BY DR. AGONSON
As the Gospel according to John opens, an immediate and wonderful allusion is made connecting this New Testament with the first verse of the Pentateuch, and so the Gospel begins, “In the beginning. . .” But what is found in the beginning? Harkening back to Genesis, we learn of the creative aspect of God and His subsequent authority. He’s not some locally bound deity of mountains, but the creator of the whole shebang. With that in mind, how did God create?
Genesis 1:3 witnesses God’s creative act, “And God said. . .” and from this John opens with the declaration that the Word—that God said—was at the start of things. So far, so good, but then the Gospel ascribes two very potent qualities to the Word: The Word is described as being with God and that it was God. Something of immense importance is being said in the very first verse of this gospel. The next verse in builds this idea, adding that the Word was “in the beginning with God.”
Now, as God is the creator of all, all is His, and verse 3 of this gospel lays out this creative quality in relation to the Word, that all was made through the Word. Here, echoes of Genesis still resound: All things owe their existence to the Word of God. But what was it God spoke into existence? “. . . Let there be light,” Genesis 1:3 continues, and so the Gospel of John ascribes that in the Word, “In Him,” was life, which is further described as, “the light of men.”
God declares in Genesis that the light was good, and then, dividing light from darkness, creates day and night. In verse 5 of the Gospel according to John, light and darkness are also juxtaposed in a somewhat interesting phrase, describing that the darkness could not comprehend the light shining in it.
Stepping out of this cosmic prologue, the passage enters into a more exact history, specifically regarding a contemporary of Jesus named John the Baptist. (Apparently, the Baptist denomination is older than Christianity itself.) But, what does this Baptist have to do with anything? There is an element of humor to all of this: This gospel opened talking about grand overarching themes, challenging that day’s very conception of God while using references to the creation of the world and then suddenly brings up some dude with such a common name that to avoid confusion he is often referred to with additional nomenclature. The transition takes the reader from talks of foundational reality to a simple instance of man, saying, “There was a man sent from God . . .” but how does this fit into anything?
God sent him, and he came, “to bear witness of the light.” Here, John the Baptist is connected to the prevalent theme: the Word is God, the Word is with God, life is in the Word, the life is the light, and John bears witness of this light. The 7th verse ends explaining why John bore witness, “that all men through him might believe.” And in case there was any confusion, the next verse quickly clarifies that John the Baptist was not the light, only someone sent to bear it witness.
But, witness to what? We know from the passage that this is no simple lamp salesman, a flashlight broker; this John the Baptist is talking about the light of man, the life that is in the Word of God. To further expound upon what this light is, verse 9 adds another piece of description, calling it “the true light,” but then gives it an action within the world, declaring that this light illuminates every man.
Calling back to verse 3 of this gospel, the 10th verse reiterates the creative aspect, but this time ascribing it to the light. In Genesis, God creates the world, and does so with His Word. Then, this gospel opens by putting the focus on God’s Word, that life is found in it, and that this life is also light. This true light is suddenly given the pronoun “He,” similar to how the Word was referenced in verse 3, but two other qualities sandwich the creative: At the start, the light is said to be in the world, and after asserting that this world was created through this true light, the devastating truth hits, “the world knew Him not.” Following this, verse 11 makes it more personal, that those who were set aside to belong to the light rejected Him.
Then, the good news of the Gospel comes. Verse 12 begins with the word, “But.” Yes, the light that made all the world is rejected, even by those called “His own,” but—what a wonderful word—but we learn that some have not rejected, but some have received, the light. These He gave “power,” that they may “become the sons of God.” And how did they receive the light but by believing in His name?
What sort of son-ship is being described here? Verse 13 lays out three ways in which those believers are not sons. Their delivery was not by blood, neither was it by the will of the “flesh,” nor yet the will of man. What sort of sons are they? They are sons born by the will of God.
The next verse is packed. This Word we have been revolving around and discussing suddenly does something new under the sun. The Word is instantiated within the world it created, and instantiated by “becom[ing] flesh.” In this way, the Word not only enters the stage of the universe, but also comes in a form personal, becomes flesh like ourselves. So we are able to perceive Him, we “[behold] His glory,” and from this glory—i.e. light—recognize the Word made flesh, to be revealed as Jesus Christ, as being divine, “begotten” of God. The verse ends, declaring this Word made flesh as being full of two qualities often at odds with each other. So, this Jesus is capable of both extreme grace and extreme truth.
Then John the Baptist elbows his way back into the passage, pronouncing that his prophecy regarding someone to come after him, someone of a greater nature than himself, is this Word made flesh, giving as a reason that this Jesus was in all actuality before him. With that interruption out of the way, the passage continues in its theme, harkening back to the fullness of Jesus, that he is full of grace and truth, and that all have “received” of this fullness a compounding of grace.
Were an object not wanting grace, how should it receive grace? Grace necessitates, by its nature, some state of being outside of grace. So, we move from references of Genesis to the rest of the Pentateuch. In verse 17 of this gospel, the Law of Moses is juxtaposed with Jesus’ grace and truth. The law, which reveals to us our need for grace, is compared to that which comes abundantly from the Word made flesh.
But how, how could we receive this grace from God? We understand by the passage that it comes from Jesus. To the point, verse 18 opens with the declaration, “No man has seen God.” So how, separated from God, do we receive grace from him? God is made known to us through His begotten son.
The first eighteen verses of the Gospel according to John contain no end to theological richness. But as this paper should have an end, two ideas shall be brought to the forefront: Christ as mediator, and Christ as divine.
Truth and grace may seem contradictory; to have grace means to many the idea of overlooking something, in other words, ignoring some truth. Divinity also seems, by its mere supposition, to be so separate from us that though it may judge us by a law, it cannot be with us; we cannot behold it.
Jesus is not full of grace to the exemption of truth, nor does his fullness of truth hamper his grace. They are both fully realized in His fullness. Indeed, without His truth, how could we receive His grace? In His ultimate truth, we know ourselves in need of His ultimate grace.
Similarly, this gospel makes no bones about Christ’s divinity. It hammers the concept as a clear relief over its opening. Yet, Christ is personal, He is made flesh, and this point is etched just as clearly. So, Jesus is the light of the world, He is full of truth, and He puts on flesh, becomes a mediator between God and man. He is stretched out between these impossible extremes because He is the only one who can bridge their gap. And in His fullness we all receive grace upon grace.
Before a great expanse two men argue:
Voice 1: There is no god, no logic over all,
it’s all a mental game we play to stay
our minds from falling through unending space.
Look out and see: Madness is truth, and light
reveals only despair. No hope is found.
Voice 2: Not so, dear knave. You closed your eyes to light,
and now in darkness claim to see. Look out,
a cliff’s before you now, a precipice.
How should we know despair were we madmen?
Were reason want of some substance, how would
we come to know? The light is truth, and shines,
revealing what is hard to see. Yet see,
this gap unbridgeable, a way, a cross.
Voice 1: You speak of clarity, but speak as like
a clown. Th’ expanse cannot be breached. And look,
what can you see across this vast abyss?
Wherefore you think this narrow path a way?
It leads beyond our sight! You think it leads
to God? It leads nowhere, none I can see.
Voice 2: Yet what you see, it is enough, and we
must move from here. This pit, ever wid’ning,
draws to a close discourse. We must decide:
Fall down below, or choose the way across.