The Word Became Flesh
Robert Y. Eckardt
"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).
Is Jesus God? Every Christian would say yes! "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1). Unbelievers may challenge this truth, but we have learned the importance of believing in the deity of Christ.
Is Jesus man? Sometimes Christians stumble on this question, perhaps because we are afraid of taking away from the majesty or the reality of his deity by emphasizing his humanity. However, Christ is fully man, just as he is fully God—not merely a God-filled man or a human-formed God, but the God-man. This difficult theology is stated quite simply in the classic text: "The Word became flesh" (John 1:14). The apostles were eyewitnesses of the Word, even Jesus Christ, and they knew him both in his deity and in his humanity. We say that the One who was and is fully God became and remains also fully man.
"The Word," as John 1:1 reminds us, is God himself, the Logos (the Greek word translated "Word"), who always was eternally God, not created. The Trinity has always existed, and the Word is the second person of the Trinity. He is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable.
When I was a boy, I used to lie on my back on top of the flat roof of our house and gaze out into space, trying to imagine how far away the nearest star is. Alpha Centauri is a little over four light years away, which means that if we could travel at the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second, it would take over four years to get there. And this is just the nearest star! Then think that our galaxy is 55,000 light years across. Later I learned that our galaxy is part of a neighborhood of galaxies, and that we have discovered other neighborhoods even farther away!
It boggles the mind to imagine traveling even to the nearest star, much less beyond. Yet God, in the person of Jesus Christ, bridged every gap and came from the eternity of heaven, across the infinite gulf between God and the creation, and became flesh.
In the Greek text of John 1:14, the next word after "Word" is "flesh." This word order places an emphasis on "flesh." In the Bible, this term has various shades of meaning, depending on its context. Here it means "humanity," including you. It emphasizes man's weakness as a creature.
Jesus spoke of his own flesh when he said, "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh" (John 6:51).
Flesh is not eternal. In fact, the Bible often emphasizes its passing nature. As the psalmist says, "Yet he was merciful; he forgave their iniquities and did not destroy them. Time after time he restrained his anger and did not stir up his full wrath. He remembered that they were but flesh, a passing breeze that does not return" (Ps. 78:38–39 niv).
Isaiah says, "All flesh is grass … but the word of our God will stand forever" (Isa. 40:6, 8). In one passage, the weak flesh and the eternal Word are contrasted. Nonetheless, the Bible emphasizes that the Word became flesh.
The seemingly infinite, yet in fact finite, galaxy is no challenge for God. The apparently uncrossable chasm is no barrier to him. He is infinite, so his attention to us is not limited by our imagination. We might think that we are insignificant in the universe, just because it is so vast, but we are not lost in the galaxy. Instead, the eternal and infinite Word, focusing on us, his creation, narrowed his attention, as it were, to our galaxy, our sun, our world, and descended to us in human nature.
Note that Christ did not abandon his deity when he became a man. In an old Leave It to Beaver episode, some boys play a trick on another and pretend that Beaver actually becomes a rock. If that were possible, he would no longer be a boy, but be a rock instead. Jesus did not become man in this way.
Instead, keeping his divinity, he added humanity to it. When a man's wife gives birth, we speak of him becoming a father, while remaining a husband. Similarly, the Word took a human nature without giving up anything of his unchangeable divinity, and without failing to take anything of our humanity, except for sin. Yet even then he came "in the likeness of sinful flesh" (Rom. 8:3), with the other weaknesses that attend our fallen natures, though with a sinless nature himself.
We see this in Jesus' life on this earth. He went to a wedding celebration at Cana in Galilee, as ordinary people do, but then the divine Bridegroom manifested his glory by changing water into wine. He fell asleep in a boat because his body was tired, but then the God of the winds and the waves awoke to calm a storm.
The awesome reality is that the infinite God took on a finite nature in the one person of Jesus Christ. The divine united with the human in him.
The Council of Chalcedon expressed this profound truth in this way: the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, is "at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man," possessing "two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation." (For the full quotation, see the sidebar at the left.)
We must always remember that as wondrous as is the Incarnation, it is not just a divine tour de force, whereby we see the power of God and God becomes man out of mere curiosity, just to "get to know us." For we are not just finite; we are also sinners!
Therefore, John adds in the text, "and dwelt among us." The verb more literally means that he "tabernacled" among us. As God's presence was with his people in the desert, and his Shekinah glory revealed his power, love, and grace, so Amos's prediction that God would restore the fallen booth of David was fulfilled when Jesus moved in and set up his tent next to us (Amos 9:11–12; Acts 15:13–17). As it were, he moved in next door. And he will stay there forever, as we read in Revelation 21:3: "And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.' "
Christ came to do a job among us. Missionaries can study a foreign country and know its ways, but they have to go there to know the people and do what needs to be done. Christ did not become flesh to observe us, but to serve and thus to save us. Augustine said, "That men might be born of God, God was first born of men."
Seeing His Glory
Just as God showed his saving glory in the tabernacle, even so Christ displayed the glory of God in redemption. Thus, John, who saw that glory even more clearly on the Mountain of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:1–2), could write in our text, "And we have seen his glory." God's glory is revealed for us to see!
How can that be, since we are warned that we cannot see God and live? God concealed himself and yet revealed himself to Moses on Mt. Sinai, so Moses could see his glory and not die (Ex. 33:17–23). Now he clothes himself in our flesh to show his divine nature in redemption, so that we who are clothed in his righteousness might see his glory by faith and live.
Before, the glory was concealed in a tabernacle. Now his glory is revealed in the tabernacle of his body, that on the cross he might bear our sins and communicate his grace and truth to us.
God's compassion for those who deserve no mercy was shown on the cross, the focus of incarnate glory, where the sinless one died for the sinful. This is glorious too.
Martin Luther tells this story:
There was a no-good lout who was sitting in the congregation and heard again and again, "God became man for you." He heard the sermon, the singing, the recitation of the creed, and he remained unmoved. An angel came to him and struck him such a blow so as to render the man almost senseless. "You ungrateful wretch—here you hear that God became man for you and you sit here like a stick or a stone. If I had heard that God had become an angel for me, I would have fallen down and wept for gratitude. But here you sit, senseless and dull, while the whole universe marvels at Christ's love." (Works, vol. 22, on John 1:14)
Is your heart dull and senseless in the face of the glory of the Incarnation and Christ's redemption? May the wonder of God's power and grace in the Incarnation stimulate your faith and repentance.
The author is the pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Red Bank (Chattanooga), Tenn. Except where otherwise indicated, he quotes the ESV. Reprinted from New Horizons, November 2004.