When you’re trying out a new restaurant, it’s always good to order something simple to compare with other experiences. For instance, if you love coffee, you may order an espresso or a plain latte at a new shop. Or maybe you rank Mexican-style restaurants on their enchiladas. In the same way, it can be helpful to look at a well-known passage to understand the style and quality of a commentary. For these reasons, we are sharing an excerpt from N.T. Wright’s For Everyone Commentary Series on John 1.

Never heard of N.T. Wright? He’s known for bringing biblical scholarship to life with engaging writing and inspiring anecdotes. Once you start reading his commentary, there’s no way you can miss it! In fact, a little teaser of what’s ahead… N.T. Wright starts off his explanation on John 1 with a story!

Even if you aren’t looking for a new commentary, this post won’t disappoint! So, get started by reading the passage of Scripture below. Then we’ll share the excerpt.

John 1:1-18

reading the Bible: John 1

1 In the beginning was the Word. The Word was close beside God, and the Word was God. 2 In the beginning, he was close beside God.

3 All things came into existence through him; nothing that exists came into existence without him. 4 Life was in him, and this life was the light of the human race. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness didn’t overcome it.

6 There was a man called John, who was sent from God. 7 He came as evidence, to give evidence about the light, so that everyone might believe through him. 8 He was not himself the light, but he came to give evidence about the light.

9 The true light, which gives light to every human being, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, and the world didn’t know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people didn’t accept him. 12 But to anyone who did accept him, he gave the right to become God’s children; yes, to anyone who believed in his name. 13 They were not born from blood, or from physical desire, or from the intention of a man, but from God.

14 And the Word became flesh, and lived among us. We gazed upon his glory, glory like that of the father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

15 John gave evidence about him, loud and clear.
‘This is the one’, he said, ‘that I was speaking about when I told you, “The one who comes after me ranks ahead of me, because he was before me.”‘

16 Yes; it’s out of his fullness that we have all received, grace indeed on top of grace. 17 The law, you see, was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus the Messiah. 18 Nobody has ever seen God. The only-begotten God, who is intimately close to the father – he has brought him to light.

Commentary on John 1:1-18

This content is adapted from the For Everyone Commentary Series by N.T. Wright.

But First, A Story

reading a story: John 1

‘It’s on the right just beyond the end of the village,’ my friend had said. ‘You’ll see where to turn – it’s got the name on the gate.’

It sounded straightforward. Here was the village. I drove slowly past the pretty cottages, the small shops and the old church.

To begin with, I thought I must have misheard him. There didn’t seem to be any houses just outside the village. But then I came to the gateway. Tall stone pillars, overhanging trees and an old wooden sign with the right name on it. Inside, a wide gravel drive stretching away, round a corner out of sight. There were daffodils on the grass verge either side, in front of the thick rhododendron bushes.

I turned in to the driveway. He never told me he lived somewhere like this! I drove round the corner; then round another corner, with more daffodils and bushes. Then, as I came round a final bend, I gasped.

There in front of me was the house. Sheltered behind tall trees, surrounded by lawns and shrubbery, with the morning sunlight picking out the colour in the old stone. And there was my friend, emerging from between the pillars around the front porch, coming to greet me.

John’s Gospel: a Grand, Imposing House

Approaching John’s gospel is a bit like arriving at a grand, imposing house. Many Bible readers know that this gospel is not quite like the others. They may have heard, or begun to discover, that it’s got hidden depths of meaning. According to one well-known saying, this book is like a pool that’s safe for a child to paddle in but deep enough for an elephant to swim in. But, though it’s imposing in its structure and ideas, it’s not meant to scare you off. It makes you welcome. Indeed, millions have found that, as they come closer to this book, the Friend above all friends is coming out to meet them.

a grand, imposing house

John’s Introduction: The Winding Driveway

Like many a grand house, the book has a driveway, bringing you off the main road, telling you something about the place you’re getting to before you get there.

These opening verses are, in fact, such a complete introduction to the book that by the time you get to the story you know a good deal about what’s coming, and what it means. It’s almost as though the long driveway contained signs with pictures of the various rooms in the house and the people you were going to meet there.

This passage has become famous because it’s often read at Christmas carol services – though it isn’t just about the birth of Jesus, but about the full meaning of everything he was, and is, and did. And the more we explore the gospel itself, the more we’ll discover what a complete introduction to it this short passage is.

John’s Most Unforgettable Words

The gateway to the drive is formed by the unforgettable opening words: ‘In the beginning was the Word.’ At once we know that we are entering a place which is both familiar and strange. ‘In the beginning’ – no Bible reader could see that phrase and not think at once of the start of Genesis, the first book in the Old Testament: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’ Whatever else John is going to tell us, he wants us to see his book as the story of God and the world, not just the story of one character in one place and time. This book is about the creator God acting in a new way within his much-loved creation. It is about the way in which the long story which began in Genesis reached the climax the creator had always intended.

gateway: John 1

And it will do this through ‘the Word’. In Genesis 1, the climax is the creation of humans, made in God’s image. In John 1, the climax is the arrival of a human being, the Word become ‘flesh’.

