Wednesday, 28 January 2015

John 1: 1-14, looking at the Gospel
for the Second Sunday before Lent

The Prologue in the opening chapter of Saint John’s Gospel is Greek mystical poetry of the highest quality

Patrick Comerford

In our Bible studies in this tutorial group, we are looking at the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for the Sunday after next. Sunday week [Sunday 8 February 2015], is the Second Sunday before Lent, and the readings are: Option A, Creation: Proverbs 8: 1, 22-31, Psalm 104: 26-37, Colossians 1: 15-20, and John 1-14; and Option B (Proper 3): Hosea 2: 14-20, Psalm 103: 1-13, 22, II Corinthians 3: 1-6, and Mark 2: 13-22.

The Revised Common Lectionary provides for a different set of readings for the Sunday between 4 and 10 February as the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany: Isaiah 40: 21-31; Psalm 147: 1-11, 20c; I Corinthians 9: 16-23; and Mark 1: 29-39. However, in the Church of Ireland and the Church of England, these should not be used when the Second Sunday before Lent falls on this date (see The Book of Common Prayer 2004, pp 32-34; Common Worship, Lectionary, p 550; RCL, pp 438-444).

You we will find these choices difficult and puzzling at times, but it shows you how important it is to plan your readings and sermons, and therefore the hymns and intercessions, well in advance so you can avoid last-minute panics.

This morning we are looking at the Gospel reading in the provisions in the Church of Ireland, and the other readings for that Sunday morning.

John 1: 14:

1 Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος,
καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν,
καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.
2 οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν.
3 πάντα δι' αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο,
καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν.
ὃ γέγονεν 4 ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν,
καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων·
5 καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει,
καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν.

6 Ἐγένετο ἄνθρωπος, ἀπεσταλμένος παρὰ θεοῦ, ὄνομα αὐτῷ Ἰωάννης· 7 οὗτος ἦλθεν εἰς μαρτυρίαν, ἵνα μαρτυρήσῃ περὶ τοῦ φωτός, ἵνα πάντες πιστεύσωσιν δι' αὐτοῦ. 8 οὐκ ἦν ἐκεῖνος τὸ φῶς, ἀλλ' ἵνα μαρτυρήσῃ περὶ τοῦ φωτός. 9 Ἦν τὸ φῶς τὸ ἀληθινόν, ὃ φωτίζει πάντα ἄνθρωπον, ἐρχόμενον εἰς τὸν κόσμον.

10 ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ ἦν,
καὶ ὁ κόσμος δι' αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο,
καὶ ὁ κόσμος αὐτὸν οὐκ ἔγνω.
11 εἰς τὰ ἴδια ἦλθεν,
καὶ οἱ ἴδιοι αὐτὸν οὐ παρέλαβον.

12 ὅσοι δὲ ἔλαβον αὐτόν, ἔδωκεν αὐτοῖς ἐξουσίαν τέκνα θεοῦ γενέσθαι, τοῖς πιστεύουσιν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ, 13 οἳ οὐκ ἐξ αἱμάτων οὐδὲ ἐκ θελήματος σαρκὸς οὐδὲ ἐκ θελήματος ἀνδρὸς ἀλλ' ἐκ θεοῦ ἐγεννήθησαν.

14 Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο
καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν,
καὶ ἐθεασάμεθα τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ,
δόξαν ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός,
πλήρης χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας.

Translation (NRSV):

1 In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
2 He was in the beginning with God.
3 All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being 4 in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
5 The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world,
and the world came into being through him;
yet the world did not know him.
11 He came to what was his own,
and his own people did not accept him.

12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh
and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth.

The readings in context:

The Season of Christmas comes to an end not at Epiphany [6 January] and the end of the 12 days of Christmas, but forty days after Christmas at the Feast of the Presentation [2 February] or Candlemas, the great feast we are celebrating here in the Chapel next Monday [2 February 2015].

The time between Candlemas and the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday has no season, and is known as Ordinary Time in the calendar of the Church. However, the two Sundays immediately before Lent have special themes, Creation and the Transfiguration, to help us prepare to mark appropriately the 40 days of Lent.

The theme of the readings on Sunday week, the Second Sunday before Lent, is Creation. The Old Testament reading (Proverbs 8: 1, 22-31) reminds us that our own creation, the beginning of my own life, is irrevocably linked with the very beginning of Creation, as Wisdom rejoices: “I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (verses 30-31).

