The Word in History
and Among Believers
Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. is a Bible teacher at Believers Chapel, Dallas, Texas.
One of the great themes of Scripture is the incarnation of Christ. Here is a splendid study of this crucial doctrine that will enable the reader to more fully appreciate our wonderful Lord and Saviour.
Scripture Reading: John 1:14-18
The Gospel of John was written that men might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that in believing they might have life through His name (cf. 20:30-31). It is, therefore, a propaganda document in the purest sense, and it has been eminently successful in accomplishing its aim.
There is a lovely story, told by Wilbert W. White of Biblical Seminary in New York City, that illustrates the point. There was an exceptionally intelligent student who had come to accept the general views of men such as Darwin, Huxley, and Spencer, and who considered himself an agnostic. One day he made up his mind that he would examine fairly the strongest presentation of Christian truth. He was advised to study the Gospel of John, and he read it through from beginning to end, taking it simply as a book and without examination of outside evidence of its genuineness. When he finished he said, “The one of whom this book tells us is either the Saviour of the world, or he ought to be!” Because of the claims of the book, he was ready to respond and did respond to Him who said, “If any man thirst, let him come unto Me and drink,” and “He that followeth Me shall not walk in darkness.” He followed the Light of the world and became a shining testimony to the saving power of the Son of God.
With the third paragraph of the prologue (vv. 14-18) we study the incarnation, the assumption by the Second Person of the Trinity of human nature. It is one of the ultimately mysterious facts of the faith, as Paul points out. He wrote, “Great is the mystery of godliness: God (or He) was manifest in the flesh” (cf. 1 Tim. 3:16). Luther said that, if we wished to properly set forth the incarnation, we would have to have new tongues.
The importance of the incarnation is manifold. It was necessary, in the first place, for the Son of God to be able to die (cf. Heb. 2:14). In the second place, He must become incarnate, if He is to be able to be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, or to be our great High Priest (cf. 4:15). And, in the third place, the incarnation is necessary, if He is to be able to leave us an example to follow (cf. 1 Pet. 2:21; 1 John 2:6). There are other significant facets of the doctrine as well, although we do not have the space for a full development of them.
We turn now to the text and its exposition.
The Incarnation of the Word
The fact of it (John 1:14a). The opening words of the paragraph set forth the incarnation, “And the Word was made (lit., became) flesh.” The One who is said to be “with God” in verse one is now “with us,” the apostle says. He has just been speaking of the new creation (cf. 1:12-13), and it is his purpose to show that it, too, like the first creation (cf. 1:3) is the consequence of the activity of the Word. He became flesh and as a result of this a new birth is possible for men.
Leon Morris in his fine commentary writes, “But in one short shattering expression John unveils the great idea at the heart of Christianity that the very Word of God took flesh for man’s salvation.”1
What is meant by the clause? Perhaps a few points may clarify it. First of all, John does not have in mind a form of transubstantiation, as if to say that the Word is no longer the Word by taking human nature. The Word did not cease to be God, when He became man by taking an additional nature, a human one, to Himself. He was just as much God after He became man as before (cf. 2:9).
Nor does the statement suggest some alteration within the Trinity, so that the Trinity no longer exists as a Trinity. The One God still subsists in three persons. The middle person, however, is now a God-Man, but there has been no change in the divine essence, nor in the divine personalities. Only an additional nature has become the property of the Second Person.
In other words, there has been a modification of the manner of existence of the Word. Although He has not entered into a new existence, He has entered into a new form of existence. He is not God and man, nor God in a man, nor a man-God, but the God-Man, one person with two natures as expressed in the great Symbol of Chalcedon. “We, then, following the holy Fathers,” the creed reads, “all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood … to be acknowledged in two natures inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each one Person and One Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning have declared concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy fathers has handed down to us.” The church since 451 A.D., the date of the statement, has held to its teaching as in harmony with the Word of God.
The significance of the one Person and the two natures is excellently illustrated in our Lord’s encounter with the Woman of Samaria, as Shedd has explained it. “A man can have two forms of consciousness, yet with only one self-consciousness. He can feel cold with his body, while he prays to God with his mind. These two forms of conscious experience are wholly diverse and distinct. He does not pray with his body, or feel cold with his mind. Yet this doubleness and distinctness in the consciousness, does not destroy the unity of his self-consciousness. So, also, Jesus Christ as a theanthropic person was constituted of a divine nature and a human nature. The divine nature had its own form of experience, like the mind in an ordinary person; and the human nature had its own form of experience like the body in a common man. The experiences of the divine nature were as diverse from those of the human nature, as those of the human mind are from those of the human body. Yet there was but one person who was the subject-ego of both of these experiences. At the very time when Christ was conscious of weariness and thirst by the well of Samaria, he also was conscious that he was the eternal and only-begotten Son of God, the second person in the trinity. This is proved by his words to the Samaritan woman: ‘Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life. I that speak unto thee am the Messiah.’ The first-mentioned consciousness of fatigue and thirst came through the human nature in his person; the second mentioned consciousness of omnipotence and supremacy came through the divine nature in his person. If he had not had a human nature, he could not have had the former consciousness; and if he had not had a divine nature, he could not have had the latter. Because he had both natures in one person, he could have both.”2
The result of it (John 1:14b). The result of the incarnation was that the Word “dwelt among us.” The word rendered “dwelt” is a word that means to tabernacle literally and is probably an allusion to the ancient tabernacle of Israel, for it was there that God met with His people (cf. Exod. 25:8). God dwelt in the Son of God among men, for in Him there dwelt all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, Paul tells us (cf. Col. 2:9).
