The Word Became Flesh
After participating in this lesson, each student will be able to:
1. List three of John’s titles for Jesus.
Paraphrase John’s explanation of Jesus’ preexistence and
3. Choose one personal behavior to transform from darkness to light.
How to Say It
logos (Greek). LAW-goss.
Daily Bible Readings
Monday, Dec. 18—Jesus Is Born (Luke 2:1–7)
Tuesday, Dec. 19—Angels and Shepherds Celebrate (Luke 2:8–20)
Wednesday, Dec. 20—Called to Belong to Jesus Christ (Romans 1:1–6)
Thursday, Dec. 21—God’s Plan for Us (Ephesians 1:3–10)
Friday, Dec. 22—The Word Sent by God (John 1:1–9)
Saturday, Dec. 23—The Word Became Flesh (John 1:10–18)
Sunday, Dec. 24—New Things I Now Declare (Isaiah 42:5–9)
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. —John 1:14
Why Teach this Lesson?
How would you react if you saw an individual walking down the street and knew that it really was God, in human form, coming toward you? How do you think others would react? Would people just stare at him? Would they run to him? Would they run from him? What would people do?
Today’s lesson does not ask us to imagine what it would be like if God walked and lived among us. It tells us that God did, in fact, walk and live among us. An even more profound truth lies behind this fact: if we open the door of our hearts, God will come to live inside of us.
I once arrived in a distant city very late for a convention. After the usual hassle of departing the airport, I finally arrived at my assigned hotel near midnight. I had been up since before dawn and was dead tired. I gave the hotel clerk my name and waited as she clicked away on her computer. My heart sank, though, when she said, “I’m sorry, sir. I have no record of your reservation.” This was not the reception I was hoping for or expecting!
The Bible teaches that God had a plan for redemption when the first human couple sinned and was expelled from the garden. God planned for this by preparing the nation of Israel to be the people who would receive his redeemer, his Son Jesus. Yet in one of the terrible ironies of history, this chosen people did not recognize their own promised Messiah. His reception was instead a rejection.
The apostle John begins his Gospel by putting the person and mission of Jesus into the perspective of a panoramic review of human history. This week’s lesson looks at the first 18 verses of this great book. There John introduces his themes about Jesus from the broadest possible historical viewpoint.
B. John’s Titles for Jesus
The Gospel of John is a treasure trove for Christians who want to understand Jesus Christ more fully. Consider the many titles or descriptions that John uses in explaining Jesus. A brief survey of some of these could start with the designation of Jesus as the Word. This emphasizes the communication element in the nature of the Christ (John 1:1, 14; compare Revelation 19:13).
Second, John often describes Jesus as the Son, emphasizing his relationship with God. This takes several forms. He may be the one and only Son (John 3:16; compare 1 John 4:9), the Son of God (John 1:34, 49; compare 1 John 4:15), or the Son of Man (John 1:51; 12:23; compare Revelation 1:13). Third, John depicts Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. This may be simply as the Christ (John 1:41) or as the King of Israel (John 1:49; 12:13).
Fourth, we find Jesus as the Lamb of God (John 1:29, 36; compare Revelation 5:6), highlighting Jesus’ role as the sacrifice for human sins. Fifth, the most dramatic title of Jesus is Lord and … God (John 20:28; compare Revelation 19:16), emphasizing his deity and sovereignty.
This is not an exhaustive list. You may want to study John’s titles further by reading through the Gospel of John, looking only for the various ways the author portrays Jesus.
C. Lesson Background
We have four Gospels in the New Testament that tell the story of Jesus. The first three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are very similar in their general structure. The fourth Gospel, John, is quite different from the other three. John wrote 30 or so years after those other three, and he was well acquainted with their material. For this reason he seems to avoid repeating most of their content. Instead, he chooses to give new information from his wealth of eyewitness recollections (see John 21:24, 25). About 90 percent of John’s material is not found in the other three Gospels.
A significant difference among the four Gospels is the way the writers choose to begin their accounts. Mark begins with the ministry of John the Baptist, without any reference to the birth or childhood of Jesus. Luke begins with the birth of John the Baptist and includes the nativity story of Jesus. Matthew begins with Jesus’ genealogy, thus pushing the story of Jesus back into the Old Testament.
