The Lord's Day Morning
December 25, 2011
“John — On Christmas”
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to the gospel of John. We’ll be looking at John 1 verses 1 to 14 this morning. John does not begin his gospel with an account of the nativity of Christ. You’ll find accounts of Jesus’ birth and the events surrounding that birth in Matthew and in Luke but not in John. John does not begin his gospel with a genealogy. You will find genealogies of Jesus in Luke and in Matthew. John goes back further than that. John has something to say about the birth of Christ, he has something to say about the incarnation — you see it beautifully stated in John 1:14, don't you? — but he wants to take you back further than the nativity account and further than the genealogy. And he wants to show you the light of the world. John's prologue, these opening words of this gospel, set out themes that you’ll find throughout the gospel of John. Let me just point your attention to a few of them.
The idea of the preexistence of the Word mentioned in verses 1 and 2 here in John 1 will be picked up again in John 17. The idea of light and life that we meet here in John 1:4 will be picked up in John 5:26. In fact, the one who is the light of the world will say, “I am the light of the world,” in John 8:12. The idea of the light being rejected by the darkness that you find in verse 5 will be picked up again in John chapter 3. Right after the great passage where we learn that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son,” in 3:19, we learn of the light being rejected by the darkness. In John 1:11 you will read of Christ not being received by His own people. That theme will be picked up in John 4:44. The idea of beholding the glory of God in the Word who is made flesh mentioned in John 1:14 will be beautifully displayed in John chapter 12 verse 41 when John describes Isaiah seeing the Lord sitting on the throne and then he comments he saw Jesus. The idea of the Word being the only begotten Son of the Father which we’ll meet in verse 14, and if you were to read on to verse 18 you’ll meet it again, will be picked up of course in John 3:16 — “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” The idea that truth is in Jesus Christ that you read in John 1:17 is picked up again in John 14. On and on little words, little phrases, and little themes, here in John 1, introduce themes and words and phrases which will be picked up and developed later on.
Perhaps you have been to works of music, whether they’re simply show concerts or operas or orchestral performances. And very often the orchestra will play a piece at the beginning which includes the various musical themes that will be unfolded throughout the larger musical work. John's doing something like that here in John chapter 1. Well let's pray before we read God's Word.
Our heavenly Father, we thank You for Your Word. It is powerful, it is effective, and it's sharper than any two-edged sword. It is given by inspiration and it is profitable for reproof, correction, training in righteousness, and it is sufficient to build up the man and woman of God in every good work. As we give attention to Your written Word, O Lord, we pray that You would reveal to us more clearly and deeply the Word made flesh, that we would learn more of who He is and how we ought to trust and worship Him. We ask that You would do this in Jesus' name. Amen.
This is the Word of God. Hear it, in John 1:1:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him. But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
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.”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
Though John does not begin his gospel with a genealogy or with a nativity account, he tells us a lot about Christmas, things that we need to know about Christmas. And his particular concern is to focus us on the one who is the light of the world. And he has three things that he wants to tell us about the one who is the light of the world. And the first thing he wants to tell us is that this light has always been shining. Yes, He has come into this world and His light is shining so that we see the glory of His Father in that light shining, but His light has always been shining. And John does that by taking us back before there was a creation and to the creation and to the Old Testament. I want you to see how he does that.
