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 1:1-18 (John 1:1-18)

1. The hypothesis framed by the evangelist to account for the series of facts which he is about to narrate is seen especially in John 1:14 ; but before asserting this great fact that the Word was made flesh, he proceeds to show

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John 1:6-13 (John 1:6-13)

(4) The general manifestation of the revealing Logos.

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John 1:9 (John 1:9)

(b) The illumination of the archetypal Light before incarnation. There are at least three grammatical translations of this verse. Either

(1) with Meyer, we may give to ἦν the complete sense of existence, presence, and include in it the full predicate of the sentence; thus: "Existing, present (when John commenced his ministry), was the veritable Light which enlighteneth every man coming into the world." But the clause, "coming into the world," would here not only be superfluous, but moreover, while used elsewhere and often of Christ's incarnation, is never used of ordinary birth in the Scriptures, though it is a rabbinical expression.

(a) The light of the reason and conscience—the higher reason, which is the real eye for heavenly light, and the sphere for the operation of grace. This would make the highest intellectual faculty of man a direct effulgence of the archetypal Light, and confirm the poet Wordsworth's definition of conscience as "God's most intimate presence in the world."

(b) The inner light of the mystical writers, and the "common grace" of the Remonstrant theology. Or

(c) the Divine instruction bestowed on every man from the universal manifestation of the Logos life. No man is left without some direct communication of light from the Father of lights. That light may be quenched, the eye of the soul may be blinded, the folly of the world may obscure it as a cloud disperses the direct rays of the sun; but a fundamental fact remains—the veritable Light illumines every man. Then

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John 1:9 (John 1:9)

The true Light in its manifestation.

I. THE NATURE OF THIS LIGHT . "There was the true Light."

1 . Christ was the true Light, as opposed to false or imperfect lights. He was the ideal Light, not subject to the vicissitudes of time and space.

2 . He was the true Light in opposition to ceremonial types and shadows.

3 . He was the true Light in opposition to all light that is borrowed from or communicated from another.

II. THE EXTENT OF THIS LIGHT IN ITS ACTION . "It lighteth every man." "The darkness is past: the true Light now shineth." In a strict sense, all men receive the light of reason, and the consciousness of right and wrong; but, biblically considered Christ shines sufficiently for the salvation of all men, both Jews and Gentiles, so as to leave them without excuse if in their blindness they refuse to see him.

III. ITS PROGRESS . It was ever "coming into the world." In prophecy, type, creed, judgment.

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John 1:9 (John 1:9)

The Divine daybreak.

The evangelist writes as one who loves, admires, and venerates him of whom it is his office to inform his fellow men. He has one great figure to portray, one great name to exalt, one great heart to unfold. His language is such as would not be befitting were he heralding the advent even of a prophet or a saint. How bold, how beautiful, how impressive are his figures! John speaks of the Divine Word, uttering forth the thought and will of God in the hearing of mankind; of the Divine Life, quickening the world from spiritual death; of the Divine Light, scattering human darkness, and bringing in the morning of an immortal day. No terms can be too lofty in which to welcome the advent of the Son of God—a theme worthy of praise forever ardent, of a song forever new.


1 . As distinguished from, though symbolized by, physical light. When you watch for the morning, and see the crimson dawn fill all the east with promise of the coming day; when from the hill top at noon you scan the landscape where valley, grove, and river are lit up by the splendour of the summer sun; when you "almost think you gaze through golden sunsets into heaven;" when you watch the lovely afterglow lingering on snow clad Alpine summits; when by night you watch the lustrous moon emerge from a veil of clouds, or trace the flaming constellations;—then, remember this, Christ is the true Light.

2 . As contrasting with false lights. It is said that upon some coasts wreckers have been known to kindle misleading lights in order to lure confiding seamen to their destruction. Emblem of teachers and of systems that deceive men by representing his bodily and earthly interests as of supreme importance—that bound his horizon by the narrow limits of time, that tell him that God is unknowable. Opposed to such is that heavenly light which never leads astray, and never pales or sets.

3 . As distinct from the imperfect lights, in which there was Divine truth, although but dim. There were in such philosophy as the wise and lofty-minded heathen produced, rays of truth which came from God; but these were mingled with the smoke and mists of human error. The Hebrew prophets proclaimed Divine truth and inculcated Divine righteousness; yet they were lost in the Christ who fulfilled them, as the stars are quenched before the rising sun.

4 . Christ was the true Light, as revealing the truth concerning God and his character and purposes of mercy; as pouring the lustre of moral purity over a sin-darkened world; as diffusing abroad spiritual life, and with it spiritual brightness, gladness, and hope. He is both luminous and illuminating.

II. CHRIST IS THE LIGHT COMING INTO THE WORLD . In himself he was and is the true Light; but we have reason to be grateful, because, as the Sun of Righteousness, he has arisen upon the world with healing in his wings.

1 . This light came into the world even before the advent—has always been streaming into human nature and human society. Reason and conscience are "the candle of the Lord," by which he lights up our inmost being. He who first said, "Let there be light!" having provided that which is natural, did not withhold that which is spiritual.

2 . Yet this "coming" was especially in the earthly ministry of our Redeemer. Conversing with Nicodemus, Jesus said, "The Light is come into the world;" and before the close of his ministry he cried, "I am come a Light into the world"—expressions exactly corresponding with the language here used by John. It was to a world which needed him, which was in darkness and the shadow of death for want of him, that the Saviour came. His whole ministry was a holy, gracious shining; and in his light there were many who loved to walk.

3 . The Divine light did not cease to come into the world when Christ ascended. In fact, at first, the world generally neither welcomed nor even recognized its Divine Enlightener. Only after the vain attempt to quench the heavenly light did men learn its preciousness and power. From the celestial sphere this glorious and unquenchable Luminary casts its illumining and vivifying rays in a wider sweep. Christ has by his Spirit been constantly "coming" into the world, and with ever-extending beneficence, and has thus been delivering men from the horrors of a moral midnight gloom.

III. CHRIST IS THE LIGHT THAT LIGHTETH EVERY MAN . The largeness of this language quite accords with the teaching of the New Testament generally.

1 . There is in every human breast a Divine light—the light of the Word—not dependent upon human forms of doctrine. A ray from heaven will guide all those who look for it, and who are ready to be led by it.

2 . The purpose of Christ's coming into the world was that all men might through him enjoy spiritual illumination. The need of such enlightenment is apparent to all who consider the ignorance and sinfulness of mankind, calling for both a revelation of truth and supernatural motives to obedience. Jews and Gentiles both, if in different measure, required a new and spiritual daybreak. Christ came "a Light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the Glory of God's people Israel." Not merely all the nations of men, but all classes and conditions, and even all characters, needed this Divine shining. Those whose eyes were turned to the light found in him the fulfilment of their desires. Those who had been trying to content themselves with darkness, in many cases learned to cherish a better hope, and came to enjoy a purer satisfaction.

PRACTICAL APPEAL . The day has broken, the sun shines; Christ, the true Light, lighteth every man. Yet it is for each hearer of the gospel to decide whether he will accept the light and walk in it, or not. The mere shining abroad of spiritual light is not enough; there must be an eye to behold the celestial rays, and that eye must be opened by the influences of the Spirit of God, that it may welcome the sacred sunlight. There are still those who love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil. For such, until their hatred or indifference towards Christ be changed, the day has dawned, and the Sun has risen, in vain.—T.

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