The eleventh century Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm, had a question for people to ponder. But the letters he would have tattooed on the rear end of his horse were not WWJD. They were CDH. Cur Deus Homo. Why did God become a man? Why would Jesus, the eternal Son of God, leave the glories of heaven and come down to this backwater planet on the distant edge of an obscure galaxy, and take upon Himself the form of one of its creatures? It’s a rather strange idea if you really think about it, and most people haven’t the foggiest notion what the answer to that question is. How do I know that that is the case? I simply look at the Christmas cards that people send one another. In these cards, along with the pictures of an extremely clean, warm, cozy looking stable, which almost looks like an inviting place to take a brand new baby camping, two images predominate: presents and food. Candy canes, turkeys, mince pies…and Santa, presents, toys. There is no doubt about the message we are intended to receive: God became a man in Jesus so that we could have an excuse for getting and eating. Jesus is the reason for the ultimate consumer festival.
But is that really why God became a man? There has to be something more than getting and eating, something that most people are missing out on year after year. What is that something more? According to John’s gospe!, the coming of Jesus is about God’s gift to us of Himself, so that you and I could receive grace and truth. This truth is proclaimed in the key verse of the opening chapter of John’s gospel, v.14: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, the One and only who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” In other words, Jesus came from the Father to bring us grace and truth.
IN THE BEGINNING
Let’s start in the beginning. After all, that is where John starts: “In the beginning was the Word …” (John 1:1). To understand the coming of Jesus, you have to go back to the beginning of everything when God created the world. Otherwise you won’t know who this Jesus is. The book of Genesis tells us that we didn’t just happen by accident; or gradually evolve from lower lifeforms. There was a beginning, and there at the beginning was God. But, whereas the book of Genesis starts out “In the beginning, God… ,” John’s gospel begins: “In the beginning was the” Word….” You see, in the New Testament we have a clearer understanding of how God worked from the start. God worked in creation through the Word – that is through Jesus (see v.14). So Jesus was there in the beginning, involved in the creation of everything that was made. Indeed, Jesus was there because He is Himself God, God the Son.
Now why does John take us back to the beginning? It is because he wants us to see the awesome power and majesty of the God with whom we are dealing. This Jesus is no ordinary deity, of the kind that were a dime a dozen in the ancient world. He is the God who created the whole universe with a snap of His fingers. This is the great and mighty and awesome God who existed before history began and will exist unchangeably on beyond the end of history. But John also takes us back to the beginning because he wants us to see the reason why God created the world. He didn’t create it as a giant theme park, a sort of cosmic Jurassic Park in which He could study the interesting habits of the creatures He had made. God made it as a place for mankind to experience life and light in Jesus (v.4). The high point of the whole of creation is not the stars and the sky, the mountains and the oceans -glorious though they are. Those are merely the first stages in the plan. The high point is the creation of mankind in the very image of God. Mankind was created for life, life in Jesus, life in all its fulness in the Garden of Eden, a life lived in the light. You and I were created for Paradise, created to experience every blessing in Christ.
But then darkness came. Paradise was lost. There was only one rule in the Garden of Eden. God was not a hard taskmaster, imposing burdensome restrictions. The first man and woman were simply told not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But they ate and their sin caused their separation from God, and with it their separation from light and life. No longer were they in the presence of the one who gives life: now they were condemned to death. Physically, their bodies would now decay and ultimately rot. Spiritually, they were separated from God, and facing the prospect of eternal darkness outside of Christ. No longer were their lives lived in the light: now they concealed themselves from God in the bushes and hid themselves from one another with uncomfortable, impractical outfits of fig leaves. What is more, the effects of the Fall come down to the present day. We hide from one another; we hide from God; we live in a dark world, not a sunlit Eden. Paradise is lost.
This is the bad news of the Bible. You may shut it out with feasting and getting, but the next day you still wake up to a world of war and pain, of divorce and adultery, of sickness and tears, of suffering and death. The world has been a dark place ever since the Fall, characterized by thorns and thistles, not gold and precious stones. We live in a world that is under the curse of God. The tragedy of the world in which we live is evident in the past tense of v.4: in Jesus was life and light for mankind – but all of that has been thrown away. However, the curse of God is not God’s last word to man. Verse 5 resounds with a triumphant present tense: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. The last word is not darkness but light. Paradise will be restored!
Of course, that promise was not news to the people alive when Jesus was born. God first made that promise right after the Fall. He promised that the serpent’s victory would not be final: the descendant of the woman would win back what had been lost. Even mankind’s sin could not thwart God’s plan to bless a people with every spiritual blessing in Christ. The goal of creation was not changed by sin. It was a promise repeated throughout Israel’s history. For example in the time of prophet Isaiah, gloom and darkness were everywhere, with more bad news to come. He describes the situation in Isaiah 8:21–22. Yet God’s answer to this situation follows in Isaiah 9:1–7, with its promise of great light to the people walking in darkness through the birth of a future king. The promised child is the means by which God will bring light into the darkness, declares the prophet. John announces the fulfillment of this prophecy: in Jesus, God’s light has come at last to overcome the darkness. He is God’s final word to mankind, come to restore you and me to our relationship with God. He has come to win back Paradise for us, that we might experience the fulness of life in Christ for which we were designed. The darkness and devastation of the fallen and cursed world in which we live is not the last word. Jesus has become man so that God might give us Himself. To be in Him is light and life.
