Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” — John 1:1-5
Every story follows a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. However, the way in which the story is told can begin in different places. Sometimes the story begins with a certain character at a specific point in time of life. In order to understand who this character is and what has formed and shaped who this person is today, it is necessary at some point in the story to communicate some of the earlier influences or events in this person’s life. This gives a more complete picture of the person. For some stories, we have learned about this through prequels, stories with which we are familiar, but yet there is a back story, a story before the story, we need to know in order to know the full story.
In the story of redemption, Jesus enters the story in “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4; cf. Ephesians 1:10). He enters history, redemptive history, which has a beginning, “in the beginning,” and which will culminate in a “new heaven and a new earth,” the end of the story that has no end. Jesus’ earthly life and ministry mark the divide between the two ages of history—before Christ (B.C.) and history after the death of Christ (A.D.).
In the Gospels, we read about the two different ways of recounting the arrival of Jesus. In the Gospel according to Mark (there is one gospel of Jesus Christ, whereas there are different gospel accounts of Jesus Christ according to Matthew, Mark and Luke), he begins with John the Baptist’s testimony of Jesus (Mark 1:1-8). In Matthew and Luke’s recounting of the one gospel of Jesus Christ, they begin their narrative accounts with the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus (Matthew 1:18-24; Luke 1:4-2:20). With all three Gospel writers, they engage in what is referred to as Christology from below (i.e., Jesus’ humanity is where the authors begin; they situate his birth, life and death at this specific point in history, and they progressively move toward a recognition and confession that Jesus is also God).
There is another way to look at this, which is referred to as Christology from above. These approaches are not in opposition to one another, but rather are complementary to one another. They tell the same story in different ways, focusing on and emphasizing certain things about the Lord Jesus. This is how John begins his Gospel. In this approach of presenting Jesus to his readers, John begins before even time began. He begins with the deity of Jesus Christ, and then he progressively moves to make it clear that Jesus is also fully human, such that at the end of the book, his aim is to convince his readers that this Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah (John 20:31). This is the one who was promised (cf. the protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15) after the fall to destroy the enemy and to redeem God’s people, the one who was promised (cf. Isaiah 9:6-7) to be the Savior of the world (John 4:42; 1 John 4:14).
In these first verses of John’s prologue (it is considered a prologue rather than a preface because what he emphasizes in 1:1-18 are words and themes that are addressed again and expanded in the rest of the book), we see three key truths/themes highlighted in 1:1-5. We will expound the truth of these verses, and then in the conclusion we will apply these truths in and to our lives, focusing on the theological implications and applications this Advent and Christmas season. So, please read to the end.
Before moving to the opening verses of the Prologue, it will be helpful to highlight some of the background of John’s Gospel, in order to deepen our understanding, bearing in mind that information in the Scriptures is for the purpose of transformation into the likeness of the Son.
Author: most likely John, the son of Zebedee, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (13:23).
Place: John likely wrote in Ephesus, which was one of the most important urban centers in the Roman Empire. His readers consisted of both Jews and Gentiles. Although John’s writing is historically and culturally situated, focusing on the person and ministry of Jesus in and around Palestine, his writing is not limited to this historical context, but transcends it.
Date: It is written between the destruction of the Jerusalem temple (70 A.D.) and John’s death (100 A.D.), with the most likely date being toward the end of his life, while providing time for John to have written his three other canonical epistles.
Purpose: John presents Jesus as the Word become flesh to respond to Greek thought, which included Stoicism and Gnosticism, and he also portrays Jesus to be the Messiah, the one sent by God the Father who fulfilled Old Testament promises to convince the Jews. Ultimately, John’s purpose is summarized in in the purpose clause of 20:31. John writes this Gospel “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
I am statements: I am the bread of life (6:35); I am the light of the world (8:12); I am the door of the sheep (10:7); I am the good shepherd (10:11); I am the resurrection and the life (11:25); I am the way, and the truth, and the life (14:6); I am the true vine (15:1).
Signs: water into wine (2:1-11); healing an official’s son (4:43-54); healing a disabled man (6:1-15); feeding the 5,000 (6:1-14); walking on water (6:16-21); healing a man born blind (9:1-12); raising Lazarus from the dead (11:1-44); resurrection from the dead (20:1-31).
Jesus’ explicit identification with God using the term primarily reserved for the Father in the New Testament (theos): 1:1, 18; 20:28 (cf. Romans 9:5; Titus 2:13; Hebrews 1:8; 2 Peter 1:1; 1 John 5:20).
Jesus’ identification with theos, God, is how John begins this masterful Gospel, to which we now turn.
John begins, “In the beginning was the Word.” This echoes the first words of the Bible, God’s revelation of himself and his creation. He connects the Word both with God and the beginning of time. One writes,
The opening words of John’s gospel echo Genesis 1:1, taking us back before creation, before the fall or the first prophecy, and before the star of Bethlehem appeared: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1). John proclaims that this Word ‘became flesh and made his dwelling among us’ (1:14). The narrative then swoops down into first-century Palestine and places the incarnation within human history.
John then notes that “the Word was with God.” That is to say, there never was a time when the Word was not, and he was forever with God, even before time was created. There is an eternal relationship between God and the Word, and the Word is distinct from God.
