The doctrine of incarnation is a cardinal doctrine of Christian faith. John wrote, “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2 Jn. 7). The same John who wrote “the Word became flesh” warns that those who do not believe “Jesus Christ as coming in flesh” are deceivers and antichrists. It is important to have a proper understanding of this doctrine. By Stephen David.
Out of all the four gospels, the gospel of John seems to be unique in revealing Jesus as the Living Word of God. There is wealth of insights in this gospel wherein a reader can find marvelous revelation of the glory of Christ Jesus. Like the book of Genesis, “In the beginning…,” John’s inaugural words were, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn. 1:1, NASB).1
There are people who suppose that John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word…” speaks about the Holy Bible while John was actually referring to the person Christ Jesus. There is a difference between the written word of God, i.e. the Holy Bible, and the Living Word, i.e. Jesus Christ. When the prologue of John’s gospel is read, a common question arises, “Why did John use the term ‘Word’ to describe Jesus?” “What is its actual meaning?” Why is Jesus known as the Living Word and sometimes even the Incarnate Word? Commentator Merrill C. Tenney explains it well:
“Word” is the Greek logos, which has several meanings. Ordinarily it refers to a spoken word, with emphasis on the meaning conveyed, not just the sound. Logos, therefore, is an expression of personality in communication. Scripture also tells us that it is creative in its power: “By the word [logos, LXX] of the Lord were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of His mouth” (Ps 33:6). This verse clearly implies that the expression of God had creative power and called the universe. John is asserting that the “Word” is the source of all that is visible and antedates the totality of the material world.2
Therefore, “Jesus, the Living Word” means “Jesus is the living expression of God.” In his classical book Knowing God, based on the gospel of John 1:1-4 & 14, J.I. Packer drew seven wonderful insights about the uniqueness of Jesus as God’s Living Word – (i) Word’s Eternity, (ii) Word’s Personality, (iii) Word’s Deity, (iv) Word Creating, (v) Word Animating, (vi) Word Revealing, (vii) Word Incarnate.3 The following paper is presented based on these seven significant points.
The first words of the gospel of John are, “In the beginning was the Word.” The words, “In the beginning” do not refer here to a particular moment of time but assumes a timeless eternity.4 John is presenting here the eternity of the Word. The Living Word of God, Jesus Christ, is an eternal being. He was not a created one but the eternal being. He did not come into existence at a certain period of time; He is self-existent, existing eternally. Jesus Himself revealed to John when he fell at His feet as a dead man, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore…” (Rev 1:17-18).
The words, “I am first and the last” speaks of Jesus’ eternal existence. He is the second person of Trinity and from everlasting to everlasting He exists with God. The same words were uttered even in the Old Testament by Yahweh, “Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel And his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: 'I am the first and I am the last, and there is no God besides Me” (Isa. 44:6). This shows that both the Father and the Son exist eternally. The “Trinity” is the source of eternity.
In a striking encounter with Jews, Jesus made a thundering statement, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw [it] and was glad” (Jn. 8:56). The Jews were surprised to hear this and therefore said to Him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” (8:57). Then Jesus gave an amazing response, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am” (8:58). Jesus didn’t say, “Before Abraham was born, I was.” Instead He said, “Before Abraham was born, I am.” These words of Jesus correspond to the revelation of Yahweh given to Moses in Exodus 3:14, “I AM WHO I AM,” i.e. the self-existent one, existing eternally. Commenting on “Before Abraham was, I am” Adam Clarke cites Calmet:
I am from all eternity. I have existed before all ages. You consider in me only the person who speaks to you, and who has appeared to you within a particular time. But besides this human nature, which ye think ye know, there is in me a Divine and eternal nature. Both, united, subsist together in my person.5
John continued, “And the Word was with God” (Jn. 1:1). These words reveal the distinct personality of the Living Word, Jesus Christ. The statement of John that “The Word was with God” implies that the Word is not a mere power but a personal being. J. Dwight Pentecost observed, “The preposition “with” emphasizes a personal relationship existing between two persons.”6 As a personal being, Jesus was in eternal relationship with God. The Living Word, Christ Jesus, is coexistent with God and they know each other eternally.
Therefore, the Living Word, Jesus, is the only expression of God. It is written, “No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained [Him]” (Jn. 1:18). Jesus is the definition of God. Jesus was at face to face with the Father, the Living Word existing as the only revelation of God. William Hendriksen commented:
And the Word was face to face with God. The meaning is that the Word existed in the closest possible fellowship with the father and that He took supreme delight in this communion. (Cf. 1 Jn. 1:2) so deeply had this former joy impressed itself upon the Logos that it was never erased from his consciousness, as is also evident from the high-priestly prayer: “And now, Father, glorify thou me with thine own self or: in thine own presence, with glory which I had with thee before the world existed.” Thus, the incarnation begins to stand out more clearly as a deed of incomprehensible love and infinite condescension.7
Since Christ alone is the personal expression of God, so no can know God without having a personal relationship with Jesus. Jesus Himself declared, “If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also” (Jn. 14:7). When Philip asked, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us”, Jesus replied to Him saying, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how do you say, 'Show us the Father'?” (14:8-9). In Christ the fullness of Father’s deity dwells in Him (Col. 1:190. Jesus is the language of the Father. He is the Living Word of the Father, without which no one can know or understand God.
