During the Christmas season, many sing a carol by William Chatterton Dix, a portion of which goes like this:
What Child is this, who laid to rest
On Mary’s lap, is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ, the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
Haste, haste to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary!21
As I write this message, Christmas is almost here. For this reason, it may seem appropriate to title this message, “What Child Is This?” Looking at our text in the Gospel of John, however, some might suggest I shorten the title to, “What Child?” There is no child in our text—no Mary, pregnant by the Holy Spirit, no babe in the manger, no shepherds or magi, no threatened King Herod. So why call this message, “What Child Is This?” when there is no “child” in our text?
In their Gospels, Matthew and Luke supply a considerable amount of detail about the conception and coming of the Christ child. Mark passes over these details, commencing his Gospel with the ministry of John the Baptist. John begins his Gospel with a prologue, which we find in the first 18 verses of chapter 1. This prologue to John’s Gospel is our text for this lesson. In spite of the absence of many of the familiar “Christmas” elements from the other Gospels, John’s prologue makes a significant contribution to the celebration of Christmas, a contribution which has not been overlooked. J. I. Packer writes of John’s prologue: “The Church of England reads it annually as the gospel for Christmas Day, and rightly so. Nowhere in the New Testament is the nature and meaning of Jesus’s divine Sonship so clearly explained as here.”22
John’s prologue provides us with insights which enhance our understanding and appreciation of the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. These two Gospels highlight the humanity of our Lord, without denying His deity. John’s Gospel highlights the deity of Jesus Christ, without minimizing His humanity. If we are to celebrate Christmas in its fullest meaning, we must not neglect the truths which John’s prologue contains. Let us listen carefully to these very special words from the Apostle John, so that our adoration of the Savior may be enriched and enhanced. Thanks to the rich doctrines contained in this text, we are virtually compelled to join with those who will sing this Christmas, “O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.”
In the beginning God … (Genesis 1:1).
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 The Word was with God in the beginning.
Matthew and Luke begin with the birth of John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus, and Mark begins with the ministry of John the Baptist. John goes all the way back to “the beginning.” The first words of John’s Gospel, “In the beginning … ,” bring to mind the account of creation in Genesis 1. The phrase, “in the beginning,” both in the English and in the Greek,23 is the same in Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1. This cannot be merely coincidental; it must be intentional. When Moses wrote the Book of Genesis, he began, “In the beginning God …” John is doing virtually the same thing in the first two verses of his Gospel.
In this first chapter of his Gospel, John does not mention the name “Jesus” until verse 17, and then not again until verse 29. He does not say, nor can he, that “Jesus” was in the beginning. “Jesus” is the name given to the God-man, born of the virgin Mary. It is His human name, which is given Him only after His incarnation. In attempting to teach this text, I have frequently fumbled for my words when referring to our Lord. I find myself sometimes using another expression, “the second person of the Godhead.” This is because our Lord always existed with God and as God, as the “second person of the Godhead,” yet He took on human flesh at a point in time. In John 1:1-3, John is speaking of our Lord’s pre-existence as “the second person of the Godhead.” When John refers to our Lord here, he calls Him “the Word.”24 By and large, the terms “Messiah,” “Son of God,” and “Jesus” are only appropriate when referring to our Lord after His incarnation.25 Our Lord has always existed as God, and He has always existed in unity and fellowship with God the Father. But He did not become God incarnate (Jesus) until the incarnation, described by Matthew and Luke.
What John tells us in the first two verses of his Gospel is mind-boggling: Jesus is God. Before He took on human flesh, “the Word” existed eternally as God, and in fellowship with God the Father. It is important that we grasp this fact. John’s words cannot be reduced to mean anything else, to mean anything less. Our Lord is God. He is eternal. He existed in the very beginning, and He has ever existed with the Father. This is what John expects us to understand him to be saying, and it is what he hopes to convince us is true.
The most obvious and important connection John makes is this: The God who created the universe is the One who was found lying in a Bethlehem manger. John wants us to know that the “Jesus” he introduces is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament. More than this, the Jesus who is the Messiah is the Jesus who is God. Our Lord did not “begin to be” in Bethlehem. He did not even have His origins in Genesis 1 and 2, when God created the world. He was there; He already existed when the world was created. He was there with God. He was there as God.
Are we reading something into the Bible that isn’t there? Not at all! This affirmation of the deity of Jesus Christ is constantly made in the Gospel of John. Jesus claims not only to be God, but to have come down from the Father in heaven. This is what those who trust in Him come to believe. This is what His enemies seek to deny:
“I have both seen and testified that this one is the Son of God” (John 1:34).
Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49)
“No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven—the Son of Man” (John 3:13).
“The one who comes from above is superior to all. The one who is from the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is superior to all” (John 3:31).
For this reason the Jewish authorities were trying even harder to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was also calling God his own Father, thus making himself equal with God (John 5:18).
31 “Our ancestors ate the manna in the desert, just as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”26 32 Then Jesus said to them, “I tell you the solemn truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but my Father is giving you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:31-33).
“For I have come down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me” (John 6:38).
47 I tell you the solemn truth, the one who believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, and they died. 50 This is the bread that has come down from heaven, so that a person may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats from this bread he will live forever. The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” … 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like your ancestors ate and died. The one who eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:47-51,58)
28 Then Jesus shouted out while teaching in the temple, “You both know me and know where I come from! And I have not come on my own initiative, but the one who sent me is true. You do not know him, 29 but I know him, because I have come from him and he sent me” (John 7:28-29).
