’ literally God was the Word, except that in Greek the Word is clearly the subject and God is the object, so we translate it ‘the Word was God.’ Some deny that it can say that. The Jehovah’s Witnesses training manual ‘Reasoning from the Scriptures’ argues that because ‘theos’ here has no article, John is not referring to God as a specific being, but to qualities of ‘god-ness.’ They say ‘The Word was a god.’ But there are many places in the New Testament where a noun has no article and yet is specific. Later in this chapter John will say ‘you are the king of Israel’ - the word ‘king’ has no article in the Greek. We do the same in English when we say “I’m going to town.”
Hundreds of years ago a Greek scholar named Colwell showed that that this particular word order almost never has an article. Indeed the effect of ordering the words this way is to emphasize ‘God’, as if John were Yoda, “God, the Word was.’ On the other hand, if John had included the article he would have been so identifying the Word with God that no distinction would have been possible between Father and Son. In that case, it would be nonsense to say, as he has already said, that the Word was with God. Verse 2, ‘He was with God in the beginning’ reinforces this thought, placing the phrase ‘the Word was God’ at the pinnacle of this brief description. The pre-existent word is God. That’s the message John has packed into these first two verses.
Verse 3 adds that through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. The Word was God’s agent in creation. Positively, through him everything came into being. Negatively, nothing that does exists was made without Him.
There is a conscious echo here of Genesis 1, where each day of creation is initiated by God’s word. And God said. And God said. And God said “Let us make man in our image.” Who is ‘us’ in that phrase? It is God the Father. And God the Spirit who hovered over the waters. And God the Son who is ‘the Word’ that brought creation into being. The New Testament echoes this truth. In Colossians 1, where Paul is extols the character and nature of Christ, he says “by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.” Hebrews begins by saying “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he made the universe.”
Jesus is God’s agent in creation. The Word was pre-existent, before all things. The Word was God, just as much God as the Father himself. The Word was the Father’s agent in creation; the Father spoke, but the Word was not merely words, He was a person who carried out the Father’s will.
As such it Jesus who brings life and light to a dark world. “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The people walking in darkness receive light and life. The phrase ‘in him was life,’ implies wonderful things. First, as Jesus explains in John 5:26 “as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself.” Only God is intrinsically alive. Everything else takes life from him. But not the Son. He has life in himself, like the Father. Second, because of this, he is the source of life for us. Jesus says he has come that we may have life. He claims to be the way, the truth, and the life. He says “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”
Probably the most astounding thing about this one who has life in himself is that in order to give us life he lays down his life. Christmas tells us of the incarnation of the one who came to give us life, but Easter tells us that he gave his life as a ransom for many. He says “greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” That’s what we celebrate in Communion - his body that was broken, his blood that was shed for us. And yet his life was ultimately indestructible, as the author of Hebrews says, so that by his resurrection he showed the eternal nature of the life that he gave us. In John, when describing himself as ‘the good shepherd,’ Jesus said “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life, only to take it up again.” So the Word is life. His life is pre-existing. Yet by the sacrifice of his life he gives new life and eternal life to all who will believe in him.
In the same way, the Word is light, a connection that again goes back to Genesis. In the beginning God said ‘let there be light.’ That physical light shown in the darkness and dispelled it, just as the light of a single candle drives the darkness from a whole room, and the light of a single star illuminates all the earth. But John says that the light he is talking about is the light of men. ‘Darkness’ is not only the absence of light, but a symbol of evil and ignorance. Light not only reveals creation, but symbolizes good, truth and the knowledge of salvation. Apart from the light brought by the Messiah, people love darkness, because their deeds are evil, John 3:19, and when light does appear, they hate it because they do not want their deeds exposed. There is a darkness of sin in people’s hearts, a darkness that does not want to be dispersed.
Nonetheless, whenever the light shines in the darkness, the light has the victory. Neither physical light nor spiritual light can be quenched by darkness. Thus when the light of salvation comes into a person’s life their sin is forgiven, their heart cleansed, and the light of Jesus replaces their darkness, because he is, as he says twice in John, the light of the world. Without Jesus we are like people groping on an unknown road on the way to destruction. But with him we see the path that leads to life. God says of him, in Isaiah “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”
This morning we celebrate and bask in that light that has come. But John’s prologue doesn’t stop there. John goes on to talk about John the Baptist and his witness to the light. He says some rejected the light and did not recognize or receive him. But “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” That’s salvation by faith. Then, in verse 14, he caps this with the purpose of God’s big story: “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.” This is the climax of the Prologue, the thought to which everything else has led: ‘The Word became Flesh’.
