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Exegesis for the Christian Year by Henry Gustafson


Henry A. Gustafson is Professor Emeritus of New Testament Theology, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, New Brighton, Minn. He now lives in Santa Fe, N.M. This article appeared in No Other Foundation , Summer, l998, pp. 5-10. Copyright by the Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ and used by permission. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


Gospel for Christmas Day: John 1:1-14


From its earliest days the Christian Church has been a singing community. Many among its members heard the injunction to "let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.., and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" (Col. 3:16). They gave heed. With song they celebrated among other things the birth of Jesus (Luke 1), the exaltation of Christ (Phil. 2:5-11), God's inscrutable ways (Rom. 11 :33ff.), the gift of love (1 Cor. 13), God's work of salvation (Eph. 1:3-10), and their future hope (Rev. 21).

Included among their songs was a hymn which the author of our text used in the prologue of his gospel. It belongs to a literary genre found frequently in our Hebrew Christian scriptures; a genre which celebrates the story of God's creative and redemptive work (e.g., Ps. 78). The hymn has been described by many as salvation history in hymnic form. In John it was used to be part of his story of the revealing Word of God. The hymn brought that story to its climax in its statement about the Incarnation (v. 14). It was a Christmas hymn and appropriately is placed at the beginning of the gospel story.

The text of the hymn is believed by many to have had four strophes or stanzas. These poetic stanzas of the early hymn are distinguished from the prose of the gospel writer, in part by their staircase parallelism (a word toward the end of one line is used in the first part of the next) and by the chiastic character of some of the sentence structure. The stanzas as identified by Raymond Brown are: 1) The Word with God, vv. 1-2; 2) The Word and Creation, vv. 3-5; 3) The Word in the World, vv. 10- 12b; and 4) The Community's Share in the Word, vv. 14,16.

The first stanza focuses on God as one who communicates. The early singers of the hymn celebrated this faith. Their song begins with: "in the beginning was the Word." The Word existed. Even before creation (v. 3), before all time, before all worlds, it was.

No question was raised about how it came to be. Rather, the song proceeds to affirm a relationship. "The Word was with God." The stanza uses the word was not only for existence, but for a relationship. In the beginning God was, yet was not alone. "The Word was with God." So God was understood as One who speaks. This means that the revelation which the community receives (cf. v. 14) has its origin before time. For the Word was in the beginning with God.

Here there is no metaphysical interest in or speculation about the so-called inner life of God. Rather the stanza moves on to a third affirmation and to a third use of the word "was." "The Word was God." Here, Word appears as a title; and the title points to a function; and the function is communication. To call God Word implies that God is One who communicates. And to humans who know something of a hunger for the infinite, this is good news. God is Word and, therefore, can be known.

In the second stanza the hymn focuses on the revealing work of the Word in Creation. "All things were made by the Word." In their Hebrew Christian scriptures, the singers would have found similar claims made of both Wisdom and Word. Wisdom was described as a divine, pre-existent partner of God in the work of creation. "Before the beginning of the earth Wisdom was beside him, like a master worker" (Prov. 8:23,30). Word was viewed as a creative and effective instrument of God's will. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. God said: Let their be... and there was... "(Gen. 1:1-3). "By the word of the Lord were the heavens made" (Ps. 33:6).

According to our hymn, this creative Word was the source of life. What has come into being in him was "life" (v.4). This was the view of the Gospel. This life meant "knowing" God (17:3), not merely knowing about God, but experiencing God as being altogether significant for one's life. It was the Word that made God known. Thus, the Revealing Word was the Life-Giver.

The stanza also declares that in this life is light. The knowledge of God is like light shining in the darkness. To know God as Creator is to know ourselves as God's creatures. Thus, the Word, the Revealer, is a source of both life and light.

Tragically, however, humankind too often fails to hear the Word, to receive the life, and to see the light. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not comprehend it (v. 5). The apostle Paul expressed it this way:

"What can be known about God is plain to them because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.... They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the creator." (Rom. 1:19ff) -

They knew God. Their senseless minds were darkened. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not comprehend it.

The word translated "comprehend," may also be read as "overcome" (NRSV). Raymond Brown takes this reading and sees here a reference to the fall of man(sic) and the failure of the darkness to overcome because God had put enmity between the serpent and the offspring of the woman (Gen. 3:15). Jesus, the offspring, would be victorious over the darkness.

