The News: God Has Come Among Us, John 1:1-18


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John 1:1-18

Text Comment

v.1 The grammatical details are too complicated to explain, but John’s language unmistakably means not that the Word came into being at the beginning, but that “in the beginning” the Word already was. John’s use of “logos” or “Word” brilliantly served to bridge the gap between his Jewish and Gentile readers, for both of whom “logos” was an important word and concept. It was a term referring to the first principle of existence in Stoic philosophy, but it was also a common and very important idea in the OT where, often, the Word of God is simply God himself speaking: bringing the creation into being by his word, or delivering his people by his word.

v.2 For emphasis and clarity John repeats himself. This point is so important, he states it twice!

v.3 That the Son of God, the pre-existent Christ, created the world is a common NT doctrine. In Hebrews 1:2 we read of Christ, “through whom God made the world.”

v.9 The idea of the Son of God, the truth and the light, coming into the world or being sent into the world will be a common theme in John as it is throughout the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament.

v.14 For the first time since v. 1 the term “logos” appears. The term translated “only” was rendered “only begotten” in earlier translations. But the idea is rather, “one of a kind, best-beloved” son. “We have seen…” introduces the eyewitness touch that we will find everywhere in the Gospels. The Gospels were written by men who were there and who saw!

Today we begin to examine the content of the Gospel, the good news. What actually is this news? What is being proclaimed? We have said that it concerns Jesus and his deliverance of sinners from sin and death. But how so? What has happened that should be proclaimed abroad? We have also said that, in a certain way, the entire Bible is the good news, because all of its truth is a unity and everything is connected to everything else.

However, certain important teachings of the Bible could not be said to be good news in the strict sense. “The soul that sins shall die” or “God is angry with the wicked every day” are statements of immensely important truth. They are the foundation or, perhaps, the presupposition of the good news. But they are not the good news itself. In the same way the Lord’s statement, “You must be born again” is not strictly good news. It is true, of course, and it teaches us that our salvation is entirely dependent upon the working of God, but the necessity of the new birth is not the good news. Nor is the truth that God will punish the guilty in the world to come. Again, it is true, it is extraordinarily important truth, but it is not the good news in the strict sense. Well, what then is the good news?

The first part of the good news in the Bible is the announcement that we have just read. God became a man and lived among us for our sake! God himself came into the world, took to himself a human nature, that he might deliver us from sin and death. This is not only the first part of the good news, it is the foundation on which all the rest of the gospel rests. So this is, shall we say the good news! Notice how artfully John makes this stupendous announcement. Imagine a Gentile reading this for the very first time with no background in Judaism!

He wrote the prologue of or introduction to his Gospel as a thunderous opening salvo. He tells his readers at the outset what his book is about, its great subject: how the Word of God, the Son of God, who was with God in the very beginning and who made heaven and earth, came into the world, into time, indeed, into human life itself, to bring to mankind the glory and the grace of God. That is what the Gospel of John is about and we are told this at the outset.

And see how superbly John crafted this introduction to his great work, the famous opening or overture to what is surely one of the most magnificent and influential and beautiful pieces of literature ever to have been written. You noticed perhaps that the Lord’s name, Jesus Christ, is not mentioned at all until the very end. In this way we are forced to think about the identity of the one John is talking about. If you had begun reading chapter 1 without a grounding in the Christian faith, you would immediately began wondering: who is this person John is talking about? He is identified at the outset as the Word, and then we have pronouns, “he” and “him”, in the verses that follow. He is referred to as the light. John the Baptist, we are told, testified to him. But, still, we have not learned who it is precisely that John is talking about. Not until the very end, the end of v. 17, do we hear the name Jesus Christ. It is a brilliant rhetorical device, a way of laying powerful emphasis on the identity of the One about whom such fabulous things have been said. This is what makes so striking the two separate references to John the Baptist and his testimony, first in vv. 6-8, then in v. 15. Everyone knew that John the Baptist was the forerunner of the Messiah and that he had baptized Jesus. We hear John’s witness to him, but still, there is no mention of his name. Who is this that we are speaking about? And, then, finally, at the very end, the name: Jesus Christ!

After the opening thunder, the magnificent fanfare of vv. 1-5, the volume falls away, and through the following verses there comes a gradual crescendo that builds to the very end. It is like a gentle roll of the drums, growing louder and louder, finally ending in a crash of symbols. This is Jesus who is God, the Maker of heaven and earth!

