Perhaps one of the most well known and popular advertising slogans has the take line “Reach out and touch someone.” The purpose of this slogan was to encourage AT&T customers to make more long distance phone calls. The idea conveyed to the consumer was that ones closest friends and loved ones were only a phone call away. Somehow, someway, the intimacy experienced while speaking face-to-face could be replicated by dialing a phone number. But anyone can tell you talking on the phone or texting or whatever alternative form of communication you choose to communicate with someone is not the same experience as speaking with someone in the flesh. God had historically and customarily spoke to human beings through spokes persons (think prophets). Wouldn’t it be better if he spoke to people in the flesh?
Now we come to the section of the Bible that is called the New Testament. The New Testament begins with four Gospels that focus on the person and work of one person, Jesus Christ. Matthew and Luke introduce their Gospel accounts in similar fashion, describing the events that took place with regard to Jesus’ birth. Mark skips Jesus’ birth and gets the reader right into the midst of the action. This is a feature of his Gospel. John, on the other hand, takes the reader all the way back to the beginning and then unfolds the coming of the Son of God in flesh. This event, in space-time history, is often referred to as the incarnation, which simply means something akin to “in the flesh.” It is a shorthand way of stating that Jesus, the eternal Son of God, at a particular point in history, became a human being to live and die according to God’s eternal plan.
It may be helpful to fill in some of the historical gaps before moving on to John 1. Following the death of Solomon the kingdom of Israel is divided. The northern tribes (referred to collectively as Israel or Ephraim) and the southern tribes (referred to collectively as Judah) go their separate ways. The northern and southern kingdoms continue to downgrade spiritually until God judged them and they are exiled from the land—first Israel at the hand of the Assyrians (722 B.C.) and later Judah by the Babylonians (586 B.C.). When the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem, the capital city of Judah, they destroyed Solomon’s temple (2 Kgs 25:9). No temple stood on that site for another fifty years.
Around 536 B.C., shortly after the first return of exiles to the land, construction on a new temple was begun. It was completed in 516 B.C. Although it did not come close to the glory of the first temple (cf. Ezra 3:12), Zerubbabel’s temple offered hope that God would once again dwell with his people Israel. What we find in John 1 is the fulfillment of this hope.
The Word Is God (John 1:1-2).
John 1:1-2 makes the reader aware that this Jesus, whom they will encounter throughout the Gospel, is in fact God. Only God is eternal, having no beginning or end, and this is also a characteristic of the Word. The Word is designated as the great God of the Hebrew Bible, who created everything out of his own spoken word (Gen 1–2). However, the eternal, divine Word is both distinct and personal. John writes that the Word was “with God” (John 1:1), even with him “in the beginning” (1:2). This is not a description of an evolving God. Rather, it provides the building blocks that later Christians would use to construct the doctrine of the Trinity: God is one and eternally exists in three distinct yet equal persons: Father, Son, and Spirit.
The Word Is the Source of All Life (John 1:3-5)
John writes that everything that is owes its existence to the Word (1:3). He was the agent of creation. We will see a few chapters later in John’s Gospel that the Word, Jesus Christ, is also the agent of the new creation.
The reason the Word is able to generate life is that “In him was life” (1:4). Later in the Gospel, John develops this theme, the pinnacle of which is Jesus’ statement that he is “the way and the truth and the life” (14:6, emphasis added). Jesus not only brings forth life; he is life (cf. 11:25).
The Word is also described as “the light of all mankind” that “shines in the darkness” (John 1:4-5). Later, Jesus speaks of himself as “the light of the world” (8:12).
The Word, described here as light, “shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (1:5). The metaphor of light and dark occur often in this Gospel. Dark and darkness often are used to represent spiritual darkness, the inability to see that Jesus is God’s Son. Light, however, dispels darkness and enables someone to see clearly. The Lord of light fights against darkness, the works of sinful people and the enemy, and triumphantly wins through the cross.
The Witness to the Word (John 1:6-8).
John the Baptizer is the first of several “witnesses” John employs in showing that Jesus is the Christ of God, come to save humanity from their sins and reconcile them to God (cf. 5:32, 36-37; 8:18; 10:25; 15:26-27). John emphasizes the role of the Baptizer and his distinction from the Word. John “was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light” (1:8). Both Mark and Luke record an instance when Herod declares that Jesus may be John the Baptizer raised from the dead (Mark 6:14 [cf. 8:28-30]; Luke 9:7, 9). The beloved disciple will have none of that. He puts the Baptizer in his proper position without diminishing his role as a witness to Jesus’ coming (cf. Matt 11:11).
The Word Is Rejected (John 1:9-13).
Throughout the Gospel, John uses irony to get his point across. One of the first usages of this literary device is in verse ten, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.” The one who created the world and everything in it, the one whose imprint is upon all of creation, was not recognized by the creation as God.
