In the first eighteen verses of his book, John tells the world who Jesus is. He begins by proclaiming that God the Father is revealed to us in Christ Jesus His Son, and when the Son of God came to earth He presented to all of humanity what God the Father was like—eternal, personal, and as the source of all life. The word life appears no fewer than thirty-six times in this Gospel along with several other key words, which we will spotlight later. We could say that the word life and its contextual meaning is the foundational theme for the book.
We need only read the first verse of the Bible (Genesis 1:1) to understand the central issue of life, and it centers on the reality of God as not only Creator but as Beginning. If there is a God (and there is), and if that God has spoken in history (and He has), then the most important thing in the world is to find out what He has said. In this prologue of chapter one, John positions himself as that voice of divine knowledge and authority.
The Gospel of John is well embraced by Christian believers and most discipled followers of the faith are familiar with its themes and memes. However, many who can quote the widely identifiable verses from this unique Gospel have a less-than-adequate grasp of the importance of its theology and relevance to our present world. We live in a world where followers and disciples of Christ must defend the Christ by how we believe in Him. Do we believe in Jesus as good and righteous man that we can look up to? Was He a great moral teacher that we can learn from? Do we believe in Him as Lord, Savior – the way, the truth, and the life? Was Jesus who He said He was – the Son of God? Those questions do not all provide us with the right or same answers.
There is no uncertainty or ambiguity in John’s presentation of Jesus as the Son of God. He starts out where he should start out – with the beginning – creation. John will claim that everything that was ever made was made through him; and without him, nothing has ever been created, and that Jesus was the source of power in the original physical creation and in the spiritual creation by which people are brought to new life in Christ.
Where does John the impetuous and impatient Galilean fisherman, get the authority to speak in the voice of Jesus? From where does he summon the divine knowledge to write as an eye-witness of the creative mysteries of God? Where does he get the literary insight to write in a first, second, and third person context (the divine, the evangelist, and the beloved of Jesus)?
Authorship and Historical Context
The answers to those questions can likely be found if we think of the material in John’s Gospel as first of all a sermon that took nearly fifty-five years to write.
Yes, John presents himself as a reliable eyewitness and intermediary between the events themselves and the people who now need to hear them because he was not alone. The Spirit who helped each of the disciples of Jesus bear witness to Him after the resurrection is none other than the Spirit of Jesus. The Holy Spirit that filled John and the rest on Pentecost is present with him years later as he finally sits and writes with the authority of one being loved, taught, and discipled by Jesus. He writes this Gospel as one who literally passed the endless baskets of fish to five thousand hungry Galileans, as one who stood right there when Jesus called out Lazarus from his tomb. He writes as one who was only a few feet away when Jesus was arrested in the Garden, and as one who stood three days after the crucifixion in the empty tomb of Jesus remarking about the strangeness of His perfectly folded grave clothing. John writes with the insight and confidence gained from years of contemplation and earned wisdom from being a trusted friend of Jesus. He writes and processes the message and mission the Messiah through the intimate lens of family caretaker for Mary the mother of Jesus. For twenty years after Jesus left until her death John heard and experienced the intimate insights of His Lord from the perspective only a mother could give. Finally, John writes and speaks under the inspiration and revelation of the Holy Spirit. He is uniquely conscious of the continuum of Christian truth; the same faith once delivered to the saints, to be delivered over and over, from generation to generation what Christian have at all times and all places believed.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
9 The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.”) 16 For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
Hermeneutic Interpretation of Core Text
[1:1–2] In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God.
Some interpreters have translated the opening phrase of this Gospel, “Before there was a beginning, the Word had been.” Obviously, the familiar repetition of Genesis 1:1 almost looks as if John wrote a Gospel of two beginnings—a creation account that parallels physical birth and spiritual rebirth. But it is important to notice that we are dealing with two beginnings, not two creations. The central focus of this verse is eternality. Like his heavenly Father, Jesus always was and therefore already existed at the beginning of time.
