Some Thoughts on the Prologue of John

Eric Francke

The first few verses in the Gospel of John (Verses 1 through 14) are the linchpin in the Christological question. It provides, at the very least, the framework for the theological statements of the later councils that were called to formally define the nature of Christ. Consequently, this section is perhaps the most debated section of the entire Bible. I hope the following will help put the text into it's proper historical and sociological context and help resolve the issue in the minds of at least a few. (EWF)

THE TEXT: Chapter 1 Prologue

Jn:1:1a: In the beginning was the Word (Logos), and the Word was with God.

The first sentence of the Gospel is one of the most decisive theological statements of any religion. The first phrase “In the beginning..” speaks simultaneously to both the Jew and Greek to a matter of first importance. To the Jew, it is an amendment to the beginning of the Torah (the Old Testament), Gen 1:1 “In the beginning…”. Yet the focus is on the Word, the Logos (#3056) of God, already present at creation. This also coincides with Psalm 33:6, which says, "By the word of Yahweh the heavens were made." Not only was the Jewish believer already familiar with the idea that the “Word” as an agent in Creation, the Palestinian Targums, the Aramaic translation of the Old Testament, use the Aramaic word Memra ("Word") actually as a proxy for God in many places: e.g. in Ex. 19:17, "And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God" (in the Masoretic Text), the Palestinian Targum reads "to meet the Word of God." Jewish people familiar with the Targums were familiar with "Memra" or “Word” as a designation for God.

For the Greeks, as a philosophical term, “Logos” meant the 'world-soul', or the soul of the universe. This was an all-pervading principle, the rational element of the universe. These concepts are at least as old as Heraclitus (6th cent. BC): the Logos is "always existent" and "all things happen through this Logos" [Frag. 1, 50, 54, 114]. During New Testament times, Philo of Alexandria, the Jewish philosopher, frequently mentions the “Logos", using the word over 1400 times in his writings. Although there was some variation between Philo’s writing and the other platonic philosophers, the theme of one transcendent and Almighty God who interacts with creation through the medium of His Logos, an emanation of Himself was commonly believed. The Stoics likewise held to the idea of the Logos as the Supreme governing force of the universe. It was the 'principle' that originated, permeated and directed all things. John’s use of “Logos” neither positively sides with Stoicism or Platonism, but cuts across both to exhibit a synergetic Being, who both represents the eternal, rational and divine principle of the philosophers, as well as personal creative agent who formed the universe, and acted as the surrogate equivalent for God as in the Hebrew tradition.

We can see from even the very first twelve English words in the text, that the Logos, the Word of God, in the culture of the time, was a term pregnant with meaning. The rest of the verse provides the capstone for the introduction of the Logos:

Jn1:1b: and the Word was God.

John confirms the identity of the Word of God. The Logos is truly God. This clear declaration has been the unanimous precept of the Christian church from its inception. In the history of the church, the Deity of Christ was held absolute by virtually all the church fathers. It wasn’t until the Bishop Arius in the 4rd century challenged it, that the need to formally define the essential relation between the Father and the Son (the Word) arose. The Council of Nicea in 325 AD consequently gave formal ratification to the language of Christ being of the same essence or nature as the Father. In recent times, The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (Jehovah’s Witnesses) has tried to resurrect the Arian position, and circumvent the truth of this verse by inserting the indefinite article “a” before “God”. Advancing the idea that Jesus is “a god” rather than God, not only is grammatically improbable, (a full discussion on the anarthrous predicate nominatives sentences is not within the scope of this paper), but as the discussion of the word “logos” has shown, quite nonsensical to the context of the verse. The “Logos” was already the visible extension of God Himself, His essence expressed to the material world.

Jn:1:2: The same was in the beginning with God.

John here opens the door for the greatest paradox of Christianity. Whereas the first verse stressed the essential unity and equivalence of the Logos with God, the second verse qualifies the Logos as also being “with” God in the beginning. To be “with” suggest a distinction of persons, or identities. It is not considered normal or logically conceivable for one to say “I was with myself today”. Two nouns “with” each other certainly have some distinct quality to make then two separate things. In Christian theology, the Logos is considered a separate “person” with respect to the relationship with the Father. It is equally true that they are one “being” in respect to substance or essence. Henceforth, the formal definition of the relationship of Christ to God the Father is described as one being, essence, or substance, yet still a separate person with respect to identity. When Origen of Alexandria discussed this verse in his Commentary of John he wrote in 231 AD, he wrote that the two errors that one could fall into, would be to either

“deny that the son has a distinct nature (read: personality) of his own besides that of the Father…or to they deny divinity of the Son, giving him a separate existence of His own, and making his sphere of essence to fall outside that of the Father.” (Commentary on John 2, 2).

