Have you ever looked out of an aircraft and considered the reality of powered flight? There is something spectacular about what is taking place, and yet – when we understand the principle – there is a profound simplicity that underpins that reality.
The Gospel of John is similar: it carries us away from the typical elements of the incarnation-as-history. It takes us behind the scenes, away from rushing humanity to divine serenity. Graphic in his straightforwardness, John simply tells us that the Word became flesh (John 1:14).
Consider, firstly, the brevity of John’s statement. It is four words, both in English and the original Greek.
The Word is the divine person of John 1:1 – someone who is God yet distinguished from the Father: he who was in the beginning with God.
He became something. John is careful: the Word did not adapt the appearance of, change into, mix with, or become part of something. Without ceasing to be the Word, he became and remained something else as well. He added something and lost nothing.
He became flesh. That would have been shocking to John’s original readers, some of whom would have assumed that only the spirit had any virtue, and that the flesh was low and coarse. It is blunt, earthy, almost vulgar.
The Word took to himself a real and total humanity (sin excepted), in which he could plainly and evidently dwell among us.
But then consider, secondly, the simplicity and clarity of John’s statement. You cannot really summarise what John says! You can only develop and expand it.
It is the stunning reality of Immanuel – God with us. He who was and remains true God became and remains true man.
A marginal note in the old Geneva Bible says, ‘That Son, who is God everlasting, took upon him man’s nature, that one and the self same might be both God and man.’ This is ‘no frills’ theology. What uncomplicated glory!
Matthew and Luke describe the human drama around the divine activity. Mark plunges us into the ministry of the incarnate Son, declaring the reality rather than describing or explaining it. John takes us behind the scenes, the reassuring revelation of divine purpose carried out with serene might. It is certain, it is solid, it is definite.
We may not always be able to remember and explain all that we might wish, but this we can summarise and state with absolute certainty: ‘The Word became flesh.’
However, we should not assume that simple and clear is the same as shallow and easy. Bishop John Ryle reminded his readers that this statement is short on words but long on content.
We must therefore consider, thirdly and finally, the profundity of John’s statement
We can say these four words so quickly, but they need to sink into our minds and hearts. We need to grip, and be gripped by, the implications of God becoming man.
The Maker of all things became something made! The Creator took to himself creatureliness! Is that simple and clear? Yes. Is it also mind-blowing and heart-bowing stuff? Yes! It should move us to awed adoration and true wonder.
Here is the world, made by the Word, wrecked by sin, characterised by the wickedness, ignorance, and ingratitude of the people who populate the globe. Into that world comes the Word – the Son sent by the Father and indwelt by the Spirit. He comes to reveal God to man, and to make known a divine love beyond human comprehension.
This fallen world, with all its God-rejecting wickedness, is the very stage on which God comes in flesh to save sinners. Without this divine act, without the Word becoming flesh, there is and can be no saving sight of God, no true knowledge of him: ‘No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared him’ (John 1:18).
Without this God-man, there is no redemption. These two natures in the one person give value to his mediation, for we now have the man Christ Jesus, who is God to stand before God and man to represent man. It gives value to his righteousness, for his is a God-righteousness, divine in its qualities and perfections, and so he is able to provide that by which God can be reconciled to sinners (2 Corinthians 5:21).
It gives value to his atonement, for his blood shed is that of the true Lamb of God, and he is able to bear the infinite weight of sin in his infinite strength. It gives value to his substitution, because justice would not be served if the one who took our place were not like us. But he is like us – he has taken our nature and can therefore take our place.
It gives value to his resurrection, because in him human nature is glorified, and the future of his people is patterned and assured. Our King now lives and reigns on high, the undying God-man, ruling and guiding and defending as the sympathetic Head of his body.
It gives value to that sympathy, for he remembers that we are dust (Psalm 103:14) with perfect insight born of complete experience (Hebrews 2:17-18; 4:15).
It gives value to his example: the pattern for our service is a man like us, and therefore he is a righteous and reasonable model for our emulation. We can legitimately pursue conformity to him, because in the God-man we see the accurate revelation of true godliness, and see what it means for us to be holy as God is holy.
Is he all this, and more, to you? Do you see him, trust him, love him, and adore him accordingly? Have you grasped this? Are you grasping this? Have you laid hold of this sweet and bold simplicity, the revealed love and purpose of God, that the Word became flesh?
As sinners, we embrace him as the only possible and one certain Saviour, God’s Revealer and our Redeemer, all the fullness of God fully engaged on behalf of sinful man.
As believers, we should see and delight in God’s glory shining in the face of Jesus Christ: ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14).
When we begin to understand this, we bow, we embrace, we adore, we follow, we proclaim, and we worship the God of our salvation.
Jeremy Walker is Pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church, Crawley.