The Word Made Flesh: Reading John 1:1-14 in Light of the OT
The traditional reading of John 1:1-14 has been traced back to the works of the fiery second century apologist Justin Martyr (150 AD). Justin understood the passage to mean that Jesus pre-existed his birth as the creator of the heavens and earth and later became a human being in the womb of Mary. But the average Christian is likely unaware that Justin’s interpretation was heavily influenced by his training in Greek philosophy.
Indeed, Justin claimed that a “physiological discussion concerning the Son of God” can be found in Plato’s Timaeus (428 BC).1 This work describes the Platonic concept of the logos, a second and lesser god created by the supreme God to function as the creator of the material world. Dr. Richard Bauckham confirms that Justin attempted “to assimilate the Christian view of the divine world as closely as possible with the Platonic hierarchy of divininty: first God, second God, and a multitude of lesser divinities.” 2
Bible scholars today, however, widely agree that “the word” in John 1:1-14 is not to be understood against the background of Greek philosophy; rather, it finds its origin in the Hebrew OT and the Septuagint (LXX).3 In what follows, we will consider how this Hebraic background, together with the rest of the Johannine writings, might affect our understanding of John’s Prologue.
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. (ESV)
John’s prologue opens with the theologically charged phrase en arche, or “in the beginning.” Is this allusion to Genesis 1:1 informing us that a pre-existent Jesus known as “the word” created the heavens and earth? If so, we would expect the Old Testament creation account to be compatible with such a claim. Yet, strikingly, we do not find the presence of one who might be identified as the pre-existent Jesus in Genesis 1.4 The creative word of God is instead closely associated with the Holy Spirit – a fact that is also attested by later OT and LXX authors:
Gen. 1:1-3a: 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 [ruach] of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said…
Ps. 33:6: By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath [ruach] of his mouth all their host.5
Judith 16:14 (LXX): Let all creatures serve thee: for thou spakest, and they were made, thou didst send forth thy spirit [ruach], and it created them, and there is none that can resist thy voice.
The connection between God’s word and his Spirit, or ruach, was fundamental to Jewish thought.6 The word ruach is most often translated “spirit” in the Old Testament. But it is also translated “breath” some 30 times. Words are formed by one’s breath, and thus God communicates by the breath, or spirit, that figuratively proceeds out of his mouth to express his word. God’s word, in turn, is defined by the OT as his testimonies, commandments, precepts, statutes, rules, or law (e.g. Psalm 118).
This is why prophets like Ezekiel often referred to the Spirit of God and the word of God interchangeably: “And the Spirit of the LORD fell upon me, and he said to me, ‘Say, Thus says the LORD'” (Eze. 11:5) / “And the word of the LORD came to me:. . .Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD'” (Eze. 11:14-16). Dr. David Ewert rightly concludes that “there is no substantial difference between the coming of the Spirit of God upon the prophets and the coming of the Word of God to them.”7
If the OT does not identify “the word” with a pre-existent Jesus, what about John’s gospel and epistles? As we might expect, the term “the word” (ho logos) appears frequently throughout these works.8 But nowhere do we find it applied to Jesus as a title; instead, it is defined as scripture, (Jn. 10:35) the law (Jn. 15:25), a message (1 Jn. 1:5), or a commandment (Jn. 12:48-49, 1 Jn. 2:7). Jesus stresses that this word is not his own but rather is given to him by God through the Holy Spirit. The table below gives a few examples:
|Gospel of John (ESV)||1 John (ESV)|
12:48-50 The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. . .the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment–what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.”
14:24-25 . . .the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me. These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.
18:32 This was to fulfill the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death he was going to die.
|1:1 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 — 2 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.
John’s first epistle gives us further insight into “the word” of John’s prologue. In 1 Jn. 1:1, “the word of life” is carefully distinguished from Jesus, for we are told it was a “message” (vs. 5) that was “with the Father” (vs. 2) “from the beginning” (vs. 1) before being “made manifest” in Jesus (vs. 2).9 In other words, the “word of life” is an entity distinct from Jesus that originated with the Father and was later manifested by Jesus.
This is confirmed by comparing “the word of life” from 1 John 1:1 with the same concept as found in John’s gospel. In John 12:48-50, Jesus says that “the word” is a commandment from God that constitutes “eternal life.” In John 13:34, we learn that this same commandment is for the disciples to love one another.
