Chapter One—The Divine Overture

John 1:1-18


Scripture Outline

Is there any way one can plumb the depths of John's prologue to his Gospel? Such intense power in so few words! After brooding over the meaning of these short verses for months, I am more reluctant than ever to put my thoughts on paper. Yet, strangely, I am eager and compelled to do so. I can readily understand why both Augustine and Chrysostom are reported as saying, "It is beyond the power of man to speak as John does in his prologue." John Calvin has written of the prologue, "Rather should we be satisfied with this heavenly oracle, knowing that it says much more than our minds can take in."

Living with this prologue is like standing in the foothills of an awesome mountain range catching a breathtaking glimpse of massive, snowcapped peaks reaching up through the haze. Or it is like being overwhelmed by haunting melodies that introduce the themes of a mighty symphony. I had such a moment recently when I found myself being swept along by the sheer beauty and power of Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony. I came to the concert tired and unexpectant, but left lifted and fulfilled. In the midst of this surprising, spiritual experience my eye caught the words in the program notes, "His [Shostakovich's] symphonies combine somber tragedy, mordant wit, expressive melody, dramatic development and profound emotion, all under a brilliantly orchestrated surface." I almost shouted, "Why, that could have been written about John's prologue."

John has caught the sweep and wonder of the history of salvation and shared it in hymnic form. All through the prologue he is setting forth the career of the Incarnate Word in simple, powerful phrases—"the light shining in the darkness," "became flesh and dwelt among us," "full of grace and truth," "declaring the Father," some "did not receive Him," but others were "born of God." The prologue is far more than an introduction to the Gospel. It is really a dramatic summary, a revelation, of all that will take place throughout the earthly ministry of our Lord.

But John cannot speak of His career without asking about its Source. When did the story of our salvation really begin? This drives him back to or into the heart of Reality. He must plumb the mystery of His Source if he is to make plain the identity and vocation of the Word dwelling among us. This is like discovering that the refreshing, healing water, which gives life to all around it, comes from a hidden, limitless spring in the bowels of the earth.

The Speech of God: Word and Logos

1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God.

3 All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. 4 In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe. 8 He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

—John 1:1-8

Eternal, Coexistent, Yet God (vv. 1-2). John begins with a disarmingly simple phrase, "In the beginning was the Word." Here is the central theme, the grand motif, of the symphony which will come pouring forth with such glory throughout the Gospel narrative. The "Speech of God" John Calvin called it. What a wonder that God should speak. Here is a mystery, not unlike speech among us humans, that unique capacity to use signs and symbols, sounds and touch, and even silence, to communicate with one another.

Think of the power words have among us. It was said of John Knox, the fiery Scottish reformer, "When he preached his words were more powerful than ten thousand trumpets." And who of us in this generation can forget Martin Luther King crying out in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, "I have a dream"? Words can fulfill or hurt or bless. They can build up or tear down. There are those tender, healing, affirming words, "Welcome home." "Congratulations, it's a girl." "I love you." Or those angry, destructive, cutting words, "Divorce is granted." "I hate you." "She's dead." What meaning they carry—far more than mere sounds hanging in the air.

But when John speaks of "the Word," he is taking us far beyond the meaning it has for us in general. He is a Hebrew speaking to his own people, and for them, the Word had unique power. For these people, there was a precious quality, a living reality, about words, so they were used sparingly. There were only ten thousand words in Hebrew speech and only two hundred thousand words in the Greek language. The Semitic root for "word," dabar, also meant "thing," "affair," "event," or "action." A word spoken was a happening. Once it had been uttered, it could not be torn from the event that it evoked. Thus, when Isaac had blessed Jacob and then later discovered that Jacob had cleverly stolen his twin brother Esau's birthright, he could not recall his words of blessing, even though Esau pleaded with his aged father to do this. The words had gone forth and the blessing stood (Gen. 27:32-38).

But when God spoke, that was a creative, awesome moment! Thus all creation was called into existence by the word of the Lord. "Then God said, 'Let there be light'; and there was light" (Gen. 1:3). He also spoke at the climax of the creation event, "Then God said, 'Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness ....' So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them" (Gen. 1:26-27).

So the Scripture celebrates over and over again the power of God's creative Word.

For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven,

And do not return there,

But water the earth,

And make it bring forth and bud,

That it may give seed to the sower

And bread to the eater,

So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth;

It shall not return to Me void, But it shall accomplish what I please, And it shall
prosper in the thing for which I sent it.


—Isaiah 55:10-11

It was this Word that had called Abraham to leave his familiar, safe surroundings for the insecurity of a far country to become the father of a mighty people. Generations later this same Word broke the shackles of Egyptian bondage and set Israel free to enter into their promised destiny. And in the ebb and flow of later history, the Word came again and again through the prophets—"Thus saith the Lord," calling a wandering, whoring people back to their first love and vocation.

Little wonder then that when John wrote, "In the beginning was the Word," he evoked a whole cluster of memories among his Hebrew readers and touched a nerve of understanding.

