“Once upon a time…”
“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
I am almost certain that you could fill out the next few lines of these famous openers. With just a few words, you recall a whole world of characters, stories, and themes. It seems that the most important stories kickoff with a memorable opener. The Bible is certainly among those. Genesis starts with the well-known, “In the beginning…” and John’s gospel takes this same intro and runs with it. The opening words of Genesis that start not just a story, but an entire world, are re-imagined once again in John.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
– John 1:1-5
When reading John’s opening proclamation, Genesis 1 is the most obvious starting point, and rightly so. In Genesis, God creates and brings order through His life-bringing Word. John sees the powerful Word, the Logos, as being embodied in Jesus of Nazareth. John shows that Jesus is this eternal Logos in whom everything was created by and for. A bold claim to make about a Galilean rabbi! This eternally existing Word had become human, as Jesus Christ, and ministered to the world. A powerful reality to spend weeks reflecting on.
Yet, there may be another important text John is purposefully calling upon in his opening word: Proverbs 8. The book of Proverbs is certainly not the most popular book to go to when searching for hints of Jesus in the Old Testament but the similarities between John and this passage are far too convincing to miss.
Proverbs 8 is another story of beginnings. From Genesis we know that God existed before creation and John will tell us later that there was the Word, Jesus, with God in the beginning as well. In this passage from Proverbs, we learn of another character found alongside the Trinity before the foundation of the World. “At the very beginning”, Proverbs 8 says, Wisdom was created before anything else. It seems John’s might be connecting Jesus to another pre-creation idea with his opening words.
This passage then tells the personified story of Wisdom (nerdy scholars like to call her Lady Wisdom) calling out to those who have ears to hear. In this beautiful poem, Lady Wisdom wishes to be heard and in her crying out she tells the story of her origin. Lady Wisdom has existed since the beginning and partnered with God in his creation. She has the truth the world needs and in her is life. Once we read this ancient words about Wisdom, one needs little imagination to see how this fits nicely with Jesus. Check out some the highlights from Proverbs 8 that are echoed in John 1:
I was formed long ages ago,
at the very beginning, when the world came to be…
I was constantly at his side.
I was filled with delight day after day,
rejoicing always in his presence,
rejoicing in his whole world
and delighting in mankind…
For those who find me find life
and receive favor from the Lord.
But those who fail to find me harm themselves;
all who hate me love death.”
Just like Lady Wisdom, Jesus existed before the beginning (Jn 1:1, Prov. 8:23-29), was partnered with God in the creation project (Jn 1:2, Prov. 8:30-31), goes out to God’s people with an important message (Jn 1:11, Prov. 8:1-4), calls people to believe in the truth (Jn 1:7, Prov. 8:6-8), and brings life to all who choose to follow (Jn 1:4-5, Prov. 8:35). Just as Jesus embodies the Word from the beginning, so too he fully embodies the long-existent Wisdom. John has mapped-on the two, Word and Wisdom, to Jesus through his depiction of him and the callback to the very beginning.
John is not the only author to reflect on Proverbs 8 and draw fresh interpretations from it. Another text of his time can be helpful for our discussion on Wisdom. In 1 Enoch, a popular piece of Jewish literature, the author has a bleak view on finding Wisdom:
Wisdom found not a place on earth where she could inhabit; her dwelling therefore is in heaven. Wisdom went forth to dwell among the sons of men, but she obtained not an habitation. Wisdom returned to her place, and seated herself in the midst of the angels. But iniquity went forth after her return, who unwillingly found an habitation, and resided among them, as rain in the desert, and as a dew in a thirsty land.
– 1 Enoch 42
In this text, Wisdom is unable to find a place or person worthy of dwelling with and thus leaves earth. Wisdom cannot be found here. What a depressing claim! Yet one which makes perfect sense for a Jewish author around Jesus’ time (for a more positive reflection on Proverbs 8, check out this passage in another Jewish text: Sirach 24). The history of God’s people had been plagued with foolish rulers leading the people into sin. The one glimmering light of hope, King Solomon, the wisest man in the OT, had eventually faded into prideful darkness. A cycle of awful kings and the repeated conquering of the Jewish people by foreign nations had left God’s people wondering where Wisdom had gone.
The Scriptures longed for a leader to possess wisdom and weld it far greater than Solomon ever had. The people of Jesus’ time hoped for a leader who would come along and perfectly posses Wisdom.
The Gospel according to John takes the hope of Proverbs 8 and shows that it has all come to fruition in Jesus. John also takes the pessimistic conclusion of 1 Enoch and subverts it. Wisdom has found a dwelling place worthy of its presence; wisdom has taken up residence in the person of Jesus. As the perfect embodiment of Wisdom, Jesus is the worthy leader of God’s people. His words and actions are laced with the eternal presence of Wisdom. There is nothing Jesus does that is not wise. Followers of Jesus who respond to Jesus are responding to the call of Wisdom.
So what do we take from this relationship between John 1 and Proverbs 8?
Our first inclination should be to pray for wisdom. The Letter of James tells us that, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you”. Wisdom is calling out and it takes the non-distracted ear to hear. Prayer removes the noise and invites us to hear the call of Wisdom, the call of Jesus. Wisdom is looking for the willing and our time of prayer places us in a posture to receive freely the gift God generously gives.
As we pray, we must also reflect on Jesus’ words and actions. Wisdom is found in all that Jesus has done and a response to him is a response to Wisdom. It might be helpful to spend time this week contemplating a teaching of Jesus (try the Sermon on the Mount for a challenge!) and seek ways to bring those teachings to life. Embodying wisdom is not just in the reflection but in the action. When we follow Jesus, we follow the forever-existent Wisdom of God.
How might you bring Wisdom with you this week and live like Jesus?