John Week 1
Singing an Index: An Introduction to the Gospel of John (John 1:1–18)
Seattle Pacific University Assistant Professor of New Testament
Read this week’s Scripture: John 1:1–18
Music is a powerful source of identity and connection. Even people with forms of memory loss often remember songs that they were taught at younger ages. The instrumentation itself can elicit a broad range of emotions, and lyrics can augment such reactions. Conversations about music — whether different kinds, particular songs, or individual artists — can produce intense memories, thoughts, and feelings.
It is the same within the church. There’s the age-old debate about hymns versus praise choruses, but traditions and opinions about music go far beyond such conversations. Sadly, in the midst of many discussions about how we sing, sometimes little thought is given to the words we sing. Often we simply don’t pay that much attention. However, the lyrics of songs can contain enormous amounts of theology. And the lyrics we sing often have the ability to change our thoughts and actions. All the better, then, to know what we are singing.
The early Church certainly knew about the power of music. For example, Colossians 3:16 encourages believers to “sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.” The early Church would have continued singing psalms as they had done for centuries. But they also composed new pieces directly related to Jesus’ death and resurrection. While we no longer have the tunes available to us, we still have the lyrics. John 1:1–18 seems to have been one of these hymns.
Like the lyrics of a song, the first eighteen verses of John 1, called the prologue, are easy to skim over without realizing what we are reading. However, the prologue introduces all of the major themes of John’s gospel. I have grouped these themes into the following three categories focused on the actions of Jesus: Jesus brings new life, Jesus reveals God and humanity, and Jesus provokes responses. If you know these verses that comprise the prologue well, you’ll be able to understand the Gospel of John better. And if you want to put them to music, I’d love to hear it.
In order to integrate the prologue into our study of the Gospel of John and highlight important connections, I have listed key prologue terms in an index following the prologue itself. [Author’s Note 1] The index identifies which Lectios discuss the key prologue terms. These terms will always be listed at the top of each Lectio. They are color-coded according to the three categories of themes listed in this Lectio to facilitate finding their location in the prologue itself. Some terms fit in more than one category, of course; I placed them in the categories that best described them.
Theme One: Jesus Brings New Life
John 1:1 begins with a fairly obvious allusion to Genesis 1:1. In fact, the first two Greek words of John 1:1 are the same two words that introduce the Bible as a whole: “in the beginning” (ἐν ἀρχῇ, en archē). As with all the canonical gospels, the first words illustrate that this is a new story, a new beginning, and a new creation. But John’s point is that we can only understand this new story through knowing the old story. [Author’s Note 2]
Further, John 1 talks about a lot of themes that occur in Genesis 1. Themes of life (John 1:4) and light (John 1:5) will be extremely important in John. In fact, one of the primary points of the Gospel of John is that Jesus reveals God bringing life out of death. Just as God brought light out of darkness (Genesis 1:3) and ordered life out of chaos (Genesis 1:2), so Jesus is the light (John 8:12) who shines in the darkness (John 1:5) and the life that conquers death (11:44).
Interestingly, however, though the Gospel of John seems to begin at the same place as Genesis 1, its first statement includes an important difference from Genesis’ story of creation. The entirety of Genesis 1:1 reads: “In the beginning […] God created the heavens and the earth.” Alternatively, John 1:1 states, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Although both narratives will proceed quickly to talk about the light that God created (Genesis 1:3) or that God embodies (John 1:4–5), John takes one step back. Genesis started with, “And God said,” (1:3) to talk about how the light came into being. John defines this speaking by talking about a personified Word.
While “the Word” does refer to the words God spoke in creation, allowing John to say “all things came into being through him” (1:3), “the Word” refers to more than this. The term John uses for “Word,” is logos in Greek. This logos is likely associated with the figure of Wisdom, one of God’s attributes. The Old Testament describes the figure of Wisdom as being with God since the beginning (Proverbs 8:22), helping God with creation. At the same time, the Word is not just an attribute, or a characteristic, of God. “The Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). [Author’s Note 3] There is one interesting point to note, however: the prologue does not use Jesus’ name until after John 1:14, when the Word has become flesh (see 1:17). Once incarnate, which literally means in flesh, the Word’s name is now Jesus.
In summary, the Word, life, and light are all themes from Genesis 1. However, the Gospel of John demonstrates that the brokenness and problems of creation are fixed by a new creation, a new life that does not destroy the old creation but instead heals it and restores it.
Theme Two: Jesus Reveals God and Humanity
After introducing us to the themes of life and light, the prologue moves on to describe a certain person named John (1:6). This may seem disjointed from the first few verses, but it actually introduces the next theme of the gospel. John’s role is primarily that of a witness, or one who provides testimony. [Author’s Note 4] Testimony will be a major theme throughout the gospel, and it won’t just be John who is testifying, or pointing to, Jesus. Many who meet Jesus, from the Samaritan woman at the well to a man born blind, will give an account of what Jesus has done for them. These accounts are to illustrate how witnesses use their experiences to point back to Jesus’ identity.
Furthermore, Jesus himself will testify to God’s work in and through him. In fact, this testimony, or revelation, is Jesus’ primary role in “coming into the world,” according to John’s gospel (1:9). It is one of the key claims of this gospel that in looking at Jesus we are to see two things: who God is — one who loves the world (3:16), and who humans are supposed to be — those who love one another to the end (13:1).
