Description / Transcription
Oh, Lord, help us now to see, to savor, to listen, to learn. Show us more of Christ, the suffering servant. Show us more of Christ, our incarnate Lord. Stretch our brains, deepen our affections. What a gift you have given us in the Bible that we can know you, that we can read about you, that we can have access to truth. Thank you. Give us more of Jesus. We pray in His name. Amen.
Our text this morning comes from the Gospel according to John, chapter 1, verse 14. Just one verse this morning, but if you are familiar with this verse, you understand why we want to spend an entire sermon on just this one verse. As we were praying earlier with pastors and elders, I was reflecting that this text this morning and again the text from Exodus 19 tonight are some of those mountaintop passages. Tonight literally, but a mountaintop passage in scripture. And so as a preacher I always get a little extra enthusiasm to preach from texts like this, so grand, so glorious, and also a little bit of extra trepidation knowing that I’m sure I am not equal to the task. It’s always the case but you feel it especially. So my prayer is and has been that the Holy Spirit will preach to you in these next moments a better sermon than the one that I’m about to preach.
Follow along as I read from this one verse, verse 14: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
My aim in this sermon is that after 40 minutes of meditating on this one verse we will be profoundly moved to marvel, to worship, and to give thanks. My prayer is that something of the gravity and mystery and the wonderful condescension in this verse will sink in very deep and will at the same time lift us up very high.
The Word became flesh. Now that is amazing. And in a world in which language is very often imprecise and constantly devalued and we learn to speak with great hyperbole, we can say that this truth is awesome. We tend to say that word with anything: That ice cream cone was awesome! The video game is awesome! That’s fine, I’m not going to be the language police. Mmm, maybe just a little bit. But this is awe-some. The Word became flesh. To say the eternal, pre-existent, divine Word became king, that would be unremarkable. That’s what you would expect from the divine, external, pre-existent Word. King. To say that a man and a woman came together and produced a baby born in the flesh is wonderful, but that would not be remarkable, you expect that. That’s what human beings are—flesh and blood. That’s what human beings produce—flesh. But to say the Word, Lógos, with all that we have seen already in John’s prologue, that Word became flesh, well, now, you are putting together two things that don’t seem to go together, like the Cubs won the World Series. That happened. Pigs can fly. Pastor Kevin ate his vegetables. They’re just pairs that don’t go together.
The Word became flesh. Those four words are familiar to most of us. We’ve read them in our Bibles, we hear them every year at Christmas, many of us have them memorized. But I want us to drill down into this verse and help you see some things that maybe you didn’t see before, because there are some theological truths, some doctrinal implications, in this one verse that will make your mind stretch and maybe hurt just a little, but it’s a good hurt. If we want to be a people that feel deeply, we have to a people that think deeply.
So here’s what I want to do. I read one verse, you may think well, that’s fairly small territory to cover, but I want to make it even smaller. I want us to focus in this one verse on just two words. Now you might think the words are “Word” and “flesh” and we will talk about it, but those aren’t the two words. You may think well, the words are “Son” and “Father,” and certainly what we’re going to talk about has everything to do with those two words. The words are not even the last words, “grace” and “truth.” We will come back to that, Lord willing, next week when we get to verse 17 which says “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” The two words I want us to focus on are the word “dwelt” and the word “only.” And I hope after spending some times on these words and all the theology related to these words, we will feel better equipped to marvel, to worship, and to give thanks. You want to know ahead of time what the application of this sermon is supposed to be? It’s that. That you marvel. You worship. And you give thanks. Two words.
First, I want us to look at this word which is translated in English, if you’re reading from the ESV, as “only.” It is a Greek word, monogenes. Monogenes. Now here’s where you need to be willing to think a little bit with this one word. Let me give you some history about the translation of this word. This word monogenes, you can hear in that first prefix mono why it would mean something like one or only, mono. It is used with reference to Jesus, the Son. It is used five times, all in John’s writing. This verse, 14, again verse 18, John 3:16, John 3:18, and 1 John 4:9. Many of you, I’m willing to bet, first memorized John 3:16 in the King James Version. I’m not that old and I first memorized John 3:16 in the King James.
