The body - John 1:9-14
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Veiled in Flesh
A number of years ago a wide range of people took place in extensive interviews about their thoughts on what is now known as ‘spirituality.’ Just let me read to you one comment which is representative of many: ‘There is so much war and conflict. If there is a God, why doesn’t he just send someone down?’ And maybe you are here tonight and they are your thoughts too. But of all the religions in the world, Christianity is the only one which is not fazed by that sort of question. In fact it welcomes it, because it provides an opportunity to share the breathtaking good news that God has gone one better than ‘sending someone down’, he has actually come down himself in person. And what that means the apostle John begins to unpack in the passage we are looking at this evening: John 1:9-14.
First of all, let’s look at the coming of the divine- v14, ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only [Son- not in the original], who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.’
We saw a few weeks ago that ‘the Word’ of which John writes is none other than the eternal Son, the ‘one and only’- (monogenes) of the Father or as we may say, ‘one of a kind’. He shares the same nature as God the Father, the‘godness’ if you like, but is nonetheless distinct as he relates to him as a one and only Son, infinitely precious to him, ‘the apple of his eye’, eternally existing because God is eternal.
All of that was ‘in the beginning’-v1, or actually ‘before’ the beginning of anything- in eternity. But then there was another ‘beginning’ which took place in history. This Word/Son became ‘flesh’. This is John’s way of saying that at a locatable place at a specific time, divinity arrived. God came to earth not in a flash of light but in human flesh. God became a human being, born as all human beings are born by cells multiplying in the wall of a uterus, nourished by a placenta, bathed in amniotic fluid and protected for nine months in his mother’s body. And then he was born.
This is what Christians call the ‘incarnation’ – literally, ‘en-fleshing’. Put simply: God became a man without ceasing to be God. That is what happened in the person known as Jesus of Nazareth.
Let’s tease this out a little further.
God became a man.
The second person of the Trinity, the Word, took to himself a complete human nature. He had a full human psychology as well as a full human physiology. The one through whom all things were created (v 3) became created. God was given eyebrows, elbows, two kidneys, and a spleen. The great fact is the Word, took on a human body which had exactly the same biochemical composition as our own, the same central nervous system and so the same sensitivity to stimuli as us. It was a human body with a genetic composition similar to our own. To this genetic composition His mother made the same contribution as any human mother makes to the genetic make-up of her child. One half of His chromosomes came from His mother. The rest were imparted miraculously in the creative act of the virginal conception by the Holy Spirit.
It means that Jesus had a human mind and that that human mind was limited and finite. It had to reason in a human way from premises to conclusions, just like we do, working out that 2 plus 2 equals 4. It had to gather, process and organise information, just like we do. He underwent normal intellectual development and learned by observing the world around Him, listening to His mother and searching the Scriptures. He was not ignorant of anything He ought to have known. God the Father kept from Him nothing which it was good for Him and his people to know.
In that humanity he felt pleasure and pain, as we do. In that human nature he laughed and cried, hoped and feared, knew delight and disappointment. In that humanity he received and gave, blessed and suffered. God experienced from the inside what it is like to be human. His body, mind and spirit were like ours except they were not corrupted by sin- the human hard-drive was free from any moral and spiritual virus. Deity became humanity, more to the point a particular human being who lived in Palestine 2000 years ago.
And like all human beings he was a social being, he didn’t ‘ keep himself to himself’ like a hermit, he shared his life with others. John says, he ‘made his dwelling amongst us.’ Literally he ‘pitched his tent with us.’ Eugene Petersen in The Message renders it, ‘The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood.’!
Of course for a Jew reading this his mind would immediately go back to another time when God pitched his tent among his people- the tabernacle, and later, the temple. In Eden God moved about amongst his people – Adam and Eve. It was a beautiful relationship which became soured by sin and rebellion. He then chose to be amongst his people, Israel, under very strict conditions involving bloody sacrifice to remove sin allowing God and man to meet as friends. But even here God’s presence was only fitful and temporary, appearing and then disappearing as the Shekinah glory. But now there is a permanent residence of God in the bodily person of Jesus of Nazareth- and he still occupies that body in heaven for ever.
But nonetheless when this happened, he remained God. The Word took to himself human nature without surrendering his divine nature. If I can put it rather bluntly, while the eternal Word was man, he didn’t stop doing ‘God stuff’ such as upholding a universe, bringing new stars into being, and directing the course of human history.
