John 1:1-18: John’s Gospel begins poetically and profoundly. “John opens with one of the greatest passages of poetic prose in the language, philosophically dense, metaphorically rich and rhythmically lucid at the same time” (Blake Morrison, Revelations, 295). “In the beginning” does not refer to some chronological sequence, but a time out of time, before time. These verses are a hymn-like celebration of God’s sharing of Godself with the world in grace and truth through Jesus who was called Christ. Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy that starts with Abraham. Mark starts off with “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Luke’s Gospel begins with a prologue to Theophilus. John’s beginning takes us to a beginning before time – “the beginning is outside the normal calculations of time, in the cosmic pre-existence of the Word with God” (New Interpreters Study Bible). “The Word” translates the Greek word logos. It “has a wide range of meanings, including word, speech, discourse, language, thought reason, message, account, document, book” (The People’s New Testament Commentary). It was a term used in a wide variety of Greek philosophical schools as well as by the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo, who thought of the logos of God as the wisdom of God and sometimes referred to this as son of God. “For John the logos referred to that expression of God’s innermost nature which poured forth to create and be immanent in the world, giving the world order and expression, and which was most closely to be experienced within the human soul” (Sanford, Mystical Christianity, 21). John is using different language to say something similar to the other gospel writers. God was up to something very special in this Jesus. For John, Jesus was the very logos of God enfleshed, incarnated. God was sharing God’s very self in Jesus in a very special way. Some theologians and biblical scholars say that this is one part of the message, the other part of which is that we, too, are to incarnate God. “To incarnate God is what it means to be fully human” (Walter Wink, The Human Being, 30). “Jesus is… a human being who incarnated God and who taught us how to do the same, through the working of the divine Spirit within us. That is what it means to incarnate God” (Wink, 201). Whether this is a valid interpretation of John’s Gospel we will explore as we read the rest of the Gospel and the rest of the New Testament. Some evidence for this view can be found in verse 12, where the Word , the Light come into the world, gives power to become children of God. For now, we notice that John is using a set of symbols unique to him to try and describe what God was up to in Jesus. Accompanying the image of the Word of God is the image of creation and creativity. “Christianity teaches that the creative ability to gather up form from chaos is a divine quality in the human being” (Tom Driver, Patterns of Grace, 151). We also find images of light and life. “For John… the gospel inaugurates an alternate reality, the Reign of God. John likes to call it eternal life – life in a new dimension, which begins the moment one encounters the son of the man. To believe in the Human Being (John 9:35) is to affirm that this new reality that Jesus incarnates and reveals is from God” (Wink, 203). “Light is an archetypal religious image, found in all of the world’s enduring religions. When Buddha was born, a great light filled the sky. And enlightenment as an image of salvation is central to many religions, including Christianity…. The claim made by the use of this light imagery is concisely expressed in John’s gospel: Jesus is the light shining in the darkness, the true light that enlightens everyone, indeed the Light of the World.” (Marcus Borg, Jesus, 63-64). This Word, this Light, the Life, this Creativity, became flesh, here meaning simply human being. And this human being, because of his identification with the Word, the Light, the Life, the Creativity, was full of grace and truth, and that grace was shared abundantly (verse 16). People have witnessed this. John the Baptist appears in these verses as one whose role it is to testify to the Light. In these verses, John sets the context for all that will happen in his gospel. It will easily fit in with some parts of the story – especially those stories where Jesus heals, raises the dead, and the like. What will be more difficult to fit into this grand poetic vision is that this Jesus, the Word, will be killed.
John 1:19-28: From a beginning before time, we are brought into history with the figure of John the Baptist. We have already been told what his role is to be – “to testify to the light.” As Christians, that seems part of our role too, to testify to the light we have experienced in Jesus. Our role will also be to become Christ-like in our lives – to let the light shine in us (John 14:12). Remember that part of the context for the gospels is that followers of John the Baptist remained active, even after the beginning of the Jesus movement.
John 1:29-34: Jesus makes his first appearance in these verses. John has no birth story. The details are not important to him, only that in this Jesus God was up to something very special. A new image is introduced, “the Lamb of God.” This image is distinctly tied to Hebrew faith. It evokes the Passover lamb, the symbol of deliverance. Remember that the Temple has been destroyed and thus “sacrificial worship” has come to an end. Part of what John may be saying in his gospel is that the best continuity of the Jewish faith is to be found in following Jesus. The Passover lamb was not an offering for sin, so John is using some overlapping imagery here, again, trying to communicate that in Jesus, God is drawing close to humankind, not letting human sin get in the way of that relationship, at least from God’s side of it. John the Baptist is giving testimony here, but there is no story of Jesus’ baptism by John.
John 1:35-42: The preceding verses provide a context for these. John the Baptist’s role seems to be entirely that of testifying to Jesus, whatever his own ministry may have been until Jesus came on the scene. Two of John’s disciples are with him as Jesus walks by. John testifies about Jesus and John’s own disciples decide to follow Jesus. Jesus asks them a wonderful question – “what are you looking for?” This is deeply symbolic, as is the response of the disciples who ask, “where are you staying?” Searching human persons find something in Jesus, and yet we ask even after that, “where is Jesus?” Think of the recent reports of the journey of Mother Teresa. One of those who followed Jesus was Andrew, who in turn shared the news with his brother Simon, who Jesus renames Peter. Andrew uses yet another symbolic term for Jesus – Messiah.
John 1:43-51: The sharing of the good news continues (an encouragement to the church today!). Phillip is called and follows, and goes to tell Nathaniel. Here some detail about Jesus is introduced, information that is familiar from the other gospels – “Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathaniel is invited to “come and see” if anything good can come out of Nazareth. “Come and see” – what a great invitation to the church and to faith. That something very special is going on with Jesus is evidenced by his conversation with Nathaniel. He has insight into Nathaniel. One of the witnesses of Christian faith today is that in Jesus we see more deeply into our own lives. For Nathaniel this is cause to proclaim Jesus, the teacher as “the Son of God.” Notice how early in John’s Gospel these affirmations of faith come, and come from the disciples. There is no secret about Jesus here. The disciples are not portrayed as rather obtuse. Rather they get it right from the start. Nathaniel also calls him the King of Israel, a dangerous thing to say about someone when Rome determined who was to be king. Jesus introduces yet other images to describe who he is – Son of Man ( a term familiar from the other gospels) which not only means a human person, but linked to images in the Hebrew Scriptures, it is a designation of one who would be used by God to bring salvation. Walter Wink’s book The Human Being is a very rich exploration of this designation for Jesus. Jesus also alludes to the Hebrew Scriptures image of a ladder between heaven and earth (“Jacob’s Ladder”). There will be no need for another ladder, because Jesus himself will be the bridge between the reality of God and God’s dream for the world and the world itself.