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In the Beginning was Jesus -- an introduction to the Gospel of John (John 1:1-14)

Jesus Is God, and He revealed God's grace and truth to us.


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for John 1:1-14

This incredible, lifechanging set of verses recasts all of creation and the whole Bible as the story of Jesus, who has all of God's glory and grace and truth to reveal to us -- because Jesus is God. And yet He is not God the Father. And yet there is only one God. So many mysteries and misunderstandings John will try to help us grapple with.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (1:1)

[This very cool graphic came from the website for Mike Lester.]



Favorite Book Beginnings

While I agree that we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, I also believe that the first line of a book is really important. Do you have any books that you remember from their opening lines? Here are some ideas:

  • "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" - A Tale of Two Cities

  • "In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit" - The Hobbit

  • "Call me Ishmael" - Moby Dick

  • "'Where's Papa going with that ax?' said Fern" - Charlotte's Web

  • "It was a pleasure to burn" - Fahrenheit 451

You can do this with movies, too, if you want, although moviemakers have figured out the formula to be memorable -- start with a giant action scene (like Saving Private Ryan or The Good The Bad and The Ugly) or something outlandish (like Guardians of the Galaxy or Saturday Night Fever). I'll admit that I'm a sucker for a good opening montage -- a sequence that sets up an entire story in a minute or two. Tell me if you can do better than these:


Why this topic? We're starting the Gospel of John this week, and I have heard it described as the greatest telling of the most powerful story in human history. John was a master storyteller at the height of his abilities. We're studying his "Prologue" this week, and it will outshine any book or movie idea we shared above.


There's a lot to cover this week, so I recommend moving through any opening discussion quickly.

 

This Week's Big Idea: Introducing the Gospel of John

Welcome back to the New Testament! It's been six months of hard-core Old Testament history and prophecy. But as I'll share in my notes, I think that Micah's hymn of praise (7:18-20) is a perfect lead-in for John's prologue.


Let's start with the Bible Project video:

(Yes, there's so much to this book that they divided it into two videos!)


I have always greatly appreciated the hard work they do transferring a text into a graphics-based chart. With the Gospel of John, they make John's ingenious structure quite clear.


But I'm also super excited to share that this past year, the Bible Project released a video that just focuses on John's prologue. Please watch this video --


Author

Like the other Gospels, the author never identifies himself (because the focal point is Jesus, not him!). I personally think it's pretty clear that the author is John the Apostle, the son of Zebedee (see below). Importantly, it wouldn't change the meaning or authority of the book at all if it weren't this John, but his identity helps explain a common theory of why this Gospel is so different from the other three (see below).


Purpose

John makes his purpose clear, and this also helps us understand why this Gospel is unique:

20:30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

In other words, this is a purely evangelistic gospel. But it was written in a different era than the other three, again explaining why it was so unique.


Date

You'll see arguments for the date of this Gospel for everything from the earliest (~55AD) to sometime in the second or third century. Because I believe that the author was one of Jesus' disciples, it puts a cap in the first century. However, the verse in chapter 21 that convinces me of the author's identity also helps us add a date:

20 So Peter turned around and saw the disciple Jesus loved following them, the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and asked, “Lord, who is the one that’s going to betray you?” 21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” 22 “If I want him to remain until I come,” Jesus answered, “what is that to you? As for you, follow me.” 23 So this rumor spread to the brothers and sisters that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not tell him that he would not die, but, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?” 24 This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.

This rumor was widespread and widely known enough that John felt it appropriate to mention. Sure, this could simply have picked up steam because he had outlived Peter and James (who were martyred in the 50s-60s), but the early church believed that John lived for a very, very long time. They believed (and so do I) that John also wrote the letters of 1/2/3 John, which can be dated to the mid-90s. They were written to combat "a Gnostic misunderstanding of the Fourth Gospel" (which we'll talk about in the future), meaning that John must have written this Gospel sometime in the mid-80s.


[Aside: "Gospel" vs "gospel". Some of you have asked about this. I use capital-G Gospel when talking about one of the four Gospels in the Bible. I use lowercase-g gospel when talking about the gospel message of Jesus. It's not because the gospel message is less important; it's to distinguish between the two.]


Three Effects of This Late Date

(1) The first three Gospels were written in the 50s and 60s. What happened between the 60s and the 80s? The utter destruction of Israel by the Romans. The world and identity of God's people had been irrevocably changed. They were thinking about themselves and about their relationship with God very differently.


