John 1 - Life Application Bible Commentary (NT)
1:1 In the beginning.When John wrote of the beginning, he was paralleling the words of the creation account. He stressed that “the Word” already existed at the time of creation (as is translated in the NEB). More likely, John was thinking of a beginning before “the beginning” in Genesis 1:1, a timeless beginning. Thus, we could translate the first part of the verse as “in eternity the Word existed.”
Each of the Gospel writers chose a different starting point for their accounts of the life of Jesus. Matthew began with Abraham, showing how Jesus came from Abraham’s family and was the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. Mark skipped most of the preliminaries and moved right to the action, beginning with the ministry of John the Baptist. Luke began with a review of his research method and rooted Jesus’ life in the wider historical events of his time. But John presented the largest perspective of all, describing Jesus as the very source of everything we understand as beginning. His purpose was to record, in outline form, the biography of the Son of God, who even in becoming a human being accomplished so much that “if every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (21:25 NIV).
The Word. John called the Son of God, who was with God his Father in the beginning, the Word. John did not identify this person immediately, but described his nature and purpose before revealing his name (see vv. 14, 17). As the Word, the Son of God fully conveys and communicates God. What does John mean by “the Word”? Theologians and philosophers, both Jews and Greeks, used the term word in a variety of ways. The Greek term is logos. In the Hebrew language of the Old Testament, “the Word” is described as an agent of creation (Psalm 33:6), the source of God’s message to his people through the prophets (Hosea 1:2), and God’s law, his standard of holiness (Psalm 119:11).
The Greeks used “the Word” in two ways. It could mean a person’s thoughts or reason, or it might refer to a person’s speech, the expression of thoughts. As a philosophical term, logos conveyed the rational principle that governed the universe, even the creative energy that generated the universe.
In both the Jewish and Greek conceptions, logos conveyed the idea of beginnings —the world began through the Word (see Genesis 1:3ff., where the expression “God said” occurs repeatedly). John may have had these ideas in mind, but his description shows clearly that he spoke of Jesus as a human being he knew and loved (see especially 1:14), who was at the same time the Creator of the universe, the ultimate revelation of God, and also the living picture of God’s holiness, the one in whom “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17 NIV). Jesus as the logos reveals God’s mind to us.
To strict Jewish readers, “the Word was God” sounded like blasphemy. Strongly monotheistic, they found it difficult to even speak about God without running the danger of offending the One and Only. Certainly God “spoke” words, but to say “the Word was God” equated the two realities; the Hebrew mind resisted any such thinking about God. One of the most compelling reasons to believe the doctrine of the Trinity comes from the fact that it was revealed through a people most likely to reject it outright. In a world populated by many gods, it took the tough-minded Hebrews to clarify the revelation of God’s oneness expressed through Three-in-oneness. We humbly bow before the one God, but we do not presume to easily comprehend his essential being.
To John, this new understanding of “the Word” was gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. Although it had been right in front of philosophic minds for centuries, they had been blind to it. Jesus revealed the truth in the light of his identity. He is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), the express image of God’s substance (Hebrews 1:3), the revealer of God, and the reality of God. The theme of the real identity of Jesus dominates the Gospel of John. We should be grateful that the Son of God has expressed the Father to us and made him real to us. Otherwise, we could not know God intimately and personally.
The Word was with God. By using this expression, John was explaining that the Word (the Son) and God (the Father) already enjoyed an intimate, personal relationship in the beginning. The last verse of the prologue (1:18) tells us that the Son was at the Father’s side; and in Jesus’ special prayer for his followers (chapter 17), he expressed that the Father loved him before the foundation of the world.
The Word was God. Not only was the Son with God, he was himself God. According to the Greek, this phrase could be translated “the Word was divine.” John’s Gospel, more than most books in the New Testament, asserts Jesus’ divinity. Jesus is called “God” in 1:1; 1:18; and 20:28.
Often little words become large issues. Cults like Jehovah’s Witnesses attempt to insert an indefinite article in verse 1, making it “and the Word was a god” (New World Translation, a specific “translation” by Jehovah’s Witnesses). It is a small addition with devastating results. The added a serves to bolster the teaching that Jesus was a created being who “earned” divine qualities that are attainable by the rest of us. If Jesus is only a god, then the so-called gospel is only bad news. However, John was writing not about gods but about God, and he clearly claimed that “the Word was God”!
1:2 He was in the beginning with God.NKJV The second verse of the prologue underscores the truth that the Word coexisted with the Father from the beginning. A wrong teaching called the “Arian heresy” developed in the fourth century of Christianity. Arius, the father of this heresy, was a priest of Alexandria (in Egypt) during the reign of Emperor Constantine. He taught that Jesus, the Son of God, was not eternal but was created by the Father. Therefore, Jesus was not God by nature; Christ was not one substance with the Father. He also taught that the Holy Spirit was begotten by the logos. Arius’s bishop, Alexander, condemned Arius and his followers. But Arius’s views gained some support. At the Church Council in Nicea in 325 A.D., Athanasius defeated Arius in debate and the Nicene Creed was adopted, which established the biblical teaching that Jesus was “one essence with the Father.” Yet this controversy raged until it was defeated at the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D.
This heresy still exists, however, in several so-called Christian cults (see box above). Yet John’s Gospel proclaims simply and clearly that the Son of God is coeternal with the Father.
1:3 All things came into being through him.NRSV The New Testament portrays the Son of God as the agent of creation, for all things were created through him (see 1 Corinthians 8:6; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2). Everything came into being through Christ and ultimately depends upon him.
SOMETHING FROM NOTHING
When God created, he made something from nothing. Because he created us, we have no basis for pride. We must remember that we exist only because God made us, and we have special gifts only because God gave them to us. With God we have value and uniqueness; apart from God we have nothing, and if we try to live without him, we will miss the purpose he designed us to fulfill.
