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New Testament Lesson 1 (KD): John’s Prologue

Posted by Karl D. on December 28, 2010

Gospel Doctrine
Lesson: John’s Prologue (#1)
Reading: Isaiah 61:1-3, John 1:1-14, 20:31, Luke 3:4-11 (JST)

PDF Version of Notes

1 Approach

These represent the notes I made during my reading of the scriptural text for this lesson. It is not a lesson outline or a lesson plan but really notes about issues and questions that struck me as interesting during my reading. Consequently, the notes do not have a conclusion and very little mention of application. I like to let those things arise while I teach.

2 The Gospel of John

2.1 Big Picture

This is, of course, the first lesson that covers material in the gospel of John. Consequently, I think it is worth thinking about some big picture questions about the book.

2.1.1 Reflections

  • Do you like the gospel of John? Is it your favorite gospel? If so, why do you like it more than Matthew, Mark, or Luke (synoptic gospels)? If not, why is it less meaningful to you than one of the other gospels?
  • How is the gospel of John different from the other gospels? How is the gospel of John similar to the other gospels? What parts of the gospel of John are most like the synoptic gospels (ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, etc)? Are these similarities and differences important?
  • Does the gospel of John provide a unique perspective or unique messages?

2.1.2 People and Miracles

  • People and places that are unknown in the other gospels play important roles in the gospel of John. For example, Nicodemus, the woman of Samaria, and Lazarus are all important or prominent figures in the gospel of John but do not appear in Matthew, Mark, or Luke.1 On the other hand, the gospel of John doesn’t contain the sermon on the mount or many parables. Are these differences important? Do they reveal anything important about the book? About its audience relative to the other gospels?
  • All of the gospels contain accounts of Jesus’ many miracles but only the gospel of John refers to them as signs (e.g., NRSV John 2:11 ):2

11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

  • Why might the gospel of John make a link between signs and miracles while the other gospels, at least explicitly, do not make this link? Does it suggest a different perspective? A slightly different purpose? A different audience?

3 The Prologue

The first 18 verses of John are usually thought of as the prologue. The reading for this lesson only covers the first 14 verses, but I cover the first 18 verses in these notes since they are usually treated as a complete literary unit.

The Inspired Version (Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible) contains some variants relative to the King James text. I think the Inspired Version is very interesting and looking at the variants is a very useful exercise but I am going to stick with the King James text (Authorized Version) for the notes covering John 1:1-18.

3.1 Style, Structure, and Themes

What are your impressions of the style or literary structure of the prologue? How would you describe it?

There seems to be a rhythmic quality to the prologue. Most scholars consider the prologue (1-18) to be a poem. The nature of the poem is debated. It might be an early christian poem (hymn) that predates the gospel of John, original to the gospel of John, or a later addition that summarizes the gospel.3 Additionally, many scholars believe that the prologue is basically chiastic in structure.

The prologue mentions many themes or topics that are mentioned or more fully developed later in the gospel of John. Malina and Rohrbaugh, in their commentary on John, make the following list of recurring themes:4

Theme Prologue Rest of John
Preexistence of the Word 1:1 17:5
Light of the world 1:4,9 8:12; 9:5,12:35-36,46
Opposition of light & dark 1:5 3:19; 11:9-10
Witness/testimony 1:7 1:19,3:11,32-33; 5:31-36; etc
Life 1:4 3:15-16,36; 4:14, 36; 5:21-29; etc
World 1:10 1:29; 3:6-19; 4:42; 6:14,33,51; etc
Glory 1:14 5:41,44; 7:18; 8:50,54; 11:4; etc
The only Son 1:14,18 3:16

Is it important that the prologue previews a number of themes or topics found in the gospel of John? Should it affect how one reads the prologue? Do you see these connections as mostly superficial or as meaningful and important?

