1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
The prologue to John is high Bible, full of majesty and complexity. Some of the complexity is theological. Within the prologue’s eighteen verses the evangelist sets in motion some of the biggest theological issues in the Bible: the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, mediation of creation, the antithesis between light and darkness, salvation by grace, incarnation, and the revelation of God the Father by “God the only Son.”
Verse 1 unfolds the majesty and mystery with a classic declaration: “In the beginning was the Word.” Ho logos (the Word) had deep resonance within Greek philosophy, representing the rational principle or power that is the glue of the universe. “In the beginning” also echoes Genesis 1, where God’s first action is to speak—in fact, to speak light into darkness. So the first clause of verse 1 is AC current to Greeks and DC to Jews.
A third resonance of verse 1 has to do with “the word” itself. In John’s Gospel Jesus will say at least five times (3:34; 7:16; 8:26; 12:49; 14:24) that his words are not his own, but reproduce the words of his Father who sent him. Just as he is “the way” and “the truth” (14:6), he is also “the word.” He speaks for God.
For patristic writers who framed the church’s doctrine of the Trinity, verse 1 was irresistible. If the Word is both God and with God (Gk. pros, “toward,” God, suggesting intimate fellowship), then this being is simultaneously the same as God and also distinct from God. In a second verse, John repeats for emphasis that the Word is not a creature: “He was in the beginning with God.” (See also 17:5.)
At the outset of John’s Gospel, there are two who are eternally God, really intimate and really distinct. The Word was with ho theos (the God), and the Word was theos (God). The Word is not the same object or person as God, but is, nonetheless, whatever God is. (Verse 18 will disclose further that the two belong, roughly speaking, not only to the same genus, but also to the same family.)
Theologians have always spotted here a living root of the doctrine of the Trinity. Frederick Dale Bruner remarks how the epistles and the other Gospels build up their testimony to the divinity of Christ by increments. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 13. Yet for John, Wham! He needs only two verses to give us Trinitarian distinction-within-unity and the eternality of the being he will identify in verse 17 as Jesus Christ and in verse 18 as “God the only Son.”
In verses 3 and 10 John states that the Word/Son is mediator of creation. This is a biblical and theological angularity attested in major strands of Hebrews (1:1–3) and Paul (1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:15–17) and here in John. What does it mean? One theological suggestion is that he is called “the Word of God” because he reproduces the words of the One who sent him. At least twice Paul calls him “the wisdom of God” or its kin (1 Cor. 1:24; Col. 2:2). The intertwined concepts of word and wisdom suggest that the work of Jesus Christ represents the intelligence and expressiveness of the triune God.
John’s Gospel will go on to show that the Father is “in” the Son and the Son “in” the Father, and that the Paraclete represents the life and intelligence of both. The Gospel tells us that between the Father and Son and, by extension, the Paraclete, self-giving love is the dynamic currency of the Trinitarian life of God. The persons within God exalt each other, commune with each other, defer to one another. Each person, so to speak, makes room for the other two. Early Greek theologians described the glorious Trinitarian dynamism with the term perichoresis, stating that each person harbors the others. In a constant movement of overture and acceptance, each person envelops the other two. You might say that the Trinitarian persons show each other hospitality in this way of thinking.
If hospitality thrives within God, how does it spread to creatures? The one who spreads it is a “mediator,” a person who works “in the middle.” We ordinarily think of Jesus Christ as the mediator of salvation, but John 1:3 reveals that the agent of redemption is also the agent of creation. Christ is the person designated to work in the middle both times.
“Word of God” and “wisdom of God” are profound metaphors for the Godly intelligence and expressiveness of the Holy Trinity spread to creatures through both creation and redemption. According to God’s intelligence, the way to thrive is to cause others to thrive; the way to fulfill yourself is to spend yourself. Throughout the Gospel, John will show the self-spending Jesus going to work for others: he will make wine for them, wash their feet, hand them bread, and carry his cross to The Place of the Skull (19:17).
This self-spending principle also explains the role of John the Baptist. Like Jesus, John was “sent from God” (v. 6), but not to be the light of the world. John’s role was to point to the light of the world—to exalt him, glorify him, defer to him. He is witness and then martyr. John had to display humility to display the glory of Christ. He had to hide his little light to testify to the true light that was coming into the world.
In an age of self-acclaim (we used to have the Me generation, but after three generations of self-exaltation it is now the Me Me Me generation) John shows one of the virtues we seldom prize. John the Baptist shows us the virtue of voluntary obscurity.
Nevertheless, in the end, obscurity eluded him: just Google John the Baptist.
