The Pulpit Commentary

John 1:1-51 (John 1:1-51)

The phrase, "according to," has been thought by some to suggest a type of doctrine or teaching with which the document might be supposed to harmonize, and therefore to set aside the idea of personal authenticity by its very form. This interpretation, seeing it applies to Mark and Luke as well as to John and Matthew, would lose its meaning; for Mark and Luke, by numerous traditionary notices, have been continuously credited, not with having personally set any special type of doctrine before the Church, but as having been respectively the interpreter of Peter or Paul. Consequently the meaning of the phrase compels us to ask whether the word "Gospel" or "Holy Gospel" did in the first instance refer to the book at all. It is not "John's Gospel" that is intended, but the good news or glad tidings of God related by John, of which this and similar titles speak, Moreover, numerous instances occur where the κατὰ is similarly used to denote authorship. Thus "The Pentateuch according to Moses," "The History according to Herodotus," "The Gospel according to Peter," are titles which in every case are meant to suggest the idea of authorship (Godet). We cannot imagine that any other implication was intended by this ancient superscription.

Each of the evangelists starts with a grand "presupposition," or main thesis, of his own, expressed with more or less of explicitness, which it becomes his obvious purpose to sustain.

This main thesis is set forth in the first sentences of each of the synoptists. Thus MARK opened with the memorable words, "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God." £ From the first he refers to the prophetic anticipations and historic realization of glad tidings uttered by the Lord, and he based all his teaching on the fact that Jesus Christ was SON OF GOD . MATTHEW , who wished to establish the Lord's special claim to Messiahship, and his official right to the throne of David, began with a genealogical proof of the Lord's descent from David and Abraham. LUKE , who aimed throughout to illustrate the Divine humanity, and to build his narrative on historic facts and chronological data, took up his story with the birth of the Baptist, and, in conjunction with his baptizing of Jesus, presents a lineal genealogy of the supposed father (and probably of the mother) of Jesus, through the line of Nathan to David, thence from David to Abraham, and finally to Adam, the first son of God. In his prologue Luke indicated the biographical use he had made of the material in his hands, and of the personal knowledge he had acquired, and that he aimed to set forth the grounds of security that existed for the things most fully believed by the Church ( Luke 1:1-4 ).

