Grace and truth come to us from the Word of God. Previously, the Evangelist showed us how Christ, the Author of grace, imparted a measure of His grace to us, giving the faithful the power to become children of God. Now he shows how Christ, the Author of Truth, reveals the truth and makes the Father known to us. In this regard, the Evangelist speaks of (1) the need for this teaching, (2) the competency of the Teacher, and (3) the nature of His teaching.
1. The need for Christ’s teaching. Christ needed to teach us because there was a lack of wisdom among men, owing to the fact that “No one has ever seen God” (Jn 1:18a). Wisdom consists in the knowledge of God and of supernatural things, just as natural science consists in the knowledge of natural things.
It may seem that the statement, “No one has ever seen God” is untrue, for Isaiah reported, “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up” (Is 6:1). Now, we know that the virtuous will see God someday, for Christ promised, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8). St. John affirmed this: “when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn 3:2). Moreover, the angels even now see the face of God, as Christ said, “I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 18:10). But the question remains as to whether a man can see God in this life. To answer, we must distinguish five ways in which God can be “seen”: by the external senses, by the human imagination, through an intelligible species, by an infused spiritual light, and in the beatific vision. First, God may be seen by the external senses through a created representative. In Gn 18, we read that Abraham beheld three men at Mamre and took one of them to be God. The three visitors are sometimes cited as a figure of the Blessed Trinity, where the three symbolize the divine persons and the one set apart by Abraham symbolizes the unity of the Godhead. Apart from this figurative interpretation, we may cite this passage as an example of how God may be seen through a representative, such as an angel or a mysterious visitor. Second, God may be seen by the human imagination in the form of a vision. In the Old Testament, God often spoke to His people in this way, through visions given to the patriarchs and prophets. Third, God may be seen through an intelligible species abstracted from a material thing, as when we see the greatness of the Creator in His creature. Since all truths are a participation in the divine truth, and since the genius of the craftsman can be seen in his handiwork, we can catch a glimpse of God by carefully studying the orderly design and beauty of created things, as we read, “from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” (Wis 13:5), and “his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom 1:20). Fourth, God may be seen in the spiritual light infused into a soul during contemplation. In this way, Jacob saw God “face to face” at Peniel on the banks of the Jabbok River, east of the Jordan (Gn 32:30). The city of Peniel takes it name from this encounter, for Peniel means “face of God” in Hebrew. Fifth, God is “seen” by a soul that is united to the divine essence in the beatific vision. Here a soul attains knowledge of the divine essence, seeing God as He really is, whereas in the other four types of visions, he sees a mere representation of God. The beatific vision is a supernatural gift; it does not follow naturally from any of the four visions previously discussed. For this reason, many mystics withdraw themselves from the world and its material distractions, so that they might be in a better position to receive this gift. The beatific vision cannot be attained through any created species, for nothing finite can represent the infinite as it is. Rather, the four lesser visions represent an approximation of what God is in His essence. Since God is His own essence, that is, since God’s essence is existence (esse), then His wisdom and His greatness, and anything else in Him are the same. And since no created thing can adequately represent all those things, any knowledge we obtain about God by observing His creatures is necessarily an imperfect knowledge, as Elihu said of God’s works, “man beholds it from afar” (Jb 36:25). St. Paul distinguished the first four visions from the beatific vision when he wrote, “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor 13:12).
Some have asserted that it is impossible for any created intellect to attain knowledge of the divine essence, to attain the beatific vision. But this is false for three reasons. First, this assertion is contrary to Sacred Scripture. St. John attests to the possibility of the beatific vision when he writes, “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn 3:2), and “this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent” (Jn 17:3). Second, God is simple, indivisible, not consisting of parts. Therefore, whatever is in God is God. He has divinity and He is divinity. Christ knows the way and He is the Way; He possesses the truth and He is Truth; He gives life through grace and He is Life, for God’s essence is existence. Knowledge of God in the beatific vision is tantamount to knowledge of the divine essence. To know God is to know His essence. Third, everything is created for an end, and attainment of its end makes a thing happy. The natural desire of the intellect is to understand the causes of all effects it perceives. To discover truths makes the intellect happy. To attain perfect happiness, therefore, the intellect must attain knowledge of the divine essence, wherein is found all truth. To say that man cannot attain knowledge of the divine essence is to say that man cannot attain happiness and that he was created for an end that he cannot attain. We believe, on the contrary, that man can attain happiness, and He finds his ultimate happiness in the beatific vision of the Blessed Trinity.
