I just finished a 3-week Advent series at River City (it’s here if you want to listen to it), and the basis of the series was a reflection on the first chapter of the Apostle John.
Though there are four different accounts of the life of Jesus, only two of them provide the fodder for the familiar images of Christmas. The inn, the manger, the star, the shepherds, the wise men, etc. – all of these are found in the accounts of Matthew and Luke. I’m not sure what was up with Mark… he seems to be the Grinch-like when it came to Christmas… lol. His account of the life of Jesus starts at age 30.
The Apostle John does not visit the familiar images of Christmas, but he does make a really important contribution. He reflects deeply on what Christmas means – particularly what it means that Jesus left Heaven and entered our world to “dwell” among us. Despite the importance and centrality of this reality, John’s reflections seldom find their way into the Christmas story.
So I thought I would write 3 posts leading up to Christmas that represent some of that which most impacted me as I studied John 1 over the pas month. Here is how the book of John begins:
1 In the beginning was the Word,and the Word was with God,and the Word was God.2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life,and that life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness,and the darkness has not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. 9 The true light that gives light to everyonewas coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him,the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name,he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory,the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1.1-14)
There are so many rich and incredible themes in this passage. If I had more time I would talk about why I think the words “life” and “light” are so incredible, particularly when thinking about them through the lens of Christmas. The word for “dwelling” is also pretty incredible. It would literally translate that he “tabernacled” among us, harkening images of the Old Testament provision for experiencing personal relationship with God.
For this post I want to focus on just one theme – the way in which John’s reflection of the incarnation points to an incredible reality about love. Particularly about how it points to God speaking our love language.
John calls Jesus the “Word” in this text, which is the Greek logos. Logos is the word that was used to describe the pursuit of something’s true meaning. John says that if we want to understand the meaning God, we should focus our attention on Jesus, and particularly on the incarnation of Jesus.
If you replace “the Word” with “Jesus” in verse 1, it sounds like this: “In the beginning was Jesus, and Jesus was with God, and Jesus was God.”
By starting his account of Jesus here, John is rooting everything he is going to say in the notion of the Trinity. The Christian understanding of God is that God is 1 God, made up of 3 persons – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit. It is a multi-layered truth filled with mystery, even for those of us who fully believe it.
Here is the significance of what John is saying about the Trinity, particularly against the backdrop of Christmas. John is making a connection between the Creation account in Genesis and the Incarnation of Jesus Christ at Christmas.
Here is how the account of the creation of human beings came from the image of the Triune God:
“Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness… So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”(Genesis 1.26-27)
This alone is an extraordinary doctrine. It is often referred to by its Latin description Imago Dei – the reality that every human being is created in the image of God. In a way that is reserved solely for humans amongst God’s good creation, somehow, someway the fullness of God is expressed uniquely through us. That makes every person valuable, special, and dripping with dignity.
As amazing as that is, it doesn’t stop there. By starting his reflection on the incarnation with the Trinity, John is making the point that the Triune God did not just create humanity in his image – he joined them as well:
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory,the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Two chapters later, in what is arguably the most famous verse in the Bible, John explicitly identifies the motivation for entering into creation: “For God so loved the world, that he sent his one and only Son…” (John 3.16)
As I reflected on the reality of the incarnation this Advent season, the story came alive in a new way to me. By rooting the story of the incarnation in the Trinity, the Apostle John helped me to see the connection between the Creation account and the Christmas account. And by remembering that the core motivation was love, I began to see the mystery of the incarnation from a new perspective.
About 15 years or so ago Gary Chapman developed the popular idea of love languages. His goal was to help people realize that there are different ways we experience love. He named 5 of them: words of affirmation, physical touch, acts of service, gifts, and quality time.
I liked the book and often reference it. I think it’s a great tool for growing in self awareness. One of the points he makes that I like most of all has to do with the intent of this tool. It’s great to put words to how it is you best receive love, and that can be helpful to share with those who love and care about you. But the most important application is not your own self interest, but instead as a means to grow in your ability to love others. It’s one thing to love another person in your love language. It’s a whole new level when you can learn to love them in their language. The first makes you feel good. The second makes them feel good… even special.
Isn’t that what the story of Christmas ultimately points to? God could have remained unseen and unknowable, and we could have just wondered if he really loved us. God could have just left the 10 Commandments and then said, “now figure it out.”
But God so loved the world. God so loved the world that He not only made a provision for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus (which we celebrate at Easter), but came to show us what God looked like. Jesus became flesh, and now we have seen the glory of God. We have seen God in the fullness of his grace and truth through Jesus.
Said another way, God didn’t love us in his language, but in ours. God joined creation so that we could see in the most concrete possible way just how loved we actually are.
St. Irenaeus, one of the influential early church fathers, said it like this:
“Jesus Christ, in his infinite love, has become what we are, in order that he may make us entirely what he is.”
I love that quote. Infinite love was the motivation, as Jesus wants to see us become something new and different – something beautiful. But first, God communicated to us in our language. He “became what we are” so that we could receive him. It’s the highest form of love language.
So remember this Christmas season how the entrance of God into our world as a baby is in essence a bullhorn, shouting from the rooftops how much and how deeply we are loved. God did not choose to be aloof, placing the burden on us to discover his true essence. Instead, he chose to love us in our own language, with the hope and expectation that this love would completely transform our very identity.