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These first five verses provide the frame of reference and the main components for the story to follow—sort of a prologue to the prologue. We get the story in the right perspective by beginning in eternity (vv. 1-2) and then moving to creation (v. 3). The key ingredients follow, namely, incarnation (v. 4) and conflict (v. 5).
John's opening echoes Genesis (Gen 1:1), but whereas Genesis refers to the God's activity at the beginning of creation, here we learn of a being who existed before creation took place. In the beginning the Word already was. So we actually start before the beginning, outside of time and space in eternity. If we want to understand who Jesus is, John says, we must begin with the relationship shared between the Father and the Son "before the world began" (Jn 17:5, 24). This relationship is the central revelation of this Gospel and the key to understanding all that Jesus says and does.The first verse is very carefully constructed to refer to the personal distinctness yet the essential oneness of the Word with God. To be with God means the Word is distinct from him. The word with (pros) in a context like this is used to indicate personal relationship, not mere proximity (cf. Mk 6:3). But he also was God; that is, there is an identity of being between them. These two truths seem impossible to reconcile logically, and yet both must be held with equal firmness. At this point John simply affirms this antinomy, but later he will reveal more of the relations of the Father and the Son, as well as of the Holy Spirit. John does not reflect philosophically on the Holy Trinity but bears witness to it as the eternal reality, leaving it to later teachers to try to expound its bright mystery.
To speak of the Word (logos) in relation to the beginning of creation would make sense to both Jews and Greeks. In some schools of Greek thought, the universe is kosmos, an ordered place, and what lies behind the universe and orders it is reason (logos). For the Jews, creation took place through God's speech (Gen 1; Ps 33:6). Furthermore, in John's day "word" was often associated with "wisdom" (for example, Wisdom of Solomon 9:1; cf. Breck 1991:79-98), and John will often use wisdom motifs to speak of Jesus (cf. Willett 1992). For example, like the Word who was with God, Wisdom is said to have been "at his side" at the creation (Prov 8:30). As this passage suggests, God's word and wisdom were often spoken of as if they were persons (for example, Wisdom of Solomon 18:14-16; Prov 8:1—9:18; Job 28; cf. Hengel 1974:1:153-56). The Jews did not view these personifications as divine personal beings distinct from God, thereby challenging monotheism (Hurtado 1988:41-50). However, a redefinition of monotheism is called for with the coming of Jesus (for example, Jn 1:14, 18; 5:16-18). Thus the use of "word" and "wisdom" within Judaism was of enormous help to the Christians as they tried to understand and express the reality they found in Jesus. Jesus is what the "word" and "wisdom" were, and much more.
The description of Wisdom as the master worker at God's side at creation (Prov 8:22-31) is now echoed in John's declaration that the Word was the agent of all creation (1:3). As agent he is distinct from the Creator. God the Father is viewed throughout the Gospel as the ultimate source of all, including the Son and the Spirit. But life did not simply come through the Word but was in the Word (1:4). Only God is the source of life, and it is a mark of Jesus' distinctness and deity that the Father "has granted the Son to have life in himself" (5:26).
By stating both positively and negatively that the Word is the agent of all creation (1:3), John emphasizes that there were no exceptions: the existence of absolutely all things came by this Word. Although with verse 3 we move from eternity to creation, we are still dealing with facts hard to comprehend. Until discoveries made in the 1920s, the Milky Way was thought to be the entire universe, but now we realize there are many billions of galaxies. Science is helping us spiritually, for it silences us before God in wonder and awe. But this verse also helps us put science in its proper place. The universe is incredibly wonderful, so how much more wonderful must be the one upon whose purpose and power it depends. "The builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself" (Heb 3:3).
Because the earliest manuscripts had no verse numbers, nor even spaces between words and sentences, it is sometimes hard to know where one sentence ends and another begins. Such is the case with verses 3 and 4. Many commentators, ancient and modern, divide the text as in the NIV, but many others think the final words of verse 3 belong with verse 4: "What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people" (NRSV). Either option would fit John's style and thought, but the NRSV option reflects how all the earliest commentators took the text, suggesting this was the more natural reading for native speakers. At a later date the orthodox began taking it as in the NIV because of misuses by false teachers who took ho gegonen ("what was made in him") to include the Holy Spirit, thus making the Spirit a creature (cf. Chrysostom In John 5.1).
If the text reads "what has come into being in him was life," this could refer to those who came to have union with God in the Son, a major theme of this Gospel. If so, John has moved from creation in verse 3 to re-creation, as it were, in verse 4. The quality of life in the sphere of creation is not yet the deepest life, the divine life in the Word. This idea is true to John's thought, but he does not use light of men to refer to the new order of life now offered in Jesus. So most likely the reference is to the incarnation, declaring that what took place in the Word at his incarnation was the manifestation of life itself (cf. 1 Jn 1:1-2). This allusion to the incarnation would only be evident to those who understand Jesus' identity as revealed in the rest of the Gospel.
His life, manifest in the incarnation, is our light (Jn 1:4). In this Gospel light always refers to the revelation and salvation that Jesus is and offers (cf. 8:12; 11:9 is the one exception). In order to have life we need to know God, and Jesus is our source of such knowledge. As our light, his life is our guide. He is our wisdom, that which reveals all else to us and enables us to see. In Jewish thought it is the law that plays this role (for example, Wisdom of Solomon 18:4; cf. Hengel 1974:1:171; 2:112; Kittel 1967:134-36), but for John it is the incarnation of the Word that makes sense of all of life.
Thus, here at the outset we have the two most fundamental affirmations about Jesus in this Gospel, namely that he himself is the presence of God's own life and light and that he makes this life and light available to human beings. In one profound sentence we have the central assertion of this Gospel concerning the revelation of the Son and the salvation he offers.
The story will reveal the glory described in these opening verses, but it will be a tragic story of conflict, because humanity is in the darkness of rebellion. The shining of the light is an ongoing, continuous activity (phainei, present tense, v. 5), for it is the very nature of light to shine. But when that light and life came amongst us as a human being, the darkness did not grasp, or master, the light; it neither comprehended it nor overcame it (katelaben; cf. the NIV text and note). The story will show both senses of this word to be true.