< December 25, 2019 >

Commentary on John 1:1-14

 

John’s Gospel begins, not at Jesus’ conception or cradle, but at the conception of the cosmos.

No angels, swaddling clothes, or sheep enter the scene to deflect attention from the essential point: God, through whom the world was created, the one who gives light to all people, became a human being. God lived among us and died among us. In this one human being, out of all the billions who have lived, God’s own glory shone with life-giving light.

John’s careful statement, “the Word was with God, and the Word was God” simultaneously identifies the Word as God and describes the Word as “with” and thus in some way separate from God. Marianne Meye Thompson says that calling Jesus God’s word means “he is God’s self-expression, God’s thought or mind, God’s interior word spoken aloud ... [John portrays] Jesus not only as the representative of God, but also as the representation of God: the one whose origins lie uniquely in the very being of God.”1

The term Word (logos in Greek) connects the Genesis 1 creation story with Greek philosophy and thus allows John to speak both to Jews and to Gentiles. According to Genesis 1, God creates through the Word; God speaks, and God’s Word brings each created thing into being. In Greek thought, the Word is the logic that permeates and structures the universe, the divine reason that orders and gives meaning to all that is. Jews and Greeks can agree that the very existence of the created order depends on the Logos, without whom not even one thing has come into being.

Bible translators disagree about where to break the sentence in verses 3 and 4. For example, NRSV reads, “without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life,” while NIV reads, “without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life…” The oldest Greek manuscripts do not include punctuation, and since both ways of dividing the sentence make good sense, an argument can be made for either.

The sentence division in the NIV, however, is more consistent with John’s literary style and theology. John often begins sentences with the preposition “in.” Furthermore, “in him was life” fits well with Jesus’ repeated claims both to be life and to be the source of life (John 5:26, 6:33, 10:10, 10:28, 11:25, 14:6). Whichever way the sentence is divided, John’s point in this passage is clear: the Word animates the world. God’s Word, through whom life and light were created, continues to enlighten and enliven people (see also John 1:9). Every human being carries a spark of God’s life and light—a claim with important consequences both for ethics and for interfaith dialog.

In John 1:6–8 the focus shifts, briefly, to John (the Baptist, though this Gospel simply calls him John). The Gospel writer stresses John’s role as a witness to Jesus. It almost seems as if, without John, the world might have overlooked Jesus’ presence within it. After all, though loving parents may see their child’s birth as a miracle, to everyone else that birth is simply the ordinary entry of one more human being into the world. To make sure that no one misses the divine light entering the world, John points to Jesus: that is God at work, right there!

Despite John’s testimony, the world remains in the dark about the divine light shining within it. “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:5, NASB; the Greek word katelaben here means both comprehend and overpower). In a supreme irony, the creatures reject the One through whom they were created and to whom they belong.

Yet, the Gospel writer assures us, the Word that spoke the world into being continues to speak. In Jesus, God says to the world, “I have so loved you that I am sending my unique child to live among you so that all of you may become my children.” Those who listen, who recognize and welcome God in Christ, become God’s children not by any ordinary biological process, but solely by God’s gift of rebirth (compare Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3).

For some readers this passage may well raise the question, since all people are created by God, aren’t all people God’s children? Jesus’ conversation with the Judean leaders in John 8:39-43 suggests an answer: yes, but not all children reflect well on their parents. Ideally, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Just as true children of Abraham act like Abraham, so true children of God put God’s love into action. Those who, by entrusting themselves to Jesus, are born of God become so fully permeated by the divine being that their lives begin to shine with God’s own radiance.

After discussing God’s other children, the Gospel-writer returns to the key point: in Jesus the infinite, pre-existent Word of God has become human. The language is striking: God’s Word becomes not just a concept perceptible to human minds or a sound perceptible to human ears, not just a spiritual reality, but flesh. Later in the Gospel Jesus will use this same word, sarx, when he says, “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” and then tells his hearers, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:51, 53). Jesus’ flesh is a reality that we can sink our teeth into.

Throughout history some strains of Christianity have emphasized the spiritual realm at the expense of the material world. Many Christian leaders have dismissed earthly life and the body itself as unimportant, distracting, or even dangerous. This passage, and the whole Gospel of John, absolutely contradict this worldview. The Gospel writer stresses that God chose to live a human life in a human body. That body—Jesus’ flesh—is not a distraction to be subjugated, denied, or dismissed. It becomes the place of revelation.

During the Exodus God traveled with the people of Israel, revealing the divine glory to Moses and to the people at the tent of meeting (Exodus 40:34–35; Leviticus 9:23; Numbers 14:10, 16:19, 17:7, 20:6). Now Jesus’ body is God’s temple, where the Word of God pitches its tent (skenoo, from the same root as skene, “tent”) among us. In Jesus’ words and actions God’s glory shines. Jesus’ face and touch communicate God’s grace and love. He not only teaches but embodies God’s truth. We perceive God’s glory and grace and truth most clearly when Jesus is “lifted up” (John 3:14, 8:28, 12:32). His human flesh, tortured and broken on the cross, dies, but he is raised to life again. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5, NRSV). In Jesus’ mortal human body, the immortal God is revealed for all to see.

The prologue to John makes it clear that God created and loves this material world and the material beings who live in it, and that God took on material form in order to redeem it and us. God became incarnate in Jesus, but Jesus—though uniquely God’s child and God’s incarnate Word—makes it possible for all of us to become God’s children who embody God’s word. Through Christ, our ordinary human lives can become places where God’s glory shines. The Word became flesh to bring us all into God’s family. The Word became flesh to help us see every human life as a temple of the Holy One. The Word became flesh so that witnesses could point to person after person throughout history and say, that’s God at work, right there!


Notes:

1 Marianne Meye Thompson, John (New Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2015), p. 39.