by Ed Gallagher
No one has ever seen God. The one and only Son, who is himself God and is at the Father’s side—he has revealed him.John 1:18
If you were writing the story of Jesus, how would you begin? Mark begins with the ministry of John. Matthew begins with the birth of Jesus. Luke begins with the birth of John. How does John’s Gospel begin? John begins before creation, when there existed only God and his Word (and his Spirit, unmentioned here). Why does John begin this way? John presents information about Jesus that helps readers properly interpret who Jesus is and why he behaves in certain ways. Readers of John’s Gospel have more information about Jesus than do the characters in John’s story, who routinely misunderstand Jesus. It’s like watching for a second time a movie with a twist ending (like Sixth Sense); the first time around, the audience may be just as confused as the characters in the story, but on a second viewing, they have more information and more of the details of the story make sense. Somewhat like how the prologue to the Book of Job gives readers a different perspective on Job’s sufferings than is afforded to the characters in the book, so also John’s prologue offers readers a different, truer perspective on the identity of Jesus. John’s prologue (1:1–18) puts his readers in this privileged position.
What do the first words of John’s Gospel sound like? Do they remind you of another biblical book? All four of the Gospels begin with a connection to the Old Testament in some form as an indication that the story of Jesus constitutes a significant event within the ancient purposes of God. The Gospel of John begins with an allusion to the very beginning, Genesis 1:1. As you think about Genesis 1, what is the role of God’s Word in the creation? See Genesis 1:3, 6, 9, etc. According to Genesis 1, God spoke the universe into existence. His “word” (Greek: logos) was the creative agent (cf. Psa 33:6–9). John picks up this concept and, in a sense, expounds upon the significance of this creative word. This creative word was “in the beginning,” and it was with God, as we can easily see in Genesis 1. And if we imagine that this creative word was distinct from God, we should also imagine that this word was itself God, since God created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1). John describes the “Word” (logos) in Genesis 1 as a being with its own identity but also somehow sharing God’s identity. This “Word” created all things (John 1:3), gave life to all creatures (John 1:4; Gen 1:20, 24) and brought light into the world (John 1:5; Gen 1:3–5).
All of the above a Jew could affirm, as did Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher contemporary with Jesus, who thought of God’s logos in a way similar to John 1:1–3. (This description of the Word is also somewhat reminiscent of the Angel of the Lord, who likewise shares God’s identity while remaining distinct from him [cf. Gen 16:11–13; Exod 3:2, 4; etc.].) But John introduces a new concept when he asserts that God’s “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14). The incarnation of God’s Word—the idea that God (the Word) became a human, complete with birth and death—separates Christianity from everything else.
When John says that the Word “dwelt among us,” he uses a word for “dwelt” (skēno-o) related to the word for “tabernacle” or “tent.” Why does John use such a word? In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) the noun form of this word (skēnē) refers to God’s tabernacle (e.g., Exod 26:1), the sign of God’s presence among his people (cf. Exod 29:42–46). When the construction of the tabernacle was completed, the cloud of God’s glory inhabited it (Exod 40:34–35; cf. the temple, 1 Kings 8:10–11). It was God’s glory that Moses had previously asked to see (Exod 33:18). Now John says that the man Jesus served as God’s tabernacle, and his glory was visible in this human being (John 1:14).
John refers to Jesus as the Word of God in only two verses in his entire Gospel (1:1, 14). But John introduces in this prologue another term for Jesus that plays a much bigger role in the Gospel: light (1:5–9; cf. 3:19–21; 8:12; 9:5; 12:35–36, 46). Whereas in Genesis, God’s creative Word produces light and assigns it a place opposite darkness (Gen 1:3–5), John says that the Word is itself light, and this light is in a struggle against darkness. But the darkness can neither overcome nor understand the light (1:5). The word (katalambanō) John uses in v. 5 means both of these things (overcome/understand), though translations must pick one definition to present.
Two other “characters” introduced here that continue to be important in the Gospel are John (the Baptist) and the World. What do we learn about John from the prologue? Like Jesus (cf. 4:34; 5:36–38; etc.), John has been “sent by God” (1:6). Unlike Jesus, John was not the light but a witness to the Light (1:7). The prologue offers a preview of John’s testimony (v. 15; cf. v. 30), which is more fully developed immediately after the prologue (1:19–34; cf. 3:22–30). John saw himself in the role of forerunner, as prophesied in Isaiah 40:3 (cf. John 1:23). He knew he had come to prepare the way for someone far greater than himself (1:26–27), and he was ready to step aside for him (3:30). John testifies that Jesus is the lamb of God (1:29, 36), the Son of God (1:34), and the one on whom the Spirit of God rests (1:32–33).
On the other hand, the World is often a negative character in John’s Gospel. Though the world was created by God’s Word (1:1–3, 10), the world did not accept him (v. 11) because the world is ruled by the devil (cf. 12:31; 14:30). Jesus came as light into the world (1:5–8), but the world preferred darkness (3:19–20). But still God loves the world and sends Jesus to save at least a portion (3:16; 1:12–13).
Into the world, Jesus brings grace and truth (1:14, 17). In the Gospels, the word “grace” appears only in John’s prologue and a few times in Luke. “Truth” appears far more in John (25x) than in any other NT writing: Jesus is the truth (14:6), he imparts truth that grants freedom (8:32), and he sends the Spirit of truth who guides the apostles into all truth (16:13). The theme reaches its climax with Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” (18:38), the word’s final appearance in the Gospel.
John begins his Gospel unlike any other Gospel writer, by stressing the pre-existence and divinity of Jesus, God’s word made flesh, the creator of all things, the light, full of grace and truth. The world is divided according to whether we receive him or not (vv. 10–13).
Questions for Discussion
Why does John begin his Gospel talking about the Word of God? Think about Genesis 1.
What does John mean when he says that the Word was with God and the Word was God? Does this way of describing the Word make sense?
Why does John describe Jesus as “light” (John 1:4–9)? In what way is Jesus like light? Does this theme connect to Genesis 1?
John presents Jesus as the most complete revelation of God (1:18), more than any revelation that came before, either through Moses or others (1:17). This revelation shows a God “full of grace and truth” (1:14, 17). How is this revelation of God’s character consistent with previous revelations (see, e.g., Exod 34:6–7), and how is it distinct?
Since Jesus reveals a God of grace and truth, as God’s people we should embody these traits as well. Can you think of situations in which Christians have failed to be a people of grace and/or truth? What about situations in which Christians have lived up to these ideals?