John’s Long Christmas Story
Like many other families, each year my family traditionally reads the Christmas story before we open presents on Christmas morning. We read of the angel appearing to Mary. We read of Caesar’s command that everyone be registered. We read of there being no place at the inn. We read of the shepherds coming to Jesus. Most basically, we start at the beginning and hear the story of our Savior Jesus coming into the world. Matthew and Luke recount the story similar ways, but when we turn to the Gospel of John, the story begins quite differently. When John tells of Jesus’ coming, he tells a much longer story.
The opening prologue of John’s gospel tells a long Christmas story because it begins at creation. In starting here, John is framing the coming of the Son into this world within the themes of Genesis. He takes the reader all the way back to creation to show that the Christmas story itself is the moment to which the story of the Bible has been building.
As we teach our students the gospel through the Christmas story, we must not miss the breadth and length and height and depth of how John is presenting the person of Jesus. By reaching all the way back to Genesis 1, John is emphasizing a much longer story than the other gospel accounts. By framing the Christmas story this way, John helps us to understand Jesus’ true identity and how he has begun God’s work of re-creation.
In the Beginning
John begins his Gospel with the same words with which Genesis opens: In the beginning. This phrase alone would have served to transport the minds of the early readers right back to the creation scene of Genesis 1. Just as God undertook the work of creation in the beginning, there is now a new beginning. John is presenting Jesus’ Incarnation as the moment a new creative work of God begins. Just as God brought life into this world, so will Jesus bring life to all who believe. Just as God filled a world with abundant beauty and works to promote its flourishing, so will Jesus restore the beauty of this creation and work towards its flourishing. Those who believe in him are “new creations” (2 Cor. 5:17). In John’s later book, Revelation, Jesus speaks from the throne and says that he is making all things new (Rev. 21:5).
This work of re-creation begun in the Incarnation of Jesus is a message of hope to our students, and particularly in this challenging year. Globally, nationally, locally, and even in their own homes, it has felt at times like the world is falling apart. At a minimum, school is not the same, friendships are stunted, and milestone events and activities are canceled or different. At worst, their lives have radically changed due to sick family members, a major hit to their families’ financial situations, or the loss of someone they were close to. But John insists that God is not done with this world. He has not abandoned it. Rather, through Jesus, the Creator has begun to re-create. Through Jesus, God has begun to restore this world to a place of life, beauty, and flourishing for all God’s people, and for the whole world.
And God Said
Once we arrive back at the beginning, John begins to reshape our understanding of the creation event. In Genesis, the Father and the Spirit are both seen to be present and active in the creative work. But why was the Son not also mentioned as present in this creative work as a member of the Trinity? John is making it clear that he was not only present but integral to the creative work. John calls the pre-incarnate Son “the Word.”
Throughout the Genesis 1 narrative, God creates through speech. The repeated phrase, And God said… marks each of his creative actions. By identifying the Son as the Word and by writing, “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (v. 3), John is showing that the pre-incarnate Son was the actor who created in the Genesis 1 narrative. It was through him that physical life was given (v. 4), and in John 1 we see that he has now come to give spiritual life (v. 13).
All of this helps us to see who Jesus Christ is when he comes into this world. He is not merely another man, a great man or a powerful man, an empowered man. He is God. He has eternally existed. He was present with the other members of the Trinity at creation. This is who has come into the world in the Christmas story!
The reason our students may hold firm to the hope offered in the work of Jesus in John 1 is because of who he is. While it might require some heavy lifting theologically for students, we must not shy away from presenting the person and work of Jesus to them. For it is in seeing him as the pre-existent Word of God that we understand the fullness of who he is, what he has come to do, and how he does it.
Let There Be Light
One more creation theme (though perhaps not the last) in John 1 is that of light. On the first day, God gives light (Gen. 1:3-5). On the fourth day, God creates the two great lights that give light upon the earth (Gen. 1:14-19). In John 1, the Word of God is identified as the light of mankind, a light that cannot be overcome (1:4-5). It is the light of the Word of God that shines in the darkness and reveals to human beings the glory of the Son from the Father, which makes known God (1:14, 18). This Jesus who has come into the world opens our eyes to see God.
This year, our students have seen so much with their physical eyes. Technology puts news, traumatic events, and entertainment at our fingertips. This can render our students disenchanted with the state of the world, the Bible, and God’s place in it. But the gospel message John offers here is a call to see something beautiful, powerful, and compelling. John is showing that through his perfect obedience, his death, Jesus’ resurrection, and his ascension, he has revealed the glory of God to the world. All who place their faith in Jesus become the children of God, and through him, his children have access to this glorious God.
There is no greater hope that can be offered in the Christmas story than that we may be made children of God, that we might know him and see his glory. As we seek to teach the Christmas story to our students, it is my prayer that we will see our task as none other than this: presenting Jesus in the fullness of who he is and the fullness of what he has done so that they might see God. It may require a lot of flipping back and forth, but presenting John 1 and Genesis 1 side-by-side can be a wonderful teaching tool. In doing so, students will be able to make the connections that John is hoping for the reader to make. They will be able to see that John’s Christmas story is a long one, beginning with Genesis 1, that presents the glory of the Son in all his beauty.
Over on Rooted Reservoir, we offer curriculum for teaching through the book of John with students. Check it out!