Lectionary Commentaries for January 5, 2020
Second Sunday of Christmas

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 1:[1-9], 10-18

Sherri Brown

The term “prologue” comes from the Greek logos, meaning “word” but connoting “speech” or “study,” and the prefix pro, meaning “before.”

Logos becomes an important concept in the content of John’s prologue, but it also indicates that John’s first 18 verses serve as a message before the body that is key to appreciating the full force of the story to come. As in some contemporary novels, John’s prologue is an introduction, giving background that sets up the action and helps audiences make sense of the story to come. In ancient Greek drama, which is closer to John’s original context, prologues have a further purpose: they give the mythological background necessary for understanding the events of the play.1

John’s prologue, therefore, introduces setting, previews characters, and establishes the primary themes and message of the work, all of which is information audiences have that characters in the story don’t have. It puts audiences in a privileged position as we participate in the action of the story, identifying with characters and waiting, even hoping, for them to catch on, as it were, and grasp what is at stake.

In the beginning was the Word of God (verses 1-11)

The first words correspond to the opening of Jewish scripture and bring its audience to “the beginning” of their sacred narrative of history, when God spoke creation into existence (Genesis 1-3). By echoing God’s action in history, John grounds his story in the world of Israel: “In the beginning was the Word.”

John’s choice of the Greek logos allows for rich and varied symbolism, evoking God’s revelation in Torah as well as the broader voice of the sages in the Greco-Roman milieu. John teaches that as a being of the same divine essence as God, the Word is fundamentally oriented toward union with God. The expansive reflection of God’s creative power prepares audiences for God’s revelatory action to come. The following verses present the nature and role of the logos as the vehicle for creation who is the giver of life and stands fast in the darkness, lighting the way for humankind (verses 3-5).

The final words further hint at the conflict to come between the Word who is light (Genesis 1:3-5) and the darkness that exists among people who are caretakers of God’s creation (Genesis 1:26-30). Physical threat is implicated as well as the notion of the Word already in the world, in the form of Torah, which has not been understood. Nonetheless, regarding the shining light, the darkness “did not overcome it.”

The first human is then introduced, a man named John (verses 6-8).2 The Evangelist describes him as “sent from God,” the only human character in the narrative to be identified as such. He is special, sent into the world from God with a mission. He can be trusted, and his mission is to bear witness to the light. The concept of believing in the Word is also introduced.3 John, the human witness, crucially points to the light and facilitates the journey of believing.

The Evangelist then returns to the light, now characterized as “truth” (verses 9-10). The true light whose enlightening reign reaches everyone is coming into the world. The imminent conflict of the Gospel is affirmed, now in terms of “knowledge.” The very world of which the light was instrumental in creating did not know him. Verse 11 then provides powerful parallelism to this disconnect through the intimate language of “his own.” The Word, instrumental giver of life and light in intimate relationship with God, comes into what was his own and isn’t received. Giving, receiving, and rejecting in relationship become the operative interactivity of the incarnation of the Word.

The heart of the prologue: becoming children of God (verse 12)

The audience arrives at the pivot of the prologue and the hinges upon which the pivot turns (verse 12). The force of the entire prologue is poised on the axis of the mission of the Word: “he gave power to become children of God.” The balance of verse 12 can be lost in English translations, including the RSV/NRSV. Rather, John’s syntax allows the central assertion of the Word’s giving action (verse 12b: “he gave them power to become children of God”) to be framed by the introduction (verse 12a: “but to all who received him”) and the description of the potential recipients of the gift (verse 12c: “who believed in his name”). Verse 12a builds upon those to whom the Word came (“his own,” verse 11), while verse 12b delineates the indirect object of the power the Word gives (“them”), and verse 12c characterizes “them” as “those who believe in his name.” Verses 12a and 12c are thus corresponding phrases that hinge the core assertion of verse 12b.

