The Word became flesh

‘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.’ – John 1:14 ESV

AFTER HAVING described the divine Logos as the eternal Creator and Life Giver, John had shifted his attention to His arrival on the earth in verse 9: The true Light … was coming into the world. In verse 14, he describes that arrival using the most succinct of expressions—“the Word became flesh.”

We will not be able to gauge the impact of those words without getting acquainted with the Gnostic worldview that prevailed among many Jews and Christians of the early centuries. According to Gnosticism, the Almighty God is perfect. However, the imperfect nature of the universe poses a problem. How could a perfect God give rise to an imperfect cosmos? The universe, they say, might have emanated from the Perfect God but it was far too corrupt and removed from Him. They’re unable to hold the Perfect God responsible for the imperfections in the created order. They say, there must be intermediate divine beings between the Perfect God and the imperfect universe. They perceive the flawed material-cum-psychic cosmos as created by Sophia (literally, wisdom) who herself was flawed. She is also referred to as the half-maker or Demiurgos since she created the cosmos using material that emanated from the Perfect God. Thus, they hold this lesser ‘god’ responsibile for all the imperfections, sufferings, and evil in the world. When they read the Bible, they see Yahweh the Creator as that flawed Demiurgos! No wonder they’re fascinated by the ‘friendly’ serpent who offered Adam and Eve the prospect of ‘enlightenment’ (“your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God”) to escape the Creator’s tyranny.

Further, Gnosticism teaches that humanity consists of a perfectly divine (spiritual) component which co-exists with an imperfect, perishable physical-psychic component. The bane of humanity, they claim, lies in its ignorance about this divine spark and the resultant failure to develop it. Gnostics do not desire a salvation from sin or karma, as in Hinduism, but from ignorance that causes people to live below their divine state. Gnosticism encourages its followers to get hold of gnosis, knowledge, to be enlightened about their inner divine spark. Gnosticism created a Jesus after its own image. Gnostics see Jesus as a supreme example of an ‘enlightened’ person who “realized in himself that he and what he called the Father were one, and he lived out of that knowledge of the Christhood of his nature.” (Campbell, 1988, p 210)

According to Gnosticism, people get bogged down by their own imperfections and by their attachment to the material world. Unless humans break free and rise above all earthly attractions, even death cannot liberate them. They will be hurled back into the cosmos to be enslaved in another imperfect body ridden with disease, pain and passions. That is very similar to the Hindu or Buddhist belief called ‘reincarnation.’ Modern Gnosticism appears to share common space with Jewish Kabbalah, Hinduism, the New Age, and Buddhism in many areas such as the attainment of ‘enlightenment’ or the ‘awakening’ of the kundalini through transcendental meditation, yoga, etc.

The Apostle John deftly downplayed the significance of Gnostic pursuit of hidden knowledge as a passport to salvation. True knowledge came through Jesus Christ, the Logos. He was the true Light. Truth, according to John, is a Person called Jesus Christ (John 14:6). On the other hand, all men and women are sinners who have the potential to outdo each other in wickedness given the right circumstances. No one can wish away or ignore the fallen nature of man. We are “children of the devil” and enslaved to sin until Jesus sets us free (John 8:36). What we need is not a sudden nirvana or enlightenment about some divinity buried deep within our fallen soul. We need salvation from sin and its consequences lest we die in our sins. “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins,” said Jesus (John 8:24). That’s contrary to the Gnostic, Hindu and Buddhist claim that all that fallen humans need is a bolt of enlightenment about their own divinity.

GNOSTICISM WAS so influential that it affected the early church. In fact, Gnostics did not call themselves by that name. They went around as regular Jews or Christians. Jewish Gnosticism was many centuries older than Christianity. The Church Fathers regarded Judaism as the primary source of Gnosticism. In fact, Hebrew words and divine names are found in several Gnostic systems. Magic too was an important part of this secret science. (Jacobs, 1906)

A follower of Gnosticism would have been appalled if he were told that the perfect, eternal God created the world and everything in it. Gnostic ‘Christians’ believed that the Creator God mentioned in the Hebrew Bible was the ‘lesser god’ and that ‘Master Jesus’ came from the Perfect God to rescue people from the lesser god’s clutches! Marcion (c.85- c.160), like other Gnostics, drove a wedge between Yahweh and Jesus Christ. He claimed that the Creator God of the Hebrew Bible was a vengeful, angry God while Jesus was entirely good. Therefore, he said, the God of the Hebrews was different from the One whom Jesus called Father.

Marcion rejected the Hebrew scriptures. He mutilated the Gospels and Epistles by weeding out all passages that referred to the Hebrew Scriptures or to the God of Israel. For instance, “Our Father who art in heaven” became “Father”—as found in the NIV rendition of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke! Those who pray to a “Father” could be praying to just about any father including the devil! It takes a certain conviction to address the God of the Hebrews as the Father of Jesus Christ. Sadly, like Marcion, some modern Christians are biased against the Hebrew Bible. They love the titles “Old Testament” and “New Testament“ as if those were divinely inspired. There are pastors who preach only from the ‘New Testament’ because they consider the latter twenty-seven books as a canon within the Christian canon of sixty-six books. Any reference to the Hebrew Bible is frowned upon. They are content with their little “pocket Testaments.” What is left of the ‘New Testament’ if all allusions to the Hebrew Bible are taken away?