1 John 2 drives home the point. The same “word” is again explicitly identified as the commandment to love God and one’s brother (vss. 3-17).10 We are told that this “word” about loving one’s brother isn’t merely a new commandment but also an old commandment, because it has been around “from the beginning” (vss. 7-8). Cain is then cited as an example of one who violated this old commandment by killing his brother (1 Jn. 3:11-12).
According to the Genesis account, a generation after Adam violated God’s word by eating the forbidden fruit, Cain murders Abel and later asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain failed to love his brother, but God announced the coming of a future Messiah who would perfectly keep this commandment by sacrificing his life for the sake of his brothers, despite their murderous enmity toward him (Gen. 3:15, cp. Jn. 8:44).11
This talk in 1 John of God’s “word” as a commandment violated by Cain suggests that the activity of “the word” in John 1:1-5 is particularly focused upon the creation of man. Indeed, while most translations render John 1:3 as “all things were made through him,” the word “things” is not in the original Greek. Further, the word rendered “made” (ginomai) more often describes something that “came to be” (cp. John 1:12).
When we omit the translator-supplied word “things,” the NASB translation gives the clearest sense of John 1:3: “All came into being through Him, and apart from Him none came into being (who) has come into being.”12 This flows naturally into verse 4, where we are specifically told that the word produces life in men.
We may therefore summarize “the word” as defined by John as an entity distinct from Jesus which is both old and new. It is old in that it was with the Father at the beginning of man’s creation, investing Adam with life and the light of the knowledge of God by means of the Spirit. But it is also new in that Jesus, as a second Adam (1 Cor. 15:45), perfectly obeyed it while the first Adam and his progeny failed to do so.
Yet one question remains: if “the word” is not a who but a what in John 1:1-5, how do we account for the use of personal pronouns? The Greek pronouns houtos and autos are typically rendered he and him in this passage. However, they are just as legitimately rendered the same and it, which is exactly what we find in many older Bible translations such as the Tyndale Bible.13
But even if we go with he and him, these pronouns are right at home in John’s highly poetic prologue, recalling the personification of God’s word and wisdom found in the OT and LXX.14 As NT Scholar Craig Keener aptly points out, “personification occurs frequently enough in Jewish texts to provide a context for interpreting John’s use of Logos in his prologue.” 15
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. 9 The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.
We are next introduced to John the Baptist, whose role was to “bear witness about the light” (vs. 8). A crucial element of this witness is found in John 1:32-33: “And John bore witness: ‘I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. . .he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.'”
The Baptist identified “the light” not as Jesus alone, but as Jesus indwelled by the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament era, the Holy Spirit delivered the light of God’s word to the prophets, who in turn delivered it to the people (2 Pe. 1:19-21). At Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit commissioned God’s Son as the supreme human conduit for that light – and Jesus obediently began delivering it to the people.
The background for this imagery of the Messiah as “the light” is found in the book of Isaiah.16 John 1:23 and 1:29 both cite Isaiah’s messianic oracles, indicating the significance of this OT book in interpreting John’s prologue. In Isaiah 42, we find the likely source for the Baptist’s identification of “the light” as the spirit-indwelled Messiah:17
1 Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. … 6 “I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you [Messiah] as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations…”
— Isaiah 42:1, 6
The prologue therefore anticipates the light “coming into the world” (Jn. 1:9) at Jesus’ baptism, when the Holy Spirit publicly commissioned him to shine the light of God’s word upon the people. This is confirmed by John the Baptist’s announcement that Jesus is the one who “comes” after him (Jn. 1:15, 27, 30), explicitly placing the “coming” of Jesus at his baptism.
In parallel, Jesus sent his disciples “into the world” (Jn. 17:18) for their own public ministry by means of the Holy Spirit: “‘As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (Jn 20:21-22). This tells us that being “sent into the world” and other similar expressions found throughout John’s gospel18 are not suggesting a transition from pre-existence to humanity, but a transition from private life to public ministry.
10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
John continues by telling us that “the world” was made through the light and yet it did not know him. Here “the world” is narrowly defined as “his own people,” reflecting John’s consistent use of “the world” as a synonym for human beings.19 The contrast between the law of Moses and the grace of Christ in John 1:17 further indicates that John has in mind the Mosaic world of the Jews under the Old Covenant.
