Text: John 1:14 ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.’ [For the Bible Study Notes on this passage, see here]
As clowns long to play Hamlet, so I have longed to preach from this great verse. Now that I have the chance to do so, I feel like a child standing by the edge of some vast ocean, wanting to dive in and swim across, and yet afraid even to put his toe in the water, for fear of quickly finding himself completely out of his depth. Still, I am resolved at least to wade in as far as the first four words – ‘The Word became flesh’.
I offer you some words of explanation and some words of application.
(a) The name by which Christ is called – ‘the Word’.
It was a master-stroke for John to begin his Gospel with a reference to Christ as ‘the Word’. It would have rung bells for both his Greek and his Jewish readers.
To the Greeks, ‘the Word’ was the principle of order in the universe. The Stoic philosophers, for example, said that the universe was not the result of random forces. It was not a chaos, a mess or a disorder. It had a logic to it. There was a hidden blueprint that ensured that nature followed a regular pattern, that the crops grew, that the seasons changed, that the stars did not fall from the sky. The reason why things were as they were, they called Logos.
This expression would have been meaningful to John’s Jewish readers also. The OT Scriptures are teeming with references to ‘the word of the Lord’. It was by his word that God spoke the heavens and the earth into being. It was the ‘word of the Lord’ which came to the prophets and enables them to speak on God’s behalf. In later times, when the Jews became nervous about saying God’s name ‘Yahweh’ out loud, they would sometimes refer to God himself as ‘The Word of Lord’.
So you can see that there was a certain readiness on the part of John’s first readers to hear what he had to say about ‘the Word’ – even though what he went on to say they would have found almost unthinkable.
Look at what John says about ‘the Word’ in v1.
First, the Word was ‘in the beginning’. This is obviously an echo of the opening words of the Bible. What John is saying is clear: before anything was created, there already was Christ the Word. He is eternal and uncreated.
Second, the Word was ‘with God’. There is something profoundly beautiful about this expression. The commentators tell us that it could be rendered: ‘the Word was towards God’, or ‘the Word was face to face with God’. It prepares us for what we read in v18, when John refers to, ‘God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side’.
Third, the Word ‘was God’. Remember that John, as a good Jew, would have been brought up to believe vehemently in the oneness of God. (Deut 6:4) ‘Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.’ John would never have denied this, not for a moment. Yet he felt compelled by the evidence he had heard with his own ears and seen with his own eyes to commit himself to this remarkable assertion concerning Christ the Word: he was in the beginning; he was with God; and he was God.
But still we must ask, ‘Why was Christ given this title?’ ‘Why is he called ‘the Word’?’ The answer is that it is his particular role to reveal God to the world. This is made clear in v18: ‘No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.’ “Jesus is God spelling Himself out in language that we can understand.”
(b) What Christ became – he ‘became flesh’.
The Word has already, in v1, been presented as one with the Father in his divinity; now, in v14, he is set forth as one with us in our humanity.
John is as emphatic about the humanness of Jesus as he is about his divinity. This word ‘flesh’ makes the point very strongly: it speaks of human nature in all its frailty and vulnerability. The Word became flesh, just as we are flesh. He had a human body, just like ours. Like us. he grew from embryo to infant to child to man. He had the same chemistry, the same anatomy and physiology, the same psychology. Christ’s body was not an illusion, but real and tangible. The Word becoming flesh was a genuine and complete sharing of our human condition, with all the experiences of hunger and thirst, weariness and pain, seeing and hearing, suffering and death.
But I want to add that Christ, having become ‘flesh’, has never ceased to be ‘flesh’. ‘When Jesus came to earth he did not stop being God; when he returned to heaven he did not stop being man.’ (John Blanchard)
Peter Lewis puts in splendidly: ‘Having become man, God the Son will never cease to be man. Even in heaven and through all eternity he will be God-in-the-flesh, albeit glorified flesh. That humanity which he assumed on earth he has taken to heaven. There, it is no longer a penalised, suffering humanity, but a human body irradiated with the glory of God and a human mind filled with the joy of God. The eternal Logos will for ever know in himself the joy of the redeemed as well as the triumph of the redeemer. He will for ever live in and through his two natures.
…Go to the spiritual heart of this created universe, and you will find a man! Go to the place where angels bow who never fell, and you will find a man! Go to the very centre of the manifested glory of the invisible God, and you will find a man: true human nature, one of our own race, mediating the glory of God!’
‘The Word became flesh.’ I know that I’ve scarcely begun to explain it. But then you wouldn’t expect me to. The doctrine of the incarnation is not against reason. But it is certainly beyond reason. It is enough for us to know that ‘our God [was] contracted to a span/Incomprehensibly made man.’ We can be content that ‘where reason fails, with all her powers, there faith prevails, and love adores.’
But what should we do with this teaching? To what use should we put this doctrine of ‘the Word made flesh’?
(a) Use it as a life-line.
The Word became flesh for a purpose. John has just told us, v12, that Christ came so that those who received him, who believed in his name, might have the right to become children of God.
Towards the end of his Gospel, John makes clear his reason for writing it in the first place. Thinking of all the things he has written about how Christ manifested his divine glory, he says, Jn 20:31, ‘these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’
Man-made religion at best offers a set of swimming instructions to drowning people. ‘The word became flesh’ means that God has come down not just with good advice, but with the means to pull us out of the water and bring us to safety.
‘For us men and for our salvation he was incarnate of the virgin Mary.’
The Word became flesh: let this be your life-line.
(b) Use it as a light-house
Use it to steer well away from the rocks of error and the sandbanks of unbelief.
In every age, the doctrine of the perfect divinity and complete humanity of our Saviour has been diluted, distorted, or denied. Something like this seems to have been happening at the very time that John wrote his Gospel and Epistles. Indeed, it seems that this very statement about the Word becoming flesh was intended to combat some false teaching that was saying that Christ did not really become a human being, he only appeared to do so. The trouble with that is, that if we only have an imaginary Saviour, we only have an imaginary salvation.
To deny that the Word became flesh is to commit spiritual shipwreck. If your vessel starts leaking at this point, then you’re likely to go right under pretty soon. Some years ago a group of Christian scholars published a book of essays called, ‘The Myth of God Incarnate’. It is perhaps not surprising that several of the authors are now no longer even professing Christians. One of them, Don Cupitt, has written a further volume entitled, ‘Taking Leave of God’, in which he declares that he no longer believes in God at all; he has become an atheist.
Steer by the truth of the incarnation, and however simple or learned you may be, your voyage of faith is likely to be a safe one. Accept no teaching which asks you to doubt that ‘the Word became flesh’. Let ‘the Word made flesh’ be a light-house.
(c) Use it as a ladder
I doubt there is a Christian alive who does not long to be a better Christian. But how can we lift ourselves above the ordinary, the mandane, and the routine? How do you feel, when you recall everything that Christ gave, and gave up, out of love for the lost? Does your heart not overflow with gratitude? Do you not yearn to give something back, to follow more closely in your Master’s footsteps, to love as he has loved, to serve as he has served, to be identified with him in every way, just as he identified with you in all of your need? In short, do you not long to climb higher?
Because, you see, Christ came down, in order to lift us up. He became like us, so that we might become like him. There is no greater motive in the Christian life than to realise what God did for us in Christ, when ‘the Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us’.
(2 Cor 8:9) For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour.
All for love’s sake becamest poor;
Thrones for a manger didst surrender,
Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becamest poor.
Thou who are love beyond all telling,
Saviour and King, we worship thee.
Immanuel, within us dwelling.
Make us what thou wouldst have us be.
Thou who are love beyond all telling,
Saviour and King, we worship thee.