In the early church, those two aberrant views of Christ did spring up. The first, which denies that Jesus had a separate personality from the Father, is called “Sabellianism” or “Modalism”. In that case, Jesus is fully identical with the Father. The distinction between the two is thought to be artificial, and only exists in the sense that God expresses himself in different modes, first the Father, then the Son, now the Holy Spirit. This view corresponds closely to “Pentecostal Oneness” church movement of today. The second view is the aforementioned Arianism, which is touted by Jehovah’s Witnesses, Dawn Bible Students, some Unitarians and a few other groups. In that case, Jesus maybe referred to as “God’s son”, a prophet, or similar role, but the biblical teaching of Christ’s deity is denied. The fact of Christ’s divinity was one of the benchmarks of the early apostolic church. The confession of the Lordship of Jesus, according to Romans 10:9,10, was the prime determinant to if one was saved or not.

Jn:1:3: All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

The role of the Logos in creation is echoed in Colossian 1:16 and Hebrews 1:10. In Colossians, the reference is to the “Son”. In Hebrews, the Son, as co-Creator, is referred to as “Lord”, and is equated in no uncertain terms with “Jehovah God” in the Old Testament (cf Psalm 102:24-27, the verse cited in Hebrews 1:10). As mentioned above, the Jewish believer in the first century was already acclimated to the idea that the “Word” was the surrogate for God.

Jn:1:4: In him was life; and the life was the light of men. Jn:1:5: And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

To most of us, the phrase “in him was life” may sound a bit superfluous. If we were talking about a sentient being, it would be assumed that it would have “life”. Here is another example, however, where the limitations of contemporary language sell us short on the meaning of the text. In the Greek language, there were several words for “life”, all which had their own nuances and insinuations. Two common words that are contrasted in the New Testament are “bios” (#979) and “zoe” (#2222) from which we derive such English words as “biology” and “zoology” respectively. The difference between the two can be summarized simply as being a distinction between a merely physical, or “biological” life, versus the divine, eternal and “spiritual” life. Zoe, which is the word used here, is frequently employed by John to be indicative of that type of spiritual life which is in union with God, and from which God’s favor flows. In John 6:53 for example, Jesus says “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you have no life (zoe) in you”. “Life” (zoe) is the qualitative state of communing with God. Jesus himself claims to be that life in John 14:6 “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”. He is the fountainhead and source of that life eternal. Accordingly, one may have “bios” life, and not have “zoe” life. Without the spiritual component of “zoe”, one is said to be “dead in their sins”.

The latter part of verse 4 and verse 5 posits the divine life in relation to the world. It is said to be a light shining in darkness, yet the darkness not comprehending it. To many in years past, this may have seemed like a poetic apology to say that Jesus was misunderstood, or a euphemistic way of saying that faith doesn’t always make sense. However, with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1945, this verse may take on a whole new meaning. One of most celebrated writings from the DSS is the “War Scroll”, sometimes referred to as the “War of the Sons of Light With the Sons of Darkness”. In the scroll, the theme of the battle between Light and Dark is central. If we look at the verse relative to this fact, we can get a truer meaner of the words. The word translated in the KJV as “comprehended” (Gr. Katalabemo, #2638) is actually used three other times in John (8:3, 4; 12:35). In the first two instances, it is in reference to the woman who was “taken” or apprehended, while in the act of adultery. Katalabemo is the word used to describe her capture. In the last reference (John 12:35), the “Light vs. Darkness” allusion is again employed. In this case, Jesus exhorts his disciples to “walk in the light” that the darkness not “overtake (Gr. Katalabemo) you”. It is clear from these examples that the best understanding of verse 5 is that the darkness does not “overtake” the light, rather than “comprehend”. This verse can be construed then as a declaration of Christ’s victory over darkness.

Jn:1:6: There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. Jn:1:7: The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. Jn:1:8: He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

John the Baptist was specially prepared and foreordained to “Make straight the way of the Lord”. He serves as a type and pattern for all of us. He “bears witness” to Christ, so that all would believe in him. In a sense, John the Baptist is the culmination. of all the Old Testament prophets. It is said of him in Matthew that “of all those born of women, none is greater than he (Matthew 11:11). There is little doubt that besides preaching on repentance, the bulk of his teaching was on the Messiah as foreshadowed in what we call the Old Testament. The effect of his preaching still carried effect years after his death, even as far as Ephesus. It is in Ephesus that we see Apollos, who was “accurately teaching about the Lord, having only understood the baptism of John” (see Acts 18:24-28).