CORNELIUS PLANTINGA JR.
Bob Woods tells the story of a couple who took their son and daughter to Carlsbad Caverns. The tour of this wonderful national park includes a dramatic moment at its deepest point underground. Upon reaching the lowest point, the guide turns off the lights, to show just how dark darkness can be. Enveloped in complete darkness, the little boy began to cry. Immediately was heard the quiet voice of his sister, “Don’t cry. Someone here knows how to turn on the lights.” (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993), 133.
Verse 5 is our affirmation that there truly is Someone who “knows how to turn on the lights.” One could go so far as to say that the true power of the Christian faith is grounded in the simple statement, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Not only does Someone know how to turn on the lights, Someone has. In response, questions that follow for us are: Do we live in such a way that the inextinguishable light is evident? Are we able to bring assurance to those who are overcome by the darkness of this world? Are we willing to enter into the dark and unfriendly parts of our communities in order to bring hope to those who feel “overcome” by darkness?
Frequently the church is more like the little boy than the older sister: trembling at the depths of the darkness, instead of remembering that there is One who not only knows how to turn on the lights, but who truly is the Light. For people in the post-Christendom context of the West, it is much easier to feel overwhelmed by the darkness than to recall the power of the Light.
The old Christendom assumptions caused many to believe that the church would always be at the center of society. People would always flock to the church because of its cultural importance. From this confidence, it was easy to believe that anyone who did not belong to a faith community was strange and a problem to be solved. Some went so far as to assume the stranger to be the enemy. Now a different reality has come. The church no longer is central. Instead, it is surrounded by strangers who do not look or behave like those in the church. This new context may even cause some to believe that the darkness is returning.
However, the Gospel tells us that the darkness cannot prevail (v. 5) and that we never meet anyone who is completely unenlightened by the true Light (v. 9). In other words, no one can be a stranger to Christ. He has already met them and touched them in some way. If that is true, no one need be a stranger to those who are in Christ. With the dawning of this Light, all should be approached and all should be welcomed. With the dawning of the true Light, we may begin to see the strangers not as dangerous but as magnificent creatures already touched by the power of God.
C. S. Lewis expressed this insight memorably: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” (New York: Macmillan, 1975), 19.
How different would our congregations be, how different would we be, if we took seriously the reality of John’s words that the true Light, that is Jesus Christ, has intervened, has touched everyone who comes into this world? This is not a call to naiveté, not a summons to ignore the realities of sin in ourselves and others. Far too often we have succumbed to that false gospel of progressiveness, that self-delusion that we are all basically good and doing the best that we can. That is not John’s message.
John reminds us that there is a darkness that would overwhelm us if we were left to ourselves and our own efforts at self-improvement. The glorious good news is that we are not alone, that there is Someone who knows how to “turn on the lights.” Most importantly, a light that is Light, the Light that was in the beginning, has dawned in the fullness of time over two thousand years ago. Jesus Christ is the Light who has triumphed over the darkness that causes us to fail to recognize strangers as our brothers and sisters and simultaneously renders us unable to properly grasp our own value in him.
If Lewis is correct that there are no ordinary people, that includes those who are in the church as well as everyone else. We are free to explore the splendor of living when we walk in the Light that dawns in Jesus. We are empowered to refuse to take the destructiveness of human sin as the final answer. That darkness has been overcome by the divine intervention of the Triune God. We are therefore invited and enabled to live life in a new way that insists upon the triumph of God’s Light—the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
How do we allow the light to shine in us so that we may see strangers as people who have also been touched by the true Light? The answer to that is to begin in the beginning. Before any problem ever presented itself, the Word had been spoken and the Light had dawned. All our sin, all our problems, are significant. At the same time, they are only plot twists in the grand narrative of the gospel, which promises the triumph of the Light and grants us the grace to live as those who believe God is the One who, in Jesus Christ, has “turned on the light.”
PHILIP D. JAMIESON
“In the beginning was the Word.” With this opening phrase, the Gospel of John intentionally evokes Genesis. The first two Greek words of John, en archē, repeat not only the first two words of Genesis in the Septuagint (or any other Greek translation of the period), but also the book’s title, since the opening words of a biblical book served as its title. The connection between the opening words—and perhaps title—of John and the first book of the Jewish Scriptures is unmistakable. John intentionally and explicitly places the beginning that he is narrating alongside the beginning that Genesis narrates. His story is a retelling of the story of creation.