Thus John 1:10 is not describing the creation of inanimate objects such as rocks and trees; he is describing the creation of a nation. This verse parallels John 1:3 in that it is focused upon human beings, but here the spotlight is upon national Israel in particular, for John’s gospel is primarily interested in Israel’s response to “the light.”
How then was Israel made through “the light,” which we previously identified as the Spirit-indwelled Messiah? By virtue of the Messianic typology through which Israel was formed into a nation.20 This typology is described in the Torah, which is mentioned in John 1:45: “we have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote.”
In the Exodus story, the Holy Spirit rested upon Moses (Num. 11:24-25) and empowered him to act as God’s shepherd (Is. 63:11). Moses delivered the people out of slavery through the blood of a Passover lamb (Ex. 12:21-32) and they were then “baptized” in the Red Sea (1 Cor. 10:2). The Spirit sustained them with manna in the wilderness (Ex. 16:14-15) and led them into the Promised Land by the hand of Joshua (the Hebrew name for Jesus), where they were made into a great nation.
In other words, the Mosaic world of the Jews was made through types and symbols that all pointed to Israel’s future Spirit-indwelled Messiah. He now stood before them as the true Shepherd (Jn. 10:11), the true Passover Lamb (Jn. 1:29) and the true Manna from heaven (Jn. 6:41), but most of the Jews did not recognize him as the fulfillment of these things (Jn. 1:10-11).
Nevertheless, John 1:12-13 points out that the world of the Jews, first made through the prototypical Messiah Moses under the Old Covenant, was now being remade through the supreme Messiah Jesus under the New Covenant. His sacrifice as the true Passover lamb gave those who did receive him the right to be born again of the Spirit. This entailed being saved out of the slavery of sin and assured a place in Christ’s kingdom, which would be centered in the Promised Land.
And the Word Became Flesh
The magnificent announcement in John 1:14 reminds us that the flesh of man has long been at odds with the word of God. When Adam disobeyed God’s word, his flesh became corrupt and humanity was consigned to death. The consequence of this disobedience upon the Genesis world was dire: “My Spirit shall certainly not remain among these men for ever, because they are flesh. . .” (Gen. 6:4 Brenton).
The Spirit of God will not permanently reside in a vessel of disobedience. As a result, man’s flesh has been held captive to the judgment of death from the beginning of creation. Thus the prophet Isaiah later wrote: “All flesh is grass. . . the grass withers, and the flower fades: but the word of our God abides for ever” (Is. 40:6,8 LXX).
Isaiah’s message hints at the coming of a Messiah who would perfectly obey God’s eternal word and so defeat death.21 The irony is that he would achieve this victory by submitting his own flesh to death – which is why the NT most often applies the term “flesh” to Jesus to denote his mortality in connection with his sacrificial mission.22 He prophesied this beforehand in John 6:51-54, 63:
[T]he bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. . . .It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
— John 6:51-54, 63
The significance of this cryptic saying was in Jesus’ unflagging obedience to the Spirit-delivered word of God, which instructed him to minister to Israel as a suffering servant. The call for his disciples to “feed upon his flesh” was a call to mirror his obedience and likewise be willing to surrender their own flesh unto death.23 In so doing, they demonstrated their faith that the Spirit of God would raise them back to life again.
Yet most Jews balked at the idea of following a crucified Messiah; for them it was nothing short of “a stumbling block” (1 Cor. 1:23). This is seen in John 6, where they took offense at his comments regarding his flesh. They expected an immortal Messiah who would never succumb to death, much less death by crucifixion (Jn. 12:34). Donald Juel has insightfully noted:
What lies at the heart of Christian tradition and christological exegesis is the confession of Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah, a confession that involves considerable tension between Jesus the Christ and the traditional Messianic figure that was part of Jewish eschatological scriptural exegesis. . . the lack of a pre-Christian Jewish concept of a suffering Messiah provides one of the first agenda items for the small circle of believers.24
John’s gospel combats this rejection of a suffering Messiah from the very outset. The highly poetic prologue uses figurative language to stress that the word of God concerning eternal life was indeed fulfilled by a mortal Messiah whose mission culminated in his death: “the word became flesh.” That is, the same word Adam and his progeny failed to obey in the garden was finally fulfilled by mortal flesh of Jesus, who then empowered his spiritual progeny to do the same.
