March 10, 2013
I spent the summer of 1970 working as “Charlie Chaplin” at the Movieland Wax Museum in Buena Park, California. Each day I would dress up as Charlie Chaplin, and impersonate him for the guests. It was the most fun job that I’ve ever had.
The museum also employed several security men who were dressed as Keystone Cops. One of these men was a roly-poly man named Walter. One day Walter in his Keystone Cop outfit and I in my Charlie Chaplin outfit were sitting in the break area when he said to me, “Charlie, what do you want to do with your life?”
I responded, “Walter, I’ve given my life to Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord, so I’m going to spend it serving Him in some way.” Walter’s reply jarred me. First, he took the Lord’s name in vain. Then he said, “Am I glad to hear that!”
While I was trying to reconcile his response in my mind, he proceeded to tell me his religious odyssey. He had started off as a young man with a Pentecostal group in Los Angeles. He had a vision of “the Christ” (as he called it) where he woke up in the middle of the night and saw “Jesus,” whose heart came out of His chest and was beating in front of him. After a few days in a trance, Walter began preaching on the streets of Los Angeles.
I’ve forgotten what order or how many other things he had been into since those early days, but they included Science of Mind, Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, some weird group that studied the “silent years of Jesus” (just how, I was afraid to ask!), Mormonism, and at the time I was talking with him, the Self-Realization Fellowship of Yogi Paramanda Yogahanda. He was speaking at their center in Laguna Beach and invited me to come hear him. Thankfully, I was working then and so I had a good excuse not to go!
What was Walter’s problem? How could a man who seemingly began as a Christian end up so fouled up in his beliefs? There were two basic reasons: First, he accepted as his basis of truth and knowledge his own subjective experiences rather than the propositional truth as revealed in the written Word of God. Second, stemming from that wrong foundation, he developed faulty views of the person of Jesus Christ. Without the objective truth of the written Word of God, we cannot develop correct views of who Jesus truly is. At best, we’ll come up with our subjective preferences, but they will not be based on the eyewitness testimony of the apostles.
It’s safe to say that every major cult and heresy has deviated from the biblical revelation of who Jesus Christ really is. They have erred either with regard to His deity or His humanity or the relationship between His two natures. John MacArthur (“Jesus: Glory, Grace, and God,” on gty.org) says, “It is as damning to believe in the wrong Jesus as to believe in no Jesus.” Saving faith is certainly more than believing correct statements about Jesus, but it cannot be less. In our text, John gives us one of the most succinct statements of the unfathomable doctrine of the incarnation:
Jesus, the eternal Word, is God in human flesh, glorious as the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Verse 14 reconnects us with verse 1 and is the last time John uses “the Word” as a title for Jesus in this gospel. The Word who was in the beginning with God, the Word who was God, the Word who created everything that has come into being, “became flesh, and dwelt among us.” Wayne Grudem (Systematic Theology [Zondervan], p. 563) says of the incarnation,
It is by far the most amazing miracle of the entire Bible—far more amazing than the resurrection and more amazing even than the creation of the universe. The fact that the infinite, omnipotent, eternal Son of God could become man and join himself to a human nature forever, so that infinite God became one person with finite man, will remain for eternity the most profound miracle and the most profound mystery in all the universe.
Leon Morris puts it (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 102), “In one short, shattering expression John unveils the great idea at the heart of Christianity that the very Word of God took flesh for man’s salvation.” As we tread on such holy ground, I especially identify with Paul’s rhetorical question (2 Cor. 2:16), “And who is adequate for these things?” Let’s proceed reverently and ask the Holy Spirit to teach us.
John now definitely identifies the eternal Word of verse 1 with Jesus Christ, whom he will first name in verse 17. He affirms two truths about Jesus Christ that are essential to the Christian faith:
We saw this clearly in verse 1. John asserts that Jesus is eternal. He does not say, “In the beginning, God created the Word as the first and greatest created being.” But rather, “In the beginning was the Word.” The sense of the verb is that He was already existing at the beginning of time because He has no beginning. He is one in essence with the Father (John 10:30) and the triune God is the only eternal being.
