“The Word Became Flesh” September 14, 2014
SI: We’re studying the Gospel of John.
The church father Origen called it “the crown of the Gospels.”
Martin Luther called it “the unique, tender, genuine, chief Gospel.”
William Barkley said it is “the most precious book in the New Testament.”
Almost every preacher or Bible scholar who has written about John
says something wonderful about it.
And we get to hear it read and preached, and talk about it with each other,
and meditate on it in private. What a privilege.
INTRO: I have a special memory from a family vacation six years ago.
We drove out to the Grand Canyon.
And when we finally got there, I told the kids to close their eyes and hold hands.
Allison and I led them through the parking lot, right up to the rim.
After we got them all facing toward the Canyon we said: Open your eyes!
Will was nine or ten at the time and he said something like: Wow, that’s deep.
Eliza’s jaw dropped open, and she made some wow-like noises.
Adrienne, our high-strung child, got wobbly in knees and almost collapsed.
She recovered and asked me to take a picture of her with her arms out,
in wonder trying to take it all in.
I was also in awe of the grandeur and beauty,
but I wished I could have seen it as they did, looking at it for the very first time.
Last Sunday I mentioned that James Montgomery Boice preached a famous
sermon series on John that included 25 sermons just on chapter one.
And in one of those sermons he focused on verse 14—
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us . . .”
Dr. Boice made this comment:
“I wish it were possible to approach John 1:14 as though reading it for the first time. This verse contains something that was new and quite startling when it was first written, and yet for us who read it nearly two thousand years later it has become commonplace . . . This was the great sentence for which the Gospel of John was written. It tells us—inexplicable as it may be—that God became a man. Nevertheless, because we have heard that verse from childhood, we read it and are often strangely unmoved.”
He has a point. I felt it very keenly as I was preparing this sermon.
These first eighteen verses, what scholars call John’s prologue,
are intended to captivate us with a grand declaration
of the most profound event in all of history.
Our jaws should drop, we should be making wow noises every time we read
this passage of Scripture.
But we’ve heard it so much, and we believe it so thoroughly, that our response is:
Of course the Creator of the universe took in human nature in the person of Jesus.
Of course Jesus is light and life and lord of history.
Of course he’s one with the Father, Second Person of Trinity, eternal Son of God.
Of course Jesus Christ is totally unlike all other religious leaders and visionaries
and gurus, he’s not even remotely in the same category—he’s God.
And he once appeared in real time and history, and lived among us,
to accomplish the redemption of the sons of God.
We believe all that. And it’s precious to us. And our lives are founded on it.
We teach our children to believe in him and put their faith in him.
We sing about him on the Lord’s day. We pray to him every day.
We think about him and his claims on our lives, how to please him.
But still Dr. Boice’s point resonates with us:
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could read John’s prologue as if for the first time?
We’re in the dark. Our spiritual eyes are tightly shut.
But as we read, our eyes are opened
and suddenly we find ourselves standing on the rim of an incomparable vision:
God became a man! Jesus Christ is God!
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could somehow be bowled over by it all?
We’ll, we can’t go back.
But it is possible to see something we know well as if for the first time.
One way to do that is to really concentrate on it occasionally.
Review the details. Look at the complexity and beauty of it.
Another way is to look at people who are seeing it for the first time,
and enjoy their reaction, and let that remind us how great this is.
So that’s what I want to do this morning with John’s prologue, vs. 1-18.
Two points, or two headings for you note-takers.
1. The glory of Christ’s incarnation.
2. The reactions of people when they saw that glory for the very first time.
And Lord willing, we’ll leave here today with a fresh sense of awe.
Credit where credit is due: Lecture on passage by D.A. Carson.
MP#1 The glory of Christ’s incarnation.
A four-year old was drawing a picture.
His mother asked him what he was drawing.
“A picture of God.”
His mother said: “But nobody knows what God looks like.”
“They will when I’m finished.”
How should we picture God? How should we think of him and know him?
Nobody has seen him. Even those special people in the Bible who were
granted extraordinary visions like Isaiah, Ezekiel and John in Revelation
only saw heavenly things with a veil over their eyes.
They can only describe what they saw with metaphors and word pictures,
as they try to express the inexpressible.
They say things like: The appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.
Something like a pavement of sapphire. Something like wheels in wheels.
You can’t draw a picture of what they are describing. If try, usually looks silly.
So we can only know God as he reveals himself to us.
And he has done that in several ways.
He has revealed himself in creation.
Creation tells us there is a God who made all this, and that he is powerful.
But it doesn’t tell us anything about his character.
Is he good or toying with us? Is he interested? Is he personal?
Creation alone doesn’t tell us.
People form all sorts of opinions about God when all they look at is creation.
Some people even claim creation proves there is no God.
So God has gone beyond creation,
and he has also revealed himself in miracles and mighty deeds.
