The first eighteen verses of John’s Gospel serve as a prologue to the book. It offers us a preview of the Gospel. In other words, discovering the theme of the prologue will lead us to the theme of the whole book. An examination of key terms and the structure of the prologue will reveal its theme.
In ancient times, books and epistles were mostly meant to be read out aloud. Writers employed several literary devices to capture the attention of listeners and to drive home their point. These devices included repetition of key words and themes, repetition of entire lines, symmetrical arrangement of lines or themes, alliteration, rhyming sounds and rhythms. One of the common devices used in the holy Scriptures is a reverse symmetry known as chiasmus, after the Greek alphabet X, chi.
There is a definite progression of thought in a chiasmus towards a central thought, after which there is a symmetrical regression to match previously mentioned concepts. The central message of a passage is found at the central pivot of the chiasmus.
Here is an example of a chiasmus. The text is from Matthew 13:13-18. The central idea of this passage is Israel’s deliberate refusal to see God’s hand at work through his Messiah. Click/touch the image to see it enlarged.
Several scholars have come up with their version of the structure of the prologue to John’s Gospel . Here is my adaptation of Culpepper’s diagram. Click/touch the image to see it enlarged.
The symmetry of this passage is obvious from this diagram. The opening four verses correspond to the last three verses. These verses are about the Logos, the eternal Word of God who revealed God to humanity much better than the words of Mosaic Law did. Jesus, the ‘only begotten God,’ revealed God in whose bosom the former rested. Thus, God is portrayed as a plurality of Persons in one Godhead. There was also an anticipation of the works of ‘darkness’ that would try in vain to jeopardize the works of God’s true Light.
Verses 6 to 8 and its corresponding passage, verse 15, are about John the Baptist, whose witness to the Light is portrayed as an integral part of the Christ-event. There are Christians who think that John the Baptist belonged to the Old Testament era! This passage tells us otherwise. Verses 9-10 and their corresponding verse 14 declare the arrival of the true Light into this world in human flesh.
Moving towards the core of this chiasmus, we see how the Christ-event redefined the notion of the ‘people of God.’ There was a time when ethnic Israel was “God’s own” people. It was sufficient to be a descendant of Abraham to be a part of that commonwealth. Not any more! The game of ‘flesh’ was over! Only those who ‘received’ Jesus – irrespective of their race – would be given the exclusive right to become children of God! (The term ‘receive’ must be interpreted in context; not according to any modern interpretation that talks of ‘receiving Jesus in your heart.’)
The verses are summarized below in order to bring their themes to the fore:
We see that the prologue to John’s gospel is focused on the identity of Jesus as the Divine Word, the identity of God’s people, the credibility of the Baptist’s witness to God’s ultimate revelation in Jesus, and on the incarnation of the Word. In fact, these themes run through this book. The first two themes are the most prominent.
Wherever Jesus went, the crowds that followed him or listened to his teaching got split into two groups—a large group of Jews who refused to believe in Jesus, claiming to be “Abraham’s descendants”; and a smaller group of people who believed in Jesus. The apostle John calls the former group “Jews.” The latter group too were from the same Jewish background. But John refuses to call them “Jews.” He called them “disciples” or the “flock” that belonged to Jesus, or the “branches” of the true vine. Even John did not wish to be called a “Jew”; he wanted his readers to know him as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved.’
John certainly did not think that God had two sets of people – Israel and the Church! Such a concept is alien to this gospel! If God has two sets of people, John 1:10-13 does not make any sense. Again, if there were two sets of “God’s own people,” why did Jesus tell his stubborn Jewish opponents, “You are from your father the devil”? (John 8:44) No one can be “children of God” and “children of the devil” at the same time. That idea is central to John’s Gospel!
Therefore, this Gospel, as much as it portrays Jesus as the Messiah, snatches the title of “God’s own people” from ethnic Israel and bestows it upon the disciples of Jesus Christ. The fledgling church, persecuted from town to town by zealous Jews, needed the assurance that they were “God’s own people.” The church was at the receiving end. And, unlike today, John did not have to worry about accusations of being ‘anti-Semitic.’
These two themes – the identity of Jesus as the divine WORD of God, and the identity of Jesus’ disciples as God’s people – are central to the Fourth Gospel. These twin themes are also central to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Any one who accepts the Gospel’s claim regarding Jesus Christ must accept God’s new definition of “His people.” Believing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God without accepting His definition of “God’s own people” goes against the grain of the Gospel. It is that grievous heresy that created a group called Judaizers in the first century church. They insisted Gentiles first become Jews before accepting the ‘Jewish Messiah.’ They were not prepared to accept uncircumcised Gentile Christians as a people on par with them. Circumcision per se was not the problem. Their underlying belief about who got to be part of God’s people was problematic. They failed to understand the futility of ethnicity. A new world order came into being with the arrival of Jesus. The lid over a ‘mystery’ was blown away. God says He can raise up “descendants for Abraham” from mere stones! (Matt 3:9)
Some of the apostle Paul’s epistles – Romans and Galatians for instance – were written to counter Judaizers and their teachings. Paul went to the extent of cursing those who preached any other ‘gospel’ (Gal 1:8-9). Such was the gravity of the issue. Luke, the beloved physician, showed the church through his Acts of the Apostles how God did not discriminate against any new believer. God liberally poured out His Spirit on all who turned to Jesus Christ—Jews, Samaritans, God-fearers, and Gentiles. James addressed the church as the ‘twelve tribes’ (of Israel) even when no one knew where the ethnic tribes had disappeared.
John’s Gospel indeed has other important themes, as suggested by the themes of light, darkness, witness, and not the least, the incarnation of the Word in human flesh. The author might have been particularly interested in countering Gnostic claims that Jesus could not have come in the flesh. We shall examine these in due time.
Peace be upon God’s Israel who boast only in the cross of Jesus Christ! (Gal 6:14-16)