John 1:1-51

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In the Septuagint, the opening two words of Genesis are the same as in John 1:1 (en arché [“in (the) beginning”]). The first chapter of Genesis portrays creative works as progressively coming into existence in response to what God says. This direct link of God’s speaking to the coming into existence of the creation appears to be preserved in the designation “the Word.” The reference to the Son as “the Word” suggests that God communicated through him and by means of him brought into existence the realities of his expressed will and purpose. (1:1)

“In the beginning the Word was.” Before the countless ages that had passed since the universe came into existence the Word already “was” with the Father. The prophecy of Micah about Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem similarly pointed to his prehuman existence as reaching back to the infinite past. The Septuagint text of Micah 5:2 reads, hai éxodoi autoú ap’ archés ex hemerón aiónos (his goings forth [are] from [the] beginning, from [the] days of eternity.) (1:1)

“The Word was with God [literally, the God].” In this case, the Greek preposition prós (“with”) may be regarded as indicating a close mutual relationship. “God” (theós) appears in the emphatic position as the opening term of the next statement. As the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), being “in the form of God” (Philippians 2:6) and his very “imprint” (Hebrews 1:3), the Word is identified as theós, the only single Greek term that can adequately describe his nature. In the Greek text, the Word’s being distinct from the Father is evident from the absence of the definite article. The structure of the Greek text about the use of theós as applying to the “Word” in a descriptive sense could be illustrated by the following sentence in English: In the beginning was the child, and the child was with the male, and male was the child. (1:1)

From the infinite past, the Word enjoyed a close mutual relationship with God. Evidently this meant much more than his merely being in the presence of God, as is revealed by the reality that the Word “was” with God in the beginning or prior to the start of creation. (1:2)

Everything came into existence through the Word. Apart from him, not a single creation came to be. The second part of the Greek text could be punctuated and rendered in two different ways. (1) “Apart from him not one thing came to be that has come to be.” (2) “What has come to be [1:3] in him was life [1:4].” (1:3)

Depending on which alternative is chosen in punctuating and rendering the Greek text, life was either in the Word or life came to be “in” or through the Word. Accordingly, the text could be understood to mean that (1) the Word possessed life-giving power or that (2) he imparted life to the creation. In the case of humans, this “life” was more than mere existence; it was “light,” or a life inseparably associated with an inner light that made moral decisions possible. The possession of this light may also include the capacity for love, kindness, reasoning, understanding, and wisdom. (1:4)

So powerful is the inner light, with all the faculties associated therewith, that it continues to shine in a morally corrupt world of darkness. Although surrounded by darkness, this light has not been extinguished. It might appear as though the darkness in the world of mankind that is in a state of alienation from God and acts contrary to his will and ways completely surrounds the light and is about to swallow it up. Regardless of how great the moral darkness comes to be, however, the light continues to shine brightly among those who are guided by it or are rightly motivated by a good conscience. (1:5)

Steeped in idolatry, worshiping the creation instead of the Creator, the world in the first century CE was in darkness, the darkness of moral degradation and superstition. Having lived and labored in many of the major cities then existing, the Roman citizen Paul possessed firsthand knowledge about the greatness of that darkness and described humans who chose to suppress the voice of conscience. “They were filled with all [manner] of unrighteousness, depravity, covetousness, viciousness, envy, murder, discord, treachery, [being] ill-tempered, detractors, defamers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boasters, contrivers of evil, disobedient to parents, senseless, faithless, devoid of natural affection, merciless.” (Romans 1:29-31)

In the world of darkness that existed in the first century CE, God raised up a man as his prophet to prepare for the arrival of the “light” in the person of his unique Son. This man was John, the son of the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. (1:6)

John testified concerning the light. The purpose of his testimony was to lead others to respond in faith to the one who would make his appearance as the “true light.” (1:7, 9)

As for John, he was not the light. His significant role was to present testimony “about the light.” (1:8)

The “true light” (the unique Son of God) was then about to come into the world, imparting “light” to all men or people everywhere. As the “true light, the Son of God would provide enlightenment about his Father and reveal how humans could come to enjoy an enduring relationship with him as his approved children. (1:9)

The world of mankind into which the “light” in the person of the Son of God came was not new to him. This is because it was through him that the human family came into existence. Therefore, humans should have recognized him as one with whom they had a relationship, but they did not. (1:10)

He came to his own people or the Jewish people, the only people who professed belief in his Father. The majority, however, did not accept him. (1:11)

In the case of persons who believed “in his name” or who accepted him in faith as the one he truly was (the Son of God), he granted the authority or the right to become Godʼs children or approved members in his beloved family. (1:12)

The newness of life or the new birth that identified them as Godʼs children could not be attributed to “blood” (a particular line of descent), “flesh” (natural procreation), or the “will of man” (adoption). They were born “from God.” On the basis of their faith in his Son, God acted to make them his children. (1:13)

Prior to his birth as the son of Mary, “the Word” was spirit, not flesh, and enjoyed life in an entirely different realm, the heavenly one. After his becoming flesh and tenting or making his home among humans, his early disciples (and those who joined them later) came to see in the Son of God a divine glory or splendor. His was the glory of an only-begotten of a father. He was the unique one, full of kindness and truth. As the one full of “kindness,” favor, or grace, God’s Son manifested a gracious disposition of unparalleled love. He himself was the living truth, the one through whom all the promises of God find their fulfillment and the one who, through his attitude, words, and deeds, provided to humans the most complete disclosure possible regarding his Father. (1:14)

He alone, as John the Baptist had testified, already “was” prior to his arrival on the earthly scene. Although the Son of God appeared on the scene after John the Baptist began preparing people for his arrival, he already was before John or predated John’s existence. (1:15)

From the fullness of the Son of God (from his limitless supply), his disciples received kindness upon kindness, or favor upon favor. This favor or kindness was unearned and unmerited. Their receiving “favor upon [anti; literally, “instead of”] favor” could be understood to mean that their receiving unmerited kindness was followed by receiving even greater unmerited kindness. The disciples continued to be the objects of Jesus’ care and compassionate concern as he taught them, came to their aid and defense, and, finally, in expression of his boundless love, gave his life for them. (1:16)

Whereas the law had been given through Moses, through Jesus Christ came the favor and truth or the full expression of godly kindness and the complete revelation of divine truth. The law, although dependable as a guide, did not disclose fully the greatness of the divine favor and truth that the Son of God could reveal. (1:17)

Unlike humans who have never seen God, Jesus had both seen him and enjoyed an intimacy with him that reached into the infinite past. That intimacy is revealed in the expressions used concerning him. He is the “only-begotten.” The Greek term monogenés (often rendered “only-begotten”) points to the uniqueness of the relationship of the Son to the Father. There is no other son like him. The emphasis is not to be placed on the second part of the compound (begotten), but the expression is to be regarded as a unit. This is evident from the way the term is used in the Septuagint as a rendering for the Hebrew term yahíd (only, only one, alone). Jephthah’s daughter was his only child. (Judges 11:34) The psalmist pleaded that YHWH might rescue his “only-begotten one” (LXX, Brenton), meaning the only life he possessed or his precious life. (Psalm 21:21 [22:20(21)]; 34:17 [35:17]) (1:18)

“God” (theós), if this is the original reading of John 1:18 (later manuscripts read, “only-begotten Son,” signifying unique Son), describes him as being exactly like his Father. The closeness to the Father is further shown by his being portrayed in his bosom or his bosom position. This is the kind of intimacy a person would enjoy when reclining in front of another person on the same couch while eating a meal. As the intimate of his Father, Jesus could reveal him to others in a way that no one else could. (1:18)

John’s preaching raised concerns among the Pharisees in Jerusalem. Probably because John was the son of a priest and therefore himself a priest in the Aaronic line of the tribe of Levi, the Pharisees sent a delegation of priests and Levites to question him. Arriving at Bethany on the east side of the Jordan, where John was then baptizing, they asked him, “Who are you?” This question implied that they wanted to know on whose authority he was acting and what basis he had for his activity. (1:19, 24, 28)

In response, John told them that he was not the Christ. His acknowledgment left no doubt regarding this. (1:20)

