The Light Shines in the Darkness: A Study in John's Prologue
The Light Shines in the Darkness (audio)
A Study in John's Prologue, part 1
December 23, 2012
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The first thing to note is how similar the beginning of St. John’s Gospel is to the beginning of Genesis. Surely you have noticed it. They both begin with the phrase, “In the beginning…” It is undoubtedly John’s intention to take our minds back to Genesis with its narrative of creation. In Genesis we read, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). John begins his narrative of Jesus Christ—his Gospel—similarly, with the same point of reference, “in the beginning.” In the beginning of what, you might ask? In the beginning of all things. At the point of the origin of the universe.
And why does John wish us to think about that particular moment in history? In order to affirm several very remarkable things about our Lord Jesus Christ. What things? First, that he existed from before the foundation of the world: “In the beginning was the Word,” he says. In a few moments we will talk about the significance of the title which he gives here to Jesus—the Word. But for now let us simply note that John affirms the existence of Jesus—albeit in a different form—since before the beginning of the world. Mark very carefully what he says, “In the beginning was (h+n) the word.” John is not telling us that Jesus came into being, but that he already had his being, when the world began. Listen to Jesus’ own testimony concerning this in chapter 17 of this same Gospel.
Father…I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed (Jn. 17:1, 4-5).
The man, Jesus of Nazareth, who went about doing good and teaching people about the kingdom of heaven and calling them to repentance; this man, known as a rabbi, hailed by many as a prophet, whom some even confessed to be the Messiah, was different from every other man who ever lived before and who has ever lived since, in that his existence did not begin with his birth, nor even with his conception in the womb of his mother. No, his existence can be traced all the way back to before the beginning of the word, even to eternity.
The second thing that John affirms about Jesus is that he existed in the beginning with God (pro<v to<n qeo>n). The Greek preposition means more than the English “with,” which implies only “alongside of” or “in the presence of.” But the Greek preposition means, instead, motion toward, and implies mutual interaction, communication, fellowship. The verse is teaching us that not only did the Word (Jesus) exist in the beginning, but also that he had the closest, most intimate fellowship possible with God.
In the third place it teaches us that the Word was God (qeo<v h+n oJ lo>gov). There is a difficulty and a mystery here that is very profound. “The Word…is distinguished from God, but from a different perspective, the Word is identified with God.” The Greek construction makes it very clear that two persons are in view here—God and the Word, and that whatever God is, the Word is also. In other words, the Word has the same divine nature as God himself. This is one of the most important and foundational texts for understanding the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently for understanding the Trinity.
The deity of Christ is also indicated by the title which the apostle gives him, namely, the Word (oJ lo>gov). That this title implies the deity of Christ is evident when we consider the Jewish Targums. The Targums are translations or paraphrases of the Hebrew Scriptures into Aramaic, the language spoken in first century Israel—the native language spoken by Jesus and the apostles. The New Testament was written in Greek, so as to have a very wide audience, since Greek was the lingua franca of the Roman world, but the Jews in Israel—including Jesus and the disciples—spoke Aramaic. The Hebrew in which the OT was written was not widely understood and so as the Scriptures were being read in the synagogues, the rabbis would translate or paraphrase the passage into Aramaic. This rendering of the Hebrew Scriptures into Aramaic was called a targum.
It was customary in these targums to use a circumlocution or a substitute for the word God. The circumlocution or the substitute they used most frequently was a phrase, “the word of the Lord.” Let me give a couple of examples.
“If God will be with me and keep me in this way that I go,” etc.
“If the Word of the Lord will be my Helper…in this way that I am going,” etc. (Targum Onkelos; likewise Targum Pseudo-Jonathan)
“Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God…”
“And Mosheh led forth the people out of the camp to meet the Word of the Lord…” (Targum Onkelos)
As John Ronning points out in his book The Jewish Targums and John’s Logos Theology,
In hundreds of cases in these Targums, where the MT refers to God, the corresponding Targum passage refers to the divine Word. Considered against this background, calling Jesus “the Word” is a way of identifying him with the God of Israel.
