John 1:14, 16
“And the Word came to be flesh
and put down (his) tent among us”
These words open the fourth (and final) strophe, or poetic unit, of the Christ hymn in the Prologue of John. The first three units represent a definite sequence of development: (1) pre-existence (before the creation), (2) the creation of the world, and (3) a transition from the creation to the earthly life of Jesus. It is the latter that is emphasized here in the fourth unit, defined by the traditional theological term incarnation, a term which derives its meaning in large part from the phrase in v. 14, “came to be flesh” (sa\rc e)ge/neto).
It the Logos of God—that is, the eternal Wisdom and Word of God (personified)—who is the subject of this strophe, even as it was the subject of the first three strophes. Though we may be accustomed simply to equate Jesus for the Logos in vv. 1-13, it is important to maintain the conceptual sequence of the Prologue, following closely the development of thought.
In the third strophe (vv. 10-12a), the Logos comes into the world, reflecting the Wisdom tradition whereby the Wisdom of God seeks to find a dwelling-place among human beings on earth (cf. Sirach 24:8ff; 1 Enoch 42, and the discussion in the prior note). This pattern, or paradigm, is significant, since it establishes clearly the identification of Jesus with the Wisdom and Word (i.e., the Logos) of God. Jesus comes into the world, living among human beings, just as the Divine Wisdom sought to make a home among the people.
The conceptual pattern in the Prologue is finally realized in verse 14, with the majestic declaration that the Logos “came to be flesh and put down (his) tent among us”. The presence of God, through His Word and Wisdom, is now embodied through the presence of a real flesh-and-blood human being. There are two parts to this declaration in v. 14a; let us examine each of them in turn.
o( lo/go$ sa\rc e)ge/neto
“the Word came to be flesh”
The noun sa/rc (“flesh”) was used in verse 13 (cf. the previous note), as a shorthand reference for the sexual (and physiological-biological) process of human childbirth. Here, too, the birth of a child is certainly in view. The use of the verb of becoming (gi/nomai) confirms this, since it frequently connotes a human being coming to be born (cf. also the related verb genna/w, v. 13). Though this verb has been used repeatedly in the Prologue, always in reference to created beings, it is now used of the Logos, which would seem to be incongruous and inappropriate. It does, however, rightly refer to the birth of a human being. Thus, the statement implies that the Logos came to be born as a human being.
Nowhere in the New Testament do we find such a clear (theological) declaration, to the effect that God—or, more precisely, the pre-existent Word/Wisdom (or Son) of God—came to be born as a human being. The references to the virginal conception of Jesus in the Infancy narratives do not go nearly so far, however much the Divine Presence (through His Spirit, etc) is implied (Matt 1:18, 20, 23; Lk 1:35). Paul, on two rare occasions, alludes to Jesus’ birth and suggests, through his wording, at least a rudimentary belief in Jesus as the pre-existent Son of God (Rom 1:3; Gal 4:4, cf. also the Christ hymn of Philippians 2:6ff). The Johannine Prologue, however, has a much clearer and developed sense of Jesus’ divine pre-existence. Even so, the specific idea of incarnation is not limited to the Gospel of John, for we find comparable expressions in Phil 2:7, and again by Paul in Rom 8:3:
“…he emptied himself, taking (the) form of a slave, coming to be in (the) likeness of men” (Phil 2:7)
“…God (did), sending His Son in (the) likeness of flesh of sin…” (Rom 8:3)
The statement in v. 14 does not have the negative context of sin and slavery present in those passages, but the darkness of the world, into which the incarnate Logos was entering, was clearly established in verses 5ff, and that dualistic motif (i.e., light vs. darkness) certainly entails the idea of sin and bondage (cf. 1:29; 8:34-35; 16:8-9),
R. E. Brown, in his commentary (p. 30), suggests a conscious parallel in the Prologue between verse 1 and 14 (marking the first and fourth units of the hymn). These are the only verses which specifically mention the Logos by name, and properly reflect the beginning- and end-points of the hymn (pre-existence and incarnation). Note the conceptual parallelism:
|The Word was (h@n) [v. 1]
|The Word came to be (e)ge/neto) [v. 14]
(Existence as a human being)
|The Word with (pro/$) God [v. 1]||The Word among (e)n) human beings [v. 14]|
|The Word was God||(The Word came to be flesh [i.e. a human being])|
These dual-aspects of the Logos—Divine existence with an existence as a human being—come together in the image of the incarnate Logos (i.e., the Wisdom of God) making its dwelling among human beings.
kai\ e)skh/nwsen e)n u(mi=n
“and put down (his) tent among us”
The verb skhno/w is often translated blandly as “dwell”, however it literally refers to putting down (pitching) a tent (skh/nh). In Old Testament tradition, YHWH is described as dwelling among the people Israel, primarily through the portable Tent-shrine (Tabernacle), which later took a more fixed form in the Jerusalem Temple structure. But the original (and fundamental) idea was of God having his tent-dwelling, among the tents of his people. This “tent” had both a symbolic and ritual aspect, as well as a more numinous (and mystical) aspect, being the place where chosen ones—priests and prophets—encountered the Divine Presence.
Within this conceptual religious pattern, two distinct lines of Jewish tradition influenced the use of the tent-dwelling motif here in the Prologue:
- The idea of the Wisdom of God seeking to find a dwelling on earth, among human beings (and the people of Israel)—Prov 8:31; Sirach 24:8ff; 1 Enoch 42; cf. the prior discussion on verses 10ff.
- The convention of referring to the Word (Aramaic ar*m=ym@, Mêmr¹°) of God, as a pious substitution, in place of YHWH Himself. Thus, the idea that YHWH would dwell among His people, was expressed in terms of His Memra (Word) dwelling among them.
This same imagery is applied to Jesus as the incarnate Wisdom/Word of God—dwelling among His people in a new and different way.
The preposition e)n can mean “among”, especially when dealing with a group of people, etc. However, a more literal rendering of the phrase would be “and put down (his) tent in us”. This would reflect the Johannine theology in its more developed form within the Gospel narrative. By the point of the Last Discourse, set at the end of Jesus’ earthly life, we find most clearly the idea that God the Father, along with Jesus the Son, would take up His dwelling in (e)n) believers, through the presence of the Spirit (14:16-17, 20, 23; 15:4-5; 17:21-26). Again, this can be understood in terms of God dwelling among believers (collectively) or within each one (individually)—both are entirely valid ways of understanding the situation.
So also, the pronoun “us” (“in/among us,” e)n u(mi=n) has several layers of meaning, when considered within the full context of the Johannine Gospel:
“us” = the people of Israel, those living in Galilee and Judea, etc, who encountered Jesus during his earthly life
“us” = the people of God, especially the righteous/faithful ones who accept the Wisdom and Word of God
“us” = believers in Christ, those who accept Jesus as the Son of God, in accordance with the Christology of the Johannine Gospel (including the Prologue)
This Christmas, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, let us never lose sight of the profound mystery of the incarnation, a mystery that we will continue to explore through our study of the Johannine Prologue. The initial statement of verse 14, discussed here in this note, is just the beginning of the climactic strophe of the Prologue-hymn. Six marvelous lines remain, and we will proceed on our journey through them in the next daily note.