The fourth evangelist was as earnestly set upon giving proof of the Messiahship of Jesus as Matthew was (see John 20:31 ), and as resolved to emphasize the complete humanity of the Son of God as even Luke himself was (see verse 14, and all the many signs of the Saviour's resemblance to his brethren, and sympathy with their sufferings and joys— John 2:1 ; John 4:6 ; John 5:13 , John 5:14 ; John 11:5 , John 11:35 , etc.). But John had felt more deeply than many of the apostles the effulgence of the Father's glory which gleamed in the face of Jesus Christ. John had heard in the words of Jesus the veritable voice of the living God; "The Word of the Lord ( ὁ λόγος κυρίου ) came to him" in the speech ( λαλιά ) of Jesus. There was a Divineness about the mission of the Lord which deeply impressed this evangelist—that Jesus had come in a special sense from God, that he was the Giver of eternal life and the Author of eternal salvation, and that he had the "form of God," though in the likeness of men. John's mind revolved all the truth which, long before this prologue or introduction was written, had been proclaimed by Paul and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, in every varying phrase. It was in harmony with the whole purpose of his Gospel that he should begin it before the baptism, before the birth, before the conception, of the Lord Jesus; that he should press back in thought to the Divine activity itself—to those ideas of the older revelation which, though not in conflict with the pure monotheism of the Hebrew Scriptures, involved the veritable preparation for the stupendous reality, for the supreme tragedy, for the Divine kingdom which had evolved itself under his very eyes. He looked back into the past, nay, he gazed out of time into eternity; he looked up from the miraculous conception to that holy thing which was conceived in the womb of humanity; he endeavoured to set forth that form of God which could alone become "flesh" and tabernacle among men; and which, though it did this, did not destroy the unity of Deity, but confirmed and established it. He was not slow to reflect on all the methods in which God had ever come near to men, nor could he believe that God Incarnate had never foreshadowed his presence with men, or his manifestation to them, before his own day and hour. When the old man was at Ephesus, many dangerous speculations were rife. Some denied that Christ had ever come in the flesh at all, and said that so Divine a presence as his was no objective reality—was allied to the Docetic "seeming" manifestations made to the patriarchs of the Old Testament. Jesus was to them a theophany, not a living Man. Now, we learn from the First Epistle that such a thesis was, in the opinion of John, the quintessence of antichrist. Others, again, had speculated about the emanations of Deity, until a new mythology was beginning to hover on the borderland between Christendom and heathendom. Essenic and Ebionitic errors had grieved him. At length the moment arrived when the "Son of Thunder," who saw all the glory of the risen Lord, all the majesty of his triumphant reign, uttered these opening words, replying, in every sentence, to one or other of these misconceptions of his Lord's Person. And he proceeded to lay a simple basis deep and strong enough to support the facts upon which the faith of the Church was resting. Men had come veritably to believe that they were children of God, and had been generated as such by the will of God, and, if children, that they were heirs of God through Jesus Christ ( Romans 8:16 , Romans 8:17 ; Galatians 3:26 ). "Grace and truth" were lighting up broken and bewildered hearts when they accepted the reality of the Divine manhood of Jesus, and something better than the mere speculations of the schools of Palestine, Alexandria, or Ephesus was needed in order to explain (as he, the beloved disciple saw it) the mystery of the life of Christ. That which he laid down as the solution of the problem of "the beginning of the Gospel" is called the prologue of this Gospel. Even apart from the inspiration which breathes through it, no passage in literature can be cited which has exercised a more powerful influence upon the thought of the last eighteen hundred years than that which sets forth John's fundamental ideas concerning the essence and character, the idiosyncrasy and the energy, of the Divine fulness which dwelt in Jesus.

The question has been asked—Where does the prologue end? M. Reuss strongly presses the view that tile proem terminated with the fifth verse, and that with the sixth the apostle commenced his historical recital. He urges that there is no break from the sixth to the eighteenth verse; that in this paragraph the author sets forth the general effect of the testimony of the historical Baptist to Jesus; and that, in consequence of it, a limited number of individuals were led to recognize

Some preliminary advantage is thus secured by the critic who seeks to ally this paragraph with the rest of the history, and to impute to the whole Gospel, as well as to the passage in question, the character of a theological or didactic romance. The enormous majority of all scholars, while recognizing new points of departure at verse 6, and again at verses 14-18, do not admit that the evangelist's preliminary representations or presuppositions have come to a pause until he reached the sublime utterance which points so obviously back to verse 1, "No one hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him." From the first verse to the eighteenth the evangelist revolves around the fundamental idea of "the Word which was with God and was God." but his aim is to show how the Word came into relations with man, and how man may come into relations with the Godhead through him who was manifested in the flesh in all the fulness of grace and truth.

An obvious method of this author in the Gospel, Epistles, and Apocalypse shows that he was wont to return upon thoughts which he had previously uttered, yet at the same time doing so in fresh cycles and with added meanings (see Introduction). The large spiral of his meditations sweeps at first round the entire region of "all things" which have their centre in the "Word of God:" "All things came into being through him." Then he formally discriminates between "things" and "forces," and especially indicates the relation of "the Word" to the energies and blessedness of the entire universe of sentient and responsible beings which derive all their "life" from the "life that is in him," and their "light" from that "life," indicating, as he proceeds, the presence of the antagonism to the light and life displayed by our imperfect and damaged humanity (verses 1-5). Here the entire testimony of prophecy—gathered up in the person of an historic man, John Baptist,—is broadly characterized, and some conception of the aid which revelation and inspiration have given to men to recognize the light when they see it, and to hear the voice of the Lord God while it speaks. The entire function of prophecy is discriminated from the light force at work in every living man. The special aid given to the holy, prepared, and selected race, by the manner of his self-revelations brings the spiral thought round into the region of the intensified darkness of those who refuse the brightest light (verses 9-11), so that verse 11 corresponds with verse 5. Verses 12, 13 pause in the region of light. Some souls are at least transformed into the light, become conscious of a Divine generation, are born (through faith), independently of all earthly, national, or sacramental means, into the same kind of relation to God that has from eternity been enjoyed by the Word.

