We are embarking on a five week look at texts from the gospel of John, starting with John 1:1-14 this Sunday, July 3. This text is so well-known and often-memorized and deeply-woven into our theologies that any additional notes are probably redundant, but here they are, anyway [along with some questions, here]:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We usually think that the gospel of John, “the fourth gospel,” the one that stands out from the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) as being really different, was also written last. Maybe around the end of the first century, 90-100 CE. As always, it’s a guess, but an educated one.
There are some additional notes on John’s gospel on this site here and here.
Scholars have thought that the gospel of John came from, and spoke to, members of a distinctive early Christian community. That community seems to have had distinctive traditions – that is, distinctive memories and stories, distinctive sayings and practices, etc. That would fit with the gospel’s special emphasis on the disciples Thomas, Andrew, and “the disciple that Jesus loved,” for instance. And for the enormous differences in content between John and the synoptics. [See, for instance, Paul Anderson on “The Johannine Community.”]
Or, perhaps, it did not so much come from such a community, as it aimed to mobilize a community of early Christians. [On this, see Adele Reinhartz, “Reflections on My Journey with John – A Retrospective with Adele Reinhartz.”]
As a literary work, and as a theological work, John is distinctive as well. Jesus in John is The Word, a cosmically central divine actor, with a profound role in creation, and in the new creation. Our understanding of the Christ’s centrally important and ongoing task as the savior of humanity is carefully developed through the highly structured narrative of the gospel, with its skillfully arranged binary symbols: light/dark, life/death, sight/blindness, knowledge/ignorance, freedom/bondage, truth/lies, …
The text for Sunday, which is most of the prologue to the gospel, establishes the cosmic context for all that follows, and its temporal coordinates. It introduces the Word, in its pre-creational identity with God. It identifies the Word with the Light, Life, Truth, Grace, and Glory of God. It identifies, on the earthly stage, the witness of John [the Baptist] as witness to this Word made flesh. In v17, the prologue will identify this Word with Jesus, by identifying Jesus with the Grace and Truth that are the Glory of the Word. So from now on, everything that happens in the rest of the gospel happens against the backdrop of our understanding that Jesus – to whom John proceeds to “bear witness” as “the one who ranks ahead of me because he was before me” – is this very Word made flesh that has been from the beginning with God.
This text is the lectionary’s gospel reading for Christmas (The Nativity of the Lord), every year. Also, the gospel text for the second Sunday after Christmas, every year. Even rather casual churchgoers will probably have heard this text read in church, more than once.
CLOSER READING: It is as if these verses are setting up a basic frame: a set of identities. The Word is God (v1-2). And the Word is Life (v4). Life is Light (v4). Light is Truth (v9). The Word appears – in flesh – in Glory, and is full of Grace and Truth (v14).
By contrast, Darkness is against Light (v5). There is Not Knowing (v10), and Not Receiving (or accepting) (v11), both of which are inappropriate responses, clearly, and that are here associated with Darkness by their proximity to it. [By implication, if we readers want to respond appropriately, and want to be in the Light and have its Life, we will want to Know and to Receive or Accept the Word.]
The key to the appropriate response is the power and birth described in vv12 and 13. Receiving or Accepting is Believing, “in his name.” This is Birth, as children of God, the power for which comes from the Word, by inference through the reception of the Word. The Believers are Born of God. V13 emphatically underscores that this supernatural birth is God’s prerogative, not anything initiated by humans.
The sequence of coming – to the world, and “to his own” – may be a double message. On one hand, “the world” is “his own,” since nothing that has come into being has come into being without the Word. On the other hand, “his own” may be more specifically a subset of the world, a group of people who are defined genealogically. The pointed invalidation of genealogical connections in v13 would reinforce that.
[And is already a sign that the anti-Judaism of John’s gospel is “baked in.” That poses a perpetual challenge for Christian readers who believe NOT reading the Bible anti-Judaically is the only Christian thing to do in this post-Holocaust world. When it comes to v13, one way around that might be to read it as saying that no genealogical claims, of any group whatsoever, are guaranteed to correspond to spiritual realities. I’m not sure that solves the problem of John’s disqualification of “the Jews,” but it generalizes it in a way that might – might – diffuse it.]
Famously, the verb in v14 for “dwelt,” as in “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” is a very specific verb that literally means “to live in a tent” and that calls to mind the tabernacle in the Exodus, or perhaps the festival of tabernacles (a Biblical pilgrimage festival, with messianic associations). Jesus is an analog to the Tabernacle in the wilderness, the sign of the presence of God with a community on pilgrimage towards a land of promise. [We will hear that again in this gospel, too.]
Overall, these verses lay out, much like a program at the theatre, or a table of contents in a book, the themes that will recur, and will continue to be important, throughout the gospel of John.
Images: Nheyob, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Biblical Tabernacle (Mishkan),” Aleksig6, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons