John begins his gospel with these famous words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Like a prophet throwing down the gauntlet, he begins with a bang by addressing the biggest question we all must eventually face–who is Jesus? What is John saying about Jesus by calling him the Word? Jesus as the Word is the creator of the universe. He is the life and light of the world. Jesus as Word (Greek: Logos) is both with God and is God. This can only be so if Jesus is both distinguished and united with God. This is exactly what the Scriptures as a whole teach about Jesus. The doctrine of the Trinity makes logical sense out John 1:1 In essence, Jesus as the Word is the creator and sustainer of all creation, he is the life of all men, and he is the light of the world. He is preexistent to the incarnation. In other words, Jesus the man is eternal—he is God!
The words that John chose to open his gospel account would have been shocking to his original readers. “In the beginning” echoes back to Genesis 1:1 and the account of creation. In the beginning, God created all things of nothing, by the word of his power, in the space of “six days”, and all very good. The OT teaches that God is one, and that God is spirit. Hellenized Jews would have been scandalized by the claim that a man (one who is flesh) could be equated with the divine (God). The earthly and fleshly aspects of creation were considered sub-spiritual to the Greek mind. The Jewish mind influenced by the biblical worldview would be looking for the anointed one (Messiah-Christ) sent by God to usher in the eschatological kingdom. But the Messiah was not expected to be divine. That would be making a man equal with God, and that would be scandalous! John is in effect laying down the gauntlet in his gospel prologue. Both Jew and Greek are challenged in their expectation of who Jesus is.
Unlike other world religions, Christians worship their primary prophet. Buddhists adhere to the teachings of the Buddha and revere him for giving humanity the gift of knowledge (the Eightfold Path to enlightenment and nirvana). Muslims hold Islam’s one prophet Mohammed in the highest regard, but they still confess, “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet.” For Muslims, there is a Creator-creature distinction that separates the relational nature between Allah and Mohammed. For Buddhists (who are atheists), their religion’s founder is a great teacher, but he is not worshipped as a god (the Buddhist worldview is atheistic). Even the Christian cults in their official teachings (such as Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses) always undercut either the nature of God or Jesus Christ by turning them into idols fashioned into the image of man. Only Christians claim that their God became man and therefore the man Jesus Christ must be worshipped as the one true God. And they do so because they are consistently following the teachings of a man who conclusively verified his claim to divinity.
John then tells us something about Jesus by calling him the light in darkness In John 1:4-5, we find that Jesus is the light of men, yet Jesus as the light shines in a world of darkness. Jesus is contrasted with the dark world in which he incarnates, and he does battle with the darkness. The world system, as ruled by men living and loving darkness, seeks to overcome and comprehend the light of the world. But the darkness cannot. John teaches that Jesus is a warring light, that he comes to wage spiritual war on the darkness, and that he will be victorious. All of this foreshadows what is to come in his account of Jesus Christ, the light of the world who though slain by the darkness, through his defeat overcame the darkness and thereby shone his glorious light in the world.
While the natural environment (rocks, plants, animals, and so on) is God-created and good, John sees a shadow of darkness lying over our planet because of human rebellion. People respond to John’s view of the world as shrouded in darkness in different ways. Does it ring true to you? Do you see problems with seeing the world that way? What exactly is this “darkness” that John describes? How is the world in the dark? John 1:11 contains the idea that the light of the world came to those he created (his “own”), but his own did not receive him. How tragic that the light of the world, the creator of the cosmos, would be rejected in unholy rebellion by his subjects! Surely this is the darkness that John describes. If the world is indeed created by the God of the Bible (and it is), then we would expect people in the world to reject the God of the Bible if this teaching on darkness is true. And it turns out that is exactly what we see. The world hates the idea of a holy and righteous God who demands worship and obedience. The world seeks to overcome the light of the world by ignoring God, by legislating against God, by persecuting God’s followers and prophets, and by ridiculing him. On might object that the world is merely striving against religious ignorance, fundamentalism, or theonomic fascists. The world tolerates private religious faith, but only a generic deity is allowed into the public square. The Trinitarian God (and the name of Jesus Christ) are banned from public discourage—unless appealed to in a private devotional sense. The world sees religion as a vestige of our pre-scientific age, and that the world has now “come of age” and left the idea of a necessary God behind. According to the world, if you want to believe in a god, that’s fine. Just leave us out of it. The world hates the idea of a God who people are morally accountable to, and seeks to overcome that idea with all sorts of arguments. But the problem with the world’s logic is that it has not been able to dismiss the creator God, and it has not been able to dismiss the story of the incarnation. The existence of the world testifies convincingly of a transcendent Creator, and the life and resurrection and Jesus of Nazareth testify convincingly that the light of the world—the life of all men—has come in the flesh to do battle with the darkness, and that he has overcome the darkness.
John sets out two stark ways of responding to the true light: recognizing, receiving, and believing in him–or not (1:10-12). In nearly every culture this is immediately offensive. How can these be the only two options available to humankind? But John does not approach this objection with the assumption of unfairness. We live in an age of religious pluralism. We celebrate diversity. We love our multicultural society. We are avowed moral relativists. So the spirit of our age vehemently reacts to John’s binary dilemma: either believe that Jesus is the light and become children of God, or reject his claim and remain children of darkness. Almost immediately we can hear the objections. That’s not fair! You’re bigoted and judgmental! What about all the good people who believe differently? That is arrogant and dogmatic! But John would probably reply to these objections by pointing out that he is not the one making such absolute claims. Rather he (and Christians throughout the ages) is merely restating what Jesus claimed. Was Jesus arrogant and narrow-minded to claim he is the only was to God? One might say so, but those who are wise listen to Jesus as one who lived and spoke like no other before or since. Jesus lived without sin, and the world sought to destroy him for his righteousness. Jesus promised to return from the grave and then proved reliable to his promise. He claimed to be from heaven, and to know the Creator of the world intimately and uniquely. He returned as a conquering hero from death, and testified what is on the other side. He promised the gift of the Holy Spirit to those who believe him and worship him. Once again, his promise proved reliable. His little movement of about 120 defeated disciples grew into a kingdom that crushes all the kingdoms of this world—just as he had promised. He who carefully considers the claims of Jesus Christ is no fool. He who responds to the light of the world in belief and trust is wise.
