The Word Became Flesh
Father, thank you for this time you’ve given us whether we’re at home or here together. This is such a gift. And Jesus, as we fix our eyes on you, we realize very quickly you are not like anyone else we know. You have turned water to wine, walked on waves, multiplied fish and bread, opened blind eyes. But none of these miracles comes close in majesty or in mystery to when you, the Word, became flesh. And you, so far above us, dwelt among us. And we have seen your glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. So, we are asking now that you would unblind our eyes and help us to step away from the distractions and the deceptions of our own cultural perspectives. Help us not to shut down when we don’t understand everything we hear, but Lord, to embrace what you have for us today.
This series can be hard for many of us as we are swimming in an ocean of relativity, a culture that just views everything the same, flattens everything. And so, talking about truth and error can evoke images of burning and trials, and Lord, that’s not what we’re talking about. So, give us eyes to see who you really are so that we can worship you for who you are and who you aren’t, to worship you in spirit and in truth. Lord, this is a big prayer, but we pray it in Jesus’ name, amen.
“The Word became flesh,” John 1:14. “The Word became flesh.” This is the most mystifying of all miracles. It is humanly incomprehensible. It is extremely controversial, hence the title of the Christmas series. We’re looking at what it means and what it doesn’t mean. And I’m assuming this is most of your first time hearing a Christmas series with the word “heresy” in it. I would hope that’s the first. But our goal is very simple: to see Jesus and worship him truly, accurately, biblically. And so, throughout this Christmas season, we will explore, what does it mean that the Word became flesh and what doesn’t it mean? The fact that “the Word became flesh” is not the same as “the Word was created and became flesh.” That’s Arianism, and we’ll look at that later today.
Next week — it’s not the same as “the Word partially became flesh.” That’s Apollinarianism. Jesus was not fully human. “The Word became flesh” is not the same as “the Word became two persons in flesh,” Nestorianism. And it’s not the same as “the Word became a mixture in flesh,” Eutychianism, where the human and the divine mix to form one who is not fully human and not fully divine. So, by this point, I’ve already lost some of you. Eutychi- what?
So, why do we care? Why do we take time to talk about this? Why talk about this at Christmas? Hasn’t Jesus just called us to love our neighbors and minister to the vulnerable? And I actually think that’s a really good question. If our theological study, when we examine the Word of God, doesn’t overflow into worship and compassion for the most vulnerable, then we are deceived. So, the purpose is not to make what we’re doing an end in and of itself.
But the opposite is also true. Deeds of grace without roots of truth are cut flowers that look beautiful, but they will wither and die. What we believe about Jesus is the most important question we will ever answer! And don’t miss the fact that we are all answering it. All of us have a Christology. What’s a Christology? Beliefs about the person and work of Christ, right? All of us … some you may be thinking, “I don’t even know what a Christology is.” No, but you have beliefs, whether positive or negative, about the person and the work of Jesus Christ.
In 2020, some U.S. adults were asked to respond to the question, the statement, “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God.” And notice, if you look at the two columns on the right — the blue ones — if you add those together, you see that most Americans generally agree that Jesus was a great teacher, but not God. And when you read the gospels, that seems almost unimaginable that someone can actually believe that what Jesus said was good teaching if he wasn’t God. If Rome had TED talks, according to this view, Jesus would have had a lot of views, but he wasn’t worthy of worship. And I want us to see, as we begin this series on a very ancient debate, this is the biggest debate the church experienced through church history.
Number 1, both in time and intensity. This ancient debate is not ancient, not just ancient. It’s happening today. It’s happening in our hearts as we seek to answer the question Jesus asked his disciples in Mark 8:27, “Who do people say that I am?” And all of us have to answer that question. “Who do people say that I am?”
A couple of years ago, New York Times bestselling author Richard Rohr published his book The Universal Christ. Bono said of the book (the great theologian Bono),
“I cannot put this book down.”
Oprah also hailed this book. Rohr is a Franciscan priest who uses Christian words in new ways, and you need to only read as far as the dedication page to see an example of this. He dedicated the book to his recently deceased dog Venus, and wrote this:
“Without any apology, lightweight theology, or fear of heresy, I can appropriately say that Venus was also Christ for me.”
And what he means there … If he means that Venus, my precious dog, was a gift from Christ, I experienced the love of Jesus through my dog … okay, that’s beautiful. But that’s not what he means. It’s not what he means. He literally means that his dog is Christ. Incarnation for Rohr is not Jesus becoming a man, but Jesus the human, dying, Christ rising, and then being divided, diffused throughout all creation, including the material. The leaves and the rock and the dirt and the dogs are Christ. He says it this way on page 13,
“I believe the Christ Mystery specifically applies to thingness, materiality, physicality.” [He goes on later] “What I am calling in this book an incarnational worldview is the profound recognition of the presence of the Divine in literally ‘every thing’ and ‘every one.’”
