Next we come to a statement from John that is so well known and taken for granted after 2,000 years of Church history that we miss how radical a claim it was when John made it:
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
To ancient Jews and pagans, especially Greek influenced pagans, not to mention modern secularists, this is offensive on so many levels. As Paul says of Christ crucified, the same can be said of God becoming flesh: “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” To Jews, that God would become a man was, and is, unthinkable. Not only is Yahweh one, he is transcendent in a way that makes him completely other from his creation. That he would become part of what he created is absurd. Not to mention that he would die a horrific death hung on a cross, on a tree under God’s curse. To Greeks flesh was something tainted, to be escaped, a la Plato, not something a divine being would take on.
To Christians, however, that the Word, who would later be identified as the second person of the Triune God, would become flesh is theologically profound and necessary. Judaism was a very representative religion. Some one or some thing often stood in place for another, as in a father for a family, a lamb for a person, or a priest for the people. So also Christ as God-man would represent us before the Father, standing in our place to take upon himself the guilt and punishment for our sin. Only an innocent, divine being, also human, could pay the infinite price required, death, of an infinite, holy divine being. There are 33 verses in the Old Testament about God being our salvation, and this is the only way it could credibly happen, and thus as Paul says, him being just and the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus. The incarnation is what allows him to be both, and why John says in his first epistle that if we confess our sins God is faithful and just to forgive us, and purify us from all unrighteousness. He is obligated to forgive us! Thus justify, and also to sanctify, us; it’s a package deal. His perfect character demands it. His forgiveness is objective, rooted in God’s being, and does not depend on depth of our remorse. We can feel like the rotten sinners we are, and still be forgiven! And know without doubt that God is transforming us into the likeness of his Son. Talk about good news, and news upon which we can depend.
The second part of verse 14 is a direct reference, without John having to quote the Old Testament, to Yahweh dwelling among his people in the tabernacle. The word dwell literally means to pitch or live in a tent. When Yahweh initiates the Aaronic priesthood in Exodus 29, he tells the Israelites why he’s doing this:
44 “So I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar and will consecrate Aaron and his sons to serve me as priests. 45 Then I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God. 46 They will know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God.
Yahweh is now pitching his tent and dwelling among his people in the person of Jesus! And instead of being brought up out of Egypt, his people are brought up out of sin. The implied analogy by John is perfect because it continues his theme of God being our Savior. His people enslaved in Egypt like we were enslaved in sin, they brought out by God’s mighty hand, by miraculous displays of his power, our end of slavery to sin by that same power. John follows this with an affirmation of their eyewitness testimony to Jesus’ divine nature:
We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Not only does John say that God in Christ, the Word made flesh, dwelled among them, but they witnessed his glory, his divine nature. Coming back from the dead after three days of being brutally tortured and murdered on a Roman cross will leave that impression. Not to mention three years of teaching and healing and himself bringing dead people back to life. And this is yet another affirmation in John’s prologue of the Triune nature of God, Jesus as the one and only Son, coming from the Father.
That he comes, “full of grace and truth,” is an amazing declaration. I remember as a new freshmen in college when a couple Navigator guys invited me to a Bible study to see what the Bible had to say about who Jesus was. Growing up Catholic there wasn’t a lot of Bible in our lives, apart from homilies and readings at church. I remember them asking me a question about this verse like it was yesterday. They asked me, an ignorant 18 year-old, what I thought “grace and truth” meant. Uh, I have no idea. What’s grace anyway? After 40 years of following Jesus through fits and starts, I think I have a little better grasp of John’s declaration, and why grace and truth are so necessary in our Savior God.
If Jesus were only about grace, unmerited favor, then he, God, could not be just. Those who are universalists, who think God saves all humanity, only want a Jesus of grace, but truth demands judgment, calling sin what it is, an affront to the holiness of Almighty God. When you have both grace and truth then you have a cross where they find their perfect expression; sinners freely forgiven, grace, and truth, because a suffering servant paid sin’s wages, death. God could never willy nilly forgive our sin and still be God. The cross, the supreme irony (both for Jew and Gentile) became the perfect expression of his being, and his love for his people.