Hi, guys. Today I’m looking at John 1:6-15. Here we go:
There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John.
[For those of you who might not know, The Gospel According to John was written by John when he was an old man looking back at the time when, as a much younger man, he was one of Jesus’ core twelve disciples. The John to whom he here refers is a different John, John the Baptist. John the Baptist, who was Jesus’ age, was the hair-cloth wearing, locust-munching Hebrew prophet whose thing in life was to tell everyone that Jesus the Messiah was coming; he actually began the ministry of Jesus by himself baptizing Jesus. He was later beheaded by a regional king, Herod Antipas; he’s the guy whose gruesome head you sometimes see in Famous European Paintings being presented on a platter. The Wikipedia entry on this fascinating figure is here.]
He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
[John is here meaning to stress the point that, contrary to what many believed, John the Baptist was not divine; he himself was not “the light.” People were supposed to believe through him in Jesus; they weren’t supposed to believe in him. But many did: John the Baptist was so charismatic—so vocal, so articulate, so driven by his understanding of God—that he ended up with a whole flock of his own followers. It’s like if people at a football game kept thinking the cheerleaders were the team. Not so good.]
The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.
[Jesus, in other words, hadn’t yet fully arrived on the scene. And man, but this whole opening to the Actual Story of Jesus is one perfectly structured bit of narrative handiwork.]
He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.
[Can you imagine? You create everything—virtually everything that is alive owes its existence to not only you sustaining it, but conceiving of it in the first place—and yet none of it even acknowledges your presence. As far as any and every person in the world is concerned, you’re a complete non-entity in the play that you wrote and produced—the fabulous, perfectly written play that stars them. In the New Testament we are given a lot of ways by which to understand that Jesus is God—like when he raises people from the dead, for instance. But barely less impressive than that pretty darn conclusive proof of ultimate power is how clearly Jesus was without ego. There’s no way any human could create the world and everyone in it and be comfortable not getting at least a little credit. After making a decent loaf of banana bread, I sit around and wait for the media to show up. Jesus gave up his body for us. And clearly, way before that, he also gave up his ego. Talk about a superhuman feat.]
Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
[Of course, to anyone sensitive to issues of gender equality, the “or a husband’s will” doesn’t exactly go down like a hot toddy—but we’ll let that go. What most strikes us here is the radical audacity of the assertion that anyone who believes that Jesus was the Messiah foretold throughout Hebrew history becomes, by virtue of that belief, and through the benevolent gift of Jesus himself, absolutely and completely different from the person they were before they held that belief. With that statement John is proclaiming to the world that he is either a full-on nut job, or that he is striving to communicate a truth so extraordinary that it redefines the terms of what we normally consider real. John is saying what he is as clearly as language will allow: he is asserting that if you believe that Jesus was, in fact, whom he said he was—if you incorporate into your own being the truth that Jesus was God incarnated as a human—then by virtue of that belief you become, in nature, like God. Belief in the true origin and nature of Jesus doesn’t bring about a slight change. You don’t adjust a little. You become an entirely separate order of being. John described the change in the strongest words he could, given what family lineage meant in his time: once you accept Jesus as real, you no longer belong to your own parents. The break from anything else you’ve ever known is absolute. Born again, as they say.]
[An exceptionally deft return to the resonance of his opening sentence. Here again John proves he is nothing if not an artist; I think there is no writer in the Bible—if there ever has been anywhere, ever—to match him.]
We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
[And there it is. The full call. There’s the entire gospel—all of the Bible, everything that Jesus ever was, will be, or could be—expressed in one short sentence. This is John, finally and boldly bearing his soul for us. This is John on the cross; this is a man who was there using every possible tool he has to tell us what he saw, and what it meant to him. “He came from the Father, full of grace and truth” of course became a touchstone phrase for all Christians everywhere. But it’s as intensely personal and deeply felt an utterance as we find anywhere in the Bible.]
John testifies concerning him.
[I love this sudden shift back into neutral. Again: what a genius John is of pace, and tone. It’s funny, this abrupt switch from the loftiest high to the essentially mundane.]
He cries out, saying, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.'”
[Notice the use of the present tense to describe something from the past as a means of emphasizing its eternal, ever-present nature. John the Baptist had cried out about Jesus; it was something done in the past. But John doesn’t present it in that was; he instead says that John cries out. As in now—right now. Again: Beyond Deft. And either John the Baptist was a genius of oratory (and it’s likely that he was) or John decided to make him one with as clever and profound a quote as exists. People sometimes talk about what book they would bring with them on a desert island. If I had to be stranded alone on a desert island, the one sentence from the book I would most want with me is, “He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.”]
Previous posts in this series: The Trinity Explained in Four Sentences: A Look at John 1:1-4, and John 1:5: The Archer’s Grief.