[December 6, 2009] Last Sunday we reflected on the opening words of the Gospel according to Mark. Mark spoke of the ministry of John the Baptist as “the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” This was foreknown, Mark says, by the prophets who spoke concerning the coming of God.
This morning we want to consider the opening words of the Gospel according to John, especially verses 1-10 (the prologue consists of verses 1-18 but we are only considering the first ten verses). John’s gospel is about Jesus and, like Mark, he starts the story of Jesus with John the Baptist. But while Mark starts with a quote from Isaiah about the coming of God, John’s whole gospel is devoted to this theme—that Jesus is the coming of God and what this means.
Contained within the gospel are two series of “I am” sayings, each consisting of seven sayings. (In Greek the pronoun is implied in the form of the verb and is usually added only for emphasis. When Jesus says, “I am,” the “I” is emphatic. This particular form of words occurs on the lips of only one other person in the gospel, the blind man whom Jesus healed (9:9). One series consists of “I am” plus a noun: the bread of life, the light of the world, the gate of the sheep, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the way and the truth and the life, and the true vine (6:35, 41, 48; 8:12; 10:7, 9; 10:11, 14; 11:25; 14:6; and 15:1). In these Jesus describes Himself as the One who gives salvation. In the other series, “I am” is not followed by a predicate. Jesus simply identifies Himself as “I am.” We call these the absolute “I am” sayings (4:26; 6:20; 8:24; 8:28; 8:58; 13:19; 18:5, 6, 8). Translations usually render these as “I am He,” supplying the predicate in order to give it an ordinary meaning. The casual reader of Greek might at first give it this meaning, but after chapter 8 the significance of the “I am” statements becomes unavoidable.
One explanation of this saying is that Jesus was alluding to the Hebrew of Exodus 3:14 where God identifies Himself as “I am.” The other more probable explanation is that these sayings allude to the Greek translation of Deuteronomy 32:39; Isaiah 41:4; 43:10, 25; 45:18; 46:4; 51:12, which occur seven times in the Greek Old Testament. (The Hebrew words that this translates also occur seven times in the Hebrew Old Testament: Deuteronomy 32:39; Isaiah 41:4; 43:10, 13; 46:4; 48:12; 52:6. The emphatic form occurs twice more in Isaiah 43:25; 51:12 corresponding to the last of Jesus’ sayings in John 18 which was repeated twice).
The first of these sayings, Deuteronomy 32:39, says, “Behold I, even I am He; there is no god beside me.” This series of declarations in the Old Testament are some of the most emphatic statements in the Bible that declare that YHWH (Jehovah) is the one and only God. Jesus uses the words, “I am,” to declare that He not only is sent by God but is in the fullest sense the one God. He is identical with the unique exclusive oneness of God.
“In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1-2)
John prepares us for “this One” with the opening words of his gospel. The obvious question we might have is this: How is Jesus both identical with God in God’s oneness and yet is face-to-face with God and sent by God?
Literally the opening words are: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was toward God, and God was the Word. This One was in the beginning toward God.” “In the beginning” refers not to the beginning of creation but “prior” to that (although of course, nothing can be prior to time). In other words, “in the beginning” refers to the eternity out of which time and creation came into being. Before God spoke creation into being, there was the Word. The Word is that which God speaks even prior to God speaking it. It is what is “inside” God, so to speak, God’s “mind”; really, God’s essence.
But while the Word is God’s essence, the Word is also “thought” by God. In other words, while not being other than God, it is also the reflection of God to God’s self. So John says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.” This means more than the English might imply, namely that the Word is simply a second object. The word translated “with” is the preposition “pros,” which means “toward” or “in front of” (the English prefix has the same meaning). The Word was toward God, in front of God, or face-to-face with God. In eternity the Word was none other than God, the very essence of God, yet as the “internal” Word also reflected that essence back to God. With His own Word, God was face-to-face with God.
In verse 2 John says, “He was in the beginning with God,” apparently repeating verse 1. However, the pronoun “He” is emphatic and should be translated “this One.” It refers to more than the Word in the previous verse. “This One,” refers to the One about whom the gospel speaks, not yet Jesus (born of Mary) but nonetheless the same One, none other than who Jesus really is. “This One,” the One about whom the gospel speaks, “was in the beginning [face-to-face] with God.” This One, in other words, was the Word that was in the beginning, that is, the eternal Word.
“All things came into being through Him” (1:3-4a)
When God speaks, God speaks forth Himself, and the creation comes into being. If the Word—now spoken—expresses the essence of God, of what is “in” God, creation is the expression of God. There is the eternal Word, “in the beginning,” which is God’s own “inner” essence reflected back to God (“inner” is just a metaphor when applied to God). Then there is also the spoken Word which expresses this essence. Third, there is that which is expressed, which is the creation itself. Creation is, in a way, the unfolding in time of what God is in eternity.
Let us bring out what Paul says in Romans 1:19-20, “That which is known of God is manifest within [or among] men, for God manifested it to them. For the invisible things of God—both His eternal power and divine perfections—have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being perceived by the things made.” The creation is the manifestation of God because it is the expression of the Word which expresses God’s essence.
“Life was the light of men” (1:4b, 9)
John goes on to say (here translators disagree about where the period falls—in John’s time no one used any punctuation!), “What has come into being in Him was life,” which means that the movement of creation was to bring into being life. In Genesis 1, as creation comes progressively into being, life makes its appearance by degrees: first vegetation, then sea life, then birds, then land animals. Among the land animals created on the sixth day, the last is the man face-to-face with the woman who together stand out from the rest of creation as the image of God to the creation. “What has come into being in Him—[by degrees]—was life.”
