The Prologue of John's Gospel

Author: Pope John Paul II

In his General Audience on Wednesday, 3 June 1987, the Holy Father stated that “the prologue of John is certainly the key text that gives full expression to the truth about the divine sonship of Christ.” 

In the last catechesis we have shown, on the basis of the Synoptic Gospels, how faith in the divine sonship of Christ comes into being through the revelation of the Father in the awareness of his disciples and hearers, and first of all in the awareness of the apostles. The Father revealed his Son in Christ ("my Son") through the theophanies which took place at the baptism in the Jordan and then during the transfiguration on the mountain. It is above all the testimony of the Father himself that contributes to create the conviction that Jesus is the Son of God in the strict and full sense of this word, not merely in a metaphorical sense. We have also seen how the revelation of the truth about the divine sonship of Jesus re ached the minds and the hearts of the apostles through the work of the Father, as is clear from the words of Jesus to Peter: "It was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven" (Mt 16:17).

We must read the whole Gospel of John, and particularly its prologue (Jn 1:1-18), in the light of this faith in the divine sonship of Jesus, a faith which acquired much greater strength after the resurrection. It is a unique synthesis that expresses the faith of the apostolic Church—of that first generation of disciples to whom it was given to have contact with Christ, whether directly or through the apostles who spoke of what they had personally heard and seen. In these events they had discovered the fulfillment of all that the Old Testament had foretold about him. What had already been revealed beforehand, but in a certain sense was covered with a veil, now took on transparency and became clear and comprehensible in the light of what Jesus had done.

In this way, the Gospel of John (which was the last of the four Gospels to be written) is in a certain sense the most complete testimony about Christ as the Son of God, the Son who is consubstantial with the Father. The Holy Spirit, who had been promised by Jesus to the apostles, and who was to "teach them everything" (cf. Jn 14:26), truly permitted the evangelist "to search the depths of God" (cf. 1 Cor 2:10) and to express them in the inspired text of the prologue.

1.  The first generation of disciples

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. Everything was made through him, and without him nothing was made of all that exists" (Jn 1:1-3). "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; and we saw his glory, glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth" (Jn 1:14). "He was in the world and the world was made through him, yet the world did not recognize him. He came among his own people, but his own did not receive him" (Jn 1:10-11). "But to all who received him, he gave the power to become sons of God; to those who believe in his name, who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (Jn 1:12-13). "No one has ever seen God: it is the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, who has made him known" (Jn 1:18).

The prologue of John is certainly the key text that gives full expression to the truth about the divine sonship of Christ. He who "became flesh" in time, is the Word himself from all eternity. He is the only-begotten Son—God "who is in the bosom of the Father." He is the Son "of the same substance of the Father," he is "God from God." He receives the fullness of glory from the Father. He is the Word "through whom everything was made." Therefore everything that exists owes to him that "beginning" of which the Book of Genesis speaks (cf. Gen 1:1), the beginning of the work of creation. This same eternal Son, when he comes into the world as the "Word become flesh," brings with him for humanity the fullness "of grace and truth." He brings the fullness of truth because he gives teaching about the true God whom "no one has ever seen." And he brings the fullness of grace, because he gives to all those who receive him the power to be reborn of God. Alas, as the evangelist observes, "the world did not recognize him," and even though "he came among his own people," many "did not receive him."

The truth contained in the Johannine prologue is the same truth that we find in other books of the New Testament. Thus, for example, we read in the Letter to the Hebrews that God "in these days has spoken to us through the Son, whom he has constituted heir of all things, and through whom also he made the world. This Son, who is the reflection of his glory and the imprint of his substance, and upholds everything with the power of his word, after having accomplished the purification of sins, has taken his place at the right hand of the majesty in the highest heavens" (Heb 1:2-3).

2.  Source in the Old Testament

Like the Letter to the Hebrews in its own way, the prologue of the Gospel of John expresses through biblical allusions the accomplishment in Christ of everything that was said in the old covenant, beginning with the Book of Genesis, through the law of Moses (cf. Jn 1:17) and the prophets, up to the sapiential books. The expression "the Word" (which "was with God in the beginning") corresponds to the Hebrew word dabar. Even though we find the term logos in Greek, nevertheless the source of the thought is primarily the Old Testament. Two dimensions are borrowed from the Old Testament at one and the same time: that of hochma, (wisdom), understood as God's plan for creation, and that of dabar (logos), understood as the realization of this plan. The use of the word logos, which had been taken over from Greek philosophy, in turn made it easier for minds formed by this philosophy to approach these truths.

Remaining for the present in the realm of the Old Testament, we read in Isaiah: "The word that goes forth from my mouth shall not return to me empty, without having done what I desire and without having carried out that for which I sent it" (Is 55:11). It is clear from this text that the biblical dabar (word) is not merely a word but is also a realization (act). One can say that there already appears in the books of the old covenant a certain personification of the word (dabar, logos), and likewise of wisdom (sophia).

Wisdom "is initiated into the knowledge of God, and chooses his works" (Wis 8:4), and in another passage: "With you is wisdom, who knows your works, and was present when you created the world; she knows what is pleasing to your eyes and what is fitting.... Send her from the holy heavens, for your glorious throne, so that she may assist me and stand by me in my work, so that I may know what is pleasing to you" (Wis 9:9-10).

Thus, we are very close to the first words of the prologue of John. The following words of the Book of Wisdom are even closer: "While a deep silence enveloped all things, and night was halfway through its course, your almighty word leaped down from your royal throne...into the midst of this land doomed to destruction, bearing your inexorable command like a naked sword" (Wis 18:14-15). Nevertheless, this word to which the sapiential books refer, this wisdom which is with God from the beginning, is considered in relationship to the created world which it orders and directs (cf. Prov 8:22-27). "The Word" in the Gospel of John, on the other hand, not only exists "in the beginning," but is revealed as turned wholly toward God (pros ton theon) and as being himself God. "The Word was God." He is the only-begotten Son, who "is in the bosom of the Father"—God the Son. He is in Person the pure expression of God, the "reflection of his glory" (cf. Heb 1:3), consubstantial with the Father.

3.  Source of life and holiness

It is precisely this Son—the Word who becomes flesh—who receives testimony from John at the Jordan. In the prologue, we read about John the Baptist: "There came a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to give testimony to the light" (Jn 1:6-7). This light is none other than Christ—as the Word. We read further on in the prologue: "In him was life, and the life was the light of men" (Jn 1:4). This is "the true light, that gives light to every man" (Jn 1:9). The light that "shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it."

Accordingly, the prologue of the Gospel of John shows us that Jesus Christ is God, because he is the only-begotten Son of God the Father—the Word. He comes into the world as the source of life and of holiness. Truly, we are at the central and decisive point of our profession of faith here: "The Word became flesh and came to dwell among us."