From a New Testament perspective there are three possible conditions John could be describing:
- The Incarnation: Jesus living among the disciples before His death and resurrection.
- The Resurrected Christ: Jesus living among the disciples after His death and resurrection.
- The Church: The body of Christ after His ascension.
The are positives and negative arguments to each.
The vast majority of scholars understand John to be describing the earthly existence of Jesus before His death and resurrection. Hence, the Incarnation. Jesus taking on human form. The main argument in favor of this understanding, is it agrees with the historical reality and agrees with the term, σάρξ, flesh.
One factor arguing against this understanding is the use of δόξα, glory, which is repeated and is usually used to describe the resurrected Christ:
John 7:37-39 (ESV):
37 On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
It is true John speaks of the disciples seeing Jesus' glory in Cana after turning water to wine, but Jesus Himself speaks of what would have to be considered as greater glory as a result of His crucifixion:
4 I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. 5 And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.
The glory at Cana would pale in comparison to that of the resurrected Christ. The restoration of glory could explain why glory is repeated:
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 saw His earthly glory, His earthly existence, and the glory of the only begotten Son from the Father, that is the glory of the resurrected Christ, with the glory He had from before the world existed.
Another factor arguing against understanding the Incarnation is the chiasmus in the literary structure of the Prologue which Marie-Émile Boismard calls construction by envelopment.1
The Prologue seems thus to describe a parabola, the base of which touches the earth and the two sides of which are lost in God's infinity. In the course of this double movement, descending and ascending, we meet the same symmetrical landmarks, the most noticeable being the mention of the testimony the Baptist bears to Christ (vv.6-8, 15).2
Boismard diagrams the chiasmus as a parabola:3
The Word With God is Sent | The Word Returns To The Father
(a) The Word 1-2 ● | ● 18 The Son in (a')
with God. | the Father
(b) His role of 3 ● | ● 17 Role of re- (b')
creation | creation
(c) Gift to men 4-5 ● | ● 16 Gift to men (c')
(d) Witness of J-B 6-8 ● | ● 15 Witness of J-B (d')
(e) The coming of the 9-11 ● | ● 14 The Incarnation (e')
Word into the World
(f) By the Incarnate Word we become children of God
If the individual points are to be understood chronologically, the incarnation is found on the left side of the structure. The right side is composed of points following the incarnation: the resurrected Christ.
The reason for understanding John as referring to the resurrected Christ is the use of glory as described above. This also hints at John 21, a detailed encounter with the resurrected Christ including a miraculous catch and meal and the restoration of Peter. It also agrees with the historical reality. John certainly did see His glory before and after His crucifixion and resurrection.
In addition, this is in agreement with the literary structure of the Prologue, if it is understood in the manner Boismard diagrams.
The negative to this understanding is the traditional point of view as the Incarnation, and the reference to the disciples seeing His glory before the crucifixion.
If John is describing something other than the Incarnation, then the glory of the resurrected Christ can also be referring to children of God which is the Church:
that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
2 Thessalonians 2:14:
To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
An argument against this is the Church is called the body of Christ, not His flesh.
John often makes statements or uses words with more than one meaning. When considered fully, often more than one meaning is correct and likely intentional.
The Prologue is known for two such terms, καταλαμβάνω (verse 5), overcome or comprehend and ἐξηγέομαι (verse 18) to be a leader or to make known. In each both meanings are correct. Darkness does not comprehend or overcome the light. The Son makes known and leads all to the Father.
Therefore, verse 14 is probably intended to describe everything John saw. Specifically it refers to the resurrected Christ which must include what is described before His death. It must also include the Church, the glory of Christ bringing Gentile and Jew together. If this is so, then what was initial, the Word which dwelt among us later became the Word which dwelt within and in us.
In his answer, Perry Webb says:
The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is in the future. The verb ἐσκήνωσεν is aorist, not perfect or present tense. Thus, it implies something that is no longer. Christ is no longer here in the flesh.
This correctly describes the Church. Christ in the flesh is no longer; but His body, the Church remains. So at the present, the Word who became flesh is within us, if in fact it is in us. Among us is not wrong, but it is incomplete. After John experienced the Word which dwelt among the disciples, he experienced the Word more personally as dwelling in him and then within those who believed Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and had life in His name.
1. Marie-Émile Boismard, O.P. St. John's Prologue, translated by Carisbrooke Dominicans, Newman Press, 1957, p. 79
2. Ibid., p. 73
3. Ibid., p. 80