The incarnate Word
First published: 25 December 2014 (GMT+10)
Re-featured on homepage: 24 December 2019 (GMT+10)
Each of the Gospel writers presents us with a different portrait of Jesus, bringing out different aspects of His character and work, so that when we put the four together we get a fully-rounded picture of who Jesus is and what He came to accomplish. Matthew and Luke, with their emphasis on different aspects of Jesus’ humanity (while still affirming His full deity) appropriately start their Gospels with the Incarnation, giving different perspectives on Jesus’ birth. Mark focuses solely on Jesus’ ministry and begins his account with Jesus’ baptism. But John, with a unique focus on the divinity of Christ, goes much further back than anyone else—back to the beginning.1 Walking through the passage idea-by-idea, we can see how he unfolds his entire message in the Prologue.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.
While John’s writing is some of the grammatically simplest in the New Testament, this does not keep him from expressing theological truth beautifully and eloquently, and nowhere is this more apparent than in his prologue. And in his prologue, John gives us a picture of Jesus that is intended to be in our minds as we read the rest of his Gospel.
Any Jewish reader who read the first words of his Gospel, en archē, would immediately think of Genesis, which starts with the same words. “In the beginning” immediately evokes the creation narrative. But instead of introducing theos, as Genesis does, John introduces the logos. The Word “was”—i.e., the Word was not created; He existed with God (the word pros indicates not only coexistence but complete equality and close fellowship; he was “face to face” with God2), but He was also God.
Next, John says “the Word was God”, meaning that He shares the same essence as God the Father, but they are not identical. So in the very first sentence we get a view of the plurality of the Godhead. As Wallace states, “The construction the evangelist chose to express this idea was the most concise way he could have stated that the Word was God and yet was distinct from the Father.”3
While many try to equate the idea of the Word with the Hellenistic idea of Logos, or the rabbinic ideas about the memra, we should look to John’s obvious source—the Scriptures, which had a lot to say about the Word of Yahweh. For instance, Psalm 33:4–9 reads:
For the word of the Lord is upright,
and all his work is done in faithfulness.
He loves righteousness and justice;
the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.
By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
and by the breath of his mouth all their host.
He gathers the waters of the sea as a heap;
he puts the deeps in storehouses.
Let all the earth fear the Lord;
let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him!
For he spoke, and it came to be;
he commanded and it stood firm.
So surely John’s main influence regarding the Word as the agent of creation came from the Old Testament Scriptures, not any Hellenistic ideas or rabbinic ideas about the memra.
Through him all things were made, and nothing that has been made was made without him.
In John’s understanding of creation, the Word God spoke was an actual Person, the agent of creation. One might think of Proverbs 8, where Wisdom is presented as the ever-present companion of God and co-creator. But Wisdom is called the “first of God’s acts of old” (Proverbs 8:22) and is personified as a woman. For both these reasons, Wisdom falls short of being a presentation of the Son; Solomon is personifying an attribute which all three Persons of the Godhead possess perfectly.
The Word was so intimately involved in creation that John could say “nothing that was made was made without him.” Implicit in this idea is the fact that the Word was not created, because no one can create himself.
In him was life, and that life was the light of man. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
What was created through the Word included all life. Every creature is dependent on God for life, but the Word has life in and of Himself. What John is claiming is exactly what Jesus claims later in John 5:26: “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.”
That self-inherent life “was the light of men”. At this point, John is probably referring to revelation. Just as the Word was the agent of creation, He was also the agent of Old Testament revelation. In fact, John later says “Isaiah … saw his glory and spoke of him” (John 12:41). He can only mean that in Isaiah 6, when Isaiah saw his famous vision of the Lord seated on His throne, that he was actually seeing Jesus. That leads many interpreters to think that all, or at least most, visions and appearances of God in the Old Testament are of the pre-Incarnate Son.
However, John says that the darkness did not “comprehend” the light. The word translated comprehend, katalambanō, could equally be translated “overcome”, and some do so. But based on context, the world’s non-comprehension of the light seems to fit better with the introduction of John the Baptist as the witness to the light. Also, John frequently talks about “overcoming the world” (1 John, Revelation), but uses a different Greek word, nikaō.This suggests that he would have used that word if he had meant ‘overcome’ in this passage.
There came to be a man sent from God, his name was John. He came as a witness to testify about the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light.
In all four Gospels, John the Baptist is an important witness to the ministry of the Messiah. But in many ways, he is a foil to the Word. While the Word ‘was’, John ‘came to be’ (ginomai), the same word used in 1:3 about all created things. While the Word is God, John was a man. The Word was the light, and John was only a witness. While John gets a privileged place in the prologue, it is a far-distant second to the Word.
Eyewitnesses play an important part in the Gospel of John, because without two or three witnesses, nothing could be established in a Jewish court of law (Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15). Outside the prologue, the people and even things that bear witness are: John the Baptist (John 1:32; 3:26–28; 5:33), Jesus Himself (John 3:11; 8:18), God the Father (John 5:31–32, 37; 8:18) , Jesus’ works (John 5:36; 10:25; 18:37), the Scriptures (John 5:39), the crowd that witnessed the resurrection of Lazarus (John 12:17), and the apostle John (John 19:35; 21:24).
The true light, which shines on every man, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, and the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own did not receive him.
The world that was created through the Word did not recognize Him when He came to them as a man, and even more tragically, His own people rejected Him. This is illustrated throughout John’s Gospel, and it ultimately results in the Jews’ plot to kill Jesus. This is what was predicted in the Old Testament, and what Jesus constantly predicted throughout His ministry.