This central assertion, the giving of power to those who receive the Word to become children of God, is the crux of the prologue’s message to its audiences. This familial language is often used across the Gospel to describe relationship with God. Establishing childhood of God through the Son is the culmination of all God’s dealings with the world, the goal of the Creator and creation. This expressed aim affects every statement that follows.

Those who receive the Word are given power to become children of God, but how does one go about receiving him in order to achieve this status? By believing in his name.

Gift upon gift: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (verses 13-18)

Those who believe receive the Word and thereby receive a gift, the power to become children of God. The role of God and the “how” of becoming God’s children is characterized: the husband’s will, ordinary human sexual desire, and natural descent have no avail: spiritual birth comes from above (verse 13). Heritage and race are rendered irrelevant to birth from God when the Word comes into the world.

John returns to what God did to make this possible by majestically announcing how this happened, who the Word becomes, and what he gives in the process: the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of the gift which is truth (verse 14).4 These words announce an event long coming in the flow of the Prologue and made possible by the plan of God to re-envision the covenant people as children of spiritual, not human, birth.

Just as God’s action in the Sinai covenant and the giving of the Torah changed the nature of God’s relationship with creation, the incarnation of the Word, while very much in accord with that history, once again decisively alters the manner by which creation can relate to God. John leaves no doubt as to the full humanity of the incarnate Word with the use of flesh to describe this in-breaking of God’s action. Depicting the incarnation of the Word in terms of the shekinah, or dwelling presence of God, also preserves the Word’s divinity as a new presence of God and God’s covenantal activity in creation.

The narration shifts as John speaks inclusively from the perspective of the children of God, drawing audiences in: “We have seen his glory.” The visible and powerful manifestation of God recalls the revelation of the glory of God to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19-24; 33-34), but now this revelation is described as a father’s only son.

It concludes by proclaiming the incarnate Word to be full of “grace” and “truth.”5 If we understand “grace” as “gift,” then the Word, giver of light and life, now incarnate, is filled with a new gift, truth. The giving and receiving of this gift of truth is intimately connected to the power to become children of God.

The incarnate Word is then firmly grounded in history as the Evangelist returns to John the Baptist, the human witness sent by God whose testimony audiences can trust (verse 15). He again speaks in the collective voice of the children of God to detail the process of God’s action in creation in terms of reception of God’s gifts (verse 16).

What God has done is to give the gift (of truth) upon a gift. The nature of the new gift was introduced in verse 14 and the nature of the first gift has been behind the Word’s characterization in verses 1-5, but both are illuminated in verse 17. The law was a gift from God, and the reference to Moses ensures that the covenantal gift of Torah echoes through this proclamation.

The gift of truth was given through the incarnation of the Word, who is finally identified in history as Jesus, who is the Christ. This gift of truth is likewise a gift of God that acts in history in covenant with creation. But one cannot “replace” the other. Rather, the gift of the Torah is perfected in the gift of the incarnation.

The Prologue’s final verse returns to the beginning while illuminating the relationship of Jesus as “only son” to the Father who is turned toward that Father, now in history (verse 18). This is a new covenantal move in history. Jesus, the Word of God made human as Christ and Son, will make God known through his life and ministry.

The Gospel will narrate the how of the covenantal claim that the Prologue introduces. The new covenant gives the power to become children of God through receiving and believing the gift of truth revealed in Jesus Christ the only Son, who is in perfect relationship with God the Father.