Miracles revealed more about him—specifically that he is interested in mankind.
But even miracles do not reveal him fully,
because they are subject to various interpretations.
Pharaoh looked at the Plagues concluded he should resist this foreign God who
seemed to be an enemy of Egypt, so he hardened his heart.
Even when God spoke from heaven at Jesus’ baptism,
some people who heard said it was just thunder.
The point is that miracles and mighty deeds of God are subject to misunderstanding
without some sort of divine explanation.
So God did that. He spoke. He explained. He revealed himself in words.
He spoke through prophets and then commanded that his words be written down.
So we have the Scriptures, and they clearly reveal God as he really is.
But mere words have a limitation too. They can be distant and formal.
Can you really know a person if all you have is words about him and from him?
Suppose you had never met my wife, suppose you had never met Allison.
So I describe her to you. She’s 5’3”. She has brown hair. Gray eyes.
She loves reading—especially mysteries, thrillers, and espionage novels.
So you send her an email—Please recommend some good reads.
And she emails you back, gives you a list of books.
You form a mental picture of her based on what I’ve told you about her,
and this email you’ve gotten from her—but is that a very accurate picture?
But suppose you went on vacation with us—a week at beach or in the mountains.
Got up and had coffee with us. Ate with us at mealtimes.
Watched us interact with each other and our children.
Curled up with a good book and read the afternoon away with us.
Then let’s say you heard me talk about Allison, or you got an email from her
with a list of books that she thinks you might like to read.
My words about her and her words written to you would take on a new depth,
because you would have a personal relationship.
Well, God has bridged that gap too.
He has made it possible, by his Holy Spirit,
for us to know him and have a personal relationship with him.
When you read the Bible, it’s not just a book, you know the author.
You know the person who is speaking. You recognize his voice.
But let’s be honest, when we talk about having a personal relationship with God,
it’s not like the way we know each other. I’ve never seen God.
It’s hard to know how to have a relationship with a being who is transcendent,
invisible, all powerful, all knowing, omnipresent.
So God in his grace has bridged this final barrier.
The Word became flesh. Jesus Christ incarnates God for us.
Vs. 14 is the high point: The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
John doesn’t say that the Word assumed the form of a body or hid in a body.
But that he became flesh, he became a human being.
What does that mean?
Throughout the centuries, the greatest Christian minds
have tried to think it through and put it in appropriate terms.
How this Word who, according to verse 1 is not only with God but is God
and partakes of all the characteristics of deity—
how can he also partake of the characteristics of humanity?
The Bible says, He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
Yet Jesus fell asleep in the back of a boat and disciples had to wake him up.
The Bible says God knows all things, he knows the end from the beginning.
He even knows what would have happened under different circumstances.
Yet Jesus, speaking of his Second Coming, says that of that day and hour
no one knows, not even the Son.
How do we understand this? There have been many inadequate explanations
that have tended to downplay either his humanity or his deity, or to turn
Jesus into some kind of third creature—neither fully God or fully man.
The church has agreed that we can’t fully explain the incarnation, we can
only describe it—God and Man in two distinct natures and one person forever.
And that during his time here on earth, in some sense his deity was veiled.
And at this point, the witness of John the Baptist is so important.
Do you wonder, as you read this prologue, why John Baptist mentioned twice?
He’s mentioned more than Jesus Christ is by name.
It’s to stress the all-important point that God became man in real time and history.
This is not a myth. It really happened.
If it could be proved that Buddha never existed, it wouldn’t affect Buddhist religion.
Because Buddhism is a system of thought. It’s a philosophical system.
That’s not true of Christianity. If Jesus never existed, Christianity is destroyed.
If he was not born in Bethlehem during the days of Caesar Augustus,
if he did not stand trial under Pontius Pilate, and rise from dead on third day,
and be seen by the disciples and 500 others, then Christianity crumbles.
But he did come, his glory was witnessed by John the Baptist and others.
And in life and person of Jesus Christ,
we finally and completely know exactly what God looks like.
This is the great revelation, this is the Grand Canyon of John’s prologue.
The One he will write about is none other than the Son of God, God himself.
I trust that all of you know that and believe it.
But let’s not stop here, for our enjoyment and benefit
Let’s look at . . .
MP#2 The reactions of people when they saw his glory for the very first time.
I’ve chosen four stories—two women and two men from different backgrounds.
The first is a very short account I read just this week in By Faith magazine,
which is the magazine of our denomination, Presbyterian Church in America.
There was an article about some PCA missionaries in Bangkok, Thailand.
It told about a college student named Kie-ow Thong-luan,
who was struggling to pass an English class she needed to get her degree.
A friend told her about a class run by missionaries who taught
English using the Bible.
So Kie-ow went to the class.
Listen to the way she tells in her own words what happened
as she started to read the Bible for the first time and learn about Jesus.
