The Structure of John
The large building blocks John used for the construction of his gospel are fairly easy to identify. The gospel begins with an eighteen-verse introduction that is usually called the prologue. From 1:19 to almost the end of chapter 12 the public ministry of Jesus is the focus of attention. Chapters 13-17 focus in on the last few hours of Jesus with his disciples. Chapters 18 and 19 deal with the crucifixion and chapters 20 and 21 with the resurrection and resurrection appearances.
However, though those main sections are easy to see as a whole the exact edges are sometimes fuzzy and the flow of thought inside each section is not always clear. The verses of this lesson illustrate the problem. It is quite clear that verses 1-18 form a special unit. They speak in abstract, elevated, theological terms about Jesus. Verse 19 abruptly shifts to specific, down-to-earth narrative about John the Baptist and his dealings with the Jews. There is a clear shift from the simple profundity of the prologue to the nuts and bolts of everyday living. But though the shift is clear there is also clear continuity. John the Baptist was already introduced in the prologue. In fact verses 1-34 are bound together by the theme of John's witness to Jesus.
John 1:1-18 - The Prologue
The prologue is marked by the themes of the Word and the witness of John. Clustered around the "Word" are a series of abstract words and concepts. They include: beginning, creation, light, life, truth, grace, glory, and the world. This is the high language of theology and philosophy. Yet moving among these terms is a man sent from God who testifies (i.e. gives evidence) about this "Word."
John's use of these abstract terms is part of his scheme to paint a picture of Jesus that is very different from that found in the Synoptic gospels. Mark introduces Jesus at the beginning of his ministry. Matthew places Jesus in the context of Jewish history by his opening genealogy and birth narrative. Luke sets Jesus at the intersection of Judaism's pious hopes and the Roman Empire's march through history. As valid and interesting as those introductions may be they all allow the reader to say, "All that's very nice, but Jesus doesn't really concern me and my life."
John, however, sets Jesus in the context of the creation and meaning of the world. Verse 3 indicates that reality is dependent upon Jesus. The meaning of life (v. 4) and truth (v. 14) are somehow connected to Jesus. No one can accept John's picture of Jesus and walk away saying, "That doesn't matter to me." But to really understand John's picture of Jesus we need insight into his use of the word, "Word."
John 1:1-5 - The Word Introduced
The most significant word in the prologue is "Word" which is used as a title for Jesus. The Greek word for "Word" would be written in English letters as logos (from which we get logic, logo, and related words). But a Greek dictionary would not have given all that John means to say about Jesus when he called him the logos.
Jesus is rarely called the "Word" outside this prologue. Perhaps its unusualness is proportional to its significance. To describe Jesus as the Word of God points to a basic truth. A word is a message, a communication. Jesus is the communication of a message from God. A word expresses the thoughts of the innermost person. Jesus is the expression of the heart of God. A person's word is a statement of that person's nature or character. Jesus is the perfect expression of the nature and character of God.
That much is common to the way every culture understands a word. The author and first readers of the fourth gospel would have understood much more by designating Jesus as the Word. In Jewish thought a word was a powerful and effective thing. Words accomplished things. Genesis 1 describes God as creating simply by means of a word. To say a blessing was to create a blessing. Likewise, to pronounce a curse was to actually bring evil upon the cursed one. In Genesis 27:30-40 when Esau asked his father, Isaac, to retract the blessing given to Jacob Isaac refused - the blessing had already been spoken and was effective - it could not be retracted. To call Jesus the "word" was to attribute to him the ability to make things happen.
Intertestamental Judaism and especially the Targums (paraphrases of the Old Testament from the Hebrew language into the Aramaic language) used the expression "word of God" as a circumlocution for the name of God. Because of their extreme reverence for the name of God they avoided pronouncing it and would use substitutions instead such as "heaven" or "the word of God." This meant that the phrase, "Word of God," did not mean Scripture for the Jews of Jesus' time as it does for us. Rather, it was a reference to God himself.
