John 1:1-18, The Mystery of Jesus

[December 28, 2014] For today, the First Sunday of Christmas, the text is the eighteen verse prologue of the Gospel according to John. This particular text leaves me dumbfounded. It is like a labyrinth. Read verses 1-8 to the south, verses 9-11 to the east, verses 12-13 at the center, verse 14 to the west, and verses 15-18 to the north. If we number the center “one,” we can move out in concentric circles to seven levels corresponding to the seven days of creation. As a mandala in cruciform that introduces the subject of the gospel, it corresponds to the mandalic structure of the gospel as a whole it. This being so, it becomes quite a meditation! The subject of the gospel (the houtos—“this one”—of verse 1) is Jesus of course, but the prologue gives us the angle of this particular gospel: Jesus—and the Holy Spirit—is the coming of God into our world: (1) incarnated, (2) glorified, and (3) glorifying.

  • Incarnated: God (the Word) became flesh—God became what we are, still God yet entirely human. How? Through the Word of God who is God: the Word is the “Son” of God who is not the “Father” yet who dwells in the Father, sharing the Father’s being (they are two hypostases, yet only one ousia.)
  • Glorified: through death in resurrection. On Easter the “flesh” (i.e., the entire humanity) of Jesus became divine without losing its nature as “flesh”: it became omnipresent and eternal (and so on; we call this the “intercommunication of properties.”)
  • Glorifying: As one of the three divine persons of the Trinity, Jesus co-inheres with the Holy Spirit (each lives in the other). Having accomplished our atonement by his death, now that the nature which he has made his own—namely, our “flesh”—has been divinized, it becomes communicable through the Holy Spirit (with whom he co-inheres): the Holy Spirit has therefore now become the divinizing Spirit. By dwelling in us, giving us eternal life, the Holy Spirit begins to divinize us, transforming our soul now, and at the “end” resurrecting our bodies, so that we may partake fully of the divine nature.

Jesus became what we are so that through his death and resurrection we may become what he is—one person, fully human and fully divine (with a difference: he is a divine person with two natures, a native divine nature and a human nature by participation; we are human persons with two natures, a native human nature and a divine nature by participation). As his divine nature was hidden in humility until his resurrection, so also is ours until our resurrection. The intercommunication of properties between our two natures—our glorification—awaits that day, though our person is one. Now is the time for the saving—the transformation—of our soul, by the way of the cross (the same as Jesus), so that we may be ready for that day.

This encompasses the whole thought of John. Let us return to the prologue. As Bruno Barnhart points out, as we move toward the center of the mandala we move from the fullness of being through a fullness of revelation to a fullness of life. The Word is in the beginning with God and as God—God whom no one has ever seen—as the Son in the kolpos (bosom, lap, womb?) of the Father. Then the Word comes into the world as light, opposed and rejected on the one hand and revealing himself—to us!—on the other, borne witness to by the Baptist. Those who receive the Word-become-flesh—who believe into his “Name”—are given the freedom (exousia) to be born (gennaō) of God, becoming thereby God’s own children (teknon). The Father begets us through the Son, but it is the (feminine) Holy Spirit who gives us life and thus birth.

The Baptist appears at the end of the first movement and beginning of the last—on the vertical (south-north) axis—in the third circle from the center corresponding to the day of creation when the waters were separated from land and the land brought forth (vegetable) life. He points away from himself to the one who is coming into the world. With him the gospel narrative (in 1:19-36) also begins. He thus occupies the borders, and by him we pass from one place to another, from the waters of chaos to the land of a new creation—thus he signifies that which he proclaims, namely, baptism.

