Sunday we begin a new sermon series on John’s Gospel. Whereas other sermon series may need an introductory sermon, John gives us his own in his opening “prologue.” In what follows, we will note ten things about those opening 18 verses.
1. John 1:1–18 introduces us to themes that will run throughout John’s Gospel.
In his commentary on John, Colin Kruse paints two word pictures to describe John’s opening verses. He says that the prologue functions like (1) an overture that introduces an opera or (2) a foyer to a theater “where various scenes from the drama to be enacted inside are placarded” (John, 52). With these visual aids in place, he helps us “see” how John 1:1-18 previews many themes in John’s Gospel.
These themes include,
- Jesus’s pre-existence (1:1a / 17:5, 24)
- Jesus’s union with God (1:1c/8:58; 10:30; 20:28),
- the coming of life in Jesus (1:4a/ 5:26; 6:33; 10:10; 11:25-26; 14:6),
- the coming of light in Jesus (1:4b, 9/ 3:19; 8:12; 12:46),
- the conflict between light and darkness (1:5 / 3:19; 8:12; 12:35, 46),
- believing in Jesus (1:7, 12 / 2:11; 3:16, 18, 365 5:24 6:69; 11:25; 14:1; 16:27; 17:21; 20:25),
- the rejection of Jesus (1:10, 11/ 4:44; 7:21; 8:59; 10:31; 12:37-40; 15:18),
- divine regeneration (1:13/3:1-7),
- the glory of Jesus (1:14/ 12:41; 17:5, 22, 24),
- the grace and truth of God in Jesus (1:14, 17/ 4:24; 8:32; 14:6; 17:17; 18:38)
- Jesus and Moses/the law (1:17/ 1:45; 3:14; 5:46; 6:32; 919; 9:29),
- only Jesus has seen God (1:18/ 6:46), and
- Jesus’ revelation of the Father (1:18/ 3:34; 38; 12:49-50; 14:6-11; 17:8). (52)
2. John 1:1–18 demonstrates a very clear chiastic structure.
In his article, “The Pivot of John’s Prologue,” Alan Culpepper makes a compelling argument for a chiastic structure in the prologue. First, he surveys many others who have observed a chiastic structure in John 1:1–18. Next, he shows how John 1:1–2 demonstrates an unmistakable chiasm:
A In the beginning
C the Word
D and the Word
F with God
F’ and God
D’ the Word
C’ He [the Word]
A In the beginning . . . with God
** It is important to note that our English translation of the chiastic structure misreads John’s argument. It is not “and God was the Word”—this would suppress God into the person of the Son. Rather, as John writes it, “the Word was God.” The use of articles identifies “the Word” as the subject and “God” as the predicate nominative.
Then finally, he presents his own outline with many theological results. Here is his outline:
A The Word is with God (vv. 1–2)
B The cosmos came through the Word (v. 3)
C God’s Gift(s) to Men: Light and Life (vv. 4–5)
D The Testimony of John the Baptist (vv. 6–8)
E The Incarnation: Light Coming Into the World (vv. 9–10)
F False Israel (v. 11)
G Those who receive (v. 12a)
H — Gave the right to be children of God (v. 12b)
** The purpose of John’s Gospel (cf. John 20:30–31)
G’ Those who believe (v. 12c)
F’ True Israel (v. 13)
E’ The Incarnation: The Word Dwelling with the Children of God (v. 14)
D’ The Testimony of John the Baptist (v. 15)
C’ God’s Gift(s) to Men: Grace Upon Grace (v. 16)
B’ Grace and Truth came through the Word (v. 17)
A’ The Only-Begotten Son is with God (v. 18)
Colin Kruse follows Culpepper, although he simplifies the organization. In either case (Culpepper or Kruse), there is good reason for seeing an intentional shaping of the opening verses, which will help us see the main point of this introduction. Moreover, as we will see, the central point of the chiastic structure matches the purpose statement of the book in John 20:30–31.
3. We can draw at least 8 conclusions from this outline.
When we read these sections together, we can draw at least eight conclusions.
A = The Word is the Only-Begotten, or to put it differently, the Son is the Begotten God, in distinction from the Father who is the Unbegotten God.
B = The Son is the instrumental agent of the Godhead. Creation and new creation do not originate with him, but they come through him, and then are “completed” by the Spirit.
