John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me. And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace. For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.
These four verses will be sufficient, I am sure, for our meditation at this time. They are so rich and so full. We notice first the testimony of John the Baptist, at which we were looking last Lord’s Day morning. We hear the great forerunner of the Messiah declare, “This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me” (v. 15). John had come to baptize with water, but he said, “There standeth one among you, whom ye know not; he it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose” (vv. 26-27). Elsewhere we are told He was to baptize in the Holy Spirit and in fire.
Remember that John was speaking to a miscellaneous company at that time. There were those among that vast number who were to be baptized with the Holy Spirit, and those who because they rejected the message should be baptized with fire. The one is grace in all its fullness—the other is judgment. “Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12). The finality of judgment in the lake of fire is pronounced at the Great White Throne, but the One who will sit upon the Great White Throne will be the same marvelous person who hung on Calvary’s cross and died for our sins. Let us never forget that He has commanded, “That all men should honour the Son, even as they honour the Father. He that honoureth not the Son honoureth not the Father which hath sent him” (John 5:23).
May I say to any who may be reading this, that if you are out of Christ now, if you live and die out of Christ, you will be raised out of Christ in the resurrection of the unjust. You must stand as a Christless soul at the Great White Throne, and there you will face the One who once died to save you, who would have saved you if you had trusted Him, who longed to save you, who sent the Holy Spirit to plead with you, to urge you to surrender to Him and know His grace. But in that day it will be too late to know Him as Savior. Yours will be the awful baptism of fire. Thank God, it need not be. He came in grace to save you, He wants to save.
John points Him out definitely and says, “This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me.” John delights to give honor, as every real servant of Christ does, to the Lord Jesus Himself. He would retreat into the background that Christ might loom large before the vision of the people, that He might be the One who would occupy the attention of every soul. “He is preferred before me,” says John, “for he was before me.”
That is a very significant statement. That implies in itself the preexistence of our Lord Jesus Christ. If you take these words literally and refer them only to Christ’s life here on earth, then they are not true. He was not before John the Baptist in this respect. John the Baptist was born some three months before the Lord Jesus Christ was born of the blessed Virgin Mary.
But John says, “He was before me.” What does he mean? He means this: John began to be when he was born on earth, but Christ Jesus did not begin to be when He was born on earth. He is the One prophesied of in Micah 5:2, 4: “Whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting… And he shall stand and feed in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God; and they shall abide: for now shall he be great unto the ends of the earth.” So John rightly says, “He was before me.”
Then you will remember our Lord’s own words on one occasion when He spoke very intimately of Abraham. He said, “Abraham rejoiced to see my day” (John 8:56). But the Jews looked upon Him in astonishment and indignation and said, “Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham?” (v. 57). They understood Him to say He had seen Abraham, but that was not what He said. He said Abraham had seen Him and was glad.
But they said, “Thou art not yet fifty years old,” and there is something significant in the age period they mention. They were addressing One who, according to earthly years, was in His early thirties. Was it not a rather remarkable thing that they should say, “Thou art not yet fifty years old”? Might we not have expected them to say thirty-five years, or at the utmost, forty years old? Why, then, did they say to Him, “Thou art not yet fifty years old”? Does that not in itself tell of the deep-marked lines of grief and sorrow that had already furrowed His face? He was “marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men” (Isa. 52:14). And it may have been that as He passed through this scene the bitter anguish that He bore then, and the pain and suffering that the sins of men had already caused Him, had so seamed His face that He appeared to them rather like a man a little beyond middle age, than one simply entering upon the best of his days. “Why, you have not yet reached fifty—Have you?—and yet you say you have seen Abraham.” Jesus answered, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). Before Abraham was? That goes back two thousand years and more. “Before Abraham was, I am.” He takes the incommunicable name of Deity, “I am.” In other words, He is saying, “I am before Abraham.” He not only lived before John the Baptist but before Abraham.
In the first chapter of Colossians the Holy Spirit says of Him, “For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: and he is before all things, and by him all things consist” (vv. 16-17).
Now look at that. John says, “He was before me.” Jesus says, “I am before Abraham.” The Holy Spirit says, “He is before all things,” the Eternal One.
The apostle John goes on to tell us, “Of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace” (v. 16). Elsewhere we read that “in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9). All divine fullness dwells in Him, and out of that divine nature His very life has been poured into us.
John wrote many, many years after Christ had gone back to heaven, and all down through the centuries since then, whenever poor sinners have turned to Him in repentance, that fullness of blessing has been poured into their souls. “Of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace.” Here the word translated for means “against” or “in place of.” Grace in place of grace, grace following upon grace. We are not called upon to live upon past experiences. Many of us remember when we were first saved of the grace that was poured into our souls when that took place. We look back and sing,
O happy day, that fixed my choice,
On Thee, my Saviour, and my God!
But that is not our experience today. That was grace indeed, wondrous grace! What we have now should be grace against grace, grace following upon grace, all down through the years. People ask me sometimes if I have ever received “the second blessing.” Why, dear friends, it has been nothing but blessing upon blessing now for almost fifty years, as I have been learning more and more of the wondrous fullness of Christ. So, if you have never trusted Him, you do not know what you are missing. You remember the old Scotch woman who was asked to tell what Jesus meant to her, and she said, “Weel, ye ken; it’s better felt than telt.” If you walk in fellowship with Him, you are receiving in its fullness grace upon grace, blessing following blessing, all through the years.
