John 1:1–18: The Word Became Flesh
This passage is John’s very poetic prologue to his Gospel. (Given the lack of indentation this doesn’t appear to be actual poetry, per se, but it’s definitely more than a dry, straightforward recitation of facts.) It’s quite familiar, especially the first five verses:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (verses 1–5)
(I always read the first verse with italics in my head: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That could be overcompensating because of previous discussions I’ve had with Jehovah’s Witnesses; see below for what they do with this verse.)
John then goes on to tell us that there was a man—just a man, in this case, not God—named John, who came to bear witness about this “light.” He’s talking about John the Baptist, who is not John the author of this book; they’re two different Johns. John the writer stresses that John the Baptist wasn’t the light, he just bore witness about it. But as for that light…
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (verses 9–13)
(Again, I always read, “But to all who did receive him” with italics in my head, though that’s not a religious thing, it’s just how I read it…)
And what was the result of all of this?
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. … For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (verses 14–18)
(I elided verse 15, which states that John the Baptist bore witness about the Word.)
Different passages of the Scripture sometimes hit us in different ways and at different times. You can read a passage a dozen times, and on the thirteenth time suddenly be struck by it as if you’d never seen it before. I have a distinct memory of once reading John 1 in my teenage years, in my New Student Bible, especially the first few verses, and being very struck by it, though, years later, I don’t recall what specifically it was about the passage that hit me so hard. But it’s a powerful passage, even on the hundredth reading.
In fact there’s a lot in here that could have impressed me, so I’m definitely not surprised that I’d be struck by it! I’ll go into this much deeper than I often cover other passages, line by line and phrase by phrase, because there’s so much to unpack. (Without bothering to include all of the links back to Bible Gateway, though they’re already included above.)
To state the obvious—or maybe it’s not so obvious?—when John talks about the Word, he’s talking about Jesus. So verses 1–5 are saying quite a lot about who Jesus is:
|“In the beginning was the Word,”||Jesus wasn’t created. He has always existed—just as God has. It’s intentional that John starts his Gospel with “in the beginning,” because it leads us right back to Genesis 1:1, stressing Jesus’ role in Creation. John is hitting us over the head that Jesus is fundamental to a relationship with God, not just an add-on; He is God, not just a person (or an angel).|
|“and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.”||Jesus is God. There’s a lot to say about the Trinity, but the point of this passage isn’t to say everything about the Trinity, it’s to point out that Jesus is as much God as the Father or the Spirit are. This is a verse that is changed in the Bible used by Jehovah’s Witnesses; their Bible says “the Word was with God, and the Word was a God.” This is not a good translation of the Greek, however, and is the opposite of what John is actually saying.|
|“All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.”||When everything was being created in Genesis 1–2—when God said “let there be light” and “let there be land” and all of the other “let there be” sayings—it was Jesus who was doing that creating. It’s highly appropriate that He’d be called the Word when He was the one who spoke creation into being.|
|“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”||I have life because of Jesus. God’s love shone in the darkness of my heart because of Jesus. The darkness will not overcome that light, because of Jesus.|
Which brings us to John talking specifically about the Light:
|“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.”||Maybe too obvious to state, but Jesus came to this world. He had been in Heaven, with the Father and the Spirit as part of the Trinity of God1, but then He came here.|
|“He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.”||Though Jesus created the world (as noted above), when He came into it, He wasn’t recognized by any of its people as the Creator.|
|“He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.”||… and that includes God’s own chosen people, the Jews. Even they didn’t receive Him, even though the Scriptures had been pointing to Him all along.|
|“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”||But to the ones who do receive Him, it’s more than just a nice bonus to life. It makes us “children of God,” it makes us “born anew” (which John will typically call being “born again,” but I’m avoiding that term just for the moment), it will make us “of God.” Continuing with the theme of Jesus being “the Light,” those of us who receive him have His light taking away our darkness and our ignorance.|
Although God is Glorious, John (and the other disciples) saw Him in the person of His Son, Jesus, the Word, when He came to dwell among us. And because of His actions, we have all received Grace.
