“The way to Christian growth is to allow oneself to be puzzled and startled by new apparent complexity. There is great simplicity at the heart of this picture, but it is costly. The price it demands is sustained attention to the specific, and to us strange and perhaps even repellent, first-century ways of thinking that characterized Jesus. Is it after all Jesus we want to discover and follow, or would we prefer an idol of our own making?” – N.T. Wright
That’s a powerful question: Is it after all Jesus we want to discover and follow, or would we prefer an idol of our making? Unfortunately, there are many idols that go by the name of “Jesus” – there is the Jesus of the Da Vinci Code; the Jesus of who is kept on a leash to dispense his approval for every act of tyrants; the Jesus of consumerism and prosperity preaching, whose one purpose is to bless you with wealth; the Jesus of sexual liberation whose one and only commandment is that you not judge. Then there is the Jesus of bad hymns: “gentle Jesus, meek and mild”, and “the little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes” – the Jesus who never needed His diaper changed; who let Mary and Joseph sleep through the night from Day One; who never needed a shower.
But these are not the real Jesus, the one who was born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger. To understand that Jesus – to understand the first Christmas – we need to do what Wright says: we need to pay “sustained attention to first-century ways of thinking that characterized Jesus.” So this morning, I want to think about the coming of Jesus in terms of the Scriptures and the story of Israel. My hope is that by doing this, we may both know Jesus better and know our own place in His story.
Let’s turn to John 1, which gives us two things: first, a statement the incarnation, and second, the testimony of John the Baptist, which is an explanation of the place of Jesus in the story of Israel. We start with verse 14:
14 “And the Word became flesh” – Which Word? The Word of God – The Word who was an agent of the creation of the universe. The one through whom God made the worlds, according to Hebrews 1:2. Or again, Hebrews 11:2, “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the Word of God.” Please understand that creating the world is an activity that the God of Israel does not share with anyone else. Greek philosophers had a hierarchy of lesser deities who assisted with creation, or even did it instead of the real god. But in the Old Testament and 2nd Temple Judaism, this was unthinkable: God alone made everything, and accordingly, everything else was a creature. There is even a formula for all the things that were made: “in the heavens above, in the earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth” – and things in these three realms may not be worshipped. This meant that nothing else could be worshipped, and that God must be. It drew a stark line between the Creator and the creatures. But the Word of God is on God’s side of that line; He is not a creature, He is the Creator. “Without Him was nothing made that has been made.” Thus He is with God, and He is God, as John’s prologue says.
So this eternal Word of God, the maker of the worlds, became – it does not say, “man” or “a human being” or “a creature”, though all of those things are true. No, the way John expresses what happened on the first Christmas is this: “the Word became flesh.” And this term “flesh” has a special meaning in the Scriptures. It conveys two things: first, the physicality of Jesus, that He had a real body, a body that ate fish and bread, a body that could be pierced by nails, a body that, in its youngest years, needed its diaper changed. The Greek mind had a very hard time with this idea, because Plato’s and Aristotle’s gods, or the god of the Epicureans, were nothing like this. They were quite remote and uninvolved with the universe. They certainly did not walk around in the creation, or eat food, or suffer pain and die. When the Emperor Claudius died, the Roman writer Seneca made fun of the idea of him becoming a god. “He certainly can’t have become an Epicurean god,” he says, “since the Epicurean god neither has any trouble himself nor causes any for others.” That expresses the Greek conception of God: that He is without trouble, that He does not concern Himself with the sin and pain and death that afflicts the world; that He does not suffer, and does not have a body.
Bodies are embarrassing things: they produce fluids and waste. They need to use the CR. They bleed. They make snot. They get fevers and toothaches and gout. To have a body, to be flesh, is to have weakness, and ultimately to be doomed to die, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15: “Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” Merely by taking on a body, then, the eternal Word of God was assuming our weakness, was making Himself subject to the penalty of sin, which is death. It does not say that Jesus “inhabited flesh” or “dressed up in flesh”, but that He became flesh.
The second thing that the word “flesh” does is to connect Jesus with the human race as a whole. The usage derives from the story of Noah’s flood, where the word flesh, “basar” occurs many times:
“My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh.” – meaning, he must die.
“So God looked upon the earth, and indeed it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth.” – all flesh, the whole human race.
“And God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth is filled with violence through them.” – God will kill them because of their wickedness.
“And all flesh died that moved on the earth: birds and cattle and beasts and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, and every man.” – all flesh here, means the whole human race and all the animals.
