In the Beginning Was the Word
1:1-3 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him. Without him, nothing was made that has been made.
With these majestic words John commenced his account of the man whose disciple he had been for more than three years. John had been present at all the significant events and teachings of those years, and he was one of only three apostles who were chosen to accompany Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration and also to stay close to Him in the Garden of Gethsemane. He stood at the cross in company with Jesus’ mother and he was the first apostle to arrive at the empty tomb. He had been in a close and intimate relationship with Jesus and had come to understand that He is the only begotten Son of God.12
The opening phrase in Greek, en arche, echoes the first word in the Hebrew Bible, b’reshit (‘in the beginning’), announcing the unfolding events of creation by the Word and the Spirit of God. The events that John was about to describe were nothing less than the beginning of the new creation through that same agency of the Word and the Spirit. John’s opening statement, ‘In the beginning was the Word’, was made without context or explanation, provoking questions that demand answers. Who or what is this Word and what is His/Its relationship to the God of Genesis 1? Was John simply saying that God communicates and that He created the world by speaking it into existence? Was it just a description of how God had chosen to act in creating the universe?
The second statement, ‘the Word was with God’, implies that God and the Word are not identical but are in an association of some kind. In the book of Proverbs, Wisdom made a similar claim in the context of creation:
The LORD possessed me in the beginning of his work, before his deeds of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, before the earth existed … then I was the craftsman by his side. I was a delight day by day, always rejoicing before him.13
As in John’s introduction of the Word, Wisdom appears to be a person rather than merely a personal attribute. The motif of Wisdom personified as a royal counsellor at God’s side continues throughout Jewish wisdom literature, and is the context within which Jesus is identified here in John’s Gospel and also throughout the New Testament as the wisdom of God.
John’s third statement – ‘the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him. Without him, nothing was made that has been made’ – clearly indicates that the Word is none other than the Creator God Himself. Does this mean that ‘Word’ is simply a synonym for ‘God’, or does this statement express some complex and more profound truth? John would have been mindful of the outlook of first-century Jewish readers and their passionate belief in the truth that God is one. Their core creedal assertion was expressed in the Shema: ‘Hear, Israel: the LORD is our God. The LORD is one.’14 Many of their forefathers had died as martyrs as a result of persecution by a Greek king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (167–164 bce). In order to sanctify the name of God they had accepted death rather than agree to worship pagan gods. Any suggestion of polytheism would thus have been anathema to John’s contemporaries.15
This creedal statement can be understood in a different way that is also consistent with the Hebrew text: ‘The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.’16 This insists that there is only one God but does not define His personal nature. The Scriptures contain many allusions to relationship within the Godhead.17 This was recognised by Jewish scholars prior to the time of Jesus and also at the time when John wrote his Gospel.18 John’s purpose in writing was to reveal that Jesus is the mysterious person to whom those writings referred, the Son of God and the One whose mission on earth was to give eternal life to all who would believe in Him:
Therefore Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.19
In the process John would reveal how the religious leaders, who held to a rigid and exclusive interpretation of the Shema, had rejected Jesus and had dismissed His claims as blasphemous.20
The opening verses of Genesis 1 indicate that God launched the whole process of creation with the command, ‘Let there be light.’ John was giving a radically new interpretation of this scripture. God the Father did not create the universe simply by a spoken word but through the willing agency of His Son, of whom John wrote, ‘All things were made through him. Without him, nothing was made that has been made.’ He it was who had released all the energy that was required for the universe to come into existence in all its grandeur and complexity.21 In his Gospel, John describes the Father’s purpose to restore the broken creation, again through His Son, now revealed in the person of Jesus, the Word made flesh.
1:4-5 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness hasn’t overcomeit.
