This week, we begin a new series in the first three chapters of John’s Gospel. We’ll start with the well-known, poetic prologue – which will take us a few days to work through. Today, we’ll focus on the big picture of the prologue – what’s it trying to communicate? – before looking at the details later in the week.
Because this prologue (John 1:1-18) is designed to introduce John’s Gospel. Not just the Gospel, but the subject of the Gospel: Jesus. In some ways, it functions like an ancient letter of introduction.
What’s a letter of introduction?
This was a very common type of letter in the first century.* Travellers carried them in order to prove who they were and who they represented. These days we don’t need them quite as much. If someone turns up claiming to be someone important, or to represent someone important, we can check quite easily. We inspect their photo ID. We phone the organisation they claim to represent. We Google them. We ask News Limited if they’ve hacked their phone. That sort of thing. In our interconnected, global village the introductory letter is becoming less common, as we can communicate instantaneously anywhere in the world.
But in the first century world a letter of introduction was the way of proving who you were when arriving in a new location. And it went far beyond proof of identity. It was usually written by someone who knew both you and the person you wanted to meet. It was a personal introduction done via a letter. And it had the following three functions:
- The writer of the letter would introduce you by your name, your character, and the close relationship they have with you. I’m writing to introduce Tim. He’s a top bloke, I’ve known him all my life…
- The writer would mentioned that you were coming to visit, and asked the addressee to look after you. The technical term was “to receive” you. This would at the very least involve hospitality. It might even entail introducing you to other people they know, and assisting you in your business dealings, etc. Make sure you look after him, and put him in touch with so and so…
- The writer would then proclaim the benefits of friendship with you. They’d testify how they had benefited personally from knowing you – everything you’d done for them. And therefore how much the addressee would also benefit from receiving you as requested. The usual phrase was a very diplomatic “so that it may go well for you.” With the implication that if you didn’t receive them, there may be some comeback.
It’s a bit like getting a letter from a distant relative you know in England, introducing an even more distant relative you’ve never heard of before. They’re coming to Sydney and you’d do well to receive them. Show them the harbour, take them up to the Blue Mountains, and hope they get sick of your couch after a few days and either move on to Queensland, or move out and get a job as a Wilderness Society koala. True, the immediate benefits may not be all that great, but you’re building up obscure relative credit for whenever you want to backpack around the UK. And indeed “things will go well with you,” because no-one wants to upset Great Auntie Edith.
So to recap: a letter of introduction would say (1) who you are; (2) that you’re coming to visit and they’d do well to receive you; (3) this is because of the great benefits you are able to give them.
Now, have a read of the prologue to John’s Gospel (John 1:1-18) and write down where each of these three elements can be found. We’ll compare answers tomorrow.
John 1:1-18 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; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
15 (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) 16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.
* Lots of them have survived the past two millennia, particularly from Egypt, the climate of which preserves papyrus nicely. They’ve recently been made available online. I spent a bit of 2004 reading them as part of my Masters research, which may explain today’s nerd-quota being a little higher.