And, just as true worship was offered through the services of the tabernacle, so true worship is offered through the Son of God now (cf. Heb, 7:25). “By Him,” the writer of Hebrews says, “let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to His name” (cf. Heb. 13:15).
The human attestation of it (John 1:14c-e). The apostle concludes the statement of verse fourteen with “and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” The sight of the Lord as incarnate becomes a point of departure for faith, Hoskyns claims.3
The glory is described as that of “the only born of the Father.” The word translated as “only begotten” (lit., only-born) is a word that means unique. For example, it is used of Isaac, but Abraham had other sons than Isaac. Isaac, however, the child of promise, was Abraham’s unique son, the only one of the kind (cf. Heb. 11:17). The words suggest that the Lord was an eternal Son, since He is the Son of an eternal Father. If we have difficulty in comprehending this we should remember Augustine’s words, “Show me and explain to me an eternal Father, and I will show to you and explain to you an eternal Son.”
The glory is defined as “full of grace and truth.” The words are parallel to the “life” and “light” of verse four, for grace is the principle upon which life comes and truth is that which brings light. The word “grace” seems to refer particularly to the signs that He performed, which John selected for inclusion in the gospel he authored. In his words is the “truth” seen, and John may have in mind the discourses that he will include in his work. Both grace and truth lead on to the cross, for it is there that there is a perfect manifestation of both grace and truth (cf. John 19:35).
The Confirmation of the Incarnation
Confirmation by the Baptist’s words (John 1:15). In the following verses there is a corroboration of the things said in 1:14. Here we have further evidence for the fact that He, the Word, is the “Only-Born,” the unique Son of the Father.
John makes the rather amazing statement that, although Jesus came after him in time, He was to be preferred before him, because He was before him in time. In other words, the words “after” and “before” are of time, not dignity. John is finite, but He is infinite; John is a lamp, but He is the light (cf. 5:35). John’s existence is temporal, but His is eternal.
As Morris says, “This is a noteworthy statement, for in antiquity it was widely held that chronological priority meant superiority.”4 In this case, however, physical chronological priority did not mean superiority. Actually, of course, our Lord was prior to John, for He, the Eternal Son, existed before John was concieved or born.
Confirmation by the disciples’ experiences (John 1:16). The opening “for” of verse sixteen is preceded, it seems to me, by an ellipse in thought. What is meant is something like this, “We, too, testify to His uniqueness, for of His fullness we all have received, and grace for grace (or, grace in place of grace).” The apostle claims that he and others with him have drawn on His inexhaustible resources of grace and truth, the grace of perfect redemption and the truth of a perfect revelation (cf. vv. 17, 18). This implies, of course, that the Word, who became flesh, has also completed a work of redemption, because we could never enjoy His fullness, if we had not been redeemed. Otherwise, we could only experience His rejection and judgment.
Alexander Maclaren has expressed this beautifully, I think, “In order that the divine fullness might belong to us there was needed that the Word should be made flesh,” he writes, adding, “and there was further needed that the incarnation should be crowned by sacrifice, and that life should be perfected in death. The alabaster box had to be broken before the house could be filled with the odour of the ointment. If I may so say, the sack, the coarse-spun sack of Christ’s humanity, had to be cut asunder in order that the wealth that was stored in it might be poured into our hands. God came near us in the life, but God became ours in the death, of His dear Son. Incarnation was needed for that great privilege —‘we beheld His glory’; but the Crucifixion was needed in order to make possible the more wondrous prerogative: ‘Of His fulness have all we received.’ God gives Himself to men in the Christ whose life revealed and whose death imparted Him to the world.”5
The expression rendered in the Authorized Version by the words, “and grace for grace,” is capable of different senses. The Greek text is literally grace instead of grace, giving the preposition anti its common meaning. One of the leading Greek grammarians has suggested the rendering grace in exchange for grace.6It may be rendered by grace after grace. The ideas of replacement, accumulation, and correspondence have all been taken to be here and argued well by commentators.7 Grace upon grace in the sense of accumulation makes sufficiently good sense to me. It suggests the figure of a gardener watering a plot of ground on which are his plants. He pours water upon the ground, waits for it to sink in the earth, and then continues his watering until the plant is properly watered. Thus, the experience of grace is that of the accumulation of blessings to the end that we are properly blessed by the Lord God.
