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Lesson 5: Why You Should Believe in Jesus (John 1:15-18)

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March 17, 2013

Suppose that you have an opportunity to share Christ with a friend or family member and that person says, “I’m relatively happy just as I am and I really enjoy not having anything to do (like going to church) on Sunday mornings. Why should I believe in Jesus?” What would you say?

There are many different things that could be said. It would seem that anyone who gave such an answer has no idea of his precarious standing before the Judge of the universe. He’s one breath away from eternal condemnation and yet he thinks things are going well and he sees no need to be reconciled with God. He has no idea of the magnitude of his own sin and guilt or of the absolute holiness and justice of God. So you may need to explore those issues before your friend would appreciate the message of our text.

But at some point, as I’ve pointed out in our previous studies in John, the issue becomes, “Who do you say that Jesus is?” If He is who He claimed to be and who John presents Him to be in this gospel, then it would be extremely foolish not to believe in Him as your Savior and Lord. In our text, John builds on the wonderful truths in verse 14 to give four more reasons to believe in Jesus:

You should believe in Jesus because He is greater than all the prophets; He provides abundant grace; He is greater than Moses and the law; and, He is God’s ultimate revelation to us.

In verse 14, John says, “and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” In our text, he continues to unfold the glory of Jesus Christ, the eternal Word. Someday when we see Jesus in the fullness of His glory that sight will transform us to be like Him (1 John 3:2): “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.” (See, also, 2 Cor. 3:18.) So our text has practical value, not only for pointing others to Christ, but also for transforming us into the image of Jesus Christ as we see more of His glory now.

As I said last week, the background behind our text is probably the encounter that Moses had with God in Exodus 33 & 34. After Moses secures God’s promise to go with them on their journey to the promised land, he boldly asks (33:18), “I pray You, show me Your glory!” God responds (33:19), “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.”

Then God explains to Moses that he cannot see God’s face and live, but He will show him “His back.” So Moses returns to Mount Sinai, the Lord descends in the cloud, and we read (Exod. 34:6-7), “Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.’”

So Moses asks to see God’s glory and God responds by showing him His sovereign grace, compassion, and truth. In our text, John wants us to see that in Jesus, we see God’s abundant grace and goodness far more than Moses saw it, because Jesus is God’s ultimate revelation to us.

1. You should believe in Jesus because as eternal God, He is greater than all the prophets (1:15).

John 1:15, John testified about Him and cried out, saying, ‘This was He of whom I said, “He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.”’” Since verse 16 seems to explain verse 14, verse 15 may be “a planned parenthetical remark” (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 130). If the prologue is arranged in a chiastic structure, then verse 15 corresponds to verses 6-8, which also report John’s witness to Jesus. And, it also sets the stage for the extended section on John the Baptist’s witness that immediately follows the prologue.

What does John the Baptist mean by his statement, “He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me”? It could be translated, “He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me,” or “he was first with respect to me” (Carson, p. 131). John was six months older than Jesus (Luke 1:24-31) and he began his public ministry before Jesus’ ministry. So by the first part of that declaration, John was dispelling the common cultural view that the older man had greater honor than the younger one. He is saying that Jesus is the greater one.

But what does he mean by the last phrase, “because he was first with respect to me”? It’s unlikely that John the Baptist was clear from the outset of Jesus’ eternal existence as the Word. After all, it took the disciples until after the resurrection for the fog to lift so that they understood the truth that Jesus is God. So it may be that the Baptist meant, “He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was always greater than I.” But as Colin Kruse explains (John [IVP Academic], p. 73), “The evangelist may have introduced a note of ambiguity into the way he has reported John’s words so that his readers will recognize that John spoke better than he knew.” Later in this gospel (11:50-52; 18:39; 19:14-15, 19, 21-22), both Caiaphas and Pilate spoke better than they knew (ibid.).

So, the apostle John wants us to see that Jesus is greater than John the Baptist and all the other prophets because, whether the Baptist fully recognized it or not, Jesus is the eternal Word. He had a higher rank than John because He existed before John, although he was younger than John. Jesus said that there were none greater than John the Baptist (Matt. 11:11). So if John himself testified that Jesus was greater than he, and if John’s words about Jesus may be taken to point to His preexistence, then Jesus is greater than all the prophets. Thus we should believe in Him.

2. You should believe in Jesus because He provides abundant grace for all who believe in Him (1:16).

John 1:16, “For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace.” As I said, verse 16 seems to be explaining verse 14, which said that Jesus is “full of grace.” Verse 17 will elaborate on the fact (from 1:14) that Jesus is also full of truth.

Paul wrote (Col. 2:9), “For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form.” So there is an infinite fullness, the very fullness of God, in Jesus Christ. When we receive Christ by trusting in Him (John 1:12), we become children of God and thus heirs to all the riches of heaven (Eph. 1:3; Rom. 8:16, 17; Eph. 2:7). So in verse 16, John means (as J. C. Ryle explains, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 3:38), “All we who believe in Jesus have received an abundant supply of all that our souls need out of the full store that resides in Him for His people. It is from Christ and Christ alone, that all our spiritual wants have been supplied.”