THE TRUE LIGHT HAS ALWAYS BEEN SHINING
First of all, look at verses 1 and 2. First he takes you back before the creation and he shows you that the light was shining even then, before the world was created. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” And this Word is “the light,” verse 4, “who is the light of men, shining in darkness.” “The true light,” verse 9, “who enlightens everyone.” Now what he's telling you is that the Word who is the true light has always been shining. He is eternal. He was before creation. And then he tells you that he is the agent of creation. “All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made.” In other words, John is telling you that the light was shining in the creation and everything that is not God was made by Him. And then he tells you that He was shining even in Old Testament days. Look at the language of verses 4 and 5. “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness,” — and what does that immediately bring to your mind? If you remember the Old Testament prophets — “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
And so the first thing that John wants you to see is that this light has always been shining. He's told you that this light is eternal, that this light created, and that this light is spoken about in the Old Testament. Now who else fits that description? God! “In the beginning,” the Old Testament begins, “In the beginning,” the Bible begins, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” God had been shining from before creation; God created the world; God is spoken of in the Old Testament. And that's exactly what John wants to get across to you. The Word is God. He just comes out and tells you that in verse 1. The Word is God. The light, the true light, who enlightens every man, this person about whom he is speaking, is divine. Only God is eternal — the Word is eternal. Only God creates — the Word created. God is the subject of worship in the Old Testament — the Word, the light, is the subject of worship in the Old Testament. The Word is God. He's telling you something about Jesus because he wants you to know Jesus. He wants you to know that He is God. This is at the very heart of the understanding of Jesus of the early Christians. It was not difficult for them to believe that Jesus was God.
You need to stand back and think about that for a moment. You know, some of you, like me, have had the opportunity in life to be around truly great men and women, men and women who just make you stand in awe sometimes. But we are not tempted to think they’re gods. All the early Christians had no trouble embracing the reality that Jesus was God. And John is pressing that home on us again, at Christmas. We don't worship a sentiment; we worship God. The baby in the manger isn't just a cute and cuddly thing in His mother's arms; He's the God upholding the universe. And so there's the first thing that John wants us to see — the light has always been shining. And he tells us that because he wants us to know who Christ is.
THE LIGHT HAS NOT ALWAYS BEEN RECEIVED
But here's the second thing — John also wants us to know that though the light has always been shining, the light has not always been received. The light's always been shining, but the light has not always been received. And you see how he puts it in verse 10. “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him.” Now that's ironic, isn't it? He made the world and everything and everyone in it, but there were people in the world that didn't recognize Him. Sounds a lot like today, doesn't it? You know, we know more about this universe that we inhabit than any preceding generation of human beings has known about this universe. We have some idea of its magnitude and its complexity – 13.8 billion light years across; microscopic intricacies in every molecule, in every atom. And knowing all those things there are many people who say there is no God. They look at the magnificence, the magnitude, the intricacy of this world and they say, “It made itself. It's always been here. There is no Creator.” John understood that two thousand years ago. “The world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him.”
He describes is another way. He goes on to say, “He came to His own,” verse 11, “and His own people did not receive Him.” The Jewish people had been looking and longing for the coming of the Messiah for centuries and He came and many of them did not receive Him. There's a warning there, isn't it? For religious people, people of the Book, people who read their Bibles, people who care about God, people who want to keep the Ten Commandments. Many of those people did not receive Him. It can happen here. And John, by the way, doesn't leave you to guess what he means by “receiving the light.” He tells you. Look at what he says. Verse 12 — “To all who did receive Him,” and it's almost, here comes the explanatory phrase, “To all who did receive Him, who believed in His name.” That's what it means to receive Him. To receive Him is to believe in His name, to believe who He is, to trust in Him, to put your faith in Him, or as our membership question says, “to receive and rest on Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel.” And John says there were many people who saw the light and did not receive Him, did not believe Him, did not trust Him, did not love Him, did not worship Him.
And I have to say on Christmas Day of all days, it would be a tragedy to spend decades celebrating Christmas never having received the Christ, never having believed on Jesus, never having put your trust in Him, never having believed in His name. And John's telling you today, “Don't walk out of this room without receiving Him!” If God gave you a hundred Christmases, it would only be a multiplied tragedy to celebrate those with friends and family in plenty and not receive Him. In the end there are going to be two kinds of people in the world — those who have received Him and those who have not. And John is putting us on warning here. There were many people who saw Him but didn't see Him. They walked with Him but didn't believe Him. And he's saying to us today, “Don't be numbered among them. Believe Him. Trust Christ; He is the light of the world.”