John wrote further, “And the Word was God” (Jn. 1:1b). Jesus was not only eternal, co-existent with God but was also God Himself. Like the Father, He is also divine. Though the Living Word, Christ Jesus, is distinct from the Father, He is not less than God. He is one with God in essence and in no way lesser than the Father in His divinity by becoming the Living Word of God. Paul pointed out well, “Although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, [and] being made in the likeness of men” (Phi. 2:6-7) [Emphasis added].
One of the grandest statements Christ made about Himself was, “I and My Father are one” (Jn. 10:30). George Eldon Ladd wrote, “This oneness seems to be more than oneness of purpose and intent; in some way, incomprehensible to human beings, the Father is in the Son and the Son in the Father (Jn. 10:38; see also 14:10, 11).”8 One of the difficult things to accept about Jesus Christ is His deity, especially when endeavoring to comprehend in the light of His humanity. However, there are ample evidences, both implicit and explicit, which reveal that Jesus is divine. To refer at least two:
1) Jesus received worship, which belongs to God alone, without refusal (Matt. 2:2; 9:18; 17:5; 28:9; 28:17).
2) Jesus forgave sins which only God could do (Mk. 2:1-11; Lu. 7:36-50; Matt. 27:44).
Furthermore, Jesus’ divinity is affirmed even by the apostles. For instance, when Jesus appeared to John, he exclaimed, “My Lord and My God” (Jn. 20:28). Paul’s great admittance of Jesus’ deity is well expressed in Philippians 2:6ff. Also, the Father Himself acknowledges the deity of Christ Jesus by declaring, “THY THRONE, O GOD, IS FOREVER AND EVER, AND THE RIGHTEOUS SCEPTER IS THE SCEPTER OF HIS KINGDOM. THOU HAST LOVED RIGHTEOUSNESS AND HATED LAWLESSNESS; THEREFORE GOD, THY GOD, HATH ANOINTED THEE WITH THE OIL OF GLADNESS ABOVE THY COMPANIONS” (Heb. 1:8-9).
Therefore, John was not hesitant to write at the outset of his gospel that the Word, Jesus, was God. He had seen His glory, stayed close to His bosom and knew that Christ is no ordinary man. He is
God in flesh. He wrote as a live witness of Christ’s glory, “The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us” (1 Jn. 1:2). A well-known theologian, Donald Guthrie, described:
The further statement that the Word was God explicitly states the deity of the Word, without blurring the distinction between the personal quality of the Word and the personal quality of God. The absence of the article with Theos has misled some into thinking that the correct understanding of the statement would be that ‘the Word was a God’ (or divine), but this is grammatically indefensible since Theos is a predicate. There can be no reasonable doubt that John intended his readers to understand that the Word had the nature of God.9
There are ample good reasons for people to believe and accept the deity of Christ Jesus. Anyone who doesn’t accept the full humanity and the full deity of Christ has not yet known Him. Those who had known Him believe that Jesus is fully God and fully man. He was not just a prophet, teacher, miracle-worker, but God Himself among His people. For this reason He is called “Emmanuel” which means, “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). The deity of Jesus is questioned and attacked since the early church history. Yet Christ’s deity is apparently revealed in the Holy Scriptures and was affirmed by the early church fathers. To quote C.S. Lewis:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic . . . or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.10
John explained about the Living Word, “All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being” (Jn. 1:3). Here it is revealed that the Living Word is the Creator Himself. He is the creator of everything, i.e. human beings, animals, trees, insects, birds, mountains, seas, sun, moon, stars, planets and all kinds of animate and inanimate things. John’s grand statement refutes the theory that Jesus is created by God. Nowhere does it mention in the Holy Bible that Jesus is created. In fact, there are many evidences that show that Jesus is the Creator.