Jesus answered, “Even if I testify about myself, my testimony is true, because I know where I came from and where I am going. But you people do not know where I came from or where I am going” (John 8:14).
Jesus replied, “You people are from below; I am from above. You people are from this world; I am not from this world” (John 8:23).
40 But now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth I heard from God. Abraham did not do this! 41 You people are doing the deeds of your father.” Then they said to Jesus, “We were not born as a result of sexual immorality! We have only one Father, God himself. 42 Jesus replied, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come from God and am now here. I have not come on my own initiative, but he sent me” (John 8:40-42).
56 Your father Abraham was overjoyed to see my day, and he saw it and was glad.” 57 Then the Jewish people who had been listening to him replied, “You are not yet fifty years old! Have you seen Abraham?” 58 Jesus said to them, “I tell you the solemn truth, before Abraham came into existence, I am!” (John 8:56-58)
Then some of the Pharisees began to say, “This man is not from God, because he does not observe the Sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such miraculous signs?” So there was a division among them (John 9:16).
29 We know that God has spoken to Moses! We do not know where this man comes from!” 30 The man replied, “This is a remarkable thing, that you do not know where he comes from, and yet he caused me to see!” (John 9:29-30)
“If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (John 9:33).
1 Just before the Passover feast, Jesus knew that his time had come for him to depart from this world to the Father. He had loved his own who were in the world, and now he loved them to the end. 2 The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, that he should betray Jesus. 3 Jesus, because he knew that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God … (John 13:1-3).
“Do not let not your hearts be distressed. You believe in God; believe also in Me” (John 14:1).
“Now we know that you know everything and do not need anyone to ask you anything. Because of this we believe that you have come from God” (John 16:30).
“Now they understand that everything you have given me is from you. 8 because I have given them the words you have given me. They accepted them and really understand that I came from you, and believed that you sent me” (John 17:7-8).
The Jewish religious leaders replied, “We have a law, and according to our law he ought to die, because he claimed to be the Son of God!” (John 19:7)
Jesus replied to her, “Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father. Go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (John 20:17).
Thomas replied, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28)
But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:31).
You may remember from my previous lesson (1) that years ago I was teaching the Gospel of John at a Bible study in our home when a young couple began to attend. By the third chapter of John, the woman blurted out, “If I didn’t know better, I’d think Jesus was claiming to be God.” It is very clear that Jesus does claim to be God. It is also clear that John is attempting to convince us that Jesus is God. This is the truth that the enemies of our Lord could simply not tolerate.
What John teaches us here about the deity of Jesus Christ is consistent with what the Old Testament taught about the promised Messiah. The Old Testament prophets indicated that the coming Savior was going to be a man, of the seed of Abraham, Jacob, Judah, and David (Genesis 49:8-10; 2 Samuel 7:12-14). They also indicated that the Savior would be the eternal God:
6 For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the increase of His government and peace There will be no end, Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, To order it and establish it with judgment and justice From that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this (Isaiah 9:6-7, NKJV).
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Though you are little among the thousands of Judah, Yet out of you shall come forth to Me The One to be Ruler in Israel, Whose goings forth are from of old,
From everlasting” (Micah 5:2, NKJV).
The New Testament writers clearly agree with John in affirming that the Jesus of the Gospels, the Jesus whom the church worships as Savior and Lord, was not only a sinless man, but also perfect and undiminished deity:
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, 16 for all things in heaven and on earth were created by him—all things, whether visible or invisible, whether thrones or dominions, whether principalities or powers—all things were created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things and all things are held together in him. 18 He is the head of the body, the church, as well as the beginning, the firstborn from among the dead so that he himself may become first in all things. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him 20 and through him to reconcile all things to himself by making peace through the blood of his cross—whether things on the earth or things in heaven (Colossians 1:15-20).
1 After God spoke long ago in various portions and in various ways to our ancestors through the prophets, 2 in these last days he has spoken to us in a son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he created the world. 3 The son is the radiance of his glory and the representation of his essence and sustains all things by his powerful word, and so when he had accomplished cleansing for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:1-3).
8 But of the son, Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and a righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom. 9 You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness. So God, your God, has anointed you over your companions with the oil of rejoicing.”
10 And, “You founded the earth in the beginning, Lord, and the heavens are the works of your hands 11 They will perish; but you continue. And they will all grow old like a garment. 12 and like a robe you will fold them up and like a garment they will be changed; but you are the same and your years will never run out” (Hebrews 1:8-10).
9 I, John, your brother and the one who shares with you in the persecution, kingdom, and endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island named Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony about Jesus. 10 I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day when I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11 saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches—to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.” 12 I turned to locate the voice that was speaking with me, and when I did so, I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands was one like a son of man. He was dressed in a robe extending down to his feet and he wore a wide golden belt around his chest. 14 His head and hair were as white as wool, even as white as snow, and his eyes were like a fiery flame. 15 His feet were like polished bronze that has been refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. 16 He held seven stars in his right hand, and a sharp double-edged sword extended out of his mouth. His face shone like the sun shining at full strength. 17 When I saw him I fell down at his feet as though I were dead, but he placed his right hand on me and said, “Do not be afraid! I am the first and the last, 18 namely, the one who lives! I was dead, but look, now I am alive—forever and ever—and I have the keys of death and Hades!” (Revelation 1:9-18)27
3 All things were created through him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created. 4 In him was life,28 and the life was the light of mankind. 5 And the light shines on in the darkness, but the darkness has not mastered it.