  1. By “mythological,” I use the literary meaning to refer to the interaction of the divine with the earthly, and in the case of the Gospel of John, to how God interacts with God’s creation.
  2. Though the Evangelist never calls him “the Baptist,” this John is the one other Gospels call “the Baptist.”
  3. Scholars often notice that belief as a noun (pistis) does not occur in the Fourth Gospel, but forms of the verb to believe (pisteuo / pisteuomai) occur regularly and often (ninety-eight times). Thus, faith in the Gospel of John is always dynamic and active and is rightly described in terms of a process, or better, a journey.
  4. The verb skenoo denotes to “pitch a tent” and is generally translated as “lived” or “made his dwelling.” John’s verb choice, however, resonates with Exodus 33-40, where God renews the covenant with Israel mediated by Moses, and the people are told to make a tent (the tabernacle, the skene,) so that God can live among them.
  5. Many take the juxtaposition of “grace” and “truth” as expressing the OT covenant love (see Exodus 34:6). This has much to commend it, but if we note the use of the Greek charis (usually translated as “grace”) instead of the word for “love.” Thus, without dismissing a reflection of covenant love, a more complete interpretation may be Francis J. Moloney’s observation that by translating the Greek charis with its more widely held denotation of “an expression of good will, a gift, an unexpected favor,” and reading the “and” as explanatory, thus allowing the second term, “truth,” to clarify the first term, the phrase is rendered more clearly as “full of a gift which is truth.”

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:7-14

C. L. Crouch

These verses speak to a community of migrants and refugees.

They speak to those who have been torn from their homes and homelands, who have seen their loved ones die or disappear. They speak to those who have suffered at the hands of an empire’s ruthless power—threatened, coerced, and terrorized into conformity with the ways and means of others. They speak to those on the run, in fear for their lives.

In this they form a natural complement to today’s gospel reading, which tells of the fearful flight of Jesus and his parents to Egypt—a desperate gamble to escape the murderous reach of Herod.

Two historical horizons present themselves as possible contexts for the origins of these verses in Jeremiah 31. The first and most typically cited is the late seventh century BCE, about a century after the people of the northern kingdom of Israel had been deported by the Assyrian empire. In this context, the prophet Jeremiah is understood to be speaking to the remnant left behind, coaxing them toward reunification with their southern brethren in Jerusalem.

The second and more likely background is the sixth century BCE, after the destruction of Judah by the Babylonian empire. After years of warnings from Jeremiah and others, disaster had finally befallen the kingdom: the city sacked, the temple destroyed, the king and his court deported or dead. The deportees who survived the journey to Babylonia were faced with a strange new life in a foreign country, their movements and actions subject to a foreign power, whose orders were conveyed through authorities speaking a foreign language.

Depending on a deportee’s status, she might have found herself in Babylon with Judah’s former king, Jehoiachin, and his family, or she might have been resettled in a refugee camp in rural Babylonia. Ezekiel’s community seems to have been part of one of the latter groups, who were expected to farm the land and pay taxes to the imperial government.

But the deportees in Babylonia, though certainly the most famous, were not the only ones to suffer the pain of exile. The book of Jeremiah is a book of many migrations. The Benjaminites (Jeremiah 6:1) and the Rechabites (Jeremiah 35) seek refuge in Jerusalem, hoping against hope that it might withstand the Babylonian onslaught. Once the territory has been overrun, people flee across the Jordan to Ammon, Moab, and Edom (40:11-12). Jeremiah himself is said to have left the devastated rubble of Judah for Egypt, part of a group seeking refuge from persecution by the Babylonian authorities (41:17—43:7). The group is divided over the causes of their plight, but united in their decision that flight represents a better chance of survival than staying put. The book of Jeremiah responds to a world of people on the move.

The divine word that speaks into this world is attentive to anxieties and concerns common among refugees and migrants.

A strange silence surrounds this time in Israel’s history—a silence that points to the impossibility of giving voice to profound trauma. But, after this period of unspeakable suffering, God promises the Israelites that God will bring them home again. Even if they have been scattered to “the farthest parts of the earth”—God will bring them home again. The joy this word evokes is so profound that it moves the people to tears. The pain and loss through which they have struggled for so long will be brought to an end—God will deliver them.

