Designing the front cover of a book is actually really difficult. I’ve tried to do it a couple of times for various reasons, and it’s much harder than publishers make it seem1. I guess they should give some idea of what the book contains, but create enough intrigue to get you past the front page.
That’s what John does with the first 18 verses of his account of Jesus’ life. With perhaps the grandest opening imaginable, he evokes memories of the beginning of Genesis as he says, “In the beginning…” But instead of “In the beginning God”, John says “In the beginning was the Word.” This enigmatic character of the Word – a person who is distinct from God – and yet simultaneously is God Himself. This “Word” – who, by the end of his prologue, John has made clear is Jesus Christ.
No one has seen God, but…
With the most remarkable of introductions, Jesus (or “The Word”) is not only described as God, but also shown to be God in His acts of creation (v3), life-giving (v4) and light-giving (v4).
But more than that: this Word – also called “the true light” – does an unimaginable thing. He gives individuals the right to become children of God (v12)! As someone recently suggested to me, He came to ‘sign the adoption papers’ allowing me to join God’s family!
As this short introduction continues, much of the language is too much to understand at this stage – what does it mean to say that the darkness has not overcome the light (v5)? Or that His own people did not receive Him (v11)? In what way did Jesus exceed Moses (v17)? And yet the weight of the passage as a whole makes one thing clear, as excellently summarised in v18:
No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, He has made Him known.
No one has seen God. But whatever else is going on, whatever else Jesus is doing, He is making God Himself known. Jesus, as God, is able to reveal God to the rest of the world.
Jesus is God making God known!
Intrigue – tainted with sadness?
Which should leave us with a sense of immense intrigue – and, I guess, a sadness. A sadness because we weren’t there when it happened. A sadness because we can’t see that moment when God became flesh, came to earth, and started signing adoptions papers.
Except … well, except that John has introduced another character in his prologue. A guy called John the Baptist. A guy who is described as a “witness”. But more about that later…
I’ve barely skated the surface of this introduction to John’s gospel – there’s so much more then in those few verses. But I hope it’s already clear what John is doing with his front cover. While saturated with phrases that seem almost deliberately hard to understand, he’s created an opening to his account that simply cries out for more. While giving a glimpse of how significant this individual is, John’s assumption is that you won’t be able to resist the temptation to read on.