By Israel Steinmetz
BACKGROUND AND SCOPE
The purpose of this series is to explore a supposed rift in how Jesus is depicted in the Gospels. As many scholars have noted, John’s Gospel proclaims a majestically high Christology. Indeed some have seen in John a Christology that finds no parallel in the other Gospels. 1 To put it simply, “If Jesus was as He is depicted in Matthew and Mark and Luke, He cannot have been as He is depicted in John. The two are incompatible.” 2
Previously we examined the opening scenes in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and found that each presents not only an exalted Christology but an incarnational one. The Synoptics clearly present Jesus as the Christ, the Son of David, the Son of God, and the fulfillment of God’s Old Testament promises. Jesus is God’s salvation incarnate, He is God’s glory incarnate, He is God’s holiness incarnate.
To conclude this series we will now explore the opening scenes of the final Gospel. John’s exalted Christology is made all the more rich and meaningful when seen as a unifying theme between the Gospels rather than a point of discontinuity.
John opens his gospel with one of the most stunning statements in Scripture; “the Word was God” (John 1:1). More incredible is that this Word became flesh in the person of Jesus (John 1:14ff). In a sense, all that John says after this revelation is just commentary. 3 Thus, John’s depiction of Jesus as creator, life, light, glory, grace, truth, Messiah, Son/Chosen of God, Holy Spirit baptizer, and Lamb of God is essentially falling action relative to the revelation that Jesus is God made flesh.
IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD
John 1:1-18 introduces and summarizes the theological content of the gospel. 4 John’s opening words “In the beginning” 5 are identical to Genesis, and reveal that the logos existed before creation. 6 “The beginning” also anticipates the themes of life, light and darkness, all of which were integral to the creation account and are developed in relation to the logos. 7
But what is this logos? After the prologue John does not use logos like this again in his gospel. 8 Many agree with New Testament scholar Leon Morris that the source of logos 9 has not been conclusively identified, and therefore its precise meaning for John is in question. 10 Morris believes logos was understood as a “supremely great Being or Principle”. 11 Craig S. Keener sees logos as the incarnation of Torah. 12 For Raymond Brown it is “divine communication”, harking back again to Genesis where God’s voice is His action, indeed in a sense His very person. 13 Biblical scholar F. F. Bruce’s explanation is the most appealing. For him logos should be understood in relation to the Old Testament “word of God” which denotes, “God in action, especially in creation, revelation, and deliverance.” 14
WORD WAS WITH GOD…WORD WAS GOD
These two phrases present a number of problems for both translators and theologians. The Greek construction of “The Word was with God” 15 is difficult, and the notion of logos simultaneously “being with God” and “being God” seems contradictory. Despite the questions it seems clear that John intends to communicate the personal nature of the logos, the logos’ intimate relationship and connection with God, 16 and the logos’ unequivocal identity as God. 17 “The Word was God” should not be softened to read “the Word was divine”, indeed the Greek does not allow it. 18 Rather, this phrase is an affirmation of the complete Johannine Christology that “Jesus is deity.” 19 At the same time John’s words are set against the backdrop of fierce monotheism. Thus, John is not introducing a second god; rather he is signaling that the One true God is revealed in the incarnate logos. 20 This revelation sets the stage for the entire gospel. For if the logos is not God, then John’s portrait of Jesus is blasphemy. 21
ALL THINGS CAME INTO BEING THROUGH HIM
The God of the Hebrews was the Creator God of Genesis. John has identified the logos as God, now he makes explicit that through the logos all things were created. 22 By stating explicitly that everything that has come into being 23 did so through the logos, it is made obvious that the logos did not come into being. 24 Thus the logos is eternally existent. 25 “There can be no speculation about how the Word came to be, for the Word simply was.” 26
LIFE AND LIGHT