Let me try and explain.
Later in chapter 3 Jesus meets with a religious leader called Nicodemus and says, ‘No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven- the Son of Man who is in heaven.’’ Here is Jesus- the Son of man on earth, speaking of himself as being at the same time in heaven! Many of the early Christian theologians took this quite literally and although it may stretch our thinking to breaking point, as it is full of paradox, it does make sense if Jesus was fully God. One such writer was a man called Athanasius in the 4th century (296-373) who put it like this, ‘The Word was not hedged in by His body, nor did His presence in the body prevent His being present elsewhere as well….At one and the same time-this wonder-as Man he was living a human life, and as Word he was sustaining the life of the Universe and as Son He was in constant union with the Father.’
As you read through the rest of John’s Gospel you see all of this being worked out in the life of Jesus. He does ‘God stuff’ in history- raising the dead, declaring himself to be the ‘I am’. But he is also very human, displaying human emotion and reaction: surprise, relief, shock, horror, human love and human anger, disappointment and distress, human gusts of exuberance and human outbursts of grief. It’s all there in this unique person who is fully human and fully divine. Do you want to know what God is really like? Then look at Jesus. Do you want to know what humans should be like? Then look at Jesus.
One of the early church theologians summed this up in a nutshell, speaking of the Word, God the Son, he said, ‘What he was he remained, what he was not he became.’ (Gregory of Nazianzus) What he was (divine) he remained, what he was not (human) he became.
And when he came, says John, we ‘apprehended his glory.’ What does he mean? Well, John goes on to tell us what this glory is embodied in this special person, it is, ‘grace and truth’. There is an episode in the Old Testament, in the book of Exodus, where the leader of the Hebrews, Moses, asked God to show him his ‘glory’ (Ex. 33:18). But what God did was to hide him in the cleft of a rock at Sinai, for his own protection, and said that he would allow his ‘goodness’ to pass by him and show him his ‘mercy’ (33:19). And when this happened, God glorious display is accompanied by the acclamation that the Lord is ‘abounding in love and faithfulness’ (34:6). So the essence of God’s glory is him being a loving and faithful God. Now, all of that is seen in Jesus- the Word made flesh. Jesus tabernacled amongst us, John is saying, as Yahweh tabernacled amongst Israel, and as Yahweh’s glory was his ‘love and faithfulness’, the same is found in Jesus, but now described as ‘grace and truth’. Grace carries the idea of something beautiful and attractive but above all it is underserved favour- love. Truth is what is trustworthy as opposed to falsehood, genuine as opposed to fake- which ties in with faithfulness. God is full of grace and truth within himself and towards us. And if you want to know what that grace and truth sounds like and looks like in practice as they radiate from the God-man, read the rest of the Gospel.
And so what happened when the divine became human, when pure, kindness and truth was embodied as a human being? This brings us to our next point:
The rejection of the divine- vv9-11, ‘The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.’
Reading just the first part of the verse 10 and all the talk about the true light being ‘in the world’ and the world having come into existence ‘through him’, we might think that John is simply referring to planet earth, as if he were saying the Word was on the very earth that he was involved in creating 4.5 billion years ago or whenever it was. But by saying ‘the world did not know him’ or ‘recognise’ him’ leads us to a different understanding of the word ‘world’. A planet can’t recognise anyone. Recognition is an ability creatures have, more specifically, human beings. ‘World’ translates the Greek word ‘cosmos’ which contrasts with chaos. So when John talks about the ‘world’ he is speaking of human beings organised as a race in rebellion against their Maker. This is the ‘world’- dark, ungrateful and proud, which God so loved that he sent his one and only Son. Such was their spiritual darkness that it didn’t recognise the one who gives every human being breath.
And when he came to those who had for millennia been prepared for his coming, the people of Israel, and especially its leaders who had the Scriptures, what happened then? It is even worse, V11, ‘his own did not receive him.’ In fact they rejected him. Both the pagan world in the form of Pilate and the religious world, in the guise of the Jewish leaders ganged up in an unholy alliance to murder their Maker. That is how bad we really are at heart.
