John 1:14-18 (And the Word became flesh)

Continuing in our series in John chapter 1, we come to one of the most important truths in Scripture:

John 1:14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The eternal logos, the source of light and life, nothing less than God himself – he took on flesh to become one of us.

The Word tabernacles among us

The word translated “made his dwelling” refers to the tabernacle in the desert, which we read about in Exodus 40 on Friday. In Exodus, God pitched his tent* with Israel, dwelling among them, guiding them, with a glimpse of his glory living among them:

Exodus 40:34-38 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 35 Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 36 In all the travels of the Israelites, whenever the cloud lifted from above the tabernacle, they would set out; 37 but if the cloud did not lift, they did not set out—until the day it lifted. 38 So the cloud of the Lord was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the Israelites during all their travels.

What John is saying is that now Jesus is where God has pitched his tent among his people. Jesus is the new tent of meeting, the place where God dwells among his people. Jesus is the new temple, the place where people come to find God. We’ve got something better than a tent or a building to house the glory of God – we have a real, flesh-and-blood, walking, talking human being.

The Word shows the Father’s glory

So now we can “see his glory” which is “the glory as of a unique son from the father” (my translation). Remember how we began last week looking at letters of introduction? They were needed, among other things, to authorise a person to act on another’s behalf – even to the extent of “making them known.” In the ancient world, the ultimate delegate was the first-born son – to the point where you would receive the son in the same way you would receive the father himself – because a son was considered to be an image or reflection of his father. In Jesus, we’ve been sent not just another messenger or prophet from God – a “hired hand,” so to speak – but the son himself. (And yes, there are strong links here to the parable of the wicked tenants.)

The Word brings the Father’s favour

And this son comes to make the father known (he’s full of “truth”) and to bring access to favour from the father (he’s full of “grace” – i.e. favour). This is a new era in God’s revelation to humanity. He’s no longer shrouded in a cloud or hidden in a tent; he’s sent his perfect representative to make him known to us, and to show us his favour in bringing eternal life (v4) and making us children of God (v12).

And just to make sure we see how different this is from just another prophet, we again get a parenthetical word of testimony from John the Baptist:

John 1:15 (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”)

This foreshadows the story of Jesus’ interactions with John the Baptist, later in this chapter.

The Word is the new mediator

The prologue then continues:

John 1:16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given.

This is an interesting verse. The Greek literally reads “we have all received grace for grace.” And the word translated “for” (Greek: anti) has as its most basic meaning the idea of exchange, or replacement. This has led to two main interpretations:

(1) “Grace upon grace” – where God continually piles up his favour, for example, through giving the old covenant through Moses, or the new covenant through Jesus. But nowhere do we see anti translated with this meaning – it’s always associated with exchange or repayment.

(2) “Grace replacing grace” – where God replaces the old favour of the law with a new-and-improved version in Jesus. But does the theology of John’s Gospel really see Jesus as a replacement for the old covenant, or its fulfilment and enhancement?

The 2011 edition of the NIV hedges between these two quite nicely with its “grace in place of grace already given.”

But I’m a renegade in this debate, arguing for a different view. (This was the subject of my Masters thesis, so apologies for the indulgence – #sorrynotsorry).

I think the background is the system of patronage in the Mediterranean world, fitting in with our observations last week about this prologue functioning as a letter of introduction (introducing an authorised representative) and the fact that favour is given if one receives the messenger appropriately (vv11-12).

And in the world of patronage, the word “grace” can mean three things: the favour shown by a patron in giving gifts, the gift itself, and the gratitude the recipient should show in response, if the relationship is to continue. So I would translate the phrase: from his fullness we have all received favour for gratitude. That is, where we receive Jesus (as God’s authorised representative – the unique Son of God) with appropriate gratitude, we are given further favour – eternal life, and the right to become children of God.

But, I stress, that’s my own interpretation, which I think makes best sense of the word anti. If you don’t buy it, then I think view (2), above, is the next-most-plausible.

John 1:17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

At any rate, the function of this next verse, then, is to show that just as there was a mediator of the old covenant (Moses, through whom God revealed his glory and dispensed his favour), so too there is a mediator of a new covenant. Just as Israel needed to accept Moses as God’s spokesperson, how much more ought we to receive Jesus as God’s new means by which he allows us to experience his favour!

And Jesus, as we’ve noted many times already today, is a superior mediator to Moses. Because Moses only got to see the back of God’s glory as he passed by. Whereas Jesus, being the unique Son at the Father’s side, knows him perfectly:

John 1:18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.

* You need to pronounce “pitched his tent” very carefully, if you’re an American. This is possibly the best sermon blooper ever:

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