‘Layers of Grace’


John 1:6-9, 15-18

In the midst of the opening to John’s gospel, in which he beautifully describes God becoming human flesh and dwelling among us, the language suddenly changes from poetry to prose and the character of John the Baptist is introduced. This might at first seem out of place. Why interrupt such a beautiful and power piece of writing to tell us about a crazy prophet in the desert? Why mention John the Baptist by name before Jesus is mentioned by name? But there is a purpose in what seems an odd interruption. John the Baptist is a key figure in the early chapters of John’s Gospel.

The introduction of John the Baptist so early in the gospel brings the story of God taking on human flesh and dwelling among us into a concrete human place and time. John is a real flesh and blood person, living in a particular place and at a particular time.  The Gospel writer is no longer talking about the eternally existing Word that is somewhere ‘out there’. God in flesh is now in our history.

But such a great event must be witnessed and the witnesses must testify to what they have seen. Over and over in John’s gospel he will talk about all those who witness or testify to the truth of who Jesus is, including the God the Father, Jesus himself, the disciples, and many others. But John the Baptist is the very first witness introduced in John’s gospel. And this is no accident. The Gospel writer has chosen his lead witness carefully, and for a reason.

There had not been a prophet in Israel for 400 years. And then John the Baptist shows up on the scene. He comes preaching repentance, and also proclaiming that the long-awaited Messiah has come. John makes a point of clarifying that he is not that Messiah. Sometimes we can get so excited by the message that we confuse the message and the messenger. But John makes it very clear that he is pointing to someone else. And the gospel writer opens his case for Jesus as the Messiah, as God in human flesh, with the testimony of John the Baptist.

After the first five verses of the prologue to the fourth Gospel the pace suddenly changes, and the tone shifts, and we read this: ‘There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light’ (v. 6).

If you have ever sat through a court case, or perhaps followed one in the papers, you will know that a lawyer seeks to set the tone of their argument at the very beginning. Their first witness, or lead witness, is part of setting this tone. Everything else builds on that.  Everyone in the courtroom for a big case waits with expectation as the lawyer says, ‘your honour, I call to the stand’ (then a pause for suspense) and the name is given. This is the first key indication of where the argument in the case is going.

Well, imagine that is what the Gospel-writer, who uses the words witness and testify frequently in the early part of the gospel, is doing. He has just made his opening statement. And it is a big one. Now he calls for his first witness …. Wait for it … the crazy prophet living along the banks of Jordan river and eating grasshoppers and wild honey – John the Baptist. The crowd gasps. It is a bold and unexpected move.

It is a bold move because some were saying that John the Baptist was not as crazy as he appeared. They thought he might be a real prophet, like in times past. Not only that, but he might even be the forerunner of the Messiah? The one who was meant to pave the way for the coming king? So the alert reader can see where the Gospel writer might well be going with this choice of lead witness.

So what is the testimony of John the Baptist?

First, John testifies that Jesus is the light.

Five times in the space of three verses some form of light is mentioned. We are told twice that John comes to testify to the light. That he himself is not that light. We are told that this light will enlighten everyone. And we are told that this light is coming into the world.

One of the great themes of John’s gospel, that Jesus is the light of the world, begins here with the testimony of John the Baptist.

After an interlude in which the Evangelist goes back to the theme of the Word being made flesh in verses 10-14, he returns again to the Baptist in verse 15. He tells us that John the Baptist also  testified to the Word made flesh. So the case is building. The light of the world and Word made flesh are seen to be one and the same person.

John the Baptist goes on to testify that that this Jesus was the one of whom he had said ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ Once again John the Baptist is making sure that his testimony points to Jesus and not to himself.

Perhaps you have followed a court case in the news where there is a celebrity witness in a trial. When they get up to speak everyone forgets that it is not about them. The media show images of them coming into and leaving court. It is reported what they are wearing, and everything they say. And sometimes it can be forgotten that they are a witness only. John the Baptist wants to make sure that he does not become a celebrity witness who distracts people from Jesus, the Word made flesh and the light of the world.

It is here that the Gospel writer begins to reveal the meaning and importance of John’s testimony. This is the part that sets the tone for what will follow. This is the part where we find out why this Word made flesh and this light of the world are important for us. This is where the Gospel writer begins to flesh out for his readers just who Jesus is and what he does.

And this is where the Gospel writer explains the significance of John the Baptist’s testimony. This is what the coming of the light, the coming of the Word made flesh, means to us.

‘From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. The law was given through Moses, but grace came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close the Father heart, who has made him known.’ (vv 16-18).

In Christ we receive grace upon grace. It is simply one layer after another.

Have you ever bought what looked like a great cake at the bakery. You bring it home with great anticipation. They you cut into it and disover that only the top layer had chocolate swirls and strawberries? What was underneath was simply filling.  Imagine the life we have from Jesus, the light of the world, as being like a cake of many layers.  But when we cut into it we are not disappointed. Each layer is as good as the one above it. In Jesus we receive one layer of grace upon another.  There is no hidden law buried underneath. There are no hidden requirements to earn what we have received. The transforming light of the world is one experience of grace after the next. The life of forgiveness in Christ is grace all the way down. That is what is means that from Jesus’ fullness we have all received grace upon grace.’

The Law indeed came through Moses, we are told. And the Law was not a bad thing. In fact, the Law was and still is very useful. But the Law does not reconcile us with the Father. The Law does not bring us forgiveness. The Law is not life-giving. That is why the gift of grace that Jesus brought to us trumps the Law. The grace we have in Jesus transforms us, sets us free, and brings us peace with God.

Not only that, but the grace we have in Jesus brings us to the Father. In the Old Testament no one had seen God face to face. No one could bear to see God in his glory. Not even Moses. But in Jesus we are brought into the very heart of the Father.

That is why we celebrate Jesus as the light of the world. That is why in Jesus, we experience nothing but grace upon grace.