(2) Additionally, we had two generations of Christian evangelism throughout the Roman Empire. There were now churches throughout the Near East and the Mediterranean basin. They had been interacting with Greek and Roman philosophy (like recorded in Acts), trying to explain what made Jesus unique.


(3) Finally, John had some 50 years to think about what Jesus had said and done. He had (almost certainly) read the first three Gospels and pondered them deeply. He had heard how people were misunderstanding them, so he wanted to write his version of events designed to speak to this generation of seekers.


That leads us to the big question for understanding John:


Comparing John with the "Synoptic Gospels" (Matthew, Mark, Luke)

There's no missing that John's Gospel is quite different from the other three. One website ("The Blue Letter Bible") includes a massive chart that compares the Gospels. When you skim through it, you'll see that John seems to be doing his own thing most of the time.

  1. John skips over a lot of Jesus' parables and public teachings, and also many of His miracles like exorcisms and healings.

  2. John doesn't go into some big themes in the other Gospels, like the Kingdom of God and even the Lord's Supper.

  3. John includes a number of private discourses and major events that happened around Jerusalem (like raising Lazarus).

Consequently, some skeptical readers have claimed that John was making up his own mythology to go along the myths created by Matthew and Mark and Luke. That extreme reaction is quite unnecessary (and rather lazy). It's clear that John is telling the same story as found in the other Gospels. In that Blue Letter Bible chart, I counted 20 of 200 "episodes" appearing in all four Gospels. That might not sound like much, but which episodes are key:

  • The ministry (and fate) of John the Baptist

  • The baptism of Jesus

  • Jesus in Galilee

  • Feeding the 5,000

  • Peter's profession of faith

  • The Triumphal Entry

  • The Last Supper

  • Peter's denial foretold

  • Much of the betrayal/trial/crucifixion/resurrection

It's the same story.


So, why the differences? I like the theory that John didn't feel it necessary to repeat everything found in the other Gospels. Instead, John focused on those things that weren't in the other Gospels -- the private conversations, the "harder" teachings -- the knowledge that John wanted to make sure didn't die with him. The word that I've heard used a lot (and really like) is interlocking. John wrote a Gospel that interlocked with the others. For example: Mark 14:58 says, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands, and in three days I will build another not made by hands.’” But John is the one who tells us where that accusation comes from -- John 2:13-25.


I also believe that John's extra years of reflection (with the illumination of the Spirit) enabled him to see some of the deeper meanings to things Jesus said and did, and he focused on those things. In particular, John's reflection led him to focus on two themes that were an important part of his ministry:

  • How people misunderstood Jesus (this is everywhere in the Gospel -- even His own followers misunderstood Him)

  • Belonging to the people of God (there is so much about what it means to be a child of God and how God's people are to be unified)

Because he saw those issues becoming a bigger and bigger deal among those who called themselves Christian, John wanted to make it clear what Jesus had said about them.


Broad Outline of John

  1. Prologue -- The Word became flesh (1:1-18)

  2. Jesus' identity through His teachings and miracles (1:19-10:42)

    1. The first witnesses (1:19-51)

    2. Early ministry (2:1-4:54)

    3. Rising opposition (5:1-8:11)

    4. Radical conflicts (8:12-10:42)

  3. Transition -- King and Suffering Servant (11:1-12:50)

    1. Lazarus (11:1-54)

    2. Triumphal entry (11:55-12:36)

    3. Unbelief (12:37-50)

  4. Jesus' identity through His death and resurrection (13:1-20:31)

    1. The Last Supper (13:1-30)

    2. The last discourse (13:31-16:33)

    3. The prayer of Jesus (17:1-26)

    4. The passion of Jesus (18:1-19:42)

    5. The resurrection of Jesus (20:1-31)

  5. Epilogue -- A new generation of leaders (21:1-25)


 

Bonus Big Idea: God as Trinity (Christmas Edition)

We are going to be thrown into one of the most difficult topics in all of Christianity -- God as Trinity. At some point in this week's discussion, someone is going to bring this up. We've talked about it before, and I've recommended this diagram:

But it's Christmastime, so here's a fun twist to make. Using these classic Christmas hymns (not every song written for Christmas has the best theology), what can we say about Jesus as it relates to the doctrine of the Trinity?

  • Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus

  • Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming

  • Hark! the Herald Angels Sing

  • O Come, All Ye Faithful

Look up the lyrics if you don't know them -- what truth do they tell? I'll highlight a verse of O Come All Ye Faithful:

Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning;

Jesus, to Thee be glory given;

Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.

