Christmas is my family’s favorite time of year. Unfortunately, because of the commercialism of the holiday in the U.S. and beyond, the message of Christmas is easily forgotten: namely, God, the Son, became Jesus, the Jewish man, in order to save Jews and Gentiles from their sins. By discussing a few texts in the Gospel of John, I want to highlight five truths about the incarnation of God, the Son. First, God, the Son, was always with God, the Father. Second, God, the Son, was never the Father. Third, God, the Son, became Jesus, the Jewish the man. Fourth, Jesus, the Jewish man, was fully God. Fifth, Jesus, the God-Son, was fully man.
God, the Son, always with God, the Father
John 1:1-14 is one of the strongest incarnational texts in the New Testament (NT). In John 1:1, the evangelist says, “in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” In 1:14, John identifies the “word” in 1:1 as Jesus when he states “and the word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, glory as the only unique one from the Father, and full of grace and truth.” The rest of the Gospel of John develops the major themes in 1:1-14 by highlighting Jesus’ teachings and his 7 miracles (John 2:1-17:26) and his post-resurrection appearances (John 20:1-21:23) for the purpose of evoking faith in the hearts of those who would hear the Gospel of John (John 20:31).
An important interpretive issue in John 1:1 related to the incarnation is the meaning of the term “word.” Interpreters have suggested a variety of options (e.g. see critical commentaries on John for a list of options). In my view, the most immediate background behind John’s use of the term “word” is the Old Testament (OT) since John presents Jesus, the Jewish God-man as the one who gives eternal life to those who believe. In other words, Jesus is the personification of numerous OT texts. For example, Jesus’ famous “I am” statements allude to certain OT texts (“I am the bread of life” [John 6:35, 41, 48, 51; cf. Exod 16:1-36]; “I am the light of the world” [John 8:12; cf. Isa 9:1-2]; “before Abraham was I am” [John 8:58; cf. Isa 43:10, 13]; “I am the door of the sheep” [John 10:7, 9; cf. Ezek 34:11-16, 23; 37:24]; “I am the good shepherd” [John 10:11, 14; cf. Ezek 34:11-16, 23; 37:24]; “I am the resurrection and the life” [11:25; cf. Dan 11:20; Ps 65:1; Zeph 3:8]). The “I am” statements highlight that Jesus shares in Yahweh’s divine identity (more about this later). In addition, the “I am” statements emphasize that Jesus gives eternal life to all who believe and that this life through Jesus fulfills the original intent and purpose of certain OT texts (for discussions about Jesus and the divine identity of Yahweh, see Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the God of Israel; see also John 4:26; 6:20, 35; 8:12, 18, 23, 24, 28, 58; 10:7, 9, 11, 14; 11:25-26; 13:19; 14:6; 15:1, 5; 18:6, 8).
In the OT, God’s word is never separate from his identity. That is, God’s word is always with him and part of his identity. God speaks his word and creates (Gen 1:1-2:25). God revealed himself to Moses and promised to bring salvation to Israel through his word (Exod 3:1-4:16). God invites sinners to receive salvation by his word (Isa 55:11). Thus, when John calls Jesus the “word” in 1:1 and 1:14, he identifies Jesus as one who was with the Father before the world was. And John communicates that Jesus is the personified expression of God in the flesh. This point is further established when John says the word “was in the beginning” (1:1) and that the “word was in the beginning with God.” In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1), Jesus was with God creating the heavens and the earth. In fact, John explicitly states this in 1:3: “all things came into being through him and apart from him nothing came into being, which has come into being.” Furthermore, Jesus proclaims later in John that one knows the Father if he knows Jesus (John 14:7) and that one sees the Father when he sees Jesus (John 14:9). God, the Son, was always with God, the Father, and God, the Son, reveals the Father in the incarnation.
