Second Sunday after Christmas Day

January 4, 2015
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Jeremiah 31.7-14
Reading 2: 
Psalm 147.12-20
Reading 3: 
Ephesians 1.3-14
Reading 4: 
John 1.1-18
By David J. Lull

With today’s readings, we have left behind stories of Jesus’ birth. Instead, the focus is on God’s timeless redemption of all people—indeed, all creation—revealed (and effected) in and through Jesus Christ. Each of our texts has an element of “Advent”—the “not yet” of our future! Each text also has an element of the “Epiphany” to the nations.

 

Jeremiah 31.7-14

The prophet is addressing the survivors of the deportation to the “north” (Jer 31.7-8): that is, the restoration of the northern and southern kingdoms (Israel and Judah) after the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century bce. Instead of mourning, the tone and message of this oracle is one of celebration and praise for God’s salvation of a people liberated from captivity. The prophet declares that “Jacob” (Israel) is “the chief of the nations” (v. 7), in the sense that it is first in importance (“the foremost,” as in the NET). More generally, the prophet offers hope to anyone in a situation that feels hopeless, anyone in “exile,” any people in the captivity of a foreign empire, anyone oppressed. Notice the list of the weak and vulnerable in v. 8! The prophet offers a vision of new life of abundance in paradise! Everyone has a seat at the great banquet! Justice, harmony, and peace are for everyone! The prophet’s message is not just for ancient Israelites. It is good news for young women and girls in Nigeria and around the world forced into being sex slaves, Syrian refugees in Turkey, Palestinians “exiled” in their own occupied territories and in neighboring countries, and Blacks in America. It is good news for everyone “exiled” in poverty, depression, mental illness. The good news is that God is a liberator, comforter, father, and shepherd.

As if to anticipate today’s Gospel, the prophet says to “the nations” (goyim/ גּוֹיִם= ethnē/ἔθνη = non-Jewish peoples), “Hear the word of the Lord” (Jer 31.10). The “word” that God spoke long ago to ancient Israelites and, in this case, to non-Jewish peoples, by the prophets, God spoke to all peoples, Jews and non-Jews, “by a Son” (Heb 1.1-2). God’s “word” back then—“God who scattered Israel will gather Israel, and will keep Israel as a shepherd a flock” (Jer 31.10)—is the same “word” God speaks now: freedom, comfort, and abundant life to the oppressed. It the word of God’s everlasting love for and faithfulness to Israel (Jer 31.3). To be consistent with Israel’s “monotheism,” God’s love and faithfulness is not just for Israel; it is for all peoples (compare Rom 3.29).

The prophet says that God has recruited “the nations” to proclaim God’s “word.” These nations “from the north” earlier had conquered Israel and Judah and took them as captives to live in a foreign land. God makes the oppressors proclaim God’s liberation to the captives!

The prophet also expresses the intimate relationship between a people’s identity and the land of their birth. Life was possible in the “diaspora,” but it was not the same as life in their homeland. The modern state of Israel maintains this connection between people and land, but only for Jews—not only that, but also for Jews whose ancestors never inhabited the land. At the same time, Israel denies the “right of return” to exiled Palestinians, dispossessed of their homeland. Ancient narratives about “the land” are not serving peace and justice in today’s world.

Finally, a comment on v.11: God has not paid a “ransom” to anyone! Although the meaning of the Hebrew verb ( פדה/ pada) includes making a ransom payment, in this context the focus is on God’s act of deliverance, release, liberation.

 

Psalm 147.12-20

The psalmist’s call to praise “the Lord” (vv. 12 and 20) raises all kinds of questions. Do we praise God, not only in good times, but also in bad times, out of hope and radical trust in God? Can we truly praise God and not commit ourselves to radical trust in God? Can we truly praise God and not act justly on behalf of and with all those whom God acts justly—namely, everyone and all created things?

When the psalmist speaks to Jerusalem and Zion (147.1 and 19-20) about their God (147.1, 5, 7, 12), does that imply that their God is God of Jews only? My colleague, Duane Priebe, chastised our students whenever they spoke of “our God,” because it implied that “our God” was a tribal God for Christians only. To anticipate today’s Gospel, the Word of God incarnate in Jesus Christ is the life and light of the entire human race, the “true light that enlightens everyone” (John 1.4 and 9). Indeed, every created thing was created through the Word of God (John 1.3), so that God is not only “our God.” God is all of creation’s God! (Compare Rom 3.29.)

In addition, another problem with talking about “our God” is that it implies ownership or possession. Too many Christians think that they and they alone “know God.” Those who think this way imagine that they are being faithful to this Gospel, which declares that the Word of God became incarnate in Jesus Christ and that Jesus Christ “made God known” (John 1.18). What they forget or ignore is that this Gospel earlier declared that the Word of God “enlightens everyone”! In addition, they do not notice that John 14.6 (“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”) is not meant for non-believers; rather, it is addressed to Jesus’ dull-minded disciples, whose weak faith and lack of understanding make them vulnerable to losing faith in Jesus.

Moving on, the message of verses 13-14 is that God—not imperial powers, not rulers, not armies—is the source of peace, security, and prosperity. Ancient Israel frequently made the faithless mistake of believing that imperial powers, rulers, and armies were the source of peace, security, and prosperity. Every time that unfaithful way of thinking brought disaster. They became a people every imperial power in their region would conquer. They worshipped idols and became a people who no longer knew the ways of peace and justice. The history of ancient Israel is a warning to nations today—including Israel and the United States—who worship the idols of military power.

