“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
This central passage of Scripture speaks about both the One who came to die for the sins of the world and the One who sent Him, as well as the underlying purpose—God’s plan to give everlasting life to mortal man. God so loved the world of mankind, the pinnacle of His creation, that He gave His Son to die to pay the penalty for mankind’s sins. It is a statement about a grand purpose as well as the huge price paid to achieve it.
So who was this Son who came, and who is the God who sent Him? How is it possible? Why would God intervene so personally for the world, and why does it matter for you and me?
To understand, we must rely on the authoritative words of Scripture. “The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life,” Jesus Christ told His followers (John 6:63). “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth,” He prayed to God the Father on the night before His crucifixion (John 17:17). “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus told Thomas when he asked Him where He was going (John 14:6).
When we explore the question of the nature of the One who came and of the One who sent Him, we need look no further than the authoritative words and work of God the Father and Jesus Christ.
Beginning at the beginning
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” declares the apostle John in the opening sentence of his Gospel (John 1:1). He states for the record the truth revealed to him by Jesus Christ so that others can believe with confidence and clarity.
John’s inspired clarity must be the foundation for our understanding of the nature of God, rather than convoluted human reasoning.
The Word left His glorious, all-powerful, eternal spirit state of existence so that human beings might ultimately be glorified as eternal spirit children of God.
The apostle Paul succinctly tells us why: “The world through wisdom did not know God” (1 Corinthians 1:21, emphasis added throughout). He highlights the inadequacy of philosophical wisdom with a series of questions: “Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer [debater] of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?” (1 Corinthians 1:20-21).
How was this philosophical wisdom made foolish? One principal way was through what John’s Gospel records. John deconstructs humanly devised ideas about what God can do, or be, with one pivotal claim: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father” (John 1:14).
God becoming flesh
“God becoming flesh” is the central thesis of the book of John—the rest of the book supporting and illustrating this truth.
The claim is audacious, but understanding it is not difficult: “In the beginning,” John states, two divine Beings existed—one referred to as “God” and the other as “the Word” who also “was God.” One of these, John reveals, “became flesh and dwelt among us.”
Understanding what John said is not difficult. Believing the audacity of the claim was the challenge then, as it is now. God becoming flesh as the only begotten of the Father flies in the face of everything people of the time believed. To the Jews it was a blasphemous “stumbling block” (1 Corinthians 1:23), being inconsistent with their incomplete view of God. And to the Greeks it was “foolishness,” because for centuries their philosophers had denied the possibility of a god actually becoming human.
The Word becoming flesh wiped away centuries of “wisdom” and brought “to nothing” philosophical constructs about God that limited His interaction with His own creation —constructs that declared the physical creation evil and the spiritual realm mystical and unknowable.
It all comes down to one word—“became,” which by definition means “came to be.” John is clear here. The Word who from the beginning was with God and was God “came to be” flesh. This does not mean He was no longer God, as His identity did not change. It means that, having become flesh, He was no longer a spirit being as He was before.
When the Word became flesh on earth, the Word no longer existed in heaven. The Word becoming flesh does not subtract from the deity of Christ, it confirms the deity of Christ.
The “Word becoming flesh” is pivotal because it clarifies in one concise statement what theologians have failed to explain with volumes of convoluted human reasoning. Still it is only one step in a process that took the Word from glory and then back to glory.
The Word’s transition from glory to flesh and back to glory can be summarized this way: When “the Word became flesh” He ceased being spirit and “dwelt among us” as “the only begotten of the Father” until His death by crucifixion. When God the Father raised Him from the dead and “seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places,” He ceased being flesh and “became a life-giving spirit,” endowed once again with the glory He had with God before the world was (John 1:14; John 3:6; Ephesians 1:20; 1 Corinthians 15:45; John 17:5).
The journey from glory to glory to bring glory
Let’s go back to the beginning described by John and follow the Word’s journey from glory to flesh and back to glory for the purpose of, as is later stated, bringing many sons and daughters to glory (see Hebrews 2:10).
As we’ve already seen, John opens His Gospel with these words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Again, two divine Beings existed, whom John calls “God” and “the Word.” The Word was both with God and was God—these two eternal Beings existing together as God prior to the creation in Genesis 1.
John 1 goes on to say of the Word that “all things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made” (John 1:3; see also Ephesians 3:9).
“All things” are further defined by the apostle Paul as things that “are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers” (Colossians 1:16). Paul often uses the terms “dominions,” “principalities” and “powers” in referring to different categories or ranks of beings and authority in the invisible spirit world (see Romans 8:38; Ephesians 1:21; Ephesians 3:10; Ephesians 6:12; Colossians 2:10, 15).
Thus, God created all things, whether spirit or physical, through the Word—the Word doing the actual work of creation as the agent of the One who would later be referred to as God the Father.