C = God’s grace is found in his light, life, and love. “Grace” (charis) is not used in the rest of John, but light, life, and love predominate.
D = John’s testimony points to the Son as the fulfillment of all the Old Testament. The rest of the book will also chronicle many witnesses. See #9 below.
E = The Incarnation is the light of God coming into the world, the Word made flesh. This parallel significantly aids our interpretation of John 1:9. Is this light common grace, or is it the Incarnation? By reading v. 9–10 with verse 14 we have greater confidence that it is the Incarnation. This is also confirmed by v. 11. This also means that “everyone” in v. 9 is not all without exception, but all without distinction (i.e., Jew and Gentile).
F = The coming of Christ will bring salvation to true Israel (the children of God who believe, cf. John 11:52) and it will judge those in Israel who reject him. This also sets the stage for a book filled with Jew and Gentile tensions.
G = Those who receive and believe are the ones who are true Israel, no matter what fold they come from (10:16).
H = The purpose of this Gospel is to bring light, life, and love to the children of God. This is what the prologue tells us subtly and what John 20:30–31 tells us plainly.
4. John’s Gospel is about the sons of God.
The central feature of the prologue is John 1:12b: “he gave the right to become children of God.” And if that is the case, the main point of the introduction is the way in which God will grant life to children who will in turn believe in the Son. In Culpepper’s article on the subject, he does a magnificent job showing the importance of God’s children. Later this week, I will (DV) publish a short study from Isaiah that shows the same—God is seeking godly offspring. Yet, those offspring, history has proven, cannot come from Israel according to the flesh; they must be born of the Spirit, thus creating a new Israel according to the Spirit.
Yes, I am borrowing Paul’s language here. But John is equally emphatic. Those who will inherit the kingdom are not the ones born in Israel. Those who will inherit the kingdom must be born from above (or, born again). That is, God’s children must be born of God’s Spirit.
In the prologue, this point is highlighted by its central placement. And as we will see in the rest of the book, the theme of God the Father bringing to life his children in the Son, will continue. To preview that point, we return to Culpepper’s article and his conclusion. [N.B. Culpepper understands the ‘Johannine Community’ to be responsible for the Gospel of John. I disagree with that point, but that doesn’t take away from his other observations/conclusions]. He writes,
On the basis of this study [of the chiastic structure of John 1:1–18], the author [Culpepper] suggests that the following theses merit further consideration:
1. The prologue to John is a chiastic structure which pivots on v. 12 b, ‘and he gave them authority to become the children of God’. This statement, rather than v. 14, is the prologue’s climactic affirmation. Neither the incarnation nor the witness of the community that ‘we have beheld his glory’ would have enduring meaning were it not for the result of the confession of the incarnation, ‘he gave [us] authority to become children of God’.
2. By claiming the designation tekna theou the Johannine community was identifying itself (or perhaps more broadly all Christianity) as the heir to a role and standing which Israel had abdicated by her failure to receive the Son of God. This was a subject of considerable dispute between the Johannine school and ‘the Jews’.
3. The designation tekna theou for the believing community is rooted in Old Testament concepts, the wisdom tradition, and above all the teaching of Jesus and the model prayer he gave his disciples. Jesus communicated to his followers the sense of the fatherhood of God which arose out of his own unique experience of God as Father.
4. The designation tekna theou has emerged as a reflection of the community’s self-understanding and a significant integrating theme for much of the Gospel of John. (31, emphasis mine)
All in all, by seeing the structure of John 1:1–18, we find a key to John’s Gospel and its main evangelistic point that those whom the Father has given to the Son are the ones who he will grant the right to become God’s children. This commitment, in turn, leads to the need to rightly teach these children, because in Israel, it was the Father who was responsible for teaching the children (29). Thus, we find this theme of the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit, giving life to his children.
5. The beginning of the prologue goes back to Genesis 1.
More simply, John’s Prologue begins in the beginning and depends upon the creation narrative of Genesis 1:1-3. To say it another way, John introduces his gospel with the unmistakable theme of creation. Why? Well, one reason will be the fact that he repeatedly returns to (new) creation themes in his Gospel. So, as Matthew begins his Gospel by identifying Jesus as the New Adam (“in the book of the genealogy of Jesus,” cp. Gen. 5:1; Matt. 1:1), John takes the next step and identifies Jesus as God himself. As he puts it, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God . . .”
