[K:NWTS 8/2 (Sep 1993) 3-9]

The Prologue of John's Gospel

John 1:1-18

James T. Dennison, Jr.

The inauguration of the fourth gospel is like an Alpine vista (some have suggested these verses are the Mt. Olympus of the gospels). We are raised to the heights of eternity from which we gaze out upon the evangelist's landscape. In the Prologue, we soar to the sempiternal, descend to Sinai, are transported to the Jordan only to ascend again to the infinite bosom of the Father. We are crossing the regions of eternity for the regions of creation. Nor is it creation generically considered. It is creation specifically in relation to the history of redemption: creation > law > prophets > gospel. The infinite and its embodiment; the eternal and its incarnation in history—in the fullness of Israel's history. The Prologue spreads out the principle themes of John's gospel: eternity, creation, Israel, new creation, new Israel, eternity.

Structure of the Prologue

What begins and ends in eternity has been variously described as concentric, chiastic, spiral, rhetorical. Attempts to outline the structure of the Prologue have generated no consensus, although Boismard's concentric pattern in the form of a great parabola (from eternity [v. 1], descending to the incarnation [vv. 13, 14], ascending to eternity [v. 18]) has generally been accepted for want of a more persuasive paradigm.

Verses 1-18 are a unit. This is clear thematically—v. 19 brings us back down to earth after ranging over the prospects of the Logos ("Word"). This is clear structurally—the use of theos ("God") in v. 1 and v. 18 forms an inclusio for this section which is enveloped by the intimate relationship of the Word with God.

Peder Borgen proposes a neat chiasm (ABCC'B'A') of Logos (A-1:1, 2 with 1:14-18-A'), Creation (B-1:3 with 1:10-13-B'), Light (C-1:4, 5 with 1:69-C'). Roland Meynet argues for two concentric layers (1:1-11 and 1:14-18) bound by the impact of the Logos on mankind (1:12, 13). The rich diversity of proposed structures for these eighteen verses (Mlakuzhyil surveys more than twenty schemes for the entire gospel) is a dramatic testimony to the fascination which they possess for the Church. Verses I-18 are indeed a marvelously constructed introduction to the witness of the fourth evangelist to our Savior.

Even more interesting structural patterns emerge as we narrow our focus within the Prologue. Verse one contains a classic example of stairstep/staircase parallelism—discernible even in most English versions. The predicate of each phrase (Word [logos], God [theos]) is the subject of each subsequent phrase. As we "step" from the Word, we "land" on God. In fact, we learn the Word is God!

The stairstep pattern repeats itself (an inclusio?) in vv. 4 and 5. We "step" from life (zoe) to light (phos) and ultimately nullify the darkness (skotia). The Word who is God is full of creative power. Creation images dominate the unit—"in the beginning," "all things came into being," "life," "light," "darkness." Verses 1-5 declare the pre-existence of the Word; his distinct (but not separate) intimacy with God ("before the face of, in the presence of God," pros ton theon); his identity with God; his creative power which no cosmic force can overcome.

Theme of the Prologue: New Creation

In other words, John inaugurates his gospel with a carefully constructed declaration of a new creation via the Logos. Into the created order comes one who is no creature; he is above the cosmos, prior to the creature, of an order which is (in distinction from the order which "begins" to be). The dramatic clue and confirmation that John conceives the appearance of the Logos as the dawn of a new creation is displayed in his choice of opening words ("In the beginning," en arche)—a precise duplication of the opening to Genesis in the Septuagint. As it was in the beginning of time, it is now in these times of the (incarnate) Logos. John's gospel announces from the beginning—a new beginning. This eschatological and soteriological new beginning for the cosmos is present in the One who is Logos-Theos. He creates life (for the lifeless) and brings light (for the darkness-dwellers) which dispels the uncomprehending (or unconquering?) gloom.

John leaves no doubt from the inception of his gospel that he is recording a new creation in Christ Jesus. The fourth gospel is a gospel of this new creation through the incarnation of the Logos. John reminds us of this dominant eschatological theme by Jesus' miracles ([new] creative acts), by his teaching (creative words), by his work (particularly as it relates to the moment of his "hour" as the reversal of Satan's dominance of this present cosmic order, 12:27-33). John begins with the new creation because every aspect of his gospel is an intrusion and revelation of the new creation which has dawned in Christ Jesus.