Again anticipating today’s Gospel, God’s “word” is God’s power to create and order the world (Psalm 147.15-18; compare Genesis 1-2 and John 1.1-5). God’s “word” in the creation of the world is God’s incarnation in the world! Our appropriate response is awe and praise—and the responsible use and care for all creation.

God’s “word” is also the Torah, God’s “statutes and ordinances” given to Jacob/Israel (Psalm 147.19-20). These “statutes and ordinances” are gifts of God’s grace to Israel. They are gifts that call them to responsible living, not just in relation to other Israelites, but also in relation to peoples of other nations. In addition, although God gave these “statutes and ordinances” only to Israel, God gave “grace and truth” to everyone through Jesus Christ (John 1.17).

 

Ephesians 1.3-14

These verses form one sentence of 25 lines in Greek! Beginning with an introductory summary of God’s beneficence (v. 3), this poem consists of three sections, marked off with references to praising God (vv. 6, 12, 14), which fit nicely into a temporal (and “Trinitarian”) pattern (compare 1.3 NET 5sn):

  • The first (vv. 4-6) is a description of God’s beneficent actions toward human beings “before the creation of the world.”

  • The second is (vv. 7-12) describes God’s redemption of human beings and all creation through the past historical event of Christ’s sacrificial death.

  • The third (vv. 13-14) describes the gift of the Holy Spirit as the “seal” and “pledge” of God’s redemption of God’s people completed in the future.

There is no verb in the opening words, “Blessed is [or be] the God …, who has blessed us …” (v. 3). We have to decide whether they are a statement about God’s character, “the God and Father… is blessed” (that is, holy and beneficent), or a statement about the act of praise as the appropriate human response to God’s benefactions (“blessings” and “grace”). The former fits the content of these verses, which describe God’s actions as those of a God who is worthy of praise. In addition, the Greek vocabulary of “Blessed is the God…” (Εὐλογητὸς ὁ θεὸς…) differs from the phrase “to or for the praise of God’s glory” (εἰς ἔπαινον τῆς δόξης αὐτοῦ), which punctuates the end of each section.

In any case, this poem expresses a reciprocal relationship: because God “has blessed us,” we “bless” or praise God and, thereby, profess faith and trust in God’s beneficence. The appropriate response to God’s “blessings” or benefactions, whether already bestowed or promised, is praise, which leads to further blessings, praise, and final blessings.

God’s “blessings” come from or through the Spirit, so that they are “spiritual.”

  • Election to become “holy and blameless” (v. 4)

  • “Adoption as children for God” (v. 5)

  • God’s “glorious grace” (NRSV) or “the glory of God’s grace” (NET v. 6), “the abundance of God’s grace” (v. 7c), “which God lavished on us” (v. 8a; also see 2.7)

  • “Redemption” (v. 7a) “as God’s own possession” (v. 14)

  • “Forgiveness” (v. 7b; compare 2.5)

  • “Inheritance” (v. 11)

  • “Salvation” (v. 13a; compare 2.5)

  • The Holy Spirit, as the “seal” and “pledge” of “inheritance as God’s people” (vv. 13b-14)

We need to resist the urge to think that the first person plural pronouns in “who has blessed us” (v. 3), “chose us” (v. 4), and “destined us” (v. 5) these pronouns are exclusive, as if “them” or “others” were their polar opposites. For one thing, these pronouns include the letter’s Jewish author as well as its gentile recipients. Moreover, in this letter there is no division of humanity into the righteous and the wicked. The “mystery of Christ” is that, through Christ, “gentiles have become fellow heirs” with Jews (3.1-12). The letter announces the unity of all people—indeed, of all creation—“in Christ”! Besides, that God would create everyone but “choose” or “destine” only some for salvation is immoral.

Salvation is about receiving “every spiritual blessing in the heavens” (1.3)—on earth, not in heaven. To be sure, the author announces that God “made us alive together with Christ… and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus” (2.4-6). The phrase “the heavenly places” reflects a universe consisting of three spheres: the earth surrounded by “the heavens” above circling around the earth and a sphere under the earth (compare Phil 2.10). The plural refers to multiple “heavens” as places for “rulers, authorities, and powers” in the spirit-world (Eph 1.21; 3.10), including “evil spirits” (6.12). Above these “heavens” are “the heavens” where the living spiritual bodies of those “raised from the dead” live (1.20-21; 2.6). From these “heavens” come “every spiritual blessing” (1.3).

However, the past tense verbs—God “has blessed us, made us alive, raised us up, and seated us”—look, not to something that will happen in the future, but to something that has already happened in the past. That means that being “made alive, raised up, and seated” with Christ Jesus “in the heavens” is a present reality (compare “we have redemption” in 1.7 and “you have been saved” in 2.8). In other words, if salvation is about “going to heaven,” it is a “journey” experienced in the present, in new life in Christ on earth. In fact, it is better to say that “the heavens” is a destination in the sense that it is the source of “blessings” delivered by the Spirit from “the heavens” to people on earth!

God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world” (v. 4) has lent support to the doctrines of “predestination” (see “God predestined us” in vv. 5 and 11) and of Christ’s “pre-existence.” Jewish Apocalypticism and some pagan Greco-Roman philosophical traditions shared the view that God controlled human “fate.” However, two other dimensions of divine “election” are its emphasis on God’s initiative and on God’s gracious love as the eternal will of God. What existed “before the foundation of the world” are not individual “souls” destined for “heaven” or “hell” (which, in any case, are concepts alien to Ephesians), but God’s purpose to save everyone—actually, all creation (1.10, 22). As God’s “Beloved” (1.6), “Christ” is God’s eternal and steadfast love (1.4; 2.4; 3.17, 19; 4.16; 5.2; and 6.23). Redemption is God’s purpose embedded in creation.