Paul wrote about Jesus, “And He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation. For by Him all things were created, [both] in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things have been created by Him and for Him” (Col. 1:15-16). Here the supremacy of Christ Jesus is clearly manifested. Commentator Albert Barnes noted:
This is one of the reasons why he is called "the image of God," and the "firstborn." He makes God known to us by his creative power, and by the same power in creation shows that he is exalted over all things as the Son of God. The phrase which is here used by the apostle is universal. He does not declare that he created all things in the spiritual kingdom of God, or that he arranged the events of the gospel dispensation, as Socinians suppose, but that everything was created by him. A similar form of expression occurs in Joh 1:3. There could not possibly be a more explicit declaration, that the universe was created by Christ, than this.11
The term “firstborn” is misunderstood by many as being the “first creation.” Paul did not use the term “firstborn” as being the “first creation” but to reveal Christ’s “supremacy” over all creation.12 Jesus is the Creator of the whole universe, thereby existing as the Lord of all. He is the Living Word of God by which everything in heavens and on earth is created. He is not just the agent of God in creating the heavens and the earth but the very source of all the creation. Without Him nothing existed and will not exist.
John described about the Word, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men” (Jn. 1:4). Jesus not only created all things but became the very life to man. The whole creation is sustained and held by Him. He is the life-giver. Man in his arrogance wants to be self-reliant and boasts about his self-sufficiency. Yet he is living like a fish taken out of water. No man can sustain himself for he is a just a c
reation. Only the Creator can sustain him. As Bruce Milne wrote:
The fruit of the Word’s activity in mediating creation was not just the coming into existence of the world ‘in the beginning’, but the emergence of life within it. We are driven beyond the initial act of creation to the Word’s ongoing sustenance of the universe; the logos is the life-giver. Finally considered, all life derives from Him (Acts 17:8, ‘For in Him we live and move and have our being’). ‘There is no such thing as a godless person; He is too near every one of us’ (Brunner).13
Like John, Paul too acknowledged, “And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). He did not just create the world and left it as the deists suppose. He is the Creator and the Sustainer of the whole universe. How well it is described about the Living Word! He eternally exists, created all things and now holds all things together by His all-surpassing power and wisdom. John MacArthur described:
Not only Jesus create the universe, He also sustains it. He maintains the delicate balance necessary to life’s existence. He quite literally holds all things together. He is the power behind every consistency in the universe. He is gravity and centrifugal and centripetal force. He is the One who keeps all the entities in space in their motion. He is the energy of the universe.14
Without Jesus there is no hope of survival for mankind. Although it is true that the whole world (i.e. the worldly system) is under the control of the evil one (1 Jn. 5:19), the cosmos is still sustained because of the Living Word, Christ Jesus. How great is the love of Christ that even though the world is against Him, He still holds all things together! He is yet patiently waiting so that the world would turn and bow before Him as its Creator and Sustainer.
John wrote, “And the life was the light of men” (Jn. 1:4). The life that He gives and sustains is not confined to the physical but also expanded to the spiritual. He has given the physical life and those who believe in Him and in His atonement will also receive life eternal. Jesus declared, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (Jn. 14:6). Jesus is the eternal life and without Him the human beings are lost forever. As water is to the fish, air to the living creatures, so is Jesus to the souls of mankind.
The light came upon men so that men would come out of darkness and walk in the light. Though the world exists because of Christ, it is still separated from Him in personal relationship because of sin. For this reason, i.e. for the people to get reconciled with God and to enjoy life forever, the Living Word became the light of men. He gave His life on the Cross so that man would receive life and light. His death was necessary for man to have life and to receive the light. He alone is the Creator of the whole physical world and He alone is the spiritual life-giver too. Kenneth O. Gangel made a good point:
In the Word, God’s person and power were revealed to humanity. Here again we see a reference to creation since, in the Genesis account, light was the first of God’s creative work. God is always the source of light and life. Christ the Son, the Creator, provides life and light to humanity. He alone is the life-giver and the light-bearer.15 The reason why people reject the Living Word is because they love the darkness. Jesus Himself said, “For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (Jn. 3:20). Man doesn’t want to face his horrifying nature but that is what will happen when he comes to Christ. But he also realizes how much God loves him. Christ is willing to give life to those who come unto Him so that they would have eternal life. He said, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die” (Jn. 11:25-26). The only way that man comes out of darkness is by receiving Christ who is the light of the world. He is the Word of revelation.
John finally says, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14). The eternal Word of God finally took upon Himself the frail humanity for the salvation of the world. From this Scripture, the doctrine of “incarnation” is built. Paul Enns explained:
The word incarnation means “in flesh” and denotes the act whereby the eternal Son of God took to Himself an additional nature, humanity, through the virgin birth. The result is that Christ remains forever unblemished deity, which He has had from eternity past; but He also possess tr
ue, sinless humanity in one Person forever (cf. Jn. 1:14; Phil. 2:7-8; 1 Tim. 3:6).16
What an amazing thing to comprehend that the Creator of the whole universe became a small creature and lived among the people! It is incomprehensible for a finite man to grasp how the Living Word came in flesh. Paul calls it a mystery of godliness. He wrote to Timothy, “Great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh” (1 Tim. 3:16). The incarnation of the Living Word was already predicted in the Old Testament. It is written, “For a child will be born to us, a Son will be given to us” (Isa. 9:6). This son is nothing but the Word Incarnate. He was born on earth by being conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of virgin Mary.
