A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on December 29, 2019.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
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 1:1–5, 14 ESV).
The idea that Yahweh, the self-revealed covenant God of Israel, became flesh was considered blasphemy. Such an assertion was at the heart of Jesus’ mock trial and crucifixion. This makes the Apostle John’s words all the more scandalous: “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.” That which is scandalous is essential to the Christian faith, the necessity of the incarnation.
The Heidelberg Catechism helpfully captures this necessity, asking,
Q. 12. Since, according to God’s righteous judgment we deserve temporal and eternal punishment, how can we escape this punishment and be again received into favour?
A. God demands that his justice be satisfied. Therefore we must make full payment, either by ourselves or through another.
Q. 13. Can we by ourselves make this payment?
A. Certainly not. On the contrary, we daily increase our debt.
Q. 14. Can any mere creature pay for us?
A. No. In the first place, God will not punish another creature for the sin which man has committed. Furthermore, no mere creature can sustain the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin and deliver others from it.
Q. 15. What kind of mediator and deliverer must we seek?
A. One who is a true and righteous man, and yet more powerful than all creatures; that is, one who is at the same time true God.
Q. 16. Why must he be a true and righteous man?
A. He must be a true man because the justice of God requires that the same human nature which has sinned should pay for sin. He must be a righteous man because one who himself is a sinner cannot pay for others.
Q. 17. Why must he at the same time be true God?
A. He must be true God so that by the power of his divine nature he might bear in his human nature the burden of God’s wrath, and might obtain for us and restore to us righteousness and life.
As the catechism explains, the incarnation is essential to our faith, but this does not make it any less mysterious. Herman Bavinck, the Dutch Reformed theologian, summed up the matter this way:
It is completely incomprehensible to us how God can reveal himself and to some extent make himself known in created beings: eternity in time, immensity in space, infinity in the finite, immutability In change, being in becoming, the all, as it were, in that which is nothing. This mystery cannot be comprehended; it can only be gratefully acknowledged.
Therefore, with grateful acknowledgement, let us consider in greater depth the mystery of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the ultimate revelation of God.
A God Who May Be Known
The Bible begins with these words, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). In the creation account we learn of an all-powerful Creator who speaks creation into existence. He is not an unknown God, as the Apostle Paul preached, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:24–27).
God is not far from each one of us, because he has chosen to reveal himself. Yes, he has revealed himself through his creation. He has revealed himself through ancient Israel. He has revealed himself through his law and the prophets, and he has revealed himself through his written Word. But in revealing himself, there is a pinnacle, the ultimate revelation of God.
“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth” (Gen. 1:1), and to this it is added, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1-3). The use of the Greek word logos translated “Word” implies a simple truth: the one and only true God is a God who has revealed himself that he may be known. Your word is the means by which you reveal what you are thinking. (Or, sadly, for. Some of us, our word reveals we aren’t thinking). Similarly, as one commentator puts it, “The Word of God is His thought (if we may put is so) uttered so that men can understand it.” But the Word is not merely information about God but implies his divine creative action.
The Word was not created but eternally exists, “begotten of his Father before all worlds,” as we confess in the Nicene Creed. He is both the author of life and life itself. In fact, not only did he create all things, but he sustains them too: Hebrews explains that “he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3), and the Apostle Paul explains, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17).
But it is in the incarnation of the Son of God, the Word made flesh, that God has made himself fully known: “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. In the fullness of time, this was something new. The eternal Word of God “became” flesh. He did not change from the Word to man but became man. He who eternally was and is, who enjoys the triune unity of the Godhead, and is God, the Creator of life and is life, became flesh, a permanent addition but never a subtraction.
He who was “in the form of God” added the “form of a servant” (Phil. 2:6-8). And in doing so, the invisible God who told Moses, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Ex. 33:20), has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. For, our God is a God who may be known, because he has chosen to be a God who dwells among us.
A God Who Dwells among Us
In the fortieth chapter of Exodus, the completion and erection of the tabernacle is described. More importantly, we read of the descent of the glory cloud when “the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” (Ex. 40:34). The Spiritual presence of the invisible God, his Shekinah (or “dwelling”) glory, was in the inner most chamber of the tabernacle. However, this Shekinah glory is revealed to Israel not in permanent but temporary structures. First, there was the tabernacle, which was later replaced by Solomon’s temple, in which “the glory of the LORD filled the temple. And the priests could not enter the house of the LORD, because the glory of the LORD filled the LORD’s house” (1 Chron. 7:1-2). Neither the tabernacle nor the temple was eternal. For God’s people to know an eternal dwelling of God’s Shekinah glory, the eternal would need to enter created time and space.
The Prophet Isaiah described this in the promise of “Immanuel,” God with us. In fact, the promise was quite specific: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” The promise of Immanuel, God with us, is of one who “came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man” (Nicene Creed).
