Commentary on John 1:[1-9], 10-18
Although the lectionary picks up in the middle of the prologue to John’s Gospel, it is an appropriate place to begin on the second Sunday of Christmas: “He was in the world” (1:10).
John’s Incarnational Perspective
This simple statement is a profound declaration of God’s incarnation. The season following Christmas invites us to reflect on the significance of this event: how it shapes the way we understand God, our relationship with God, and our relationship to one another.
Verse 18 brings to full expression John’s incarnational perspective: “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” There are both alternate readings of the text among the manuscripts (some omit “God”) and alternative translations for this verse. Another possible translation reads, “The uniquely divine one (i.e. God), because that one rests in the bosom of God, he has revealed the nature of God” [translation mine].
Receiving God’s Gift
Our passage falls neatly into two parts: verses 10-13 and verses 14-18. The first part is spoken from the perspective of the omniscient narrator. Here the narrator identifies three responses to the one who has come into the world. First, there are those who did not know him, suggesting lack of knowledge. Next, there are those (“his own people”) who did not accept him. It is striking that the text does not say “reject” him, but “did not accept” him. Read in the context of worship, we are forced to put ourselves in the position of “his own people” and ponder in what ways we do not show hospitality toward God’s incarnational gift. Since John later declares that Christians will be known by their love for others (13:34-35), we also are invited to ponder in what ways we do not show hospitality towards one another.
The focus of verses 10-13, however, is not on those who do not receive, but those who do. These “children of God” are not designated by their flesh (i.e. their race, gender, or any other physical characteristic) but by their complete trust in the one whom God has sent into the world and who faithfully reveals the nature of God.
In verses 14-18, the voice shifts from that of the narrator to the collective “we.” We, the children of God, have received from God’s fullness grace upon grace. In the Christmas season, it is easy for us turn God into a cosmic Santa Claus who dispatches toy upon toy. This tendency is not what John has in mind. The word “grace” occurs only in 1:14, 16, and 17 in the Gospel of John. Grace, therefore, describes the gift of Christ, who makes God known. In these verses, “we” are reminded of how God has chosen to disclose God’s self in flesh and blood so that we, who are flesh and blood, might recognize ourselves as children of God.
John identifies that which has become flesh and blood as the “Word.” Here he draws on language closely associated with the figure ‘Wisdom’. In a first century CE Jewish text, the Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom is described as “she who knows your [God’s] works and was present when you made the world.” Jesus, like Wisdom, is described in John’s Gospel as the one through whom the world came into being (1:3, 10; see also Proverbs 8:22-31) and who does the works of God (5:36; 10:32; 14:10).
John also draws on the language of “Wisdom” found in another Jewish text from the second century BCE, Sirach. Here, Wisdom is said to make her dwelling (kataskēnō) in Jacob (Sirach 24:8). John uses the same verb root (from skēnoō) in 1:14. A more literal translation might render this verse, “The Word pitched its tent among us,” giving the phrase a wonderfully earthy feel. This alternate translation also provides a sense of God’s intentionality. God has chosen this place, a place identified not by physical characteristics or geographic boundaries, but by reference to relationship (“among us”).
The use of Wisdom language to speak about Jesus reminds us:
- That the story of Jesus has deep roots within Judaism and cannot be separated from them.
- That the language we use to speak about Jesus evokes additional images and ideas. Consequently, these new ideas inform our overall understanding of Jesus. Using the language of “Wisdom” to identify Jesus invites us to seek out those texts where Wisdom is central. To complete the circle, we reflect on how they help us to gain insight into Jesus.
- That we need to be careful with the language we choose to talk about Jesus. Yet how do we speak about the ineffable? We need to pick our words with care, or we may end up making unintended claims with disastrous consequences. Consider, for example, the potential ramifications of calling Jesus “big brother.” In choosing the language of Wisdom, John gives his audience appropriate language with which to speak about and understand God’s incarnation.
Reading and Speaking with Care
Sirach goes on to identify Wisdom with the law of Moses (Sirach 24:23). John asserts that the law (Torah or ‘instruction’) was given through Moses; grace and truth through Jesus Christ (17). This verse needs to be read with great care. For instance, it is important to notice that the word “but” never appears in the sentence. In other words, John is not claiming that grace and truth belongs to Jesus but not to the law. Both grace and truth are found in the law. The difference, from John’s perspective, is between reading a book and going directly to the author. Going to the author neither sets the book aside nor negates its contents. For Christians, the book (or the ‘law’) anticipates the direct revelation we experience in Jesus Christ.