A textual note: Verse 5 begins with a participle that modifies the preceding verb. Its most general use is to answer the question when “God chose/elected us….” In Greek, the main verb (“God chose/elected us in Christ … to be holy and blameless before God”) and the participle (“predestined us…”) are in the same past tense (aorist). Therefore, the participle could refer to the same time as the main verb (“God chose us … while God predestined us …”), a time before the main verb (“God chose us … after God predestined us …”), or a time after the main verb (“God chose us … before God predestined us …”). The emphasis here is simply on the temporal sequence of God’s choosing and predestining “us.”

A temporal translation (“when God destined us…”) might be sufficient, if the emphasis is only on the time when “God chose/elected us….” However, more specific uses of this adverbial participle (all implying some temporal sense) suggest more specific interpretations of the relationship between God’s choosing and predestining “us”:

  • “God chose/elected us in Christ … to be holy and blameless before God by [means of] predestining us for adoption as God’s children….” Here the “adoption as God’s children…” would be the means by which “God chose/elected us in Christ … to be holy and blameless before God.” In other words, God’s predestining “us” for “adoption” would answer how “God chose/elected us in Christ … to be holy and blameless before God.”

  • “God chose/elected us in Christ … to be holy and blameless before God, with the result that or for the purpose that God predestined us for adoption….” It is often difficult to distinguish between purpose and result. Closely related is a causal participle: “…because God predestined us for adoption….” However, Greek authors tended to place causal clauses before the main verb, reflecting the relationship between a cause and its effect or result (the main verb).

For the meaning of the phrase “to be holy and blameless before God” (v.4), see 2.3-10.

In v. 5, the Greek has a preposition phrase after “adoption through Jesus Christ,” which the RSV, NIV, and NRSV translate with the possessive pronoun “his sons/children.” The KJV, NAU, and NAB, however, retain the Greek prepositional phrase (“adoption through Jesus Christ to himself”). The Greek preposition here (εἰς, to or for) signifies the one for whose benefit, advantage, or purpose something is done. It says that, “through Jesus Christ,” God adopts children for God’s own benefit. Of course, gentiles also benefit from God’s adoption, but ultimately God is the beneficiary of God’s adoption of gentiles! God’s adoption of gentiles expands God’s “family,” so that it encompasses Jews and everyone else. In fact, God draws all creation together under Christ. As a result, God enjoys dominion in all creation—and praise from all peoples, both Jews and gentiles (1.6, 12, and 14).

The phrase “adoption through Jesus Christ” (v.5) fills in (part of) the content of “spiritual blessings in the heavens” (v. 3) and anticipates the content of “the mystery of God’s will” (v. 9): namely, the inclusion of gentiles together with Jews as full members of God’s people (see 3.1-13). Compare these comments about adoption as God’s children with John 1.12-13 (see below).

In v. 5, does the phrase “in or with love” go with “to be holy and blameless before God” (v. 4), with “God chose us” (v. 4), or with “God predestined us” (v. 5)? The difference is whether “in/with love” describes human action—how “to be holy and blameless before God”—or God’s action. The latter is a better fit for the emphasis on who God is and what God does to redeem us and all creation, and on God’s redeeming action through Christ, God’s “Beloved” (v. 6).

The use of the noun “redemption” in 1.7 and 14, on the one hand, seems to be different from the use of the verb “redeem” in Jer 31.11, even though both express the idea of “to set free by paying a ransom.” The author of Ephesians links “redemption” to “forgiveness” in 1.7. Jeremiah might imply that, by redeeming Israel, God turned away from punishing Israel for its transgressions, for which God had sent Israel into exile. In that sense, it would be God’s act of forgiveness. On the other hand, Eph 6.10-18 suggests that “redemption” in this letter implies more than “forgiveness”—or, better, that redemptive forgiveness implies liberation, as it does in today’s reading from Jeremiah. For the prophet, God’s forgiveness takes the form of a geo-political “redemption” of Israel: namely, liberation from Babylonian captivity and the restoration of Israel. For the author of Ephesians, God’s redemptive forgiveness takes the form of liberation from “rulers, authorities, cosmic powers of this present darkness, and spiritual forces of evil in the heavens” (also see 1.10, 20-21; 3.10).

The phrase “redemption through his blood” entails two concepts, neither of which entails the payment of a “ransom” to anyone. Medieval atonement theories have no place here! The first concept is the role and interpretation of “blood.” In the first instance, it is a person’s “life-blood.” In the corpus of Pauline letters, it refers more specifically to Jesus’ death. If the author and recipients of this letter knew details of Jesus’ life, they play no role in this letter.

The second concept is the role and interpretation of “sacrifice.” There is no implication here that Jesus’ death was an involuntary sacrifice. God does not play the role of a priest or executioner! God is not an abusive “father” who sends his son to the gallows as a sacrifice. God has no blood lust! Long ago, ancient Israelites had objected to human sacrifices. What is left, then, is the concept of Jesus’ death as a voluntary sacrifice—an act of faithfulness to his love for God and to God’s love for all humanity—indeed, for all creation (1.3, 10).