This link between Christ, the beginning of creation, and God’s plan for humanity within creation, are emphasised by Saint Paul in the New Testament reading (Colossians 1: 15-20):

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Introducing the Gospel readings:

Pages from The Saint John’s Gospel, the first complete hand-written and illuminated Bible since the Renaissance, in the Holy Writ exhibition in Lichfield Cathedral last year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

“Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος,” “In the beginning was the Word” … this is one of the most dramatic opening lines in any great work of literature. And for, the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel According to Saint John, is one of the great works of literature, apart from being my favourite book in the Bible.

The author of this Gospel was identified by Saint Irenaeus as Saint John the beloved, Saint John the Divine, or Saint John the Theologian, who lived in Ephesus until the imperial reign of Trajan (ca AD 98).

As a boy, Irenaeus had known Saint Polycarp, who was Bishop of Smyrna, near Ephesus, and who is said to have been a disciple of John. Ever since then, the tradition of the Church has identified this John as the author of the Fourth Gospel.

The narrative translations with which we are so familiar often miss the poetic and dramatic presentations of this Gospel. We are all familiar with the dramatic presentation of the Prologue to this Gospel as the Gospel reading on Christmas Day. But the Prologue is first and foremost poetry. It is a hymn – a poetic summary – of the whole theology of this Gospel, as well as an introduction to it.

Raymond Brown has presented a translation from the Greek of the Prologue in poetic format:

1 In the beginning was the Word;
the Word was in God’s presence,
and the Word was God.
2 He was present with God in the beginning.
3 Through him all things came into being,
and apart from him not a thing came to be.
4 That which came to be found life in him,
and this life was the light of the human race.
5 The light shines on in the darkness,
for the darkness did not overcome it.

(6 Now there was a man sent by God, named John 7 who came as a witness to testify to the light, so that through him all might believe – 8 but only to testify to the light, for he himself was not the light.)

9 He was the real light
that gives light to everyone;
he was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world,
and the world was made by him;
yet the world did not recognise him.
11 To his own he came;
yet his own people did not accept him.
12 But all those who did accept him,
he empowered to become God’s children –
those who believe in his name,
13 those who were begotten,
not by blood,
nor the flesh,
nor human desire,
but by God.
14 And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us.
And we have seen his glory,
the glory as of an only Son coming from the Father,
rich in kindness and fidelity.

‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’ ... sunrise at Rathfarnham village earlier this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The Gospel Reading:

The first chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John can be divided in two parts: the Prologue (verses 1-18) and a second part (verses 19-50) that shows that John the Baptist was preparing for the coming of the Messiah.

The Prologue is an introduction to the Gospel as a whole. It tells us that the Logos is God and acts as the mouthpiece (Word) of God “made flesh,” sent to the world in order to be able to intercede for humanity and to forgive human sins.

The Prologue is of central significance to the doctrine of the Incarnation. The Prologue can be compared with Genesis 1, where the same phrase, “In the beginning …,” first occurs along with the emphasis on the difference between the darkness and the light.

In the opening verses of each of the four Gospels, we are given initial clues to the interests that will govern the evangelists’ respective accounts of Christ’s life and ministry:

● Saint Matthew’s opening genealogy identifies Jesus as the descendant of both Abraham and David, as well as supplying his credentials as the Messianic king.

● Saint Mark’s opening is the most compact, recounting Christ’s baptism in order to establish his identity as the Son of God.

● Saint Luke’s introduction sets a detailed account of the announcements and actual births of both Saint John the Baptist and Jesus against the backdrop of the wider Roman world.

● Saint John’s makes the most dramatic use of the prologue form in shaping the contours of a particular Christological emphasis. This is probably one of the most profound passages in the Bible. As simple as its language and phrases are, its description of Christ as the Logos has had a lasting influence on Christian theology.

The prologue prepares the reader for the rest of the Fourth Gospel. Important themes are signalled and Christ’s identity is established at the very outset through the use of Christological titles, divine portents or the manner of his birth.

John’s is the only Gospel to speak of Christ’s pre-existence as the Logos and the only Gospel to include a poetic prologue.

The prologue provides a profound and highly developed theological summary that has a structural integrity of its own, while also introducing many of the key themes of the Gospel account that follows.