The Word Become ‘Flesh’

When I speak a word, it is, in a sense, part of me. It’s a breath that comes from inside me, making the noise that I give it with my throat, my mouth and my tongue. When people hear it, they assume I intended it. ‘But you said … ‘, people comment, if our deeds don’t match up to our words. We remain responsible for the words we say.

And yet our words have a life which seems independent of us. When people hear them, words can change the way they think and live. Think of ‘I love you’; or, ‘It’s time to go’; or, ‘You’re fired’. These words create new situations. People respond or act accordingly. The words remain in their memory and go on affecting them.

The Old Testament and God’s Word

In the Old Testament, God regularly acts by means of his ‘word’. What he says, happens – in Genesis itself, and regularly thereafter. ‘By the word of the Lord’, says the psalm, ‘the heavens were made’ (33:6). God’s word is the one thing that will last, even though people and plants wither and die (Isaiah 40.6-8); God’s word will go out of his mouth and bring life, healing and hope to Israel and the whole creation (Isaiah 55:10-11). That’s part of what lies behind John’s choice of ‘Word’ here, as a way of telling us who Jesus really is.

The Original Context and God’s Word

John probably expects some readers to see that this opening passage says, about Jesus himself, what some writers had said about ‘Wisdom’. Many Jewish teachers had grappled with the age-old questions:

  • How can the one true God be both different from the world and active within the world?
  • How can he be remote, holy and detached, and also intimately present?

Some had already spoken of the ‘word’ and ‘wisdom’ as ways of answering these questions. Some had already combined them within the belief that the one true God had promised to place his own ‘presence’ within the Temple in Jerusalem. Others saw them enshrined in the Jewish law, the Torah. All of this, as we shall see, is present in John’s mind when he writes of God’s ‘Word’.

But the idea of the Word would also make some of his readers think of ideas that pagan philosophers had discussed. Some spoke of the ‘word’ as a kind of principle of rationality, lying deep within the whole cosmos and within all human beings. Get in touch with this principle, they said, and your life will find its true meaning. Well, maybe, John is saying to them; but the Word isn’t an abstract principle, it’s a person. And I’m going to introduce you to him.

Introducing, Jesus

Verses 1–2 and 18 begin and end the passage by stressing that the Word was and is God, and is intimately close to God. John knows perfectly well he’s making language go beyond what’s normally possible, but it’s Jesus that makes him do it; because verse 14 says that the Word became flesh – that is, became human, became one of us. He became, in fact, the human being we know as Jesus. That’s the theme of this gospel: if you want to know who the true God is, look long and hard at Jesus.

The rest of the passage clusters around this central statement. The one we know as Jesus is identical, it seems, with the Word who was there from the very start, the Word through whom all things were made, the one who contained and contains life and light. The Word challenged the darkness before creation and now challenges the darkness that is found, tragically, within creation itself. The Word is bringing into being the new creation, in which God says once more, ‘Let there be light!’

The Central Problem in the Gospel Story

But when God sends the Word into the world, the world pretends it doesn’t recognize him. Indeed, when he sends the Word specifically to Israel, the chosen people don’t recognize him. This is the central problem which dominates the whole gospel story. Jesus comes to God’s people, and God’s people do what the rest of the world do: they prefer darkness to light. That is why fresh grace is needed, on top of the grace already given (verse 16): the Jewish law, given by Moses, points in the right direction, but, like Moses himself, it doesn’t take us to the promised land. For that, you need the grace and truth that come through Jesus the Messiah, the son of God.

We Are a Part of the Story

Perhaps the most exciting thing about this opening passage is that we’re in it too: ‘To anyone who did accept him’ (verse 12) – that means anyone at all, then and now. You don’t have to be born into a particular family or part of the world. God wants people from everywhere to be born in a new way, born into the family which he began through Jesus and which has since spread through the world. Anyone can become a ‘child of God’ in this sense, a sense which goes beyond the fact that all humans are special in God’s sight. Something can happen to people in this life which causes them to become new people, people who (as verse 12 says) ‘believe in his name’. Somehow (John will tell us how, step by step, as we go forward into the great building to which this driveway has led us) the great drama of God and the world, of Jesus and Israel, of the Word who reveals the glory of the unseen God – this great drama is a play in search of actors, and there are parts for everyone, you and me included.

As we make our way up this driveway towards the main building, a figure crosses our path. Is this, perhaps, our friend? The figure turns and looks, but points us on to the house. He isn’t the man we want, but his job is to point us to him. He is, in John’s language, ‘giving evidence about the light’. If we are to meet the Word of God, all four gospels suggest we do well to begin by considering John (the Baptist).

Continue Learning with N.T. Wright

Did you enjoy this commentary on John 1? If so, the For Everyone Commentary Series is for you! On our store, we offer the Full Set, an Old Testament Set, a New Testament Set, and individual volumes.

Want to read another excerpt from this set? Read John Goldingay’s take on Ezekiel with our post God Shows Up Where You Don’t Expect.

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