Now Rohr’s Christology is so problematic, it’s hard to know where to begin, but as Michael McClymond, who is a professor of Modern Christianity at St. Louis University, asks,
“If God is a personal Being, then how could God enter into ‘incarnation’ with the physical universe without thereby becoming impersonal? As personal beings, you and I cannot become incarnate in inanimate things. How much less could God become incarnate in stone, ocean, or atmosphere? It demeans the Incarnate One to suggest otherwise.”
Again, we’re asking the question, “What does this matter?” And some of you think “I still haven’t heard the answer to that.” But see what’s at stake here. What Rohr teaches so eloquently and so attractively as to make it a bestseller on New York Times, Amazon … People gobble it up! Even many people who would claim to be followers of Jesus gobble it up, love it! But what we often don’t realize is that what Rohr is teaching has already been taught. The church already has addressed the heresy he’s promoting. But we’re so disconnected from the past and think ourselves so much smarter than our brothers and sisters in the past, that we have nothing to learn from them; so, we keep repeating the same heresies thinking they’re new. And it’s tragic! And what is at stake, as Dr. McClymond goes on to say,
“The problem with Rohr isn’t just that he has adopted certain theologically debatable positions. It’s that the indispensable, all-transforming, holy mystery of the gospel — the Word became flesh — is not even there. In its place is emptiness. If Jesus’ human body vanished, as Rohr tells us, and its diffusive beams scattered everywhere [through his death, burial, resurrection], then there is nothing left to worship except the universe itself.”
And now we’re right back to the source of our problem. Romans 1 makes it clear: our primary problem is that we worship creation rather than Creator. And Rohr is actually promoting that. And on a practical level, any of us with problems, whether a porn addiction or pride or grief over a lost loved one or someone living in an oppressive regime, needs far more hope than the delusional platitude that Christ is another name for your dog or the rock on your front lawn.
Therefore, identifying false teaching is not a game. We’re just not trying to … let’s just show how smart we are or how fun it is just to expose false teaching. That is not it. It is the difference between life and death, heaven and hell, hope and hopelessness! That’s what we’re talking about here. It’s the difference between a true gospel and a false gospel. And this is why books like Rohr’s fall into the category Dorothy Parker describes:
“This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown aside with great force.”
And the reason this is important is many of us feel just really uncomfortable. We live in a culture, and we breathe the air of this culture that any statement that “something is wrong” feels wrong. The only heresy is believing there’s heresy in our culture. And if we believe, that we find ourselves at odds with Jesus and his Word.
So, let me just say one other thing in regard to this because the fact that we stand firm on what matters does not mean we argue constantly over what doesn’t matter. See, I think that’s where some of us struggle with this kind of series: we assume that if we’re debating these issues that really matter, then we’re automatically going to become prickly, bitter, cantankerous people. And I don’t think we have to be that way. I think we can be super gracious on the vast majority of issues, the kind of issues that Christians are currently fighting over, but super firm and committed on what is essential, and knowing the difference is vital.
So, let’s summarize John 1:14 and then explore the Arian heresy as we launch this Christmas series. 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.”
What does this mean? Four things. One, deity. The Word is God. Now, how do we know? Well, we know in verse 17 the Word is specifically linked to Jesus Christ, and in verses 1-3, you have a clear statement of the deity of Christ.
“In the beginning [This is John 1:1] was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” [super clear] He was in the beginning with God. [So, as far back as you can go, he already was.] All things were made through him.”
And you would think he would stop here, right? That’s enough. He made everything. No, but John does linguistic gymnastics to make sure we exclude the possibility that Jesus is a part of the created universe.
“All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.”
So, anything that falls into the category of “created, made” was made by him. That makes him what? Uncreated. Eternal. Very clear.
And so this, in just a few words, and we could look at many other passages, states very clearly the eternality of the Son and his deity, which is a direct attack on what we’re going to look at later, Arianism. And what is the modern form of Arianism? Jehovah’s Witness believe pretty much exactly the same as Arianism. Deity.
Number 2, humanity. The Word became flesh. The eternal Word was enfleshed. That is what we mean by incarnation, “took on flesh.” Matthew 1:23, the angel said to Joseph,
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son.”
Now even that will just blow your mind. “The virgin shall conceive …” And if that doesn’t blow your mind, you’ve been in church for a long time. “The virgin shall conceive …” And this is way beyond artificial insemination. You’re talking the full humanity and full deity of Christ.
