“If I were going to start reading the Bible, where should I start?”
I remember being in college and being trained in the correct response to this question: “I’d recommend starting with the Gospel of John.”
Looking back, I find this advice to be really…strange. Have you ever read the Gospel of John? Lots of people on the internet think I haven’t apparently, because lots of them have sent me selections from John chapter one. Not to spoil the fun but I have read it, and that’s why I find the advice I was taught to offer quite odd.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” [John 1:1-5, NRSV]
See what I mean? In those first five verses we are introduced to a Word, which was with God, and also identified as God. Everything that has ever everything-ed owes its existence to this Word. Life itself is found in this Word.
Imagine you just picked up a Bible for the first time. Maybe you’re in a hotel and you open the drawer on the bedside table looking for a takeout menu, only to find a book with “New Testament” embossed on the front cover. You open it, remembering that you met me in college twenty years ago and I told you, “I’d recommend you start in the Gospel of John.” Then you read John 1.
What is John 1 saying? What are the claims being made? What, or who, is being called “the Word?” To begin to understand what the writer of this Gospel is saying we need to go back to the beginning. Many interpretations of this text spend a lot of time wading through how this idea of logos was understood in the context of Greek philosophy. That’s a fascinating conversation, but not one on which we should spend a lot of energy for this particular passage. The Johannine author isn’t a Greek philosopher; he’s a Jewish mystic (see John Shelby Spong’s brilliant book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic for more on this).
John 1:1 echos Genesis 1:1; they are both texts about creation. In Genesis, God speaks a Word and that Word then creates, first light and then everything. In John, God again speaks a Word. This time it’s a Word of new creation. That’s the whole theme of this Gospel, a new creation is dawning right in the middle of the old. John’s gospel is actually organized around “signs.” We have tended to call these “miracles,” but John is specific. These aren’t just cool party tricks or proofs that Jesus was more than human. These are sign posts, pointing beyond themselves and toward that new creation.
John shows Jesus performing seven signs, the final one being the raising of Lazarus from death. However, some commenters say there is an eighth sign: the resurrection of Jesus. It’s not a coincidence that Jesus is raised from death in a garden, and Mary Magdalene, upon meeting the risen Christ, thinks he’s the gardener. He is! He is tending the garden of new creation.
For John, Jesus is the embodied creative Word, launching the project of new creation. When people send me emails quoting John 1 in defense of the Bible being the Word of God, I wonder if they’ve read it. The Word here isn’t words, it’s an embodied, creative energy launching a new creation. I affirm that, for me, Jesus is that Word.
I love the Bible. I’m finding the more I read, study, and learn about it, the more I love it. The Bible also bears witness to the Word, but like John the Baptizer, it cannot be or contain that Word in its fullness. That we’ve ever expected it to means that, in a way, we’ve missed it’s message.
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