John, for his part, pushes the story back to the very beginning of the Old Testament. Thus John’s Gospel is an inclusive account of the entire sweep of human history, beginning before creation itself. Most of this is accomplished in John 1:1–18, the prologue of John. Today’s lesson explores the issues of the doctrine of the incarnation. We will try to understand how God could assume a human form.
I. The Word Beginning the World (John 1:1–3)
A. The Word from Eternity Past (vv. 1, 2)
1, 2. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.
John’s opening statements retell the Genesis account of creation with an important addition: John includes the preexistent Christ. There are hints of the threefold nature of God in Genesis 1:26: “Let us make man in our image.” But the relationship between God the Father and God the Son is not explored there.
In order to tell his story of Jesus more fully, this is where John must start. Genesis 1:1 begins, “In the beginning God.” To this John adds three clarifications: (1) the Word was at the beginning, (2) this Word was in fellowship with God, and (3) the Word, in some way, was God. These three in combination give us enormous truths about Jesus.
We may begin by asking what exactly it means for John to describe the preexisting Christ as the Word. The Greek term behind this is logos. This was a well-known term in Greek philosophy, where it means something like “the ordering principle of the universe.” The Greeks saw logos as that which caused the universe to hold together and make sense. It is from logos that we get our term logic.
What Do You Think?
We get our word logic from logos. Yet there are many who would say that belief in Jesus is anything but logical. Why do they say this? How do you respond?
While these ideas may touch some of John’s Greek readers, this is probably not what he has in mind by using logos. For John logos is the creative Word of God. In Genesis God speaks the universe into existence (compare Psalm 33:6). God’s Word is powerful and creative.
Also, there is no beginning for the Word. The preexistent Christ is the beginning (see Revelation 22:13). Just as Genesis begins creation with God already in place, so John starts his telling of the beginning with the Word already present.
John can say further that the Word was God while making a careful distinction between the Word and God. From a logical point of view, this seems curious: How can the Word be distinct from God, yet be God at the same time? Perhaps the best we can do is to say that there are three centers of consciousness in the Godhead (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and that these three share a single essence.
In any case, John expects us to believe that the Word was God. For John no other way of describing this will do. We must accept the truth of this relationship, even if it seems to strain our understanding. Remember: John walked side by side with Jesus. John knows what he is talking about!
In the Beginning
A friend once asked me, “Did you know that baseball is mentioned in the Bible?” I was rather dubious, so I asked him where. He replied, “The Bible says, ‘In the big inning.’ ”
Poor humor aside, the first phrase in both the Gospel of John and Genesis is significant: In the beginning. The beginning—what an appropriate place to start! It’s far better than the fairy tale introduction, “Once upon a time.” A story that begins “once upon a time” actually means that it has no historical framework. There is no attempt to place it in context with other events.
The ancient world normally dated things by the year of the ruler (compare 1 Kings 6:1; Isaiah 6:1; Luke 3:1; etc.). Yet how would one refer to events before there were any rulers or when there was as yet no means of measuring time? In talking about the absolute beginning of things, the Bible writers do it very simply—in the beginning.
This is an acknowledgment that not only was God active in creation, he also preexisted before there was the concept of time, as did Christ. The Arian controversy in the fourth century AD wanted to make Christ less than God and so argued “there was when he was not.” The other side responded with a double negative: “there was not when he was not.” John puts it very simply—“In the beginning … the Word was with God.” This is truth. —J. B. N.
B. The Word at Creation (v. 3)
3. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
What Do You Think?
John pointed to the creative ability of Jesus as a reason that we should believe in Him. What’s the difference between human creativity and that of Jesus? How is this distinction important to your personal faith walk?
John explicitly defines the Word’s (that is, Christ’s) role in creation. The Word is uncreated and is fully involved in creation. There is no created thing that exists apart from the Word’s creative power. Paul wrote that creation is both a testimony to God (Romans 1:20) and waits for God’s redemption (Romans 8:22).
II. The Word Bringing Light (John 1:4–13)
A. Shining Light (vv. 4, 5)
4, 5. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
What Do You Think?
The apostle John chose to approach the study of Christ in a certain way. How and why should we adjust John’s approach for today? Or should we leave well enough alone? Explain.
