Intro: A minister went out to lunch with a family after church one Sunday, and while they were waiting for their food, he asked the youngest son what he had learned in Bible class that morning. The little boy said the lesson was on the Hebrews escaping from the Egyptian army by crossing the Red Sea. The minister asked him to tell them the story. The little boy said, “Well, the teacher told us how the Hebrews saw the Egyptian army coming up behind them, and so the Hebrew general got on his walkie-talkie and called his Army Corps of Engineers to build a big pontoon bridge across the Red Sea. They crossed over safely, and just as the Egyptian tanks were crossing after them, the general radioed his air force to bomb the tanks, and they came in and blew up the bridge and so the Hebrews escaped safely.” The minister looked the little guy in the eyes and said, “Is that really the way your teacher told the story?” And the little boy said, “Well, no, but if I told it to you the way she told it, you’d never believe it!”
That’s what modern day critics have accused the Gospel writers of doing – telling a story that is too unbelievable. And so they attempt to smooth off the rough edges, tone down the things that are just not reasonable and remake Jesus into a light-weight prophet, a good teacher, an amazing man grant you, but still only a man.
If there was anything that approached a single, all-consuming controversy in the first century church, this was it: Was Jesus God or man? Because he couldn’t be both.
Toward the end of the first century, gaining steam into the second century was a philosophical movement that infiltrated the church called “Gnosticism.” It glorified knowledge, and debased the body – in either of two ways: through severe asceticism (denying the needs of the body or being physically abusive to the body), or through free-wheeling licentiousness (do whatever you want – glutony, immorality, drunkness). Because the body doesn’t matter, in fact, the body is made of flesh and flesh is evil. All that matters is the spirit. So it doesn’t matter what you do to the body as long as you have a pure spirit.
There was another group called the Docetists that held the same belief about the evil nature of flesh, and applied it to Jesus. The said a holy God would never defile himself by becoming flesh, so they said Jesus just seemed to be a man, but he wasn’t really – he was only a man in appearance, not really in flesh.
The very idea of a God who willingly clothed himself with flesh was unthinkable, it was scandalous. Flesh was exactly what the man sought to rid himself of – but here God had actually chosen to take on all of its frailties.
And John words this in a way that is unmistakable: “The Word became flesh and lived among us.”
When John says “he lived among us,” he doesn’t use a word that implies royalty and privilege, he uses a common term – “he pitched his tent.” He came as a commoner, not as a prince or a wealthy aristocrat. Paul talks about this in Philippians 2:5-8
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!
Though Jesus was God, and possessed all of the power and glory of God, he laid them aside so that he could become fully one of us. And he came, not as a person of power and privilege, but as a humble servant.
That word that John uses to say “he pitched his tent” is also one that took the Jews back to the imagery of the Tabernacle. It was in that tent that God came down and dwelt among his people. Now God comes down and dwells among his people in an earthly tent of flesh.
And John says, “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father…”
Though Jesus set aside his glory when he came down from heaven, that glory was still unmistakable, peeking out from around the edges. Every word that he spoke, every miracle that he performed, every encounter with people, all displayed his glory.
When Jesus finished the Sermon on the Mount, do you remember what the people said? “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.” (Matt 7:28) They could sense that Jesus was not an ordinary man – his glory was evident.
John will focus our attention on seven of Jesus’ miracles – he calls them “signs.” And the reason he calls them signs is that they point to something bigger than themselves. Turning water into wine wasn’t just to help out a family from a social blunder; feeding the five thousand wasn’t just so that the crowd wouldn’t go away hungry; raising Lazarus from the dead wasn’t just because he felt sorry for Mary and Martha at losing their brother. Every miracle pointed to God, if you were looking. There imbedded in every miraculous “sign” was the unmistakable message, “you are witnessing the work of God!” You could see God’s glory in everything Jesus did.
There was a term in the OT – the Shekinah glory. It was the glory of the Lord’s presence that was so brilliant and blinding that it was unbearable. Interestingly, it is a transliteration of the Hebrew word for “dwelling.” It was God’s manifestation of his presence in the Tabernacle. When Moses went into his presence, he would come out with his face so radiant that he put a veil on to hide the glory. Paul says that the veil was not to hide the glory, but to hide the fading of the glory, because whenever Moses went into the presence of the Lord it was a temporary thing that had to be repeated again and again. But Paul says, “But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away… And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory.” (2 Cor 3:16,18)
We don’t need a veil to hide the fading glory, because we can be in the presence of the Lord constantly. His glory can be seen on our faces, reflected in our lives, echoed in our words.
Let me clarify our understanding of a phrase there in John 1:18. When John says that Jesus was “the One and Only, who came from the Father.” He is using a term the older versions translated “only begotten.” And so a misunderstanding came about from that, suggesting that Jesus was born, that he had a beginning. As we saw back in verse one last week, “In the beginning was the Word.” There was never a time that Jesus did not exist. He wasn’t born into existence. He always has been. And in fact, the word translated “only begotten,” has nothing to do with birth at all. Like the NIV translates it, “One and Only” communicates a uniqueness of relationship.
