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A Youth Workers Commentary on John Volume 1
By Les Christie David Nystrom
ZondervanCopyright © 2011 Les Christie & David Nystrom
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Word from Our Sponsor
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning.
John's Gospel opens with a message that appears to be clear and easy to understand. But this message is also very deep, beautiful, and full of mystery.
Matthew and Luke begin their Gospels by giving the family tree of Jesus and the story of his birth in Bethlehem. Mark begins his Gospel with the ministry of John the Baptist. But John begins his Gospel before the universe was created, a moment in history when it was just God and the Word. The first 18 verses of John are an introduction or prologue to the story that is to come. In these verses John whets our spiritual appetites with a taste of the major themes that will appear in the story. It's like the opening theme song of a musical that includes melodies that will appear in different forms throughout the presentation.
These opening verses of John are often viewed as a poem or rhythmic prose. They echo the first chapter of Genesis, which certainly would catch the attention of his first-century Jewish readers. John, however, provides an interesting twist. Rather than "In the beginning God created ...," John writes, "In the beginning was the Word". Note that it's not "at the beginning," nor is it "from the beginning." In fact, in Greek the definite article the doesn't appear, a more literal translation would be "In beginning." This "beginning" comes before "the beginning" of Genesis (the act of creation). This beginning was the dawn of history, the root of the universe. This is the beginning that had no beginning. It is the beginning before time even existed.
In John 1:1 Word does not mean a group of letters strung together. This isn't meant to deny the power of language. We know God spoke the world into existence and that God has said his words won't return to him empty, but will accomplish the purposes for which he sends them forth (Isaiah 55:11). But John the apostle is an older Jewish man who knows that for his Jewish readers, this term, Word, had unique power. For the Jews the Word of God embodied all the power of God.
But John's Gospel isn't just for Jews, it's also directed at us goym. He is writing to the non-Jewish Greeks, and to them, Word (Logos) equaled a force of reason, stability, and purpose in an ever-changing world. It provided an eternal governing principle of order in a world that at times seemed chaotic. We can trace this concept back to at least the beginning of the fifth century BC.
For Greeks such as Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, this earth was merely an imperfect representation—only a shadow or copy of the perfection of the heavens. The ancient Greeks understood the universe to be orderly. It made sense. The seasons passed and returned. Morning followed night in a predictable fashion. But the world of human affairs was chaotic. The principle that brought order and harmony to the universe, they said, was the impersonal, rational logos. Plato said behind everything there is a perfect thought or Word. The Jews would add that behind everything there must be a perfect thinker.
Why would John the apostle want to gain the attention of non-Jews in his writing? Because Christianity, born of Jewish roots, had quickly traveled over the known world. Although Jesus and the first Christians were all Jewish, very quickly Christianity had spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond, so that by AD 100 there were more non-Jewish Christians than Jewish Christians. Jewish ideas were strange to the Greeks and Romans. So John, guided by the Holy Spirit, presented Christianity in a way that Greeks and Romans, as well as Jews, could comprehend. His use of Word provided a meaningful connecting point that would intrigue both Jews and non-Jews.
John tells us the Word was with God. To be with God indicates that the Word is distinct from God. The word with also indicates closeness, an intimate relationship, a connection between Word and God. Jews and Greeks would both agree with these thoughts.
It isn't until verse 14 that John writes about the Word becoming flesh. Then in verse 17 he reveals that Word equals Jesus. Yet in writing that the Word was God, John isn't saying that Jesus is identical with God. He is pointing out both the oneness of the Word with God and also the personal distinctiveness.
John the apostle uses the word he in verse 2, giving personality to the Word. John is saying the Word is not just some objective, neutral, detached object like the Hebrews understood. Neither is the Word some unknowable, unexplainable force as the Greeks understood. John writes that the Word is a person. John is telling both Jews and Gentiles that the Word has come to the earth in the form of a human. The rest of his Gospel seeks to prove this statement.
In referring to Jesus as "the Word," John is saying Jesus had no beginning but has always been. There has never been a time when he was not. He did not begin as a babe in Bethlehem. He was around long before creation. He is above and beyond time. He has no beginning or end. He was one of the "us" referenced in Genesis 1:26: "Let us make mankind in our image." He was the one who could say, in the words of Proverbs 8:27, "I was there when he set the heavens in place."
