A Bible Lesson on John 1:1-18

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

This is essentially a copy of an earlier post that will serve as the first in a series of lessons on John’s Gospel.  It concerns the prologue to the book, a magnificent statement concerning the nature of Christ, and provides basic historical orthodox Christology.

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

This should remind us of Genesis 1.  John is intentionally paralleling the opening verses of Genesis describing how God brought the world into being.  But in fact, the beginning John is talking about here is before the beginning of Genesis 1.  Before God began to create the world, before the beginning of time, there was the Word.

“Word” carries the meaning of God’s creative power.

Psalm 33:6a  By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,

It also carries the meaning of God’s revelation.  The Scriptures have always been known as His “Word.”  God’s Word has been thought of as His personified wisdom that is coeternal with Him and assisting in the creation.  (See, e.g. Proverbs 8:1, 22-30.)  The Greeks thought of the Word or “logos” as the orderly principles that govern the universe.  All of these meanings are there, but John is speaking of a person who, it becomes obvious as we read on, is Jesus.

The Greek tense of “was the Word” is one that indicates continuation.  The phrase then essentially says “the Word that is now was the Word before creation began.”

This “Word was with God.”  This person is in some sense separate from the Father.  Otherwise, the “with” makes no sense.  The New English Bible renders it “What God was, the Word was.”

But it is also true that this person (that is at one with the Father in purpose, and has been with the Father from eternity) is God.  This is a strong clear statement of the deity of Christ right up front in the book of John.  It is so fundamental that the cults almost always do some strange and unwarranted thing to make this verse something other than it is, a grand statement of the mystery of the Trinity.  For example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses add an “a” (that isn’t there or implied in the Greek construction) to make Jesus some supposedly lesser god (with a little “g”).

F.F. Bruce said of verse 1, “John intends that the whole of his Gospel be read in the light of this verse.  The deeds and the words of Jesus are the deeds and the words of God; if this is not true, the book is blasphemous.”

2 He was in the beginning with God.

3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.

Genesis says that God created.  John tells us that Christ was the agent of creation.  These verses were especially pointed in late 1st century when they were written.  The Gnostic heretics were maintaining that matter was inherently evil, that only “spirit” was good.  They had invented a theology of creation where matter was brought into being by some evil force, not God.  John plainly refutes that.  He reaffirms what Genesis 1:31 says.  God created the physical universe and it was good.  He insists that it was the person Jesus whom he knew as a human being who was the One who created all things.

4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men.

Here are two more of the important words/themes of John: “life” and “light.”

Self-existent life was in Him from before time (not the derived life that you and I have from Him as creatures).  Christ breathed physical life into man at the beginning, and John tells us as the book goes on that Jesus brings new life, abundant life, eternal life.

Eternal life, forgiveness of sin, is the light, the illumination that the Word brings into our sin-darkened lives even now.

5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

In Genesis 1:2 God spoke light into being, scattering the physical darkness.  Light is essential for vision.  It is essential to life.  Darkness is not something fundamental in itself, it is rather the absence of light.  When light comes, it shatters the darkness.  Darkness never ever triumphs over light.  Bringing a candle into a dark room never puts out the candle, rather the candle lights the room.

“The darkness has not overcome it.”  The light of Christ, God’s Word to man, is not in jeopardy from man who is running around with his eyes closed.  “overcome” could also be translated “understood.”  If man insists on keeping his eyes closed and rejecting the light that God has provided, there will be no real understanding of the way things really are.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

John the Apostle now refers to John the Baptist.  Note the contrast between the way that John talks about John the Baptist and how he talks about Jesus.   Jesus is the Word that was with God in the beginning with God and was God.  John the Baptist is simply a human being sent by God to do the job of a herald.  It was an important job (one commissioned by God) but there is no comparison whatsoever between the two persons.

It is worth noting that the “was” in this verse this is a different word than in verse 1.  This is a created “was” and not an eternally existent “was.”

7 He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.

The words “witness” and “bear witness” or “testify” are common in John’s Gospel.  They have a legal ring to them.  They are much more common in John than in the other Gospels.  (John uses “witness” 14 times, the other Gospels only 4 times total.  John uses the word “testify” 33 times.)   John says that John the Baptist came as a witness so that we might believe.  The word “believe” is central in the Gospel of John.  It’s used 98 times in the book.  The meaning is to adhere to, trust in, rely upon, abandon oneself to God.

8 He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.

The Apostle is anxious to see that we don’t mess this up.  John the Baptizer is not the star of this show.  If he or we have any place of importance, it is in pointing to Jesus.  Properly understood, the Gospel leaves no place for Christian “celebrities,” including John the Baptist.  This Gospel stresses John’s role as a witness over his role as a baptizer.

