Each of the gospels begins with an account of Jesus’ origins. Mark introduces Jesus to us as an adult, telling us that Jesus was “a man from Nazareth” whose advent fulfills the arrival of God’s salvation as foretold by the prophet Isaiah.
Matthew and Luke’s narratives begin earlier still, rooting Jesus’ very conception and birth in the prophecies of old and God’s will to deliver humanity.
John, however, pushes his account of Jesus, the Word, back to the beginning of time itself. Before anything else had been created, he was. In fact, using language that adopts yet stretches Philo’s imaginative ruminations, Jesus, as the divine Logos, was not only with God in the beginning, but was God. To further stress the centrality of Jesus in God’s identity and purpose, John’s prologue also claims that creation itself originated through his life-giving agency: apart from the Word, “not one thing came into being” (verse 3).
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this text in shaping Christian conceptions of Jesus’ divinity, the incarnation, and the Trinity. Indeed, one of John’s concerns here is to emphasize Jesus’ unmatched transcendence and authority as one who comes from the Father. Jesus originates from God not only in an apostolic sense as one who is sent, but also in an ontological sense. To borrow from some familiar terminology, John presents Jesus here as “one of being with” God. As his narrative unfolds, John will continue to stress that to see Jesus really is to see the Father. Thus, when doubting Thomas finally comes to terms with the reality that Jesus is alive, his confession serves as a fitting inclusio with the Gospel’s opening: “My Lord and my God!” (20:28).
Despite its significance for Christian reflection on the nature and person of Jesus, John’s Gospel tends not to be a favorite among my more progressively minded clergy colleagues. John’s Jesus seems too aloof to them, too regal and removed from the vicissitudes of human life. In their view, his personality comes across — to put it politely — just as transcendent as the exalted nature John claims for him. Now, to be fair to these colleagues, Jesus may be more “in control” and a little less “earthy” in John than he is in the Synoptics (though perhaps this point could be argued as well). But readers who zero in on this dimension of John’s characterization of Jesus must not neglect another equally critical dimension.
As do the prologues of the other Gospels, John’s opening introduces several motifs that will dominate his narrative to follow. In addition to his exaltation of Jesus as the Divine Logos, four interrelated motifs — all speaking to Jesus’ purpose as the Word of God — are particularly prominent.
First, as already noted, John stresses that “the world came into being through him” (verse 10). Jesus was integral to the formation of the earth and all its creatures. Though transcendent, Jesus is also intimately acquainted with every dimension of creation. Second, John presents Jesus as the source of revelation and grace for humankind: he is “the true light which enlightens everyone” (verse 9), Reflecting God’s glory, he is “full of grace and truth” (verses 14, 18).
Another key motif introduced here is the world’s tragic rejection of Jesus:
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him (verses 10-11).
Finally, John’s prologue, with eloquent simplicity, reveals that the Divine World became incarnate among and within humanity: “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (verse 14). Together, these themes help us to recognize that the extraordinary ontological claims John makes here and throughout his narrative about Jesus — while significant on their own terms — are inextricably connected to the claims he makes about why Jesus is sent from the Father into the world.
John’s exaltation of Jesus as the transcendent Word is only one side of story. The other is his claim that the Divine Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. John’s exaltation of Jesus to unimaginable heights of transcendence serves his even more crucial interest of proclaiming that in Jesus, the barrier between the divine and human realms are breached to a degree never before realized. In the Word, John claims, God’s mercy and truth now flow in measures never possible before: “from his fullness, we receive grace upon grace” (verse 16). In Jesus, knowledge of God, connection to God, far transcends the wisdom and relatedness mediated through the law: “the law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (verse 17).
But in order for Jesus to serve as this conduit of God’s grace and truth, he must be of God in the fullest possible sense. And, in order for the Divine Word to serve as this conduit of grace and truth, he must also become en-fleshed within a human being who could walk, talk, share table, laugh, and mourn with us. More extraordinary still, he must suffer the rejection and bloody outrage of his own who choose not to know or accept him.
For John, the scandal of particularity is not just that in Jesus the Divine becomes incarnate and dwells among us. The scandal is also that the transcendent Word becomes so deeply enmeshed in our twisted affairs, that he is even willing to endure the humiliation and hatred embodied in the cross. The Word condescends to this, no, embraces this, to enlighten all those who would receive him. He comes to his own, and loses his life for them, that they too might become children of God (verses 12-13) and, like him, close to the Father’s heart (verse 18).
For God so loved the world…