Jesus, God, the Son, was never the Father
In John 1:1, the evangelist makes a very precise theological statement. On the one hand, he states that “the word was in the beginning.” On the other hand, he asserts that “the word was with God.” The key element of this statement is the prepositional phrase “with God.” If Jesus was with God in the beginning, one might think that this affirms that he was not God. However, John’s statement affirms just the opposite. His point is that Jesus was not God, the Father, because he was “with God,” the Father. But John explicitly states in 1:1 that “the word was God” and again in John 1:18 that Jesus is the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, who has explained God, and who has seen God. In other words, John is identifying Jesus as God, the Son, not as God, the Father, and yet John likewise supports that Jesus was equal to God, the Father, in the beginning in that he possessed all of the God-stuff that God possessed in the beginning. This point is supported by the fact that John says all things were created by Jesus and through Jesus (John 1:2). As I argued above, John appeals here to Gen 1:1. There Moses clearly states that God created the heavens and the earth in the beginning. John 1:2 affirms that Jesus was part of this God-head who created in the beginning with God. However, he was neither nor has he ever been the Father. Instead, Jesus has always been with God, the Father, as God, the Son.
“John likewise supports that Jesus was equal to God, the Father, in the beginning…”
John’s Gospel affirms both Jesus’ oneness and unity with the Father and his distinction from the Father as the Son (John 1:14, 34, 49; 3:16-18; 5:16-30, 37-38, 43-46; 8:36ff; 10:31-39; 11:27; 14:10; 15:22-24; 17:1ff; 19:7; 20:17, 30-31). John 3:16 states that, “God [the Father] so loved the world that he gave his Son [God, the Son] so that every believing one in him would not perish but would have eternal life.” In John 1:34, John, the Baptist, testifies that Jesus is the Son of God. In John 1:49, Nathaniel confessed that Jesus is truly the Son of God. In John 5:21, Jesus confesses that the Son [Jesus] raises the dead just as the Father [God]. This statement distinguishes Jesus from the Father as the Son while supporting that he is equal to the Father in his divinity as the God-Son. In John 5:19-27, Jesus proclaims that the Son does what the Father enables him to do and that the Father gives the Son [Jesus] authority to give eternal life to all who believe in in the Father and in the Son, whom the Father sent. In John 10:30, Jesus proclaims that he and the Father are one. This does not mean that he and the Father are the same people, for the “I” as a reference to Jesus and the noun “Father” as a reference to someone other than Jesus speaks against this. Instead, with these words, Jesus affirms that he and the Father share in the same divine identity of Yahweh, and that he and the Father are in unity with each other, although they are distinct from one another, within their shared divine identity as Yahweh. This truth is supported in the Gospel of John in that Jesus does the works of the Father (John 10:25) and prays to the Father (John 17). Thus, Jesus, God, the Son, was never the Father. But he has always been and always will be God, the Son, who is equal with the Father in divine stature and distinct from the Father in his person.
God, the Son, became Jesus, the Jewish Man
John 1:14 states that God, the Son, became Jesus, the Jewish man. John 1:14 offers one of the most historically important statements about Jesus. Namely, “the word became flesh.” Jesus’ preexistence with the Father, his oneness with the Father, and his distinct identity as the Son from the Father would not have saved sinners from their sins unless God, the Son, became Jesus, the Jewish man. In other words, the word becoming Jewish flesh was absolutely necessary for God to save Jewish and Gentile sinners. And the incarnation of Jesus was the unique moment in history when God himself became a man. Jesus did not become a god, but God, the Son, became Jesus the Jewish man.
