|The Names of Jesus #3
"In the Beginning Was the Word . . ."
March 29, 1998 / John 1:1-18
Back in the 1920s, an executive of the New York Telephone Company stopped in amazement one night to watch a man wearing a tuxedo climb out of a manhole at the corner of 42nd Street and Broadway. The well-dressed man turned out to be Baruch Foraker, head of the Bell telephone operation in New York City. Why, on a cold January night, had a Bell executive come out of a Broadway theater and climbed into the manhole in the first place? Was there a major crisis? Had the system broken down?
"I knew there were a couple of my cable splicers working down there," said Foraker. "So I just dropped in on them to have a little chat." It should surprise no one that he became known as the "man of 10,000 friends." Foraker’s habit of visiting his employees at their work sites endeared him to them. It was his way of showing them he considered their work important. More than that, it was his way of valuing them as persons.
For anyone who wonders about the Christian view of humankind, here is the answer: God created us in his own image, revealed his will to us across the generations, and finally became one of us.
Yes, God cared enough to speak to us. But he cared more than that. He cared enough to back up his words with actions. He loved us enough that — please pardon the play on an expression we use a lot — he put his person where his mouth was. In Jesus, we have not simply more words from God or words about God; in him, we have God making his word good by his deeds. Jesus, the living Word, is God’s fullest, most perfect, and final word on all things related to spiritual life.
Background to the Concept
Behind our English term "word" lies the Greek word logos. It is a theologically rich word that is used in the New Testament because of its background among both Greeks and Jews. Fundamentally, logos simply means "word" or "speech." But there is more to it than a simple definition. This word has a history of use as a technical term with philosophic and religious implications that antedates Jesus by centuries. It is this background that explains why the Spirit of God led John to use it of Jesus in the prologue to the Fourth Gospel, to say that in Jesus "the Word (Gk, ho logos) became flesh and made his dwelling among us" (John 1:14).
In summary, the Greek idea about Logos traces back to a time when the term had notions of both a mathematical (i.e., ratio, proportion) and verbal (i.e., speech, articulated word) component. The Logos steers the universe and keeps its forces in balance. It points beyond itself to ultimate reality. It gives orderly, true, and articulate accounts of all things important. It urges men to aspire to what is high and holy. Granted, the Logos is not a person in Greek philosophy. It is an impersonal force that pervades all things and gives understanding about their true nature to those who wish to receive it. It is the definition, conclusion, or proof of an argument. The Logos is the "final word" (i.e., singular) that summarizes all the other "words" (i.e., plural) that have come before it.
The Jews, on the other hand, were influenced less by philosophers than by prophets. They were immersed in Scripture. Because of the legacy of Alexander the Great, however, the Jews had been forced to learn and use the Greek language from about the fourth century B.C. and later. And this use of Greek as the common tongue for culture, business, and social life in the Mediterranean world soon required the Jews to produce a Greek translation of their Hebrew Bible. Sometime in the third century before Christ, the Septuagint came into being. Probably produced in Alexandria, the intellectual center of the day, it was a translation of the Law, Prophets, and Psalms — the complete canon of Hebrew Scripture — into the Greek language. It was this version of their Bible that was best known by Jews of the first Christian century, particularly by those Jews who lived outside Palestine. It is the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew text of the Old Testament that was used by the apostles and evangelists of the early church and that is quoted most frequently in the New Testament.
From their use of the Septuagint, Jewish people knew the Greek term logos in terms of Yahweh’s self-revelation. "After this, the word of the Lord came to Abraham in a vision . . ." (Gen. 15:1). Yet for the God of the Jews to speak was also for him to act, for his word was powerful. "By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth" (Psa. 33:6).
The foundational nature of the word of God to the life of his Covenant People is apparent from the characteristic formula used in the spoken and written messages of the prophets: "Thus says the Lord . . ." or "The word of the Lord came to" such-and-such a spokesman for Yahweh. As the Jewish people looked to their bright prospects for the future in the reign of the Messiah, it could be represented this way: "The law will go out from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem" (Isa. 2:3b; cf. Mal. 4:2b).
