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Chapter 9. The Meaning of “Became” in “The Word Became Flesh”

– Chapter 9 –

The Meaning of “Became” in “The Word Became Flesh”

How do we understand John’s declaration that “the Word be­came flesh” (John 1:14a)? It is generally agreed that “flesh” refers to humanity, but what is the meaning of “became”? Trinita­rians say that the Word — which they take as the eternal second per­son of the Trinity — “became flesh” in the sense that God became a man by incarnat­ion, yet without ceasing to be God. [1] As a result, Jesus is the God-man who is fully God and fully man, forever.

In the last chapter, we saw that this incarnational view is under­mined by the fact that in the Greek text, “dwelt among us” is liter­ally “tented in us”. John is saying that the Word, who is God, “became flesh” in the sense of tenting “in us” — in God’s people, who are the temple of God, with Christ as the corner­stone.

Paul likewise does not support the trinitarian view that God be­came a God-man. To the contrary, Paul says that “all the fullness of the Deity lives in him in bodily form” (Col.2:9). Paul depicts God and Jesus as two distinct individuals (cf. 1Cor.11:3, “the head of Christ is God”). God lives “bodily” in Jesus who else­where is said to be the temple of God, reminding us of the words, “the glory of Yahweh filled the tabernacle” (Ex.40:34).

We too are the temple of God with Christ as the corner­stone. As a result, God’s entire fullness dwells not just in Christ but also in God’s people: “that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph.3:19).

BDAG’s definition of ginomai

Our main question is: What is the meaning of “became” in “the Word became flesh” (Jn.1:14)? In the Greek, “became” is egeneto, a gramma­tical form of the verb ginomai. BDAG gives ten definit­ions of ginomai, listed here with cita­tions omitted. I high­lighted definitions #5 and #6 because they are relevant for the various inter­pretations of John 1:14. If you wish to skip the details, just read definitions #5 and #6:

1. to come into being through process of birth or natural production, be born, be produced

2. to come into existence, be made, be created, be manufactured, be performed

3. come into being as an event or phenomenon from a point of origin, arise, come about, develop

4. to occur as process or result, happen, turn out, take place

5. to experience a change in nature and so indicate entry into a new condition, become something

6. to make a change of location in space, move

7. to come into a certain state or possess certain characteristics, to be, prove to be, turn out to be

8. to be present at a given time, be there

9. to be closely related to someone or something, belong to

10. to be in or at a place, be in, be there

Since ginomai has so many nuanced definitions, John 1:14 is one of those verses in the Bible (in fact one of many such verses in the Bible) in which the dict­ionary meaning of a word (in this case, ginomai) does not gov­ern the meaning of the whole verse. It is rather the reverse: It is our under­stand­ing of the whole verse that governs the meaning of a specific word in the verse.

I drew your attention to definitions #5 and #6. Definition #5 (“to experience a change in nature”) aligns with the trinita­rian view that the second person of the Trinity changed in nature to became a God-man by incarna­tion. In fact definition #5a is the one that BDAG assigns to John 1:14. It is possible that BDAG may be presupposing the trinitar­ian view, but this is not stated explicitly. As a result, BDAG rightly refrains from entering into non-biblical theological territory.

It is crucial to note that almost none of BDAG’s bibli­cal citat­ions given in support of “change in nature” actually speaks of a change in nature as we might understand that phrase. Most of these citations speak rather of a change in one’s relation to an­other per­son (e.g., Herod and Pilate “became friends,” Lk.23:12, indicating a new status in their relat­ionship).

Definition #6 (“make a change of locat­ion in space”) is helpful for bringing out the biblical meaning of John 1:14 where God makes a change of location in the sense of taking up resi­dence in a tabernacle (“tented in us”). This meaning — “make a change of location” — is seen also in v.6 of John’s Prologue where ginomai carries this mean­ing for John the Baptist: “there came (ginomai) a man sent from God”.

Hence def­inition #5 (“a change in nature”) remains relevant for John 1:14 for expressing God’s new mode of existence in humanity (God now dwell­s “in us”).

But an examination of BDAG’s supporting citations for definition #5a outside the disputed John 1:14 shows that none car­ries any mean­ing that resembles trinita­rian incarnation.

Here are some examples: the disci­ples will “become fishers of men” (Mk.1:17); Judas “became a traitor” (Lk.6:16); Herod and Pilate “became friends” (Lk.23:12); Abraham will “be­come the father of many nations” (Rom.4:18); Christ “became a high priest” (Heb.5:5). Not even John 1:12 (“the right to become child­ren of God”) or Matthew 5:45 (“that you may become sons of your Father”) has any meaning that resem­bles trinit­a­rian incarnation.

In all these cases, people remain peo­ple. They are not trans­formed from man to God, or from God to man, or from God to God-man. There is, however, a new status in their relationship with their fellow men or with God.

Not even Matthew 4:3 (“command these stones to become bread”) can be used in support of the incarnational view of John 1:14, not only because Matthew 4:3 has to do with material things (bread and stones, whereas God is spirit) but also because it is the only biblical citat­ion for definition #5a in BDAG that carries even the slightest hint of material trans­form­ation. Mat­thew 4:3 therefore does not represent any common mean­ing of ginomai but only a rare and solitary mean­ing. So why assign to John 1:14 a rare and solitary mean­ing above the many other plausible meanings? One would do this only if one is already presupposing the trinitarian view of John 1:14. This kind of circu­lar reasoning is called “beg­ging the quest­ion” — the fallacy of presupposing the validity of a conclu­s­ion while building an argument for it. In any case, the trinita­rian view of John 1:14 is unten­able because this verse literally says that the Word tented “in us” — not “among us”.

In the end, the only biblical citation left standing in BDAG’s defin­ition #5a that may “support” the trinitarian view of John 1:14 is John 1:14 itself! So if anyone cites BDAG definit­ion #5a to prove the trinit­arian view of John 1:14 (which BDAG itself does not), it would be an exercise in circular reason­ing. It is immense­ly tautologous to say that the meaning of John 1:14 is determined by the meaning of John 1:14!

Ultimately the meaning of ginomai in John 1:14 is governed by the meaning of the whole verse. The declaration that “the Word became flesh” brings out a picture of God dwelling in flesh — in humanity — in one sense or another. God now lives and tents “in us” — in God’s peo­ple who make up the temple of God — such that we, and pre­eminently Jesus the Mess­iah, are “filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph.3:19).

[1] Evangelical Dictionary of Theology defines the incarnation as “the act whereby the eternal Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, with­out ceasing to be what he is, God the Son, took into union with himself what he before that act did not possess, a human nature, and so He was and con­tinues to be God and man in two distinct natures and one person, for­ever.”


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