You think you know John’s prologue?
Let’s take a closer look!
John 1:1–18 ESV
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 All things were created through Him,
and apart from Him not one thing was created
that has been created.
4 Life was in Him,
and that life was the light of men.
5 That light shines in the darkness,
yet the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man named John
who was sent from God.
7 He came as a witness
to testify about the light,
so that all might believe through him.
8 He was not the light,
but he came to testify about the light.
9 The true light, who gives light to everyone,
was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world,
and the world was created through Him,
yet the world did not recognize Him.
11 He came to His own,
and His own people did not receive Him.
12 But to all who did receive Him,
He gave them the right to be children of God,
to those who believe in His name,
13 who were born,
not of blood,
or of the will of the flesh,
or of the will of man,
but of God.
14 The Word became flesh
and took up residence among us.
We observed His glory,
the glory as the One and Only Son from the Father,
full of grace and truth.
15 (John testified concerning Him and exclaimed,
This was the One of whom I said,
The One coming after me has surpassed me,
because He existed before me. )
16 Indeed, we have all received grace after grace
from His fullness,
17 for the law was given through Moses,
grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
18 No one has ever seen God.
The One and Only Son —
the One who is at the Fathers side —
He has revealed Him.
It has been a tremendous eye-opener to me, in how little I know texts of Scripture with which I think I’m familiar. With no further blah-blah, here’s the outline of John 1:1–18, followed by my 2,800 word analysis. Enjoy!
[All Scripture used: ESV]
How the Word relates to everything (vv. 1–5)
How the Word relates to God (vv. 1–2)
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.
How the Word relates to creation (vv. 3–5)
3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
John the Baptist’s role in revealing God’s activity in the world (vv. 6–8)
John’s identity in relation to God (v. 6)
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
John points all to the activity of God in redemptive history (v. 7)
7 He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.
John’s relation to the light (v. 8)
8 He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
The Word in the world before the incarnation (vv. 9–13)
The Word entering into and at work in the world before the incarnation (vv. 9–11)
9 The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.
The Word effecting the new birth in those who received him (vv. 12–13)
12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
The Incarnation of the Word (vv. 14–18)
The Word became a man and is the Son of the Father in heaven (v. 14)
14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John declares Jesus Christ the Word incarnate as the source of grace and truth (vv. 15–17)
15 (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) 16 For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
Jesus is God at the Father’s side and makes the Father known (v. 18)
18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
Introduction to John 1:1–18—Purpose and Background
Of the four Gospels in the New Testament, John alone presents an extended prologue to his material. His introductory focus is broader than that of the synoptics, and his theological framework more developed and explicit. The prologue begins by peering back into pre-history to locate in and through Christ the timeless activity of God. This passage is the revelation of Jesus as the lens through which cosmic and redemptive history must be seen and understood. Even its ambiguities are used as a literary device toward the goal of revealing Jesus for who he is.
The late-first century author would have known that Gnosticism was becoming popular, Christians and Jews were forging separate identities, and that Christianity was coming into contact with cultures far abroad from Palestine. Within the prologue, the author appropriates and redefines Gnostic language, alludes to pre-Christian Jewish literature, and sets forth Christ as the source of universal light for humankind.
Commentators note that the prologue appears to be a hymn that the author has restructured as a fitting introduction to his Gospel, yet this is not the only reasonable hypothesis for the shifts in style. In this paper I will be reading the text as having been written originally in the form it appears now.
The Form of the Prologue
The structure of the passage is indeed poetic. The first two verses contain the repetitious Word-Word-God-Word-God-God. From there, themes of life, light, darkness, and world (all characteristically Johannine) fill out the text, carrying along the revelation of who the Word is in relation to God and the world of humans. John the Baptist is introduced in layers of dissonant interruption to the poetic flow in vv.6–8 and 15, which for many commentators is evidence of redaction. In verses 1 and 18, the author has made use of an inclusio to tie the entire prologue together as a unit—“the Word was with God” (v. 1), and “the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (v. 18).
How the Word Relates to Everything (vv. 1–5)
The first two words of the passage, Ἐν ἀρχῇ (In the beginning), are identical to those of Genesis in the Septuagint. The thematic focus is also the same: God is at the center of the story, and he is active. The purpose of the author is immediately to connect his work with the Old Testament narrative of the origin of the cosmos. His aim is to join the work of God from Genesis to the presence and work of the Word, later identified as Jesus (v. 14, 17). This allusion is an indication that the author is dealing in Jewish literary currency.
