Week 2

John 1:6-13

The Word, the Witness and the World

1:6-9 There came a man, sent from God, whose name was John. The same came as a witness, that he might testify about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but was sent that he might testify about the light. The true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world.

John has begun to reveal that this Supreme Being, the Creator of the universe, the Eternal Word, has come into the world in order to shine light into the darkness. He is about to explain that the Word became flesh in order to live among His creatures, and yet he pauses to introduce a lesser, though esteemed, person: John the Baptist. There are at least two possible explanations for this apparent digression.

The first is that John’s preaching and baptising activity continued in parallel with Jesus’ public ministry. Disciples continued to follow John, and some of them even regarded Jesus as a competitor. John remained popular with the people and was highly esteemed as a prophet, and some of his disciples continued to follow him for many years after his death.[1] Jesus made His first appearance in the context of this well-established and popular ministry. The Gospel makes it clear that Jesus and John the Baptist were not on the same level, being respectively Creator and creature. John the Baptist was happy to agree with this.[2]

Perhaps the most compelling explanation for the interposition of John the Baptist into the text is that he provided a connecting link between the statements, ‘In the beginning was the Word’, and ‘The Word became flesh, and lived amongst us’.[3] The eternal Word had entered space and time in human flesh. He had also stepped into the Jewish world as a Jewish man and in fulfilment of the Jewish Scriptures. Those Scriptures had concluded some 400 years before, with the prophecy of Malachi who recorded God’s promise to send the prophet Elijah. He would prepare the hearts of the people to receive the Messiah. John was that Elijah figure, to whom Isaiah had also alluded.[4] God had sent John in advance of Jesus to complete the work of the previous prophets and to usher in the age of the Messiah, thus acting as the final bridge between promise and fulfilment.

In connection with this, John’s primary task was to act as a witness to the person and work of Jesus the Messiah. He thus introduces one of the main themes of this Gospel. John was a witness who testified on the basis of what he had seen and heard. Others, having met and begun to follow Jesus, did the same. Andrew witnessed to Simon, Philip to Nathaniel, the Samaritan woman to her village; the blind man boldly witnessed to the Pharisees, Lazarus by his resurrection from death gave undeniable testimony, and Mary Magdalen brought news of Jesus’ resurrection to the disciples.[5]

Most importantly, John emphasises the unique testimony of Jesus Himself and the Father’s testimony by means of the signs, the works, that the Father gave him to do. This is at the heart of the Gospel: the relationship between the Father and the Son is the supreme witness to the identity of Jesus. After Jesus’ return to heaven, the Holy Spirit would continue the same witness to and through the disciples.[6]

1:10-13 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, and the world didn’t recognise him. He came to his own, and those who were his own didn’t receive him. But as many as received him, to them he gave the right to become God’s children, to those who believe in his name: who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

The word ‘world’ appears three times in the first sentence of verse 10. On the first two occasions ‘the world’ described the place that the Word had made and which He was now visiting. Specifically, it referred to the land of Israel as promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and confirmed by the prophets. The third usage, ‘the world didn’t recognise him’, referred to the world of human beings and, in particular, to the people of Israel, His own people.

At one point Jesus stated that He had been sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (although, for particular reasons, He made a few exceptions to this rule). During the period of His life on earth, until His saving work had been accomplished, He placed a similar restriction on His apostles. The ultimate plan was that Gentiles would also be included in one flock with one shepherd.[7]

Initially both John the Baptist and the Pharisees were ignorant of Jesus’ identity, but this situation would soon change. When John saw a miraculous sign from heaven, he identified Jesus as the Messiah and received Him with acclamation and joy.[8] In contrast, when Jesus subsequently performed miraculous signs from heaven, most of the religious leaders rejected these signs as constituting evidence for His identity. Jesus later described such people as being ‘of the world’. Conversely, Jesus described those who chose to receive Him as Messiah as being ‘not of the world’, for they believed the truth that He had come from and belonged to, another world.[9] The distinction between these two groups progressively sharpened as events moved towards their conclusion in Jesus’ trial and crucifixion.

