We recently spent several studies in Psalm 147 with a view to strengthening our posture of praise. In those studies, we came to appreciate something of the magnificence of God. We saw how He knows each of the hundreds of trillions of stars; He has even named them, and therefore each one is under His dominion and control!
We were reminded that the Lord causes the rain, grows the grass, and feeds the animals and the birds. We also saw that it is the Lord who is bringing about all of the hail storms that have so thunderously assaulted our own country this year. In short, we have appreciated more and more the might and the majesty of our God.
But perhaps there is nothing in all of history that so reveals the might and majesty of God than the event we celebrate at Christmastime: the incarnation; God in the flesh.
On Christmas Day, Christians around the world gather in their local churches to celebrate the one who, at a point in history, was lying in a manger. We celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth; the birth of the God-man; the birth of the Saviour; the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. This God, who sends the hail, who forms and who hangs and who sustains the stars, and who governs the globe and beyond, was once a baby in space-time history. Wow!
When you contemplate the incarnation, you are confronted with majesty, with might, and also with meekness. We are confronted with the ultimate and the essential revelation of the God who is to be praised by those whom He has blessed with this saving revelation. In this study, I want us to focus our attention on this majesty and meekness so that we will come to adore Him, Christ the Lord.
There is no greater mystery than the truth that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us.” The babe who was born in a cattle stall so long ago, and whose first cot was a manger, was none other than the second Person of the glorious triune God. He was truly “God manifest in the flesh” (1 Timothy 3:16).
Though the Bible focuses on Calvary more than on Bethlehem, it is indisputable that what happened at Bethlehem is actually the most difficult of anything that God commands for us to believe. Many years ago J. I. Packer made this very relevant observation: “It is no wonder that thoughtful people find the gospel of Jesus Christ hard to believe, for the realities with which it deals pass our understanding. But it is sad that so many make faith harder than it need be, by finding difficulties in the wrong places.” Packer then gives several examples of what so many find hard to believe: “The atonement and its claim that through the death of Jesus of Nazareth God forgives our sins; or the resurrection, which seems to many to be a stumblingblock. Or the virgin birth which has been so widely denied, even by professing Christians; or the gospel miracles.” He notes that “with these and similar problems many minds on the fringes of faith are deeply perplexed today.” He then gets to the rub when he writes,
But in fact the real difficulty, 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’, determining human destiny, . . . that he took humanity without loss of deity, so that Jesus of Nazareth was truly 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 more you think about it, the more staggering it gets. Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as is the truth of the incarnation.1
But it is precisely this fact on which everything about our faith rests. It is for this reason that we might say that the Christian message is grounded in the Christmas message, that “God was manifest in the flesh.” Believe this and you can believe in the virgin birth and you can believe in the miracles and you can believe in the resurrection and, ultimately, you can believe in the atonement—that is, you can be saved. The only way that you can believe all of this is if indeed Jesus was God in the flesh. After all, a mere man could never pay the penalty for your sins. But the God-man could. The question you are confronted with today is, did He do this for you?
This is one reason that the incarnation must be believed. And it is for this reason that John wrote His Gospel: to help sinners to believe that Jesus is the Christ (20:31). It is also the reason that he wrote his first epistle, so that we will believe that Jesus is God, who came in the flesh to live and to die for believing sinners (1 John 5:13). Was the incarnation a mere myth, or was it a miracle of majesty and meekness’? John helps us to see that the incarnation was the ultimate and the essential revelation of God. He helps us by highlighting four aspects of this revelation.
A New York City billboard, sponsored by a particular atheist group, encouraged people this year to “keep the merry, reject the myth.” In other words, they wanted people to keep Christmas as a special holiday while rejecting any biblical connotations. This cannot really be done, as we will see below.
Revelation of Creation
Verses 1-5 inform us that Jesus Christ was active in the world prior to His human birth, and also that His self-revelation was rejected.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
Jesus is identified here by John as “the Word.” The Greek term is logos, which was commonly used asthe divine principle by which the natural world grows or comes to be. In other words, John is telling us that Jesus Christ (v. 17) is the cause behind all that is and all that forever will be.
Packer notes that these verses highlight the Word’s eternity (“in the beginning was the Word”), personality (“and the Word was with God”), deity (“and the Word was God”), creative power (“through Him all things were made”), animating power (“in Him was life”) and revelation (“the life was the light of men”).2
What I am captured by in these opening verses is John’s assertion to his readers—including you and me—that the pre-incarnate Christ is the One who gave the knowledge of God to every man. And the incarnate one still does (see Romans 1:18-20; 2:13-15).