“The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.”
Which means what? God with us.
1 Timothy 3:16, “Great, indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh.”
Philippians 2:6, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped [held onto], but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”
Deity. Humanity. Third, proximity. He dwelt among us.
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
He tabernacled among us. He becomes our temple, our place of sacrifice, our meeting with God. He is the book of Leviticus in human form. If we were to continue to read to John 2, you would hear Jesus say,
“Tear this temple down. I’ll raise it up.”
Why did he say that? Because he’s talking about the meeting place, the sacrifice and meeting place of God, is in his body, which will die and rise. Proximity. God dwells with his people in Jesus. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
“And we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son [the uniquely begotten Son] from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
In Exodus 33:18 Moses said, “Please show me your glory” … pleaded with God to show his glory. And God showed his glory to Moses. Remember his face shone. He had to put a veil on. The people were terrified. Why? Because God’s glory came to Moses. But what John is talking about here is God’s glory didn’t just come to Jesus; it came through Jesus. Jesus has made God visible. The incarnation is what Jewish scholar R.E. Friedman, who’s not a Christian, but he describes the incarnation as the ultimate anthropomorphism. Since we’re learning words, let’s learn another one. What is an anthro …? You can kind of put the pieces together. “Human form, representing God with human characteristics.” Representing God with human characteristics.
“the ultimate anthropomorphism … God in the form of a man, yet still the one and only God. Cosmic yet personal. The ‘logos’ yet flesh. People could walk and talk with an incarnation of an infinite being beyond the universe.”
Let’s simplify that. Jesus said it this way. John 14:9,
“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
And some of you might be thinking, “Well, how do I see him? I’m 2000 years late.” Paul answered that question in 2 Corinthians 4:4:
“In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing….” [Seeing what? Seeing Jesus when he lived on earth? No] “seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
So, notice here, what saves us is not necessarily seeing the physical Jesus. Judas saw Jesus on earth. It didn’t save him. He was actually blinded. What saves us is believing the gospel, as he goes on to say,
“For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
So, we see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ as our eyes are unblinded to the truth of the gospel. And that miracle is happening now! When we look at the Word, the Spirit uses the Word to unblind our eyes and to show us who he really is.
So, what is the opposite of this? Let’s talk about the Arian heresy. And I want to begin with a running head start with the Great Persecution that preceded the arrival of the full form of the Arian heresy. The Great Persecution raged from 303-311 throughout the Roman Empire. Emperor Diocletian initiated this with the goal of appeasing the pagan gods and wiping out Christianity. Christian leaders were arrested and executed, churches were destroyed, scriptures were burned, thousands upon thousands of believers were tortured and put to death. In 305 Diocletian became extremely ill. He stepped down. Galerius continued the persecution. In 311 on his death bed, Galerius signed the Edict of Toleration, officially permitting Christians to worship freely. Shortly after, rival leaders Maxentius and Constantine met with their armies at the Milvian Bridge near Rome. Constantine supposedly saw a cross of light, and when his smaller force defeated a much larger army, he interpreted his victory as evidence of the superiority of Christianity.
And so much good and so much bad came from that. Little bit of the good — he quickly made positive changes, like Christianity became publicly permissible, even credible. Crucifixion and bloody gladiator battles were banned as punishments for crimes. Sunday became a holiday. Chick-Fil-A’s began to emerge throughout the Roman Empire. It was a golden era.
The bad — the bad is Christianity became fashionable. We don’t do well with that, do we? Christians do better in difficult times than when Christianity becomes fashionable because churches became more of a mix of true and fake believers. During times of persecution you don’t have a lot of fake believers. It kind of gets burned off. Also, the line between church and state became blurred, and many heresies began to emerge.
And one of the biggest, if not the biggest, was Arianism. And understand this — I want to introduce you to the triple A’s, three prominent leaders, all the names begin with A, helps us remember. Arius is the first one in 318. An elderly pastor named Arius began teaching that the Word was created, not eternal, formed out of nothing before the universe began, but Arius believed that any time you had the word “begotten,” it has to always mean “created.” He wrote this (a letter from Arius to Alexander):
“We know one God, alone Unbegotten, the Son begotten by the Father, is created, and was not before he was begotten.”
So, Arius was teaching that Jesus is not deity, but he believed he was above us, but below God. Kind of like … think … have you seen The Incredibles? Not quite like us, but not quite like God. Superhero status, Herculean, kind of in between. And there are several reasons this teaching grew in popularity.