Sources and themes:

Scholars argue over the original source of the Prologue. Some say its sources are in the hymn traditions of the Early Church, while others downplay the apparent lyric form and argue that even the more overtly poetic sections of the prologue (such as verses 1-5) are “rhythmic prose,” “elevated prose,” or “stylistic prose,” and they do not agree in their division of the Prologue into lyric and prose sections. Yet there still seems to be a fairly broad consensus about the genre of the material.

Raymond Brown points out that there are parallels of both form and content to the hymn-style material of verses 1-5, 10-12b, 14 and 16, in Colossians 3, Philippians 2, Hebrews 1 and I Timothy 3: 16. The Evangelist’s prose insertions provide, in turn an assessment of Saint John the Baptist’s role (verses 6-9), an explanation of soteriology (12c-13), a comment on Saint John the Baptist’s relation to the Logos (15), and an expansion of the phrase “love in place of love” (Brown), “grace upon grace” (verse 16, NRSV), or “one blessing after another” (NIV) in verses 17-18, all of which play an important role in linking the poetic sections together.

Brown thinks the hymn-like sections may have been written independently of the Gospel itself. He points to the apparent independence of these sections from the rest of the Gospel and similarities with the theology both of the Gospel and of the Johannine Letters.

What about Saint John’s use of the term λόγος or Logos (1-2) – most frequently rendered “Word” in modern English translations? This term is deeply rooted in Old Testament thought (see Genesis 1, Proverbs 8). The role of the Johannine Logos also parallels, in some ways, that of personified Wisdom in a number of traditions within Judaism (see Sirach 24). However, Wisdom and the Logos need not be identified with each other, since Wisdom is a creation of God (Sirach 1: 9), while the Logos is pre-existent and Divine. At the same time, Saint John’s use of such language in a first century Mediterranean setting also recalls associations with Hellenistic thinking of the time, when the term “Logos” played a key role in Stoic thought and in the writings of Hellenistic Jewish thinkers such as Philo.

CH Dodd argues that Saint John’s adoption of the term deliberately reflects the ambiguity of the word in Judaism, using a Greek philosophical term to capture both the immanent and transcendent dimensions of meaning, yet within a Christian framework.

Others argue that while Hellenistic connotations are inevitable for 1st century readers, these associations are secondary as the use of terms in the Fourth Gospel is so often contrary to a Hellenistic worldview, while being distinct from previous Jewish uses.

It is worth noting the relationship of the Prologue with the rest of the Gospel. A number of Johannine terms are being introduced here, including “life,” “light” (verse 5), “believe” (verse 7), “world” (verse 9), “children of God” (verse 12), and “flesh” and “truth” (verse 14). These concepts are introduced in relationship to the Logos, who is decidedly at the centre of all that is being said.

The Prologue also introduces the figure of John the Baptist (verse 6). He is known by the community being addressed and they hold him in high regard, which explains why his relationship with and status in regard to the Logos are set out (verses 6-8, 15, and later in verses 19-28). Yet these remarks about John interrupt the flow of the poetic and liturgical sections, which raises further questions about the composition of the Prologue.

Brown says the Fourth Gospel was composed in several stages, and he sees the hymn material in the Prologue (verses 1-5, 10-12, 14, 16) as a late addition of a final redactor, so that the hymn-like material and the later introductory material are interwoven.

Section 1: Verses 1-5

Verses 1-2:
While the focus of the Prologue is on God in relation to humanity, rather than God in relation to Himself, the first two verses are the closest to an intra-Trinitarian description in this Gospel.

The “Word” here is difficult to separate from the language of Genesis 1, with its echoes of “in the beginning” and a creative “Word” which calls all things into being. The phrase “in the beginning” could also combine both a temporal sense – in the beginning of history – and a cosmological sense, “at the root of the universe.”

The opening verses leave little doubt that the Logos is identified as being equal in divine status to God, and is fully God, so that what will be said about the Logos will be said, in the fullest sense, of God.

Verses 3-5:

The remainder of this first section (verses 3-5) is introduced by πάντα (panta), a Greek word that figures prominently in several other New Testament hymn-like passages (see Romans 11: 36; I Corinthians 8: 6; Colossians 1: 16). These passages – all of them Pauline – describe the comprehensive character of Christ’s work of redemption. The phrasing of verse 3 is best seen as an expansion of the activity of the Logos in creation, with the restatement in verse 3b emphasising the all-inclusive character of the involvement of the Logos.