3.2 Logos

Read John 1:1-5:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 The same was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made by 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 And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

3.2.1 In the Beginning

  • What are your impressions of these verses? Do you like these verses? Are they meaningful to you?
  • Do these verses remind you of other scriptural passages? If yes, what scriptural passages?
  • Some commentators suggest that these verses indicate that the gospel of John will be told “from an transcendent and eternal vantage point.”5 Do you think that the gospel of John is told from this perspective and do you think these verses indicate that we should read the gospel of John from this perspective?
  • Why does John begin his gospel this way? Specifically, do you think starting with the phrase, “[i]n the beginning,” is an allusion to the beginning of the book of Genesis?
  • George R. Beasley-Murray, in the Word Biblical Commentary explains that during the period Jews would have known the book of Genesis by its open phrase: “In the beginning.”6 Does this help explain why John might have begun his gospel this way?
  • Should we view the “[i]n the beginning” as a suggestion that this is the real beginning as opposed to the beginning described by the book of Genesis? Something else?
  • Why this beginning? Why not start with Jesus’ birth like the synoptic gospels? Does it tell us something about John’s approach or about how he understood Jesus?

3.2.2 The Word

  • Jesus isn’t explicitly identified as “the Word” until towards the end of the prologue? Does delaying the explicit linking of the Word and Jesus affect the pericope? Does it make it more impactful? Less impactful?
  • John identifies Jesus as the Word; the underlying Greek word is logos. In Hellenistic tradition the Logos is a very important concept. For example, “Heraclitus said that the Logos is ‘the omnipresent wisdom by which all things are steered.'”7 Additionally, Philo of Alexandria explained that the Logos is the medium of divine government of the World and that it is “the captain and pilot of the universe?”8 Why would John connect Jesus with a such a concept in Greek tradition?
  • Is there anything in the prologue that suggests that John might not be reaching back to Greek tradition with his Word = Jesus identification?
  • “In the beginning” certainly puts us into a Hebrew frame of mind (Of course, this may suggest that John wanted readers to reflect on both Hebrew and Greek connotations of the word). It certainly reminds us of creation and connects the Word with creation. Of course, this is a natural association for Mormons since Jesus is clearly the creator of the world for us. But it is a natural association for Jews around the time Christ. Speaking has power; words have power. God created the earth by speaking. “The ‘Word of God’ was not so much an expression of thought as it was a powerful action.”9 We see this reflected in some of Psalms. Read Psalms 33:6:

6 By the word of the LORD were the heavens made;
and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth.

  • Is “the Word” title meaningful to us, as modern readers, today? Does it give use insight into Jesus? Do would need to know the origins and context to appreciate this title?

3.2.3 Other

  • The first few verses connect Jesus (the Word) with God and with creation. How do things shift in verse 4? Why is this an important reminder? Does it tell us anything about the nature of God? How is it connected with Jesus’ earthly ministry?
  • What does it mean that light and life (darkness and death) are so closely linked together in these verses? At least one commentator suggests that this close linking indicates that John and his original audience probably saw the world in a very black and white way. Do you agree? Why or why not?
  • What is verse 5 talking about? What does it mean that “the darkness comprehended it not?”

3.3 John the Baptist

Read John 1:6-8:

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. 8 He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

  • Here the text zooms in from its previous cosmic perspective. It seems almost abrupt and startling to me.
  • Even given that the perspective moves from the cosmic, how are some of the themes introduced in the first five verses continued and elaborated upon in this passage?
  • This passage introduces the themes of witness and testimony. John mentions John the Baptist’s witness and testimony again in verse 15 so I view this as an important part of the prologue. Are these themes (witness and testimony) important themes in the rest of John? Are witness and testimony important themes in the prologue? How are they related to the concept of Jesus as the Word?