Against this background, Philo of Alexandria (ca. 20 B.C.-ca. A.D. 40) developed a detailed doctrine of the Logos within Jewish thought. Born in Egypt, Philo clearly knew the Septuagint better than the Masoretic (i.e., Hebrew) text of the Bible. But he also knew Greek philosophy, particularly Plato. Standing between the Jewish and Greek traditions, he sought to synthesize the two. Philo’s focal point for the synthesis he attempted is the Logos concept.
Philo used the term logos more than 1,300 times in his writings that are still available for us.1 The Logos is the instrument of mediation between a transcendent God who — following the Greek philosophers — was pure spirit being who was unable to have contact with the physical universe he had created. Furthermore, the Logos is the means by which humankind can approach God.
In Philo’s own words, "God’s shadow is His Word, which he made use of like an instrument, and so made the world."2 The Logos/Word is therefore the best hope that humans have for knowing anything about God. By studying his "shadow," we can get a glimpse of his true form or nature. Man is able to free himself from the pull of this world by listening to the Logos, the Word of God. The Word calls us to God.
When John came to write the final of the four Gospels, his intention was to tell the story of Jesus in order to bring men to faith and life in him (John 20:30-31). To whom did he wish to deliver his message? To Jews? To Gentiles? To both! Yet there is such a great cultural divide between the two. How could he address both so as to capture their attention and interest? How could he draw in one group of readers without disappointing or alienating the other? The Holy Spirit led him to this solution: John, open your Gospel by writing about the Logos/Word.
The single most significant motif for discussion that could serve as common ground for Greeks and Jews to consider the person, work, and claims of Jesus was the Word. So John was led by the Spirit to preface his Gospel this way: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. . . . The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:1,14).
It is no accident that John presents Jesus of Nazareth to his readers by means of a "loaded" term that would catch the attention of any literate person of his time. His or her attention captures, John then proceeds to explain the Christian doctrine of Jesus as the Logos/Word of God. It hardly strains the imagination to think that John had learned the value of such an introduction in his oral presentations of the gospel.
Nor is the force of this lost on people of our own time. Words are our means of communication. If there is an idea in your mind that you wish to share with me, how do you go about it? You choose your words carefully. They immediately become the links between your knowledge and my inquiry, your information and my need.
Speak of "words" or "The Word," and we think of the means by which we communicate, get to know each other, and even reveal our deepest secrets to one another. And that is precisely John’s point. Wishing to communicate with his human creation, God has done so through Jesus of Nazareth. Learning of Jesus is how we learn of God. The deep things of God that have been secret across the millennia are made known in him. He is no mere shadowy outline of God but the fullness of his grace and truth come in the flesh. In Jesus, the final and complete revelation of God has been personified.
John’s Use: "The Word Was God"
John’s beautiful Gospel begins with the Logos motif in the forefront. To Greeks, to Jews, to today’s readers — Jesus is the Incarnate and Living Word. First, John writes of Jesus’ pre-fleshly existence as the Eternal Word.
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 men (John 1:1-4).
It helps us with the interpretation of John 1:1 to remember that the Greek term theos (God/god) is fundamentally a descriptive word rather than a proper name. For the ancient Greeks, this word assigned a thing or person to the highest level of being. Thus, in Christian usage, it can be used to affirm faith in one and only one God (i.e., the level of ultimate being) while simultaneously affirming one’s faith in the distinct personalities of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (i.e., the trinity).
For Jews and Greeks alike who would read his Gospel, it was obviously important for John to begin with a bold declaration of the deity of Jesus of Nazareth. He affirms here what Jesus will later claim in his own words (cf. John 10:30-33) and what Christian writers have confessed concerning him from the first century until now (cf. Phil. 2:6-11). John thus takes up a theme Paul had developed in an epistle written before this Gospel: "For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Jesus]" (Col. 1:19). "For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form" (Col. 2:9).