The Word, of course, is the term we just saw, used to describe a person, God the Son, eternally pre-existing with God the Father. Now John boldly says ‘that Word, that eternal person, became flesh’ - real flesh and blood humanity. John could have said that the word ‘assumed manhood’ or ‘adopted the form of a body’, but if he had it would have been much harder to be sure Jesus was really a man. We would have fallen into the heresy that says he only took the appearance of a man, that he was a pure spirit who showed a body from time to time. Or we would divorce the divine Christ from the earthly Jesus and say Christ was a spirit that came on the man Jesus.
John won’t allow that. He says the word became ‘meat,’ which is what the Greek word literally means. It is the same word used by Paul to describe human nature in its helpless weakness and sinfulness. To rescue us from these things God made himself what we are, but without sin. God had sent miracles, prophecies and judgments, and none of these could turn the hearts of men. So he sent his Son as flesh, as a lamb to be slaughtered, as a sacrifice.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The word ‘dwelt’ is maybe the greatest of the words John uses in these verses. It’s the word used in Greek translations of the Old Testament for the tabernacle, the tent made at God’s command so that he might dwell with his people. “Let them make me a sanctuary,” he said in Exodus 25:8, “that I may dwell in their midst.” In Exodus 40:34-35 we read that “the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 35And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” The tabernacle was the physical and visible symbol of the presence of God.
But now, John says, God has taken on flesh and tabernacled among us, pitched his tent among us. The incarnation is a physical, visible reality of God’s presence. In Jesus, God has come to dwell among his people, fulfilling the big promise of the big story, “My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” At Christmas, God dwells with his people, God pitches his tent among us, God takes up residence in our back yard.
This word ‘tabernacle’ has another implication which was almost certainly in John’s mind as he wrote. It has the same root as the Hebrew ‘shekinah’ which means dwelling place, but was used for the glorious presence of God, which we just heard about in Exodus 40. Throughout the Old Testament the appearance of his glory showed his presence. That would be exactly what was implied to John’s readers. When the Word became flesh, the glorious presence of God was embodied in Him. He was the true ‘shekinah’. That’s why John goes on to say “we have seen his glory.” This glory was veiled from those who had no mind to come to the light, but fully manifested to those who believed. As we get to know, in faith and in personal relationship, we too see his humble glory and say with the angels of Bethlehem ‘Glory to God in the highest.’
The glory John saw was the glory of the one and only. This phrase was translated ‘only begotten’ in earlier versions and, as we said last week, in the creeds. “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from his Father before all ages, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father.” Here, as there, this implies eternal existence, the unique son displaying God’s glory to the world.
And how does he do it? By being full of grace and truth. In Exodus 34, when Moses asked God “show me your glory” he saw “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” This is the classic Old Testament formula ‘chesed va emeth’, used to show God’s steadfast gracious love and his character of truth or faithfulness to himself and his promises and to us. John, in describing the glory that was in Jesus echoes this description of God, because in Jesus God’s gracious love and the truth of his character were revealed.
So Jesus is full of grace. The fact that God came to earth to live and to die for men is not something which humanity deserved; it is an act of pure love on the part of God. It is grace. But grace also has the idea of beauty in it. In modern Greek the word means charm. In Jesus, we see the sheer winsomeness of God. Men had thought of God in terms of judgment and might and power, but in Jesus men are confronted with the loveliness of the love of God.
Yet at the same time God’s love is displayed, God’s truth is revealed. In this Gospel Jesus says he is the truth, the embodiment of truth, the communicator of truth. He told the disciples if they stuck with him they would know the truth and it would set them free. He told Pilate that he came into this world to witness to the truth. Furthermore, the Spirit he gave us is ‘the Spirit of truth.’ In Jesus we find reality. He speaks louder and better than all human ideas and opinions.
So the glory of God seen in the incarnation, celebrated at Christmas is not abstract or remote, not just light, though full of light. It is gracious toward us, freeing toward us and draws us to the truth of the Gospel. Today we celebrate the Word made flesh, who pitched his tent among us, and in whom we have received God grace, learned God’s truth and seen God’s glory.