John’s Way with Words

Lectionary Gospel Text for Jan 4, 2015: John 1:(1-9), 10-18

John’s vocabulary is relatively small (around 1013 different words) compared to the other New Testament writers but what he does with those words is quite amazing. John sometimes uses words whose range of meaning can capture two or more thoughts at a time. In his prologue John does this act in a number of places.

In John 1:1, he speaks of Jesus as the Logos of God. The word logos rang differently in the Jewish ears than it did in Gentile or non-Jewish ears. The Jews had become long accustomed of thinking of the “Word” of God as something dynamic or a live. When they heard the word logos, it surely brought to mind the way in which the “Word of God” came to the prophets of old (as in Mic 1:1; Joel 1:1; Jonah 1:1; 3:1; Zeph 1:1; Hag 1:1, 3; 2:10, 20; Zech 1:1, 7; 4:8; 6:9; 7:1, 4, 8, 12; 8:1, 18). However, a Greek reader would have no doubt heard a philosophical term referring to the logical principle that held the universe together in the the writings of the great Greek philosophers of the past. John masterfully pulls these two concepts together by naming Jesus the Word of God which created and sustains the universe.

In comparing Jesus to the light that came into the world, John says that the darkness was not about to overcome the light. The word translated overcome (κατέλαβεν) could also be translated comprehend or understand. Either understanding works in the context and perhaps John actually intended to communicated both ideas to his earliest readers.

John also shows care in choosing the tense of his verbs . In the first verse John uses a past tense(actually imperfect in Greek denoting a continuous past action as one experiences when watching a historical movie) to speak of Jesus’ relationship to God or Godness:

In the beginning was the Word,

and the Word was with God,

and the Word was God (or divine).

This sets up nicely the verb shift in v. 14:

And the Word became flesh (human),

and he pitched his tent among us…

Using the image of God pitching his tabernacle in the middle of the Israelites during their wilderness wandering, John makes the extraordinary claim that Jesus was now God-living-among-his-people. To make this possible, Jesus who was God but now became human. To be sure, John will later in his book claim that Jesus is the divine presence of God but here the point is that in becoming human, Jesus made a decisive break with “being God” so that he might be with us. He was, but for our sake, he became.

Therefore, the good word of John is that the Word became flesh and

to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:12 NRSV).

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