At this point a novel revolution of thought is commenced, characterized by more intense brilliancy and efficacity, because revealed in a narrower range of fact. He touches the very focus and centre of Divine manifestation, when he says, "And the Word was made flesh, and tabernacled among us." "The Word" did not become "all things," nor was he identified with life, still less with light. The wide radiance and glorious glancing of the light was not identified with the objects on which through prophetic agencies it alighted. The τὰ ἴδια , the special race of light bearers, were not, even in their highest form of recipiency, incarnations of the Word. Neither conscience, nor prophecy, nor Shechinah glory was of the substance or essence of "the Word," although all the energy of each of these was and is and ever will be the shining of the primal light on humanity.

This is the theory of the writer of this prologue, but his chief contribution to the sum of human thought is that "this Word became flesh." Having announced this stupendous fact, the author relates the evidence of his own personal, living experience; and he records his invincible assent to this unique and central glory of Divine manifestation. This at once leads to a few comprehensive antitheses drawn between the Incarnation and all the most illustrious and luminous of previous revelations. Just as verses 6, 7 revealed the difference between prophecy and the "light of men," so, having come to this focal point of splendour, prophecy again speaks in the person of the Baptist; and verse 15 cites the highest testimony to the supreme rank of the incarnate God above the greatest of the teachers of men. In verse 16 the apostle refers to the Incarnate Word as the Source of all apostolic emotions and life. Through him, and not from the mere teachings of prophecy or conscience, have we all received grace and truth. Then, sweeping back to the grandest epoch-making man and moment of all past history, Moses himself appears to shine only like the light of a waning moon in the advent of the dawn. More than that; neither Adam in Paradise, nor Noah gazing on the averted bow, nor Abraham at Moriah, nor Jacob at Peniel, nor Moses in the cleft of the rock, nor Elijah at Horeb, nor Isaiah in the temple, nor Ezekiel at the river of Chebar, have ever seen, in the sense in which Jesus saw, the face of the Father. The only begotten Son who was with God and was God, and in the bosom of the Father, he hath revealed him. The entire proem does not cease till it reaches this triumphant peroration. Detailed exegesis of the passage can alone justify this estimate of the significance of the prologue. Different commentators have divided it somewhat differently, and many have drawn too sharp a distinction between the preincarnation life of the Logos, and the historical, theocratic, or ecclesiastical manifestation. Surely that which the eternal Logos was before his manifestation and before the humiliation of the infinite love, he was and must have been during the human life of Jesus, he must be now, and he must ever be. In other words: The Word, who was in the beginning with God, is still "with God." All life is continually the effluence of one of his infinite energies; all light is the effulgence of that bright essence uncreate. He is still coming "to his own," and "they receive him not." The processes described in verses 6-13 have never ceased; nay, they are indeed more conspicuous than they ever were before in the ministry of the Word, but they have not exhausted nor diminished one iota of the stupendous activity of the eternal, creative, revealing Logos.

The first part of the Gospel, consisting of ch. 1-4, we have already described as


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John 1:19-34 (John 1:19-34)

2. The testimony of the Baptist.

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John 1:20-21 (John 1:20-21)

(1) He deflates his own position, negatively.

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John 1:21 (John 1:21)