When God, the Son, became Jesus, the Jewish man, God himself invaded human history so that he could become like those for whom he would die. This is why John 3:16 is so powerful. Namely, the eternal Son of God becomes Jesus, the Jewish man, and dies so that he would save anyone (Jew or Gentile) within humanity that believes in him by faith. John states this point very early in the narrative of his Gospel. In John 1:29, John, the Baptist, preaches with reference to Jesus “behold, the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” He reiterates this message by asserting that Jesus is the “lamb of God.” These statements mean that God, the Son, became Jesus, the Jewish man, whom God sent on a divine mission to be the sacrificial lamb to take away the sin of Jews and Gentiles [the world], who believe in him by faith. One of the glorious truths of the incarnation of Jesus Christ is God, the Son, became Jesus, the Jewish man, in order to save Jews and Gentiles who would have otherwise been condemned by God. As Paul puts it, “he did not consider equality with God as something to hold on to but he emptied himself in that he took on the form of a bondservant and in that he came in the likeness of man and after he was found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself until death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8).
Jesus, the Jewish Man, was Fully God
Jesus, the Jewish man, was 100% God even after he became a Jewish man. One might think that Jesus’ incarnation as a Jewish man obliterated his divinity. However, John’s gospel asserts the very opposite. John 1:1 states “the word was God.” The New World Translation, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses, translates the verse as “the word became a god.” This translation places the indefinite article “a” in front of the word “god” to emphasize that these translators deny that Jesus was God and affirm that he was “a” (little ‘g’) god. The translators of the New World Translation do this because there is not a definite article in the Greek NT before the word God, whereas there is an article before the previous reference to God in the first part of 1:1 and in the following references to God in 1:2. This proves, they argue, that John teaches the word was not (big ‘G’) God but a (little ‘g’) god because the noun God lacks the article when it’s applied to the word in the last part of John 1:1.
Nevertheless, NT scholars have argued and have clearly proven for some time now that since Greek lacks an indefinite article, it is incorrect to call the Greek article definite. Furthermore, the Greek article does not function to make a word definite exactly the same way as the English article does. In fact, John 1:18 refers to God, the Father, without the article. And John 1:18 identifies Jesus as God without the article: “no one has seen God” (no article in the Greek text) “at any time except the only begotten God” (no article in the Greek text) “who has explained him.” Thus, the article neither proves nor disproves anything with respect to the divinity of Jesus. John is saying in no uncertain terms in John 1:1 and in 1:18 that Jesus Christ is not the Father, but he is 100% God and equal to the Father in his divinity as the Son. And the numerous miracles that he performed and sermons that he preached throughout the gospel of John support his 100% divinity as the God-Son, who becomes the Jewish man. Because of limited space, I specifically highlight the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead and his discourse within this narrative.
John chapter 11 records the miraculous event of Jesus Christ physically raising his dead friend Lazarus from the dead. This miracle is the last of 7 miracles in the gospel of John that Jesus performs to convince people to believe that he is the Christ and God’s Son. According to John 2, Jesus performed his first miracle at a wedding feast during a time of celebration and joy, because of the reality of life. According to John 11, he performed his final miracle at a funeral during a time of grief, sadness, and pain because of the reality of death. John records both of these miracles (the first at a wedding celebration and the last at a funeral) to emphasize that one must have faith in Jesus Christ to receive eternal life.
An important point for my purposes is that the miracle of resurrecting Lazarus from the dead proclaims loudly and clearly to the readers that Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life and that he has the power to give eternal life to anyone who believes! These are two reasons why Jesus says the following words to one of Lazarus’ two grieving sisters at his funeral in John 11:25-26, “I am the resurrection and the life. And the one who believes in me will live, even if he dies. And everyone who lives and believes in me will certainly NOT die forever. Do you believe this?” Here Jesus confesses to do only what God himself does: namely, to give eternal life (Ezek 36:22-37:28) and to resurrect the dead (Rom 4:17).
In the narrative of John 11, when informed about Lazarus’ sickness, Jesus waited to visit him until after he died (John 11:4, 6, 11-14). This is puzzling to me, because we know from John chapters 3-10 that Jesus was a miracle worker (e.g. he healed blind eyes, he feed thousands of people with very little food, and at the end of the gospel of John he himself resurrects from the dead). Yet, he let Lazarus die, although he could have healed him from his sickness and spared himself, Lazarus’ family, and himself from grief (John 11:21, 32, 37). But he doesn’t do what we think he should have done. Instead, Jesus permitted Lazarus to die, even though he loved him and even though he wept bitterly for him when he died.
“Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life and that he has the power to give eternal life to anyone who believes!”
The question is why? Why did Jesus let his friend, whom he loved, die from this sickness? And why did he let family and friends suffer in the torment and agony of grief? Jesus intentionally allowed Lazarus to die so that he would perform the greater miracle of resurrecting him from the dead, so that the people who saw the miracle and who heard his words of life would believe in him by faith and so that they would receive eternal life. And this is exactly what happened in the story. Jesus showed up at the tomb of Lazarus after a 4 day funeral; he requested some onlookers to remove the stone away from the tomb, and he simply spoke these words: “Lazarus, come out” (John 11:43)! Immediately, Lazarus’ dead body responded to Jesus’ words and came out of the grave after having been dead and buried four days (John 11:44). As a result, John 11:46-47 states that many of those who witnessed this miracle believed in Jesus (John 11:45), while others refused to believe (John 11:46-47).
Verses 25-26 are two central verses to John chapter 11. In verse 25, Jesus says that he is the resurrection and the life and that the one who believes in him will live, even if he should die. This means that Jesus Christ possesses eternal life and will give it to anyone who believes in him and who follows him by faith. John’s gospel shows this very fact later when Jesus himself dies on the cross and resurrects from the dead (John 19:1-20). In 11:26, Jesus states that “the one who lives and believes in him will certainly not die for ever.” This means that everyone who believes that Jesus Christ died on the cross for sinners and believes by faith that God raised him from the dead will receive the gift of eternal life. And, therefore, these will not suffer eternal death although they will physically die. But those who love and follow Jesus in this life will inherit eternal life after they die and leave this world! Finally, in 11:26, Jesus asks Martha, one of Lazarus’ two sisters—“do you believe this?,” to which she responds by saying “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who has come into the world.” Thus, Jesus demonstrates that he, the Son, was fully God.
Jesus, the God-Son, was a Jewish Man
Jesus, the God-Son, was also Jewish man. John makes this point explicitly clear in 1:14 when he states that the “word became flesh.” Flesh often has negative connotations in John’s Gospel. The flesh does not experience conversion since salvation is from God (John 1:13; 3:6; 6:63). However, flesh in John’s Gospel also refers to the humanity of Jesus. John states that Jesus took on flesh (John 1:14). Jesus’ full humanity is further seen in John’s Gospel in the narrative of his life. For example, he wept at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:33). He felt physical pain when he was crucified (John 19:1-27). He died (John 19:28-30). He bled (John 19:34). And, because he is God, he resurrected. Contrary to the early heresies about Jesus’ humanity and divinity in the early days of post-apostolic Christianity, Jesus was 100% God and 100% man. He did not simply appear to be God or appear to be man. He was both God and man after the incarnation in the same person, and neither his divine nature nor his human nature was confused with each other.
The incarnation of God, the Son, who is Jesus Christ, the Jewish man, is why we celebrate Christmas. His incarnation is the moment in history when God, the Son, became Jesus, the Jewish man, in order to save Jews and Gentiles from their sins. The incarnation of Jesus Christ, therefore, offers hope for a racist world that is currently torn apart by sin, hate, and violence. His incarnation is a central part of the gospel story, without which there is no gospel, and his incarnation offers the solution to the racism that currently is manifesting itself through the US by means of questionable violence against African-Americans and people of color and by means of chaotic and violent protests because of such questionable violence. May the Spirit of God help the church of Jesus Christ to proclaim the glorious message of the eternal Son of God, who became Jesus, the Jewish man, to dwell amongst humanity to reveal the glory of salvation to a lost, racist, and dying Jewish and Gentile world!
Unless otherwise noted, all translations of biblical texts are mine.
Feature Photograph by John via Flickr Creative Commons.