Finally, John states “the Word was God.” John reaches the highpoint of confession equating the Word and God. The Word was and is God (cf. 1:18; 20:28). John reiterates this Word was “in the beginning with God” (1:2).
John identifies the word with God (theos) (1:1), who became flesh and dwelt among us (1:14), who was/is Jesus Christ (1:17), who has made the Father known (1:18). This is the highpoint of Christological identification and confession, acknowledging and confessing Jesus Christ, the Word, is God. By giving Jesus the title theos, John means, as helpfully and succinctly summarized by one,
Christ is eternal (“In the beginning was the Word”; v. 1a); Christ is a distinct person from God the Father (the Word was with God,” v. 1b); cf. ‘the only Son from the Father,” v. 14); Christ shares the full deity of God (‘the Word was God’; v. 1c). And with the eternality, personality, and deity of the Word-Son-Christ in view, we can now understand just who it is that John says became incarnate: theos himself.
After identifying the Word and his relation to “in the beginning,” John then addresses some of his work. Based on who the Word is, John follows with what the Word did. He was the agent over all of creation: “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (1:3). This statement affirms two truths.
In the first clause, all things came into existence through the Word. John’s focus here is on everything in its individual form, every single thing. Every individual thing and the whole it comprises came into existence “through him,” through the Word. He alone is the agent of creation ex nihilo, from nothing.
In the second clause, John stresses there is absolutely nothing that comes into existence apart from the Word. John stresses that not only did the Word create all things, the first clause, he emphasizes this truth by stating it in the negative in the second clause, viz. nothing was made without or apart from him. “The negative is not mere emphasis,” writes one, “but brings to completion the idea of totality of the Word’s position (e.g., ‘with God’ and ‘was God) and power (i.e., as mediator).
Finally, we read, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (1:4) The Word is life itself, as the one in whom life exists, he is also light (cf. John 8:12) and is the light of men. In what sense is he the life of men? John either refers to the fact that all human beings are created in the imago Dei (Genesis 1:27), and in that sense, they have been given life as the culmination of creation, the only created beings in God’s image. There is also another sense in which he gives life and that is in the spiritual sense in that through his incarnation, he is the light of humanity, male and female, Jew and Gentile, and those who receive him (John 1:12-13) have life in a second sense, spiritual life. Light has a twofold meaning for John, indicating both the light given to humanity in creation, and life given to humanity through new birth, life in the creation sense and life in the spiritual sense.
This light “shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (1:5). In the initial act of creation, God spoke into the darkness (Genesis 1:2) “let there be light” (Genesis 1:3a) and “there was light” (Genesis 1:3b). Here John informs us that the Word, who is life, “shines in the darkness.” The tense is important: Not only did the light shine at some point in the past, the light continues to shine to the present, the ongoing illumination of light from the Light.
Darkness did not “overcome” the light. Translating the term this way reveals the confrontation between light and dark, good and evil. There is a confrontation between the two, but they are not co-equal powers. The Word and Life is the creator of all, and he is Light and gives light. He will not and cannot be overcome. Light has invaded the darkness, and the darkness does not, will not, and cannot overcome (later Jesus would say that the gates of hell will not prevent the advance of his work in and through his people, the church, cf. Matthew 16:18). This term may also be translated as “recognize,” and in that sense it reflects a misunderstanding of who Jesus is. The darkness has not understood the Light. In the incarnation, John wants us to see the Word brings both the light of creation and the light of redemption.
I conclude with four key observations and applications we can make during this season, though certainly not limited to this season of Advent and Christmas.
First, the Word, who John will later identify in the Prologue as Jesus Christ, is eternal, has from eternity been with God, and is God himself. These are profound truths about God the Son and the Trinity. Consider this: without the Trinity, there would be no incarnation, and there would be no salvation.
Second, the one we celebrate and worship through Mary’s miraculous conception and birth as a human baby is no less than God, who created and sustains all things. Every individual thing and everything together were created by/through the Word, and he sustains all he created (Colossians 1:16-17).
Third, the Word is life, and he gives light to humanity. As believers, there is a twofold reason to give thanks. Not only do we have life, we have experienced new life. This new life enables us to see, perceive and understand in ways intended by the Word becoming flesh. We of all people reflect God’s divine design, which ought to have a bearing in all of life. This design means we live with different purposes and motives and for the glory of another, our Creator and Redeemer. This is the time of year those differences ought to shed light.
Fourth, the light shines in the darkness, and there is both a war against the light, and a misunderstanding of the light. And yet, the darkness does not overcome the light. This explains life in this fallen-redeemed-not-yet-glorified world. There is darkness. We know it. In fact, the time at which we live seems to have become dark, that evil is overcoming, and that there is little hope. But that means we are the ones who do not recognize, since that reflects we do not recognize Jesus, who he is, what he has come to do, and that he has overcome. Though we recognize the darkness, we do not succumb to it because the Light and Life overcomes (John 16:33). The babe in a manger is the Savior of the world.
Ponder and pray (or sing) these classic words written in this 4th-century hymn, words which convey the rich and deep truths of God the Son’s eternal nature.
Of the Father’s Love Begotten
Of the Father’s love begotten,
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending he,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore!
Read the first part in this Advent devotional series: The Word Became Flesh.