The Word Becomes Flesh, John 1:6—18

This group of verses continues the history of Jesus Christ with an emphasis on the differences between John the Baptist and Jesus Christ.  If we keep in mind one of the reasons John wrote his Gospel was to combat some false teachings and misrepresentations of Christ, then these verses make perfect sense.  By the time he wrote it, there was some confusion about the nature of Christ; was He a god? Was He a glorified man?  Was a He God in the flesh?  What was the difference between Jesus Christ and other preachers of the Gospel?  These are the questions John answered in these verses.

1.  Jesus and John the Baptist, 1:6—8, 15

6There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. 8He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. 15John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ “

These verses introduce the reader to the human agent that introduced the Word to the world.  His name was John the Baptist, who, we would later discover was a human cousin to Jesus, and who the Gospel writer used as an example of the constant shining of the light.  Some had come to believe that John the Baptist was more than a human being; this error is corrected here, where he is clearly portrayed as a man who was commissioned by God to point the world toward Jesus Christ, the Word.  Since John the writer was also a disciple of John the Baptist, he was well-qualified to comment on the job of the Baptist.

The author chose his words carefully, writing “There came a man,” which literally means “there came into being or history a man.”   His “becoming” is not to be confused with the “being” of the eternal Word, which we will deal with later in this study.

Very little is said about John the Baptist; John the disciple seemed to take for granted his readers knew who the Baptist was, and so he concentrates on his mission, not his character.  The main point is that John the Baptist was “sent.”   As a side note, John the Baptist represents the “old order” as prophet and priest (Matthew 11:9, 10), but acted as a herald of the new order, represented by Jesus Christ.

John wrote that the Baptist’s job was to “witness,” which is one of his favorite concepts, very pertinent in his Gospel.  To bear “witness” is to establish by adequate testimony the claims of Jesus as the Son of God.  This John the Baptist did in his preaching, a well-established fact on which all the Gospels agree.  He was the forerunner of Another, in whom all men might believe.  Men may believe through John the Baptist, but the Object of their faith must forever be in the eternal Word, Jesus Christ.

Here is a great application for every Christian, who is commissioned to the same type of mission as that of John the Baptist.  We are to point sinners to Christ; He came to seek and to save those who are lost; that is to be our message.  And like John the Baptist, sinners may come to believe in Christ as Savior through our witness.

2.  The Word among men, 1:9—13

The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.  Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

Generations before the coming of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah wrote these stirring words—

“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.”  (Isaiah 60:1)

Prophecy is fulfilled; the true Light had come, and this Man, Jesus Christ is the “true” Light.  While other “false” lights may be seen and mislead people, that is not what John meant when he used the word “true.”  The Greek word translated “true” means “real,” “ideal,” or “genuine.”  There may have been other “lights,” but all those other “lights” are imperfect or shadowy and unsubstantial.  One may say that John the Baptist was a light, for he certainly functioned as a light, but he was not the “true light.”  The Word is the “perfect light” in whose brilliance all other lights seem dim.

The “true Light” illumines every human being.  But what did John mean by that?  Some have taught the following:

  • Christ grants spiritual illumination to every human being without exception.
  • He gives spiritual illumination which renews the heart and mind to every covenant-child, elect or not.

These two views, though similar, are different but are both wrong.  The Gospel of John teaches limited atonement; not every human being will be saved and only those who remain saved are saved (John 10:28).  Limited atonement means that only those who call upon the Christ as Savior may appropriate the benefits of His atonement.

  • He gives to every human being, without exception, the light of reason and conscience.

There is some merit in this view; however the “light of reason and conscience” is given only to those who have named Christ as Savior.  The finished work of Christ on the Christ which alone can save souls from eternal damnation is effective only for those who by faith appropriate its benefits.

  • Christ grants spiritual illumination to every human being who is saved.  True spiritual illumination for the child of God can come from no other source.
  • Christ illumines every human who hears the Gospel.   That is, He imparts a certain degree of understanding concerning spiritual matters to all who are genuinely saved.

These final views must be the correct ones.  The Light that is Jesus Christ benefits no human being until they call upon Him for salvation.  It goes without saying that the Light draws men unto Himself, but the appropriate response is man’s responsibility alone.

As phenomenal an event as the Incarnation was, John using the simplest language possible gives the reader the fact, purpose, and outcome of the Incarnation.

  • The fact:  He was in the world.  The Son of God came into a world of His own creation.
  • The purpose:  He came to His own people.
  • The outcome:  Man’s response to God’s move toward man was failure to know Him, and refusal to receive Him.

God’s purpose and man’s refusal are shown here in stark contrast.  Literally, verse 11 looks like this:  “He came into His own things, and His own people did not receive Him.”  It was not the natural world that rejected Him, it was “His own,” refusal and rebellion came from the hearts of men.  Yet this refusal to recognize who Jesus was came about because His people had no inkling of who this Man Jesus was; no flash of awareness concerning His real person.  For all they knew, the Son of God was merely “the carpenter’s son” (Matthew 13:55).

Just as verses 4 and 5 show the sharp contrast between darkness and light, in verses 12 and 13 there is a direct contrast shown between rejection and reception.  Even though many, many reject Him, there were many who actually received Him.  Here we have an excellent working definition of “believe,” which is equated with “receive.”   When Jesus Christ is received for Who He is, He gives those who received Him the right to become part of God’s family.

