Commentary on John 1:[1-9], 10-18
John 1:(1-9), 10-18 is the assigned Gospel lesson for Christmas 2, Years A, B, and C.
While John 1:1-9 is optional, verses 10-18 make little sense without the premises set out in the opening verses. The Prologue to John’s Gospel is John’s birth story of Jesus. To view these 18 verses as such is both homiletically and hermeneutically helpful. The themes we have come to know for Christmas preaching are certainly present in how John begins his gospel. A preacher could focus on any of the themes outlined below to create a meaningful Christmas sermon.
Christmas as the rebirth of God
The first verse of John 1 is deceptively complex. “In the beginning” should stir up biblical resonances, particularly that what follows will have something to do with creation. The next verses (1:2-4) secure Jesus’ role as creator with God. Furthermore, God has chosen to recreate God’s very self in Jesus. God has been reborn into the world, now as God’s creating Word in the flesh. The threefold claim, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” reveals the origin of Jesus, his relationship with God, and his identity as God. These truths about Jesus are inseparable and essential to John’s portrait of Jesus, the meaning of the incarnation, and denote that which describe our own humanity. We make sense of our humanity through these categories of origin, relationship, and identity and now God lives these truths.
Christmas as the light shining in the darkness
Verse 5 has been a topic of ongoing debate for Johannine scholars with regard to pinpointing the moment of the incarnation, either here or in John 1:14, “the Word became flesh.” Regardless, that the incarnation of God is first presented as light shining in darkness once again calls upon the creation story in Genesis. The verb “overcome” can be translated “grasp” or “seize,” and has connotations of “understanding” or “comprehending.” Festivals of light are essential in the darkest days of the year and so Christmas originated as a celebration that could rival Saturnalia (See Forbes, Christmas: A Candid History). A preacher might explore the importance of light, for Christmas, for our lives.
Christmas as witnessing to the light
The introduction of John in the next verses, not the Baptist but the Witness, is a rather strange interlude in this cosmic birth story. What is John doing here anyway? Commentators explain away John’s presence as a later interpolation that does not belong in such a majestic narration of Jesus’ origins and identity. Yet the presence of John here, particularly for our Christmas preaching, suggests that a critical response to Christmas is witness. Christmas is not over when the trees are put out to the curb. Christmas is just getting started for those who confess Jesus as God who has become flesh.
Christmas is Jesus as a child and is who we are
John 1:9-13 suggest that just as Jesus is a child of God, so are we. Jesus as a baby cannot devolve into sentimentality but has everything to do with its promise for us. To be a child of God is a literal claim for the Fourth Gospel. This Gospel imagines that every single aspect of the parent–child relationship is operative in our relationship with God. Everything a child needs from a parent, for survival, protection, to be sustained and nurtured, to grow and mature is what God provides. Preach the promise of Christmas that puts us in the manger with Jesus and helps us sense the dependence of Jesus as that which we have on God.
Christmas is the word became flesh
“The Word became flesh” states most clearly the theological promise of John. This primordial Word, which was in the beginning with God, a partner in creation, in relationship with God and who is God, has now become human. While the NRSV translates the verse, “and lived among us” the verb here is skenoo, “to tent” or “to tabernacle.” Most readers of the Gospel of John will be familiar with the translation “and dwelt among us.” The verb can also be translated, “took up residence” and thus Peterson’s The Message, “moved into the neighborhood.”
This is as much about who God is, what God is about, and to what and whom God is committed as it is a declaration about the Word itself. The fourth evangelist understands that God’s promise to be with God’s people wherever they go has now taken on a different representation in Jesus. The dwelling of God is a deeply intimate, personal claim and assumes God’s commitment to and continuity with God’s people. Moreover, in the Word made flesh and dwelling among us, now God not only goes where God’s people go, but is who they are. That is, God now dwells with us by taking on our form, our humanity. This “different” dwelling of God is God being where God’s people are, and now who God’s people are.