Bishop Polycarp, a disciple of apostle John, once met Marcion. Marcion asked, “Do you recognize me?” Polycarp shot back, “I do recognize you, the first-born of Satan.” (Irenaeus. Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 3, 4.) This is how vigorously the early Church responded to Gnosticism.

In their eagerness to discredit Yahweh, the Gnostics claimed that the Law given to Moses was flawed. They rejected God’s commandments. Marcion came up with a list of contradictions between the Torah and the teachings of Jesus Christ in his book Antitheses. The Gospel was pitched against the Law—as many Christians do today! This was rightly rejected by Tertullian as an attempt to portray Yahweh and the Father of Jesus as two gods! Tertullian wrote, “These are Marcion’s Antitheses, or contradictory propositions, which aim at committing the gospel to a variance with the law” so that “they may contend for a diversity of gods also.” (Against Marcion, Book I, Chapter 19).

Their disdain towards God’s laws led Gnostics to lead profligate lives. Their low view of the body encouraged them to ignore sins committed in the flesh. They could not understand how the body of all things could be the temple of the holy and almighty God. A holy life got ruled out. They would argue it was not possible to live a holy life as long as they were trapped in their body. What then is left of Christian life? Like modern proponents of “hyper grace” or anti-nomianism, Gnostics perverted the grace of God into licentiousness. (Cf. Jude 3, 4)

Is it any wonder that the apostle John took on these notions head-on by declaring that the Logos (the Word, the true Wisdom) was from the beginning with God? He was the Creator of the material universe. Nothing that was created was made without Him. Jews, Gnostics included, were John’s primary target. John was not only exalting Jesus as the eternal, divine Creator, but he was also elevating the created order to a higher, sacramental plane befitting the holiness of the perfect God Almighty. He was attacking the Gnostic view which claimed the Perfect God could have nothing to do with the creation of this ‘lowly’ universe.

Besides, John wrote, the Word was God. He was not at variance with God Almighty who crafted the Torah. Jesus was born under that Law. He and his apostles affirmed the Ten Commandments. Jesus died within the framework of the Jewish ritual Law to take on the role of the Lamb of God. He was the eternal High Priest and the Temple of God. He fulfilled the ritual law in Himself. Those laws regarding sacrifices and rituals still hold good in Him. That’s why we need not offer animal sacrifices.

The Torah consists of three distinct sets of regulations, namely, the Decalogue (Ten Commandments), the ritual law (laws regarding sacrifices and worship), and the civic law (laws governing civil and criminal jurisprudence). The ritual law was fulfilled in Christ and his supreme sacrifice. The civic laws do not apply today because God’s people are not confined to a single nation state. Jesus’ new commandment – love one another – captures our duty to one another. It is sufficiently expounded by further instructions from the apostles. The Moral Law or the Decalogue was never abolished. Instead, in the Sermon on the Mount, He taught God’s true intent behind those commandments. In conclusion, He compared those who obeyed His commandments to a wise man who built his house on a rock as opposed to a foolish man who built on sand. (Matthew 7:24-27) Jesus wanted all his disciples to teach new disciples to obey His commands. (Matt 28:19) It is a part of the Great Commission.

Christian life is not a lawless life. Jesus forgives our sins for free on account of his vicarious death. That forgiveness is not a license to sin or to condone sin. He expects us to walk the high road of God’s righteousness in the power of the Holy Spirit. As the Apostle Paul put it,

“By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he [God] condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:3)

James reminded the Church to remain obedient to God’s perfect law.

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. – James 1:22-25

What ‘law’ was James referring to? He had the Decalogue and the ‘royal law’ as summarised by the Lord Jesus.

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. …
For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” [the seventh commandment] also said, [the sixth commandment] “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.

James 2:8, 11-12

And yet, I know that there are Christians out there who cry foul, “You are preaching salvation by works. We live under grace and not under the Law.” That’s because they are unaware that the word ‘Law’ in the Bible has at least five different senses. At times, it is used to refer to the whole of Hebrew scriptures or the Decalogue while at other times, to the ritual law. Christians are not under Jewish ritual law but no one is above God’s Moral Law. Christians who pitch Grace against Law are not beyond redemption, provided they’re willing to learn.

The apostle John too made it clear that obedience to God’s commandments was a non-negotiable Christian tenet. Here’s more on obedience from Johannine writings:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. – Jesus, John 14:15

Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him. – Jesus, John 14:21

If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. – Jesus, John 15:10

By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. – 1 John 5:2

Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him … – 1 John 2:4 (Cf. 1 John 2:3; 3:22; 3:24; and 5:3)

Indeed, we were freely forgiven and justified by the Grace of God. None of us could have done anything to earn God’s forgiveness. Righteousness was imputed to us for free. But the obedience that lies ahead of us in time isn’t imputed to us! God has provided us everything we need for life and godliness. We need to obey what we need to obey. We are left without any excuse. Let us work out our salvation with fear and trembling, exhorted St Paul.