And they asked him, What then? What is the state of the case? The very repudiation of Messiahship in this form seems to imply some association with the Messianic period of which they had so many conflicting ideas. Malachi ( Malachi 4:5 ) had predicted the coming again from heaven of Elijah the prophet, and the LXX ., by translating the passage "Elijah the Tishbite," had strengthened the common mistake of a metempsychosis, or such an abnormal manifestation before the coming of Messiah. Schottgen quotes a variety of proofs of this anticipation, and that Elijah was expected " three days before Messiah; that he would come in the mountains of Israel, weeping over the people, saying, 'O land of Israel, how long will you remain arid and desolate!'" (cf. my 'John the Baptist,' 3. § 4). There was a true sense in which (as our Lord informed his disciples) John was the fulfilment of Malachi's prediction and of the language of the angel to Zacharias ( Luke 1:17 ; Matthew 11:14 ; Matthew 17:12 ), and that John came veritably in the spirit and power of Elijah. In that sense "Elijah had come already," just as Christ their David had come, in fulfilment of Ezekiel's vision ( Ezekiel 37:24 ; cf. Jeremiah 30:9 ; Hosea 3:5 ), to rule over them. In the physical, superstitious sense, John the son of Zacharias was not the reincarnation of the Prophet Elijah, and so he boldly answered the inquiry, Art thou Elijah? £ with a categorical negative: I am not. They press their question once more. Art thou the Prophet? It is doubtful whether they here take up another popular expectation of the physical return of one of the old prophets, or whether, with an exegesis afterwards modified by the apostles, they point to Deuteronomy 18:15 , and reveal the fact that they had not identified the prediction of "the prophet like unto Moses" with their Messiah. If they had identified these representations, they would not, of course, have pressed him with an identical question. It is highly probable that that prophecy had, with the predictions of Malachi and Isaiah, led to numerous expectations more or less identified with the Messianic cycle of coming events. In John 6:14 ; John 7:40 ; Matthew 16:14 , we see the prevalence of the expectation—of a longing for an old prophet. They yearned for no upstart, but for one of the mighty brotherhood of departed men, in veritable flesh and blood. Now John and now Jesus was crudely suspected by some to be such a resuscitation. The Baptist, like the Samaritan woman, and subsequently St. Peter when full of the Holy Ghost, had sharply identified "the Prophet like unto Moses" with the Messiah himself; and therefore, on either hypothesis, he gives a curt reply to this inquiry, and he answered, No.

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John 1:19-28 (John 1:19-28)

The second testimony of John the Baptist.

A deputation, consisting of the priests and Levites from Jerusalem, the ecclesiastical centre of Judaism, visited the Baptist as he was baptizing disciples at Bethany beyond Jordan, for the purpose of ascertaining whether he was the Messiah or the forerunner, of ancient prophecy. The scene is interesting as the place where the first disciples were made and the foundation of the Christian Church laid. The interview occurred after the baptism and the temptation. We now come to the properly historical part of the Gospel.

I. THE POSITION ASSERTED FOR HIMSELF BY JOHN . It is one which displays his true humility. He is clear, frank, and unambiguous. "He confessed, and denied not." He asserts his position:

1 . Negatively.

2 . Positively. He is a voice—"The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord." He points to Isaiah's prophecy concerning himself. He was but a voice to be heard, not a great personage to receive the homage of men.

II. THE OFFICE OF THE BAPTIST . It was simply to baptize as a preparation for the recognition of Christ. The deputies questioned his authority to baptize. "Why baptizest thou, then, if thou be not that Christ, or Elias, or one of the prophets?"

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John 1:19-28 (John 1:19-28)

A disclaimer and a claim.

When our Lord Jesus came into this world, he did not come as one isolated from the race he designed to save. He condescended to take his place—the most honourable place—in a long and illustrious succession. He superseded the last prophet of the old dispensation; he commissioned the first prophets of the new. The herald and forerunner of our Lord perfectly comprehended his own relation to his Master, and felt it a dignity to occupy a position of Divine appointment, although a position of inferiority, in respect to him. The query put to John by the leaders of the Jewish Church at Jerusalem was natural and proper; it was evidence of the interest which John's mission was exciting in the land; and it gave the Baptist an opportunity of both declaring himself and witnessing to his Lord.

