Dec 23, 2018

“The Glory of the Only-begotten God” 12-23-18

John 1:1-18
December 23, 2018
Fourth Sunday in Advent

As we began this Advent series on the Prologue to John’s gospel, I suggested that you keep in mind a phrase from Charles Wesley‘s “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” namely the line, “Light and life to all he brings...”  As we reach the end of the Prologue this morning, the theme of light finds concrete expression in John’s reference to seeing the glory of the Word-made-flesh.  “The Word became flesh and lived among us.  And we have seen his glory...”   Now glory, particularly in Greek, is about shining.  In Hebrew, it is about weight.  In the NT, these two ways of expressing glory sometimes appear side by side.  St. Paul, for example, in 2 Corinthians 4:6 says,  “For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”  But a few verses later, in 4:17, Paul says, “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure...”  In John's Prologue, in the context of life and light brought into the world by the Word, the glory of the Word has to do with shining light.  The thought is similar to Hebrews 1:3, where it is said of the Son, he is the “shining of God’s glory.”  This morning we will look at John’s testimony to the glory of the Word-made-flesh; by God’s grace, perhaps we may catch a glimpse of this glory, or, at the very least, a deeper longer for that day when we shall see it in its fullness.

Let me first briefly sketch the contours of verses 14-18 in relationship to the rest of the Prologue.   Both sections of the Prologue begin with the Word, with the second, of course, calling us back to the Word as the central focus.   However, the second part of the Prologue has a different character than the first part.   The first 13 verses we might characterize as exposition.  They narrate in the broadest terms the mission of the Word.  He comes to bring the light of life into a dark world; though he meets with rejection from his own people, he triumphs over the darkness and forms a new household of faith, comprised of those receive him—these are the children of God.  Verses 14-18, though, have the character of testimony.  In these verses, the writer speaks uniquely in the first person plural.  “We beheld his glory...”  Here is concise testimony to the Apostolic experience of the light of life, brought into the world by the Word.    We should also notice that the testimony of John the Baptizer is recalled in both sections; that is obviously of great importance, but I will leave that to you as a something to ponder on your own.

Another difference between the two sections is this: the second section of the Prologue retells the story of the Word with concrete historical detail, making explicit much of what is set forth in the first.  So, for example, in the second section, the Word is given a name:  Jesus Christ.  Moreover, the second section ties the story of the Word in no uncertain terms to the story of Israel.  The Word disclosed in verse 1 became flesh and lived among us. The NRSV phrase, “lived among us” is idiomatically and far more colorfully Englished by Eugene Petersen as “moved into the neighborhood.”   But the word used by John, which literally means “to pitch a tent,” would have cause his readers to think of the tabernacle, or tent of meeting, where the Lord met with Israel during the wilderness wandering and the subsequent initial settlement of Canaan.  This “tent of meeting” was at the center of the Israelite camp in the wilderness as a sign that God dwelt among his people.  During the Exile, this becomes a symbol of hope for restoration.  So, in Ezekiel Ch. 37:27. “My dwelling place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”  This verb “to pitch a tent” (or “to tabernacle”) is found elsewhere in the NT only in the Book of Revelation, most notably in 21:3:  “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.”  If you look at Revelation 21:3 in the NRSV, you will see that they have a footnote for “dwell,” indicating that it literally means “to tabernacle.” 

In the reference to “pitching his tent”, the reader is to understand that, in the person of the Word-made-flesh, the Covenant God of Israel has drawn near and is bringing the relationship with his Covenant people to a glorious consummation.  God’s purposes for his covenant people—namely, the enjoyment of union and communion with himself---are reaching their goal.

Note, in the third place, the surprising transition between the first and second sections of the Prologue.  The word that signals the transition is the word “flesh.”  The first section of the Prologue reaches its close by exposing the weakness of the flesh.  There is nothing in our flesh that can make us Children of God.  Children of God are begotten, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh nor the will of man, but of God.  1:13. Now the Word became flesh. 1:14. There is something jarring about the transition between “flesh” in 13 and “flesh” in 14.   It is the placing side by side of weakness and almighty power.   The Word is the creator of all things.  He has life in himself.  But He becomes flesh, which has no power to bring new birth or attain unto the light of life.   The jarring movement causes us to stop in wonder and amazement.  It causes us to wonder why?  What possible purpose could this serve? 

Now in the theological tradition of the church, this jarring juxtaposition of the Word and flesh is understood as part of what is called “the great exchange.”  Now John could have said that the Word became human—anthropos. But, instead, he says that the Word became flesh—sarks.  “Flesh” here points to our mortality, our weakness, (but not our sinfulness).  The only-begotten God takes on flesh and, in so doing, invests our weak mortality with his life and strength.  We could think also of St. Paul's words, “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” (2 Cor. 8:9)  This is “the great exchange.”  In the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions, the great exchange is understood in terms of deification, based on St. Peter's reference to our becoming “partakers of the divine nature.” (2 Peter 1:4)  The Reformed tradition does not go down that road, but understands the great exchange in terms of our justification: Christ takes on our guilt as an offering for sin and his perfect righteousness is accounted as our own.  Both understandings of the exchange, though, are grounded in the truth that the Word became flesh.