In John’s understanding, life and light are intimately connected. The light that flooded the primeval darkness flowed from the eternal and self-sustaining life of God. As human creatures our lives are contingent on sources outside of ourselves, such as food, air, water, other people, and ultimately on God Himself. Jesus was fully human and His biological life was sustained from the resources of the earth, but He also possessed the same life as the Father for, ‘In him was life’.22
As the eternal Word, Jesus created the physical light that still pervades the universe. As the incarnate Word, He radiated the glory of God and brought spiritual illumination to all those who would receive Him, for ‘the life was the light of men’. In this way John identified Jesus as the great light that had come in order to shine on those who sat in darkness, as the fountain of life and in whose light we see light, as the Lord who is our light and our salvation and who would also shine His light upon the Gentiles.23
John made twenty-four references to light in the first twelve chapters of the Gospel, but there are none at all in the subsequent ones. Life features thirty-nine times in the first twelve chapters but only seven times in the remainder. Love occurs twelve times in the first twelve chapters and forty-five times in the final nine chapters. This change of emphasis occurs at the point when Jesus switched His attention from what John calls ‘the world’, those who have resisted and rejected His word, to His disciples, who are ‘not of this world’, because they have believed and received His word. Jesus spoke repeatedly of love to those who gladly received the light that He brought to them through His words and actions. The true light, which enlightens everyone, had indeed come into the world.24
The apostle Paul used the same imagery of light and darkness, creation and new creation, in a way that mirrors John’s introduction to his Gospel: ‘seeing it is God who said, “Light will shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’.25 The disciples in the Upper Room did not require further instruction about light and darkness, but they did need to know how to live in relationship with Jesus and with one another in the context of the surrounding hostile world.26
The Jewish leaders were exposed to the same light as the disciples but were so blinded by their own prejudices and agendas that they did not perceive Jesus as light. They did not comprehend (understand) His words because those words did not fit with their understanding of reality and truth, thus precipitating a collision between light and darkness. Paul also wrote:
Even if our Good News is veiled, it is veiled in those who are dying, in whom the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that the light of the Good News of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should not dawn on them.27
Light ultimately prevailed over darkness, for Jesus fulfilled the Father’s purpose when, in perfect obedience, He laid down His life and was raised again in triumph.28
We live at a time in history when there is increasing hostility to the Gospel and severe persecution from those who love darkness rather than light. Those who remain true to the light may suffer for their faithfulness, but they too will ultimately be vindicated.29
The Word, the Witness and the World
1:6-9 There came a man, sent from God, whose name was John. The same came as a witness, that he might testify about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but was sent that he might testify about the light. The true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world.
John has begun to reveal that this Supreme Being, the Creator of the universe, the Eternal Word, has come into the world in order to shine light into the darkness. He is about to explain that the Word became flesh in order to live among His creatures, and yet he pauses to introduce a lesser, though esteemed, person: John the Baptist. There are at least two possible explanations for this apparent digression.
The first is that John’s preaching and baptising activity continued in parallel with Jesus’ public ministry. Disciples continued to follow John, and some of them even regarded Jesus as a competitor. John remained popular with the people and was highly esteemed as a prophet, and some of his disciples continued to follow him for many years after his death.30 Jesus made His first appearance in the context of this well-established and popular ministry. The Gospel makes it clear that Jesus and John the Baptist were not on the same level, being respectively Creator and creature. John the Baptist was happy to agree with this.31
Perhaps the most compelling explanation for the interposition of John the Baptist into the text is that he provided a connecting link between the statements, ‘In the beginning was the Word’, and ‘The Word became flesh, and lived amongst us’.32 The eternal Word had entered space and time in human flesh. He had also stepped into the Jewish world as a Jewish man and in fulfilment of the Jewish Scriptures. Those Scriptures had concluded some 400 years before, with the prophecy of Malachi who recorded God’s promise to send the prophet Elijah. He would prepare the hearts of the people to receive the Messiah. John was that Elijah figure, to whom Isaiah had also alluded.33 God had sent John in advance of Jesus to complete the work of the previous prophets and to usher in the age of the Messiah, thus acting as the final bridge between promise and fulfilment.
