John 1:1-18, The Word Became Flesh

[January 5, 2014] Today—the Second Sunday of Christmas—we consider one of the most profound passages of the Christian Scriptures, the Prologue of the Gospel according to John. This Prologue corresponds to the twenty-first chapter of the same gospel, having the same number of letters as the other has words; both being carefully crafted with the other in mind. Together they frame the entire gospel, the Prologue introducing and the twenty-first chapter concluding the whole.

As best as I can figure out the chronology, the Gospel according to Matthew was written in 52 CE, the Gospel according to Luke was written in 56 CE, the persecution of Christians in Rome during the reign of the emperor Nero took place in 64-68 CE, the Gospel according to Mark was composed about 68-70 CE, and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem took place in 70 CE. As Matthew, Luke and Mark record, Jesus was a prophet who forecasted this catastrophe, and when it occurred—after the martyrdom of every outstanding apostle (the entire first generation of leaders)—the whole church anticipated the Second Advent of Christ. When it did not happen, there was a vacuum of leadership and the church fell into a malaise. It was during this time, the decades of the 70s and 80s (and 90s), that the solutions proposed by the proto-Gnostics and the Docetists began to arise (the epistle of Jude was written in response to this). In the 90s the apostolic movement made a comeback with the publication of Paul’s letters, the writings of the relatively unknown disciple John (not to be confused with the apostle) and the letter of Clement.

The disciple John wrote a very different gospel than the earlier three (the “synoptic”). It is based on the author’s own eyewitness perspective, is centered in Jerusalem rather than Galilee and, in contrast to the synoptic gospels which view Jesus primarily through the prophetic writings of the Old Testament, views the story of Jesus primarily through the Torah. When he writes, for example, that Jesus came to “his own,” he means the Judeans rather than the Galileans. The most striking difference, however, is its fully developed theology, as fully profound (if not more so) as the apostle Paul’s.

In the Gospel according to John, Jesus is the incarnation of the Word of God and is identified with God Himself. His death is not viewed as atoning so much as it is seen as a process whereby Jesus is “glorified.” When he is glorified, on the day of his resurrection, he—that is, his glorified humanity—“becomes” the Holy Spirit, not by transformation but by co-inherence (mutual indwelling), and thus he becomes communicable to his disciples, dwelling in them. Indeed, John, while maintaining their distinction, teaches an equivalence of Father, Son and Holy Spirit through mutual indwelling, and that salvation is essentially the extension of this mutual indwelling to include us (we dwell in Christ and they, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, dwell in us). Later theology would systematize his thought into orthodoxy, but Christian thinkers still struggle to grasp its full implications.

All this is evident in the masterfully crafted Prologue.

Where was this John during all those six decades of the 30s – 80s? There is silence. His own testimony is that he had taken the mother of Jesus (a widow) into his home as his “adopted” mother (and he her “son”), and tradition has it that they ended up in Ephesus, the center of Paul’s apostolic work. We can propose, therefore, that his reflections are the result of the influence of Jesus himself (John was the “Beloved Disciple”), the mother of Jesus, the family of Bethany (Lazarus, Martha and Mary), and the legacy of the apostle Paul. I do not mean to exclude the influence of the others, but Peter does not really come into the picture until the conclusion of John’s gospel, and the Twelve, hardly are seen at all and are never named as such. The seven disciples that John knows about are not identical with the list of the Twelve. John does seem to be more acquainted with the ministry of John the Baptist, however, than the writers of the synoptic gospels seem to be.

The Structure of the Prologue

The Prologue is crafted, like the gospel itself, in a double chiasm (a chiasm within a chiasm), in other words, in the pattern of a cruciform mandala. Rising from the ground we have verses 1-8:

“In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God. This one was with God in the beginning. Through him all things came into being, not one thing came into being except through him. What has come into being in him was life, and life was the light of men; and the light shines in the darkness, and darkness could not overpower it. A man came, sent by God. His name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness to the light, so that everyone might believe through him. He was not the light, he was to bear witness to the light.”

Then on one arm of the cross, moving towards the center, are verses 9-11:

“The Word was the real light that gives light to everyone who comes into the world. He was in the world that had come into being through him, and the world did not recognize him. He came to his own and his own people did not receive him.”

In the center, where all four arms of the cross meet, are verses 12-13, with the center of that being 12c:

“But to those who did receive him he gave freedom to become children of God,
to those who believe into his name
who were born not from human stock or human desire or human will but from God himself.”

Verse 14 extends outward from the center along the other arm, corresponding phrase by phrase with the words in the first arm:

“The Word became flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory, the glory that he has from the Father as only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.”