“Thus I establish My covenant with you: Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood; never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
“I will remember My covenant which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 The rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will look on it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17 And God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
Again and again, the word “flesh” denotes the human race in its mortality, linked with the animals who also are made of meat, and who also have the breath of life. For God to become Flesh is to join us in our place as doomed to die, like the animals. But there is more: for the New Testament teaches us that “at just the right time, Christ died for the ungodly” and “in the fullness of time.” Christ came at the moment when the world was ripe for judgment again, when the sins of mankind had again become so great that the judgment of God must fall upon them. The Gentiles themselves were also filled with wickedness. Israel, itself the intended light of the nations, was so corrupt that its land was filled with demons. But at the right time, Christ intervened, and “God condemned sin in the flesh.” Says my friend Mark Horne: “Every single person on earth since that time is conceived, born, and lives because of Jesus stepping in the way of God’s wrath. It is as if Noah, instead of getting on the ark and being the lone survivor with his family, inhaled the entire flood himself and drowned instead of the wicked people around him.”
So far, then, the eternal Word of God has a body, and it is a mortal human body that makes Him a real member of the human race, subject to death. And He comes with this human body to die at just the right time, when the judgment of God was about to fall upon the world. Even in the manger in Bethlehem, Christ has begun His work of dying for His people, as Hebrews says, quoting Psalm 40:
“Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, But a body You have prepared for Me. In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You had no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come— In the volume of the book it is written of Me— To do Your will, O God.’”
He has a body so that He can do the Will of God, to be a sacrifice for our sins. He has this body as a baby in Bethlehem.
Then comes an amazing phrase:
“and dwelt among us” – Dwelt. The Greek says eskenosen – made his tent among us. Tabernacled, Hebrew wayishekown. This language is from Exodus 29:46, where God explains the purpose of the Exodus: “And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them up out of the land of Egypt, that I may dwell (Hebrew, leshakeniy) among them. I am the Lord their God.” And He did dwell with them.
Let’s remember what had happened in Genesis: we started out with God walking and talking with Adam in the garden in the cool of the day, but then Adam and Eve sinned, and were cast out from the presence of the Lord. And God did not dwell with them; indeed, He station an angel with a flaming sword to keep them out of His presence. And the entire history of the Bible is the story of man and God trying to dwell together again. Only in Israel did God dwell: first in the tabernacle, the mishekan which Moses set up; then later in the Temple of Solomon, where (2 Chronicles 5:14) “the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud, 14 so that the priests could not continue ministering because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.”
All this is leading up to Revelation 21:2-3, where I want you to notice how closely the bride-language is connected with the tent-language –
“2Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle (dwelling, σκήνη) of God is with men, and He will dwell (σκηνώσει) with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God.’”
This is the accomplishment of what Christ came to do: to make men into the dwelling place of God again. Notice that in Revelation, there is no temple in the New Jerusalem, because the entire world has become the place where God dwells with His people.
But at the time of the exile, God abandoned His temple and allowed Nebuchadnezzar to destroy it: this was “the abomination of desolation” – that is, the sins of the nation (“abomination”) led God to abandon His temple (“desolation”). So the wonderful situation that started at the end of Exodus, when God dwelt with Israel, came to an end. And when, 70 years later, Israel came back to the land, God still did not move back in with them. It is as though a woman committed adultery, and her husband was so upset with her that he kicked her out of the house (exile) and couldn’t bear to live there himself anymore either (abandonment of the Temple). And now at the time of John chapter 1, the adulterous wife has moved back in (the Jews are back in the land, and have been since Ezra and Nehemiah), but Israel’s divine husband has not come back to dwell with her.
This is the situation which some scholars refer to as the “continuing exile.” God had allowed Israel to come back into the land, but He had not forgiven their sins and begun dwelling with her again. (I owe the following observations, and much else in this sermon, to N.T. Wright.) The Lord promised through Haggai that He would eventually come back:
“For thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Once more (it is a little while) I will shake heaven and earth, the sea and dry land; 7 and I will shake all nations, and they shall come to the Desire of All Nations, and I will fill this temple with glory,’ says the Lord of hosts.”
Likewise in Zechariah 2, writing after the Second Temple had already been built, God promises that He will move back in to dwell with His people:
“Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion! For behold, I am coming and I will dwell in your midst,” says the Lord. 11 “Many nations shall be joined to the Lord in that day, and they shall become My people. And I will dwell in your midst. Then you will know that the Lord of hosts has sent Me to you. 12 And the Lord will take possession of Judah as His inheritance in the Holy Land, and will again choose Jerusalem. 13 Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord, for He is aroused from His holy habitation!”
In Malachi chapter 3, this promise is given again:
“Behold, I send My messenger, And he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, Will suddenly come to His temple, Even the Messenger of the covenant, In whom you delight. Behold, He is coming,” Says the Lord of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears?”