This first verse also declares that Jesus is God. The apostle isn't just stating that there is something divine (theois) about Jesus. He is stating that Jesus is God (theos). He is the same God that the Father is. All attributes of God are in Jesus. John is declaring that the words and works ascribed to Jesus in this book are the words and works of God himself. This truth is repeated multiple times in John's Gospel:
John 10:30—"I and the Father are one."
John 14:9—"Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father."
John 20:28—"My Lord and my God!"
By talking about Jesus as Word, John the apostle is touching upon the theological concept of the Trinity (God as three in one). The Bible teaches this idea, even though the term Trinity is never used. There is one God who is manifested in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. There is no disharmony, only perfect unity-in fact, it might be better to think of it as the "tri-unity" of God. There is a communion between the three. In the Trinity they are one in nature and purpose.
Every human illustration fails in trying to describe this concept of the Trinity, or God in three persons. Here are a few images that have been used to illustrate this fact. Some are better than others, but none of them do the Trinity justice:
1 x 1 x 1 = 1, yet 1 + 1 + 1 = 3
Tom Hanks in the animated movie The Polar Express (Tom was the conductor, the hobo, and the father)
Your shadow—do you remember the first time you discovered your shadow? You're walking on a sunny afternoon and you see this companion walking with you. You do this, and the shadow does this, you do that, and the shadow does that. The shadow isn't you, but it's inseparably linked to you. In Jesus, God cast his shadow on this earth.
The three parts that form a single egg (shell, white, and yolk)
The illustration of water as liquid, ice, and steam points us to the essential unity of nature shared by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The three persons of the Godhead certainly share in the same nature. But John also wants to tell us that there is a unity of purpose that Father and Son share.
READ BETWEEN THE LINES
To what "beginning" does John refer?
How would I describe the opening of this Gospel?
What does John mean when he uses the term Word?
How can the Word be both with God and be God?
How are John 1:1 and Genesis 1:1 similar and different?
WELCOME TO MY WORLD
In what sense is Jesus acting as God's Word in the world today?
Who are the "Hebrews" and "Greeks" of today's culture?
How do I explain the Trinity?
How can I develop a deeper knowledge of God from this passage?
How am I entering into the world of today's Hebrews and Greeks?
How can I be a part of God's unfolding purpose at work in our world?
Chapter TwoThe Word and Creation
3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
Both the creation story of Genesis and the first few verses of John's Gospel remind us that God the Father created the world and that the Word was involved in the creation. The Word existed before creation, so the Word was not created. When we look at all of creation, we should think of God. Just as God had a design in mind for the universe, he has plans for the entire human race—including you and me.
There isn't anything that has come into existence that wasn't the result of the power of the Word (Jesus). Therefore he owns everything. We need to be more like the little girl who asked her mother, "Do you think God would mind if I picked some of his flowers?"
The second half of verse 3 is in perfect tense, a present continual state. According to this text everything that's been created continues to exist because of the presence and power of Jesus. As Colossians 1:16-17 says, "In him (Jesus) all things were created ... and in him all things hold together." Some people will have a hard time comprehending that the little baby born in the manger is the same one who created and holds the universe in place. We must remember that God owns the world and we are his children, heirs to the earth. We can look around and say to the worldly powers, "You may own this world now, but someday God's going to clean it up and give it to his kids." John is also pointing out that God is not detached from the creation but instead takes an active and intimate interest in this world.
4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. s The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcomes it.
John uses the term life 36 times in his Gospel. Jesus is life (both physical and spiritual). Jesus is the source and giver of all life (14:6). It is only because there is life in the Word (Jesus) that there is life in anything on the earth.
Jesus is also referred to as "light" a total of 21 times in John. In these verses light and life are linked together. Jesus is the source of light and he is the light giver (14:6). The mention of light here would also bring to mind for the Jewish reader God's first creative act of bringing forth light in the darkness (Genesis 1:3-5).
John isn't merely saying the Word contains life and light. He is saying the Word is the source of life and light. Here, John introduces a struggle between light and darkness that he will mention again. Without Jesus we are in darkness. The darkness of this world is hostile to light, but it cannot extinguish or overpower it. Darkness stands for those who hate the good. Darkness also stands for willful ignorance.
