I think it’s appropriate that we start off the Christmas season with the very beginning of the Gospel of John today. We’ve been working on “context and structure” for about a month now and I feel like we could keep talking about it for another few weeks. The structure of John is absolutely fascinating! But we need to get into it and we’ll hit some of those interesting structural points along the way.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’ ”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” ( John 1:1-18)
If you have a study bible there’s a good chance that there are a LOT of notes about this first set of verses, because John packs a LOT of stuff in there. In fact, this section is like a summary of the whole rest of the book.
When Jesus God Speaks
John begins by calling Jesus “the Word” who “was with God” and who “was God.” He was there before “the beginning” and was the one who made everything. We’ve already discussed the Trinitarian aspects of this – how this affirms that Jesus is the same God who created the universe – but I want you to notice something else. John here is setting up one of the major themes of the book which is that when Jesus speaks God is speaking.
Over and over Jesus says things like, to the Jewish authorities in chapter 5,
“Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.” (John 5:19).
Or to the crowds and Pharisees in chapter 8,
“When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.” (John 8:28)
or to His disciples in
“Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.” (John 14:10).
This was, and currently is, a major point of contention in regards to Jesus. Some people claim that Jesus never claimed to be God and that Christians came up with that idea later. Other religions claim that Jesus was merely a prophet sent by God but not God Himself. Some non-religious people hold Jesus up as a great moral teacher but refuse to believe in His divinity. This is absolutely wrong. Jesus absolutely presented Himself as God in the flesh.
Turn over to John 10:22-33,
“At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered them, ‘I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.’ The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?’ The Jews answered him, ‘It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.’”
When Jesus was crucified, this was the charge against Him: Because He claimed to be God. Pilate knew this and knew it wasn’t a good enough reason to sentence Jesus to the cross, which is why he declared him innocent and tried to free him. Jesus wasn’t killed for any other reason than claiming to be God. This incensed the Jews and they used all the political pressure they could, even claiming to support their Roman oppressors and threatening Pilate with disloyalty to Caesar, in order to have Jesus punished in the worst way possible.
Jesus didn’t just claim to be a prophet who was told what to say by God. He wasn’t just reporting what God says – He was saying that when He spoke, God spoke. No one else claimed that. Every other prophet said, “Ok, most of the time I’m just sinful, old, me – but sometimes God speaks His word to me and I tell it to you.” That’s not what Jesus claimed. There was nothing He said, no judgement He made, no miracle He performed, no woe he pronounced, no action He performed or word he spoke that didn’t carry the weight and authority and perfection of God.
So, that’s the first thing that John wants you to know, right upfront and throughout the whole book: Jesus is God and when He speaks, God speaks. Jesus is the Word of God.
And it’s also the first thing we are confronted by and are forced to reckon with. When we think of Jesus and by extension the scriptures which contain His words – and not just the Gospels, but every other word spoken in every other book – are we giving them the proper weight and authority in our lives? Do we take what Jesus says, or what the Bible says, as one opinion of many that we weigh against a bunch of others – or do we listen and obey as though God Himself has spoken to us? Because that’s exactly what is happening.
Jesus is the Source of Light and Life
The second big theme that we see throughout the gospel of John that is introduced here is that Jesus is the source of light and life.
Jesus was the one who said, “Let there be light” and “Let there be life” in Genesis 1. He spoke into the darkness and created the light. But, after sin entered the world in Genesis 3 there was a problem: darkness came back and death entered the world. Then, even in Genesis 3, right after the Fall of Man, God said that someone would be coming to fix the problem. The whole of the Old Testament points to the one who would come and do that. Then Jesus, the source of all light and all life, came. Darkness tried to reclaim the world for itself, but because of Jesus, it couldn’t.
