For the next four Sundays we are looking at what is probably the greatest and most staggering Christian claim – that Jesus was God made man. What is also called the ‘Incarnation’. The claim that at the first Christmas ‘the word became flesh and dwelt among us’. God took on human nature. The one who created the world took on humanity without being any less ‘God’. He appeared on earth as a helpless human baby – needing to be fed and changed and taught like any other child. But Jesus was as truly and fully divine as he was human. Each week, we’ll look at a different part of the Bible and we begin today with John 1.
Who is God? If we could pick only one passage from the Old Testament to answer that question, high on the list would be Exodus 34. God had revealed his name to Moses in the incident of the burning bush in Exodus 3. Then later, Moses asks to see God’s glory and he reveals himself to Moses by causing his glory to pass by him. Then we read, in Exodus 34.6-7:
‘The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty…’
Throughout the Old Testament that verse is picked up and quoted again and again to answer the question: who is God? It is where God revealed himself to us. And we see how incredible the one true and living God is. The first two words God uses to describe himself are ‘merciful and gracious’. As Dane Ortlund put it in his helpful book ‘Gentle and Lowly’:
‘God does not reveal his glory as, ‘The LORD, the LORD, exacting and precise,” or, “The LORD, the LORD, tolerant and overlooking,” or, “The LORD, the LORD, disappointed and frustrated.” His highest priority and deepest delight and first reaction—his heart—is merciful and gracious. He gently accommodates himself to our terms rather than overwhelming us with his.’
God is also ‘Slow to anger’. Dane Ortlund again:
‘The Hebrew phrase is literally “long of nostrils.” Picture an angry bull, pawing the ground, breathing loudly, nostrils flared. That would be, so to speak, “short-nosed.” But the Lord is long-nosed. He doesn’t have his finger on the trigger. It takes much accumulated provoking to draw out his ire. Unlike us, who are often emotional dams ready to break, God can put up with a lot.’
That’s not to say that God is never angry. In the Bible we read that God is ‘provoked to anger’ by our sin:
‘But not once are we told that God is “provoked to love” or “provoked to mercy.” His anger requires provocation; his mercy is pent up, ready to gush forth. We tend to think: divine anger is pent up, spring-loaded; divine mercy is slow to build. It’s just the opposite. Divine mercy is ready to burst forth at the slightest prick. (For fallen humans, we learn in the New Testament, this is reversed. We are to provoke one another to love, according to Hebrews 10:24. Yahweh needs no provoking to love, only to anger. We need no provoking to anger, only to love…’
And then God is ‘Abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’. Dane Ortlund one last time:
This is covenant language. There is one Hebrew word underlying the English phrase “steadfast love.” It is the word hesed, which refers to God’s special commitment to the people with whom he has gladly bound himself in an unbreakable covenant bond. The word “faithfulness” gets at this too—he will never throw his hands up in the air, despite all the reasons his people give him to do so. He refuses even to entertain the notion of forsaking us who deserve to be, or of withdrawing his heart from us the way we do toward others who hurt us. Therefore he is not simply existing in large-hearted covenant commitment but abounding in it. His determined commitment to us never runs dry.
That is what God is like, this is his glory, it is what makes God God. We know that because he revealed himself in this way to Moses. And just like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, we struggle to believe that God is good as well as great. But he is.
The great news of Christmas is that this same God, who never changes, came to live, to dwell with us. And he came to reveal to us fully and finally exactly what God is like. What Moses was told, Jesus came to show. Moses wanted to see God’s glory, but he could not. But now we see God’s glory revealed and made known to us through Jesus – which brings us John 1.
John’s gospel opens by introducing us to ‘the Word’ –who is eternal, who created the world and who is the source of all life and light. John 1.1-4:
‘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 were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.’
The Word of God, who we are soon to discover is none other than God the Son, became a real human baby and grew up as a humble Galilean carpenter, ultimately to die a gruesome death on a Roman cross in our place. He had not stopped being God and he did not lose some aspects of being God. Rather he took on being a man as well as being God. The one who made man was now learning what it felt like to be man. Jesus came to reveal to us what God is like. John 1.14 & John 1.17-18:
‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth…For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.’
‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ eight words that describe the most remarkable of events that took place on the first Christmas. No doubt, if we had been there, it would have seemed a moment just like any other. But it wasn’t an ordinary moment. Something spectacular took place. The word, that is God, became a man. He had come to reveal to us what God is like. His words, his actions reveal to us the mind, outlook, ways, plans and purposes of God that father. Not because he possessed knowledge of these things to pass on. But because he himself was God. Later in John’s gospel Jesus says this (John 14.7):
‘If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’
He didn’t just come to reveal the Father of course. He was born to die. He came in order to save us, but we’ll come back to that aspect of the incarnation in a few week’s time. And we’ll also think more about what it means that he is full of grace and truth. But for today, lets’ dwell on the fact that Jesus is God, come down to reveal to us what God is like. That’s also what Hebrews tells us. Hebrews 1.1-3 says:
‘Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, [such as to Moses] but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.’
Is it possible to know God? Yes! But not by trying to work it out ourselves. We can know him only as he has revealed himself to us. That’s because he’s a personal being. Unless he tells us about himself, we cannot know him. And he has spoken to us most clearly, most finally, most perfectly through Jesus – God became a man and dwelt among us. Now God is knowable, through Jesus.
Now it may be that as you hear me speak you think – this is bonkers! Can anyone really believe this? It is true that it is a staggering claim, and it’s worth saying that if this is true then it makes sense of pretty much everything else the Bible contains. If Jesus is God become man, then his miracles, the way his death pays for our forgiveness, his resurrection from the dead and so on are far less strange and hard to believe.
So take some time to read the rest of John’s gospel, listen to what Jesus said, watch what he did, and investigate these claims for yourself. We have a website called whyjesus.org.uk and on that you can find information that will help you do that. You can also contact us from there and ask for a free ebook version of this booklet ‘Christmas in Three Words’. There are also details of a discussion group called Christianity Explored we’re putting on in the new year to look at what the Bible says about who Jesus is and why he came. Why not consider joining that? You can find out more and sign up on whyjesus.org.uk
Perhaps the significance of Christmas is not new to you, but there’s a danger it just gets forgotten or peripheral. This incredible truth should leave us hungry to know this God who has revealed himself in human flesh in human history. So take time this Christmas to pause and ponder and marvel at the wonder of what happened that first Christmas – it’s almost incomprehensible. But I pray that we would not just know the truth but really grasp the breadth and length and height and depth of it and that we would all be amazed in a fresh way at what God has done for us.
But I want to end by saying a few words about one very key implication of this truth and that is that it means Jesus is the only way to God. That Jesus is the complete and final revelation of God. That he is unique. That he is God’s only son, the only Saviour - not just the highest among many. That he is no mere man or prophet but God’s Son the Word of God himself. John 1.13 says he is ‘the only Son from the Father’ and John 1.17 says ‘the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.’
We looked at John 14.7 earlier, where Jesus says ‘If you had known me, you would have known my Father also’. (John 14:6):
‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’
Jesus claimed not just to be God’s agent within Christianity leaving God to be at work in other religions and faiths, as if they are all different paths to the same God. Because Jesus is God incarnate, then it also holds that he must be God’s unique and final revelation and the only Saviour of the world.
Christians throughout the ages have stood firm on the uniqueness of Christ, despite the fact that it made them unpopular and that they were persecuted and even martyred for it. It’s interesting that in many situations such as in the early days of the church in the Roman Empire Christians were martyred not for worshipping Christ, but for refusing to worship pagan gods. Those who were martyred were usually offered freedom in exchange for tossing some incense onto an altar, in worship of a pagan deity. But instead they preferred death to this denial of Christ. It’s is also this truth that has driven pioneer missionaries to move to a different part of the world in order to tell them others the Good news about Jesus. Many were willing to give their lives for this, and many were called upon to do so. They would not have done so if they hadn’t followed believed the truth that Jesus was God become man, the unique and final Saviour of the world.
That’s such a challenge at a time when Western pluralism imposes on us a view that science and history are about facts, and religion is about personal and cultural values. We rightly seek to treat those from different cultural groups without discrimination, and value tolerance and appreciative of different cultures. But the Bible’s claim is that Jesus is unique, and that he alone has shown us that father and he alone can save us. So may God grant us wisdom, boldness and joy to believe and proclaim the good news that he has acted in love to save us and that he is the revelation of the glory of God.