Don Carson likens John’s prologue to the foyer of a building, and if so reading it is like stepping off the street into a foyer of mind-boggling, jaw-dropping splendour that immediately announces the grandeur of the place. The verses are familiar, though none will have plumbed the depths of meaning and significance here; enjoy the opportunity to ponder and feast.
The opening words are a deliberate echo of the opening words of the Bible. John begins his Gospel not with the nativity story, but going back to before the creation. His subject matter is ultimate truth of universal significance. Though “the Word” would certainly resonate in the Greek speaking world of John’s day, I think it is more likely that we are to hear it against the backdrop of the Hebrew Scriptures, where the Word of God is the agent of God in creation (eg Ps.33:6) and redemption (eg Ps.107:20) – the “powerful self-expression of God in creation, revelation and salvation” Carson writes. “with God” implies relationship, a distinction of person, whilst “was God” expresses the truth that the Word is fully God, not less in any way. The words and works we will read of in the Gospel, therefore, are truly the words and works of God: the same God who created everything that is.
One image dominates these verses, namely light. It would seem to speak of revelation. In v.4 it may be that general revelation is in view, as the nature of our God-given life points to the reality of the source of that life, but when speaking of “the true light” clearly Christ is in view – the mention of John the Baptist in v.6 has rooted us suddenly in history. Christ is the one true light for “every man”. Verse 5 (taking it as “overcome”, not “understood”, following new NIV or old NIV footnote) could be understood both in relation to creation and to Christ.
The scandal of the world’s rejection of its Creator and Ruler is shocking, as is the gift given to all those who receive him rightly by responding in faith. This gift of becoming a child of God, becoming part of his family, with all the privileges and blessing that implies, is clearly a gift of grace, unearned, wholly the result of God’s initiative.
The Word did not merely put on flesh, disguising his deity in a human body, he “became flesh”, becoming fully human, but without becoming any less God. The phrase “made his dwelling” could be translated “pitched his tabernacle/tent”, an idea which brings to mind God’s dwelling with His people in the Old Testament; and just as God’s glory was once seen filling the tabernacle, so God’s glory is revealed in the incarnate Word. In particular the glory revealed was “full of grace and truth”. The new NIV (as we have in church) perhaps gives a more accurate rendering of v.16 than the old NIV (which I still use!) – “Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given”. Verse 17 unpacks that: the “grace already given” is the Law, which is now surpassed by the fullness of “grace and truth” made known and offered to us in Christ. Christ is not merely a partial fulfilment of, or improvement on, the Old Testament revelation, for He now fully reveals the Father to us as only He can because He is the One who is Himself God and in intimate union with God.