John 1:1-18, The Word Became Flesh

[December 26, 2010] Today we consider the prologue of the Gospel according to John, one of the most profound passages in the Christian Scriptures. Before we begin, however, it is worth noting that it is impossible to do it justice, nor with my time constraints to even consider it in detail. It encapsulates the entire gospel, telling us who Jesus is, that He came to us, and that through Him—through His death and resurrection—we become born of God by believing into Him. In chapters 1—12 Jesus comes to us as the embodiment of the Triune God and unveils Himself to us as Life that we may believe into Him. In chapters 13—21 He discloses to us how He will come to us again, after the process of death and resurrection, as the Holy Spirit, only this time not simply to unveil Himself to us but to dwell in us who believe.

This is how the elder John, who may or may not have been identical with the prophet John, living in Ephesus in the early 90s of the first century, recapitulated the Gospel for the churches some twenty years after the last of the synoptic gospels was written, after Peter and Paul were martyred and the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. After this tremendous blow to the church and to world Jewry, when the Messiah did not appear the church began searching for answers. The heresies (or sects) predicted in 2 Peter and spoken of in Jude that the epistles of John address and that we see in Revelation 2—3, began to surface at this time, in particular, what scholars call proto-Gnosticism. The basic idea of gnosticism already existed in forms of Judaism and is inherent in the apostolic teaching, but the heretical distortions of it began to arise in the speculations of this period. The Gospel according to John presents the true Gnosis (knowledge) of Jesus to combat these unhealthy speculations.

One trend of these speculations was to think that material flesh—and thus createdness—is incompatible with divinity, and that consequently Jesus, whose revelation saves us, did not become flesh but merely appeared to be human. He was purely divine and could not become flesh, for the created material world is antithetical and antagonistic to God. Indeed, He came as the Revealer to free us from our imprisonment in the material world. This belief is heretical because it confuses the world with the (material) creation. The apostolic—and thus catholic—teaching is that the creation (createdness) is good and indeed is included in salvation, but the “world” as the gestalt of fallen humanity is something we (our souls) have constructed (in the noetic or cultural sphere) but that is no longer under our control but rather has us under its dominion. The revelation of Jesus does indeed free us from the world but it also restores creation and begins its process of glorification (divinization). The Gnostic heretics found this intolerable, and as a consequent, their spirituality is not only false, being soulical rather than spiritual, but only increases the delusion that the soul has been caught in. Turning away from the reality that the Gospel unveils, they amplify the Lie.

This is one of the main concerns that the Gospel according to John addresses as it unveils to us the truth of the new birth. This is stated succinctly in the simple phrase, “And the Word became flesh” (verse 14), one of the pillars of orthodoxy. The proper understanding of this phrase has been the “sword” that has correctly divided the truth from successive heresies (mistaken attempts to understand the Incarnation).

Since the rise of modernity, the threat to Christian faith has usually been the denial of Jesus’ divinity. On the one hand, it is so hard for some conservative Christians to recognize other threats that they become confused about the real humanity of Jesus. On the other hand, while “progressive” Christians do not deny Jesus’ divinity, their understanding of it tends not to embrace the full truth of it. Jesus accurately represents the divine, they say, and in “that” way He is divine. In practice they deny the divine hypostasis of the Son. The Gospel according to John is a corrective to both tendencies.

Post-modernism, however, has resuscitated the old Gnostic heresy, that the creation is antithetical to divinity. Some proponents of Eastern religions misunderstand these philosophies in this way. Mary Baker Eddy, who originated Christian Science, came up with the false “metaphysics” that is the basis of most New Age belief systems. The idea that she had is that the soul is the primary reality and the material and bodily realm is essentially an illusion which the soul generates. The Gospel of John speaks directly to this heresy.

Creation, animated by and inseparable from spirit, is good and in the purpose of God will be sublated into divinity. Just as the divine hypostasis of the Son assumed human nature while remaining itself divine, the hypostases of the creation will assume the divine nature—through participation—while retaining (and fulfilling) its created nature. As it was said in the early church, I think as early as Irenaeus, The Divine became human in order that humanity may become divine. Any thought that would put divinity at odds with creation denies the revelation of Jesus Christ. His own divine Person is both completely divine and fully human, completely eternal and fully in time. This intellectual paradox is the Christian canon (standard) of truth.

The Structure

Let’s look at a provisional translation of the prologue, laid out in its chiastic structure:

A     (1) In the beginning was the Word, 
        and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
        (2) This One was in the beginning with God.

