If you aren’t shocked by John’s opening verses, then it probably means you haven’t understood them. John writes them very carefully to capture your attention, regardless of how well or little you know the Bible.
Mark had connected with his Roman readers by starting his gospel in the thick of the action with the coming of John the Baptist. Matthew had connected with his Jewish readers by beginning with Jesus’ family tree back to Abraham and with King Herod’s shock discovery from a group of foreigners that the true King of Israel had just been born in his backyard. Luke had connected with his Gentile readers by beginning with a Roman census, with Simeon’s prophecy that Jesus would save many non-Jews, and with a family tree which traced his ancestry back to Adam. John didn’t think there was anything wrong with those beginnings. He just didn’t think that any of them went back far enough in Jesus’ story.
That’s why he starts his gospel with the words “in the beginning”. He knew that anyone familiar with the Greek Old Testament would instantly recognise them as the opening words of the Jewish Scriptures. They would know the Genesis account of God creating the universe from nothing – solely by the power of his spoken Word and of his Spirit.1 John tries to shock us by telling us that Jesus’ story started long before an angel appeared to Mary or she laid her baby in a manger. It started before the dawn of time because the baby born in Bethlehem’s filthy stable was the eternal Word of God.2 Jesus is the one who revealed himself to the Israelites as Yahweh, and there never was a time when he was not.
Not everybody knew the Greek Old Testament, of course. John lived in Ephesus, the vibrant capital city of Asia, where his mainly Gentile readers were more familiar with the thoughts of the pagan Greek philosophers.3 Accordingly, he chooses a word which he knows will shock them too. Heraclitus, the great Ephesian philosopher, had used the Greek word Logos, or Word, in around 500BC to describe the divine force of Reason which governs the universe.4 His teaching was so influential that we still refer today to biology, geology, cosmology and astrology, so John chooses this word to grab the full attention of the Greeks as he did the Jews. He tells them that the divine Reason which Heraclitus groped for in the darkness was not in fact an object but a person. Long before Jesus became a baby in a stable, the best Greek minds had sensed his presence as the ruler of the universe.5
We can see how shocking the Jews found this message by flicking forward a few pages to John 10:33. When the Jews grasped that Jesus was claiming to be Yahweh, they picked up stones and tried to lynch him for blasphemy. That’s why John tells them in verse 17 that Jesus is greater than their great leader and lawgiver Moses because he fulfils the Law with grace and truth. It’s why he tells them in verse 18 that what Moses saw on Mount Sinai was nothing compared to the way that Jesus has made God fully known.6 It’s why he takes the word for Moses’ Tabernacle in the Greek Old Testament (skênê) and uses it as a verb in verse 14 to tell them that God truly tabernacled (skênoô) on the earth in the flesh and blood of Jesus’ body. Remember, the Jews didn’t kill Jesus for healing people and telling pithy parables. They killed him because they knew he was telling them to look at him and see the Living God.
We can also see how shocking the Gentiles found this message by flicking forward a little further to Acts 14. The Lystrans liked Paul and Barnabas when they thought they were preaching that the gods were just like them. Things turned nasty when the Lystrans grasped that they were challenging their Greek idols and urging them to “turn from these worthless things to the Living God.” Epictetus, another great philosopher from the vicinity of Ephesus, summed up the Greek view that the spirit is good and the body is bad when he wrote that “You are a little soul, burdened with a corpse”,7 so the idea that the Living God had taken a human body was so offensive to the Greeks that they stoned them. They were happy with the inoffensive message peddled by the Gnostic false teachers that Jesus had merely seemed to be a human,8 but they angrily refused to surrender to a message about God’s incarnate Son.
We can be like the first-century Jews and Greeks if we let our own cultural baggage divert our gaze away from who Jesus really was. The villains in John’s nativity story aren’t Matthew’s jealous King Herod or Luke’s overworked innkeepers. They are the entire human race which wants to force-fit Jesus into the domesticated role of a mere prophet or good teacher.9 That’s why the Greek word katalambanô in verse 5 has a deliberate double-meaning – either to grasp in the sense of understanding a mystery, or to grasp in the sense of overcoming an enemy. John tells us that few people understand who Jesus is, but that none of those who oppose him can succeed in domesticating the Living God. He calls us to surrender to the fact that God has come to earth to save all those who will receive him as he really is.10
If you are prepared to look where John is pointing; if you are prepared to humble yourself and step out of the darkness into God’s light; if you are prepared to respond with faith to the crucified carpenter who called John to follow him on the shore of Lake Galilee – then John promises to guide your footsteps through his gospel. He promises to help you to look and see the Living God.
This is one of a series of extracts from Phil Moore’s book Straight to the Heart of John. This and other books in the series can be purchased through his website.
- 1 Psalms 33:6 & 107:20 also talk about God’s Word being both our Creator and our Saviour.
- 2 Don’t be confused by the word monogenês, or only begotten, in verses 14 and 18, or by the fact that John uses the word more than the rest of the New Testament writers put together. Hebrews 11:17 uses it to describe Isaac, who was not Abraham’s only son, so it speaks about Jesus’ unique status, not about his birth.
- 3 We can tell that John wrote mainly for Gentiles from the way he translates Hebrew and Aramaic words for his readers in 1:38, 1:41, 1:42, 6:1, 9:7, 19:13, 19:17 & 20:16.
- 4 John deliberately echoes Heraclitus’ teaching that “all things come to be in accordance with the Logos” (fragment DK 22B1).
- 5 Paul argues this when he preaches the Gospel in Athens in Acts 17:23, saying Jesus is their “unknown God”.
- 6 The Greek word exêgeomai at the end of verse 18 means to declare or unfold fully, and is the root of the English word exegesis. Jesus repeats this claim later in 14:9
- 7 Epictetus was a Stoic and a contemporary of John. This quotation comes from his ‘Fragment 26’.
- 8 Since the Greek word for to seem is dokeô, the late-1st-century Gnostics who denied the full humanity of Jesus are commonly called Docetists. John insists repeatedly that the Word always was (ên), but that at a certain moment in verse 14 he suddenly became (egeneto) a real human being.
- 9 Ironically, Jehovah’s Witnesses twist this very passage to repeat the ancient heresy of Arius that “There was a time when the Son was not” (Socrates of Constantinople in “Church History”, 1.5.2). John uses something called an ‘incomplete predication’ in the Greek of verse 1 by dropping the definite article to clarify that he means “the Word was God” (one person of the Trinity) and not that “God was the Word” (in his entirety). JWs fail to understand this and mistranslate his words to mean merely that “the Word was a god”.
- 10 John tells us that the Gospel is for everyone in verses 7 and 9, but he qualifies this by saying that many will reject the salvation which could have been theirs.