The Word does not become inactive when creation is completed. So John moves to the function of the Word as communication and enlightenment for humanity.
God’s initial act of creation was to make light (Genesis 1:3). In so doing God separated light from darkness. Here light is the life-giving presence of God. Light is goodness, righteousness, and truth (see John 3:21). Darkness symbolizes evil, unrighteousness, and ungodliness (John 3:19).
The word understood is a good translation, but other possible translations are “conquered” or “overcame.” Jesus’ mission among men and women was to rescue them from spiritual darkness (John 12:46).
Light in Darkness
Thomas Kinkade has become known as The Painter of Light. His paintings have become so popular that his name has become virtually a household word. Other than prints of the pictures themselves, his paintings adorn Christmas cards, greeting cards, book covers, and various other items. His web site claims that he is “America’s most collected living artist.”
Part of his attraction is his unabashedly Christian and family orientation. He credits Christ for the inspiration of many of his subjects as well as his talent to depict them. Nostalgic views of faith, hope, and familial warmth shine forth from his canvases. He pays tribute to his wife, Nanette, by hiding the letter N in many of his scenes. The names of his four daughters also show up in his work. He has donated his efforts to numerous charitable and religious organizations and has helped raise millions of dollars for their projects.
Central in all his paintings is some feature of light—be it old-fashioned streetlights, lighted windows, sunlight, or reflected light. One finds few darkened windows, brooding clouds, stormy landscapes, or tempestuous waves of emotion. Instead, the central features are calm, serene, restful, and heartwarming. While Norman Rockwell painted humorous and inspiring personality sketches, Kinkade specializes in idyllic scenes of town and country living—all delivered through an imaginative use of light. His works of art display the point that the apostle John makes: light will overcome the darkness. —J. B. N.
B. Witness to the Light (vv. 6–8)
6. There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John.
This John is John the Baptist, not John the apostle who writes this Gospel. We are told that John the Baptist was commissioned by God; he was not self-appointed. This puts him in the tradition of the great prophets of Israel (see Matthew 11:7–15; Luke 7:28).
7, 8. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
Elsewhere Jesus describes John the Baptist as “a lamp that burned and gave light” (John 5:35). But he was not the light, the ultimate manifestation of God that was Jesus. John had a specific function: he was a witness. This means that he was to testify about Jesus, to be a reliable witness of his identity. When John the Baptist pointed out Jesus, some of John’s own disciples followed him (John 1:35–37).
C. Light in the World (vv. 9–11)
9. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.
John combines two of his most important concepts in this verse: truth and light. This helps us understand what the light imagery is all about. God is a God of light and truth, and he brings these into the created world to help men and women be “enlightened.” This means he has not abandoned us to darkness. Instead he continues to create light to banish our dark world of sin. God’s enlightened truth is our way out, our guide to how we should live (see John 8:12).
10, 11. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.
In terse words these verses depict the greatest irony of history: when visited by its creator, the world did not recognize him. It rejected him instead. The phrase his own refers to the nation of Israel, the people chosen by God to be the receiving nation for his Messiah.
Undoubtedly, Jesus did not meet many people’s expectation of Messiah. He was not born in a king’s palace, but in a stable. His parents were not rich and powerful, but young and poor. His early education was not at the great centers of learning such as Alexandria, Athens, or Jerusalem, but at the local synagogue. The real reason for the rejection, however, was not Jesus’ humble human origins but spiritual blindness (Romans 11:25).
What Do You Think?
John 3:19 says that “men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” What was a time when you resisted Christ’s light? What helped you change to prefer his light?
D. Faithful Response to the Light (vv. 12, 13)
12, 13. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
Jesus’ rejection was not universal, however. Even though the vast majority of Jews did not receive their Messiah, there were believers. The opposite of “did not receive him” in verse 11 is to believe in his name. In the ancient world the name of a person is symbolic of the full identity of that person. To trust a person fully, one might even adopt that person’s name. This is seen when the early believers in Antioch take up the name Christians (Acts 11:26), meaning “one loyal to Christ.”
The result of receiving and believing in Jesus is to be adopted by God. We become his children. We are reunited and reconciled with our creator. We become co-heirs with Jesus (Romans 8:17).
