Gospel (Christmas Day): John 1:1-18
Christmas is finally here! It is a time to relax, reflect, and savor the moment of the season. It is a time to enjoy family and friends. It is a time share gifts of love. It is the one day of the year when “peace on earth, good will to all people” can seem to be a reality.
But, is this the reason the Son of God came to live among us? Is this the reason we celebrate the holiday? The gospel writer John had bigger ideas, a grander picture than the warm feelings that mistletoe and tinsel evoke.
1 When God began to create the universe, the Word was there. The Word stood before God. And the Word was God. 2 This One stood before God at the beginning of time.
3 Everything that God created came to exist through him. Without him, nothing could exist. Everything that exists 4 in him has God’s life. This life is a Light for everyone. 5 It shines in the darkness. And the darkness can’t put it out.
6 God sent a man named John. 7 He came to tell everyone about God’s Light, so people would believe. 8 John was not the Light. No, he came to tell others about the Light. 9 The One whom God sent into the world was the real Light who will teach everyone the right way to live. 10 He was already in the world, because the world was created through him. But the world didn’t know about him. 11 He came to his own people, but they rejected him. 12 He gave those people who did accept and trust him the right to become God’s children. 13 These people had a new birth, not simply because they were part of a special group and not because they wanted to be or felt like being reborn. No, God himself gave them a new birth.
14 The Word became a human being and lived with us. We saw the glory of the Word; it was the glory of God’s only Son. He was full of God’s loving grace and faithful truth. 15 John declared: “He is the One that I said would appear after me, but he was really first.” 16 Because he was so full of God’s loving grace and faithful truth, we all received gift after gift from God. 17 God’s Law came through Moses. But God’s loving grace and faithful truth come through Jesus Christ! 18 Nobody has ever seen what God is really like. God’s only Son, the one who is really close to God, can explain what God is really like to us.
The reality behind Christmas can be overwhelming. God was born as a poor Jewish peasant over two millennia ago. The effects of that history changing event are still with us.
John the gospel writer divided his reflection on God-becoming-man in three sections: hymn to the divine Word, the witness of the Baptist, and the birth of the Word among humanity.
1 In the beginning was the WORD, and the WORD was towards God, and the WORD was God. 2 This (ONE) was in the beginning towards God. 3 Everything through HIM came (to be) but without HIM not one thing came to be. That had come to be 4 in HIM was life. And the life was the LIGHT of men. 5 The LIGHT shines in the dark and the dark did not seize it.
1:1 “the Word” “Logos” or “Word” (in English) had different cultural meanings in the ancient world. For Jews, the term “Word” was the vehicle for God’s revelation. In this sense, Jesus was the way God showed himself to the world.
For the general Greek population, the term “Word” was equivalent to wisdom, the principle of right living. But, as wisdom, the “Word” had a broader context; it was the principle the gods used to bring order to a chaotic universe. Hence, the “Word” created an order for the world, both a physical sense and a moral sense.
Jews who lived outside Palestine were influenced by Greek culture. In the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the term “Word” was used in both meanings. God used the “Word” to create the world (Ps. 33:6) and as a vehicle to reveal himself (Jeremiah 1:4; Ezekiel 1:3; Amos 3:1). In Proverbs 8:22-23, the “wisdom” of God existed with God at the very beginning of creation. In the deutero-canonical book, Wisdom of Solomon, “wisdom” had been personified as God’s companion. By the time John wrote his prologue, wisdom and the term “Word” were synonymous within the Judaism. The “Word” was a personal being as an agent of creation and revelation.
“the Word was towards God” The preposition “pros” (Greek for “toward” or “with”) has the meaning of “before” or “in the presence of” AND “in allegiance with.” In the ancient world, presence in a royal court entailed allegiance to the monarch.
1:1-2 These two sentences formed an “A-B-A” structure. A is “beginning...toward.” B is “the Word was God.” Using verbal bookends of existence and presence/allegiance, the equivalence of the Logos with God was emphasized. Clearly, John saw the Logos as divine.
1:3 The early Church held Jesus was the agent of creation. (See 1 Corinthians 8:6, Colossians 1:15-16, and Hebrews 1:2).
