This morning we are two days before Christmas. It is natural therefore for our minds to be directed to the Gift and the miracle of the birth of the Son of God into this world in Bethlehem so many years ago. If our hearts are right, we will not only be led to consider the miracle but also the implications of this miracle. If we stay in the manger, and don’t consider what that manger made possible, we will have missed the entire point of this holiday. Our text helps us to consider the great implications of the birth of Christ. In particular, it tells us that the incarnation (the coming in flesh) of the Son of God made possible a display of his glory that would not have been possible otherwise. More than this, it made possible the sharing of this glory for others. This is what we want to consider this morning: what the glory of Christ says about him, how this glory was displayed in the earthly life and death of our Lord, and how we become participants in this glory.
What the glory says about Christ
Our text reads, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” This is the apostle John describing the incarnation of the Son of God in human flesh. He was “made flesh” or “became flesh and dwelt among us” (ESV). That he is referring to Jesus is made clear by verses 15-17. The apostle tells us that John the Baptist bore witness about this Word made flesh, and then John the apostle goes on to say that “of his [referring to the one who was witnessed to by John the Baptist, which was the Word made flesh] fullness have we all received, and grace for grace. For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” Verse 17 explains verse 16, especially the phrase “grace for grace.” This grace comes from the fulness of the Word made flesh, and verse 17 tells us that this grace came by Jesus Christ. Here therefore we have the positive identification of the Word in verse 14. The Word made flesh is Jesus Christ.
And he was truly a man. He was “flesh,” not in the pejorative sense often used in the NT, but in the sense that he was flesh and blood, as fully a human being as you and I. He hungered and got tired and felt the sting of rejection and loneliness and suffering and pain. When he was nailed to the cross, he felt the nails and spikes and thorns just as any other human person would have felt them.
And yet he was not just a man. As I noted last time, this was a realization that dawned slowly upon the apostles. But how did it happen? The apostle John tells us in our text: “we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father.” As the apostles accompanied our Lord through his earthly ministry, they saw something. John describes what they saw as “glory.” This is a term which to ears trained by the Scriptures sounds like something which describes God. In the Bible, glory is something which is over and over again ascribed to God. Moses asked God to show him his glory (Exo. 33:18). Several times the Bible calls us to ascribe to God the glory that is due his name (1 Chron. 16:29; Ps. 29:2; 96:8). In heaven, God’s glory is continually extolled (Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:11; 5:13). Glory is seen as something which is distinctively God’s and which is connected to the worship of God. Therefore, when John uses this word to describe Jesus, he is saying something very powerful. He is saying that this Word-become-flesh, this Man, is more than a mere man – he is saying that this man displayed something (glory) which belongs peculiarly to God.
Of course, we already know by this point the conclusion John arrived at. He begins his gospel with these bold and unapologetic words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made” (ver. 1-3). Though there are some modern-day Arians (Jehovah’s Witnesses) who claim that verse 1 should be translated, “and the Word was a god,” this is a bad and impossible translation. The Greek text is properly translated, “and the Word was God.” But Greek aside, this is the conclusion we have to come to if we take verse 3 seriously. This verse tells us that the Word made everything that was made. If he were a created being, this would mean that the Word created himself. Which would mean that the Word had to exist before he existed. Which of course is impossible. John saw the glory of the Word, and came to the conclusion that Jesus Christ was God, the one who created all things.
If the first verse of John’s gospel sounds familiar, it should, for it is meant to make you think of Genesis 1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. . . And God said . . .” (1, 3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26). Genesis 1 tells us that God created all things by his Word. John’s gospel identifies this Word with the person of Jesus Christ. He is the one who created all things. His powerful word brought matter and energy into being, created the laws of physics, and holds all things in being by the same powerful word (Col. 1:16-17).
