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“The Word Became Flesh”

John 1:14-18
Bob DeGray
December 22, 2002

Key Sentence

To reveal and to save, God took the ultimate step of becoming one of us.


I. He tabernacled among us (John 1:14)
II. He was the One (John 1:15)
III. He brought grace and truth (John 1:16-18)


        Years ago, when I sold my software company, I spent a while in their offices of the new owners, doing support and beginning the process of re-writing the program for them. I got to know the owners and employees of the company pretty well, and had a few chances to share the Good News with them. On one occasion several of us had gone to a restaurant, and after the meal I was talking with one of the owners, a fairly young man named Tony who was as far from being a Christian as anyone I knew. But we were talking about sin and salvation, how God had seen that no one was right and had loved us so much he wanted to rescue us from that condition. Tony raised what seemed to him an irrefutable objection, that a God so great and powerful as to create the universe would by nature have nothing to do with the tiny creatures who dwelt on one of his planets. There was no way, Tony said, that such a God could or would communicate with creatures like us.

        In response I mentioned what to me was a fairly trite and well-known analogy:“If you were a man and wanted to get a message to a group of ants, what would you do? You couldn’t communicate by shouting, you couldn’t hold up a sign for them to read. What could you do?” Tony jumped immediately to the right answer: “I’d have to become an ant to communicate with the ants.” But he didn’t have enough Biblical knowledge to figure out what the illustration meant: “That’s what God did, Tony. He bridged the gap by becoming a man. That’s who Jesus was: he was God-made-man”. As far as I know Tony has never become a Christian. But the look on his face that day told me he got that picture, both on an intellectual and emotional level.

        This week we reach the climax to the prologue of John’s Gospel. In the first few verses of John we saw that the Word was pre-existent, that he was himself God, and that in him was life that was the light of men. In the middle verses we saw that God sent John the Baptist and used many people and circumstances to testify that Jesus was the true light from God. But despite that witness only a few believed and received through him the eternal life God promised. This week we conclude the prologue with the clear recognition the eternal Word became human flesh. In Jesus, God remade himself on our level so we might see the truth about God, become witnesses to his glory and receive his grace. In Jesus, God bridged the gap between us by becoming what we are so we could receive his salvation. To reveal and to save, God took the ultimate step of becoming one of us.

I. He tabernacled among us (John 1:14)

        Let me read you this famous text, and then we’ll explore for a few minutes this wonder that we call the incarnation. John 1:14-18 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. 15John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.' " 16From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. 17For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known.

        Verse 14 is the climactic verse of the Prologue, the thought to which everything else has led: ‘The Word became Flesh’. The Word, of course, is the term used in the first verse 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. Praise God, that’s what we celebrate at Christmas.

        The word became ‘flesh’. 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 false teaching that says he only took the appearance of a man, that he was a pure spirit who showed a body from time to time, like a magician’s trick. Or we would divorce the divine Christ from the earthly Jesus and say Christ was a spirit that came on the man Jesus.

        But John will not allow that. He says “the word became ‘meat’”. The Greek word ‘sarx’ can be translated ‘meat’. It is the same word used by Paul to describe human nature in its weakness, sinfulness and helplessness. In order to rescue us from these things God made himself what we are, but without sin. God was done with half measures. He had sent miracles, prophecies and judgments - and none sufficed to turn the hearts of men to God. So he sent his Son as meat, as a lamb to be slaughtered.

        The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us or tabernacled among us. He pitched his tent in our midst. The word is the one that was used for the tabernacle of the Old Testament, 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.’ He said over and over “I will be your God, and you shall be My people.’ So the tabernacle was the physical and visible symbol of the presence of God. But the incarnation is the physical and visible reality of God’s presence. In Jesus, God has chosen to dwell among his people, he has tabernacled among us.

        This word ‘tabernacle’ has another implication which was almost certainly in John’s mind as he wrote. It comes from the same root as the Hebrew ‘shekinah’ which means dwelling place, but was used for the glorious presence of God. The bright cloud of His presence settled on the tabernacle, and later on the temple, and the glory of the Lord filled that place. God’s skekinah glory appeared in the wilderness, in the cloud and the pillar of fire that accompanied the people of Israel. When God gave Moses the ten commandments, his glory appeared on Mt. Sinai. In Isaiah’s vision of heaven the angelic worshipers proclaim that the whole earth is filled with his glory.

        In post-biblical Hebrew the shekinah glory was nothing less than the physical manifestation of God. 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” - and by we, he means the disciples and others who walked with Jesus. This glory was veiled from those who had no mind to come to the light, but fully manifested to those who believed. And like those followers, like the angels at Bethlehem, we too can catch a glimpse of Jesus’ glory at Christmas, and say with them ‘Glory! Glory to God!’

        The glory John saw was the glory of the one and only. This phrase was translated ‘only begotten’ in earlier versions, but ‘one and only’ is closer to John’s meaning. By New Testament times this word had lost its literal sense. Instead it implied that someone or something was unique and specially-beloved. Obviously an only son has a unique place in his Father’s heart and receives a unique love. The glory displayed in the incarnate Word is the glory a Father grants to his beloved Son. By the way, that’s the first of many times the word Father will be used of God in this Gospel.

