Prologue of John’s Gospel

Frank Crouch and I are teaching the Gospel of John in the Sojourners Class of Central Moravian Church this year. Come join us at 10 a.m. Sunday mornings in the CE building at Central in Bethlehem, PA. I thought I would repost the lessons I put up on the blog several years ago when I taught John at Home Church.

The Prologue as Poetry:        That was just a reminder that in poetry and prose, it is important that the style match the subject matter. It is good that the style of the prologue to John’s Gospel matches the dignity of its message. Let me read the opening lines in Greek so that you can get a sense of its poetic qualities. There is little doubt that the opening verses of the Gospel of John were originally a poem or even a hymn that was sung in the church founded by the Beloved Disciple. We do not know for sure when the hymn was written. We don’t even know if the hymn is older or more recent than the rest of the Gospel. It is possible that the evangelist chose or composed this hymn to express in summary form the themes of his book, but it is just as likely that a later editor, perhaps a student, added this beautiful hymn to his master’s gospel story.             

One thing is clear to most readers of the opening hymn. Someone inserted statements in it that were not there originally. These parenthetical statements read like prose rather than poetry. They are explanatory insertions that deal with two main topics. One is the relationship of Jesus to John the Baptist and the other the relationship of Jesus to the Jews. We will see that these are important themes throughout the Gospel, but the parentheses do detract from the beauty and meaning of the original hymn. I am going to read the prologue today without the insertions using the translation of Raymond Brown, who was the leading Johanine scholar in America in the 20th century. 

Beginning:      The Gospel of Mark opens with the phrase: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” In contrast, John’s Gospel begins with an echo of the grand opening of the book of Genesis, the first of the five books of the Law, which we call the Pentateuch. “In the beginning God created…” You may recall from a year ago that the opening lines of the Hebrew Bible may be translated several ways. It could even be translated “When God began to create the heavens and the earth,” but the Greek of John’s Gospel is not ambiguous. It is referring to the beginning of time and creation itself. The Word was with God before the visible world was crafted by God.            

Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy of Jesus tracing his ancestry back to Abraham, and Luke includes a genealogy that goes back to Adam, but John’s vision is much larger than simply the history of Jesus’ family or even the human race. His account of the life of Jesus begins with creation itself. Christ has cosmic significance for John, and his work of redemption involves the whole order of the universe. That is a bold claim and this verse would become a lynchpin of orthodox Christian doctrine. Without this prologue Christian teaching on Jesus might have developed in quite different ways.

Logos:             One of the most difficult words to translate in the New Testament is the simple word “Word” here in the Prologue. The Greek word islogos. Nowhere else in Scripture is Jesus called the Logos or Word of God, except in the Book of Revelation. Even in the Gospel of John, this phrase is not used except for the Prologue. Even so, the logos would become one of the most important ways in which the early church understood Jesus.  

           It is a very important word, but there is no consensus on how to translate the logos. Normally it is simply translated as “word,” which is how Jewish scribes in Alexandria translated the Old Testament idea of the ‘word of God’ into Greek. In Greek, the Old Testament prophets spoke the logos of God. Certainly, the author of John’s Gospel was familiar with the Greek version of the Old Testament, and he may have used logos in the sense of the “Word of the Lord” as spoken by the biblical prophets. That appears to be the way Christ is seen in as the Word in Revelation. If this in the case, the prologue of John becomes a little more manageable. Jesus is simply a divine profit doing God’s will on earth.   

         But there are reasons to suspect that the author of the Gospel meant more than this by using the word logos. The logos here is seen as an important part of the work of God in creation. It is likely the author had in mind the idea of the logos as rational speech and thought from Greek philosophy. It is the “word” by which we understand the universe in which we live. The English word “logic” is based on the Greek word logos.Logos also supplies the root of all those “ologies” that you see in college catalogs: Psychology, Sociology, Geology, Pathology. We use “ology” to mean “the study of” something, but that means that we use words to make sense of something. For the Greeks, science and philosophy rely on the logos.   

         According to some schools of Greek philosophy, the cosmos was formed through the logos. In this sense, logos means the natural order of the universe. The reason that the ancient scientists could calculate the circumference of the Earth and predict future eclipses was because they believed that the universe makes sense. It works by cosmic laws of order. The universe is logical, they said, because it was formed by the Logos. We do not know if the author of John meant to say that the rational order of the universe was in the beginning with God, but the early readers of this Gospel certainly read it that way. In the beginning was the rationality of God. This became an important part of Christian theology.

Sophia:            There is a way to bring together the Greek understanding of the logos and the Hebrew idea of the creative and prophetic word of God, and that is the idea of divine Wisdom. In Proverbs 8:22-36 we have a poem to divine wisdom, which in Greek was called Sophia. “The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts long ago.” The poem goes on to say that Sophia was with God as he crafted each part of the earth and skies. The parallels between Proverbs 8 and John 1 have been noted since the 3rd century, and there have been those who have read John 1 as saying, “In the beginning was Wisdom.” Since Sophia is a feminine word in Greek, in recent years feminist theologians have read the Prologue as saying, “In the beginning was Sophia.” But that is probably straying too far from the actual text. The author could have said that quite easily in Greek, but he chose to say logos. So we are left with the rich and stimulating ambiguity of the phrase “In the beginning was the Word.” The key point is that this was God’s creative word: the word that spoke the worlds into being in Genesis.