O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!


In the community chorus concert, we sang a verse to this song I didn't know:

God of God, Light of Light,

Lo, he comes forth from the Virgin's womb.

Very God, begotten not created:

O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!


Based on those songs, what do we know about Jesus? This might be a nice and different way of explaining the doctrine of the Trinity this week.

 

Part 1: Was the Word (John 1:1-5)

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 All things were created through him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of men. 5 That light shines in the darkness, and yet the darkness did not overcome it.

So, people have written entire books just about these verses. This is, frankly, a daunting passage to cover in a single lesson. You need to focus on those things that stick in your heart that you think would best help your group appreciate these verses.


For the opening words, John makes it clear that his Gospel is not like the other Gospels. He's telling the grandest story in history, one that brings into focus the entire story of the Bible (and the universe).


In Greek philosophy, which John had clearly encountered and disputed, the words for "beginning" and "word" were very important. To the Greeks (like Aristotle), "beginning" had to do with the origin of existence. "Word" had to do with the foundational principles of existence (like what we might call the law of physics). But John knew that those two words had already been given the only meaning they needed in the Hebrew Bible:

Gen 1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness covered the surface of the watery depths, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

Greek philosophy was deficient on the one question that mattered most -- where did the beginning come from? The universe is not some self-existent, self-governing entity -- it was created by a personal Being we know as God. And that means we were created by a personal God.


"The Word was with God and the Word was God" is carefully worded to show

  • Jesus is fully God

  • Jesus is not God the Father

This might be where you digress to explain the Trinity.


Some people have translated the last phrase to be "and the Word was deity/divine". In English, this means something different and is where the Jehovah's Witnesses came up with their translation, "the Word was a god". The Greek structure means (and this is clear in the Greek) "the Word was what God was". That might be weird in English, so the best translation would be "the Word was God" in the sense "the Word was fully God".


This does not mean that the "Word" and "God" were the same person. It means they were of the same essence. Consider:

  • I and the Father are one. (10:30)

  • so that they may be one as we are one. (17:11)


Verse 3 helps us understand Genesis 1 -- God spoke creation into existence, and Jesus was the agent (the Word) by which God accomplished that great work. But the rest of the Gospel goes on to correct a big misunderstanding in John's day (which still confuses today) -- the Word and Spirit (sometimes called the "two hands of God") are not simply God's forces, impersonal and impassive exertions, they are themselves personal Beings who live and act with God the Father (again -- Trinity).


In verse 4, the word "life" is very important. It's a normal Greek word for life, and John uses it 37 times in his Gospel. But in every single subsequent use of the word, including in the letter of 1 John, John very clearly means what we think of as eternal life. (In fact, half of the time, John explicitly uses the word "eternal".) In other words, Jesus didn't just create a universe where beings live and die -- He has injected something much greater into this universe: Himself.

A thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance. (10:10)

This only applies to humans ("that life was the light of men"). That's not because we are somehow exceptional in ourselves, but only that God created us in His image for us to enjoy this universe He created. Only humans have a "soul" in the eternal sense that John is talking about (and we will see this throughout the Gospel). And that's why Jesus came to earth as a human. He came to save humans. (But humans rejected Him -- hold on to that thought.)


Verse 5 marks a shift to present tense. John has told us the story of everything, and then we come to today. (Note that verse 5 is presently true for whomever reads it.) As God once said "Let there be light", now we learn that Jesus is that light. "Light" is obviously metaphorical. The idea of there being a great battle between the "forces of light" and the "forces of darkness" had been a growing part of Jewish thought and really dotted the surviving literature from the era of the fall of Jerusalem, so of course John would lean into it.


Aside on Light

"Light" is a terribly complex metaphor that's also one of the easiest to kinda explain. Light enables us to see. Light gives life to plants and health to animals. (I wouldn't recommend a scientific lesson about the full electromagnetic spectrum and how it all works together; you probably don't have that much time.) Depending on where your room is, there are different ways to quickly illustrate this. Bring a candle/flashlight and turn out the lights. Bring a potted plant that has been growing a certain direction. Bring a picture printed both in color and B/W. It's easy to demonstrate the power and value of light.

As a metaphor, "light" is generally the manifestation of the glory of God. God's "Shekinah glory" was so bright as to be blinding. But here in this passage, "light" is equated with "life" and later with "grace and truth". "Light//life" taps into that Jewish tradition I mentioned. "Light//truth" taps into the Greek tradition John was trying to fix. Knowing truth is like being able to see. Walking in truth is like walking on an illuminated path. Both John and Paul specifically connected "light" with "truth of the gospel" -- "the light shines in the darkness", specifically the darkness of the hearts that are isolated from God. God shines His light "into our hearts" (2 Cor 3:18).