Another clue to the meaning of the word logos in John's prologue comes from the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament (Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes) and the Wisdom literature of the intertestamental period (Ecclesiasticus and Wisdom of Solomon especially). This Wisdom literature often personified wisdom. Wisdom was spoken of as a person who was present with God in creation, providing life and light for the world. The apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus even describes Wisdom as being created before all things (created before creation). Wisdom was seen as almost eternally pre-existent with God. The intertestamental book, The Wisdom of Solomon, actually identified the Wisdom of God and the Word of God (Wisdom of Solomon 9:1-2). Thus, for Jews in the time of John, the phrase, "Word of God," would have pointed to the personified Wisdom of God who was eternally co-existent with God and God's active co-worker in Creation. Even though the Jews were ferociously monotheistic "the Word of God" spoke to them of a person who was with God and almost was God.
The logos also was a word that would communicate very profound concepts to the Greek world. Greek philosophy had come to use logos for some profound ideas. Logos meant more than just single words; it also referred to Reason and to the principle of order that held the Universe together. In some ways the Logos was the mind of God that controlled the totality of the world. It was logos that made the world orderly rather than chaotic. Further, Logos should control individual persons. The Reason of the Universe should enable the individual to reasonably decide between right and wrong. Philo of Alexandria, writing at the very time of Jesus, described Logos as the tiller with which God, the Pilot of the Universe, steers all things. In that sense the "Word" was an intermediary by which God related to the world and worked in it.
Thus both the Greek and Jewish patterns of thought attributed profound significance to the "Word." In both the Word was associated with God in the creation or maintenance of the world. In both the Word was almost a substitute expression for God Himself. In Greek thought the Word related God and the world to the individual. We can draw further conclusions about the way logos would have communicated in the first century world. Perhaps no other concept could have been chosen by the gospel writer to so broadly express the awesome significance of Jesus.
Verse 1 describes the Word in three ways. The existence of the Word at the beginning is affirmed. The relationship of the Word to God is described. Finally, the actual character or nature of the Word is declared. The first affirmation is of the existence of the Word in the beginning. By doing this the gospel echoes almost exactly the opening words of Genesis 1:1, "In the beginning God . . . ." Thus Jesus is paced at God's side as far back in time as the Bible goes. The next phrase, however, refines the relationship between Jesus and God. "The Word was with God" does not pick up a significant implication of the Greek text. It might be better translated, "The Word was face to face with God." The relationship of Jesus and God was more than side-by-side; it was a face to face relationship indicating far more intimacy than that of simply being co-workers. This prepares for the final phrase, "The Word was God."
The affirmation that Jesus is God is not a startling or difficult thought for present day Christians. It may not have been for John's readers, but it was difficult for many first century Christians of Jewish heritage. Every Jew began every morning with these words in prayer, "Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God is one." To claim that Jesus was God would be a very difficult idea for Jews to assimilate. Perhaps the point that we should understand is not just that Jesus was (and is) God, but that when Jesus is seen, God is seen. The Logos provides us access and understanding into the very nature of God.
That does not mean that the Logos exhausts the being of God. John does not say God was the Logos. We struggle with the mystery of this verse. Jesus is said both to be with God and to be God. That speaks of Jesus being distinguishable and yet identical with God. Our minds cannot hold the ultimate logic of both statements together. We believe, but there is a limit to our understanding. John could have easily said as Paul did in Ephesians 5:32, "This is a great mystery."
Verses 2 and 3 return to the eternal existence of the Logos with God and the role of the "Word" in creation. "And apart from Him not even one thing was made." This emphasis on Christ as creator reflects an important insight from Jewish thought. To affirm that nothing was made apart from Christ is to affirm that His imprint is stamped on all creation. All creation owes a certain accountability to the Creator. As modern science pursues the mystery of life in physical and chemical terms, the Bible-believing Christian cannot evade the meaning of John 1:2-3. We are responsible for the life we live to Christ as our Creator. The meaning of our life will never be embraced by DNA studies. The imprint of Christ on our neighbor and our universe will always be a part of our pursuit of understanding. The creation can never be considered evil from a Christian standpoint, but we must be the people most concerned that evil does not corrupt it.
