John 1:1-14 The Word

John's Gospel Commentary by Robert Brow   (  2000

1:1   Materialism is the view that the ultimate reality of this world is matter. Scientists used to define this as indivisible atoms. Then it became clear that atoms were a combination of protons, electrons, and neutrons held together by atomic force. Since Einstein ultimate reality is defined as matter and energy, and now we have the idea of quantum events. But all materialists agree that life emerged from inanimate matter.

Materialism was already a familiar idea in New Testament times. It was discussed by both Greek and Hindu philosophers since at least the sixth century BC (see Religion: Origins and Ideas). Four hundred years before that it was mentioned as a foolish idea in the Psalms (Psalm 14:1).

In contrast to every form of materialism, John begins by telling us that ultimate reality is the Word (language of God). This means that matter is a product of language (Word) , rather than human language emerging from matter. God spoke in the creation of our world (Genesis 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26).

1:2 In a Unitarian model (as in Islam, and the modern Jehovah's Witnesses) the eternal oneness of God allows no distinction of Persons within that oneness. In a Unitarian model it is therefore hard to think of a solitary God as loving. You cannot love alone. Nor can a Unitarian view of God conceive of humans in any way being adopted into the family oneness of God (as in 1:12).

So John immediately makes clear that there are two Persons (and later a third will be added) united in the oneness of God. Before the creation of our world the Messiah Son of God was eternally in a personal relationship with the Father. Just as protons, neutrons, and electrons are held together by tremendous atomic force, we will see how the three Persons of the Trinity are distinct but eternally united in the infinitely greater power of love.

This means that the Word or language of God is not a set of mathematical formulae but rather a conversation between Persons. And the end result will be that humans are to be brought into that conversation (see 1:12)

1:3 The decision to make humans in their own image was made by the three Persons of the Trinity. "Let us make humankind in our image" (Genesis 1:26). But the actual agent of creation was the Son (as in Hebrews 1:2, 10). And John adds that "without him not even one thing came into being." Or continues in being, as Paul points out (Colossians 1:16-17, see Colossians Commentary).

1:4 As a result of our creation by the Son we have life. But as we will see, the life we are given is not just vegetable or animal life. It is Word life in the loving relationships of the family of God (1:12).

"The light of all people." Religious people, and this happened among the Jews, often imagine that they alone are the objects of God's favor. Universalism in the right sense means that "all people" are destined for God's kind of eternal life (see 3:16, 5:24, 40, 10:10).

But Universalism in the wrong sense is the idea that everyone will be forced willy nilly into the love of God. As the Gospel proceeds John will tells us how this kind of life involves a response to the light of the eternal Son of God. "This is the krisis that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light" (3:19).

1:5 The search for illumination is a common idea in world religions. Gurus and teachers usually suggest that enlightenment involves the grasping of some philosophical ideas (1 Corinthians 1:21) and/or the adopting some ancient rituals (Colossians 2:8).

This verse taken on its own could suggest that we have to move out of the ignorance of our present darkness in the direction of some inextinguishable light. That is the basis of much New Age teaching, and it is one of the oldest ideas in human philosophy. But the Gospel will soon make clear that the light is a metaphor for a Person, the eternal Son of God (1:9, 14).

As the Gospel proceeds we will be given other metaphors to express aspects of the character and work of the Messiah : Lamb (1:29), Bread (6:48-51), Gate (10:7), Shepherd (10:11-14), Way (14:6), Vine (15:1), King (18:33-36). But we should not focus on one name alone. Rather we should work at each distinct metaphor, and hold it together with the other names which are given to us..

1:6-7 Many world religions have had prophets who come to point us in what they think is the right direction. They picture it as a distant light, or an ideal world, some ethical standards to attain, or a religious experience. But among Jews some of the prophets had pointed away from the dark problems of their nation towards a person (Isaiah 9:6-7, 11:1-3, 28:5, 53:1-6, 60:2, 61:1-3, Jeremiah 10:10, Daniel 7:13-14, Micah 5:2, Zephaniah 3:14-17, Zechariah 9:9-10, Malachi 4:2-3).

John the Baptist "was a man sent from God" and his task was to be "a witness to testify." He was called to witness as the greatest and last of the prophets (Matthew 11:9-11, Luke 7:28). And he had to testify that Jesus was indeed the light expected by the Old Testament prophets. Rather than translate "so that all might believe through him" it might be clearer to say "so that all might believe through that light."

1:8 John the Baptist was acclaimed as a great prophet by huge numbers of Jewish people (Matthew 3:5, Mark 1:4-5). But he had the humility to point away from himself to the light who was a person who would come (Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16). People were tempted to view him as the Messiah, but John the Baptist decisively refused to be more than a messenger (see the next section, John 1:15-51). One could say that the test of a prophet is the Person he or she points to.

Jesus himself viewed John the Baptist as the greatest of all the prophets (Luke 7:28), but he made clear that the Baptist's work was only preparatory for the good news of the Kingdom (Luke 16:16). And in fact "the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he" (Matthew 11:11-13, Luke 7:28). The difference is that prophetic preaching deals with the good and bad consequences of human behavior. The totally different good news of the Kingdom is that the Messiah saves the poor and weak, the oppressed, the failures in life, and all who know they could never save themselves..

1:9 From the beginning the Son of God has kept coming (past continuous tense) as the true light of the world. But the light is metaphorical for the Person of the Messiah who enlightens us. And we have seen that he enlightens us by language (Word, 1:1). His Word is the language of a Person who wants to come and engage in a personal conversation with us.