To take the connection between Genesis 1 and John 1 as our interpretive starting point invites us to think about John 1 first and foremost as a story, as Genesis is a story. Nevertheless John 1:1–18 is rarely interpreted as a narrative. Instead, John’s opening verses are most commonly interpreted as an introductory hymn and read loosely as poetry instead of prose. In this common way of reading, John 1:1–18 does not belong to the unfolding of the Gospel narrative, but is a “prologue” to the Gospel narrative. John 1:1–18 is read as a self-contained unit that stands apart from the rest of the Gospel. The crucial interpretive focus is then on the nature of the hymn, its origins, and its function as a prologue to the Gospel. Is the hymn a pre-Christian hymn to Wisdom/Logos that John has adopted for a Christian context? How do verses 1–18 divide into strophes (hymnic verses)? Where in the hymn does the focus shift from a hymn to Wisdom to a hymn to the incarnate Word? How do the prose “insertions” about John the Baptist fit with this hymn?
However, this interpretive bent ignores the shaping role of the cadences, form, and content of Genesis 1 on the Gospel’s “beginning.” Nowhere else in the Gospel is there a self-contained liturgical piece, but there are many places where John repeats the cadences, form, and content of a biblical story to tell the story of Jesus (e.g., the connections between manna and Passover texts in John 6). The same narrative pattern and technique of retelling a biblical story shapes John 1:1–18. These verses are a midrash on Genesis 1:1–5, not a hymn. 94 (2001): 243–84. In Boyarin’s reading, John 1:1–18 is “a homiletical retelling of the beginning of Genesis, and therefore interpretive and narratival in its genre and not hymnic and cyclical, that is, liturgical” (264). The readings offered in each of my three essays on John 1 play out Boyarin’s suggestions.
A midrash is a retelling of a root biblical text for a homiletical purpose, often with a secondary text to inform the retelling. For John, the root biblical text is Genesis 1:1–5, the secondary text is Proverbs 8:22–31 (Wisdom’s role at creation), and the homiletical purpose is to show how the story of the incarnate Word of God continues the story of the creative Word of God. The story of the creating power of God’s Word in Genesis provides the form and the content for John’s midrash; John’s repetitions and rhythms echo the repetitions and rhythms of the Genesis 1 text. Genesis 1:1–5 tells the story of God’s creation of light and so demonstrates the creating power of God’s Word; John 1:1–5 remembers and retells the story of that creating Word. Where Genesis shows God speaking (Gen. 1:3) and calling (Gen. 1:5) creation into being, John repeatedly names the creating power and presence of the Word (logos) with God (vv. 1–3). Genesis 1:4–5 tells the story of the separation of light from darkness, and this same creation story is repeated in John 1:4–5. John 1:1–5 is a reimagining of Genesis 1:1–5.
John begins the Gospel with a celebration of the God whose Word has ultimate creative power. By retelling Genesis 1, John simultaneously gives his story cosmic significance and roots it deeply in the story of the God whose works are already known to John’s readers.
This is the God to whom John the Baptist bears witness in verses 6–9. When John 1:1–5 is read as a midrash on Genesis 1:1–5, verses 6–9 are not an awkward interruption, but are the next essential step in the story John is telling. In each of the Gospels, John the Baptist is the voice crying out in the wilderness, calling people to light over against darkness (cf. Luke 1:76–79), preaching “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” John’s depiction and role in verses 6–9 is consistent with his presentation in the Synoptic Gospels: before the advent of Jesus into the world, “he came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him” (v. 7). John witnesses at the edge of light and darkness, his prophetic role shaped by his awareness of how easily darkness can overcome the light.
“In the beginning” is more than a phrase that John repeats to open his Gospel. The repurposing of this phrase is part of a complete retelling of Genesis 1:1–5 and provides the frame for understanding all that follows in the Gospel. In John 1:1–9, John firmly places his story in the story that early Christians shared with Judaism—God’s creating Word, the light of God that is in the world, the prophets who bear witness to that light and that Word. These verses remind the reader that while John will soon celebrate the story of something new—the incarnation of the Word of God—this newness can be understood only when it is located in the story of the first newness, God’s creation, the power of God’s Word. As intensely christological as the Gospel of John is (and it will take the christological turn at 1:14), its “beginning” in Genesis 1:1–5 is a reminder that it is also profoundly theological.
GAIL R. O’DAY
Chaim Potok opens his novel In the Beginning with this simple sentence: “All beginnings are hard.” (New York: Random House, 1975), 1. While Potok’s wisdom is hard to debate, the author of John’s Gospel has his own unique perspective on beginnings. Echoing the creation hymn of Genesis 1:1–2:4a, John opens his Gospel with the affirmation, “In the beginning was the Word.” Beginnings may be hard for humans, but not for God in John’s theological poetry. In fact, verses 1–9 remind us that God refashions chaos into order. This Logos hymn celebrates the beginning of life, but this time in a way that will not be despoiled, as happened after God sang the world into being at creation.