In other words, John takes the creation account in Genesis and explains that God (Elohim) is the Father and the Son. (The rest of the Gospel proves that the Spirit is also God). That the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14) identifies the personal properties of Father and Son that became apparent in the Incarnation and that will animate the drama of John’s Gospel. Still, to avoid the charge of di-theism (two gods) or later tri-theism (three gods), John maintains that the Word is one God. And as he will conclude his Prologue, he says in parallel fashion to vv. 1–2, “the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father” (my translation).
This pregnant verse beg expositions. And incredibly, John even says as much, as he uses the word exēgēsato (has made him known) in v. 18 to describe the relationship between Father and Son. A point we will consider below. For now, it is worth noticing the way in which John 1 depends on Genesis 1 and introduces the Gospel as a new creation, and the personal incarnation of the Creator of the world.
6. The end of the prologue goes back to Exodus 34.
If John begins his Prologue with Genesis 1, he finishes it with a focus on Exodus 34. In particular, he says in John 1:14 that “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.” And again in John 1:17, he says, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
There are multiple things to see here. First, grace (charis) and truth (aleitheia) are the Greek equivalents of the Hebrew words hesed (steadfast love) and emet (truth). The significance of this is that God revealed himself to Moses on Mount Sinai as the Lord who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (hesed) and faithfulness (emet) (Exod. 34:6–7). Thus, John is saying with the double repetition of these words that Jesus is Yahweh Incarnate.
Second, the connections to Exodus 34 deepen, as John makes the connection between Moses and Jesus explicit. That is, just as Moses mediated the old covenant, hence the reference to the law, Jesus mediates the new covenant—a covenant of greater grace. Whereas the first covenant was gracious; the second covenant is more effective in its gift of salvation. Thus, John’s comparison shows the supremacy of Christ over Moses—a figure of no small importance for the Jews to whom John is writing.
Third, the use of Moses typology and the application of Exodus 34:6–7 to Jesus, show that he is the perfect God-man. He is the Word of God made flesh. Yet, importantly the word “made” is not a term of transformation—as if God became man leaving his deity behind; nor did Jesus the man become God. Rather, the eternal Son of God, the begotten God (1:18), clothed himself in humanity, such that the fullness of his deity dwelt bodily. Importantly, by introducing the Son by way of Exodus we are made to see his two natures—divine and human. See #8 below for more on this point.
7. The dependence on the Old Testament is key theme for the whole book.
Synthesizing these last two points, it is worth noting how John’s entire Gospel is going to depend heavily on the Old Testament. This is true explicitly, in places where John cites the Old Testament. This is true implicitly, as in the Prologue, where he employs Old Testament concepts to identify Jesus Christ as the Son of God. And this is true typologically. Jesus is the true temple and in his Gospel the temple theme, along with priestly concepts and the Levitical calendar, will serve as building blocks for the whole Gospel.
In other words, John’s Gospel is one that is written for people who are familiar with the Old Testament. That is to say, while the purpose of the book is evangelistic (to see unbelievers come to faith in Christ), the argument of the book is deeply canonical. And thus many of the passages, even the ones that are most famous today (see John 3:16), will require comparison with the Old Testament. While John’s message can often be given to unbelievers, and should be given to unbelievers who do not know the Old Testament, the Gospel does depend upon an intricate knowledge of the Old Testament to see all of its glory.
In this regard, John’s dependence on the Old Testament in the Prologue not only invites us to keep reading his Gospel, it also invites us to read the whole Bible.
8. Few passages in Scripture are more important for understanding the full deity and humanity of Christ than John 1:1–18.
On this point, John 1:1–18 gives us a full vision of Jesus’s Incarnation. He is the one person (the Word) who subsists in two natures. In fact, in these verses we find statements about both natures, and we also find an important ordering–God first and God eternal, Christ’s humanity second and humanity “added to” the divine nature of the Son. Let’s consider.
First, in these eighteen verses, John begins to identify the divinity of Son by calling the Word “God” (v. 1). Similarly, he ends his Prologue calling him the monogenēs theos, or the only-begotten God. (Let the reader understand: There are interpretive issues with rendering monogenēs “only begotten” instead of “one and only,” and there are manuscript discrepancies with respect to “God” instead of “Son.” But after looking at all of that, “only begotten God” is my preferred translation). In between, he assigns the Son as the Creator of the world (vv. 3–5), the light of the world (vv. 3–9), the Lord who is identified by his fullness of grace and truth (vv. 14, 17) and by the fact that John the Baptist prepares the way for him (vv. 6–8, 15). Because John prepared the way for the Lord (Isaiah 40:3) and he prepared the way for Jesus, it is plain—Jesus is the LORD.
