John 1:15, continued
In the previous note, I discussed some of the difficulties and critical issues surrounding verse 15, and examined the first of the three phrases in the Baptist-saying. It is important to keep these three phrases in view as we proceed, paying attention especially to the key verbs and prepositional/relational expressions they each contain:
- “the one coming [e)rxome/no$] in back of [o)pi/sw] me”
- “has come to be [ge/gonen] in front of [e&mprosqe/n] me”
- “(he) was [h@n] first/foremost [prw=to/$] (over) me”
The verbs, in particular, are part of a distinctive Johannine theological vocabulary, and are used with great care throughout the Gospel (and especially here in the Prologue).
Today’s note focuses on the second (middle) phrase:
e&mprosqe/n mou ge/gonen
“(he) has come to be in front of me”
The verb in this phrase is gi/nomai, the verb of becoming. It has the primary meaning “come to be, become”. Like e&rxomai, it is common in narration and descrption, but it, too, is often has a special significance in the Gospel of John. It can carry the nuance of “come to be born“, and, as such, is very close to the related verb genna/w. This latter verb is used in John for the spiritual “birth” of believers (Jn 1:13; 3:3-8) and gi/nomai also is used frequently to describe coming to faith (i.e. “becoming” believers, Jn 12:36; 13:19; 14:29; 15:8, etc).
As we have seen, gi/nomai occurs frequently in the Prologue (outside of v. 15)—8 times in all:
- For the things which came-to-be [e)ge/neto/ge/gonen] through the Word (v. 3 [x 3], 10)—i.e., created beings
- A man (John) came-to-be (born) [e)ge/neto] (v. 6)
- The Word came-to-be [e)ge/neto] flesh… (v. 14)
- “Favor and truth” came-to-be [e)ge/neto] through Christ (v. 17)—contrast with “the Law was given” through Moses.
- Those who received (Christ) are given authority to become [gene/sqai] sons of God (v. 12)
The perfect form [ge/gonen] in verse 15 (and 30) creates a difficulty in interpretation (discussed below), however it would seem to relate specifically to the aorist form [e)ge/neto] in v. 14 (“the Word became flesh”).
The relational expression in the second phrase is e&mprosqe/n mou (“in front of me”). This is clearly intended as a contrast with o)pi/sw mou (“[in] back of me”), but in what sense? Much depends on the interpretation of ge/gonen, but I see in this a typical bit of Johannine wordplay, whereby the immediate (apparent) sense is overshadowed (and may even be contrary) to the deeper (true) meaning. One might think that the Baptist (or the Gospel writer) here is simply saying that Jesus, who was younger than John and relatively unknown, is now coming into greater prominence. The immediate context would certainly suggest this—those who were following John now follow Christ (vv. 35ff, cf. also 3:27-30).
On the verb form ge/gonen (“has come to be”). The usage of gi/nomai in the Prologue (see above), and especially in verse 14 (“the Word became [e)ge/neto] flesh”), strongly suggests that the Incarnation (of the Logos) is primarily in view. In other words, Jesus has come to be “in front of” John because he is the eternal Word (Logos) that became flesh. In the context of the first phrase, the elliptical manner of expression appropriately reflects the mystery (and paradox) of the Incarnation.
The perfect form here (ge/gonen, parallel to the occurrence in v. 3) may be meant to indicate that something which took place in the (eternal) past, is presently true. The perfect tense often signifies a past action (or condition) that continues into the present. There are two ways this could be understood: (1) in a ritual or sacramental sense, or (2) in terms of its presence through the Spirit. The Bread of Life Discourse in chapter 6 (vv. 22-71) is the main Johannine passage that deals with both of these aspects.
The version of this phrase in v. 30 differs in that it includes a relative pronoun (o%$): o^$ e&mprosqe/n mou ge/gonen (“who has come to be in front of me”). Syntactically, this is due to the occurrence of the noun a)nh/r (“[a] man”) at the end of the first phrase. The saying in v. 30 thus reads: “In back of me comes a man who came to be in front of me…”.
On the Christological significance of the relative pronoun, especially as it is used to open the New Testament Christ-hymns, cf. the earlier note on Phil 2:6.