John further describes him in verse 14: “the glory as of the only begotten of the Father.” The Word, the one who created all things, is the only begotten of the Father.” But who is the Father? In John’s gospel, both Jesus and his opponents claimed that God was their Father (Jn. 8:28-29, 41-42). The Father is therefore clearly a reference to God. And yet the Word is someone clearly distinct from the Father. He is not the same as God the Father; he is the “only begotten of the Father”; or, as most modern translations put it, “the only Son from the Father” (ESV).
Now some have capitalized on this and claim that because Jesus is the Son of God, he is therefore something less than God. After all, Adam is called the “son of God” in Luke 3:38. But notice that John doesn’t just describe Jesus as a son of God, but as the unique, the one-and-only, Son of God. He is God’s Son in a way that no one else is. God is his Father in a special and unique way.
What is this special and unique relationship? John is saying that Jesus is the Son of God in the sense that he shares the very nature of God with God the Father (cf. 1:1). Even our Lord’s opponents recognized this. When Jesus defended his actions by the words, “My Father is working unto now, and I am working,” this is the way they responded: “This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (Jn. 5:17-18, ESV). For Jesus, being the Son of God, meant that he was equal with God, that he shared the very nature of God.
This is the point that is being made in the very first verse of John’s gospel. The Word was with God, that is, the Father. He is not the Father; he is with him from eternity. But that is not all that John has to say: “and the Word was God,” by which John means that the Word shares the very nature of God. What God was the Word was. He is neither identical with the Father, but neither is he less than the Father. He is equal with the Father in terms of sharing the very nature of God.
What the first chapter of John very clearly tells us is that from eternity (“in the beginning”) God the Father and God the Son existed together. They are distinct persons who together share the undivided nature of God. What we have here is the beginning of the doctrine of the Trinity. And though the Spirit is not mentioned in this chapter, he will come in for detailed treatment in our Lord’s final discourse in the Upper Room in chapters 13-17. There, the Spirit is called “another Paraclete,” someone who will come to minister to Christ’s disciples in his physical absence (14:16). He is clearly distinct from the Son of God who sends him (as well as the Father who also sends him), but he is also clearly of the same nature as the Son; otherwise, how could he be called “another (of the same kind) Helper/Comforter/Advocate”? We are therefore justified in saying that the Spirit of God too shares the very nature of God.
So here we have all the essential elements of the doctrine of the Trinity. This is not something that later theologians invented. It is something they were required to formulate in order to stay faithful to all the teaching of Scripture, especially in view of heresies that were attacking the church.
Let’s remind ourselves what the total teaching is. As we pointed out in our last message, Scripture teaches that God is one. We are not told to believe in “gods” but in the God. God is never plural but always singular. But Scripture also teaches that there are the Father, Son, and Spirit, and these each properly share the very nature of God and yet are distinct. The only way to piece the various elements of Scripture together in a coherent way is to posit the doctrine of the Trinity: that God is one in essence and three in person. But it is very important that we understand exactly what we mean by this.
First of all, when we say that the Father, Son, and Spirit share the nature of God, we do not mean that the essence of the Godhead is divided or distributed between them. God is not a physical substance; he is not made of complex of parts; rather, he is Spirit (Jn. 4:24). And spirit is not something you can just cut into pieces, like a pie. Rather, we are saying that the one undivided essence of God is equally and completely shared by all three persons in the Trinity. The Father is fully God, and as God is all that God is. The Son is fully God, and as God is all that God is. The Spirit is God, and as God is all that God is.
Nor do we say that they share the nature of God like we all share the nature of humanity. I am a human being and you are a human being; we can further say that we are all fully human. That is not what we are saying when we say that the Father and Son and Spirit are fully God. The difference is that human nature is divisible, but the Godhead is not. Each Divine Person contains all that God is in terms of his essence. Another way that theologians have tried to express this is in terms of mutual indwelling. Each Person of the Trinity mutually indwell each other in terms of the essence of God. This is very difficult to comprehend, because there is nothing like this in the created and finite world that God has made. Which makes all the illustrations break down at some point.
