NOTE: The following is a sermon preached by Dr. Köstenberger at Christ Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina.
When we think about Christmas and the Bible, we naturally think of Matthew’s account of the virgin birth and the visit of the Magi or Luke’s account of Gabriel’s visit to Mary and of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. We think of the decree going out from Caesar Augustus, of Joseph and Mary going up from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and of Mary giving birth to Jesus in a manger. We think of the shepherds in the field, of the heavenly host announcing peace on earth to those of good will and of the shepherds finding the baby in the manger. This is what Christmas is all about, isn’t it? Well, yes, this is what Christmas is all about.
And yet, there is more. Jesus’ birth in the stable that day was only the culmination of a long history that reached its climax in that remarkable event. As Paul writes in the book of Galatians, “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that he might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:5; see also Heb. 1:1–3). What does Paul mean when he says Jesus was born in “the fullness of time”? He means that all the divine preparations for the Savior’s birth had been completed. All the prophecies regarding the coming Messiah had been uttered. All the lessons had been taught to God’s people Israel. All the OT symbolism anticipating and pointing to Christ had been instituted. Now there was only one thing left to do: For God to send his Son.
John talks about this in chapter 3 verse 16 of his Gospel: “For this is how much God loved the world: he gave his one-of-a-kind Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” Who is this one-of-a-kind Son? As the prologue of John’s Gospel makes clear, this Son pre-existed with God from eternity past, even before creation. He was with God in the beginning (an echo of Gen. 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”). Not only was he with God, but he, the pre-incarnate Word, was himself God. Also, he was the one through whom the world was made. He was the Creator before he became the Savior of the world. And then, most wonderful of all, he, the Word, who was in the beginning with God, was made flesh and dwelt among us.
In what follows I want us to dwell on this amazing depiction of Jesus in John’s prologue and to pause and ponder the amazing depths of this revelation of who Jesus is. I want us to reflect on what you might call “Christmas according to John,” a Christmas that is not focused on the paraphernalia surrounding Jesus’ birth, such as the manger or the shepherds, important as these might be in describing the humble circumstances in which Jesus was born. John’s Christmas, if you will, his perspective on Jesus’ taking on human form, does not so much try to bring Jesus down to earth so that we can understand him and relate to him (who cannot relate to a cute little baby?). No, rather than focusing on bringing Jesus down to earth, John wants to take us up with him to heaven, to a time when there was no creation, no humanity, no animals, not even angels, a time when Jesus, the Word, co-existed with God in perfect love and unity of purpose.
Let’s, then, look at John 1:1–18, the opening of John’s Gospel, and try to find answers to the following three questions: (1) Who is that Word that was made flesh? (2) Why did that Word come into the world? And (3) What is Christmas according to John, and how can understanding John’s message transform the way we celebrate Christmas?
First, then, who is that Word that was made flesh? Let’s read John 1:1–5 [. . .]. In vv. 6–8, we are told about John the Baptist’s witness to Jesus, so let’s keep reading vv. 9–11.] As mentioned, John uses a different style of reporting than the other evangelists. Luke takes you to the stable, and makes you feel like you were there with Jesus and Joseph and Mary and the angels and shepherds. John tries to give you a bird’s eye view, so he takes you on a journey in a time capsule, as it were, that takes you to the beginning of time.
In that beginning, he says, was the Word. What (or who) is the Word? The Word is God’s self-expression; the Word is who God is. So what that tells us is that Jesus, when he was made flesh, knew God intimately and personally the way no one has ever known God. That is why he could, as it says in v. 18, “explain” God, or, perhaps even better, “give full account of him”: “God no one has ever seen; the one-of-a-kind Son, God in his own right, who lives in closest relationship with the Father—that one has given full account of him.”
Continuing in v. 1, the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Jesus stood in close relationship with God, so he could explain him, yet he also was God in his own right. So God (the Father) is God, and Jesus (the Son) is God as well, and the two stand in the closest possible relationship to one another. Even when Jesus was a baby in the manger, he was in “the Father’s lap,” as you might translate chapter 1 verse 18. He was secure in God the Father’s love and care and protection, no matter how fragile and vulnerable he was in his humanity. God sent him in the fullness of time, and everything surrounding the circumstances of Jesus’ coming was under God’s perfect control.
Not only was Jesus with God, and himself God, he was active in God’s creation. As Paul says, “For by him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth . . . all things have been created through him and for him” (Col. 1:16). Or as John writes, “Through him all things were made, and without him nothing was made that has been made.” Here are two important implications that flow from Jesus’ activity in creation.