We talked about this one a couple weeks ago, so I won’t repeat it, but as you read John, look for that theme too. And as you look, consider that not only are you being asked to see Jesus as the source of all light and life, the one who came to bring light to the darkness and to make a way through death into life, but you are being asked if you come to Him that way. That was what John was saying to his first readers too. Persecution and martyrdom and death were rampant among believers… and the political drama and insanity of the Roman Emperors like Caligula and Nero bringing death and famine by their own whims made everything very dark for almost everyone else… so where should people turn? John’s answer was, to Jesus, the source of light and life – in short, hope.
When you face dark things – sin, rebellion, temptation, unrighteous anger, bitterness, strife, lack, storms, struggles, sickness, and death – is your first instinct to come to the source of life and light or to go somewhere else? Because where you go first is probably the thing that you hold above Jesus as your functional saviour and source of hope.
Something difficult happens, darkness invades. You get sick, you feel pain, someone betrays you, fear and uncertainty starts to creep into your heart – what do you do? Where do you turn first? You want direction, comfort, freedom, an anchor for your soul. You are looking for a light in the darkness, so where do you turn first? Alcohol? Chemicals? Pornography? Sleep? Social Media Post to get some attention? Search the Internet for an answer? Lash out and hurt someone?
Or, do you come to Jesus and say, “Things are dark and I need some light. You are the light of the world. I feel death encroaching and need some hope. You are the source of life and hope.” And then wait on Him to provide you with what you need?
John the Baptist: Herald of Jesus
The third big theme of John, found in verses 6-8, and then again in 15, as we are introduced to John the Baptist. If you’ve heard the Christmas story at all, then you’ll know that things were getting darker in the world – for the Jews and Gentiles alike. The Gentiles knew nothing of the One, True God because paganism had utterly taken over their land, and the Jewish religious system was almost totally corrupted, totally divorced from the religion that God set up to draw people to Him, so even the people of God were far from Him. Things were dark.
But when things were at their darkest, a voice was heard, the voice of John the Baptist, the herald of the Kingdom of God. John the Baptist, a man chosen before he was born to prepare the way for Jesus, starts preaching a few years before Jesus begins his earthly ministry, and he has a simple, three part message. The Messiah is coming soon, repent from your sins and get ready for it, and live out that repentance by a changed life.
John the Baptist was a powerful preacher, used by God to call many people to a baptism of repentance, but John knew He wasn’t the Messiah. He didn’t know who He was heralding for most of His life, but He knew that the Messiah was imminent – and that that the Messiah wouldn’t just get people wet and tell them to change their behaviour – He would change them from the inside out by freeing them from the curse of sin altogether and coming to live inside them through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
In John 1:29-33 (turn there), after He has baptized Jesus and right before he hands off the baton to Jesus, even sending his own disciples off to follow Jesus, John says to them,
“‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John bore witness: ‘I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.’” (Matthew 3:11–12)
You’ll see John the Baptist come up a lot in the first half of the book as Jesus is compared to him. Everyone seemed to know John the Baptist and he had some serious street cred. We learn in Acts 18:25 and 19:3-4 that people throughout the whole world had experienced “John’s Baptism” and so a lot of people reading this Gospel would have already known how important John’s ministry and prophecy was. And, even though the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all speak of Him, the Apostle John makes absolutely clear that as important as John the Baptist was, he was only the herald, the forerunner, the announcer, of Jesus Christ. John wasn’t the light – he was only the voice who was crying out in the darkness saying, “The Light of the World is coming – be ready for it!”
But I think the Apostle John’s question for all those who read is this: Do you know that it is not enough that you feel bad about your sin. It is not even enough that you have repented from your sin by saying you want to stop. The end of repentance is not merely the change of behaviour – it is faith in Jesus. The question is, has your sorrow over your sin lead you to seek salvation and cleansing from Jesus, who can free you from the curse and grant you the gift of the Holy Spirit – or have you stopped at merely thinking you just need to change your behaviour? Because the testimony of the whole of scripture is that your problem isn’t that you are mostly good and just need a little “help from above” or that you have one or two big problems and that once God fixes those you’re ok.
