Through the Bible in a Year: Gospel of John Introduction

This Week’s Readings

Monday, June 25: John 1:1-3
Tuesday, June 26: John !:4-3
Wednesday, June 27: John 4-6
Thursday, June 28: John 7-9
Friday, June 29: John 10-12

Next week we will finish the Gospel of John, then cover more Psalms and Proverbs on Thursday and Friday.

The overall year’s plan is here.

Introduction

The introduction and first three verses of John’s Gospel seem important enough that they are all I am going to cover today. I spent almost four hours just on this section, and it is over 2,000 words long. My commentary on the first three verses mainly addresses the subject of the eternal relationship of the Father and the Son, a subject far too big for 2,000 words. I have provided links for further study, which you can follow as you feel led. You can also just leave the subject for teachers. In the early churches, most believers simply received the explanation of the Trinity as a teaching handed down by the apostles. It was to be believed, not researched, but teachers have a greater responsibility. Their job is to preserve the truth and, far too often today, to recover it when it is lost.

The Gospel of John

Eusebius, the famous fourth-century church historian, tells us that the Gospel of John was written later than all the others in order to cover the early part of Jesus’ ministry, which the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) leave out (Church History III:24:7-14).

The note in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series two, volume one, says that this position is untenable mostly because Eusebius, more than two centuries after the Gospel was written is the first to propose it. In its defense, there are several "this was the first … " statements in John’s Gospel.

The Muratorian Fragment is a list of the books that were considered Scripture. It is easily the earliest such list. It dates itself, saying that Pius was recently bishop of Rome, which would put it shortly after A.D. 155. That document says this about the Gospel of John:

The fourth Gospel is that of John, one of the disciples. When his fellow disciples and bishops pleaded with him, he said, “Fast with me for three days, and then we’ll tell each other whatever may be revealed to any of us.” That very night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles, that John should write everything in his own name as they remembered them. (text of Muratorian Canon at Christian-history.org)

This seems very unlikely to be correct because all other testimony is that John composed his Gospel late in life. By then the apostles were split up all over the world, and John outlived them all by up to 20 years. He is said by several early Christian writers to have lived until the times of Trajan, and Trajan’s reign began in A.D. 98, 65 years after the crucifixion of our Lord.

Irenaeus was a missionary to Lyons, Gaul (modern Trier, Germany) who is connected to John in history. Irenaeus was with Polycarp in Smyrna as a young man, and Polycarp was a bishop said to be appointed by the apostles in Asia. (Asia was Asia minor, not the huge continent containing Russia, China, and India. It was much smaller, found in modern Turkey, and included Ephesus.) The primary apostle in Asia was John.

Irenaeus says that John wrote his Gospel primarily to refute the gnostic Cerinthus (Against Heresies III:11:1). The gnostics, where they did use Scripture, tore it apart with bizarre figurative interepretations so that the Word, Church, Man, Light, Wisdom, Life, Truth and many others were all separate beings, manifestations of an unknowable god named Bythus, which means profundity (as in "profound").

To commend Irenaeus’ view, in the very first chapter, John refers to Jesus as the Word, the Light, and the Life. He also says that we have received of Jesus’ fullness. "Fullness" was the word the gnostics used to describe the dwelling place of these manifestations of Bythus, whom they called "aeons." John tells us that Jesus is the fullness. ("Aeon" is a useful Scrabble word if you have a handful of vowels in Words with Friends.)

John himself says that he wrote his Gospel to convince us that Jesus was the Son of God, so that believing we would have life through his name (20:31).

Whatever the reason, it is clear to anyone who reads his Gospel that it is much different in tone from the others. Bible.org gives a list of specific differences between John and the synoptics.

So let us take a look at it.

John 1:1 (Advanced, but really important)

John 1:1-3 and 1:14 is one of the most famous passages of the Bible. It is used in religious debates all the time, especially between Jehovah’s Witnesses and Protestants.

The debates come, however, because people don’t know history or context of the Bible (or don’t care). John 1:1-3 is explained thoroughly by early Christians whose testimony is that the apostles taught them not only about the Trinity—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—but also specifically about the Word, the Logos (Greek for "word" or "reason"), who proceeded from the Father before the beginning began.

We talked about this some when we looked at Wisdom in Proverbs 8.

Let’s see if we can parse these few verses without being overwhelming.

John 1:1-3 can leave you wondering if there are two Gods. There’s the Word, who was God, and then there’s God, whom the Word was with. Do we worship one God or two?

Here’s the early Christian explanation of those verses, which Theophilus’, seventh bishop (= head elder) of Antioch (the apostle Paul’s home church), said that they had learned from the holy writings and from the teaching of the apostles themselves.

But when God wished to make all that he determined, he begot this Logos, … the firstborn of all creation. This is what the holy writings teach us, as well as all the Spirit-bearing men, one of whom, John, says, "In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God" [Jn. 1:1], showing that at first God was alone, and the Logos in him. (To Autolycus II:22, A.D. 168, brackets mine)

Before the beginning—in fact, before even time was created—God was alone. Inside of him, however, was his Word, his Logos. Tertullian, a Greek and Latin speaking Christian of the late second and early third century, explained logos by saying that it is the voice we hear in our heads when we think or read.