I. JOHN 'S DISCLAIMER . No doubt there was an expectation, general and eager, of One who, in accordance with Hebrew prophecy, should be the Deliverer and Ruler of God's people Israel. From varying motives—in some cases with spiritual yearning, in other cases with political expectation—the Jews turned anxiously towards every personage of distinction and influence who arose among the people. Thus they turned to John, whose character was austere and inflexible as that of a Hebrew seer, and whose popular power was manifest from the multitude of his adherents and admirers. In these circumstances, John's first duty was to give an unequivocal answer to the inquiry of the Jews. This inquiry was pointed and particular. Was John Elias, again visiting the people who revered him as one of their holiest and mightiest saints? There was something in his appearance, his habits, his speech, that suggested this possibility. Or was he "the prophet," less definitely designated? Or could it be that he was none other than the Messiah? The times were ripe for the advent of the promised Deliverer; John evidently possessed a spiritual authority, a popular power, such as Israel had not seen for many a generation. To every such inquiry John had only one answer: "I am not." In this disclaimer we recognize both the intelligence and the candour of the forerunner. A weak mind might have been overpowered by interest so profound and widespread. A self-seeking and ambitious mind might have taken advantage of such an opportunity to assert a personal authority and to climb to the throne of power. John was superior to such temptations. Though greater than others born of women, he did not aspire to a position for which God had not destined him. In fact, he was too great to wish to be aught but the herald and the servant of him who was to come.

II. JOHN 'S CLAIM . A just and admirable modesty was not, indeed never is, inconsistent with a due assertion of position and duties assigned by God. He who knows what God has sent him into the world to do, will neither depreciate his own work nor envy another's. The claim made by John was very remarkable. He affirmed himself to be:

1 . A fulfilment of prophecy. The circumstances of his birth and education, taken in conjunction with certain declarations of Old Testament Scripture, must have suggested to John that he held a place in the revealed counsels of eternal wisdom.

2 . A voice. Often had God spoken to Israel. In John he spake yet again. To him it was given to utter by human lips the thoughts of the Divine mind. Not that this was mechanical function; John's whole soul was inflamed with the grandeur and the burning necessity of that message of repentance which he was called upon to deliver to his fellow countrymen. Nothing but the conviction that his voice was the expression of Divine thought, that he was summoning men in God's Name to a higher life of righteousness and faith, could have animated him to discharge his ministry with such amazing boldness. Nor could any other conviction have overcome the difficulty he must at first have felt in publicly witnessing that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ.

3 . A herald, and one preparing the way of a great Successor. It was his to make straight the Lord's way. It was his to announce the Messiah's approach, and to direct the attention of Israel to the coming in lowly guise of Israel's King. It was his. to subside into comparative insignificance, to withdraw from publicity, in order that he might make room for One whose presence would bring the realization of the brightest hopes and the most fervent prayers. It was his to administer the humbler baptism with water—the symbol of a better baptism to be conferred by Christ, even that with the Holy Spirit.


1 . Learn the completeness and harmony of the Divine plan. The revelation of God proceeds upon an order which may be recognized both by the intellect and by the heart of man. The wisdom of the Eternal arranges that all preparation shall be made for the appearance of the world's Saviour; the morning star heralds the rising of the Sun of Righteousness. God's ways in grace are as regular and as orderly as his ways in providence.

2 . Learn the dignity and preciousness of Immanuel. One so honourable as the Baptist yet deemed himself unworthy to serve the meek and lowly Jesus—to act as his meanest attendant. Lowly was his attitude, and reverent his words, when the Son of God drew near. Surely he, who was so regarded and so heralded, demands our homage and deserves our love.—T.

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John 1:19-23 (John 1:19-23)

The Jewish deputation and the Baptist.


I. THE DEPUTATION 'S QUESTION . "Who art thou?" This implies:

1 . That a spirit of inquiry trod been awakened. Whether from curiosity, officialism, or jealousy, it was there. It is better to be questioned from any motive than not to be questioned at all. It is better for the questioners themselves. That is a very dull age or person that asks no questions. Asking is the condition of receiving. It is better for the one questioned, especially if he be a public man—a teacher with a truth, or a herald with a message. It proves that his presence and efforts awake attention. This was the case with the Baptist now. It gladdened his heart that a deputation came and questioned him. It proved that his voice had begun to stir the land and awake the spirit of inquiry.

