John: Prologue, part. 2
Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. Originally aired on Oct. 15, 2006.
Introduction: Last week we began our study of the prologue to the Gospel of John. As I mentioned, this was originally a hymn to Christ that was probably sung in the church for which John’s Gospel was written. Most scholars think that the statements about John the Baptist were added to the original hymn. We’ll discuss those parts next week. This week we will continue with the story of the Word of God as presented in this beautiful hymn.
Word in the World: The opening stanza of the hymn spoke of the Logos of God that was with God and was God. The Logos was light and life for humankind. The second stanza speaks of the Logos coming into the world. Notice that the Logos has not been named yet. Certainly the worshiping community founded by the witness of the Beloved Disciple knew the name of the Logos, but the hymn builds interest by saving the name for the end. The Logos was with God in the beginning, but he did not have a name until the birth of Jesus. We can also say that Jesus himself was not recognized as the Word of God until he had called the church into being.
The World: This process of revelation is expressed poetically by saying that the Word was in the World yet the World did not recognize him. The Greek word for “world” here is Cosmos, and it appears more often in the Gospel of John than any other book of the NT. Throughout the Gospel we’ll see Jesus struggling with the Cosmos as well as redeeming the Cosmos. It will probably not surprise you to learn that the word Cosmos has several meanings in Greek, especially in John’s gospel, but the basic meaning is the order of the visible universe in which we live. Cosmos refers to the stars in their regular journey through the night sky and to the earth that produces our food in due season. Sometimes it refers specifically to the world of human society.
We do this in English as well when we refer to something as “worldly,” or that we are troubled by the cares of the world. Rarely are we troubled with the cares of the earth, just those of society. On television “World News Tonight” is about people, not the news of the whole cosmos, except when scientists decide to renumber the planets in the solar system. Even then, that is about us not the planets. Pluto hasn’t changed; our definitions changed.
In many places in the NT, the word Cosmos is used in a negative sense, as something that is opposed to the work of God. The Kingdom of God is contrasted to the kingdom of the world. In the extreme, the “world” or the Cosmos is seen as being under the rule of Satan. Throughout John’s Gospel there are all of these different uses of Cosmos, and it can be difficult for interpreters to know what the Gospel was trying to communicate. The different attitudes toward the “world” in different passages of John’s Gospel contributed to the suspicion of some scholars that more than one purpose wrote the gospel. Thus, we will read that “God so loved the world,” but that Jesus “has overcome the world.”
The question is what does the world mean here in the Prologue? It seems to me that it is referring to the heavens and the earth or the universe. The universe was created through the Word, but creation did not recognize the creator. The Logos was in the world but the world did not know the Logos. This could be referring to the incarnation in Jesus, but it might be a more general reference to the ignorance of creation as a creation. The creature does not know its maker – or its dependence on the Creator. It is possible that the prologue here is saying that God has always been present in the world that he has made, but the world has never fully recognized the presence of the creator within the creation. Creation should be a means to encounter God.
In Greek Orthodox theology, creation can be understood as a sacrament, as a physical communication of the divine presence, but Protestants have been uncomfortable with that concept. We prefer to have just two Sacraments, but personally, I think it is worth considering in light of this first chapter of John. The Word of God was in the Cosmos from the beginning of the Time, but creation remains a divine mystery. Humans through the ages have caught glimpses of God in the natural order, but it took the Logos to reveal the truth about the creator and creation. In our modern age, it has been harder to recognize the presence of the Word in the World than in the past. Despite our advances in understanding the laws of nature and our ability to manipulate nature according to our will, most of us do not fully recognize the Logos in creation. If we did, we would treat the world with more reverence than we do.
He Came to His Own: Verse 11 builds on the concept that the World failed to recognize the Logos in creation; he was not recognized even when he came to his own people. This is probably a veiled reference to the rejection of Jesus by the Jewish religious leaders who handed him over to the Romans for execution, but it could have a broader meaning. The Greek is just a bit ambiguous. Literally, it says that the Word came “to his own things.” This could mean simply that he came into the world that he had made or that he came to a particular place and people.
