“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as the only-begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). All of the other Christmas stories can be summed up in these words from the Gospel of John. The verse not only sums up the others but in so many way surpasses them in theological depth, perhaps only approached by the opening verses of Hebrews. For in the proclamation that the Word became flesh, John is making the simple declaration that the God of the universe became like us, that what we beheld in the life of Jesus Christ was the face of God. A few verses later we read that “No one has ever seen God; the only-begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father has made Him known” (John 1:18). The Incarnation is the act whereby God revealed to us who he is and who he wants for us to be. The Logos-Word, truly God, became flesh in the person of Jesus, son of God. When we see Jesus, we see God. The rest of John’s Gospel is an outworking of this profound reality.
Did John know of the circumstances of Jesus’s actual birth? Well, yes. Scattered throughout the Gospel of John are snippets of the stories found in Matthew and Luke, but presented in curious ways. Though John does not tell us that Jesus is a cousin of John, there is clearly a close relationship between the two. We see the clearest allusions, though, in the discussions about Jesus’s identity. In the middle of the “Bread of Life discourse” in John 6, Jesus’s Jewish listeners began to grumble that Jesus was saying “I am the bread of life.” They said to one another, “Is this not Jesus, son of Joseph, of whom we know his father and his mother? How does he now say I have come down from heaven?” (John 6:43). They (and John) knew who had raised him, Joseph and Mary. John knows Jesus’s true origin.
Later in John 7 when Jesus is in Jerusalem at the feast of tabernacles, another dispute broke out:
When they heard these words, some of the people said, “This is really the prophet.” Others said, “This is the Christ.” But some said, “Is the Christ to come from Galilee? Has not the scripture said that the Christ is descended from David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” So there was a division among the people over him” (John 7:40-43, RSV).
The dispute over whether Jesus was Messiah (Christ) hinged on his origins. The people knew the Messiah was to be of Davidic descent and would come from Bethlehem, but were not aware that Jesus actually fitted this criteria. John ironically includes these questions, knowing that Jesus did descend from David and was born in Bethlehem. But for John, the more important descent was from God and from heaven, and that his true Father was God and not Joseph son of David.
John gives one other tantalizing piece of information in John 8. Jesus was in a major dispute with the Jewish leaders over whether they were still in slavery or free as children of Abraham (John 8:31-59). In the midst of this exchange, the Jews said to Jesus, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father, God.” What is clear here is that the rumored circumstances of Jesus’s out-of-wedlock conception were known. John never explicitly mentioned the virginal conception, but his readers would know.
Finally, one surprising thing happened at the crucifixion scene in John. Jesus hands the care of his mother over to the beloved disciple. Though debated, this was most likely the author of the Gospel, John the apostle. Why not James or one of the other brothers of Jesus? I think we have an implicit knowledge that Joseph was not the physical father of Jesus. Jesus is handing over spiritual sonship to John.
Throughout the Gospel of John, while Jesus never spoke of the birth itself, he does say why he was born. Following the healing of the man born blind, Jesus spoke to those around him with two provocative reasons for his advent. In John 9:39, he tells them, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind,” then a few verses later in a less-than-subtle critique of the Jewish leaders, he says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
The clearest reference to his birth is the statement before Pilate just before Jesus is sent to his death. Pilate asks Jesus, “so are you a king?” Then Jesus responds, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice.”
Those words of Jesus are not only poignant as he speaks them moments before he is crucified, but they speak to the very reason he came and the reason men put him to death: Jesus spoke the truth and we could not take the truth. Two thousand years later, we still hear those truthful words that call us to believe in the one God who sent his Son to redeem us from our sins.
Merry Christmas everyone!