The point here is not simply that life came into being but that life came into being as the unique expression of the Word—“in Him.” Life expresses in a unique way what God is. (God is eternal life.)
“And life was the light of men.” (The plural word “men” here refers, of course, not to a particular gender of humanity but to human beings in general). Life then, is the unique manifestation of God that is able to give light to men so that we are not in darkness but can know the reality of God, which is the reality of all things. Life manifests God’s essential being to men.
Life is thus the light given to humanity. Verse 9 goes on to say, “The true light was that which sheds light on every man coming into the world.” This light, the light of the Word through which all things have come into being, actually shines on every human being whether they see the light or not. The light shines on them. God is manifested to them whether they acknowledge this manifestation or not. It is there.
This light (manifested in life) is none other than the expression of the Word in the creation. And this Word is none other than “this One” whom the Gospel proclaims, the One who became incarnate in Jesus the Messiah.
“The darkness did not overcome it” (1:5, 10)
What John now says is quite peculiar. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” If all things came into being through the Word, then where did this darkness come from? Darkness of course is merely the absence of light. But this darkness is strange. Not only is it the absence of light. It also tries to be something.
Naturally speaking, a room is dark until you turn on the light. Then the presence of light overcomes the darkness. The darkness, not being anything, does not put up any resistance. It is overcome by the mere presence of light. Yet here when John says, “the darkness did not overcome it,” he implies that the darkness attempts to overcome it. Even though it is darkness, the mere absence of light, it is a thick darkness, something that attempts to be substantial. It is not content with being nothing. This darkness tries to stubbornly persist in the presence of light and even to overcome the light. It tries to cover up or extinguish the light. This darkness has a moral quality to it. It has a will, and therefore it is evil.
Even though the creation itself is the manifestation of God, and life is the light that sheds God’s light on every human being coming into the world, there is this darkness that blinds people to this manifestation and attempts to overcome the light.
The true light, the Word, was in the world—is in the world, in the creation—yet the world, the people of the world, did not—do not—know it. This is what the darkness does. It hides from the eyes of men the light that shines on them. Even though God’s essential being is manifest to all human beings, we do not see it because of this darkness.
Paul explains what this darkness is. He says that, “even though they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or thank Him, but rather became futile in their reasonings, and their heart, lacking understanding was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into the likeness of an image … and exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshipped and served the creation rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:21-23, 25). They “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (1:18); “they did not approve of holding God in their knowledge” (1:28). In other words, on some level they know God but choose not to acknowledge this knowledge. They suppress it so that they cannot see it. Thus the reasonings of their minds become futile because they exchanged the light of God for a lie. This darkness, in other words, is not from a lack of ability, but is willful. This is what makes it evil.
“The light shines in the darkness” (1:5-8)
Even though the Word sheds its light on all people through the creation and a “darkness” has blinded people to this light, the light still shines and the darkness does not overcome it.
For even though people refuse to see, God sends witnesses of the light who bear witness to the light that a person might believe—open their eyes and see—through them. This is what Moses and the prophets of the Old Testament are. Indeed, there may be many such witnesses to the light in the world outside of Israel (as represented in the Old Testament by such people as Melchisedec and Job). But Moses and the prophets of Israel are unique in that they did not just witness to the light that was shining in the world, the light that is always being shed on everyone, but they bore witness to the source of light, which was coming into the world. They bore witness to the coming of the Word itself, the Word incarnate in a Person. The author of the gospel speaks of John the Baptist as representative of all the prophets and of the Old Testament itself.
The light of life shining in the creation and manifesting the essential being of God is not God Himself but only the expression of God. The creation is not God Himself. God manifests Himself in the creation but is not identical to the creation. The Word by which all things came into being IS identical to God Himself. And this Word was coming into the world. It was the Person of God—the One who is God eternally face-to-face with God—that was coming into the world.
The prophets speak the Word of God in that their words bear witness to the Word and the Word speaks through their words, but they themselves are not the Word. John the Baptist is simply referred to as “John” which is also the name of the author of the gospel. The author hints here to the fact that even the gospel he has written is only a witness to the Word of God, not the Word of God Himself, though the Word speaks through these words and makes Himself Personally present in them as the Holy Spirit (John 6:63).
We must not confuse the testimony with that to which the witness testifies. Yet in our darkness the testimony of these witnesses do point us to the light that we might believe—have our eyes opened—through their words. Only let us not confuse either the prophets or their words with the One concerning whom they bear witness. They merely point their finger at Him.
In the Advent season we recall the prophecies that point forward to Christ. People identify a couple of hundred specific prophecies in the Old Testament that refer to Christ. Yet in actuality, the entire Old Testament points forward to Him, not only in the prophecies but also in forerunners and foreshadowings and in the typology. The entire Old Testament, as a whole, is an expression of hope that moves towards the coming of Christ. Apart from Christ the Old Testament is unfulfilled, and without the Old Testament we cannot understand the hope that is fulfilled in the New Testament.
We spoke about the Word as being identical with God yet face-to-face with God as God’s own “thought,” or the reflection of God’s own essence to God’s self.
We also spoke of how all things came into being as the expression of this Word, and therefore all creation is the manifestation of God. Through life God’s light shines on every person.
We also spoke of a darkness that blinds us—all humanity—to the light of life that is always shining on us so that, even though God is manifest to us, we willfully refuse to know God.
Last, we spoke of how, nevertheless, God sends witnesses who testify to the light that is shed on creation. But the witness of the Scriptures points specifically to the identity of Jesus Christ (in the Old Testament He is the Coming One) with the true Light that does the shining, the eternal Word who is the one God.
Let us give heed to this witness that is spoken to us (Hebrews 2:1).