Verses 1 and 2 place our Lord at the beginning—in fact, before the beginning. He was there with the Father before the world existed. Now, in verse 3, John goes on to show that our Lord was not only present at the beginning, but He was the source of all that had a beginning. The “Word” was not passive, but active, the One through whom all things came into existence. He was not created; He was the Creator. He did not merely create all things for God, He created all things as God. All things came into being through Him. The “Word” spoke, and all things came into existence. As the Creator, He is the origin, the source of life.29
John now draws upon the imagery of “light” introduced in Genesis 1, applying it once again to the “Word.” In Genesis, one of the first things Moses tells us is that God called light into existence (1:3). God then separated the “light” from “darkness” (1:4). After creating “light,” God created “life” (Genesis 1:11f.) John draws a parallel to the original creation at which “the Word” was present and active. Almost without recognizing it, we are transported in time from the original creation (John 1:3) to the appearance of our Lord in human history at the incarnation (verses 4-5ff.). When the “Word” came into the world, the world was in a state of chaos, spiritually speaking. When the “Word” appeared, He was the “light” that illuminated the darkness, revealing the righteousness of God and exposing man’s sin. This had the effect of separating the “light” from the “darkness.” The darkness observed the light, but did not “master” it (verse 5).
That “light,” which appeared at the coming of our Lord continues to shine. There are several ways to translate verse 5, as seen below:
The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it (NIV).
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (NRS).
The light shines on in the dark, and the darkness has never quenched it (NEB).
The crucial word in the NET Translation is the word “mastered”:30 “And the light shines on in the darkness, but the darkness has not mastered it” (emphasis mine). The Greek word can have the sense of “grasping” or “comprehending” mentally, but it can also have the sense of “overpowering” (as the marginal note in the NASB indicates) or “overcoming.” Either nuance of the word would be acceptable in this context.31 Jesus came into the world as the true “light,” but lost men were not able to grasp it (compare 1 Corinthians 3:14). Or, even more strongly, Jesus came into the world, illuminating its sin and need for redemption, and the world chose to remain in its sin, thus seeking to oppose and even to overcome the light, but they could not do so.
John introduces “light” as a theme that will recur throughout this Gospel (John 3:18-21; 5:35; 8:12; 9:5; 12:35-36; 12:46). It is a prophetic theme, which is highlighted in Matthew (4:13-16; 5:14-16) and Luke (1:76-79; 2:25-32; 16:8) as well. Jesus came as the “light,” and He left His disciples and His church behind to reflect that “light” in His absence. The world’s efforts to suppress the “light” have failed, and thus the light continues to shine, even till the present time, through the people of God:
3 But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing, among whom the god of this age has blinded the minds of those who do not believe so they would not see the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For we do not proclaim ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” is the one who shined in our hearts to give us the light of the glorious knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:3-6).
7 Therefore, do not be partakers with them, 8 for you were at one time darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of the light—9 for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness, and truth—10 trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. 12 For the things they do in secret are shameful even to mention. 13 But all things being exposed by the light are made evident. 14 For everything made evident is light, and for this reason it says, “Awake! O sleeper. Rise from the dead, And Christ will shine on you!” (Ephesians 5:7-14)
14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may be blameless and pure, children of God without blemish though you live in a crooked and perverse society, in which you shine as lights in the world 16 by holding on to the word of life so that I will have a reason to celebrate in the day of Christ because I did not run or work in vain (Philippians 2:14-16).
6 A man came,32 sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness, to testify about the light, so that everyone might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify about the light.
John the Baptist was a very prominent and respected individual. Many came to him to hear him preach, even though his message was a call to repentance. They were content to follow John, and even open to the possibility that he was the Messiah:
People from all over Judea and Jerusalem were going out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan river, as they confessed their sins (Mark 1:5).
While the people were filled with anticipation, and they all pondered in their hearts whether perhaps John could be the Christ (Luke 3:15).
33 “You have sent to John, and he has testified to the truth. 34 (I do not accept human testimony, but I say this so that you may be saved.) 35 He was a lamp that was burning and shining, and you wanted to rejoice greatly for a short time in his light” (John 5:33-35).
The amazing thing about John the Baptist is that he never performed a miracle or a sign; he only preached and baptized:
40 Jesus went away across the Jordan River again to the place where John had been baptizing at an earlier time, and he stayed there. 41 Many came to him and began saying, “John performed no miraculous sign, but everything John said about this man was true!” 42 And many believed in Jesus there (John 10:40-42, emphasis mine).
The Apostle John turns his attention to John the Baptist in verses 6-8. If I am correct in assuming that John the Apostle was the second disciple of John the Baptist who left him to follow Jesus (John 1:35-42), then it is little wonder that the author of this Gospel has something to say about John the Baptist. How interesting that the Apostle John does not refer to the Baptist here as “John the Baptist,” but simply as “John.” The emphasis of verses 6-8 is not on John as a “baptizer,” but on John as a “witness.” John came as a witness to the “light,” that all men might put their trust in Him. He was not the light, but only a witness to the light. In his reference to John the Baptist, the Apostle John was careful to point out the Baptist’s subordinate role, as was the Baptist himself (see verses 19ff.).