In arguing that the entire prologue is Midrash, Daniel Boyarin demonstrates the passage as interacting with Genesis 1 as an expression of Jewish thought. Boyarin notes that in pre-Christian Jewish theology, there were common categories for a divine Word (λόγος) whose presence with God did not conflict with monotheism. The examples he cites, however, are not true parallels to the Christology of John, but rather loose comparisons. Even the Wisdom passages of Prov. 8:22–31, Sirach 24:1–34, et al would have served to have prepared the Jewish mind for the reality of different persons with God in his glorious state, but none of these gave place to a divine Son equal in glory to the Father. Nevertheless, the environment of the author’s time was rich with Jewish and Hellenistic writings that would have prepared the cultured for the theology of John’s prologue.
The Genesis parallel sees God in the beginning, presupposed unapologetically, and John sees the Word in that same place, both being “with God,” and yet “the Word was God” (v. 1). Whatever God is, the Word is. This is brought forth into more clarity by repetition: “He was in the beginning with God” (v. 2). The Word’s relation to God, therefore, is one of pure unity, yet with substantive differentiation of personality. His beginning is the same as God’s in that he has no temporal, creaturely beginning. Whenever God has been, so has been the Word.
Furthering the Genesis parallel, the author then relates the Word to the realm of creation. He writes redundantly “all things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (v. 3). The Word is then the instrument of the creative work of God, the indispensable person at the helm during the Genesis narrative. There is something more to John’s prologue, though, in comparison with Genesis. The very essence of life is mysteriously contained in him, and that principle is “the light of men” (v. 4b). In the cosmic creation of Genesis 1, the light is a created thing, brought forth in the physical realm, but in John 1 the light is eternal with the Word, and is the sentience of the human creature. As the life in him is an essential characteristic of his eternality and thus divinity, and it is something that is in each human, so v. 4 echoes the imago Dei of Genesis 1:26.
Verse 5 introduces conflict into the prologue. Here the author indicates a shift in tense, as φαίνει (shines) is the first present-tense usage so far. What is communicated is that as “the light shines in the darkness” presently, “and the darkness has not overcome it” (v. 5). With this concept the present reader (timelessly), may identify his or her own experience. As such Schnackenburg claims that in Johannine literature, “darkness … means primarily the world estranged from God.” This is the purpose of John’s Gospel: he has his eye on reader response from the beginning to the end (cf. 20:30–31).
Up through v. 4, the Word was in perfect harmony with God and with all created things, so the sudden introduction of darkness that would overcome the light is jarring. Here the word for overcome is ambiguous, and many English translations differ from each other accordingly, alternating between “overcome” and “comprehended,” or “grasped.” The evangelist most likely chose the word for its ambiguity, as a polyvalent meaning is only appropriate for such a complex subject.
Ironically, the commentator who gave such a strong definition of evil to John’s “darkness” has created a simplistic dichotomy between “overwhelm” and “grasp,” insisting that we must choose the latter, seeing as people did not “grasp” the Word by faith when they had the chance. Yet as the darkness of humankind is the cause of estrangement from God, then the evangelist uses ambiguity here with both meanings: humankind, in darkness, would both comprehend and overcome the light (but by nature cannot).
Conversely, the darkness would seem to be of such an extraordinary nature that even the light of the life in the Word has not yet reached its depths to extinguish it. Thus the relationship of the Word with God is perfect, yet the world of humans that he created is in some way at enmity with him.
John the Baptist’s Role in Revealing God’s Activity in the World (vv. 6–8)
As abruptly as the passage begins, so the flow is suddenly averted out of the abstract and cosmological to a lone figure standing on the stage of history. This man, “whose name was John,” was “sent from God” (v. 6). Though some commentators view this sudden shift away from the Wisdom Midrash of vv. 1–5 as a clear indication of it being a later addition, the evidence cited is merely speculative. The jarring conflict introduced in v. 5 paves the way for a resolution—and John the Baptist plays the role of telling what it will be. He has come in relation to God as “a witness about the light,” in order that “all might believe through him” in the light (v. 7).
The Baptist is the complete Old Covenant man, and his placement in this text indicates that the focus continues to be the history of the world before the Incarnation. At the time of the writing of the Gospel of John, there would have still been pockets of the followers of John the Baptist, who had not believed that Jesus was the Messiah. The author made clear that John was not himself the light, but rather had the unique role of “bear[ing] witness about the light” (v. 8b).
The Word in the World before the Incarnation (vv. 9–13)
In contrast to John the Baptist there is one who is “the true light” (v. 9a). The conflict introduced into the text in v. 8 is resolved by distinguishing John from the true light. As redemptive history is only understood by seeing all things in light of Jesus’ person and work, this section is the beating heart of the prologue. Here the true light “gives light to everyone” (v. 9b). As Boyarin says, this section up through v. 13 is still “unexceptional non-Christian Jewish thought” wherein John’s place in announcing the true light as having been “coming into the world” through the Old Testament period would have easily comported with the theology of the first-century Jew.