The theme of life begun anew will recur throughout John’s Gospel, in such prominent stories as the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus in chapter 3 and Lazarus stripping off his burial garments in chapter 11. Preachers who come to John’s prologue in contemporary society often do so with a deep societal suspicion that life is ultimately no more than what we make it. In the prevailing wind of human self-achievement, God is not the source of new beginnings or new life; we are. John invites preachers to tell a different story, a far more life-giving story, a story that has the power to transform into new life even what is dead within us and around us. It is a story worth telling in any age.
Another approach to preaching John 1:1–9 would engage preachers with the new electronic publishing tool called the “Wordle.” This device generates “word clouds” from texts. The cloud gives greater prominence to words that appear with greater frequency in the text. John 1:1–9 would render a fascinating “Wordle.” In nine verses, recurring words and themes pepper John’s poetry, not just “beginning” and “life,” but “word,” “into being,” “light,” “darkness,” “testify.” Like “beginning” and “life,” each of these words and themes is revisited frequently throughout John’s Gospel and plays a major role in this evangelist’s theology.
Too often, preaching is a prosaic exercise. Perhaps, the Wordle approach to John’s prologue might provide for more poetic or musical possibilities, as the preacher focuses on these Johannine themes in fresh and creative ways. This approach might also open the imaginations of the worship leader and the worshiper, leading them to engage this text artistically, from employing the visual arts and liturgical movement, to experimenting with a service that moves from near darkness into full light. In whatever ways preachers and worship leaders proclaim this text, it will be a missed opportunity if the liturgy and proclamation stay at the level of the prosaic.
Preachers would be wise to heed one word of caution as they wrestle with the prevalent themes in John’s beginning. When expounding on the Johannine themes of “darkness” and “light,” it is tempting to flatten these rich apocalyptic images into one dimension, missing their polyvalent meanings. Without a full appreciation of their apocalyptic import, preachers can advance, even innocently, the damaging racial connotation of everything “dark” being associated with chaos and evil, while everything “light” is associated with whiteness and purity. (San Francisco: Harper One, 2014) There are already enough treacherous racial/ethnic challenges in John’s Gospel without preachers making this unfortunate homiletical choice.
Advent and Christmas offer another fine homiletical portal into this text. If read during the season of Advent, this text notes the critical role that John the Baptist plays in pointing to the light, while never making the mistake of pointing to himself as the source of the light. Moreover, this text from the prologue of John expands on traditional themes of the season of Advent. Taking direction from John’s prologue, Advent is not only a season of peace, hope, joy, and love, not only a season of watching, waiting, and wondering. It is also a season of testifying, “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him” (v. 7).
For the many who have lost all religious connotations of the word “testify,” and who connect “testify” with what happens in a courtroom drama, this classic text affords the opportunity for preachers to bring listeners into a new understanding of what it means to testify. What if preachers were to help their listeners reclaim the ancient art of bearing witness as an essential Advent discipline?
In many liturgical traditions, this Johannine text serves as an alternative, certainly a nontraditional, reading on Christmas Eve or for Christmas morning worship. John’s “Christmas” story is missing a visitation and Magnificat, magi and shepherds, a “No Room” sign, even Mary and Joseph. Still, in many ways, John’s story is the theological back story for Matthew’s and Luke’s Christmas narratives. John grabs hold of the imagination and takes us back, long before Bethlehem, indeed long before time, to when there was nothing but chaos. In his Genesis revisited, John tells the story of order (logos) emerging out of chaos (darkness). Is there a more powerful or more important Christmas story to tell than the one John portends in these verses: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (v. 9)?
Christmas is often associated with “belief,” in particular with the childhood belief in a Santa Claus, a belief that is abandoned long before adulthood. In this text, John invites us to reclaim Christmas as a season of “belief” for those of all ages. John would have us believe in the “logos” who will speak and wine will flow from casks of water (chap. 2), who will speak and a disabled man of thirty-eight years will stand up on his own (chap. 5), who will speak and those with nothing to eat will be eating their fill (chap. 6). John’s prologue is a perfect Christmas morning text, because there is no question about who is the source of our Christmas joy. The only question in chapter 1 and continuing through chapter 21 is whether we will believe in this life-giving, new-beginning “logos.” John will preach that truth throughout his Gospel, and preachers would be wise to do the same.
GARY W. CHARLES