John succinctly says that Jesus reveals both God and humanity in one of the most profound verses of the prologue:
“And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as a unique one of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (1:14, author’s translation)
While at times it may seem that Jesus is, in the words of a famous scholar, “God striding across the earth” in John [Author’s Note 5], it is essential to look for the ways in which he is demonstrably “flesh,” too. It is the joining of the two, God and flesh, that is the gospel’s central focus. Furthermore, John makes another claim about the Word: he “made his dwelling (eskenōsen) among us.” This is an allusion to the way that God met the people of Israel in the Old Testament in the tabernacle (Exodus 35–40), known as a skene, or dwelling. As the Word made flesh, Jesus tabernacles among us, mediating God’s presence in our midst.
The “our” pronouns should make us pause here, as the prologue for the first time places “us” into the scene. It claims that “we saw his glory” (John 1:14; cf. 1 John 1:1–3; Revelation 21:3). While the prologue has already mentioned light, one of the gospel’s primary themes, here it mentions sight. Throughout the gospel, we will find physical and spiritual blindness standing in for the sense of perception and understanding. The glory that “we see” echoes language in the Old Testament that describes God’s presence, particularly when God was present in either the tabernacle or the temple (e.g., Ezekiel 9:3). The point is that now “we” can see the glorious and holy presence of God in flesh, in Jesus, who is full of grace and truth (John 1:14, 16–17). [Author’s Note 6]
Theme Three: Jesus Provokes Responses
When the Word becomes flesh, he provokes both positive and negative responses. John the Baptist is the prologue’s example of a positive response. He offers testimony to Jesus, pointing away from himself and towards Jesus (who in turn often points away from himself and towards his Father; 1:15; 5:19–30). Furthermore, John sees clearly who Jesus is; he has beheld Jesus’ glory, just as “we” have (1:14). Testifying to Jesus and seeing him rightly are two of the best ways to respond to Jesus in the gospel.
The prologue also describes those who “receive” Jesus or who “believe in his name,” as those whom he gives the authority “to become children of God” (1:12). These children have been “born of God” (1:13; cf. 3:3–8). This rebirth connects back to the themes of new life; indeed, these children are “born of God” because God is the one who has given them new life, rather than the antecedents of natural life (1:13). As we shall see later in the gospel these children are identified by the ways in which they remain connected to Jesus and the ways in which they love one another (e.g., 15:1–17).
Others, however, reject the revelation of God that Jesus brings. The light that illuminates can also be blinding if it is opposed. The prologue alludes to this when it declares that the Word “came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (1:11). “His own” could refer to the Jewish authorities in particular who do not receive Jesus. [Author’s Note 7] Or it could also refer to human beings, particularly human beings before Jesus’ resurrection who did not understand Jesus’ revelation (e.g., 2:22). Regardless, “the world” often means those who are opposed to Jesus within the gospel. They embody this rejection primarily by not believing that Jesus comes from God or reveals the nature and character of God. Perceiving Jesus’ origin clearly is essential for an accurate assessment of his revelation of God, and his opponents cannot see this.
Lastly, it is worth noting that different responses to Jesus often hinge on concerns about the interpretation of the Law of Moses. It is not as though Jesus is opposed to the Law of Moses; his grace continues from it and interprets it (1:17). Instead, Jesus provides the correct interpretation of the Law of Moses, from John’s perspective. Jesus is clear that the Law’s primary purpose is to give life to the community, and this life is one that honors God. A life serving the Law, rather than allowing the Law to shape a life, misses both the purpose of the Law and the God whom Jesus reveals.
John’s Writing Style
Before we begin this journey through the Gospel of John, you should be aware of a few quirks of John’s writing style. While the Gospel of John is similar to the other three gospels in the canon in many ways, it is also very distinctive, both in terms of its content and the evangelist’s writing style.
First, John’s gospel is full of irony. If you have any hint that a character might be speaking ironically — often, speaking the truth even though they are unaware of it — then you’re probably right. For this reason, a reader needs to be aware of John’s penchant for irony. It’s simply too easy to read an ironic passage straightforwardly and completely misunderstand it. In fact, you’ll watch the disciples do this with Jesus’ speech and actions often!
Second, if you think that John’s writing seems circular at some points, you’re probably right. I think of it as spiral writing. John often circles back to revisit many of the key themes of the gospel (e.g., life, light, revelation of God, testimony, love). Moreover, John also has a tendency to define terms circularly as well. For example, we have disciples abiding by loving and loving by abiding (15:4, 9–12, 17). Please be patient when you encounter these circles; John hasn’t absent-mindedly forgotten that the subject has come up before. Instead, he repeats himself because these are particularly salient points of the good news, and he’s drawing our attention to them again and again from different perspectives.
Third, as the prologue of the gospel indicates, John’s vocabulary is deceptively simple. Even in Greek, John is one of the easiest texts of the New Testament to translate. However, we should not assume that ease in reading equates to ease in understanding. John delights in symbols and metaphorical language. Often this is a surprise to readers of the gospels; Matthew, Mark, and Luke usually confine such symbolic expressions to parables. Perhaps this use of language is precisely why John is often read with equal delight and puzzlement by new or inexperienced Christians as well as by those who have been believers for a lifetime. When the Word becomes flesh, it is easy to read. But it challenges us to understand, with layers of meaning that a young child can grasp and that the most gifted Johaninne scholar can ponder. May we experience “grace upon grace” (1:16) as we seek to know the God whom Jesus reveals in John (1:18).
Questions for Further Reflection
- Think through some songs that you find yourself singing again and again. What messages do these songs convey? Choose one song and contemplate what this song says about the world we live in and how we should or shouldn’t act. If it is a song with clear theology, what does it say about God’s role with respect to this world?
- When the Word who was with God and is God becomes flesh in Jesus, he changes our understanding of what it means to be God as well as our understanding of what it means to be human. How would you explain these changes so far?
- Consider your life lately. What are ways that you have received the light and life that the Word brings into the world? What are ways that you have rejected it?
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