Throughout December, we have been reflecting upon the advent of Jesus. Today, we turn our attention to the Gospel of John. Like Mark’s Gospel, John does not contain a so-called “infancy narrative.” Instead, the Fourth Gospel opens with a prologue that explains who Jesus is and what he came to accomplish.
John’s prologue is much beloved because it affirms the deity of the Son while at the same time emphasizing the genuine humanity of Jesus. But why do these things matter? Why is it important that Jesus is God just as the Father is God? Why is it important that the Son chose to become one of us and to make his home for a time among us?
John answers this question, at least in part, by giving us a glimpse of what it means for Jesus to be who he is. Following John’s lead, we can categorize the implications of Jesus’ identity in three ways: the Son is life, the Son is light, and the Son is full of grace.
John Webster is just one of many theologians who have emphasized the ontological difference between God and everything else. God has, as an essential part of His nature, “being” or “existence.” All else that exists is, by definition, contingent. That is, it depends upon God for its existence. Without God’s creative activity, it would never have come into being, and without God’s sustaining grace, it would cease to exist.
It is in the context of such assertions about God that we properly encounter John’s prologue. Jesus is the agent through whom all things are made. How can this be? The Son is not contingent like all other beings. Rather, the Son is like the Father in that He possesses being as an inalienable quality of his nature. In other words, Jesus not only has “life,” he is “life.”
There is an appropriate awe that should come over us when we ponder this point. Ontologically speaking, there is a gulf of the widest possible expanse between humanity and the Son. And yet, the Son chose to take upon himself the mortality that is ours by definition. He chose to do the impossible by laying aside his “life” only to do the impossible again by reclaiming his “life” in resurrection (cf. John 10:17-18).
But there is an important soteriological point that needs to be observed here, as well. Jesus is able to promise life to those who place their trust in him (cf. John 6:25-59; 10:9-10) because he is the rightful possessor of life. When we are adopted into God’s family, we become like Him. That is, we are granted being as an essential part of who we are. We are still contingent, for we receive this being from and through Christ. Nevertheless, mortality is no longer the defining characteristic of our nature. We have life.
The Son is not merely “life;” He is also “light.” Light is a powerful metaphor. It can represent all that is good, especially when it is contrasted with darkness (the typical representation of evil). Perhaps this is what is going on when Judas departs the company of the disciples at night in order to betray Jesus in John 13:30.
More often in John, though, light represents truth. The point is made explicit in the prologue, where the Son is described as being “full of . . . truth.” Truth was a point of some controversy in the ancient world (just as it is today). One of the endearing qualities of Greek culture was its relentless pursuit of truth, but many in Jesus’ day doubted whether such a pursuit could ever yield definitive results (cf. John 18:38).
For John, truth is not an abstraction that can be deciphered through logical examination. Truth is a person, and that person is Jesus. Obviously, this means that his teachings are true. That is why John can say that he is “full of . . . truth.” But it isn’t just his teachings that are true. Everything about him, and everything that he does, is true.
And there is another quality to light that we ought to consider. It attracts people to it. The reasons are obvious, especially when we think in terms of John’s ancient Mediterranean setting. Travel at night was very dangerous in that world. Darkness exposed people to cold and to the threat of attack by wild animals or criminal gangs. The presence of light meant the presence of people, and the presence of people meant the possibility of safety, warmth, and provision.
Now, as John 3:18-21 points out, not everyone is attracted to light. Predators and criminals thrive on darkness. The truth and goodness of the light reveals their evil deeds for what they are. Those who value truth and desire to do good, by contrast, crave the revealing and enlightening presence of Christ in their lives. They are not afraid of the light, for they know that in the light they will find life.
If this portrayal of Jesus leaves your heart both warmed and strangely disquieted, you are not alone. Genuine self-awareness cannot help but reveal the darkness that lurks within us all, and it is a darkness that we sometimes crave. Fortunately, the Son is not just “full of . . . . truth.” He is also “full of grace.”
Grace is a concept that is much discussed these days. It obviously has a deep and rich heritage in Christian theology, but it also has a rich heritage in the wider culture, signifying a quality that is both gentle and beautiful. Jesus definitely fits that criterion; there is a gentle attractiveness to him that we in theological circles often overlook.
Still, the contrast with “law” means that John’s conception of grace stands at the heart of Christian reflections upon God’s character and actions. Just as the Father acts favorably towards those who do not deserve such largesse, so also the Son demonstrates that grace in His words and His works. Jesus’ mission is not to be the source of further condemnation for the world. Although the world incurs further condemnation because of its rejection of the Son, it does not need the Son to demonstrate that it is worthy of condemnation. Rather, the Son demonstrates the quality and the extent of God’s love for the world.
It is this love that stands at the heart of the truth that the Son embodies, and it is this love that the Son came to communicate. The truth made incarnate in the Son reveals the self-serving and self-destructive behaviors of humanity for what they are, but it also demonstrates that there is another way for humans to live. Indeed, it is the only way for humans to really live. Those who receive God’s truth in faith will experience ontological and ethical transformation. Those who do not will find that the way they have chosen is an ontological and ethical dead end.