Confirmation by the Lord’s ministry (John 1:17). The next statement, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ,” is very significant. John Calvin has some interesting words here. He writes, “But we must notice the antithesis in his contrasting of the law to grace and truth; for he means that the law lacked both these.”8 Calvin does not mean that there was no grace at all in the Old Testament, because there was. Nor does he mean that the gift of the Law to Israel was not a gracious gift, in the sense that it was to be through the Law that Israel was to come to their spiritual senses and realize their sinfulness. He means that the Law was a system of possible, or hypothetical, salvation dependent upon a perfect obedience to its requirements. Such, of course, was not possible to men. Thus, the Law served as preparation for the grace and truth that came through Jesus Christ. Putting it as follows: The Law was preparation, while grace is provision. The Law gives the knowledge of sin, while the grace of the Son puts away (cf. Rom. 3:20; 4:15; 5:20; Gal. 3:19; Rom. 8:1-4). The Law commands and demands, but grace offers and gives. The Law, further, is a shadow, while grace provides the true substance of the new age (cf. Col. 2:16; Heb. 10:1, 5-10). The Old Testament system pointed to grace, gave beautiful suggestions of it in illustrative fashion, but was powerless in itself. In the legal age a man was saved by grace outside the Levitical cultus through the promises given concerning the Redeemer.
“What is the use of standing beside a lame man, and pointing to a shining summit, and saying to him, ‘Get up there and you will breathe a purer atmosphere’?” Maclaren asks. He continues, “He is lying lame at the foot of it. There is no help for any soul in law. Men are not perishing because they do not know what they ought to do. Men are not bad because they doubt as to what their duty is. The worst man in the world knows a great deal more of what he ought to do than the best man in the world practices. So it is not for want of precepts that so many of us are going to destruction, but it is for want of power to fulfill the precepts.”9
The Revelation of His Coming
The limitation of man (John 1:18a). Having expounded the fullness of grace, the apostle now turns to the fullness of truth seen in His incarnation. There one can see the perfect revelation of God.
Does not the Bible, however, say that certain people did see God (cf. Exod. 24:9-11)? Well, yes, but there are different ways of seeing God. One may speak of seeing God visibly as God, of seeing God visibly as in a theophany, or of seeing God spiritually as God in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Of the first two of these ways we must say:
“Jesus, these eyes have never seen
That radiant form of Thine;
The veil of sense hangs dark between
Thy blessed face and mine.”
Of the last we may say that we may see God as God spiritually in the person and work of Jesus Christ, for He has revealed Him (cf. Col. 1:15).
The qualifications of the Son (John 1:18b). Some of the ancient manuscripts read, “the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father,” a reading that is harmonious with the style of John and with his usage in other places. If we were to take this reading as genuine, then we would say that the other principal variant (there are other minor variations in the text) is an unintentional error in the text, done by a scribe who confused the word for son with the word for God. In their abbreviated forms in the Greek they differ in only one letter. On the other hand, if we take the reading of the most ancient manuscripts, “the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father,” then we must explain the reading with “Son” as an intentional correction, since “only begotten God” is a unique reading, not found elsewhere. It may simply be a phrase that John derived from verses one and fourteen, because in the former verse the Word is said to be God, while in the latter He is said to be the Only-begotten of the Father. Fortunately, regardless of the text deemed genuine at this point both teach the deity, the eternity, and the intimacy with the Father of the Son. And this is the basis of His qualification for the revealing of the Father to the world. What we seem to have here is a picture of a Son leaning on the bosom of a father, and thus privy to all the inmost thoughts and purposes of the father.
The interpretation of the Father (John 1:18c). In the final clause of the verse John says that it is the Son, or the Only-begotten God who has revealed the Father. The word rendered, “declared,” in the Authorized Version is the word from which we get the word exegesis, which means interpretation. The Son is the interpreter of the Father both in His person and in His work. And God is seen through the life of Jesus Christ as God with a tear upon His face, God with a child upon His lap, God uttering cries of anger at the suffering caused by death by the side of Lazarus’ grave, God touching the untouchable leper in compassion, and God rejoicing in divine election (cf. Luke 10:20-21). In the mystery cults it was the Mystogague who revealed to the initiates the secrets of the cult, and this root was used to describe the action. The Lord Jesus is the genuine Mystagogue who had laid open the breast of God to us! We know the Father when we know Him. What an incentive to learn of Him (cf. Matt. 11:21-30).
One notices the stress on the necessity of appropriation throughout the passage. We read, “we beheld,” “we have received,” and implied in verse eighteen, “we have seen” (cf. vv. 14, 16, 18). May we respond by receiving Him.
So, to the perplexed we offer Him who is full of truth, revealing the Father. To the guilty we offer Him who is full of grace, redeeming His people. And to all we commend a Savior who saves to the uttermost. Come to Him.
1 Morris, p. 102
2 William G.T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, n.d. (reprint of 1888 ed.). II, 307-8.
3 Hoskyns, p. 149.
4 Morris, p. 108.
5 Maclaren, I, 24-25.
6 Moulton, Prolegomena, I, 100.
7 See Brown, I, 16.
8 Calvin, I, 24.
9 Maclaren, I, 33-34.