No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. John 1:18
Two things are obvious here. One, there is grandeur in this passage. The verses have dignity in their cadence and profundity in their thought. Whatever this passage is, it isn’t trivial. It is grand. Two, there is tension here. For example, verse 18: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” But if the Father is God, then who is the only God who makes the Father known? The tension is obvious, and John doesn’t resolve it.
If you and I were going to invent our own religion, it wouldn’t read like this. We would edit out the tensions. We wouldn’t leave ourselves vulnerable to an obvious objection. John 1:1-18 doesn’t come across as man-made religious literature.
John 1:1-18 doesn’t even come across as just another biblical passage. Most people love Psalm 23, for example: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” But John 1 is greater than Psalm 23. Why do I say that? Because John 1 takes us all the way up into ultimacy. Again, verse 18: “The only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” But look at the alternative translation down in the margin: “The only God, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” The Greek word translated “side” or “bosom” is used in chapter 13 when John leans back on Jesus’ chest. This word was also used to describe a bay or inlet, where the ocean curves into the land. It was used for a valley, where the lay of the land goes deeper. Here’s the point. Jesus did not come from the periphery of God. He came from the deepest heart of God. Jesus is alone qualified to show us the most remote and inaccessible interiority of the invisible God. Jesus embodies the innermost psychology of the Father. Other thinkers and mystics, at best, stood off at a distance and strained their eyes and speculated about God. But Jesus emerged out of the deepest mystery and the most privileged access within God. That the Lord is my shepherd is wonderful. But we still might wonder, Is there anything else about God down underneath the shepherd metaphor, anything at all way out there in the remotest unexplored regions of God’s innermost person that I might still need to brace myself against? In other words, Can I be sure of God? Jesus came to answer our question. And his answer is himself. Jesus is the Word, that is, the message from God about God. He is all we need to know about God, all we could hope for about God.
Do you know what our basic problem is? It’s not what we think. We see our broken relationships and our out-of-control habits, and so forth. But all of these are the merest fleabites on the surface. Our real problem is that we don’t believe in the real Jesus – the Christ, the Son of God (John 20:30-31). Every moment of panic, every vain regret, every hidden hypocrisy – our every failure is alerting us, “I’m not believing that Jesus is enough for me!” And when we do believe in him as he actually is, we walk with our heads held high and with a spring in our step and hope in our hearts. So as we go through John’s Gospel and see Jesus with new eyes, we will grow less inclined to tell him that he’s small and weak and marginal, and we will grow more inclined to believe that he’s big enough for us forever, and we will amaze our city with what believing in Jesus really looks like. I’ve got a crazy idea. Let’s go further with Jesus than we’ve ever gone before, further than we’ve ever dreamed of going. Let’s not believe anything about him that isn’t true, and let’s believe everything about him that is true. Let’s look away from our fears and failures to all that he is for us.
John 1:1-18 is the prologue to John’s Gospel. He introduces Jesus in three ways. One, Jesus is primal (verses 1-5). Two, Jesus is controversial (verses 6-13). Three, Jesus is final (verses 14-18).
Jesus is primal
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:1-5
Like a thought that must be expressed in words, Jesus is the Word expressing and communicating the Father. He has always been so: “In the beginning was the Word.” The Christian gospel says that, before time began, glorious interactions were forever reverberating within the Triune being of God. This is ultimate reality. Love and community are most really what is. This is what came first and nothing else stands “behind” it as the deeper, truer story. God created space and time and human history out of his overflowing joy in being God, so that we could be caught up in his glory. We rejected him for our own self-glory. But in Jesus we see who God really is. He absorbed our evil into himself at the cross, to bring us back into the nuclear-powered glory that’s been exploding forever and will never end. That just happens to be the universe we got plunked down into – a glorious kingdom where love matters most.
There never has been a time when the Son of God was not there. Our minds struggle when we stand before infinity. But let’s live with the tension of a Christ bigger than our thoughts. The early theologian named Arius tried to shrinkwrap the Son of God down within his own thought-forms. So he taught that Christ was not eternal but was brought into being at some early moment. That way of seeing of Christ was declared heresy by the Council of Nicaea in 325. You can see why. Verse 1 is saying, “In the beginning of creation, when the curtain went up and the lights went on for the first time, the Word was already there, and was with God, and was God.”