It is interesting that John should call Jesus the Word rather than some other name to introduce his book—interesting, but not surprising since the Jews often referred to God in such terminology. The doctrine at stake here is the Deity of Christ. Jesus is God, and John wanted to make that point immediately. In fact, this prologue (verses 1–18) begins and ends with a strong statement of this doctrine.
The term Word (Grk; logos) [pronounced lau-gus] is our first keyword and certainly would have been familiar to the Greeks. Their understanding centered on ultimate reason or the rationale of the universe rather than the personal God revealed to Abraham and his descendants. John claimed that the God of creation, the ultimate mind of the universe, had taken on human form; he had become incarnate. But what is meant by ‘Word’? The underlying term, logos, was used so widely and in such different contexts in first-century Greek that many suggestions as to what it might mean here have been put forward. The Stoics (ancient Greek and Roman philosophers) understood logos to be the rational principle by which everything exists, and which is of the essence of the rational human soul. As far as they were concerned, there is no other god than logos, and all that exists has sprung from seminal logoi, seeds of this logos.
The Bible allows no place for atheism and no room for doubt about how God has spoken—through the Word. Before there was a beginning, the Word had been coequal with God throughout all eternity. But what did the apostle mean by with God? The Greek word is pros which literally means “toward,” implying a face-to-face relationship. John would have neither atheism nor unitarianism (only a singular God). He told us later in this Gospel that the Godhead consists of a trinity, but here in verse 1 we learn first of the plurality of God the Father and God the Son who from the beginning coexisted.
So Jesus, the Word, is both eternal and temporal (personal). Nothing can separate the heavenly Father from his Son. Verse 2 merely emphasizes verse 1. Pastor and author Gary Vanderet put it this way: “John intends that the entire book be read in light of this verse. The deeds and the words of Jesus are the deeds and words of God.”
…Theous en ho logos
[1:3] All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.
Unlike the Gospel writers before him, John tells us that Jesus participated in creation and again states his case twice for emphasis. Surely this is a deliberate link with Genesis, and it sets the stage for other New Testament Scriptures which show us Jesus’ direct involvement in creation:
“For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him”
“In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe”
Creation is a foundational doctrine of the Christian faith. Virtually every other aspect of theology rests upon our understanding of God as the origin of all life and of the role Jesus Christ, the logos, in creation. John could hardly say it more clearly: without him nothing was made that has been made—everything from subatomic particles to galaxies. Only God who created all things can redeem them. Creation is the foundation stone of the gospel. Christ could not have been created, for he created all things. There was a “historical Jesus,” but this terminology refers only to his thirty-three years of incarnation on earth. His life had no beginning, and it will have no end.
[1:4] In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
Here we find the first appearance of our second key word—life. The revelation of the Lamb of God was also the revelation of life. No fewer than thirty-six times in John, we find the word (original Grk; zoe). Jesus Christ the Creator provides physical life-zoe; Jesus Christ the Redeemer provides spiritual life-zoe; and Jesus Christ the Savior provides eternal life-zoe. In verse 4 John also introduced our third key word—light. The life becomes the light of men. Notice these terms in contrast to the terms death and darkness. You pick???
In the Word, God’s person and power were revealed to humanity. Here again we see a reference to creation since, in the Genesis account, light was the first evidence of God’s creative work. God is always the source of light and life. Christ the Son, the Creator, provides life and light to humanity. He alone is the life-giver and the light-bearer. John is getting ready to write new lyrics to an old melody, “With you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light” (Psalm 36:9).
[1:5] The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
In this verse John picked up a common first-century theme, the symbols of light and darkness representing dual allusions of both creation and good and evil. Light and darkness are not simply contrasts or opposites; darkness is nothing other than the absence of light. The English word light here is transliterated to the authors original Greek as the word phos [pronounced foes].