The book of Hebrews confirms this truth: “God . . . has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds” (Hebrew 1:1-2).
This is consistent with the record of physical creation we see in Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God [Elohim] created the heavens and the earth.” The Hebrew word Elohim, here translated “God,” is a plural word—meaning that more than one divine spirit Being, sharing enormous divine power, participated in creating the physical universe out of nothing.
This culminated in the capstone of creation: “Then God said, ‘Let Us [plural] make man in Our image according to Our likeness’” (Genesis 1:26; see also Hebrews 11:3).
The entirety of this physical creation God declared to be good (Genesis 1:31). Then “the Lord God,” here the One creating on behalf of the other, as stated in John, planted a garden eastward in Eden” and commanded man to “tend and keep it” (Genesis 2:8, 15).
At this time the Lord God actually walked and talked in it, even after Adam and Eve sinned: “And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day . . . Then the Lord God called to Adam and said to him, ‘Where are you?’” (Genesis 3:8-9). Not only did He walk and talk in the midst of creation, but the Being who would later become Jesus Christ sought out fallen man, for whom He would later sacrifice Himself.
The Lord God here is directly, personally and tangibly involved in His creation. He planted a garden in Eden. He created man from the dust of the ground. He partnered with Noah to perpetuate life through the Flood. He called the patriarchs to build a nation. He defeated Pharaoh and delivered Israel. He spoke to the prophets of old.
Finally, God the Father sent the Word to become flesh: “When the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4).
Born of a woman! “Immanuel,” or “God with us”! (Matthew 1:22-23). “God . . . manifested in the flesh”! (1 Timothy 3:16). The impact of this can hardly be overestimated. The angel Gabriel delivered the news flash to Mary: “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest” (Luke 1:31-32).
Mary asked the obvious question, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” (verse 34). How can a virgin conceive and bring forth the Son of God—God in the flesh?
Gabriel’s answer describes the process that made what philosophers said was impossible possible and the unthinkable true: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).
God becomes flesh in Mary’s womb
Not only had God united with the race of mortals, He had done so in a most intimate way with the conception of Jesus Christ in the womb of Mary. Note that this did not create the One who became Christ. The impregnation of Mary by a miracle from the Father through the Holy Spirit is the act that caused the preexistent Word to be made flesh. The Word had eternally existed with the Father before this event. Now the Word would no longer be spirit, but “became flesh and dwelt among us” as Jesus Christ (John 1:14).
Did He empty Himself of the glory He had with the Father before the world was? Yes, to take on the “glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (Philippians 2:7; John 1:14; 17:5). Did the immortal Word become mortal man? Yes! (John 1:14). Did spirit become flesh? Yes! Did God become Man? Yes! (Matthew 1:22-23).
Did He cease to be God the Word? No, because the Word had become flesh, retaining the identity He had before.
When the Word became flesh, the unknowable God became knowable. The invisible God became visible. The high and lofty God became personal.
The Word left glory to bring glory to the sons of man. He left His glorious, all-powerful, eternal spirit state of existence so that human beings might ultimately be glorified as eternal spirit children of God.
Jesus did not work according to this purpose independently of God the Father. He epitomized humility and submission. The Bible records that He submitted to the will of His earthly adoptive father Joseph (Luke 2:51) and that He submitted Himself to His Heavenly Father till the day He died (Matthew 26:39). Other statements from Jesus show His complete submission to God the Father:
“Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner” (John 5:19).
“I can of Myself do nothing. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me” (John 5:30).
Jesus further said, “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and came from God, nor have I come of Myself, but He sent Me” (John 8:42).
Did God the Son actually die?
Some theologians argue that the “God part” of Jesus Christ did not die when He was crucified, only the man part. This is an argument with consequences. If only Jesus the man died, then the payment for sin through his death could only cover the sins of one other man. The notion that the divine Word continued to inhabit eternity in the spirit realm while somehow linked to or possessing the human being Jesus ignores the clear message of John’s pivotal claim: “The Word became flesh.” The Word changed from spirit into flesh. So there was no divine spirit part remaining alive when Jesus died.
This is precisely what the apostle John is combating in his Gospel and later letters. Notice his quote from Jesus revealing the Father and Himself as the Son as two distinct and separate Beings: “For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself” (John 5:26).
When the Word became flesh, the Father, as a distinct and separate Being, continued to exist in heaven. And when the Word who became flesh died, the Father still reigned supreme in heaven and was able to act independently and apart from God the Son while He was dead.
This stands in opposition to the Trinity doctrine, which presents the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit as three persons in one being. It further teaches that all three participate fully in the being and actions of one another. This creates the obvious problem that if God the Son died, then the Father and the Holy Spirit would die as well. The reality is that the doctrine is just not true. (We don’t have space to cover these and other similar issues in this article. Interested readers can learn much more in our free study guide Is God a Trinity?)