I hate to burden such a wonderful verse with a technical interpretive issue, but we do need to consider what John means by the phrase, “grace upon grace.” John uses a Greek preposition, anti, that means that one thing is replaced by another or put in the place of another. In light of verse 17, many reputable commentators understand it to mean that the grace of the law was replaced by the grace of Jesus Christ (Carson, p. 132; Andreas Kostenberger, John [Baker], pp. 46-47; this view goes back to several early church fathers). They contend that if John had meant “grace upon grace,” he would have used another preposition, epi. In light of God’s revelation to Moses of His grace in Exodus 33 & 34, this may be what John means for us to understand. But it strikes me as a bit subtle, especially since the law itself was not noted for dispensing grace.

The Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich Greek-English Lexicon [University of Chicago Press], 2nd ed., p. 73) says that in John 1:16, anti means “grace pours forth in ever new streams.” (In the same vein, see A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament [Broadman Press], p. 574.) Another scholar, Murray J. Harris (The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology [Zondervan], ed. by Colin Brown, p. 1179) says that the preposition in this verse “denotes a perpetual and rapid succession of blessings, as though there were no interval between the arrival of one blessing and the receipt of the next.” When you add in the idea of Jesus’ fullness, at the very least John wants us to see that in Him we get all the grace that we need. It’s an inexhaustible supply.

John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 50) applies verse 16 in three ways. He says that first it shows us that while we’re all spiritually destitute, the abundance that exists in Christ “is intended to supply our deficiency, to relieve our poverty, to satisfy our hunger and thirst.” Second, if we depart from Christ, “it is in vain for us to seek a single drop of happiness” elsewhere. The world can never give us the lasting joy we find in Christ. Third, we have no reason to fear lacking anything if we draw on Christ’s fullness, because He is “a truly inexhaustible fountain.” He points out that John includes himself in verse 16 to make it plain that no one is excepted. All who believe have received grace upon grace.

But it’s easy to say that Christ satisfies our every need with His fullness and grace, but it’s another thing really to experience it. It’s so easy when problems hit to turn to other things than Christ for relief. Even many Christians turn to worldly techniques or to tranquilizers or even to alcohol to reduce stress and “calm their nerves.” But here is Jesus’ prescription for peace in a troubled world (John 16:33): “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”

Paul said that the way to overcome anxiety is to seek the Lord in prayer (Phil. 4:6-7): “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Maybe you’re thinking, “I tried that, but the problems didn’t go away.” Well, Paul tried it, too, and his problems didn’t go away. That’s when the Lord told him (2 Cor. 12:9), “My grace is sufficient for you, for [My] power is perfected in weakness.” The key to peace is not the absence of problems, but the presence of the all-sufficient grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.

3. You should believe in Jesus because He is greater than Moses and the law (1:17).

John 1:17: For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.” Why does John introduce the law and Moses here? For one thing, in Exodus 34, when God called Moses back to Mount Sinai to reveal His glory, He instructed him to cut out two stone tablets like the former ones that he had broken in anger when he went down the mountain and found the people worshiping the golden calf (Exod. 34:1). God re-issued the law on that occasion of showing Moses His glory. The law, as summarized in the Ten Commandments, manifested God’s grace (“lovingkindness”) and truth (Exod. 34:6). If that passage is the backdrop for these verses in John, then he is showing that as great as the law and Moses were, someone who embodies grace and truth had now “tabernacled” among us.

Andreas Kostenberger (ibid., p. 47) points out, “Rather than offend the Gospel’s Jewish audience, this verse is designed to draw it in: ‘If you want an even more gracious demonstration of God’s covenant love and faithfulness,’ the evangelist tells his readers, ‘it is found in Jesus Christ.’” So John is saying, “If you thought that God’s gift of the law through Moses was a great thing (and it was), He has given us a greater gift now through Jesus Christ.”

But it seems to me that John is at the same time drawing a contrast between the inferiority of the law and the superiority of Jesus Christ. Leon Morris (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 112) points out, “The contrast of the Christian way with the Jewish and the function of Moses as subordinate to and pointing forward to the Christ is a recurring theme in the Gospel (see 5:39, 46; 6:32; 8:32ff.; 9:28ff.).” J. C. Ryle (Ibid., 3:40) puts it this way:

By Moses was given the law—the moral law, full of high and holy demands, and of stern threatenings against disobedience;—the ceremonial law, full of burdensome sacrifices, ordinances, and ceremonies, which never healed the worshipper’s conscience, and at best were only shadows of good things to come.

By Christ, on the other hand, came grace and truth—grace by the full manifestation of God’s plan of salvation, and the offer of complete pardon to every soul that believes on Jesus,—and truth, by the unveiled exhibition of Christ Himself, as the true sacrifice, the true Priest, and the true atonement for sin.

Augustine, on this verse, says: “The law threatened, not helped; commanded, not healed; showed, not took away, our feebleness. But it made ready for the Physician who was to come with grace and truth.”

