As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
In real-world encounters, we don’t always have much control over the setting and circumstances of our first impressions. But in writing, an author has, quite literally, carte blanche. She is free to start her story wherever she chooses.
In the four Gospel accounts, each author takes his own unique approach to the beginning of the story of Jesus. Matthew, catering to a Jewish audience, starts with “the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah.” Mark, writing primarily to gentiles, leads with a prophecy about John the Baptist. Luke, the meticulous doctor, begins with an explanation of his investigation and intent. John, the deep thinker and feeler, takes a different approach. Rather than starting with history or prophecy or methodology, he begins with poetry. In the first chapter in his account of the life of Jesus, John starts by returning to the beginning. His opening lines play on the beautiful poetry of the Jewish creation story found in Genesis 1.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
And immediately John has made it clear to us that this will not be a cute story about a peculiar carpenter. No, to John, Jesus is much more than a man.
He is God in the flesh, described by John as God’s very Word, by whom all things were made. He is the source of life and light, he who dispels the darkness and saves the world. John is not going to allow us to read his story and decide for ourselves what it means. He gives us the beginning and end before the story even starts. John is setting us up for what’s to come: a story in which the narrator offers commentary and interpretation, in which the teller tells what these things mean to him. He is both the narrator and a character in the story. He recounts what he lived, yet he steps far outside himself to contextualize the vastness of the narrative.
This is not just another human story. It is the Divine Story—the one God himself started in The Beginning and will finish in The End.
John’s Gospel is by far my favorite. I can’t help but think of him as a kindred spirit: a fellow lover of philosophy and poetry and all things that move deeply. His account is emotional and personal. It has a perspective and a personality. In its overtures and its interludes, it offers insight utterly human and profoundly divine. John was a man intimately acquainted with the nature of God: the all-creating and all-consuming Love beyond all measure and all comparison. He was a man convinced he was the beloved of God. And as we peer through those keen, incisive eyes, may we see ourselves just the same.