Part 1 on this series on John’s Gospel is here.
Let’s explore some of the first chapter in some detail. The first eighteen verses might be considered the core of this Gospel. Let me comment on it in pieces.
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. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Matthew and Luke start with the infancy narratives. Mark starts with Christ’s precursor, John the Baptist. But John takes it all the way back, back to beginning of creation. I’m sure most of you realize it echoes the opening of Genesis, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…” But actually, as I see it, John is even predating creation in the first two sentences. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” So if God is eternal, the Word being Jesus, was “with God” but more so, “was God,” and so was always. John makes it clear: “He was with God in the beginning.”
And then in the third sentence John takes us to the creation, but with a new addition to the revelation: “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” When I try to visualize this conception of creation, the key word for me is “through.” I picture God and whatever power he flares out to create is channeled through Jesus, through perhaps Jesus’ sacred heart, almost like the beams of light that emanate from Christ’s heart in the St. Faustina image as pated by Kazimirowski. “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.” So that creative force was life, the life that will be mentioned in Genesis. God says in Genesis, “Let there be light,” and that light John envisions it shines through Jesus. And of course that light is all powerful and cannot be overcome.
There is so much to take away from here. Jesus is the “Word,” sometimes translated as “the logos.” God creates through His spoken word. Words are what formulate the scriptures, which is the moral law. Christ then is the embodiment of the law and, indeed, the entire scriptures. Logos is rational being, organization through logic. Words through logic are an organizing principle; we orient, organize through, and conceptualize through words. Jesus Himself then is the organizing principle of the universe. Nowhere in the other three Gospels do we see this cosmic understanding of Christ. If we only had the three other Gospels, if the Gospel of John had not been written, we would lack this conception of Jesus. This is an example of where John’s Gospel expands beyond just stories but formulates Christian theology.
6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 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.
Once you get passed the infancy narratives, all four Gospels start the ministry of Christ with John the Baptist. That Christ had a precursor prophet must have been strongly engrained in those first Christians. ‘
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
Those first three sentences have such accelerated narrative movement: He was coming into the world; He was in the world; and the world did not receive Him. The last two sentences define Christian theology. Those that do receive Christ become more than just human beings, we become infused with God. Ultimately, we become part of God.
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Here then is the incarnation: “The Word became flesh.” Of course in the infancy narratives we get the conception which leads to Christ being born, but in John it’s so much more mystical. He became flesh. If anyone were to think that John thought that Christ just materialized out of thin air, in the very next chapter we see His mother, so obviously there was a birth. That second sentence in the 14th verse sums it all up with so many theological concepts packed together. “We” as a statement of being witnesses to Christ; glory as the manifestation of God before us; Father and Son to describe the relationship between God and Jesus; “full of grace” being abundant with God’s gifts; truth which I think is more theological than the conventional use of the word. That which is held to be true may not be true. Truth here I think derives back to what is held in the mind of God, which can only be truth.
15 (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) 16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.
And then John returns to John the Baptist as eye witness. What is interesting is that lines 16 through 18 are not quotes from the Baptist. We see this a lot in John’s Gospel. We get an eye witness statement (here John the Baptist), but then the author (John the Evangelist) explains the theological implications that the rather more simple person implied but may not have fully conceptualized. Jesus Christ, as incarnate image of God, came to give us, God’s creation, grace (God’s benevolent gifts) and truth (the foundational reality in God’s mind) so that we could be unified with God.
That’s my attempt to explain what I consider the most powerful and beautiful part of the Bible. Feel free to correct me if I stretched or strayed in accuracy in my interpretation.
There are certain repetitions of wording and phrases that come up in the Gospel of John. We’ll hopefully get to the others but there’s one that first appears in chapter 2. We know this is the chapter of the wedding feast at Cana. We know this is the first miracle where He transforms water into wine at the request of His mother. But He doesn’t initially want to acknowledge the request. He says, “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4). There are two phrasings that are repeated several times later on: “Woman” and “my hour.” Let me just focus on “woman” for now.