But to those who did receive him, he gave them the right to become children of God, to those who believed in his name, not from blood nor from the will of flesh, nor from the desire of a man, but born of God.
John now introduces the idea of becoming children of God. However, he uses a different word (teknon, child) for believers than he does when he calls Jesus the Son (huios) of God. While the two words have roughly overlapping meanings, in this passage John is clearly communicating the uniqueness of Christ’s sonship compared to the adoptive relationship with the Father He makes possible for those who believe in Him.
The idea of the new birth is most memorably explained in the dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus in John 3, but here it is first introduced as a key theme of his book. “Not from blood” is significant, because one of the things that is clearly expounded in John’s Gospel is that ethnic Jewishness is not enough to save someone. In fact, Jesus calls the unbelieving ethnic ‘sons of Abraham’ sons of the devil, because their actions reveal them to share his desires and motivations (John 8:39–47).
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the unique Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.
Just as John eloquently expressed the relationship between the Word and God in verse 1, now he explains the incarnation in equally simple yet profound language: “ho logos sarx egeneto”. Using the exact same word as he did for when John “came to be”, he said the Word “became” flesh. This rules out simply putting on a human body, or other faulty views that have tried to be imposed on the Incarnation. The Word became a human being in a real, meaningful way.
John, by the time he wrote his Gospel, was one of only a few eyewitnesses to the incarnate Christ left, and this whole generation would soon be dead. When he says that “we have seen his glory”, John may have in mind the Transfiguration, which he witnessed with Peter and James, or he may be speaking more broadly of His entire ministry which was characterized by unprecedented miracles and teaching.
His glory is described two ways: he first says that it is “glory as of the unique Son of the Father”. The word translated here as “unique” is monogenes. It is a word that has rich theological significance—it signifies one-of-a-kind more than the well-known translation “only begotten” (i.e. Isaac was called Abraham’s monogenes son even though he had Ishmael by Hagar and several more sons by Keturah). So while Adam and the nation of Israel were each called God’s son, and the New Testament calls Christians “sons of God”, Jesus remains the monogenes Son.
The second way His glory is described is “full of grace and truth”. So the Son’s glory is bound up in His goodness. Some see a connection with the Hebrew words hesed and emet, which are often used in connection with God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel. Jesus was the fulfillment of all the promises to Israel, that Abraham’s offspring would bless all the nations of the world and that David would always have a descendant on the throne of Israel.
John testifies about him and has cried out, saying, “This is the one about whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he precedes me.’”
Now John brings John the Baptist’s witness back into the discussion because he was such an important witness. Carson explains, “The earlier mention of the witness of John the Baptist (vv. 6–8) dealt with the coming of the pre-existent light into the world; this verse abandons that theme and grounds the glory of the incarnate Word in a concrete individual, a concrete ‘he’ attested by another individual. Thus it prepares the way for the detailed account of the Baptist’s witness, which immediately succeeds the prologue.”4
The present and perfect tense in this statement (“testifies” and “has cried out”) “vividly envisions the Baptist’s ministry as still continuing.”5 Just as the apostle John clearly presented the pre-existence of the Son in his statements about the Word, John the Baptist’s testimony corroborates this. John was actually born about six months before Jesus, according to the timing given in the Gospel of Luke, hence “comes after me”. But John also said that Jesus “precedes me”, and the only way to interpret both of these consistently is Jesus’ pre-existence.
For from his fullness we have all received, grace instead of grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
The reader will notice that the above is translated “grace instead of grace”. This is because the word usually translated “upon” is anti, and its usual meaning is “instead of”. This translation actually makes better sense of the second sentence. In Jewish thought, the Law itself was considered to be a manifestation of God’s grace to the Jewish people—and Paul said the law is “holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). But Jesus, who John names for the first time in his Gospel, brings a superior grace “instead of” the Law. We also see the superiority of Jesus to Moses. The law “was given through” Moses, but it did not originate from him. But grace and truth came (ginomai) through Jesus Christ.6
No one has ever seen God; the unique God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
In none of the theophanies of the Old Testament did anyone actually see God the Father. Moses saw the ‘afterglow’ of God’s glory. Isaiah only saw the train of His robe filling the temple, and that was utterly terrifying. Even the tiny glimpses people got in the Old Testament were almost more than they can bear. But John says that Jesus is the monogenes God. The phrase “the unique God who is at the Father’s side” also expresses the same idea of verse 1: Jesus is God, but distinct from the Father and in a close relationship with Him. Even though no one has ever seen the Father, Jesus reveals Him. This idea is brought out even more strongly in John 14:8–9.
The Incarnation: God in human flesh
While Matthew and Luke begin with Jesus’ earthly mother and stepfather, John starts at the very beginning to give us a ‘heaven’s-eye-view’ of the Incarnation. And he does so in a way that prepares his readers for all the themes that will occur later in his Gospel.
References and notes
- The bold text is my own translation of John 1:1–18. Return to text.
- As explained in John MacArthur’s sermon, The Word made flesh, 25 December 1983, gty.org/resources/sermons/1295/the-word-made-flesh. Return to text.
- Wallace, D., Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, p. 269, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 1996. Return to text.
- Carson, The Gospel of John, p. 130, PNTC, 1991. Return to text.
- Köstenberger, A. J. John, p. 45, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, 2004 Return to text.
- Carson, D.A., The Gospel According to John, p. 132–133, Pillar New Testament Commentary, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1991. Return to text.