1:10-13 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, and the world didn’t recognise him. He came to his own, and those who were his own didn’t receive him. But as many as received him, to them he gave the right to become God’s children, to those who believe in his name: who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
The word ‘world’ appears three times in the first sentence of verse 10. On the first two occasions ‘the world’ described the place that the Word had made and which He was now visiting. Specifically, it referred to the land of Israel as promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and confirmed by the prophets. The third usage, ‘the world didn’t recognise him’, referred to the world of human beings and, in particular, to the people of Israel, His own people.
At one point Jesus stated that He had been sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (although, for particular reasons, He made a few exceptions to this rule). During the period of His life on earth, until His saving work had been accomplished, He placed a similar restriction on His apostles. The ultimate plan was that Gentiles would also be included in one flock with one shepherd.34
Initially both John the Baptist and the Pharisees were ignorant of Jesus’ identity, but this situation would soon change. When John saw a miraculous sign from heaven, he identified Jesus as the Messiah and received Him with acclamation and joy.35 In contrast, when Jesus subsequently performed miraculous signs from heaven, most of the religious leaders rejected these signs as constituting evidence for His identity. Jesus later described such people as being ‘of the world’. Conversely, Jesus described those who chose to receive Him as Messiah as being ‘not of the world’, for they believed the truth that He had come from and belonged to, another world.36 The distinction between these two groups progressively sharpened as events moved towards their conclusion in Jesus’ trial and crucifixion.
Jesus’ followers are said to have believed in His name. In the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day, ‘The Name’ (Hebrew Hashem) was used as a synonym for God, expressing His very nature, all that He is. When the disciples believed in Jesus’ name they were not merely giving formal recognition to His identity, but were committing themselves to Him as their Lord and their God. In return they received a new life and a new identity as God’s children.
The expression ‘God’s children’ would have had special significance for Jewish people. When the nation was about to emerge from slavery in Egypt, God referred to Israel as His firstborn son. In his prophetic song Moses affirmed this: ‘Isn’t he your father who has bought you? He has made you and established you.’ The prophet Hosea recalled this relationship: ‘When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt.’ He also described Israel as a son whom God, as a father, fed and taught to walk. Israel failed to live up to that high calling, but even as God was about to judge them for their unfaithfulness, He still called them His dear son. Likewise, Isaiah’s impassioned prayer for mercy on God’s erring people was based on the assertion that ‘you are our Father’.37 What was largely an unfulfilled aspiration now became an actual relationship, through the sending and sacrifice of the beloved Son.38
John gave two complementary descriptions of how we can become children of God. Firstly, a child can be adopted into an existing family. God called Abraham from the Gentile nations to become the foundation stone for the new nation of Israel. In a similar way, Gentiles could join the nation as proselytes and become equal members in the family of Israel. When anyone receives Jesus in faith, he or she is adopted into the family of God and has all the rights of a son and heir within His Kingdom.39
Birth, with the implication of new life, is the second description of how a person can enter into the family of God. This life comes from heaven and it has no connection with blood, family, nationality or ethnicity. It cannot be achieved by the will of the flesh, personal works or human effort, nor can it be imparted or imposed by the will of a human being or by any external human agency. New birth will be the subject of a later chapter when Nicodemus, a prominent religious expert, came to visit Jesus and discovered, to his surprise, that he needed to be born again from above.40
Before we conclude this section, we should take note of a highly significant word, ‘authority’, which becomes one of the central themes of the Gospel. ‘But as many as received him, to them he gave the right to become God’s children’.41 The issue of authority and its source was at the heart of the conflict between Jesus and the leaders of Israel. They claimed jurisdiction and the right to call Him to account. He refused that claim, and insisted that He had absolute authority as the Son of Man and by virtue of His relationship with the one He dared to call ‘my Father’. Near the end of the narrative it seemed that they had prevailed in the battle of wills, but they would be proved wrong. Jesus made this clear when He said, many months prior to His death:
‘Therefore the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it away from me, but I lay it down by myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. I received this commandment from my Father.’42
The Word Became Flesh
1:14 The Word became flesh, and lived amongst us. We saw his glory, such glory as of the one and only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.