The reason we have to say this is because if we suppose that the nature of God is distributed between each Person, then what you end up with are three Gods, not one God, and this would violate the teaching of Scripture. It is the fact that the essence remains undivided that we have one God, not three. The Persons are not parts of the essence; each contains the entire essence of the Godhead. They are three mutually related yet distinct modes of personal being in the one undivided essence of the Godhead.
Second, just as we have to emphasize the indivisibility of God’s essence, we also have to emphasize the fact that the Persons are irreducibly distinct. That is, the Son is not the Father in another role. Now I am both a father and a son; but I am the same person who is both. This is not what is going on in the Trinity. For this would mean that the Father is the Son is the Spirit, and that they are different in terms merely of the role that is being played at the moment. But this is not what the Scriptures teach.
Rather, the Scriptures teach us that the Father is distinct from the Son, and that this distinction is a personal one and not merely a distinction of role. The Father is a different Person from the Son. And the Spirit is a different Person from the Father and the Son. I tried to show you just how important this is in the previous message. If God is unipersonal, then it is impossible to understand how God could be loving before he created the universe, and therefore loving in himself. It is only as we embrace the doctrine of the Trinity that we can understand why and how it is the very nature of God to be loving. The love that God offers us in the gospel is a love that overflows from the love that has been eternally shared between the members of the Trinity. The invitation of salvation is an invitation to share in the fellowship of the Holy Trinity, and this is meaningless if God existed before the creation of the world as a single-person God.
One of the frightening implications of a one-person God is that such a God needs us for fellowship. Why is that frightening? It is frightening because that makes God needy, and the last thing a fallen creation needs is a needy God, a God who depends on us to complete his happiness. This is not good news; it is bondage. After all, how could I possibly complete God’s happiness? I can’t! But the good news of the gospel is that the God who doesn’t need you, the God who is completely self-sufficient and happy and glorious in himself has overflowed in sovereign grace through the work of God the Son to include you and all your neediness and emptiness in his loving embrace. The doctrine of the Trinity implies that God did not create you because he needed love or fellowship; rather, he created you because it is his nature to overflow and to share his glory and joy and love with others – first of all in the fellowship of the Trinity itself, and then outwardly towards his creation.
How the glory was displayed and shared
Now I am saying all this is implicit here in the very first chapter of John’s gospel; indeed, it is all implicit in our text. But John didn’t figure this out by himself. This doctrine is not something that we can arrive at through the evidence available in nature; it is something that must be revealed to us. And God revealed this to us preeminently to us in the coming of his Son to earth in his mission to rescue us from our sins. John tells us that he saw the glory of Christ, and what he saw convinced him that what he was seeing was the glory of the only begotten Son of God, full of grace and truth. In other words, it is only as we see Jesus for who he is that we can really come to grips with the doctrine of the Trinity. Those who reject the Trinity always get Jesus wrong. They end up either making him a lesser deity or just another man. But once you embrace Jesus as the unique, one-and-only Son of God, then you are immediately faced with plurality in the unity of the Godhead; in other words, you are faced with the beginning of the doctrine of the Trinity.
John saw the glory of Christ and followed him; it is only as we see the glory of Christ that we too will follow him and be saved. For this is precisely how Paul describes conversion: seeing the glory of Christ. Those who see it are saved; those who are blinded to it are lost. “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:3-6). It is only as we see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ that we will ever come to him and embrace him as our Lord and Savior.
But what did he see? What was this glory that he saw? John does not leave us in doubt. The glory he saw was the glory of the incarnate Word, the glory of the Son of God who became also the Son of Man. He manifested his glory in his miracles as he showed his sovereignty over the physical creation. We are told that at the marriage at Cana in Galilee, where he turned the water into wine, that “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory” (Jn. 2:11). The result was that “his disciples believed in him.”