John speaks of the fact that the darkness was not able to “comprehend” the light of Christ. The word translated “comprehend” is the Greek word katalambano, which means “to lay hold of so as to make one’s own,” “to obtain,” “to seize upon,” or “to take possession of.” Therefore, “comprehend” is a better translation than “overcome” (ESV, HSCB) or “overtake.” Elsewhere in the New Testament, the term is translated as “perceive” (Acts 4:13; 10:34), “found” (Acts 25:25) and, again, “comprehend” (Ephesians 3:18).
What this verse is revealing is that, in spite of this illumination, fallen man is unable to naturally lay hold of this truth. Instead, as in Romans 1, he suppresses this truth in unrighteousness.
We cannot move ahead without noting that Jesus did not come into existence at Christmas, for He had already eternally been. He was “in the beginning” with God. As the Father is eternal, so the Son is eternal. In fact, a strong case can be made that the Angel of the Lord, who appears so frequently throughout the Old Testament, was none other than the pre-incarnate Son of God.
But as we saw in our studies of Psalm 147, general revelation was insufficient to save sinners (see also Psalm 19). General revelation could only condemn sinners. In order to be saved, we needed another, closer-to-home revelation.
Revelation through Proclamation
In vv. 6-11 we are introduced to John the Baptiser, who was ordained by God to prepare the way for Messiah, the Incarnate Son of God (vv. 19-28).
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.
History had been prepared by God and the fullness of time had come (Galatians 4:4). John the Baptist was sent to reveal the Christ through whom sinners needed to be saved. But, as with general revelation, this public proclamation would also be rejected. In fact, it would be rejected by a very religious people (vv. 19-28).
God sent John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus from Mary’s side of the family. He had been in the wilderness for many years and his ministry now began. He proclaimed the incarnate Son of God. And, so in addition to the witness of creation, we now have the witness of proclamation. And yet, sadly, we read that the result of this proclamation was, as with creation, largely rejection, “He was in the world and the world did not know Him” (v. 10). “He came to His own and His own did not receive Him.” In other words, John’s ministry of proclamation—even with Jesus physically present—was rejected.
We still see this in our day. In spite of faithful proclamation, and in spite of God giving incontrovertible evidence that Jesus is alive and well in this world, people still reject the gospel. They still reject the truth of the incarnation.
Revelation by Incarnation
Before examining vv. 12-13 we need to spend some time in the closing verses of our text. These verses are the key to this entire prologue.
And the Word became 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. John bore witness of Him and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is preferred before me, for He was before me.’” And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace. For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.
Finally, God provides the ultimate and essential revelation by the Incarnation. This was the ultimate and irrefutable self-revelation of God. The author of Hebrews also writes of this self-revelation: “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds” (Hebrews 1:1-2). And Jesus Himself said to Philip, who asked to see the Father, ““Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9).
This revelation (as we have seen) was rejected (v. 11). But such rejection was inexcusable then; as it is inexcusable now.
The Manifestation of the Incarnation
In vv. 14-15 the apostle John informs his readers that he (with many others) was an eyewitness of the Word, who became flesh and (literally) “tabernacle” among them. John Baptist is here also identified as a witness of the incarnation.
The apostle records that Jesus was the revelation of the Father (v. 18). In other words, he confirms that the incarnation occurred in space-time history. Carson notes that
John’s words point us to the historical life of Jesus. When the Word became flesh he did more than merely dress up like (take on the form of) a human being. Bert Lahr dressed up as a cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz . . . but he did not become a lion. But, this is a true story of the Divine Word becoming the human Jesus.
He describes it as “the entry of the Word into the full flow of human affairs.”3
John was eyewitness to the incarnation. To quote my brother-in-law, “John is one of many who saw a display of power (over time, distance, nature, disease, demons and death) . . . of wisdom . . . over the most studied Jews and the cleverest Gentiles . . . of goodness . . . cleansing the temple, helping a broken hearted father by healing his son, forgiving sins of an adulteress, and washing the feet of his followers.”
The Testimony of the Realisation of Salvation
We should pay heed to John’s testimony in v. 16: “And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace.” John is saying that Jesus delivered what the Father promised and that He did so as the God-man.
The Testimony of the Culmination of all Revelation
John adds, in vv. 17-18, that Jesus Christ was the culmination of all revelation. He wants his readers to discover in his Gospel that the grace and truth revealed to us by Jesus Christ is infinitely superior to anything that has come before (even than that which was revealed in the old covenant).
The Testimony of the Confirmation of the Incarnation
There is actually another confirmation of the incarnation in vv. 29-34, which we will not deal with in any great detail in our present study. When John was baptising, Jesus came to him asking to be baptised. John knew that Jesus was the Christ—God in the flesh—because the Spirit of God came upon Him (vv. 29-34). Once again, we have a credible witness to the incarnation. And if you doubt this credibility then note vv. 19-28.
