Biblical Studies/New Testament Commentaries/The Gospel of John/Chapter 1

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Prologue, John 1:1-18

Verses 1-18 are a prologue to the book of John. It is sometimes suggested that this section, with the exception of verses 6-8 and 15, which talk about John the Baptist, may have existed prior to its appearance in the Gospel as a hymn used in the early church. These verses serve as an introduction to the author's understanding of Jesus, and parallel the creation account of Genesis at several key points. John never says that Jesus is the Word of God "become flesh", but he says the Word was in the beginning. So we must determine who is the Word. The Jewish Encyclopedia says the Word, logos (Memra) is an angel, an elohim, the Word that was present and active in every aspect of the Creation since the beginning of the world.

This introduction also, aside from paralleling the creation account in Genesis, is divided into three parts. They include the role that the Word played in creation (the angel architect), and how it appeared throughout history as "the angel of the Lord", and as a third part, the role the angel played by indwelling Jesus and its benefits. Out of all three parts, the third is the most different, most separated by authorship and the way the account is given. It seems to be of a more personal nature than the rest.

This passage is often one that is confusing for those who are reading the Bible for the first time. The language is different than the language most people use in daily conversation. Therefore this passage requires the reader to really work to understand the message. The complexities of the passage definitely make the passage one that you cannot just gloss over. Therefore, it not wise to build too much theology on this obscure opening.

It is important to note, however, that the translation of "logos" to "word" in the first several verses is only one of several possibilities as to the contextual meaning of the word and is still a point of discussion among scholars. Other translations include reason and wisdom, plan, message, and even Torah. However, if any of the equally good words are used in place of the current translation, the introduction takes on a different connotation. If one believes that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one in the same but in different states, (much like water)it seems superfluous to say that the "word," meaning Jesus, was with God in the beginning. So we can see that John is not trying to establish a doctrine of the Trinity. The text makes no allusion to a trinity, and it definitely does not say Jesus was with God. It says the word (Memara/angel) was with God, -the angel of Wisdom.

Throughout the Gospel, John uses symbols and metaphors to represent Jesus in an abstract and somewhat mysterious way. He says the Memra/angel was in the beginning, but he does not say Jesus was. Nor does he say the word was made flesh. The Greek clearly says the logos made all thing. The logos made flesh and then tented among us in the body/temple of Jesus. Jesus is never called "God the son" but beginning in verse 14, from which point on the language of "Son of God" is used.

The Word The Word was with Eloah and was an elohim " a God" in the beginning. All angels are elohim. Some humans are also called elohim. Jesus reminded the Jews that they had been called to be the Father's elohim to the nations. "Ye are Gods all of you and sons of the most high". God worked through his elohim/angel of Wisdom/Word in the Creation of the world. This Word was a conduit of life and the light of humanity. This light shines in the darkness, which represents a world which does not recognize God. The attributes of the Word in this passage parallel not only the way Jewish authors such as Philo of Alexandria wrote about the Word he called it the "archangel", but also the Jewish tradition regarding Wisdom's role in creation and in other aspects of God's interaction with the world.

Light John uses light and darkness as symbols of good versus evil. The light of God fights against the darkness of sin. Jesus is the conduit of the angel who is a coduit of the light. It is called "the angel of God's presence. It is not God, but God only deals with humans through mediators. No one has ever seen God nor heard his voice.

The entire world was caped in darkness, and the Father sent his angel/elohim/logos/memra  into this world to bring true light (verse 9).
 What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (Versus 4-5).  The author is relating the beginning of life to a life that cannot be stifled by darkness or death.

John the Baptist appears briefly as a messenger who gave testimony to the light, sent by God to prepare the way for Jesus (verses 6-8). John the Baptist was not to be confused with the light itself, rather as one sent to help others believe in the light that was the Word. It was always made especially clear that he was the prophet who's "sole mission is to bear witness or testimony to the Father who sends the light to indwell Jesus. That was the reason he was born here on earth, to bear witness to the Light giver.

