I. Prologue: The Word Made Flesh (1:1-18)

The prologue is a kind of foyer to the Gospel (Carson 1991: 111). In it John introduces the most important themes that he will develop in the rest of his work. Unlike the Synoptics, John supplies neither a genealogy nor a birth narrative of Jesus. Rather, he reaches back all the way to eternity past, prior to creation (1:1; cf. Gen. 1:1). By linking Jesus’ coming into the world to its creation, John signals that the incarnation of the Word (1:14) culminates a stream of salvation-historical events that command humanity’s utmost attention. Thus the evangelist shows the progression from preexistence (1:1-2) to creation (1:3), the time subsequent to creation but prior to the incarnation (1:4-5), the Baptist (1:6-8), and the incarnation and its results and benefits (1:9-18) (van der Watt 1995: 321; Lindars 1972: 77).

Though it is disputed whether the prologue is original with John or he adapted a preexisting hymn (inserting sections on the Baptist, 1:6-8, 15), the prologue doubtless represents one of the most beautiful and carefully crafted poetic portions in the entire NT (R. Brown 1966: 22; Beasley-Murray 1999: 3). In its opening lines (1:1-5), John uses a form of “staircase parallelism,” introducing a concept at the end of one line and taking it up at the beginning of the next (Culpepper 1980-81: 9-10). The pattern is broken in 1:6-9, which is written in more pedestrian prose, but is resumed in 1:10-11 and again in 1:17 (R. Edwards 1988: 8). The literary artistry is most impressive in 1:1-2, which features both a staircase parallelism and a chiasm (Lund 1931: 42 [cited in Culpepper 1980-81: 9-10]; see also Staley 1986: 243; 1988: 50-51):

A. ἐν ἀρχῇ

B. ἦν

C. ὁ λόγος

D. καὶ ὁ λόγος

E. ἦν

F. πρὸς τὸν θεόν

F′. καὶ θεός

E′. ἦν

D′. ὁ λόγος

C′. οὗτος

B′. ἦν

A′. ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν

The macrostructure of the opening section of John’s Gospel most likely follows a chiastic pattern as well (though specific proposals differ: cf. Lund 1931: 44; Boismard 1957: 79-80; Lamarche 1964; Feuillet 1968: 160; Hooker 1969-70: 357; Borgen 1970; 1972; Culpepper 1980-81; Pryor 1990: 201-2; Booser 1998: 16; Kruse 2003: 59-60), with the Word’s incarnation and the privilege of becoming God’s children at the center, framed by references to the witness of John the Baptist:

A. The Word’s activity in creation (1:1-5)

B. John’s witness concerning the light (1:6-8)

C. The incarnation of the Word and the privilege of becoming God’s children (1:9-14)

B′. John’s witness concerning the Word’s preeminence (1:15)

A′. The final revelation brought by Jesus Christ (1:16-18)

By way of more detailed analysis, the correspondence between 1:1-2 and 1:18 can be seen in that (1) these are the only points at which the Word is “with God”; the Word’s return to God’s presence “conveys a sense of order, balance, and completion” (Culpepper 1980-81: 10); (2) θεός (theos, God) occurs three times in 1:1-2 and twice in 1:18 but only three times in the remainder of the prologue (note that two of these instances are at the center, 1:12-13); and (3) both 1:1-2 and 1:18 feature balancing references to eternal time (ἀρχῇ, archē, beginning; πώποτε, pōpote, ever).

Διʼ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο (di’ autou egeneto, through him were made) in 1:3 (affirming the Word’s role in creation) is mirrored by διὰ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ἐγένετο (dia Iēsou Christou egeneto, came through Jesus Christ) in 1:17 (affirming the role of Jesus in revelation). The parallel between 1:4-5 and 1:16 is conceptual (dealing with divine blessings) rather than verbal, with “light and life” corresponding to “fullness of grace.” The equivalence of 1:6-8 and 1:15 (references to John the Baptist) is self-evident. The incarnation is referred to in 1:9-11 and 1:14 (Culpepper 1980-81: 13-14).