In the allusion of good and evil – all the forces of Satan (darkness) have tried to prevent life and extinguish the light—but they cannot. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it. In John’s allusion to the creation, ‘darkness was over the surface of the deep’ (Genesis 1:2) until God said, ‘Let there be light’ (Genesis 1:3). At no time other than creation could it more appropriately be said, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness gave way to the light.” While alluding to Genesis, Some hermeneutical studies infer that John also foreshadows the coming of the light of God into the world in the person of the incarnate (God with us) Word. That is only possible if the word overcome is translated as understood. They would say that through Christ the light shone among the Jewish people. He entered their ‘darkness’, and ‘the darkness has not understood it’. As we said, the verb which the NIV translates as ‘understood’ (katelaben) could also be rendered ‘overcame’ (NRSV, ESV). This is in line with the way the verb is used elsewhere in John (8:3–4; 12:35). Understood in this way John (as the evangelist) is foreshadowing the repeated futile attempts of ‘the Jews’ to literally extinguish the light – Christ.
These first five verses tell us that Jesus came to the world with a message of hope, and he came from heaven where he had lived eternally with the Father. This truth is played over and over within John’s Gospel. The key words of this passage are like that, especially “life” and “light.” The word rendered “understood” in the NIV is translated “seizes” in Mark 9:18 and “overtakes” in John 12:35. God sent his light into the world, but mankind did not understand it, could not grasp it. But the world (darkness) will never be able to defeat it.
[1:9] The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.
Through digital technology we have created virtually every kind of artificial light possible for special effects on filmed and live stream platforms. But nothing can compare with watching God’s sunrise or sunset, or perhaps staring from the blackness of an Arizona desert into the night sky at stars and planets God has made. Jesus is the true light, not an imitation. But what does it mean to say that Jesus gives light to every man … coming into the world? There are three possible interpretations:
(1) The true light shone on ‘every man’ without exception before coming into the world (at the incarnation), and continues to do so. The idea is similar to what systematic theologians call ‘general revelation’, which strips human beings of their human excuse (as Paul argues),
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
(2) Alternatively, the true light may be understood to be shining in the context of the incarnation, illuminating not ‘every man’ without exception but ‘every man’ without distinction (i.e. not to the Jews only – but to the Gentile as well). (3) A variation on the second interpretation is an appeal to Augustine’s famous illustration of a town with only one teacher. Though not all the citizens are the teacher’s students, he is nevertheless the teacher for everyone. So Christ is the only true light God has given to the world, and therefore He is the light for every man. But however theologically true this is, it is not what the text says. It does not speak of the Word serving as (potential) light for every man, but of giving light to every man.
Verse 9 completes the dramatic contrast between the Master (Jesus) and the messenger (John the Baptist) of verses 6-8: John the Baptist was a man, Jesus is God; John was a witness, Jesus is the Word; John was a servant, Jesus is the Son. The last phrase of verse 9 (was coming into the world) surely refers to the incarnation of Jesus, though some have interpreted it to mean the conscience God provides every human being, or even the natural revelation everyone can see. The structure of the verse, however, favors a reference to Christ’s birth even though the past tense seems awkward in this context. A major theme of this section is regeneration, and verses 6-9 provide its announcement.
[1:10-11] He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.
Immediately after describing the announcement, John tells us about apathy and rejection toward the message of regeneration (new life). The world (kosmos) is another of John’s theme words; he used it seventy-seven times. With the device of repetition, John taught incarnation, creation, and rejection all in one verse (verse 10). Depravity and blindness obstructed God’s efforts to reach out to his own creation—and still do. As 19th century Scottish theologian and author Dr. Marcus Dods declared, in his book The Incarnation of the Eternal Word; “There He was, the Creator Himself, that mysterious Being who had hitherto kept Himself so hidden and remote while yet so influential and supreme; the wonderful and unsearchable Source and Fountain out of which had proceeded all that men saw, themselves included—there at last He was ‘in the world’ He Himself had made, apparent to the eyes of men, and intelligible through their understanding; a real person whom they could know as an individual, whom they could love, who could receive and return their expressions of affection and trust. He was in the world, and the world knew Him not.”
In verse 11, the first appearance of the word own appears in the neutral gender and the second use of the word own is masculine. What significance could such a distinction have for Biblical interpretation? One possibility is that Jesus came to earth, the place he had created, and the second tells us that the people who lived there turned him away. He was not welcomed or accepted.