The word "was coming" is very important. The second coming of the Lord is often put in the future. But the coming of the Lord among us for a brief thirty years was only one of many comings in the Old Testament. He came to invite Adam and Eve to walk with him in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:8). He came down to stop the building of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:5). He kept appearing to Abraham (Genesis 12:7, 15:1, 17:1, 18:1), and to Isaac and Jacob and Moses (Genesis 26:2, 24, Exodus 3:4, see Isaiah 31:4, 40:10, 63:1, 66:18, Jeremiah 4:13. This more fully explained in Advent Comings of the Lord Among the Nations).

These comings continue after the resurrection as in Revelation 2:5, 16, 3:20. And we will see how the Gospel picks this up in 14:3, 18, 28).

That the true light "enlightens everyone" is a very radical statement (as in 1:4). It reminds us that the Messiah Son of God keeps coming very personally to every single person in our world. He or she can either turn away and refuse to engage in the conversation, or by welcoming the coming is immediately welcomed into the very family of God. Reasons for refusing the light are considered in 3:19.

1:10 Knowing is different from our deep heart longings. Though the Son of God who "enlightens everyone" keeps coming to every single person (1:9) in our world, most people do not know him. That does not mean they are all condemned to eternal damnation (see comments on 3:19-21), but by not knowing the Messiah they certainly miss the joy and assurance of faith.

1:11 And in fact when their Messiah came to live as a Jew among Jewish people, they at first could not understand or accept him. Jesus did not fit their expectations. Some expected a future coming with overwhelming power. The Pharisees had their system of laws and regulations for the sabbath, which Jesus did not obey. The Sadducees were interested in a political arrangement with the Roman empire.

A previous generation of missionaries (the writer among them, as described in Autobio 2000) assumed that, until they could get to the heathen, give them the good news and persuade them to make a decision for Jesus Christ, they were all without exception lost and destined for eternal damnation. Our text suggests that a person may be brainwashed by the wrong ideas of the religion he or she has been taught, but deep down their heart may be reaching out for the love of God. They are groping for God (Acts 17:27), but they do not know him. New born babies, retarded persons, and those who have never been taught can never know what disciples of the Messiah soon come to understand.

When the Messiah came among us he certainly did not assume that all his hearers were lost till they made the right decision. He quietly gathered disciples and began to teach those who were open to the message of what the Kingdom of God is really like. Paul said his task was "to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sin and a place among those who are sanctified (set apart for the service of God) by faith in the Messiah" (Acts 26:18). When people receive the good news the difference for Paul was that they are assured that God loves them, welcomes them, forgives them, and that is all of grace (Ephesians 2:8). They are then invited to share in the community of those who follow and serve the Messiah, but costly service is not a condition of being loved by God. We therefore distinguish the volunteers of the King in his Kingdom from the "great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples" who will find themselves in heaven (Revelation 7:9).

Many of Jesus disciples found his teaching too much to take and left him (see 6:66). This happened with Paul (2 Timothy 1:15), and preachers again and again experience the same disappointment everywhere. But that is not the end of the story. As time went on, after Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, huge numbers of those who had previously rejected him did come to know and accept him (Acts 2:41, 5:14, 6:7).

1:12 A common form of religion is that people need to hear about the light of God, so that they can be filled with love, and so become children of God. The good news is totally different. We do not become children of God by being sufficiently loving. We are invited to become family just as we are. And faith (receiving, believing) is accepting that invitation (the Word of the Messiah) and rejoicing in our adoption as children of God. It is by finding ourselves accepted and loved in that family that we slowly learn God's kind of love.

Paul explains that the Holy Spirit gives us this experience of adoption. "When we cry Abba! Father! (like a child saying Daddy) it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with the Messiah" (Romans 8:15-17 - in the Epistles we will always translate Christos as Messiah as was correctly done in Matthew 1:1, 17-18).

In the Christian church the bread and wine of the communion service is not just a reminder of the Messiah. It is a family table, and at its best it offers us an experience of being enveloped in the love and family of God.

1:13 That experience of being born into the family of God is not by human parentage (of blood), nor is it an instinctive reaction (of the flesh, as in Romans 7:14, 18, 8:5-8), or by personal will-power (the will of man). It is by the gracious invitation of God himself.

1:14 Though our natural instincts (the flesh) cannot make us children of God, the Messiah emptied himself (Philippians 2:6-8) to live with our normal human instincts (flesh). That means he can fully "sympathize with our weaknesses" because "in every respect he was tested as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15).

Humans can express their word (what they want to communicate) in many ways. It could be spoken or written, a look, a smile, a wave of the hand, a visit, a hug, a meal, a prayer, weeping with the person. God could have sent us a postcard of heaven. But "the Word became flesh."

The comings of the Messiah Son of God into his Kingdom take many forms which we might not recognize till we know He is around. But every form of his comings, including his self-emptying to become man, is a word (1:1, see Advent Comings of the Lord). When people continually failed to recognize the many aspects of his coming, he finally took the costly step of coming to live among us.

As one of Jesus close disciples, John adds "We have seen his glory". Here glory is the expression of essential nature. The glory of a daffodil bulb is the glorious yellow flower in the spring. The glory of a nation is in those moments of superlative greatness (as in Revelation 21:24). In the Messiah's case his glory is his relationship with the Father. John saw that relationship as grace and truth. Grace is love expressed to those who could not possibly deserve it. And truth is the truth of the vastness of the love of God and his purposes for us. Paul diagnosed what had gone wrong in Greek civilization as "They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator" (Romans 1:25).

1:15-51  John's Disciples