Textual notes on vv. 7-8: “Grace,” in the phrase “according to the abundance of God’s grace,” is the direct object of the verb “lavished” (v. 8; compare “freely bestowed, favored, or blessed” in v. 6). The phrase “with all wisdom and insight” (ἐν πάσῃ σοφίᾳ καὶ φρονήσει) could explain how God “lavished” grace on us: “…grace, which God lavished on us with all wisdom and insight” (RSV, NET, NIV, KJV). It could also explain how God “made known [γνωρίσας] the mystery of God’s will” (v. 9): “…grace, which God lavished on us, when, with all wisdom and insight, God made known to us…” (NRSV, NAB, NAU). It could also explain the “favors” (“grace”) God bestowed: “…grace, which God lavished on us, [namely,] with all wisdom and insight.”

God’s “will” was a secret or “mystery” until God “made it known to us in Christ” (v. 9). In a phrase that echoes Rom 3.25, the author of Ephesians explains that “the mystery of God’s will” was “according to God’s good pleasure [or purpose] that God set forth [or publicly displayed] in Christ.” God’s revelation of “the mystery of God’s will” came at “the completion of the times” (“fullness of time” in the NRSV and others), that is, a time God had chosen as the end of the period of waiting for God’s “plan” for redemption, not only of gentiles (2.11-22 and 3.1-13), but also of all creation (v. 10). The “gathering up of all thingsin heaven and earth” comes as a bit of a surprise to anyone who thinks that God’s “plan” of redemption would focus only on human beings. The author of Ephesians has a cosmic vision of God’s “plan”!

How exactly God will “gather up” everything in all creation, “in heaven and on earth,” in Christ is a “mystery” the author of this letter never explains, at least not explicitly. The Greek verb translated “gather up” (ἀνακεφαλαιόω) has several meanings: (1) summarize, sum up, make sense of; (2) renew; and (3) head up (NET n. 25tn). None of these meanings help! Elsewhere in this letter, Christ is the “head” of the “church” (1.22-23 and 4.15-16). We can understand that. However, what would it mean for Christ to be “the head” of all creation, that is, for all creation to be united in Christ as its “head”? The best sense I can make of the cosmic reach of Christ is that in Christ God made God’s “will” and “plan” publicly known as God’s loving purpose for all creation.

Textual notes on v. 11: The problem is the interpretation of the passive form verb κληρόω in v. 11 (BDAG κληρόω 1 and 2), as either “we were chosen” or “we have obtained an inheritance [by lot].” The point is that God “predestined” gentiles (“the nations”) to be included among God’s “chosen” people and/or to share in the “inheritance” promised to God’s “chosen” people, which is redemption (v. 14; compare BDAG κληρονομία 3). God has done this, not because of some imagined “right” or “merit.” God has done this purely out of God’s own “purpose,” “counsel,” and “will” (1.11). Nine times in this section of the letter (1.3 a and b, 5, 7, 10, 11, 12, 13 a and b), the author introduces Christ as the one through whom God accomplished God’s loving, saving purpose.

Textual notes on v. 12: At least two interpretations are possible for “we, who set our hope on Christ before[hand],” which hang on the pronoun “we” and the “beforehand” (which is a prefix in the Greek verb προ-ελπίζω). If the pronoun “we” refers to Jewish believers in Christ, as most scholars believe, “before[hand]” would suggest “before the gentiles” or even “before the Messiah came.” If the pronoun “we” refers to Jewish and gentile believers in Christ, “before[hand]” would suggest “before receiving the full inheritance of redemption in the future” (see vv. 13-14). In v. 13, “you also” lends support to the first interpretation.

Textual notes on vv. 13-14: Later tradition identified this “seal” with baptism, for which there is no support in Ephesians. Rather, gentiles (“you also”) received the “seal” of “the promised Holy Spirit” at the time of their conversion: when they “had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in Christ.” The Holy Spirit put a “stamp” on them, securing, confirming, and identifying them as full members of God’s “chosen” people and, thereby, heirs of redemption. In addition, the “Holy Spirit” would enable them to be “holy and blameless before God” (v. 4). As such, the Holy Spirit is “the pledge,” down payment, or first installment of the inheritance, toward full “redemption of [or as] God’s own people/possession” (v. 14). Earlier we noticed that the author of this Pauline letter referred to redemption and salvation as accomplished in the past, so that it already would be a present reality. Here we learn that the “already” in the present is half the story. Full “redemption of [or as] God’s own people/possession” remains as the “not yet” of the future. Advent is not behind us: it is the “not yet” of our future!

 

John 1.1-18

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke set Jesus’ birth within the context of the Roman Empire. In contrast to those birth narratives, today’s Gospel shifts from the birth of Jesus, the baby of hope, to the incarnation of God’s eternal, cosmic Word. With the incarnation of God’s Word (1.14), we get a hint that this poetic eulogy to the cosmic, timeless Word of God is a prelude to the tale of a figure of history, who lived at a particular time and in a particular place. In 1.45, we learn that God’s Word-in-the-flesh, Jesus, was born of a human father, and was a resident of the Galilean town of Nazareth. Throughout this story of Jesus, God’s Word-in-the-flesh contends with leaders of rival Jewish sects. At the end of this Gospel, we learn that the life and death of Jesus, God’s Word-in-the-flesh, took place in the context of the Roman Empire. The author of this Gospel never lets us forget that this tale is about God’s timeless, cosmic Word, and that it is, at the same time, a tale about Jesus, a particular historical person who lived and died in a particular historical context shaped by Judaism and the Roman Empire.