[1:12-13] But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
Early in his book, John established the heart of the gospel, still two chapters away from the most famous passage in the Bible, John 3:16. From the announcement of regeneration followed by rejection the apostle introduces the acceptance of regeneration (new life).
Like most things in life, there is a right way and a wrong way to respond to God. The right way (and the only meaningful way) is to believe the gospel, receive the Savior and accept new birth as a result. The wrong way somehow links a relationship to God with human qualities such as physical birth, self-determination, or the choice of another person. In John’s theological vocabulary, believed and received are synonymous when it comes to the gospel. Patrick Henry once said, “The most cherished possession I wish I could leave you is my faith in Jesus Christ, for with Him and nothing else you can be happy, but without Him and with all else, you’ll never be happy.”
[1:14] And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
This may be the most important verse in the Bible on the doctrine of the incarnation (God in the flesh). John went back to verse 1 to pick up one of his favorite themes, the Word. God became human; God showed us his glory; God offered us grace and truth; God literally “tabernacled – lived” among us. Remember the tabernacle in the center of the camp? It represented the place of the law, the abode of God, the source of revelation, the site of sacrifice, and the focus of worship. Now in the new covenant, Jesus provides all these.
And not only was Jesus here, but he demonstrated the glory of the One and Only. Other prophets, including John the Baptist, were sent from God, but the Word came directly from the Father’s presence. New Testament and Gospel of John scholar Dr. Gerald Borchert reminds us of some important implications:
“This text makes it absolutely clear that the mission of the Logos was unique in the history of the world. This uniqueness of the Son makes it impossible for Christianity to be a syncretistic (amalgamation or coexist) religion. In the message and mission of Jesus to the world we cannot say ‘Jesus and Caesar’ or ‘Jesus and Buddha,’ and so forth. Our confession is Jesus, one faith, one God, one baptism the early Christians suffered and died because they refused to recognize any other pattern than that which was revealed in Jesus Christ.”
Finally, we cannot pass lightly over the wonderful phrase, full of grace and truth. John used the word grace again in verses 16 and 17, then never mentioned it for the rest of his Gospel! He used truth many times, but here the combination connects with us. Jesus blended two of the most important qualities of the divine nature and displayed them in human personality.
[1:16] For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
In verse 14 John spoke about seeing the glory of the incarnate Word, a glory that was ‘full of grace and truth’. Here in 1:16 he speaks not about seeing that grace but of receiving it: From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. Using the first-person plural, ‘we’, John identifies himself with others, and so we hear the testimony of the first witnesses coming down to us across the centuries. They experienced ‘the fullness of his grace’ as ‘one blessing after another’ (Grk; charis anti charitos), which literally translated would read ‘‘one blessing replaced by another blessing.” John 1:16 (BKC): The Word made flesh is the source of grace (charin), which is the sum total of all the spiritual favors God gives to people. The words we … refer to all Christians and include John the author. Because of the fullness of Christ the Son (past-present-future) “grace in place of grace” comes to Christians as waves continue to come to the shore.
[1:17] For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
The greatness of the old dispensation was the giving of the Law by God through His servant Moses. No other nation has had such a privilege. But the glory of the Church is the revelation of God’s grace and truth … through Jesus Christ.
[1:18] No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
The statement “No one has ever seen God” (see 1 John 4:12) may seem to raise a problem. Did not Isaiah say, “My eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty”? (Isaiah 6:5). God in His essence is invisible (1 Timothy 1:17). He is One “whom no one has seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:16). But John 1:18 means, “no one has ever seen God’s essential nature.” God may be seen in a theophany or anthropomorphism (an interpretation of what is not human or personal in terms of human or personal characteristics) but His inner essence or nature is disclosed only in Jesus.
God the only Son is literally “the unique God” or “the only begotten God” (monogenēs theos; monogenous, “the one and only” in verse 14). John was probably ending his prologue by returning to the truth stated in verse 1 that the Word is God. Verse 18 is another statement affirming Christ’s deity: He is unique, the one and only God. The Son is at the Father’s side, thus revealing the intimacy of the Father and the Son (the Word was with God, verses 1–2). Furthermore, the Son has made … known (exēgēsato) the Father. The Son is the “exegete” of the Father, and as a result of His work the nature of the invisible Father is displayed in the Son.