In verses 10-11 John writes that although (the Word) came into a world made through him, his own people did not recognize or receive him. In contrast, John assures that the people who do receive and believe will become sons of God. "his own people" refers to Jews in as they were, at that time, God's chosen people.

The one who is the Word (the Angel of Wisdom) tented in the tent (body) of Jesus and lived among us. The prologue does not teach the incarnation when properly translated "sarx egeneto" Flesh it made, not "it was made flesh".

John and his companions saw  Jesus' glory (the indwelling angel of God's presence -the shokeyn (mistranslated as shekinah) (verse 14). In the same verse John affirms that Jesus was God's one and only uniquely birthed human son (God is the father of myriads of spirits who are his elohim sons and daughters), and describes him as full of love and truth (the completed Torah). In different passages of the book, these two characteristics are emphasized. This is also the first time in the prologue that Jesus is referred to as God's son. At this point, John begins to use language that reflects the true human relationship: Father-Son. John the Baptist is mentioned a second time affirming Jesus' importance, and saying that Jesus was before him in rank although he was born after him. 

The Word/angel tabernacled in Jesus for a reason (so that we could become children of God) and He made his dwelling with us. The consequence for us is that we have the fullness of grace and He has given us the grace of the New completed Torah to replace the grace of the old Torah. In verses 16-18 the author states that a greater gift came through Jesus than through Moses, as Moses gave the law (defective Torah) but Jesus brought love and truth (the completed and perfect Torah). Although no one has seen God (so that eliminates Jesus as being God), Jesus (the uniquely birthed human Son), who has intimate communion with God, has brought John, and the Christians in his audience, to know God. In John 17:20 John says he wrote his Gospel so that people could know the father, the only true God, and his messiah, Jesus.

The Prologue although wrapped in ancient poetry and often sounding like a riddle, does exactly that. It shows us God the Father sending his angel of wisdom to dwell in the body of Jesus his uniquely begotten and birthed human son: the first man to experience the spirit birth so that the complete Wisdom (torah) of God could be made available to humans and many could become his beloved children.

Verses 19-34, John the Baptist gives testimony about Jesus[edit]

In this section, John the Baptist is confronted "priests and Levites" sent by the Jews of Jerusalem concerning his identity. The Levites and priests were greedy men who made a lucrative business in the maintenance and function of the Jewish temple. Though the story concerns many Jews (John the Baptist and Jesus were both Jewish) John's reference to the "Jews of Jerusalem" is done deliberately. The author uses the word Ioudaioi, meaning Judeans as a literary device to describe the heads of Jewish institutions that opposed Jesus and his teachings. The priests and Levites ask if John the Baptist is the Messiah that was expected to come. They also inquire if he is Elijah or The Prophet. The question of John being the Prophet refers back to Deuteronomy 18:15, where Moses describes how God will provide another prophet, like Moses, who is a part of their people. John the Baptist answers that he is one sent "as a voice that shouts in the desert: Make wide the path for the Lord," quoting Isaiah 40:3. In denying the title of Messiah, Prophet, or Elijah, John the Baptist is honoring the Lord. The titles of Messiah and Prophet are obviously reserved for Jesus. John the Baptist does not claim to be Elijah because he is not a reincarnation of Elijah, but the same spirit that rested on Elijah is in John. John only claims to be a prophetic voice that bears witness to the coming of the Lord. He goes on to explain that although he baptizes with water, he as a person is nothing compared to Jesus. (There is no record in scripture that Baptism was used by the Jews as a traditional cleansing rite although it was used by other marginal Jewish sects such as the Essenes)

John's answers to the religious leaders' questions proved to be difficult for them to use effectively. The leaders appear to be trying to trick John into saying he is the Messiah or one of the major prophets from the Old Testament so that they can refute what John is saying and ruin his credibility. John's answers to their questions, however, make it impossible for them to trap him in a statement that would discredit his message with the people.