God’s motivation to action is identified as a form of parental care: “I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.” Depictions of God as a loving parent are especially prominent in the literature of this period, though perhaps nowhere so significantly so as the creation of humanity in God’s image in Genesis 1. The language signals that God’s relationship with the people is a personal one; humanity is more than an assortment of pawns being played across the earth for divine gain. God cares for the people, like a parent cares for a child.

The land to which the people will return is one akin to Eden. Last seen devastated and war-torn, the fields and the waterways of Israel’s homeland are now veritably bursting with life and abundance: “the grain, the wine, and the oil…the young of the flock and the herd.” God is not sending these traumatized people back into a war zone, but into a healthy homeland where their safety will be assured.

The book of Jeremiah reminds us that there are many causes of exile—foreign armies, famine, fear. These verses call us to acknowledge the great pain and suffering of those who seek refuge. Whether forcibly evicted from their homes or pressed to flight by famine, the exigencies of a collapsing national government, or persecution by the denizens of power, to abandon one’s home and flee into the arms of the unknown is a terrible, terrifying risk, and one that never comes without a cost.


Commentary on Psalm 147:12-20

Jerome Creach

Psalm 147 is one of five psalms that concludes the Psalter.1

Each of these psalms has the words “Praise the Lord” as their first and last lines (see Psalms 146:1, 10; 147:1, 20). Thus, the call to praise God is their organizing feature. The general reason for praise in each case is that God has, or will deliver God’s people from their troubles. Psalm 147 points specifically to God’s word with which God brings order to the world and brings blessings to Jerusalem and its residents (verses 19-20). The lectionary portion of Psalm 147 highlights God’s protection of the holy city, which is an expression of God’s reign over the entire world.  

Psalm 147:12 contains the imperative “praise the Lord” (verse 12), the same imperative that opens and closes the psalm (verses 1, 20). Hence, Psalm 147:12-20 is a mini version of the whole work. Between the two calls to praise in verses 12 and 20 the psalm points to two reasons for that praise: God restores and blesses Jerusalem (verses 12-14) and the people of Jacob (verses 19-20a) and God reigns over the elements of the universe (verses 15-18).

Verse 12 calls specifically for Jerusalem and Zion to praise God. These two place names are here used as virtual synonyms to speak of the location of the temple (Zion being more specifically the hilltop in Jerusalem where the temple was built). As worshippers gathered there they sought God’s presence and favor and offered songs of praise and thanksgiving like those called for early in this psalm (see verses 1, 7). The mention of Jerusalem in verse 12 recalls verse 2 which declares “the Lord builds Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel.”

Verse 13 gives reason for praising God that forms the content of praise as well: “he strengthens the bars of your gates; he blesses your children within you.” This declaration of God’s deeds for Zion and its people matches the statement of verse 2: “The Lord builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel.” Note that both sections of the psalm emphasize God’s protection of the weak and powerless.

The mention of children in verse 13 recalls the emphasis on the weak and vulnerable earlier in the psalm: “outcasts” (verse 2) and “brokenhearted” (verse 3). Such persons in the Psalter are often termed “righteous” because they depend on God for protection (Psalm 37:39-40).2  The reference to children here invites anyone who would seek God’s favor to come to God humbly, as Jesus suggested (Matthew 18:1-5).

The emphasis on God’s protection of the weakest of Jerusalem’s people in verse 13 is paired with the declaration that God strengthens the most vulnerable part of Zion’s physical structure. Invading armies focused their attack on the city gate because that typically would be the easiest place to break through and capture the town.

Verse 14 focuses on the material needs of ordinary life and declares that God supplies those needs. The word “peace” translates the Hebrew shalom. In this case the word might better be translated “prosperity” (see the use of the term in Psalm 73:3, “the prosperity of the wicked”). Indeed, verse 14a says generally that God provides material blessings and verse 14b declares more specifically, “he fills you with the finest of wheat.”

