The Word Became Flesh

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

Conventional wisdom declares that only two of the Gospel accounts–Matthew and Luke–tell the story of Jesus’ birth. That the situation surrounding Jesus’ birth and the specific event of Jesus’ birth are more fully narrated in Matthew and Luke and nowhere is is beyond doubt. Yet John has captured, in one verse, what is implied in the birth accounts found in Matthew and Luke, speaking of the power of the Incarnation. He does so simply and elegantly: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).

It is so quickly addressed that one might pass over it without notice if reading somewhat carelessly. Yet these seven words (in Greek; eight in English) are in many ways the pinnacle of the chapter and the driving force behind the rest of John’s Gospel.

It is one thing to speak of the Word, His divinity, His relationship with the Father, His role in creation, and His righteousness, as John does in John 1:1-10. Moses perceived how Israel subsisted on God’s word (Deuteronomy 8:3); the Psalmist understood how the creation came to be through the agency of God’s Word (Psalm 33:6); Solomon personified Wisdom in Proverbs 8:1-36 and spoke of it as present during the creation. All of these, among others, were glimpses of the divine reality about to be fully revealed to mankind, and a lot of people, both among the Jews and the Greeks, would easily accept what John said about the Word in John 1:1-4, 9.

And then John provides the bombshell. This Word, the Agent of Creation, Light of the World, Provider of Life and Sustainer of Creation, God and with God, “became flesh and dwelt among us.”

Yes, Isaiah spoke of the Immanuel child in Isaiah 7:14, “God with us,” but very few understood it that concretely. The idea boggled the mind of the Jews and the Greeks then and plenty of others ever since: how could God become flesh? For that matter, why would God humiliate Himself and decide to become flesh? How could the Creator take on the form of the creation? What is going on here?

It was a challenging statement then, and it remains a challenging statement to this day; many find the concept foolish (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:20-25). Whenever Jesus would speak of His divinity, the Jews would be flabbergasted and sought to kill Him for blasphemy (cf. John 5:18, 8:57-58, 10:30-33). Some of the Greeks who saw value in Jesus’ teachings nevertheless could not tolerate the idea that He actually became flesh; such led to the “docetic” heresy, the suggestion that Jesus was not really flesh and blood, but only seemed like flesh and blood; John roundly denounced this view (2 John 1:7-9). Ever since there have been many who have found it easier to reject or downplay what John is saying about the Word becoming flesh since the idea is so strange and offensive to “realistic” sensibilities.

Yet the questions remain. The “how” questions are completely beyond us; we could dwell upon them to our hurt or be willing to recognize that we do not have all of the answers and that the Creator evidently so created the universe so as to allow the Word to become flesh. As to the “why” questions, we may intellectually understand that the Word was willing to humble Himself to the point of becoming flesh because of His love for mankind (Romans 5:6-11, 1 John 4:7-21), but it still remains an astounding, almost unbelievable idea: God became flesh to save flesh. The Creator took on the form of the creation to redeem the creation. We cannot imagine the depth of the humility this demanded; therefore, we cannot imagine the depth of the love God has toward us which motivated this humility. God became flesh!

The implications and consequences are many. The Incarnation is a powerful antidote to the concept of total depravity: yes, human beings are deeply sinful, but there must be some dignity and integrity left in flesh for God to have become it and dwell among us. To try to carve out an exception for Jesus on the basis of the “Immaculate Conception” is almost insulting to the Incarnation, as if Jesus’ flesh had to be somehow different from all other flesh in order to be God in the flesh. And, beyond all of this, God did not just become flesh, stay aloof, look down on people, enslave others, act arrogantly around them, or any such thing. God became flesh and then dwelt among us. He lived simply and humbly and went about doing good for people, even though He often received evil in return (cf. Acts 10:38-39). God became flesh not because it was some kind of accident, or as if an alien had taken over a human. When God became flesh, He showed mankind all the essential characteristics and attributes of God, so that it could be said that if you saw Jesus, you saw God the Father (John 1:18, 14:6-11); nevertheless, He also lived the perfect life and through His teachings and deeds exemplified true humanity (Hebrews 4:15, 5:7-8). God in the flesh did not just show us who God is; He also shows us what man can and should be. He is not just the perfect God; He is also the perfect Man!