But John was also reaching out beyond his Hebrew countrymen to a vast Gentile audience dominated by Greek thought. William Barclay has pointed out that by a.d. 60 "there must have been a hundred thousand Greeks in the church for every Jew who was a Christian." And for this audience, the Word, for them Logos, was charged with a unique meaning.

As far back as 560 b.c., Heraclitus had asked if there was anything permanent and lasting in the flux of constant change that was all about. His answer was that the Logos, the Reason of God, controlled and guided this stream of change. Later the Stoics held that Logos was the "mind of God," the eternal principle of order in the universe, that which makes the chaos of the world a cosmos. If John had begun his Gospel by declaring that the Messiah had come it would have had little, if any, meaning for the Greeks. It was the Logos that became the point of contact, and opened the door for a hearing of the Gospel.

So in using "the Word," the Logos, John was speaking to both the Jewish and Greek worlds—those two widely divergent cultures. The Greeks were sophisticated, inquisitive, and philosophic; the Jews righteous, traditional, and struggling to be faithful to the Law. How amazing that John could share the Gospel narrative with these two cultures at the same time, using a single, simple concept that carried such profound meaning for both.

John understood and empathized with the Hellenistic world. He was aware of the nuances and subtleties of Greek thought and tried constantly to help his Greek audience understand the ways of the Jewish people that they might understand the Gospel more clearly. For example, in telling of Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman, he adds simply, "For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans" (John 4:9b), and thus helps his Greek readers understand how radical Jesus had been in reaching out toward this needy woman. All through the Gospel, John shares helpful insights for his Greek audience. Here is a true evangelist establishing rapport and trust. John did not try to force his Greek readers into an alien point of view, but rather sought to lead them into investigating seriously who Jesus was. This is why that simple invitation Jesus gave the first disciples, "Come and see," is an opportunity for all readers to check out the evidence. How could the Logos and "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" be one and the same? Surely that kind of honest invitation would appeal to the Greek mind.

John, the writer, was the son of Zebedee, a fairly prosperous Galilean fisherman, through and through a Jew. Nourished on the Law and Prophets, all the Jewish customs and traditions had shaped John's deepest inner life. There is no way he can shake off or dismiss those roots, nor should he. This is why his appeal to this Gentile audience is so remarkable. Adolf Schlatter has argued persuasively in Der Evangelist Johannes (1930) that "the writer thought in Semitic idiom while he wrote in Greek."

Those of us who are eager to be authentic witnesses have much to learn from John. We have been so domesticated and institutionalized within the ghetto of the religious establishment that we have been cut off and alienated from the very people we have been eager to reach. There is no way we can enter into honest dialogue with either the Hebrew or Greek of our day if we hide within our "churchly" groups using the "in" jargon of the initiated. How often I have heard, "Oh, I couldn't show up there; I don't know the right words," or "I don't have the right clothes," or "If you only knew what terrible things I've done," in response to an invitation to some church affair.

It is only when we are in a vulnerable, open posture, if we hear the disturbing questions of uprooted, secular man or understand the bankruptcy of his chaotic value system, that we can discover a language that is fresh and alive and true to the Gospel. That language can become a bridge and enter into the mind and heart of our confused, seeking, and often angry generation. How else can we share the Gospel story? John has done this. His Gospel is a passionate evangelistic confession, carefully written that "men may believe." "The Word" is the cutting edge of that confession.

"In the beginning was the Word." But what beginning? At creation? When light came and the chaos became cosmos? No, not that beginning, although John's phrase surely comes from the Genesis account. There are words throughout the prologue that recall the creation event—life, light, darkness.

But John reaches back further and plunges deeper than the beginning of created existence. He is speaking of a new creation, of what God has done in His new dispensation, of salvation history, asking, "When did the story of Jesus really begin?" This takes us beyond our dependent, contingent world of space and time to the wonder and sweep of the "One who inhabits eternity." Here we are brought to the Source, the Origin of all things, to the "root of the universe," to use William Temple's phrase. This is an eternal Gospel.

"The Word" of which John speaks is uncreated. There has never been a time when it was not. Here is existence beyond time, that which was when time and finite being began its course. So created existence can only be understood in the light of this uncreated Word.

But this Word does not dwell in lonely isolation. "And the Word was with God." The literal translation could be "the Word was towards God." The whole existence of the Word is oriented toward the Father and is in eternal, active communion with Him. The Word is in the presence of God, face to face with Him. This living intercourse is revealed in the words and deeds of Jesus throughout His earthly existence. "Then Jesus answered and said to them, 'Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner'" (John 5:19). "'Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works'" (John 14:10).

"The Word" and the Father are not identical, yet They are One. There is a creative fullness within God's being, a wondrous unity, yet a rich diversity, revealed in all that He is and does. Early in Scripture this "mode of being," this intimacy, is spoken of in the act of creation. "'Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness'" (Gen. 1:26). It is as if a family decision is made within the very life of God. Little wonder then that the most common name for the Deity in Hebrew is Elohim, a plural form.