THE LIGHT CAME AND LIVED AMONG US
So the light has always been shining and the light has not always been received, but one last thing. John wants us to see that the light came and lived among us. This is what takes John's breath away. And there's so much to take your breath away in this first segment. I was listening to John Piper earlier this week say that when he was in Tubingen studying with Lewis Gothel, the great scholar who was his doctoral supervisor — his doctoral supervisor died before he had completed his program and so they brought in Oscar Cullmann to teach the section on the gospel of John over a period of the first thirteen of eighteen weeks of the semester, and in thirteen weeks, Dr. Cullmann taught exactly eighteen verses of the gospel of John. Eighteen verses, thirteen weeks. There's so much in these verses. There are so many things we could ask. And John fixes us on this mystery, not a mystery that God would identify with His people, in that, Jesus is just like His father, isn't He?
Do you remember when David desired to build a temple for the Lord? In 2 Samuel 7 he tells his friend, Nathan, “Nathan, it's wrong for me to live in a palace while the ark of the covenant is in a tent. It's just wrong for me, a puny earthly king, to have a palace and for God's ark, the symbol of His presence, to be housed in a really big tent. So I'm going to build Him a temple.” And you remember Nathan says, “That's a wonderful desire, no doubt the Lord has placed it on your heart.” But the Lord comes to Nathan and says, “No, Nathan, he's not going to build Me a temple. I've got other plans. So go back and tell him.” But when the Lord tells him, what He says is beautiful. Remember, He says, “David, you’re not going to build Me a house, I'm going to build you a house. You’re not going to build Me a palace, a temple, I'm going to build you a house, a dynasty.” It's a beautiful play-on words. But then the Lord explains. He says, “David, in all the time that My people dwelt in tents in the wilderness, did I ever ask them to build Me a temple?” And of course the implied answer is, “No.” Because when the Lord's people were in the wilderness in tents, where was His presence manifested? In a tent. Oh, it was an elaborate tent, it was a beautiful tent, it was a well-appointed tent, it was an expensive tent, but it was a tent!
So when Jesus came and dwelt among us in a tent, when He came and tabernacle among us, He was doing just what His Father had always done in dwelling near to His people, but He did something utterly extraordinary. He dwelt in our flesh. The Word became flesh. The light lived among us in our skin. And that's what's boggling John's mind. You understand that good Jewish people would have spent their time in the pagan world of the Roman empire explaining to benighted pagans that people don't become gods. It was all over in Egypt. When a prince became the king, he became a god. The Roman emperor was considered a god. People burned incense to the spirit of the emperor. And so good Jewish folk would have spent their time saying, “People don't become gods! There's only one God! There's only one God who ought to be worshiped and people don't become gods!” And John's saying, “Yes that's true, but God came in the flesh and He took on Himself our humanity in the Word. The light of the world is the Word made flesh and we beheld God's glory in Him.”
J.C. Ryle says, “Christ is the meeting point between the Trinity and sinner's souls.” Christ is the meeting point between the Trinity and sinner's souls. And why did Jesus have to take on our flesh? So that He could die for us, because the wages of sin is death and we have sinned. We've rebelled against God, and therefore, in order to be our substitute, in order to be our mediator, He took on our flesh to die a death that we deserve.
Here's an assignment for Christmas Day. Google, “John Piper — The Innkeeper” and take nine minutes and thirty seconds and listen to a poem that he wrote about twenty-five years ago where he imagined Jesus going back to visit the innkeeper two weeks before Jesus died. The whole point of the poem is to emphasize why it is that Jesus had to come in the flesh for us. That's what takes John's breath away. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father.” And John wants you to be caught up in the wonder of that and he wants you to worship. The reason John wants you to think about the true light in this passage is that he wants you to know who Christ is, the light who's always been shining, and he wants you to trust Christ, because many do not, and he wants you to worship Christ, because that's what you’re made for.
Heavenly Father, grant that we would know and trust and worship the One who is the Word, the true light, the Savior, the Messiah, Your Son, our Lord, Jesus. In His name we pray, amen.
Now would you take your hymnals and turn with me to number 213 and let's sing about this great mystery of the Word made flesh with “What Child is This?”
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, this Christmas and forevermore. Amen.