Reading the New Testament (Week 3)

reading scripture

This week’s reading is John 1. the first chapter of my favorite Gospel. (Sometime I should try to articulate why it’s my favorite.)

A quick note about the author: Before his apostolic ministry, John was a fisherman by trade. It was the family business, which was successful enough that they had “hired servants” (Mark 1:20).

John 1

John 1:1-5

Here are the first words of John’s book:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

The same was in the beginning with God.

All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. (KJV John 1:1-5)

It’s practically poetry, but what does it mean? We’ll turn shortly to the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) for help, but first let’s make what we can of the King James Version (KJV).

The obvious first question is, who is the Word? We can safely conclude that it is Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Old Testament, also called Jehovah. He was with God, and he is God. He is also earth’s Creator (Ephesians 3:9; Hebrews 1:1-3; 2 Nephi 9:5; Mosiah 3:8; Ether 3:14-16; Doctrine and Covenants 38:1-3).

He is the Light. In his first epistle, this same John writes, “God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life” (1 John 5:11-12). Luke calls Jesus “a light to lighten the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32). John will call him “the true Light, which lighteth every man” (verse 9). And Jesus himself will say, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5), and also, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

We begin to sense that Jesus as Light and Life is one of John’s recurring themes, just as the fulfillment of ancient prophecy is one of Matthew’s.

Our most expansive view of what these words mean is probably too small. In modern revelation the Lord explains that his own power is “the light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:13).

As for the light shining in darkness, and the darkness not comprehending it, the imagery is vivid. The first scriptural cross-reference to this in my head is in the Book of Mormon, where King Benjamin foretells Jesus’ mortal miracles, then says:

And lo, he cometh unto his own, that salvation might come unto the children of men even through faith on his name; and even after all this they shall consider him a man, and say that he hath a devil, and shall scourge him, and shall crucify him. (Mosiah 3:5-9)

Joseph Smith’s version of John’s first lines is dramatically clearer, if less poetic:

In the beginning was the gospel preached through the Son. And the gospel was the word, and the word was with the Son, and the Son was with God, and the Son was of God….

In him was the gospel, and the gospel was the life, and the life was the light of men;

And the light shineth in the world, and the world perceiveth it not. (JST John 1:1, 4-5)

John 1:12-13

Verse 12 has the Savior giving those who receive him and believe, the “power to become the sons of God.”

We understand that we are already the children of God the Father; our Heavenly Parents gave life to our spirits. We are the children of our earthly fathers and mothers, who gave life to our bodies. When we follow Jesus Christ, we become his children too; he gives us eternal life.

King Benjamin explains this more clearly than the Bible writers:

And now, because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters. (Mosiah 5:7)

In the KJV verse 13 appears to refer to the people in verse 12, but in Joseph’s version this verse speaks of Christ: “He was born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, but of God” (JST John 1:13, emphasis added).

John 1:18

Compare two versions of one verse:

No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him. (KJV)

The first phrase is problematic. John is writing decades after Stephen saw both Father and Son (Acts 7:56).

Joseph rendered this verse differently:

And no man hath seen God at any time, except he hath borne record of the Son; for except it is through him no man can be saved. (JST John 1:19)

This is consistent with Joseph Smith’s experience in 1820, when the Father says, pointing to Jesus, “This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” It is also consistent with several episodes in ancient scripture, where the Father’s voice is heard bearing record of the Son in similar terms. (See Matthew 3:17; 17:5; 3 Nephi 11:7.)

John 1:19-28

Note in verse 19 that John (the Beloved, the Revelator, the author of this book) appears to be borrowing from John the Baptist’s account of these events, perhaps through verse 27 at least, if not through verse 34 or 37.

Jewish leaders have sent Pharisees from Jerusalem to “Bethabara, beyond Jordan,” to ask John (the Baptist) who he is. Tradition identifies the location as being near Jericho, just north of the Dead Sea, about twenty miles from Jerusalem as the crow flies. From the text itself we gather that John is on the east side of the Jordan River.

Map - Bethabara

(Here’s a link to the full map.)

Note that the JST moves verse 28, which says these things were done in Bethabara, to verse 34. Apparently the next day’s experience happened there too.

