As most things do, Christmas celebrations, traditions, and practices, change over time. Baptists are the descendants of the Puritans, and in the 16th and 17th centuries, Puritans were fed up with what Christmas had become in both the wider culture and the church. Christmas had become an excuse for drunkenness and immorality. So many churches decided that, when combined with the fact that scripture nowhere teaches that we should celebrate either the birth or death of Christ in any particular way, but rather that every Sunday is to be a celebration of the resurrection, it was time to put an end to all of the excess that had been practiced in the name of Christmas. So for decades, there were no celebrations of anything that we would recognize as Christmas in many places in England and America.
In our own culture, we can see the need for pulling back from the excesses we see all around us. As we move into the Advent season and we consider the first coming of Christ, we should take note of how the gospel writers introduce us to him. Matthew begins with a genealogy for Jesus, Mark with John the Baptist, Luke begins with John the Baptist’s parents, and John begins with Christ’s presence in eternity past. John is determined for us to understand and believe that Jesus is God and that everything comes from him. The Advent season must also begin there—Jesus is God, and everything comes from him.
John is concerned with the mystery of the incarnation. We may not think of it as a mystery because it is so familiar to many of us. We know that Jesus came from heaven to the earth to take on a human nature in addition to his divine nature. Maybe to some of you, it’s entirely new, so the word “mystery” fits quite well. Maybe in addition to “mystery” you’re also thinking of “confusing”. But the truth is, as we come up to the Christmas season, if we don’t understand the incarnation from John’s perspective, we might lose sight of the real meaning of Christmas. John is far more concerned that we understand regeneration, or what it means to receive Christ and how it takes place.
John’s first step in teaching us about the second birth is to show how Jesus is the eternal creator of life. Before creation, the Father, Son, and Spirit had a perfect, personal communion for eternity. They were in need of nothing outside of themselves. The Word is how John describes Jesus, as we’ll see. “The Word” is not just a choice for John but is used consistently in the Old Testament to describe God’s authority and power. God often speaks of his word going out and doing something, as in Isaiah 55:11, where he says, “so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” God’s word has power and purpose. It is not weak and ineffectual but strong and successful.
But the most astounding thing John says is that the powerful and purposeful word of God was already present before creation. Not only was this Word with God, but the Word was God. It’s absolutely a mystery, but we cannot ignore the fact that Scripture teaches one God in three persons. When it comes to creation, God the Father created all things through the work of God the Son. What the Father decreed or willed, the Son spoke and set in motion. When we read about God speaking all things into being in Genesis 1, we should understand those words to be the words of Jesus Christ. The words “Let there be…” are the first recorded words of Christ in Scripture. There is nothing that exists that predates Jesus Christ or was created by any other being. Professor Joel Beeke wrote, “Christ was ancient when the galaxies were born.”
John the Evangelist throws all kinds of shade on any philosophy or world system that tries to control you by turning you into an overrated collection of cells whose meaning must be built on the shifting sand of culture. Calling you a cosmic accident, as the dominant worldview does, renders your life meaningless. But Christ made everything and everyone just by his voice, and therefore you have been given the gift of life. You are not here on accident, no matter the circumstances that brought you here. Your very life is due to the fact that Christ gave you the light of life. In the same way that God spoke, “Let there be light,” and there was light to move the darkness out of the way, Christ continues to shine in the darkness. That darkness is the spiritual darkness of life lived in ignorance of and rebellion before God. But here we read a glorious promise: the darkness has not, and will not, overcome it. Literally it means that the darkness has not comprehended or understood the light. Darkness does not overcome light, but light overcomes darkness. And Christ, the true light, in his perfect life and substitutionary death, has overcome the darkness. As he spoke all creation into being, so he also speaks his people into new creation.
John the Evangelist then moves on to John the Baptist. John the Baptist was an important person in that he was a transitional figure into the new covenant era. There were prophecies in the book of Malachi that the prophet Elijah would return before the first coming of Christ. Malachi 4:5-6 reads, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” Instead of destroying his people, he will save them. But here is the problem—Elijah will mark the beginning of this event, but he has been gone for some time, taken into heaven on chariots of fire. How is he going to come back?
