Chapter 1: Prologue to John’s Gospel

The Modern Reader's Guide to the Gospels
by William Hamilton

Chapter 1: Prologue to John’s Gospel

1. The prologue itself, 1:1-18

Mark began with the baptism of Jesus; Matthew and Luke, with the birth. But both these beginnings could be confusing, so John begins at the true beginning, with creation itself. The reflection of Genesis I is deliberate. For a true understanding of Jesus we cannot begin with one moment in his life, but with God at the beginning.

In the beginning was the word, the logos. Just what does this word mean? Many things. It has a complex genealogy, and this richness is probably intended by the author. To the Greek, the Stoic primarily, logos meant the rational structure of the universe. In the Old Testament, word means the creative word of God, present both in creation and given to the prophets to speak. It is God's action, God's power, God's purpose. In the Jewish thinker Philo, about the time of Jesus, we find that the Greek and Old Testament meanings are fused into one, though there is no reason for assuming that John was influenced by this fusion.

In Proverbs 8:22-31, we find the idea of God's wisdom used in a way similar to the way in which word is used here. God's wisdom is a personalized entity, actually a portion of God extended into the world. In the New Testament, of course, the Gospel is occasionally referred to as the word of God (Luke 8:11,1 John 1:1). The Christian reading this prologue would also remember -- and perhaps this is as important as anything else -- that Jesus himself spoke words, and these words are interpreted as the very words of God himself.

So, this elusive word will mean something both to the secular mind, to the Jew, and to the Christian. Perhaps this ambiguity is deliberately intended by John; he is saying to Greek, to Jew, and to Christian: Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of each of your traditions and hopes.

Today, we can get closest to an understanding of this key word in the prologue if we interpret it as the outgoing, creative action of God in visiting and redeeming his people. This purpose was part of God from the very beginning; there may be more of God than this (though this is perhaps all man can know), but the very divinity of God is defined by this purposeful activity toward men (verse 1). And verse 3 reminds us that there are no intermediaries or levels between this redemptive God and his creation, as the gnostics held. The world is good because it was made by this creative, active God. Part of the divine activity, perhaps the decisive part for John, is that of imparting life, a full life here and now, and eternal life which begins here and now. This life is the means by which men see and understand; it is, therefore, the light of men (verse 4).

There is still darkness; man is often unable to see the light; he is still in unbelief. But this light, the divine gift by which man can see Christ, is shining in the midst of this darkness. It is shining (note the present tense of "shines"; it began to shine in the beginning; it shone with special power in Christ, but it is still shining now) not as a flickering candle but as a mighty searchlight hunting out man lost in his darkness. The word for "overcome" has a double meaning: here the meaning is that the darkness has not destroyed the light, and also that the darkness (unbelief in general and the Jews in particular) has not understood it.

Verses 6-8 briefly describe the function of John the Baptist. Gone is the story of his preaching and teaching; here his function is radically narrowed so that he has become the light that is in Christ. His function, like that of the author of the gospel, and like the Christian's of any time, is simply witness.

With verse 9 we return to the argument to argument in verse 5. In Christ, the logos or word, the life, the light, came into the world, but the world did not understand him. Not even his own people, the Jews, understood him. But some did, and to those he gave a new status as sons or children of God. This new beginning (it is called a new birth in the story of Nicodemus in 3:1-12) is not made by man; it is God's gift..

The word became flesh (verse 14). This has already been assumed in verses 9-13, and now it is openly declared. The word had been with God from the beginning; it had been spoken through the prophets of old; but this is something new. It has now come into history itself, to be seen and touched by men. (Compare the opening verses of I John and the epistle to the Hebrews.) The word "dwelt" really means that the word has built its tent in our midst, has come to live or to "tabernacle" with us; the reference is to the sacred presence of God in the Old Testament, described as his tabernacling presence. (See Exodus 25:8-9, 40:34.)

