John 1:1-8 The Word is Life and Light WC McCarter
The prologue of John’s Gospel is well known among Christians today. Many of us can easily recite the opening lines. The first eighteen verses declare some of the most profound things revealed to mankind. Yet, can you imagine reading these opening verses for the very first time? What would you think? How would you react? Imagine living your life well into your adult years never hearing anything about the Gospel and then getting your hands on this letter and reading the opening lines.
The concept of the “Word” (Greek “logoV”) was well known among both Jews and Gentiles. The Jews discussed the logoV as the divine revelation delivered to the prophets of old. All that God had said in the past was considered the Word. Remember, God is a speaking God. He has always revealed Himself in Words. In fact, God spoke the universe into existence. The Jews could easily understand this, thus the author to the Hebrews writes, “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son. . . .”
The Greeks had an even more complex understanding of the logoV. The philosophers were constantly talking about “reason.” They believed that there was a superior power that guided the universe. They believed in a higher power, a reason, a mind which they called the logoV. However, they did not think that this “word” was personal in any way. The philosophers thought that this was just some power that floated around.
An interesting exercise is to read the prologue of John’s Gospel as a pagan might have to see the real point that John is making. All of the “He’s” that you see in our English Bibles are third person singular which means that they can also be translated as “she” or “it.” You understand that it is masculine, feminine, or neuter based on the context. So, let’s read John 1:1-18 the way the Greeks and even the Jews would have in the first century. I’ll read and you listen. Imagine that you are a Greek philosopher hearing this for the first time.
READ Scripture- This is the Word of God
In the Beginning (1-2)
Each of the Gospel writers chose a different place to begin telling their account of Jesus Christ. Matthew and Luke both begin with genealogies and then tell about the events surrounding the birth of Christ before they tell about the ministry of John the Baptizer. Of course, Matthew and Luke have their own personalities and purposes which are shown in their respective writings. For example, the genealogies are given from two different perspectives. Mark, on the other hand, is a fast-paced Gospel account. He gets to it and tells the story quickly. His beginning doesn’t start in the manger, but with the ministry of John and then quickly into Christ’s ministry. And what about John’s Gospel account? We know that his is very different from the other three in a variety of ways. His beginning goes much farther back than the other three. His beginning goes back to the beginning of beginnings.
“In the beginning” strikes a certain chord in our ears, doesn’t it? It draws us back to the first book of the Bible, Genesis, which starts with those same words. Genesis starts with the words, “In the beginning God. . . .” John starts with, “In the beginning was the Word.” I think the apostle is immediately pointing us in the direction that he wants us to go. His is a Gospel that was written so that you may believe, that is, so that you may come to faith in Christ and so that you may continue to believe. How do I know that this is his purpose? Look with me at John 20:30-31. He wants you to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and he wants you to have eternal life. So, from the beginning of his Gospel account, he points you to those ends. I think that John is intentionally paralleling the first words of Genesis here because he wants to show us that God and the Word are the same. The same God who created in the beginning is the God who put on flesh.
So, in the first phrase of John’s Gospel we are taken into a doctrine that is not fully comprehensible. How can a mere human fully understand that God and the Word had no beginning; that they simply existed before anything was created? It cannot be fully understood by any of us, and there is no shame in it. After all, we are talking about God.
In the beginning was the Word. This was before there was anything in the universe. In fact, this was before there was a universe. In the beginning the Word just was. Next we are told that the Word was “with God.” Then we are told that the Word “was God.” Verses like this have taught Christians the doctrine of the Triune God for 2,000 years. If the Word is God and yet is with God, then in some way the Word is divine yet distinct from God (the Father). Now, many of you know that Jehovah’s Witnesses translate this third phrase differently than all other English translations of the Bible. Of course, that in and of itself should throw up a red flag. Why do they do this? They translate “the Word was God” as “the word was a god” because there is no definite article (“the”) in the Greek text making big G God clear. There are grammatical rules that we will not get into that can answer that issue (Colwell’s Rule).
Creation and Life (3-4)
The answer that solves the issue for me comes in verse three when the apostle says, “All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.” The Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that Jesus Christ is a created angel. Yet, the book of Hebrews is clear that Christ is not an angel, but is distinct from them in every way and stands over them in every way. Christ is the creator and sustainer of all things. That is exactly what John is saying here in verse three. Christ was not created because “without Him nothing was made that has been made.”
Through Christ all things were made, the things we can see and the things we can’t see. Thus, it is understandable that life is in Him. John usually means “eternal life” when he refers to life in his Gospel. The Lord Himself claims to be life on a few occasions as recorded by John. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” He also says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” The same life that was given in the original creation has also been given to those of the new creation.
Light Shines (5)
The Lord also claims to be the light. He says, “I am the light of the world.” In verse five, John begins to tell the Christmas story. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it (or it can also be translated “has not overcome it”). I think we should keep both translations in mind. It is sad on the one hand that the world does not comprehend the coming of Jesus Christ, but it is joyous that the world cannot overcome what He has come to accomplish. Jesus said on His last night with His disciples, “Fear not, for I have overcome the world.” Just as the creation story tells us that darkness was over the face of the deep, but God said, “Let there be light” and there was; so, too, light has shined triumphantly into the darkness of the sinful world. Jesus is the Light of creation and salvation. Light excelled forth when that baby was born in Bethlehem that could not be thwarted. Darkness could not overcome that light no matter how dark it may have been. Consider Herod’s rampage and killing of all the baby boys around Bethlehem; the devil’s temptation of Christ out in the wilderness; the Pharisees and scribes who constantly challenged the Lord; the mobs who tried to stone Him; the crucifixion and burial; and everything in between. None of that darkness could either comprehend His light or overcome His light.
The Witness of the Light (6-8)
The apostle now brings us to the part of the story that all four of the Gospels want to preserve. The man named John who was conceived miraculously, raised up to be a prophet, proclaimed the coming Christ, and was martyred for his witness. John was sent from God, there is no question about it. The purpose of John’s ministry is stated at the end of verse eight, “that all through him might believe.” There have been many great men and women throughout history, but they were all mere humans. There is only one Light and all those who have gone before or after who trust in the Lord bear witness of that Light. This light is the salvation of the world.
Conclusion and Christian Application
(1) This Christmas, dive into the depths of what it means to be a Christian. Dig deep into the well of holy Scripture.
(2) Tell your kids and grandkids that this celebration is more than materialism, Santa Claus, and such. Tell them that it is about the Word becoming flesh; that God Himself has broken into human history in the person of Jesus Christ to redeem us.