        Isn’t this a remarkable verse? The Word, who pre-existed everything, was made flesh, made of human stuff, and became the dwelling place of God with man, in which God’s glory was revealed. What is the nature of that glory? John tells us that it is ‘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 about his character were ultimately revealed.

        Barclay has some good thoughts on the word grace: “It always has the idea of something completely undeserved and unmerited. It always has the idea of something we could never have earned, or won or achieved or attained for ourselves. 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.” 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 as God’s love is displayed, God’s truth is revealed. In this Gospel Jesus says that 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’.

II. He was the One (John 1:15)

        So Jesus fully represented both the grace of God and the truth of God. He was the word of God made flesh, born as a babe at a particular moment in space and time and history for the clear purpose of revealing the truth about God to us and of saving us by grace. We’re reminded of the historical reality of the Incarnation in verse 15: 15John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.' "

        In verses 6 to 8 we met John the Baptist whom God sent as a witness to the light. In the verses following the prologue we’ll get a fuller account of that witness. This verse is tucked in at this point to make it clear that the light to whom John bore witness in 7 and 8 is identical with the incarnate word of verse 14. The present tense, ‘John testifies concerning him’, followed by the perfect tense, ‘he has cried out’ suggest that John the Baptist’s witness is both vivid, as if it were still in progress and comprehensive, a summary that stands for all time.

        John announced the coming of Christ before he had even met him. He knew he was the forerunner to the Messiah. Then God brought Jesus to John to be baptized, and immediately John began pointing people to Jesus, saying “This is the one I meant when I said ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’” This comment probably has several layers of meaning. In terms of Christmas it is true that John came first: Elizabeth was already six months pregnant when Mary came to see her. John the Baptist was six months older than Jesus. Furthermore, his actual ministry mostly took place before Jesus came on the scene. Jesus didn’t go public until he was about thirty. John had probably been teaching and baptizing for several years by then. In a culture where age and precedence were honored, these things might have been taken to mean that John the Baptist was greater than Jesus.

        Not so, insists the Baptist, saying that Jesus has surpassed him. If automobile racing had been invented in the first century, it would have provided a perfect illustration of what John was saying: “I got here first, but there is someone coming up behind me who will pass me and leave me in his dust, because he’s been at this game a lot longer than I have.” Literally ‘he was first with respect to me’. Jesus really was first in terms of chronology: He was ‘in the beginning’ with God. But John’s words also emphasize the primacy of Jesus: He was John’s superior. John knew himself to be a herald, a servant who said “I am not even worthy to untie his sandals.”

        So the point of this middle verse is simply to say that Jesus is the one: The baby born in the stable is the pre-existent Word, the light, the life, the Word made flesh who came to live with us. John could point at a particular piece of flesh at a particular moment in the history of men and empires and say “Hold the presses, stop what you’re doing, look over here - this is the one.’ That’s what Christmas helps us to do. Despite the busyness of the season, the call of the incarnation is ‘stop the presses, stop what you’re doing, look over here and see that this is the one.’

III. He brought grace and truth (John 1:16-18)

        When the Word became flesh, John pointed him out to others. Those who followed that lead found that Jesus brought grace and truth. Verses 16 to 18: 16From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. 17For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known.

        In the incarnate Word we have all found an inexhaustible source of grace and truth. Here the author probably implies not only himself and his original companions, but the readers of the Gospel also, and everyone who looks on Jesus in faith. In other words, Jesus is so full of grace and truth that his supply of these things has not diminished at all in two thousand years. You and I can draw on this infinite fulness just as John and the other apostles did. In fact, the word fulness is used in the New Testament not just to point to God’s grace and truth but to all the ways in which God is infinite and surpassing. Paul uses this word often, and in talking about Christ he says that God was pleased to have all his own fulness dwell in Christ. The Word who was made flesh embodied not just some but all of the fulness of God. We see in Jesus all that makes God infinite and surpassing and we can go to Jesus for an infinite supply of all we need - all the grace, all the truth, all the life, all the light.

        From him, John says, we have received blessing after blessing, or in other versions, grace after grace, grace against grace, grace instead of grace. This phrase has been much debated, because the clear meaning of the Greek is ‘grace instead of grace’ but many commentators and translators can’t get that to make sense. F. F. Bruce, for example, says “no satisfactory sense can be obtained by pressing it to mean ‘instead of’. What the followers of Christ draw from the ocean of divine fullness is grace upon grace, one wave of grace constantly replaced by a fresh one. There is no limit to the supply of grace which God has placed at his people’s disposal in Christ.”

        That’s true, but others have found a satisfactory sense in the normal use of the preposition, that is ‘grace in place of grace’. The key is found in the beginning of verse 17 which tells us that the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus. John doesn’t see law and grace as being opposed to each other. He sees the law as an expression of grace, superseded and excelled by the expression of grace in Christ. Under the old system God graciously revealed what it meant to be righteous and holy, but under the new system he graciously met the requirements of righteousness for us through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Thus we have received a greater grace in place of the lesser grace given to Moses.

