Bible Book List
John 1 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Resources » Commentaries » John » Chapter 1 » exegesis

The Word Became Flesh

We now come to the climax of the prologue. There have been references to the incarnation in the previous verses, but they were expressed in a veiled way. In fact, everything up to this point could be interpreted in a way that would have been compatible, even attractive, to various ancient thinkers. But now comes the break with all non-Christian thought. This Word, the agent of creation, has become a creature. He who brought the universe into existence now is born within the universe as a human being. This thought is so familiar in Christianity we may no longer be staggered by it. A prayer of the Eastern churches conveys well the breathtaking wonder: "We see most eloquent orators voiceless as fish when they must speak of Thee, O Jesus our Savior. For it is beyond their power to tell how Thou art both perfect man and immutable God at the same time."

When we look at this Word become flesh John says we see glory (v. 14). Often in John the "flesh" is that which is natural, powerless and superficial (cf. v. 13). But now the flesh becomes the sphere of the supernatural, the all-powerful, the really real. Matter becomes spirit bearing, and we see the divine glory not through the flesh but precisely in the flesh (Bultmann 1971:63).

The word glory means "brightness" or "splendor." When it is used of a person, glory has to do with how a person appears to others, suggest-ing a character that is attractive and honorable. In Jewish thinking a son was to replicate the character of his father, thereby honoring the father and showing the son himself to be honorable. The lack of definite articles in the Greek suggests John is referring to such a relation in general, not to the specific relation between Jesus and the Father (contrast the NIV). An elder son held a position of special responsibility, and an only son, as here, was very special indeed. The term One and Only (monogenes) means "one of a kind" (genos; cf. Brown 1966:13-14). It refers to a child who is distinctive in some sense, perhaps "only begotten" as in the case of Jephthah's daughter (Judg 11:34), but not necessarily so, as its use in describing Isaac illustrates (Heb 11:17). While the word does not in itself mean "only begotten," this sense is true of Jesus (cf. NIV note) since his relation to the Father is distinct from that of all other people. So here is a picture of honor such as is seen when an only son obeys his father and thus reflects his father's character. This general human relation is fulfilled par excellence in the relation of Jesus to the Father.

But glory is more than an image of honor, for it is used to refer to God's revealed character. In the Old Testament, "it does not mean God in his essential nature, but the luminous manifestation of his person, his glorious revelation of himself" (Aalen 1976:45; cf. Dodd 1953:206-7). Frequently this glory is seen in God's power, both in nature (Ps 19:1) and in salvation history (Num 14:22). But it is also associated with his gracious mercy, as when Moses asks to see God's glory and the Lord replies, "I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion" (Ex 33:19). This description of God's glory in terms of his sovereign goodness and mercy, or graciousness, is echoed by John's witness to the glory of the Son who is full of grace and truth.

This grace answers to the hesed of the Old Testament--God's covenant-keeping, gracious love. Truth answers to 'emet, God's covenant-keeping, faithful reliability in which there is nothing false or deceitful. The two terms occur together in the very next story in Exodus when God graciously gives two new stone tablets. "Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness" (34:5-6). The God of the Old Testament, who was "abounding in love and faithfulness," is now revealed in the Son who is full of grace and truth.

John also uses the term truth (aletheia) in a more Hellenistic way to refer to divine reality and its revelation. Thus, Jesus is the truth (Jn 14:6) and speaks the truth (8:40, 45-46). To say the Son is full of truth is to claim he is the perfect revelation of the divine reality (cf. 15:15; 17:10), and saying he is full of grace expresses the character of that reality, the truth about God. "The glory of God is shown by his acting in faithfulness to his own character, and by his character's revealing itself in mercy" (Barrett 1978:167).

The primary focus is on this grace, as is evident in what follows after the parenthetical reference in verse 15 to the Baptist's witness. The Son is not simply full of grace; he has a fullness from which he shares with others (v. 16). The verse reads literally, "For from his fullness we all (have) received even grace upon grace." In part the image may be of an unending supply of grace similar to the water he will offer the Samaritan woman (4:14; cf. 7:38). But John has something more specific in mind for the next verse says this "grace upon grace" is somehow explained by the relation Moses has to the law and that which Jesus Christ has to grace and truth.

Verse 17 is sometimes read as a rejection of Moses and the law. But the relation here between Jesus Christ (now named for the first time in the prologue) and Moses and the law is one of fulfillment--the graciousness of God revealed in Scripture has now been perfectly manifested in Jesus. The careful construction of verse 17 even allows us to say more precisely how this is the case. The significant contrast in John is not of the law over against grace and truth, since it is the same graciousness of the same God that is revealed in both. Rather, it is the contrast between the verbs was given (edothe) and came (egeneto). The verb "to give" itself speaks of the divine graciousness, because it obviously talks of God's gifts. Indeed, we just saw that "grace and truth" were manifest at the giving of the law (Ex 34:6). So these verbs are not contrasting a negative with a positive. Rather, the divine graciousness evident in the divine was given is tremendously intensified in the divine came. The same graciousness has now been manifested in an entirely new mode: the Word became (egeneto) flesh.