Now turn over just a moment in your Bibles to John 3:16. Now just have it there and I want you, before you look at that, some of you brought a King James, most of you are reading the ESV, which is what I’m reading and is my favorite translation, but I want you to think about how you might have learned that in the King James. “For God so love the world that He gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Isn’t that how some of us learned it? And you’ll notice there’s a little difference here. It doesn’t have some of the Old English sort of words and endings, but it also is missing that word in the middle of the verse, begotten. It says his only Son. The Greek word is monogenes. It’s the same word that we have back in Chapter 1 verse 14. The King James, on all five occasions where this word is used, John 1:14, John 1:18, John 3:16, John 3:18, and then 1 John 4:9, the King James translates it as “only begotten.”
Now at the end of the 19th century scholars began to question whether that was the best way to understand this word, monogenes. It started with a scholar named B.F. Westcott in 1886, another scholar named Francis Warden in 1938, and finally a scholar named Dale Moody, not D.L. Moody the evangelist, a different Moody, in 1953, and they argued that the word really means “one of a kind,” or “only,” and that it doesn’t mean, and they argued it really can’t mean, “only begotten,” which is how the King James translated it. And so this newer idea was enshrined into the Revised Standard Version, the RSV, and many of our newer versions are modeled after the RSV, to the point that you will not find, as far as I’m aware, you will not find a modern English translation that continues to use the words “only begotten.” In fact, if you were to pick up almost any current or semi-current commentary on the Gospel of John, any one written in the last 50 years, and I’m talking very good commentaries by very good evangelical scholars, the kind we would all appreciate and respect, you will find in almost every single one of them they will argue that monogenes means only, or one of a kind, and does not mean only begotten.
Now why any of this would matter we’ll come back to in just a moment. Let me just finish this little fascinating history lesson that you all said “you know what, I just hope I can hear a history lesson about a Greek word today.” Well, you’re getting it. Now let me tell you later this fall there is a new book coming out called Retrieving Eternal Generation. Not quite Harry Potter, but it’s a good title. Retrieving Eternal Generation. It’s edited by Fred Sanders and Scott Swain. Scott is the president of RTS Orlando.
There is a chapter in this book, and here’s another intriguing chapter title. I know you want to turn to it with this title: “A Lexical Defense of the Johannine Only Begotten” which means this scholar, his name is Lee Irons, he has a whole chapter where he’s arguing that John’s use of this word monogenes really should be translated “only begotten.” So he’s trying to overturn what is basically 60 years of a scholarly consensus. Now how could he do that? Is he just smarter than everyone else? Well, he is a smart guy. Part of what he has at his disposal now is he has all of these massive Greek databases that all the Greek literature from ancient times have been inputted digitally and now scholars have access to search them much more comprehensively than maybe they could a few decades ago. He gives, in this chapter, several arguments for translating monogenes which shows up in verse 14 with the word only, and he’s arguing it should be as it used to be, translated “only begotten.” He makes a number of points. He says the term had special significance for the church fathers and clearly the church fathers used it with great theological freight. So he gives some numbers: Cyril of Alexandria used the word monogenes 981 times, Gregory of Nyssa 643 times, John Chrysostom 465 times. This is what he’s researched in this database and he’s making the point this was a really important word for them.
He also points out that the word and those church fathers did not begin to be used just as a response to Arianism. If you know a little bit about church history, you know Arius was this fellow who came along and he said in the 4th century that Jesus, that the Son was like the Father but did not share the same essence with the Father and that’s where we got the Nicene Creed as a result of this controversy with Arius. How do we understand the Son and the Father? Are they just sort of, He’s sort of like God, is He maybe God the second? Which is the term that some Mormon theologians will use. Or is actually God in the flesh? Well, this term monogenes was used even before these controversies, by the church father Tertullian and Justin Martyr in the second century.