Some translations use the word "understood" rather than "overcome" in verse 5. The term can be rendered both ways, and it is quite possible that John intends to conjure both meanings. There can be no peaceful coexistence between darkness and light. People may reject or fail to understand the light, and thus live in darkness. They may love darkness more than the light (3:19). Yet darkness will not overcome the Word.
John is already pointing to the cross that Jesus had to bear. The cross may seem at first like a place of darkness and defeat, where evil has gained the upper hand. But the resurrection transforms the cross into a place of glory, where Jesus overcomes the world that is in darkness. God allows the existence of darkness (evil) within the creation. The existence of evil is related to the freedom God gives to the created order.
As the Light, Jesus is full color compared to our black-and-white existence. When we live in him, we need not fear those times when darkness comes into our lives. The darker it gets, the brighter the Light shines. Darkness bows in submission to light. Our heart is in darkness but the Light comes in and shows us where forgiveness can be found. John is preparing us for the message he brings throughout the Gospel: Jesus is life bringer and light bearer. Through Jesus, God's life and light are available to human beings. (1 John 1:5: God is light, in him there is no darkness at all.")
READ BETWEEN THE LINES
What does this teach me about God?
What was the Father's role in creation? What was the Son's role?
How is Psalm 136:5 similar to this passage in John?
What is darkness?
How is Jesus life?
How is Jesus light?
WELCOME TO MY WORLD
How do I live out my life-in light or darkness? How do my friends live? My students?
How do I feel when I read that the darkness has not overcome the light?
I handle darkness in my life by ...
I am a light to my world when I ...
Chapter ThreeAn Unlikely Witness
6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. I He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
John the apostle now introduces us to John the Baptist. No, he's not the founder of the Baptist Church. John the Baptist is a distant relative or kinsman of Jesus (Luke 1:36). John the Baptist's birth was a minor miracle because his parents were "both very old" (Luke 1:7). His father was Zechariah and his mother was Elizabeth. Luke tells us John leaped for joy in his mother's womb at hearing the sounds of the pregnant Mary (Jesus' mother) nearby (Luke 1:39-45). Zechariah wasn't able to speak until his son was born (Luke 1:20).
John grew up in a priest's home. He could have followed in his father's footsteps and lived comfortably as a priest. Instead he chose to live in the desert (Luke 1:80). He was to be a Nazirite, which means "someone dedicated to the Lord." He was not to cut his hair or drink wine (Numbers 6:2-6; Luke 1:15).
John the Baptist was the first prophet to come on the scene in 400 years. Other than Jesus, he was greater than any other man who walked the earth. How do we know that? Jesus said so in Matthew 11:11: "Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist." Maybe men like Enoch and Elijah and Moses and Jeremiah and Abraham were John's equal, but Jesus says, "No one is greater."
John the Baptist is described as being "a witness." A witness explains what he's seen and experienced. The Greek word for witness shares its root with the word martyr. A martyr is a person who sacrifices his or her own life for the sake of a greater principle or person. Like many early Christians, John was bold—even to the point of death—in testifying to what he knew to be true about Jesus.
Matthew tells us that John the Baptist once addressed the religious leaders of his day as a brood of vipers (3:7). He was devoted to God in spite of the religious hypocrisy he saw around him.
John the Baptist did not live in a palace but in the desert. The closest he ever got to the city was the small village of Bethany, a whistle-stop near Jerusalem. Mark 1:6 tells us he wore clothes made of camel's hair and a wide leather belt, and his diet consisted of locusts and wild honey. He was unshaven, half-dressed, lean, and leathery. He didn't look like a priest, he didn't sound like a preacher, and he probably didn't smell like a saint. John the Baptist was not the Messiah, nor a superstar, nor a sinless creature. He was very human—but he was not ordinary.
John the Baptist came to testify to the Light. He came to point to Jesus, the true Light. Like John the Baptist, we need to make sure we are pointing people to Jesus, not our selves. I've known youth pastors who are good at winning people to themselves, even though that isn't their intention.
Excerpted from A Youth Workers Commentary on John Volume 1 by Les Christie David Nystrom Copyright © 2011 by Les Christie & David Nystrom. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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