“Because of growing up in a Buddhist family, we believed in angels, but we never talked about God. (I discovered that) Jesus isn’t just the father of a religion; He is God. If he is God, I want to know. That day I went home, I prayed to Jesus that if he was God, I wanted to know him. That night I had a dream. Someone was knocking on the door. The person said, ‘I’m standing here and knocking.’ I said, ‘Yes, I want to open the door.’”
The statement that jumps out at me is:
“I prayed to Jesus that if he was God, I wanted to know him.”
She understood in an instant that following the teachings of a man, even the father
of a religion like Buddha, could not compare to knowing God.
John says: And the Word was God. Does that grip you like it did her?
This second story is told by Frederica Mathewes-Green,
an author and occasional commentator for NPR.
In college, she was hostile to Christianity, doubted Jesus never existed,
just an invention by weak minds. But she was traveling in Europe after college:
(Thirty years ago) I walked into a church in Dublin (an agnostic), and walked out a Christian. I had an unexpected confrontation with the presence of One I discovered to be my Lord, and was set reeling. I knew I needed operating instructions quickly, and particularly wanted to find out who this Jesus was. I hunted up a Bible, a pocket-sized King James with print several microns high, and plunged into the Gospel of Matthew. I disliked it from the start. Jesus was often abrupt and hard-edged. I disagreed with some of the things he said. I was offended. But something had happened in my heart. The confrontation in the church had knocked a hole in my ego. I knew at last that I didn’t make the world, I didn’t know everything, and it was time for me to sit down, shut up, and listen. I kept working my way through the Gospels, and they began working their way through me. There are still parts of the Bible I don’t like. But I like the parts I don’t like, because I know that’s where I need to listen harder.
She said: “I knew at last that I didn’t make the world.”
What she meant was that there was a time when she thought she was
in control and that she owned her life.
But John says: “All things were created by him and for him.”
She saw that and it changed everything for her.
Jesus made the world, everything in it, including you, and he made you for him.
And notice the effect it had on her—
Even when she read things she didn’t like in Bible—
time for me to sit down, shut up, and listen.
Do you tell yourself every day: Jesus Christ made me for himself. He owns me.
That revelation ought to make you fall to your knees.
The third story is a famous one—it’s C.S. Lewis’s story. You know who he was. Like Mrs. Greene, he was an atheist, not hostile to Christianity, just didn’t believe.
He was a literature professor at Oxford, specialized area of study was mythology.
The common view in the university was that the Gospels are just myths.
But Lewis says in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, that his training and
expertise in this area told him that the Gospels were not mythology.
He said they didn’t have the feel of myths. They were too real. Too historical.
And yet at the same time they tell a story that seems to be the greatest myth of
all—that God became a man.
C.S. Lewis, with his great mind, wrestled with this.
He slowly came to the dawning realization, as he put it:
“Here and her only in all time, the myth must have become fact; the Word, flesh; God, Man.”
And then Lewis tells how he took the bus one afternoon to zoo and he just says:
“When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God,
and when we reached the zoo I did.”
So much that is striking about his story.
But more than anything, a man in search of truth.
Finding, as John’s prologue says, that history bears witness to the Light.
And that in Jesus Christ is grace and truth.
This is a good story perhaps for those of you who question at times and doubt.
Fourth story is a man who could not be more different from C.S. Lewis—
an Indian from the South American rain forest.
His story is told in the famous missionary autobiography of Bruce Olsen.
I shared this story in depth last Christmas eve.
This Indian’s name was Bobarishora. Bruce Olsen called him Bobby.
He was the first Christian from the Motilone tribe.
Olsen lived with the Motilones for five years learning language and legends
before he tried to share the Gospel with them.
Breakthrough came when he heard them tell legend of a man who became an ant,
in order to teach the ants how to build their ant hills.
Olsen took that word, became an ant, and used to explain that God became a man
in the person of Jesus. They were all astounded and Bobby believed.
Here’s how Olsen describes the moment:
“Jesus Christ has risen from the dead!” Bobby shouted, so that the sound filtered far off into the jungle. “He has walked our trails! I have met him!” (Then Bruce Olsen adds) Bobby asked me many questions. But he never asked the color of Jesus’ hair or whether he had blue eyes. To Bobby, the answers were obvious: Jesus had dark skin and his eyes were black. He wore a loincloth and hunted with bows and arrows. Jesus was a Motilone.”
The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
What a wonder, that God the Son came down and entered into our life,
so that he knows the trails we walk. How can we respond but to follow him?
Here is the main thing, for John and for you.
Jesus is God.
Let your mind and heart absorb that single fact—
the greatest fact in all the world.
And you must then believe that what Jesus Christ did and said
is more important for you than anything else in all the world.
And to find and know this Jesus Christ must be, absolutely must be,
the key to all life, all truth, and all meaning.
No wonder John started his Gospel as he did.