"We beheld," John writes. This is a past seeing, not a present one. The presence of Christ when John writes is not the same as it was in the days of his flesh. Then it was seeing of one kind; now it is still seeing, but different. "We" beheld; the true disciples, the true followers; not everyone. For the high priest didn't see; Pilate didn't; Judas didn't. What was seen? His glory. What does this mean? The same as "light" earlier in the prologue. We saw in him the light that made us able to know God. We saw in him the very power of God himself.

In verse 18, John introduces one of his favorite themes: man cannot see God, know God, have a direct union with God. But he is not thereby lost; we can know Christ, and Christ makes God known. "In the bosom of the Father" is an image of neither romantic nor parental love. It refers to the companionship of a common meal (see comment on 13:23-25, page 178).

The prologue is at an end, and the entire gospel -- indeed, the entire Christian story -- is here summed up. In Jesus Christ man has access to the living God himself, and through this access come light and life, grace and truth. The rest of the gospel simply expands this affirmation.

2. The witness of John the Baptist and his disciples, 1:19-51

The Jewish authorities send a delegation to discover the status of John the Baptist. He responds with a threefold denial: he is neither the Messiah, Elijah (Malachi 4:5), nor the prophet (Deuteronomy 18:15). He has no positive messianic significance. He does describe his status in relation to a part of the Old Testament, but even this has the effect of reducing his meaning to a mere voice pointing beyond himself. It appears from verses 19-28 that John does not yet know that Jesus is the Messiah. He is asked about his rite of baptism; he defines it only in terms of purification and preparation for what is to come. But who is to come he does not yet seem to know.

With verses 29-34 the object of John's witness is revealed to him. He does not find it out himself, it is given to him. In Mark, only Jesus is aware of the meaning of his own baptism; in verses 32-34 God reveals the meaning to John. Now John the Baptist points explicitly to Jesus, and describes him in three ways. He is the Lamb of God (29), the one who baptizes by the Spirit (33), and the Son of God (34).

To describe Jesus as the Lamb of God is to go beyond the traditional messianic names and to make a statement about the meaning of his voluntary death. In the Old Testament, the lamb is both the victim provided by God as a substitute for Isaac (Genesis 22:8) and a means by which sin is removed.

Verses 35-51 describe the call of the first disciples, though Jesus directly calls only Philip (43). This should be read in connection with the call of Peter and Andrew, James and John, in Mark 1:16-20.

The next day John the Baptist again bears witness to Jesus as the Lamb of God, and two of John's disciples leave him and follow Jesus. One of these first two is Andrew, but who is the unnamed second? Is it in fact John, the beloved disciple, on whose witness this gospel is traditionally said to be founded? Andrew, having obeyed Jesus' call, gets his brother Simon Peter, and brings him to Jesus. This is almost all we ever hear of Andrew in the New Testament; he performs the humble act of bringing another man to Jesus. This is why he has been taken as the patron of the missionary activity of the church.

Jesus calls Philip directly, and Philip bears witness to Nathanael. Nathanael does not come from John the Baptist's followers but from Israel -- indeed, from the tradition of Jewish skepticism. How can the Messiah come from tiny and insignificant Nazareth, he asks. His questioning mind, his study of the Jewish law (the perplexing reference to the fig tree in verse 48 probably points to the fact that Nathanael was a student of the law, for the rabbis used to say that the best place to study the law was sitting under a fig tree) prompted Jesus to praise him as a true Jew and an honest man (1:47). It is not clear whether Jesus is meant to have some special foresight about Nathanael, or whether he was known to him already. Nathanael responds to Jesus' discernment, and calls him Son of God, but limits his rule to Israel (1:49). His insight is not yet complete, and Jesus tells him he will understand even more. The reference to the angels in verse 51 is from the vision of Jacob in Genesis 28:10-17. The verse describes what Nathanael will be able to say: that the concrete man Jesus is the one on whom God has descended and acted; that Jesus himself is the unique relation between heaven and earth. Jesus does not promise Nathanael a vision, but an insight into who he, Jesus, truly is.

This second prologue in narrative form ends, as does the first (verses 1-18), with the positive statement of Jesus Christ's unique relation to God (compare verses 18 and 51).