No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him. (John 1:18, NASB)
Two thousands years ago, God the Son took upon himself human nature and walked among us. As great as this event was, there are right ways to describe it and wrong ways to describe it. For example, it could be misleading to describe it with a cliché expression like saying that it “altered the course of history.” This is because it did no such thing – although it was a most significant point in history, history itself had been running in the precise direction decreed by God, a direction that had been building toward and that had cumulated in the incarnation of Christ. God had prepared the world for his coming, so that the conditions were exactly right for the Son of God to come to us as a man to instruct mankind, to atone for sin, to defeat the devil, and to demonstrate the love and the power of God. This is a more accurate way to understand the incarnation.
Earlier I mentioned a teaching that, probably due to false piety and the influence of non-Christian thought, overstates the necessity of the incarnation when it comes to our understanding of God. It suggests that God is almost entirely hidden from us and unintelligible to us apart from the incarnation. This teaching, to whatever degree it is affirmed, is an insult to and a denial of the whole revelation of the Old Testament. God can be known, understood, and discussed with clarity and precision apart from the incarnation. He does it himself in the Old Testament through the prophets, and John makes a point of doing this in this Gospel before he mentions the incarnation. Again, this is not to devalue the incarnation – the greatness of the incarnation is such that there is no need to exaggerate it in order to honor it.
Some people insist that it is impossible to understand or to discuss God “in the abstract,” but this is only because of their refusal to accept a God that can be explained in speech and grasped by intelligence. They talk so much about how impossible it is to understand God with their finite minds that it seems that they are even arrogant about their ignorance. Indeed, it is presumptuous to assume that we know so much about God as to know that we could not understand him even if he were to explain himself to us, even if he were to think that we can understand him. It is a false humility and a lazy theology. It is a private conception of divine transcendence that is so fiercely insisted upon that it amounts to a rejection of divine immanence. This criticism, it seems, applies more or less to almost all theologians in history. But it is not up to them to dictate what God can tell me or what I can understand.
This leads us to another false teaching about the incarnation, probably also invented due to false piety and the influence of non-Christian thought. I refer to the notion that Jesus Christ brought us a superior revelation in the sense that he brought a personal revelation and not a mere intellectual or propositional revelation. In other words, it is said that his person was the revelation, or that his main contribution in terms of revelation was his person, and this was more significant than the words said by him or about him. Proponents of this view would perhaps claim no higher support than the Gospel of John. However, the Gospel teaches the opposite.
Our verse says that Jesus came and “explained” God. This sets the tone for the rest of the Gospel, and we find many instances where this is illustrated. The Samaritan woman in John 4 says, “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us” (v. 25). This could be her opinion about what the Messiah would come to do, but keep in mind that the Gospel presents episodes from the life of Christ that are meant to educate us about him. In any case, Jesus answers, “I who speak to you am he” (v. 26). He was the Messiah that she expected, who would “explain everything.”
Then, in John 6, when his hearers become offended and turn away from him, Jesus asks the Twelve, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” (v. 67). And Peter answers, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (v. 68). He focuses on the words, or the propositions and doctrines, and this is in a context where he affirms that Jesus is “the Holy One of God” (v. 69). In John 18, when Jesus answers Pilate, he says, “In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (v. 37). A testimony is a verbal declaration about someone or something, and he has come to give a verbal declaration about truth. This is how he defines his own mission.
Commenting on John’s Prologue, William Barclay writes, “Jesus did not come to talk to men about God; he came to show men what God is like, so that the simplest mind might know him as intimately as the mind of the greatest philosopher.” This is wrong both in the general principle assumed, and in the particular case of Jesus. Take John 13 as an example. There it is said that Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. In doing this, he said, “I have set you an example.” So if ever Jesus wanted to teach by “showing,” this was it. But he told Peter to his face, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand” (v. 7). After he was finished, he said, “Do you understand what I have done for you?” (v. 12), and proceeded to offer an extensive explanation.
The disciples did not understand the significance of his action, so that it had to be verbally explained – Jesus talked to them about it. He talked to them about what he showed them. And the explanation included principles that could not be inferred from the action. For example: “You also should wash one another’s feet,” and “No servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (v. 14, 16). He talked to them about what he could not show them. Even “the greatest philosopher” could not have inferred with certainty Jesus’ intention or the lesson he taught. His concrete action baffled the disciples, but even the simplest mind could have grasped the abstract explanation that he offered.
Barclay reflects a common opinion, but it is the exact opposite of what John’s Gospel teaches. Although it is unbiblical and nonsensical, it is stubbornly maintained due to false piety. It must be discarded if we are to truly honor the work of Jesus Christ. He came to show us more of what God is like by talking to us about him. It was mainly an intellectual “showing,” not a physical or sensory demonstration. As John writes elsewhere, “We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true” (1 John 5:20).