1:3b “That had come to be.” This phrase makes sense with either 1:3 or 1:4a. In the first instance, the translation would be “Everything through HIM came (to be) but without HIM not one thing came to be, that had become to be. In him was life.” In the second instance, the translation would be as stated above. Arguments for both translation are valid. The editors of United Bible Society which publish the definitive Greek New Testament study texts favor the phrase with 1:4a.
1:4-5 “life” meant “living in the presence of God” for John. In this sense, “life” was equivalent to “eternal life.”
1:5 “ the dark did not seize it” The verb “seize” can also mean “grasp.” Like many of John’s word uses, the verb described a continuum between a lack of understanding (“grasp”) to violent opposition (“seize”).
John began his gospel with a hymn to the Word, in Greek “logos.” The Logos was more than a single spoken utterance. As the notes above explain, the concept of Logos could mean revelation of the divine will and insight from God’s wisdom. In other words, it was a conduit into the mind of God himself. In this sense, Logos can also mean “reason.” The Logos shows us how God thinks. It explains how God acts and why he acts.
Irregardless how different cultures shaded the meaning the term, Christians soon equated the Logos with God himself. In other words, they applied the maxim: “wherever God acts, God is.” The Logos, in this sense, was no longer simply an instrument of God’s will. It was an extension of God himself as he created and saved. Yet, it had a sense of separateness. Four centuries after John wrote his gospel, the universal Church would define this extension/separation relationship in the doctrine of the Trinity. The Logos was one of the three persons or “hypostases” (literally Greek for “standing up” without support) that share the same divine nature. In other words, the Logos was God, in the presence of God.
As God, the very life of God dwelt within the Logos. And cosmos shared in that life in the very act of creation, because all existence was created through the Logos. John used the term “light” to described that divine life; everything that was dark (i.e., evil) could never overpower that light. If it could, that power of darkness would be god!
6 (There) was a man, having been sent by God; his name (was) John. 7 This (man) came for (the purpose of) witness, so that he might witness concerning the LIGHT, so that all might believe because of him. 8 That (man) was not the LIGHT, but so he might witness to the LIGHT. 9 HE was the true LIGHT who enlightens all men, coming into the world. 10 HE was in the world, the world came to be through (HIM), and the world did not know (HIM). 11 To (HIS) own HE came, and (HIS) own did not receive HIM. 12 But, as many as received HIM, (HE) gave to them the right to become children of God, the (ones) trusting in his name, 13 who, not out of blood or the desire of the flesh or the desire of men but by God they were born.
1:7b-8 These two verses formed an “A-B-C-A” format. After stating the Baptist’s purpose, the evangelist restated it for emphasis (A: “so that he might witness concerning the LIGHT”). Then, he stated the result (B: “so that all might believe because of him”) and the Baptist’s identity (C: “That (man) was not the LIGHT”). He ended with the Baptist’s purpose (A: “but so he might witness to the LIGHT”). The evangelist used this form to contrast the roles of the Logos (in 1:1-2) and the Baptist. The Baptist was not the Logos; his witness was to cause faith in the Logos.
1:9 “coming into the world” can refer to the “LIGHT” or to men. The popular translation above used the former meaning. No where in John’s gospel do men “come into the world.”
1:9-10 “world” referred primarily to culture.
1:12 “his name” was equivalent to the person of Jesus.
1:13 “ out of blood or the desire of the flesh or the desire of men” “Blood” here referred to family and national ties. “Flesh” was seen in a neutral sense as the “body” not as an instrument of evil. “Men” was equivalent to “humanity.”
Many scholars believe John 1:1-5, 9-14, 16-18 was originally a liturgical hymn that John adapted; the references to the Baptist (1:6-8, 15) were added to explain the differences between the Baptist and Jesus. John the Baptist had a following that extended far beyond Palestine. His teachings were influential into the early Christian era among non-Christian Jews. So, the gospel writer present John as the precursor to the Christ, like the other evangelists. But, who was this Christ. In the mind of the gospel writer, the Christ was more than the human anointed by the Spirit. He was the Word, the Light of the world. So, the Baptist came to announce the arrival of the Light among humanity. The Baptist was the witness to the Light.