John introduces the concept of new birth at this point. Spiritually we become God’s children by a rebirth. This is not any type of physical birth related to the conception of a child through normal means. This birth comes from God.
The idea of new birth comes up later in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. There Jesus says that without this new birth one “no one can see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
III. The Word Becoming Flesh (John 1:14–18)
A. Incarnation of the Word (v. 14)
14. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
This verse is John’s way of expressing what we call “the incarnation.” It is the divine putting on flesh, God taking human form. This is a very difficult concept to understand, but it is vital for the Christian faith. It is only by becoming human that the Son of God could die for the sins of the world (Hebrews 2:14).
John and companions were witnesses to the glory of God in this regard. Jesus, the Son, reveals the Father in a way that allows Jesus to say that seeing him means seeing the Father (John 14:9). This is a vision of grace and truth, which is explained in the next verses.
Visual for Lesson 4
Point to this passage as you ask, “Why is John 1:14 important to the twenty-first century A.D.?”
B. Revelation of Grace and Truth (vv. 15–17)
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 the Baptist’s testimony is recorded here. What is important for this passage is John the Baptist’s knowledge of Jesus’ true identity. Jesus was before John the Baptist, meaning that he existed before his incarnation. Therefore, John the Baptist knew well that Jesus deserved precedence over him in all things.
16. From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.
John now expands upon one of the central concepts of the New Testament: grace (introduced in 1:14). One blessing after another conveys the image of gifts being piled upon one another endlessly. The grace that came through Jesus was not something we earned. It was given freely by the Father.
17. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
The law in mind here is the Jewish law, the various commandments given through Moses. Laws can result in doing the right thing with no relationship with the lawgiver. Thus, while the law is not bad, it does not do what Jesus does. Jesus allows us to become true children of God through faith, far beyond any attempts to earn God’s favor by keeping his rules. Jesus is the true light of the world.
What Do You Think?
Jesus came with both grace and truth. Has there ever been a time in your life when you had to balance one of these ideas against the other? Explain.
C. Declaration of the Father (v. 18)
18. No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.
This final verse of John’s prologue sums up everything he has said so far. God exists far above any possibility of human perception and experience. There are a few Old Testament descriptions of people seeing a kind of manifestation of God (Genesis 32:30: Jacob “saw God face to face”; Exodus 24:11: “leaders of the Israelites … saw God”). But in a more profound sense no one has ever seen God because “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Exodus 33:20).
Even so, God has revealed himself in a way that we can understand and believe. He has done this by Jesus, God in flesh, God’s only Son. Jesus reveals God in a way that no other human ever could. Through Jesus we have access to God.
What is the amazing thing we call grace? While that word is common in Paul’s writings, it is used only a few times in the Gospel of John (1:14–17). This word gets tossed around in many ways in the church. Some people seem to equate grace with the Holy Spirit, as supernatural power (“I was overcome by grace”). Others see it as the same as God’s presence (“God’s grace is in this place”). Still others associate it with a mealtime prayer (“Bow your heads while I say grace”).
An old acronym for grace is helpful: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. But this only gives a partial sense of this rich concept. There are two essential components to a biblical concept of grace. First, it always denotes an element of “gift.” It is never something we earn or deserve. Second, grace involves both attitude and action. God’s grace means that God determined to do something beneficial; then he did it.
I have another acronym for grace (which, unfortunately, doesn’t make a real word): BUA. This is Beautiful Undeserved Action. John tells us that everything about God’s self-revelation in Jesus is gracious. We didn’t deserve him. He is beautiful in ways we cannot even appreciate. The incarnation is a decisive act of enormous significance.
How much did it really cost God to sacrifice his Son? We cannot possibly know. But we can understand that this is not the way things normally work. Fathers don’t usually sacrifice their sons for others. If anything, a father will sacrifice for his son. Yet God sent his Son to become a man and die on a cross to pay the price for sin. That is BUA grace!
Thought to Remember
The gracious truth of God is the promise of eternal life as revealed through Jesus Christ.
God of Heaven and earth, we thank you for seeing us lost in sin and sending your only Son, Jesus Christ, to be our Savior. May we be blessed by your grace and guided by your truth in all things. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
New International Version Standard Lesson Commentary : 2006-2007 . Standard Publishing: Cincinnati