Back to the beginning - John 1:1-14

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 16th December 2001.

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In the early days of radio, it was common for famous personalities to give talks on matters of interest. George Bernard Shaw was one of those personalities and he was a particular expert on the English language. During the course of his talk, he happened to say in passing that there were only two words in the English language that began with the letters SU, but were said SH. A few days after his broadcast, he received a letter from a listener in which she wrote: ‘Dear Mr Bernard Shaw, You are quite wrong. There is only one word- sugar.’ In reply, George Bernard Shaw wrote on a postcard just these words: ‘Madam, Are you sure?’

Being sure about anything seems a forlorn hope nowadays. This seems to be even more the case since September 11th. There is much uncertainty in the world today. But what is perhaps most striking is the way people have reacted to this uncertainty. I came across an article in the paper recently which said that more and more people in Britain, especially those in their twenties and thirties, are turning to alcohol, cigarettes, sex and gambling in abundance. One 26 year old man spoke for many when he put it like this: ‘If we learn anything from what happened on September 11th, it should be that you must live for the moment, because tomorrow you could be toast.’ Takings for some of the bigger pub chains in Britain increased by up to 7% in the last 3 months, compared to this time last year. And research shows that despite the global uncertainties, we are planning to spend the highest amount ever on Christmas this year- an average of £601 per person compared with £589 last year. ‘Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.’ That’s the motto of our society at the moment. Of course the problem is, instead of facing up to reality, we are turning a blind eye to it, lost in a fog of self indulgence and pleasure.

But when we turn to the Bible, we find that we are not turned away from reality, but forced to face up to reality. And the reality is that we are meant to live in relationship with the God who made us. And that’s what John is teaching us in his gospel. He is showing us that God longs to have a relationship with us again, and it is possible through Jesus Christ. That is reality, and that is how we can face the uncertainties of this world. And in this passage, John 1, famously read around Christmas time, John is taking us behind the scenes, taking us back, not just to that first Christmas, but into the very depths of eternity itself. John draws back the curtain on God himself, and gives us a glimpse into the very heart of God.

You see there is great hope for the world. But it does not come from us, as we seek to turn a blind eye to what is going on or as we seek to mend our own ways. Rather that hope comes from God himself in the person of his Son. And it is this message that we so desperately need to hear again and again in a world lacking hope and certainty. And while this passage may be familiar to us, yet it is important that we look again at the wonderful truths that John teaches us about Jesus and that we take them to heart. John makes it clear he is talking about Jesus in verse 18. Jesus is the Word of God. So let’s listen to John’s message and we’ll learn four wonderful truths about Jesus which give us hope and certainty in a hopeless and uncertain world.


1) Jesus’ Identity (Vv 1-2)

2) Jesus’ Power (Vv 3-5)

3) Jesus’ Mission (Vv 6-13)

4) Jesus’ Glory (V 14)

1) Jesus’ Identity (Vv 1-2)

So first, then, Jesus’ identity. And here John is making a staggering claim- Jesus is the Word of God. Just what exactly does John mean? Why begin the gospel in this way? After all he could have begun in all sorts of ways- he could have begun with a genealogy like Matthew or with John the Baptist like Mark or the nativity story like Luke. Why start with all this talk of the Word of God? Well John seems to have been most influenced by the OT. John reflects the very first words of the Bible in Genesis 1. "In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth." And what is the first thing God does? He speaks. That is how he creates. "God said ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light." And throughout the Bible, when God speaks something happens. And that is how he reveals himself to us. He speaks. It’s the same for us human beings made in God’s image. In order to share ourselves we must speak. In order for you to get to know me, I must speak to you and you me. We could mime to each other, or draw for one another, or act to another, all of which would be very amusing, but it wouldn’t get us very far. In fact, all you’d find out about me was that I’m hopeless at miming, drawing and acting. But the way we get to know one another is by speaking. And it’s the same with God. He reveals who he is and what kind of God he is by speaking. And so when we read in John 1 that Jesus is the Word of God, then we are being told by John that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God. So if you want to know what God is like you look at Jesus. He is The Word of God par excellence. He is the ultimate self disclosure of God. In Christ, we see God.