The questioners then asked him whether he was Elijah or “the prophet.” His emphatic response made it clear that he was neither Elijah nor “the prophet.” Although John did the work of the foretold Elijah, he was not the Elijah who had lived centuries earlier and whom the questioners expected to return literally. Seemingly, they also believed that “the prophet” greater than Moses would appear before the coming of the Messiah. (Deuteronomy 18:18, 19) That “prophet,” however, proved to be the one for whom John was preparing the way. (1:21)

Wanting a specific answer from John, an answer they could relate to those who had sent them, they again raised the question, “Who are you?” They followed this up with another question, “What do you say about yourself?” (1:22)

Referring to the words of Isaiah (40:3), John identified himself, “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness. Prepare the way of the Lord.” These prophetic words focused on the message, not the messenger. John was just a “voice,” the agent who gave voice to the message. (1:23)

The delegation whom the Pharisees had sent then asked why he was baptizing if he was not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet. Seemingly, in their view, John was not authorized to do baptizing without being able to identify himself definitively as being the Christ, Elijah, or the prophet whom Moses had foretold. Possibly their belief may have been based on certain prophecies in Ezekiel and Zechariah. The prophecy of Ezekiel indicated that God would cleanse the Israelites by sprinkling clean water upon them and then would put his spirit within them. (Ezekiel 36:25-27) Zechariah’s prophecy (13:1) pointed to the time when God would open a fountain to purify from sin and uncleanness. Such prophecies may have given rise to the expectation of the coming of one who would act as the agent to carry out God’s work of cleansing by means of water, and the Jews may have concluded that this one would be an extraordinary personage — the Messiah, Elijah, or the prophet like Moses. (1:24, 25)

In his reply, John turned attention away from himself and stressed the greatness of the one to come and before whom he was preparing the way. He said, “I baptize in water. In your midst, one is standing [or, is one who has taken his stand (according to another reading of the Greek text)] whom you do not know. [As for] the one coming after me, I am not worthy to loose the strap of his sandal” or to do the most menial task for him. (1:26, 27)

The narrated questioning of John the Baptist and of his responses occurred at Bethany. It is at this location on the east side of the Jordan that John did baptizing. The site itself has not been identified. Origen (185? to 254? CE) did not find Bethany in the general area and, therefore, preferred the reading Bethabara. (1:28)

The next day, after the interchange with the questioners from Jerusalem, John saw Jesus (after his return from the wilderness subsequent to his having been subjected to Satan’s testing [Matthew 4:1-11]) approaching and then said to those within hearing distance, “See, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” This identification suggested that Jesus, like the lambs offered daily at the temple, would die sacrificially for the sins of humans (or the “world” of humankind). (1:29)

Stressing the greatness of Jesus, John called attention to what he had said earlier. “This is the one about whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who has come to be ahead of me, because he was before me.’” John thus revealed that Jesus would surpass him and, in relation to time, had priority. He already “was” before John’s birth. (1:30)

John acknowledged that he did not know Jesus in the manner that he then could identify him but did baptizing so that he would be revealed to Israel. Before John started his activity of calling the people to repentance and baptizing, God had revealed to him that the one upon whom he would see the spirit descending and remaining would be the one who would baptize with holy spirit. As he did see the spirit coming down like a dove from heaven and remaining on Jesus, John testified, “This is the Son of God.” (1:31-34)

The next day Jesus again went to the area where John was baptizing. At the time, John was standing with two of his disciples. Seeing Jesus walking, he said to them, “See, the Lamb of God!” This prompted the two disciples to leave and head toward Jesus. (1:35-37)

Aware that he was being followed, Jesus turned and asked John’s two disciples, “What are you seeking?” This question served as an invitation for them to express their wishes respecting him. They addressed him as “Rabbi” (“Teacher”) and asked, “Where are you staying?” Their question implied that they wanted to spend time with him. Jesus invited them to come with him and to see for themselves. They then remained with him that day. It was about the tenth hour when they arrived where Jesus was staying. According to Jewish reckoning, roughly only two hours remained before the start of a new day. With the day (the daylight hours) starting at 6 a.m., the tenth hour would have been about 4:00 p.m. (1:38, 39)