Scripture goes to great pains to show us that John the Baptist has fulfilled the type of one like Elijah. If you remember the story of Elijah calling down fire from heaven on a group of false prophets, he prays that God would turn the hearts of his people back to him (1 Kings 18:37). Malachi says this new Elijah, John the Baptist, would actually do what was promised. Matthew and Mark note that John the Baptist dressed like Elijah (Matthew 3:4; Mark 1:6). Elijah’s ministry ended and transitioned to Elisha’s at the Jordan River. John the Baptist’s ministry ended and transitioned to Christ’s at the Jordan River. Elisha wanted a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, and then John says that Jesus has the Spirit of God without measure. The details are important, but don’t get lost in them. All this is to show beyond a shadow of a doubt that John the Baptist was not the light but was sent by God to be a witness about this light, who is the eternal Christ, God the Son.
John the Evangelist again shows how the types and shadows are giving way to the real thing. Isaiah 49:6 says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” This is one of the “servant songs” in Isaiah, when Isaiah is directly prophesying about Jesus being the true Israelite, the one who acts on behalf of Israel, to draw the world to God. In an incredible fulfillment, this servant would not be just a man but God the Son descending to our realm, taking on the form of a servant by being born as a man. By Christ “coming into the world”, he was coming as the servant of God and the true light.
But the state of man is naturally darkness rather than light. Even though he made everything through the power of his spoken word, the world rejected him. Not only that, but the very people or nation to which he was born hated him. The ones who were blessed with the covenants and the law were the first ones to say they would rather crucify him than obey him. This goes to show that it doesn’t matter what kind of lineage you have. Just because you can claim a good heritage, that doesn’t mean you are right with God. Many, if not most, in the nation of Israel thought that because they could trace their family tree back to a man named Abraham that God owed them something. But it’s these people who would rather see this servant die and embrace the darkness than actually do what God required of them.
But God has always had a reach beyond Israel. Both within and without Israel, there would be those who were the spiritual descendants of Abraham. And John tells us that those who believe in Jesus were not born from flesh and blood or our own will but by the will of God and God alone. This eradicates any notion of devaluing and reducing salvation down to nothing but a decision you make. How prideful do you have to be? You were saved because God chose you based not on anything in you but on the mercy he had in himself. You were born again by the will of God and God alone. No family tree and no human effort makes a dent in God’s choice.
John’s point is that no one can presume God’s mercy because of where you come from, what you’ve done, or how good you think you are. No one can presume God’s mercy because your parents are Christians, you went to all the church outings, or you consider yourself a spiritual person. This should, though, be a great and lasting comfort to you who are in Christ. God’s will is unchanging. To those he has adopted into his family he promises never to cast aside.
Now the gospel requires a response. But that response is faith. Faith is the recognition that God has done the work only he can do, of turning a heart of stone to a heart of flesh, and responding in loving obedience and trust in Christ’s finished work. If you trace your salvation back to a moment in time when you made a decision, you will always have a lingering doubt about the sincerity and validity of that decision. When the enemy throws seeds of doubt your way and accuses you, you won’t have a leg to stand on. But if you trace your salvation back to the will of God, those doubts, though you may still face them from time to time, are grounded not in your will but in the eternal, merciful, and gracious will of God.
John keeps returning to the incarnation and how awesome it is. The Word, the preexistent Christ who predates everything, the one who spoke all things into being, willed to be born of a woman and live among us. And in the God-man, we have seen the glory of God in ways that no one before could imagine. Moses was given a glimpse of God’s glory on the mountain as God passed by. Peter, James, and John were given a glimpse of God’s glory on the mountain at the transfiguration. We’re reading eye-witness accounts of Christ’s life and God’s glory.
Christ came into the world full of grace and truth, or rather, steadfast love and faithfulness, which define God’s character and fidelity to the covenants he made when he gave Israel the law. So if the coming of the law was good and God was faithful to it, how much better is God in the flesh? The law was a gift to Israel to regulate their lives around God’s constant demand for perfect holiness. Christ came to fulfill the law and God’s constant demand for perfect holiness. The law was also gracious because it showed us who God was. But John writes that in the coming of Christ we have received grace upon grace. God displayed his grace toward fallen, rebellious sinners in the coming of Christ in ways the law did not.
The Son is the best revelation of the Father. If you want to meet with God, you will never again to any temple but to the Son. No one has ever seen God. Moses, Peter, James, and John were shown glimpses, but they never saw the fullness of God, or they would have died. But in Christ, we know God. John tells us that Christ has spent eternity at the Father’s side, which reflects a nearness that no one else has. The word for “side” is literally “bosom”, which means “the one who is nearest to God’s heart.” God has not left us wondering who he is; he has shown us exactly who he is by sending us the nearest and dearest person to him. Then by John 14, Jesus will tell his disciples, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.”
So really, the question is not, “Have you seen the Father?” but, “Have you seen the Son?” There is no other way to know God than to know Jesus.