The text is ambiguous in v. 9; the Greek could allow that “the true light gives light to every human coming into the world,” as opposed to the ESV wherein the true light is the subject of “coming into the world.” Here Barrett argues convincingly that the light’s coming into the world has been a continuous action, as by v. 10 “he was in the world” already. Brodie also notes the inappropriateness of dividing “was coming” from the connotation of his having been arriving gradually throughout the time of the Old Testament. Seeing as the prologue begins with “in the beginning,” it is reasonable to read this verse as describing his continual activity as Creator and Redeemer, coming into the world and shedding light on everyone.
Barrett agrees that it was the true light which was coming into the world, but then claims it “is to be taken as a reference to the incarnation.” It is odd that he would draw such a hard line here, seeing as v. 14 provides the decisive announcement that the Incarnation has occurred. Moloney sees it even more distinctly as a reference to the Incarnation, asserting “reference to the coming of the Word into the world cannot be put off till v. 14.” He wrongly assumes and asserts that if the text states the Word was in the world that it must and can only be Jesus’ appearance in the flesh.
In reading v. 10 and calling into question the point in history that “the world did not know him,” Raymond Brown insists that the great Old Testament sin was “failure to obey Yahweh” over against the supposed sin of the New Testament, “failure to know” Jesus. He seems to discount here the fact that the true light was giving light to “every human,” including Gentiles, and so the sin of “not knowing him” was as much a sin of the pre-Christian world as it is post-Incarnation.
Continuing to see the activity of God through his Word before the Incarnation, v. 11 indicates that he had been arriving in and throughout his world of humans, as the Creator who gives light. Yet the second half of the verse sharpens the focus to “his own people,” who is Israel. The testimony here is that neither those who were near (by covenant blessings), nor those who were far (Gentiles) were receiving him—yet in the beginning of v. 12 we see that some indeed received him. It was to those who “receive[d] him” by “believ[ing] in his name” that “he gave the right to become children of God.” This stands in contrast to the idea of “his own people” in v. 11 who had not received him; yet there were always those who were his family by virtue of his redeeming work. The nature of the redemption of those who received him is seen in that they “were born” of the will “of God” (v. 13), not by any possible human means.
The Incarnation of the Word (vv. 14–18)
Here the radical nature of Christianity is revealed. This one who was eternally with God, who is God, has become a man of flesh. He who gave “the right to become children of God” (v. 12b) is himself the “only Son from the Father” (v. 14b), already in the family. His sonship is unique, and there is no one else in this category with him. Furthermore, he is now seen as being “full of grace and truth” (v. 14c). This is the perfect answer to the conflict between God and humankind; John announces the nature and arrival of the light in the world, and here the Son himself arrives as a man full of grace and truth for the world who had not known him.
This grace and truth is not invisible; however, for the author claims “we have seen his glory” (v. 14b), and this is the glory of the unique Son from the Father. There is something new about this glory, as the light had been coming into the world (v. 9), but for the evangelist, the glory he perceived in the Incarnation was supreme and unmistakable. The glory of the Son is then connected to v. 14c, “full of grace and truth;” the glory is seen in his pre-existence and supremacy above John in v. 15, his fullness of grace in v. 16, his superseding of the Mosaic economy in v. 17, and his being the “only God, who is at the Father’s side” in v.18. In the Johannine angle on biblical theology, the glory of the Son is most fully revealed in his being “lifted up” on the cross to bear the sins of the world (12:32–33).
John’s sudden reappearance in v. 15 is the evangelist’s means of orienting the reader once again to the historicity of these events. His proclamation that “he was before me” indicates that John knows something of the Son’s pre-existence before the Incarnation, and that he sees the Son as the focal point of God’s redemptive activity in human history. V. 16 likely introduces the editorial voice of the author, but if it is still the Baptist speaking, the effect is the same: the ESV’s “grace upon grace” (χάριν ἀντὶ χάριτος) is a less-than-perfect translation of another ambiguous statement. The use of ἀντὶ for the preposition is unusual for this type of phrase, and carries with it the sense of grace replacing grace.
In v. 16a, the author appropriates the Gnostic term πληρώματος (fullness), and defines it as something the Son possesses. In Gnostic parlance, the πληρώματος was a hierarchy of divine messengers who brought forth the secret knowledge from on high, but in John’s prologue, it is entirely found in the Son. In this context, the grace replacing grace is clarified in v. 17 as “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” This is not to detract from the grace of the law given through Moses, but rather to contrast the fullness of grace now revealed in Jesus Christ.