This verse begins with an awesome statement. The Word, whom John has previously identified as the Creator God Himself, has now appeared in human flesh. Jesus was a human being like us but, unlike us, His conception did not initiate His life and existence. The tense of the verb that is translated ‘became’ implies an action at a point in time, a real space–time event. Jesus came from heaven as Son of God and now was also fully human. The incarnation is the great miracle without which the rest of the story is mere illusion.43
Paul described the fact that ‘the mystery of godliness is great: God was revealed in the flesh’.44 In Scripture, a mystery is a statement or promise that cannot be understood without further revelation. The fact that God Himself would come in the person of the Messiah was implicit in many prophetic words, being interpreted as such in many Targums (ancient Aramaic paraphrases of the Scriptures), but the implications were too daring and outrageous to imagine.45 The fact that Jesus was fully human while remaining fully God constitutes the ‘mystery of godliness’, for it is a paradox that defeats human reason (1+1=1). The eternal Word created man, but as Messiah He was made of woman.46 The human mind cannot comprehend this mystery; the proper response combines faith, trust and worship.
Greek philosophers considered human beings to be composed of flesh and spirit, the former being bad and the latter being good. By contrast, the Bible teaches that the physical body was part of God’s good creation, so Jesus could take on human flesh, bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh, without being corrupted in the process.47
David was a prophet of the coming Messiah both through the things that happened to him as well as the things he wrote. In Psalm 40 he made a statement that was subsequently taken up by the writer to the Hebrews as being Jesus’ words to the Father prior to His incarnation.48 The Father had prepared a body for His Son and Jesus accepted it, together with the similar possibilities and limitations of our own bodies. His body began on earth as a single cell in Mary’s womb. In anticipation of this He must have known that, for a significant period of time, His existence in an unconscious state would be totally dependent on the Father’s faithfulness.49 This relationship of trust in and obedience to the Father was the basis of everything that He did on earth.
The angels who witnessed His birth may have wondered how to address the One whom they had worshipped from the time of their own creation, but who now lay helpless and dependent in the arms of a teenage girl. The answer was that they must worship Him, for He was still fully God.50 The baby Jesus remained vulnerable and totally reliant on His mother for sustenance. He was a real human baby and not engaged in thinking ‘God-thoughts’. We must assume that, as He grew in wisdom and stature, the Holy Spirit somehow awakened the consciousness of His deity. It is clear that, for the remainder of His earthly life, He lived at ease in the awareness of that dual nature, speaking of God as both His Father and His God.51
‘The Word became flesh’ implies a real physical body and a real human nature. Jesus was not God living in the façade of a human body, pretending to be a man, like an actor dressed for a part. Paul’s use of language in Philippians 2:7-8 might cause us confusion, using as it does the terms ‘form’ of a servant, ‘likeness’ of men, and ‘in human form’, as if describing human resemblance but not the substance. However the same phrase, ‘in the form of God’, is used in verse 6 of the same chapter, where it obviously refers to Jesus’ eternal and divine nature. Similar language is used when referring to ordinary human beings: Adam begot a son, ‘in his own likeness, after his image’ – meaning another human being.52
Jesus’ outward appearance corresponded to His fully human nature. He shared our humanity in every respect: choosing, eating, drinking, sleeping, becoming weary, feeling hungry, speaking, seeing, praying, weeping, suffering pain, being angry, feeling moved with compassion, being tempted in every conceivable way (but without acquiescence), and so forth. Had He not been made like us in every respect, then His offering of Himself for us would have been invalid in relation to God, and He would have been disqualified from acting on our behalf as the great High Priest.53
The Word stepped from the eternal state into our space–time continuum. Now, as Messiah, Jesus also stepped out of the pages of the Scriptures, the One who had walked with Adam in the garden, who had visited with Abraham and had wrestled with Jacob, and who had revealed Himself to Isaiah in overwhelming glory.54
The phrase ‘and lived among us’ connects with the Exodus account: the Greek word (skenoo) used here and translated ‘lived’ means to pitch a tent or to live in a tent. Following the departure of the Israelites from Egypt, God revealed His desire to live in their midst and He instructed Moses in the following words: ‘Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell amongst them.’ This arrangement was designed to make it possible for God, in His purity and holiness, to coexist with the people in their sin and corruption without destroying them, a problem that became acute when they worshipped the golden calf. This incident provoked God to say, ‘I will not go up amongst you, for you are a stiff-necked people, lest I consume you on the way.’55 Yet even before that dreadful event had occurred, God in His grace had already revealed His solution: the Tabernacle.