HOW CAN THIS BE?
But how did God do it? How did He bring about this amazing turn-around in our fortunes? Did God just write off our debts as uncollectible, allowing us to declare the spiritual equivalent of chapter 11 bankruptcy? Did He simply ignore our sins? Not at all! The Bible tells us that Jesus accomplished our redemption by bringing us grace and truth. This dimension of Jesus’ ministry is so important that John tells it to us twice (v.14, 17). Grace and truth together are what we needed to be saved.
First, Jesus came to bring us grace. That is important because the truth by itself is a problem for us. We got a large dose of the truth in Moses, as John reminds us: Moses brought us the Law (John 1:17). He came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments and the rest of God’s Law, the wonderful truth from God that shows us the standard against which we must measure ourselves. But if we are honest, we cannot ever measure up, can we? Each of us has done things that are wrong. It is not simply a matter of one thing or two things but thousands upon thousands of things. We have all sinned repeatedly against God. We deserve to be punished for those wrong things and the Bible says that the punishment is death. What we deserve is eternal complete separation from God’s presence. We therefore need a God of grace, a God who gives us forgiveness for our sins, for all the wrong things which we have done. We need a God who Himself does what is required to restore us to the Paradise of God’s presence, a God who is love and peace.
But the Bible tells us that Jesus didn’t just come to bring grace. He came to bring grace and truth. People like the idea of grace, but grace without truth is like cotton wool. It’s soft and cozy and cuddly, but it doesn’t have much substance to it. There is no solid reality to its structure. If you stake your life on the strength of a piece of cotton wool, you are in deep trouble. Yet many people have staked not merely their life but their eternal future, heaven and hell, on a vague, cotton wool image of God as a God of grace alone. “God will forgive me, that’s His job,” they say. It would spoil His image as a God of love to send anyone to hell. It seems that even non-Christians are happy to sing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” It all sounds very warm and wonderful: peace on earth, and goodwill to all mankind.
But where do you get your ideas about what God is like? John says there is only one way to find out what God is like. No one has ever seen God. But Jesus has made Him known to us (v.18). And Jesus has made Him known to us as a God of grace and truth. Not just a God of grace. Nor even just a God of truth. Rather, a God who combines in Himself truth and grace, both working together. Truth by itself would condemn us out of hand, but the answer is not to dream up in your imagination a God of grace alone. Such a God may indeed “forgive” you everything, but if He is not the true God, His “forgiveness” won’t help you. It is like those who imagined the Titanic was unsinkable. That thought was very comforting to the passengers, right up until the moment that they had a disagreement with an iceberg, and the truth forced itself upon their consciousness. On the day of judgment all of us will meet up with the True God, the God of truth, who will demand of us a reckoning for all the things we have done and thought and said.
TRUTH AND GRACE IN JESUS
What then, is the solution to the problem? The solution is Jesus, who demonstrated that God is a God of grace and truth. God is the God of grace: He has come in human form to bless us, to save us from our sins. But Christianity is not an imaginary solution, which though it makes us feel better now is based ultimately on a make-believe picture of God. Christianity is the real solution, because it is based on the reality of who God really is. In Jesus, the God of truth comes to deal truthfully with the problem of our sin.
Jesus dealt truthfully and graciously with our sin on the cross. If God were simply a God of truth, then there is no explanation for the cross. He could simply have blotted us out of existence for our sin. The Bible could have been reduced to four sentences: God created a perfect world for the man and the woman. They sinned. End of them. End of story. Only God’s nature as a God of grace explains His extraordinary loving condescension of becoming a man and suffering the shame and agonies of the cross. Only grace explains Jesus’ willingness to undergo the agonies of separation from His Father for that time, so that we, the guilty sinners who deserved to be separated from His light, might instead inherit light and life.
But if God were only a cotton wool God of grace, a God who forgave simply because it was part of His nature, then there is also no explanation for the cross. There is no reason for the son of God to be so cruelly executed, unless God is also the God of truth. And the truth is that sin—our sin—had to be paid for. The truth is that there had to be a day of reckoning for all the wrong things we have done. That day of reckoning occurred on that first Easter. As Jesus hung there and died, He paid in full the deaths which each of us deserved to die. True payment was made for true sin, so that there could be true grace for true sinners.
At the cross, we see the answer to Anselm’s question: Why did God become man? It was so that you and I, sinners lost in darkness, might receive what we really needed, grace and truth, whereby we could be brought out of deep darkness into the glorious light. It was so that we might live in Him, as the adopted children of God, delighting in the glorious presence of the Father for all eternity. Let us therefore rejoice in knowing that the light of Christ has been poured out on us!
lain Duguid is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, CA.