In the OT, Isaac was called Abraham’s “only begotten.” Isaac wasn’t the only son born to Abraham, but he was his very special child of the promise. Who he was to Abraham was like nothing and no one else. And when we say Jesus was “the One and Only, who came from the Father” we’re describing a uniqueness of relationship that Jesus has with the Father that is unlike any other relationship we can imagine.
Their oneness, their unity – but when Jesus described that unique relationship in his prayer in John 17, he wrote, “Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us.” That unique relationship between the Father and the Son – Jesus invites us into it. Jesus didn’t come to establish a religious movement; he came to invite us into a relationship with the Father. And if you have settled for a religion without experiencing the relationship, you have missed out on everything.
In his Gospel, John the apostle is going to spend more time telling us about John the Baptist than any of the other Gospels, and here in this introduction, John introduces him. But for John the apostle, John the Baptist only has significance in connection with Jesus. Everything John will tell us about John the Baptist will in some way be announcing the coming of Jesus. And so this first glimpse we get of John is in verse 15: John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.”
John doesn’t tell us anything about John’s camel hair cloak or eating locusts and honey or preaching and baptizing in the wilderness. Every word is focused on his relationship with Jesus.
John is a remarkable man. He had attracted thousands of listeners with his message of repentance and preparing for the coming of the Messiah. His name was on everyone’s lips, he had a following of committed disciples. He was in a position to be a powerful force in Judaism in and around Jerusalem. And yet, what does he do every time you see him? He says, “It’s not about me – it’s about the Messiah.” He knew exactly who he was and what his role was. And these opening words tell us that he was going to be faithful to his calling. Ego wasn’t going to get the better of him. A little taste of power wasn’t going to whet his appetite for more. His only purpose was to prepare the way for the Lord and then step aside and let him shine.
There is one phrase here in John’s Gospel that embodies Jesus’ reason for coming: John tells us Jesus came from the Father “full of grace and truth… From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
If you were paying attention there, you would get the impression that John is concerned that we understand why Jesus came: to bring grace and truth. Now, both grace and truth were in this world long before Jesus came, but Jesus came embodying them both. He was the living object lesson of both grace and truth.
And it’s interesting – we usually put the two in contrast with each other. That grace just whitewashes sin and ignores consequences, while truth demands righteousness and holds people accountable. And neither of those definitions is true. And John’s contrast is not between grace and truth, but between them and law.
Nor is John demeaning or belittling law. Paul writes that the law was necessary to bring us to Jesus. The law couldn’t bring forgiveness or justification; it could only show us how sinful we really are, and how much we are in need of a Savior. Grace and truth are what bring us back into a right relationship with God.
But law ultimately brings condemnation. While it can show us how sinful we are, it has no way of justifying us, only grace brings salvation. In chapter 3, John will tell us: For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:17)
God has always dealt with his people with grace. If he had given them what they deserved, they would never have made it out of Eden alive. They all would have perished in the flood; they would have starved in Canaan; they would have died as slaves in Egypt; the Babylonians would have taken them into exile permanently.
So let’s not think God invented grace in that page between Malachi and Matthew. God has always been gracious with his people. But when Jesus came, he came as the embodiment of grace. He came to impart grace first-hand, from savior to sinner. When he said to the woman, “your sins are forgiven,” it was not a high priest in the Temple on Yom Kippur, it was God himself speaking grace into this woman’s life, who desperately needed to hear that God loved her in spite of who she was and what she had done. Grace was embodied in Jesus whose grace is personal and powerful.
And the same with truth. God has always been truth – every word from his mouth has been truth. But it has always been second hand – through the prophets, through the words of others. In Jesus, truth came clothed in flesh. He was “thus saith the Lord.” His words were authoritative as no one else’s had ever been, or ever could be.
We need a word of truth in a day when we’re not sure who we can believe, or if we can believe anyone. And what we need most is not just a word of truth but to experience the power of truth as Jesus comes into our lives and sweeps the lies and deception out of them so that we can live lives of integrity that are genuine and transparent.
Let’s focus on one last verse in John’s intro to the Gospel: Verse 18 says, “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side has made him known.” Have you seen God? No, none of us has ever seen God. But Jesus has – and he came to show us who God is. You might remember near the end of the Gospel, Philip says, “Show us the Father.” And Jesus answered him, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” Jesus didn’t just come to tell us about God, but to show him to us first-hand, up-close and personal. Not a reflection, but God himself.
If you want to know God, you need to get to know Jesus. Listen to his words, because they are God’s words. Watch his actions, because that’s what God acts like. Find out what he thinks is important, because that is what God thinks is important. Jesus came to make him known, so spend time getting to know Jesus.