Commentary: John 1:(1-9), 10-18
Taking vv. 10-18 as a passage with integrity is a little tricky. The beginning verses of John may be the most familiar Gospel verses in the history of Christianity. The weaving of the logos with John the Baptist in the first chapter has evoked discussion of the Gospel's sources in contemporary Johannine scholarship. If you yearn for all eighteen verses or want to travel logos and source discussions, scholars await. A good place to start: Raymond E. Brown's two volume commentary, The Gospel According to John (Doubleday, 1970).
Tricky as it may be, taking vv. 10-18 as a unit is worth it. The beloved children of God are born here, right next to the Word become flesh. There is grace upon grace here as nowhere else in the Gospel. There is glory unto glory here as begotten nowhere else in the universe. Then, these verses end with the strong claim that the only-begotten one "has shown the way." Taken as a passage with integrity, vv. 10-18 document the birth of the community and point the way of the Way himself.
Passages with a common theme of water (2:1-11; 4:1-41; 5:1-18; 6:1-71; 9:1-41; 13:1-20) and baptism (1:1-18; 1:43-51; 3:1-21; 6:60-71; 8:31-38; 10:1-19; 11:1-54) lead the way to seeing that belonging is the point of John's prologue. These sequences provide a "basis or platform of a theology of belonging in the fourth Gospel," the Rev. Paul Gibson claimed in an address for the 1992 North American Academy of Liturgy.
"If we approach the prologue from the point of view of the symbols and teaching on the theme of belonging, then the central material may be vv. 12 and 16...The incarnation of the Word was precisely for this purpose, to create the community of the children of God." The structure and vocabulary of vv. 10-18 confirm this claim, show the way.
The first clause of v. 10 serves as a hinge between 1-9 and 10-18. The masculine nominative pronoun "he" anchors the Word's presence in the cosmos. Playing on the gender of the word for Word and the one we know as the Word, the rest of vv. 10 and 11 sets the Word in the world: the cosmos became by way of the Word and knew "him" not; "he" came to his own and they received "him" not. Because there is no specified antecedent to the pronoun, the Word is indistinguishable from the man.Knowing and receiving are the issues here. The author can make the incarnation real with the ambiguous pronoun because his community knows and receives. In vv. 12-13, this knowing and receiving creates the community. For those who receive, who "believe in his name," there is authority to become children of God; these children are born from God. Grace upon grace is received in v. 16 by those who are so born.
The verb for this birth from God dominates v. 13. Modifying clauses claim that this is not birth in any of the ways known to humans: from blood or will of the flesh or sperm, implied here by the word "man" designating gender. Then, as clearly as the birth of the children of God is not from flesh, the Word became it. Is it too much to call this the birth of the incarnation? It certainly lies next to the birth of those who receive and connects these births in v. 14 with the language of dwelling. The ones who receive, who are born of God, are the ones in which the Word encamps. "We" are the ones who behold the glory; glory as an only-birthed one from a father.
The Baptist's cameo appearance in v. 15 punctuates the passage's initial claim, the Word in the cosmos. He is not first, John testifies, not from the beginning. "The one-who-comes after me has-become before me," John says, "because he-was first of me." Order here is circular: what appears to be first is not. John's ministry may precede Jesus', but Jesus is the one who is from the beginning. The law given through Moses may precede the ministry of Jesus, but the becoming of grace and truth were in the beginning. Around and around, it is at last time for the Word to bear a name: "the grace and the truth have-become through Jesus Christ."
Echoes of birth remain, to show the way. "No one has ever seen God," the author acknowledges in v. 18. We are, however, as close as we will ever get. The words for "only-begotten-one" and "God" lie next to each other here without a verb between them. They are as close together here as the flesh of the Word was next to the birth of God's children. This "only-begotten-one" is named as "the one being in the womb of the Father." It is "that-one," says the author, who "has-shown-the-way."
It is essential for "that-one" to be begotten. The NRSV translation of v. 18 misses the mark by erasing all birth imagery, adding a verb where there is none, inserting words like "son" and "heart" that do not appear in the text. This steals the passage's punch. It is shocking to see "womb of the Father" here, just as shocking as "the Word became flesh" in v. 14. As certainly as the children of God are not born in any human way, human birth imagery here describes the relationship of the "only-begotten-one" to God. More even than making the Father known, the begotten-one leads out the rest of forever. Everywhere else in ancient literature, including its other New Testamental use in Luke-Acts, exegeomai describes leadership, "showing the way."
Tricky though it may be to take as a unit, vv. 10-18 give us birth, the begotten one to show the way. The verses remind us that God's ways are not our own. It is the Way that is, our life. This belongs to the grace upon grace that comes from his fullness.
Minka Shura Sprague
New York Theological Seminary
New York, NY