In our exploration of the gospel, we’ve been hovering around what the gospel writers themselves believed they were producing. We’ve looked at the introductions of Matthew, Mark and Luke to see the themes they expected to develop throughout the rest of their work. Now we come to John.
Most people realize rather quickly that when we get to the book of John, we are dealing with a different sort of gospel. So similar are Matthew, Mark and Luke that they are called the synoptic gospels. The three share a lot of the same material, so much so that it appears at times they are quoting one another (even if we can’t figure out who is quoting whom).
John, on the other hand, is unique. John writes in a very different way. He uses different imagery. He tells stories the other gospels don’t contain. But in doing so, we must ask, does he believe the gospel of Jesus Christ is wildly different than the gospel the synoptic writers portray?
Again, we’ll look at his introduction and see what we can find.
Of course, the Gospel of John begins by quoting one of the most famous lines from all Scripture: “In the beginning was the Word” (Jn 1:1). It’s no accident that he uses the opening phrase from Genesis 1:1, which began the Hebrews’ creation narrative. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1).
If you’ve been following along closely our journey through the other gospels’ introductions, you already know what John is trying to do. “This is a creation story,” John is telling his audience. The gospel is, somehow, about creation.
We ought to ask, next, about this “Word”. Obviously, as we read on, we realize that John is referring to Jesus, but he doesn’t come out and say, “In the beginning was Jesus, and Jesus was with God, and Jesus was God”. What’s the deal with the “Word”?
Scholars have long recognized a connection between John’s Word (the Greek λóγος) and the Hebrew concept of Wisdom, an extremely important concept, at that.
Wisdom, in the Old Testament tradition, is ubiquitous. You know that huge chunk of your Bible from Job through Song of Solomon (like, half an inch in my tiny print Bible)? It’s called Wisdom Literature. When the Lord promised Solomon anything he wished, you remember what he asked for? Wisdom! It’s vastly important.
The Torah itself came to be regarded by the time of Jesus as God’s Wisdom, gifted specifically to the Israelites. In fact, there are a couple traditions—one from 1 Enoch 42 (a text whose relevant portion was written probably only about a generation before Jesus) and another from Wisdom of Sirach 24 (maybe 200 years before Christ)—which highlight the importance God’s Wisdom, or his Word came to take in the Jews self-understanding.
In the 1 Enoch passage, Wisdom goes out from heaven looking for a place on the earth where she can settle. Finding no place pure enough, she returns to heaven and Iniquity, Wisdom’s opposite, fills the void. We don’t regard that as Scripture, of course, but it shows how certain Jews in Jesus’ day thought of themselves: “This is how bad it’s gotten, God’s Wisdom, which we thought the Lord had given us in Torah, doesn’t even want to live among us. We’re doomed!”
In Wisdom of Sirach, on the other hand, there is a story of Wisdom—God’s Word—again looking for a suitable place to reside on the earth. In this case, interestingly, she finds her place among Israel. Now this is more in line with Old Testament tradition. In fact, Sirach makes the connection with Torah directly. What’s more, Sirach suggests that Wisdom played an active roll in the process of creation.
Again, we don’t regard either of these texts as Scripture, but they do tell us what a lot of Jews were thinking in the first century.
Enter John, who writes this loaded piece:
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning.
All things were created through Him,
and apart from Him not one thing was created
that has been created. …
The Word became flesh
and took up residence among us.
We observed His glory,
the glory as
the One and Only Son
from the Father,
full of grace and truth (Jn 1:1-3, 14, HCSB).
Jews living at the time would not have missed the point. John is telling us, “Remember God’s Wisdom, his Word, is indeed vastly important. God’s Wisdom is responsible, in fact, for the entire creation. And yes, God has sent his life-giving Wisdom into the world, but it didn’t find its place in Jacob’s descendants (not exactly) and it didn’t forsake us altogether. No, God’s Wisdom has indeed come to earth. Now let me tell you about him.”
John’s gospel is about God’s life-giving Wisdom showing itself to the world and, as a result, completely transforming the entire creation. It’s a whole new world, John tells us, because of Jesus. A different gospel, indeed, but one that is just as rooted in the long Old Testament story as the synoptic gospels.