3.4 Sons of God

Read 1:9-13:

9 That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. 11 He came unto his own, and his own received him not. 12 But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: 13 Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

3.4.1 Chiastic Structure

Many commentators believe the prologue has a chiastic structure. Lund proposed a chiastic structure as far back as the early 1930s. There is variation in the proposed chiastic structures but they tend to be pretty similar and usually see verse 12 as the center of chiasm (I have only seen chiasmus with verse 12 as the center point). Here is a possible chiastic rendering of the prologue:

A. The Word with God (1:1-2)
   B. The Word made everything (1:3-5)
      C. John testified of him (1:6-8) 
         D. The true light came into the world (1:9-11)
            E. Those that received him, he gave power to be the 
               sons of God (1:12-13)
         D' The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us (1:14)
      C' John testified of him (1:15)
   B' Grace and truth come from Jesus Christ (1:16-17)
A' The Son with God (1:18)
  • Are you surprised that the center point of the chiasm (usually thought to be the main point) is that Jesus gave power to those that received him to be the sons of God?
  • Is it even possible that sons of God theme is really the main point of the prologue given the grand theological concepts introduced elsewhere in the prologue?
  • If this is the theme of the prologue is it also the theme of the whole gospel of John?
  • Suppose the chiastic structure is right and the main point really is that those who receive Jesus will be given the power to be the sons and daughters of God. What do these verses tell us about becoming sons and daughters of God? What does it mean? How does it happen?
  • What does it mean that Jesus’ gave power to become the sons of God? Why doesn’t it just say that those who received him are the sons of God?
  • How do the other parts of the prologue connect with or relate to the concept of becoming sons and daughters of God?

3.4.2 Some Non-Chiastic Questions

  • What does verse 11 mean? What does it mean that he came unto his own, but his own did not receive him? Who are Jesus’ own here? What is the context? Is there anything ironic about this?
  • I am not sure whether it is either Israel or the world in general. What about verse 10? Does verse 10 help us understand verse 11? What about verse 12? Does it help us understand verse 11?
  • Does it make sense that in this section of the prologue that John emphasizes Jesus as the light of the world and also emphasizes that Jesus brought division (some received him and some did not)?
  • The imagery of verse 13 is very interesting. What do you make of it? Why contrast the new birth with blood and flesh? Why contrast with the will of man?

3.5 The Word was Made Flesh

Read John 1:14-18:

14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. 15 John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me. 16 And of his fullness have all we received, and grace for grace. 17 For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. 18 No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.

  • John says that “we beheld his glory.” What do you think that phrase means in this context?
  • Verse 17 contrasts the law given by Moses and grace and truth given by Jesus Christ? Why is this an important contrast?
  • Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest that the cultural context for verse 17 is the following:10

The language of grace or favor is the language of patronage … Patrons are higher status persons who provide favors to clients in return for respect, honor, and generalized obedience. Patrons owed nothing whatsoever to clients. When they gave something to a client, they bestowed favors, and they were understood to be “gracious.” The contrast between what came through Moses and what comes through Jesus is thus the contrast between what was required and what was gracious.

  • Do you think the preceding quote captures what is behind the law/grace contrast in verse 17? Is the patron/client relationship useful context for the concept of grace in the New Testament? In what ways might this be a useful model for thinking about grace? Is the patron/client relationship too limiting or narrow to capture the meaning of the contrast here?

Footnotes:

1 Smith, D. Moody, 2000, “John” in HarperCollins Bible Commentary, Harper & Row, 956.

2 Smith, D. Moody, 2000, “John” in HarperCollins Bible Commentary, Harper & Row, 956.

3 Malina, Bruce J. and Richard Rohrbaugh, 1998, Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, Fortress Press, 29.

4 Malina, Bruce J. and Richard Rohrbaugh, 1998, Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, Fortress Press, 30.

5 Kieffer, Rene, 2001, “John” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, Oxford University Press, 961.

6 Beasley-Murray, George R., 1984, John, Word Books.

7 Beasley-Murray, George R., 1984, John, Word Books.

8 Beasley-Murray, George R., 1984, John, Word Books.

9 Beasley-Murray, George R., 1984, John, Word Books.

10 Malina, Bruce J. and Richard Rohrbaugh, 1998, Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, Fortress Press, 29.

2 Responses to “New Testament Lesson 1 (KD): John’s Prologue”

  1. Jim F. said

    Fantastic notes, Karl. Thanks.

    • Karl D. said

      Thanks, Jim. I had fun revising my original notes from four years ago. I am excited about the prospect of revising the rest of my New Testament notes. Of course, this academic quarter is problem my busiest so hopefully I don’t get behind on my notes.

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