That is the great disclosure, the great revelation, the great statement of the introduction to the Gospel of John. The one who is to be the subject of the Gospel, the one John knew personally, is none other than the Son of God who is God himself. This point is made in a number of ways in these 18 verses, evidence that the identity of Jesus as God is the great subject and theme both of this introduction and the Gospel that follows.

I. It is made dramatically in the opening verse where the Word is both distinguished from God and identified with God.

I know that many of you, at one time or another, have had a Jehovah’s Witness tell you that the word “God” at the end of v. 1, in the phrase “the Word was God” is not preceded by the article, the word “the,” and so should be translated “the Word was a God.” That is, the Word was not the God, Jehovah, but a god, a lesser divine being. It would not be helpful to you for me to descend to the details of the rules of Greek Grammar governing this question. But, I can tell you this. No competent authority on the Greek language of New Testament times defends the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ view of the syntax of John 1:1. And a similar thing may be said of the standard authorities on John’s Gospel, evangelical and non-evangelical alike.

C.K. Barrett, the English scholar – one of those English scholars who was thoroughly grounded in the classical languages of Latin and Greek – whose commentary on John’s Gospel has been a fixture in biblical scholarship for a generation, writes this about the Greek of v. 1.

“The absence of the article indicates that the Word is God, but is not the only being of whom this is true; if [“the God”] had been written it would have been implied that no divine being existed outside the second person of the Trinity.” [130]

The way John wrote verse 1 then indicates both the deity, the divine nature of the Word and his distinction from God the Father. What is of supreme importance, of course, is that this statement of the deity of Christ opens the Gospel. As Barrett goes on to say,

“John intends that the whole of his gospel be read in the light of this verse. The deeds and words of Jesus are the deeds and words of God; if this be not true the book is blasphemous.” [130]

You are by now familiar with the rhetorical device known as “inclusio” by which a writer makes a similar statement at the beginning and end of a section, or even an entire book, and by means of which he indicates to his reader his theme, his subject, or his emphasis. In our studies of the Bible through the years we have learned how often the device of “inclusio” is employed by biblical writers, all the more important and effective in a day before titles, chapter headings, tables of contents, or italic type.

Many professional students of John’s Gospel have pointed out that 1:1 together with 20:28 – Thomas’ confession of Jesus, “My Lord and my God” – form an inclusio for the whole Gospel. The book begins with the statement “Jesus is God” and it ends – or nearly ends – on the lips of a monotheistic Jew, a man on his knees before Jesus, with the statement “Jesus is God,” and in between, though there is plenty of demonstration of Christ’s deity, there are no straightforward assertions as at the beginning and end. This makes the statement in 1:1 even more important. It is a statement of the grand theme of the Gospel: viz. that Jesus Christ is God, the living and true God.

II. Christ’s deity is confessed in a second way in his being identified as the Creator of heaven and earth.

We are told that already in the first words of the Prologue, “In the beginning…” which take us back to the opening words of the Bible and its account of the creation of all things. But that Christ Jesus created the heavens and the earth is then explicitly said in v. 3. In Genesis 1:1 we read, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In John 1:1-3 we read that “Jesus Christ created the heavens and the earth.” John is identifying Jesus with God in the most dramatic way. It couldn’t be clearer and the Jews, in particular, would not have missed the point. The unbelieving Jews would have been infuriated precisely because a man was being made out to be God, which was blasphemy in their view. Later in John the Jewish leadership will level precisely that charge against Jesus: that he made himself out to be God.

III. In the third place, John identifies Jesus Christ as God by identifying him with Yahweh, the God whose glory was revealed to Israel in the wilderness.

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us…” More literally, the phrase reads, “he pitched his tent or “tented” among us.” For anyone familiar with the OT, the phrase would immediately call to mind the tent that Moses erected where God met with Israel before the Temple was built. Do you remember what God told Moses in Exodus 25:8? “Have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them.” The Greek translation of “sanctuary” in Exodus 25:8 has the noun form of the verb that John uses here for “pitch his tent among us.” The implication of this way of speaking is unmistakable. God has chosen to dwell among his people as he has before, though this time in a yet more personal and immediate way. The Word coming in the flesh is the ultimate way God has pitched his tent among us!