Rising skyward from the center are verses 15-18, corresponding and amplifying in reverse order the verses with which we began (1-8):

“John witnesses to him. He proclaims: ‘This is the one of whom I said: “He who comes after me has passed ahead of me because he existed before me.”’ Indeed, from his fullness we have, all of us, received—one gift replacing another, for the Law was given through Moses, grace and truth have come through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; it is the only begotten God, who is in the womb of the Father, who has made him known.”

The reason this is a mandala and not merely a chiasm is because the correspondence is not only between the bottom and upper leg and the right and left arm but all four at once, so that verses 3-8, 9-11a, 14b-e, and 15-17 all correspond in concentric circles. At the beginning and end (bottom and top), corresponding to each other, are verses 1-2 and verse 18. On either side of the center are 11b and 14a. Those who are familiar working with chiasms should be able to see how this works:

and his own people did not receive him.
–    But to those who did receive him he gave freedom to become children of God,
–    –    to those who believe into his name
–    who were born not from human stock or human desire or human will but from God himself.
The Word became flesh …”

This core corresponds to the core of the gospel itself, chapter 6, at the center of which is the crossing of the sea in verses 16-21; at the heart of this Jesus makes one of his seven “I am” declarations. These two circles (6:16-21 being the inner circle of 6:1-15 and 6:22-71) are surrounded on four sides then by four concentric circles radiating outward, which correspond to the texts 2:1—4:3, 4:4—5:47, 7:1—12:11, and 12:12—20:18. The vertical legs are extended at the foot and head by verses 1-2 and 18, which correspond to the texts 1:19—51 and 20:19-31. Thus there are seven concentric circles with the texts radiating in the four directions of the cross. The entire mandala is itself framed by the Prologue and the final chapter (21).

Obviously the Gospel according to John is very tightly structured and is full of interesting and meaningful correspondences and associations. A literal or linear reading of the text misses a great deal. It is meant to be meditated upon again and again for the mandala to be held together in one’s mind, and for us to go deeper and deeper into its significance. The gospel was 60 years in the making whereas Matthew, for instance, was written after only 22 years. This is not to denigrate one in comparison to the other but to appreciate the craftsmanship of both for what they are. The synoptic gospels were teaching devices, for community exploration. John’s gospel was in contrast a mandala for deep meditation.

The remembrance and revelation of Christ came by means of both, and in time all four gospels were used in the same way: as teaching devices for community exploration and for deep meditation. In the middle of the second century the decision was made to split Luke-Acts (so that Luke stood as a gospel by itself) and to combine the now three synoptic gospels with the fourth Johannine gospel. This decision was effected by Anicetus, the bishop of Rome from 157-168, in order to unite the churches that were confused by the differences between the synoptic gospels and the fourth gospel. The one “Gospel” became thus fourfold: “according to” (kata) Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. (It made sense to place Mark between Matthew and Luke since it is a conflation of the two.) The affect of this decision was for the church to read all four gospels in light of each other and, in particular, to read the synoptic gospels in the light of John’s gospel and vice versa.

Some Comments on verse 14

“The Word became flesh.” Verses 1-2 asserts that the Word is both God and with God (literally, “toward” God, as if face-to-face with God). This is a paradox that the church later resolved by defining God as a singularity of essence (ousia) or nature (physis) and a trinity of persons (hypostases), a resolution that makes sense of this paradox that pervades the entire New Testament. No other solution has ever succeeded in explaining all of the New Testament texts and the worship of the Christian community.

The Word, who is God (one in essence and nature with the Father, but “with” the Father, that is, in relationship to the Father as a person), became human. Since one nature cannot “become” another nature without changing its nature, this refers to the person possessing the nature. One of the assertions of Christian theology is that a person, at least the person of God the Word (the Son), is capable of having not only his own native nature but also another nature. The person of the Word is divine, that it, the divine nature is his intrinsic or inherent nature. In time he takes on our human nature in addition to his divine nature, so that he is at once both divine and human. Neither nature is compromised by this assumption (to assume means to adopt or take on). Yet by this assumption, the divine person of the Word is fully both. The Word literally “becomes” flesh; but by doing so, he has not ceased being God.

Let’s take this apart for a moment. The Word (who is entirely divine) becomes human flesh. This means that the divine person becomes human tissue, the very materiality of the biological body. It is not just that the spirit of Jesus is divine (it is), or that his mind and emotions (his soul) is divine (they are), but even his skin and blood and bones, even his saliva and, from a medical point of view, even the microbiomes of his body, are the “flesh” that the Word has assumed. He is this whole of his humanity.

