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nother look at the opening verses of John’s Gospel

“In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. The same was in the beginning with God” (John 1:1-2).

John 1:1-2 does not teach the literal pre-existence of Christ. Instead, it declares what was foreordained of him. Accordingly, it was the word that was in the beginning, not the actual person of Christ. John does not say, “In the beginning was the person!”

Foreordination is Biblical. Pre-existence is not. The latter is a Platonic concept that came into Christian thinking after New Testament times and makes it impossible to understand John’s message of salvation in Christ.

In the opening verses of his gospel, John is telling us what was prophesied about Christ from the beginning of time. The word of prophecy that John had in mind portrayed Christ with God and as God. What this means is, that from the very beginning, Christ was ordained — foreordained — to dwell with God in divine glory.

It is not difficult to identify the word that declared this in the beginning. It is Genesis 1:26. It is the same word that Jesus had in mind when, on the eve of his crucifixion, he prayed that the divine glory ordained for him might now be granted:

“And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was” (John 17:5). 

In John 1:1, the word is the Christ of prophecy, not the Christ of history. It is a picture in preview of Christ in glory. It is what God purposed at the creation of man. The rest of John’s Gospel tells how the Genesis 1:26 prophecy came to be fulfilled in Jesus and how, through him, others can also receive eternal life and dwell with God in glory. The message of John’s Gospel is that the man, Jesus, has attained to the eternal life ordained for him from the foundation of the world, and, through him, eternal life is mediated for all mankind.

The gospel of eternal life

John’s Gospel is the gospel of eternal life; eternal life first given by God to Jesus and then made accessible to us through him. The language that John uses compared with the other gospel writers underscores this fact:

Given John’s emphasis on eternal life through Jesus Christ, it is entirely fitting that he begins his gospel by declaring that eternal life with God was first ordained for Christ. And it is this that gives Christ his due preeminence throughout John’s Gospel. It is in this respect that Christ was before Abraham (John 8:58); this is the reason that Moses and the prophets wrote of him (John 1:45; 5:46), and this is why he was preferred before John the Baptist, even though John could say that Jesus Christ came after him in point of time (John 1:15, 27, 30).

“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth” (Gen 1:26). 

“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Historically, this was the pronouncement of God at the creation of Adam, and the angels entered into the creative work with Him. Prophetically, Gen 1:26 is God’s invitation to the glorified Christ — in fact, it is God’s invitation to the glorified Son of man — to join Him in the work of bringing many men and women to divine glory. This is the word that was in the beginning.

In New Testament parlance, Gen 1:26 contains a mystery of Christ (also see 1Cor 2:6-10; Eph 1:9-12). John 1:1 interprets the mystery for us, but, of course, the interpretation did not become historical reality until after Jesus rose from the dead.

John’s Gospel is chronological

The Gospel of John is set out in chronological order. This is not because John is concerned with a detailed timeline of the Lord’s ministry, but because he is telling us how God’s purpose proceeded to fulfillment in Christ, from the time that the word — the Christ of prophecy — was made flesh (John 1:14), until he rose from the dead and stood before his disciples in the glory of God (John 20:28). Several key statements mark the progress of John’s record:

“(But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Spirit was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified)” (John 7:39). 

At the feast of tabernacles, six months before the crucifixion.

“And Jesus answered them, saying, The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified” (John 12:23).

In the last week of Christ’s ministry.

“And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was” (John 17:5).

On the eve of Christ’s crucifixion.

“Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend (I am ascending) unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God” (John 20:17).

On the day Christ rose from the dead.

“And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).

Eight days later

It is altogether significant that Thomas did not declare Jesus to be “God” until after he had risen from the dead and was glorified by his Father and his God (also see Acts 3:13-15). A declaration of the kind that Thomas made would have been altogether out of place earlier in John’s chronology of salvation. This also means that the statement in John 10:30 — “I and my Father are one” — is not a statement about shared divinity or “substance”, but, as the context makes clear, is a statement about the unity of saving purpose that the Son has with the Father.

John 17:5 is wonderfully meaningful in John’s sequence. It shares several points of contact with the Prologue and gives us a splendid insight into the fact that the Lord Jesus indeed saw himself in the prophecy of Genesis 1:26:

“before the world was” (John 17:5) = “In the beginning” (John 1:1; 1:2) = before the creation of man (in Genesis 1:27);

“with thee” (John 17:5) = “with God” (John 1:1; 1:2) = “let us” (Gen 1:26);

“the glory which I had” (John 17:5) = “was God” (John 1:1) = “our image … our likeness” (Gen 1:26).

In the prayer of John 17, on the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus asked his Father to give him the glory that was ordained for him from the beginning. The time had come, historically speaking, for the Son to receive the effulgence of divine nature.

It is worth noting in passing that “the world” in John’s Gospel is the world of mankind. “Before the world was” takes us back before the creation of man. The world of mankind quickly became a sinning, dying world, and, again, John is concerned with telling us that the singular man, Jesus, came into the world to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29); that the world should be saved through him (John 3:16-17, etc.).

John’s Gospel documents God’s mediation of eternal life through the man Jesus Christ. It starts by declaring the fact that this man was ordained for glory with God from the beginning (John 1:1-2), and it brings us to the point where we see him stand before us in divine glory (John 20:28). John then invites us to believe what he has told us about Jesus, that we may be numbered among the men and women whom the Father and Son will bring to the same eternal glory:

“And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name” (John 20:30-31).

Jim Harper (Meriden, CT)

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