As I wrote in my commentary on the Gospel for Christmas Day, John 1.1-14 recasts the creation story in Genesis 1 in the form of a poetic narrative of God’s divine Word. This Word was “in the beginning.” We can hear an echo of “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth” and spoke the words, “Let there be light” (Gen 1.1-3). We also hear echoes of Wisdom (Prov 8.22-36). By declaring that Jesus embodies this Word, John’s Gospel is saying more than that Jesus proclaimed God’s “word” for a particular historical occasion, like Israel’s earlier prophets. The Word Jesus proclaimed and embodied is God’s “Word” at the very creation of the world—a “Word” from the very beginning of this world, a Word God speaks always, everywhere, to and for everyone and every created thing (John 1.1-3).

If readers of John 1.1-18 identify “him” and, therefore, “the Word” beginning with v. 1, with Jesus, v. 14 will not make sense. For, “the Word” became a human being who “lived among us” (1.14). John 1.45 (“Jesus from Nazareth, son of Joseph”) is a remarkable contrast with the eternal, cosmic claims the prologue makes about Jesus—or, rather, with the mistaken claims about Jesus’ eternal, cosmic pre-existence. Jesus had a human father and was born in a specific, particular geographic location!

In addition, the past tense in v. 9, a periphrastic imperfect (“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming [Ἦν … ἐρχόμενον] into the world.”), signifies the constant, habitual, or customary action of “the true light” from “the beginning” up to, and including, its incarnation in Jesus. Jesus bears decisive witness to the same divine “Word” and “true light” that had come into the world through messengers of God’s Word before Jesus.

All of creation bears witness to God’s tender care for every living and non-living thing! But, do we see and hear that witness with reason and our senses alone? Would we see and hear that witness without the religious traditions that formed our views of the world? Would any of us “know God” if it were not for the traditions that formed our views of the world? I believe we would, at a deep, pre-reflective level of our subconscious feelings. At a more reflective level, however, particular traditions have formed our “knowledge” of God.

The message of John 1.1-18 is that, in/with/through Jesus, God’s “Word” makes God known (1.18). That means, for Christians, that Jesus is the decisive witness to the reality of God. What is Jesus’ witness? It is to God as the source of “abundant life” for everyone and “light” that defeats darkness in the minds and hearts of everyone (1.4-5). The God Jesus “makes known” is the God who grants the right to “become children of God” to everyone who receives God’s Word and believes “in ‘his’ name” (1.12). For Christians, that means receiving Jesus and believing “in Jesus’ name.”

The noun πίστις (“faith”) never appears in this Gospel. Perhaps that is because, for its author, “faith” was an “activity” that people must “do” (NET John 1.12 n. 28tn). A better translation of the Greek phrase πιστεύειν εἰς (“believe in”) is “to believe and put one’s trust in” in the sense of “to rely and depend on.” In other words, the act of “believing in” someone is not just a matter of intellectual assent to their words, although that is part of it. Rather, it involves putting one’s trust in someone. In this Gospel, sometimes the cognitive act leads to trusting in Jesus, but sometimes trusting in Jesus leads to intellectual assent to the truth of his words. More important than either intellectual assent or trust, however, is participation in Jesus as the Word of God—abiding, living in Jesus, and Jesus’ abiding, living in the believer.

Finally, we need to face the danger of assuming that the repeated reference to the refusal to “accept” the Word and/or Jesus refers to “the Jews.” The Jewish Wisdom tradition spoke about “two ways” of life—accepting and rejecting God’s Word (Wisdom: see Prov 8.22-36). Both “ways” are represented in Israel. The same is true of the Christian church! Usually, when you assume that you have “accepted” Jesus, you will not recognize your rejection of Jesus—for example, when you put your ultimate trust in institutions that help you create and grow your wealth, and when you put your ultimate trust in your nation’s military power to make you safe. The season of Christmas, no less than the season of Lent, is a good time to examine whether you, and your church, faithfully “abide in” Jesus! As an affirmation of faith, “the Word became flesh and lived among us” is an empty “idea” if we do not do something about it. Abide in Jesus!

In the rest of my “commentary, I offer comments on selected issues in the text following my translation of John 1.1-18, in which I replace the pronouns with their antecedents (compare the NRSV, NIV, and NET).

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God [or was divine]. 2 The Word was, in the beginning, with God. 3 All things were made through the Word and without the Word was made not one thing that has been made. 4 In the Word was Life, and this Life was the Light for all people; 5 and the Light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.

(6 A man had been sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as one bearing witness, to bear witness concerning the Light, so that all might believe through it. 8 John was not the Light, rather, he came to bear witness concerning the Light.)

9 The true Light, which enlightens all people, was coming into the world. 10 The Light was in the world, and the world was made through the Light/Word, and the world did not recognize the Light/Word. 11 The Light/Word came to its own people, and its own people did not accept the Light/Word. 12 But, those who accepted the Light/Word—to them, the Light/Word gave power to be children of God—that is, to those who believe in the name of the Light/Word—13 they were born, not from parental descent, nor from sexual desire, nor from a man or husband’s desire, but from God.

14 And the Word became flesh and took up residence among us, and we have seen the glory of the Word, the glory as of a one who is “uniquely-from-the-Father,” full of grace and truth 15 (John testified concerning the Word [as in vv. 7-8]—or concerning the one in whom the Word became flesh—and cried out saying, “This is the one of whom I said, ‘The one coming after me is [or became] before me, because he existed before me.’”); 16 because from his abundance we have all received an ever-flowing stream of gracious gifts; 17 for the Law was given through Moses [but or and] grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever physically seen God, [but] “the uniquely-divine one”—who is close to the heart of the Father—that one has made God known.