The Word was God:               For more than seventeen hundred years scholars have discussed and debated the meaning of logos, but that is only the beginning of the issues related to the Prologue. This hymn to Christ goes on to say that the Word was “with God” and “was God.” It seems so simple, but each of those phrases has all sorts of translation difficulties, most of which are too complicated for a Sunday morning. Part of the problem is the preposition, which originally meant to approach something or to face something. By John’s time, it often meant to accompany someone in the sense of going with someone. The early commentators on John’s gospel were not sure how to interpret this little phrase. Did it mean that the Word accompanied God in the act of creation? Or did it mean that the Word contemplated and worshiped God as he created? Does it refer to an eternal relationship between God and the Word? One thing we can determine is that the relationship of the Word and God was there before humans were created. The Word is in a special relationship to God.

Was God:      That alone is a mind-expanding concept for the opening verse of the story of Jesus, but the Prologue goes further. “And the Word was God.” This has even more difficulties in translation because the Greek word for God here, theos, does not have a definite article. Some people have translated this as “The Word was a god,” which raises all kinds of difficulties, and is unlikely to say the least. Some have rendered this verse as “The Word was divine” (Raymond Brown, Gospel of John, vol. 1,, 5), but the author of John could have said that directly. The intention of the phrase does seem to be that the Word was what God is. Curiously, the phrase actually places the word God first. 

Creation:        In saying that the Word was God, this does not mean that the Word is no longer God or that the Word no longer exists. It is saying that the divine nature of the Word was from the very beginning. Part of the artistry of this hymn is that it builds like a staircase, perhaps a spiral staircase, so that the repetition of key ideas adds to the overall effect rather than distracting from it. The role of the Word in creation is clarified in verse 3. “All things came into being through him.” If the Word was God from the beginning, then it makes sense that the Word was part of God’s creative activity in the beginning.  

           There are parallels to the prologue of John in other hymns to Christ in the New Testament. The most famous are found in Philippians 2 and Colossians 1. These hymns all address a common theme. Christ is the true image of God who existed from the beginning and who came to earth in human form. Like John’s prologue, Colossians speaks of all things being made through Christ. In this light, it is particularly interesting that one of the earliest references to Christianity from a non-Christian source is a letter from Pliny to the emperor Trajan in 117 AD. He refers to people who sing hymns to Christ “as to a god.” There is also a collection of 2nd century Christian hymns called the Odes of Solomon that express similar themes. In recent years it has become popular to say that the church proclaimed Jesus as divine in the 4th century, but the truth is that by the end of the 1st century the followers of Jesus viewed him as the Word of God in human flesh. 

Trinity:            From 200 AD to 500 AD the church had many battles over how to express the divinity of Christ. We don’t need to go into all of those fights this morning, but it is important to recognize that the fights concerned how Christ was divine, not whether he was divine. Over time, the doctrine of the Trinity was formulated and approved by church councils. The doctrine attempts to clarify the relationship and work of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. According to orthodox teaching, all three are God yet each is distinct. For the most part theologians and worshipers alike have viewed the Father as the Creator and the Son as the Redeemer, but the Gospel of John was written before the great councils. It was an important resource for the theologians of the Church, but John’s gospel does not separate the work of the Father and Son. For those accustomed to the Nicene and Apostles Creeds, it is a bit of a shock to read the Prologue of John where the Word is the Creator.     

        We’ll keep coming back to the question of the relationship of the Father and the Son in John’s Gospel, but the important point for today is that the all things were created through the Word of God. It might interest Moravians to learn that for about 100 years, Moravian liturgies, catechisms, and hymns consistently held to the perspective of John’s Gospel that Christ was the Creator as well as the Redeemer. 

Jesus:             It is important for us to recognize, however, that the Gospel of John does not proclaim that Jesuswas the Creator. It was the Word that was with God and was God, not the human being Jesus of Nazareth. When we refer to the “pre-existent” Christ, we are speaking of twin aspects of the Son of God. One is that the Word or the Son or the Christ, whatever term you prefer, existed prior to the person Jesus who was born on a specific day during the reign of Caesar Augustus. The Word or Son became incarnate in Jesus, but the incarnation marked a new phase of history. Thus, we should not look for Jesus in the Old Testament, but Christians may see traces of the Son of God in the ancient Scriptures.

Life:    This is a lot of theology in just three verses of an ancient hymn, and we should not push things too far. This is the language of praise and worship, not philosophy or science, and the following verses give insight into why we should praise the Word. “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” This will be one of the central themes of the entire Gospel; in fact, this is the good news itself. The Word of God is a life-giving word. The parallel with the first chapter of Genesis become important here. Creation is life and light. The work of Jesus described in the rest of the Gospel will be the work of restoring creation and bringing light and truth to the world. Forms of Christianity that promote death and destruction are contrary to the nature of Christ in John’s Gospel. Forms of Christianity that promote ignorance and small-mindedness are contrary to the nature of Christ in John’s Gospel. The mission of the church is to bring light to the world, not darkness, despair, or destruction.

Darkness:       There is opposition to this mission, though. The Gospel of John will address the historical reality that Jesus of Nazareth was murdered by the Roman Empire with the complicity of the high priests in Jerusalem. This is alluded to in a beautiful piece of poetry in the Prologue. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” There is a sense of cosmic struggle here between the forces of light, life, and creation and the force of darkness and non-existence. The nature of that struggle varies according to translation. This verse could mean that the darkness did not comprehend or grasp the meaning of the light. It could mean that the darkness did not receive or accept the light. Or that the darkness could not overcome or overpower the light.   

            I think it is likely that all of these are meant. Ignorance, fear, and evil are often combined and are most clearly recognized in their unthinking opposition to goodness. The hopeful aspect of the Gospel is that the light continues to shine even in a world where nations drop bombs on weddings and men kill children to silence their own demons.

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.

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