The word ζωὴ (zoe, life) is one of those terms in John that is laden with meaning. Although the sense of “eternal life” may seem difficult to apply here, a consideration of the creational basis for this concept makes it quite acceptable, for the Logos is from the beginning and the source of all life (see Genesis 2: 7, 9; 3: 22; and Revelation 22: 2). There is a close connection between life and light in the giving and sustaining of life (John 8: 12; see Psalms 13: 3; 27: 1; 56: 13; 89: 15).

How should verse 5 be translated? The NIV translates the verb καταλαμβάνω (katalambáno) as “understood”: “and the darkness has not understood it.” However, the NEB, Brown and others speak of “mastering” or “overcoming” the darkness. Despite the fall, the work of the Logos did not end but instead continued.

Section 2: Verses 6-13

Verses 6-9:

Are these verses out of place here? Do they disrupt the poetic flow?

Many commentators, including Brown, see these verses as an explanatory insertion that should be placed after the Prologue and before verse 19. Brown says one of the main purposes of the Fourth Gospel is to counter a sectarian group that regarded Saint John the Baptist as the Messiah, or at least as being equal to him – an intention emphasised in these verses, and further developed later in this chapter.

Verse 9 also draws attention once again to the theme of “light.” Although the description of the light as “true” (ἀληθινόν, alethinon) may seem puzzling at first, as there is no reference in the Fourth Gospel to a “false” or “lesser” light, there is a well-established tradition in Judaism in which the Torah is symbolised by light, with which the writer may be contrasting the final and true, real and eternal revelation of God’s light.

Verses 10-13 (verses 10-12b):

Verses 10 to 12b have been understood in different ways. If the passage is read as referring to the Old Testament presence of the Logos among his people (whether in the Torah or through prophets and leaders), it forms a chronological bridge between the Creation strophe of verses 1-5 and the Incarnation reported in verse 14. Yet such a reading would interrupt the chronological sequence of the Prologue, since John the Baptist has already been mentioned in verses 6-8.

Dodd argues that the Old Testament sometimes identifies the people of Israel as the “children” or “son” or “sons” of God (see Deuteronomy 14: 1; Psalm 82: 6; Hosea 1: 10; Hosea 11: 1).

But this could also be an initial reference to the career of Jesus of Nazareth, so that verses 10-12b parallel the career of Jesus, providing a short summary of both the Book of Signs (chapters 2-12) in verse 11, and the Book of Glory (chapters 13-20) in verse 12.

It could be argued that the writer has a dual purpose, referring at on e and the same time to both the relationship of the Logos with creation and Israel, and to its Incarnation in the ministry of Christ.

The word κόσμος (kosmos), first introduced in verse 9, is now explained further, in a resumption of the staircase poetic structure from verses 1-5. The word is repeated three times, in order to explain that the creation in verse 3 (particularly the human domain of that creation) painfully and inexplicably rejected the Logos on his appearance. This lack of recognition, not “seeing,” by some in Jesus’ audience, is an important theme later in the Gospel (see John 9: 35-41; 11: 9, 40; 12: 37-45; and also 1:14).

Verses 10-13 (verses 11-13):

The remainder of the middle section expands on this theme and narrows the focus of the “rejection” motif. The term “his own” (ἴδια, idia, idioi) is used in two senses: the first reference in the neuter plural (“his own things,” NRSV; “that which was his own,” NIV) refers in a general way to the place which he has made, the creation; and the second use is in the masculine plural – “his own (people)” – either humanity (verses 3, 4) or, more specifically, Israel – who were brought into being through him (II Samuel 5: 2, Psalm 33: 12; Isaiah 1: 3; Jeremiah 31: 33).

But Christ’s coming will not be met with complete rejection. The section concludes on the note of hope, emphasising the possibility for those who believe to be born anew and recreated through the same God who brought all of creation into being. The triple negative construction in verse 13 (“not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man,” NRSV; “not of human descent, nor of human decision, nor a husband’s will”) heightens the contrast between conventional, natural processes of the created world, and the newness which Christ’s ministry brings into the world (see John 3: 3-8).

The term “believe in,” πιστεύουσιν εἰς (pisteuein eis) in verse 12 is typically Johannine and appears almost 40 times in this Gospel, most often in connection with Christ (31 times), and usually in reference to saving faith. Those who believe in the Son will form a new community of people who will be “his own,” in contrast to those who – although they were already his own – did not recognise or believe in him.

Brown and others see verse 13 as an editorial expansion of the original hymn. They point to a differing style and its focus on the believer, in contrast to the Logos-centred emphasis of verses 1-5, 10-12 and 14.