Another way to state the popular view is, as Barclay writes, “To see truth we must look at Jesus.” By this he means that “very few people can grasp abstract ideas,” so that they are more able to learn when something is shown to them rather than talked about. We have already exposed this error. But what about the idea that we should “look at” Jesus? Is there any biblical basis for it?
In John 12:44-45, Jesus says, “When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. When he looks at me, he sees the one who sent me.” And in John 14:9, he says, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” People seize upon this kind of statements to assert that Jesus brought us a personal revelation and not a propositional revelation.
But what did Jesus have in mind what he said these things? And what did John have in mind as he related these snapshots from the life of Christ?
These verses in John 12 and 14 have been misused. In John 12, Jesus continues, “As for the person who hears my words…There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words…For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it….So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say” (v. 47-50). Likewise, in John 14, Jesus immediately refers to his words, “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own” (v. 10).
It is popular to stress a personal revelation using the statements, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father,” and “I am in the Father” and “the Father is in me.” But what was he talking about? He was talking about his words, his discourses, his doctrines. He was referring to an intellectual “seeing” all along. To “see” Jesus was to “see” the Father because Jesus said what his Father told him to say.
Therefore, the Bible again teaches the opposite of what these people affirm. One must rip these passages out of their context in order to assert an alternate meaning for what it means to “see” Jesus. This is what those who affirm the popular view have done. In asserting their idea of a personal revelation in contrast to the propositional, they never paid attention to what this person had to say. And I wonder how much they respect this person after all.
Jesus revealed God not by just showing up, but by speaking up. He revealed God not just by being a person, as if his very incarnation or his very existence as a man communicated God to the world, but he revealed God by speaking about him, using words to tell people about the attributes, purposes, and precepts of God. The notion that Jesus came to help us know God rather than to help us know about God is complete nonsense. Again, this is tied to the error that the revelation of God, or at least the superior revelation of God, is personal and not propositional. On the other hand, John’s Gospel teaches us that Jesus Christ was a personal manifestation, who came to offer us a propositional revelation. The emphasis is never on physical sense or empirical seeing, but on spiritual understanding and intellectual perception. John would repeat this theme throughout the Gospel.
Jesus came and gave us a revelation of God. It is often suggested that he came to give us a revelation that was superior to previous revelations, in that God gave us propositional revelations by the prophets, but he gave us a personal revelation in Jesus Christ. This is a false contrast. Jesus was superior in his person than all the prophets, but he was a superior person who gave propositional revelation. As Hebrews 1:1-2 states, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” In other words, in Jesus Christ, God did not give us something superior to verbal revelation, but he had a superior person to give us verbal revelation. There is no contrast between the personal and the propositional.
“All Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16). The Spirit of Christ was the inspiration of the prophets, so that their words are just as authentic and authoritative as the words of Christ, since they are all the words of Christ. Jesus did not speak in red letters. He spoke all the words of the Bible. The difference was that the prophets did not have the fullness of understanding, and certainly no single prophet had insight into the entire plan of God. On the other hand, Jesus had the Spirit without measure, and spoke from perfect understanding. Moreover, he said that he came “from above,” from the Father, and that he testified about God on that basis. This suggests that he spoke from recollection rather than revelation as such, and he talked about the things of God in a fuller, deeper, and more explicit manner. In any case, the point is that what he brought remained a propositional revelation.
Beware of a false piety that is exhibited in a constant sense of mystery, that which equates indefiniteness with spirituality, and that which cannot be put into words as the highest wisdom. It is a form of reverence that requires very little effort and almost no obedience, but that makes a person feel good about himself, and that gain the admiration of others. It is not a way to embrace the person of Christ, but rather to escape him. He has revealed himself to us in propositions, in doctrines to be grasped by the intellect. True piety, therefore, is to study those words, understand them, believe them, and obey them. This is how you learn from a person. This is how you respect a person.
Jesus was God’s personal manifestation, who came to deliver a propositional revelation. This truth defines Christian growth and ministry. Now we know how to learn about God and how to teach others about God. We understand that God is transcendent. But this very understanding comes from his immanent propositional revelation. As the Bible says, “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart” (Romans 10:8). If you want to know God, he is not far from you. You do not need him to appear in the flesh. You do not need to feel some special presence. You do not need to grasp a “person” in contradistinction to grasping the words said by the person, and words that reliable witnesses said about this person.
Words can be spoken, written, understood, and memorized. They are clear and public, so they can be studied, discussed, proclaimed, believed, and obeyed. There is no indefiniteness in how you can know God or whether you know him. And there is no excuse not to know him. No one can say that the way is ambiguous, or that it is impossible to fathom his “person,” for he has explained himself in clear propositions. Likewise, we introduce God to other people not by presenting his “person,” but by talking about him. Of course we should live out the doctrines that we proclaim, and become good examples to others. But because we understand that God shows himself by propositional revelation, we will also be sure to explain our examples.