In fact, the Jews of that time typically used circumlocutions for God, round about ways of referring to him, because they were afraid of taking his name in vain. If one didn’t use his name, he couldn’t violate the third commandment that forbids taking God’s name in vain. That was the thought, not a very good thought, but it was the thought. And the three typical circumlocutions were “glory,” “word,” and “shekinah.” Shekinah is from the verb John used here in saying that God tented among us or dwelled among us. It means “dwelling.” It isn’t a word found in the Bible but it was used in Jewish writing of the time to refer to the dwelling of God, such as the tabernacle and temple represented. You will notice that John employs all three of these circumlocutions for God in reference to Jesus, but to make things unmistakably clear, to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind, he also uses the name “God.” That Jesus is God is a teaching laid in, under, around, and through his introduction.

Of course, as we know, not everyone by any means confessed that Jesus was God. Many never saw in him the glory of God, as John admits in vv. 10-11. And that leads to the thought with which the Prologue closes in v. 18. In v. 14 John said, “We have seen his glory…” an obvious allusion to the incident in Exodus 33-34 when Moses asked to see the glory of God. He was not permitted to see that glory full force – “you cannot see my face,” God told him, “because no one can see God and live” – but, remember, he was allowed to see the Lord’s after-effects or after-glow as he hid Moses in the cleft of a rock and passed by. Then, afterwards, Moses would go into the tent of meeting to speak with God and when he came out his face would be shining, still reflecting the glory of God.

John picks up that same thought again in v. 18 and says that this one who is the Word, the Creator, now come in the flesh, has revealed God to us. Any Jewish reader would immediately get the point. Jehovah, Yahweh, has come down to dwell among men in the person of Jesus Christ.

IV. Finally, in the fourth place, you have Christ’s deity demonstrated in his pre-existence.

We have noted this already, after a fashion, but it is important to see it as a constant thread in the argument of the Prologue of the Gospel of John. The one known as Jesus Christ was with God in the beginning, before the creation (v. 1). This one already existed before he came into the world (v. 9). He came from the Father (v. 14). This Word became flesh, that is, the Word was before Jesus the man was (v. 14). And John the Baptist, who was born before Jesus was born, as a climax of all of this testimony, explicitly says, “He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me” (v. 15). You and I did not exist before we were! But Jesus did! His divine person always existed; only his human nature had a beginning in time.

So, in these different ways the introduction of the Gospel sets before us the first and foremost subject of the good news, the gospel. Jesus Christ, who is the one living and true God, entered our world as a man and so became the ultimate revelation of God to man. The man Jesus Christ, in Paul’s words, is the visible “image of the invisible God.”

Imagine if the Prologue, these first 18 verses, had somehow been lost and you began to read John’s Gospel at v. 19. You would soon be wondering: who is this man? How was he able to do what he did? Why did he make the impression on others that he did? How could he say that he was the salvation of the world? No other prophet had said such a thing, Moses didn’t, Elijah didn’t, Isaiah didn’t. How could he say he was the only way to God? Where did his wisdom and goodness and power come from? But the Prologue has made it all clear. [Hooker, Beginnings, p. 74] Jesus is God come into the world as a man.

Now there can be no doubt that this fact, what in Christian theology is called the incarnation, that is the infleshment of God, the inmanment of God; I say, there is no doubt that this is the good news! God himself has come to help us. Everything else is detail. We’re going to learn how he helped us, but first and foremost main message is that God himself has come to help us.

Now, to be sure, what John tells us here is simply amazing, breathtaking and for that reason, it’s also confusing! How could this possibly be: God becoming a man, God remaining God but, at the same time, becoming a true, an authentic human being, with his two natures neither mixed nor combined? This John does not explain, nor does any other biblical writer. What we read about Jesus Christ in the New Testament over and over again can be explained only by the fact that he was and is both God and man, but how he is both, that remains an impenetrable mystery.

Christian theology has always stopped short of explanations of the incarnation – how it could be true, what exactly happened, how the natures exist together in the single person. Christians confess Jesus Christ as both God and man, they rejoice in his transcendent glory as the one, true, and living God and in his intimate experience of human life as a true man. But explain how this could be so they do not! Theologians have developed an entire vocabulary to confess this doctrine while, at the same time, remaining firmly within the boundaries of our splendid but very limited knowledge: incarnation; enhypostasis; circumincessio, taxis, mysteria fidei, and so on. Each is a confession; none is an explanation.

And why should we think that we would ever be able to explain how God does what he does, the infinite/personal God, whose ways are far above our ways and past finding out. What we needed to know was that Jesus was both God and man. That we know. More than that we cannot know, perhaps ever.

