There is overwhelming emphasis in this passage on how things “from above” are received here on earth. In the advent season, we remembered that we are actively waiting to receive the gift of the Word in full, and that God is actively at work to bring about his Kingdom on earth. In John’s prologue, it’s as though we’ve become even more passive for the Christmas season: we receive, are given, it is made known to us, we have seen, and are made to become… the cosmological and eternal goodness of the second person of the Trinity is abundantly given to the world.
In order to help us stay focused, I’m looking at just verses 10-18 for this commentary. (If you’re looking for some ideas from the first set of verses, Scott offered this commentary last year.) In the second half of the prologue, there is a sort of focus-in-then-zoom-out-with-commentary pattern to John’s description of Jesus the Incarnate Christ.
First, John says, Christ was in the world (using an imperfect verb, meaning Jesus “took off his shoes and stayed awhile”) and we get focused into the fact that Jesus was a living, breathing person here on earth. The same air that the Christ breathed into the world for its existence came to be the air Jesus breathed as a flesh and blood human being. But then, John zooms back out and says that the world on which Jesus trod upon, that world—and everything in it—actually came into existence through him. Christ has been the key to life since the beginning.
Even though everything owes its existence to him, there are many that live in denial. But those who receive the truth and who come into a way of believing about him, Jesus authorizes them to be adopted into the family of God. There is no process that a human can choose or make happen to reach the same status. Only the Creator of the Universe and King of kings can grant it. I particularly appreciate that John specifically uses the Greek word for “children” here, which purposefully makes no reference to gender, but is more about emphasizing the relationship of child to parent: we all share in the same status and worth to God as his children.
Then, in verse 14, we focus in again, and to use the good translation of Eugene Peterson, Jesus “became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” (It’s based on the Greek, which, when translated literally, means “to pitch a tent.”) Jesus didn’t just come as a guest, he came to live—not just to observe, but to work and be part of the very fabric of things.
Just as quickly as this idea is planted, John zooms us back out and he says that we (the world) have seen his glory—the kind of glory that only comes from God—full of grace and truth. And when we “see” that glory, we see it in such a way that we can put it to personal use (the verb is in the middle voice). It becomes something that we build our faith upon. Does John have in mind any one specific aspect of that glory (such as Christ’s death on the cross), or does he mean all of the activity of God towards the world, from creation to consummation? My hunch is that it’s all of it—special and general revelation alike—because it all flows from the grace and truth of who God is, captured in the “fullness” of the Mediator, the second person of the Trinity, the Christ.
The “commentary” in this section is made up in two parts. First, the Gospel of John reminds us that this activity that God is undertaking didn’t come “out of the blue”: John the Baptist told the world all about it. Second, from the Son who is full of grace and truth, we receive grace upon grace. One of the ways that we can understand the word grace (Greek: charis) is as “a beneficent disposition toward someone” in a way that the person is not obligated to provide. (BDAG Greek dictionary) So, in other words, from the very act of becoming Incarnate, the world now has promise and proof that God looks upon us with love (John 3:16) even when we do not receive it, are not owed it, did not earn it, or refuse to return it.
Few may believe in it, but it’s still true. In the past, God led the world with the law given to Moses as it was received as the word of the Lord by the people (even then we were passive and reliant on the first act of God). But now, we have a new law to live by: the grace and truth that came into the world through the birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension and promised return of Jesus the Christ. In all of these “stages,” the fullness of God’s grace and truth is made concrete. It is so concrete, in fact, that humanity and the world can receive it and see it and know it, maybe even come to believe in it and thereby find themselves with the power of belonging to God’s family.
The final verse in the prologue reverses our focus-in-zoom-out pattern. It’s as though John scans the entire world when he says, “No one has ever seen God.” The message is clear, as it has been throughout the passage: we can’t get it on our own, we must receive it. Then, from this zoomed out scan of humanity, John focuses right back in on Jesus, as “God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” The verb translated often as “made him known” is actually the same word for exegeting scripture. Jesus “exegetes” and explains God to us. What we need to know, we learn from him and what his “fullness” shows us. He truly is the image of the invisible God (Col 1.15-20) given to us as the act of grace and truth.
As we saw above, there are a lot of things that could be said about the words that John uses in his prologue; here is one final one for good measure. This appears to be the only time that John the Gospel writer talks about the grace. He pairs grace and truth together in verses 14 and 17, but truth (and witnessing to the truth) will be the through line of the gospel narrative. Here though, “grace” appears four times and is meant to capture the very act of God coming down and the Word becoming Incarnate. It is grace, and as “grace upon grace” indicates, it is an unending disposition towards humanity and the whole cosmos. God is the fountain of goodness that can never run dry, and from which all goodness flows.
Rev. Lauren Winner reflected on this passage a few years ago. Along with making a connection to a storyline from the Netflix series The Crown, she writes:
The Incarnation is like a chef, who so loves the meal she is creating that she actually becomes a dish of mashed potatoes? The Incarnation is like a master gardener, who so loves her garden that she finds, finally, that she has become a rose bush? Or the Incarnation is like a Queen, who is so devoted to her people that finally she comes down from the upper reaches of the palace and goes to them. None of these is perfect, but all of them show something. I can imagine that gardener as a character in an ancient fairy tale or a 21st-century novel of magical realism—the gardener whose love of her roses gradually (over nine months, say) converts her limbs and torso into a deep green and turns her head into a thousand silky petals; the gardener whose love eventually pulls her into the soil with all the rose bushes she’s tended all those years. I would understand, if I read that novel, that the gardener’s incarnation as a rose had come about because of and through her devoted love for and identification with her roses. And then I would wonder: After all these years of reading the Christmas story, do I really understand that Christmas is because God loves us that much, too?
Read more from Winner here.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 2, 2022
John 1:(1-9) 10-18 Commentary