While somewhat lost in translation, this is precisely what the Apostle John says of Christ’s incarnation: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory” (John 1:14). The Greek verb translated “dwelt” means literally “to pitch one’s tent.” Just as the glory of God filled the tabernacle and temple so also in becoming flesh the Word “tabernacled” among us, revealing his glory. Now, the Word permanently dwells among his people, fully God and fully man. He who always was and is, the Word of life himself, entered into created life. He who made man in the image of God took upon himself what it means to be a man. Therefore, he is not like God but is God. He is not like man but is a man.
Theologically speaking, we refer to this as the “hypostatic union” of Christ, meaning the union of divine nature and human nature are in one individual existence, Jesus Christ. In the Nicene Creed we confess that the Son of God is “very God of very God,” which is true, but he is also very man of very man. It was not Jesus’ human nature that ate, slept, walked, talked, lived and died; it was Jesus himself, fully man and fully God. Likewise, it was not Jesus’ divine nature that sustains all things, has dominion over all things, and is the Alpha and Omega; it is Jesus himself, fully God and fully man.
Therefore, as the Council of Chalcedon clarified with utmost precision, we confess:
. . . one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body; coessential with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; . . . one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one person and one subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ . . .
What the Chalcedonian definition goes at great length to define is summed up simply in these words: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory,” Jesus Christ our Lord.
The relevance is no more clearly seen than in our redemption and worship. We who were dead in our sins and trespasses, with no hope but the sovereign mercy of God, are saved through faith not in the divine nature of the Son of God nor in the human nature of Jesus of Nazareth but in the person of Jesus Christ. In his human nature alone he could not bear the penalty for the sin of another or sustain God’s wrath for it, yet the penalty for sin is due not God but man. Therefore, the Heidelberg Catechism summarizes, “by the power of His Godhead He [was able to] bear in His manhood the burden of God’s wrath, and so obtain for and restore to us righteousness and life.”
Therefore, as the redeemed we worship our Redeemer, but in what capacity to do we worship him? Consider this: God’s presence in the tabernacle was at the center of Israel’s covenant worship. Now, in Christ, God has made his permanent dwelling among his people, making Christ the center and focus of covenant worship among his people. True worship is now, as Jesus taught the woman at the well, in the Spirit and the Truth of the incarnate Christ. Christian worship is always in Christ and by his Spirit. Therefore, the Apostle John could testify to the ultimate revelation of God, “as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” And, in him, we may sing with Martin Luther,
All praise to Thee, eternal God,
Who, clothed in garb of flesh and blood,
Dost take a manger for Thy throne,
While worlds on worlds are Thine alone.
A God Who Reveals His Glory
Puritan Stephan Charnock wrote, “That the same person should have both a glory and a grief; an infinite joy in the Deity, and an inexpressible sorrow in the humanity; that a God upon a throne should be an infant in a cradle; the thundering Creator be a weeping babe and a suffering man; [the incarnation astonishes] men upon earth, and angels in heaven.” As astonishing as it is, God ordained that his ultimate revelation be in the person of Jesus Christ, who “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). Such humility is folly to the world, but by God’s grace is good news for all who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, the Apostle John could testify, “we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John beheld the glory of Christ because his glory is not separate from but inclusive of his humanity. And this glory revealed in the person of Jesus Christ is a permanent glory. Indeed, the glory that John and the other witnesses beheld is also the ascended Christ, who intercedes for us even at this moment and for whom we await his return.
The reality of this should instill hope in the heart of every believer. Our redemption is ultimately a restoration of our glorious humanity, in the image of God yet without sin. What God the Father ordained, and God the Spirit applies, was accomplished by God the Son, fully God and fully man, that we might be restored to the eternal humanity in which we were created. This is the summary of Gloria Patri we sing each Lord’s Day:
Glory be to the Father,
and to the Son,
and to the Holy Ghost;
as it was in the beginning,
is now, and ever shall be,
world without end. Amen, amen.
In the new kingdom, we will be perfectly conformed, body and soul, to Jesus Christ, body and soul. On that day, we are told, “we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2). Until that day, through the indwelling presence of his Spirit and the example of his humility, let us live for the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, who,
though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:5–11).
For, the incarnation is the ultimate revelation of God, to whom, and through whom, and for whom we lift our praise:
O wisest love! that flesh and blood
Which did in Adam fail,
Should strive afresh against their foe,
Should strive and should prevail;
And that a higher gift than grace
Should flesh and blood refine,
God’s presence and his very self,
And essence all-divine.
 James T. Dennison Jr., ed., Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: Volume 2, 1552-1566 (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Heritage Books, 2010), 773.
 Mark Jones, Knowing Christ (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2015), 25.
 C.H. Dodd quoted in Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 66.
 Mark Jones, Knowing Christ (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2015), 33.
 Ibid., 31.
 From the hymn “Praise to the Holiest in the Height” (1865) by John Henry Newman, quoted in Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 479.