All in all, in this new book, the scholar Lee Irons argues that the normal usage in extra-biblical literature is that this word monogenes almost always goes with son, daughter, child, and that the literal meaning is a biological one or a metaphorically biological one, someone who is only begotten.
So he comes then to verse 14, our text this morning. Clearly, you can see the context is we are thinking about birth. We saw in verse 12, “to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God,” so we’re thinking about children who were born not of blood nor the will of the flesh nor the will of man, but of God, so it makes sense that what we have in verse 14 following on the heels of verses 12 and 13, has some reference to birth, begotten-ness. And in fact, the newer translations like the NIV or the ESV, even though they go with the scholarly consensus that says well, it’s only, or it’s one of a kind, there still is this, this theological gravity pushing them to say well, but, it’s not just one of a kind, it has something to do with the Father’s relationship to the Son because, again looking at verse 14, it says “the only Son.”
If you were to look at Greek Bible, you would see that the word son is not in the Greek text. It’s simply the word monogenes. But they are bringing in the word son to try to convey this idea that we’re not just dealing with a one of a kind, but we’re dealing with someone who is in some special relationship to God the Father. And the argument that Lee Irons makes is why not go all the way and translate it as it used to be and say “only begotten.”
Why does any of this matter? Here’s a quote. “John 1:14 and 18 are of crucial importance for demonstrating that the Johannine (that just means John’s writing) monogenes can not be reduced to only of his kind but must have a metaphorical, biological meaning in this instance of only begotten. John views Christ as the only begotten Son of God in the sense that He is the Father’s only proper offspring deriving his divine being from the Father.” In other words, John is trying to make a very nuanced and very essential point. He has just gotten done, in verses 12 and 13, saying that if you are born again, you receive the right be called a child of God. So does that mean that we’re all just children of God? Just like Jesus was the Son of God? Again, if you read very carefully in Mormon theology, for instance, they will say yes, you know, Jesus was God’s son and yes, he was divine, but then you read carefully and they say well, divine in the sense in which we’re all divine, or the son in the way that we’re all children.
John is making the very careful point that we are given the right as adopted children to be called sons and daughters, but Christ alone is the natural Son of the Father. He is his only begotten.
Which brings us to this important doctrine which you’ve maybe heard of, and very few of us have ever thought of, but we are going to stretch our brains just a few more minutes, and it’s the doctrine of eternal generation. Eternal generation.
Now, you need to know it’s not dependent upon the translation of this one particular word. And many of the people who say monogenes means “only” still believe in eternal generation. Theologians have looked at verses like Psalm 2:7: “You are my Son, I have begotten you;” or Proverbs 8: “The Lord possessed wisdom at the beginning, the first act of old;” or Micah 5:2 about the messiah, his going forth is form of old, from the days of eternity. So there’s other passages, but, but this passage with this word “monogenes” has been one of those key passages to support this doctrine of eternal generation. And even in our day, many fine evangelical scholars, many people that you have read, that you appreciate, have actually said “you know what? Is this really in the Bible? Is this really worth arguing about? Do we really need to know this? You know, is any preacher actually going to talk about this on a Sunday morning?” Hmm mmm mmm. Guilty.
But it was considered an essential doctrine by the early church fathers through the Reformers and into the Reformed tradition. So what does it mean? Eternal generation refers to the never beginning and never-ending act whereby God the Father communicates the divine essence to God the Son. Now if you say I don’t quite understand that, that’s good. All the theologians who write about this say it is, in the end, an infinite, in some sense incomprehensible, mystery. Because we are using human language to describe something divine. It is not physical. If we speak of begetting a son, it is physical: A man and a woman come together, they beget a child. So we’re not speaking of something physical. It is an unchanging act that is ongoing yet not incomplete. So when we talk about eternal generation, we’re talking about how does the Son have the same essence with the Father and yet the Son is distinct from the Father? How does that work? And the answer from passages like this, that the fathers and the Reformers said, was this doctrine of eternal generation.