Section 3: Verses 14-18:

The reading for Sunday week continues into the first verse of the third section of the Prologue, verse 14.

Verse 14

The final section of the Prologue draws together the different elements introduced up to now. Attention now shifts to the centrality of the Incarnation and its implications. For the first time since verse 1, the term Logos is restated, emphasising the movement from its cosmological dimensions in verse 1 to the temporal experience and conviction of the present Johannine community.

This movement is also apparent in the writer’s use of the verb “to become” (γίνομαι, ginomai) in place of “to be.” In this way, he signals that the Word has taken on a new form in a dramatic way.

This language could be flat rejection of any sort of Docetism.

Paradoxically, the Word that was fully God is now completely “flesh” (σὰρξ, sarx), but both are equally true. There is a similar parallel between “was with God” (in verse 1b) and “made his dwelling among us” (verse 14b). The verb used here – “to make one’s dwelling” (σκηνόω, skenoo) – draws on the Exodus traditions of a God who once lived among his people in the Tabernacle (see Exodus 33) and made his glory visible to his people there (Exodus 40: 34; see I Kings 8: 11). This theme was continued in prophetic literature, including Joel, Zechariah and Ezekiel, and is a theme in the entire story of God’s covenant with Israel.

The important concept of “glory” (δόξα, doxa) is introduced here. This is another of the special terms in the Fourth Gospel, where it occurs 35 of the 185 times it is found in the New Testament. It is deeply rooted in the Old Testament, where the Hebrew concept of kabod embodies the dual sense of God’s ruling divinity made visible through observable actions of great power.

For John this glory is visible in Christ’s statements and signs, many of which fulfil or supersede important elements in the Old Testament. But it is most evident in Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension.

There is a close link here between σκηνόω (skenoo) and δόξα (doxa): “the Word … dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.” This may allude to the fulfilment of the “new covenant” promises regarding the coming nearness of God to his people in a way that will replace both tabernacle and temple.

The word μονογενοῦς (monogenous) has long been translated “only begotten,” an expression linked closely to Trinitarian procession theology. Recently, it has also come to be seen in terms of Christ’s unique relationship with the Father, emphasising obedience and faithfulness to his purpose.

The couplet “grace and truth” (χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας, charitos kai aletheias; also in verse 17) echoes the Hebrew pairing of “steadfast love” and “truth,” which are central in the covenantal self-disclosure of God in the Old Testament. For a third time, the writer is using terminology that has important significance in Exodus (see Exodus 34: 6) and that is used throughout the Old Testament covenant. He is telling us he is going to present Christ to the reader as the fulfilment of God’s previous revelation to Israel and of the hope of a second Exodus revelation.

Conclusion:

The Prologue lays the foundation for the development of the “realised eschatology” of the Fourth Gospel. When Saint John speaks later of life in the sense of “eternal” life, the Prologue has already established that from the beginning in Christ the eternal God and source of life is present and is among men and women for that purpose. In Christ, God enters into all the ambiguities, difficulties, and trials of human life. He comes to live among his people as one of them, revealing God at first hand, and offering new life as the source of life from the beginning.

The writer relates the Logos in turn to God (verses 1, 2); creation (verses 3-5); the world and its response (verses 6-9); his own people (verses 10, 11); his children (verses 12-13); a specific circle of disciples and witnesses (verse 14); and later in the Prologue to a particular historical person, Jesus Christ (verse 17). Finally, in verse 18, the intimacy of the relationship of the Logos to the Father is re-emphasised in language similar to that used in John 13: 23-25 to describe the intimacy between “the beloved disciple” and Christ himself.

The Prologue is a model and a summons to us to think carefully and deeply about the implications of the Incarnation and to apply this concept in all its comprehensiveness to our life and our world. For all its broad, cosmic scope, the Prologue presents a direct and personal question to readers of all times: will the one who reads believe, and share in the fullness of grace given by the One who has come from the Father to dwell among us?

Collect:

Almighty God,
you have created the heavens and the earth
and made us in your own image:
Teach us to discern your hand in all your works
and your likeness in all your children;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who with you and the Holy Spirit
reigns supreme over all things, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

God our creator,
by your gift the tree of life was set at the heart
of the earthly paradise,
and the Bread of life at the heart of your Church.
May we who have been nourished at your table on earth
be transformed by the glory of the Saviour’s Cross
and enjoy the delights of eternity;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Next week: Mark 9: 2-9.

(Rev Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with M.Th. students on 28 January 2015.