To begin with, John’s message is that, when God sent his Son, this was not the first time in human history that the Son served as God’s agent. No, before Jesus became the Savior of mankind, he had already been the Creator.
Also, the fact that the world was made through Jesus makes it even more striking that the world rejected Jesus when he came to earth. Not only did the world reject Jesus, it was the very world that Jesus had made that rejected its Creator! This is John’s message in vv. 10–11: “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.” He, the Creator, did not only create light and separate it from the darkness; he himself was the Light that came into the world. And he, the Creator, did not merely create life and was the Life-giver; he himself was the Life that came into the world. As John says in vv. 4–5, “In him was life, and that life was the light of all people; and the Light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.”
Now when John refers to Jesus as the Light, I believe he does not only think of creation, he may also think of Jesus as the Messiah. There are several important OT passages where the Messiah is referred to as the light. As early as in Numbers 24:17, we read, in Balaam’s famous oracle, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; A star shall come forth from Jacob, A scepter shall rise from Israel . . . One from Jacob shall have dominion . . .” And several hundred years later, the prophet Isaiah wrote, “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them” (Isa. 9:2; quoted in the NT); and again, “And I will appoint You as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon and those who dwell in darkness from the prison” (Isa. 42:6–7; also quoted in the NT). And Malachi 4:2 says, “But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings,” after God’s messenger, the new Elijah, has come (Mal. 3:1; 4:2).
Finally, when John says in v. 5 that the light shines in the darkness, but darkness has not overcome it, we see hints of the cosmic battle in which Satan tried to defeat Jesus but where Jesus overcame Satan (I know some translations have “did not comprehend” rather than “did not overcome” in v. 5, but “overcome” is much more likely here. I’m not sure what it would mean for the darkness to “understand” or “comprehend” the light).
So, then, who was that baby who was born on Christmas Day? According to John, he was God, the Creator, the Light, and the Life. He was the eternal Son of God who has life in himself and who, like God, dwelled in inapproachable light in eternity past. It is this Word that, in Jesus, has become flesh and dwelt among us.
Second, why did the Word come into the world? We find the answer in vv. 12–13. It is interesting that John carefully structured what is really a poem in the original to form a chiasm, that is, he structured verses 1–18 in the form of concentric circles. In vv. 1–5, he talks about the Word’s activity in creation (A); in vv. 6–8, he introduces the witness of John the Baptist (B); in the center of the chiasm, in vv. 9–14, he speaks of the incarnation of the Word and of the privilege of becoming God’s children (C); in v. 15, he returns to John the Baptist (B’); and in vv. 16–18, he speaks of the final revelation brought by Jesus Christ (C’). So, at the very heart of the prologue is John’s teaching about the incarnation and about its primary purpose.
Why did Jesus come into this world? A lot of people in our culture and around the world don’t understand why Jesus was born. They never get past the trappings of Christmas, the presents, the tree, Santa Claus, stockings, candy canes, Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus. Likewise, many people don’t understand why Jesus died on the cross. The reason for this lack of true understanding, I believe, is that it takes eyes of faith, and the Holy Spirit, to understand the spiritual purpose of Jesus’ coming, the true meaning of what we celebrate at Christmas.
Why did the Word become flesh? According to John, the reason is that “to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, to those 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” (vv. 12–13). Children of God! Aren’t we all children of God by virtue of being created by him? Not according to John. According to John, we become God’s children only by being born spiritually, by being born, “not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” So when we look at that baby in the manger, we should think of the spiritual birth that Jesus, God in his own right, made possible by becoming a human being and by dying in our place.
Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel, failed to understand the necessity of this new, spiritual birth, when Jesus told him: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” He thought Jesus was talking about a second physical birth. But Jesus explained that the birth he was talking about was a birth “of water and the Spirit,” that is, a birth characterized by spiritual renewal and transformation. That birth, Jesus explained, is like the wind. How do you know it’s there? By seeing it directly? No; by seeing its effects. When we look at leaves blowing in the wind, we think we see the wind, but what we are actually seeing is the effects of the wind.
If this is too difficult for you and me to understand, let’s stop trying to understand and start receiving what God has for us. When I was a university student in Vienna, Austria, and then by God’s grace experienced a spiritual awakening when I was in my early 20s, I at first tried very hard to understand things such as how a God who was sovereign could allow Jesus to die on the cross. Or, closer to home, how he could allow certain things to happen in my life, like my parents getting a divorce just after I graduated from high school. How can God be sovereign and allow such bad things to happen? No matter how hard people around me who were already Christians tried to explain it to me, I could not grasp it. (I also found it hard to forgive my Dad.) In my utter despair, I cried out to God, like Peter cried out when he started to sink in the water, “Lord, save me!” By his grace, I had come to understand that the bottom line was, I was a sinner, and I needed a Savior. In the end, nothing else really mattered. Don’t wait to understand the cross, or any other spiritual truth, before you put your trust in Jesus. If you know you’re a sinner, and you know that you need a Savior, do what John says in John 1:12: receive him, believe in him, and as you do so, become a child of God.