And we all by nature have different ways of trying to suppress the light, some of which can appear to be clever and sophisticated. One such person was Professor J. Budziszewski, who admitted that, he said, ‘The main reason I was a nihilist [someone who believed that life is meaningless], was sheer, mulish pride. I didn’t want god to be God; I wanted J. Budziszewski to be God.’ He then goes on to say this, ‘I have already noted in passing that everything goes wrong without God. This is true even of the good things he has given us, such as our minds. One of the good things I’ve been given is a stronger than average mind. I don’t make the observation to boast: human beings are given diverse gifts to serve them in diverse ways. The problem is that a strong mind that refuses the call to serve God has its own way of doing wrong. When some people flee from God they rob and kill, others do a lot of drugs and have a lot of sex. When I fled from God I didn’t do any of those things, my way of fleeing from God was to get stupid. Though it always comes as a surprise to intellectuals, there are some forms of stupidity that one must be highly intelligent and educated to achieve. God keeps them in His arsenal to pull down mulish pride and I discovered them all. That is how I ended up doing a doctoral dissertation to prove that we make up the difference between good and evil and we aren’t responsible for what we do. I remember now that I taught those things to students. Now that is sin. It was also agony. I believed things that filled me with dread. I thought I was smarter and braver than the people who didn’t believe them; I thought I saw an emptiness at the heart of the universe that was hidden from their foolish eyes. But I was a fool.’ That is what happens when we try to flee from the light we end up in the dark and stupid.
But there is another response- the acceptance of the divine, vv 12-13, ‘Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.’
You know, some people think that they have a ‘right’ to be thought of as God’s children: because of the country into which they were born, their family ancestry, the church to which they belong- even simply because they are human, ‘After all aren’t all human beings God’s children?’ Not according to John. Only God has the right to say who his children are, namely, those to whom he gives birth . Jesus is unique as God’s Son, he is the ‘one and only’ from all eternity, but there is a spiritual begetting that happens within those who believe in his one and only Son. They are brought into being by the Holy Spirit, who together with the Son brought the universe into being and who gives life and light. Christians can no more take pride in being believers than they can in being born. Our natural birth is the fruit of our parents; our spiritual birth is the fruit of God- our natural, fallen ‘will’s don’t make us into God’s children either-v13. When people move out of darkness into the light because they have been affected by the light- the Gospel, they believe in his name. What name? Well so far we have been given the identity of the Word who is God. So it is believing that Jesus is God and responding to that great reality in repentance and faith which brings about this miraculous change. John does not use the language of ‘adoption’, that is Paul, he uses the language of ‘begetting’. A person becoming a Christian is nothing less than a divine act.
In fact this was to become Professor Budziszewski own experience, ‘How then did God bring me back? I came, over time, to feel a greater and greater horror about myself. Not exactly a feeling of guilt, not exactly a feeling of shame, just horror: an overpowering sense that my condition was terribly wrong. Finally it occurred to me to wonder why, if there were no difference between the wonderful and the horrible, I should feel horror. In letting that thought through, my mental censors blundered. You see, in order to take the sense of horror seriously and by now I couldn’t help doing so, I had to admit that there was a difference between the wonderful and the horrible after all. For once my philosophical training did me some good, because I knew that if there existed a horrible, there had to exist a wonderful of which the horrible was the absence. So my walls of self-deception collapsed all at once. At this point I became aware again of the Saviour whom I had deserted in my twenties. Astonishingly, though I had abandoned Him, he had never abandoned me. I now believe He was just in time. There is a point of no return, and I was almost there. I said I had been pulling out one component after another, and I had nearly got to the motherboard.’
Everything turns on the question: who do you say Jesus is? John tells us he is God in the flesh, the light which dispels darkness, the Life which gives life, the key which unlocks our hearts.
Here is the writer Sam Storms who in a short meditation sums up much of what we have been thinking about:
The Word became flesh!
God became human!
the invisible became visible!
the untouchable became touchable!
eternal life experienced temporal death!
the transcendent one descended and drew near!
the unlimited became limited!
the infinite became finite!
the immutable became mutable!
the unbreakable became fragile!
spirit became matter!
eternity entered time!
the independent became dependent!
the almighty became weak!
the loved became the hated!
the exalted was humbled!
glory was subjected to shame!
fame turned into obscurity!
from inexpressible joy to tears of unimaginable grief!
from a throne to a cross!
from ruler to being ruled!
from power to weakness!
There we have the incarnation: God became man without ceasing to be God.
 Peter Lewis, The Glory of Christ, p. 131
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