I wonder if you remember the Mr and Mrs quiz shows, or if you’ve ever played a Mr and Mrs type board game. The idea is that one member of a couple is asked questions about the other one, to see how well they know each other. It doesn’t always go well. It seems to me that everyone who has heard the name Jesus has some idea of who he is. It might be very vague, or it might be quite detailed, developed over years of prayer, Bible reading, and experience.
Over the next ten weeks, we are going to be going back to basics. We’re going to be looking in detail at what Jesus says about himself in the Bible, our primary source of evidence for who Jesus is. As we do this, I’d like to encourage us to be ready to be challenged, to examine anew our ideas about Jesus, if necessary to clear away some bits of dodgy building so that we can build our relationship with Jesus on the solid foundations of who he says he is.
So, having kitted ourselves out for the journey, let’s begin with the first step, with our reading from John’s eye witness account of Jesus’ life. John’s account is written a little differently to the other accounts, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. At times it can be difficult to understand, but it is important to say that it is rooted in the real lived experience of a man, John, who lived alongside Jesus and heard him teach and saw him do amazing things. At one time, Jesus visited Jerusalem and while he was there he healed a man who had been unable to walk for 38 years. At happened at a place called the pool of Bethesda, which John describes in chapter 5 as having “five covered colonnades”. Following the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, about 70 years after these events, the site of this pool was lost for centuries, until recent archaeological excavations found it, and found that there had, indeed been five covered colonnades. There are examples like this scattered through John’s account that point towards its reliability.
Let’s take a moment to think about the religious culture that surrounds John as he is writing his account. The majority of people at this time would have been part of the Greek / Roman world of worshipping many gods – Mars, Zeus, Artemis. These gods were woven into the culture, literature, and life of the world. The Greeks particularly had a variety of philosophies, they were lovers of wisdom.
The Jewish people stood apart with their one God.
“In the beginning….” John’s Jewish readers would have recognised that – they were the same three words that began their writings, the Old Testament. “was the word…. John’s Greek readers would have recognised that. “the word”, which in Greek is “logos” was wisdom, knowledge, the root of philosophy.
John goes on, “and the word was with God, and the word was God.” Here John brings together the Jewish and Greek worlds, drawing parallels but also challenging. To the Greeks he is saying that the “logos”, the word isn’t just an impersonal set of logical statements, but a person, a divine person, who was active before the beginning of time in the creation of all things. To the Jews he is building on the wisdom tradition of Proverbs, but also introducing the idea of more than one divine person – the word was with God, whilst not allowing that the word is any less than God – the word was God.
That word is light and life. God’s word is light and life. What more could anyone want than light and life? And better than that, light and life that is available to all. To all who received him, he gave the right to become children of God. This is an outrageous claim, but it John follows it up with an even more astounding one.
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us”
The Word became flesh. Sometimes we talk about the incarnation, about God incarnate. Both of these words have their roots in the word that John uses here for flesh. It is the same word that is at the root of Chilli con carne – “chilli with meat” and carnivore – flesh eater. Incarnation might sound all wifty wafty but it isn’t, it is fleshy – meat, bone, and bloody.
Stories of the Greek and Roman Gods are full of their appearing in human (or animal) form in order to impregnate someone or be impregnated. The idea of a god coming to earth wasn’t that unusual amongst the people John was writing for. In the other direction, it wasn’t uncommon for a Roman emperor to announce that he was actually divine, and to command worship. But for God to come down, to give up the trappings of heaven, to actually become part of creation, to be flesh.
That was revolutionary, it challenged everything they thought they knew about it meant to be god, and to be wise.
For the Jewish people, God was one God, the divine creator and judge. There was no division in God. To claim that the Word, who was God, had become flesh, was incomprehensible.
So, who is this Word, who was with God at the beginning, who is God, who created all things, who overturned all expectations by becoming flesh, part of creation, to bring life and light to all who believe him?
John says in verse 14, “he came from the Father, full of grace and truth”.
And then, in verse 17 he says, “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ”.
Jesus is the Word. The man, Jesus, born in Bethlehem to Mary is the Word who is God.
Jesus was, and is, man and God, human and divine. This is the claim of the new testament writers, people who knew him on earth, who lived with him, who saw him eat, drink, laugh, and cry. Who saw him die, live again, and ascend to heaven. This is Jesus’ claim about himself. In John chapter 8, Jesus is having a debate with some of the people in the temple in Jerusalem. In the course of this conversation he says, “Before Abraham was, I am”. The reaction of the crowd was to pick up stones so that they could stone him for blasphemy. They knew that he was claiming to be God.
Jesus himself gives no space to wriggle on this one. As C.S. Lewis puts it, “he was either bad, mad, or God.” Either he knew that he wasn’t God, but claimed he was – deliberately lying to his followers, in which case he was bad, all his teaching is undermined by the lie he was living. Or, he really thought he was God, but wasn’t – he was deluded, like the Caesors who came to believe their own publicity. His perception of reality was so completely distorted that it calls into question everything else he said and did. The third option is that he really was who he claimed to be. That he was God.
It seems to me that this claim is reasonable. Jesus’ teaching is profound and wise – it doesn’t seem likely that it comes from a bad man or a deluded man. The evidence for his death and resurrection is compelling. He was seen and experienced in human, resurrected flesh after his death. The work of the Holy Spirit in countless millions of lives over two thousand years since points to his continued life with the Father, still with all his humanness, and now in the fullness of being God once again.
So, if this is true, what difference does it make? “to all who believed in his name he gave the right to be children of God.” If we want light and life in our lives, if we want the assurance that we are children of God, then we need to believe in his name. To trust him that he is who he says he is, to know that he loves us so much that he came to live as part of creation, and that he is powerful enough to take us with him into the new creation. Of course, it is not just about our minds agreeing with the idea that Jesus is God, or our mouths saying the words, it is about actually following him. Submitting to his rule of our lives. To living differently, in the way that he teaches and commands. It’s not an easy way, but it is the only way to the Father.
Do you know him?