When I preach, I typically try to use an entire passage of text. I do this for a few reasons. For one, I want my congregation to hear more of God’s Word than my favorite verses—especially the parts that make them feel uncomfortable. Also, teaching longer passages at a time shows the importance of context in understanding the Bible. There are many more reasons, but suffice it to say that it’s better to read and to teach longer passages at a time as opposed to soundbites of God’s Word.
However, with that being said, I’m breaking my rule this coming Sunday (April 2, 2017) as we approach the most significant Christian holiday—Easter. Instead of preaching an entire passage, this Sunday my text will be merely four English words. Though this is not even the complete verse, indeed it’s the bare minimum for an English sentence, it is one of the most succinct expressions of one of Christianity’s central truth-claims. Here’s a point you can take to the bank: You will never understand Christianity until you understand Easter, and you will never understand Easter until you understand this short sentence. This sentence is not obscurity masquerading as profundity, it is profundity dressed in the humblest attire. You will seldom find such deep truth on such a low shelf. Such a statement demands and deserves the in-depth attention that a sermon on four short words affords.
Kai ha logos sarx egeneto
This phrase doesn’t make sense if don’t know what John means. I mean, how can a word become flesh? That’s a nonsensical notion. However, once you understand what John means, you’ll immediately realize that this claim is as foundational for Christianity as it is shocking. To understand John’s meaning, you must understand two of his key words.
The Greek word logos suffers from an identity problem. It has what we could call a wide semantic range of meaning. A semantic range of meaning is everything a word can mean. An English word that has a similar problem is the word “love.” I love my wife, but I also love my church. I love Jesus, but I love a good, juicy steak. I also love the beach, and I love football (geaux tigers!). I love sleeping late on the weekends. I also love reading a good book. Though I used the same word for all of these sentences, you know that I didn’t mean the same thing for all of them. Our word “love” has a lot of different meanings. Logos is in somewhat of the same boat.
Logos usually translates to the English word “word.” It also means a message, or the contents of a message. Or, it could mean statement. However, it also means rationality or reason. In fact, the English word “logic” is derived from the Greek “logos.” So, you can see that logos is a big word in the Greek language. It’s hard to translate it with a single English word because no single English word quite does it justice. Sometimes logos only means a spoken word, at other times it refers to the divine energy which keeps the world in its harmony. The question is, which of these uses did John, the author of the Gospel According to John, have in mind when he penned these words?
In John’s philosophical and religious context, logos was defined by a Jewish philosopher named Philo (ca. 20 BC-AD 40). Philo used the word “logos” to bridge the gap between Plato’s philosophy and the Old Testament. Without getting too deep into the subject, the Greeks thought of the logos as the unifying principle that drove the world. Logos was the thing, the impersonal thing, that made the world operate like it does, the reason that our thoughts apply to the world, and the intelligence that made the world tick. In an attempt to reconcile Greek philosophy with the Old Testament, a practice that would later be repeated by the church, Philo argued that the logos was ultimately rooted in the God of the Old Testament.
For Philo and for John’s readers, probably even John himself, the concept of logos was not the impersonal thing vainly sought by Greek philosophers, logos was much deeper than that. Logos was God’s essence, God’s transcendent nature, the power of God in creation, the logic by which God operates, and even God Himself. The Logos of God was what gave the universe form and structure. For first century Jews, Logos described the very essence of God containing both God’s power and His rationality. Logos was a merely human term in search of ultimate reality.
Now imagine the shock of saying that the logos, Logos for first-century Jews, became sarx. That is the most shocking statement! This statement is so shocking that anybody with the requisite knowledge would have needed to be told to sit down before reading this!
So, what is sarx? Sarx is the humanly realm. It’s translated in John 1.14 as flesh, but it’s more than flesh and bones. If John only wanted to refer to flesh and bones, he could’ve used the much more definite word for body. Sarx too has a wide semantic range of meaning.
Sarx does mean your flesh and your physical body, but it’s more than that. Sarx means the human experience, complete with all its weaknesses, limitations, shortcomings, and failures. The term comprehends human nature, emotion, desire, and weakness. Sarx is the essence of humanity. You and I look different; we may have different hair and eye color, height, and a host of other differences. But we are all bound by our unwilling participation in sarx. It’s what sets us apart as human beings, with all our glory and dishonor, hope and failure, success and shortcomings. Sarx is our ubiquitous propensity to do our best, yet always fail. It sets us apart as greater than our fellow animals, yet mere shadows of who we ought to be. It’s our greatness as humans made in the image of the only God, yet our continual source of humiliation. It’s what gives us life, yet the bane of our existence.
Once you understand what “logos” and “sarx” mean, you’ll realize a few things. First, no English translation does this verse justice. There’s simply no way to express all of these ideas in a single English sentence. Second, you’ll realize how shocking this statement really is. The essence of God identified with the weakness of humanity in Christ! However, John isn’t done yet—he’s got more to tell us.
One of the main ways that Greek is different from English is word order. In English sentences, we put the subject first, then verb, then object. Consider the sentence: “Emily bullied Nick.” Emily is the subject, bullied is the verb, and Nick is the direct object. Change the order, and you change the meaning, if you don’t destroy it completely.
Greek doesn’t have to follow any particular word order. Instead, Greek uses word order for the purpose of stress. More important words in a significant sentence go closer to the front of the sentence. Now consider the Greek word order of John 1.14: “And the Logos sarx became.” John put the word sarx, the direct object, in front of the verb closer to the front of the sentence. John wanted to stress the fact that the Logos of God associated with, identified with, and related Himself to the sarx of humanity. Athanasius, the great church father who devoted his life to defending orthodox Christology and was kicked out of the church five times for his staunch defense of orthodoxy, summed up this idea when he wrote: “The incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word (Logos) of God entered our world…stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us…[Pitying] our race, moved with compassion for our limitation…He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own…This He did out of sheer love for us.”
John’s central claim in John 1.14 is that the Logos of God, the very essence of His transcendent existence, stooped down and identified Himself with the humiliating essence of humanity. Even though He was well aware of how pitiful we are, how evil we are, and of all the things that you and I have done wrong, the transcendent God, who gives order to the universe, knows no boundaries, and needs no other being, freely associated with and became identified with the humiliation known only to humanity. Let us remember this as we approach Easter!
Notes & Sources
This is the transliteration of the Greek text of John 1.14.
The Greek word “kai” means “and.” It simply isn’t translated because English grammar doesn’t require the translation. Also, English speakers usually don’t begin a sentence with the conjunction “and.”
Gary M. Burge, “Exegetical Insight,” in William D. Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 77.
A common event growing up with my sister!
Mark Noll, Turning Points (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 47.
Athanasius, Of the Incarnation, cited in Mark Noll, 49.
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