Jesus’ followers are said to have believed in His name. In the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day, ‘The Name’ (Hebrew Hashem) was used as a synonym for God, expressing His very nature, all that He is. When the disciples believed in Jesus’ name they were not merely giving formal recognition to His identity, but were committing themselves to Him as their Lord and their God. In return they received a new life and a new identity as God’s children.

The expression ‘God’s children’ would have had special significance for Jewish people. When the nation was about to emerge from slavery in Egypt, God referred to Israel as His firstborn son. In his prophetic song Moses affirmed this: ‘Isn’t he your father who has bought you? He has made you and established you.’ The prophet Hosea recalled this relationship: ‘When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt.’ He also described Israel as a son whom God, as a father, fed and taught to walk. Israel failed to live up to that high calling, but even as God was about to judge them for their unfaithfulness, He still called them His dear son. Likewise, Isaiah’s impassioned prayerfor mercy on God’s erring people was based on the assertion that ‘you are our Father’.[10] What was largely an unfulfilled aspiration now became an actual relationship, through the sending and sacrifice of the beloved Son.[11]

John described the process whereby we become children of God, using the picture of birth. This new life comes from heaven and has no connection with blood, family, nationality or ethnicity. It cannot be achieved by the will of the flesh, personal works or human effort, nor can it be imparted or imposed by the will of a human being or by any external human agency. New birth will be the subject of a later chapter when Nicodemus, a prominent religious expert, came to visit Jesus and discovered, to his surprise, that he needed to be born again from above.[12]

Other scriptures describe adoption as a way of entering God’s family. This is pictured in the way that God called Abrahamfrom the Gentile nations to become the foundation stone for the new nation of Israel. In a similar way, Gentiles could join the nation as proselytes and become equal members in the family of Israel.[13] Adoption focuses on our status as mature children of God who have the privilege of inheritance within the family of God, to be fully enjoyed when Jesus returns and the dead are raised to life.[14]

Before we conclude this section, we should take note of a highly significant word, ‘authority’, which becomes one of the central themes of the Gospel. ‘But as many as received him, to them he gave the right [authority] to become God’s children’.[15] The issue of authority and its source was at the heart of the conflict between Jesus and the leaders of Israel. They claimed jurisdiction and the right to call Him to account. He refused that claim, and insisted that He had absolute authority as the Son of Man and by virtue of His relationship with the one He dared to call ‘My Father’. Near the end of the narrative it seemed that they had prevailed in the battle of wills, but they would be proved wrong. Jesus made this clear when He said, many months prior to His death:

‘Therefore the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it away from me, but I lay it down by myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. I received this commandment from my Father.[16]

[1] John 3:25-26; Matt. 9:14; Luke 7:18-19; Matt. 21:24-27; Acts 19:1-5.

[2] John 1:27, 34; 3:28-30.

[3] John 1:1, 14.

[4] Mal. 4:5-6; Isa. 40:3-5; Matt. 3:10-12; Luke 7:18-23; 7:26-27; Matt. 17:10-13.

[5] Jn. 3:27-30; 5:31-36; 1:40-41, 44-46; 4:28-30; 9:13-34; 12:9-11; 20:17-18.

[6] Jn. 3:31-36; 5:16-19-23, 36-40; 6:32-40; 7:37-39; 8:14-18, 54-58; 11:41-42; 12:27-33; 14:25-26; 15:26-27; 16:7-15.

[7] Matt. 15:24; John 4:22; Matt. 10:6; John 10:16.

[8] John 1:29-34.

[9] John 8:23; 12:31; 14:30; 15:19; 17:6, 14, 16.

[10] Exod. 4:22; Deut. 32:6, 18; Hos. 11:1, 3; Jer. 31:20; Isa. 63:15-16; 64:6-12.

[11] John 14:6, 21-23, 16:26-28.

[12] John 3:1-12.

[13] Isa. 56:3-8; Acts 2:10; Rom. 9:4.

[14] Gal.4:1-7; Eph. 1:3-6; Rom. 8:15-25.

[15] John 1:12.

[16] John 10:17-18.

Reflection: God’s children are born into His family and also adopted. What picture does this give us of our relationship with the Father? With this double identity, how should we live?

Prayer: Father, I thank you that you sent your Son into the world because you wanted me to become one of your children through believing in Him. I am so grateful that He was willing to become a human being and to die in my place so that I could receive new life and become part of your family.

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