9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

As Paul says in Romans, every person is given the light of general revelation.  That light is a reflection of the source of light, Jesus.  In that sense, there has from the beginning of time been light coming into the world.  But now, with the announcement of John the Baptist, Jesus was coming physically into the world.  This is the “true” light.  The word translated “true” here means real, genuine, perfect, or substantial.  It is another key one in John’s Gospel.

The light was coming into the “world.”  Sometimes in John “world” means the physical creation.  Sometimes it means humanity.  Other times it refers to the systems of humanity, set up in disregard of and opposition to the will of God.

10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.

Here, the “world” probably has a couple of different intended meanings.  The glory of God is evident in the physical creation, but the system of humanity apart from the purposes of God chooses not to recognize that.

11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.

“He came to his own.”  The physical world is, after all His creation.  It does clearly belong to Him.  That is one meaning.  Another more specific one has to do with the Jewish nation.  The Jews are God’s own not only by creation, but by special choice.  They were Jesus’ people by birth and if anyone should have received the Word, it was them.  But by the time that John was writing, it was clear that the Jewish nation was not going to embrace Him as Messiah or Savior.

12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,

 For John, there is no difference between receiving and believing.  They are the same thing.  To receive/believe is again to rely upon, cleave to, trust in, depend upon.  “in His name” is in the real character of who/what He is.

Some translations say “power” to become children of God.  The word means a rightful authority.  To the remnant who gave the Word His rightful welcome when He came, He gave adoption/admission into God’s very family.

13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

The point is that the new birth is totally God’s provision and it’s not the same kind of thing as physical birth.  We don’t become children of God in the same way we get born into this world.  Kinship with God is not something that is passed down from our parents.

14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The Word “became” flesh.  There are lots of other ways that something like this could have been said, that would not have simultaneously preserved the fully deity and full humanity of Christ.  This is an expression that makes Christ fully human without making Him only a human.  The phrase rendered by the ESV “dwelt among us” means “tabernacled among us, set up His tent among us.”  It ought to remind us of the tabernacle that God ordered built by the children of Israel in the desert.  That was a place where His visible presence dwelt, where His glory rested.  This is the fulfillment of that Old Testament picture.  The glory of God, His visible presence, dwelt in Jesus, right among us sinful people.

“We have seen His glory.”  The “we” is probably meant to be the Apostles and other first-hand witnesses.  John throughout His Gospel gives us first-hand eyewitness details that are meant to help us be firmly rooted in faith.  John is here asserting that what follows is authentic.  The “glory” probably includes the general excellence of the sinless life of Christ and His sacrifice on Calvary and triumph over death.  But it surely also has specific reference to His transfiguration, of which John was indeed an eyewitness.

“the only Son” is another clear reference to the deity of Christ.  No good Jew would use that kind of terminology about anyone but God Himself.  This One was “full of grace and truth.”  These two ideas are also central in John.  The assertion here is that Jesus is the wellspring of these things.  They pour originally from Him.

15 (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’ “)

John the Baptist understood his place.  He wasn’t the main attraction, but rather only the announcer for the main attraction.  He took pains in his preaching to make this clear. The “was before me” is literally “he was first in respect of me” i.e. he had absolute primacy over me.   John the Baptist understood the eternal preexistence of Christ.

16 And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

“from his ‘fullness'” is from the sum total of all that is in God.  Christ’s grace has spilled out on all people.  Whether people ultimately accept God’s offer of pardon or not, it is incredible mercy that is shown in that He offers us pardon, that He patiently awaits our repentance.

The phrase that the ESV renders “have received, grace upon grace” is apparently literally something like “have received love in place of love” or “have received grace instead of grace.”  Barclay suggests that it thus could also carry the idea that different circumstances of life call for different manifestations of grace.  We need one thing in times of prosperity and another in times of adversity.  We need one thing in our arrogance and another in our despair.  And all of these we receive through Christ.

17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

The law, given through Moses, was grace from God.  It shows us our sinfulness and rebellion against God and foreshadows in the sacrificial system God’s provision for our reconciliation to Him.  It was indeed grace coming from God.  But the grace that was revealed in Jesus was the fulfillment of the law.  It permanently and effectively dealt with our sin problem.  It is indeed love in place of love.  John now names the Word.  He’s talking about Jesus of Nazareth, One he knew in space and time.

18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

In the Old Testament there had been a few instances where people had been given a partial glimpse of God.  Moses glimpsed His backside as He passed by.  But no one had dared, so to speak, “to look God in the face.”   But Jesus, the only God, has entered the world of humans and has been for us the complete visual aid.  He showed us everything we need to know about the character and nature of God.  He has made God known to us, and this same Jesus is presently at the side of the Father.  There is a perfect man in the throne room of the universe!

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

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