This, then, is an extended theological answer to the purpose served by the Word becoming flesh.  The more immediate answer, though, is given in the second half of 1:14:  “We beheld his glory.”  Through the Word becoming flesh, we are given a glimpse of the glory of God.  Moreover, the quality or character of this glory is specifically elaborated as “full of grace and truth.”  In the climax of John's gospel, the fullness of glory is paradoxically hidden, because the fullness of his glory—grace and truth—is displayed in the cross.  There we see only shame, desolation, derision and abandonment.  Yet Jesus' last words on the cross are the triumphant, “It is finished.” (Jn. 19:30)  It is in his cross that truth and grace have their perfect union.  It is in the cross that the truth about our sin is told.  In the cross we see God's verdict about our own character and what we deserve.  But, we also see God's truth—that he stands by his promise to save sinners.  And, in this, we see his grace.  “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.” (Jn. 3:16)  That is John's extended answer to why the word became flesh.

Let's return, though, to the Prologue.  It is worth pointing out that John's gospel makes no reference to the transfiguration recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke.  However, it is clear that, apart from the resurrection itself, no event made a greater impression on Peter and John than the transfiguration.   (See 2 Peter 1:16; Revelation 1:12-16)  In the words, “we beheld his glory”--a beholding that most commonly refers to spectators at a play—John alludes to the transfiguration, but takes it in a different direction.  The great glory of Christ was not just the dazzling display of his future glorified state, but what he revealed about the Father through his earthly ministry—namely, grace and truth.

The focus on grace and truth is made plain by the parallel structure of this second section of the Prologue.  The structure is what we call an inverted parallelism.  If we call the main ideas a, b, and c, the structure of this section is a-b-c, c-b-a.   The “a” element is that of “seeing.”  “We beheld his glory” in 1:14 is answered by “No one has seen God.” in 1:18.  The “b” element, “full of grace and truth” in 1:14 is echoed by “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” in 1:17.  The “c” element has to do with the surpassing greatness, or “fullness” of the Word-made-flesh.  He ranks higher than John the Baptizer.  He is also greater than Moses, through whom the Law was given.  The contrast, we must understand, is not that there was no grace under the Law.  No one who reads the Law or the Prophets or the Psalms could hold such an absurd idea.   The contrast is between promise and fulfillment, between foretaste and fullness.  In Christ, the Word-made-flesh, there is “grace upon grace” and herein the surpassing greatness of his glory lies.

Now we come to a curious observation about John's gospel.  At the very heart of the glory of the Only-begotten God is grace.  Abounding grace.  But, this is the last time in John's gospel that the word “grace” appears.  John will record all sorts of sayings and conversations about “truth.”  But, this is his last mention of “grace.”  Clearly, then, John is inviting us to be on the lookout for abounding grace. 

Let me sketch a few examples of how this works out.  The first time Jesus reveals his glory in John's gospel—this glory that the disciples beheld—is at the wedding in Cana in Galilee.  “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” (Jn.2:11)  Now what did Jesus do there to reveal his glory?   He turned gallons and gallons of water into fine wine!  This is abounding grace!  In John 6, Jesus fed five thousand people with five barley loaves and two fish.  At the end of the story, as everyone else is leaving, Peter says, on behalf of the disciples, “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (Jn. 6:69)  This is abounding grace!  Just like Cana, the disciples believe.  In John 7, at the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem, Jesus announced, “ 'Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.' As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’  Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive...” (Jn. 7:37-39)  This is abounding grace, to be fully experienced when the Spirit is poured out.   Here is start, then, to tracing abounding grace in John's gospel.

I would like to bring this message to a final focus, though, by calling attention to the fact that the disciples we captured by the glory of the only-begotten God.  When John recalls the appearing of the Word-made-flesh, this is how he summarizes the impact of that event in their lives:  we beheld his glory!  Here, I believe, we have an insight into our destiny, the very purpose of our existence—namely the enjoyment of union and communion with the Triune God.  This, as I noted earlier, was the significance of the tabernacle in the midst of Israel.   This is what Ezekiel looked forward to and what the Book of Revelation envisions as the fullness of our hope.  An essential dimension of union and communion with God will be the beholding of his glory.  It is this, at least in part, that will enable us, as the Shorter Catechism says, to “enjoy him forever.”

I have observed that some Christians are a bit unsure about the vision of heaven.  In the back of their minds there is an uneasiness about the possibility of boredom emerging as the ages roll.  Now, the biblical language of New Creation suggests that there will be things to do in the New Heavens and the New Earth and that there will be a contentment to be found in whatever that activity looks like.  However, the central feature of the New Creation is that we will know union and communion with God.  If we stop and contemplate this for a moment, I believe anxiety about boredom in heaven should be put to rest. 
To enjoy union and communion with God is to enter into a union and communion that is from and unto eternity.  The Father, Son, and Spirit have always been in union and communion with each other.  It is absurd to think that they struggle or have struggled with boredom!  Their union and union is one of eternal joy and delight that overflows into creative love.  It is into this fellowship that we are brought through our union with Christ.  And, however we understand Peter's “partakers of the divine nature,” we should be confident that the capacity to genuinely enjoy God forever will surely be part of our redemption.

In Psalm 27:4, David expressed the deep longing of his soul.  “One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after; to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.”  John's “We beheld his glory” speaks to that same longing and seeking.  The first disciples saw his glory in the unfolding drama of the life of Jesus Christ on earth—from the cradle to the Cross.  Clearly for them, the appearing of the Word-made-flesh was not just to help us live faithfully in this life, but to fill us with a vision and longing for the life to come, in which Christ himself will be our chief joy and delight.  May it be so with us as well.   Amen.


Pastor Paul Copeland
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906