An eschatological order has penetrated from the above to the below. It is an eschatological order of life and light—an eschatological era of glory breaking forth in the darkness. Man's rebellious participation in the un-creation with its concomitant of death (un-life) and bleak darkness (un-light) has necessitated a sovereign Christocentric initiative. Into man's arena, into the fallen arena, into the alien cosmic arena comes Logos, Theos, Creator, Life, Light! And the former arena—the old order—is powerless to resist.

Behold!, John announces, the beginning of a new creation. God said, "Let there be light" (Gen. 1:3). John says Jesus is the Light. God said, "Let there be life" (Gen. 1:11, 20). John says Jesus is the Life. God spoke the word. John says Jesus is the Word.

And in this gospel, John will draw out all the glorious eschatological and soteriological new-creation drama. The life which the Logos brings is joyous (2:10), regenerative (3:3), refreshingly transforming (4:29), eye-opening (9:30), nourishing (21:15-17). The light which the Logos brings is a revealer of truth (3:21), cosmic (8:12), directive (11:9), generative (12:35), a dispeller of darkness (12:46). The darkness of this present evil age cannot stand against the glory of this light. John's gospel is a revelation of the eschatological conquest of the darkness.

John has woven his Prologue and his gospel into a seamless garment. What is highlighted in the Prologue is exegeted by the gospel. What is displayed by the gospel is epexegetical of the Prologue. The Prologue is more than an introduction to the gospel. It is a thematic summary of the eschatological character embodied in the life and ministry of the incarnate Logos. New life, new light, new order of the cosmos—all this has appeared with the advent of Logos-Theos. The Prologue is proleptic of the gospel. One must read the gospel retrospectively (to the Prologue). Yet one must also read the Prologue prospectively (anticipatory of the gospel as a whole).

Theme of the Prologue: New Era in Redemptive History

John declares not only a new order of creation with the appearance of the Logos, he declares a new order in the history of redemption with the incarnation of the Logos. The Logos transforms the created order and he transforms the history of the order of redemption. In v. 6, we move from the cosmic to the redemptive-historical arena. The transition at v. 6 is continued in the themes and persons of the history of redemption: "his own" (v. 11), "sonship" (v. 12), "tabernacling" (v. 14), "law" (v. 17), "Moses" (v. 17). The relationship of the Logos to the previous history of redemption is the relationship of the One who brings eschatological and soteriological fullness to that history. The element of contrast is evident in the structure of verses 6-18: John the Baptist not the light; his own do not receive him; begotten not of the flesh; the law through Moses—grace and truth through Jesus Christ. John's prologue makes a dramatic statement of the eschatological finality which has entered history through the institutions and relations of Israel's redemptive history. As Logos is greater than Cosmos, so he is greater than the law (Moses), the prophets (John the Baptist), the institutions of Israel (tabernacle).

The evangelist begins his treatment of the history of redemption proximately. John the Baptist is the last prophet of the former era. He is the transitional figure from the provisional era of Judaism to the permanent era of the Logos. The evangelist begins with the Baptist because he stands in contact with the two eras—the end of the Old, the inauguration of the New. The Baptist is a retrospective and prospective witness. Retrospective to the appearance of the Logos, the history of Israel is incomplete, lacking fullness. The Logos, who is prior to Israel as he is prior to creation, is the glory of the Father's arena. John the Baptist's witness is a declaration that the glory has appeared. The era of the prophets is surpassed in the incarnation of the Word of the prophets. The era of the law is surpassed in the incarnation of the Truth of the law. The era of blood-and-flesh-descent is surpassed in the sonship/daughtership generated by the Only-Begotten. The era of Moses and tabernacle is surpassed in the enfleshment of Moses' Lord who is the dwelling place of God and man (Theanthropic Logos).