In verse two, John affirms once again the eternal fellowship between God and the Word.
2 He was in the beginning with God.
The construction in the Greek is the same as it is in verse 1 when it says the Word was with God (pro<v to<n qeo>n). John is repeating the point for the sake of emphasis. He wishes us to know that although some men thought Jesus to be a blasphemer who, when he was crucified was “stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted,” as Isaiah put it, John wishes us to know that in fact just the opposite was the case. Jesus was beloved of the Father from all eternity. He came forth from God to do his Father’s bidding. As Jesus said, “He who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him” (Jn. 8:29). And this is why the Father’s voice was heard from heaven on two occasions saying, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17; 17:5).
“He was in the beginning with God.” God the Father and God the Son—together with the Holy Spirit, I might add—enjoyed an eternal relationship of love and friendship.
We next learn that our Lord Jesus Christ in his pre-incarnate state was the Creator of all things.
3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.
Notice that once again John employs a repetition for the sake of emphasis. He puts the matter both positively and negatively. He makes both an assertion and a denial. He asserts positively, “All things were made through him.” We might have thought this to have been a sufficiently powerful way of making his point. But John apparently did not think it was powerful enough, for he goes on to say the same thing negatively, “and without him was not any thing made that was made.”
Paul makes the same point in his letter to the Colossians when he says,
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him (Col. 1:16)
The prepositions here are significant. All things were created by (ejn) him, through (dia>) him, and for (eijv) him. He is the instrument, the agent, and the purpose of creation.
We next learn that the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, is the source of all spiritual light and life.
4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
Life and light are two prominent motifs in John’s Gospel, as well as in the Bible as a whole.
John says here, “In him was life.” Jesus Christ is the center, the source, the sum of all spiritual life that God is pleased to share with men. As John would later say,
God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life (1 Jn. 5:11-12).
It is in Jesus Christ alone that we find spiritual life, regeneration, new birth. And this spiritual life enlightens our understanding. The Bible makes it clear that, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). A man who has not been given this new life, is unable to understand the things of God. Howsoever astute a thinker he might otherwise be, unless he has the life of God in him he cannot truly know the things of God in an experiential way.
This life that Christ imparts is the light of men. What the sun is to the world, Jesus Christ is to the soul. If people should be so foolish to live underground in caves, or should cover their eyes with blindfolds, it is their own fault and no fault of the sun that they are unable to see. So also of people who live in spiritual darkness. Jesus said, “People love the darkness rather than the light because their deeds are evil” (par. Jn. 3:19). They love the darkness. Likewise, the apostle Paul said,
Although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or gave thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened (Rom. 1:21)
And so deep is this darkness that he says to the saints in Ephesus, “at one time you were darkness.” He does not say, merely, “You were in the dark,” but you were darkness. “But now,” he says, “you are light in the Lord” (Eph. 5:8). You were darkness, but now you are light.” Such is the difference that Jesus makes in the lives of his people; and many of you could testify to this. You could describe your life as having been one full of darkness. You are ashamed even to speak about the things you used to do, the way you used to think, the things you used to say. It is a chapter in your life that you would just as soon forget. But Jesus has come to you. He has given you new life. And this new life has given you light. You now see things in an entirely different way.
Later in John’s Gospel, the apostle records Jesus as saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn. 8:12).
5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
From its first appearance in the world, evil men attempted to extinguish the light. Herod sought to kill the newborn Jesus. On several occasions throughout his ministry people sought to take his life. When he first preached in Nazareth, the people took offense,
And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, he went away (Lk. 4:29-30).
The Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God (Jn. 5:18)
They picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple (Jn. 8:59; cf. 10:31; 11:53).
Eventually—and only because the Father so willed it—they succeeded. They killed him. But neither did this extinguish the light, for when he was raised again in glory the light shined with an even greater brilliance. The crucifixion simply afforded the opportunity for Christ to manifest his glory in a greater measure.