This, then, is the situation of Israel when John the Baptist and Jesus come on the scene. They have been awaiting the day when YHWH will once again dwell with His people. And the apostle John says that in Jesus, that is exactly what happened: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” In Jesus, God dwells with His people again. Jesus is the end of the exile.
There will indeed be another scene when the whooshing glory of YHWH fills the Temple. But the Temple it fills turns out to be made of living stones, and the day when this whooshing happens is Pentecost.
John continues in verse 14:
and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
“We beheld” – that was always the goal of YHWH’s worshippers:
One thing I have desired of the Lord, That will I seek: That I may dwell in the house of the Lord All the days of my life, To behold the beauty of the Lord.
What is the glory? The cloud of fire and cloud, the presence of God in the Temple that dwelt between the cherubim above the mercy seat on the ark of the covenant. What is the name for this glory of the Lord? The shekinah. That is what John says we have seen. But something amazing has happened: where before the Shekinah was unapproachable, dwelling in fire and cloud – think of what happened to Nadab and Abihu, who were consumed by flames when they tried to offer strange fire before the Lord, or of Uzzah, who merely reached out his hand to steady the Ark of the Covenant, and was struck dead. Or of how the high priest alone could enter the Holy of Holies to offer blood once a year. YHWH was dwelling with Israel, but He was a rather scary neighbor. But now, the Glory of the Lord is revealed as having a human face, and being clothed in flesh, which “was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled.” YHWH has washed the disciples’ feet. We may expect Jesus to touch us in the resurrection: after all, He has human hands now, with the marks of the nails. And thus, we should not sing “veiled in flesh the Godhead see” – Jesus’ flesh does not hide, but reveals YHWH to human sight. That is why John says “No one has ever seen God” before the coming of Jesus, but that God the only-begotten has revealed Him. And why, when Philip asks, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough,” Jesus replies, “If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father.” The incarnation was not a way for God to hide from us, but to reveal Himself to us most fully, in a way better and clearer than any of the ways by which He spoke to the Fathers (Hebrew 1:1).
John next tells us that He is begotten of the Father, that is, He is the Messiah, the Son of God. This is Psalm 2 language: “You are my Son, this day I have begotten you. Ask of me and I will give you the nations for your inheritance.”
And he is “full of grace and truth”. This is an idiom that does not describe two separate things, “grace” or “kindness” and “truth”, but is a hendiadys, a way of expressing one concept through two words. What is that concept? It helps to go back to a Jewish idea behind the Greek word for “truth”: namely, emeth – not just “truth”, but “trustworthiness”, “constancy”, or “faithfulness”. God is a God who keeps His promises, who upholds His covenant. We should think primarily of the covenant with Abraham, that in Him all nations would be blessed; and of the promise after the fall of Adam and Eve, that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent. These promises have come true in Jesus – not through the Torah. That is why John says, “the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth” – the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises – “came through Jesus Christ.” The replacement of the Torah by Christ is what is meant by “grace for grace” – a better translation might be “grace in place of grace.”
The dwelling of God with men, the return of YHWH to Zion, the end of the exile, the condemnation of sin in the flesh, the intervention at the right time to prevent the destruction of the world, the fulfillment of the promises to David, to Abraham, to Adam; the revelation that the Shekinah is a man who can be handled and touched – these are all what John, with just a few short words, says has happened in Jesus.
I now want to turn to the question of when did it happen. And this is a matter of Israel’s story. Stories have a timeline, a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the United States Senate, there is a rule that a senator who has once been recognized to speak can continue speaking until he finishes. Sometimes, when a particular senator wants to keep other senators from passing a law, he will keep talking for hours and hours or even days, and he will read the telephone book. That is not a story, and it doesn’t have a plot. It’s also deadly boring.
But history does have a plot. It is designed by the greatest Storyteller of all, and it has a beginning, middle, and end. To understand our part in the story properly, to know how we ought to act in our chapter of the story, we need to know both what went before — what are the themes, foreshadowings, doubles, types, and motifs that we ought to pattern ourselves after — and also, we need to know where we are in the plot now: what N.T. Wright calls the “what time is it?” question.