1:9 proclaimed the mission of the Light: to enlighten humanity. Greek culture equated this function as the gift of wisdom. Heterodox groups known as Gnostics would teach that Jesus came to teach a secret knowledge that would release people from the prison of the material world and guide them into the freedom of the spiritual world. But, this was not the “enlightenment” the Light came to give. Taken with 1:12-13, the “enlightenment” was a simple realization. With the coming of the Logos into the world, God’s relationship with people had changed. Now, followers of the Logos had the right to be called “children of God.” They would be as the Logos was.
But, people did not (or would not) understand. They wanted God in a box, to control him. Some Jews believed they would be saved simply because they were “sons of Abraham” (out of blood). Some Greeks believed they would be saved by mastering that “secret knowledge” mentioned above (desire of men). All yearned for more than this world could provide, but they wanted it on their terms (desire of the flesh). But, they were all wrong. Only God could bring wholeness, completion, totality. He brought that gift in the presence of this Son who was born into the world.
14 The WORD became flesh and (HE) pitched (HIS) tent among us, and we saw HIS glory, a glory as the ONLY-BEGOTTEN of the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 John witnessed about HIM and has cried out (in prophetic announcement): “This was (the ONE) whom I said, ‘The (ONE) coming after me has come to be before me, because HE was first of me.’” 16 Because out of HIS fulness, we all received grace for grace. 17 As the Law came through Moses, grace and truth came through JESUS CHRIST. 18 No one has ever seen God. The ONLY-BEGOTTEN, God, the (ONE) being in the lap of the Father, that (ONE clearly) explained (who God is).
1:14 “(HE) pitched (HIS) tent among us” The notion of the divine dwelling in a tent echoed the temporary sanctuary used by the Israelites to house the Ark of the Covenant during the Exodus.
“full of grace and truth” referred to the relationship of the Son to the Father. In this sense, “grace” was steadfast love. “Truth” was faithfulness.
1:15 “HE was first of me” The term “first” not only meant temporal succession (Jesus existed at the beginning, so he predated the Baptist). It also meant leadership.
1:16-17 “grace for grace” is ambiguous. In light of 1:17 it could refer to the replacement of the Mosaic covenant with the Paschal covenant. However, taken in the context of the phrase that modified it (“because out of HIS fulness”), it could refer to the full life of the Spirit. If “grace” was God’s steadfast love and “truth” was God’s faithfulness in 1:17b, this phrase in relation to “grace for grace” could mean life in the Spirit. God’s love and faithfulness in Jesus Christ resulted in a life in the Spirit.
1:18 “The only-begotten, God” This phase has been hotly debated. The best manuscripts had this phrase. Many manuscripts lack the definitive article (“the”). Other manuscript replace “God” with “Son” (“the only-begotten Son”).
Taking the phrase as written, there were two nouns as the subject of the sentence. The relationship between the two nouns was the problem. Did John mean “the only-begotten (One), (the same as God)?” Clearly he was connected divinity to the only-begotten.
Why did the Son of God come as a human being? Why was the “Word made flesh?” John answer was one of revelation. The Word came to show the world God’s “grace and truth.” As the note above stated, “grace” was God’s steadfast love. The Hebrew word for this concept was “hesed,” the same love he showed to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai when he gave them his covenant. This self giving love was a gift that defined Israel as the Chosen People. This love was the activity that made the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob the living God. Grace or hesed revealed the kind of God the Jews worshiped.
As noted above, “truth” was God’s faithfulness. His love was not conditional or capacious. It was dependable. Believers could rely on God to be there for them. One of God’s titles was the “Rock.” He would not abandon his people.
Taken together, “grace and truth” spoke to the very heart of the “God” concept. God loved his with a dynamic, faithful concern. Anything outside of “grace and truth” would be dead. Anything within “grace and truth” would be fulness beyond measure, grace upon grace, life in the Spirit. The One who could give people God’s grace and truth would be the person closest to God, “in the lap of the Father.” This person was Jesus, the Christ.
How does your Christmas celebrate God’s love and faithfulness? How does the Christmas season bring you closer to God?
So, why do we celebrate Christmas? It is more than the birth of Jesus. It is a celebration of God with us. It is the realization that God’s love and faithfulness dwells among us. It is a sign that we are to carry that love and faithfulness to other. Like the Baptist, we, too, are to witness to the Logos, God’s living, breathing Word.
We have an awesome God who sent us an awesome Savior. He lives with us now!