It has long been observed that the Gospel according to John occupies a unique place among the four gospels. Even a casual reading of this gospel and a comparison with the other three uncovers some significant differences between John and the Synoptic Gospels. Not only does John narrate accounts not found in the other gospels (for example, the woman at the well and the nighttime encounter with Nicodemus), but the reader will also recognize that this gospel simply reads differently from the other three. Even as early as the second century, Clement of Alexandria observed that the Gospel's composition seems more "spiritual" than the other three [see Clement of Alexandria, Hypotyposes, EH 6.14].
The author achieves this poetic or "spiritual feel" by employing a unique literary style and vocabulary. John's special vocabulary functions within complex literary devices that encompass recurring themes, metaphors and symbols. This unique crafting of a spiritual gospel not only helps the author achieve his stated goal ("these things are written that you may come to believe" - 20:31), but ultimately conveys what is not so much a story about Jesus, but a story about knowing God's work in Jesus. [See Moloney, "Johannine Theology," 1420].
To capture the reader's imagination and to familiarize the reader with the author's proposed method of portraying Jesus' words and deeds, John utilizes a poetic introduction commonly referred to as the "Johannine Prologue" (1:1-18). The following outline of the Prologue's text illustrates how the author introduces these images:
1:1 - Word (logoV) and God (qeoV)
Set within a familiar allusion to the account of creation from the Book of Genesis ("In the beginning."), John 1:1 introduces us to the Word (logoV). The Word is described as being so intimately connected with God as to be indistinguishable from God (".and the Word was God"). The reader also learns that the Word is not a static, inanimate entity, but instead is both an agent of creation with God and, in itself, the ultimate source of life.1:4 - Life (zwh)
The Gospel later elaborates upon this intimate connection and describes it as the relationship between the Father and the Son (cf. John 14:7). Since the Son acts completely in concert with the Father, when we see actions of Jesus in John's Gospel, we know they are essentially acts of God. God is thus made known or "speaks" to humanity through the Word (see Maloney, 1420).
Life (zwh) is an important concept in John and is linked in 1:4 with another symbolic word: "light" (fwV), the first creative act of God (Genesis 1:3), spoken into existence. Just as light is the source of life in the natural world, by virtue of their creation by the Word, all humanity shares in the light of the Word. Life is the first symbol introduced that later plays into John's dualistic construction of the cosmos. Eventually, life will be contrasted with death and the "perishing" world.1:5 - Light (fwV)
Light (fwV) as a symbol is contrasted against darkness and sets the stage for the struggle between light and darkness in the Gospel. Light is associated with the Word, while darkness is often identified with the world and the ruler of the world (see 12:31, for example). Just as physical light dispels darkness in nature, so also is the case in this struggle between light and darkness in the Gospel. The reader knows that in the end light will emerge victorious: "the darkness did not (past tense) overcome it."1:6-8 - Witness and Judgement
The author next introduces the reader to "John" (known in the Synoptics as "the Baptist"), the one who witnesses to the light. The Fourth Gospel contains a number of allusions to a trial-like backdrop by repeatedly using words such as "judge," "arrest," "deny," "witness," "testify." Like a modern-day judge or jury, the Johannine characters, as well as the implied reader, must come to a final decision based on the evidence provided. For the author, this decision hopefully ends in belief in Jesus as the one "sent by God" and with it, humanity's entry into the intimate relationship between the Father and the Son.1:9-10, 14 - Above and Below; Ascending and Descending
By this point in the Prologue, we note that the light "was coming into the World" (1:9) and we see that the light had indeed arrived (1:10). The Johannine author repeatedly utilizes this image of descent "from above" "into the world." [For a discussion of this complex image, see Talbert, "The Myth of a Descending-Ascending Redeemer in Mediterranean Antiquity," 418-439]. The ascending and descending Word fits well into the author's dualistically constructed world "above" (associated with God) and "below" (existence on Earth). By 1:14, we find the author associating the Word with a human person ("the Word became flesh"), with the one John testifies to, the one who is Jesus Christ (1:18).1:18 - Jesus Christ
As the Prologue concludes, we note the assertion that "no one has ever seen God." Closely linked with John's light symbolism is his use of sight and seeing as metaphors for knowledge and belief. It is the Son who allows us to see God through the Son's presence in the world. The Son comes into the world and makes God visible (both physically and metaphorically) to those in the Gospel who believe.While the author introduces a number of other symbols and metaphors throughout the Gospel, the Prologue provides a literary framework for the more significant symbols and recurring themes. The Prologue also informs the reader that many of John's symbols will be employed dualistically. John's dualisms inherently invite the reader to make an important decision; the decision to believe in Jesus Christ. For John there is little room for "middle-road" discipleship. The reader must choose light over darkness and life over death.