Let see how John puts it in these remarkable opening verses. There are three things he highlights. First, Jesus is from the beginning. "In the beginning was the Word." That does not mean that he was at the start of creation. Rather he was from the very beginning of all things. He is eternal. He’s at the start of the universe and beyond that too. So we can say of Jesus – that was no time when he was not. He has been there from all eternity and will be there to all eternity. As Hebrews puts it: "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever." But why is that? Well secondly, Jesus is with God. "The Word was with God." There has been an intimate loving relationship between God and the Word for all time. And how can that be? Because thirdly, not only is he with God, but also Jesus is God. "The Word was God." And at this point our feeble minds begin to struggle to cope with the incredible concepts John is showing us. John is saying that Jesus is God and he has been with God from the beginning. How can Jesus both be God and with God. Well that question can only be answered by saying that God is three in one. He is three persons and one person. That is the doctrine of the Trinity. And unless we say both things, then we are failing to do justice to this deep doctrine. Don’t ask me to explain it fully. I cannot. But that is the nature of revelation. There are some things which God has revealed to us which we must simply accept. We can understand them a little, but we can never fathom them completely. And quite frankly, no-one in their right mind would ever have come up with a God like this. This is the true and living God, the God who has revealed himself fully in Jesus, the Word of God who took on himself human flesh. That’s the identify of Jesus. He is the Word of God. He’s eternal, with God and is God. Is that the Jesus you worship? He is nothing less than God himself. He is nothing less than the awesome eternal God who has been for ever and will be forever. And don’t be deceived by so called Christian cults who try to make Jesus less than he really is. Jehovah’s Witnesses are one cult, active in this area, who misuse this passage in John to try to convince us Jesus is not God. Let me tell you now, they don’t know their Greek and they don’t know their theology. No. Be assured. Jesus is God. That’s his identity.


2) Jesus’ Power (Vv 3-5)

But then secondly, we see Jesus’ power in verses 3-5. And in these verses John has primarily in mind his power in creation. Verse 3: "Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has not been made." God the Father created everything that exists by and through His Son Jesus. Nothing exists that was not created by Jesus himself. Every time God said "let there be….." he was doing it through his Son, the Word who was with God in the beginning and was God. And John goes on: "In Jesus was life, and that life was the light of men." Jesus is the light and life of the world. Apart from him we are nothing. There is no light and revelation apart from him, no life at all without him. You may have gathered in the last few days that the Turner Prize, which is one of the art world’s big prizes, this year went to man who simply turned a light switch on and off in an art gallery. Amazingly this incredible work of art won him £20,000. I myself am hoping to enter next year with my masterpiece, the sugar cube, so I can scoop £20,000! When the winning artist appeared on TV to explain his work, he simply said: "I’m not sure what it’s all about!" And I should think there were many with him on that one! He needed some light shed on his mind it seemed! But here Jesus is the light and life of men. He is the one who gives us understanding and helps us to see our purpose in life which is to know God and serve him. Jesus is the source of all life and light.

But not only are these verses about creation, but even after a brief glimpse through John’s gospel, you would see that Jesus is the light and life of the world in salvation as well. Not only has he given us life and light in creating us, but he has also offered us light and life in his re-creation of us. For he is the way and the truth and the life. He is the resurrection and the life. He is the light of the world. Jesus’ power is seen both in the first creation, but also in his re-creation of us. For a Christian is a new creation. And it’s Jesus’ power which brings that about. And it is in that sense that in verse 5, says John, the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it, or better would be mastered it, overcome it. Though Jesus shines in a dark world, yet the darkness never defeats him. Such is his awesome power and such his life and light. His life defeats death. His light swallows up darkness.

Now this reminder of Jesus’ power of life and light should be a great encouragement to us Christians. So often it is easy to be discouraged, especially in a country like Britain when we see the decline of the church and falling numbers on Sundays. And yet here we’re reminded that though the darkness is there, yet it cannot overcome the Lord of life and light. If you look at other areas of the world where darkness has held sway for many years, yet the light has never been fully quenched. Think of a place like China. For decades China was officially closed to Christianity and was actively oppressing Christians, as it still does to a certain extent. And yet growing beneath the surface was the Christian church. Christ was at work giving life and light to millions during the very darkest days of the communist oppression. So now it is estimated that there are possibly 100 million Christians in China, which is about 10% of the population. It’s an incredible testimony to the power of Christ, the Lord of life and light to be at work in a country. It’s happening all over the world. Let’s pray it will happen here. "The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it." And nor will it. For the Lord we serve is more powerful than the regimes that oppress us. And again we must ask ourselves if this is the Jesus we believe in? Do we truly believe that Jesus has this awesome power to create and re create? That he has the power to give life and light to men. That his light is powerful enough to overcome even the darkest of darkness? If he is doing it in communist China, then he can do it in secular Britain. Take heart. Remember Jesus’ power.


3) Jesus’ Mission (Vv 6-13)

Then thirdly we see Jesus’ mission from verses 6-13. And what is that mission? Verse 12 tells us: "To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become the children of God." Jesus came to bring men and women, boys and girls, to new birth. That was his mission. And God didn’t just send a message in a bottle or an email telling us what to do. He sent a person. His own Son. The very Word of God. Now notice that this mission was something that was first foretold. John talks about John the Baptist in verses 6-8, and John’s role was to be a witness to the light. His job was to tell the world that the true light who gives light to all people was soon coming into the world. John’s role was rather like that of trailers in the cinema when in the previews section you get to see snippets of the film and you are told roughly what will happen, to prepare you for the arrival of the film itself a few weeks later. So John the Baptist was sent by God to prepare people for the arrival of The Word of God. Such was the importance of this divine visitor.