Third, what is Christmas according to John, and how can understanding John’s message transform the way we celebrate Christmas? [Read John 1:14–18.] As we have already seen, for John, Christmas, that is, Jesus’ coming in to this world as a baby, is the Word-become-flesh, the incarnation of the Word of God. This is what John 1:14 talks about, and in vv. 14 and 16 we see two major ways in which Jesus’ incarnation involves us. In both of these verses, we find statements using the word “we.”
In v. 14, John says, “And the Word was made flesh and pitched his tent among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the one-of-a-kind Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” When we look at the baby lying in the manger, when we look at Jesus’ life and ministry, and when we look at Jesus dying on the cross for our sins, we ought to see God’s glory. We ought to realize that what God did in and through Jesus is a wonderful thing, a thing that ought to give us great occasion for wonder, and praise, and worship. Do you, and do I, perceive God’s glory in Jesus? Is there any time left for us in our busy Christmas schedule to marvel at the wonder, and the glory, of God in the Lord Jesus Christ? John wants to call us back to this attitude of worship and praise. He wants us to be still and to know that God has sent his one-of-a-kind Son into the world. He wants to lift us up far above any preoccupation with the external trappings of Christmas, so we can contemplate the wonder of a God who would care enough for the world and the people he has made to send his Son to die, knowing that the world would reject him, knowing that glory would come to him through rejection and suffering and brokenness.
Not only does John say in v. 14 that “we have seen his glory,” he goes on to say in v. 16 that “from his fullness we have all received grace for grace.” First we have to receive him (v. 12), and then we receive from his fullness an abundance of blessings. Those of us who are Christians have not only seen God’s glory, we have received an abundance of grace from his fullness. As Jesus says in John 10:10: “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Why is our experience impoverished at times? Why don’t we know the fullness of all that God has in store for us in Christ? It is because we fail to realize who Jesus truly is in relation to God and in relation to us. The essence of the Christian life is not adhering to an abstract set of beliefs. The essence of the Christian life is not even to act out a part of what we think a mature Christian person ought to look like. Jesus called this play-acting, or hypocrisy. No; the essence of the Christian life is a personal relationship with God in and through Jesus Christ, a grateful, receptive love and trust relationship between us and another person, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Do you and I truly love Jesus today? Do you and I truly trust him? Or do we love other things, or people, more? Do we trust him, or, if the truth were known, do we trust in the things of this world, or in other people, or in our own ability and human plans? In Jesus Christ, God wants to restore us to living in that constant sense of dependence on God that characterized Adam and Eve before they fell into sin. They were his creatures, and he had given them everything around them to enjoy and cultivate. The marvel about all of this is that, according to John, we don’t have to wait to heaven before this becomes a reality. Jesus came to give us abundant life already in the here and now, and we have already received from the fullness of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
What, then, is the “grace and truth” that John is talking about in vv. 14 and 16–17? Most serious students of the Bible believe that the expression “grace and truth” in John 1:14 is rooted in the OT expression “lovingkindness and faithfulness” (e.g., Exodus 34:6). The source of the grace we have received in Christ, then, is God’s lovingkindness, and the source of the truth that Jesus is and came to bring is God’s covenant-keeping faithfulness. If so, God’s sending his son in the fullness of time is an expression of his faithfulness to his people, and when we look at Jesus, we ought to be moved with gratitude for God’s faithfulness, despite our sin, of pursuing us, of coming to us, of rescuing us from the curse and the power of sin.
So, then, as John tells us in vv. 14–18, in Jesus we have seen God’s glory, and we have received from his fullness, both grace and truth. Just as we tell our children, Christmas is not all about Christmas presents, material things we put under the tree. Christmas is about the spiritual blessings we have received through Christ, by becoming his children. That’s the most precious gift of all. This Christmas, let’s ponder anew the wonder of what it means to be God’s children, and let’s say with Paul, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift” (1 Cor. 9:15), who is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, the Savior of the world, the Word who existed with God in eternity past and who took on human flesh and dwelt among us. As Matthew writes, quoting the prophet Isaiah, “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call his name ‘Immanuel,’ which translated means, ‘God with us.’”