So there is a contrast here, but it is one of degree. The grace received in Jesus is added upon the grace that came through Moses and the law. The association between the two is basically one of continuity, of the partial contrasted with the full. While there is continuity it is, nevertheless, a quantum leap that has occurred in Jesus, as verse 18 makes clear. The references we noted to Wisdom's coming from God and offering knowledge of God's ways were taken by many Jews as a reference to the law (for example, Sirach 24). John does not deny the truth of this but says there is a greater fulfillment of this picture, for the law itself points to Jesus (5:39). The law points to the revelation of the Father, the one who was at the Father's side, or, better, "close to the Father's heart" (NRSV; eis ton kolpon tou patros, literally, "in the bosom of the Father," NASB), who has made him known (exegesato). Here we have the answer to the question in Sirach, "Who has seen him [God] and can describe [ekdiegesetai] him?" (Sirach 43:31). When God reveals God, it is the ultimate revelation. "The absolute claim of the Christian revelation could not be put more definitely" (Schnackenburg 1980a:278).

Many would say, therefore, that John presents Jesus as replacing Judaism. In a sense this is true. If the glory of the divine presence that filled the tabernacle (and later the temple) has now come to us in Jesus, then he is the place where we now seek God's presence. Accordingly, we will see John presenting Jesus as the fulfillment of Judaism, since he is the archetype behind Jacob, the temple and its feasts and many other persons and institutions. But this replacement comes through fulfillment, not rejection. Replacement does not mean there is no longer any role for the Old Testament, but it does mean any attempt to know God that is not centered in Jesus is defective, since in him is the fullness. No one has seen God, but now the one who was with the Father reveals the glory of God that he shared with him "before the world began" (Jn 17:5, 24; cf. 6:46; 14:8-9). The revelation of God in Jesus is not contradictory to Judaism, but rather the very thing for which Judaism had been preparing. So when the Jewish opponents reject Jesus later in the story they do so despite their Judaism, not because of it.

This last section of the prologue speaks powerfully of the identity of Jesus and the character of God revealed in him. Understanding Jesus' deity is crucial to understanding all that he says and does in the story, especially that which is most cryptic. The connection between glory and grace is also extremely important, for we are told that in this story we will see the glory that is grace and truth. This is the only place the word grace occurs in this Gospel (vv. 14, 16-17), but the rest of the story presents this grace in narrative form, coming to a climax at the cross (Hoskyns 1940a:148).

John also critiques claims to have seen God apart from Christ. The topic of the vision of God is somewhat complex in Scripture. No one may see God and live (Ex 33:20), but there are a number of visions of God mentioned in the Old Testament (Gen 16:13; Ex 24:9-10; Num 12:6-8; Job 42:5; Is 6:1, 5; perhaps Ezek 1:1; 8:3; 40:2). Similarly, in the Johannine material, there is an emphasis on the fact that no one has seen God (Jn 1:18; 5:37; cf. 1 Jn 4:12), but believers are promised that they will see God at the end of salvation history (1 Jn 3:2), and the Seer of Revelation has a vision of God (Rev 4:2-3, though note the Father is described symbolically in terms of stones, not anthropomorphically).

It is helpful to distinguish three basic types of sight (cf. Kirk 1932:106 n. 4; Bultmann 1971:608 n. 4), which include (1) physical sight; (2) rational sight, that is, perception through rational thought and inference; and (3) spiritual sight with the "eyes of the heart" (Eph 1:18), that is, perception of the soul that comes through intuition, communion, faith and love, as mediated by the Spirit to those who are willing to do the will of God (Jn 7:17). The second and third types do not necessarily involve visual perceptions, and thus the themes of vision and knowledge overlap considerably (cf. Dodd 1953:166-68). When Scripture says it is not possible to see God, it is referring to vision in the physical sense, since God is not a physical object. It is possible to see him with the second form of sight (that is, sight in the sense of intellectual perception) for Scripture says truth about God can indeed be inferred from the natural order (for example, Ps 19:1-4; Acts 14:17; Rom 1:19-20). The third form of sight occurs in the context of covenant relationship and love. It includes mystical experiences, such as those experienced by Isaiah (Is 6:1) and John (Rev 4:2-3), but also less visual perceptions.

John's emphasis is on the incarnation's effect on the human quest for the vision of God. He says that in this life we have not been able to see God with our normal human sight--until now. Jesus claims, "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" (Jn 14:9). The incarnation has brought a new way to apprehend God. Yet even now it is not God in his essence that is seen (cf. 1 Tim 6:16), for creatures do not have the capacity to apprehend God in himself; we can only see him as he makes himself accessible to our limited organs of perception (cf. Chrysostom In John 15.1). Furthermore, the opponents saw Jesus but did not recognize his deity, so the other two forms of sight are also required (see comment on 14:9-10). Thus the incarnation adds to the complexity of Scripture on this subject, but it also provides the criterion for assessing claims to have seen God. Throughout this Gospel John will deny such claims made by Jewish mystics (cf. 1:51; 3:13; 6:46; 14:8-9).

Previous commentary:
The Light Came into the World

Next commentary:
He Came to His Own

About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.