The testimony of Jesus is that repentance isn’t enough – you must be “born again”. You must be utterly changed, from the inside out, by giving all your sin, all your self, your entire being, past, present and future, to Jesus. Jesus doesn’t come to offer the baptism of repentance. He doesn’t come to offer a little encouragement to assuage your guilt. He comes to offer the baptism of the Holy Spirit, a new life, a re-birth, to everyone who will believe.
I think of 2 Corinthians 7:10 which says,
“Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.”
There’s a big difference between feeling bad about your sin because you were caught, or because it blew up in your face, or caused problems for you and others – and realizing that you are a complete sinner, that your sin infects every part of your life, that your sin has caused spiritual death, and that you need a complete renewal, a complete (what theologians used to call) revivification, to be reborn as a new person who died and rose again because of the work of Jesus. That’s a huge difference. Think of the difference between Judas and Peter. Judas had worldly sorrow leading to death – Peter felt just as bad, but was restored by Jesus to new life. Worldly sorrow, or even the mere baptism of repentance, still leads to death. It is Godly sorrow that leads to salvation and leaves no regret.
Saying a prayer one time and then getting wet in a baptismal ceremony does not save you. Sorrow for your sin, leading to hatred of sin and a desire to be free from it, which leads to you the foot of the cross where you confess your sin and need, asking Jesus to take the punishment for it and to give you new life – and then living out that faith through trust and obedience to Jesus is what saves.
The Response to Jesus
There are more introductions to big themes here in John’s prologue, but let’s only do one more: How people responded to Jesus.
“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (vs 9-13)
Throughout the whole book, you’re going to see Jesus do miracles, make claims about Himself, and then see people’s reactions. Jesus talks to every kind of person in the Gospel of John. Jews and Samaritans and Gentiles, men and women, pious religious people and social rejects, beggars and nobleman, crowds and individuals, rich and poor. And we get to see their reactions. Sometimes it is faith, but most often it is rejection – even from those who first believed.
For a variety of reasons – whether it was because Jesus didn’t give them what they wanted, because Jesus said things they didn’t like, because Jesus claimed authority over them, because they didn’t understand what Jesus was doing, or because Jesus refused to do things their way, Jesus’ teachings, claims, and miracles were often accepted at first but then rejected. This happens over and over and over until we see finally Him at the end of His life, almost totally abandoned – only a handful of people willing to admit they even know Him. The cost and risk of believing in Jesus, following Jesus, admitting to being Jesus’ disciple was too high.
And so the question, implied here and asked throughout the gospel is this: Where do you stand? After hearing what Jesus has said and done, have you turned from darkness to the light, believed in Jesus for your salvation, and become a child of God who will obey Jesus in all things – or, after hearing all this, do you still refuse to believe and obey? Will you surrender everything to Jesus as your Saviour, Lord and God, and be born again as a child of light – or do will you continue to live in the darkness? There are only two roads. Only two teams to play for. Those who follow Jesus to eternal life and those who will suffer eternal damnation.
To our modern ears that sounds intolerant and closed-minded. We’re used to leaving room for differing opinions, allowing for individual expressions of belief, letting people make decisions about God for themselves. We’ve been taught that it’s not polite to talk about religion and that it’s a faux pas to say that there is only one answer about something so important or controversial.
But Jesus doesn’t leave us any wiggle room and He doesn’t allow us to make up our own beliefs about Him or God or ourselves or the way of salvation. Jesus claimed to be God in human flesh, our Creator who may claim the highest authority over us. Jesus claimed to be the light of the world and the source of life and that anyone who does not believe in Him will walk in darkness and death. And then He simply asked, “Will you believe what I say – and show that belief through faith and obedience to me? If not, you will remain in your sin and in darkness.”
 Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). John the Baptist. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, p. 1201). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.