God, they say, in some mysterious way that is beyond our understanding, was able to give birth to his Logos as a being second to himself. They are always careful to say that this did not involve "cutting off" or complete separation from each other. Instead, they explained that the Logos proceeds from the Father much as a stream proceeds from a spring or a sunbeam from the sun. There is no division in substance, but we do consider the spring and the stream as two separate things.

This power was begotten from the Father by his power and will, but not by abscission [i.e., cutting off], as if the essence of the Father were divided. (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 128, c. A.D. 155)

The plant that springs from the root is something distinct from that which it grows up, yet it is of one nature with it. The river which flows from the spring is something distinct from the spring. For we cannot call either the river a spring or the spring a river. Nevertheless we allow that they are both one according to nature and also one in substance, and we admit that the spring may be conceived of as father and that the river is what is begotten of the spring. (Dionysius [the Great], Of the One Substance, A.D. 247)

Don’t let anyone think it ridiculous that God should have a Son. … The Son of God is the Logos of the Father … for after the pattern of him and by him all things were made, the Father and the Son being one. … The understanding and reason of the Father is the Son of God. But if … it occurs to you to inquire what is meant by the Son, I will state briefly that he is the first product of the Father, not as having been brought into existence, for from the beginning God … had the Logos in himself … but he came forth to be the idea and energizing power of all material things. (Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians 10, A.D. 177, brackets mine)

I have not given you the benefit of a long introduction to help you understand the concept of the difference between God who is eternal and material things, which are not. I have a longer, hopefully easier to understand, explanation of these things at The Trinity on my Christian history web site.

In the Beginning Was the Logos also has two chapters on the Trinity that an apologetics minister in Wales said ought to be required reading for the church history module in Bible school. In fact, you can just download chapters 16 and 17 of my book by right clicking and saving or you can left click the link and the .pdf should open in a new window.

Hopefully, however, the idea of the Son proceeding from the Father as a sunbeam proceeds from the sun is not difficult to grasp because it will help understand why John 1:1-3 does not teach two Gods. The unity of the Father and the Son that makes them one God, with the Holy Spirit, is that there is only one divine substance. The Son is the Wisdom and Logos of the Father, distinct in personality, but of the same essence or substance, undivided from the Father in that sense.

This is not a teaching found in one of the early church fathers, but it is explained thoroughly by Justin Martyr in A.D. 150, Theophilus in A.D. 168, Athenagoras in A.D. 177, Clement around A.D. 190, Tertullian around A.D. 210, and Origen and many others in the third century (the A.D. 200’s) before finally being defined at the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325 in the very terms I’m using in this commentary.

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty … and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father; that is, of the substance of the Father … (Nicene Creed)

Thus John tells us that the Logos was with the Father in the beginning. However, he does not tell us that the Logos is God in exactly those terms, despite what your Bible translation says. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 8:6 that there is one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

John 1:1 uses a special construction. Word for word, the last phrase says in Greek, "… and God was the Word."

Greek scholars explain that when two words surround a reflexive verb (a verb like "to be," or in this case "was"), then the word without an article (an article is "the" or "a") is being used as an adjective, not as a noun. Thus, the word "God" here in John 1:1 is being used as an adjective to describe the Word.

I have heard this concept explained four times, each time as an answer to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who want to translate that passage, "And the Word was a god." You can read it at this web site, which teaches Greek.

After scholars explain John 1:1 this way like to translate John 1:1 as "The Word had the character and nature of God." I prefer something more simple because we have a word that is "God" used as an adjective. That word is "divine."

Thus, I would translate John 1:1 as, "In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was divine."

A lot of people object to that wording, but it’s based on exactly what all mainline Christian scholars say that verse means. Again, see the Greek web site I linked (where he uses "same essence and nature" repeatedly). I don’t know Greek well enough to take a stand on those kind of things, but those who do consistently explain the verse just as I have explained it to you.

If any of this is confusing, rather than as simple as I’m hoping it might be, please look through my Trinity pages or download the two chapters of my book I linked above.

John 1:2-3

Now that we’ve had this long discussion of the Logos or Word of God, let’s simply point out that the Word is the Creator of everything.

His dear Son … is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him everything was created, that are in heaven or on earth … All things were created by him and for him, and he is before all things, and by him all things are held together. (Col. 1:13b,15-17)

I know we’ve already gone through Proverbs 8 in our read through the Bible, but I love what it says about the Logos (in the form of Wisdom) creating the earth with the Father:

He established me before time was in the beginning, before he made the earth … before the mountains were settled, and before all hills, he begets me. … When he prepared the heavens, I was present with him … and when he strengthened the foundations of the earth. I was by him, suiting myself to him, I was that wherein he took delight; and daily I rejoiced in his presence continually. For he rejoiced when he had completed the world, and rejoiced among the children of men. (Prov. 8:23,25,27,29-31, Septuagint Online)

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