Jn:1:9: That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. Jn:1:10: He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. Jn:1:11: He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

The light, it is said here “lighteth every man that cometh into the world”. This is a point that has been sadly neglected by most evangelicals today. To a degree, every person in this world has received a measure of the “light”. This light can be thought of as a “general revelation” that God has bestowed on everyone. An example might be the presuppositional categories of “good”, “truth”, and “right” that we all hold to. Although there may be disagreements on exactly what specifics fall into each category, we all agree that “good” is more acceptable and virtuous than “bad”, “truth” is more beneficial than “error” and “right” is more desirable than “wrong”. Moreover, most cultures have quite independently developed similar ideals of morals for each category. Kindness, love and mercy are better than cruelty, hate and judgment. This innate morality was been universally acknowledged has no explanation outside it being the “light, which lighteth every man”. These universals, serving as fingerprints of God upon his creation, show us His character traits; he is the “summa” or highest expression of each. Thus, for an atheist or skeptic to attempt to argue whether the existence of God is “true” or not, has already conceded the rhetorical ground that the innate quality of “truth” is something to be sought. In acknowledging that, there is no justification for such a presupposition outside of the conclusion of universal absolutes that are inherent in the human race. The source of those absolutes, are none other than God.

The knowledge of this “general revelation”, however, is not to be considered an end in itself. God’s general revelation is merely the precursor to his specific revelation, namely Jesus Christ. The logical progression would be as follows: To understand that there is a Creator, who is the highest expression of the qualities of “Holy”, “Righteous”, and “Loving” immediately leads us to the assessment that we are not. Unless we are completely delusional, we must recognize that we ourselves are frequently unholy, unrighteous, and unloving. Despite the fact that we know that it is better to do what is “Good” we all err, and frequently do that which we ourselves know is “bad” or wrong. We, consequently, are in need of rectification and justification before God. Christ is presented in the Bible as that Redeemer who brings justification. To experience that redemption is to “know” Jesus. Here we are told that it is as simple as “receiving” him, that is, to acknowledge him as the Redeemer, Savior, and atoning sacrifice for our sins and shortcomings.

Jn:1:12: But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Jn:1:13: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

In just the last 100 or so years, a fairly sizable error has appeared in the Christendom. It is the erroneous idea that all humans are in essence “children of God”. Although it is true that every human bears the stamp of the “likeness” of God (Genesis 5:1) that does not make us “children” of His by nature. Because of our sin, we are “by nature, children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3), and “alienated from life of God” (Ephesians 4:18). Jesus went so far as to call a number of his critics “of their father, the devil” (John 8:44). Biblically, as shown in verse 12 above, we are adopted into his family by receiving Christ. Likewise, we read in his John’s epistle (1 John 3:1) “ Behold, what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we might be called children of God”. The Bible is consistent with the theme that Jesus is God’s “only-begotten” Son. That is, he is the only Son by nature. When we come to Christ, however, we are given the right to legally be “sons (and daughters, as implied) of God”. The process is referred to as being “born from above”or “born again”, or as v. 13 says, born of God. Jesus offers another foreshadowing of this process in John 12:24 where he says “unless a grain of wheat fall to the ground and die, it remains but one, but if it die, it will bear much fruit”. Jesus intended, by making atonement for our sins, to essentially replicate his “sonship” status in us. The Book of Hebrews confirms this in Chapter 2 verse 10 where it says “For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” Therefore, by this adoption, God is truly made our “abba” Father, and we are therefore made “heirs” of God in Christ (Romans 8:15-17).

