“The Teachings of John from The New Testament” from Theologian B.B. Warfield (Deity of Christ, God’s Glory, Seeing Jesus)


The Person Of Christ, According to the New Testament by B.B. Warfield (excerpted)


In the circumstances in which he wrote, John found it necessary to insist upon the elements of the person of Our Lord—His true Deity, His true humanity and the unity of His person—in a manner which is more didactic in form than anything we find in the other writings of the New Testament. The great depository of his teaching on the subject is, of course, the prologue to his Gospel.

Gospel of John Prologue

But it is not merely in this prologue, nor in the Gospel to which it forms a fitting introduction, that these didactic statements are found. The full emphasis of John’s witness to the twofold nature of the Lord is brought out, indeed, only by combining what he says in the Gospel and in the Epistles. ‘In the Gospel,’ remarks Westcott (on Jn. xx. 31), ‘the evangelist shows step by step that the historic Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God (opposed to mere ‘flesh’); in the Epistle he re-affirms that the Christ, the Son of God, was true man (opposed to mere ‘spirit’; I Jn. iv. 2) .’

What John is concerned to show throughout is that it was ‘the true God’ (I Jn. v. 20) who was ‘made flesh’ (Jn. i. 14); and that this ‘only God’ (Jn. i. 18, Revised Version, margin ‘God only begotten’) has truly come in . . . flesh’ (I Jn. iv. 2). In all the universe there is no other being of whom it can be said that He is God come in flesh (cf. II Jn. ver. 7, He that ‘cometh in the flesh,’ whose characteristic this is). And of all the marvels which have ever occurred in the marvelous history of the universe, this is the greatest—that ‘what was from the beginning’ (I Jn. ii. 13, 14) has been heard and gazed upon, seen and handled by men (I Jn. i. 1).

From the point of view from which we now approach it, the prologue to the Gospel of John may be said to fall into three parts. In the first of these, the nature of the Being who became incarnate in the person we know as Jesus Christ is described; in the second, the general nature of the act we call the incarnation; and in the third, the nature of the incarnated person. John here calls the person who became incarnate by a name peculiar to himself in the New Testament—the ‘Logos’ or ‘Word.’ According to the predicates which he here applies to Him, he can mean by the ‘Word’ nothing else but God Himself, ‘considered in His creative, operative, self-revealing, and communicating character,’ the sum total of what is Divine (C. F. Schmid).

In three crisp sentences he declares at the outset His eternal subsistence, His eternal intercommunion with God, His eternal identity with God: ‘In the beginning the Word was; and the Word was with God; and the Word was God’ (Jn. i. 1). ‘In the beginning,’ at that point of time when things first began to be (Gen. i. 1), the Word already ‘was.’ He antedates the beginning of all things. And He not merely antedates them, but it is immediately added that He is Himself the creator of all that is: ‘All things were made by him, and apart from him was not made one thing that hath been made’ (i. 3). Thus He is taken out of the category of creatures altogether.

Accordingly, what is said of Him is not that He was the first of existences to come into being—that ‘in the beginning He already had come into being’—but that ‘in the beginning, when things began to come into being, He already was.’ It is express eternity of being that is asserted: ‘the imperfect tense of the original suggests in this relation, as far as human language can do so, the notion of absolute, supra-temporal existence’ (Westcott). This, His eternal subsistence, was not, however, in isolation: ‘And the Word was with God.’

The language is pregnant. It is not merely coexistence with God that is asserted, as of two beings standing side by side, united in a local relation, or even in a common conception. What is suggested is an active relation of intercourse. The distinct personality of the Word is therefore not obscurely intimated. From all eternity the Word has been with God as a fellow: He who in the very beginning already ‘was,’ ‘was’ also in communion with God. Though He was thus in some sense a second along with God, He was nevertheless not a separate being from God: ‘And the Word was —still the eternal In some sense distinguishable from God, He was in an equally true sense identical with God. There is but one eternal God; this eternal God, the Word is; in whatever sense we may distinguish Him from the God whom He is ‘with,’ He is yet not another than this God, but Himself is this God.

The predicate ‘God’ occupies the position of emphasis in this great declaration, and is so placed in the sentence as to be thrown up in sharp contrast with the phrase ‘with God,’ as if to prevent inadequate inferences as to the nature of the Word being drawn even momentarily from that phrase. John would have us realize that what the Word was in eternity was not merely God’s coeternal fellow, but the eternal God’s self.

Now, John tells us that it was this Word, eternal in His subsistence, God’s eternal fellow, the eternal God’s self, that, as ‘come in the flesh,’ was Jesus Christ (I Jn. iv. 2). ‘And the Word became flesh’ (Jn. i. 14), he says. The terms he employs here are not terms of substance, but of personality.

The meaning is not that the substance of God was transmuted into that substance which we call ‘flesh.’ ‘The Word’ is a personal name of the eternal God; ‘flesh’ is an appropriate designation of humanity in its entirety, with the implications of dependence and weakness.

The meaning, then, is simply that He who had just been described as the eternal God became, by a voluntary act in time, a man. The exact nature of the act by which He ‘became’ man lies outside the statement; it was matter of common knowledge between the writer and the reader. The language employed intimates merely that it was a definite act, and that it involved a change in the life-history of the eternal God, here designated ‘the Word.’

The whole emphasis falls on the nature of this change in His life-history. He became flesh. That is to say, He entered upon a mode of existence in which the experiences that belong to human beings would also be His. The dependence, the weakness, which constitute the very idea of flesh, in contrast with God, would now enter into His personal experience. And it is precisely because these are the connotations of the term ‘flesh’ that John chooses that term here, instead of the more simply denotative term ‘man.’ What he means is merely that the eternal God became man. But he elects to say this in the language which throws best up to view what it is to become man.