John the Baptist’s task was to bear witness to the “light.” His mission was the same as his disciple, John the Apostle: to focus his ministry on Christ, so that men might come to believe in Him for salvation. The “light” to which John had been bearing witness had not dawned as yet, nor had Jesus yet been identified as that “light.” John could only speak of the “light” as One who was coming, One who was yet to be revealed.
9 The true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was created through him, but the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to what was his own, but his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become God’s children, 13 children not fathered by human descent or by human desire or a husband’s decision, but by God.
John himself is not the light to which he bears witness. The light to which he bears witness is the true33 Light. He is the fulfillment of all that “light” foreshadowed. The “Word” is the source of light; He is the One who called light into existence (Genesis 1:3). After the creation account in Genesis, “light” becomes a prominent Old Testament theme. Consider some of the Old Testament “light” texts that foreshadow our Lord’s coming:
“‘And he shall be like the light of the morning when the sun rises, A morning without clouds, Like the tender grass springing out of the earth, By clear shining after rain’” (2 Samuel 23:4, NKJV).
For You will light my lamp; The LORD my God will enlighten my darkness (Psalm 18:28, NKJV).
The LORD is my light and my salvation; Whom shall I fear? The LORD is the strength of my life; Of whom shall I be afraid? (Psalm 27:1, NKJV)
Who cover Yourself with light as with a garment, Who stretch out the heavens like a curtain (Psalm 104:2, NKJV).
In the Old Testament prophets, God’s “light” becomes a dominant messianic theme:
The people who walked in darkness Have seen a great light; Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, Upon them a light has shined (Isaiah 9:2, NKJV).
So the Light of Israel will be for a fire, And his Holy One for a flame; It will burn and devour His thorns and his briers in one day (Isaiah 10:17, NKJV).
I will bring the blind by a way they did not know; I will lead them in paths they have not known. I will make darkness light before them, And crooked places straight. These things I will do for them, And not forsake them (Isaiah 42:16, NKJV).
Indeed He says, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob, And to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, That You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6, NKJV).
Then your light shall break forth like the morning, Your healing shall spring forth speedily, And your righteousness shall go before you; The glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard (Isaiah 58:8, NKJV).
1 Arise, shine; For your light has come! And the glory of the LORD is risen upon you. 2 For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, And deep darkness the people; But the LORD will arise over you, And His glory will be seen upon you. 3 The Gentiles shall come to your light, And kings to the brightness of your rising (Isaiah 60:1-3, NKJV).
19 “The sun shall no longer be your light by day, Nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you; But the LORD will be to you an everlasting light, And your God your glory. 20 Your sun shall no longer go down, Nor shall your moon withdraw itself; For the LORD will be your everlasting light, And the days of your mourning shall be ended” (Isaiah 60:19-20, NKJV).
He reveals deep and secret things; He knows what is in the darkness, And light dwells with Him (Daniel 2:22, NKJV).
8 Do not rejoice over me, my enemy; When I fall, I will arise; When I sit in darkness, The LORD will be a light to me. 9 I will bear the indignation of the LORD, Because I have sinned against Him, Until He pleads my case And executes justice for me. He will bring me forth to the light; I will see His righteousness (Micah 7:8-9, NKJV).
When John tells us that Jesus is the “light,” he is telling us that our Lord is the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes, realized in Messiah, who was symbolized and characterized by light in the Old Testament. Jesus is the “true light,” that is, the final consummation of that “light” foreshadowed in the Old Testament. The appearance of the “true Light” established a standard of righteousness which exposes the sins of those who walk in darkness:
19 “Now this is the basis for judging: that the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil deeds hates the light and does not come to the light, so that their deeds will not be exposed. 21 But the one who practices the truth comes to the light, so that it may be plainly evident that his deeds have been done in God” (John 3:19-21).
11 Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. 12 For the things they do in secret are shameful even to mention. 13 But all things being exposed by the light are made evident. 14 For everything made evident is light, and for this reason it says:
“Awake, O sleeper. Rise from the dead, And Christ will shine on you” (Ephesians 5:11-14).
The “true light” came into the world, but the world’s response to that light was not what we would have hoped. The Word, who existed before the world was created, who brought the world into existence, who brought forth the light, came into the world which He made and yet the world did not know Him. The one who was both the Word and the Light came into the world He created, and this world did not want Him.
He came to possess what was His, but even His own people did not receive Him. There is a clear play on words in verse 11. Some English translations do not even indicate that there are two different words employed by John, with a slightly different meaning. They translate both Greek terms by the same English words, “His own”:
He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him (verse 11, NKJV, emphasis mine).
He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him (verse 11, NASB, emphasis mine).
He came unto his own, and his own received him not (verse 11, KJV, emphasis mine).
The NET Bible renders this verse the most accurately:
He came to what was his own,34 but his own people did not receive him (NET).
How ironic that the One who created all things should come to possess what was His, and yet He was rejected by His own people. How similar this sounds to our Lord’s parable of the “wicked tenant farmers” in Matthew 21:33-46. It is indeed a dark picture, one that reveals the wickedness of men who would reject their Creator (see Romans 1:18-32).