B     (3) All things came into being through Him
        and apart from Him not one thing came into being.
        What has come into being (4) in Him was life
        and life was the Light of men [i.e., human beings].

C     (5) And the Light shines in the darkness
        and the darkness did not overcome it.

D     (6) There came a man sent from God whose name was John:
        (7) He came for a testimony,
        that he might testify concerning the Light,
        that all might believe through him.
        (8) He was not the Light,
        but [came] that he might testify concerning the Light.

E     (9) The One who was the true Light,
       which shines on every human being who comes into the world,
       (10) was in the world,
       and the world came into being through Him,
       yet the world did not know Him.
       (11) He came to His own
       yet those who were His own did not receive Him.

F     (12) But as many as received Him,
       to them He gave the authority to become children of God,

X     to those who believe into His name,

F’     (13) who were born not of bloods, nor of the will of the flesh,
         nor of the will of a male, but of God.

E’     (14) And the Word became flesh and tabernacle among us
         (and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only Begotten from the Father)
         full of grace and reality.

D’     (15) John testified concerning Him
         and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said,
         He who is coming after me has become ahead of me, 
         because He was before me.”

C’     (16) For of His fullness we have all received, even grace upon grace.

B’     (17) For the law was given through Moses;
         grace and reality came through Jesus Christ.

A’     (18) No one has ever seen God;
         the only begotten Son, who is in the womb of the Father,
         He has declared Him.

The Explanation. Verses 1-2:

The eternal Word was “toward” God and was God. Father and Son were face-to-face, or rather, Person to Person with each other, while sharing one divine and indivisible nature and one being. The divine nature was this interpersonal communion as the Son reflected back to the Father the Father’s own divine nature as the Father’s image and Word. The Father, as the divine nature, speaks the Word. The Son, as the divine nature, is the Word—the consonants, as it were, that create the morpheme—spoken by the Father. The Holy Spirit, as the divine nature, is the breath—the vowels—of the Word when it is spoken. As Word, however, God looks at Himself as if in a mirror. The Word, while being itself divine, expresses the divine nature.

Verses 3-4a:

All things that exist came into being through the Word and therefore express the Word. Ultimately what came into being in the creation was life. As the creation unfolds, eventually life comes into being and that life progressively unfolds from fish to birds and creeping things to mammals to human beings—consciousness unfolds until human beings—as the first animal to become “self-aware”—become the image of God (through their personal relations expressed in language and culture) to the rest of terrestrial creation, leading the way as it were. This is from the human perspective. From a pan-perspective, if such a thing were possible, we might describe it differently in terms of the ecological consciousness of the planet or even the solar system.

Verses 4b-5:

In any case, this life becomes the light of God to humanity. When humanity sought to create an artificial life of its own by constructing an identity independent of God, a construct of the soul, it fell into darkness, alienated in its mind from the reality of both God and creation. This darkness, as it came together in the “world,” became a gestalt with a “life” (so it would seem, though it was dead) of its own. But this darkness did not overcome the light. The light of life still shines, even in the darkness of the soul.

Verses 6-8:

This light is borne witness to by the prophets and the Scriptures that embody their testimony. John was the epitome of the prophets, for as he bore witness to the light, he actually witnessed the coming of the light into the world (the creation) as incarnated in it.

Verses 9-11:

The One to whom the Gospel bears witness, the “this One” of verse 2, is the one who sheds light on every human being who has ever come into the world (since humanity became self-aware and thus aware of the self in the other, and thus capable of personal relationship). As the life of creation, the life of humanity even, humanity did not recognize Him as its light, insisting instead on its own constructed “light.” It remained in darkness. When the true light, the light of God, the Word, became incarnated, He was not even recognized by those whose identity was formed by the prophetic witness, those who would be called “His own”—namely, Israel. Humanity, even those formed by the witness of prophets and Scripture, was incapable of recognizing Him.

Verses 12-13:

The central section of the chiasm is verses 12-13. Those who did receive Him were those who were born of God. They believed into His name. It required a new birth for them to be able to recognize Him, a birth from outside of themselves, outside of humanity, a transcendental birth. The human soul, imprisoned in the darkness of its own construction, could not—cannot—give birth to that which is spiritual. It is only by the divine initiative that humanity can be freed. Those who are able to believe are those who have become children of God, not by mere “adoption” but by being born of God. If they are born of God, they have something of the divine nature in them. They are no longer only created. They are given eternal life, the divine life. By believing into Christ they begin to partake of what He is. He is divine and human. In Christ, we remain human but begin to participate in His divinity. In Him, humanity is inseparable from divinity, though without confusion.