The contrast between the Word as the eternal God and the human nature which He assumed as flesh, is the hinge of the statement. Had the evangelist said (as he does in I Jn. iv. 2) that the Word came in flesh,’ it would have been the continuity through the change which would have been most emphasized. When he says rather that the Word became flesh, while the continuity of the personal subject is, of course, intimated, it is the reality and the completeness of the humanity assumed which is made most prominent.

That in becoming flesh the Word did not cease to be what He was before entering upon this new sphere of experiences, the evangelist does not leave, however, to mere suggestion. The glory of the Word was so far from quenched, in his view, by His becoming flesh, that he gives us at once to understand that it was rather as ‘trailing clouds of glory’ that He came. ‘And the Word became flesh,’ he says, and immediately adds: ‘and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth’ (i. 14).

The language is colored by reminiscences from the Tabernacle, in which the Glory of God, the Shekinah, dwelt. The flesh of Our Lord became, on its assumption by the Word, the Temple of God on earth (cf. Jn. ii. 19), and the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord. John tells us expressly that this glory was visible, that it was precisely what was appropriate to the Son of God as such. ‘And we beheld his glory,’ he says; not divined it, or inferred it, but perceived it. It was open to sight, and the actual object of observation. Jesus Christ was obviously more than man; He was obviously God.

His actually observed glory, John tells us further, was a ‘glory as of the only begotten from the Father.’ It was unique; nothing like it was ever seen in another, And its uniqueness consisted precisely in its consonance with what the unique Son of God, sent forth from the Father, would naturally have; men recognized and could not but recognize in Jesus Christ the unique Son of God. When this unique Son of God is further described as ‘full of grace and truth,’ the elements of His manifested glory are not to be supposed to be exhausted by this description (cf. ii. 11). Certain items of it only are singled out for particular mention. The visible glory of the incarnated Word was such a glory as the unique Son of God, sent forth from the Father, who was full of grace and truth, would naturally manifest.

That nothing should be lacking to the declaration of the continuity of all that belongs to the Word as such into this new sphere of existence, and its full manifestation through the veil of His flesh, John adds at the close of his exposition the remarkable sentence: ‘As for God, no one has even yet seen him; God only begotten, who is in the bosom of the Father—He hath declared him’ (i. 18 in.).

It is the incarnate Word which is here called ‘only begotten God.’ The absence of the article with this designation is doubtless due to its parallelism with the word ‘God’ which stands at the head of the corresponding clause. The effect of its absence is to throw up into emphasis the quality rather than the mere individuality of the person so designated. The adjective ‘only begotten’ conveys the idea, not of derivation and subordination, but of uniqueness and consubstantiality: Jesus is all that God is, and He alone is this. Of this ‘only begotten God’ it is now declared that He ‘is’—not ‘was,’ the state is not one which has been left behind at the incarnation, but one which continues uninterrupted and unmodified— ‘into ‘—not merely ‘in’—’the bosom of the Father’—that is to say, He continues in the most intimate and complete communion with the Father. Though now incarnate, He is still ‘with God’ in the full sense of the external relation intimated.

This being true, He has much more than seen God, and is fully able to ‘interpret’ God to men. Though no one has ever yet seen God, yet he who has seen Jesus Christ, ‘God only begotten,’ has seen the Father (cf. xiv. 9; xii. 45).

In this remarkable sentence there is asserted in the most direct manner the full Deity of the incarnate Word, and the continuity of His life as such in His incarnate life; thus He is fitted to be the absolute revelation of God to man.

This condensed statement of the whole doctrine of the in-carnation is only the prologue to a historical treatise. The historical treatise which it introduces, naturally, is written from the point of view of its prologue. Its object is to present Jesus Christ in His historical manifestation, as obviously the Son of God in flesh. ‘These are written,’ the Gospel testifies, ‘that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God’ (xx. 31); that Jesus who came as a man (i. 30) was thoroughly known in His human origin (vii. 27), confessed Himself man (viii. 40), and died as a man dies (xix. 5), was, nevertheless, not only the Messiah, the Sent of God, the fulfiller of all the Divine promises of redemption, but also the very Son of God, that God only begotten, who, abiding in the bosom of the Father, is His sole adequate interpreter.

From the beginning of the Gospel onward, this purpose is pursued: Jesus is pictured as ever, while truly man, yet manifesting Himself as equally truly God, until the veil which covered the eyes of His followers was wholly lifted, and He is greeted as both Lord and God (xx. 28). But though it is the prime purpose of this Gospel to exhibit the Divinity of the man Jesus, no obscuration of His manhood is involved. It is the Deity of the man Jesus which is insisted on, but the true manhood of Jesus is as prominent in the representation as in any other portion of the New Testament. Nor is any effacement of the humiliation of His earthly life involved. For the Son of man to come from heaven was a descent (iii. 13), and the mission which He came to fulfill was a mission of contest and conflict, of suffering and death. He brought His glory with Him (i. 14), but the glory that was His on earth (xvii. 22) was not all the glory which He had had with the Father before the world was, and to which, after His work was done, He should return (xvii. 5). Here too the glory of the celestial is one and the glory of the terrestrial is another.

In any event, John has no difficulty in presenting the life of Our Lord on earth as the life of God in flesh, and in insisting at once on the glory that belongs to Him as God and on the humiliation which is brought to Him by the flesh. It is distinctly a duplex life which he ascribes to Christ, and he attributes to Him without embarrassment all the powers and modes of activity appropriate on the one hand to Deity and on the other to sinless (Jn. vii. 46; cf. xiv. 30; I Jn. iii. 5) human nature. In a true sense his portrait of Our Lord is a dramatization of the God-man which he presents to our contemplation in his prologue.

Benjamin B. Warfield

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