 

Notes on verses 12-13:

#1: The pronouns in “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” refer, in the first instance, to “the Word.” Note that v. 14 continues the focus on “the Word,” and that we do not learn whose “flesh” the Word becomes until v. 17. Nevertheless, these pronouns anticipate the naming of Jesus as the Word-in-the-flesh.

#2: These verses seem to be polemical! On the one hand, these verses are about God’s sovereign initiative in empowering believers to become “children of God.” Believers become “children of God,” not through any synagogue leader or teacher’s “will”—nor through the “will” of later Christian church leaders, priests, or bishops—but through God’s “will.”

#3: On the other hand, it undercuts any attempt to base kinship to God on biological ancestry. Becoming a member of the people of God is not restricted to those who can trace their ancestry through their parents to Abraham and Sarah. The “authority” or “power” to become “children of God” is not based on one’s ancestry; rather, the “right” to become “children of God” is a “right” God wills to grant to everyone, regardless of their ancestry, who “receive” and “believe” in the Word, who has become “flesh” in Jesus (as we will learn in v. 17).

 

Notes on verse 14:

#1: Later, classical western philosophy had to explain how the eternal, cosmic, divine Word could “become” mortal, createdflesh.” It came up with doctrines of the “two natures” of Christ. The source of this problem was the philosophical mistake of thinking that the “divine Word” and the human person (“flesh”) consisted of two “substances,” and that one “substance” could not inhabit another “substance.” The author of the Prologue to John’s Gospel did not share this mistaken idea. The divine Logos was not a “substance”; it was God’s Word, that is, God’s speech, thought, and wisdom. The idea that God’s speech, thought, and wisdom could come to be present in a human being posed no problem. Jews had been describing their prophets in this way for centuries, and just as the Greeks had described philosophers and sages in the same way. It was obvious that God’s eternal, cosmic, divine Word would “come into the world” through and as a human being.

#2: The Greek verb σκηνόω (“and lived [ἐσκήνωσεν]”) and the noun σκηνὴ (tent, home, dwelling) have to do with putting up and/or living in a tent and can be used as metaphors for settling, inhabiting, taking up a dwelling and for a dwelling place, abode, or residence. For example, God’s temple can be called God’s “tent” (Psalm 15.1), “Tabernacle” or “Tent of Meeting” (Exod 27.21). Based on that tradition, we could translate John 1.14 as “the Word set up its tabernacle among us.” As Lev 1.1 shows, God is present in and speaks from God’s “tent.” Later in the Gospel of John, Jesus’ body is called a “temple”—in Greek, a naos (ναός), which is the part of a temple where the god is present.

#3: The phrase ἐν ἡμῖν (“among us”) is not about the dwelling of the Word-in-Jesus “in us,” even though the mutual indwelling of Jesus and those who believe in him is a key Johannine concept. Rather, the whole verse is about the eternal, cosmic Word becoming a historical person, living in a particular time and place. The Word “became flesh” in the person of Jesus, whose father was Joseph, and who came from Nazareth (1.45).

#4: Whereas the RSV, NRSV, and NAB have “as of a father’s only son,” this verse lacks the word “son” (υἱός). The phrase ὡς μονογενοῦς (“as of a/the unique or the only one”) could be shorthand for the Johannine phrase μονογενοῦς υἱοῦ (“a/the unique or the only son,” as in 3.16 and 18). However, because 1.12-13 says that everyone who receives and believes in Jesus/the Word becomes “children of God,” Jesus is not God’s “only son”; rather, he is “uniquely from the Father-God” (see the NET). Heb11.17 is another example of a “unique son”: Isaac is not Abraham’s “only son”; rather, he is his “unique son,” because “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you [Abraham]” (v. 18).

#5: In the NRSV, “as of a father’s son” is a dynamic, free translation of the phrase παρὰ πατρός; however, “who came from the Father-God” (compare the NIV and NET) is a better translation. First, this Gospel has an “incarnation” narrative instead of a birth narrative. Second, Jesus is Joseph’s son (1.45). In this Gospel, “the Father” (God) does not create or give birth to the Word-Jesus; rather, the Word-Jesus comes from “the Father” (God) in the sense that “the Father” (God) sends the Word-Jesus. Of course, this Gospel repeatedly refers to God as Jesus’ “Father.” That is because he is the “unique-son,” in whom God’s eternal, cosmic Word took on flesh, not through any human will, but through God’s will (compare 1.12-13). If we think of this in a too absolute way, as if Jesus’ will had nothing to do with his embodiment of God’s Word, we would make Jesus more of a puppet or robot and less of a real human being. It is better, therefore, to think of the incarnation of God’s Word in Jesus as involving Jesus’ voluntary, full conformity of his word and will to God’s Word.

 

Notes on verse 15:

#1: This verse is a parenthesis—an aside to the reader—since it interrupts the natural flow of thought from verse 14 to 16.

#2: The pronoun in “John bore testified concerning him” refers either to the Word (compare 1.7-8, where John testified “concerning the Light”) or to the one in whom the Word became flesh. The former seems to be a better fit with John’s testimony that this one “existed before” John (v. 15b). That the eternal, divine Word existed before John makes more sense than that Jesus existed before John.

