John 1:1-18 | In the Beginning
by Lindsay Kennedy
The beginning of every good story is important. It places the reader in the story’s world, gives them a rough map, points out some important people, and gives them a gentle push to start their journey.
The prologue of John’s Gospel is unique compared to the other three Gospels. With its poetic prologue, John 1:1–18 is much like the opening song of a Disney movie that introduces major characters and themes from a fly-over camera view before the narrative itself begins.
When I was a kid, I used to hate the songs in these movies. I didn’t like that most of them slowed, or even stopped, the narrative. “Just get back to the story!” I’ve since come to appreciate that these songs usually play an important role in adding depth to the characters. By interrupting the narrative, songs often allow the character time to reveal their motives or conflict. I recently watched the live-action remake of Aladdin and Princess Jasmine’s character had an added depth that was largely due to giving her more meaningful songs.
John 1:1–18 plays a similar role. Rather than being a skippable introduction, it gives a theological depth that prepares us for what follows. John even “spoils the ending” by keeping no secrets about his main character, Jesus. Within the first verses of John 1, we not only find major themes to be unfolded in the rest of the Gospel, we also find support for the deity of Jesus and the doctrine of the Trinity.
In the Beginning
John 1:1 begins with an allusion to Genesis 1:1. However, John introduces a character that was not clearly present in Genesis: “the Word.” Is John “changing” the text by adding “the Word” at the original creation? No; rather, he is expanding upon what is there. In Genesis 1, God created by speaking. It was through his words that God created and assigned meaning to what he created. Similarly, John says that God made everything through “the Word.”
But is John overreaching when he treats God’s words like a person? Of course, the Trinity is not abundantly clear in the Old Testament, but what John is doing here is not illegitimate if we keep the rest of the Old Testament in view. As early as Genesis 15:1, we are told that God’s word came to Abram in a vision. How does God’s word appear in a vision? Something similar happens in Jeremiah, where “the word of the LORD came to him” and touched him (Jer 1:4, 9). It appears that the LORD’s word is more than just sounds coming from his mouth, but a unique Person that is intimately tied to him. Isn’t that exactly what John means when he says the Word was with God and the Word was God? The Word both is God and is distinct from him.
Word Become Flesh
As the conduit of God’s creative work, this Word is a life-giver. He is also the source of light. In the beginning, God created light, dividing light from darkness and day from night. Light is required for life and for seeing.
In verse 14, John reveals that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Interestingly, the word for “dwelled” could also be translated “tabernacled.” YHWH dwelled with his people through the tabernacle and temple, and similarly—yet very differently—he dwelled in the person of Jesus. His glory, usually experienced in the tabernacle, was seen in a human.
This idea helps explains the reference to Moses and the law in verse 17. Some think that John is contrasting the law with grace, as if they were at odds. Some assume that the law is bad and is the opposite of grace. But the Old Testament doesn’t view the law this way. The previous verse tells us that we received “grace upon grace” from God. That seems to include the law in verse 17. So the idea is not contradiction between law and grace, but progression. This is seen when we think again of the temple: as God was experienced in the tabernacle, now he is experienced in the person of Jesus. While God “gave” the law through Moses, he actually “came” as Jesus to bring grace and truth.
So more than appearing in a vision or in the temple, this Word actually became human. In doing so, he entered the broken creation and even took it upon himself, yet without sin. In what follows, we will see what happens when the Word, the source of light and life, enters a creation characterized by death and darkness.
Believing in His Name
In John 20:31, we are told why John wrote this Gospel: that we may believe and have life. Returning to the prologue, there is a promise that those who believe in Christ will become children of God. They will be (re)born into God’s family, and able to experience the intimate relationship between Father and Son by means of the Spirit.
All of these themes are scattered throughout the Gospel. As the music of the prologue fades, we are now ready to enter John’s story.