The Use of the Old Testament in John 1-2 (Pt. I)

1:1–In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.

A. This verse alludes to Genesis 1:1 ff.

B. The truth alluded to in this verse of John’s Gospel is the opening of the Hebrew Scriptures, the beginning of the Torah’s sustained attack on pagan idolatry that the Israelites were surrounded by in Egypt and which they confronted in the Promised Land. Speaking generally, pagan mythologies began with their own creation stories, most often portraying the gods and the world as being parts of the same finite creation. Genesis 1:1 is essentially a full frontal assault on this view, proclaiming that all things that exist (“the heavens and the earth”) were created by the God (not “gods”) who is not Himself a part of that order. Some commentators believe that Genesis was written by Moses during the first 40 years of his life, when he was busily learning the wisdom of the Egyptians and would have had access to the ancient records of his own people as well. On this assumption, the entire book of Genesis would have had the broader purpose of preparing the Israelites for their deliverance from servitude – by introducing them to their covenant God and recalling His sovereign power over all.

C. John uses the allusion to introduce the person of Jesus Christ and identify Him directly with God. It is fitting then, since he spends so much time explaining the divinity of Christ, that he would open with a direct allusion to the creation of the world. By reminding his readers that God created all things through his Word and then identifying that Word with Jesus, John assured that a powerful and subversive presentation of Israel’s old covenant story would be seen.

1:15–John bore witness of Him, and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me’”.

A. This verse builds on Malachi 3:1 (“Behold, I am going to send my messenger, and he will clear the way before Me.”) This seems a correct conclusion when compared with Luke 7:27, where Jesus Himself quotes the Malachi passage of John the Baptist.

B. Malachi’s name means “my messenger,” and it is interesting that as the book winds down, it mentions made of God’s messenger who will go before Him to “clear the way.” The book was written not long after the Temple had been rebuilt (after the return from Babylon), so it is ironic that we once again find that Israel has strayed from the covenant and become morally and spiritually lax. Malachi laments the fact that the Jews are simply “going through the motions,” outwardly following the terms of the covenant while not truly honoring God (2:2). The prophet warns that “the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight…is coming” (3:1). Sadly, he notes by way of a rhetorical question that no one will be able to withstand His coming (3:2) because “He is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap” who will “sit as a smelter and purifier of silver” (3:2-3). Some 400 years prior to Christ’s coming we see the genesis of the sort of religion that Christ would so scathingly confront as He pursued His mission of radically retelling Israel’s story to center on Himself and His judgment of the apostate covenant people.

C. The Apostle John applies this allusion to John the Baptist, the messenger who goes before Christ testifying to His (sudden) coming. The Apostle goes on to chronicle the Baptist’s identification of Jesus as the Lamb of God (1:36). Given that several passages (Mk. 6:15, Jn 1:21) have the people identifying John as Elijah, and the fact that Jesus later says that one “greater than Elijah is among you”, the connection with Malachi’s message seems all the stronger.

1:23–He said, “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.

A. This is a quotation of Isaiah 40:3 (“A voice is calling, ‘Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God’”).

B. This passage was the opening of the section of Isaiah (chps. 40-66) that some commentators call “the Messianic consolation.” Isaiah prophesied during the turbulent period of Judah’s history covering the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah, and Manasseh (2 Ki. 15-21) – perhaps only a century before the southern kingdom was taken into captivity by the Babylonians. This section of the book focuses generally on YHWH’s promise of deliverance for His people, and particularly on the Deliverer Himself. It is in this section that some of the strongest Christological prophecies in the Old Testament are found (most notably, chap. 53). Isaiah knows what is soon to come on the disobedient nation, and while he warns them of their peril, he offers hope that God will not abandon His people or let them be completely destroyed. Calvin’s comment on one part of this verse is worth quoting:

The wilderness is employed to denote metaphorically that desolation which then existed; though I do not deny that the Prophet alludes to the intermediate journey; for the roughness of the wilderness seemed to forbid their return. He promises, therefore, that although every road were shut up, and not a chink were open, the Lord will easily cleave a path through the most impassable tracts for himself and his people. (Commentaries, Volume 15)

C. The Apostle John quotes this section from Isaiah as another means of highlighting the heraldic ministry of the Baptist. As if it were not enough that he has already intimated that Jesus is the Word Who was with God and was God in the beginning, the Apostle continues to build the picture that the Old Testament prophecies are coming to their zenith in this day and age. The Baptist is the long-awaited herald of the long-awaited Messiah. And, as with the above citation from Micah, we find the Jews not ready for His “sudden” coming to His Temple.

1:51–And He said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you shall see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man”.

A. This passage alludes to the story of Jacob’s Ladder in Gen. 28:12.

B. Jacob dreams of a ladder “set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it”. In the dream, God speaks to him and gives him far-reaching covenantal promises about his descendants and the blessings that will come on the whole earth through them. Jacob awakes in great fear and says, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Gen. 28:17). Jacob names the place “the house of God”, which is interesting in light of Jesus’ later ministry as King of the Temple.

C. Jesus’ citing of this passage is significant precisely because it is through Him that Jacob’s “gate of heaven” is opened to allow us entry. Christ, as the only fitting Mediator between heaven and earth, opens the way for His people and sends angels to minister to them. The Reformed book in which I originally encountered the exposition of this parallel between Genesis and John also noted the radical difference between the Tower of Babel (man’s arrogant attempt to build his own way up to God) and Jacob’s Ladder (God’s gracious condescension to man in Christ). Whether or not John had all this in mind as he recalled Christ’s words to Nathanael, it is certain that this identification between Christ and Jacob’s Ladder is rich with significance and comfort for God’s people.

2:17–His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for thy house will consume me.”

A. This is a quotation of Psalm 69:9 (“For zeal for thy house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach thee have fallen on me.”)

B. Psalm 69 is one of the imprecatory psalms, and its original context was the life of King David. David laments his trials and persecution by his enemies – many of whom were his own kindred in Israel. Later in the Psalm (v.21), David says “they also gave me gall for my food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink”. He says that “they have persecuted him whom Thou Thyself hast smitten, and they tell of the pain of those whom Thou hast wounded” (v.26). The parallels between David’s sufferings and the sufferings of the One who was both his son and his Lord are obvious.

C. The Apostle John’s application of this Psalm is to Jesus’ ministry of cleansing the Temple. Having driven out the moneychangers (and, as Wright points out) symbolically enacting the Temple’s destruction, Christ ensured that there would shortly come a time when “the reproaches of those who reproach [God] have fallen on me”. Yet, all is not despair. Though disgraced for the sake of God (Ps. 69:7), David (and thus, Christ) yet knows that God is merciful and will bring deliverance from death to His faithful one and judgment on the wicked who unrighteously afflicted him.

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