“What Child is this who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping? Why lies He in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding?”
These lines come from a Christmas carol that most of us are probably familiar with. But have you ever reflected on these questions? They’re great questions. They’re profound questions. They’re questions that remind us of the beautiful paradox we celebrate every Christmas: the invisible God became visible, the Creator became a creature, the Word became flesh. “What Child is this?”
One of the best verses of Scripture to read that captures what Christmas is all about is John 1:14: “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.” When I read a verse like John 1:14, one of my favorite verses in all of Scripture, I can’t help but ask a similar question: “What God is this?”
In just this single verse, John tells us so much about who God is and what God is like. Much of what John tells us is shocking. It rubs against both ancient and modern conceptions about God. But what John tells us is good news. Its news that we would do well to remember this Christmas season.
So while there’s so much that could be unpacked in this verse, I’d like to point out three things that help us better understand the God we worship and the story we celebrate every Christmas.
The God Who Becomes One of Us
The first thing we discover in verse 14 is that God is a God who becomes one of us. John says that “the Word became flesh.” The Word, the One who is with God, and is Himself God (John 1:1), became a human being. This doesn’t mean that the Word ceased to be God or simply appeared to be human. It instead means that the Word added to himself a human nature. It means that the God who created us has chosen to be with us in a more personal way than ever before (Köstenburger, John, 40).
But why would God do this? I can think of two answers to this question: One a bit more complicated and one quite simple. Let’s start with the more complicated answer…
Since Adam and Eve’s fall in the garden, sin has created a chasm between us and God. Since then humanity has been in bondage to Satan, sin and death. According to the Apostle Paul, humanity was in slavery under the spiritual forces of the world (Galatians 4:3). But thankfully God the Father sent God the Son (The Word; John 1:1) to be born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law that we might receive adoption to sonship (Galatians 4:5).
What Paul emphasizes is that “the one whom God sent to accomplish our redemption was perfectly qualified to do so” (Stott, TMOG, 105). Because of our bondage to Satan, sin, and death, we could not redeem ourselves. Only God could do that. But in order to be redeemed from our bondage, we needed someone to perfectly fulfill God’s law. And this someone had to be one of us, a fellow human being. God’s solution to this problem is found in the life, death, and resurrection of the Word made flesh, the God-Man, Jesus Christ.
Christmas is a day when we celebrate both the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ. Without his divinity, we just have an ordinary baby lying in the manger. Without his humanity we don’t have a baby lying in the manger at all. Without both Christ’s divinity and humanity, we have no redemption from our sins and no reason to celebrate Christmas. We celebrate Christmas because the Divine Word of God has joined Himself to our human nature.
But perhaps the most perplexing, yet beautiful part about God becoming a human is that He didn’t have to. Why would God become a human? Here’s the simple answer: To show us His love. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…” 1 John 4:9 says, “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his one and only Son into the world so that we might live through him.”
For so many people, Christmas is a lonely and depressing time. As a hospital chaplain, I’ve already ministered to several families in December who have lost their loved ones and will now have to somehow celebrate Christmas without them. These people will likely not experience the same joy that most of us will experience during this holiday season. Fortunately, Christmas is about Immanuel (God with us). Christmas is about the God of the Universe, who is not an absent, distant deity, but a God who demonstrates His love for us by emptying Himself (Philippians 2:7) in order to be with us–both in our joys and sorrows.
The God Who Dwells With Us
This brings me to the second thing we discover in verse 14. We discover that God is a God who dwelt with us.
Interestingly, the Greek root word that John uses in this verse for dwelt literally means “to pitch one’s tent.” To understand the significance of this word, we need to briefly travel back to Exodus 40 where Moses is commanded by God to build a tabernacle, a “tent of meeting,” which would serve as the place where God would dwell with His people. The tabernacle (and later Solomon’s temple) served as the place where the people of God could experience God’s presence.
What John is saying here in verse 14 is that “in Jesus, God has come to take up residence among his people once again,” (Köstenberger, 41) but in a way much more intimate than when he dwelt in the tabernacle (and later in the temple). Moses met God in the restricted area of the tabernacle, and Solomon met God in the restricted area of the temple, but now anyone may meet God in the flesh of Jesus.
What’s also significant is that John doesn’t say that God simply visited us. He says (very intentionally) that God dwelt among us. Dwelling implies staying. As Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message translation, “The Word moved into the neighborhood.”
We often tend to think of the Christmas story as only concerning the birth of Jesus. But essential to the story is also Jesus’s staying. Jesus grew up. He experienced childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. He experienced the mundane, ordinary, day in and day out realities of life. He experienced hardship and loss. It would be tragic if we only thought of the infant Jesus when thinking about Christmas. Because Jesus stayed and dwelt among us, he was able to model the perfect life for us (Cole, TGWBH, 134-137). We would not know what a life of obedience, humility, and love would look like with only the picture of infant Jesus lying in a manger. Christmas is about the God who dwelt with us.
Its common to feel like God distances Himself from us because of our sin, like God must ward Himself off from us as some might ward themselves off from someone sick and contagious. The fact that Jesus stayed and dwelt among us, however, means that God Himself lived amongst sinners like you and me. He didn’t ward Himself off, but instead entered Himself into our sinful world. And eventually, He who knew no sin was baptized by a sinner, He who knew no sin washed the feet of sinners, and He who knew no sin died at the hand of sinners and on their behalf. God isn’t the type to distance Himself from us sinners. He is the type to pitch His tent next to us.
The God Who Reveals His Glory to Us
The significance of Jesus’s dwelling with us culminates in his death on the cross. There we discover that God is a God who reveals His glory to us. John 1:14 says that “we observed his glory, the glory as the one and only Son, from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
What John is saying is that the glory of God, which in the Old Testament was contained in the tabernacle and the temple, is now revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. The glory of God, which Moses was not allowed to see (Ex 33:18), can now be seen in Jesus. And this glory is seen most supremely at the cross. We can see this in John 12 when Jesus tells his disciples that the hour has come for him to be glorified (12:23).
But this raises an important question. How could something so gruesome as Christ’s death on the cross reveal to us His glory? In our culture, and in Jesus’s culture, death on a cross is considered shameful and despicable. The reality, however, is that the cross mysteriously reveals God’s character for us. Christ’s death shows us that God’s nature and character is love. Paul says that “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Therefore, if we want to know what the character of God is like, we look to Jesus on the cross. If we want to know what the holiness, the forgiveness, the justice, and the glory of God is like, we look to Jesus on the cross (Carson and Moo, An Introduction, 117). God reveals to us who He is in the person and redemptive work of Jesus Christ.
John also explains that Jesus is full of grace and truth. Scholars think that this idea is probably an allusion back to Exodus 34:6, where God is described as being abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. If that is the case then John is using Exodus 34 to tell us that the ultimate expression of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness is found in his act of sending us Jesus (Köstenberger, 45).
In Jesus, we have received grace upon grace. God’s grace “is found in God’s coming and working despite the hostility and rejection of the world” that ultimately nailed Jesus to the cross (Burge, John, 59). Its at the cross where Jesus offers God’s forgiveness to us and, by the Holy Spirit’s work in us, we receive this forgiveness through faith in Christ.
At Christmas, we celebrate this beautiful story. We celebrate, as Burge puts it so well, the God “who enters our world bearing truth and grace in order to transform whoever will receive him” (Burge, 59).
What God is this? What God would become one of us, dwell with us, and reveal His glory to us by dying in our place?
Fortunately, that great Christmas carol that we sing every year doesn’t just give us a couple of great questions to think about. It gives us an answer: What Child is this? What God is this? This… This… is Christ the King.