Verses 14-16:

How did this happen? The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us full of grace and reality. We beheld this, John tells us, for we beheld His glory—it was the glory of the only Begotten of the Father! So the Word became flesh, but it did not cease to be the Word; it did not cease to be the divine One who is with God and who is God. This is the glory that John and others beheld (saw, perceived). Yet the Word, while remaining what it eternally is, became flesh. It took on human nature, even its fleshiness, as its own. There is the divine nature, which defies categorization, and there is human nature. The nature however does not define the person. Personhood ontologically (not temporally) precedes its nature. The Persons of God precede the divine nature, and indeed their relation as Persons is what gives rise to the divine nature (ontologically, not temporally). The divine nature is the love, the communion and fellowship, which is between them. (This structuralism carries through to the creation which is its external expression. For us too personhood precedes nature.) In any case, the Person of the Son naturally has a divine nature but was free to assume a human nature as well.

Moreover, “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.” He was and is His flesh, He did not just tabernacle in His flesh. This is an important distinction (otherwise we commit the Apollinarian heresy). He, the divine Son, is His human flesh (as well as His divine nature), thus sanctifying createdness forever. Creation is thus made capable of divinization, a fact that was realized in the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus at that moment became the firstborn of all creation. (John 2:20-21 does not contradict this. The human nature is the Temple of the divine nature; thus the resurrection was possible. But the divine hypostasis of the Son owns the human nature just as it owns the divine nature.) The divine Son is His divine nature, but now in time He is also His human flesh and as such He tabernacled in the womb of Mary and, as the gospel says, He tabernacle among us, full of grace and reality for us.

In the incarnation, the divine nature of the Son was hidden in the human nature. The glory of the Son had to be revealed, it was not visible to everyone. This is the kenosis, the emptying of the Son (Philippians 2:7). In the resurrection, the human nature was divinized so that the divine nature was no longer hidden in it. The human nature openly participated in it and became transparent for it. When the elder John says, “We beheld His glory,” he is speaking of this (see 1 John 1:1-3). The One whom he and the others beheld was the One who already was, of whom John the Baptist had testified, the One who was from the beginning, and indeed, “in the beginning.”

He was full of grace and reality—the reality of God and creation—and of His fullness we have all received—that is, we who have believed into Him. Thus we have received grace upon grace. Grace is God’s gratuitous favor, and to say grace upon grace is to say that it just keeps coming, without end, without limit. To know Christ is God’s grace. It is not something that our soul can manufacture. It only comes by virtue of being born of God. To know Christ is to receive His fullness, but it is God’s doing, not our own. He is the fullness of God’s grace, and He is the fullness of reality, and of His fullness we have received, each of us, more and more as He is disclosed to us by God’s grace. The grace of God is Christ. When God is gracious to us, it is with Christ; it is by giving us more of Christ.

Verse 17:

The Torah was given, and bears witness to Christ as that to which it points. The word Torah is related to shooting an arrow. It aims. The end (telos) of the Torah, that toward which it aims, is Christ. The Torah was given, but grace and reality came into being in time and subsist through Jesus Christ. Since the time of Jesus Christ was subsumed into eternity, we can even say wherever and whenever grace and reality came, even before the birth of Jesus, it was through Jesus Christ (the “this One” of verse 2).

Verse 18:

No human being has ever seen God, but the Son—who is in the womb of the Father, who bears the likeness of the Father and yet is inseparable from the Father, dwelling in the Father; the Word in the eternal beginning who was with God and was God—this One, having come into the world (the created sphere), has “declared” the Father and made Him known. Though Jesus is the incarnation of the Son, He also embodies the Father and the Holy Spirit, for They dwell in Him. Each Person of the Trinity dwells in the Others. If we know Jesus, that is, if the Holy Spirit reveals Him to us, then we know the Father whom He expresses and always lives with and toward, we know the Son, and we know the Holy Spirit who reveals Him. Our knowing Christ through revelation is actually the Holy Spirit knowing Him within us. This is how Christ has made the Father known.

Through the revelation of Christ we come to know Him as the Light that shines on every human being who comes into the world. He is, in fact, the life of creation that is the Light of God that shines on it all. At Christmastide we remember and celebrate His incarnation.

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