One is Arius was a gifted communicator. In one sense, he was a marketing genius. Throughout the streets of Alexandria during that time, you could hear workers and children singing jingles, songs like “there was when he was not, there was he was not.” He would come up with these quotable, singable, tweetable, cutting edge … yeah, he and Al Gore were working on that. He was a marketing genius … got to keep going.
Secondly, Arius was reacting to false teaching. I believe you’ll see this again and again in this series that many, if not most, heresies appear as an overreaction to a misunderstood or misrepresented doctrine. Let me give you two examples. One at the time, modalism. Modalism taught that the Father, Son, and Spirit were just one person who appeared in different modes. And the difficulty with that were the many stories where, for example, at Jesus’s baptism, the Father blesses the Son, or at the transfiguration, or when Jesus is praying in the garden. Who is he talking to you if they’re just different modes? He’s got a switch really quickly. Or on the cross when he cries out to his Father, “Why have you forsaken me?” None of those make sense in modalism. Well, Arius was rejecting modalism.
Also, others believed at that time that Jesus was the Son of God, eternal, uncreated. But he was God, but he was a shade less god than God the Father. And Arius rightly observed that how can you be slightly less God and be God? That’s like being partially infinite. It doesn’t make any sense. So, Arius rightly observed some problems with false teaching. But then he went flying off into heresy.
Third, Arius was appealing to familiar concepts. Most people at that time, when they became Christians, were saved out of paganism. And this is why Gnosticism was so popular. Listen to how historian Bruce Shelley explains this:
“Gnosticism … taught that there was one supreme God, who dwells alone, and then a number of lesser beings, who do God’s work and pass back and forth between heaven and earth. Converts from paganism found it hard to grasp the Christian belief that the Word existed from all eternity, and that he is equal with the Father. Arius made Christianity easier to understand. It seemed more reasonable to think of Christ as a kind of divine hero: greater than an ordinary human being, but of a lower rank than the eternal God.”
And so Arius’s teachings spread, and a second key figure stepped in, Alexander. He was the bishop of Alexandria 313-328. Alexandria, Egypt, was the center at that time, of artistry and, in many ways, theology. He was convinced that Arius’s teaching was unbiblical. So, he gathered a group, a council of Egyptian bishops in 320, and they declared Arius’s view heretical and deposed him of his position. However, Arius was not about to give up. The controversy was just warming up, and it spread throughout the empire. And so, as the division spread, Emperor Constantine, concerned for the unity of the church and the unity of the empire, convened what is often called the first ecumenical council, which is not actually the first. Anybody know where the first ecumenical council occurred? Think Acts 15 when the Apostles gathered … that was really the first ecumenical council. But this council occurred at Nicaea, which is in the northwest of Asia Minor up there. And many leaders … I think there were over 300 bishops and many, many, many ministry leaders that came to this.
And what is interesting about this council — because we typically think of councils, you know, people, a lot of people with scary big hats and fancy outfits, and some of that thinking is anachronistic, it’s not the time yet. The big bureaucracy of, for example, the Roman Catholic Church, had not developed yet. This is way before that. Most of these leaders had endured intense persecution. There were leaders, if you read what happened at the council, there were people missing eyes, eyes removed that had been tortured for Christ, limbs, scars, deformities on their body. So, these are people who are passionate about Jesus Christ and have laid their lives out. And so they are concerned that he be worshiped properly. Not so a doctrinal statement can look good, but because their lives depend on it. Do you understand that? This is huge to them! So, they gather.
One other person was there that I think you’ll find interesting — Santa Claus. Santa Claus showed up. There was a legend that at one point when Arius was trying to convince the pastors that Jesus was not divine, Saint Nicholas supposedly got so upset, he walked across the room and he slapped Arius. He was declared to be out-of-bounds … they weren’t allowed to do that … he was punished, he was sent to prison. Some say he was sent to the North Pole at that time. This is all a legend. So, I throw that in there just so you can see this is actually a Christmas series. However, some of you may have seen these memes and wondered, “Where do they come from?” They actually go back. There are stories that emerged 7th, 8th century or 9th century. There’s some writings that describe this scene. So, it’s quite the legend.
In actuality, the discussions were lively, but humane. Arius was able to present his arguments and try to defend them from the Bible. And then other bishops, like Alexander and others, presented the Scriptures. And then they made a decision and wrote a statement, a creed. And all the bishops signed the creed, affirming the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, except for Arius and two others. It would be nice to say, well, that settled it. It didn’t actually settle it. Over the next 50-60 years, depending on which emperor was in power and which bishop had access to that emperor, Arianism rose and fell in influence.
