Christmas is a wonderfully glorious season. The eyes of little children sparkle with delight at the sight of lights shining in the darkness and gifts waiting to be opened. The picture of angels proclaiming peace and announcing the birth of a child lying in the manger fills our minds with wonder. The story of mother and child seems so breathtakingly simple, yet beneath its surface lies the most profound reality ever described.
Amazingly the gospel of John describes this profound reality in two sentences: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). These simple sentences proclaim the astonishing truth that God dwells among us in human form! How can that be?
In this account we find none of the familiar details of the Christmas story: nothing about Joseph and Mary, nothing about a baby in the manger or shepherds or angelic voices, nothing even about Bethlehem. In fact, later on in John’s gospel when the facts of Jesus’ parents and Bethlehem are mentioned, these facts have become an obstacle to faith on the part of Jesus’ audience (6:42; 7:42).
Simple knowledge of such external details is insufficient to produce true faith. Instead, John teaches his readers throughout his gospel that the visible works of Jesus are signs pointing to a deeper reality about Jesus’ identity (2:22-25). We cannot truly grasp the meaning of Jesus’ birth and life unless we see his glory.
Glory, however, is difficult to see. Medieval artists attempted to make it visible by painting a golden halo around Jesus’ head. Of course no such halo was ever visible to human eyes. So it’s possible to know the facts of the Christmas story but fail to see the glory.
What Is This Glory?
What is this glory that we should see? In the gospel of John, as in the Old Testament, glory refers especially to the visible signs of God’s presence. God made his presence visible in the pillar of cloud and fire that led Israel out of Egypt; in the smoke, fire, and cloud that settled on Mount Sinai; and in the cloud that settled upon and filled the tabernacle (Ex. 16:10; 24:16; 40:34). God’s glory was also symbolized by the ark of the covenant; upon hearing that the ark of God had been captured by the Philistines, Phinehas’s wife gave birth and named her son Ichabod, which means “the glory has departed” (1 Sam. 4:21-22). After the temple was built, the glory of God
dwelt there, but as a result of Israel’s disobedience the glory of God “went out” from the temple and the temple was destroyed (Ezek. 10:18; 11:22).
Early in Israel’s history God promised that if Israel kept his commandments, he would make his dwelling place among them (Lev. 26:11-12). Later, after Israel was sent into exile because of her disobedience, God promised that there would be a new davidic king, an everlasting covenant, and a new temple filled with God’s glory (Ezek. 37:24.; 43:7). But if these promises were to be fulfilled, Israel would have to become an obedient and holy people, a condition they had never achieved in their entire history. So God also promised that he would make Israel holy (Ezek. 36:25; 37:28).
How would all these promises of a renewed people and a renewed presence of God in their midst be fulfilled? John declares that it happened in the Word become flesh. Jesus is the new visible sign of the presence of God!
Jesus’ identity lies in eternity: before Abraham was (John 8:58), before Adam was, before time was, God was. Amazingly, Jesus’ identity is wrapped up in the identity of God, who alone existed in the beginning. Jesus is the Word that was with God and was God!
The Word of God is God in his self-revelation. This Word of God was active in the creation of all things, and hence the creation is a revelation of God. But the Word of God continued to speak throughout the Old Testament period through Moses and the prophets. Now the apostle declares that this One, through whom all of God’s prior self-revelation occurred, became flesh and dwells among us.
It is not so surprising that the Word of God should be at home in the world he created. What is truly surprising, however, is that this Word of God who is God took upon himself human flesh, which he himself had created. God in human form—what an incredible surprise!
Why was this surprising act of incarnation necessary? First, to fulfill God’s promises. Because of the disobedience of God’s own people and their kings, God took upon himself the role of his covenant people (“born under law”) so the promises to them could be fulfilled. Second, to make God visible to us. Because sin brings confusion into human perceptions of who God is, God presented himself to us in human form. The God who could not be found located himself so that he could be found. Jesus says, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Third, to fulfill God’s ultimate purpose to unite all things in heaven and on earth under one head (Eph. 1:10-11; Rev. 15:4).