Also, note that this is the first time that John has used the human name, Jesus, or His designation as Christ, or Messiah. He uses “Jesus” 237 times, more than any other gospel and more than a quarter of all New Testament uses (Morris, p. 112). He also uses “Christ” more often than any other gospel, although he only uses “Jesus Christ” together one other time (17:3; but see 20:31). In 1:17, John is making it clear that the Word who was in the beginning with God, the Word who was God, and the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us, is none other than Jesus the Messiah of Israel.

As I pointed out in our last study, God’s grace and truth reach their apex at the cross. His truth demanded that the penalty for sin be fully paid. His grace provided Jesus, the eternal Son of God, as that payment for sin for all who believe in Him. So make sure that you have received God’s gift of eternal life by trusting in Jesus Christ as your sin-bearer.

Thus John says that you should believe in Jesus because He is greater than all the prophets, including John the Baptist; you should believe in Him because He provides abundant grace for all who believe; you should believe in Him because He is greater than Moses and the law. Finally,

4. You should believe in Jesus because He is God’s ultimate revelation to us (1:18).

John 1:18: “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” At first glance, this verse seems to come out of nowhere. Why would John abruptly bring up the fact that no one has seen God? There may be two reasons: First, if Exodus 33 & 34 is the backdrop for these verses, when Moses there asked God to show him His glory, God responded that no man could see Him and live (Exod. 33:20). Second, verse 18 wraps up the chiasm of the prologue by tying back to verse 1. We cannot know the invisible God unless He reveals Himself to us, which He has done in the Word. Jesus, the Word, who is the only Son of God, the one who was “with God” (1:1), “in the bosom of the Father” (1:18), “He has explained Him” to us.

You may wonder why Exodus 24:10 says that the leaders of Israel saw God and Isaiah saw God (Isa. 6:1) and yet God Himself says that no one can see Him and live; John says that no one has seen God at any time; and Paul says that no man has seen or can see God (1 Tim. 6:16). The answer is that no one has seen the essence of God in His unmitigated glory. Those who got a vision of God either saw Christ in His preincarnate glory (John 12:41) or they had an obscured vision of the glory around God’s throne. Almost always, those who got such a limited vision of God were terrified by the experience. But now Jesus has revealed God to us, especially His abundant grace and truth.

Some of you have a translation that reads, “the only begotten Son” rather than “the only begotten God.” The earliest and best manuscripts favor the reading “only begotten God.” Since it is a unique phrase and is more difficult to explain than “only begotten Son,” a scribe probably changed the original to “only begotten Son” to correspond to John 3:16 & 18. Thus translated literally, the verse in the original probably read, “the unique Son, God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” As Jesus will later say (6:46), “Not that anyone has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; He has seen the Father.” And (14:9), “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.”

So verse 18 again (as in 1:1, “the Word was God”) affirms Jesus’ deity, but at the same time distinguishes Him from the Father (as in 1:1, “the Word was with God”). He is the eternal Son of God, always in intimate relationship with the eternal Father. The phrase “in the bosom of the Father” corresponds to “the Word was with God” (1:1) and points to the close and unbroken fellowship that Jesus enjoyed with the Father, as seen in His prayer in chapter 17. It also shows us the horror of the cross for Jesus, when as He bore our sins He cried out (Matt. 27:46), “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”

The word “explained” is the Greek word from which we get our word “exegete.” It is parallel to “the Word” in 1:1. Just as a word explains an unseen thought, so Jesus, the Word, explains the unseen God to us. The only way that you can know the Father is through Jesus His Son (Luke 10:22; John 14:6). Elsewhere John writes (1 John 2:23), “Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also.” In John 5:23 Jesus states, “He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him.”

This means that the cults, which all deny the deity of Jesus, cannot bring anyone to God. It also means that the Insider Movement, which has changed the terms “Father” and “Son” because they are offensive to Muslims has perverted the core of the gospel. It’s fine to explain what the terms mean, but it’s not fine to change the terms that God has used to reveal Himself to us in His Son.


John didn’t write these things to satisfy our curiosity or to stimulate intellectual discussions. Rather, he wants us to know that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, so that we will believe in Him for eternal life (20:31). Why should you believe in Jesus? John says that you should believe in Jesus because He is greater than all the prophets; He provides abundant grace for all that trust in Him; He is greater than Moses and the law; and, He is God’s ultimate revelation of Himself to us.

If you turn away from faith in Jesus Christ, you are rejecting the witness that God has given concerning His Son. If you believe, then you can say with John (1 John 5:20), “And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding so that we may know Hi m who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.”

Application Questions

  1. When you share your faith, why is it important to keep steering the conversation back to who Jesus is? To what extent should you detour into answering questions and objections?
  2. Do you struggle with doubts? How can rehearsing the apostolic witness to Jesus strengthen your faith and help you deal with bouts of doubt?
  3. Sometimes you’ll hear that believing in Jesus is a blind “leap of faith.” Why is this a harmful view of faith? If faith is based on solid evidence, then how is it faith?
  4. Some authors draw a contrast between “the God of the Old Testament,” whom they say is judgmental, and Jesus, whom they say is loving and full of mercy. Why is this fallacious?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christology, Grace, Law, Revelation, Soteriology (Salvation)

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