And the best way to track this is the third A, Athanasius. If you can follow Athanasius’s life, you can track the rise and fall of Arianism. Athanasius was the Bishop of Alexandria after Alexander died. He would be banished from his beloved church five times. So, depending on who’s in power … imagine that! Five times … At times he lived in the desert or in cemeteries, his father’s tomb, or hidden in monasteries. Monks loved him, trying to protect him from being killed by the latest emperor, who was trying to wipe him out. But he was passionate about the deity of Jesus Christ. Let me give you one example from his writings. He wrote this:
“No-one else but the Saviour, who in the beginning made everything out of nothing, could bring what had been corrupted into a state free from corruption. No-one else but the Image of the Father could re-create human beings in God’s image. No-one else but our Lord Jesus Christ, who is life itself, could give immortality to mortal humans. No-one else but the Logos, who imparts order to everything and is the one true and only-begotten Son of the Father, could teach us about the Father and destroy idolatry … He became human that we might become divine.”
Now what he means by “divine” there is not Mormonism. He’s talking about 2 Peter 1:4 — we might “become partakers of the divine nature,” in the context, “freed from corruption” and what we would call “experiencing glorification” as we are transformed into the image of God’s Son. He revealed himself in a body — that’s incarnation — that we might see the invisible Father. He suffered our insults that we might inherit immortality.
Although Athanasius died in 373, a few years later the Council of Constantinople in 381 affirmed and supplemented what was in the original Creed of Nicaea in order to address other heresies that had emerged. We’ll talk about those in the coming weeks.
But what I would like to do, since this series is so odd, is end this message in an odd way. We live in a culture that should understand this because of this: our culture is infatuated with self-identification. We need to find out who we are, and we want others to affirm who we are even though our self-identification can be flawed, fluid, and fickle. God’s self-identification is none of those things, and he is inviting us to see him as he says he is, not as we imagine him or want him to be. So, one of the benefits of affirming a creed, ancient words that reflect the Scriptures, is to link arms with our brothers and sisters in the far past and in other parts of the world — these were written in Africa, Middle East, Asia Minor, which is Turkey now, Italy — to link arms with our brothers and sisters and to worship God in Christ by the Holy Spirit in the way he has revealed himself. And this is the part that’s odd for us because all of us, I believe, can get our heads around the fact that when we sing, we are worshiping God. When we serve, like when we feed the poor, we are worshiping God. When we stand in awe of God’s creation … This is a picture from yesterday morning. And my camera on my phone is so old, it’s pitiful. (It’s kind of … you had to be there.) But it looked like the whole sky and woods was aflame, and as a fan of bonfires, it was just an amazing time beholding our Father’s creative beauty. And we all get that we can worship through that.
So, this is what I’m wondering if we can do: can we worship God affirming a creed, or does that automatically feel dead and cold to you? Can we try it? Yeah, we got three or four people that are ready to go. Let’s do this. So, let’s stand. This is the first major part, most of the Nicene Creed, and when we say these words, we are linking up with brothers and sisters 1700 years ago and churches, orthodox churches throughout history. So, let’s say these together from our hearts if you’re a believer in Jesus, as an act of worship. Together —
“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and of all things, visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, begotten of the Father, before all ages, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not created, of the same essence as the Father, through whom all things were created; who for us human beings and our salvation came down from the heavens and was made flesh from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man, and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures, and ascended into the heavens, and sits at the right hand of the Father, and comes again with glory to judge the living and the dead, of whose kingdom there shall be no end.”
Praise God! Father, we speak these words not to try to feel religious, not try to impress anyone. We are hopeless without you. We are lost without you. And you have not looked to us to find our own way back to you. You have come to us! Emmanuel! God with us! Lord, thank you for giving us this time where we gather as brothers and sisters and link arms with brothers and sisters hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years ago and all around the world to say that who you are is the most important thing about us! That what we believe about you is the biggest thing about us! And Lord, you have revealed yourself to us. Jesus, you were made flesh, became man, were crucified, suffered, buried, rose, ascended for our joy, for your glory. And so, Lord, continue to draw us. Lord, there is nothing bigger happening this Christmas season than our eyes’ being fixed on you. And I pray for anyone in here whose heart is still not yielded to you, whose faith is not in you, Lord, may this moment be the time where they’re crying out in repentance and faith, “Jesus, I need you. You paid for my sin. You defeated sin and death on the cross through your resurrection.” You are the One we need. And so, Lord, we give you glory. And now as we remember your shed blood, your broken body, Jesus, be glorified in our hearts as we delight in you. We pray this in Jesus’ name, Amen.