In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . 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 1:1, 14
Here’s how this could be the greatest Christmas of our lives yet. Let’s start by stripping away the layers of sentimental foolishness that have glommed onto Christmas. Then we can get back to what really happened and be blown away by it. Let’s get rid of sleigh bells, let’s even get rid of the little drummer boy. On my satellite radio in my truck channel 4 is 40s music – Glenn Miller, and so forth. I like it. But just before Thanksgiving channel 4 switched over to “Holiday Traditions” – Christmas music. I’m guessing that on December 26th, it will switch back to Glenn Miller. That kind of Christmas-Jesus we turn on, and we turn off. How can that Jesus help us? What we need goes beyond our power to control. If there is any help for us at all, it must come from far beyond us. So let’s look far beyond our “Holiday Traditions.” Let’s press into the question, What really happened 2000 in the birth of Jesus 2000 years ago? If we strip away our additions to Jesus, will we end up with less or with more? Does Jesus need us to make Christmas better? Jani and I didn’t tell our kids there was no Santa Claus. They figured that out when they needed to. But I’m talking about us adults. And here’s what I want to say. In the ways of God, it’s when we lose our embellished Jesus that we can gain the real Jesus, who can actually help us. Let’s think it through.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. —John 1:1
Jesus didn’t start at Bethlehem. Do you see what John is doing here? The apostle John is deliberately echoing the opening words of the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). In the Hebrew Bible, the title of the book of Genesis is not Genesis but “In the beginning.” So back in John’s day, the connection was obvious. What is his point? His point is, Jesus is the new beginning of all things. Jesus brought into this tired old world a whole new world. He did not come to bring a new religion. That’s something we control. We turn it on, we turn it off. Jesus is not limited. He is uncreated. He is the Creator. He is eternal, as only God can be.
Religion is so limited, and limiting, because it’s a product of our exhausted world. Religion is what we create. And it doesn’t work. The demands never stop. With every new demand, we only stack up yet another failure. Then we cover over our failures with false appearances of a smiling okayness on the surface. Jesus did not come to give us a better version of all that. He came to free us from all that. He came not as a religious leader but as the Creator of something entirely new, so new, so outside our expectations and patterns, even we who believe are still figuring it out. If you want religion, you can find it. In Nashville, we have religion galore. But if you want to get outside your familiar categories and get a new you, Jesus can re-create you. In fact, only Jesus can free you from your religion, with all its failure and disappointment.
But why does John call him the Word? And why does John do that without explaining himself? It’s as if John expects us to understand this already. What is John taking for granted? Just this. God communicates. God wants to communicate with us. He wants us to know him. We make two big mistakes about this, two opposite mistakes. One, we think God is silent, we think God is unavailable and aloof and standoffish. We think God is holding out on us. We think God despises us. Two – and this is the opposite mistake – we think God can be heard and known and found anywhere, any way we like. We think that God is equally near all the time in every place in every voice and every opinion and all approaches to God are equally valid. Both ways of thinking are wrong. God is not silent. And God decides for himself what he’s going to say and how he’s going to say it. We don’t turn God on and off. Therefore, not every word is of God. Only The Word.
I wonder what you think of that. If you think it’s arrogant for the New Testament to say that Jesus is The Word from God, have you ever crawled inside that doubt deep enough to see what it’s really saying? It might feel humble to say, “No one religion has ‘the truth.’ They all have some validity. It’s like the blind men and the elephant.” But that argument is not humble. The one making that argument thinks he sees the whole elephant, unlike the rest of us blind people. How can someone say, “No one sees the whole picture,” without presuming to see the whole picture himself? You cannot deny an absolute claim without making your own absolute counter-claim. You need to doubt your own doubts. They aren’t as airtight as you think.