Much more than a mere man died
When the apostle Peter addressed the crowd in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost when the New Testament Church began, he proclaimed that Someone much more than a man had been crucified at their hands: “You denied the Holy One and the Just, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and killed the Prince of life, whom God raised from the dead, of which we are witnesses” (Acts 3:13-15).
Moreover, Paul makes the matter even plainer. Notice what he said in Philippians 2:5-8 in the New Living Translation: “Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges [or emptied himself]; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.”
Who died? Not just a man who was joined to God, but the very One who had been God on the same level of existence as the Father—again, the Word who became flesh.
Finally, a clear, emphatic confirmation that God did die on the cross comes from the glorified Christ Himself: “Do not be afraid,” Christ said as the apostle John lay prostrate at His feet, “I am the First and the Last. I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen” (Revelation 1:17-18).
Jesus Christ in His glorified state lays claim to His divinity by saying He is the First and the Last (compare Isaiah 44:6), and categorically states that He Himself “was dead”—adding the word “Amen” for emphasis. To deny that Christ as God died is to deny His own clear statement.
When Jesus Christ—the Word made flesh—was crucified, God the Son by Christ’s own testimony “was dead.” He no longer lived. He was dead. For three days and three nights, only God the Father was alive as God.
The resurrection back to glory
Then came another pivotal part of the journey planned from the foundation of the world (see 1 Peter 1:19-20; Revelation 13:8). God the Father, reigning supreme from heaven, did what He had said He would do for the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world—He raised Him from the dead.
That God the Father was the One who raised Jesus Christ the Son from the dead is the overwhelming testimony of Scripture repeated many times (Acts 2:24; Acts 2:32; Acts 3:15, Acts 3:26; Acts 4:10; Acts 5:30; Acts 10:40; Acts 13:30-37; Romans 4:24; Romans 6:4; Romans 8:11; Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 6:14; 1 Corinthians 15:15; Galatians 1:1; Ephesians 1:17-20; Colossians 2:12).
Through this resurrection Jesus became a life-giving spirit (1 Corinthians 15:45; 1 Corinthians 15:50) and sat down at the right hand of God (Mark 16:19; Romans 8:34; Hebrews 10:12). This is the most magnificent event in the journey from glory to glory. The Word returned to the glory He had shared with the Father before the universe came into existence (John 17:5). He returned as the fully realized Lamb of God who was foreordained to be slain from the foundation of the world.
This return to glory leads the way for the glorification of all the children of God and the expansion of the family of God. John describes it this way: “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
And what is Jesus Christ like now in His glorified state, having been resurrected by the Father back to the state of His previous existence?
Read the description of Jesus as John saw Him in vision in Revelation 1:12-18 (NLT): “When I turned to see who was speaking to me, I saw seven gold lampstands. And standing in the middle of the lampstands was the Son of Man. He was wearing a long robe with a gold sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white like wool, as white as snow. And his eyes were bright like flames of fire.
“His feet were as bright as bronze refined in a furnace, and his voice thundered like mighty ocean waves. He held seven stars in his right hand, and a sharp two-edged sword came from his mouth [this part of the vision evidently figurative of His speaking the Word of God—Hebrews 4:12]. And his face was as bright as the sun in all its brilliance. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. But he laid his right hand on me and said, ‘Don’t be afraid! I am the First and the Last. I am the living one who died. Look, I am alive forever and ever!’”
The glory we can share in
This is the same kind of glorified immortal spirit existence God promises to His children in the resurrection of the dead at Jesus Christ’s return! (1 Corinthians 15:50-54). Christ’s journey began in glory and ends in glory for the ultimate purpose of the glorification of human beings—so Jesus can be “the firstborn among many brethren,” these to be raised to glory (Romans 8:29; Hebrews 2:10).
We go back to the question we asked at the beginning: Does it matter who came to die for our sins and who sent Him? The answer is an emphatic yes! If God the Son did not die for us while another divine Being, God the Father, remained alive with the power to resurrect Him, then, as Paul said, we of all men are most pitiable and have no hope of eternal life (1 Corinthians 15:14-19).
Thankfully, God did so love the world that He gave His only begotten Son, and the Son willingly gave up His glory and became a man to die for us, so that we might have everlasting life and share in God’s glory forever.
The truth is not too difficult to understand. God became man so that man could become immortal members of the family of God—a journey that began and ends in glory!
Who and What Was Jesus Christ Before His Human Birth?
As the accompanying article shows, the One who became Jesus Christ was clearly God, along with God the Father, before His human birth. But a careful study of Scripture shows that He was more than just another divine being who was previously unknown.
Scripture repeatedly tells us that no one has seen God the Father at any time. For example, the apostle John makes this quite clear in John 1:18: “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.”