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling – Philippians 2:12

If you still don’t see the need for obedience in Christian life, please follow Marcion’s example and strike off those offending words from the Great Commission so that it reads like:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

It would be unthinkable for Gnostics to acknowledge that a Perfect God could ever identify Himself with a fallen world, let alone become a man to save the world. Therefore, Gnostic ‘Christians’ were unwilling to believe that Jesus was fully human.

To the Gnostics, the body is far too fallen and imperfect to deserve any attention. Anything to do with the body — including marriage and conjugal responsibilities — is considered a necessary evil. In the early Church, there were Christians who, under the sway of Gnosticism, discounted the importance of marriage and sexual relations between married couples. (Cf Hebrews 13:4 and 1 Timothy 4:1-3) Asceticism and harsh treatment of the body were considered super-spiritual exercises. (Cf Colossians 2:20-23)

There are Christians today who claim to be orthodox in their doctrines but will balk at the biblical statement that Jesus endured every kind of temptation. Quite unintentionally they doubt the full humanity of Jesus. Even after reading Hebrews 4:15 they are unwilling to entertain the thought that Jesus could have experienced temptations to commit sexual sins. “He wasn’t that human, was he?” would be their classic objection! As a result, they behave like Docetists, who believed that Jesus just appeared to be human but in reality wasn’t a human.

In his epistles, John refers to Gnostic ‘Christians’ as antichrists. Who were the antichrists?

Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. — 1 John 2:18

Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. — 1 John 2:22

For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. — 2 John 1:7

John, thus, raised a standard against the onslaught of Gnosticism into the early Church. In his Gospel, John did not miss any opportunity to portray Jesus as a complete human just as he portrayed Him as completely divine. His statement — the Word became flesh — comes as the shortest yet most powerful polemic against Gnosticism and Doceticism.

As Pope John Paul II observed, this statement brought the body in through the front door of theology.

The fact that theology also includes the body should not astonish or surprise anyone who is conscious of the mystery and reality of the Incarnation. Through the fact that the Word of God became flesh, the body entered theology — that is, the science that has divinity for its object — I would say, through the main door.”

Pope John Paul II, A Theology of the Body, 2006, 221.

The apostle John didn’t stop countering Gnosticism with his “the Word became flesh” punch line in 1:14. He went on to present Jesus as someone who enjoyed earthly life in a good way. He wasn’t a recluse, a guru who sat atop Mount Everest in solitary meditation. Instead, Jesus was human enough to enjoy a wedding feast complete with fine wine and other expressions of Jewish nuptial celebration. When the host ran out of wine, he created gallons of exquisite wine out of plain water! His first miracle affirmed the material world, the act of creation, the institution of marriage, weddings, human culture, celebration, good food, and, of course, fine wine! And here’s more:

  • At Jacob’s well, outside the Samaritan town of Sychar, Jesus was weary and thirsty. That shows how he was human like the rest of us.
  • In Galilee, he fed the hungry masses with freshly created bread and fish. He called Himself the bread of life.
  • Jesus elevated the humble acts of eating and drinking as symbols of receiving His words and His vicarious death (John 6:53-56, 63).
  • While giving sight to a man born blind, Jesus spat on the ground, made clay, and applied it on his eyes, reminding everyone of God’s creation of Adam out of the dust of the earth.
  • Jesus declared that He has the authority to raise the dead. The human body is not a prison to be cast aside at the time of death; instead, it is something that will be raised up and glorified to embrace eternity. (John 5:25-29)
  • Outside Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus wept.
  • In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus experienced anguish like any other man.
  • At the hands of Roman soldiers, Jesus experienced torture. He bled. He died. When his lifeless body was pierced, blood and ‘water’ oozed out.

Jesus was flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone. He couldn’t have been more human just as He couldn’t be more divine. He tabernacled among his disciples. Just as the ancient Tabernacle of meeting sat on terra firma without being separated from the ground even by a simple flooring or carpet, Jesus’ incarnation brought him down to our level. John had to emphasize this truth. Instead of just saying that Jesus became a man, he had to use the word flesh. The Word became flesh!

NOTES

Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. ed. Betty Sue Flowers. New York: Doubleday, 1988. Cited by Douglas Groothuis, ‘Gnosticism and the Gnostic Jesus.’ Christian Research Journal. 13/2 1990.

Irenaeus. Against Heresies. Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325.

Hoeller, Stephan A. ‘The Gnostic World View: A Brief Summary of Gnosticism.’ The Gnostic Archive.

Jacobs, Joseph and Ludwig Blau. “Gnosticism.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 1906.

Paul, Pope John II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. by M. Waldstein. Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2006.