1:4 In him was life. Creation needs to receive life from the Word —for he is the source of life. Christ gives physical life to all. But he also gives eternal life to all those who believe in him. The Greek term used for “life” is zoe; it is always used to describe the divine, eternal life in the Gospel of John. Jesus used this specific term during the Last Supper when he told his disciples, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (14:6 NIV).
That life was the light of men.NIV The divine life embodied in Christ brought unique light to people —revealing divine truth and exposing their sin. Everywhere Christ went, he brought light (see 3:21; 8:12). Light means understanding and moral insight, spiritual vision. But more than just shining or reflecting, the light of Jesus penetrates and enlightens hearts and minds. Everyone who comes into contact with Christ can be enlightened.
Christ is the one universal light. There is no other. As Creator, Jesus not only provides light but he also makes people light sensitive. The blindness Jesus later attributes to the Pharisees (9:35-41) includes an intentional turning away from the light, pretending to “see” something else.
What is seen by the light of Jesus? When Christ’s light shines, we see our sin and his glory. We can refuse to see the light and remain in darkness. But whoever responds will be enlightened by Christ. He will fill our minds with God’s thoughts. He will guide our path, give us God’s perspective, and drive out the darkness of sin. John illustrates the action of Christ’s light, in the chapters that follow, through the examples of the disciples, Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, and the blind man whom Jesus healed.
The light shines in the darkness.NRSV John used the past tense in the previous sentence, saying that Jesus was the light of all people by virtue of being their Creator; but John shifted to the present tense: the light shines in the darkness. The timeless light has invaded our time, and we can see it in our darkness. Christ’s life and message are still effective. John could see it around him in his day as he witnessed the strength of the Christian church —planted, thriving, growing. And it is still present tense today —for Christ’s light still shines in our dark world. As the light shines, it drives away the darkness for the unsaved world is blinded by the prince of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 5:8).
The darkness did not overcome it.NRSV Christ’s light shined to a hardened, darkened humanity —and he continues to shine. But the darkness did not overcome it —the darkness could not grasp, comprehend, or extinguish the light. The NEB uses the word mastered to convey the dual areas of meaning carried by the Greek katalambano. On one hand, this word can refer to physical restraint, controlling, or conquering. On the other hand, the word can allude to a mental grasping or understanding. John may well have meant both. Unbelievers did not comprehend Christ’s true identity and tried to conquer him. Thus, darkness failed on both counts to master Christ!
This statement indicates the struggle between the darkness and the light. The darkness —unregenerate humanity under the influence of Satan, the prince of darkness —has not accepted the light and even resists the light. Thus, “darkness” indicates ignorance and sin, active rejection of God’s will. Those in darkness reject Christ, his light, and his followers. But no matter how deep the darkness, even a small light can drive it back. The power of Christ’s light overcomes any darkness in the world.
1:6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.NKJV Leaping over several millennia, John abruptly introduces Jesus’ forerunner and herald, John the Baptist. Actually, the startling shift in time dramatically illustrates the eternal light suddenly shining in the darkness.
God sent John the Baptist to prepare the way for the Messiah. John the Baptist has a prominent position in the prologue because his ministry prepared the way for the Messiah —he pointed people to Jesus.
The darkness of evil never has and never will overcome or extinguish God’s light. Jesus Christ is the Creator of life, and his life brings light to mankind. In his light we see our true identity (sinners in need of a Savior). When we follow Jesus, the true Light, we can avoid walking blindly and falling into sin. Christ lights the path ahead of us so we can see how to live. He removes the darkness of sin from our lives. Have you allowed the light of Christ to shine into your life? Let Christ guide your life, and you’ll never need to stumble in darkness.
1:7-8 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.NRSV John the Baptist’s function was to be a channel whereby people could come to Christ. Jesus called John the Baptist the greatest man ever born (Luke 7:28) because he fulfilled the highest privilege; he was the first to point people to Christ, so in a very real sense, all who have come to believe have done so because of his witness. He was first in a line of witnesses that stretches through the centuries to this day.
John himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.NRSV John stressed the difference between John the Baptist and Jesus, even though to many it might have been obvious, because even during Paul’s travels, he encountered believers who only knew about John the Baptist but not about Jesus (see Acts 18:25; 19:1-7). John the Baptist influenced the people of Ephesus where John had written this Gospel. John wanted to ensure that all believers worship Christ, not his messenger.
Like John the Baptist, we are not the source of God’s light; we merely reflect that light. Jesus Christ is the true Light; he helps us see our way to God and shows us how to walk along that way. But Christ has chosen to reflect his light through his followers to an unbelieving world, perhaps because unbelievers are not able to bear the full blazing glory of his light firsthand. The word witness indicates our role as reflectors of Christ’s light. We are never to present ourselves as the light to others, but are always to point them to Christ, the Light.
1:9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.NRSV How has Christ enlightened everyone? The word everyone here could be nationalistically inclusive, referring to both Jews and Gentiles, or it could refer to all individuals. Every person has life from God, thus they have some light; creation reveals God’s power and divinity (1:3; Acts 14:17; Romans 1:19-20; 2:14-16); and our conscience also bears witness to God’s existence. The Gospel writer’s description captures the transition between the ministry of John the Baptist as herald and the ministry of Jesus, the true light. Jesus, as opposed to any other “luminaries,” is the true and exclusive revelation of God to man. Because of this, we can count on him.
The world did not recognize him.NIV John notes one of the greatest tragedies: the world —humankind —did not recognize its own Creator. They were blinded and could not see his light. Although Christ created the world, the people he created didn’t recognize him. He was denied the general acknowledgment that should have been his as Creator.
1:11 He came to His own.NKJV In Greek this reads, “He came to his own things” —that is, he came to that which belonged to him. The expression can even be used to describe a homecoming. This phrase intensifies the description of Christ’s rejection. Jesus was not welcome in the world, or even his home. His own refers to God’s chosen nation, Israel, which was particularly Christ’s.
His own did not receive Him.NKJV According to the Greek, this means that his own family did not receive him. The Greek word for receive means “to welcome.” The Jews did not welcome Jesus. Those who should have been most eager to welcome him were the first to turn away. As a nation, they rejected their Messiah. This rejection is further described at the end of Jesus’ ministry (12:37-41). Isaiah had foreseen this unbelief (Isaiah 53:1-3).
In spite of the rejection described here, John steers clear of passing sentence on the world. Instead, he turns our attention on those who did welcome Christ in sincere faith.
1:12 But as many as received Him.NKJV Though the rejection of Christ was universal, individuals did respond personally. The Greek root word translated “received” here is also used in verse 11 in the sense of welcoming (paralambano); here it carries the sense of accepting (lambano). To receive Jesus is to welcome and acknowledge him as our Savior and Lord.
All who welcome Jesus Christ as Lord of their lives are reborn spiritually, receiving new life from God. Through faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit changes us from the inside out —rearranging attitudes, desires, and motives. Being born makes us physically alive and places us in our parents’ family (1:13). Being born of God makes us spiritually alive and joins us with God’s family (1:12). The question then becomes, Have you received Christ in order that he can make you a new person? God makes this fresh start in life available to all who believe in Christ.
To them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name.NKJV In Greek right means “authority or permission.” In this context, it speaks of God granting the right or giving the privilege for the new birth. No one can attain this new birth by his or her own power, merit, or ability. Only God can grant it.
The Greek word for children emphasizes the idea of birth, which Jesus expands in chapter 3. The new birth comes only to those who believe. To believe in Jesus’ name is to believe in his person —who he is and what he represents.
RECEIVING AND BELIEVING
“To believe” parallels “receive” as another aspect of our relationship with Christ. It leaves no doubt that we need to make a conscious personal response. Receiving and believing indicate informed awareness, not blind or empty faith. Receiving and believing have a personal object —Jesus Christ. The object of our faith is not a system, tradition, or organization. When we receive and believe in Jesus Christ, he gives us the privilege of becoming children of God.
Many believed superficially in Jesus when they saw his miracles, but they did not believe in Jesus as the Son of God. They “believed” in him while he fulfilled their expectations of what the Messiah should be, but they left him when he defied their preconceived notions. We must believe in Jesus as Jesus, the Son of God; we must wholeheartedly believe in Jesus, not limiting him to our ideas and misconceptions; we must regard Jesus as the Bible truly presents him.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
John claims that those who do not believe in Jesus are not children of God. We expect to hear a chorus of protest: “Aren’t we all children of God?”
What do we say to those who claim that every person is a child of God? We are all children of God in the sense that God has created each person and given each of us life and light. But God is more than Creator; he is the Guide and Controller. The question remains, What kind of children are we? A child can merely live in a home, partaking of benefits without love or gratitude for the father. Such a child neither cooperates nor truly helps the father. Those claiming that every person is God’s child generally mean, “I want all the privileges but none of the responsibilities.” God’s true children follow him in commitment, gratitude, friendship, and fellowship. What kind of child are you?
1:13 Children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.NIV One is not in God’s family because he or she is a Jew by natural birth (or even born into a Christian family). The new birth cannot be attained by an act of human will, and it has absolutely nothing to do with human planning. It is a gift of God.
1:14 The Word.NKJV Returning to the powerful term used at the beginning of the Gospel, John continues the theme of the prologue. The first thirteen verses summarize “the Word’s” relationship to the world as its rejected Creator, Visitor, Light, and Savior. Yet throughout the opening paragraph, John does not identify the Word as being human, except in the personal pronouns.
Became flesh.NKJV This phrase is striking and arresting despite its familiarity. Understanding its meaning simply increases our wonder. Many modern translators have unfortunately rendered this phrase “became a man.” Of course, this is what the text means, but John purposely used the word flesh to combat a heresy called Docetism —a heresy that denied that Jesus truly had a human body. The Docetists claimed that the Son of God merely seemed human; he was not truly human. Later, in his first epistle, John wrote that any person who did not confess that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh did not belong to God (1 John 4:3). Jesus was already the divine Word, but he arrived on the earth as flesh.
When Jesus was born, he was not part man and part God; he was completely human and completely divine (Colossians 2:9). Before Christ came, people could know God partially. After Christ had come, people could know God fully because he became visible and tangible (Hebrews 1:1-3). Christ is the perfect expression of God in human form. The two most common errors that people make about Jesus are minimizing his humanity or minimizing his divinity. Jesus is both divine and human (see Philippians 2:5-9).
John was also clarifying his use of the term Word. The Greek philosophical meaning of the term word as “reason” could refer to anything that wasn’t flesh. To say “the Word became flesh” broke all the rules —which is exactly what God did!
WHAT CHRIST BECAME
By becoming human, Christ became:
The perfect teacher —in Jesus’ life we see how God thinks and therefore how we should think (Philippians 2:5-11).
The perfect example —as a model of what we are to become,
Jesus shows us how to live and gives us the power to live that way (1 Peter 2:21).
The perfect sacrifice —Jesus came as a sacrifice for all sins, and his death satisfied God’s requirements for the removal of sin (Colossians 1:15-23).
And dwelt among us.NKJV The Greek word for dwelt means “tabernacled” or “pitched tent.” To the Greek reader familiar with the Old Testament, this would have easily brought to mind the Old Testament tabernacle. In a sense, Jesus was God’s new tabernacle. God, in Jesus, dwelt among people. The man living with the disciples was God incarnate! John was overwhelmed with that truth. He began his first letter by describing the experience of seeing, touching, and hearing this Word who became flesh and was with them (1 John 1:1-4). In Christ, God came to meet with people; through Christ we can come to meet with God.
We beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.NKJV This “glory” is often called the “shekinah glory” because shekinah denotes “in the tent” —“glory in the tent.” Glory refers to Christ’s divine greatness and shining moral splendor. (For a specific instance of “seeing his glory,” see 2:11.) This is perhaps the clearest example of what John was thinking when he and two other disciples saw Jesus’ transfiguration (see Matthew 17:1-13. Peter spoke of it specifically in 2 Peter 1:16-18).
Underneath Jesus’ appearance as an ordinary Jewish carpenter, the disciples saw the indwelling glory of God. To the outsider, Jesus was nobody special; to those in the inner circle, he was the unique Son of God filled with glory. Too often we accuse the disciples of being slow to understand Jesus, but much of the time they were simply stunned. Jesus was always more than they could absorb. He will have the same effect on us.
The Greek word for only begotten (monogenous) suggests a one and only son. The Son of God was the Father’s one and only, his unique Son. Although all believers are called “children” and said to be “born of God” (1:12-13), Jesus is one of a kind and enjoys a special relationship with God. Eastern thought teaches a cycle of reincarnation. Many Hindus believe that Jesus was one in a series of reincarnations of Krishna. But John teaches that Jesus, as the unique Son of God, has a special glory and an unrivaled, unparalleled, and unrepeatable place of honor.
The phrase full of grace and truth modifies “the Word.” It also softens the glare of glory. The Greek word for “grace” (charis) parallels a Hebrew word meaning “lovingkindness”; the word in Greek also means “that which is a free gift.” The Greek word for “truth” (aletheia) means “reality” and “genuine”; John’s Gospel connects it with the idea of divine revelation (8:32; 17:17; 18:37). Those enlightened realize Christ as the divine reality. In union with Christ, we experience his grace and truth. By his power we can show his life to others.
Although we have not yet been granted the privilege of seeing Jesus as the disciples did, someday we will. “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12 NIV). In the meantime, we have the testimony of those who were with Jesus. Jesus prayed for those of us who would believe in him through their witness (17:20). In his prayer, Jesus anticipated the time when we would see his glory (17:24).
For now, even the “poor reflection” of his glory is enough to change us. As we allow his words to become part of us, as we obey his commands and seek to honor him, we will discover in ourselves a growing eagerness to stand before him and to experience his glory fully (Philippians 3:12-14) and share in it too (2 Corinthians 4:17).
1:15 (John testified to him . . . “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”)NRSV This verse interrupts the flow of the narrative —for verse 16 naturally follows the end of verse 14 (“full of grace and truth . . . and of His fullness have we all received, and grace for grace,” NKJV). John probably decided to insert John the Baptist’s testimony at this point to underscore a major theme in the prologue: Christ’s eternal existence.
John the Baptist declared that Christ ranks ahead of me because he was before me. Although Jesus was humanly born after John the Baptist, Jesus existed from eternity past. For this reason, Jesus outranked John the Baptist.
Of His fullness.NKJV The Greek word for fullness is pleroma; it indicates superabundance and completeness. John used a root form in verse 14, “full (pleres) of grace and truth” (NKJV). John stretched the language to its very limit in attempting to capture the facts about Jesus and, at the same time, the lasting impact Jesus had on those who followed him. When John spoke of Jesus’ “fullness,” he was affirming that he had never found Jesus lacking in any way. John’s description conveys a subtle invitation for us to trust Jesus’ ability to meet our needs.
The Gnostics used the word fullness to describe the totality of all deities. Gnosticism was the widest known of the so-called mystery cults. Although exclusive in membership, the Gnostics were inclusive in theology. Instead of receiving the truth that
“the Word became flesh,” they invented a religion of “the word became secret.” They made “fullness” a protected mystery; but Jesus made “fullness” a living reality!
Both John and Paul used pleroma to describe Christ —proclaiming that Christ embodies the fullness of God (see Ephesians 1:23; 3:19; Colossians 1:19; 2:9). Because all of God’s fullness dwells in Christ, we can find every spiritual reality we need in him. He embodies all of God’s power, wisdom, mercy, and love. He fills everything in every way (Ephesians 1:23). The infinite God allows us to draw on all of his attributes and resources.
We have all received.NKJV At this point, John includes all the believers, not just himself and the apostles (for whom he was spokesman —1:14). All believers receive Christ’s fullness, but no single believer can receive all of Christ; it takes the whole body of Christ to appropriate his fullness and to express it (see Ephesians 1:23).
Nothing can deplete Christ —no matter how much the believers receive of him, he keeps on giving. His strength is not diminished by helping us. Believers do not need to seek any other source of spiritual power but Christ. Paul said: “For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete [or made full] in Him” (Colossians 2:9-10 NKJV). Christ himself fulfills our Christian life; we do not need to seek anything beyond him.
Grace upon grace.NRSV The Greek text literally says “grace in place of grace,” which could mean “grace replenishing grace” (a continual supply of Christ’s loving-kindness) or New Testament grace replacing Old Testament grace —in the sense that Christ’s dispensation of grace supersedes Moses’ or anticipated grace is replaced with fulfilled grace (see next verse). Either way, we need to realize that the grace given by Christ can never be exhausted because he is full of grace. When we are exhausted and “on empty,” Christ is always present to fill us with his grace.
1:17 For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.NKJV This statement presents a contrast and begs the question: Can the law given through Moses and the grace and truth from Jesus Christ be complimentary? John introduced one of the central questions Jesus would answer: Because law and grace seem to contradict, what action should people take?
Both law and grace express God’s nature. Moses emphasized God’s law and justice, while Jesus Christ came to highlight God’s mercy, love, and forgiveness. Moses could only be the giver of the law, while Christ came to fulfill perfectly the law (Matthew 5:17). The law revealed the nature and will of God; now Jesus Christ reveals the nature and will of God. Rather than coming through cold stone tablets, God’s revelation (“truth”) now comes through a person’s life. As we get to know Christ better, our understanding of God will increase.
No one has ever seen God.NRSV This statement seems to contradict passages like Exodus 24:9-11, which says that the elders of Israel “saw God.” What then does John mean? Very likely, he is affirming the fact that no human being has seen the essential being of God —i.e., no one has seen God as God. Some men experienced “theophanies” (special appearances of God in various forms), but no one saw the essential being of God. As Calvin put it, “When he says that none has seen God, it is not to be understood of the outward seeing of the physical eye. He means generally that since God dwells in inaccessible light, he cannot be known except in Christ, his lively image.” Only the Son, who is himself God, can communicate his glory to us.
God the One and Only.NIV This is more precisely rendered, “an only one, God.” All the earliest manuscripts support this reading; other manuscripts read, “the only begotten Son.” The first reading is preferred. Whatever the translation, all the earliest manuscripts indicate that Jesus is called God, as well as the One and Only. Thus, Jesus’ deity is again affirmed (see 1:1).
Who is in the bosom of the Father.NKJV This picturesque language portrays the Son as a child in close dependence on his Father —enjoying a close and warm relationship with him. It also reflects the image of two close companions enjoying a meal together. According to an ancient custom, the one who reclined next to the master at a meal was the one dearest to him.
Has made him known.NIV The Greek reads, “He has explained [him].” This tells us that the Son is God’s explainer; he came to earth and lived among men to explain God to us —with his words and by his person. No one can know God apart from Christ, God’s explainer. Again, this mirrors verse 1, where the Son is called “the Word” —the expression of God, the communicator of God.
JOHN THE BAPTIST DECLARES HIS MISSION / 1:19-28 / 19
His stirring summary accomplished, John launched into telling the gospel. He had already introduced John the Baptist in the prologue. His overall description of the wilderness preacher leaves out the physical notes of the other Gospels (see Mark 1:1-11; Luke 1:5-25, 57-80; 3:1-20) but focuses instead on his unique role as herald of the Messiah. The messianic expectations of the time, combined with his initial success in attracting large crowds, made John the Baptist the subject of speculation: Could he be the Messiah?
In the encounter recorded in this Gospel, John the Baptist accomplished three objectives: (1) he firmly denied being the Christ; (2) he identified himself as the herald predicted by Isaiah, who would announce the Messiah; (3) he announced the presence of the Messiah, yet he did not publicly identify Jesus even though he baptized Jesus and heard God’s verbal stamp of approval on him. As the ministry of Jesus begins, we see the final days of the ministry of John the Baptist.
1:19-21 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”NRSV John the Baptist’s calling in life was described to his father even before John was conceived. An angel had told John’s father, Zechariah:
Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. (Luke 1:13-17 NRSV)
John’s mission was to give testimony to Jesus Christ (1:7). He was Christ’s first and most important witness. John disavowed any personal status; he constantly pointed men to Christ.
The Jews, as used here and in many other places in John, designated the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. The priests and Levites were respected religious leaders in Jerusalem. Priests served in the temple, assisted by the Levites. The leaders who came to see John were Pharisees (1:24), a group that both John the Baptist and Jesus often denounced. Many Pharisees outwardly obeyed God’s laws in order to look pious, while inwardly their hearts were filled with pride and greed.
These leaders came to see John the Baptist for several reasons: (1) As guardians of the faith, they needed to investigate any new preaching (Deuteronomy 13:1-5; 18:20-22). (2) They wanted to find out if John had the credentials of a prophet. (3) John’s growing following presented them with a possible threat if he chose to use his influence with people against the religious leaders. (4) They were also probably jealous and wanted to see why John was so popular.
“I am not the Messiah.”NRSV Their question indicates that the Jews were looking for the Anointed One (Greek, ho Christos, “the Christ”). John wanted to make it perfectly clear that he was not the Christ; rather, he was one who prepared the way for the Christ.
“Are you Elijah?”NRSV John’s role and actions reminded these religious leaders of what had been written of Elijah (see 2 Kings 2:11). The Old Testament predicted that Elijah would come to prepare the way for the Messiah (see Malachi 3:1; 4:5-6). John the Baptist, in the spirit of Elijah (Luke 1:17), had come to prepare the way for the Christ, but he did not claim to be Elijah.
“Are you the prophet?”NRSV In the Pharisees’ minds, there were four options regarding John the Baptist’s identity: He was (1) the prophet foretold by Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15), (2) Elijah (Malachi 4:5), (3) the Messiah, or (4) a false prophet. John denied being the first three personages. His questioners wanted him to claim a special identity; he was perfectly content in his role. He simply called himself, in the words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the LORD’” (Isaiah 40:3 NKJV).
The leaders kept pressing John to say who he was because people were expecting the Messiah to come (Luke 3:15). But John emphasized only why he had come —to prepare the way for the Messiah. The Pharisees missed the point. They wanted to know who John was, but John insisted on pointing them toward Jesus.
1:22 “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us.”NIV Those sent by the religious leaders of Jerusalem confronted a man sent by God; they had run out of stereotypes and were ready to listen. Although their attentiveness was hostile, John gave them an answer.
1:23 “I am ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Make straight the way of the LORD,”’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”NKJV John quoted Isaiah 40, a portion that introduces the Messiah’s forerunner and herald. In Isaiah 40:3-11, this herald announced the coming of the divine Shepherd. In ancient times, a herald (or forerunner) would go before a dignitary to announce his coming and to clear the way before him. John was the Messiah’s herald and forerunner; he came on the scene to announce Jesus’ coming and to exhort people to prepare the way to receive him.
MAKE IT MATTER
Whenever you are tempted to feel indispensable, remember John the Baptist. The fact that God uses us to do his work is no excuse for pride. God does not need us or have to keep us around. So we should make the most of the time we have.
John remained a loud “voice in the wilderness” right up until his death. His sacrifice presents us with a question: Was a shortened life too high a price to pay for hearing God say, “Well done, good and faithful servant”?
1:24-25 Some Pharisees who had been sent questioned him.NIV This reading (found in the earliest manuscripts) indicates that some of the emissaries were Pharisees who began to question John further. Because John had publicly made some kind of claim about his role, he was subject to being grilled.
“Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?”NRSV Since John did not claim to be the Christ, the prophet, or Elijah, the Pharisees wanted to know why John was baptizing. John had not invented baptism. Gentiles converting to Judaism were baptized as an initiation rite. But John was calling upon Jews to be baptized. Since this was new, they demanded an explanation from John.
1:26 “I baptize with water.”NIV After this, we expect a reference to Jesus’ baptism “in the Spirit” because this is stated in the Synoptic Gospels after the mention of water baptism. But the announcement of Jesus’ baptism in the Spirit does not come until 1:33. It was John’s function to provide the means for God’s cleansing through water baptism; it would be Jesus’ function to provide the people with an infusion of the Spirit. John was merely helping the people perform a symbolic act of repentance. But soon one would come who would truly forgive sins, something only the Son of God —the Messiah —could do.
“Among you stands one whom you do not know.”NRSV The Son of God had taken up his abode among his own people, the Jews; but they did not realize it. This recalls John’s tragic words in the prologue (1:11-12): Jesus’ own people did not recognize him or receive him.
“I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”NRSV In ancient times, a slave would perform many menial tasks for his master, but unstrapping a sandal was considered an extremely menial task and was usually done by oneself, not a slave. In saying that he was not even worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals, John vividly pictured his subordination to Christ.
John knew who he was in comparison to Jesus —even though Jesus called him the greatest man ever born (Luke 7:28). We, by comparison, are far less qualified. We should never have a high opinion of ourselves; like Paul, we are “less than the least” (Ephesians 3:8 NKJV).
1:28 This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan.NIV Bethany is the reading in the earliest manuscripts. The reading was changed from “Bethany” to “Bethabara” in some manuscripts because scribes did not want readers thinking this was the Bethany near Jerusalem. The exact location of a “Bethany on the other side of the Jordan” has never been determined. All we know is that it was east of the Jordan River.
JOHN THE BAPTIST PROCLAIMS JESUS AS THE MESSIAH / 1:29-34 / 20
The opening portion of John’s narrative provides two witnesses to Jesus Christ’s identity. The first witness is John the Baptist; this is covered in verses 19-36. John the Baptist’s witness had been briefly mentioned in the prologue (1:7, 15) and is here expanded. The second witness comes from Jesus’ first disciples —John (the Gospel writer), Andrew, Peter, Philip, and Nathanael. Both John the Baptist and the disciples declare and affirm that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
1:29 “Behold! The Lamb of God.”NKJV The title “Lamb of God” would be associated in the minds of the Jews with the Passover lamb (Exodus 12) and the lambs used in the daily sacrifices for the sin offerings (see Leviticus 14:12, 21, 24; Numbers 6:12). In calling Jesus the Lamb of God, John pointed to Jesus as the substitutionary sacrifice provided by God. Had the Jews considered the Messiah would be a lamb led to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7ff.)?
PAID IN FULL
Every morning and evening, a lamb was sacrificed in the temple for the sins of the people (Exodus 29:38-42). Isaiah 53:7 prophesied that the Messiah, God’s servant, would be led to the slaughter like a lamb. To pay the penalty for sin, a life had to be given —God chose to provide the sacrifice himself. When Jesus died as the perfect sacrifice, he removed the sin of the world and destroyed the power of sin itself. Thus God forgives our sin (1 Corinthians 5:7).
The “sin of the world” means the sin of each individual. Jesus paid the price of our sin by his death. We claim the forgiveness he provided by first taking ownership of our sin. If we insist we have no sin, then we gain no forgiveness. Repentance precedes forgiveness. If you don’t think you need to repent, check your life again. The Ten Commandments can help you evaluate how you’re doing by God’s standards.
“Who takes away the sin of the world!”NKJV The Greek word for “takes away” can also mean “take up.” Jesus took away our sin by taking it upon himself. This is the image depicted in Isaiah 53:4-9 and 1 Peter 2:24.
1:30 “This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”NRSV This verse, which reiterates 1:15, is here put in its chronological context. Although John the Baptist was a well-known preacher who attracted large crowds, he was content that Jesus take the higher place. John demonstrated true humility, the basis for greatness in preaching, teaching, or any other work we do for Christ. Accepting what God wants us to do and giving Jesus Christ the honor for it allows God to work freely through us.
1:31 “I myself did not know him.”NRSV Since John and Jesus were cousins, John must have known Jesus before this time. But this statement means that John had not realized that Jesus was God’s Son, the Messiah, until God provided the sign of the Spirit descending upon Jesus.
“The reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”NIV Though John had not yet clearly seen the Messiah, he knew that the Messiah was coming and that his mission was to prepare the nation of Israel for the Messiah’s arrival. But, as John would soon explain, he had been instructed to baptize, and as he was baptizing he saw a sign that indicated the arrival of the one he had come to announce.
1:32 “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.”NIV Evidently, the action of the Spirit descending from heaven in the form of a dove was a sign for John. Only John and Jesus saw this (see Matthew 3:16). The other Gospel writers tell us that a voice accompanied this divine sign: A voice came out of heaven saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17 NKJV). John the Baptist did not add this detail; rather, he himself declared —“this is the Son of God” (1:34 NIV).
1:33 “I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me”NIV The phrase, I would not have known him repeats the statement in verse 31. The one who sent me is God, who had sent John to baptize and to prepare the way for the Messiah. This same God would reveal the Messiah to John by sending his Spirit upon the Messiah.
“The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”NIV In well-known prophetic passages, the Messiah was depicted as having the Spirit resting upon him (see Isaiah 11:1-2; 61:1ff.). The statement that he will baptize with the Holy Spirit foretells Jesus’ divine mission. It does not just point to the Day of Pentecost on which Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to baptize the disciples (see Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8; 2:4); it characterizes Jesus’ entire ministry. Jesus came to give eternal life to those who believe in him. But no one could actually receive that life apart from receiving the life-giving Holy Spirit.
John the Baptist’s baptism with water was preparatory because it was for repentance and symbolized the washing away of sins. Jesus, by contrast, would baptize with the Holy Spirit, imparting not only forgiveness but also eternal life. He would send the Holy Spirit upon all believers, empowering them to live and to teach the message of salvation. This outpouring of the Spirit came after Jesus had risen from the dead and ascended into heaven (see 20:22; Acts 2).
All true believers have been baptized by Jesus in the Holy Spirit (see Romans 8:9). As such, we have been immersed in Jesus’ Spirit. Now we can experience the life-giving Spirit and enjoy his presence day by day.
1:34 “I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.”NIV John was declaring Jesus’ special position with God. God had told John that he would reveal his sent one to John —the Spirit would descend upon the Messiah and remain upon him. John saw this and declared his belief in Jesus as God’s identified Son. Those who receive the Spirit can also declare that Jesus is the Son of God, for the Spirit enables us to believe and confess (see 1 Corinthians 12:3).
Today people are looking for someone to give them security in an insecure world. We must point them to Christ and show them how Christ satisfies their need. They must hear it first from us. We cannot pass on to others what we do not possess. If we know Jesus, we will want to introduce others to him.
THE FIRST DISCIPLES FOLLOW JESUS / 1:35-51 / 21
This last section of John 1 records how the earliest believers became disciples of Jesus; it is a drama of salvation revealing the formation of Jesus’ first band of disciples. Andrew and John became Jesus’ followers through the testimony of their teacher, John the Baptist. Peter, Andrew’s brother, became a follower through the testimony of Andrew. Philip became a disciple by Jesus seeking him out and calling him to follow him. And Nathanael became a believer through the testimony of Philip and the revelation Jesus gave to him. This progression provides a model for evangelism.
1:35-36 John again was standing with two of his disciples.NRSV These disciples of John the Baptist were Andrew (see 1:40) and John, the writer of this Gospel. Both these men had followed John the Baptist until he pointed them to the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. Why did these disciples leave John the Baptist? Because that’s what John wanted them to do —he was pointing the way to Jesus, the one John had prepared them to follow.
“Behold the Lamb of God!”NKJV This was the second time John made this declaration (see comments on 1:29).
1:37 The two disciples . . . followed Jesus.NIV These disciples followed Jesus in two ways. They literally turned and walked after him, and they also became two of Jesus’ close followers, or disciples. This was a great tribute to John the Baptist’s preaching —they heard John and followed Jesus.
The opportunity to be an example or leader to others has its benefits. It is affirming when people depend upon us. But if we have led someone to faith in Jesus Christ, the time will come when they must follow Jesus beyond the influence of our relationship with them. Both mentor and disciple grow when the time for release arrives. John allowed his disciples to follow Jesus and in that act sealed his obedience to God. The disciples did follow Jesus, demonstrating that they had benefited from John’s teaching.
In our relationship with other Christians, we must keep a healthy balance between dependence and independence. Mentors are helpful, but they cannot replace Jesus in our lives. We must also encourage those who follow us to keep their eyes on Christ.
1:38-39 Jesus . . . asked, “What do you want?”NIV Those coming to Christ, whether for the first time or each day in worship, should ask themselves this question —“What do I want? What do I expect to receive from Jesus?”
“Where are you staying?”NIV This indicates that John and Andrew were serious followers. They wanted to know where to find Jesus. This indicates a commitment, not an experiment. Curiosity about Christ or occasional spiritual interest is not enough; we must follow him for the right reasons. To follow Christ for our own purposes would be asking Christ to follow us —to align with us to support and advance our cause, not his. We must examine our motives for following him. Are we seeking his glory or ours?
They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.NRSV John recalls the exact time he first stayed with Jesus. It must have been a special opportunity for John and Andrew —a time never to be forgotten. We can only imagine their wonder as they spent those hours alone with Jesus. From this time forward, these two men became his followers.
1:40-42 The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah.”NIV After spending a day with Jesus, Andrew immediately went to find his brother Simon (who would later be named Peter) and tell him that he had found the Messiah (the Hebrew term), or “the Christ” (the Greek translation of “Messiah,” meaning “Anointed One”; see Isaiah 61:1).
He brought Simon to Jesus.NRSV Andrew appears two more times in this Gospel; each time he is bringing people to Jesus (see 6:4-9; 12:20-22). The idea that we must somehow convince people about Jesus places too much importance on what we say and do. We must trust God’s Spirit to work in a person and understand that our part may be little more than bringing that person into contact with Jesus. The question “What do you think of Jesus?” ought to fit in our conversations.
Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter).NIV Jesus changed Simon’s name to Cephas, the Aramaic word for “stone,” because Jesus foresaw that Peter would become a pillar and a foundation stone in the building of the first-century church (see Matthew 16:16-18; Galatians 2:9; Ephesians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:4-5).
1:43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”NIV Jesus’ first two disciples (Andrew and John) sought out Jesus. Andrew brought the third disciple, Peter, to Jesus. Jesus sought out the fourth disciple, Philip. Jesus looked for him, found him, and called him to follow.
1:44-46 Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida.NIV This tells us that Philip must have known Andrew and Peter before he began to follow Jesus.
Philip found Nathanael.NIV Earlier, Andrew had found Simon (his brother) and had brought him to Jesus. Philip does the same with Nathanael.
In the list of disciples in the other Gospels, Philip and Bartholomew are listed together (Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18); here, Philip and Nathanael are paired up. Thus, it stands to reason that, since Bartholomew is not mentioned in the fourth Gospel and Nathanael is not mentioned in the synoptic Gospels, Nathanael is none other than Bartholomew.
“We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote —Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”NIV In saying we, Philip was probably referring to himself, Andrew, and Peter. If this was the case, the first five disciples (John, Andrew, Peter, Philip, and Nathanael) may have been acquainted or even friends. What a delightful experience for a Christian to witness a circle of friends or to see a family be drawn to Jesus.
The language referring to Jesus as the one Moses wrote about indicates that Philip was also a thoughtful seeker —one who read the Old Testament Scriptures and was looking for the Messiah. Moses had written about the Messiah in the Law (see Deuteronomy 18:15-18), and the prophets had foretold his coming.
The son of Joseph refers to Jesus’ family line; in other words, this was how Jesus was known among the people (see Luke 3:23 —it was supposed that Jesus was Joseph’s son). In reality, Jesus was not Joseph’s son; he was (and is) God’s Son.
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”NIV Nathanael’s statement does not necessarily mean that there was anything wrong with the town. Nazareth was possibly despised by the Jews because a Roman army garrison was located there. Some have speculated that an aloof attitude or a poor reputation in morals and religion on the part of the people of Nazareth led to Nathanael’s harsh comment. Nathanael’s hometown was Cana, about four miles from Nazareth.
Nathanael’s expression seems to indicate that he did not expect that anything related to God’s purpose could come from that place because Nazareth is not mentioned in the Old Testament. The prophets, moreover, never said that the Messiah would come from Nazareth. The Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2); and, in fact, Jesus was born in Bethlehem. But his parents’ flight to Egypt and soon return to Galilee, where Jesus was raised, gave Jesus the reputation of being a Galilean, even a Nazarene. This was offensive to many Jews because they could not accept a Messiah who had not come from Bethlehem.
“Come and see.”NIV Philip chose the best alternative. He did not argue with Nathanael about Jesus; he brought him to Jesus. Fortunately for Nathanael, he went to meet Jesus and became a disciple. If he had stuck to his prejudice without investigating further, he would have missed the Messiah! We must not let people’s stereotypes about Christ cause them to miss his power and love. We must invite them to come and meet Jesus themselves.
1:47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.”NIV Jesus’ statement about Nathanael reveals that Nathanael was an honest man. The Greek word for false, also translated “guile” (dolos), means “deceit, cunning, falsehood.” Nathanael was void of such characteristics.
Jesus’ direct, intimate knowledge of him must have taken Nathanael by surprise. He was not offended, just intensely curious. If we remember that God’s grace and love come to us even though he knows all about us, we may find ourselves being even more grateful to him.
Jesus knew about Nathanael before the two ever met. Jesus also knows what we are really like. An honest person will feel comfortable with the thought that Jesus knows him or her through and through. A dishonest person will feel uncomfortable. We can’t pretend to be something we’re not. God knows who we really are and wants us to follow him.
1:48 “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”NIV Here Jesus unveiled his omniscience to Nathanael. Jesus had been aware of Nathanael’s exact location before Philip called him. According to Jewish tradition, the expression “to sit under the fig tree” was a euphemism for meditating on the Scriptures. Thus, Jesus had seen Nathanael studying the Scriptures before Philip had called him to come and see Jesus.
The early disciples of Jesus were well versed in the Scriptures. Life in the small towns of Israel revolved around the synagogue, where the Old Testament was constantly read, taught, and argued. Unlike many of the studied religious leaders of the day, these simple men understood the Scriptures, and knew what to look for. So when the Messiah came, they recognized him!
1:49 “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”NRSV Instantaneously, Nathanael realizes that Jesus is the Son of God (see Psalm 2:7) and the King of Israel (see Psalm 2:6; Zephaniah 3:15).
GET TO KNOW JESUS BETTER
These new disciples used several names for Jesus: Lamb of God (1:36), Rabbi (1:38), Messiah (1:41), Son of God (1:49), and King of Israel (1:49). As they got to know Jesus, their appreciation for him grew. The more time we spend getting to know Christ, the more we will understand and appreciate who he is. We may be drawn to him for his teaching, but we too will come to know him as the Son of God.
Although in just a few days these disciples began regularly calling Jesus the Son of God, they would not fully understand him until three years later (Acts 2). What they so easily professed had to be worked out in experience. We may also find that words of faith come easily, but deep appreciation for Christ comes from living by faith.
1:50-51 “You shall see greater things than that. . . . You shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”NIV Jesus now speaks to all the disciples there present. He tells that they would hereafter see the angels ascending and descending upon him, the Son of Man (a messianic title, see Daniel 7:13). As students of the Old Testament, his disciples would have realized that Jesus was alluding to Jacob’s vision of the ladder connecting heaven to earth (see Genesis 28:12ff.). Jacob had left home, having lied to his father and cheated his brother of the birthright. Yet in his dream Jacob saw a vision of angels ministering to him. If God could reveal himself to a sinner like Jacob, surely he could reveal himself in an even greater way to Nathanael. To Nathanael and the others, the heavens would be opened —i.e., they would be given insight into the things of heaven (Acts 10:11; Rev. 4:1; 19:11). Furthermore, they would realize that Jesus, as the Son of Man, was the vehicle of communication between heaven and earth. Just as God had appointed Jacob to be the father of the twelve tribes (under the new name Israel), God had appointed Jesus to be the founder of the new spiritual kingdom.