Jn:1:14: And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

Having introduced us to the heavenly Logos, John now makes it clear that the Logos truly dwelt among us. The first part of this verse would have been somewhat scandalous to the many of the Greek philosophies of the day. Whereas Platonism was comfortable with the Logos being the manifestation of God to the world, having the Logos “made flesh” would have been repugnant to most. The flesh (gr. Sarx # 4561) was frequently viewed as a sort of prison house for the spirit. The whole purpose of having a “Logos” was to have an intermediary to act as a “buffer” in between God and his material creation. Many neo-Platonists of the day felt that the whole material universe (and particularly our “flesh”) was so evil that God was wholly transcendent from His creation. To say that the Logos was “made” flesh would have been considered quite impossible. Nevertheless, John affirms that Christ really did come in the flesh. Later in the century, a movement called “Gnosticism” (an expression of hyper-Platonism both in and outside the church) would try to make the case that Christ didn’t really have flesh, but only “seemed” to have flesh. John forcefully calls this view the “spirit of the anti-Christ” in his first epistle. (1 John 4:2,3). For the first 300 years of Christianity, it was the Gnostic heresy that kept the Christian teachers and apologists most busy. A large part of the writing we have from that period is devoted to refuting the dozens of Gnostic sects that popped up. As a side note, it may be pointed out that the extreme “anti-flesh” Platonism had a discernible effect on the practice of the church from about the 4th century on in the form of the Monastic or Ascetic movement. In this movement, church leaders held to the innate sinfulness of flesh to the point that marriage was frowned upon, and austere treatment of the body was enjoined. Although it is true that the “flesh wars against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh” (Galatians 5:17), the gospel teaches that the flesh is subdued by “reckoning” it dead, rather than abusing it. Paul actually shows his disdain for those who imagine that severely treating their bodies was an integral part of holiness (see Col. 2:2-23).

The second clause of the verse affirms that the Logos dwelt (gr. Skenos, #4637) amongst us. The word usage here is frequently translated “tabernacle” in many other places. The word picture that is brought to mind (since this indeed is the Greek word used in the Septuagint) is that of the tabernacle of Moses, the tent structure that held the Ark of the Covenant. In that illustration, God’s presence was dwelling within the Holy of Holies, among the Israelites. Likewise, the Logos was made incarnate among his people again, this time, in a tabernacle of flesh.

Jn:1:15: John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me. Jn:1:16: And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace. Jn:1:17: For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. Jn:1:18: No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.

Looking at Verse 17, the dichotomy of covenants is here recognized. The Law came through Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. The law is frequently contrasted with grace throughout Paul’s epistles. The structure of the sentence is not to suggest that there was no grace or truth in the Mosaic covenant, but rather that there was a radical change as to how God related to mankind. Most of Galatians, Romans, Ephesians, and many of Jesus parables are either directly or by means of allegory addressing the distinction between the two. In a nutshell, it is this: the Law is the expression of God’s absolute moral code. Any violation of that code, and one is considered a transgressor. Grace, on the other hand, is God’s unmerited favor. Grace begins with the premise that everyone is a transgressor, yet God’s mercy will overshadow the just judgment that we have earned. Whereas the law is primarily concerned with our actions, grace hinges on one action, Christ’s atoning sacrifice. It is Christ’s sacrifice that pays the sin-debt that we have merited under the Law, and allows God to show mercy, while still maintaining his justice.

Verse 18 is one of the few verses where there is a variance between the existing Greek manuscripts. For the majority of variations that exist, most are merely issues of case, tense or inclusion/exclusion of words that are immaterial to the meaning of the verse. Verse 18, however, is a little different in that the question as to whether the “only begotten Son”, or “the only begotten God” is the correct rendering. In the Greek, the words are fairly close (hios is “Son”, and theos is “God”), so a simple scribal error is likely at the root of the problem. The “Byzantine” family of texts (the majority of manuscripts, and the ones that the King James is based on) favors the word “Son”. The “Alexandrian” family of manuscripts (which represent some of the oldest in existence) favors “God”. For most of us, it matters little since it doesn’t change anything theologically. The Son is God, so there is no major concern.

It is interesting to note however, that the Jehovah’s Witnesses favor the “Only begotten god” reading, since it supports their contention that “god” is a term rightly used with respect to a being who has been “begotten”, which in their thinking, means “created”. Although the Alexandrian manuscripts are the oldest New Testament manuscripts in existence, and they utilize the “God” reading, I think that “Son” is more likely the original word in this case. I base that on the fact that Irenaeus, one of the more prolific of the early church fathers, quotes this verse three times in “Against Heresies”. Irenaeus wrote before any of the oldest extant manuscripts were copied, so he is an important source for helping to determine the best text. In his writing, he cites the verse first as “Only begotten son”. In his second citation of the verse, he says “Only begotten Son of God”, and lastly, the “son” is dropped in a later book, leaving “Only begotten God”. It isn’t hard to see the metamorphosis from “Son” to “God” as following the same process, but on a larger scale.

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