Key Word Spotlight
Word [logos] The lógos here is the historical Christ in a dynamic equation that preserves the idea of a real word not a real illusion; avoiding any mythical personification or identity – Jesus is real and has been since the beginning of time.
1 John 1:1
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— 3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. 12 His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. 13 He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God.
These two passages establish the connection between the historical and the eschatological Jesus. John not only presents Jesus as a teacher of the lógos.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
So Christ not only gives the lógos, but He also is the lógos. This fact controls the use. The Logos is not just what Jesus said – but the mystery and fullness of God disclosed and completed in Him. This shows that Revelation 19:13 is expressing something integral and essential to the whole Christian message when it says that His name is the Word of God.
Life [zoe] used frequently in the Gospel of John, thirteen times in the epistle of John, and seventeen times the book of Revelation. Jesus said, “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through the Son.”
Light [phos] Christ gives light to every man. This does not mean universal salvation or general revelation or even inner illumination. Instead, it means that Christ as the Light shines (phōtizei) on each person either in the hope of salvation, or in the personal illumination of the awesome awareness of his sin and the coming judgment of all sin that is to come.
Fullness [pleroma] Out of the fullness of his grace he has blessed us all represents the Greek “because from his fullness we all received.” The word fullness was a frequent term among the heretical gnostic religions of the first century A.D. It referred to the full nature of the true deity as opposed to that which did not possess the divine nature. Paul took this term and applied it to God’s Son (Colossians 1:19; 2:9; Ephesians 1:23; and 4:13). However, in John’s Gospel this word is used in a nontechnical sense and refers back to the phrase grace and truth in verse 14. Among the translations, only TEV and Mft (“for we have all been receiving grace after grace from his fullness”) appear to make this connection explicit, though a number of commentators call attention to it.
In the last part of this clause, the Greek “we all received” is restructured by TEV to read He has blessed us all. It is dangerous to attempt a literal translation of the clause “from his fullness have we all received.” In one language the people understood it to mean “we got what he stuffed himself on”! In some languages a far better rendering would be “because he was so gracious, he has blessed us all” or “because of his great love for us, he has been so good to us all.”
In this context the use of the pronoun “us” is probably best interpreted as inclusive. Undoubtedly John wrote his Gospel to Christians to whom he wished to explain more fully the significance of the “fullness” of the incarnation and ministry of Christ.
Truth Revealed and the Faith Delivered
- Jesus Christ (the Word) is the center and core of the gospel. Christianity is not a philosophy of life – it is life itself. It is the completed faith in the one person who is the creative energy and force of all life – everything that Christians have at all times and all places believed (credo; we believe).
- Like God the Father, God the Son reveals eternality, personality, deity, creativity, life, and light.
- Eternal life and heavenly light come to those who by faith, become new creations in Christ Jesus.
- The Incarnation is an essential doctrinal term meaning that the fullness of the Spirit of God took on the form of a man in human flesh – that man was Jesus.
This timeless passage of foundational truth reveals many things about my faith and belief in who Jesus Christ the Son of God is. Not only myself, but to all humankind as well. This revelation has not only become my one single hope, but my very life and existence as well. John 1:1-18 has also become to me an uncomfortable reminder of how I have had the knowledge and revelation of the logos and yet too often have made decisions and choices contrary to the very truth and faith I have confessed as not just my only hope, but my life and existence as well. Like you I have read verse 11, “He came unto His own, but His own received Him not” and I think to myself how could they (the Jews) rebel, reject, and ruin the incarnation of the living logos – the Word that was meant to be their very light, life, and redemption. There He was right before their eyes – the Messiah (God in the flesh), as foretold by their own prophets, and yet they pushed Him away and destroyed their only help and hope. John’s Gospel, is not a Gospel to exclude hope and help from those foolish enough to reject and destroy the hope and help that is right before them. He is the eternal Word, outside of time – placed inside of time to rescue not only those who receive and welcome but those who have rejected and despised – that would include me.
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