It’s easier sometimes to say what we don’t mean than what we do mean. When we speak of eternal generation, we are speaking of something that happens without time. That is, there’s a logical order, but there’s no duration. This does not happen in time. You know, sometimes we speak of in eternity past, God decreed this. In eternity past, or before creation, in eternity past, and it’s an okay phrase, but the phrase can make us think as if eternity was some span of ages that came before creation, when actually eternity is the way God is, it’s who God is. God is the one who governs time, stands outside of time. It’s not like there was a billion trillion years, that’s eternity, and then God made the world and then the clocks started ticking. Our minds just get stretched even thinking of what is eternity as that great infinite, immense God-ness that stands before and outside of time. So don’t think that you can mark on a clock sometime when this generation happened, it is without time and it’s without alteration, meaning there was no change in the Father or the Son, that’s why it’s eternal.
It is like a human generation in that like begets like. But it is unlike human generation in that it did not physically produce another being. When you beget a child, the child did not exist and now the child exists. But in the eternal generation, the Father and the Son, it’s not that the Son didn’t exist and then He existed, it’s in eternity God communicates as Father his essence, his God-ness, to the Son. Not be creating a divine being, not by saying well, now the Son, after, you know, a billion years, now He’s going to be divine. It is an act whereby the Father generates the person and communicates the essence of the Son. Your brain hurting?
Why have theologians bothered to articulate and defend this doctrine? Well, they’re trying to answer the question which your kids will ask and which you will have no analogy to answer them with, and you will say three in one and one in three, and that’s good for 5 and 6-year-olds, and maybe for the rest of us, too. But they wanted to press in deeper. How do you have one God in three persons? Let me put it in the technical terms: How does the Godhead multiply subsistences? Now I didn’t say “existences” because that makes it sound like the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit exist apart from each other as different beings, but the word, they were very careful with these words. We live in an age where we are not careful about our words. Can you imagine if these great church doctrines had to be hashed out on Twitter? Horrors! Facebook? Everyone would be so hurt, their feelings, they’d be crying, they’d be running off. FS&H just doesn’t like me and FS&H would say well, the world doesn’t like me, so fine. So they’re very careful with these words.
How does the Godhead multiply personal subsistences, persons, without multiplying essences? Essence is the word for sort of God-ness. How do you have three persons sharing the same God-ness? Well, this doctrine of eternal generation grounds that self-differentiation within the inner life of God in eternity, so that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God, but the Father is not the Son, the Father is not Spirit, the Son’s not the Father, the Son’s not the Spirit, and so on. That’s the doctrine of the trinity. It answers the question how can the Son be of the same God-ness as the Father and yet the Son is not the Father. And so this doctrine is developed using verses like this and words like this, monogenes. The eternal begotten-ness of the Son was therefore from very early in the Church’s history an essential doctrine for maintaining a right and proper view of God the Son.
You, most of you, have professed a belief in this doctrine before. You didn’t realize it. The Nicene Creed, we believe in One God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible, and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, begotten from the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of the same essence as the Father. That’s what the Nicene Creed is trying to protect. You have sung about this at Christmas: “Of the Father’s love begotten.” Or “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful,” God of God, Light of Light, lo, He abhors not the Virgin’s womb, very God begotten, not created.
We can only conceive of a being begotten who is also a creature. Mom and dad beget a child. That child is like them, is another creature as them. But with God the Son we have one who was begotten, communicated the divine essence from the Father to the Son, without time, for all eternity, without beginning or end, and yet that One begotten from the Father is not created by the Father. You sing about that at Christmas.
Here’s what one theologian writes back in the 16th century: “He is the true, proper, and natural Son of God.” There’s the language—we’re adopted, Christ was the natural Son of God. “Begotten from the essence of the Father, and if he is begotten from the essence of God, the same is therefore communicated to Him whole and entire since the divine essence is infinite, indivisible, and not communicated in part, therefore in as much as the Son has the whole essence communicated to Him, He is for this reason equal with the Father and consequently true God.”