Of course, Satan hates the truth of the deity of Jesus Christ, because it spells his doom. And so he has always attacked it. One of the most substantial attacks on the deity of Christ came from the heretic Arius in the early fourth century. He taught that the Word was the first and greatest created being. He gained a large following, but was refuted at the Councils of Nicea (325 A.D.), Constantinople (381 A.D.), and Chalcedon (451 A. D.). The latter two councils also clarified the relationship of the two natures of Christ to correct several other heresies that had sprung up. But the attacks on Christ’s deity have continued through the Unitarians, liberal theologians, and the modern cults, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons.
But the New Testament clearly affirms the deity of Jesus Christ. He Himself claimed to be God. In John 5:23, He said that the Father had given all judgment to the Son “so that all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father.” In John 8:58, He asserted His eternal existence when He claimed, “Before Abraham was born, I am.” (The Jews would have recognized “I am” as a reference to God’s name as revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14.) In John 10:30 He asserted, “I and the Father are one.” In John 14:9 He told Philip, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.”
Also, Scripture directly states that Jesus is God. There are several such references (John 1:1; 20:28; Rom. 9:5; Titus 2:13; 1 John 5:20), but I think the clearest is Hebrews 1:8, which applies Psalm 45:6 to Jesus: “But of the Son He says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever….” Also, many titles that apply only to God are applied to Jesus. “Lord” is the same as Yahweh of the Old Testament (Isa. 40:3 with John 1:23; Jer. 23:5, 6; Joel 2:32 with Acts 2:21; 4:12; Rom. 10:9-10, 13). He is “the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8). In Revelation 1:8 God says, “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.’” Then just a few verses later (Rev. 1:17), Jesus proclaims, “I am the first and the last.” In Revelation 22:13 (in case we missed it) he reaffirms, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (See Isa. 41:4.)
Also, Jesus displayed many of the incommunicable attributes of God: He is eternal (John 1:1); omnipresent (Matt. 28:20); omnipotent (Phil. 3:21); immutable (Heb. 1:10-12; 13:8); glorious (John 1:14; 1 Cor. 2:8; Rev. 1:13-16); and sovereign (Phil. 2:10). Paul put it (Col. 2:9), “For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form.” Plus, Jesus did works that only God can do, such as creating all that is (John 1:3, 10; Heb. 1:2); raising the dead (John 5:25-26); overpowering Satan and all spiritual forces (Eph. 1:21); judging all people (John 5:22-23, 27); forgiving sins (Mark 2:5-7); and receiving worship (John 9:38; 20:28). You cannot believe the New Testament and deny the full deity of Jesus Christ.
John could have said, “The Word became man,” or, “The Word took on a human body.” But the word “flesh” jars you with its bluntness (Morris, p. 102). Probably John was confronting another early heresy, Docetism, which said that Jesus only appeared or seemed to be human. But John wants us to know that Jesus took upon Himself our full human nature, except for sin. From that miraculous moment when Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary, He will never cease to be human. He is forever both God and man in one person.
“Became” does not mean that Jesus ceased to be what He was before. Rather, to His eternal deity, He added perfect humanity. He temporarily laid aside the use of some of His divine attributes and the full display of His glory (Phil. 2:5-8; John 17:5). It shone forth on occasions, but not always (John 2:11; 18:4-6; Luke 9:28-36). But He did not lay aside His deity or cease to be God. Rather, He added complete humanity to His eternal deity. Jesus’ human nature was subject to hunger, thirst, weakness, tiredness, temptation, and death, but He was without sin.