When John the Baptist sees Jesus, he declares "Look, this is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!"and explains that Jesus is the one that he has been preaching about. John saw Jesus as the one who would make the true atonement for sin. The only problem is that in the atonement ritual it was a goat. Jesus was anti goats. He compared those going into the fire of hell to goats. He also taught that God did not want sacrifices. So John got it wrong. As we'll see John got other things wrong.

At the river the next day, John the Baptist explains how he saw the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus like a dove, and the God had told him that Jesus would baptize with that same Holy Spirit. So the water baptism of John would cease and be replaced by the Spirit Baptism.

John the Baptist also claims to be a witness to the fact that Jesus was the Son of God. John the Baptist is very clear about who Jesus is: although he describes Jesus as a man who comes after him, which is usually a sign of discipleship, the Baptist  mentions that Jesus ranks ahead of him. 

It is important to note that John the Baptist does not actually baptize Jesus in John's Gospel; yet he gives an account of seeing "the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him" (John 1:32). This was the born again being baptized by the spirit moment for Jesus. He was the first man to be spirit-born.

This was when the Elohim/angel of wisdom indwelled the temple/body of Jesus. Now he could truly say as he did "The Father is in me."

Now since God only interacts with people through a mediator, how could the father be in him? He was in him via "the angel of his presence." The angel of wisdom was the conduit through which God dealt with Jesus and Jesus was the human conduit to humans -the chosen vessel -the messiah.

It is also important to note that although John is quoted in ways that suggests his belief that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and his devotion to him, he appears to have not become a disciple of Jesus, but rather continued his own independent ministry. In Matthew and Luke, John is even reported to have sent his own disciples to Jesus to confirm or deny his messianic ambitions (Matt 11:4, Luke 7:22). That's why the least member of the Kingdom is greater than John.

Verse 32, "Then John gave his testimony: 'I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him'" has three interpretations, one of which was eventually rejected from Orthodox Christian doctrine. This view takes 1:32 to refer to the same event as 1:14, thus indicating that for this author the baptism is the moment of the Incarnation. In this interpretation, the terms "Word" and "Spirit" are thought to refer to the same thing, as they clearly did in the Judaism of this period, and also seem to have even into the early Patristic period within Christianity.

The classic orthodox viewpoint is that the incarnation takes place at the moment of Jesus' miraculous conception. It is worth noting that John, who alone emphasizes the incarnation, includes no story about Jesus' conception, while those Gospels that contain stories about Jesus' miraculous conception do not depict him as the Word incarnate. Indeed, the Gospel of Luke, which contains an account of the virginal conception, has a Christology that seems to be at the opposite end of the spectrum from John, viewing Jesus as a man empowered by God's Spirit, whom "God has made both Lord and Christ".

If the Spirit remaining on Jesus and the Word becoming flesh refer to the same event, this might explain the reference in 1 John to the Christ having come "not by water only, but by water and blood", as well as the fact that, when read chronologically, John's testimony to the light in the Prologue occurs both before and after the incarnation. This interpretation can be found in later Jewish Christian writings such as the Pseudo-Clementine literature [1], and is supported by contemporary scholars such as Charles Talbert and Francis Watson.

The third view is that Jesus was thought by the Father into Mary's womb as a human sperm and he was fully human and never existed prior to his conception. But in The Father's plan this human was chosen before the world began to be the messiah. So he was born as the messiah and at the Jordan River the Spirit that entered him was the angel of God's presence, the angel of Wisdom who was with God at the beginning as his architect. He was called the logos. Jesus said I heal you by the logos and he said they rejected him because they had never found room in their hearts for the logos. The angel of Wisdom -the angel of the Father's presence stayed with Jesus until his final moments on the cross, then it departed and Jesus cried "Why have you forsaken me?"

The significance of this story is to show how John was imperfect, he misunderstood that Jesus was not to be an atoment, he tried to stop the baptism, and he never followed Jesus. He continued on baptizing with water even though he knew the spirit baptism was the true and only baptism that matters. In the end he was in prison doubting Jesus.

On the positive side, John was the legal heir to the high priesthood and this encounter is a transfer of power. John was the last prophet of the old Testament and he says with all the prophets, "Jesus is the Messiah, he must increase and I must decrease."