Either way, this is clearly referring to the Word appearing in visible form in the world that we know. The technical term for this is a theophany: God revealed. We discussed several appearances of God in the book of Genesis. It could be that the Prologue to John has those stories of God’s appearance in mind, or the author may have only been thinking of the coming of Christ. Either way, the paradox is evident. The one who created the heavens and the earth somehow made an appearance within the universe. Rather than being recognized and treated like a king, the World did not receive its creator.
Most commentators assert that the reference to “his own people” refers specifically to the Jews, but that identification is not made in the Prologue itself. It is a reasonable assumption since the first half of the Gospel of John focuses on Jesus’ ministry among the Jews and their rejection of him. There does seem to be a jump in the Prologue from the Cosmos to the Ethnic. Why go from the Logos as the creator to a discussion of the people who rejected him? One possibility is that the Prologue shares the understanding of the book of Hebrews that the Creator spoke through the prophets but in the later days spoke through a Son. The prophetic word given to Moses, Elijah, and the other OT prophets was the same Word that had created the heavens and the earth.
Raymond Brown sees verses 11 and 12 as providing the outline for the whole Gospel. Jesus goes first to the Jews who reject him, and then he creates a new community. His “own people” reject him so he calls a new people into being. The church becomes “his own people.” This interpretation is consistent with other parts of the NT, such as the first Letter of Peter and Paul’s Letter to the Romans, but we should keep in mind that it continues to speak to us. We are Christ’s own people, but do we recognize him? Do we not reject him today when his teachings and examples contradict our desire for violence and vengeance?
Children of God: The prologue next sets up a contrast between those who received the Word of God and those who rejected the Word. This is one of the major themes of the Gospel and the other NT books associated with John. The world is divided between those who receive the Logos and those who reject him. This dualism or division between the children of the light and the children of darkness was developed from the ancient Jewish notion of the Chosen People. In the OT, Abraham and his descendents were chosen by God and set apart. They were given the Law of Moses to guide them and to form them into a separate community. They were to be a holy people and a light to the other nations.
By the time of Jesus, there were some Jews, called the Essenes, who felt that the nation of Israel had faltered in their holiness and service to God. They separated themselves from the larger community and formed very strict sectarian communities like the Qumran community that preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Essenes reinterpreted the language of chosen-ness to apply to those who are called out from society to live according to the law of God. They looked for God to send a new Moses, a heavenly Messiah who would be the teacher of righteousness and a true priest. Some of the Essenes referred to themselves as children of the light, while the rest of the world, including the corrupt priests in Jerusalem, were the children of darkness. The Essenes were looking forward to the day when the Messiah would reward his faithful followers and destroy the children of darkness. Their hopes were ultimately disappointed. It appears that the Essenes were wiped out by the Romans after the destruction of Jerusalem.
Though we cannot be certain, it seems likely that some of the early Christians had been Essenes or at least influenced by their theology. It is possible that John the Baptist himself was an Essene, but we’ll say more about John next week. For now, the point I want to make is that this dualism in John’s Gospel developed out of Judaism, particularly sectarian Judaism. It was not a Christian invention, but many times through the centuries, this dualism has caused problems for Christians and their neighbors. Once you divide the world neatly into children of light and children of darkness, it is tempting to treat all of your opponents as evil-doers who deserve punishment. Moral dualism fueled the Crusades and the conquest of the Americas. It fuels modern Jihads and affects American foreign policy in our day. We like to separate the world into an axis of evil and a coalition of the good.