The word “becomes” is loaded with implications.  First, it shows that human beings are not naturally God’s children, for if the were they would not need to “become” that which they already are by nature!  The Bible does not teach the universal fatherhood of God; the only children God has are the saved.  Second, the verb used for “become” indicates a complete change of nature.  This is completely in line with Paul’s teachings on the “new creation.”

17Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!  (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Verse 13 is the key in understanding what happens the moment a sinner puts his full faith and trust in Christ:  they become God’s tekna, that is, “God’s little ones.”  The Greek tekna is a beautiful term of endearment describing a familial relationship based on a spiritual relationship, not a physical one.  Becoming a tekna does not imply adoption, but transformation.  Elsewhere, the Bible does speak of adoption into God’s family, but here John is speaking of something much deeper.   To John, becoming a believer is the impartation of life; that is, God gives the repentant sinner a new life which immediately transforms him into God’s tekna.

3.  The Incarnation, 1:14—18

14The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.  15John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ ” 16From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. 17For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.

Verse 14 is the key to Christian theology.  The first thing we notice is a change of wording from verse 1 to verse 14.  In the first verse, John states that the Word “was,” referring to His permanent condition or state.  In verse 14, the Word “became” flesh, involving a change of state.  The verb “became” is a very special word holding very special meaning.  It does not imply “became” in the sense of ceasing to be what He was before.   William Hendriksen does a great job of explaining this word:

When the wife of Lot becomes a pillar of salt, she ceases to be the wife of Lot.  But when Lot becomes the father of Moab and Ammon, he remains Lot.

The second thing we notice is the use of the word “flesh.”  Why flesh?  Why not “man?”  John chose his words very carefully, and it was very important that his readers understand that Word did not merely come into the world in the form of a man; that is, Jesus had merely the “appearance” of being human.  This was what the Docetic Gnostics of John’s day were teaching; that Jesus was merely a “human appearance” of God, sort of like an OT theophany—God in human form.  On its surface, that sounds good, but it is awful theology, for it says that the Word never really became flesh and blood; He never really became a man, which is what really occurred at the Incarnation.  This is the most basic statement of the Incarnation:  the Word became flesh, yet never ceased to be the Word.

Consider the ramifications of that statement.  The Second Person of the Trinity was able to assume human nature without laying aside the divine!  Later on and throughout his writings, John insists that these two natures, human and divine, were somehow fused together, fully united forever.  The Son of God did not become a man for about 30 years then go back to the way He was before; He became a man forever at the Incarnation; humanity was added to His divinity, never to be taken away! It is hard to imagine and even harder to put into words.  These ideas will be explored further as we go deeper into John’s Gospel.

What did the Word do when He became flesh?  This is probably one of the most majestic and poignant phrases in all of Scripture:  the Word “made His dwelling among us.”  That whole phrase means literally, the Word “pitched His tent” and “dwelled temporarily” among men.  Once again, we marvel at how deliberately John chose his words.  The theology of the Incarnation, something every Christian should be able to explain and usually cannot, is this:  The eternal Word, which assumed the nature of man permanently—though not permanently in its weakened condition—pitched His tent for a while among men, living among them. (Hendriksen)

After penning those phenomenally deep words, John adds that he was an eyewitness, along with others, of this Incarnation:  “We have seen his glory.” The statement indicates a personal observation of something glorious, likely the Transfiguration when Jesus appeared as the Man He was, surrounded by a full manifestation of His Divine radiance (Matthew 17:2—8; Mark 9:2—8; Luke 9:28—36).  At that event the voice of God was heard acknowledging Him as His beloved Son.

The Incarnation never happened before or since for Jesus is the “one and only.”  The Greek is monogenes, coming from a root meaning “kind” or “species,”  means literally “one of a kind” or “unique.”  John’s wording couldn’t be clearer:  the Word has no equal and never will.  Jesus Christ, then, is uniquely qualified to reveal the Father.  God’s revelation to man in Jesus Christ has no parallel; it never will be repeated.

Verse 16 is an attempt by John to communicate to his readers that by way of the Word, those who have faith in Him may receive an endless supply of grace.  This idea of God’s “abundance” is a prominent theme in John, which will be explored fully in subsequent studies.    In Christ, God’s children may receive blessing upon blessing upon blessing; there is no end to God’s grace toward those who love Him.

To close out this section, John very briefly contrasts Law and grace as God’s way of dealing with men.  In the Law, we see clearly what God expects from man in terms of how man should live.  Grace, however, is God’s attitude toward those who have discovered that they cannot keep the Law.   This attitude was depicted in graphic form in the Person of Jesus.  He came to show those striving yet failing to keep the Law a better way.  We read a parallel thought in Hebrews 3:5—6,

5Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house, testifying to what would be said in the future. 6But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.

The Son is far superior to the servant; a servant can only carry out orders and make sure the rules of the house are followed correctly.  The Son, because He is “over God’s house,” is able to act with ultimate authority, ruling even the servant of house.  This adds some power to the words of Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount:  “You have heard it said…But I tell you…” (Matthew 5:21—22; 27—28; 33—34; 43—44).

In the Incarnation, then, we see the eternal Word becoming a human being, but better than a human being because He remained God.  The God-Man left the Father’s side in glory to pitch His tent for a time in the world He Himself created, to live among those He created in His image.  He did this to show them a better way to live, to recreate them, making them better than they were before, and to give them the ability to live this new life He wanted to give them.  The Word came to the world of man with an abundance of blessings to share with them.  A whole new way of living was presented by the Word, and all man had to do was reach out and lay hold of it by faith.  In the end, God’s gifts to man through Jesus Christ were rejected by most, and received by few.

(c)  2010 WitzEnd

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