Jesus In Space And Time, Part 2: Jesus The Eternal One

John’s Gospel begins in a strange way. The other three Gospels simply start to narrate the story of Jesus’ life and over the course of their narration they gradually and incrementally build a case for their intended conclusion; that Jesus is the divine Son of God who came among us to rescue us and show us the way back to the Father. But John’s Gospel begins by revealing the conclusion in advance. John’s first statements proclaim Jesus as the eternal God and our Creator. The rest of his Gospel then sets about proving that conclusion. It’s the reverse process of the other Gospels and, in a sense, it’s a bit like an author who reveals ‘who done it’ on the opening page of his book.

The way John phrases his opening conclusion is also striking:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.” (John 1:1-4)

This is a deliberate and direct reference to Genesis 1: 1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” John is making a huge statement here. He is saying that the birth of Jesus into our world was not the beginning of his story, not by a long shot. He is claiming that Jesus was present at the creation of the universe. And not only was he present, but he was also the instigator of it all: “Through him all things were made …” The first chapter of Genesis describes the creation of not only the earth and all that is in it, but also the creation of the stars, planets and galaxies of our amazing universe. And now, in John chapter 1, Jesus is identified as the one responsible for it all. He made the whole universe!

John makes two further astonishing points in these opening statements of his Gospel. Firstly, he calls Jesus “the Word” (“logos” in the original Greek). This is a word that is rich in meaning and which has no direct equivalence in our language. It refers to the authoritative declaration of something, the meaning behind something, the purpose of something, the power that underlies something. It conveys the idea of meaning, purpose, power and authority rather than merely a simple verbal utterance as our English word implies. John is saying that not only is Jesus the Creator of our universe, but he is also the meaning, purpose, power and authority behind it. He is the ultimate purpose that we are all searching for. He is the ultimate authority to whom we must bow. The Apostle Paul picks up this theme in his letter to the church at Colossae when he writes:

“For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” (Colossians 1:16)

Our universe was not only created by Jesus; it was created for him. For his pleasure. For his worship. So that all creation might submit to him and honour him in everything.

John then makes his next and even more stunning claim. He identifies Jesus as none other than God himself:

“The Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

It is a claim made more striking by it’s unusual and seemingly contradictory statement. How can someone be with God and yet also be God at the same time? To be with God indicates a degree of separateness and distinction, whereas to be God speaks of sameness and oneness. Yet John has not made a grammatical error here. This is not a slip of the quill. He intends us to contemplate a great mystery. This is an initial nod toward the concept of the Trinity: that God exists as three distinct ‘persons’ or entities who, nonetheless, comprise the one God. John does not elaborate this point any further here, nor yet allude to the third ‘person’ of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. This theme will be developed later in his Gospel and taken up by other New Testament writers as well. But John is here content to identify Jesus as somehow distinct from, yet the same as, God.

It is a huge claim. Jesus is the God and Creator behind the whole universe. He is the One whom we were created to know and obey. John doesn’t immediately identify Jesus as this pre-existent, divine ‘Word’. It takes him 14 verse to make the connection, but he eventually gets there:

“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 1:14)

Here we see two of the divine ‘Persons’ distinguished and identified: God the Father and God the Son. These are terms that are utilised throughout the New Testament to describe the first two members of the Godhead. There are reams of articles and books that have been written on this topic, seeking to understand the complexities of the Trinity. But John’s purpose here is not primarily theological and speculative. He is making a very simple yet profound point. Before Jesus was born as a baby to a young virgin in Bethlehem in first century Judea, he had already existed forever. His birth into our world was not the beginning of his story. Before he took human form and was given the name Jesus (“Yeshua” in Hebrew) he was and always had been the Eternal One. Before the first stars came into existence, before the light of the first dawn caressed the virgin hills and prehistoric waters of a new-born earth, the Son of God had already existed forever.

Jesus refers to his eternal pre-existence on several occasions. In the Garden of Gethsemane, as he poured out his heart to the Father on the eve of his crucifixion, he prayed:

“And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” (John 17:5)

On another occasion, when Jesus was confronted by hostile Pharisees who were incensed that he appeared to consider himself greater than Abraham, they asked him, “You are not yet fifty years old and yet you have seen Abraham?” In reply, Jesus said:

“Very truly I tell you, before Abraham was born, I am.” (John 8:58)

This is an extraordinary statement. Jesus is inferring three things. Firstly, he is stating that his existence precedes that of Abraham, who lived two thousand years earlier. Secondly, his use of the present continuous tense “I am” rather than “I was” expresses the eternal nature of his pre-existence. He is not merely saying that his birth preceded that of Abraham, but that he has always existed from eternity in the past. He is not claiming to have been born before Abraham, but to have never been born at all. Thirdly, his use of the term “I am” is also a reference back to the name of God that was revealed to Moses when God told him:

“I AM who I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM’ has sent me to you” (Exodus 3:14).

In that previous fascinating exchange, God had indicated to Moses that the name that best represented his eternal existence and changelessness was the Hebrew word for “I AM” – “haya”. Jesus’ use of the equivalent verb form to describe himself in his exchange with the Pharisees represents a very deliberate claim to be God. This allusion was not lost on the religious leaders, who were immediately incensed at what they considered to be his blasphemy. The next verse in John’s narrative (John 8:59) describes the Pharisees’ attempt to stone Jesus to death on the spot, but he eluded them and escaped through the crowd.