We can leave aside the disagreement over the translation of John 1:4; 27 whatever the case it is obvious that the evangelist intends to convey that the logos is the harbinger of life and light. 28 As Craig R. Koester writes, “The hallmark of God’s Word is the ability to give life…This was true at creation where God spoke and gave life to the world.” 29 For our discussion it is important to note that in connecting life and light John harks back to Old Testament descriptions of God 30 and anticipates the identification of Jesus as “life-bringer” and “light-bearer.” 31
JOHN AND THE LIGHT
The introduction of John the Baptist allows him to “testify” 32 to the identity of the Light; this is the eschatological light of God that was prophesied to come into the world. 33 Already John “the Baptist” is juxtaposed with Jesus “the Light.” Jesus “was” in the beginning, John “came.” 34 John is “a man sent from God”, Jesus is the logos that “is God.” 35
THE RIGHT TO BECOME CHILDREN OF GOD
In the face of rejection from the dark world that the Light enters He lovingly offers the privilege of becoming God’s children to those who receive Him. Thus the grace of God is expressed in giving the authority and right 36 of divine adoption. 37
THE WORD BECAME FLESH
“’Flesh’ stands for the whole man…the Word became man.” 38 This is the awesome mystery of the incarnation, that “When ‘the word became flesh’, God became man.” 39 “He dwelt among us” literally means, “He pitched His tent among us,” 40 a phrase that recalled images of the tabernacle of God in the Hebrews’ wilderness wanderings. This tabernacle was home to God’s glory. 41 Thus, when John says “we saw His glory,” we are to understand that to see Jesus is to see the Shekinah glory of God. 42
This glory is of the only begotten 43 of the Father. Morris urges that we not understand “only begotten” in a metaphysical sense, it means simply “unique” or “only.” 44 Thus it makes us aware of the unique Sonship of Jesus to the Father; “No other is or can be the Son of God as He is.” 45 This “only Son” is “full of grace and truth” a phrase that Brown 46 and Bruce 47 agree should be read as “loving-kindness” in light of the contrasts drawn between Jesus and Moses. 48 For through Moses came the Law, but through Jesus Christ 49 has come the life-giving expression of God’s character. 50 Jesus—the only begotten God 51—is able to uniquely reveal the Father because He exists in intimate relationship with Him, in His very bosom. 52
THE TESTIMONY OF JOHN
The Baptist said of Jesus, “He who comes after me 53 has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me,” thus testifying to the pre-existence of Jesus. 54 Jesus’ superiority over John is not relative then, but absolute. 55 The Baptist’s further testimony is fully consistent with that of the Synoptics. 56 He makes clear that he is not the Messiah, 57 and declares that he is not fit to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandal. 58
THE LAMB OF GOD
John’s identification of Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away 59 the sin of the world” is difficult to decipher. “Lamb of God”, while familiar in Christian parlance, is hardly a common biblical term. Bruce is likely correct that Jesus fulfilled each of the proposed Old Testament lamb references, and in fact exceeded them, as He did with the messianic expectations. 60 Whatever the case, the Baptist is recalling an incident where it was revealed to him that Jesus was in fact the Lamb of God and he connects this with Jesus’ ability to remove sins. 61 The recalled incident appears to be Jesus’ baptism, although John’s gospel does not record the event, it makes reference to the descent of the Spirit 62 and the identification of Jesus as the Son/Chosen of God. 63
SON OF GOD
A textual variant with significantly less attestation has John proclaim Jesus as “the Chosen of God”, rather than “Son of God.” 64 For various reasons this seems like the preferred reading. 65 However, as Bruce points out either reading likely refers back to the baptism scene and demonstrates the connection between the descent of the Spirit and the identification of Jesus by the heavenly voice with allusions to Psalm 2:7, Isaiah 42:1; 61:1. 66 Thus, despite differences with the Synoptic accounts, “John clearly understands the impact of the Spirit’s descent on Jesus much in the same manner of the other Gospels.” 67
John’s opening scenes portray Jesus as God incarnate, the divine logos who acted as the agent of creation and the bearer of life and light to the world. Interestingly, John’s explicit statement of Jesus’ deity is held alongside His designation as “Christ”, “Lamb of God”, and “Chosen/Son of God”, demonstrating that these Christological titles are complimentary, not mutually exclusive, with the notion of Jesus as God Himself in the flesh. John’s Christology then is exalted and explicitly incarnational. God became the man Jesus Christ.