2 . That there was a prevalent expectation at the time for the appearance of a great personage. Some expecting the Messiah, some Elijah, some the prophet, and all expecting some great one to appear. Time somehow had reached its fulness; it had been in travail for some time, and a birth was naturally expected. Ancient prophecy also nursed the expectation, and there was a deeply felt need for the fulfilment and for the appearance of a Deliverer. There is a close connection between want and expectation, and between both and inquiry. So that when the Baptist began to burn in the wilderness, the spirit of the age soon caught the flame, and the country was ablaze with inquiry from different motives.

3 . A high compliment is paid to John and his ministry, whether meant or not. Especially by the first form of the inquiry, "Art thou the Christ?" No one would ask a taper, "Art thou the sun?" but one would be tempted to ask the question of the moon or the morning star. John would doubtless be satisfied with the simple question, "Who art thou?" and drop it there and listen to the reply; for how many come and go and act on the stage of time without exciting the simple question, "Who art thou?" But John succeeded soon in eliciting this question, not from the thoughtless crowd, but from the mental and moral princes of the nation, and they ask him, "Art thou the Christ?" John was such a shining light that it was pardonable to mistake him for a moment for the Light of the world. The herald partook so much of the majesty of the coming King that it was natural to suspect that he might be the King himself. All this was befitting and natural.

4 . Great persistency and demand in their inquiry. They ask in every shape and form, and ask again and again; and in this they are worthy of imitation by all inquirers for truth. If your first question fails, ask again and again. How many have not been admitted to the temple of truth and the heaven of life because they only timidly knocked at the door once and then ran away! But this deputation were persistent and demanding. And in this they were neither wrong, intrusive, nor unwelcome. The ministry of John was such as to deserve and demand inquiry. The public had a right to demand his testimonials, and he was ready to furnish them. Truth suffers not by inquiry, but gains. This inquiry in its persistency and demand was as pleasing to John as it ought to be profitable to the deputation.

5 . The inquiry is made of the proper party. Many ask for information everywhere but where they are likely to get it. They try to gather knowledge of a person of everybody but of the person himself. They try to find a risen Saviour in an empty grave, find the stars in the day, and the sun in the night. But this deputation act wisely and intelligently in their search for knowledge concerning John by coming to John himself, and asking him, "Who art thou?" And who was so likely to know and. reply? If you want water, go to the fountain. If you want to know something about the rose, do not go to the oak or even the lily, but go to the rose itself; look at its delicate beauty, and inhale its sweet perfume, if you want truth, go to him who is the Truth. Do not accept things at second hand when you can get them new and fresh. So far as the formality of this inquiry goes, it is wise and intelligent.

II. JOHN 'S ANSWER . Negatively. To the form of the inquiry which implied that he might be the Christ, Elijah, or the prophet, he gave a firm denial. This proves his strict honesty as an herald. The temptation would be too strong for an impostor or an ambitious upstart; he would likely reply affirmatively or evasively. These are questions which no one but John had to answer. His position was unique. He had strong individuality and transparent honesty. He would be no other than himself. His only ambition was to occupy his own place, and work out his own mission in life. Affirmatively. He was glad to deny in order to affirm; to say something about himself in order to introduce the great subject of his mission—the coming Messiah. He refers to himself as a subject of ancient prophecy, and therefore a divinely appointed herald ( Isaiah 40:1-31 .). "Now, I am that voice." We have here:

1 . The import of his mission. "Make straight the way of the Lord." This implies:

2 . His characteristics as a messenger. In addition to those indicated, we have:


1 . Many inquire while they ought to know. This deputation and those that sent them were masters in Israel, and ought to know the coming of their Lord and Messiah.

2 . Many inquire in proper form, but in a wrong spirit. This deputation were outwardly proper, but inwardly hollow and insincere.

3 . Many inquirers at first raise high hopes, but they are soon blighted. Doubtless John at first was elated with such a respectable and apparently genuine deputation; but his hopes were soon blighted by the hoar frost of bigotry and pride. It came to nothing, at least with regard to the majority of them.

4 . The faithful herald should publish his message irrespective of consequences, treat all with respect, answer questions. Some may benefit by others failures, and drink the water drawn but left by some one else.—B.T.

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