The first eighteen verses of John’s Gospel are usually referred to as the prologue to the work. I am choosing to focus on the first five verses to keep the study manageable and since the participant introduced in verse 6 is different from verse 1, it provides us with a good break in the text to separate into more than one study.
The focus of these first five verses is the Word. The Word (logos) is introduced in verse 1 with three clauses that each tell us something about this new and first participant in the book.
In the beginning was the Word,
And the Word was with God
And the Word was God.
The first clause tells us that the Word existed in the beginning, “in the beginning was the Word.” The biblically literate person may hear an allusion back to the very beginning of the Bible where the exact same words are used, “in the beginning.” Here, in John’s opening, it is asserted that this Word was, in some respect not yet defined, “in the beginning.” What beginning John has in mind will be better understood as the verses unfold.
The second clause tells us that this Word was with God, or in some sense face to face with God or toward God. It posits a separation between God and the Word, the nature of the relationship as of yet also undefined.
The third clause is, to me, the most shocking in light of the second clause. The second clause posited some sort of differentiation between the Word and God but this clause says that the Word was God. Different and yet the same? How can this be? Time will tell.
Verse 2 then reiterates what was claimed in verse 1, connecting the ideas of the first clause and second clause above: “This one (the Word), was with God in the beginning.”
Verses 3 to 5 then continue the discussion of the Word, using pronouns and participant chains to refer back to “it” (we will refine who the Word is as the text unfolds).
All things were created through him… nothing was made that has been made without him… In him was life… The life was the light of all people… The light shines in the darkness… The darkness has not overcome it….
The Word remains the focus while other subjects are introduced to talk about the Word and flesh out who this Word is. Verse 3 brings up creation, helping us justify seeing an allusion to Genesis 1:1 in John 1:1 and helping us to read the first clause of the first verse as, “in the beginning of all things, the Word existed.” It says that everything that has ever had existence was made through the Word. In fact, it strengthens it by saying it again in the negative: nothing that has come into being was made without him. This Word has some participation in the very act of bringing all things into existence and so helps to show that this Word is itself uncreated. At this point we see that the Word existed in the beginning of all things, is different from God in some respect and yet is itself God, and has been at least a participant in bringing all things into existence, justifying the thought that the Word itself is uncreated.
Verses 4 and 5 continue to have the Word as the focus (argued above) but now bring new categories to bear upon it. The text says that “life was in him,” and that this “life was the light of all people.” The text goes on to say that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Not much will be said on these two verses at this point as I believe the Gospel itself will begin to expound these life and light/darkness categories throughout. Be on the look out for them.
So, what is this Word? There are of course many prior associations with the use of logos that a first century reader might have since logos was not a newly invented term by John (see especially Craig Keener’s The Gospel of John commentary for a thorough look at all the possible backgrounds), but it is important to see how John defines this logos as we move throughout the book, noting simply for now that the word logos in Greek “can be summarized under the two heads of inward thought, and the outward expression of thought in speech” (Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, 152), suggesting John has in mind that the Word is the divine self-expression. In this text the logos is personified and so we have a personal divine self-expression. Jesus, who is the Word, is God’s self-expression, his revelation. This is significant because it points out that Jesus is the revelation, he does not just bring revelation from God.
This word then disappears from the rest of the book as a referent for Jesus after the prologue. Perhaps this word was the best word to encapsulate all that John wanted to say of Jesus. Jesus is God’s self-expression, his divine revelation.
The peculiar language of verse 1, and really this whole text, begins our journey into the theme of the relationship of the Father and Son, though the terms do net yet arise in the text. It will form the basis of discussion of the trinity throughout.