“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort” (The Hobbit).
The beginnings of narratives provide us clues, purpose. They can lead us to expect one thing before unveiling the blinders over our eyes. They can provide pivotal information that we need for the rest of the story. If you read The Lord of the Rings, but skip The Fellowship of the Ring, you will, frankly, be utterly lost in Isengard without a compass.
The beginning of The Hobbit reveals that hobbits, like humans, love comfort. But as the story goes on, this hobbit, in particular, remains in no such cozy hobbit holes. He will later find himself stranded in such holes in which the ends of worms and oozy smells would bring him the greatest delight if he could see them only once more. Anything beats dragon breath.
John’s prologue is a guide to the remainder of his Gospel. If you miss this, you’ll be as lost as John’s characters. In ancient Greco-Roman writings, “prologues were often used to introduce the important characters in the narrative, situate them within the story, and give some understanding of their importance” (84). Prologues explained the “seen” and “unseen” forces that were at play throughout the drama.
Morna Hooker explains that prologues provided “vital information that would enable [the audience] to comprehend the plot, and to understand the unseen forces — the desires and plans of the gods — which were at work in the story” (84). Rather than reveal the plans of the Gods, John explains “the desires and plans of the God” (84).
The prologue is not mere background information, for it is a guide to the drama. With John’s story of Jesus, “the reader is provided with comprehensive inside information about the origins, identity, and mission of ‘the Word’ (1:1, 14), a figure subsequently described as Jesus Christ (1:17)…. John’s Prologue places the reader in a position of privilege while the characters in the narrative remain in the dark” (Skinner, 9-10).
John’s prologue is not mere theological abstraction that comes right out of the ether. It is connected to the real events that take place throughout the drama. It explains the “unseen” forces in the midst of the “seen.” If Jesus is the unique Son of God, why do so few believe him, and why do so many of Israel’s leaders want to kill him? “He [the “true light”] was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (Jn 1.10–11). “Thus, the prologue is guiding the reader to see the invisible (God) in the visible (historical persons and events)” (85).
There are two strands in John’s plot: the visible and the invisible. The first strand is the historical setting. Jesus, a real person, comes to tabernacle among God’s people in first-century Israel. In the second strand, “The setting of this second story is not Palestine in the first century but the cosmos in eternity itself. Interestingly, the cosmological story is the very first thing introduced to the reader” (85). It is in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus where both strands reach their climax. Jesus is the stairway to heaven, greater than what Jacob saw. He will ascend to the very real Father and send his very real Spirit to his physical disciples who will preach the message of the King who forgives sins.