At the same time, Jesus is fully man. Or as John introduces the Son, he is the Word made flesh (v. 14). While early church fathers debated what flesh meant; it is clear that flesh is more than a meat suit. To a people who had just lost the temple, John is saying that Jesus is the true temple—the fullness of God dwelling bodily (cf. Col. 1:19; 2:9). Theologically, this means that the eternal Son of God who created all things has taken on a human nature, in which he will dwell. And because humans are compared with temples throughout the Bible (think of the way the priests clad in their glorious robes are walking temples), it fits that the Word made flesh has clothed himself fully with humanity—with both a body (outer man) and soul (inner man). And proof of Jesus’s full humanity comes from the fact that he is made visible, and that John the Baptist bore witness to him (vv. 6–8, 15) and John the Apostle compared Moses with him (v. 17). In other words, there is no sense of docetism in John (cp. 1 John). Jesus is fully human, just as he is fully God. And importantly, he was God and then human.
In many religions, there is a sense in which a man becomes God. This is the heresy of adoptionism, which says that God made Jesus divine because of his perfect life or that God chose the man Jesus in order to dwell with humanity. But this turns the whole world upside down. God did not choose the man Jesus to make him God. Jesus is God the Son who added a human nature when the Spirit conceived his human nature (body and soul) in the womb of Mary.
Clearly, John 1:1–18 does not say everything we need to know about Jesus’s hypostatic union (i.e., two natures in one divine person), but it does say a lot. And it points us in the right direction to know Jesus Christ as John testifies to him in the rest of his Gospel.
9. The witness of John the Baptist also indicates a key component of the book.
Another feature of John’s Prologue is the introduction of John the Baptist. Twice, for reasons of chiastic symmetry (?), John the Apostle identifies the ministry of John the Baptist. And the Baptist’s introduction to Jesus’s is not only the Son’s first human witness, it also initiates a pattern in the Fourth Gospel.
That pattern is one of appealing to multiple witnesses to encourage faith in Jesus. In fact, in John’s Gospel, we find at least twelve different witnesses bearing testimony about Christ. Here’s a quick list:
- John the Baptist (John 1:19–34)
- Thomas (John 20:28)
- Blind Man (John 9:25, 30-31)
- Lazarus (John 11)
- Abraham (John 8:56)
- Moses (John 5:46)
- Isaiah (John 12:41)
- Father (John 5:37-38)
- Jesus (John 8:58; 10:30; cf. 6:35; 8:12; 10:9; 10:11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:5)
- Holy Spirit (John 15:26; 16:13-15)
- Works (John 5:36)
- Scriptures (John 5:39)
From all of these testimonies, we come to a decision point: Will you believe that Jesus is the Son of God? Or not? In John 1:1–18, we may not have enough information to make that decision. But we have an introduction to Jesus from John the Baptist, who will be the first of many witnesses in the Gospel.
10. Don’t miss the beauty of this passage.
All in all, it is important when reading John 1:1–18 to not miss its beauty. From its language to its literary structure, and from its use of the Old Testament to the clear presentation of Christ, the whole passage is filled with glory. In the same way that a movie theater hangs posters to beckon visitors to step into the theater, so John hangs these biblical “posters” which invite us to enter his Gospel.
Indeed, in a Gospel that will regularly explain the person and work of Christ by comparison to the temple of God, John’s Prologue is the temple gate where would-be readers and children of God are given their instructions for entering the temple. After John’s Prologue, we don’t find any entirely new ideas. Rather we find the beauty of the Prologue enlarged throughout.
So, if you are reading John’s Gospel ponder at length the opening 18 verses. And if you are studying, or teaching, or preaching the Gospel as our church is, then there is even more reason to meditate on the Prologue so that its language and emphases become a key to the rest of the Book.
Again, our sermon series on John begins this week. Please join us for the journey. And may the Lord be pleased to glorify himself in our midst, as we give ourselves to John’s Gospel.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds