|Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at|
This week, we have a different look at the Nativity. John's "Christmas" would be difficult to do in a children's program. There is no baby lying in a manger. There are no parents traveling to Bethlehem. There are no angels or shepherds. There is no star or magi. John doesn't give us much of a historical account of Christmas, instead he gives us a confession of faith about the incarnation of God. John isn't so concerned about exactly what happened in Bethlehem during the reign of Caesar Augustus (or King Herod). He is much more concerned about the proper beliefs about Jesus now -- or, as Gail O'Day (John, New Interpreter's Bible) suggests, "the story of Jesus is not ultimately a story about Jesus; it is, in fact, the story of God" [p. 524]
O'Day offers this reflective summary on these verses.
In the Prologue, the first-century community rejoices in these gifts and opens up that joy to any others who share in their confessions. The joyous witness of the Prologue is spoken by those whose own experience has been decisively marked by the incarnation. John 1:14-18 is not theological speculation about the character of the incarnate Word, but the testimony of those whose lives have been changed by the incarnation....
John 1:1-18 appears in the church's lectionaries during the Christmas season. The lectionary thus asks the church to regard Jesus' coming into the world from the perspective of this text. This text contains none of the conventional elements of the Christmas story. Instead of manger, angels, and magi, John 1:1-18 presents the church with its explicit theological vision of the difference the incarnation makes in the life of the world. [p. 526]
O'Day introduces these verses by writing:
... the Prologue is concerned with two different spheres of God's presence: (1) the eternal, the sphere of the cosmic Word of God, and (2) the temporal, the sphere of John the Baptist, the world, and the incarnate Word. The interaction between these two spheres is at the heart of the Prologue. [p. 516]
These two spheres can be illustrated by the paradoxes between v. 1 and v. 14.
The Word was God -- yet, the Word became flesh.
The Word was with God -- yet, the Word lived among us.
The Christmas confession of John's community (note the "us" and "we" in v. 14) extends beyond a baby being born and wrapped in cloths and laid in a manger. It is the belief that he existed before creation and he comes and lives among us now.
Note that Jesus as "the Logos" occurs only in vv. 1 & 14 in John.
Answer 1: Too many and too complicated to figure out. There are 60 pages of meanings in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.
Answer 2: The revelation of God's self. I can remember when our boys were infants, before they could speak: How we wished they could tell us what was going on inside of them. They would cry. We would ask, "Are you hungry? Do you hurt? What's wrong?" Words or some form of communication was needed for us parents to know what is going on inside that small child -- what he is thinking, what he is feeling, what he wants. (That is even true now that they are in their twenties and living in different states. Without the sharing of words in some way, phone, e-mail, instant messaging, we don't know what they are doing, thinking, or feeling. We are all together at Christmas, where we can "catch up" on each other by talking.)
Jesus, as the Revealer of God, is like that. He communicates to us the thoughts, feelings, and desires of God. Yet, he doesn't just talk about what goes on inside God -- he is God. His life reveals God. In order to know God, one needs to look to Jesus, to listen to Jesus, to try and understand Jesus.
Perhaps we misuse Jesus and scriptures (especially John) when they are used as something other than the revelation of God's self to us. Perhaps we need to take more seriously the liturgical comment: "The word of the Lord." It is Someone speaking to us.
This mission of Jesus is picked up in the last verse of our text: "No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known (exegeomai -- related to "exegesis" -- Jesus "interprets" the Father for us). Lowe and Nida in their Semantic Lexicon give these two definitions for the Greek word: (1) "to provide detailed information in a systematic manner;" and (2) "to make something fully known by careful explanation or by clear revelation." Jesus is the clear revelation of the Father.
John uses this word primarily as the world turned away from God. Even though it was created through the Word, it doesn't know him (v. 10). It is like children not knowing (or appreciating) their parents. They were created by them, but that is no guarantee that they know them -- in fact, they may hate them.
Yet, it is this world that God so loves (3:16) and to which the light/Son is sent to save (1:9; 3:17, 19). The world will hate Jesus' followers (15:18, 19; 16:33; 17:14), but we, perhaps similar to the Word's incarnation, are sent to live in the world (17:11, 18).
I've heard some Christians described as being "so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good." For John, the realm of Jesus' ministry and that of his followers is in the world -- that mass of humanity who doesn't know God and who will hate Jesus and his followers.
Jim Strathdee wrote a song -- "I Am the Light of the World" -- which is based on a Christmas poem by Howard Thurman. The first verse goes:
When the song of the angels is stilled.
When the star in the sky is gone
When the kings and the shepherds
Have found their way home.
The work of Christmas is begun!
Christmas is more than a day in December; it becomes the basis of our "work," which takes place in the world.
This verb, used in v. 12 (and a related verb paralambano in v. 11), has both an active meaning -- "to take, to take hold of" -- and a passive meaning -- "to receive". In one case, the subject actively seeks to possess something. In the other case, the subject accepts what is given by another. The difficulty in translating this one word illustrates opposing thoughts about faith. Is it something we have to reach out and grab or is it something that is given to us that we passively accept, (but actively respond to)?
Given the context of vv. 1-18, I ask the question, "How does one "receive" a Word?" Answer: "You listen." (cf. Rom 10:17) -- a very passive act.
Human passivity is indicated in the next line in Greek (third phrase in NRSV), "he gave to them". These two verbs are used in 3:27: "John answered, 'No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven." We can receive "him," because he has been given to us by God (see 3:16).
In contrast to this passivity, exousia = "right, power, authority," refers to the power or authority to do something.
In contrast to having the power or authority to do something, ginomai = "to become, to come into being" is a word used often in the prologue in terms of creation. It is used three times in v. 3 in reference to the Word's role in creating all that exists. It is used with the same meaning in v. 10. It is the word used in v. 14 of the Word "becoming" or "being created" flesh and in v. 17 of "grace and truth "coming to be" through Jesus Christ.
The cosmos did not participate in its creation. I don't believe that the Word participated in its human birth. It is something that happened to the Word. "Grace and truth" did not participate in their appearance on earth. It happened to them. These all "came to be" because of powers beyond their control. So it is with our "becoming" children of God -- or "being born [gennao] from God" (v. 13, cf. 3:4, 5, 6, 7, 8). Birth was something that happened to us. We didn't make it happen.
The power of the incarnation is the power that makes us children of God. It is ours through faith (a passive act) -- "believing in his name" (v. 12c).
However, there is an oxymoronic-ness of "passive acts." It might be better to talk about the initiator of the acts and the responder. An example I've used is the ring of the doorbell or telephone. One normally doesn't answer the phone if it doesn't ring. One doesn't respond to God without the call of the Holy Spirit (see Luther's meaning to the third article).
On one hand, our passivity in receiving/believing makes not one whit of difference about the Word becoming flesh. That was an act of God with total passivity on the world's part -- as in creation. There was nothing that we nor anything in creation did to make it happen.
On the other hand, these acts of God (creation and incarnation) come first and evoke responses from the world. We can believe the word/Word about God's intimate involvement in creation and the eternal origins of Jesus or not believe it.
This is why I think that evangelism has to be in the indicative case: a declaration of what God has done, is doing, and promises to do -- a word that evokes assent or denial of the Word from the hearers, e.g., "God loves you". Our belief doesn't make God love us, neither does our lack of belief undo God's love for sinful humanity -- it's a question of whether we will believe the declaration of God's love for us -- and then live as though we are divinely loved.
In contrast, many "evangelists'" proclamations are interrogations -- asking questions about "you," e.g., "Do you love the Lord?" Thus, belief becomes properly answering the questions; rather than trusting in the declaration of God's activities.
What does it mean for our life "in the flesh" that almighty God became human flesh? John does not seem to have quite the negative connotation of "flesh" that we find in Paul. Its use in v. 13, "will of the flesh" is not necessarily negative, but to indicate that becoming children of God is not something that comes from human powers or desires.
Most of the uses of this word occur in ch. 6 (vv. 51-56) in reference Holy Communion -- eating Jesus' flesh.
A contrast is presented in 6:63 between the spirit (not capitalized in NRSV) and flesh. The former gives life, not the latter. The emphasis, I think, in this context is between seeking life through human activity or through hearing Jesus words, which "are spirit and life."
On one hand, the incarnation took place at a particular time in history as the reference to John and the aorist verbs indicate.
On the other hand, the use of the first person plural, makes this a confession of faith of the people in John's time. It wasn't just "them" back in history with whom Jesus lived, but "us". It wasn't just "them" who beheld his glory and received grace from his fullness, but "us". As such, this is also our confession. Christmas can't be just the historical event of a birth in Bethlehem, but a present confession of faith about God's presence and glory and grace for us.
NOTE: the only occurrences of "grace" (charis) in John are in 1:14, 16, 17. This may indicate that the prior existence of the prologue, with a language that John didn't use in the rest of his writing. These uses indicate that the grace that Jesus was full of (v. 14) is shared with us. We can receive from his fullness -- "grace (and truth)" that has come to be part of our world through Jesus.
The Gospel of John can remind us that Christmas is more than all the pageantry of the nativity scene (or Christmas trees and candlelight services). Christmas is a concrete demonstration of God's love for all humanity -- a concrete expression of God's love for us.
"The Strange Silence of the Bible," by Donald Juel, is an article in Interpretation [January 1997]. Although he doesn't talk about our specific text, he says some things about language that I think can help us better understand Jesus as "The Word" and our tasks as "Word-bearers".
Juel argues for the importance of an "oral/aural engagement" with the Bible. "Biblical works were written to be heard. Even personal reading in the ancient world involved making sounds. ... For most people in the church, the Bible is part of an oral/aural culture. For scholars, the bible is studied largely in a silent world."
Using an argument from Jane Tompkins, he states that "Language ... was previously understood as a means of moving people" or "a force acting on the world."
We see this in biblical passage: God creates the cosmos with speech. Jeremiah compares God's word to "fire" and to a "hammer that breaks the rock in pieces" (23:29). God's word is rain that waters the earth, "making it sprout and bring forth" (Is 55:10) and "it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it" (55:11).
Many in our culture are also aware of the power of words, perhaps especially those who have been victims of slander and abuse or who have never had a place in the world created for us by our language. It is not accidental that those who have been most impressed with the power of language in recent times are those opponents of racism, classism, and sexism who have observed its destructive capacity.
Juel recalls the first time he saw the Gospel of Mark "performed". He noted that there were times during the performance when people laughed. He then writes: "I did not recall ever laughing to myself when reading through Mark." The Word is spoken to elicit a response.
He writes about "alternative readings of the parable of the prodigal son" [or the unfair father?] and notes that he has seen it elicit strong emotional reactions from hearers.
It is not enough to ask what a passage means; we must ask what it intends to do -- or perhaps even more accurately, what we intend to do with it.
Similarly, it is not enough to ask "What does the incarnation of the Word mean" but "What does it/he intend to do?" What affects does God intend to create with the language of the-Word-made-flesh?" An answer is given in John 3:16-17, which, I think also presents the incarnation -- the giving of Jesus to the world. The intended accomplishments of God speaking to the world in this way are eternal life and salvation -- not condemnation. Our task as preachers would be to speak and live a language that has the same intended effect among our hearers.
It has been suggested that in these opening verses of John, he is quoting from an early hymn -- something preachers may do in sermons or in newsletters.
Songs are important teachers of the faith. Before children are able to read and understand the Bible, we teach them songs of the faith in Sunday school. Simple songs are easy to remember. I'm sure that many of you adults still remember some of your Sunday school songs. They leave a lasting impression on you. Songs have a powerful effect.
John 1 contains similar themes to other early Christological hymns in scriptures (Philippians 2:6-11; Colossians 1:15-20).
They stress the pre-existence of Christ. Jesus existed before the creation of the world. In some mysterious and unexplainable way, Jesus was involved in the creation of the world.
This divine power that was part of creating the universe comes to us as a human being. The hymn in John says it very simply, "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." The hymn in Philippians elaborates this point: "He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. Bearing the human likeness, he was revealed in human shape."
There is frequently talk about Christ's death and future glory in the hymns.
Very little is said in John, or in the other early hymns about Jesus, concerning the nativity scene. At least in these hymns, the early Christians didn't sing about angels and shepherds or a star and Magi or even a baby in the manger. While I don't want to be accused of blaspheming Christmas, there is much more to this season than just the sweet baby Jesus in the manger. Baby Jesus may frequently spend most of his time in the closet with all the other nativity scene paraphernalia. In fact, by now, baby Jesus may be back in the closet. Christmas is over.
A theme from these early hymns is that the almighty, all-powerful God, who created everything that exists, is far beyond our understanding and comprehension. This same God came to earth. God came to us, as a human being in human flesh. This is God's love in action. As the Gospel of John says it in chapter 3: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son." More than all the pageantry of the nativity scene, Christmas is a concrete demonstration of God's love for all of humanity -- a concrete expression of his love for you and me.
Christmas does mean a baby in a manger, but in the face of that infant, there is the outpouring of God's love for all humanity.
It is hard to express love in mere words, so poems and works of art are created to try and capture the emotion of love. Christianity is filled with art and songs, because it is a religion based on God's love for us here on earth. We sing our songs of faith -- both those that are ancient and traditional, and those that are new and contemporary. Songs are an important part of our faith. They can help us know and remember the truths about Jesus Christ. But we also need to remember that such works of art do not replace the biblical account. We may love to sing the songs, but Rudolph and the little drummer boy weren't at the birth, neither was round John Virgin.
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