It is not actually alien to him, for John tells us, “through him all things came into being,” that is, everything that exists is an expression of the Word. Moreover, what he became in time, he will be in eternity. Since what he will be in eternity is what he always was (for God’s eternal nature cannot change), this is what God was from the beginning. Eternity is a singularity that is identical at the beginning and end and for the duration of time. Time is contained in eternity, but in eternity all time is simultaneously present. Time, however, is not eternity. God changes in time to become what God is in eternity. At first creation is only potentially conscious. By the end of time creation may be fully conscious. In the same way, there was a time when God was not human, then there was a time when God was. Yet from the perspective of eternity, time does not pass; it all—the totality of it—exists at once.

At the beginning of time, God called the creation into being by the Word and in the course of time “what has come into being in him was life,” that is, consciousness. In Genesis 1 as each day of creation progresses, so does consciousness: first the inorganic is created, then plants, then birds and fish, then land animals, and finally humanity. Humanity represents conscious life. Obviously humanity is not the only life that is conscious, nor even the highest life. (Have we forgotten the angels? And if we accept the presence of angels, why not whales and elephants and life on other worlds?) Yet humanity possesses a unique form of consciousness—on earth—for we are the creature here that is capable of doing the most with language and tools and culture (even if what we have done with these has been disastrous). The Word became human, that is, the Word became a created being (assuming our createdness) at the point where creation was particularly conscious.

“Life [consciousness] was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness.” No matter how much humanity may be in the darkness of its soul (its collective soul, the “world”), the light of consciousness still shines. This consciousness is our awareness, not that of which we are aware but the “I” that is aware or conscious. It cannot see itself for it can only see the field of consciousness, not itself which is the one looking at the field (just as the “eye” cannot see itself without the aid of a reflection). The light is life itself (our spirit) and darkness (which is soulical) cannot overcome it without extinguishing itself. Life, however, came into being in him, that is, in the Word. So it is not alien to him.

Indeed, “the Word is the real light that gives light to everyone who comes into the world.” The Word is the light that shines on the field of our consciousness so that we can see—be aware of—it. “He was in the world”—as the light of consciousness—the world “that had come into being through him, and the world did not recognize him.” This is the problem. He is the light by which we are aware at all, yet we did not recognize him. How can this be? We are in the darkness of our own souls. Somehow we have isolated our soul from our spirit and body as if it were a thing of its own. We have reified it. Its isolation is in our perception; it is actually a lie. Nevertheless, we identify so much with our soul that we think we are our souls and that our soul is reality. What actually is reality is our conscious body (spirit/body) of which the soul is a wonderful tool; the soul enables us to process reality. It has lost this function for us and has become the thing that isolates and insulates us from reality because it thinks it is reality.

In any case, when the Word became human flesh, the Word became a creature and took on (assumed) or became not only human nature but created nature (createdness). Not only is humanity elected (chosen) by his choosing to become incarnate, but all flesh (living things) and indeed the entire creation is elected in him.

The end of that election, which is an election of grace, is our participating in what he is—and what he becomes when he is glorified—through the Holy Spirit. In other words, as he becomes flesh by taking on our human nature, so we become divine by taking on his divine nature. Our assumption of divinity is by participation (it is not native to us) and it is by grace (we do not attain it). Our person remains human (created), but we share in the divine nature. Eventually we share in it fully as he fully shares our human nature. By means of this happening, eventually the entire creation enters into glory; that is, it too comes to participate in the divine nature. (As scientists predict, at some point the entire universe comes alive and becomes conscious; though I am saying more than this.)

So, since I have no time to expound on the fullness of grace and truth in verses 14-17, let me skip ahead to verse 18.

Some Comments on verse 18

“The only begotten God, who is in the womb of the Father, has made him known.” I do not have time to defend this translation (I believe I have done so elsewhere). Nevertheless, this verse corresponds to verses 1-2: “In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God. This one was with God in the beginning.” The first verses describe the one at the beginning. The last verse alludes to the end. The Word is the Son. The Word was with God and the Word was God. The only Son is in the womb of the Father. The Son indeed is eternally begotten of the Father, that is, the Father is forever giving birth to the Son. (Thus the Son is the Word of the Father.) The Hebrew word for womb or uterus is rekhem (also rakham) which is the root of the word for compassion, rakhamim. This suggests to me that the Father’s love generates the Son. This also suggests that we should not overstress the gender of the “Father.”

