NT Sunday School Lesson 1: Isaiah 61:1-3; Luke 3:4-11 (Joseph Smith Translation); John 1:1-14; John 20:31
Posted by Jim F. on December 26, 2010
Before I offer the study questions for this lesson, let me voice my objection to the format of our lesson manuals. They treat the Gospels as if the best way to understand them is to harmonize them, as if they are each histories of the life of Jesus rather than four different testimonies—for different audiences and for different purposes—of who Jesus is, the Messiah. That’s a little bit like taking a particular version of President Monson’s testimony, and one of President Eyring’s, and one of President Uchtdorf’s and pasting them together where they speak of similar things to make one new testimony. The result would be a misrepresentation of what they said. Individually their testimonies are much more likely to get us to the truth of which they speak than they will when shuffled together that way. The same is true of the Gospels. We are interested in the chronological history of Jesus’ life only secondarily. Our primary interest is in what that life reveals about who he is and how he revealed himself and the Father to those who knew him. To learn that, we are better off to read Matthew for his testimony, Mark for his, Luke for his, and John for his.
In spite of my objection, since my goal is to help those who are interested in looking at the scriptures in more depth as they prepare to attend Sunday School, I will of course continue to offer questions based on the readings assigned by the lesson manual.
These verses appear to be based on an early Christian hymn. Perhaps it was written by John; perhaps John is quoting a hymn already familiar to the Christians for whom he is writing. Verses 1 and 2 form the first verse (strophe) of the hymn, verses 3 through 5 form the second strophe, verses 10 through 12 form the third strophe, verse 14 forms the fourth strophe, and verse 16 forms the final strophe. Verses 6 through 9, the end of 12 and all of 13, 15, 17, and 18 are probably commentary on the hymn that John inserts at appropriate lineplaces in it. I will begin with the hymn itself (verses 1-5, 10-12, 14, and 16). Then I will turn to John’s commentary on the hymn. For comparison to the King James and so that you can see the hymn itself more clearly, I’ve included a suggested reconstruction of the hymn without John’s commentary on it.
|John 1:1-5, 10-12, 14, and 16|
|1In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was in the presence of God,
and the Word was God—
2The same was in God’s presence in the beginning.
|3Through him all things came into being,
and without him nothing came into being that came into being.
4In him was life, and this life was people’s light.
5And the light shines in darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.
|10He was in the world,
and the world was brought into being by him,
but the world did not know him;
11he came to his own,
but his own did not receive him.
12But to as many as did receive him, he gave authority to
become the children of God.
|14And the Word came into being as flesh
and dwelt among us.
And we have seen his glory,
a glory like that of a unique Son coming from beside the
filled with grace and truth.
|16And we have all received
from his fullness,
grace for grace.
Verse 1: Why does John begin his testimony of Christ’s ministry with the same words we find at the beginning of Genesis (Genesis 1:1), “In the beginning . . .”? Why does John begin his book by referring to the beginning rather than to the birth of Christ? Is he concerned with the creation itself or with something else? If the latter, what?
The Greek word translated beginning has a variety of meanings. For example, it can mean “first in time,” “ultimate principle,” “ruler,” or “norm.” Thus, a person who spoke Greek would hear not only the meaning we get in the translation (“In the beginning was the word”), but also the connotations created by these other meanings. Those connotations would have influenced how a person reading John when it was first written would understand the passage. The implication of those connotations would be that Christ is the ultimate principle, standard, or ruler, a ruler who has existed, in the presence of God, from the beginning.
Why is Christ called “the Word”? The Greek word translated Word is logos. It has two broad meanings: (1) the explanation or revelation of something (including meanings like “account,” “speech,” “proportion,” “relation,” “measure,” and “mind”), and, (2) the most essential element of things, the things that makes every other thing intelligible. (The latter broad meaning gives rise to specific meanings like “revelation,” “law,” “truth,” “knowledge,” “virtue,” “nature,” and “spirit.”) In what ways does the first of these meanings apply to Christ? In what way does the second apply? The word logos comes from the verb legein, which means “to gather.” Does that provide any additional insight as to why this hymn might have called Jesus the Word?
Though John writes in Greek and seems to be addressing a primarily Greek audience, he is probably also depending on the Old Testament use of the word word. For us, given the way English works, a word is a sign of a thing. It represents a concept. But in the Old Testament, God’s word refers more to an event or a deed than it does to a concept. A word refers to something that does something. As a result, in the Old Testament, word usually refers to prophetic revelation and, often, specifically to the Mosaic Law. It refers specifically to the giving of the revelation rather than to its content. In line with this understanding, word can also refer to the word spoken to create something, as in Genesis 1:1. (We can see this use of word in Ezekiel 37:4 and Jacob 4:9, and, by implication, in Isaiah 40:26.) How is Christ the word of the Old Testament? What does it mean to say that he is?
Notice that the verse uses the word was three times, but that each use is slightly different: “the Word was in the beginning” tells us that he existed, “the Word was in God’s presence” tells us of his relation to God, and “the Word was God” tells us of his attributes. If this verse is a statement of the thesis of the book of John, then the book of John will testify that Christ exists and that he comes from the presence of the Father, and it will testify of his attributes. As you read John’s testimony, you should watch for those testimonies.