I find it fascinating that, although John was Jesus’ cousin, he nevertheless required a sign in order to identify Him as the incarnate Son of God. Truly, Jesus was man-like and looked like an ordinary Jew. As Isaiah had recorded hundreds of years earlier, Messiah did not come to earth looking like a superman but instead had no beauty that was desirable (Isaiah 53:2). Just as John the Baptist needed the aid of the Holy Spirit to be persuaded of the incarnation, so do we.
In summary, these credible witnesses testified that God had come in the flesh. The incarnation had occurred. The promised Messiah, the Son of God had come. If we believe this, then everything else is that much simpler to believe.
As the Spirit testified to John of the true identity of Christ, so He continues to point us to Christ (Ephesians 5:18ff; 3:14-19).
Let me briefly identify four observations from what we have seen with reference to the incarnation.
The Incarnation is Unexplainable but not Impossible
Though the incarnation is impossible to fully describe, and though the action of God becoming man is impossible to fully explain, it is not impossible as a fact of history. For with God all things are possible.
How did God become man? Only God knows. This, as the apostle put it, can be explained as the great mystery of godliness (1 Timothy 3:16).
The word “mystery” in the New Testament usually connotes something that had been concealed that is now revealed. But this revelation does not necessarily mean that everything is therefore explained or even that it is explainable. Rather, what was previously concealed or hidden has now been made known by God. The incarnation is such a thing. And it was revealed in flesh and blood. In other words, the incarnation is not simply a doctrine that has been revealed but one that has been revealed and recorded after the fact of the experience.
Though people may have rejected the One who was God in the flesh (and many did) this did not alter the reality that the incarnation had occurred. Though the how is unexplainable, the reality is not unbelievable because God can do the otherwise impossible.
The Incarnation is Unfathomable but not Indescribable
The incarnation has been revealed in Scripture, by God, and therefore we can know something about it.
Again, just as the full truth of the incarnation is not fully explainable to the finite mind, it is also incomprehensible in the sense that we can never fully comprehend the scope of this miracle. How could anyone ever fully comprehend God becoming man while never ceasing to be fully God? But just as theologians make the observation that God is incomprehensible and yet He is not unknowable, so it is with the incarnation.
Though we cannot fully comprehend the magnitude of this miracle, we can come to know something about it. And, of course, for this we are dependent upon what God has revealed in His Word.
Though the Bible never indicates how the Word became flesh, it does in fact reveal that the Word did become flesh. It describes the indications that this was indeed the case. A cursory reading of John’s Gospel will indicate that He was very much in the flesh. He was a man and yet at the same time He was God. It should be noted that John structures His Gospel around seven signs (miracles) in order to provide evidence that Jesus was in fact God in the flesh. For example, He turned the water into wine (chapter 2), healed a man who had been infirmed for 38 years (chapter 5), fed the multitudes with a few sardines and scones (chapter 6), and gave sight to a man who had been born blind (chapter 9). In other words, Jesus was not merely a man.
Note that the Bible does describe Jesus as both God and man.
Consider some evidence of His being God. First, there was His omniscience. He often knew things that ordinary men would not know. For example, He knew details about the Samaritan woman’s married life that she had not revealed to him (John 4), and knew that Lazarus had died before anyone told Him so (John 11). A second indication of His Godhood was His omnipresence, as spoken of in John 3:13). As a third example, consider His omnipotence: He calmed storms, healed people with just a touch or a word, and raised the dead.
On the other hand, Jesus was also a man. Consider some of the evidence in this regard. The Bible tells us that He grew in wisdom and stature (Luke 2:52). He grew weary (John 4:6; Mark 4:38; etc.) and hungry (Matthew 4:2). He was tempted (James 1:13). He shed sweat and blood, and even died.
The point is that the record describes Jesus as being both God and man. Reject it if you will, but you cannot deny the fact that the record exists. Thank God that the description makes the otherwise unexplainable believable!
The record is clear. The descriptions are irrefutable. This man Jesus was no ordinary man. He did miracles, healed the sick, resisted temptation, forgave sinners, defeated the devil, raised the dead and rose from the dead Himself. Deny the record if you want, but don’t be so foolish to think that the Incarnation is not revealed and described. We are to take seriously the historical record revealed and preserved by God and simply come and adore the God-man.
The Incarnation is Unrepeatable but not Inimitable
The incarnation occurred once in space-time history, and will never happen again.
But even though the incarnation is unrepeatable, one of its remaining effects is that those whose lives have been forever changed because of it are to live daily in light of it. Those for whom the incarnation was intended are empowered and expected to live out the implications of the incarnation (see Philippians 2:1-8).
We are to imitate, to some degree, the incarnation. Let me put it this way: We who have been born again by the Spirit of God are to repent and live for the Son of God. And one way that we do so is by obeying this Word from God, which tells us to have a disposition like the Son of God. To be specific, we are exhorted in Philippians 2 to daily embrace and express the spirit of Christmas. We, following the example of the incarnation, are to humble ourselves for the salvific good of others.