John had just explained in this chapter that he was a personal eyewitness of “the Word” who became flesh as Jesus Christ, so this cannot refer to Him. The “God” whom no one has ever seen at any time thus has to be referring to the Father.
John repeats this exact same statement in 1 John 4:12: “No one has seen God at any time.”
We also see two such explicit statements from Jesus Christ Himself. Notice John 5:37: “And the Father Himself, who sent Me, has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His form” (emphasis added throughout).
And just to be clear, Jesus again says that no one has ever seen the Father in John 6:46: “No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father” (New International Version).
Here Jesus plainly says that no one has seen the Father except the One who is from God—this referring to Himself. He alone has seen the Father. No human being has ever seen the Father.
Yet in the books of the Old Testament period we’re told that a number of people did see God. They include Abraham (Genesis 12:7; Genesis 15:1; Genesis 18:1), Isaac (Genesis 26:2; Genesis 26:24), Jacob (Genesis 28:13; Genesis 32:30; Genesis 35:9-10), Moses (Exodus 3:6; Exodus 33:11; Exodus 33:21-23), Aaron and the 70 elders of Israel (Exodus 24:9-11), Joshua (Joshua 6:2) and Gideon (Judges 6:14).
Nearly all of these are described as face-to-face encounters. Two involved eating a meal with God, and Jacob literally wrestled with God.
So whom did these individuals see when they saw God? The only way we can make sense of this is to understand that no man had seen God the Father at any time.
What they saw as recorded in these many passages, and at other times when God appeared to individuals, was the Word who was God (John 1:1), the One who was born in the flesh as Jesus of Nazareth. With this understanding there is no contradiction. The Bible doesn’t contradict itself, as “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35).
What Scripture reveals is that Jesus was the One who interacted with the patriarchs and prophets and the people of Israel as the Lord or God on behalf of the Father. They never saw the Father, but only the Word or Spokesman of God, who came to reveal the Father (John 1:18).
The One who appeared and spoke to people as God was the One who became Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself clearly said this, and the people who heard Him knew that was exactly what He meant. Notice this in John 8:57-58, where Jesus was in a heated debate with some of the Jews who opposed Him, and He said that Abraham rejoiced to see His day.
“Then the Jews said to Him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.’”
Here Jesus specifically told them of His divine identity—that He existed before Abraham, and then that He was the God who had interacted with people during the Old Testament period. Whom did He specifically claim to be?
We find the answer in Exodus 3:13-14, where God appeared to Moses at the burning bush and told Moses that He would deliver the Israelites from their enslavement in Egypt.
“Then Moses said to God, ‘Indeed, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they say to me, “What is His name?” what shall I say to them?’ And God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ And He said, ‘Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, “I AM has sent me to you.”’”
And 15 centuries later, what did Jesus say about who He was? Going back to what we just read in John 8:58, “Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.’”
And notice what happened immediately after Jesus said these words: “Then they took up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by” (John 8:59).
The Jews who heard Jesus say these words knew exactly what He meant—that He was claiming to be the “I AM” who had interacted with Moses. And how did they react? They immediately took up stones to stone Him to death for claiming to be God!
The New Testament writers understood who and what Jesus Christ was and applied prophecies of “the Lord”—Israel’s God—to Jesus Christ.
For example, the apostle Peter writes in 1 Peter 2:7-8: “To you who believe, He [Jesus Christ] is precious; but to those who are disobedient, [He is] . . . ‘ a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.’” He is quoting Isaiah 8:13-14, which foretold that “the Lord of hosts” would be a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.
The apostle Paul applies several Old Testament passages about the Lord to Jesus Christ. For example, Joel 2:32 says, “And it shall come to pass that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” In Romans 10:9-13 Paul applies this prophecy to Jesus Christ.
And in a prophecy that is so obvious that we tend to read right over it, Isaiah 40:3 foretold the coming of “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”
This is a prophecy of John the Baptist. But for whom was he to prepare the way? It tells us plainly that John was to prepare the way for “the Lord.” How was this prophecy fulfilled? Read Matthew 3:3: “For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying: ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord . . .”’” (see also Mark 1:2-3 and Luke 3:3-4).
John was to prepare the way for the coming of whom? The coming of the Lord. And who was the Lord John prepared the way for? Jesus Christ.
Although there are a number of such examples, we’ll note one more that specifically identifies Jesus Christ as “the Rock” who accompanied Israel at the time of the Exodus from Egypt. Notice 1 Corinthians 10:1-4: “Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed [or accompanied] them, and that Rock was Christ” (see also 1 Corinthians 10:9).
These are not all the scriptures pertinent to this subject, but they are enough to clearly demonstrate that the One who interacted with human beings in the Old Testament period as God on behalf of the Father was the One we know today as Jesus Christ.
-- Scott Ashley