The phrase, “the Word was with God,” can literally be translated “the Word was before [‘in front of,’ ‘in the presence of,’ or even ‘toward’] God.” What does it mean to say that Christ was with the Father in the beginning? What does it mean to be in the presence of God? In what sense might Christ have been “toward” the Father? (Moses 4:1-2 seems relevant here.)
What is the hymn telling us when it tells us that “the Word was God”?
Verse 2: This verse repeats the content of verse 1: “The same [i.e., the God mentioned in the third part of verse 1] was in the beginning [cf. the first part of verse 1] with [or ‘in the presence of’] God [repeating the second part of verse 1].” Why do you think the hymn repeats that content of verse 1 so specifically? Looking at that translation, above, notice that this is the end of the first strophe (verse) of the hymn. Does that explain the repetition? What is this hymn about? How is it particularly appropriate that this hymn introduce the book of John? Perhaps this verse acts as a transition to the discussion of verse 3, taking us back to the mention of “the beginning.”
Verse 3: This verse begins the second strophe of the hymn. What is this strophe (verses 3-5) about? When the hymn says that “all things” were made by Christ, to what is it referring? Is it referring only to the world and the objects in the world?
Literally, the verse says “Through him all things came into being and without him nothing came into being that had come into being.” Does that differ from saying that he made all things? How or how not? How do you understand the phrase “come into being”? How might someone else?
Why does the hymn repeat the first half of the verse in the second half of the verse, only putting it in the negative?
Verse 4: What does it mean to say that life was in the Word? Physical life? Spiritual life? When did the physical creation occur? When did the spiritual creation, the spiritual life, with which John is concerned occur? What is the connection of this verse to the previous verse? In other words, what does the meaning of this verse have to do with that of verse 3? A more literal translation of the second half of the verse might be, “and this life was the light of human beings.” To what does “this life” refer? What does the last half of the verse mean?
In the Old Testament, the word light usually refers to experienced brightness; it refers to an event or an experience rather than to a thing or a state of things. Therefore, light may also refer to salvation, our experience of being in the right relation with God or our experience of our relation with God made right. God is our light (Psalms 27:1): he enlightens us by making our salvation possible (Psalms 97:11). The contrast of light and dark is not as important to the Old Testament (or to the B.C. part of the Book of Mormon) as it is to John. In making the contrast John seems to introduce an essentially new element into scriptural language. In the Gospel of John, light stands at least for revelation (see John 12:36) and, therefore, also for the Revealer (John 1:5?, 8:12, 9:5, and 12:46).
As you think about what this verse means, it may be helpful to remember that this strophe of the hymn is about the creation. This verse continues that theme in some way. In what way?
Verse 5: Like verse 3, this acts as a transition from the second strophe to the third (in verses 10 through 12). Notice that the verbs in verse 4 were in the past tense, but in this verse the first is in the present tense while the second is in the past:
verse 4—“In him was life; and the life was the light of men”
verse 5—“the light shines in darkness; and the darkness did not comprehend it.”
Why does the hymn shift from the past to the present and then back to the past?
What does it mean to say that the light shines in darkness? What does it mean to say that the darkness did not comprehend the light? To us, the word comprehend means, most often, “understand.” But that is misleading; it didn’t mean that to the King James translators, and the Greek word used here doesn’t mean “understand.” Instead, it means “to seize,” “to make one’s own,” “to overcome.” The alternate translation, above, is more accurate: “And the light shines in darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
This strophe began as a discussion of creation (verse 3). What does this verse have to do with that topic?
Verse 10: Notice how this verse is related to the first two strophes:
(1) He was in the world (a contrast with strophe 1, where he was described as in the presence of God)
(2) the world was made by him (strophe 2). It also introduces the subject of this strophe—“the world knew him not”—a topic suggested by the closing part of verse 5.
Verse 11: It might not be surprising that the world did not recognize him when he came to them, but even his own people did not recognize him when he came to them. Are verses 10 and 11 parallel in meaning as well as grammar, or are they only grammatically parallel?
As you read this hymn, it may be helpful to remember that the word him refers to “the Word.” We know that “the Word” stands for Christ, but the direct reference is to the particular name mentioned in verse 1 and, therefore, to the things that name suggests. What does “the Word” and its meanings have to do with this verse and the previous verse?
Verse 12: The Greek word translated receive could also be translated accept. Though most did not receive him, he gave the power to be the children of God to those who did. If we are already the children of God, how can he give us the power to become his children? (See Mosiah 5, especially verse 7.) Is it significant that he gives them the power to become children rather than making them children? The last part of the verse indicates that we receive him by believing on his name. What is entailed in believing on his name? (See Mosiah 4.)
Verse 14: How do you think that those of a Greek culture, including educated Jews, would have responded to this announcement: God was made flesh and dwelt among human beings? How would Greek and Roman intellectuals have responded? What does it mean to say that Jesus is full of grace? That he is full of truth?