There is good news, however. The rejection of “the Light” by His own people did not at all thwart the purposes of God. John is not simply telling us the story of “God in the Hands of Angry Sinners”;35 in verses 12 and 13, he will tell us about those sinners who are in the hands of a gracious God. Not all will reject the Light that has come into the world. Those who receive Him are given the authority to be called God’s children—twice His: they are His by virtue of creation, and His by virtue of sonship. This is true of everyone who places faith in His name.36
Lest anyone dare to give themselves credit for being among the company of the saved, let them listen to the words of John in verse 13, which clearly teach that salvation is God’s work, not our own, God’s choosing us, more than our choosing Him:37
“Children not born by human parents or by human desire or a husband’s decision, 38 but by God.”
There is considerable discussion about what these words mean. Literally, the text reads, “Who were born, not of bloods …” Rather than spend time exploring all the options, it is more profitable to take the broader view here. All three expressions, “of bloods,” “will of the flesh,” and “will of man” describe human origins from the standpoint of human initiative and human action. John seems to draw together all the expressions he can think of which his readers accept as the source of human conception and birth. Both in terms of the actual joining of cells, and in terms of the motivations and initiatives behind this union, John tells us that our spiritual birth does not originate from, or through, human intent or endeavor. Rather, those who are born into the family of God as His children are those who are “born of God.” God is the Creator; He is the ultimate cause, the One through whose will and work men become His children. This will be played out in greater detail in our Lord’s conversation with Nicodemus in chapter 3. Put concisely in biblical terms:
“Salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9; Psalm 3:8, NKJV).
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:44; see 6:65).
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever! Amen (Romans 11:36).
14 Now the Word became flesh and lived39 among us. We saw his glory—the glory of the only [begotten]40 One, full of grace and truth, who came from the Father. 15 John testified about him and cried out, “This one was the one about whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is greater than I am, because he existed before me.’” 16 For we have all received from his fullness one gracious gift after another. 17 For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came about through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. The only One, himself God, who is in the presence of the Father, has made God known.
These verses are the climax of all that John has been leading up to in his prologue. Up to this point, we have been told that “the Word” is a person who is eternal, who is in fact a member of the Godhead. He was there at creation; indeed, He was the Creator. He is distinct from, yet intimately in fellowship with, God the Father. He is the source of light and life. He is the One to whom John the Baptist bore witness, foretelling His appearance. He is the One whom His own people rejected, but those who receive Him become children of God. Those who do become God’s children do so not out of human volition or effort; they are divinely “conceived.” We have not yet been told who this person is. We are now told in verses 14-18.
Until now, the One John has been introducing to us has been identified only as “the Word.” This “Word” is also the “Light” which shines upon men. Illumination can occur from a great distance, as the light of the sun shines on us from afar. But John is now about to tell us an astounding fact: the “Word” became flesh and lived among men. Here is something absolutely unique to human history. In the pagan religions, the “gods” have come down to the earth in some form, but never was there an incarnation like that of our Lord. So too, in some false religions, men are promised that they will become gods, but never that God would take on humanity as John describes here.41
The “Word” lived (tabernacled)42 among His people by adding perfect humanity to His undiminished deity. Thus He manifested His glory to men. God’s “glory” was once displayed by means of the tabernacle:
42 “This shall be a continual burnt offering throughout your generations at the door of the tabernacle of meeting before the LORD, where I will meet you to speak with you. 43 And there I will meet with the children of Israel, and the tabernacle shall be sanctified by My glory” (Exodus 29:42-43, NKJV).
33 And he raised up the court all around the tabernacle and the altar, and hung up the screen of the court gate. So Moses finished the work. 34 Then the cloud covered the tabernacle of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. 35 And Moses was not able to enter the tabernacle of meeting, because the cloud rested above it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle (Exodus 40:33-35, NKJV).
At the incarnation, God “tabernacled” among His people by means of His Son, and thus John can say, “We saw his glory—the glory of the only [begotten] One, full of grace and truth, who came from the Father” (John 1:14; see also 1 John 1:1-4).
John says, “we saw his glory.” The “we” must certainly be the apostles, although others may be included as well. The transfiguration of our Lord would be one of the more dramatic demonstrations of His glory (see Luke 9:30-32; 2 Peter 1:16-19). Another instance would be the turning of water into wine (John 2:11) and the raising of Lazarus (John 11:4, 40). The greatest display of the glory of God in Christ up until now would be His death, burial, and resurrection (see John 12:28; 13:31; 17:5, 22, 24; 1 Corinthians 15:43). It may well be that John’s use of the word “glory” should force us to reconsider and redefine “glory,” so that it encompasses things we do not normally associate with glory. As One who came forth “from the Father,” who was “full of grace and truth,” we would certainly expect Him to reveal God’s glory.
This One John has been introducing is Jesus Christ. He is the One of whom John the Baptist bore witness. He is the One who is greater than all. He is greater than John the Baptist; He existed before him. He is greater than the law. He is “full of grace and truth” (verse 14). The law was a revelation of God, written in stone. The Lord Jesus Christ is the revelation of God, manifest in human flesh, who tabernacled among men. He is the full and final revelation of God:
1 After God spoke long ago in various portions and in various ways to our ancestors through the prophets, 2 in these last days he has spoken to us in a son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he created the world. 3 The son is the radiance of his glory and the representation of his essence, and he sustains all things by his powerful word, and so when he had accomplished cleansing for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Hebrews 1:1-3).