The Tabernacle was a sacred and protected space at the centre of the camp where God in His holiness could live in the midst of His redeemed but still imperfect people. They still had to keep at a certain distance in order to protect it from contamination and themselves from danger, but nevertheless God was present among them. The glory of God, the Shekinah (linguistically related to ‘dwell’), came down on the Tabernacle and rested on the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies, which was separated from the outer part of the tent by a dividing curtain. Repeated rituals and sacrifices were required in order to maintain the holiness of the Tabernacle, keeping it fit for the continuing presence of God. Each year, on the Day of Atonement, blood was sprinkled on the Ark, symbolically covering the peoples’ sin and purifying them from its pollution.
John drew on this prophetic picture when he indicated that the Word pitched His tent among us. It is important not to misinterpret the metaphor and think of Jesus as being God camouflaged in a human body. Paul used the same analogy of a tent to describe his own body, in order to emphasise that He was on a journey from the visible to the invisible, the temporal to the eternal. Jesus came from the eternal and invisible realm and took on flesh in order to live in this temporal and visible world.56 Jesus’ physical body was the true sanctuary, containing the very presence of God. Many years later, John wonderingly recalled that he and others had seen, heard and examined the Word of Life and had even touched the one who was God incarnate in human flesh.57 Only those who really desired to see could recognise the glory that Jesus displayed through His words and actions. It was hidden from those who chose darkness rather than light, blinded by their prejudices and personal ambitions.58
Jesus did not need to keep people at a distance in order to preserve their safety, nor did He fear contamination. Holiness and health flowed from Him when He touched those suffering from conditions that would cause ritual uncleanness (leprosy, bodily discharge and death).59 He welcomed and interacted with people whose sinful behaviour or reputations had made them outcasts in society. In consequence, He was criticised for being a friend to tax collectors and sinners.60
Jesus offered His sinless human body on the cross on our behalf in order to provide permanent cleansing, forgiveness, and life for us. When He died, the great dividing curtain that barred the way to the Holy of Holies in the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The writer to the Hebrews explained that Jesus’ body in death became the torn curtain that opened the new and living way into the Father’s presence, the holiest place of all. He died, the just for the unjust, in order to bring us to God.61
Jesus is the glory of the God of Israel. Moses was not permitted to see the face of God, but the glory of God was revealed in the face of Jesus the Messiah.62 John was one of three disciples who saw Jesus transfigured. This event was probably on John’s mind when he wrote the words, ‘we saw his glory’, and also when he penned the introduction to his first epistle.63 John was also present at the cross and saw Jesus being lifted up. It was probably only after Jesus’ resurrection that John understood the crucifixion as the means by which He would be lifted up in glory. Many years later John would have a revelation of Jesus as the glorified Son of Man, and would be completely overwhelmed.64
1:15-18 John testified about him. He cried out, saying, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me has surpassed me, for he was before me.”’ From his fullness we all received grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses. Grace and truth were realised through Jesus Christ. No one has seen God at any time. The one and only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has declared him.