|“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,”||This fragment is worth calling out on its own: God, the Supreme Being who created the entire universe, became flesh. Became a person. It boggles the mind. (I remember reading in my New Student Bible years ago the comparison being made to fireworks; that Jesus—God—being born as a man was like fireworks in reverse.) There is a sense in which I am never overly judgemental of the religious leaders who accused Jesus of blasphemy, because the idea does seem just plain silly: God became a person?!? It’s… it’s insulting! But it’s also exactly what happened.|
|“and we have seen his glory,”||And not only did God become a person, but we have eyewitness accounts from a number of the people who saw Him face to face. Some, like John himself, even saw His Glory, when he was transfigured on the mountaintop.|
|“glory as of the only Son from the Father,”||Even in Jesus’ day there were others claiming to be the Messiah, but they didn’t exhibit God’s Glory.|
|“full of grace…”||Jesus was (and is) Gracious. He didn’t come to this world grudgingly, despite what He knew He was in store for from us, He came willingly, giving what we didn’t deserve.|
|“… and truth.”||Although Jesus’ primary motive in coming here wasn’t as a teacher or as an example, he was still both of those things. This is another reason He is called the Word: He explained so much that we hadn’t previously understood about God’s relationship with His people.|
|“For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”||I think John is actually making two points here, in that there are two levels that we “receive” from God: We have all received what we call “common Grace,” meaning that God provides for our materials needs, whether we’re His children or not. He sends rain on the just and the unjust, as the saying goes. And that’s a form of Grace. We don’t deserve it, but He supplies it. But some of us also accept Jesus, and receive His saving Grace, and become children of God (as mentioned earlier), which is “grace upon grace.”|
|“For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”||Elsewhere in the New Testament we’ll be told that the Law of Moses brought condemnation, while Jesus brought salvation. Again, this is more than just Jesus explaining things to us; it’s literal: Because the Law could never do anything other than condemn us before God, Jesus took the punishment we deserved, which was an act of Grace. Yes, He taught us many things, but He didn’t come just to teach, he came to do.|
|“No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.”||We are told in the Old Testament that no one can stand before God and live; that to see God face to face would destroy us. But Jesus made Him known to us in a way that the Old Testament Scriptures never did, and also opened up the possibility to actually see Him face to face. One day I will do so, because of what Jesus accomplished.|
Summary of the Prologue
As mentioned, this is a prologue to the rest of John’s Gospel, but he says a lot in these 18 verses! If a person had never read any of the Bible before, and just read this passage, they’d already have a good head start to understanding Christianity in a deep and meaningful way. At the very least, they’d know that:
- Jesus is God, and was the Creator of the Universe
- Jesus brings life
- Jesus was a person, and a number of people saw Him and could bear witness to all He said and did2
- Jesus gives us the right to become children of God
- What a word! The “right”??? If there’s a word that doesn’t seem appropriate here, it’s “right”! But that’s what John says in verse 12: Despite all I’ve done, and despite how far from living up to God’s standard I am, I have the “right” to be a child of God!
- In coming to this world as a person, Jesus displayed the Glory of God. A popular philosophy of John’s time was Gnosticism (which I’m led to believe is having a come-back), which would have said the opposite of this: physical is bad, spiritual is good. But Jesus was God (the ultimate “good”), and He became a physical man, which displayed the Glory of God.
- All of this is an act of Grace. God doesn’t love us or choose us because we deserve it, He loves us and chooses us because He’s loving and gracious. The less we make Christianity about us, and the more we make it about Him, the better we understand it.
And these are just the first eighteen verses of John’s book! Imagine what more he’ll explain as we read on…
I don’t know if anyone uses the term “Trinity of God,” but I’m using it. I mention that in case people do use that term, and it has some kind of meaning; all I mean is “the Trinity, which is God.” ↩︎
In fact, few historical figures before have ever been as well documented as Jesus was before, oh, I don’t know, the 17th or 18th Century? ↩︎