#3: The temporal meaning of the preposition “after” (BDAG ὀπίσω 2, b) makes sense if the pronoun refers to Jesus, but not if it refers to the eternal Word. The physical makes sense only as a statement that Jesus followed behind John as one of John’s disciples. The author erases all traces in the Synoptic Gospels of Jesus’ beginnings as one of John’s disciples. If the pronouns refer to the eternal Word, a physical meaning makes no sense: the Word was never John’s disciple, and could not be John’s disciple!

#4: The verb, which I have translated “is” [or “became”], signifies either a characteristic (“existed”; see BDAG γίνομαι 8) or a change of location (“came to be” in a new location; see BDAG γίνομαι 6, i) or condition (“became,” in the sense of “proved to be, turned out to be”; see BDAG γίνομαι 5 and 7). The meaning of this verb in closely connected with the meaning of the preposition ἔμπροσθέν, which has a physical sense (i.e., in a position in front of John; see BDAG ἔμπροσθέν 1), which can transfer to social location (i.e., having a rank superior to that of John; see BDAG ἔμπροσθέν 1, ζ). Both make sense whether the pronouns refer to the eternal Word or to Jesus. However, the statement that “he existed before me” makes sense only if the pronoun refers to the eternal, divine Word.

#5: This verse begins a section that moves toward naming the one in whom the eternal Word became flesh: Jesus Christ (v. 17). The eternal, divine Word dwells fully in Jesus Christ.

 

Notes on verse 16:

#1: Standard English translations leave out the first Greek word (ὅτι), but as a “marker of causality” (see BDAG ὅτι 4, b), it is a clue to the logical flow of thought from verse 14 to verse 16 (verse 15 is a parenthesis). It introduces the reason either for the statement that “we have seen his glory,” or for the statement that “his glory” is “full of grace and truth.” It could also be used in the consecutive sense “so that” (BDAG ὅτι 5, c), in which case it introduces the result of verse 14.

#2: The phrase “grace after/upon grace” could mean (1) that “grace” in Christ replaces “grace” from Moses, which asserts a discontinuity between Moses and Christ. Or it could mean (2) that “grace” accumulates in “an ever-flowing stream” (as in BDAG ἀντί 2). This is the most commonly held view, which, in one form or another, affirms continuity between Moses and Christ. Finally, it could mean (3) that the “grace” from Moses corresponds to the “grace” that comes through Christ. (Compare NET n. 43tn.) The interpretation of this phrase will influence the interpretation of v. 17, and vice versa.

#3: “Earlier commentators (including Origen and Luther) took the[se] words … to be John the Baptist’s. Most modern commentators take them as the words of the author [narrator]” (NET n. 43sn).

 

Notes on verse 17:

#1: The NRSV omits the opening conjunction ὅτι, for which the KJV, RSV, NIV, and NET have “for” and the NAB has “because.” This conjunction is important for understanding the logic of vv. 16-17: v. 17 is an explanation of the last phrase of v. 16.

#2: In the Greek text, there is no conjunction between the two clauses. The NET correctly defends its addition of “but” (“For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came about through Jesus Christ”) by explaining that v. 17 implies a “contrast between the Mosaic law and grace through Jesus Christ” (n. 44 tn). However, I would tweak its explanation! The NET prefers the interpretation of the last phrase of v. 16 as an idiom for “the accumulation of grace” (n. 43 tn), so that “the law given through Moses” (v. 17a) is also a “grace.” The contrast is not between “the law” and “grace”; rather, it is between the Mosaic Law as God’s gracious gift and Jesus Christ as God’s gracious gift “and truth.” On the other hand, if the last phrase of v. 16 means that a later “grace” is a replacement for an earlier “grace,” then v. 17 implies that “grace and truth through Jesus Christ” replaces the earlier “grace” of “the law through Moses”—that is, it supersedes “the law given through Moses” and makes it obsolete. In this Gospel, however, Jesus does not supersede Moses. Although some Jews distinguished between “disciples of Moses” and disciples of Jesus (9.28-29), that is not the view of this Gospel. Rather, “Moses in the law and also the prophets” wrote about Jesus (1.45); the story about Moses in Num 21.5-9 prefigures the death and resurrection of Jesus, “the son of man” (3.14); those who believe Moses should believe Jesus (5.45-46); Jesus appeals to the Mosaic Law to defend his act of healing on the Sabbath (7.19-23). The term in this Gospel that contrasts Moses and Jesus is not “grace” but “truth” (e.g., 6.32; 8.32; 14.6).

 

Notes on verse 18:

#1: The manuscript variants for μονογενὴς θεὸς (“God the only Son,” NRSV) fall into two groups. The majority has either ὁ μονογενὴς υἱός (“the only or unique Son”) or ὁ μονογενὴς θεός (“the only or unique God”); others, especially the earliest ones, have μονογενὴς θεὸς without the definite article. The reading without the article is more difficult, and so are readings with θεὸς (“God”), since it is easier to understand that a scribe would replace θεὸς with υἱός (“Son”), because it fits the context more easily and μονογενὴς υἱός is a Johannine phrase (3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9); therefore, manuscripts with μονογενὴς θεὸς are older. Since both μονογενὴς and θεὸς lack a definite article, the phrase μονογενὴς θεὸς could be indefinite (“a unique god”), definite (“the unique God”), or qualitative (“a/the uniquely divine one”). The last option is the best translation, following the example of 1.1, where θεὸς in the phrase θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος is qualitative (“the Word was divine”). This phrase could refer to God, Jesus, the Logos, or all the above. Compare the translations of this phrase in the KJV (“No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son…”), RSV (“No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who…, he has made him known”), NRSV (“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son [Other ancient authorities read It is an only Son, God, or It is the only Son]…”), NAB (“No one has ever seen God. The only Son, God…”), NIV (“No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only [Or the Only Begotten; some manuscripts: but the only {or only begotten} Son]…”), and NET (“No one has ever seen God. The only one [or “The unique one”], himself God…”). For the manuscript variants, see the critical apparatus in the Greek New Testament (UBS or NA), Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, and the NET n. 45tc (which also includes Wallace’s debate with Bart Ehrman’s assessment of the syntax of this phrase).

