Yesterday, we looked at the term “word” (logos) to see how John was presenting Jesus as the personification of wisdom and reason – the embodiment of everything that both Jews and Greeks were looking for. The eternal creative force turned up as a real person to live among us.
But Jesus isn’t just the creative “force” behind the world. He’s nothing less than God himself:
John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
And the Word was God
Now you may have heard that there’s some debate over the translation of the last phrase. There is – often sparked by conversations with cults like the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
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The way Greek grammar works, it’s ambiguous as to whether John writes that the word was “the god” (i.e. the one and only, capital-G “God”) or simply “a god” (a divine being, which is how, for example, Jehovah’s Witnesses take it). Now Greek word order is more flexible than in English. And because John put the words in the order he did, he had to leave out the word “the,” creating the ambiguity. Unfortunately grammar alone doesn’t solve it, although the probability still lies with it being “the” not “a” god.
But to put your minds at rest, remember that this isn’t the only time the Bible – or John – identifies Jesus with God! And the author is a Jewish monotheist: he only believes in one God, so to say anything is “a god” – one god among many – would be unthinkable. What’s more, further on in John’s Gospel we get a story where Jesus claims to be “one” with God (John 10:30-31) and one where uses the divine name “I am” (John 8:58-59) – to which the Jews respond by trying to stone him for blasphemy! Clearly John portrays Jesus as being the one and only God in human form.
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The question remains: if it’s ambiguous, why did John use that word order? Two answers: (1) in his monotheistic context, as I’ve said above, it wouldn’t have been in question; and (2) he’s being poetic. If we see this as a kind of hymn, notice how each line starts with whatever ended the previous line. I’ve tried to put this as close to the Greek word order as possible, while still making sense in English:
In the beginning was the word
and the word was with God
and God – that’s what the word was
We get the same technique in verses 4 and 5, too:
That which was made in him was life
and the life was the light of mankind
and the light in the darkness shines
and the darkness has not overcome it
So it’s a shame that some well-crafted poetry ended up being a debating point with cults two millennia later!
Creator, life, and light
We’ll start speeding up now, but that first verse was an important one in a number of ways.
In verse three, Jesus is identified as the means by which everything was created:
John 1:3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made.
This is a comprehensive claim! Now, let’s get a bit more specific about what was made in him:
John 1:4 That which was made in him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.
Jesus has life: not just physical, created existence, but the power to bring eternal life – the reward for all those who belong to God. And that life enlightens everyone.
So this is a claim that Jesus turns up not just as the embodiment of wisdom, but the embodiment of the Jewish law – something that becomes a big theme in the rest of John’s Gospel.
John 1:5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
In John’s Gospel, “darkness” represents a world that is ignorant of God, and hostile toward him. Jesus came into this dark world, but the darkness couldn’t overcome his light. (The word “overcome” could well be translated “grasp” or “get a handle on” – it’s a wordplay, saying that darkness couldn’t control or defeat the light, nor could it understand it.)
John the Baptist’s testimony
Here the poetic tone breaks off a bit, as we get some testimony from John the Baptist:
John 1:6-9 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.
The point of this bit seems to be John the Baptist adding his word of testimony to what’s being said about Jesus. It’s important for a couple of reasons:
(1) Some of John’s Gospel is set up like a trial, using legal language about testimony and witnesses. This, then, is the first “witness” to who Jesus is – the respected prophetic figure, John the Baptist.
(2) Given John’s following, it’s important from the get-go to show how Jesus is greater than John. (This becomes a bit of a theme later in the chapter.) Like Jesus, John was also sent from God. But he’s a man, not God himself. And he’s sent to testify to the light, not to actually be the light. Jesus isn’t just another prophet; he’s something greater.
Response to the light
John 1:10-13 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.
John paints for us a tragic scene: although Jesus made the world, the world didn’t recognise their creator when he turned up. More than that, he came to that which was his own – Israel, God’s chosen people – and even they, for the most part, didn’t recognise him.
Yet for those who do recognise him – they are the ones who get to become part of God’s family. The definition of “his own” will change as a result of who receives him, and who does not receive him. Because the Word is about to become flesh…