And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.'") For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.
This is one of the few spots where I actually don't like the ESV very much -- it uses idiomatic equivalents here where a literal rendering would be just as good (and, in my opinion, better for the fact of being literal). But I want to stick to one translation throughout, so.
The phrase "the Word became flesh" is the climax of this prologue. In the Catholic Church it is traditional to genuflect whenever this verse is read (at Masses in the Tridentine form and in the Anglican Use, it is read after every Mass). The thing is, we're used to it -- whether we are Christians or not, we are accustomed to the idea of God becoming Man in Jesus -- whereas, to an ancient audience whether Gentile or Jewish, this was shoelace-eating lunacy.
The idea of the Incarnation (dynamic equivalence).
The Logos among the Greeks was supposed to be an all-pervading, animating principle of the universe. The Divine Wisdom of Hebrew thought was a heavenly reality, a personified attribute of an utterly holy and separate God. Neither of them was supposed to be a human being. To the Greeks, no individual person could possibly be that important, and certainly not to the all-encompassing Divine, whether conceived monotheistically or pantheistically or polytheistically, or however you please. To the Jews, the notion of the absolute, transcendent Godhead being one with a human, however exalted, was raving sacrilege. Men, even holy men, even prophets like Moses, were not permitted to see God -- how could any of them be God? It's absurd!
It is this very message which is most emphatically stated in the Gospel of John; it is woven into the whole of it. The Word made flesh is practically the point of his book. There is a saying, whose origin I forget, that "God became Man so that man might become god." The Johannine perspective on the nature and origin of the Church could be summed up in that way.
The word translated "dwelt" in verse 14 is significant. A flat-footedly literal translation would be "tented" or "pitched his tent"; it suggests the erecting of the Tabernacle. Once again, as in the opening verses, the complete identity of God with the Word is made.
It is of course impossible to know whether John had read the Gospel of Luke; however, certain parallels here are rather interesting. As we shall see later, the role that John gives to the Blessed Virgin Mary is a truly fascinating one. Now, Mary is not directly mentioned in these verses -- her presence is implicitly there, insofar as the flesh which the Word received, He received from His Mother. But the use of this word that draws our minds to the Tabernacle is reminiscent of Luke's account of the Annunciation, and specifically of Luke 1.35, where the archangel Gabriel tells her that "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you". This recalls the closing verses of the book of Exodus, where, after the Tabernacle is completed, it says, "Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting". The parallelism here is strengthened by verbal and thematic parallels between the transporting of the Ark of the Covenant from Shiloh to Jerusalem in II Samuel 6.1-15 and Luke 1.39-56, in which Mary goes from Nazareth to Jerusalem to visit her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of the Baptist (and it may not be coincidence that, immediately after this verse in John, the Baptist is cited again even though what is said is scarcely new). Especially when taken together, the image of the Virgin as the Tabernacle of God's presence emerges, and indeed of her as the Ark of the Covenant -- containing the heavenly manna with which Jesus will compare Himself in chapter 6.
The comparison between Christ and Moses, a common motif in the Gospel of Matthew, strengthens and builds on this theme. Various Jewish festivals, rites, and institutions are brought up in John for the specific purpose of displaying Jesus as the fulfillment of them, the perfecting of what they had suggested. And, in perfecting them, He replaces them. The transition from "law" to "grace and truth," another expression suggestive of the writings of Saint Paul, summarizes this; it will be stated in specific instances later on.
Returning to the mention of the relationship between the Son and the Father, an important one throughout the Gospels and particularly in John, we come to one of the poorer examples of the ESV. The word they render "only" is more traditionally translated "only-begotten," and this more traditional translation is also, it so happens, more accurate. The image of begetting, used as a technical and dogmatic term in the Nicene Creed, was doubtless heavily influenced by (if not drawn directly from) these verses. The change, from the language of God and the Word to that of the Father and the Son, is interesting; taken with verse 13, it may be meant to suggest the identity between the Word/Son and those who accept Him, as the identity between Him and the Father has already been established in the preceding verses. The theme of indwellings and identities of various kinds will be picked up again, especially in the Upper Room Discourse of chapters 13-17.
The mention of receiving grace from the Son's "fullness" suggests yet another Pauline parallel, from Colossians 1:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities -- all were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
The cosmic language of this passage and that of John 1 are strikingly similar. Johannine literature is often represented as being markedly distinct from the rest of the New Testament, and in some ways that's true, but I find it impossible to read passages like these and not see the fundamental unity that underlies the two.
This idea of fullness being given from the Son to those who believe in Him is suggested again, with particular force in two passages: the Bread of Life discourse in John 6, and the Upper Room Discourse. Both contain various symbols and teachings with eucharistic overtones, and of course Catholic and Orthodox Christians take Christ to be speaking precisely about the Eucharist in John 6. The sacramental themes of this Gospel are more vivid and pronounced than in any of the Synoptics, even without a direct account of the institution of the Eucharist. (If the author knew of one or more of the Synoptic Gospels -- which he may well have, if the scholarly consensus that John is the latest of the four is correct -- then he probably felt it was simply unnecessary to go back over that familiar information.)
The clause "No one has ever seen God" is a rather intriguing inclusion. Several scenes common to the Synoptics are missing from John, including the Transfiguration, which included a vision of both Moses and the "cloud" which concealed and therefore symbolized the presence of God. It's just possible that another Pauline parallel is intended, this time to the early chapters of II Corinthians, where the Apostle points out that Moses' vision of God, even as limited and indirect as it was, left his face shining so brilliantly that it had to be veiled -- and therefore, how much more brilliant was this new covenant in Jesus? However, what is more clear is that here, as so often in the prologue of John, we have a call-forward: in the Upper Room Discourse, Saint Thomas (of course!) says "Show us the Father," and Jesus replies, "He who has seen me has seen the Father."
"At the Father's side" is another disappointing translation of the Greek, though here there is a good reason for it. That reason is that there is no perfect way of conveying the particular word involved here. I think that the (again, more traditional) translation "in the bosom of the Father" is better, but it is still imperfect. The Greek says that the Son is in the kolpos of the Father. A kolpos was a sort of pocket, formed by lifting a fold of one's garment -- like we did when we were kids and wanted to collect berries or interesting stones or what have you, by picking up the edge of our shirts. (Obviously "In the Father's pocket" sends kind of a different vibe, though as it happens also a true one.) This, as it happens, is another, more minor, call-forward. In the Upper Room, in chapter 13, we get one of our glimpses of the author of the Gospel, who refers to himself throughout only as the Beloved Disciple; he is right beside Jesus, and, you guessed it, he is described as being in Jesus' kolpos.