We also have Jesus’ references to himself as “the Alpha and Omega” (Revelation 1:8; 21:6; 22:13), the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, as well as his descriptions of himself as “the beginning and the end”(Rev 22:13). He uses these terms to refer to the fact that he was present at the beginning of creation and will be present at the end. He is the eternally enduring God over all of time and space.

This huge picture of Jesus as the eternally pre-existing Creator is foremost in John’s mind as he begins his Gospel. He wants his readers to understand that the birth of Jesus as a human baby was not his beginning. It merely represented him taking on ‘flesh’ for a brief period in his eternal existence:

“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 1:14)

This is worthy of a few moments of personal reflection. How big is your concept of Jesus? I suspect that when most people, even many Christians, think of Jesus, they envisage him as the bearded, robed, sandal-footed rabbi who walked the dusty trails of Galilee and Judea. They think of him as he was during his brief incarnation. But his physical manifestation to us in the first century, as important as it was and as it continues to be, was a mere blip in the eternal existence of Jesus. It was also a hugely ‘dialled down’ representation of who he is eternally. As Paul states in his letter to the Philippians, in order to become human and take on our frail form, Jesus had to “humble himself” and “make himself nothing” (Philippians 2:6-8). He had to divest himself of much of his divine glory and temporarily constrain at least some of his divine attributes. For instance, for the first time in eternity he was no longer omni-present – present everywhere all the time – but was, instead, limited to a single location as are all other humans. Thus, he was in both appearance and “very nature” (Phil 2:7) a human being. If you had lived in the first century and walked past Jesus in the street you would not have glanced at him and thought, ‘Oh my goodness, he must be God!’. You would not have fallen to your knees in awe or fear. Even though he was still fully God during his incarnation, his glory was not obvious nor overwhelming.

But this ‘dialled down’ manifestation to us was only temporary. After his resurrection and ascension back into heaven, Jesus resumed his former heavenly glory as the eternal Son of God. And it is a glory that is fearsome to behold. Saul (who would later become known as the Apostle Paul) glimpsed his restored divine glory on the road to Damascus. Jesus appeared to him as a blinding light from heaven and spoke to him in a thundering voice, the result of which was that Saul fell to his knees in terror and was struck blind.

The ascended Jesus also appeared to the Apostle John in his prison cell on the island of Patmos. In that vision, Jesus appeared to John as a figure of blazing fire who held stars in his hand and who had a sword protruding from his mouth and “shone like the sun in all its brilliance” (Revelation 1:14-16). John was so terrified by this vision of the ascended Jesus that he fainted and Jesus had to revive him and say, “Do not be afraid.” (Revelation 1:17-18). Significantly, John had never previously fainted in the presence of the incarnate Jesus of Nazareth nor been terrified of his appearance.

Jesus appears in the clouds.

In his vision of Jesus on the island of Patmos, John saw Jesus as he is now and always was from eternity past – not in terms of a specific physical appearance, but in terms of his overwhelming glory and fearsome power. He lives and reigns in unimaginable and unapproachable glory and power. As God the Son, he shares the same glory as the Father who has previously declared, “No one can see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). This refers to the fact that if God – Father, Son or Spirit – should fully manifest himself to us, we would instantly perish. His power and glory would completely overwhelm and destroy us as if we were a moth that suddenly found itself in the heart of the sun. Paul touches on this concept of the ‘unapproachableness’ of God in his letter to Timothy. He describes the risen Jesus as:

“the King of Kings and Lord of Lords who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light whom no one has seen or can see.” (1 Timothy 6:13-21)

So, let me ask you again: how big is your concept of Jesus? If your concept of Jesus mainly centres around his temporary incarnation as a human – limited in space and time and constrained by human frailty – you need to significantly enlarge your vision! Because one day the ascended Jesus will return through the clouds in all his glory and power, and every knee will bow before him – mainly in terror in the case of those who have rejected him! Most knees did not bow before him during his incarnation. He was easy to miss. He was nothing remarkable to look at – just another Galilean. But he is no longer like that. His glory is now blinding and unmissable. His power is overwhelming and terrifying. We ought to hold this eternal perspective of Jesus central in our consciousness, while simultaneously being overwhelmed with gratitude that this awesome, fearsome resurrected Jesus loves us so passionately and completely that he gave his life for us on the cross.

But I am jumping ahead. All of this will be expounded more fully as John narrates the story of Jesus’ life in his Gospel.

But in these first few verses, John urges us to see the big picture of who Jesus really is. He frames the story of Christ’s temporary incarnation against the backdrop of his eternal pre-existence. For it is only when we fully appreciate the glory and power of the eternal Son of God that we begin to glimpse something of the mystery and wonder of the incarnation. That such an eternal, all-powerful, unseeable, unapproachable God should choose to be born as a tiny, helpless baby and live among us for a while is the most astonishing event in all of human history.  John reflects this sense of wonder in his concluding remark in this opening section of his Gospel:

“No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (John 1:18)