        By the way, don’t miss the fact that for the first time in this Gospel Jesus is named here by name. Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. Now we know who the Word made flesh is, he is the same Jesus we will follow through the pages of this Gospel, the same Jesus whose human birth in Bethlehem is recorded by both Matthew and Luke. It was this man Jesus who brought us the fullness of God’s grace and truth.

        You might also be interested to note that the word grace is not a key word for John. In fact it’s never used again after these verses. But the concept is seen in John’s repeated presentation of the call to believe. Over and over Jesus will tell us who he is, will show us who he is, will promise us abundance that can only come from who he is, and then call us to faith. One example, John 6:35: Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.’ That’s grace, as expressed by John - undeserved abundance, given freely, from an infinite supply, to all who come to Jesus in faith.

        So in Jesus we receive grace, and in Jesus we see truth. Verse 18: No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known. The glorious conclusion of John’s prologue begins with the evident truth that no one has ever seen God. The Scriptures teach that God the Father is invisible, he is a spirit and no one can see him and live. That’s what he said when Moses asked to see his glory. God had to hide Moses in the cleft of a rock, and showed him only the afterglow of his passing. The consistent assumption of the Bible is that God as Father cannot be seen, that for a sinful human being to see him would bring death.

        So it is astounding that in Jesus we see the Father fully revealed. Jesus shows us the truth about God. Verse 18 helps us understand why Jesus can reveal the Father as no one else can. First, he is unique. Again the Greek word is monogenes, literally ‘only-begotten’, but expressing especially uniqueness. It is the conviction of the New Testament writers that there is no one else like Jesus. He can do for men what no one else can do. He alone can bring God to men and bring men to God.

        Second, Jesus is God. He is ‘monogenes theos’, the one and only, God. The King James version, based on Greek texts from the middle ages, has ‘only-begotten Son’. But the earliest Greek manuscripts, including some of the oldest ever found have ‘God’ and not ‘Son’ in that spot. One of the reasons why ‘God’ is probably what John wrote is that there is no reason for any scribe to replace ‘Son’ with ‘God’ in the text. It would be making the text much more unusual. But if ‘God’ was in the original, a scribe might be inclined to change the word to ‘Son’ because that’s what he reads elsewhere in John, 3:16 for example. No, John wrote God here, and it is another clear statement that Jesus is God - the Word who was God now made flesh.
        The third key truth about Jesus in this verse is that he is at the Father’s side, in an intimate relationship with the Father. John recognizes the Father as God and Jesus as God, yet Jesus is ‘in the bosom of the Father’ to use the King James phrase. In Hebrew the same phrase is often used to express the deepest intimacies of human life, of friends, of husband and wife, and most often of mother and child. The unique love of a mother holding her son is the love between God the Father and Jesus the Son. The Father embraces the Son with all the warmth, closeness and love imaginable - yet at Christmas he sends him to the stable, and at Easter, to the cross.

        Because Jesus has an intimate and ongoing relationship with his Father, he is fully able to make God known to us. No one has ever seen God, but when you see Jesus, you do see God. In fact Jesus says, in John 14 that “he who has seen me has seen the Father.” Jesus reveals the truth about who God is, what he is like and what he is doing among men. Through Jesus we see God more truly than in any other way.

        So in the gift of Jesus at Christmas we receive truth - Jesus reveals God. In the gift of Jesus we receive grace - Jesus comes to bring salvation. It is to reveal God to us and to bring us free rescue from our sin that God became what we are: the Word became flesh and lived with us. Over the years many writers have tried to capture the wonder of this truth. Max Lucado does as good a job as anyone in that quest, and I’d like to close with some thoughts from his book God Came Near.

        “It all happened in a moment, a most remarkable moment. As moments go, that one appeared no different than any other. If you could somehow pick it up off the time line and examine it, it would look exactly like the ones that just now happened. It came and it went. It was preceded and succeeded by others just like it. It was one of the countless moments that have marked time since eternity became measurable.

        But in reality, the moment was unique. For in that instant a spectacular thing occurred: God became a man. While the creatures of earth walked unaware, Divinity arrived. Heaven opened herself and placed her most precious one in a human womb. The Omnipotent, in one instant, made himself breakable. He who had been spirit became pierceable. He who was larger than the universe became an embryo. And he who sustains the world with a word chose to be dependent upon the nourishment of a young girl. God as a fetus. Holiness sleeping in a womb. The creator of life being created. God was given eyebrows, elbows, two kidneys, and a spleen. He stretched against the walls and floated in the amniotic fluids of his mother.

        God had come near. He came, not as a flash of light or as an unapproachable conqueror, but as one whose cries were heard by a peasant girl and a sleepy carpenter. The hands that first held him were unmanicured, calloused, and dirty. No silk or ivory. No hype or hoopla. Were it not for the shepherds, there would have been no reception. And were it not for some stargazers, there would have been no gifts. And yet in that moment the world changed forever, in that most remarkable moment when the Word became flesh.