Verse 4 introduces the terms, "life" and "light," in relation to Jesus. Life was in the logos. The energy and vitality, the creativity and feeling that we call life has its source in Christ. If life has its existence in the logos then if there is no logos there is no life. John wants to make Christ absolutely the essence and meaning of life. No Christ - no life. We are too tempted to spiritualize this truth. No Christ - no spiritual life. For John the difference between life and mere existence is Christ. If we agree with John the way we spend our time and money, the things we think important and funny, and commitments of our energy and interest will all be changed. We have let the world define life for us too long. Life is in Christ.
Verse 4 goes on to declare that this Life was also the light of mankind. Verse 5 declares that Jesus is involved in a great struggle against darkness. Here is an example of John's black and white thinking that we may not be able to appreciate like the people of the first century did. The flick of a light switch has made light so easy for us that most of us do not really understand darkness. We do not have to deal with its terror, its unknown character, its evil-cloaking nature.
The people of the first century understood the fearfulness, the insecurity, the lurking of evil that went with darkness. Darkness was a metaphor that spoke very realistically to them of the way sin worked. In contrast light dispelled darkness; light overcame darkness; light exposed and defeated sin. And John tells us that Jesus was that light. Darkness struggled to overpower the light, to hold it down, to extinguish it, but the darkness failed. The Greek text notes that the Light we know as Jesus continuously shines and the darkness cannot knock it out.
John 1:6-13 - The Word's Witness
In the midst of this abstract and esoteric language about Jesus, John (the gospel writer) introduces John (the Baptizer or Baptist). The role of John the Baptizer in the fourth gospel is always to bear witness to Jesus. This subordinate role for John the Baptist is especially emphasized in the gospel of John.
John the Baptist is sent from God; Jesus is face to face with God and is God. John is the witness; Jesus is the one witnessed to. John is the witness; Jesus is the Light. John gives evidence so the world can believe. But John the gospel writer cannot keep his attention on John the Baptist and off Jesus very long. By verse 9 the focus has shifted back to Christ.
Jesus is described as the "true light" in verse 9. In the Jewish mind that phrase would mean the authentic and dependable light. The first century, like our century, experienced many persons claiming to provide the solutions to the wrongs of the world. We might say that there were many lights, but darkness kept overpowering them all. All, except for Jesus, did not meet the test of experience and time. Jesus was the genuine light because he proved to be reliable. All the forces of darkness could not and have not overpowered him. And the good news of verse 9 is that that authentic and dependable light enlightens every person. The Greek construction indicates that enlightenment is continuously available from Christ.
What is not clear in the Greek text is whether John (the gospel writer) meant that Jesus enlightens every person who is coming into the world. Or did he mean that Jesus was the true light that was coming into the world. Regardless of how we choose to read the text the term "world" has been introduced. Verse 10 paints the incredible picture! Christ, the light, was in the world. In fact, the world had been made by Him. But the world did not know Him. The Greek might well be translated, "the world did not recognize Him." The inability of the world (and of us) to recognize Jesus is special concern of John's. To fail to recognize the one who created us must mean that we have become incredibly blinded by having become absorbed with ourselves.
The tragedy of self-centeredness is heightened in verse 11. Jesus came to His own possessions and His own people did not receive Him. John probably has the Jews in mind here. John is especially perplexed and upset by the Jewish rejection of Jesus. Here we can see what a horrible thing it was from his perspective. Christ's own people didn't even recognize and receive Him!
But John is always aware that the rejecters' loss is the believers' gain. That is the point of verse 12. As many as did receive Him, to them He gave the authority to become the children of God; it is for those who trust in His name. Some people did receive Jesus. John defines that receiving as believing or trusting in Jesus' name. Believing in Jesus' name is not a magical formula but accepting and living on the basis of what Jesus' name proclaims Him to be.
