An Enigmatic Mirror
The Word: Commentary on John 1:6-18 (Part 2)
The second half of the Prologue of John focuses on the coming of the Word-Light into the World, and World's reaction. John testifies that the Light has come to enlighten the World (1:6-9). The World, on the other hand, does not know or accept the Word (1:10-11). Those who do accept the Word become reborn as children of God (1:12-13). When the Word becomes flesh, it thereby reveals grace, truth, and the glory and knowledge of the Father (1:14-18). In a sense, these verses summarize the major themes of the rest of John's Gospel.
1:6-8, the Testimony of John the Baptist
At first these three verses seem like an interruption or a digression within the description of the role of the Word. The "man sent by God" in 1:6 is John the Baptist (or "Baptizer" or, more literally, "Immerser"), whose story is told in detail in John 1:19-42. Here the Gospel describes the Immerser as "a man sent from God" (1:6), in other words, a prophet. Each biblical prophet had a special mission from God, and John's mission is that of prophetic forerunner to testify of the messianic Light (1:7-8), that is, to testify of the Word/Jesus. As we shall see next week, John's role as witness to the Light has a crucial function in the Gospel. John takes great pain here to emphasize that John the Baptist is not "the Light," that is, the Messiah (1:8, 20). Rather, the Baptist's role is to testify of the authenticity of the Word/Light/Messiah (1:9). The specifics of John the Baptist's testimony of Jesus will discussed in the section on 1:19-42 in next week's column
1:9-13, Word and World
In John 1:9-13 there are three different responses to the manifestation of the Word-Light in the world: 1) the world does not know him, 2) his own people reject him, but 3) the disciples believe in him. The implications of the different responses of these three groups to the manifestation of the Word-Light is a central theme of John's entire Gospel, and will be further developed throughout the following weeks.
In 1:9-10 the true Light comes to the world, which does not know him. The Greek term kosmos, generally translated as "world" in most modern translations, can mean the material or physical world in which we live, the inhabitants of that world, and even the natural and social order of the world. John, however, has a more technical sense in which he uses the term kosmos. In this special sense the kosmos is the natural and human order that stands in antithesis and opposition to Jesus and the disciples. On the other hand, paradoxically, although the kosmos was created and loved by God, and is something that God wants to save, yet the kosmos is an enemy to the Messiah and his disciples (Jn. 7:7, 15:18). I will develop these ideas further in my discussion of John 3.
John's next verse says that Jesus "came unto his own (ta idia) and his own (hoi idioi) did not accept him" (1:11). English translations of this passage can sometimes obscure the meaning of the Greek. In Greek Jesus "came to his own [idia, things/places, neuter plural], and his own [idioi, people, masculine plural] did not accept him." That is, Jesus came to his own land/place, and his own people, the Israelites, did not accept him. The first idia does not refer to the kosmos, which had already been discussed in the previous verse. Rather it is plural, and refers to Jesus coming to his own places (Jn. 4:44, 13:1, 15:19)—that is, the lands of Galilee and Judea, Jerusalem, and, most importantly, as we shall see, the temple. This verse is thus allusive of the eventual rejection of Jesus by "his own [people]," as described throughout the Gospel, but culminating in John 19:13-16, where his own people reject him as Messiah, declaring, "we have no king-[messiah] than Caesar" (19:15).
William James Hamblin is professor of Near Eastern History at Brigham Young University. You can follow and discuss "An Enigmatic Mirror" on Facebook.