HIGH CHRISTOLOGY OF THE GOSPELS
Morris notes, “Each of the evangelists in his own way brings out the deity of Christ at the beginning of the Gospel. Matthew and Luke do it with the birth stories, Mark with his reference to Jesus as ‘the Son of God’ in his opening sentence. John [does this] in the Prologue.” 68 If Morris is right then it is plain that each gospel presents Jesus in the highest possible Christological terms from the outset. This is evident in the uniformity of the evangelists’ confession regarding Jesus. For each one He is the Messiah, the Son of God. All four know Him as the infinitely great coming One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit; the LORD for whom John is preparing the way.
They also each communicate Jesus’ deity in unique, yet complimentary ways. For John He is the logos, God who became man. For Matthew He is “God with us”, worthy of worship even as an infant. For John He is the Light, for Luke the Sunrise. John knows Him uniquely as the “Lamb of God”, Matthew knows Him as the one who will “save His people from their sins.” For Luke He is the “Savior”, for Mark, He is simply “Jesus”, the one whose name means “Yahweh saves.” John and Luke both speak of those who beheld His glory; Matthew and Mark proclaim His glory in so many words. Thus exalted Christology is a point of continuity between the four gospels. Indeed, it is central to the message of all four evangelists who together proclaim, “Jesus is both Lord and God!”
- See e.g. Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, New Updated Edition, The Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 29-32.
- Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, New International Commentary on the New Testament, Gen. Ed. F.F. Bruce (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1971), 45. Morris states the maxim though he disagrees with it.
- As Morris (76) points out, “Nothing higher could be said.”
- Gary M. Burge, John, The NIV Application Commentary, Ed. Terry Muck (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 52. Morris (71) and Bruce (28) concur against Brown, who claims that the Prologue has a different history and theology than the remainder of the Gospel. F.F. Bruce, The Gospels & Epistles of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing, 1983), 28. Compare: Raymond S. Brown, The Gospel According to John (i-xii), The Anchor Bible, Ed. William F. Albright and David N. Freedman (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1966), 6.
- Greek En arche.
- Brown, John, 4. C.f. Burge, 54.
- Bruce, 28-29.
- Revelation 19:13 is the only other place in the New Testament where Jesus is called logos. C.f. Morris, 71-72.
- Hebrew, Greek, other?
- Morris, 74. For an extensive survey of the various proposed backgrounds for logos see Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume I (Peabody, MS: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), 339-362.
- Or perhaps the “expression or thought” of God. Morris, 75.
- Keener, John, 360-362.
- Brown, John, 24.
- Bruce, 29.
- Greek ho logos en pros ton theon. Brown (John, 4-5) argues that we ought to translate, “The Word was in God’s presence.” Morris (76) prefers the more literal Greek rendering, “The Word was toward God.”
- Bruce, 30.
- Burge, 55.
- Morris, 76-77. C.f. Brown, John, 6. Later Brown (John, 24-25) argues that the anarthrous use of theos in this phrase is possibly a softening of the term that would accommodate early Christian hesitancy to call Jesus “God.” His arguments along these lines are hardly convincing.
- Keener, John, 281.
- Morris, 78. C.f. Koester, Craig R. The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2008), 103-107.
- Bruce, 31 following C.K. Barrett.
- Or literally, “came into being.” This refers not only to what was made at creation, but all things that have come into being throughout history (Morris, 82-82).
- Greek egeneto.
- Burge, 56.
- “It is fundamental to John that the Word is not to be included among created things,” (Morris, 74).
- Brown, John, 4.
- For a discussion of the possibilities see Brown, John, 6-7.
- Bruce, 32-33.
- Koester, 98. The notion of Jesus bringing life and light emerges as a consistent theme for the evangelist as Jesus reveals Himself as both life (John 11:25; 14:6) and light (John 9:5; 12:35-36).
- E.g. Psalm 36:9.
- Morris, 84. C.f. Brown, John, 26-27.
