“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14, NIV).
It’s a mystery how a supernatural God could become flesh and live among broken, sinful people!
How could God become human? Holy and sinful don’t mix. How could he be fully God and fully human? How could he come full of grace and full of truth? The math just doesn’t add up. Fill a bucket 100% full of water, and you’ve got 0% room for anything else.
Scholars and theologians have long wrestled with these questions. Their attempts have led to frustration, arguments, and worse — church divisions, heresies, wars. Finite minds cannot grasp the infinite.
And yet we try, perhaps because the attempt offers us a glimpse into God’s transcendence. We cannot comprehend him, but we are better for trying.
So we try to unravel the mysteries of John 1:14, searching for clues about an incomprehensible God, described in the old hymn as “Immortal, invisible, God only wise / in light inaccessible hid from our eyes…”
“Full of grace”
The concept of “grace” is by itself a mystery to many. An ice skater or dancer can display “grace” in her performance; my insurance bill may offer a “grace” period; someone can say “grace” before a meal. But society doesn’t really grasp the full significance of the grace of God.
The translators of the Contemporary English Version considered the term grace too vague, too difficult for the modern ear, so they used other words to translate the Greek charis, words such as “kindness” or “favor.”
(I’m not sure why the translators thought removing the term from their translation would help people understand grace better. Can you imagine an owner’s manual eliminating terms too “sophisticated” for anyone under the age of 12: Don’t say, “LED,” say, “Light Emitting Diode.” Even better say, “Little, tiny twinkling light.”)
But the term grace appears occasionally even in secular spaces.
During the recent evacuation of Aleppo, Syria, during a bitter civil war that has killed thousands (including many civilians), the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry appealed for “grace” to save lives: “Russia and Assad have a moment where they are in a dominant position to show a little grace,” he said.
He could have asked for kindness or favor. Instead, he asked for grace.
The need for old-fashioned grace remains, even in our modern times, even if secular minds don’t get it.
Jesus came “full of grace,” which is to say he came to save lives and bring them out of spiritual conflict and war — out from sin’s domination and control, out from the consequences of living among rebels (and, in our case, the consequences of being rebels), out from hopelessness and despair.
Grace brings peace to wars raging within our hearts and souls. Grace offers freedom from sin — as well as from people or substance or hurts that enslave us. Grace pardons us when we deserve consequences. Grace infuses us with the hope necessary to overcome despair.
We need grace — and Jesus came full of God’s grace.
“Full of truth”
Church people are often very good at “truth” — defining right from wrong. Legalists at heart, they’re good at setting rules. They know how to lay down the law.
Of course, it’s not just church people. Everyone, it seems, has opinions on what is true and what is not.
On a plane recently, I had a conversation that eventually led to me being challenged: “Why should a baker be able to refuse service to a gay couple just because he’s offended by their private choices?”
“Let me ask you a question,” I said. “Can you imagine any behavior bad enough that a business owner should be able to refuse service?”
“I don’t think so,” she said.
“Well, what if one of your customers paid you only with bad checks? They all bounced. Would you have the right to refuse service for such a customer? Or what if a person had too much to drink? Would a bartender have the right to refuse him service?”
“Well, of course,” she responded. “If something is against the law or threatens the safety of others, you don’t have to serve them.”
“Okay,” I said. “So there are behaviors that cross a line. The next question is who gets to say what is right and what is wrong? Who gets to tell us what behaviors are objectionable?”
She thought a moment and chuckled. “Well, I want to be the one to tell you what’s right or wrong.” She saw my point: somebody has to draw the line. Society needs standards — a basis for what is acceptable and what is not, for what is true and what isn’t.
Her problem is our problem: as humans we chafe at the idea of rules imposed on us by others. We don’t want our style cramped. We don’t want others telling us what we can and cannot do. Instead, we want standards that line up with our personal preferences. We want to set the rules for ourselves.
When someone else violates our rules, we know a great injustice has occurred. A wrong has been done. If someone cuts in front of us in line at a crowded store, we are offended. If people cheat us or harm us or steal from us, we want justice. We want wrongs (according to our definition) made right.
On the other hand, if we violate our own rules, we hope others will give us grace: I’m so sorry. I really didn’t mean to. I don’t know what came over me. I wasn’t paying attention. Please forgive me. Let me make it up to you.
The truth is: we need grace
Most us, judged by even our own standards, do not measure up. So we need grace. However, we need more than grace; we also need truth.” That’s why Jesus had to come “full of grace and truth.”
We need truth because without truth — without absolutes or standards — there is no need for grace: If there are no laws, there are no lawbreakers. If there are no lawbreakers, there is no one who needs forgiveness.
To put it another way: without lines, you can’t go out of bounds. Grace is needed because we have crossed the lines of God’s truth.
Jesus did not come to dismantle the truth or somehow to blur the distinction between right and wrong. No, he came “full of truth” — not full of laws or rules, but “full of truth.”
God’s truth, at its core, is more than a list of rules or laws. When it’s linked to grace, God’s truth can transform a human heart.
“The law was given through Moses” (John 1:17a) — but the law by itself could not change us.
Moses teaches us that our problem is sin. The Old Covenant shows us that sin cannot be conquered by self-discipline, good intentions, or will power. Trying to obey the truth, trying to be good, trying to follow the straight and narrow cannot untwist our twisted hearts. We need more than truth.
“The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). The fullness of truth and the fullness of grace are miraculously, mysteriously blended together in the person of Jesus. He is the Word of truth who by grace became flesh.
This is the mystery of Christmas — the miracle that can never be fully explained. Because of Jesus, truth convicts us of sin…but also because of Jesus, grace offers us forgiveness. Because of Jesus, truth reveals our own unworthiness…but grace, also because of Jesus, transforms our hearts and makes us worthy.
Because of Jesus — because of Christmas — we can experience what we can never fully comprehend: God in human flesh, living among us, full of grace and truth.
Now there’s a mystery we can live with.
— by Richard Doebler