John does not start “the story of Jesus” in the usual way. He says nothing about the way Jesus was born. Rather, he takes us back in time to “the beginning.” In the beginning, he says, was “the Word.” Modern readers may not know at first what this “Word” is, but it becomes clear in verse 14: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” The Word became a human being, a Jewish man named Jesus.
When John talks about “the Word,” he is talking about a Person who existed in the beginning with God, and he was God (v. 1). He was not a created being; rather, it is through him that all created things were made (v. 3). The question that I’d like to comment on now is, Why does John tell us this? Why do we need to know that Jesus was originally a Person who was not only with God, but he was also God?
A great idea
By using the word Word, John was using a term that had rich meaning to Greek and Jewish philosophers. They also believed that God had created everything through his word, or his wisdom. Since God was a rational being, he always had a word with him. The “word” was his power to think — his rationality, his creativity.
John takes this idea and gives it a radical twist: The Word became flesh. Something in the realm of the perfect and the eternal became part of the imperfect and decaying world. That was a preposterous idea, people might have said. That did not fit their idea of what God was.
John may have agreed with them: This was quite unexpected. God did not act the way we thought he would. Indeed, as we read John’s Gospel we will find that Jesus frequently did the unexpected. He was not acting the way that people expected a man of God to act — and that is part of the reason that he came, and part of the reason that John tells the story. We had wrong ideas about God, and Jesus came to set us straight.
Jesus did not just bring a message about God — he himself was the message. He showed us in the flesh what God is like. Shortly before Jesus was killed, Philip asked him, “Lord, show us the Father” (14:8). And Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you for such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (v. 9).
If you want to know what God is like, then study Jesus. Jesus shows us the love that God has for us; he freely gave his life to save others. When the Word humbled himself to become a flesh-and-blood human, it was a change — something God had never done before — but it was not a change in God’s nature. Rather, it was a demonstration of his unchanging nature — his unchanging faithfulness to us. It showed us the love that God has for us all the time.
The Greek philosophers imagined that God was so perfect that he would have nothing to do with messed-up human beings. Many Jews felt the same way — they emphasized God’s holiness so much that they thought the people of God should have nothing to do with people who weren’t careful about keeping the laws of holiness. They were right in saying that God was holy, but they had forgotten that his holiness includes love and mercy and his power includes tenderness.
Life and truth
As a disciple, John did not start off knowing that his teacher was eternally pre-existent. This awareness came to him slowly, and may be reflected in the words of the disciples. Peter said, “You are the Holy One of God” (6:69); Martha said, “You are the Christ, the Son of God” (11:27); and after the resurrection, Thomas said, “My Lord and my God!” (20:28).
John develops this theme throughout the Gospel, but he wants us as readers to know even from the beginning who Jesus is, so that we can watch the story unfold with a little more understanding. Jesus is “God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side” — and he “has made the Father known” (1:18).
This flesh-and-blood God had life, “and that life was the light of men” (v. 4). He was bringing eternal life, and his “light” reveals to us the way to eternal life. We can read the story knowing that this person is actually God in the flesh, showing us what God is like.
John the Baptist told people about Jesus, but most people could not accept what he said: “Look — the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (v. 29). But “the darkness” could not understand the light of the world. “The world did not recognize him … did not receive him” (vs. 10-11). But for those who did believe, John says, they became children of God, born not in the ordinary way, “but born of God” (v. 13).
“We have seen his glory,” John says, and it does not consist of blazing fire and thundering voice. Rather, the glory of God that we see in Jesus is “grace and truth.” In his words and in his works, Jesus shows us that truth is gracious. Some people want “truth” to be a weapon that beats other people down, but Jesus shows us that it lifts people up.
“The law was given through Moses,” but the law could not give us eternal life. Here’s what we really needed: “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (v. 17). Yes, God gave the law, but the law could not reveal the true nature of God. God cannot be defined by a list of rules. He is revealed as a person who walked this earth as one of us, showed mercy to sinners, and died for others.
God did not have to do this, but the fact that he did shows how much he cares about us: “the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7). This had been revealed to Moses, but it seems that the Israelites had forgotten it, so Jesus came to reveal it in the flesh.
Even today, after nearly 2,000 years of Christian teaching, many people — even many Christians — think that God is a stern Judge, but Jesus stepped in and thwarted God’s plan to punish us. The truth is that the love and mercy we see in Jesus is exactly how God has always been. That’s something worth thinking about.