But remember this: both John and Jesus were monotheists, monotheists to their backbone! They believed in one God, that there was and could be but one God. There were no lesser deities such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses allege! Jesus himself later in John makes this point in his own words in 5:44 and makes it repeatedly in his own teaching recorded in the Gospels. So, lying beneath and behind the mystery of the incarnation, of God becoming man, is the mystery of the Holy Trinity, the one true and living God who exists in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Throughout the Gospels we read that the Father sent his Son into the world and that the Son was accompanied and enabled to do his work as the Redeemer by the Holy Spirit. Two wonderful mysteries lie at the heart of the good news and of our Christian faith: God as triune and the incarnation of God the Son.

But now stop and consider. If God, the God who made heaven and earth, the God who made you, the God of terrible power, the God of perfect goodness, the God of exact justice, and the God of love and mercy, in order to save us from our sins, came into the world incognito, unrecognized, in order to accomplish our salvation, in order to do for us what we were helpless to do for ourselves that we might be restored to fellowship with him and to endless life, I say, if God did that, surely that is good news, wonderful news, shout-from-the-housetop news, thrilling news. That this God should be so kind to us, so generous, so ready to make terrible sacrifices for our sake, that is good news. That this God, who will someday stand in judgment over every human life, should come to suffer and die to overcome our sin and guilt and reconcile us to himself; that is good news. God is on our side; that is good news.

There are a great many people in the world who are well disposed toward Jesus Christ. They think well of him to the extent they think about him at all. They may know very little of what he taught and still less of what he actually did and why. But, to the extent they have an impression of Jesus Christ, it is a good impression. But John is out to change all of that! Jesus Christ is the one who made the world and everything in it, who will judge the world on the great day, who will judge you on the great day. He came to rescue you from your sins so that you might live in joy and satisfaction forever. Jesus is infinitely more than a nice guy!

There are many other people around the world who have subjected Jesus Christ to critical examination, have rejected the Christian assertion that he is God, that he died on the cross for our sins, or that he rose from the dead. Very interestingly, all over the world people confidently express their unbelief in the biblical teaching about Jesus. They do this in regard to him in a way they do not with other important religious figures about whom most people know little or nothing: Buddha, Krishna, or Mohammed. As Ravi Zacharias observes, “An average student in India, for example, does not even know when Krishna was born or if indeed he ever was. At the same time, he or she has theorized about Jesus quite a bit.” [Can Man Live without God? 161] Why is that? Precisely because of the extraordinary thing that John here says about Jesus, that he is God Almighty come in the flesh. Accept that and you accept everything. No wonder so many will not accept it.

Some years ago, I read an article by Frederica Mathewes-Green, then a syndicated columnist and commentator for National Public Radio. She was reminiscing about her becoming a Christian.

“Almost twenty-four years ago I walked into a church in Dublin a Hindu, and walked out a Christian. I had had an unexpected confrontation with the presence of One I discovered to be my Lord, and was set reeling. I knew I needed operating instructions quickly, and particularly wanted to find out who this Jesus was. I hunted up a Bible, a pocket-sized King James with print several microns high, and plunged into the Gospel of Matthew.

“I disliked it from the start. Jesus was often abrupt and hard-edged. I disagreed with some of the things he said. I was offended.

“But something had happened in my heart. The confrontation in the church had knocked a hole in my ego. I knew at last that I didn’t make the world, I didn’t know everything, and it was time for me to sit down, shut up, and listen. I kept working my way through the Gospels, and they began working their way through me. There are still parts of the Bible I don’t like. But I like the parts I don’t like, because I know that’s where I need to listen harder.” [First Things, 83 (May 1998) 12]

There is the key. “I know that I didn’t make the world.” But Jesus did make the world and everything in the world, including you! He is the living God, however much he is at the same time and most mysteriously a true and authentic human being, and that is why you must hear him, John is saying, and why you must believe in him, and why you must submit yourself to him, and why you confess him Lord and Savior.

This Word who became flesh and dwelt among men, this one whom John was privileged to meet, to come to know, and to accompany for three extraordinarily eventful years, this Word whose divine glory he actually saw – if only on a mountaintop in Galilee one fateful night – this Jesus of Nazareth is God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth. And that changes everything. Obviously, then, the salvation Christ brings is the only salvation; the truth he brings is the only truth; his light is the only light for every man and woman in the world.

No wonder John’s book was called a Gospel: good news!