Next is the encounter at the well with the Samaritan woman in chapter four, one of my favorite passages in the entire New Testament. First Jesus tells the woman of her history of being married five times and now even has resorted to living unmarried with a man. When you think about the number of marriages, she is obviously a woman who has been repeatedly rejected. What could a woman do in those days to live but to find another man to support her? Perhaps the divorces were partly her fault and perhaps it was the husbands’s fault, which is more likely, but going from husband to husband is a disgrace to her, and finally she’s even given up on keeping appearances by living outright with a man. She is alienated and broken. But Jesus offers her life saving water and tells her He is the messiah: “Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” (John 4:21). Again there is “hour” and there is “woman.”
In chapter eight, a woman caught in adultery is brought to Him and the men who bring her intend to stone her to death according to Mosaic Law. And Jesus through His words stifles them and when the men have all left he says: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” (John 8:10). Again there is the phrasing, “woman.”
In chapter 19, while Jesus is suffering on the cross (His hour finally come) with His mother, other women, and the apostle John before Him, He says to His mother, “Woman, behold, your son.” He then turns to John and says, “Behold, your mother” (John 19:26-27). Again the word “woman” is used.
Now how are we supposed to understand the word “woman”? A lot might depend on the translation, but all translations that I know use “woman.” It seems to me he is speaking in a general manner referring to all womanhood. These are specific women He is speaking to, but He is using a word that is generally applied. It’s a word that goes back to Eve as woman. In all four cases it seems to me that Jesus is either giving dignity to the women or restoring their wholeness. In the second example He gives dignity to the woman at the well through His respect and kindness for her. In the third example He forgives the woman from her sin of adultery. In the first example, despite reluctance to start the events that will lead to His crucifixion, He gives dignity to His mother by obeying her. He also perhaps saves the bride the embarrassment of a undignified wedding. And in the fourth example He upgrades the status of woman to a universal mother of all.
There is nothing like this that I can recall in the Old Testament. Certain women are revered but nowhere to this level and nothing to a general womanhood level. And there is nothing like this in the culture that Jesus lived. Women were not fully respected, seen even as unclean because of their monthly periods, and were seen as the source of sexual sin (through their womanly attractiveness) as if men had only a passive role in sexual sin. By the use of the word “woman” Jesus is restoring the dignity of Eve, perhaps even forgiving Eve, and bringing her to wholeness from the brokenness of disobedience. I find this remarkable.
Manny asked, "Now, how are we supposed to understand the word "woman"? One thing I do remember from one of my New Testament exegesis class in college, taught by a Dominican priest, was a discussion on that word in the wedding at Cana passage. I do remember we were told that Jesus using that term did not have the disrespectful connotation it has now, but quite the opposite. That made sense to me at the time.
Yes it makes sense to me too but I've come across a little dispute over that. Do you have Relevant Radio in your area Madeleine? If you do you may have heard Fr. Simon in the afternoons. I love his show but I'm usually working. I did catch a show where he agreed with that. He knows the original languages, so from a linguistic point of view he said he would have translated "woman" as "my lady" in the Cana episode. That made sense to me, but I was interacting with the apologist Steven Ray (he's published a number of books) on his blog one day on this and brought up Fr. Simon's point. And he disagreed. He was looking at it from a theological point of view and he made the point I made above in that it was important to connect "woman" with Eve, and so it had to be translated as a general sense of womanhood.
Now I don't see how they both can't be correct. They are not mutually exclusive. It all depends on the tone Jesus used. Obviously if Jesus used it in a supercilious tone, then that would be disrespectful to His mother. And that can't be. If He used it in a sort of appealing and passive tone, then he would not be disrespectful. But I do think Steven Ray's point is correct, especially when you see that Jesus used the same word several times. There is more going on than Jesus simply addressing His mother.