John the Baptist appears at the transition in the Prologue—from the eternal arena above the creation to the temporal arena in which God has revealed himself to Israel. John's transitional role will be drawn out by the evangelist as the Baptist decreases in this gospel so that the Logos may increase. The drama of redemptive-historical transition is to declare that better things are here—an eschatological Lamb (1:29), an eschatological Spirit-Baptiser (1:32, 33), an eschatological Bridegroom (3:29). In the light of such glory, the Baptist knows his role. And with him recedes the whole former era—not because it was invalid, but because it has been replaced with the fullness. John the Baptist stands in the shadows, knowing full well that the reality has come. From now on, "he must increase! "

Not only does the Baptist announce his recession; all that has proceeded the incarnation of the Logos is revealed as provisional, inadequate, temporary. Even Moses and the law are contrasted with Christ and grace-truth. Moses sees God's glory (Ex. 34:6; 33:19); the Logos is God's glory. Moses veils his face before the effulgence of the Most High; the Logos "exegetes" God from within the bosom of the Father. Moses is not allowed to see God face to face; the Logos is face-to-face God. Israel was God's adopted son by relationship with father Abraham. The Logos is un-adopted Son by ontic identity with the Father. The non-contingent Sonship of the Only (= Eternally) Begotten makes the eschatological sonship he brings eternal, permanent, abiding. The One who is always Son makes everlasting-life sonship possible to those who are naturally sons of the Devil by entering the temporal arena so they may inherit the eternal arena. Israel's tabernacle, the tent of meeting where God condescended to dwell with his people, is displaced by a theanthropic resurrection-tabernacle. Here God and man are joined forever. John's gospel is an exegesis of the surpassing excellency of Christ in relation to the history of redemption. Christ is greater than Moses (chapter 6), greater than Abraham (chapter 8), greater than the tabernacle/temple (chapter 2). 

We have been to the mountain-top as we finish our reading of John 1:18. We have ascended the heights of eternity where we have been given a glimpse of the ineffable, ontic relationship of filiation—everlasting Father, everlasting Son beholding one another face to face. We have stood above the created order on a vantage point which has permitted us to survey the cosmos. We have stood with the Godhead itself beholding the glory inherent in the un-created One—Father, Son (and Holy Ghost). We have been invited to gaze upon the mystery of intimacy which surpasses all logic—all human analogies. The intimacy of One who leans upon the bosom of his Father while being God Himself. Even the divinely inspired John can only express this relationship in identity (equal with God) and contrast (distinct from the Father and distinct from the creature). We have been summoned to sonship whose dynamic is ontological. We have been urged to be (re)born to a filiation which takes us up into an eternal foliation. If we may now call God "Father", surely it is on account of his ever-begotten, ever-beloved Son our Savior. The parabolic journey of the Logos-Son is unto our eschatological sonship. Athanasius got it right: the Son of God became man that we may become sons of God. The union of Logos-Theos with Anthropos is to seal the mystical union of sinners begotten again to a childhood which will never end.

And we have been on a pinnacle from which the landscape from Adam to Malachi is seen in its fullness at last. The Logos is the glory Moses beheld—is the glory which descended upon the tabernacle—is the glory which prophets longed to see. We are the beholders. What an inestimable privilege—that we have seen him who is the glory of the Father, who graciously receives us into his glory—the glory as of the only-begotten God.

Escondido, California

Suggestions for Further Reading

M. E. Boismard, St. John's Prologue (Westminster, MD: Newman Press 1957).

Peder Borgen, "Observations on the Targumic Character of the Prologue of John. " New Testament Studies 16/3 (April 1970): 288-95.

R. A. Culpepper, "The Pivot of John's Prologue. " New Testament Studies 27/1 (October 1980): 1-31.

C. H. Giblin, "Two Complementary Literary Structures in John 1:1-18." Journal of Biblical Literature 104/1 (January 1985): 87- 103.

Roland Meynet, "Analyse Rhetorique du Prologue de Jean." Revue Biblique 96/4 (October 1989): 481-501.

George Mlakuzhyil, The Christocentric Literary Structure of the Fourth Gospel (Rome: Pontifical Institute, 1987).

Jeff Staley, "The Structure of John's Prologue: Its Implications for the Gospel's Narrative Structure." Catholic Biblical Quarterly 48/2 (April 1986): 241-64.