The Gospel of John by William R. Cannon
Before his election to the episcopacy in 1968 United Methodist Bishop William R. Cannon served as Professor of Church History and then Dean of Chandler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. Other books by Bishop Cannon include The Gospel Of John, Jesus The Servant, and The Book Of Acts. The Gospel of John was published by The Upper Room, 1985. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Paul Mobley.
Chapter 1: The Prologue
Gospel means "Good News." In the prologue to his Gospel, John announces the good news and tells both from whom it comes and to whom it is sent. Most important of all, he identifies the messenger who brings it. The startling information he gives is the message and the messenger are one and the same. The Word God sends is the person of his own dear son.
Paul is the apostle of the crucifixion, teaching us that our salvation rests on the atonement, that Christ by his death on the cross made restitution for the sins of the whole world. John, however, is the apostle of the incarnation, teaching us that God became human in order that we might know him, come to love him, and by his grace be made like him, so that we, too, might become divine. In Jesus, the Word of the Father appeared for the first time in the flesh of humanity.
In the Book of Genesis, creation is described in terms of speech. God uttered his voice, and the words he spoke became creative acts. God said, "Let there be light: and there was light" (Gen. 1:3). God said that there should be day and night, evening and morning, heaven and earth, land and sea, sun and moon, vegetables and animals, and. finally, man and woman (Gen. I :5~27). Whatever God said came to be. John tells us that this same creative Word which was with God from the beginning, and was indeed basic to God's nature, has now become a creature, a specific human being, so that we are able to see the Creator in a form of his creation. The infinite has expressed itself in the finite. The eternal has been poured into a temporal event. And the divine has been personified in the human. Indeed, God himself has become human.
Stoicism was a popular philosophy at the time of John. It conceived of God in terms of mind (pure thought). Logos, which we translate as Word, is the Stoic name for the mind of God. God pervades the universe in its entirety and to a certain extent is synonymous with it. But God's special habitation is in the human mind, and the duty of a person is to live in accord with the Logos (God). Philo of Alexandria, who lived from 13 B.C. to A.D. 50, approximately, and who used Stoic philosophy in his interpretation of the Old Testament and adapted it to his own purposes to such a degree that he might be called a Jewish Stoic, obviously had considerable influence on the author of the Gospel of John. According to Philo, the Logos dwelt in the minds of Moses and the prophets and gave them their inspiration. But the Logos dwelt in them only intermittently. It came and went. When they were inspired and uttered divine truth, the Logos was in them. Then, it could be said, they possessed the Logos. But often they were without the Logos and functioned on their own as mere creatures. But John teaches that the Logos, or divine Word, never left Jesus; Jesus was that Word. What was only intermittent in the heroes of the Old Testament was constant and permanent in Jesus Christ.
Shakespeare got ideas and suggestion from the histories of England and writings contemporary with him and transformed them into his plays, which are masterpieces of the English language. Similarly, John used Philo to advantage and borrowed a philosophical teaching from him which John, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and his own genius, translated into christological theology unmatched in all the literature of the world.
A child in school gets some knowledge from his or her textbook, but often not enough to comprehend the subject with which the textbook deals. The child's teacher who provides personal instruction comes to personify for the child the subject and makes the contents of the textbook come alive so that the pupil is able thoroughly to learn it. According to John, the writings of the Old Testament are God's textbook; but Jesus Christ is the teacher who brings to life the truth which the Old Testament contains.
Platonic philosophy teaches that what we see and experience in this world is but a copy or crude imitation of perfect forms or ideas that can never be concretized. But with John, perfection has been concretized in the Word made flesh. The crude copy has been displayed as the ideal reality in Jesus Christ. Although Matthew and Luke begin their Gospels with the human ancestry and birth of Jesus of Nazareth, John begins his with Christ in his preexistent state, with him as he was with the Father through all eternity. In this regard, John's Gospel is preliminary to the synoptic Gospels and essential to their understanding. The Fourth Gospel declares the incarnation, that the divine Word was personified and that the son of God became man. The first and third Gospels tell how this came about, that the son of God on earth was conceived in the womb of a woman and that God entered history through birth as the child of Mary. John does not contradict Matthew and Luke. Rather he enunciates the theological principle that makes the historical fact of the birth of Jesus as they describe it both understandable and necessary.
There are four basic truths enunciated in this prologue. The first truth is that the Word has always been with God as a distinct entity or being. There never was a time when the Word did not exist. And there is no qualitative difference between the Word and God, for the Word was and is God. Therefore, the germinal seed of the doctrine of the Trinity is supplied by John. It is he who plants it in the first topsoil of Christianity. The Word (son) preexists with the Father (1:1-2), and he shares equally with God the Father in all his activity (1:3).
The second truth is that the eternal mission of the Word is to enable people to have life by believing in him (1:4,7). This is the sole purpose of the incarnation of the Word. Life, as John uses that word in the prologue, is not mere existence. If it meant no more than existence, everyone who is alive has that anyway; and there is no need for the mission of the Word. Life, as John uses that word, is a quality of existence that makes the recipient like God. That qualitative life has permanent quality. It exists forever. It never ends.
The third truth is that the result of the mission of the Word is problematical. That mission is both successful and unsuccessful, depending upon the response it evokes. Some people receive the Word. But others do not. Only those who freely receive the Word of God are given the power to become the children of God (1:11-13). Others stay as they are. Those who believe and open their hearts to the Word become like God.
The fourth truth, which is basic to the other three, is that incarnation is a historical fact, that the Word became a definite person, a real identifiable human being, whom believers recognized as possessing divine characteristics. The climax of the prologue is its last verse: "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth" (1:14).
Questions For Reflection And Study
I. "Jesus is the teacher who brings to life the truth which the Old Testament contains." What does Jesus help you to understand about the Old Testament? Does Jesus contradict your view of the Old Testament in any way?
2. "To all who received him, to them gave he power to become (children) of God." What does this verse imply about acknowledging Christ? What happens after a person recognizes who Christ is?
3. Why do you think the Virgin Birth is omitted from the Gospel which calls Jesus the incarnation of God?
4. "The mission of the Word. . . is both successful and unsuccessful, depending on the response it evokes." Is the validity of God'S message proven only because and when people accept it? Is success having people agree with you?