The meaning of living our lives on the basis of what Jesus' name proclaims Him to be takes a lifetime to work out. However, such believing immediately authorizes us to become the children of God. The word authority or power in the original language meant the legal right or the personal ability to accomplish or receive something. It speaks of practical possibilities. As Lindars notes, "John does not mean that those who respond have a mysterious power within themselves, nor does he mean that they have personal rights against God. He means that the way is opened for God's purpose to be fulfilled in them." John wants us to know that through Jesus the way is open for God's purpose of making us His children (those who share His name and nature) to be fulfilled. Good news, indeed!
Verse 13 attempts to further define those who may become children of God. As Beasley-Murray declares, "To 'become children of God' is a work wholly of God's operation." Three different expressions of human reproduction are denied as effective in creating children of God. Rather the children of God are those who are born of (the Greek literally has out of) God. What does John mean by this figure of speech? We expect a child born to a human father to share certain characteristics of the father; to resemble the father in noticeable - though not necessarily all - ways. Surely, the same would be true of a child born of God.
John 1:14-18 - The Word in Flesh
Three major new thoughts appear in this section: the Word become flesh, grace, and we/us - the community of believers.
Verse 14 is so important that William Barclay calls it, "the sentence for the sake of which John wrote the Fourth Gospel." For the first time since verse 1 the Logos is mentioned. The deity of the "Word" is not the last word of the prologue. The "Word" became flesh. Flesh, in typical biblical thought, stands for the whole person. It is the human nature as distinct and separate from God; the human nature in all of its weakness and susceptibility to sin. (In the New Testament flesh as human nature does not imply a naturally sinful nature. Rather flesh as human nature is the foothold sin uses to gain control over a person.) Phillips insightfully renders this phrase, "The Word [of God] became a human being."
Further, this "Word" pitched his tent among us. The word usually translated "dwelled" meant to live in a tent. Some believe that the use of the verb for tenting indicates the temporary nature of Jesus' sharing earthly life with us. However, the text suggests that his tenting was no more temporary than ours. Verse 14 strongly emphasizes the way in which Jesus identified with us. "Flesh" is about the harshest term John could have used to describe the humanity of Jesus. The tenting reference suggests that Jesus did not come to live in comfort among us, but to share the roughness, the pain, and the temporariness of our lives.
It is significant that it was in the flesh and in the tenting experience of Jesus that we saw his glory. If John was thinking in his original language (which was quite likely) he may very well have been playing on words. In Hebrew the verb "to tent" was shachan, which was a cognate of the word shechinah the word often used in the Old Testament for the glory of God. The root idea of shechinah is the presence of God - that is the meaning of glory. It was in the becoming flesh and in the tenting experience of Jesus that we saw God present and at work. That was true in the Incarnation; it has always been true of the God of the Bible. He is especially present in the hurting, rejected, and rough edges of human life.
The amazing thing is that though the Logos has become flesh and identified with our weakness and human frailty, we see him full of grace and truth. John notes in verse 18 that no one has ever seen God. However, Christ has revealed God to us and the phrase "full of grace and truth" expresses that. "Full of grace and truth" must represent a common Old Testament expression, "abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness." It is found in Exodus 34:6 to describe God. Here grace points to God's constant covenant love. The Hebrew word that is being represented (hesed) has been called the agape of the Old Testament. In Christ we see God's constant fidelity, His steadfast love regardless of our merit or worth.
If our understanding of grace as hesed, God's constant covenant love, is correct then verse 17 notes that Christ has brought the fulfillment of Old Testament expectations. The Law was given through Moses. It spoke (even in Exodus 34:6) of abounding steadfast love and faithfulness. Grace and truth (the steadfast love and faithfulness spoken of in the Law) have now arrived in Christ. The constancy of God's grace is reiterated in verse 16. "Out of His fullness we all have received, grace on top of grace." Beasley-Murray notes that the Greek preposition, "appears to indicate that fresh grace replaces grace received, and will do so perpetually." The grace we experience in Christ is inexhaustible. Having affirmed the perpetual and inexhaustible grace of God in Christ, John doesn't use the word grace again in the entire gospel.