Jesus Christ is greater than the law because He is the full revelation of God (when the law only partially revealed Him). Furthermore, His grace is greater than the grace provided by the law: “For we have all received from his fullness one gracious gift after another [literally grace upon grace]. 17 For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came about through Jesus Christ” (John 1:16, 17).
While there is a sense in which we can contrast “grace” and “law,” it is also true that the law was God’s gracious gift to men. The law is not devoid of grace. Rather, through Jesus Christ and the New Covenant, God manifests greater grace.43 Thus, John can say that in Christ we have received “grace upon grace.” Moses was the instrument through whom “the grace of law” was given; Jesus Christ is the instrument through whom “grace upon grace” is given.
In the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, the invisible God is now visible to men. Moses longed to see God more fully and was granted a partial glimpse (Exodus 33:17—34:7). In Christ, we see God dwelling among men in human flesh. It is more than we could ever have hoped. It is more than we shall ever be able to grasp. It is a wonder that will inspire our worship throughout time and eternity.
The mind is taxed beyond its capacity as one reads the words of John in the prologue to his Gospel. These are great truths, which we shall seek to fathom throughout this life, and which shall fuel our worship of our Lord throughout all eternity. Consider some applications this text may have for the reader as we conclude our message.
First, the reader should recognize in John’s prologue the introduction of the great truths and themes which we will continually visit throughout the Gospel.
In the prologue we are introduced to the key themes that follow in the narrative: the Word, God, life, light, darkness, witness, the world, rejection/reception, belief, regeneration (becoming a child of God), incarnation (the Word become flesh), the one and only Son of the Father, glory, grace, truth, and fullness—all these expanded upon and illustrated in the rest of the Gospel. And we are introduced to the key figures in the Gospel: God, the Word (Jesus, the Son of God), John the Baptist, Moses, the writer (as a spokesperson for the apostles), and all the believers.44
Perhaps you too have had the frustrating experience of answering the doorbell or the telephone to find a salesman, who most often assures you that they are not “selling” anything. We know they are selling something, and usually, we don’t want to buy anything. (Girl Scouts, selling their thin mint cookies are a welcomed exception, both in their method and their product.) John does not do that. He immediately informs his readers where he is coming from and where he is going. Whether or not we agree, we at least know what to expect. Do we agree that Jesus is God? Perhaps some may not, but they must admit that John believes so, and confidently claims that He is.
Second, the truths John sets out in his prologue are not only foundational to his Gospel, but foundational to the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. While the other Gospels build up to the realization that Jesus of Nazareth is God incarnate, John blurts it all out at the beginning of his work. Jesus is “the Word,” the God who existed from eternity, who was present and active at creation. And, wonder of wonders, the Word who existed in eternity past with the Father took on human flesh at the incarnation. He is the source of light (truth) and of (eternal) life. Through Him, grace and truth are abundantly provided by the Father.
These foundational truths are the point of attack for those who prefer darkness to light, who will not receive the One who came to lay claim to His creation. These fundamental doctrines John holds forth are those which men seek to deny, and which they endeavor to replace with false doctrines and beliefs. The deity of Christ was attacked by Arianism, which claimed Jesus was but a mere man, like all other men. The humanity of Christ was refuted by Docetism, which sought to persuade men that Jesus did not have a real body, that He was some kind of ghost or spirit being. This is precisely why John gives such emphasis to these foundational truths of our Lord’s deity and incarnation. These are not later embellishments, peddled as truth; they are the truth.
Third, foremost among the teachings of John’s prologue is the doctrine of the incarnation of our Lord. J. I. Packer defines what is meant by the incarnation:
The baby born at Bethlehem was God made man. The Word had become flesh: a real human baby. He had not ceased to be God; He was no less God then than before; but He had begun to be man. He was not now God minus some elements of His deity, but God plus all that He had made His own by taking manhood to Himself. He who made man was now learning what it felt like to be a man. He who made the angel who became the devil was now in a state in which He could be tempted—could not, indeed, avoid being tempted—by the devil; and the perfection of His human life was only achieved by conflict with the devil.45
The incarnation means that God added unfallen humanity to undiminished deity. It does not in any way mean that our Lord’s deity was diminished or set aside. It does mean that certain manifestations of His glory were veiled, and that the use of some of His powers were voluntarily restrained. It does not mean that our Lord was created in Bethlehem, but only that He came down to the earth at His incarnation. It does mean that the baby in the manger was God manifested in human flesh.
The doctrine of the incarnation of our Lord is important for several reasons. It is important because it is true, and because it is clearly and emphatically taught here in John’s Gospel, as elsewhere. Further, it is important because the incarnation of our Lord fulfilled Old Testament Scriptures. The Old Testament taught that the promised Messiah would be human, the descendant of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, and David (see 2 Samuel 7:12-14). The Old Testament also taught that Messiah would be divine (see Isaiah 9:6; Micah 5:2). The incarnation of our Lord was a practical necessity. In order to save men, there needed to be a sacrifice, a perfect human sacrifice—a man who did not need to die for his own sins, and thus could die for the sins of others. This person must be a “son of Adam” in order to be the “last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45), who could reverse the effects of the first Adam for all who believe in Him (see Romans 5:12-21). It is also by our Lord’s incarnation that He could empathize and identify with man, and thus become a merciful and faithful high priest (Hebrews 2:14-18; 4:14-16; see also 1 Timothy 2:5).