In a final, absolute sense, the author finishes his prologue by inclusio with v. 1, reminding the reader that this Jesus Christ, the Word “who is at the Father’s side … has made him known” (v. 18) who would otherwise be unknowable, (as “no one has ever seen God”). Without Jesus’ becoming flesh, redemptive history would have remained a constantly unfolding tragedy of the darkness in humankind being unable to grasp the light.
Jesus as the Lens for Human Life
From this passage we may learn that without seeing, receiving, and believing in Jesus, there is only darkness for every person. The first half of the prologue reveals him as the Creator and Redeemer of the whole earth. John the Baptist appears in the Jewish prophetic tradition, which is a nod to the Jewishness of the Son Incarnate and to the Old Covenant promises given to Israel. It is clear then that God’s gracious activity in the world has been happening since creation, has carried on in the entire world, but has been focused on Israel. In the historical record of that nation, a man named Jesus walked in the flesh, and that man was God himself. All of human life ought to be turned toward this gospel story, as there is grace and truth in him, and only him.
The literal reading of this historical record is needed for the church to maintain the essential grounding of our faith. Seeing God’s merciful activity in the world since the beginning of time ought to be motivation to believe in his name, and to trust him for the grace that is needed to heal our world.
Used with permission.
Comments are invited here.
- Thomas L. Brodie, The Gospel According to John: A Literary and Theological Commentary (New York: Oxford, 1993), 138. ↩
- Charles Kingsley Barrett, The Gospel According to Saint John: An Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text (2nd ed.; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978), 152; Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (i-xii) (Anchor Bible Series 29; Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1966), 31; Andrew Lincoln, “The Gospel According to Saint John,” in Black’s New Testament Commentaries (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005), 93. ↩
- Barrett, St. John, 153. ↩
- Brodie, 134, contra Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to Saint John: Introduction and Commentary on Chapters 1—4, vol. 1 (New York: Seabury, 1980), 221–232; n. 2–3. Brodie notes the reasonability of discerning a hymnic origin to the prologue based on the rhythm and structure of it, but also points out the fact that there has been little consensus among scholars as to the precise form or origin of the putative original. The details of this discussion are beyond the scope of my exegetical concerns. ↩
- E.g. Schnackenburg, St. John, 249 wherein his presupposition of a redacted hymn forces the interpretation of the intrusion of the Baptist in v. 6 as interpolation, rather than as the natural sequence of the author’s original writing. ↩
- The reading of either “Son” or “God” due to the textual variant in v. 18 must lie beyond the scope of this paper, as the meaning is essentially the same whichever is original. ↩
- Daniel Boyarin, “Logos, A Jewish Word: John’s Prologue as Midrash,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament (ed. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler; New York: Oxford, 2011), 549. ↩
- Ibid., 546–547. ↩
- Barrett, St. John, 153; Schnackenburg, St. John, 235. ↩
- Ben Witherington, III, John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel (Louisville: John Knox, 1995), 53 highlights the careful use of θεὸς (God) without the definite article as a means of distinguishing him from τὸν θεόν (“the” God – not translated as such in English), yet without dividing them in essence. ↩
- Witherington, Wisdom, 55. ↩
- Schnackenburg, St. John, 245. ↩
- Brodie, John, 138. ↩
- Ibid., 249–250. ↩
- Barrett, St. John, 153. ↩
- Brodie, John, 139. ↩
- Acts 19:1–4 indicates a scattered presence of John the Baptist’s followers who were unclear about his role in revealing the true Christ. ↩
- Boyarin, Logos, 549. ↩
- Barrett, St. John, 160. ↩
- Brodie, John, 140. ↩
- Barrett, St. John, 161. ↩
- Francis J. Moloney, “The Gospel of John” in Sacra Pagina Series, vol. 4. (ed. Daniel J. Harrington; Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical, 1998), 37. ↩
- Brown, John, 10. ↩
- Brodie, John, 140. ↩
- Witherington, Wisdom, 54. ↩
- J. Richard Middleton, “Exegesis of John 1:1–18” (lecture, BIB512NE, Session #8, C4, Northeastern Seminary, May 2, 2013). ↩
- Moloney, John, 40. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
Justin is a Bible teacher at Grace Life Church of Avon, NY, and is currently a student at Northeastern Seminary in the Master of Theology program. His goal is to attain a PhD in Biblical Theology so he can teach for his career at the seminary level, and ultimately hopes to work in the international mission field equipping pastors for their local ministries. Justin is happily married to Danielle since July 2011, and they love to travel, hike, and experience as much of the outdoors as possible. He lives in New York state and has traveled to almost all of the United States (currently 46 out of 50). At the present time he publishes at least two blogs. Both are worthy of your attention. Interpreting the Cosmos and Citizen of New Jerusalem.