The gospel tells us that Jesus is “the Word” in the sense that he is God’s message to us. He is God’s clearest message to us. The Bible says that the heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1). But the heavens do not declare the love of God or the will of God. God spoke more clearly to Moses through the burning bush. He spoke to Israel through the thunder and lightning on Mount Sinai. He spoke to the prophets through visions. But God’s final and clearest word to us all is the person Jesus. If you want to listen to God, pay attention to Jesus. Jesus himself said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). He did not say, “We and the Father are one,” including us. He said to us, “I and the Father are one in a sense in which you are not included.” Jesus claimed for himself deity. That is why he is God’s clearest message to us. He is himself God. It’s what got him into trouble. Islam tells us Jesus was a prophet. My Muslim friends tell me they honor Jesus. But if Jesus’ claim to be God wasn’t true, then he was a false prophet and an evil man and should not be honored at all. We should reject him, because, making an absolute claim, he called us to obey him and even suffer for him. But I wonder, Do we Christians diminish Jesus, even as we say we honor him? Do we perceive Jesus and reach out to Jesus with glad expectancy of new selves for ourselves from his miracle-working hand, or do we treat him as a decoration in our lives even as we decorate our homes for Christmas? We put him up, we take him down. The gospel is telling us that the only way God wants to be listened to is for us to receive Jesus for all that he is. When we let him take over, we are helped.
Who then is the real Jesus? John continues, “and the Word was with God.” The key word is “with.” John had four words to choose from, all of which mean “with” in some sense. But the word he chose to use here makes one thing clear. The super-Person he calls the Word was throughout eternity face-to-face with God, one with God at God’s level.
John continues, “and the Word was God.” Nothing higher can be said about Jesus. He isn’t just impressive; he shares the inmost being of God. We should never patronize Jesus as a very special man but not really competent to run our complex lives today. The truth is, Jesus is the divine Word who himself defines relevance and establishes reason and creates meaning for us, because he is God. D. M. Baillie, the Scottish theologian, asks the right question:
Is the redeeming purpose which we find in Jesus part of the very being and essence of God? Is that what God is? Is it his very nature to create, and to reveal himself, and to redeem his creation? Is it therefore not some subordinate or intermediate being, but the Eternal God himself, who became incarnate in Jesus for our salvation?
In Jesus of Nazareth, we have been visited lovingly, sacrificially, redemptively by God. Jesus displays what God is, because this man alone shares the nature of God. You can look at Jesus and tell yourself, “There is God.” Your heart is being drawn not just to a man but to God. Do not deny your own heart. Believe the gospel. Swallow it whole. You can’t turn him on and turn him off, but you can satisfy your whole crazy heart’s desire with him, and only with him.
One more thing about verse 1. When John calls Jesus “the Word,” it would have resonated not only with Jewish people but also with Gentiles trained in Greek thought. The word John uses here, logos, was a technical term in Greek intellectual discourse. The Stoics, for example, used this word for the inner logic of the universe, how reality is organized, what accounts for the way things are. Let me illustrate. The BBC in Britain is funded by taxes. So there are no commercials on BBC television. I was watching TV at home in Scotland one day when we lived there, when I finally understood something. One program moved to the next with an almost seamless flow. And I realized the inner logic of American television. What is it that makes sense of the little universe inside an American TV set? What explains what’s going on inside that little world? I finally saw. American TV does not exist to show programs. It exists to show commercials. And it will show us just enough programming to get us to watch the commercials. It’s the commercials, not the programs, that are the inner logic, the logos, of American TV. Even so, there is a logic to the universe. There is a way to account for reality. And every human thought and feeling and action that runs contrary to the true logic of the universe is out of sync and has no future. The cohesion and power and meaning of the universe is not a blind force, it is deeper than physics, it is a Person who existed before everything else, everything else depends on him for its existence, and this super-Person came down to talk to us. That’s what happened 2000 years ago. Jesus showed us what’s really out there, what explains everything. He was himself the message. John takes us there next:
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 1:14
The truth about reality is humility and glory – the glory of humility, as we see it only in Jesus. Inside our world, it’s the glory of swagger. But the Word came down. The Word became flesh, like every member of the human race throughout the length of history, like you and me, like every handicapped person in the world, like the children, like the poor and the wealthy, like the ordinary folks and the geniuses. Everyone can identify with him, because he identified with every one of us at so deep a level. The Word became flesh – fully human, yet without our sin.