Back to the passage.


As we all know, darkness cannot overcome light. This is a literal, universal truth -- you can shine light, you cannot "shine darkness". To create darkness, you have to put out the light. "Did not overcome it" translates a complex verb that can mean "comprehend" "grasp" "overcome" "overtake" or "seize". In context, I think we can safely say that the darkness is trying to understand the light, as if it is confused by the light. Rather, based on what Jesus will experience in John's Gospel, the darkness is threatened by the light and thus wants to capture/conquer it. And that begs another question.


Aside on Darkness

John does not elsewhere use "darkness" to refer to people. So, John is not here talking about Jesus' enemies, i.e., certain Jews or Romans. Rather, John is using darkness in its logical metaphorical sense. If darkness is the absence of light, then darkness in John's metaphor is the absence of truth and grace (and God). Darkness is the evil of the age and can even refer to the forces of Satan (but is not limited to that). Paul does not refer to "light" in his armor of God analogy, but he identifies the darkness:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this darkness, against evil, spiritual forces in the heavens. (Eph 6:12)

See how you could make multiple lesson just out of these few verses? At some point, you just have to wrap up and move on. The long and short is this -- John has just told us that the only way we can truly understand life, the universe, and everything is to come to Jesus.

 

Part 2: Made Known (John 1:6-8)

6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify about the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but he came to testify about the light.

We studied John the Baptist in each of the surveys of the other three Gospels. There, it was very clear the importance of John the Baptist -- the Old Testament (specifically Malachi 4:5) said that a forerunner like Elijah had to come to prepare the way for the Messiah. No John the Baptist, no Messiah.

So, why would John care so much about John the Baptist? It can't just be because he liked his name 😉!


First of all, remember that John still cared about his Jewish audience. Just because he was writing so many years later doesn't mean that the Old Testament had lost its importance. (We will touch on this a few times during our study -- John didn't cite Old Testament prophecy as explicitly as Matthew did, but he tapped into Old Testament traditions (like the Genesis creation account) quite frequently.)


But maybe more importantly is John's emphasis on the idea of witness. You might remember that we get the word "martyr" from the Greek word for witness. John used the noun and verb forms of "witness" 47 times; Matthew/Mark/Luke used them 5 times combined.


John the Baptist is the ultimate witness. (The word "testify" is based on the verb form of "witness".) Jesus called John the greatest man who had lived to that point (see Matthew 11; that's also where Jesus made it clear that John was the Elijah to come.)


Throw this question out to your group (if you think you'll have time) -- based on how the Gospels portray John the Baptist, what makes him such a powerful witness? (Matthew 3, Mark 1, Luke 3)


With this, John establishes John the Baptist as the "prototype" witness for all Christians. Everyone who claims to follow Jesus should point the world to Jesus as clearly and as boldly and as selflessly as John the Baptist did.


You might want to move quickly here because the final section has a lot to talk about.

 

Part 3: In the Flesh (John 1:9-14)

9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was created through him, and yet the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, he gave them the right to be children of God, to those who believe in his name, 13 who were born, not of natural descent, or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God. 14 The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We observed his glory, the glory as the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Verse 9 is the first appearance of another key word for John: "world". This is the word "cosmos" which can refer to all of creation, but when John uses it, he often just means the "world of men" or perhaps "the human race". He regularly contrasts it with "heaven" meaning the place of God's personal rule. (We'll talk about this word a lot more, particularly when we get to John 3:16.) When we read Paul, we learn that creation itself was broken by the fall and longs for Christ's return. So when John says "the world did not recognize Him", he's clearly talking about the "world of men".


In these verses, John sets up three more critical themes:

  • Humans rejecting/misunderstanding Jesus

  • The idea of personal choice/responsibility

  • The identity of the people of God

The Bible Project video does a great job illustrating the structure of these verses. The great tragedy of the incarnation is that the people had no excuse. Jesus was their Creator and Sustainer -- they literally belonged to Him! But they rejected Him. It's not that they failed to recognize Him, it's that they turned Him away.