#2: The phrase “close to the heart” is an expression signifying “the closest association” (BDAG κόλπος 1), “an association of intimacy and affection” (Louw & Nida κόλπος 8.39; compare BDAG εἰμὶ 1, a, d and Rudolf Meyer, “κόλπος,” TDNT 3.824–26), “one may speak of the Son as ‘being at the Father's side’ or ‘being in closest communion with the Father’” (Louw & Nida εἰμὶ εἰς τὸν κόλπον 34.18). Compare translations of this phrase in the KJV and RSV (“in the bosom”), NRSV (“close to the Father’s heart”), NET (“who is in closest fellowship with the Father”), and the NAB and NIV (“at the Father’s side”).

#3: In the phrase “has made God known,” we have supplied the implied object of the verb ἐξηγήσατο (“made known”). The verb ἐξηγέομαι in general means “to set forth in great detail, expound,” but it is also used as a technical term “for the activity of priests and soothsayers [or “divine beings”] who impart information or reveal divine secrets” (BDAG ἐξηγέομαι 2). The tense of this verb, “aorist,” is one of the Greek past tenses (see Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 554-57). In contrast to the imperfect, which signifies an ongoing action in the past (as in a “motion picture”), the aorist signifies a “snapshot” of an action in the past (as in a photograph). In other words, it makes no statement about the duration of the action (for example, whether it was progressive, momentary, or completed). Its most common use is to describe “the action in summary fashion, without focusing on the beginning or end of the action … the stress [is] on the fact of its occurrence, not its nature” (Wallace 557).

 

For those of you who wish to consult study Bibles, I recommend the following:

  • The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, ed. Walter J. Harrelson (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003).

  • HarperCollins Study Bible: NRSV with the Apocryphal/ Deuterocanonical Books, Revised & Updated Edition, ed. Harold W. Attridge et al. (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006).

  • The Jewish Annotated New Testament: New Revised Standard Version, eds. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

 

For those of you who wish to consult commentaries on Jeremiah 31.7-14, I recommend the following:

  • The New Interpreter’s Bible, eds. Leander E. Keck et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 6:804-16.

  • Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The Old Testament and Apocrypha, eds. Gale A. Yee, Hugh R. Page, and Matthew J. M. Coomber (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 750-53.

  • NET Bible translation notes: https://net.bible.org/#!bible/Jeremiah+31:7 (or BibleWorks)

 

For those of you who wish to consult commentaries on Psalm 147, I recommend the following:

  • The New Interpreter’s Bible, eds. Leander E. Keck et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 4:1267-69.

  • Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The Old Testament and Apocrypha, eds. Gale A. Yee, Hugh R. Page, and Matthew J. M. Coomber (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 595-97.

  • Marti J. Steussy, Psalms (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004), 201-02.

  • The Women’s Bible Commentary, eds. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (London: SPCK; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992 [I had no access to the 1998 expanded edition]), 137-44.

  • NET Bible translation notes: https://net.bible.org/#!bible/Psalms+147 (or BibleWorks)

 

For those of you who wish to consult commentaries on Ephesians 1.3-14, I recommend the following:

  • The New Interpreter’s Bible, eds. Leander E. Keck et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 11:371-79.

  • Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The New Testament, eds. Margaret P. Aymer, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, and David A. Sánchez (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 528-31.

  • NET Bible translation notes: https://net.bible.org/#!bible/Ephesians+1:3 (or BibleWorks).

 

For those of you who wish to consult commentaries on John 1.1-14, I recommend the following:

  • The New Interpreter’s Bible, eds. Leander E. Keck et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 9:515-26.

  • Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The New Testament, eds. Margaret P. Aymer, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, and David A. Sánchez (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 266-67 and 269-71.

  • Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, Anchor Bible, 29 (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 1-37 (on the Prologue), 512-15 (on “believe in”), and 517-24 (on “the Word”).

  • NET Bible translation notes: https://net.bible.org/#!bible/John+1(or BibleWorks).

 

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David J. Lull, Professor Emeritus of New Testament, Wartburg Theological Seminary, is a resident of Pilgrim Place in Claremont, CA. He holds a B.A. degree from Iowa Wesleyan College), a Master of Divinity degree from Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, and a Ph.D. degree from Claremont Graduate University. An ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, David taught New Testament at Yale University Divinity School, and was the Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature. As the director of the Bible Translation and Utilization unit of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., he was the “creative consultant” for the documentary film The Bible Under Fire: The Story of the RSV Translations. His publications in the area of Pauline studies include Chalice Press Commentaries for Today on Romans (with John B. Cobb, Jr.) and 1 Corinthians (with William A. Beardslee); and The Spirit in Galatia (reprinted by Wipf & Stock). He also co-authored (with William A. Beardslee, John B. Cobb, Jr., and others) Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (reprinted by Wipf & Stock). His most recent publication is a major review essay covering more than a dozen books on “Paul and Empire” in Religious Studies Review 36/4 (2010): 251-62.