What is heresy? Heresy is a way of thinking about God so misguided that, if you follow its path, it will lead you away from God forever. That is a heresy. You can be a Baptist or an Anglican or whatever, and you can connect with God. But you connect with God not by being a Baptist or an Anglican. You connect with him through the Son, who alone is primal and uncreated and eternal.
The other thing John wants us to know here in verses 1-5 is this: “All things were made through him.” His fingerprints are all over the creation. Which puts dignity and joy on our everyday lives. But obviously, everything is not roses. All things were made through him, but evil is here too. John calls it “darkness” in verse 5. But darkness is not ultimate. The darkness is not up at the level of the light. Reality is not dualistic. Dualism says that ultimate reality is binary and oppositional, with a benevolent power and a malignant power. Dualism says that we’ve been caught up in the clash between these two opposing energies – the light side of the Force, the dark side of the Force. But here’s the problem. Dualism takes away any reason for opposing cruelty. Why oppose human trafficking, for example, if ultimate reality includes darkness and violence and madness? Why not flow with it? Why not choose darkness? Some cultures in the world today do believe that there are good gods and bad gods in competition. And dualistic belief creates a dualistic culture, where both uplifting ideals and degrading cruelties are built in. Dualism strips us of any authoritative reason for opposing cruelty.
But the Christian gospel proclaims that God alone is ultimate, and God is light, and in him is life, and evil is parasitic and temporary and redeemable. Everything within our experience that is life-giving and bright and hopeful comes from him and therefore deserves to exert authority among us. God does not include darkness; God’s light makes the darkness felt. Light and darkness are not equals. The darkness attacks the light, but it keeps failing. Verse 5: “The light of Christ shines in the darkness of this world, and the darkness has never obliterated it.”
The light of the gospel is shining more brightly today than ever. The U. S. Center for World Mission tracks the growth of the Christian movement this way. By A.D. 1430, 1% of the world’s population were Christians. It took about 1400 years to get to one percent. By 1790, 360 years later, 2% of the world’s population were Christians. By 1940, 150 years later, 3%. By 1960, 20 years later, 4%. By 1970, ten years later, 5%. By 1980, 6%. By 1983, 7%. By 1986, 8%. By 1989, 9%. By 1993, 10%. By 1997, 11%. By 2010, 12%, or one in seven people. The darkness is losing. Why? Because Jesus was here first. He owns this world. He is primal, and we are glad.
Jesus is controversial
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. John 1:6-13
C. S. Lewis, in his essay on stories, said, “Dangers there must be; how else can you keep a story going?” The Christian gospel, amazingly, shows that God wrote danger and loss and even death into his own story. In these verses we see God turning a page in his story, starting a new chapter when he sent John the Baptist into the world. John was so impressive that some people wondered if he was the promised Messiah (John 1:19-20). But he was only a witness to Jesus. Every reference to John the Baptist in this Gospel downplays him, because his mission was for Jesus to stand out: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). If we here at Immanuel will humbly keep Jesus foremost, our impact today will be prophetic in our city and far beyond. I love the word “all” in verse 7: “John the Baptist came as a witness, …that all might believe through him.” A church focused on Jesus only is where all kinds of people can believe.You don’t have to be Republican, you don’t have to be white, you don’t have to be anything but what you are. The question is, Do you believe in Jesus?
Verse 9 says that Jesus is the true light “which gives light to everyone.” What does that mean? It doesn’t mean that every member of the human race is spiritually enlightened by Jesus somehow. The gospel nowhere says that. Another way to translate verse 9 is, “the true light, which sheds light on everyone, or exposes everyone….” The kind of person Jesus was shed light on the kind of people we are. We finally saw that we are not normal. We are not the human beings God had in mind. Only Jesus is all that mankind is meant to be. That hurts our pride. The gospel makes the truth clearer than we might prefer. The gospel clarifies distinctions we might blur together – like who are God’s children in this world? And he is the one stirring up the controversy.