Verse 12 is super-important to understanding the entire Gospel -- what it means to "receive" Jesus is to "believe in His name". This obviously doesn't mean "I believe that his name is Jesus". The word for "believe" is the verb form of the noun "faith". But John never uses the noun form of the word, only the verb form (and he uses it a lot more than the other Gospel writers -- 98 times compared to 34 combined). That's because to John, belief isn't just "in the mind" -- belief shapes the entire person. In other words, faith is an activity.


And then verse 13 develops these incredible ideas even more. Here is the first appearance of the idea of being "born again". But it's also the first clear appearance of the mysterious intersection of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Christians are not "born" by their own will but by God's. And yet, only those who choose to believe in Jesus are those who are born again. Some have explained this by saying that God simply "chooses those who believe". That's not wrong, but it doesn't appreciate the role of the Spirit in the choice to believe. I think our best way to approach this is to humbly acknowledge that salvation begins and ends with God and God alone, and also that we have a responsibility to willingly submit to His plan for salvation.


There has been plenty of debate over why John chose three descriptions of birth -- "born of natural descent" (literally "born of the bloods"), "born of the will of the flesh" (generally refers to sexual desires), or "born of the will of man" (could specifically mean "born of the decision of the husband)". Based on John 3 and Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus, we know that John's primary point is the difference between "being born" and "being born again". But I think John is making three important points:

  • One can't be born into salvation -- this is specifically against the Jews who thought their genetic descent from Abraham was their trump card.

  • One can't enter into salvation by natural means/actions.

  • One can't make a decision for salvation for someone else -- like a father thinking he can "save" his child by having him baptized or the like.

All of this reinforces that salvation is a personal commitment, but one that requires God's intervention to make.


Aside on Micah 7: The Remnant of God's Inheritance

Because we just studied this, I wanted to draw a connection between this week's passage and last week's (Micah 7:18-20). Last week, we talked about "the remnant of God's inheritance" -- namely those Jews who would remain faithful to God. This week, John introduces to us the idea of becoming "children of God". Judging by what Micah said of being in God's remnant -- enjoying the blessings of God's covenant -- and by what John will say about being a child of God, they're clearly in the same group of "people who are saved".


So what's the difference?


I think Paul gives us our best explanation in Romans 11. There, Paul talks about the remnant of the Jews and also of Gentiles who were "grafted" into God's people. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is to picture a family with "natural-born children" and "legally adopted children". Assuming we're talking about "good" parents, those parents love both groups of children equally. They might have entered the family by different means, but they are all equally part of the family.


I said earlier that the idea of being "the people of God" is an important theme to John. He's going to talk a lot about the goal of peace and unity. Why? Because there was a lot of strife and division in the Christian church! We've talked about the prejudice between Jew and Gentile regularly in other books of the New Testament. John, having lived it, desperately wanted to guide the Christians away from their prejudice -- prejudice has no place in the heart of a Christian.


Back to the passage.


Verse 14 is one of the most important and powerful statements ever uttered. It is the incarnation (which we celebrate at Christmas) in one sentence. Importantly, it is here that we finally realize that this "cosmic Word" John has been talking about is the man Jesus.

  • "Incarnation" means "become flesh". The word for "flesh" is the same word used in verse 13 -- it focuses on human desires and will. In other words, all of the things that make us human, for good and for ill. Jesus, who was fully God, became fully human. He took on our human weakness.

  • "Dwelt among us", as the Bible Project video illustrated, is supposed to make us think of the Tabernacle, where God dwelt among His people.

  • "From the Father" paints a bullseye on the claim that will get Jesus in the most trouble with the Jewish authorities -- claiming a very unique relationship with God. In this place, the focus is on God's glory, that "light" John has pointed out.

John hammers this home even more in verses 17-18:

17 for the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. The one and only Son, who is himself God and is at the Father’s side—he has revealed him.

See the difference between Moses, the great prophet, and Jesus -- something else entirely. Moses delivered "the law", a set of written instructions. But Jesus brings grace and truth. John is not denigrating the law! The law was not deficient. But it wasn't complete. You can't write grace down. You can't write all of truth down. Grace and truth must be experienced/demonstrated/participated in. That requires a person. Jesus.


God's plan was never to "stop" with the law. The law pointed the people forward to something greater -- the person who would pay for the violation of the law and then write that law on the people's hearts. No mere person could do this. Only God Himself could.


And so we have this incredible description of Jesus, all in 14 verses.


If you save enough time, have your group "explain" who Jesus is based on these verses. And more importantly, ask if everyone in your group has made that personal commitment of faith to Jesus. "Faith" isn't just "belief" -- it's action that shapes our entire lives.

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