As the personified revelation of God’s Word to humanity, Jesus’ mission on Earth was to bring "life" to all who are spiritually dead. With John’s prologue reminding us of Genesis 1 (i.e., "In the beginning . . .), he pictures the Word’s entry into human experience as the breaking of light into darkness. Before physical life could be created in Genesis, light had to be present to sustain it; thus the first thing called into being on the first creative day was light. Similarly, before spiritual life can be crated, the light of Jesus’ personal holiness, truth, and grace had to penetrate the chaotic darkness of human sin.
Second, John calls attention to the startling rejection of the Word by those he came to save.
The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God (John 1:5-13).
How could this be? Had history not been prepared for the coming of Jesus among men? Had the prophets not foretold the one who would bring all things to their fulfillment? Indeed, had not John the Baptist come as his immediate forerunner? So how could he come into the world and not be received by everyone?
All of us are capable of missing things because of blind spots, preconceptions, and prejudices. And both Greeks and Jews had their preconceived notions of what "greatness" was. When the Word became flesh as a humble man willing to accept the abuses of unbelief, neither Jew nor Greek could acknowledge him!
So Jesus was rejected by both! Here is a commentary on the failure of the world to receive Jesus from Paul — himself an heir to both the Jewish and Greek traditions. Born and educated as a Jew, he nevertheless grew up in the Greek city of Tarsus. Of the rejection of Jesus, he wrote:
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:
"I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate."
Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength (1 Cor. 1:18-25).
For those persons — whether ancient or modern — who will receive him as the enfleshed Word of God, their blessing is "the right to become children of God." Yet becoming children of God is no matter of human accomplishment but entirely a work of divine grace, for these are "children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God." John will fill out this birth-motif later in connection with a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus (cf. John 3:1ff).
Third, John confesses the Word’s redeeming work done while in fleshly form.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, "This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’" From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known (John 1:14-18).
As surely as John affirmed the full deity of Jesus in the opening verses of his prologue, so here does he affirm with equal boldness his full humanity. God had loved humans enough that he truly "shared in their humanity" (Heb. 2:14). Indeed, anyone who will not confess the genuine humanity of Jesus shares the "spirit of the antichrist" (1 John 4:1-3).
During the time of the Word’s experience in flesh, John and other eyewitnesses had seen "his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father." Just as Israel’s deity once manifested his glorious presence through the tabernacle erected by Moses in the wilderness, he showed his glory even more completely by living briefly in a tabernacle of flesh.
As the incarnate and incomparable Word, Jesus was "full of grace and truth." These two qualities are hallmarks of God, and both have been revealed from Eden forward. Prior to Jesus, though, neither — much less both simultaneously — had been seen in full measure in a single setting. In Christ, the revelation of God is complete and lacking in no respect.
The Meaning to Us
For people of our time and place in history, knowing Jesus as the Word means at least three things.
First, the vague has become clear and our dreams reality in Jesus. "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word" (Heb. 1:1-3a).
Second, God can be known in personal terms. Was the notion of God abstract and difficult? Because of Jesus, God has come "up close and personal" to humanity.
Third, because of Jesus we know that all God’s promises are dependable. What is your experience of being able to "take people at their word"? Has anyone ever failed you? Has anyone ever lied to you? Has anyone ever made a promise in good faith but simply been unable to fulfill it? Not one of these issues can be a problem with Jesus. He is the final, guaranteed, and eternally true Word of God. And the salvation and security he has promised you are beyond even Satan’s power to overthrow. In the very person of Jesus, God have you his Word on it.
Timothy wanted to give his grandmother a special gift one Christmas. Because her Bible was so worn that it even had loose pages that would occasionally fall out, he decided to save his money to buy her a new one. So he saved as much as he could, and his parents finished out the amount he would need to buy her a beautiful new Bible.
Timothy wanted to write something special to his beloved grandmother on the flyleaf of the Bible, but he was not certain what to say. So he decided to copy what he had seen in a book his father had received from a friend-author earlier that year.
December 25 came and the woman opened her gift. She was not only pleased to receive the new Bible but was amused by this inscription from her grandson: "To Grandma, compliments of the author."
In Jesus, we have received the words, love, and life of God — compliments of the Author!
1 Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 1967 ed., s.v., "leg_, logos, hr_ma, lale_.".
2 Philo Allegorical Interpretation 3. 96.
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