John again refers to John the Baptist, this time in the company of Moses, and now sandwiched between the two references to grace and truth. ‘The law … given through Moses’ seems to refer to the covenant that God made with the nation of Israel and which they undertook to obey, as recorded in Exodus. It was initially described as the Book of the Law, to which further instructions were added in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, together with accounts of how that Law was transgressed. Israel’s destiny involved being the channel through which the Messiah, the Seed promised to Abraham, would come, and He would then bring blessing to the whole world. This necessitated that Israel be kept separate from the pagan nations; this was one of the chief purposes of the Law, which defined them as a holy nation that lived in loyalty to the covenant with their God. The era of the Law was, therefore, time limited and moving towards its appointed goal through the succeeding centuries.65
John reminds his readers, and us, that the era of the Law extended from Moses to John the Baptist, and contained many prophecies and promises of the coming Messiah. John the Baptist testified that a new age had dawned in the person of the One who had existed before him in eternity and in glory.66 Jesus, the prophet like Moses, had arrived in flesh, and John was the appointed witness to this dramatic and climactic event. Moses had faithfully played his God-given role in the process of salvation history that had now reached its goal.
The translators of some English translations of the Bible – such as the King James Version, the New King James Version and the Amplified Bible – have inserted ‘but’ between ‘the law was given through Moses’ and ‘grace and truth came by Jesus Christ’, as if a negative point is being made. This is to misunderstand the dynamic of the single story of the Bible. A necessary phase had now come to a conclusion and, having served its purpose, gave way to the following chapters for which it had been the essential preparation. Paul wrote, ‘For Christ is the fulfilment [Greek telos] of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.’ Telos means either ‘goal’ or ‘end/completion’, or both as here in Romans and also in John’s Gospel.67
The God of Moses and of Israel is one and the same as the God and Father of the Lord Jesus; grace and truth figure prominently in the account of God’s dealings with Israel. In the aftermath of the great sin of worshipping the golden calf, Moses asked God for a revelation of His glory. The LORD responded by making all His goodness pass before Moses and proclaiming:
‘The LORD! The LORD, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness and truth, keeping loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and disobedience and sin; and who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the children’s children, on the third and on the fourth generation.’ 68
Grace and truth were by no means absent in the former days, but now the author of grace and truth had come, embodying them and revealing their full extent.
The Greek mindset that pervades western culture tends to emphasise truth as accurate information. John, with his Hebrew worldview, would have embraced a wider range of meaning. Truth as we encounter it in the Hebrew Scriptures also emphasises faithfulness within a covenant relationship. The Hebrew word emet, in the passage quoted from Exodus 34, is variously rendered ‘truth’ or ‘faithfulness’ in different English versions of the Bible.69 By living a life of faithful love, complete trust and total obedience to the Father, Jesus modelled the true and appropriate relationship between creature and Creator.70 Jesus asserted that He, personally, is that truth and that He had come to bear witness to the truth – namely, how the Father purposed to restore His Kingdom on earth through the obedience of His Son.71
The metaphor in John’s statement ‘in the bosom [leaning on the breast] of’, had its origins in his own personal experience at the Passover supper where he describes how the disciple whom Jesus loved reclined next to Jesus and physically leaned against Him. Other leading disciples such as Peter and Andrew are included by name, but John’s name does not appear in the text. It seems that John preferred anonymity and chose to describe himself simply in terms of his relationship to Jesus.72 This human picture helps us to understand the nature of the unity between the Father and the Son.73 The one and only Son, ‘who is in the bosom of the Father’,74 has declared him.
Prior to the crucifixion Jesus promised His disciples that it would soon be possible for them to share that same intimacy with the Father.75 Paul explained that God dwells ‘in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen, nor can see’. We now see the glory of God (the Father) in the face of Jesus the Messiah. John was subsequently given a revelation that, at the end of time, the Father Himself will make His dwelling with us and we shall see His face.76