Notice that, structurally, this verse repeats verse 1. Like verse one it testifies of Christ’s existence, of his relation to the Father, and of his attributes: “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us”—he exists; “we beheld his glory, the glory of the unique Son of the Father”—his relation to the Father; full of grace and love—his attributes.
Though “only begotten” is an accurate translation, I think that translation changes the emphasis of the original. The Greek emphasizes the uniqueness of the Son. Literally, this says “the glory of a singular Son coming from the Father.”
The word translated grace could also be translated mercy. The phrase “grace and truth” seems to imitate a pair of characteristics used to describe God in the Old Testament: his loving-kindness (esed) and his faithfulness in keeping his covenants (‘emet). Exodus 34:6 is representative of many Old Testament scriptures that mention these attributes of God, probably the most important of the divine attributes discussed in the Old Testament. (See also Psalms 25:10, 61:7, 86:15; and Proverbs 20:28.) This early hymn explicitly identifies Christ with the God of the Old Testament.
The word translated truth means truth, but it originally meant “what is unconcealed” or “what is revealed” (though by the time of Christ that origin had probably long been forgotten). Does thinking about the word truth in that way add any meaning to your understanding of the phrase “grace and truth”?
Verse 16: The Savior gives us of the fullness that he receives, grace for grace—literally “grace in place of grace.” (I think that we also see the teaching of this verse in D&C 84:38.) What does “grace for grace” mean? Does it mean “one kind of grace replacing another,” perhaps the expression of divine mercy (esed—loving-kindness) in the Mosaic covenant replaced by its expression in the new covenant? Does it mean that “grace is piled upon grace,” indicting an abundance of fullness? Or, does it mean “grace in return for grace”? Look at the other places where this phrase occurs in scripture and see whether those help you understand better the meaning of the phrase (e.g., Helaman 12:24; D&C 93:12 and 20).
John’s running commentary on the hymn
Verses 6-9: Why does John think that it is important to respond to verses 1 through 5 by talking about John the Baptist? Can you explain what in the first five verses might have prompted him to interject this discussion of John the Baptist? Why was / is the testimony of verses 8-9 important?
Verse 13: What does this verse tell us about how we come to have the power to become the children of God? What does it mean to say that those who believe on God are not born of blood? That they are not born of the will of the flesh? That they are not born of the will of man? What does it mean to be born of God? In the Old Testament flesh often refers to human weakness, as in Isaiah 40:6. Blood in the Old Testament is usually associated with death. Might John have those associations in mind? If so, how does that help us understand this verse? Some have suggested that blood means “natural generation,” that flesh means “natural desires, such as the desire to have children,” and that “the will of man” means “the human ability to choose.” Does that help give insight into a possible meaning of this verse?
Verse 15: Just as John began his commentary on this hymn by talking about John the Baptist, he ends by talking about John the Baptist. Why? Why was John the Baptist so important to explaining the mission of Jesus? (Compare Mark 1:7 and Matthew 3:11.)
Verse 17: What is the contrast between the law, on the one hand, and grace and truth, on the other? How have we received the fulness and what is the fulness mentioned in verse 16? How does this verse tell us understand “grace for grace” in verse 16?
Can you give specific answers to these questions: What are the good tidings that the Messiah preaches to the meek? How does he bind up the brokenhearted? To what captives does the Messiah proclaim liberty? What kind of liberty does he proclaim? What does “the acceptable year of our Lord” mean? Why is the day of the Lord a day of vengeance? Against whom? How does the Messiah comfort those who mourn? What does the Lord promise in the first part of Isaiah 61:3? What does it mean to be called a tree of righteousness? What does it mean to say that we are “the planting of the Lord”? How does the coming of the Lord and the things he does when he comes glorify him?
Compare the JST version of Luke 3:4-11 (pages 805-806 of appendices in the LDS edition of the Bible—at least in my edition) with Luke 3:4-5 in the King James translation. Then compare them both to Isaiah 40:3-5. What differences do you see? What do you make of those differences? What do you make of the fact that Joseph Smith made no changes to Isaiah in chapter 40, but adds quite a bit here where John is quoting Isaiah 40?
The JST version gives us considerable insight into Jesus’ mission. It gives a prophetic understanding of how we should understand that mission. How do you think people who heard John’s message would have understood what he was saying? What would they have expected Jesus to be like? Why? Look at each of the things that John says of him and identify how Jesus accomplished each thing. Which things still remain to be accomplished?
In context, the word these in the first phrase refers to the seven miracles that John has just told about. How do those miracles testify of Jesus? Does this verse help us understand John’s purpose? What does he mean when he says that he has written these things “that ye might believe”? How can stories about miracles help our belief? Whose belief will it help? In other words, was John writing for other Christians or to convert those who were not yet Christians?
How does a book whose purpose is to bring us to believe that Jesus is the Anointed One (the meaning of the word Christ,), the Son of God who can give us life, differ from a standard history? In other words, how does testimony differ from history? Does that tell us anything about how we should read the Gospels? Does it say anything about how we should not read them?
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