“For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (v. 17). Here we have two dispensations. The law was given by Moses, and the law prevailed until Christ. Now grace and truth have come by Jesus Christ. The law was truth, but it was truth without grace. In the Gospels we have the law maintained and yet grace preached to all men everywhere who will put their trust in this Savior.
Now, in verse 18, we have a very remarkable statement: “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” We might read this as it has been otherwise translated: “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, subsisting in the bosom of the Father, he hath told him out.” That is, He has given us to know God in all His fullness.
Have you ever said to yourself, “I wish I knew God better. I wish I understood the mind of God more fully—how God looks at things, how He considers certain matters that perplex me and trouble me”? Let me say this, dear friend, if you would know God better, all you have to do is to get better acquainted with Jesus Christ, for the Lord Jesus Christ has fully told or manifested God. God— let me say it thoughtfully—God is exactly like Jesus. There is no other God than the God who has been revealed in Christ. The holiness of God is the holiness seen in Jesus. The righteousness of God is the righteousness maintained by Jesus. The purity of God is the purity manifested in Jesus. The compassion of God is the compassion shown by Jesus. The love of God is the love of Jesus, and the hatred of God is the hatred seen in Jesus. Why, you say, does God hate anything? Did Jesus ever hate? Yes! With a perfect hatred God hates sin. He says, “Do not this abominable thing that I hate” (Jer. 44:4). He hates all hypocrisy, all un-cleanness, all impurity, and Jesus hated all these things perfectly. You and I hate them imperfectly.
Then, the anger of God shows the indignation of Jesus. Was God ever angry? “God is angry with the wicked every day” (Ps. 7:11). Why, you say, I thought God loved all men. He does love all men, but that does not hinder the fact that He becomes angry. You may love your own children, and yet you may get very angry at some of the wrong things they do. And so God, while He has shown His love by sending His only begotten Son into the world to die for sinners, is angry with the wicked every day. When God deals with unrepentant sinners, men will know that, “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).
Was Jesus ever angry? He was. He was angry with the hypocrites. He was angry when He saw certain religious propagandists whose hearts were hard and cruel in their dealings with the poor and needy. Think of the words He used about the Scribes and Pharisees who devoured widows’ houses, and think of His indignation when He saw people so concerned about rites and ceremonies that they had no time for the things of God. Think of that time when He was in the synagogue where there was a poor little crooked woman who for eighteen years had been bowed down by that awful bondage. Jesus saw her there, and He was moved with compassion. When Jesus encountered a crippled man, He turned to the people and said, “Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath days?” and they answered Him not a word. They were so jealous of their Sabbath and so unconcerned about the needs of humanity that Jesus turned to this poor woman and asked them, “Ought not this woman,… whom Satan hath bound, lo, these eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?” (Luke 13:16). He gave the word and she was healed, and He looked round upon them in anger. The anger of Jesus is the anger of God.
“No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him” (v. 18). He has fully manifested the character of God.
But now look at the first clause of this verse, “No man hath seen God at any time.” What does that mean? Do we not read again and again in the Old Testament of people who saw God? Is it not taken for granted that when Adam and Eve lived in the garden in all their purity and heard His voice as they walked in the garden in the cool of the day when He called unto Adam, that in some sense they saw God and hid themselves among the trees of the garden, their guilty consciences condemning them?
Abraham saw that mystic One of the three who came to him as he sat in the tent door, and he talked to Him as the Lord Jehovah. Moses said, “Show me thy glory” (Exod. 33:18), and the Lord said, “Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live… Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock: and it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a cleft of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by” (vv. 20-22). And we read that Moses saw God.
Ezekiel had visions of God. Again and again in the Old Testament we have these marvelous Scripture passages that tell of men beholding God, and yet it says here, “No man hath seen God at any time.” What does it mean? It means this: that all of these to which I referred were but theophanies. Men did not actually see God in His essential being, but He manifested Himself to them—as a man to Abraham, as an angel to Daniel, as a marvelous appearance to Ezekiel. No man has seen Deity at any time. “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24), and a spirit is not visible to mortal eyes.
But what do these words mean, then: “No man hath seen God at any time”? If this was the only passage in which these words were found we should take it for granted that the meaning was that until Jesus Christ came into the world no man had seen God, but that when they saw Him they had seen God because He was “the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father.” But when we turn over to 1 John 4:12, we find exactly the same words again, and these words were written many years after the Lord Jesus Christ had gone back to heaven. Here we read, “No man hath seen God at any time.” Now observe, these words were written when John was an old man, and again he says, “No man hath seen God at any time.” What, then, are we to gather from this? Simply that Deity as such is invisible.
When Jesus was here, men in seeing Him did not see Deity. What they did see was a man like themselves, as far as they could tell. But He was not a sinner as they were; He was the Holy One of God. But Deity was enshrined within that Man, for “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). But men could only see His humanity. Now He is gone back to heaven and the word comes to us again, “No man hath seen God at any time.” God is still making Himself known to man, but He makes Himself known through those who walk in fellowship with Him. If you are walking in love, you are manifesting God.
It is a very solemn thing to realize that I as a believer am here in this world to make God known, by both life and testimony. Jesus did this fully and completely. The closer I walk with Him, the more God will be seen in me.