This article continues my series based on my sermon on the incarnation of Christ — “The Word was Made Flesh.”
“The Reason” for Everything — an introduction to John’s use of the Greek word logos, translated as “Word” in John 1:1 and 1:14.
Word Made Flesh — the “Logos” Philosophy Falls Short — a contrast between the use of the word logos in human philosophy, and a discussion of how the human ideas of logos fell far short of the reality of God’s self-revelation.
Word Made Flesh — John’s Gospel, John’s First Epistle — A brief comparison of the beginning verses of these two books.
When I was very young, I heard a sermon talking about the Incarnation of Jesus. I always thought pink carnations were pretty, but I couldn’t understand it, because I couldn’t see how He could fit inside a flower. And none of the Sunday School pictures showed Him with flowers, either. 🙂
“Incarnation” comes from the Latin for flesh, carn, which appears in modern language in “carnivorous” (flesh-eating or meat-eating), carnal (living according to the desires of the flesh rather than spiritually), and even chili con carne (chili with meat).
The incarnation of Christ simply means that He came in the flesh, that God came to earth in a human body. It has nothing to do with carnations, though I still think they are pretty.
The Essence of the Incarnation
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
This verse gives us the incarnation of Jesus Christ in all its essentials. The One who was God (John 1:1), who existed before He came to earth, became human and lived among mortals. Yet, despite being flesh and blood, He was still God — and people saw in Him the glory of One who was of the Father’s nature (see The Meaning of “Only-Begotten”). Only God is “full of grace and truth,” so the incarnation of Christ did not in any way diminish His true deity.
This verse also implies the reason for the incarnation — to let us see the grace and truth of God, and know the Father and the glory of His divine nature as revealed in Christ.
The following verses elaborate further.
“The Word was made flesh” — In verse 15, the pre-existence and preeminence of the Saviour is emphasised:
John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me.
“…full of grace and truth” — the incarnation was to deliver to us this grace and truth:
16 And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace.
17 For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.
“…and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father” —
No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.
That summarises the incarnation — God became man so that we could know Him and receive His message of grace and truth.
John emphasises the deity of Christ at the beginning of his book, in verse 1 stating that “the Word was God.” As I mentioned previously, the term “only-begotten” refers to His deity. The language of this passage, even when John begins to speak of the incarnation, carries through with the thought that Jesus is still God.
In verse 14, John mentions His pre-existence while speaking of the incarnation. More importantly, he describes the glory of Jesus as being present. He did not lessen His divine nature in any way when He took on human nature. Thus, He could make the claim, not only that the Father was in Him, but that He was in the Father:
9 Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father?
10 Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works.
Paul made the same point in his letters to Colosse and to Timothy:
For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.
I Timothy 3:16
And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.
There are many other verses. Jesus of Nazareth did things that only God could do. Whatever happened in the incarnation, it did not in any way change the fact that Jesus is God, or reduce His deity in any way.
I John was written when there were an increasing number of false teachers invading churches (I John 2:18-22). Perhaps because there were still so many living witnesses of His miracles and resurrection, the earliest great heresies tended to deny the humanity of Jesus. It would have been hard to convince people who saw the risen Lord, or saw Him feed five thousand or heal the sick, that He wasn’t God, so the attack came on His humanity rather than His deity. (The view that Jesus only seemed to be human is broadly known as Docetism and influenced the heretical teachings of Marcion and the Gnostics.)
The strong Jewish influence in the early church may also have contributed to this error. The Jews believed that angels, and even God Himself, had appeared at times in the Old Testament. God appeared looking like (seeming to be) a man, to those who saw His appearance, but He was not really a man. It might have been easier for Jewish minds to believe in God appearing like a man than actually becoming a man. This may be why early heretics were able to gain some ground in the churches with this teaching.
John, in his first epistle, was particularly concerned with refuting this error, with a warning that still stands:
I John 4:1-3
1 Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.
2 Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God:
3 And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.
When we understand the problem John was addressing, the similarity, and yet difference, between the beginning of this epistle and the beginning of his Gospel account is easy to understand (thus, my last post, John’s Gospel, John’s First Epistle). John’s Gospel was written to persuade his readers that Jesus is God (John 20:31), while the epistle was meant, at least in part, to protect his readers against false teachers who denied the humanity of Jesus. Yet, John certainly wanted to affirm the deity of Christ as well.
And so, John began his epistle with language that could not help but remind his readers of his Gospel’s affirmation of Christ’s deity — but his emphasis is strongly on the humanity of Christ. Where the beginning of John’s Gospel states merely that Jesus became flesh and was seen, I John strongly affirms the full humanity of Christ.
I John 1:1-3
1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life;
2 (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;)
3 That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.
Jesus was more than a spirit, He was a man, as much a human being as anyone else. John doesn’t talk about merely seeing Him, nor does his language leave any doubt. How did he know Jesus was human?
- He heard Him (v. 1)
- He saw Him with his eyes (v. 1)
- He looked upon Him intently (v. 1)
- He touched Him (v. 1)
- He saw the manifested life (v. 2)
- He bears witness of what He saw, heard, and looked upon (v. 2)
- He saw and heard (v. 3)
John emphasises that Jesus, the Word of life, could be known with the physical senses. False teachers were saying that Jesus only seemed to be human. John denies it. Jesus was fully man.
The writer of Hebrews also stressed the humanity of Jesus, saying He was like us “in all things” (verse 17 below).
14 Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil;
15 And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.
16 For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham.
17 Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people.
The Union of Two Natures
Let’s return briefly to I John.
I John 1:1
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life;
Even here, when stressing the humanity of Christ, John does not diminish His deity. Both the divine nature and the human nature were fully present and united in such a way that John could say, “We heard and saw and touched the Word of life” — as much as to say, he heard and saw and touched God Himself.
It is not that there was a Man part of Jesus which could be seen and touched and heard, and a God part of Jesus which was spirit alone. The two natures were united. God was here on earth as a man. John did not say he saw and touched the One who had the Word of life in Him, John said that he handled “the Word of life” — and as he had said before, “the Word was God.”
When we say that the incarnate Christ was fully God and fully man, we say that the divine and the human were united together. Those who saw Him could say that which could never be said before, “We saw God.” Yet, there was nothing special about His physical appearance (Isaiah 53:2), for they also saw a man. Jesus was not half-man or half-God, He was the God-man, the Word who was made flesh, “all the fulness of the Godhead,” yet “in all things” like His brethren.
More to come….