It is also important to notice that John first uses the first person plural in verses 14 and 16. The glorious vision of grace and truth does not come to everybody in the universe. It is for us - the community of believers. Neither is the Incarnation a private mystery for me to enjoy. It is revealed to us - the fellowship of the faithful. In fact, to speak of the church as the Body of Christ is to understand that God willed incarnation to continue by means of a community. We have received; we enjoy the blessing; it is ours (not just mine), blessed be His name.
John 1:19-34 - The Witness of John
Bible scholars have long noticed that the fourth gospel treats John the Baptist differently than do the Synoptic Gospels. John (the gospel writer) does not describe John the Baptist's ministry or message. He is not treated as an independent person. It is not directly stated in John that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. Further, John 4:1 says that Jesus baptized and made more disciples than John the Baptist did - at least the Christian movement made more disciples. Everywhere we see John the Baptist in this gospel his own work and message is downplayed and Jesus is elevated. Many scholars suspect that John (the gospel writer) is writing against followers of John the Baptist who were still preaching John the Baptist seventy years after his death. We may never know whether that was the case or not, but it is very clear that John the Baptist's ministry is to elevate Christ.
John 1:19-28 - The Negative Witness
Verses 20-21 give us John the Baptist's own witness to what he was not. He declared that he was not the Messiah (the Christ), not Elijah, and not the Prophet. The Greek construction is quite emphatic when John the Baptist denies that he is the Messiah in verse 20. Some ancient literature suggests that John the Baptist was considered the Messiah by some people. "Definitely not," is the conclusion of our gospel. The denial that he was Elijah is more problematic. Malachi 4:5 suggests the Elijah would come before the Messiah. Matthew 11:14 clearly states that John the Baptist was Elijah. John, however, wants us to know that John the Baptist denied the title. There was a popular tradition in Judaism at that time that Elijah would anoint the Messiah and thus reveal the identity of the Messiah both to Israel and to the Messiah himself. The context of our passage shows that John held no such view of either Elijah or the Messiah.
The final title, "the Prophet," appears to be based on Jewish expectations of a prophet like Moses who would arise before the Messiah. Deuteronomy 18:15 and 18 provide the Scriptural background for that hope. However, as in the case of Elijah, popular preaching had elevated this prophet to a status beside or above the messiah. John will not accept such an understanding though John the Baptist was, in fact, regarded as a prophet by the Jews and early Christians.
Verse 23 provides a positive identification. John the Baptist is the voice of one crying in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord." John is here quoting Isaiah 40:3. Significantly, all four gospels quote Isaiah 40:3 with regard to John the Baptist (Luke pointedly extends the quotation to Isaiah 40:5). Isaiah 40 is a very pivotal chapter in that Old Testament book. It marks the turning point from prophecies of judgment to prophecies of God's deliverance. It is the beginning of the good news in the book of Isaiah (see Commentary in Isaiah 40). The gospel writers saw the connection. Jesus is the good news of God's salvation promised in Isaiah 40-66 and so John the Baptist points to that as he issues his message of preparation.
When the Pharisees challenged John about why he baptized if he was not the Messiah nor Elijah, he responded by pointing to Jesus. In verses 26, 31, and 33 he makes it clear that he only baptizes with water. The one who is coming will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Verse 26 also repeats the theme of Jesus being unrecognized by his people that was first expressed in verse 10. "One whom you do not know stands in your midst."
John 1:29-34 - The Positive Witness
John has two important things to say about Jesus in verses 29-34. First, he describes him as, "The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." The lamb was an obvious reference to the sacrificial system of the Old Testament though the sacrificed lamb was not usually described as taking away sin. Some believe that the Passover lamb is in mind here. Certainly John's gospel will present Jesus in that role at the Crucifixion. Others have suggested a reference to the offering of a lamb every morning and evening in the daily whole burnt offering at the temple. Others appeal to the intertestamental picture of a horned lamb as the symbol of a great conqueror. Probably the reference to the suffering servant as a lamb in Isaiah 53:7 is in mind here because Isaiah 53:12 goes on to say that the servant will bear the sin of many.