How is God “seen” in the beatific vision? First, He is not seen with the corporeal senses or with the imagination, since only sensible things can be perceived in these ways. Rather, “God is spirit” (Jn 4:24), pure spirit. Second, the more the soul is free from passions and affections for material things, the better it is able to contemplate divine truths. To rise to the highest contemplation, which is to know God in His essence, the soul must be totally separated from the senses of its body. This separation occurs in two ways: by death, as St. Paul confessed, “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:8), or by rapture, as happened to the man mentioned in 2 Cor 12:2-4. Third, to see God is not to comprehend Him. To comprehend a thing is to know that thing to the extent that it is knowable in itself. Since a created intellect is finite, it knows things in a finite way. But because God is infinite in power and in being, He is infinitely knowable in Himself. Therefore, it follows that no created intellect can comprehend the divine essence, for the finite cannot comprehend the infinite. Thus, Elihu confessed, “God is great, and we know him” (Jb 36:26). Only God can contemplate Himself comprehensively, for His power to know Himself is infinite, even as His being is infinite. In the beatific vision, the blessed see the whole divine essence, not a part of it, because God is simple and indivisible, not composed of parts. But although they see the whole of His essence, it is not wholly seen by them, that is to say, it is not comprehended by them, for they do not know God to the extent that He is knowable to Himself.
2. The competency of the Teacher. “The only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father” (Jn 1:18b), is competent to teach divine wisdom and to reveal the truth, and this for three reasons: because of His natural likeness to the Father, because of His unique excellence, and because of His consubstantiality with the Father. First, the Son of God is competent to teach divine truths because, as Son, He bears a likeness to the Father, as every son bears a certain likeness to his natural father. He who knows the son, knows the father through the son. Moreover, a son, because of his closeness to his father, has a natural aptitude for knowing his father. Thus, through the Son, Who is the Word of God, we come to know the Father most intimately. Second, the Son is competent to teach because of his unique excellence as the “only son.” He knows the Father better than any of the Father’s adopted sons and daughters, because Christ alone is His natural son. The Psalmist said of the Only Begotten Son, “You are my son, today I have begotten you” (Ps 2:7). Third, the Son is competent to teach because of his consubstantiality with the Father, for every son is of the same nature as his natural father. Christ is “in the bosom of the Father.” To be in one’s bosom is to be privy to the secret things that lie hidden in the depths of the heart. Thus, Isaiah said of the Son, “Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (Is 45:15). The secret things of the Father include His infinite power and knowledge. When the Evangelist writes that the Only Begotten Son is in the bosom of the Father, he is suggesting that Christ possesses the same power that the Father possesses and that the Son knows everything that the Father knows. Whatever the Son has, He has from the Father, who is the origin of all, the principle without a principle. What St. John means by “bosom,” the Psalmist meant by “womb,” as when he wrote, “From the womb of the morning like dew your youth will come to you” (Ps 110:3). The “womb” represents the most secret of things concerning one’s essence, one’s very being. In these matters, Father and Son are truly one: one in grace, one in truth, one in being.
Christ is a divine person with two complete natures. Since His human soul was created, and since created things are finite, although He can know God by using His human intellect, His human intellect cannot comprehend the essence of God. Christ as God comprehends the Father, but Christ as man cannot. The Son comprehends the Father, because Father and Son have the same infinite divine nature. Thus we read, “no one knows the Father except the Son” (Mt 11:27).
The phrase, “who is in the bosom of the Father,” refutes those who asserted that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are not one and the same. One such heretic was Marcion of Sinope (ca. 135-170), who cited certain scriptural pericopes to demonstrate apparent contradictions between the Old and New Testaments. Now, some have pointed out that the God of the Old Testament was known for His justice, while the God of the New Testament is known for His mercy. But they are talking about the same God. Marcion, however, in his book Antitheses (no longer extant), distinguished between a good god who lives in heaven, and an inferior god who was the demiurge that fashioned the world out of evil eternal matter. The inferior god is just in a way, but hardly merciful. He identified the inferior god with the God of the Jews, and asserted that this god has passions, becomes irate, seeks revenge, instigates all wars, and is the author of moral and physical evil. He stated that Christ was not the Jew’s messiah, and that He was, in fact, never born at all, but suddenly appeared in the synagogue at Capernaum in the 15th year of Tiberius. He believed that Christ, by His teaching and miracles, destroyed the power of the evil god and redeemed human souls, but not their bodies. Marcion’s theory is creative, but fanciful, for it runs counter to the words of the Evangelist, who tells us that Christ “is in the bosom of the Father,” consubstantial with the Father.
3. The nature of Christ’s teaching. Christ “has made him known” (Jn 1:18b), that is, the Word of God has made the Father known to us, the Son has revealed His Father to us, and we become adopted sons and daughters of the Father through the Son. In the past, the Word of God spoke through the prophets, who frequently prefaced their oracles with, “The Word of the Lord came to me.” But now the Word Himself speaks, for the Word is the incarnate Son of God. The Letter to the Hebrews begins: “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son” (Heb 1:1-2). The teaching of the Incarnate Son of God surpasses all other teachings in dignity, in authority, and in its usefulness to us, for He is Wisdom, He is Truth, and He speaks directly to us, without intermediaries. The Lord spoke through Moses to His chosen people: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord” (Dt 6:4). To this Christ added new revelations: knowledge of the Blessed Trinity and other divine things not formerly revealed to the prophets, things concerning our redemption and life in the world to come in union with God.
This concludes the prologue of the Gospel of St. John.