Or consider what John and the other apostles saw at Lazarus’ grave. There, when Martha reminded the Lord that her brother had already been dead for four days, he responded with the rebuke, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” (Jn. 11:40). And they did see his glory; Jesus by simply speaking a word raised this dead man back to life again. Here was a man who not only had power over the chemical properties of water and wine, but someone who had life in himself and who could give it to whom he chose (cf. Jn. 5:26).
But it was not just his miracles that convinced them. It was also the teaching of this man. John would write in his epistle, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life . . . that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 Jn. 1:1, 3). It was not just seeing his works that convinced them, but also hearing his words that convinced them that this was more than just a prophet standing before them. At one point, when many of Jesus’ would-be disciples turned their backs on Jesus and walked no more with him, Peter responded by saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn. 6:68-69).
This is what happens when you see Jesus for who is really is. Not just another good man, or even a good prophet. But the Holy One of God. The one who can give life to the physically and spiritually dead. This is not just a good man but the Son of God, one who is God in his very nature, the God Man. And when you see Jesus for who he truly is, when you see the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, your response is the same as that of the apostles: “to whom [else] shall we go?”
But the ultimate display of Christ’s glory was neither a sermon nor a miracle. It was his humiliating death on the cross, a death that lead to his resurrection and exaltation. Our Lord himself put it this way on the eve of his death: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn. 12:23-24). He is clearly referring to his death, a death that would ultimately result in bearing “much fruit;” i.e. drawing many people to himself for eternal life (cf. ver. 32). The hour of the Son of Man was his hour to be glorified. This is counterintuitive to us because we wouldn’t naturally associate the humiliation of a cross with glory. But the cross was the only way by which Christ could be glorified. For Paul writes, “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:8-11).
The amazing thing about this is that the glory of Christ in his death is a glory that secured eternal glory and happiness for his elect. It is not a glory only for himself. For the salvation purchased on the cross is a salvation that secures glorification for the saints (cf. Rom. 8:30). What is this glory? Listen to what our Lord prays in John 17:22: “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one.” Of course he is not saying that we will become glorious like Christ in every respect. We will never be deified. We will forever remain the creature and Christ the creator. But just as a king can lavish his glory on his subjects without relinquishing his throne, even so Christ lavishes his glory on his people while remaining their Lord. Again, Paul writes, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:20-21). That is, insofar as Christ shares our humanity, the glory that his humanity has received will be a glory that his people will receive as well in the age to come.
Unfortunately, people are continually seeking to meet the needs of their souls in other things because they have not yet seen, or refuse to see, the glory of God in Christ. The problem is not because Jesus is no longer physically present to demonstrate his miracles or see his risen body. The problem is that, as sinful men and women, we continue to seek glory in things which blind us to the greater needs of the soul before God. We blind ourselves with the little incandescent light bulbs of human glory and turn our backs on the glory of Son of God. If seeing the miracles of Jesus were all it would take to constrain to heart and mind to faith in Christ, then Jesus would never have been rejected by Pharisees and Sadducees of his day. Even after the miracle of Lazarus’ resurrection, the enemies of Jesus began to plot his death. They knew that Lazarus had been raised from the dead. In fact, even after our Lord’s own resurrection, we are told that “some doubted” (Mt. 28:17). They couldn’t deny it; yet they refused to believe. Why?
Jesus tells us why: “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (Jn. 5:44). The apostle John explains: “for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (Jn. 12:43). It’s not a problem of evidence. It’s a problem of what kind of glory you desire. If you desire the glory of God, you will see it in the face of Jesus Christ. If, on the other hand, you love the glory that comes from lust and greed and power, you will remain blinded to the truer glory of God and a captive to your sin.
The glory of Jesus Christ shines today in the gospels for all to see. It is the glory of the Son of God, the glory of Holy Trinity shining forth in human form. When we embrace him for who he is, we inevitably embrace the doctrine of the Trinity. And doing so, we not only arrive at truth but embrace the eternal life which is found in embracing the Son of God by faith: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn. 1:12-13). “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (Jn. 20:30-31).