“And he dwelt among us.” He didn’t live up in a palace of the Caesars. He didn’t live in a guru’s cave out in the mountains. He dwelt down among us, as one of us, to win our trust. In the Old Testament, God dwelt among us in the tabernacle. It was where heaven touched earth. It was where people could come and find God. That was temporary. Jesus is permanently where everyone can find God.
“And we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” In the Old Testament, the glory of God came down in a cloud. But in Jesus, we see God’s glory more clearly. We crucified him. But God was there in glory, taking our real moral guilt onto himself so that we wouldn’t have to bear it any more. Only God would do that. Only God could do that. Only God has and deserves the glory. We connect with him by humbling ourselves. If God seems to you far away and remote, there is a reason. You’re still too high above him. You’ll find him, and in his glory, down, way down, at the lowest level of humility you know, where you don’t deserve him but you can have him.
When God became man, it wasn’t his back-up plan. “Full of grace and truth” takes us right back to the Lord of the Old Testament. Yahweh of Israel was full of steadfast love and faithfulness – grace and truth. God had always planned to display his glorious humility before us, up-close and personal, to catch us up in the freeing truth that we are not God, but God is God, and we get to have him and listen to him and be helped by him.
When the Word became flesh, God humbly squeezed himself down into a fertilized ovum, a growing embryo, a baby. He didn’t “beam down” from on high but entered the world through a mother’s body. He came out sticky and wet with wrinkled skin and a red face. His first sensation may have been the smell of manure in the stall where his mother lay. He had tiny hands that would grow and work hard and be ripped by nails on the cross. He had tiny feet that would learn to crawl and stand and walk and then run – not away from the Father’s will but eagerly toward his will, all the way, without holding back or hesitating even once. As he grew, he scraped his knees and bumped his head and had to be comforted. Some foods he didn’t like, other foods he relished. He fit into traditional Jewish culture. He went faithfully to the synagogue and paid attention to theology and thought about it all and learned and deepened and matured intellectually and emotionally. He learned to pray and depend on the power of the Holy Spirit. He was tempted and overcame. He experienced a growth spurt when he was 13 or 14, he went through puberty, he got pimples, his voice changed, he learned to shave. Girls flirted with him. Boys wrestled with him. He went to school and learned from his teachers and concentrated hard and memorized the Bible. He worked with Joseph in the family business and became a carpenter. He got splinters in his hands. He learned the difference between various grades of lumber. He dealt with customers who were hard to please and ungrateful and short-changed him. People whispered behind his back about his questionable birth and just because, well, he wasn’t entirely like everyone else. But he didn’t strike back when they tried to embarrass him. God had come down in humility and true glory, out of love for us, and his love made him willing to get hurt. His love is the only final reality in the universe. He came to tell us about it. When the Word became flesh, as my friend Sam Storms
has put it:
The invisible God became locatable.
The intangible Spirit became touchable.Eternal life endured temporary death.
The High and Exalted One came down low.
The Unchanging One submitted to growth.
The Almighty became weak.
The Eternal stepped into time.
The Beloved One became the hated one.
The Wise One was misunderstood.
The Holy One became common.
The Glorious One was subjected to shame.
The Worship of the angels became obscure, unknown, overlooked.
The living Torah became a criminal.
He descended from inexpressible joy into unimaginable sorrow, from a
throne to a cross.
The One who spoke the universe into existence cried and cooed and
gurgled and urped.
The One who measured the waters in the hollow of his hand floated in
the embryonic fluid of a womb.
The One robed in majesty was wrapped in swaddling clothes.
The One who neither slumbered nor slept rested on the breast of a
The One who every night brought out the host of stars by the millions
learned to count his fingers and toes.
The Alpha and Omega learned his ABC’s.
The One who inspired the Bible had to learn it.
The One who gave man knowledge studied at the feet of the rabbis.
The Judge of all mankind was convicted on false charges.
The One who breathed life into Adam breathed his last.
Almost everything we’ve ever believed about everything is wrong. The Word came down to change the subject and speak to us of a divine love we never could have believed in without him. Are we listening?