In the center of the chiasm (the structure is clearer in Greek than in English translation), 1:11b and 1:13 correspond, as do 1:12a and 1:12c, which leaves 1:12b as the climax: “he gave the right to become children of God.” The term “children of God” occurs again in 11:52, where these are said to include also believing Gentiles (cf. 10:16), and in 8:41 at the nexus of this theme in John’s Gospel (cf. 8:31-47), where true children of God are said to be those who not only have God’s word (8:31-38) but also respond to it in faith (8:39-47). In keeping with the above macrostructure, the prologue can be divided into strophes that mutually correspond by way of chiasm (see translation below): 1:1-2 with 1:18, 1:3 with 1:17, 1:4-5 with 1:16, 1:6-8 with 1:15, 1:9-10 with 1:14, and 1:11-13 at the center.

The opening section of John’s prologue (1:1-5) features the Word’s participation in creation. Not only was the Word with God; it was itself God. The Word is presented as the giver of both light and life. By withholding the name of Jesus until 1:17, the evangelist creates suspense, allowing for certain christological anticipations to be seen in 1:1-5 without making them explicit until 1:9-14 and 1:16-18. The present passage also sets the stage for the Word’s rejection by the world at his “homecoming” (1:10) and the Word’s incarnation as the one-of-a-kind Son from the Father (1:14, 18). John 1:5 sounds the note of the Word’s victory over darkness, which foreshadows the Gospel’s presentation of the ministry and passion of Jesus as a cosmic battle between God and Satan. Just as the entire prologue (1:1-18) is foundational for the remainder of the Gospel, 1:1-5 is foundational for the remainder of the prologue. Prior to the appearance of John the Baptist, who bore witness to Jesus, there already was the preexistent Word, who subsequently was made flesh in Jesus and revealed the Father to his followers (cf. 1:15).

In 1:6-8, the evangelist proceeds to anchor Jesus’ ministry firmly in salvation history. Like the Synoptics, the present Gospel presents John the Baptist as “a man whose appearance and ministry belong integrally to the Christ-event” (Ridderbos 1997: 41). This reference to the Baptist, together with 1:15, anticipates the narrative commencing immediately after the prologue in 1:19. In light of the material’s stylistic unity, it is not necessary to hold that the references to the Baptist were inserted into a non-Johannine, preexisting hymn.

The climactic section of John’s prologue (1:9-14) is framed by references to the coming of the true light into the world (1:9; a rather innocuous-sounding statement) and the Word becoming flesh (1:14; a truly startling claim). John 1:10-11 sounds a note of rejection by both the world (which was made through the Word [1:3]) and even his own people (i.e., Israel). John 1:12-13, with 1:12 as the major climax of the entire prologue (Culpepper 1980-81) and 1:13 as a clarifying addition, assigns to all those who believe “in his name” the right to become God’s children. Both 1:11 and 1:13 make clear that the Jewish people must not presume upon their ethnic privilege. By centering his Gospel in the (sole) requirement of faith in Jesus, the evangelist strikes a universal note that achieves a further climax in 3:16. This universal scope transcends national (Jewish) boundaries and is in further development of the opening references to creation.

Pursuing his chiastic arrangement of presentation, the evangelist then returns to the witness of John the Baptist (1:15; cf. 1:6-8). The previous reference spoke of the bare fact of John’s identity—now the evangelist elaborates regarding the content of John’s testimony. The chiasm is completed in the final unit of the prologue (1:16-18), with 1:16 corresponding to 1:4-5, 1:17 to 1:3, and 1:18 to 1:1-2. Just as God’s creation gifts through the Word were life and light (1:4-5), so God’s gift through his one-of-a-kind Son is fullness of grace, indeed, “grace for grace” (1:16). Moreover, just as the world came into being through the Word, so grace and truth came through the Word-made-flesh, Jesus Christ (1:17; cf. 1:3). Finally, the evangelist closes the prologue the way he began it: with a reference to the Word (i.e., Jesus) as God (1:18; cf. 1:1). Jesus’ ministry is thus cast as the creative Word’s eschatological enfleshment and definitive revelation of God.

A. The Word’s activity in creation (1:1-5)

B. John’s witness concerning the light (1:6-8)

C. The incarnation of the Word and the privilege of becoming God’s children (1:9-14)

D. John’s witness concerning the Word’s preeminence (1:15)

E. The final revelation brought by Jesus Christ (1:16-18)

Exegesis and Exposition

1 In the beginning was the Word,

and the Word was with God,

and the Word was God.