On a practical level Jesus says we must all be born again. God's angel must indwell each believer.

Verses 35-51 Jesus calls his first disciples[edit]

John the Baptist had followers, and in verses 35-42 describe how two of these men, Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, leave John the Baptist's side to follow Jesus. Andrew encountered Jesus first, and in one of the first recorded examples of Christian evangelism, runs to tell his brother that they had found the Messiah. When Jesus saw Peter, he gave him his semi-ironic but prophetic nickname, The Rock (v 42). Jesus then invites them to his home to spend the afternoon.

The next day, Jesus went to another area and called more people to follow him, Phillip and Nathaniel. Although Nathaniel at first responds with disbelief, "Nazareth, can anything good come from there?", when Jesus reveals a bit about him he quickly comes to faith and declares that Jesus is the Messiah (the Son of God and the King of Israel.)

Finishing the section, Jesus declares that they will one day see heaven open and angels going up and down over the Son of Man. This is a reference to Jacob's dream of Genesis 28:10-17, where angels climbed up and down a ladder to heaven. "Son of Man" is a term with multiple meanings in the Jewish tradition. In many places throughout the Hebrew Scriptures it is simply used to refer a human being. For example, Ezekiel is referred to as "son of man" by God in many of his visions (Ezekiel 2:1, Ezekiel 7:2, etc.). When used by Jesus in the Gospels, though, Son of Man" is probably a reference to Daniel 7:13 which was understood at the time to speak of the Messiah. This picture of the "son of man" receiving authority and an everlasting kingdom links this title with John's expression of Jesus as the Word. Thus, by calling himself the Son of Man, Jesus was understood by John's original audience to be declaring himself to be the Messiah awaited by the Jews.

John 1:19-51 develops one of the major themes. The theme is testimony and it is written in four scenes. The first is John's negative testimony about himself; the second is his positive testimony about Jesus; the third is the revelation of Jesus to Peter and Andrew; and the fourth is the revelation of Jesus to Nathanael and Philip. The revelation of Jesus’ glory takes place in two phases. John, the Baptist recognizes that the Spirit's descent upon Jesus at his baptism is what allows him to recognize Jesus (1:32-33), but the incident itself is not recounted. The emphasis is on the Baptist's testimony arising from this incident (1:34). It is when the Baptist identifies Jesus as the Lamb of God in the hearing of some of his disciples that they become his first followers (1:35-37). John, the Baptist is a witness to Jesus and a model of true discipleship.

The second phase is the gathering of disciples around Jesus, beginning with two of the Baptist's own disciples. This section offers many insights into the nature of discipleship. It is also astonishing for the number of titles given to Jesus right from the beginning, including Son of God (1:34, 49). These titles are part of the preparation for the glory, though the characters in the narrative do not yet understand their true significance. The section closes with Jesus' promise that they will "see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man" (1:51), which prepares us for the revelation of God's glory that follows.

This chapter of John begins with the rhetoric of the word being with God from the beginning, and then there is the story of John the Baptist denying he is the Christ. These two stories alone set the tone for the book of John by asserting the eternal existence of God and by determining the identity of Jesus. It is also important that Jesus begins to choose his disciples in this chapter since these are the devoted men that will follow Jesus through his crucifixion and resurrection.


Another point of note found in the first chapter of the Fourth Gospel is John's first reference to an "Israelite" found in verse 47 in which Jesus makes reference to Nathanael as, "an Israelite in whom there is no deceit." This reference is most significant because of the reputation that John's Gospel would later receive for its portrayal of "the Jews." Most have viewed John's Gospel as being rather disparaging towards Judaism, and it is true that there is certainly a good degree of tension present in John's description of the relationship between the Early Christians and the Jewish community. However, that being said, as we can see from the introductory portion of his Gospel, his view on this matter was not as completely clear as has sometimes been suggested. While it is understandable that tension would exist between two rivaling religious groups in the same geographical area, it is unfair to generalize about John's feelings as they are certainly more complex than would be allowed by such a broad stroke.