1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:1-5 ESV
As suggested by the book’s title, the author of the fourth Gospel is believed to be the apostle John. This belief is based on the writings of the early church fathers and evidence from within the text itself. One of the key internal proofs for John’s authorship is found in chapter 21. The scene depicted in this passage is that of the resurrected Christ appearing to His disciples. Believing their Messiah and friend to be dead, seven of them have returned to their fishing boats. Jesus appears on the shore and calls out to them, but they fail to recognize him. This stranger suggests that they cast their nets on the other side of the boat and, when they do, they find their nets full of fish. And, in verse 7, the author states that the first to recognize the stranger as Jesus was “That disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 21:7 ESV).
This is a direct reference to an earlier event in the life of Jesus when He had gathered His disciples in the upper room to take the Passover meal. At one point in the evening, Jesus announced that one of them would betray Him. And the author describes an exchange between Simon Peter and the “disciple whom Jesus loved.”
One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table at Jesus’ side, so Simon Peter motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So that disciple, leaning back against Jesus, said to him, “Lord, who is it?” – John 13:23-25 ESV
John was part of the inner circle, the group of three disciples whom Jesus invited to join Him on the mountaintop to witness His transfiguration. The other two members of this group were Peter and James. Throughout this Gospel account, the author refers to John six times, not by name, but by the third-party designation, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Even when describing the crucifixion, the author records that Jesus personally addressed the “disciple whom he loved,” assigning him the task of caring for His mother, Mary.
When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. – John 19:26-27 ESV
And the author later identifies himself as the one whom Jesus loved.
This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true. – John 21:24 ESV
This should not be construed as a prideful statement on John’s part, but an expression of his amazement at being the recipient of Jesus’ underserved love. Nowhere in the book does he use his own name. It is almost as if he is deliberately trying to minimize his own importance in order to make much of Christ. After all, his entire purpose for writing this book was to showcase the life and ministry of Jesus, his friend, teacher, and Messiah. But what sets John’s account apart from the other gospels is its emphasis on the deity of Christ. Unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John does not open up with a description of Jesus’ birth. Instead, he begins with a description of “the Word” – his unique reference to Jesus that is designed to accentuate His deity.
In the Aramaic translations of the Old Testament, the word used to describe God was memra. In the Greek, that word becomes logos. John specifically chose this word in order to stress the divinity of Jesus. Rather than beginning His gospel with the birth of Christ, John promotes the eternality of the one who came in the form of a baby. John stresses that “the Word” was “in the beginning” and “the Word was with God” (John 1:1 ESV). He stresses the preexistence of Christ and describes Him as being “fully God” (John 1:1 NET). For John, the most important thing about Jesus was His divinity. He had been more than just a man. He was the God-man. To John, the deity and humanity of Jesus were inseparable and vital to understanding His entire ministry, message, and mission.
Jesus had been a co-creator of the universe and all it contains. He was the second person of the Trinity, who had preexisted His own incarnation. According to Paul, Jesus had existed in the form of God but had left His place in heaven in order to take on human flesh.
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. – Philippians 2:5-7 ESV
John will refer to the concept of “life” 36 times in his gospel. And he describes Jesus as the author and source of all life.
In him was life, and the life was the light of men. – John 1:4 ESV
Long before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, He had existed in eternity past, and He had played a vital role in the creation of the universe, giving life and vitality to every living thing. What God declared to be, Jesus brought into existence. Out of the darkness that enveloped the pre-creation scene, Jesus brought life and light into existence.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. – Genesis 1:1-3 ESV
Jesus was the source of that light. And John is emphasizing that the light had penetrated the darkness once again. This time, in the form of the incarnate Christ, who entered into the world as light in the darkness, bringing life to those who were spiritually dead because of their sinful state.
John’s view of Jesus is that of God entering the world. He is the same light that penetrated the darkness of the pre-creation void and filled it with life, meaning, beauty, and fruitfulness. And this same light had appeared a second time, entering the sin-darkened world in which John lived, shining the light of God’s life-giving glory into the hidden recesses of men’s hearts. John himself had been dramatically transformed by his own encounter with the Light of the world.
You can see the parallels between these opening verses of John’s gospel and those found in the first of the three letters he penned.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. – 1 John 1:1-5 ESV
Jesus was “from the beginning.” He was “the life…made manifest” or visible. He was “the light of men” who “shines in the darkness.” And because of His divinity, “in him is no darkness at all.”
John has set the stage for the rest of his account. He is now prepared to introduce Jesus, the God-man, and to describe how divinity took on humanity, or as he puts it, how “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14 ESV).
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.