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John 1:1-18: Who is Jesus and Why Does it Matter?

In 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.
6 There 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.
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.15(John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”’) 16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (NRSV)
So opens the gospel. It is very different from the way the other gospels begin, giving John a unique feel. It tells us that we're up for something a little different, a more thoroughgoing interpretative look at Jesus. Who was he? The gospel opens by telling us that he was the pre-existent, divine Word. With God and also distinct from him. Through the Word, God created. Through the Word, God brought life and light. As Calvin put it, the Word was the expression of God's intentionality. God is the bringer and author of life, both of the old and new creations. While the author of John[1] has not yet identified who the Word is, most reading it for the first time can anticipate that it is Jesus. Here he is adapting (and - as Keener points out - exceeding!) speculation, rooted in Proverbs 7-8, about Wisdom. Wisdom was personified and involved in both the creation and sustaining of the world. Why does John opt for Word, and not Wisdom? I believe it is because of the connections he wants to make later in the prologue. Where was God's wisdom revealed? Any Jew would reply, 'in the Torah.' For John, Jesus is where God's life giving wisdom is revealed.

The scene shifts slightly in verse 5. Light dominates the rest of the way.[2] In the Bible, light is associated with doing God's will, which is the locus of life. Psalm 119:105-107 makes the association most clearly, also tying life and light to the Law. If this passage, or a similar conception stands in the background[3] it makes for a smooth transition between word and light, and either way stresses Jesus as taking up the role of Torah in illuminating God's will. In Barthian terms, he is the revelation of God. And though the darkness tried, it could not overcome him. It killed him, but in the process enabled the truest and revelation of God in the cross. In that moment of darkness, the light won victory and was raised to new life and by that victory gives life.[4]

Now, onto the scene arrives John. His role is to witness to the revelation we have received in Jesus. He points the way as do all faithful witnesses. He also was an authorized witness, sent by God (like Jesus was sent), so his word has authority. All of us are called to account for what we make of the light, do we believe the witness of John and this gospel or not?

Verse 10 is full of irony. Given the presence of an authoritative witness and that he in fact is the source of all life one would expect that the world would recognize him. Even if the world at large didn't, surely his own people would, who had previously received the light of the Torah. But, much like wisdom in 1 Enoch 42:1, he did not have a home among his people. He did not give up on the world, however. He will reside with all who trust him. They are given status by God as his children based on the new life given them by the light who brings life. Life comes through recognition of the revelation of God in Christ.

While I've spoiled it for you, the tension had been building for the first thirteen verses. Who was the divine wisdom? In what form did he come to earth? He came as an enfleshed human being, divine, but also fully human. In this paradoxical way God displayed his glory, by humbling himself and becoming like us.[5] The light is not easily understood. But those of us who have received God's Word as his revelation see the glory and splendor represented in God's mercy and loving faithfulness to his world in the willing death of his Son for us.[6] God's revelation to Moses was a pointer, but God did not display the fullness of his mercy and compassion until Christ died for us. The Torah was a gift by God to Moses and the people of Israel, a light to give them life. But that grace and life was surpassed in the grace and life that is made available in Jesus Christ,[7] God's truest and fullest revelation and communication of himself. Jesus represents the turning point, both in history and for us individually. He came and God was revealed. He comes to us and reveals God to us. His shame is simultaneously his glory. It also is glory for us if our eyes are sensitive to the light.

[1] I have no idea who the author is. From here on out I will just call him John, to make life simpler. I have a stronger feeling that whoever he is also composed the prologue. If he has used a hymn he has adapted it and it fits with the rest of the gospel like a glove.

[2] Michaels believes that this implies that John doesn't have as much of a 'word' Christology as a 'light' Christology. While making a helpful observation about the shift, as my following argument will make clear, it's nothing other than a shift in terminology to make a set of points associated with what he has already laid out. It's a misleading distinction.

[3] This is my own suggestion so take it for what it's worth. I haven't seen it put forward anywhere in the literature.

[4] Perhaps I'm over-exegeting here, but a reference to the death and resurrection of Jesus seems likely to me. I've simply cast that in Johannine terms. While many stress a temporal ordering to the prologue, I find it overly restrictive for a gospel like John and hence unlikely.

[5] In our era of scientific materialism the shock of this statement is lost. No Greek would ever have tied glory to the enfleshment of a divine being the way John did.

[6] Again, I'll fight the charges of over-exegesis. Jesus death and resurrection CLEARLY are the climax of Jesus' glory for the author of John. He must have them in mind here. I think this is very likely, especially if the allusion to Exodus 33-34 is in play here.

[7] I am attempting to retain my uncertainty of how to construe grace upon/instead of grace in my comment here.


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