One fundamental modern belief is that history is determined by economic, social, and political forces, as well as random chance, and perhaps the actions of a few influential human personalities. John challenges this belief head-on. In his prologue, John lays bare this modern fundamental belief where in the span of just a few verses he challenges our modern idolatries. He claims that history is determined by the light of the world and his victory over the darkness. The universe is not a closed, naturalist, materialist phenomenon. God rules all things and is driving history toward its glorious consummation. God entered history by sending his Son Jesus as a baby to defeat the darkness and to win a people for himself. There is no such thing as random chance in a cosmos that is ruled and governed by the Creator God. The world may appear to be determined by the “movers and shakers”, the elite, or the powerful, but all things in history come to pass according to the set foreknowledge and plan of God.
For John, the world “is not a neutral place, a place of open inquiry and curiosity about God…It is naïve to think that the world is eagerly waiting for some disclosure from heaven” [Gary Burge, 63, 66]. Jesus—the embodiment of grace and truth—came into the world, but the world rejected him. How, then, should we interact with the people of the world? Should we separate ourselves into Christian enclaves to protect ourselves? Should we go into the world expecting to be liked? This is the age-old question of the problem of the Church in the world. I cast my vote with the folks who see the world through the eyes of biblical revelation. What I mean is this: God has a people who he is calling out of darkness into his marvelous light to be holy and blameless in his sight. He is in the business of calling sinners to repent and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. This chosen people is composed of every tribe, language, and nation. It is the Church, and the Church is God’s elect—the new Israel of God. But God does not allow his people to read the Book of Life. The roll of the elect is for his eyes only. Therefore we are to see the world as in darkness, as in need of the gospel and salvation, and we are to understand that God has chosen the foolishness of preaching and spreading the gospel as the primary means to gather the elect from all nations. Therefore we should not separate ourselves from the world and congregate in “Christian ghettos” to protect ourselves and our children. Nor should be go into the world expecting no conflict. The world is full of sinners living in active rebellion against God and his Son, they will hate God and his people. But the world is full of elect people, so we must share with them the fragrance of Christ so that the ones who smell the goodness of God may come to faith in him, and thereby pass from the darkness to the light.
It is difficult to remain focused on these gospel truths that John’s prologue teaches us. Life is a marathon, not a sprint, and I often become distracted with the things of this world, many of which are good gifts of God. But these good things become unholy distractions to me when they divert attention from the gospel. I don’t mean to suggest that good things must be ignored so that we must be involved in ministry, prayer, Bible reading, and other “spiritual” activities 24/7. There is certainly a way to enjoy God’s creation in faith. What I mean is that the world has a way of distracting people—Christians and non-Christians alike. The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life are alluring sirens that call all people to abandon what is important for the temporal pleasures of sin. Even so, it is such a wonderful thing that the Bible tells us that Jesus the light wins because we don’t have to despair in our own failings or the failings of others. We don’t have to strive like the fate of the world hinges on our own effort. God is God, and we are not. And that is a good thing for moral and finite creatures to always keep in mind.
It is significant that the divine Word became actual physical flesh because it legitimizes bodies, the physical world, and God’s choice to become a man in Christ Jesus. We don’t need to despair in our limitations. We don’t even need to hate the fact that we are created as limited beings. We don’t need to be frustrated that we are somehow bound in a less than ideal fleshly, earthly state. God created the world, our bodies, and all material things. He called his completely creation very good. God’s loves his material world so much that he became a human being himself! When God the Son became man, he validated the goodness of the material creation. When God the Son was born of Mary, he was saying to the world, light and flesh do not need to be in conflict. The creation was made good. It is sin that is a foreign, uninvited contagion. When Christ became a man, in effect he was blessing the physical world and demonstrating that it is so valuable to God that it is worth saving, redeeming, and recreating. The world is so valuable that it is worth God dying for!
Someone may ask whether it makes a difference to see Jesus as God in his very being, as opposed to a divine person aligned with God. This makes all the difference in the world! For if Jesus was essentially a super-holy, super-spiritual, super-God aligned person (but not actually God), then that which is valued is not the world, but God. The nature of nearly all world religions is to begin with man and arrive at God. The arrow of significance points from the world to the heavens. This must also be the case with a Jesus who is at most a spiritual man. But according to the Bible, Jesus revealed that all reality begins with God pointing to a world that he declares significant, but the world does not respond in kind because it is sold as a slave to sin. To remedy this tragic situation, God becomes a man of flesh and blood to demonstrate to all men that God loves the world, and that the world ought to love this God who loves the world. It is a magnificent story of love, sacrifice, redemption, and salvation.
John’s prologue (1:1-18), which some scholars believe is an early Christian hymn, describes the gospel of Jesus Christ in metaphoric language. The words John uses will be employed throughout his gospel, so the prologue functions as a thematic introduction for what follows. John offers hope for the world in this passage. The world, as all can see, is in a seemingly inescapable darkness, but the light of the world has come into this dark world to bring life and salvation to all who will believe in his name. This name is Jesus Christ, the Word (Logos) of God, who was with God from the beginning, and is in fact God himself. Because he is God, he will certainly defeat the darkness. Listen to his herald: John the Baptizer.