God came in the flesh, presenting the glory of the only begotten from the Father, and He came full of grace and truth. From a human standpoint it is unbelievable; from a godly standpoint, it was inevitable. God loved His creation; God saved His creation by entering it, suffering for it, and overcoming its worst plagues. We may not be able to fully make sense of it; we will never deserve it; yet we can constantly praise God for it. God became flesh; God can understand our difficulties because He experienced them. He overcame them. In Jesus we understand who God is and who we are supposed to be. Let us follow after the God who became flesh and dwelt among us and obtain victory through Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Existing in God

“And [God] made of one every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed seasons, and the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek God, if haply they might feel after him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us: ‘for in him we live, and move, and have our being’; as certain even of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his offspring'” (Acts 17:26-28).

Paul has quite the challenge before him: to explain to pagans obsessed with philosophy the nature of the God of Israel, the One True God, and Jesus His Son. In order to have any level of success, Paul must persuade his audience to look at God differently than they had in the past. There were not a multiplicity of gods who were represented by statues, needing the service of men (cf. Acts 17:22-25). In a brilliant and yet ironic move, Paul speaks regarding the nature of the One True God by quoting a Greek, most likely Epimenides of Crete: in God “we live and move and have our being.” As Aratus said in the Phainomena, “we are His offspring.” God, therefore, is not an image in the likeness of man or animal. God is something quite different. God is the Creator of the earth and all that is in it, and, in truth, God is not far from any of us (Acts 17:26-27).

This is a lesson that needs to be proclaimed again today, for even though people may not think of the pagan deities when they think about “God” anymore, people’s view of God and the way God really is remains different.

Think for a moment about how you consider God. The thinking of the past two hundred years have led many people to think of God as distant and remote. In such a view, perhaps God did create everything– but ever since He has stayed away. Many religious people– many who believe in Jesus– will grant that God actively and personally worked throughout the early part of human history, even within the first century of our era. But ever since God has kept His distance, in a sense. The image of God in the parable of the talents has been taken quite literally– God has gone on a far journey, and we are on our own until He decides to return, and then comes the judgment (cf. Matthew 25:14-30).

This image of God reigns supreme in societal thinking. God, especially the God revealed in the Bible, is portrayed as an old man “up there,” distant and remote. If He does have anything to do with His creation, it involves condemnation and chastisement for wickedness. To not a few, Gary Larson’s portrayal of God sitting at His computer, ready to hit the “smite” button and kill a young man with a falling piano, is not too far off the mark.

Paul would not recognize such a God– neither would any Israelite or Christian of the first century. That might be some pagan view of God, but it is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is not the God who sent Jesus His Son into the world.

The One True God is not distant and remote. Yes, we must seek after Him, but, as Paul says, He is not far from us. We exist in Him. We live and move in Him. We cannot understand this in a concretely physical sense, but it also cannot be seen as true in some remote spiritual context. It is true in a very near spiritual context. When Jesus says, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them,” in Matthew 18:20, He is talking about a spiritual presence, but a presence that is “present” nonetheless!

The Israelites did not waver in their belief that God was with them; all they had to do was look toward the Tabernacle or the Temple and see the cloud of the Presence and understand that God was there (cf. Exodus 40:34). This same imagery is used to describe the people of God today– Christians (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19-20). If believers, individually and corporately, are the Temple, then God’s presence must be with them, as the Scriptures indeed attest. The same is established in Romans 8:9-11. The message of the New Testament is unambiguous: if we are God’s people, then God is with us. This does not mean that a remote and distant spiritual figure far away in the heavens has accepted us. It means that the Creator of the universe is actively working with us and seeking to benefit us in ways we cannot imagine (cf. Romans 8:31-33, Ephesians 3:20-21). When the New Testament declares that Jesus is Lord, this is not to mean that we have a distant and remote ruler. It means that no matter how terrible it may seem on the surface, Jesus is really in control, and blessings will come to those who obey Him (cf. Revelation 12-19)!

There is much that is mysterious about the nature of God and His Presence. We know that God does not abrogate man’s will, and we understand that speaking of God’s presence in “literal,” “concrete,” or “physical” ways are misguided. Nevertheless, we should not allow the humanistic thinking over the past few hundred years to re-define the nature of God for us. Instead, we must understand who God is on the basis of what He has revealed. He is not far from us. He is not the distant and remote figure that our society has made Him out to be. Instead, in Him we live and move and have our being. If we are His people, His Presence is with us. Let us be thankful that our God is not remote, but is very much near, and praise His name!

Ethan R. Longhenry