Verses 15-18 continue to catalog God’s saving acts. This section turns attention, however, to God’s rule over the natural realm and to the means by which God rules. Namely, God directs the world by means of God’s word. Verse 15 includes “word” and “command” as parallels. The term translated “command” does not necessarily refer to legal pronouncements or injunctions (Psalm 17:6).

There is good reason to identify command with God’s covenantal stipulations, however. Verses 19-20 will indeed declare that God sustains God’s people by “statutes and ordinances” (note these terms are parallel to “word” in verse 19). Therefore, in verse 15 “command” should probably be understood in terms of God’s ordering and directing word, like that given at Sinai. This specific and demanding word that rules over Israel also directs and reigns over the cosmos. 

Verse 18 hints at how divine command is a sign of grace. In this verse, God’s word is associated with the force of the wind. The word for wind is ruach, which may also be translated “spirit.” This same word appears in Genesis 1:2. When the chaotic waters covered the earth in the beginning God’s wind or spirit hovered over them, the first sign of God’s work to bring order to the creation. This is also what Psalm 147:18 claims. In Psalm 147, however, the work of the spirit also includes the protection of Jerusalem and it is associated with God’s Law given on Sinai.  

Psalm 147:12-20 illustrates an essential truth of scripture: God’s work in creation cannot be separated from God’s saving work for humankind. God’s actions for Israel fulfills God’s intentions in creation. In Psalm 147 this connection features the role of God’s word. God’s command over the elements of the universe stands alongside, and is connected to God’s work for Israel. The snow, frost, and hail (verses 16-17) are not just natural forces; they represent the power of the One who “declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and ordinances to Israel” (verse 19). This connection should not be a surprise to Christians. John 1:1-18 links creation and salvation specifically in terms of God’s word: the Word that ordered the world in the beginning took on flesh in Jesus Christ.

Psalm 147 anticipates the ultimate expression of incarnation in Jesus by linking God’s rule over the natural realm with God’s salvation for Jerusalem. This connection makes the use of Psalm 147 quite appropriate for the Christmas season. The Word made flesh was known among God’s people before the birth of Jesus. The proper response to the presence of God’s creative and saving Word in any time is, as Psalm 147 declares, “Praise the Lord” (verses 1, 12, 20).


Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 3, 2010

See Jerome F. D. Creach, The Destiny of the Righteous in the Psalms (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2008).

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 1:3-14

Richard Carlson

Normally, the letters of the Pauline corpus have a thanksgiving section immediately following the salutation (Ephesians 1:2).

The two exceptions are 2 Corinthians and Ephesians which have a blessing section. Indeed, Ephesians 1:3a is an exact replica of 2 Corinthians 1:3a. In the Greek, the blessing of Ephesians 1:3-14 is one, extended, complex sentence (which most English translations try to break up into more manageable sentences). Its focus involves all that God has accomplished in and through Christ. It also presents the place of God’s people within the grand, divine plan of salvation.

Whereas Ephesians 1:3a blesses God, 1:3b-4 explains why God is to be blessed. God blessed us with every spiritual blessing. In this case, “spiritual” has less to do with a person’s inner, religious disposition, and more to do with the activity of the Holy Spirit (a theme to which the author will return in 1:13-14). The reference to the heavenly places or realms introduces how God’s work in and through Christ involves the entire cosmos (including the malevolent powers). The phrase “in Christ” at the end of 1:3 (and which will be repeated throughout the blessing) most likely functions in multiple ways. God’s work is centered in the person of Christ. Believers live in the reality which is the cosmic Christ. God’s work is through Christ.

Ephesians 1:4 introduces the theme of election that will dominate 1:3-14. God chose us in Christ (again in a multivalent sense) before creation. This underlines both the definitive and the awesome nature of God’s salvific plan which includes us and the entire cosmos. “Holy, without blemish, and in love in God’s sight” (1:4b) presents both our distinctive reality and our moral conduct as a result of God electing us and as a result of living in the very presence of God.

