If you know how bewildering it can be to listen to someone else's details without being given a context to understand them, then the gospel of John is for you. At least here "in the beginning."
By the end of our passage, in Jn 1:23, we're exactly at the same place with the details as Mark brings us to start his gospel, with the particulars of John the Baptist. But how we got there is amazing. And practicality? You can learn enough about yourself as a Christian from one sentence here (1:8) to guard you through the course of this world.
In verses 1ff. John writes what some call "densely"; that is, everything is very precisely stated, and there is a reason for every detail. For example, the Word "was" in 1:1. In English we say "was there," for example, "I was there at my son's birth," when we want to express the / time when / place where / I already was. Here, before the world's time and place had yet come about, the Word "was."
Then comes the dovetailing of what John is saying with Genesis 1:1, about there being only God at the beginning, and God being the one creating. The Word was God. So, there was still only God at the beginning. The Word was with God. So, the Word, being with God, and God. What else? Not an impersonal word, but a "He" (1:2), was not only at the beginning, but at the beginning all things were made through Him. Since then as well: all individual things have been made through Him; things have a "made-ness" to them. All of them (1:3). One mark of being "made" is that the materials are of similar nature across the board. Atoms, for example. DNA, in the case of life.
Speaking of life, John goes on. The very next assertions about "Him" are that in Him was life. The Word is not an inanimate "it."
But nothing prepares us for the addition John makes next. The life in the Word is, has all along been, "the light of men" ... the light of even Adam and Eve. The light of men. That life was there to be that, as we would expand in English. Whenever "men" -- mankind -- have been in relatively little light, it was not because there wasn't any, shining in the darkness.
How do we know that John isn't talking directly about physical light? Because the light is the light of the life "in Him" (1:4), and because of that interesting phrase, "shines in the darkness." Physical light is not the life that always was in the Word, but this light is that life, in Him who was there before physical light, that shines in the darkness whether physical light does so there or not.
Having looked into John's first time-marker, "the beginning," we can also notice his hint of a second one, that this life was, at a point in time, not comprehended by "the darkness." John is giving us the start of a story about the Light, and a theme in the ensuing story. But John got this from the Light Himself, which we can see from the profound conclusions the Light makes about Himself in Jn 12:35-36.
But back to why does nothing prepare us for the reference in 1:4b, "light of men"? Because nothing to that point in the text forced us to think of men as being in the picture. People often say that God need not have created the world. Even more so, the life that was in the Word: what necessity there for that life to be the light of men? "What is man that You take thought of him?" Psalm 8:4 asks. The stars and moon made the Psalmist ask that question. How much less did what is in man compel the life that was in the Word at the beginning to be the light of men, including you or me. The Word was not compelled by anything in men, to be their light.
But John is not yet finished talking about the significance to all men of the Light. Even though he begins to talk about particulars in 1:6, he refers the coming of John the Baptist back to the Light that he was just talking about (1:7-8). Did we expect John to say that the witness was going to testify about the "life" in 1:7? That's not how the Baptist came. Even though "the life was the Light of men," John the Baptist did not come saying it doesn't matter what came, as long as it has life ... NO! Light, the Light, matters. Comprehension matters. The life in the Word was the light of men, not a way to skip the light of men. Light and life are not opposed. Light is not skippable, on the way to life. So John came to "testify about the Light, so that all might believe through him." There is an ordering relationship here, which John echoes even at the end of the Gospel. In this chapter, the ordering is Word, Light, testimony about the light, to believing. In John 20 is the same thing: "these [words] have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name" (20:31). Believing is means to life.
Next comes a part that saddens even a small child who hears it. In 1:09, everything is as it should be, but the situation in the world that the Light came into and continued in was a lack of knowledge of Him: "the world did not know Him." Furthermore, "His own did not receive Him," referring to "His own" in the broadest terms, not necessarily in terms of just a nation or race. One of the points of the prologue is the universality of what "His own" is, in the universe: everything that has been made! And ... as a general description, His own did not receive Him, but that was not without exceptions: "as many as received Him" -- as many individuals as did -- the Word gave the right to become children of God! Tying the previous together, John explains: "to those who believe in His name." (1:12).
John gets ahead of himself to describe this exception to the rule that "His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God ...." He further says, "who were born" -- BOMBSHELL! The Word did NOT JUST give the right to become children of God to those who received Him ... they were BORN! Those who received Him were born of God! (1:13).
Next, he summarizes what he's been saying, 1:14. The rest of what is commonly called the "Prologue," 1:14-18, recapulates and supplies more particulars, and even lets John tie himself into the story ("we saw His glory ..." (1:14)).
"We all received" (1:16) refers to something specific, as does "grace for grace." What was part of the glory, a fullness of grace and truth that the author saw in 1:14, is described as something specific, shared, here. Something "of His fullness," i.e. some part of it, we all received. Not only that! (the "and" here is forceful ....) It wasn't something skimpy. "Grace for grace" means repetition of it over time, solely because of the previous.
And no, Paul didn't write 1:17 and insert it in. It's Johannine language, which we recognize by the "came to be" literal. Grace and truth came to be through Jesus Christ. Another one of those forceful, emphatic "and" words. Grace AND truth came to be through Jesus Christ. Came to be right here among us, existing. Incarnate. How blessed to be those to whom this event, this Incarnation, has explained ... God! And, finally, we are ready to hear what John the Baptist had been saying, as the other evangelists do as well: all four gospel writers agree that Isaiah 40:3 refers to John the Baptist.
- Acts 3:1-4:4
- Gal 2:11-21
- Mt 3:7-4:16
- 1 Tim 3
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- Rm 2:25-3:20
- 1 Peter 2:11-25
- Jn 1:43-2:12
- Mk 1:35-2:5
- Acts 2:22-47
- Gal 1:18-2:10
- Mt 2:7-3:6
- 1 Tim 1:18-2:15
- Lk 1:39-56
- Rm 1:28-2:24
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- Jn 1:24-42
- Mk 1:14-34
- Acts 2:1-21
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- Mt 1:1-2:6
- 1 Tim 1:1-17
- Lk 1:1-38
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- 1 Peter 1:1-21
- John 1:1-23
- Mk 1:1-13
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