Now sometimes people come along and they have problems with the Church, or with Christians, and they think Christianity is for dummies. Well, you know, we all know some dumb Christians and we all resemble dumb Christians at times, but the one thing you really can’t say is that Christianity has been for dummies. You have the most brilliant minds in history wrestling with these grand and glorious truths, trying to understand what we have from scripture. You may say well, that’s a lot of fancy, philosophical language and Greek this and Latin that, and why don’t we just stick with Bible verses? Well, we start with Bible verses. We always come back to Bible verses. But you understand that during the Arian controversy, the Arians were perfectly willing to just state Bible verses. But it took some of this sort of language to defend what the Bible means in these Bible verses. So theologians have been very careful, very precise, to define and de-limit these things, all in the effort to preserve what we have been marveling at in John’s prologue, namely that the Word was with God and the Word was God. In some sense you could say all of this business, monogenes, all of this with eternal generation, is trying to explain how John 1:1 can be true. The Word was with God and the Word was God.
And now we see as the mystery is continued to develop and unfurl here in these opening verses, we have this word translated as “only Son” in the ESV and I love the ESV, not telling you to get rid of that, but the “only begotten” I think would be a better translation. The only begotten One, the Father communicating his God-ness to this Son, not as a creature, but as one from all eternity, begotten, that He is not just similar to, but of the same essence with his heavenly Father.
Which brings us more quickly to the second word. Now all of that is important with the first word: Monogenes. So that the absolute stunning miracle of the second word will be evident. It’s the word translated “dwelt.” The Greek word is “skenoo,” we’ll come back to that in a moment.
Here’s how I would describe the storyline of the Bible: How can a holy God dwell in the midst of an unholy people? That’s the story. How can a holy God dwell in the midst of an unholy people? So you have the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, there they are conversing with God in the cool of the day. Sin has not yet entered the human race. A holy God dwelling with his, for the time being, perfect people. But they sin. And they get kicked out. And there is a sword placed and you can’t go back to Eden. Because a holy God cannot dwell in the midst of unholy people, but he makes coverings for them. And he promises that One will come to crush the head of that nasty serpent. And then you go a few chapters later and you have sin covering the world, and God was grieved that He had made them because He saw that the only inclination of their heart was evil all the time, Genesis Chapter 6. And so He sends a flood. Why? Because a holy God cannot dwell in the midst of an unholy people. And so He says sin has flooded the earth, I’m going to flood the earth. And he saves one family: Noah, his wife, three sons, their three daughters. Eight people in the ark.
It doesn’t take very long and Noah starts to do some pretty bad stuff. And then you go to chapter 11 and the people of the earth are bringing and building up this tower to heaven. How can a holy God now dwell in the midst of these unholy people? So the garden of Eden, He kicked them out. The flood, He wiped them out. Babel, He spreads them out. And then he comes to Abraham. Okay, I’m going to promise that I’m going to make a great nation out of you. It’s going to be as numerous as stars in the sky, sand on the seashore. And so He blesses them despite themselves. He blesses and blesses, they grow, they increase. And you follow the story and the trajectory throughout the Old Testament and what eventually happens with this new start? Well, Assyria comes along in 722 B.C., wipes out the Northern Kingdom, 586 they’re finally in the Southern Kingdom, shipped off to Babylon. Kicked out of garden, wiped out with the flood, spread out from Babel, shipped out to Babylon. How in the world is a holy God going to dwell in the midst of an unholy people? Chance after chance, time after time. Eden didn’t work, and then Israel doesn’t work. How is a holy God going to dwell in the midst of an unholy people? That’s the storyline of the Bible.
Which is why verse 14 is so amazing. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. A holy God, fully God as we’ve just seen, the only begotten Son of God, dwelling in the midst of us.
And go back to that Greek word. I said it’s the word skenoo. It comes from the word skene, that’s the Greek. There’s a Hebrew word because in this case the Greek and Hebrew word are really cognates. There’s a Hebrew word “shakan” which means to well. There’s another Hebrew word “mishkan” which is the Hebrew word for tabernacle. And then there’s a post-biblical Hebrew word “Shekinah” some of you have heard, the Shekinah glory of God. And then we come to this Greek word “skene,” related to those Hebrew words. Many scholars therefore suggest the word could mean “to pitch a tent.”