Fourth, if John’s teaching on the incarnation is true (as it surely is!), then we must certainly heed what our Lord has said. Jesus Christ is the full and final revelation of God (Hebrews 1:1-4). Since this is true, we do well to heed what He has said:
1 Therefore we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2 For if the message spoken through angels proved to be so firm that every violation or disobedience received its just penalty, 3 how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was first communicated through the Lord and was confirmed to us by those who heard him, 4 while God confirmed their witness with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (Hebrews 2:1-4).
Let us remember what the Father said after He identified Jesus as His Son: “While he was still speaking, a bright cloud surrounded them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is the Son I love, in whom I have great delight. Listen to him!’” (Matthew 17:5)
Fifth, John’s prologue and its teaching on the incarnation of our Lord enhances our appreciation of the Christmas story of the birth of our Lord, as recorded in Matthew and Luke. The “wonder” of Christmas is not that a baby was born to humble parents. It is not confined to the fact that this child was the fulfillment of many prophecies and the object of God’s care and protection (from Herod, for example). The wonder is that this Child was the second person of the Godhead, come to dwell among men as a man (a God-man), come to bear the sins of the world.
John does not tell us the “old, old, story” of the birth of our Lord. Instead, he chooses to tell us that this One born of the virgin Mary was, as the prophet Micah said, one “whose goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity” (Micah 5:2b, NASB). What John tells us sheds a whole new light on what we read in the birth accounts of Matthew and Luke. He chooses to tell us that this birth was a unique event in history, never to be repeated, and always to be the source of great wonder, joy, and gratitude.
Have you noticed those times in the Gospels when someone (especially Mary) “wondered” or “pondered” or “treasured things in her heart”? Mary witnessed things that were beyond her. John tells us things in his prologue which are beyond us, which should cause us to ponder this text for a good long while. Think of it: the babe in the manger is none other than God. The One to whom the Magi were led by a star was the One who made that star.
The Maker of the universe
His holy fingers made the bough
He made the forest whence there sprung
The sky that darkened o’er His head
The spear which spilled His precious blood
The throne on which He now appears
Sixth, John’s prologue, and especially his teaching on the incarnation of our Lord, fleshes out for us the true “spirit of Christmas.” John wrote, “No one has ever seen God. The only [begotten] One, himself God, who is in the presence of the Father, has made God known” (John 1:18). The expression, “has made God known” might be rendered by a seminarian, “exegeted Him.” “Exegesis” is the explanation of a text of Scripture. Jesus, by His incarnation, has “explained” the Father to us. He did not do this merely with words, but by means of His actions. Many of us who are prone to think we best represent our Lord by our talk had better consider this text, which says we explain our Lord by our walk, along with our talk.
The incarnation of our Lord is more than an event in history, albeit an important event. It is an example46 for each of us to follow:
5 The attitude Christ Jesus had, you should have toward one another, 6 who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing human nature.
8 He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death … even death on a cross
The “Christmas spirit” which we learn from the example of our Lord is the exact opposite of the “Corinthian spirit” described in Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians. The Corinthians thought only of themselves. No wonder there was immorality, self-indulgence, pride, and division. The Corinthians wanted “glory” now; they did not wish to wait. They did not wish to suffer or to deny their pleasures. The true Christmas spirit is seen in our Lord, who set aside His glory and His heavenly pleasures, so that He could give His life as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of men. The Corinthian spirit demanded all heavenly benefits now and avoided any sacrifice in the present.
Satan has ever been in the business of attempting to drive a wedge between humanity and deity. In the Garden of Eden, Satan succeeded in creating a barrier between man and God by tempting man to do away with the one thing which appeared to distinguish God from man—the knowledge of good and evil. In tempting man to sin, Satan managed to drive a wedge between man and God. In the temptation of our Lord in the wilderness, Satan tried to drive a wedge between our Lord and His Father, by urging Him to fulfill His human desires in spite of His divine calling. It didn’t work. The incarnation of our Lord made possible the union of man with God in a way that none would ever have imagined possible. By receiving God’s gift of the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life in the person and sacrificial work of Jesus Christ, we enter into a union with Christ which surpasses our ability to fathom such amazing grace.
Seventh, the incarnation of our Lord puts all the other teachings of the New Testament Gospels into perspective. No one puts it better than J. I. Packer, whose fifth chapter in Knowing God (“God Incarnate”) is worth reading and re-reading, especially at Christmas:
It is no wonder that thoughtful people find the gospel of Jesus Christ hard to believe, for the realities with which it deals pass man’s understanding. But it is sad that so many make faith harder than it need be, by finding difficulties in the wrong places. Take the atonement, for instance. … Or take the resurrection, … Or, again, take the virgin birth, which has been widely denied among Protestants in this century. …
But in fact the real difficulty, because the supreme mystery with which the gospel confronts us, does not lie here at all. It lies, not in the Good Friday message of atonement, nor in the Easter message of resurrection, but in the Christmas message of incarnation. The really staggering Christian claim is that Jesus of Nazareth was God made man—that the second person of the Godhead became the ‘second man’ (I Cor. 15:47), determining human destiny, the second representative head of the race, and that He took humanity without loss of deity, so that Jesus of Nazareth was as truly and fully divine as He was human. Here are two mysteries for the price of one—the plurality of persons within the unity of God, and the union of Godhead and manhood in the person of Jesus. It is here, in the thing that happened at the first Christmas, that the profoundest and most unfathomable depths of the Christian revelation lie. ‘The Word was made flesh’ (John 1:14); God became man; the divine Son became a Jew; the Almighty appeared on earth as a helpless human baby, unable to do more than lie and stare and wriggle and make noises, needing to be fed and changed and taught to talk like any other child. And there was no illusion or deception in this: the babyhood of the Son of God was a reality. The more you think about it, the more staggering it gets. Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as is this truth of the incarnation.