Rebirth: We do not have to go down that road to be faithful to John’s Gospel. Notice that the focus of this portion of the prologue is not on identifying those who did not receive the Word; it is on those who received him. The Prologue does not say, as Paul does in his letters, that those who have faith in Jesus are adopted as God’s children. It says that they are empowered to become God’s children – to be born of God. The Prologue is here foreshadowing one of the major themes of John’s Gospel, and we will return to this theme of being born of God in a few weeks when we discuss the story of Nicodemus. Those who place their faith in Jesus are born from above. They experience a spiritual birth that is unlike physical birth. The prologue emphasizes that this second birth is not the result of sexual desire or the union of a man and woman; it comes from God.
It is often overlooked in evangelical churches that the idea of being “born again” is a maternal image. God gives spiritual birth to the followers of Jesus. In many passages, John uses imagery from childbirth, especially blood and water, to illustrate this understanding of salvation. It is small wonder that theologians and mystics who base their spirituality on John’s Gospel are generally more open to the idea that God can be described in feminine terms. Zinzendorf was quite explicit in identifying rebirth with the Holy Spirit acting as mother.
We should also pay close attention to this idea that Christians are children of God. This language is not used to declare that Christians should be immature or irresponsible, as it is sometimes used in churches. Rather, the Prologue uses this language to stress the intimate connections between the soul and the Creator. The Logos makes it possible for people to experience the blessing of being a child of God, loved by God intimately. Salvation, for John, is not a simple legal transaction that removes the guilt of sin; it is a restoration of the intimacy of the soul and the creator who makes rebirth possible.
Word Became Flesh: This brings us to verse 14, which is one of the most profound and controversial statements in Scripture. “And the Logos became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” It appears that the author of this hymn chose the word “tent” or “tabernacle” intentionally to connect the appearance of the Logos in the world with the tabernacle of the OT. In the days of Moses, the Israelites believed that God dwelled with them in the tabernacle or the tent of meeting. He was with them in their wanderings, and Moses was able to enter into his presence in the Tabernacle. The prologue describes the ministry of Jesus in a similar way. The Logos lived in the midst of the disciples in much the same way that God used to dwell in the tabernacle. This concept raises a host of theological questions that are best left for another day, but the main point of this passage is clear. The Logos dwell in the world of humans, just as God had once dwelled with the children of Israel.
The Prologue claims that the Logos, the rational aspect of God himself, built himself a body out of human flesh. This is a mind-boggling idea, and it was rejected by many people in the early years of Christianity. Many Jews believed it was blasphemy to say a mere man, even a spirit-filled prophet, was God in human flesh. Some Greeks saw this as mere superstition, a Jewish form of Greek myth where a god appears as human. Educated Greeks were offended that anyone would teach that what was spiritual and perfect could enter into corrupt flesh. The flesh was filled with lust and hunger.
The Gospel of John makes the bold, perhaps even foolish, claim that the Logos of God took on the limitations and needs of human flesh and blood; that God had walked this earth during the age of the Caesars. This assertion also connects the Prologue to the opening chapters of Genesis. You may remember in that story, God made a human body out of the mud and breathed his spirit into the human being. We are made in God’s image, but here in John, God fashions a human body for himself. The Logos makes himself in our image and dwells with his creatures so that we can be restored as the children of God.
The Gospel of John stresses that Jesus was unique among human beings in that he alone was the incarnation of the Logos. He alone was the fullness of God in human form. The whole point of the Gospel will be to convince of this idea: that Jesus is the revelation of God to humankind. The God whose echo we hear in creation; the God who was veiled in the OT; the God who spoke cryptic words through the prophets was revealed in Jesus. It is not until verse 17 that Jesus is named in this Gospel. John’s Gospel is not as concerned with the historical Jesus of Nazareth who was the son of Mary and Joseph the carpenter. This Gospel is about the Word of God who was revealed in Jesus Christ. There is a theological point here that is very important to Moravians and other churches. The true Word of God is not the Bible – it is the Logos revealed in Jesus. God is revealed in many ways, including in Scripture, but the most complete revelation of God was Jesus. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.