If the reading comprehend is adopted, then the phrase, did not comprehend, is parallel to and interpreted by words in the next stanza: Ídid not know him,(v.10). The world did not know him. In the darkness it did not hear the Word. It did not see the light. It did not comprehend.

At this point, if the singers of the hymn were already familiar with the Gospel as proclaimed by John, they would be thinking not only of the Word given in creation, (v.3ff.), but also of the Word made flesh (v. 14). The light shines (present tense) on. It shines in the ministry of Jesus and in the lives of those who follow him (cf. 3:11; 9:4). There is continuity between creation and incarnation. And there is good reason for song.

In stanza three (vv. 10-1 2b), the story of the Word in the world is stated. But there is some ambiguity. It is possible that the singers and the author of the Gospel of John are thinking of the experience of Jesus. Thus, v.11f, "he came to his own (home) and his own people (the Jews) did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God."

Certainly, there is much in the Gospel that supports such a translation. C. H Dodd saw chapters 2-12, the book of signs, as the story of the rejection of the Word spoken in Jesus, and in chapters 13-17, the book of the passion, he found the story of those "who received him, who believed in his name."

Yet it is also quite possible that the early singers of the hymn were thinking not so much of Jesus here. For the good news that the Word became flesh is not introduced until the next stanza (v. 14). Rather they were still celebrating the work of the creative Word. "He (it) was in the world and the world came into being through him" (v. 3). Yet the world didn't know him (cf. v. 5). Verse 11 then reads: "he came to what was his (i.e., the world which he has made, v. 3), and which he loved, (cf. 3:16), and his own people (the world of human creatures) did not accept him." Instead of the Creator, they worshiped and served the creature and gave their fragmented selves over to multiple no-gods.

Not everyone, however, rejects the Word. Indeed, the good news is that there are people who receive God's Word; who see themselves as creatures of the Creator and are enabled to live as the children of God. They live not in darkness, but in the light of God's revelation. Here they experience a new mode of existence. They live as the sons and daughters of light (12:36). They are the children of God (1:12).

With the fourth stanza the hymn introduces two new dimensions in this story of God's Word. One has to do with the person of the Revealer. The other with confessional character of the recipients' response. Up until now the hymn has been explicit about the revelation in creation. But here it becomes "The Word became flesh." Here "flesh" refers to the sphere of the human. The Revealer is a man, a particular man. People know his father and mother (6:42). They know where he comes from (1:45).

Many take offense at this. They want something more spectacular; some divine figure, some hero or god-man, some fascinating, mysterious being, able to impress everyone with the feats of might and glory. But what they saw was only a man; a man of compassion, a man who claimed to speak the truth. And they saw no glory here.

But those who sang the hymn saw it. They declared: he dwelt (lived, NRSV) among us and we beheld his glory, full of grace and truth." They discovered the paradoxical truth that "in his sheer humanity he is the Revealer" (C. K. Barrett).

The Greek verb for "dwelt" may have been chosen because of the similarity in sound and meaning to a Hebrew verb; a verb which, along with its noun, shekinah, was used to speak of the dwelling of God with Israel (e.g ., Exod. 25 :7f.) and of the cloud (e.g., Exod. 24:16), which was the visible symbol of God's presence and glory.

With these associations the verb could help the singers convey what it was they experienced in the life and ministry of Jesus. His story, replete with rejection, betrayal, and abandonment, was one in which they had encountered God's glory....full of grace and truth. Indeed, his being "lifted up" on a cross was not only crucifixion, it was exaltation (cf. 3:14; 12:32). His passion was his glory. The story of his love, of his giving himself for others was the story of God's grace and truth.

A final observation: the confessional character of the hymn's fourth stanza is noteworthy. Here for the first time the first person pronoun gets the verb. Until now the Word has been the subject of the action, but here the singers began confessing their own faith. "We have seen his glory" (v. 14). "From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace" (v. 16.). The "We" as Bultmann contends, is not primarily a reference to some historical eye-witness. It includes all believers. The sight here is not to be regarded as mere sensory, historical seeing. It is "the sight of faith." And it is the experience of singers in every generation who truly celebrate the glory of God as manifest in his incarnate Word.

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