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The Christmas Gospel - John's Version

Web posted on December 21, 2017

Hey Jude!

In many churches, the usual gospel reading for Christmas Day is the Prologue to John's gospel (John 1:1-18). It's a key passage for the doctrine of the Incarnation - the idea in the Christmas story that God, whom no one has ever seen, actually walked among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

When you read John's Prologue, even in English, you can sense a literary style that's something like poetry. If you read it in the original Greek, the poetic structure is even more evident; it may be a First-Century hymn, or perhaps a portion of liturgy. It's not the sort of poetry that rhymes; rather, it's a poetry that occurs in the metrical balance of the lines, and in the imagery, and in the repetition and interplay of ideas. Just reading aloud the first couple of verses in English is enough to make you aware of that.

(If you're not familiar with John 1:1-18, please read it now in your Bible. You can also find it on p.106 in the Canadian Anglican prayer book, where it's the gospel reading for Christmas Day.)

An important feature of John's Prologue is the way the writer emulates Philo, the Jewish rabbi in Alexandria who passionately wanted to make the Old Testament accessible to those who saw the world in terms of Greek philosophy. You can see this where John identifies Jesus as "the Logos", which translates into English as "the Word". "The Word" may be as close as we can get to a reasonable English translation, but to John, and to Philo, and to all those Greeks, "logos" meant much more than just "word". (Liddell and Scott's Greek dictionary takes an entire page to explore the meaning of "logos".) To a Greek philosopher, "logos" (the source of our word "logic") meant nothing less than the rationality and order behind the universe.

For some Greeks, as you might expect, that rationality implied a sentient personality at the heart of things. For Philo, then, this concept of the Logos - the Word - was the perfect conceptual bridge to show the Greeks, through their own philosophy, that the universe is the creation of the God of the Bible, who brought things into being by his word of command: "Let there be...."

So John's hymn writer asserts - as Philo would also have done - that the Logos is not some subordinate being to whom God assigned the task of creating, but the Creator himself, who, like God in the Genesis creation story, was already present "in the beginning". But John's hymn writer takes a massive step beyond Philo, and asserts that this Logos not only created us but indeed walked among us in the person of Jesus.

John's Prologue uses both Greek and Jewish motifs in a way that Philo could never have imagined. To the Greek, who sought wisdom, he says that the true light that enlightens everyone had come into the world in the person of Jesus (John 1:9). To the Jew, who expected to know God in the liturgy of the Temple, he says that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14).

But when we read, as in most English translations. that "the Word ... dwelt among us", we don't get the full picture. There are several Greek verbs that the poet could have used that mean "dwelt" or "lived" or "resided", but he specifically chose the verb "eskénosen", which comes from the noun "skéné", which means a tent or tabernacle.

So we have this verb that means "to pitch your tent", a Middle-Eastern colloquialism comparable to our English expression "to hang your hat", both of which refer to the place where one lives. But in a Jewish context, the poet chose this particular verb because the pitching of the tent or tabernacle also calls up images of the Tabernacle (the Tent of Worship) during the Exodus, and later of the more permanent Temple in Jerusalem. The Tabernacle, and later the Temple, were the place where God met with his people, where prayers were made and sacrifices were offered. It was the place where Isaiah had a vision of God in the year that King Uzziah died (Isaiah 6:1ff), and where, seven centuries later, Zachariah, father of John the Baptist, had another (Luke 1:5ff). It was the place of spiritual purity where even sinful men, by means of symbol, ritual, and visionary experience, might behold the glory of God.

So John tells us that, in Jesus, the Logos became flesh and "tabernacled" among us, and we beheld his glory, glory that's just like the glory of the Father (John 1:14). By the time when John penned this gospel, some twenty years had already passed since the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. But a generation earlier Jesus had said cryptically, "Destroy this Temple (the one in Jerusalem, but also his own body), and I will raise it up again in three days" (John 2:19; Mark 14:58; Matthew 26:61).

The Temple, beautiful and sacred as it had been, was no longer needed as the place of God's presence, because God has tabernacled among us in the person of Jesus. Nor was the Temple needed any longer as a place to offer sacrifice, because Jesus has made (as we say in our Anglican liturgy) "by the offering of himself once for all time, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world." The provisional purposes for which God had ordained the Tabernacle and the Temple have now been fulfilled, once and for all, in Jesus.

So when John describes his vision of the heavenly city at the end of the book of Revelation, he says, "I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty, and the Lamb" (Revelation 21:22). There are those who, reading the ancient prophecies, look for God to one day raise up a Third Temple in Jerusalem. What John's Prologue tells us is the he has already done so: Jesus himself is the Third Temple. May you, this Christmas, enter that temple and experience the glory of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.