Begin at the beginning

Try to imagine the apostle John, thinking back on his experience of Jesus, pondering how to write the story of his life and ministry. Here was a man who claimed to be equal to God. He called himself “the light of the world” (John 8:12) and “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), saying it to people who would have associated light and life with God. He spoke repeatedly of returning to the Father, and after his resurrection, visibly seemed to do just that (Acts 1:9).

How do you begin a story like that?

You begin at the beginning.

The Gospel of Mark begins with the ministry of John the Baptist. Luke pushes back further, starting with the conception and birth of John the Baptist. Matthew goes back even further, beginning with Abraham; the Baptizer doesn’t enter until chapter 3.

But John’s gospel goes all the way back, to the beginning of all beginnings:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5, NRSV)

“In the beginning”: surely, none of John’s earliest readers could have missed the allusion to the creation story in Genesis. Scholars differ as to what John intended by referring to the pre-incarnate Jesus as “the Word” or, in the Greek, logos. Was he making a reference to the Stoic idea of logos as the rational principle of the universe? Perhaps.

But in context, he seems to be referring to the Genesis story itself. In creation, God speaks. That Word, as the agent of creation, is inseparable from the one who speaks it. And the first words spoken by God are, “Let there be light” (Gen 1:3).

But let there be no mistake, John insists. Even if the Word was “the light of all people,” he himself was not created. He was with God in the beginning, before creation. And he was equal to God. The order of the words in John’s sentence suggests that we should read it with emphasis on the word “God”: “…and the Word was God.” Everything in creation came into being through him, no exceptions — including life itself.

John the Baptist is here, too, in the verses that follow (vss. 6-8). But perhaps we should call him “John the Witness” instead, for that is his one and only function in this story. He testifies to who Jesus his; he even points his own disciples in Jesus’ direction. Some of the Baptist’s followers may have thought he was the Messiah. But this gospel insists up front that he was a witness to the light and not the light itself (vs. 8). (Our English word “martyr” comes from the Greek word for “witness” — which says something about the cost of being a witness to the light in the midst of darkness.)

Light versus darkness. The opposition is already there in the creation story. And it runs through John like a scarlet thread. The world is in darkness. What happens when light comes?

More on that in the next post.