This concept is also stated in 1 John 4:2 using more straightforward language: “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” The “coming” of Jesus, as noted earlier, occurred at his baptism.25 He came to Israel as a mortal Messiah whose mission was not to defeat the Romans but to surrender his very life out of love for his people and his God.
Jesus’ radical obedience was the end result of a process that began when the Holy Spirit caused the conception of an innocent Son, a second Adam, in the womb of a virgin (Lk. 1:35). The Spirit then empowered Jesus to live a sinless life, ensuring that his flesh remained like an “unblemished lamb” until the appointed time when he offered that flesh to God on behalf of all humanity:
How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. –Hebrews 9:14
And Dwelled Among Us
John next uses an unusual term to describe the presence of the embodied word of God. The word skenoo, usually rendered “dwelled,” is better translated “tabernacled.” This is an intentional pointer to Israel’s wilderness wanderings at the Exodus. Craig Keener writes:
Just as God “tabernacled” with his people in the wilderness, God’s Word tabernacled among the witnesses of the new exodus accomplished in Jesus. Some suggest that the LXX translators may have favored this particular Greek term for “tabernacle” because its consonants corresond to the Hebrew consonants for the Shekinah, God’s presence.26
The Jewish Encylopedia further notes that “the Shekinah is often referred to instead of the Holy Spirit. It is said of the former, as of the Holy Spirit, that it rests upon a person.” 27 At the Exodus, the Spirit of God – which delivered the word of God to the people through Moses – accompanied the Israelites through the wilderness in a temporary tent known as a tabernacle. That tabernacle pointed to the innocent mortal body of Jesus, in whom the Spirit now dwelled and through whom the Spirit now spoke the word of God (cp. Heb. 9).
Jesus willingly sacrificed his innocent tabernacle of flesh upon the cross. Three days later, he was vindicated from the curse of death and his body was made into the permanent temple of the Holy Spirit that God originally intended for all mankind: “The Jews then said [to Jesus], ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking about the temple of his body.” (John 2:19-21)
And We Have Seen His Glory
The glory of Jesus receives considerable attention in John. We are told repeatedly that this glory is not inherent to Jesus, but rather is given to him by God (5:44, 7:18, 16:14, 17:24). What then is the nature of this glory? In the Old Testament, the “glory of the LORD” is the Shekinah glory of God’s presence, otherwise known as the Holy Spirit.
This Shekinah glory traveled with Moses and the Israelites in a tent through the wilderness into Canaan (Ex. 40:35) and later dwelled in the temple in Jerusalem (2 Chron. 7:1). However, when Jerusalem’s sins reached their limit, the “glory of God” visibly departed from the temple and the city was handed over to the Babylonians, effectively ending the Davidic dynasty (Eze. 10) .
But Isaiah prophesied the return of the Spirit’s glorious presence to Jerusalem (Is. 40:5). It would rest upon a particular man from the line of David who would finally revive the Davidic royal line (Is. 11:1, 16:5, 22:22). Yet this one would not reign as Israel’s king in his mortal life, and so would not receive glory from men during that time (Is. 52:14 LXX). Instead, he would live a life of humility and sacrifice in preparation for a glory that was yet to come (Is. 52:13 LXX).
In John’s gospel, we are told that the disciples previewed this Messianic glory when they beheld Jesus’ miracles, which were performed by the power of the Holy Spirit (Jn. 2:11, 11:4; cp. Acts 10:31). Significantly, the healing of a blind man in John 9 recalls Isaiah’s prophecy that the Spirit-empowered Messiah would proclaim the “recovery of sight to the blind” (Is. 61:1 LXX). 28
But the fullness of his predestined glory awaited the completion of his mission. By virtue of his faithfulness to the word of God while in his mortal body, Jesus was resurrected and given the titular name “Word of God” (Rev. 19:13). He was now permanently indwelled by the Holy Spirit, which proceeds from his mouth like a sharp sword to enforce God’s word regarding the Messianic kingdom (Rev. 19:15, cp. Is. 11:1-4).
Glory as of the Only Son from the Father, full of Grace and Truth
The glory of Jesus is the glory of a Son conceived, taught, and empowered by the Father through the Holy Spirit. Our Messiah was indeed full of the Spirit of grace (cp. Heb. 10:29) and the Spirit of truth (cp. Jn. 14:17, 15:26). And because of his obedience to his Father’s word, Jesus is now the permanent temple of that Spirit, providing life and light to all mankind in this age and the age to come: “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” (Rev. 21:23)
- First Apology, Chapter LX ↵
- Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel, p. 148. ↵
- E.g. John Ashton, Understanding The Fourth Gospel, pp. 366-386; Craig Keener, The Gospel of John, pp. 350-360; James Dunn, Christology in the Making, p. 215. ↵
- While there are a few times in Genesis where God says “Let us,” both the NIV and NET study Bibles recognize these as God addressing his heavenly court of angels. ↵
- Irenaeus of Lyons (170 AD), a self-admitted follower of Justin Martyr, claimed that this passage indicates the presence of both Jesus and the Holy Spirit, where Jesus is the word and the Holy Spirit is the breath (see this work). However, the Hebrew Psalmist is here using a technique prevalent throughout the OT scriptures known as parallelism, in which the same thing is stated two different ways. Thus the “word” and the “breath/spirit” are actually equivalent concepts and do not suggest the presence of two distinct individuals. ↵
- See also Prov. 1:23, Is. 59:21, Zech. 7:12. ↵
- The Holy Spirit in the New Testament, David Ewert, p. 33. ↵
- See John 2:22, 4:50, 10:35, 12:48, 14:24, 15:3, 15:20, 15:25, 18:9, 18:32; 1 John 1:1, 2:7, 2:15. ↵
- Peter expresses a similar line of thought, pointing out that Jesus was “foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times” (1 Pe. 1:20). God’s foreknowledge of Jesus refers in this case specifically to the predestined sacrificial death of the Messiah, which is described in God’s “prophetic word” (2 Pe. 1:19). This word was with the Father from the foundation of the world and was only “made manifest” in the person of Jesus “in the last times.” ↵
- See also 3:10-17, 4:20-21 ↵
- Significantly, the author of Hebrews writes that the sprinkled blood of Jesus “speaks a better word than Abel” (Heb. 12:24). ↵
- The pronoun hos is rendered “who” some 87 times in the NT, including John 1:15, 26, 26, 30, 33, 45, and 47. ↵
- In addition, virtually every Bible translation past and present identifies “the light” in John 1:5 as an it. ↵
- In the OT, God’s “word” is implicitly personified in the figure of Lady Wisdom (e.g. Prov. 8), and thus the LXX later treats God’s “word” and “wisdom” as equivalent concepts. E.g., A personified Lady wisdom is equated with the Law (i.e. the word) in Sirach 24:23. Significantly, wisdom is equated with the Holy Spirit in places such as Wisdom 9:17 LXX. ↵
- Craig Keener, The Gospel of John, p. 351 ↵
- Isaiah is mentioned by name four times in John’s gospel (1:23, 12:38, 12:39, 12:41). ↵
- Westermann points out that in Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism, he alludes to Isaiah 42:2 in combination with Psalm 2:7. See Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary, Claus Westermann, p. 94. ↵
- E.g. Jesus has “come into the world” (Jn. 6:14, 16:28, 18:37), Jesus “came from God/the Father”, (Jn. 8:42, 16:27-28, 16:30, 17:8) and Jesus was “sent into the world.” (Jn. 10:36, 17:18) ↵
- See 3:16-17, 3:19, 7:4, 7:7, et al. ↵
- See Andrew Perry’s article John 1: Jesus, Creator of an Old Creation, or a New One? While we would disagree with some aspects of this commentary, his observations on John 1:10 are particularly insightful. ↵
- Peter explicitly applied Isaiah 40:6-8 to the salvation accomplished by Christ, and defined “the word” as “the good news” (1 Pe. 1:24-25). It is also part of the Isaianic prologue alluded to by John the Baptist in John 1:23. ↵
- E.g. Acts 2:26, 31; 2 Cor. 5:14-16; Col. 1:22; Heb. 5:7, 10:20; 1 Pe. 3:18, 4:1 ↵
- See John 12:24-26, 15:19-20, 16:2, 21:19 ↵
- Donald Juel, Messianic Exegesis, p. 26. ↵
- That 1 John 4:2 places his “coming” at his baptism is confirmed by the use of the title “Christ,” which means “anointed” and refers to the anointing of the Holy Spirit at his baptism. See also 2 John 1:7. ↵
- Craig Keener, The Gospel of John, pp. 408. ↵
- See http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7833-holy-spirit ↵
- Acts 10:31 confirms that Jesus performed his miracles by the power of the Spirit: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” ↵