When we read the gospel as a mandala of nesting chiasms, we find at the center of the gospel– corresponding to the center of the prologue–the story of the sea-crossing, where Jesus comes to the disciples in the boat and proclaims to them “I am,” bringing light to their darkness, whereupon the boat suddenly reaches the further shore. This is also an image of baptism. It says, “they were willing to receive him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.” The word “receive” (lamba) is the same as in the prologue, “as many as received him.” This gospel does not narrate the story of Jesus’ baptism (though it refers to it in 1:33) nor does it show John baptizing (though it refers to him baptizing). Rather, it shows us the significance of these things. Jesus’ baptism reveals his Name (the Father’s Son); that which makes our baptism effectual is our “believing into his Name.” Believing into him (i.e., him revealed: his Name) is what effects the “crossing over” that baptism signifies. (Likewise the Lord’s Supper is not narrated, yet it is signified in chapter 6, which is split in two by the crossing-over: the second part disclosing the significance of the first part; it takes place around Passover.)

This crossing over can be seen in the horizontal structure of the prologue. On the east wing, the light (who is the light of all things living and gives light to every human who comes into the world) is not recognized, and when he comes to his own—the people of Jerusalem and Judea—he is not received. On the west wing, “we” saw his glory when he lived among us in our own flesh: it was “the glory that he has from the Father as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.” Not recognized or received on the right, seen on the left. In between these is verses 12-13, in which those who—having seen—believe into his Name and receive him. They become the “we” of verse 14. This receiving and believing bring about their birth from God (the first day of creation).

As with the prologue of the gospel, so with the body of the gospel. The feeding and discourse of chapter 6 that bracket the story of the crossing over makes up the second layer of the mandala, with its movement from one side to the other. So we also find in the succeeding layers on either side—the horizontal beam of the cruciform stretching from chapter 4 (the Samaritan woman) to the beginning of chapter 12 (Mary of Bethany) with a corresponding difference: the Samaritan woman compared to Mary, the royal official’s son compared to Lazarus, the paralytic compared to the man born blind, the witnesses enlisted at the end of chapter 5 compared to Jesus’ witness to himself at the Feast of Booths. The second element, while corresponding to the first, in each case escalates its substance into a fullness; we move from ignorance to knowledge. There is a crossing over.

We are initiated into the Christian life by believing into Jesus as revealed (i.e., his Name) and receiving baptism, which signifies the crossing over that God has effected in us. The prologue, reflecting this beginning, gives the Christian reader the proper focus, or lens, by looking through which she or he has the clarity of perspective to interpret the gospel narrative correctly. On the other hand, it is an invitation to the non-Christian: by reading the gospel that follows, she too may cross over from ignorance to light, from death to life.

Surrounding the powerful allusion to baptism in 6:16-21, is a powerful allusion to the Lord’s Supper in 6:1-15 (the feeding of the five thousand) and 6:22-71 (then the discourse on eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of Man): “if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” “The time of the Jewish Passover was near.” Moreover, when Jesus sat down for Passover in chapters 13—17, the gospel is silent about the actual eating of the Seder and thus the institution of the Supper but discloses its inner mystery, our “communion” with the Triune God.

The prologue does not directly take us here, yet the reader should know that for John baptism and the Supper are entwined, one signifying the crossing over of new birth into life, the other the abiding (or dwelling) in life, in Christ, in eternal life. The prologue sees right through the institutions as if they were vapor, to the reality that they signify. Without that reality they are only vapor. The reality John tells us is Jesus himself. He is, to us, the glory of the reality of God: the life of God, the light of God—the love of God. His person brings to us the fullness of God in the fullness of grace, grace and truth.

At Christmas we celebrate the coming of Jesus into our world. So the story begins. John tells us that this “beginning” is so much more than it seems. He does not begin to tell his gospel story (in 1:19) until Jesus begins to reveal himself. It is not the facts of his actual coming (his birth and later his baptism) that matter the most to John but rather who he is, who he reveals himself to be—which is the “I AM” declared by God alone. This absolute presence ironically takes us back (and forwards) to the eternal being of God, who alone was “in the beginning.” God, from before creation (in eternal timelessness) wanted so badly to be what we are and for us to be divine, God would die to make it so. Are we ready for this story? Christmas is about getting our heads around the incarnation so we have the ears to hear the story we hear read to us every Sunday. May God open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts to the Word.

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