Verses 11-12 make the issue clear: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” Have you received Jesus by his name, that is, Jesus in his true magnitude? Maybe the Jesus you received was a miniaturized “Jesus” of your own invention, not the real Jesus in the gospel. Let’s all believe in his name, that is, not with the categories we put on him, but with all the grandeur he reveals to us. Only the real Jesus can make you a real child of God. You don’t want to make up that identity either. You want to be a real sinner coming through the real Savior to the real Father. Some people see themselves as entitled to God by virtue of their own morality and orthodoxy. We know we’re disqualified. But we are here today to receive Jesus as he is revealed in his glorious mercy for the undeserving. He has the authority to give us – that’s how it works, he gives and we receive – he gives the undeserving who believe in him the right to run into the Father’s arms and be loved endlessly. The Bible tells us we can draw near to the Throne of Grace with boldness, with confidence, having only Jesus as all our legitimacy before the Father (Hebrews 4:16). And he’s enough.
It gets better. If you receive Christ, you discover down beneath your decision God’s miracle in you. Verse 13 says it’s a kind of new birth given by God. It means that God jumpstarted your capacity to open up to God. And he will therefore help you to live as a child of God should. All the powers of the light and the life enter your heart, never to leave.
He’s controversial. But he alone can bring you to the Father your heart longs for.
Jesus is final
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. John 1:14-18
I say that Jesus is final because of verse 17. The law came through Moses, telling us what to do and what not to do, and we have all failed. But grace and truth – that is, a true grace, a non-flattering grace with total credibility, a grace that will never let us down though we let him down, a grace serious enough to make us dance and sing – grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. And God has nothing greater on the horizon. He has nothing further to say to us, nothing more to offer us. And we need no more than Jesus, for he has fullness of grace upon grace for the unworthy.
It was this paragraph for which John wrote his Gospel. There is nothing greater. God became man. It seems so unlikely. In John’s day, the Greeks thought of matter as so filthy and yucky and smelly that spirit and matter could not coexist. That the Word would become flesh was crazy. Among the Christians, there was a movement called Docetism that taught that Jesus only seemed human but didn’t, for example, actually leave footprints when he walked the dusty roads of Palestine. We today struggle to believe that God is this humble and loving. But John is as eager to affirm Jesus’ humanity as he is the Lord’s deity. In chapter 4, for example, Jesus is sitting beside a well, tired and thirsty and worn out. The gospel blows all our categories when it says that, in Jesus, the eternal Creator God entered into time and became man in order to die for the unworthy and unwashed.
That isn’t how we see glory. In our world, glory is swagger. But God came down. And that was his greatest glory ever. The Word became like you and me, like every handicapped person, like the poor and the wealthy, the talented and the ordinary. Everyone can identify with him, because he identified with every one of us – yet without our sin, in order to be our righteousness.
He didn’t live in a palace of the Caesars. He didn’t live in a guru’s cave in the mountains. He dwelt among us, as one of us. In the Old Testament, God dwelt in the tabernacle and later in the temple. It was where people could come and find God. That was temporary. Jesus Christ crucified is forever where sinners draw near to God.
When you go to the cross by faith, with nothing but your failure and your need, completely open to him, that’s how you receive his fullness of grace upon grace moment by moment. Endless grace. Undepleted supplies of grace right now. Fresh today. Fresh tomorrow. You can begin every day confident in Jesus’ fullness for you. Always think in terms of his plenty for your need. Always face life with all you have in Christ. Never see yourself only in terms of your weaknesses and shortcomings. Always remember your standing in Christ. He has fullness for you, fullness of grace upon grace, real grace that has never failed anyone who has come to him. There is no end to the real Jesus.
We all tend to think, “Sure he’s gracious. But I’ve used up my quota. There’s no more for me.” But what is the nature of his grace? His grace is one-way love, motivated not by our performance but only by his own glory. And if that’s what his grace is, then endless need glorifies endless supply. We can sin our way out of our marriages and our jobs and our health. But we cannot sin our way out of the fullness of God’s grace in Christ.
Every other religion draws a line, beyond which its remedies run out. But if you come to Christ, you come to one who glorifies himself by never running out of fullness for you. This is not a concession on his part. This is not an exceptional policy he might revoke. This is his glory forever. Believe it. Dare to believe it. And rejoice.