No one can explain how the Almighty God became a human being. But there is certainly an answer to why He became so. It is because He loved the world so much that He came to atone for the sin of the world so that people would find salvation in Him. The Living Word became a sin offering so that salvation would be given to all those who believe in Him. It is sad that the Creator of the universe came on earth but the creation couldn’t recognize Him.
Instead He was rejected, persecuted, insulted, falsely accused as a traitor and was eventually crucified on the Cross. The Living Word rose again on the third day and appeared to many. He was taken to heaven by the angels and He is coming back again the way He went to heaven, i.e. in His incarnate being. It is interesting to know that since ages many a men attempted to become like God and some even proclaimed themselves as God. Yet in Christ it is God who became flesh, not man who became God. No finite man can become God but Christ the infinite God has become a man and walked among the people.
The doctrine of incarnation is a cardinal doctrine of Christian faith. John wrote, “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2 Jn. 7). The same John who wrote “the Word became flesh” warns that those who do not believe “Jesus Christ as coming in flesh” are deceivers and antichrists. As the whole world is held together by Christ Jesus, the incarnation of the Living Word holds together the doctrines of Christian faith.
The ‘incarnation’ of Christ should not be misunderstood with the ‘theophany’ in the Old Testament. Theophany is “From the Greek, theo (God), and phainein (to show forth), theophany means an appearance of God to man.17 In the Old Testament God appeared to people many a time in flesh. It was just a short visitation. But the incarnation of Christ is the actual clothing with material substance and the residue of the Word on earth. It was not an appearance but the real manifestation of God in human flesh. John Stott, in his book Incomparable Christ described it well:
It was the Word of God, the perfect expression of the Father’s being, who one day ‘became flesh and lived for a while among us’ (1:14). To Him John bore witness. It was not a visitation, but the incarnation. He became a human being in Jesus of Nazareth. The paradox is amazing. The Creator assumed the human frailty of His creatures. The eternal one entered time. The all-powerful made Himself vulnerable. The all-holy exposed Himself to temptation. And in the end the immortal died.18
And that’s not the end. He resurrected with His incarnate body and is coming again in the same way. All glory, honor, praise, strength, power and wisdom be unto Him who loved the world so much that He came as a human being to offer Himself for the salvation of all people. He is God-man who came restore man and woman into the image of God.
1. The New American Standard Bible (NASB) will be used throughout this paper unless otherwise indicated.
Bible Commentary – Volume 9 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 28.
; J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Great Britain: Hodder and Stoughton Limited, 1973), 56-57.
4. Merrill C. Tenney, The Gospel of John, 28.
5. Adam Clarke, Adam Clarke’s Commentary [Public Domain] in Power Bible CD, [CD-Rom] V4.5, John Gilbertson, ed., Bronson: Online Publishing, 1999-2005.
6. J. Dwight Pentecost, The Words & Works of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan
Publishing House, 1981), 28
to John (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953), 70-71.
9. Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology (Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1981), 327.
10. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan-Collier, 1960), 55-56.
CD, [CD-Rom] V4.5, John Gilbertson, ed., Bronson: Online Publishing, 1999-2005.
13. Bruce Milne, The Message of John (England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993), 39.
& Holman Publishers, 2000), 10.
Inter-Varsity Press, England, 2001), 36-37.
Answers.com, “Theophany.” http://www.answers.com/topic/theophany. 2007.
Barnes, Albert. Albert Barnes’ Commentary on the Bible [Public Domain] in Power
Bible CD, [CD-Rom] V4.5, John Gilbertson, ed., Bronson: Online Publishing,
Clarke, Adam. Adam Clarke’s Commentary. [Public Domain] in Power Bible CD, [CD-
Rom] V4.5, John Gilbertson, ed., Bronson: Online Publishing, 1999-2005.
Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Chicago: Moody Press, 1989.
Gangel, Kenneth O. Holman New Testament Commentary on John. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000. Guthrie, Donald. New Testament Theology. Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1981.
Hendriksen, William. New Testament Commentary – Exposition of the Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953.
Holy Bible. New American Standard Bible.
Ladd, George Eldon. A Theology of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974.
Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. New York: Macmillan-Collier, 1960.
MacArthur, John. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary on Colossians & Philemon. Printed in India with the permission of the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1997.
Milne, Bruce. The Message of John. England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993.
Packer, J. I. Knowing God. Great Britain: Hodder and Stoughton Limited, 1973.
Pentecost, J. Dwight. The Words & Works of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981.
Stott, John. Incomparable Christ. Published in India by OM Books under license from
Inter-Varsity Press, England, 2001.
Tenney, Merrill C. “The Gospel of John,” in Frank E. Gaebelein et al., The Expositors Bible Commentary – Volume 9. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981.