The Pharisees ask John if he is the Christ, the promised Messiah. He says he is not.

Is he Elias? they ask. They appear to mean Elijah, who Malachi said would return (Malachi 4:5-6). He says he is not.

Then they ask, Is he “that prophet”? He says he is not. But who is “that prophet”?

In the JST John says that he is Elias, in the sense of a promised forerunner, but not “that Elias who was to restore all things.” (JST John 1:22)

Malachi himself foretold the coming of a “messenger” to prepare the way for the Lord’s second coming (Malachi 3:1). There was some expectation among the early Christians, at least, that there would come a time of “restitution of all things” (Acts 3:21), a “dispensation of the fulness of times” (Ephesians 1:10).

Some have thought that the Pharisees meant the Messiah himself. (See Deuteronomy 18:15.) But they had already asked John if he was Christ, and he said no.

Some Muslims have supposed that this refers to Mohammed.

From verse 25 and from John 7:40-41, it appears that some Jews expected a great prophet to arise who was not the Christ. But all we have from John the Baptist is, No, he is not … whatever prophet “that prophet” may be.

In 1844, shortly before his death, according to the journal of a man named George Laub, Joseph Smith spoke of his own role, noting that the Jews of John’s and Jesus’ day expected a restorer of all things.

George Laub journal snippet
From George Laub’s journal

The implication, at least, is that Joseph saw himself in these verses.

Note in verse 25 that the Pharisees appparently expect the Messiah to baptize when he comes.

John 1:29-34

Jesus comes to John, where the latter is baptizing. John says, “Behold the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world.”

In the JST, the next verse clarifies John’s audience for what he says next:

And John bare record of him unto the people, saying, This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man who is preferred before me….

Where the KJV has John the Baptist saying, “I knew him not,” the JST has him saying, “I knew him” (JST John 1:30).

John 1:35-42

On the day after he baptizes Jesus, John (the Baptist) is with two of his followers. Verse 40 identifies one of these as Andrew, the brother of Peter, whom we will shortly meet. It is generally believed that the other is John, the author of this Gospel — so here we have the first of several instances in which John is reluctant to refer to himself by name in his own Gospel.

“Behold the Lamb of God,” John the Baptist tells them. As followers of the Baptist, these two must have been taught already that the Messiah would be coming. Now he is here, and these two follow him.

They ask Jesus where he lives, and he invites them home, wherever that is. Andrew goes to tell his brother, Peter, that they have found the Messiah. He too comes to Jesus — literally.

Peter’s name means “stone.” The Lord says — and here again the JST expands on the KJV:

Thou shalt be called Cephas, which is, by interpretation, a seer, or a stone. And they straightway left all, and followed Jesus. (JST John 1:42)

John 1:43-51

Peter and Andrew are from Bethsaida, just outside Galilee, on the Sea of Galilee. Presumably, they have made the long journey to hear John the Baptist.

(Here’s a link to the full map, the same map as before.)

Jesus indicates his intention to go to Galilee, but first finds Philip, who is also from Bethsaida, and says, “Follow me.”

Philip finds Nathanael and tells him they have found the Messiah whom Moses foretold, “Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael has a low opinion of Nazareth, but comes to see.

Jesus praises Nathanael as a guileless Israelite. Nathanael asks, How do you know me? Jesus explains:

Before that Philip called thee, when thou was under the fig tree, I saw thee.

It seems reasonable to suppose that the scene Jesus mentioned was more than just a man sitting under a tree. Maybe Nathanael was praying, or at least pondering, seeking direction — perhaps to know whether John the Baptist was a true prophet, or even to know whether the Messiah John had identified was real.

Nathanael acknowledges the Son of God, and Jesus promises him far greater signs to come.

Next Week

Next week’s readings are Matthew 3, Mark 1, and Luke 3. These include detailed reports of John the Baptist’s preaching, and all three writers’ accounts of Jesus’ baptism.

Mark moves more quickly than the others. He will briefly mention Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness — we’ll get that in far more detail from Matthew and Luke the following week — and the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.

Meanwhile, John the Baptist’s next stop is prison.

David Rodeback

Thanks for reading!

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