One of the disciples was Andrew, the brother of Simon (to whom Jesus would later give the name Peter). The other disciple likely was John the brother of James. This is suggested by the fact that John is never named in a single verse of the account to which he is linked as the writer. (John 1:40)

Upon leaving Jesus’ company, Andrew located his brother Simon and excitedly told him, “We have found the Messiah” (Christ or the Anointed). With his brother, Andrew then headed back to the place where Jesus was staying. Upon seeing Simon, Jesus said to him, “You are Simon, son of John [Jonah]. You will be called Cephas” (Peter). The name “Cephas” or “Peter” means “rock,” and this name reflected Jesus’ confidence in Simon as one who would prove to be rocklike or solid in his faith and provide strengthening aid to fellow believers. (1:41, 42; Mark 3:16; compare Luke 22:32.)

The next day Jesus wanted to leave Judea to go to Galilee. He personally approached Philip, doubtless also one of John’s disciples, inviting him to be a follower. Philip must have known Peter and Andrew. Before taking up residence in Capernaum, Peter and Andrew, like Philip, lived in Bethsaida, a town on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. (1:43, 44; compare Luke 4:31-39.)

Philip then located Nathanael, telling him, “The one of whom Moses wrote in the Law and the Prophets [wrote] we have found, Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth.” The link to Nazareth appeared puzzling to Nathanael, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” His question may suggest that Nazareth did not have a good reputation. On the other hand, Nathanael may have meant that he found it difficult to believe that the promised Messiah, the great good to which Philip had referred, would come from this city in Galilee (and not Bethlehem in Judea). Could it really be that the Messiah, of all places, would have Nazareth as his home? Philip did not try to persuade Nathanael with words but invited him to come and find out for himself. (1:45, 46)

Nathanael is not named in the accounts attributed to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Based on the mention of Philip and Bartholomew together in listings of the apostles, Nathanael and Bartholomew appear to be the same person. (Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:14) Similarly, Matthew is also called Levi. (Matthew 9:9; Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27-29)

As Philip and Nathanael approached, Jesus’ first words to Nathanael were, “See, a true Israelite in whom nothing is false.” Surprised by this observation from one whom he had never met, Nathanael responded, “How do you know me?” Revealing that he had knowledge about Nathanael beyond the ordinary, Jesus told him that he had seen him under the fig tree before Philip called him. Based on Jesus’ reference to the fig tree, Nathanael recognized that Jesus’ knowledge about him was of a miraculous nature, removing any doubt from his mind about Jesus’ true identity. An event or circumstance associated with that fig tree revealed the kind of person Nathanael was, and he immediately grasped the significance of Jesus’ words. With conviction, he replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” Having believed on the basis of being told that he had been seen under the fig tree, Nathanael heard Jesus say that he would see things greater than this. In fact, he and the other disciples would see heaven opened and “the angels of God ascending and descending to the Son of Man.” Through him, the very heavens would be opened up to them. (1:47-51)

The reference to the ascending and descending of angels from the Son of Man somewhat parallels what Jacob saw in his dream at Bethel. In that case, angels descended and ascended by means of a ladder-like or stair-like arrangement that reached from the land to the sky, and the Almighty was positioned at the top. Jacob then heard God’s promise that through his seed all the families of the earth would be blessed. (Genesis 28:12-14) As the apostle Paul wrote when referring to the promise first made to Abraham, that seed proved to be Christ. (Galatians 3:16) Jesus’ statement therefore may also have served to confirm Nathanael’s expression of faith, “You are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” (1:49-51)

Not until after Jesus’ death do angels figure prominently in the biblical accounts, being seen at various times. (Matthew 28:2-7; Mark 16:5-7; Luke 24:1-7; John 20:11, 12; Acts 1:10, 11) Manuscript evidence concerning the appearance of an angel in the garden of Gethsemane to strengthen Jesus is inconclusive. The omission of this incident in early extant manuscripts suggests that it may not have been mentioned in Luke’s original account. (Luke 22:43) So it would appear that Jesus’ words about the ascending and descending of angels relate more to the disciples being able to see the free approach he had to his Father and that angels were always available to minister to him. (1:51; compare Matthew 26:53.)