This is the real stumbling-block in Christianity. It is here that Jews, Moslems, Unitarians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and many of those who feel the difficulties above-mentioned (about the virgin birth, the miracles, the atonement, and the resurrection), have come to grief. It is from misbelief, or at least inadequate belief, about the incarnation that difficulties at other points in the gospel story usually spring. But once the incarnation is grasped as a reality, these other difficulties dissolve.47
As we enter the Christmas season and the celebration of Christmas, I must ask this simple question: “Have you received God’s gift to you in the person of His Son?” God sent His Son into the world, so that lost sinners need not spend eternity in hell. God sent His Son as the perfect God-man, so that men could be saved from their sins. Have you received the gift of the forgiveness of your sins and of eternal life? Confess your sin, and that your sin condemns you to eternal torment. Receive Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection as His work on your behalf, as the payment for your sins, and as the source of a righteousness that God accepts as sufficient for eternal life. May you know what it is like for God to dwell in you, to His glory and for your eternal good.
24 “He does not bring the term ‘son’ into his opening sentences at all; instead, he speaks first of the Word. There was no danger of this being misunderstood; Old Testament readers would pick up the reference at once. God’s Word in the Old Testament is His creative utterance, His power in action fulfilling His purpose. The Old Testament depicted God’s utterance, the actual statement of His purpose, as having power in itself to effect the thing purposed. Genesis 1 tells us how at creation ‘God said, Let there be …and there was …’ (Gen. 1:3). ‘By the word of the LORD were the heavens made … he spake, and it was done’ (Ps. 33:6, 9). The Word of God is thus God at work.” J. I. Packer, p. 48.
26 In the NET Bible, New Testament quotations from the Old Testament are indicated by a combination of boldface and italic type. Less direct allusions to Old Testament passages are indicated by italic type only.
32 There is a clear contrast here between the Word and John. The Word was; John came. The term translated “came” in verse 6 is employed three times in John 1:3, where in each case it refers to things created, things which came into being at the will of God. John came (into being, we might say); the Word was. Morris writes, “Jesus ‘was’ in the beginning. John ‘came into existence.’ The contrast is continued when John is described as ‘a man,’ for Jesus has already been spoken of as ‘the Word.’” Morris, p. 88.
33 Of the 27 occurrences of the word always (in the KJV) rendered “true,” other writers employ the term but 5 times; all the rest of the occurrences are in one of John’s writings. The word “true” can mean “true as opposed to what is false” (see Luke 16:11). It can also (as here) mean “true” in the sense that it is the ultimate and final fulfillment of earlier prototypes. Thus, our Lord is the true light (John 1:9; 1 John 2:8), the true bread (6:32), the true vine (15:1), and the true witness (Revelation 3:14).
34 I am inclined to agree with Leon Morris, who renders this “he came home,” but I will take this matter up in our study of the “cleansing of the temple” (John 2:12-22). Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), p. 96.
36 “The ‘name’ meant much more to people of antiquity than it does to us. … For men then it stood for the whole personality. When, for example, the Psalmist spoke of loving the name of God (Ps. 5:11), or when he prayed, ‘The name of the God of Jacob set thee up on high’ (Ps. 20:1), he did not have in mind simply the uttering of the name. He was thinking of all that ‘God’ means. The name in some way expressed the whole person.” Morris, p. 99.
39 The Greek word, rendered “lived” would literally be rendered “tabernacled.” This can hardly be coincidental. John again plays upon Old Testament history and imagery. The tabernacle was God’s means of dwelling in the midst of His people. How much better our Lord’s incarnation was to the Old Testament tabernacle.
40 The word “begotten” is omitted in the NET Bible, but I believe it must be present. It is deeply embedded in the Greek word, and it is a key element in the messianic scheme in the Bible. Begetting can refer to physical birth (Hebrews 11:17), and to spiritual birth (1 Corinthians 4:5; Philemon 1:10). In its messianic sense, to be “begotten” is not to be “born,” but to be appointed and enthroned as God’s King (see Psalm 2:7). God the Father did not quote Psalm 2:7 at the birth of our Lord, but later (see Acts 13:33; Hebrews 1:5; 5:5).
41 It is interesting to consider Satan’s strategies in this regard. At the fall of man, described in Genesis 3, Satan promises man (technically, he promised Eve this) that he can become like God (see Genesis 3:5). In Genesis 6:1-4, it would appear that Satan is seeking to bring about a kind of “incarnation” by having fallen angels cohabit with the “daughters of men.”
46 Liberal scholarship wants to confine our Lord’s life and ministry to the category of “example.” The biblical view sees our Lord first as the Son of God and the Lamb of God, who by His atoning death and resurrection has accomplished salvation for all who believe. Then, and only then, does it look beyond to the marvelous example of our Lord. The two elements (of atonement and example) are not to be separated, as Philippians 2 demonstrates.