In Ephesians 1:5-6, both the goals and the means of God’s predestining actions are presented. God predestined us through Jesus Christ (1:5a) and graciously bestowed grace (in 1:6b the twin cognates charis charitoo are used emphatically) upon us in and through God’s beloved, i.e., Christ. This was accomplished according to God’s delightful will (1:5b). The dual goals of God’s predestined plan were to adopt us as God’s children (1:5a) and to have us praise God’s grace-filled glory (1:6a). In this way, God’s predestination comes full circle. God graciously bestows grace on us so that we would praise God’s grace-filled glory.

The richness of God’s grace is further highlighted in Ephesians 1:7-8. For it is in accordance to such vast divine grace that we experienced liberation as the forgiveness of our trespasses through Christ’s sacrificial death (1:7). Likewise, in lavishing such lush, divine grace upon us we are enabled to have the insight and wisdom to understand the core of God’s plan of and for salvation (1:8).

Ephesians 1:9-10 elaborates on God’s disclosure of God’s salvific plan. This divine plan had been hidden (“the mystery of his will” in verse 9a), but that which God had ordained in Christ according to God’s pleasure (verse 9b recalling verse 5b) God made known to believers (verse 9a) in the person and event of Christ. Indeed, 1:10 goes on to claim that Christ is the summation or culmination of both time (“fullness of time,” verse 10a) and space (“things in heaven and the things on earth,” verse 10b). For Ephesians, all reality is thus united both in and through Christ.

Two prior points are recapitulated in Ephesians 1:11-12. The first involves God’s predestining action which in verse 11 is depicted as our inheritance (literally our being appointed) for which we have been destined according to the accomplishment of God’s purpose and will (see verse 5). The second involves the purpose of God’s predestining activity. It is carried out so that we would praise God’s glory (verse 12; see verse 6). Believers are also described here as the ones who have already placed their hope in Christ (verse 12b) which nudges the focus toward the future as 1:14 will make clear.

The phrase “in him” is repeated twice in 1:13. The first “in him” stands emphatically at the very beginning of the verse and refers to believers existing in the reality which is Christ. Later in the letter, this will be imaged as the church being the body and Christ being the head (see 1:22; 3:10, 21; 5:23-25, 27, 29, 32). In the realm of Christ, believers were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit. Such a seal indicates divine ownership. The second use of “in him” indicates that Christ is the object of believers’ faith which comes through hearing the word of truth which is the gospel of salvation. 1:13 also contains a stylistic shift from first person plural to second person plural that addresses the experience of the audience more directly.

Ephesians 1:14 expands on the imagery of divine ownership by depicting the Holy Spirit as the down payment of the believers’ inheritance. So being sealed by the Spirit is a divine pledge that we will receive our full inheritance which is our full liberation as God’s possession (Ephesians 1:14 echoing 1:11). As in 1:6, 12 so here in 1:14b, the goal of all this divine salvific activity is our praising God’s glory.

When the topic of predestination is brought up, the focus is typically on which individuals God has elected for salvation and which individuals God has elected for damnation. Such a focus is simply too small to capture the claims about God’s predestining activity in Ephesian 1:3-14. Here the focus is on God’s cosmic plan for salvation which God established before creation. God accomplishes this plan in and through Christ, especially through Christ’s death (verse 7). This divine, salvific plan is an expression of God’s delightful will (verse 9) which empowers us to comprehend God’s cosmic predestining activity (verses 8-9).

As a result of our election, we are made holy (verse 4), adopted as God’s children (verse 5), claimed as God’s possession (verses 11, 13, 14), and marked by the Holy Spirit (verse 13). The ultimate goal of God’s predestining activity is not just our salvation as part of Christ’s administration of the universe (verse 10). It is also for our praise of God for who God is and what God has done (verses 6, 12, 14). Finally, in this grand vision of God’s predestining activity, there is no contemplation of the place or fate of non-believers. The focus is solely on its positive aspects.