God in Flesh, John 1:1-18
Many Christians puzzle over the incarnation, the fact that the Son of God took on human flesh. But most of the difficulties come from trying to think about the incarnation using categories from outside the Bible. We think about the incarnation as if the God who became incarnate were Aristotle’s “unmoved mover,” or Plato’s “form of the Good,” or the god of seventeenth-century Deists. We wonder how the “infinite” could be contained in the “finite,” and how an “eternal” being could enter “time.” So we scratch our heads and wonder how such a being could become incarnate.
The answer is simple: Such beings could not become incarnate. Fortunately, the God of Israel is not Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover or the Deist “watchmaker.” Nor is He remotely like any of those beings. The incarnation tells about a specific God who became man. And while there is no incarnation in the OT, the OT revelation about God makes an incarnation not merely thinkable, but almost inevitable.
“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 came into being by Him, and apart from him nothing came into being that has come into being . . . .” (John 1:1-18).
Advent is the celebration of the “incarnation” of the Son of God. “Incarnation” is the theological word used to describe what John talks about in the prologue to His gospel. He says that the Word was with God and was God from the beginning (1:1-3), and that this Word “became flesh” (1:14). “Incarnation” means “becoming flesh,” specifically the “becoming flesh” of the eternal Son of God.
According to the orthodox view of the incarnation, Jesus is fully God and fully man, two “natures” in one “person.” The one “person” of Jesus is the “person” of the Son of God. This sounds abstract, but it’s important and profoundly practical. To say that Jesus is a single person, and that the person of the Incarnate Son is the Eternal Son, is to say that the whole story of Jesus is the story of God. The story of Jesus is not two parallel stories about a divine person and a really powerful human person, two stories running side-by-side and occasionally intersecting. We should not read the gospels as if one bit were about Jesus as “Son of God” and another bit were about Jesus as “human being.” The whole of the gospel story is the story of the one person of the Son of God who became flesh.
To fill this out: Jesus’ birth was God the Son undergoing a human birth. It is not true that the “human nature” of Jesus was born of Mary; God the Son went through human conception and birth. That is the beginning of His story as Incarnate Son. Similarly, Jesus’ miracles were miracles of God’s Son incarnate; Jesus tears were the tears of God made flesh; Jesus’ sufferings were the sufferings of God’s Son in human flesh, and the cross was the death of God the Son in the flesh. As Jesus, the Son of God went through every phase of human life, from conception to death, and into resurrection.
It’s on this basis that we can say that Jesus is the final and fullest revelation of the character of God. If Jesus were two persons, living two parallel lives, then we’d never be sure when we were looking at God and when were were looking at a human distortion or veiling of God. Because Jesus is the One Person of the Son of God who has taken humanity to Himself, we can know that the face of Jesus is the face of God (2 Cor. 4:6).
YAHWEH’S LAMENTS AND JOYS
This can only be true if God is a very particular, and very peculiar, kind of God. But the way God reveals Himself in Jesus is entirely consistent with the way God reveals Himself in the Old Testament. Of many things we could say about the OT teaching about God, I will pick out two.
First, negatively, one of the main things we learn about God from the OT is that He is no a Stoic God, but a God who is passionately involved in the life of His people. He is a God who reacts with fury against Israel’s sins, who also laments and grieves, and who rejoices with shouting over His bride’s return.
-Psalm 78:40 speaks of Israel’s continuous rebellion in the wilderness, and verse 41 goes on to speak of how Israel “tempted” God and “pained” the Holy One “again and again.”
-In Numbers, where these events are recorded, shows Yahweh using a “lament” for Israel’s resistance to Him (Numbers 14:11-12, 27; cf. Psalm 6:3; 13:1-2).
-When Yahweh speaks in lament form, He describes Himself as s an offended lover, an ignored father, a repudiated husband and king (Isaiah 65:1-2; Jeremiah 2:29-32; 3:19-20; 18:13-15).
-Yahweh is moved to pity His people when they suffer under the hand of oppressors, even when He sent the oppressors (Judges 2:18; 2 Kings 13:1-5; 14:24-27).
-Throughout the prophecy of Jeremiah, the Lord wails and weeps over the ruin of His people (Jeremiah 9:7-11; 48:28; 31:20).
-When Israel returns to Him, Yahweh is overjoyed (Isaiah 62:5, 17-19; Jeremiah 32:40-41).
Now, is it difficult to imagine that this God might become man? Hardly. If this God became man, what would he look like? He would be a passionate man, whose rage against hypocrisy might well turn violent, whose vigor and enjoyment of life might lead to charges of drunkenness, who would grieved over the rebellion of Jerusalem and be in turmoil over the death of a close friend. He would be a shrewd man, who knew how to trap His enemies in their own words. He would be a good man, but certainly not a tame man. He would be a man very like Jesus of Nazareth.
THE STORY OF YAHWEH
Second, positively, the OT provides a “character sketch” of Yahweh, but also gives us a life-history of Yahweh. Centrally, the OT speaks about God by a story. His character is laid out by what He has done, which is recounted in stories of what He has done.
-When Moses asks His name, Yahweh identifies Himself as God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exodus 3:13-15).
-In Exodus 6:2-7, Yahweh identifies Himself as the God who keeps promises, and specifically the one who keeps the promise of bringing Israel out of captivity in Egypt.
-In Isaiah and Ezek, punishment of Israel, mercy and new covenant are all done to identify Yahweh, so that Israel will know Him. He is known by His actions, and by the recital of His actions (Ezekiel 7:4; 16:62; Isaiah 43).
But the story of the OT is an unfinished story. At the end of the OT, Israel is back in the land after her captivity, but there are still things that Yahweh has committed Himself to doing. At the end of the OT, the answer to the question, Who is God? is: the God who will act in the future for Israel. This future act, this hoped-for final chapter, is the hope for the resurrection of Israel (Ezekiel 37).
The incarnation is a mystery, but it is not a philosophical puzzle or paradox like squaring the circle. It is not a contradiction in terms. Given what the OT says about God’s involvement with Israel, what would we expect Yahweh to do to bring about Israel’s resurrection? We’d be surprised if He became man and performed the death and resurrection Himself. But once it has happened, we are left saying, in breathless awe, “How very like Him.”