Again, Satan hates the truth that Jesus, the eternal God, took on human flesh, because it qualifies Jesus to be our Savior. So he has attacked this doctrine, too. The Apollinarians acknowledged Christ to be God and man. But they held that Jesus did not take on the soul of a man. The Logos took the place of the rational soul. The Nestorians believed Christ to be both God and man, but they conceived of Him as two persons, thus dividing His unity. The Eutychians held to one person in Christ, but they mixed His two natures, saying that it produced a third thing. They said that Jesus’ humanity was absorbed into His deity, and thus that He only had one nature. This error persists today in what is called Monophysitism, which is held by the Coptic Church in Egypt and Ethiopia, plus other groups in Syria. Another form of it recently was taught by Witness Lee (“the Local Church”), who used the analogy of a tea bag and water. When you mix them, you have a new substance, “tea-water.” Thus in his view, Jesus is a hybrid “God-man.” (A helpful book that explores the practical damaging results of these and other heresies is, The Cruelty of Heresy [Morehouse Publishing], by C. FitzSimons Allison.)
The Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) produced a comprehensive and definitive statement on the person of Christ, which is worth pondering (Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom [Baker], 6th ed., p. 62). But you can sum it up by saying, “Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man united in one person forever, without confusion of His two natures.” While it is an incomprehensible mystery how the two natures of Christ interact, we must accept the truth of Scripture, “The Word became flesh.”
John could have said, “The Word lived among us,” but instead he used the unusual word, translated dwelt, which means “to pitch a tent” or “to tabernacle.” It is used of the tabernacle in the Old Testament, where God dwelt with His people in the wilderness. John does not mean by this term that Jesus’ humanity was temporary, but rather, His stay on earth was temporary.
By using the word that was used of the tabernacle, coupled with seeing Jesus’ glory, John wants us to make some connections. Just as the tabernacle was the place where God dwelt with His people and manifested His glory, so Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. Just as the tabernacle was at the center of Israel’s camp, so Christ is to be at the center of the church. Just as sacrifices and worship were offered at the tabernacle, so Jesus is our complete and final sacrifice, and we have access to God through Him.
Every aspect of the tabernacle speaks of Christ. The bronze altar for sacrifice and the bronze laver for cleansing point to Christ. The table of showbread in the holy place speaks of Christ, the living bread. The golden lampstand points to Christ, the light, who illumines the things of God. The altar of incense reminds us of Christ’s making intercession for us. In the holy of holies, the ark of the covenant, made of wood covered with gold, points to the two natures of Christ. On top of the ark was the mercy seat, where the blood of atonement was sprinkled. Inside were the tablets of the law, pointing to Christ, the fulfillment of God’s law for us; the jar of manna, pointing to Christ as our sustenance; and Aaron’s rod that budded, pointing to Jesus as “the branch,” who was raised from the dead and gives new life to those who were dead in their sins. Jesus, our tabernacle, “dwelt among us”!
God’s glory is the sum of all His attributes and perfection. It is sometimes displayed as a bright or overpowering light. When John says, “We saw His glory,” he may have been referring in part to the transfiguration, when he and James and Peter saw Jesus in His glory. John could not have forgotten that event, although he doesn’t tell about it in his gospel!
But he is also referring to Jesus’ glory as revealed in His miracles, but only to those who had eyes to see. After Jesus turned the water into wine, John reports (2:11), “This beginning of His signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him.” Before Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, He said (John 11:4), “This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” And yet, even after that amazing miracle, the Jewish leaders increased their efforts to kill the one who is the resurrection and the life!
But John also shows that Jesus’ glory was supremely revealed in the cross. When Judas went out of the Upper Room to betray the Savior, Jesus said (John 13:31), “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in Him.” The cross displayed God’s perfect justice and amazing love like no other event in history. In our text, John elaborates on Jesus’ glory with two phrases:
The NASB translates, “glory as of the only begotten from the Father.” The term, “only begotten,” while a part of the historic creeds, can cause some confusion, namely, that Jesus came into being at a point in time. The Nicene Creed clarifies, “begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father ….” Sometimes it is said that Jesus is “eternally begotten,” so that He is the eternal Son of God.