- For John the evangelist the Baptist functions primarily as a witness to Jesus (Morris, 90).
- Brown, John, 28.
- Greek egeneto. Thus John “came into being” by Jesus’ action.
- Burge, 54, c.f. Brown, John, 8. However, while the evangelist contrasts the two in striking terms, and “insists more than any of the other Evangelists on the subordinate place of the Baptist,” he also “fully recognizes the greatness of the forerunner,” (Morris, 88-89).
- Greek exousia. Not to be understood as “power/might”, but “authority/right”. C.f. Brown, John, 11.
- Morris, 91-92.
- Brown, John, 13. Thus, in the face of Docetist claims John is “clear on the deity of the Word. But he is just as clear on the genuineness of His humanity,” Morris, 102.
- Bruce, 40. So Morris (93) and Burge (59) who point out the tragic irony that in the incarnation God became man and man would have nothing to do with Him!
- Brown, John, 13.
- Morris, 102-103, c.f. Koester, 99.
- Morris, 104, c.f. Bruce, 40-41.
- Greek monogenous.
- Morris, 105. C.f. Brown, John, 13-14 who prefers simply “only” rather than “only begotten.”
- Morris, 105 who sees Jesus’ unique Sonship as the great theme of John’s Gospel.
- Brown, John, 14.
- Bruce, 42. At the same time Burge (60) is right that “truth” is a prominent theme for John, indeed Jesus is “the truth” (John 14:6). Thus, Brown and Bruce’s reading, while appealing, is not conclusive.
- Jesus conveys a full revelation of the Father who Moses was not even allowed to look at (Burge, 60).
- John 1:17 is the first mention of Jesus’ name in the prologue, and it is attached to the title “Christ.” The term bears the same connotations as discussed in our treatment of the Synoptics (Morris, 134) and Bruce (44-45) thinks John may use the name-title here in a way that was so widely used among Greek-speaking believers at the time that it was treated as a proper name.
- Morris, 111-112.
- In favor of this reading see Morris (113), Burge (60-61), and Bruce (44-45). For a discussion of the options see Brown, John, 17.
- Bruce, 45, c.f. Brown, John, 17.
- The phrase could refer to Jesus’ ministry following John’s or could mean that Jesus was a disciple of John who inevitably surpassed him because He was “before John” in an ultimate sense (Morris, 108).
- Brown, John, 35-36.
- Burge, 60.
- Morris, 137. The attempts to pit John’s portrait of the Baptist against the Synoptics seem absurd to me. In all four gospels the Baptist is 1) juxtaposed with Jesus in extreme terms by the narrative, 2) the eschatological voice in the wilderness, 3) the forerunner of Jesus the Messiah, 4) a witness to Jesus’ identity, 5) the one who predicts Jesus’ ministry of Spirit baptism, 6) unworthy to untie Jesus’ sandal strap.
- Burge, 71. In all four gospels Jesus is identified as Messiah before John begins to preach.
- Bruce (51) quotes Rabbi Joshua ben Levi from the Babylonian Talmud, “Every service which a slave performs for his master a disciple will perform for his teacher, except to untie his sandal-strap.”
- Morris (148) believes that this phrase constitutes John’s view of the atonement as “bearing off” sins.
- Bruce, 52. For discussions of potential Old Testament backgrounds see Morris (144-148) and Brown (John, 58-63).
- Morris, 143.
- The descent/remaining of the Spirit on Jesus is very important to John (c.f. Burge, 74-75, Bruce 54-55).
- Some scholars have claimed that John knew nothing of Jesus being baptized by the Baptist. However, the Johannine and Synoptic accounts make sense when harmonized, not pitted against one another.
- In John 1:34. Nathanael will call Jesus “Son of God” in John 1:49.
- Primarily because it is harder to imagine why a scribe would write the unfamiliar “Chosen of God” than the familiar “Son of God.” For a discussion see Morris (153-154), Burge (74-75), and Brown, John, 57.
- Bruce, 55.
- Brown, John, 66.
- Morris, 153.