Secondly, Jesus is described here as the possessor of the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist states that he had seen the Spirit come upon Jesus and remain o n him. He also affirms that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit. That the Spirit came upon Jesus is an important fulfillment of Isaiah 61:1ff and portrays Jesus as the agent of God's salvation. That Jesus is the possessor of the Spirit and that He baptizes with the Holy Spirit is important for us also. If Jesus needed the Spirit (and all four gospels imply that the Spirit was somehow the enabling factor for Jesus to begin His ministry), then we must need the Spirit even more. Ministry apart from the Spirit is impossible for us.
Furthermore, Jesus is the giver of the Spirit. This means that the Spirit is not an independent entity that does its own thing and goes its own way. Rather the Spirit is channeled to us through Christ and the Spirit does the work of Christ in us. The Spirit will lead no one in a way contrary to the nature and work of Christ. For John that work of the Spirit leads him to the climax of his witness expressed in verse 34. "I have seen and I have witnessed that this one is the son of God." John the Baptist thus becomes the first in whom the purpose of the gospel (John 20:30-31) is accomplished.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you begin each day pray for the Lord to speak to you through the Holy Spirit as you open yourself to His Word.
First Day: Read the notes on John 1:1-34. Look up the Scripture references given.
1. Identify one or two new thoughts that caught your attention.
2. Select a truth for which you see a particular personal application in your own life. Describe how it would apply to you.
Second Day: Read John 1:35-51. Then focus in on verses 35-42.
1. List the people involved in the chain of witnessing that led to Simon's name being changed to Peter. Jot down any insights into witnessing that you receive.
2. Words that are repeated and appear three or more times in a paragraph are usually very important. List two or three words that you consider important from verses 35-42. Why are they important?
3. Jesus' words in verse 39, "Come and you will see," were an invitation for the two men to examine his life. Could you invite people seeking Christ to come and examine your life? What are some things you would want to change before you gave such an invitation?
Third Day: Read John 1:35-51. Now focus in on verses 43-51.
1. How did Philip describe Jesus to Nathanael? What ideas does that generate about ways we can witness for Christ?
2. What kind of change of attitude does Nathanael demonstrate from verse 46 to verse 49? What brought about this change in attitude?
3. Verse 51 harks back to Genesis 28:10-19. Read those verses in Genesis and reflect on the meaning of Jesus as the ladder or stairway to heaven. In what ways does Jesus fulfill the promise of those verses?
Fourth Day: Read John 2:1-22. Then focus in in verses 1-12.
1. In what ways does Jesus' mother demonstrate her confidence in him?
2. Verse 11 states that Jesus revealed his glory in the sign done at Cana. Describe how these verses illustrate John 1:14.
3. Many scholars believe John 2:1-11 is "parable in life." Read Matthew 9: 14-17 and describe how the action of Jesus in John 2:1-11 illustrates the passage in Matthew.
Fifth Day: Read John 2:13-25. Now focus in on verses 13-22.
1. Read the account of the cleansing of the temple in either Matthew 21:12-13 or Mark 11:15-17 or Luke 19:45-46. What key phrase or phrases of Jesus found in these gospels does John omit?
2. What are some reasons Jesus would have wanted to cleanse the temple? Which ones fit best with the account of the Synoptics? Which reasons fit best with John's account? Why?
3. In our passage Jesus compares the temple with his own body. Read Ezekiel 47:1-12. What aspects of Ezekiel 47:1-12 find expression in Jesus or in the work of the Spirit whom Jesus sends forth?
Sixth Day: Read John 2:13-25. Focus on verses 23-25.
1. What is the common element of John 2:11, 22, 23, and 20:31?
2. Verse 24 indicates that Jesus did not entrust himself to everyone. What are some things people do in response to Jesus so that he should not entrust himself to them?
3. Verse 25 states that Jesus knew what was in everyone. Based on the first two chapters of John what can we say that Jesus knew about human beings? Give chapter and verse numbers with each answer.