But most modern scholars say that the Greek word does not refer to the “begetting” aspect of Jesus’ sonship, but rather to His uniqueness. It could be translated, “one and only.” It’s used of the widow of Nain’s only son (Luke 7:12), of Jairus’ “only daughter” (Luke 8:42), and of a man’s only son who was afflicted by an evil spirit (Luke 9:38). Hebrews 11:17 uses it to refer to Isaac, who was not Abraham’s only son, but his unique son, the son of the promise. John is the only New Testament author to use the term of Jesus (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9). He means that Jesus is the only or unique Son of God in a way that no one else is. Jesus has no equal among men. We become sons of God through the new birth, but Jesus is the eternal Son, co-equal with the Father in His essence. If you don’t understand how Jesus could be an eternal Son, remember the comment of Augustine, “Show me and explain to me an eternal Father and I will show to you and explain to you an eternal Son.”
Sadly, many supposedly evangelical missionaries to Muslims are producing and endorsing translations of the New Testament that replace the terms “Father” and “Son” with other terms that are less offensive to Muslims. They argue that Muslims wrongly think that Christians believe that Jesus is the result of God having sexual relations with Mary. To remove that stumbling block, they change the terms. But in so doing, they change the very nature of God as He has revealed Himself to us in Scripture. God is the eternal Father and Jesus is His eternal Son. The Holy Spirit is also eternal God; three persons but one God. While it is humanly impossible to fully understand it, we dare not tamper with it to somehow make the message less offensive.
John is probably referring back to Exodus 33 & 34, where Moses asks to see God’s glory. God explains that he can’t see His face and live, but He will hide Moses in the cleft of a rock, cover him with His hand, and pass by so that Moses can see “His back.” Then we read (Exod. 34:7), “Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.’” In that profound experience, we hear of God’s grace and truth. He is “abounding in lovingkindness” (“grace”) for many, but true to His holiness, He still punishes the guilty.
Jesus was full of grace and truth. His grace offers love and compassion to guilty sinners (John 4:1-26). His truth means that He warns of God’s judgment if sinners do not repent and believe in Him (John 3:16, 18, 36; 5:27-29; 8:24, 40, 45-47). Grace and truth reach their culmination at the cross, where the truth of God’s holiness and justice was satisfied in the death of the perfect Substitute, so that He now can offer grace to guilty sinners who trust in Jesus. It is only by believing the truth as it is in Jesus that you can experience God’s grace and forgiveness. Since Jesus is full of grace, you can come to Him and know that He will welcome you (John 6:37). Because He is full of truth, you can trust His promises.
J. C. Ryle, in his wonderful Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 3:26-27) draws several practical lessons from John 1:14. He points out that the constant undivided union of two perfect natures in Christ’s person gives infinite value to His mediation for sinners, to His imputed righteousness to believers, to His atoning blood, and to His resurrection. Then he adds (pp. 27-28),
Did the Word become flesh? Then He is One who can be touched with the feeling of His people’s infirmities, because He has suffered Himself, being tempted. He is almighty because He is God, and yet He can sympathize with us, because He is man.
Did the Word become flesh? Then He can supply us with a perfect pattern and example for our daily life…. Having dwelt among us as a man, we know that the true standard of holiness is to “walk even as He walked” (1 John 2:6). He is a perfect pattern, because He is God. But He is also a pattern exactly suited to our needs, because He is man.
Finally, did the Word become flesh? Then let us see in our mortal bodies a real, true dignity, and not defile them by sin. Vile and weak as our body may seem, it is a body which the Eternal Son of God was not ashamed to take upon Himself, and to take up to heaven. That simple fact is a pledge that He will raise our bodies at the last day, and glorify them together with His own.
As Charles Wesley put it (“Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”), “Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see; hail the incarnate Deity.”
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation