John 1:3-4, continued
In the previous note, we looked at the two different ways of dividing verses 3-4, involving the words o^ ge/gonen (“[that] which has come to be”). These words come at the end of v. 3 (according to the traditional verse-division), but many commentators consider them to belong with verse 4, providing the opening words for that verse:
“(That) which came to be [o^ ge/gonen] in him was life”
To do so, however, creates certain difficulties for interpretation. What, exactly does this statement mean? In the previous note, I offered a possible explanation, or line of interpretation, suggesting that it is a reference to the new creation (i.e., believers in Christ), in contrast to the first/original creation referenced in v. 3. While such an explanation would be consonant with Johannine theology (cf. vv. 12-13; 3:3-8), the actual syntax of the clause in v. 4 seems to argue against it. Life is the subject (not believers), and so, based on the Johannine understanding of the noun zwh/, it is the divine/eternal life itself that “came to be” in the Logos.
There are several passages in the Gospel where it is stated that the Father gave life to the Son (who, in turn, gives it to believers). We see this most notably in the chapter 5 discourse (vv. 21ff, 26), but it is implied elsewhere in the discourses (cf. 3:34-36; 6:27ff; 10:28; 12:49-50; 17:2-3). While this idea is very much part of the Johannine theology, it does not seem to fit to context here in v. 4. There is a relatively sharp distinction between the use of the verb of being (ei)mi) and the verb of becoming (gi/nomai). In the Prologue, the verb of being is used of God (i.e., divine being), while the verb of becoming is used for created beings. Thus, by reading the words o^ ge/gonen as part of v. 4, the verse is apparently made to say that the divine life which the Logos (and Jesus, the Son) possesses has “come to be” (that is, was created by God). One can well understand why those who held an Arian view of Jesus, would cite the verse (read in this way) in support of their Christology, since it would seem to suggest that the pre-existent Son was created.
Keeping the words o^ ge/gonen as part of verse 3 removes this complication, and preserves a clear distinction between the eternal being of God (vv. 1-2, 4) and created being (v. 3). For this reason, among the others cited in the previous note, I would argue strongly for the traditional verse division, and will thus assume it as the correct approach for the remainder of these notes. Following the traditional division, we can render vv. 3-4 as:
“All (thing)s came to be through him,
and apart (from) him came to be
not even one (thing) that has come to be.
In him was life,
and th(is) life was the light of men.”
The poetry may appear to be rather uneven in this arrangement; however, the structure becomes more properly balanced, both rhythmically and thematically, when one includes v. 5.
Verse 3 refers to creation—specifically to created beings—which all came into existence, by God, through the Logos. Verse 4, by contrast, refers to the divine being, the creative power, which the Logos possesses. Creation takes place through (dia/) the Logos, but eternal life is experienced in (e)n) the Logos. Verse 4 is comprised of two distinct, but related, statements:
- “In him was life” (e)n au)tw=| zwh\ h@n)
- “the life was the light of men” (h( zwh\ h@n to\ fw=$ tw=n a)nqrw/pwn)
The use of the verb of being (ei)mi) echoes the wording of vv. 1-2, with the same imperfect form (h@n, “he/it was“); it thus refers to the divine being and existence of the Logos, and the relation of the Logos to God. As previously noted, the noun zwh/ (“life”) occurs frequently in the Gospel of John (36 times, more than a quarter of all NT occurrences), and always refers to the life that God possesses—that is, to the divine and eternal life. The Logos possesses this same life, and is thus able to give it to others; since Jesus the Son is identified with the Logos of God (v. 2), the life (and life-giving power) belongs to him (3:34-36; 5:21ff; 10:28; 11:25; 14:6, etc).