But notice too that Jesus’ mission divides. When he came, not everyone accepted him as the Word of God, God’s ultimate self revelation. Verse 10: "He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him." He came to his own, that is the Jews, the people that God had been preparing for centuries, through whom God had said he would bring his Saviour and King into the world. But his own did not receive him. Instead they crucified him. The worst form of rejection possible. Can you imagine it? The one who had carefully and lovingly made all there is to see in the universe, cruelly and callously rejected and killed by those he came to save. As one song writer puts it: "Hands that flung stars into space, to cruel nails surrendered." And yet still it happens today. The Jesus who died on a cross for us, giving his very life that we light live, the one whose own light was snuffed out, even today is still rejected and mocked, or simply passed by in cold apathy. His mission divides. For some it is an annoyance or an inconvenience which must be got rid of.

And yet for others, his mission is the start of a new life. Verse 12: "Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God." Don’t you think that is incredible? What right do we have to become God’s children? None at all. We’ve rejected God’s way. We’ve pushed him off the throne of our lives and sat on it ourselves. We’ve made ourselves the boss. All we deserve is God’s everlasting punishment for our terrible arrogance and rebellion. And yet here John says that Jesus came to offer us the right to become the children of God again. He came to give us life and light. And how do we accept the offer? By accepting Jesus, by believing in his name, as John puts it. What an incredible thing! And it’s not something we can do. Verse 13, you cannot be born a Christian, like you can with some religions. Just because you are born in England does not make you a Christian. And it’s nothing to do with our parents, not of human decision or a husband’s will. Just because you’re from a Christian background doesn’t make you a Christian. Rather you must be born of God. You must be born again to receive the right to be a child of God. It is a divine gift. It is something supernatural. That’s why God sent his Son into the world- to give people like you and me the chance to be born again. To have a new life, to have a fresh start, to make you and I royalty, children of the King.

Billy Bray was a drunken a loose living miner from Cornwall, born in 1794. He was always getting involved in fights and quarrels. But at the age of 29, he became a Christian by the grace of God. He went home and told his wife: "With the help of God, you will never see me drunk again." And she didn’t. He became an evangelist to the miners and many were converted through his preaching, which had a magnetic and powerful quality to it. But although he was a great evangelist, yet his deepest joy lay in his personal relationship with God. He knew all along that he had abundant reason to be thankful. And knowing that he was a son of God born again by a divine gift, he called himself "the young prince." And his favourite expression was: "I am the son of a King." The Christian is royalty, not by natural birth, but by new birth, a wonderful gift of grace done for us by Jesus Christ. Can you think of any news which is so wonderful? There is nothing better. That’s why Christmas is so good because we remember again how God came into this sinful world for you and me so we could become children of God. Jesus’ mission.


4) Jesus’ Glory (V 14)

And then lastly there is Jesus’ glory. And this comes in verse 14. And really this verse sums up what John has said in the first thirteen verses. "The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." In this verse is one of the most profound elements of Christian belief, that the eternal Son of God, the one who has been with God and is God from all eternity should take on frail human flesh in time and space. It’s another of these things we can never fully understand. And yet John says it happened. "The Word became flesh." And then he says something rather strange. "He lived for a while among us," or literally he tented a while among us. It’s as if he pitched his tent for a while among us as a man. But it is only when we read the OT that we see just what an amazing statement this is. For in the OT, the way God met with his people was in the tabernacle, the tent of meeting where Moses would meet with God. It was carried with the people wherever they went. And when they settled in the promised land, they eventually built the Temple which was again to be the place where God met them. But here John is saying that Jesus is that tent, that tabernacle, that temple. He has literally tabernacled among us. John is saying that it is in Jesus that we can meet God himself. And more than that, that we have seen his glory. And it’s a glory which is full of grace and truth. Just as God revealed himself to Moses in Exodus 34 as the God who is " the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger abounding in love and faithfulness", so too in Jesus we see God revealed as a God of glory, full of grace and truth. That’s Jesus’ glory.

You see the bottom line of this passage is that in Jesus we see God himself. God has come to our world as human being to die on a cross for us. There is great hope for our world, and there is a firm assurance and certainty. And it’s in the form of a person. And if you have not given your life to him, asking for forgiveness and a fresh start, isn’t it time you did? Christmas time is a wonderful time to do that. Why not today ask him to make you a royal son of God. And if you’ve been a Christian a while, then rejoice again today that God sent his Son into the world to die for you. And delight again in these four wonderful truths that John has reminded us of. Jesus’; identity, no less than God himself; Jesus’ power, his power to create and recreate; Jesus’ mission, to save and give life; and Jesus’ glory, revealing the glory of the one true God.

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