Key Verse: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
It seems to be universal. Throughout the ages, humans have looked beyond the bounds of observable life and experience to explain why the world exists, and why things are the way they are. Wherever we go in time or place, we find people looking to the gods – singular or plural – as their culture has come to think of them.
Christians hold to a belief that there is one and only one God, a single deity revealed as Creator, Redeemer, and Spirit. We believe that God wants to be known, and can be glimpsed through the stories, teachings, letters, and other materials that make up the Bible.
The Bible begins with the radical claim that God has created humans in God’s own image (Gen. 1:27), suggesting that there is something godlike in us, some spark of the divine, some shadow of God’s face. That is a mind-boggling idea: that God could be revealed through human flesh or personality.
The Bible ends with an even more remarkable claim that God and human believers will live together face to face, for in eternity “God himself will dwell among them, and they shall be his people” (Rev. 21:3).
In between, John’s gospel declares that God is revealed most perfectly in the human life of Jesus Christ. Christ not only shows us the way to God: the gospel declares that he is God, the very essence of God, the embodied word of God in human form. [DD]
Christ as the Word (vv. 1-9)
In the memorable and poetic prologue to the Fourth Gospel (1:1-18), the author describes Christ as the divine logos, the Word of God incarnate. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (v. 1). [DD]
The basic meaning of the term logos is “word,” but it could also carry connotations such as “reason,” “wisdom,” “matter,” or even the “reckoning” of an account.
Writers have often assumed that John used the logos concept to make the gospel more appealing to Gentile audiences familiar with Hellenistic philosophy, but the word would communicate well with readers from a variety of backgrounds.
Jewish readers could have thought of logos in terms of the Hebrew Bible’s witness to God’s words as a creative power that could speak the world into being (Gen. 1; Ps. 33:6, 9) or accomplish any divine purpose. Isaiah declared of God, “ . . . so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:11).
Greek readers could have imagined the logos as a philosophical principle, the projected thought of the transcendent God, giving stability to life and forming a divine-human bond of rational thought.
Early Christian readers might have interpreted logos as the proclamation of Christ through the preaching of the gospel as a “ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4), whose content was Christ himself (Luke 1:2; Acts 1:21-22). Jesus’ very life was a sermon on the nature of God who offers the gift of relationship to the human world.
Christ the Word was not only present from the beginning (v. 2): the author insists that Christ was intimately involved with the creation of the world as the source of both life and light (vv. 3-5).
How did the world first come to know of Christ? The first witness to understand and proclaim Jesus’ special nature as the Christ of God was a man named John, Jesus’ cousin and the one who came to be known as “the baptizer.” John is introduced in vv. 6-8 as the one who came to testify to the light.
What light? To clarify, the author added “the true light that enlightens everyone” (v. 9). The light “was coming into the world” – a reference to the incarnation – but the connection between Jesus and the Word was yet to be spelled out.
The power of Christ (vv. 10-13)
Although the Word created the world and became incarnate within the world, the author comments, the world did not know him (v. 10): creation did not recognize its creator. John found it heartbreaking that the people of Israel did not recognize Christ as their own long-awaited Messiah: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (v. 11).
Still, there were individuals who did recognize Jesus as Lord, who believed in him, and who accepted him as savior. “To all who received him,” the author wrote, “who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (vv. 12-13).
To believe in Christ’s name is to believe that Jesus is who he claims to be – the Son of God, the Word of God, indeed, one with God. To those who believed in his name, Christ “gave power to become children of God” – the divine Son of God empowered human persons to become the mortal children of God. [DD]
As the human Jesus was connected to God, the writer taught, mortals who become children of God enter the relationship “not by blood or the will of the flesh or the will of man” (a threefold reference to human birth), but by God’s will and God’s work alone. Jesus’ earthly birth by the will of God is the pattern for our spiritual birth (cf. John 3:1-16). Thus, John defines Christianity purely in terms of God’s grace: God loved the world enough to become incarnate in Christ so that we might believe and become children of God. [DD]
The glory of Christ (vv. 14-15)
The Fourth Gospel begins with Christ as the eternal logos, then shifts to the earthly incarnation: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (v. 14). God’s self-revelation through the incarnate Christ enabled humankind to see and appreciate God’s true glory. [DD]
The meaning of the description “as of a father’s only son” is subject to debate. The word used is monogenēs, which can suggest the idea of “only begotten,” but can also mean “singular” in the sense of “the only one of its kind.” Jesus certainly was the only one of his kind, but the added phrase “of the father” leads many to choose “only begotten” as the best translation. In a sense, God is the Father and begetter of all persons, but God’s relationship with Christ, the “only begotten,” is unique.
The human Christ reveals God’s matchless glory, and he declares it most clearly through his nature, which is “full of grace and truth.” John preserves a careful balance by coupling these terms. Grace is God’s free gift of love and forgiveness. Truth reflects God’s desire to be consistent and trustworthy in dealing with humankind. In Christ, we see the depths of God’s compassion combined with a devotion to what is right.
John offers further testimony of Christ’s glory in the parenthetical remark of v. 15, where he quotes John the Baptist as saying “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me’” (compare Matt. 3:11). Many people expected John to reveal himself as Israel’s Messiah, but John pointed to Jesus as the true Anointed One (the name “Christ” [Christos] is a Greek form of the Hebrew “Messiah” [mashiach] which means “anointed”). The Fourth Gospel further argues that even John the baptizer did not recognize Jesus’ importance at first, but God revealed it to him (cf. John 1:25-34).
The grace of Christ (vv. 16-18)
Since Christ is “full of grace and truth,” it follows that, for believers, “from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace” (v. 16). The grace we receive has its source in God. Perhaps John is suggesting that our human propensity to sin always leaves us in need of more grace, which we can receive “from his fullness . . . grace upon grace.” [DD]
The prologue comes to an end with a brief comparison between the way God was seen through the eyes of the law and through Christ: the law was given to humans through Moses, the writer said, but “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (v. 17).
God has been gracious from the beginning, but tablets of stone and written laws could not communicate divine grace as effectively as the human person of Jesus. Jesus was grace and truth in the flesh, the living embodiment of divine character.
Moses had once begged to see the Lord’s glory, but was only allowed to catch a brief glimpse of God’s “back” or “afterglow” (Exod. 33:23). The most interesting thing about this story is that, while passing by, God revealed the divine nature in words: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” (Exod. 34:6).
Although the story claims that Moses spoke with God “face to face” (Exod. 33:11), it also quotes God as saying “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (Exod. 33: 20). Thus, John insisted that no one had truly seen God until the coming of Christ, for “it is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18).
The face Moses longed to see was the face beloved by John and Mary and Peter and James. It is the face of Christ, the living embodiment of divine grace, God with us.