The presence of the glory of God at Sinai was a fearful experience for the people of Israel. To touch the mountain was to die. But now the appearance of the glory of God is no longer in the form of smoke, fire, and thunder, but in a form full of grace. God reveals who he really is in human form, a form we can more readily understand. In this form we are allowed to see God’s face without being destroyed by his presence.
God did not send his Son to condemn the world but to save the world: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16-17).
The Word became flesh to bring light and life to a world wandering in darkness and living under the shadow of death. As the Word of God sent from heaven, Jesus is the source of life-giving water for those who thirst; he is the bread of life that gives life to the world (6:33; 7:38). The glory of this Word become flesh reveals that God is willing to give himself for the life of the world. It reveals that God is love (1 John 4:8). And the glory of Christmas celebrates this amazing grace.
The glory revealed in Jesus is so full of truth that it takes a kingdom to contain it. Jesus has come to establish a kingdom of truth, and only those who are on the side of truth listen to him (John 18:37). While many today think that no one can know the truth, the believer is overwhelmed by this fullness of truth.
What is this fullness of truth? To what does truth refer? Truth refers to God and to all of God’s actions, but here we will focus only on one aspect. Truth points to the fact that in Jesus, God is true to his Word. In Jesus, God does what he promised to do: grant forgiveness and cleansing from sin, create a holy people, and bestow love, joy, and peace. God’s promises are now being actualized in human life and history. In Jesus, God dwells among his people. Jesus is the fulfillment of the promises and the revelation of God’s truthfulness. God has done what he said he would do.
Because Jesus is the Word made flesh, we can look at him and discover who and what God really is. In his presence we discover that truth and love are closely related. Because the heart of truth is love, truth is not so much a concept to be grasped by the intellect as it is a reality in which we walk. To walk in truth is to walk in love (2 John 4-6).
Truth is also light, the lamp that illumines the path on which we must walk. By believing in Jesus, we become children of light who are no longer misled by darkness (John 8:12; 13:35). If we hold to Jesus’ teaching and walk in the light, we will know the truth and the truth will set us free (8:31). There is no genuine freedom without knowledge of this truth. The glory of Christmas celebrates the arrival of truth, love, and freedom.
Seeing the Glory
In the Word become flesh, the glory of God is displayed for all to see, but who actually sees it? John declares that the Word entered the world he created, but the world did not recognize its creator. He came to his own people and even they did not receive him as their promised king. Darkness blinds our vision of the truth and obscures our ability to recognize the glory of God.
Yet there are privileged seers of the glory of God. They are those who receive him, believe in his name, and receive the power to become the children of God. Their new status as children of God is not derived from their own innate powers or tradition or natural right but from God’s gift of renewal. One must be begotten by God, be born again or from above by water and the Spirit (3:5).
Becoming children of God is not a human achievement. John confesses, “We have seen his glory.” The “we” who see the presence of God in Jesus recognize his glory because we have received the power or ability as children to recognize the presence of their Father. Only those who believe see the glory of God at Christmas. In fact, the evidence that one is a believer is the confession, “We have seen his glory, full of grace and truth.”
God’s Glory Today
Christmas does not exhaust the meaning of the Word become flesh, and we should not linger too long at the manger. Seeing Jesus’ glory is not restricted to the time of his birth but embraces his entire life. Glory “full of grace and truth” permeates the entire account of Jesus’ life in this gospel, including his death. In fact, the revelation of glory continues beyond the earthly life of Jesus and the gospel that records it.
Before Jesus returned to his Father he transferred his glory to his disciples (17:22). The believing community is now the location (the temple) in which the glory of God dwells, because Jesus and the Father dwell in them (14:23).
As disciples of Christ, the church is the visible sign of the presence of God in the world. Where God is present divisions should be overcome, reconciliation should
flourish, and unity be visibly established. These are evidence of the presence of God dwelling among us.
If the followers of Jesus live in unity with the Father and the Son and love one another as Jesus loves us, then the world can still see an ongoing presence of God in our midst.
The glory of Christmas is not limited to the past but is present in the world today. The glory of God still dwells among us, and we are the bearers of that glory.
About the Author
Rev. David E. Holwerda is professor of New Testament emeritus at Calvin Theological Seminary.