We are to imitate the motivation of the incarnation. We hear much talk in our day about “incarnational ministry.” This means, we are told, that we are to identify with those to whom we seek to minister. We are to enter their skin as it were, to feel their pain, so that we might reach them for Christ. I agree with this sentiment. We do need to love our neighbour as ourselves.
But we also need to realise our limitations. We are not God and will therefore never be able to fully enter into the experiences of another. It must be acknowledged that this text does not in fact call us to live the incarnation. What it does command us to do is to live with the mindset that resulted in the incarnation. Christ Jesus our Lord, motivated by love, laid aside His rightful glory and dignity in order to save a lost people. It is this incarnational disposition that we are called to imitate. What are you willing to lay aside so that others might be saved?
So, how are you doing? Are you fighting tooth and nail for your rights?
Be careful of glib statements about the “Christmas spirit.” All too often this simply means a sentimental sense of being happy and nice. The result is that you may give money to the car guard whom you normally ignore, or perhaps will actually greet the cashier, or even wave the driver in the next lane to gladly pull in front of your car. The question is, how will you treat those who are rude and inconsiderate to you in the middle of January? In fact, the question must be asked, can you behave with such an incarnational mindset? Are you indeed born again?
The Incarnation is Indisputable but, Sadly, not Undeniable
Paul speaks in Philippians 2:9-16 of a time when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. This indicates, sadly, that many, for now, will deny Jesus Christ as Lord.
As we have seen, the incarnation is beyond explanation. It is indeed a great mystery. But it is a mystery that can and must be believed. It can be believed because of the confidence in the revelation of God and thus in His Word. We can believe in the incarnation. Again, the facts of the incarnation are indisputable. God did become man. But even though the incarnation is indisputable this does not mean that it is necessarily undeniable. For, in fact, people the world over have denied it for centuries, and there are many in our own time who continue to deny it. In fact, the one who wrote this prologue also wrote these words: “Who is a liar but he that denies that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist who denies the Father and the Son. Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father either: he who acknowledges the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:22-23).
It is for this reason that John wrote in his second epistle,
For many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming into the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist. . . . Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son.
(2 John 1:7, 9)
Though many in our day would not be in sympathy with Gnostic teachings, nevertheless they still deny that God has come in the flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus from Nazareth? Perhaps. But Jesus from heaven? Never!
Let me appeal to you to believe the revelation of the incarnation rather than foolishly denying it. In fact, let me appeal to you that you must believe the revelation of the incarnation. You must believe that majesty became meekness. And you must understand that this fact is inescapable. You may deny it now; you will not deny it forever.
There is coming a day when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God. Everyone will eventually believe the incarnation, for everyone will stand before the God-man on Judgement Day (see Matthew 25; Revelation 20:11-15).
You may scoff today at the incarnation, but there is coming a day when scoffers will be no more. Professing atheist Bertrand Russell once said that if, when he died, he found that God did in fact exist, he would ask him, “Why did you not give more evidence?” Russell should not have denied that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. It is now too late for him to confess Christ as his own Saviour. It is not too late for you. Confess Him today as Lord and Saviour. He is inescapable. You cannot avoid Him. “Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and you perish in the way, when His wrath is kindled but a little” (Psalm 2:12). Hear the warning from the lips of Jesus Himself:
Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.
Revelation by Regeneration
But let us now return to vv. 12-13: “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”
In spite of credible witnesses, the incarnation and all that flowed from it was rejected by the majority. The Christmas story was rejected and so was the whole Christian claim.
But, gratefully, the rejection was neither universal nor absolute, for these verses tell us that some did believe. And those who did believe that the Son of God had come in the flesh were given the authority to become the sons of God. That is, they were able to believe the gospel. Verse 13 reveals that this was not because they were cleverer than others, but because they were “born of God.”
It was God who had enabled them to believe in the incarnation and everything else which flowed from it. By God’s power, they were able to believe in Christmas, with the result that they were able to believe in Good Friday, as well as in Easter, and hence were able to become Christians.
You must believe in the incarnation and, by God’s grace alone, you can believe. Your reception of this revelation is absolutely necessary; your complete comprehension of it is not. The evidence is overwhelming. But a new heart makes your reception of this revelation a certainty.
Great is the mystery of godliness. By God’s grace, the mystery can be cleared up for you. By God’s grace, you can believe in the incarnation and all that it points to.
This is the meaning of Christmas. Jesus Christ is the reason for the season, and He is the reason for every season.
In Martin Luther’s inimitable words, “the Son of God became the Son of man in order that the sons of men could become the sons of God.” If you have not yet experienced this, then may today be the occasion in which you join the rest of us who exultingly say, “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us that we should be called the sons of God!” (1 John 3:1).