Commentary on John 1:[1-9], 10-18
The Prologue introduces the major themes of the Gospel.
Stop what you are doing, read John 1:1-18, and jot down anything that strikes you. Notice repeated words and themes such as word, life, light, darkness, believe, know, “his own,” fullness, and bosom. Yes, bosom. More on that later. These are all words and themes that you will find repeated in John.
John: The Gospel of Abundant, Embodied, Eternal Life
The author of this Gospel, whom we shall call “John” for the sake of convenience, provides his thesis statement boldly at 20:30-31: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
From the get-go, John has informed you that he writes not to add to the annals of history, but to persuade you about the identity of Jesus and cause an encounter between you and the risen Christ through the text. He wants you to “believe.” The verb believe appears 98 times in the Gospel of John; the noun never appears. Believing is a verb. He tells you that he left out numerous details but that he has provided all that is necessary for you to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing leads to life. Abundant Life, Embodied Life, Eternal Life, Precious Life. The Fourth Gospel is concerned with nothing but Life: how we get it, how we lose it, how we find it again, or, better yet, how we get found by it.
John, Creation, and Genesis
The opening of John should make you recall the opening of Genesis. From the phrase “in [the] beginning,” to the emphasis on God’s Word as a creative force, to the language of light and darkness, Genesis is ever-present in John. And not just in the prologue but throughout. When you preach on John, draw your people’s attention to the fact that the stuff of earth is the stuff of God. Not a single thing that has been created was created apart from God. It all came from God, it all belongs to God, and it all testifies to and reveals God. In that way, creation itself is a sacrament, a means of grace.
For John, with the Incarnation, God becoming flesh, bread is no longer just bread (see chapter 6); flesh is no longer just flesh, water is no longer just water (see chapters 3, 4, 7, 19); vines, branches, sheep, shepherds — all of them reveal the nature of God and identity of Christ. No wonder, then, that in healing the blind man (chapter 9), Jesus takes the dirt and mixes it with saliva and puts it on the man’s eyes. Surely Jesus could have skipped all the messy, dirty parts and just healed the guy, as he does elsewhere (see chapter 5). But the use of the earth and the spit should remind us of the creation as told by Genesis, where God creates the first person using the earth.
John is interested in creation. He has a brief litmus test for what is Christian and what isn’t: if it is life-giving, if it promotes the flourishing of all creation, then it is Christian; if it is death-dealing, it may be real, but it is not ultimate and it is certainly not Christian: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Abundant Life. “From his fullness, we have all received.”
And the Genesis creation story appears all the way to the end of the Gospel. Recall the scene in the Garden, the interaction between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. The text tells us that she took him for “the Gardener.” Not “a” gardener, mind you, but the Gardener. This scene rectifies the Fall, in effect, and brings us back to the unity shared between Adam and Eve in the original Garden. The rectification is now exemplified through Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
Jesus as Lady Wisdom
John brilliantly presents Jesus in the role of Lady Wisdom in a number of ways. As we read in numerous LXX texts, Lady Wisdom (hokhmah in Hebrew, Sophia in Greek) is God’s partner: she helps to create the world, she delights in the human race, she continually tries to help humans to get knowledge and flee from ignorance. She cries aloud incessantly. Unfortunately, the Old Testament tells us that she is often rejected because fools hate knowledge and humans would rather wallow in ignorance, for the most part.
This theme is played out mightily in John as there is ongoing irony related to who “knows” what and what really counts as saving knowledge (the verb oida appears 84 times in John; the verb ginosko appear 57 times). Read the Prologue alongside Proverbs 8:22-31; Sirach 24:1-9; and Proverbs 1:20-32 and you will see that John casts Jesus in the mold of Lady Wisdom. Given this fact, the reader should not be surprised by the statement in John 1:11 that the Word/Wisdom/Jesus came unto his own and his own did not receive him.
John: The Gospel of Intimate Relationship
There is no more intimate text in the Bible than the Gospel of John. Jesus and God and the Paraclete and we are all intimately related to one another. And it’s a very touchy-feely Gospel. As noted above, Jesus rubs mud on the blind man’s eyes; Mary anoints Jesus’ feet (chapter 12); Jesus washes the disciples’ feet (chapter 13); Mary Magdalene grabs onto the resurrected Jesus (chapter 20). We could easily multiply the instances of intimacy in this Gospel, but I want to draw your attention to an important feature of our text for today. In 1:18 John tells us that Jesus is in the “bosom (kolpos) of the Father.” Second, the only other place kolpos appears in John is 13:23 where the disciple whom Jesus loved was reclining upon Jesus’ bosom. John wants us to understand that the same intimacy shared by God and Jesus is shared with us and Jesus/God. Hence, the Incarnation.
The NRSV says: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” The verb there is skenoo –a lively, allusive verb that means “to spread a tent.” John is pointing to the Old Testament texts that refer to God’s presence among human beings. For John, Jesus is that locus. The rest of John fills out the implications of the Incarnation. The Incarnation is John’s leitmotif, so maybe it could be ours as well. So I close with my own conviction about preaching John 1:
“If the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us, that is, if the Word of God came out of the birth canal of a woman’s body, grew, ate, went to the bathroom, sometimes bathed, struggled against demons, sweated, wept, exulted, transfigured, was physically violated and rotted away in a tomb just before being gloriously resurrected, then the Bible must have flesh on it. If a valley of dry bones can live again, then bones and blood and bread and flesh and bodies should never be left behind when we are trying to understand the grime and glory of Scripture. Any interpretation that denounces the material, created order, including our own bodies, should be suspect. From birth to death our bodies swell and shrink, are wet with milk, and sweat, and urine and vomit and sex, and blood, and water and wounds that fester and stink and are healed and saved and redeemed and die and are resurrected. If you can’t glory in or at least talk about these basic realities in church while reading Scripture, then how can Scripture truly intersect with or impact life? We might as well just go read a Jane Austen novel; though I doubt we’ll ever be transformed or made whole or saved by it.”1
1 Jaime Clark-Soles, Engaging the Word: The New Testament and the Christian Believer (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).