2 He was with God in the beginning.


3 Through him all things were made,

and without him nothing was made

that has been made.


...


18 God no one has ever seen:

⌜the one-of-a-kind Son, God⌝ [in his own right],

who lives in closest relationship with the Father—

that one has given full account of him.

A. The Word’s Activity in Creation (1:1-5)

1:1 The phrase “in the beginning” echoes the opening phrase of the Hebrew Bible (Gen. 1:1) and establishes a canonical link between the first words of the OT Scriptures and the present Gospel. “Beginning” points to a time prior to creation (R. Brown 1966: 4; Beasley-Murray 1999: 10; Schnackenburg 1990: 1.232). Yet while John’s first readers would have expected the phrase “In the beginning God,” the evangelist instead speaks of “the Word” (Beasley-Murray 1999: 10). The focus of this verse is to show the Word’s preexistence (Ridderbos 1997: 25; Schnackenburg 1990: 1.232), preparing for the later reference to a new “beginning,” the incarnation of the Word (cf. 1:14) (Morris 1995: 64; Carson 1991: 114).

The designation “Word”—used in a christological sense only in the prologue (1:1, 14)—conveys the notion of divine self-expression or speech (cf. Ps. 19:1-4). The Genesis creation account establishes the effectiveness of God’s word: he speaks, and things come to pass (Gen. 1:3, 9; cf. 1:11, 15, 24, 30). Psalmists and prophets alike portray God’s word in close-to-personal terms (Ps. 33:6; 107:20; 147:15, 18; Isa. 55:10-11). Yet only John claims that this Word has appeared as an actual person, Jesus Christ (cf. 1 John 1:1; Rev. 19:13). As a comprehensive christological designation, the expression “the Word” encompasses Jesus’ entire ministry, placing all of Jesus’ works and words within the framework of both his eternal being and existence and God’s self-revelation in salvation history.

The term “Word” appears to have been used by the evangelist at least partly in order to contextualize the gospel message among his Hellenistic audience. Keener (2003) provides thorough discussions of the gnostic Logos (pp. 339-41); the Logos of Hellenistic philosophy (pp. 341-43); Philo (pp. 343-47); wisdom, word, and Torah (pp. 350-60); and John’s Logos and Torah (pp. 360-63). Three primary backgrounds have been proposed: (1) Greek philosophy (Stoicism, Philo); (2) the personification of wisdom; and (3) the OT.

In Stoic thought, logos was Reason, the impersonal principle governing the universe. A spark of universal Reason was thought to reside within people (at least the best and wisest of them), who must live in keeping with it to attain dignity and meaning. Yet while John may well have been aware of the Stoic concept of the logos, it is doubtful that it constituted his primary conceptual framework (see the three reasons given in Köstenberger 1999a: 52).

Another candidate is the personification of wisdom in wisdom literature (see, e.g., Talbert 1992: 68-71). In Prov. 8 (esp. vv. 22-31), wisdom is called “the first of his [God’s] works,” “appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began.” Wisdom was “the craftsman at his side” when he marked out the earth’s foundations, “rejoicing always in his presence.” A whole corpus of apocryphal wisdom literature built on these notions (Sir. 1:1-10; Wisdom of Solomon). At first sight, the parallels between the characterization of wisdom in Prov. 8 and John’s logos seem impressive. Wisdom, like John’s logos, claims preexistence and participation in God’s creative activity. Like the logos, wisdom is depicted as a vehicle of God’s self-revelation, in creation as well as the law. Yet despite these surface similarities, John’s logos differs from personified wisdom in several significant respects, and the term σοφία (sophia, wisdom) is absent from this Gospel (Schlatter 1948: 43; see the three differences noted in Köstenberger 1999a: 53).

Finally, the third proposed background is the depiction of the Word of God in the OT. There are several reasons why this option has the most to commend it: (1) the evangelist’s deliberate effort to echo the opening words of the Hebrew Scriptures by the phrase “in the beginning”; (2) the reappearance of several significant terms from Gen. 1 in John 1 (“light,” “darkness,” “life”); (3) the prologue’s OT allusions, be it to Israel’s wilderness wanderings (1:14: “pitched his tent”) or to the giving of the law (1:17-18); and (4) the evangelist’s adaptation of Isa. 55:9-11 for his basic christological framework (Köstenberger 1999a: 54).