The Father also gives birth to the Son in the creation. By the Word becoming flesh, the Father does not become the Father of the Son in the sense of “God from God” because in this sense the Son has always been—eternally—begotten from the Father. However, in the resurrection, the humanity of Jesus becomes divine. There is a sense then in which the Father begets the Son in time: “This day have I begotten you,” or given you birth (Acts 13:33 quoting Psalm 2:7; see also Hebrews 1:5; 5:5—all having reference to the humanity of Jesus in his resurrection). I would suggest that it is the same eternal begetting of the Son, only it is taking place in time with respect to his humanity becoming divine (not hypostatically, which it already was, but in terms of the intercommunication of properties). Before, when he was conceived, his singular divine person having always had the divine nature now also became human, having thus now (and forever) a second nature. However, in the presentation of his human nature, his native divine nature was hidden, for when he became human he “emptied” himself of the divine nature (not dumping it but rather hiding it). Being also divine, he only manifested his human nature. In the resurrection, however, his divine nature is no longer hidden by his human nature; it has become manifest. He is no less human but now his human nature shares the properties (or more properly, the perfections) of his divine nature: there is a complete intercommunication of properties.

Jesus compares his resurrection to the birth of a newborn baby (John 16:21), only in that context, the emotions of the laboring mother are held by the disciples. Physically the tomb itself—the belly of the earth—becomes the womb of his gestating body. The Father begets the Son—out of his own womb—yet the womb is also the earth and the mother is humanity (in the disciples). Humanity and the earth participate in the divinization of Jesus’ humanity, body, soul and spirit (which is the Father’s own begetting of him). Moreover, the one who is born on Easter morning is the firstborn of the whole creation, being the firstborn of the dead (Colossians 1:15, 18). The beginning of the new—divinized—creation is born from the dead when he rises, he being only the beginning, the firstborn. In him we become the “fruit-fruits of the creation” (James 1:18), for from our own transformation—on the basis of our personhood—the rest of creation will follow (he is the “firstborn among many brothers, Romans 8:29).

If we read this again in light of what I have said: “No one has ever seen God, the only begotten God (monogenēs theos) who is in the womb of the Father …”: we can see that the Son is eternally the “only begotten God,” and that it is in time that he becomes—in his humanity—the one “who is in the womb of the Father.” On Easter the Father—out of his own uterus but inseparably from the uterus of humanity and the earth—gives birth to the firstborn of the new creation: “You are my Son; this day I have begotten you.” This, really, is the thing that the Gospel according to John brings forth; it is what the gospel is about.

“No one has ever seen God; the only begotten God, who is in the womb of the Father, has made him known.” This refers to his incarnation, before the resurrection. Jesus revealed himself to those who believed. These are the final words of the Prologue and introduce us to the body of the gospel itself: it is what takes place in the gospel until we come to the resurrection. Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and then we shall be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father, so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (and so on, John 14:8-11).

It is birthing imagery, at least an image of someone about to give birth to someone. The Father is about to give birth into the creation—as a divinized created being—his only and eternally begotten Son.

Some Comments on verses 12-13

The metaphor of birthing is not only here; it is at the heart of the Prologue: “But to those who did receive him he gave freedom to become children of God, to those who believe into his name who were born not from human stock or human desire or human will but from God himself” (verses 12-13). When John writes “to become children of God” he is not suggesting becoming someone’s children by adoption. He goes on to say that they are “born from God himself.” He refers to the new birth, or birth from above, about which he spoke to Nicodemus in chapter 3. John writes the Prologue, of course, after the resurrection, and when Jesus spoke to Nicodemus he was also referring to after the resurrection, for it is in the context of believing into the Son of Man who has been lifted up on the cross (3:9, 14-16). As Peter said in the opening words of his epistle, “God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ … in his great mercy [think racham] has given us a new birth … through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”

In the Gospel according to John Jesus makes God known that, when he has gone through death and is reborn in resurrection, those who believe into him may also be born of God, and after him—or rather in him, and he in them—may become the fruit-fruits of the new creation, the beginning of the divinization of the entire creation. The story therefore is the story of the eternally begotten God being born into the creation as a divinized creature, the first, and the beginning of the birth of the whole. It is the story of a birth.

It is not surprising then that the Gospel according to John also resonates with the theme of creation, the concentric circles of its mandala structure (its cruciform double chiasm) corresponding to the seven days of creation: the inner circle of chapter 6 corresponding to the first day; the circle of women (the wedding of Cana, the Samaritan woman, the anointing of Jesus, and the Garden scene: 2:1-12; 4:4-42; 12:1-11; 20:1-18) corresponding to the sixth day; and 1:19-51 and 20:19-31 corresponding to the seventh day. The Genesis creation story itself is about the birth of creation out of the amniotic waters over which God is breathing. (Notice that the breath or spirit is feminine in Hebrew. The creation takes place when God introduces the masculine words, giving consonants breath).

We might remember that John’s mentor for a number of decades was none other than the woman in whose uterus God conceived his only and eternally begotten Son from her own flesh, and from whose body this one was born into the world. The genius behind the fourth gospel may well be—not Martha, as Harvard Divinity School Professor Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza proposed, but—the Lord’s mother.

Leave a Reply