From Expository Thoughts on John (1869)
The Gospel of St John, which begins with these verses, is in many respects very unlike the other three Gospels. It contains many things which they omit. It omits many things which they contain. Good reason might easily be shown for this unlikeness. But is enough to remember that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote under the direct inspiration of God. In the general plan of their respective Gospels, and in the particular details, in everything that they record, and in everything that they do not record, they were all four equally and entirely guided by the Holy Ghost.
About the matters which St John was specially inspired to relate in his Gospel, one general remark will suffice. The things which are peculiar to his Gospel are among the most precious possessions of the Church of Christ. No one of the four Gospel writers has given us such full statements about the divinity of Christ, about justification by faith, about the offices of Christ, about the work of the Holy Spirit, and about the privileges of believers, as we read in the pages of St. John’s Gospel. On none of these great subjects, undoubtedly, have Matthew, Mark, and Luke been silent. But in St John’s Gospel, they stand out prominently on the surface…
In these verses, we learn first that our Lord Jesus Christ is eternal. St. John tells us that “in the beginning was the Word.” He did not begin to exist when the heavens and earth were made. Much less did he begin to exist when the Gospel was brought into the world. He had glory with the Father “before the world was,” John 17:5. He was existing when matter was first created, and before time began. He was “before all things,” Col. 1:17. He was from all eternity.
Next we learn that our Lord Jesus Christ is a Person distinct from God the Father, and yet one with the Father. St. John tells us that “the word was with God.” The Father and the Word, though two persons, are by an ineffable union. Where God the Father was from all eternity, there also was the Word, God the Son. Their glory, equal. Their majesty, co-eternal. And yet their Godhead, one. This is a great mystery! Happy is the one who can receive this mystery as a little child without attempting to explain it.
We learn, third, that the Lord Jesus Christ is truly God. St. John tells us “the Word was God.” He is not merely a created angel nor a being inferior to God the Father and invested by him with power to redeem sinners. He is nothing less than fully God, equal to the Father as touching the Godhead, of the same substance as the Father, begotten before all things.
We learn, fourth, that the Lord Jesus Christ is the creator of all things. St. John tells us that “by him all things were made, and without him was not anything made that was made.” So far from being a creature of God, as some heretics have falsely asserted, Christ is the Being that made the worlds and all that they contain. “He commanded and they were created,” Ps. 40:8.
We learn, finally, that our Lord Jesus Christ is the source of all spiritual life and light. St. John tells us that “in Him was life, and the life was the life of men.” He is the eternal fountain, from which alone the sons of men have ever drawn life. Whatever spiritual life and light Adam and Eve possessed before the fall was from Christ. Whatever deliverance from sin and spiritual death any child of Adam has ever enjoyed since the fall, whatever light of conscience or understanding anyone has obtained, all has flowed from Christ. The vast majority of humanity in every age has refused to know him, have forgotten the fall, and their need for a Savior. The light has been constantly shining “in darkness.” Most people have “not comprehended the light.” But if any men or women out of the countless millions of mankind have ever had spiritual life and light, they have owed all to Christ.
Such is a brief summary of the leading lessons which these wonderful verses appear to contain. There is much in them, without controversy, which is above our reason; but there is nothing contrary to reason. There is much that we cannot explain and which must be content humbly to believe. Let us however never forget that there are plain practical consequences flowing from the passage..
Would we know for one thing, the exceeding weight of sin? Let us often read these first five verses of St. John’s Gospel. Let us mark what kind of Being the Redeemer of mankind must be, in order to provide eternal redemption for sinners. If no one less than the Eternal God, the Creator and Preserver of all things, could take away the sin of the world, sin must be a far more abominable thing in the sight of God than most people suppose. The right measure of sin’s gravity is the dignity of Him who came into the world to save sinners. If Christ is so great, then sin must indeed be weighty!
Would we know, for another thing, the strength of a true Christian’s foundation for hope? Let us often read these first five verses of St. John’s Gospel. Let us mark that the Savior in whom the believer is commanded to trust is nothing less than the Eternal God, one able to save to the uttermost all those that come to the Father by Him. He who was “with God” and “was God” is also “Emmanuel, God with us.” Let us thank God that our help is laid on one that is mighty, (Psalm 89:19). Alone, we are great sinners. But in Jesus Christ we have a great Savior. He is a strong foundation stone, able to bear the weight of the world’s sin. Anyone who trusts in him will not be confounded (1 Peter 2:6).
The Rt. Rev. J. C. Ryle (1816-1900) was a gifted teacher and preacher, one of the great leaders of the evangelical movement in 19th century Anglicanism. He served in a series of parish posts, and became the first Bishop of Liverpool in 1880. During his twenty year leadership of the diocese, he made great strides in connecting the church’s ministry with the needs of the working classes. His Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, commentaries based on his sermons as a parish priest, were deeply influential across the evangelical world. The text has been adapted for contemporary readers.