The irony continues: the Word came to “his own” [the Jewish people], and they “did not receive him” (John 1:11). A cursory reading of the Gospels bears witness that the Jewish people, by and large, did not identify Jesus as God’s Messiah. However, to all “who believed in his name” was given the status to become God’s children (1:12). But how can this be? If the Jewish people were unable to recognize their long awaited Messiah, how is it possible for Gentiles (non-Jewish persons) to recognize Jesus as Savior and Lord? Verse 13 provides the answer: those who believed in his name are “born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (1:13). It is a work of God that sinners come to repentance of sin and faith in Jesus. It is impossible apart from the regenerative work of the Spirit. Lest we get the work of God or our response to his gospel out of balance, let us remember that those who trust Jesus for salvation are born of God, and those who are born of God trust Jesus for their salvation (1:12-13).[i]
The Word Becomes a Human Being (John 1:14-18).
The Word “became flesh” in the person of Jesus Christ, “made his dwelling among” sinful humanity, revealed the glory of God, enacted the fulfillment of a grace once promised, and is the ultimate disclosure of the invisible God (1:14-18). There is much that can be said here, but I want to focus in on the particular theme of “glory” as it ties into the Bible’s story line.
John describes God’s glory revealed in Jesus as “full of grace and truth” (1:14, 17). As you’ve gone from essay to essay, hopefully you’ve noticed that Scripture has a way of repeating itself. In John 1:14-18 there are at least five themes that occur earlier in Scripture, in the Hebrew Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament. All of these earlier references occur in Exodus, the second book of the Bible. These themes are (1) the revelation of the giving of the tabernacle (Exod 25–31; John 1:14a); (2) God’s glory and goodness (Exod 33:18-19; John 1:14b, c); (3) God expounding who he is: love and faithfulness (Exod 33:17-23; 34:1-9; John 1:14c, 16-17); (4) the time of the giving of the law (Exod 34; John 1:16-17); and (5) the idea that “no one has ever seen God” (Exod 33:20; John 1:18). I want to pick up on the third in particular, God expounding who he is: love and faithfulness.
In Exodus 32–34 we find God at the end of his proverbial rope with Israel. They have just sinned against him by creating a “golden calf” to worship in place of the one true God, who is alone worthy of all worship (cf. 20:1-6). God tells Moses that he will destroy them and start a new nation through Moses and his kin (32:10). But Moses intercedes for the people, reminding God that he chose these people and led them out of bondage, and asks God to remember the promise he made to their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel [Jacob] (32:11-13). In response to Moses’ prayer, the Lord relents and spares Israel (32:14). However, God says he will not go with Israel because they “are a stiff-necked people and [he] might destroy [them] on the way” to the Promised Land (33:3). Moses knew they would not, could not make it without the Lord’s presence. If he were not with them, they would be no different from the other pagan nations that currently inhabited the land (33:15-16). The Lord tells Moses he will continue to be with them “because I am pleased with you [Moses] and I know you by name” (33:17). Moses then asks for a personal manifestation of God’s glory, to which the Lord responds, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence” (33:18-19a). The next chapter contains this encounter with the living God. Moses is permitted to see only something of the trailing edge of God’s glory, lest he die (cf. 33:20-23). And so God causes all his “goodness” to pass by Moses while extolling his name, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (34:6-7a).
The phrase “love and faithfulness” occurs again roughly 1,500 years later when John pens 1:14-18; here the phrase is rendered “grace and truth.” The point John makes is startling. Although the law was good and a constant reminder of God’s graciousness to his people, it could do only so much. In fact, it did not have the power to save. And as great as God’s one-time disclosure to Moses was, revealing himself as the God “abounding in love and faithfulness,” it, too, was limited—namely, to Moses. John writes, however, that the Word that became flesh and tabernacled among humanity, making the Father known, displayed “grace and truth” far greater than his one-time disclosure to Moses ever could. John continues, the law that was given through Moses cannot and does not compare to the “grace and truth” that come through Jesus Christ. The law was a shadow and type of Christ that was to come. For John the ultimate display of God’s glory, goodness, “love and faithfulness” is the cross of Christ. There God deals justly with sin by punishing it in his own beloved Son, who stands condemned in our place so that we might be forgiven and reconciled to God. You may have wondered, “What do Moses and the law have to do with the revealed Word?” Hopefully now you see the answer is everything.
Theological Reflection & Application
- John is not alone in referring, whether explicitly or implicitly, to the Hebrew Bible. The New Testament is full of examples where the Old Testament Scripture is understood and applied in light of the coming of the Son of God. We would do well to read all of Scripture, as one author put it, through the Jesus lens.[ii]
- We should be reminded that God is the initiator of our salvation. We could not go to him, so he came to us in the person of his Son.
- We should continue to be amazed at the love of God for sinful humanity. A love so great that he would not even spare his own Son.
- For all who have become “children of God,” our commission is similar to the Baptizer, we are called to be a witness to Jesus, our Lord and Savior. We are called to follow him and his teaching and faithfully represent him to a lost and dying world.
[i] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 126.
[ii] Michael Williams, How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens: A Guide to Christ-Focused Reading of Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012).