Christmas is grace upon grace
“From his fullness” (John 1:16) has the sense of the “sum total,” “complete,” and can also connote “superabundance.” The word “grace” is used only four times in the Gospel of John (1:14, 16, 17) and only in the Prologue. Once the Word becomes flesh, grace is then incarnated in the rest of the Gospel. That is, the entirety of the Gospel will show what grace looks like, tastes like, smells like, sounds like, and feels like. This is Christmas preaching. For John, God in becoming flesh in Jesus has committed God’s self not only to revealing what God’s grace looks like, but that God wants to know it and feel it as well.
Christmas is intimacy
Verse 18 concludes and yet encapsulates the Prologue. It is a recapitulation of the first verse addressing again who Jesus is, what Jesus’ relationship with God is like, and where Jesus comes from. A comparison of translations for John 1:18 exposes the theological difficulties with each of these three theological themes. The only portion of accord for translators in verse 18 is the first sentence of the verse, “No one has ever seen God.” After this fundamental truth, any agreement between translations quickly disintegrates. The first clause, “It is God, the only son” restates the identity of Jesus made clear in the last clause of verse 1. The declaration of Jesus’ identity is complicated by a translation issue and by a text-critical issue. The translation issue centers on monogenes, rendered as “the unique,” “the one and only,” and “the only begotten.” The identity of Jesus is once again God, as stated in verse 1, “and the Word was God,” but it is further clarified that the Word made flesh is a unique God, a one and only revealing or representation of God, calling attention to the limits of the incarnation but also to the distinctiveness of who Jesus is. The text-critical issue is the word “son” included in some translations. The earliest and most reliable manuscripts of John do not include the term “son.” While it is true that Jesus is God’s son which will be central when the Word has become flesh, that is not the focus here. Jesus is God revealing God’s self in a new and profoundly different way.
The location of Jesus as the unique and one and only God as “close to the Father’s heart” (NRSV) “heart,” “side,” and “bosom” is indeed kolpos, “bosom.” The choice of “side” and “heart” in translations over “bosom” suggests an essential difficulty with the concept that Jesus, as God’s unique expression of God and God’s son, dwells at the bosom of the father. The meaning conveyed in this picture of Jesus at the bosom of God is extraordinary tenderness. One would be hard-pressed to secure a description of relationship more intimate than the nursing of a child. Everything we need for life, right here and right now, God will give, over and over again. To be a child of God will ring false without the very literal manifestation of what it actually means to be a child.
At stake in this image is not only who Jesus is as the Word made flesh, as the unique and one and only God, but who we are as believers. The only other time in the Gospel of John that the word “bosom” is used is in 13:23, the first introduction to the disciple whom Jesus loves. It is, at the very least, odd that this beloved disciple is never mentioned before this point in the story. If Jesus loves this disciple so much, where has he been? The beloved disciple’s introduction and placement in the story indicate that his function and meaning are more important than his identity. While scholars still devote significant effort to determining who the beloved disciple was, the more important question, narratively and theologically, is why the beloved disciple. The fact that the term “bosom” occurs only in 1:18 and 13:23 affirms the premise of the Gospel that every claim about the relationship between God and Jesus is at the same time a claim about the relationship between the believer and God/Jesus. Who is the beloved disciple? He is you. He is me. He is every believer who either comes to belief or continues in belief when hearing this Gospel (20:30-31).
The last clause of verse 18 seeks to describe what the Word made flesh does, to “declare,” “reveal,” and “make known” God and points to Jesus’ origins. The verb exago is a compound verb, combining the prefix ex, which means “out” with the verb ago which means “to bring or to lead.” In other words, the principal purpose of the Word made flesh is to bring God out, to lead God out, so that an experience of God is possible. It makes no sense for the Word to become flesh if God is not able to be experienced, and on every level of what it means to be human.
A few Christmas sermon possibilities.
1 For further discussion, see Karoline M. Lewis, John (Fortress Press, 2014)
January 4, 2015