Now I don’t care much for camping, but I’ll take this. The Word of God moved his tent into our neighborhood. He took on flesh and tabernacled among us. That’s what the word means. It’s a reference in Hebrew to the tabernacle, to the tent of meeting, later becomes the Temple when it’s put into stone. That tabernacle which was situated in the midst of the camp with three tribes on the north, south, east, and west all along so that the Lord is his holiness would dwell there in the midst of them. And they got kicked out. And now God sends his Son back in.
The Word became flesh. He did not masquerade as flesh, He did not pretend to be flesh. It does not say the Word was changed to flesh. The Lógos became what He was not without ceasing to be what He was. So it’s not that you have the Word and now we don’t have the Word, we have flesh. No, you have the Word, still the Word, and the Word became flesh. Calvin says “in short, the Son of God began to be man in such a manner that he still continues to be that eternal speech who had no beginning of time.” So He’s taken on this human nature, in the flesh, without ceasing to be the pre-existent eternal, only begotten Son of the Father, now He shows up on planet earth like us. And He gets hungry and thirsty, and He gets sad, doing all these un-God-like things. How does God get hurt? How does God weep? How does God feel pain? How does God need a nap? Only in the incarnation.
And notice it says the Word became flesh. There’s a good Greek word “soma” which means body, he could have said that, or he could have used the word “anthropos” which means a man, and both of those things are true. But John describes the incarnation in these blunt, almost earthy, terms. The Word became sarks, the Word became flesh. Sinews, skin, organs, bones, hair, teeth, joints…us.
And pay attention to what it says in the second half of the verse: “And we have seen his glory.” Now you would think that the Word of God taking on human flesh would mean the concealing of God’s glory, wouldn’t you think? That now, somehow, you’re not going to see God as He really is because this word, the second person of the trinity, is coming in human form, so the glory is going to be concealed. But John tells us no, in the Word becoming flesh, the glory of God was now fully and finally revealed.
Of course, they did not always have eyes to see it. But for those who had ears to see, those ears to hear and eyes to see, in the God-man the glory of God was not hidden, it was now more than ever before, on complete and full display. To show this is what love looks like. This is what condescension looks like. This is what serving looks like. This is the glory of God.
I belabored the first point about monogenes and took you down a rabbit trail of interpretation and then brought you in a little bit to the theology of eternal generation, for this reason: So we can begin to appreciate what a stunning display of love and condescension we have in the incarnation. We all know those words: Immanuel, God with us. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. A familiar cadence, we love those verses. We look forward to hearing them again at Christmas. But have we really thought about them? Have we really meditated on them? Have we really drilled into them until our brain begins to hurt? The eternally begotten Son of the Father. The One who was with God and is God. The One who shares the same essence, communicated from the Father. The One who has always been, even before there was time to be, this One took on flesh and set up a tent in the midst of our camp and said “I’ll live with these people. I’ll go camping with this tribe. And even more than that, I will be mocked, hated, jeered, and finally killed.”
And so as I said from the beginning, the aim in a message like this, there’s all sorts of things, you know, you can draw application, so let us serve as Christ serves, let us give of ourselves as the Father gave the Son, let’s read our Bibles more, let’s share our faith, let’s pray, let’s give our tithes and offerings, that’s always a favorite application from the pastor.
But let’s just do this: Can we step back with this one verse and marvel and worship and give thanks. Oh, come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant. Oh, come ye, oh, come ye, to Bethlehem. Come and behold Him, born the King of angels. Born the King of Angels. Oh, come, let us adore Him.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory. Glory as of the only begotten from the Father full of grace and truth.
Let’s pray. Our Father in heaven, what words can we utter in response to such mystery, such majesty. We praise you for the eternal begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, now and forever a man like us, a God-man, begotten not created, in every way as we are yet without sin. And in His name we worship and in His name we find our hope and in His name alone do we pray. Amen.