I have already mentioned the story of God dwelling with His people, and how the exile ended that. But we need to realize that even in Jesus’ and John the Baptist’s day, there were expectations about what was supposed to come next. And perhaps the most pointed of these expectations is summed up by the Jews’ question to John the Baptist: “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
These questions are meant to ask, “What time is it in this story?” Where are we now in the timeline of Israel and of the world? There was an expectation that the Messiah would come around this time – seventy weeks of years, according to Daniel 7. All the major groups of Jews – Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots – were reading Deuteronomy 27-30. There they found the broad outline of God’s plot: God and Israel dwelling together, with blessings; Israel rebels and is banished into exile; Israel remembers God and is gathered back into her land; God returns and dwells with them again. And when He does, the Gentiles also will turn to Him and become obedient to Israel’s God and Israel’s king. Then the whole world will acknowledge Israel’s God to be the only true one. In the mind of Jews in Jesus’ day, the longed-for return of YHWH marks the start of “the age to come”, as contrasted with “the present age”. Miracles were expected to accompany it; the dead were expected to be raised. If people are getting baptized, it must be because YHWH is about to return and dwell with His people again. That is what baptism does: it makes you clean so that you can live with God.
That, then, is the shape of the story. Along the way, there were three figures that they expected to be agents of this return of YHWH.
One was the Messiah – the Davidic king expected to restore the fallen fortunes of the house of David. John denies that he is the Messiah, which is important because John’s gospel appears to be written especially for a readership that included followers of John.
Another was the prophet Elijah, who had confronted the wicked rule of Ahab and Jezebel and had killed the prophets of Baal after his contest on Mount Carmel. Elijah, you may remember, had not died: he had been taken up to heaven with the chariot and horses of fire. The Jews therefore expected him to return again to usher in the coming reign of YHWH.
John’s answer to them is “No, I’m not Elijah.” Jesus later will contradict this to His disciples, saying that “Elijah has already come, and they did to him whatever they wanted.” “Then they understood that He spoke of John the Baptist.” How to square these reports? Well, John says, “I’m not Elijah.” And that’s true. He’s John, a different person. But Jesus says, “For those who are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah that was to come” – meaning that like Elijah, he confronted a wicked king; like Elijah, he dressed in outlandish clothes; like Elijah, he prophesied in the face of persecution and the threat of death. So John is not Elijah in person; but he is Elijah in his office. He is dressed like Elijah; he is behaving like Elijah; he has the same job as Elijah, preparing the people of God for renewal and deliverance.
The last question, in 1:21, takes some unpacking: “Are you the Prophet?” Not “a prophet,” but “THE Prophet.” The relevant passage is from Deuteronomy 18:15-19, which is quoted by Stephen in his sermon in Acts 7:37 – “This is that Moses who said to the children of Israel, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren. Him you shall hear.’” When Jesus fed the Five Thousand in John 6:14, the people “when they had seen the sign that Jesus did, said, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Peter quoted Deutereonomy 18 and identified Jesus as the Prophet in his sermon in Acts 3. The earliest church understood Jesus to be the Prophet like Moses – like Moses in many, many ways, but first of all in rescuing His people, in bringing about a new Exodus. And tragically, as Stephen pointed out in his sermon, Jesus is like Moses in that both of them were rejected by the people they were sent to save.
So Jesus is the Prophet. John is not.
What, then, is John? By his own account, he is:
‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Make straight the way of the Lord,”’
as the prophet Isaiah said.”
John is a voice. His whole self-identification is not about him – it is about someone else. My favorite Renaissance painting is the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald. It has two sides: the front shows the crucifixion of Jesus; the back show the resurrection. But it also folds up closed, and when it is closed, there is a painting of John the Baptist. He is shown pointing to Jesus – directing attention away from himself, and toward Jesus. Above him are, in Latin, the words “He must increase, I must decrease.” This is the herald of the returning King.
24 Now those who were sent were from the Pharisees. 25 And they asked him, saying, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
The Jews understand where in the story they are: if baptism is happening at the Jordan, the entrance to the land; if Israel is being purified, it can only mean one thing: YHWH is about to come back; the exile is about to be over; Israel is preparing for the Lord’s return. That is why they ask, “Are you the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet?” They know that these figures are associated with the climax of Israel’s story, and they know that it must be upon them now. The “coming one” is here. The Age to Come is about to begin.
And that is how we ought to understand ourselves. Beyond the pages of the gospels, we find the apostles writing and speaking in ways that reflect this belief: This is why Peter and Paul call the church the new Temple of God, built of living stones, in which God dwells by His Spirit: the empty house has been replaced, and the new house is now inhabited by God Himself. This is why Peter and Paul go to the Gentiles, because they know, on the basis of the prophets, that when YHWH comes back to Zion, the Gentiles will turn to Him. And this is why John says that it is Antichrist deceivers – people opposed to the entire story that God is telling, men who hate the climax and ending that God has written – who deny that Jesus the Messiah has come in the flesh.
But He has come in the flesh, and that puts us – baptized so that we are clean and able to dwell with Israel’s God – in the final, triumphant chapter of God’s story. We are the ones upon whom the end of the ages has come. Amen.