Any writer will confess the hardest step in writing is the first word, sentence, and paragraph. The Apostle John was no different, and his subject demanded the perfect introduction. It is safe to say the manner in which John 1:1-3 opens the Gospel is divinely unique. The opening words “In the beginning…” amazes the reader with its weight and impact. It harkens back to Genesis 1:1, the beginning of the Old Testament.
“This active, omnipotent revelation ‘in the beginning’ reveals him as the Logos from all eternity, one with the Father and the Spirit, and yet another, namely the Son.” [i] Some believe these first verses are an interpretation or Midrash of the creation account in Genesis; however, the reverse is more accurate because this beginning “gives the Christ-event the fundamental setting in which alone it can be understood.” [ii] It is an exceptionally difficult concept John is trying to convey to his readers. In the first few verses of this Gospel, “John takes us back to the beginning and shows that the Lord Jesus has no beginning. John goes behind the creation and shows that the Savior was Himself the Creator.” [iii]
In addition to this theme, the opening of this Gospel could contain a double reference also to the first verse of the Gospel of Mark, which opens in a similar way. John could be seeking to convey that, while Mark begins at the starting point of the earthly ministry of Jesus, this Gospel begins at the starting point of everything. John has a fondness for using words containing multiple meanings or references, so this oblique reference to Mark’s Gospel may well be intentional. Interestingly, the use of “Word” in this context is only found in this passage. The only other place that we find “Word” in association with Jesus is in Revelation 19:11-14, which the Apostle John also wrote. In the Fourth Gospel, the opening eighteen verses are known as the Prologue. We could accurately identify these verses as the overview of the Gospel. First-century writers customarily presented the theme or main topics before the main body of material, and John seems no different. These initial eighteen verses contain two main topics: Jesus the Messiah and John the Baptist. John explicitly defines the two and explains how John the Baptist was subordinate to Jesus. He also introduces Jesus as the true light and how He fulfilled the Law as given to Moses.
Some scholars believe the origin of this passage was an early hymn the Apostle John incorporated, changed some words, and added verses referring to John the Baptist. However, there is virtually no agreement as to the song or hymn and even less agreement on the wording changes. The Prologue contains conceptual parallels to two Christological hymns found in Philippians 2:5-11 and Colossians 1:15-20. What is more likely is the origins of these two passages, given their date of writing, are from early hymns, especially if John wrote the Fourth Gospel around 65-70 CE. Others suggest this passage is poetry, but it is difficult to determine conclusively given the language, cultural, and time differences. Still, the basic structure or components of the Prologue could have been based on a song or prayer long since lost to antiquity, but this does not detract from the sheer grandeur of the passage. Others suggest an editor appended the verses after the original writing, that the Gospel originally began with verse six and the essence of verse seven and resumed with verse nineteen. In that case, the opening of this Gospel would read:
There came a man, sent from God, whose name was John. He came for a witness that he might bear witness so that all might believe. And this is the witness of John when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”
However, there is a lack of credible evidence to conclude that someone appended these verses. Because there are so many common ideas and concepts between the Prologue and the rest of the Gospel, such as life, light, glory, truth, witness, and the world, it appears that the Apostle John wrote these eighteen verses and they were part of the original Gospel.
Even the opening phrase ‘In the beginning was the Word’ contains a wealth of meaning. As Lenski notes, the creation account in Genesis starts from the beginning of creation and moves forward. In the opening of the Gospel, John moves backwards to before creation to explore the relationship between God and Jesus. Even the simple word in the first phrase, “was,” resonates with the power of the “Word.” The passage begins “a presentation of the person of Christ which is quite different from the other Gospels. It is theological rather than biographical or historical in its approach. Of its biographical or historical accuracy, there can be no legitimate doubt, but it is not primarily a chronicle, it is interpretation.” [iv]
Many who have read this Gospel are familiar with the Greek term for “word” that is logos. The Greek language has several definitions for logos, some of which are philosophical in nature. To the Stoic, the logos meant the rational principle underlying everything. It was the essence of the human spirit or soul. Logos was and the good force that bound the universe together. The Greek philosopher, Philo, uses logos in his writings, but his application is in the sense of a dualism between the perfect, ideal world and the world of reality or the perfect, ideal man from whom all men derive. He also uses logos for the concept of an intermediary between God and the creation of the world and the source of meaning for mankind.
This may be seen as an early precursor of the Docetic heresy prominent during the life of John the Apostle. Philo also uses logos in other ways including an allegorical sense. Because he uses the term in several ways, to determine a consistent definition of the term in his writings is virtually impossible and most scholars deprecate any association or connectivity between Philo and the author of this Gospel. Another typical but incorrect understanding of logos is in association with Gnosticism. While the concept of a Gnostic flavor in John’s Gospel was popular in early Johannine studies, the discovery of Papyrus 52 in Egypt dating the writing of John to the first century led scholars to discount this premise. Gnosticism did not become a potent philosophy until the second century long after the writing of the Fourth Gospel. The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in the same period, validate the dualistic concepts in the Gospel as appropriate for the writing of the Gospel in the first century.
Some scholars apply a Hellenistic perspective to the Gospel, particularly to the Prologue, because of John’s use of logos to explain Jesus and His relationship with the Father. Barclay and others suggest the author is seeking to straddle the two world viewpoints—Hellenism and Judaism—and tries to explain how logos means both “word” and “reason.” Like others, Barclay cites Jewish wisdom literature to support the inclusion of reason in logos and attempts to combine the Jewish and Greek meaning into the one word. He writes, “[to] John, and all the great thinkers who made use of this idea, these two meanings were always closely intertwined. Whenever they used Logos the twin ideas of the Word of God and the Reason of God were in their minds.” [v] This idea is a good example of attempting to blend Hellenistic and Jewish concepts together, but subsequent research has shown how this view is incorrect.
Despite the appeal of the Hellenistic understanding and the attempt by some to straddle the fence and take the position the use of logos is an attempt to appeal to both Greek and Jewish readership, the correct interpretation of logos in the opening verses of the Gospel is only from the Judaic perspective, and the many times the Apostle John references or implies Judaic thought and beliefs support this approach. Schnackenburg rightly notes, “the personal character of the Logos forms a definite contrast to the Wisdom speculation of Hellenistic Judaism, to the doctrine of the Logos in Philo and above all to the Gnostic notions of creative powers proceeding from God and emanating from one another.” [vi] John wrote his Gospel containing Judaic concepts and beliefs using the Greek language. For this Gospel to have a Hellenistic or dual Hellenistic/Judaic beginning only to immerse the remainder in Judaic thought is indefensible. The correct view of logos, as well as the rest of the Gospel, is through a Judaic perspective. For this, there is a considerable amount of Scripture revealing the Jewish perspective of Word. Incidentally, for many years, scholars applied this same examination of Scripture from a Hellenistic viewpoint to the parables of Jesus.
The Old Testament contains some references to Word about the acts of God and creation such as Genesis 1:3, Genesis 1:14-15, and Psalm 35:6-9. The term is one of the most powerful and revealing expressions to describe creation. In Genesis, God spoke the Word, and it existed. The Word is in the covenant between God and Abraham. The Word is the foundation of the Mosaic Law and the Ten Commandments given to the Chosen People, the Jews. It is the authority, as shown in Genesis 15:1-4, Deuteronomy 5:4-6, 1 Samuel 3:1, 1 Kings 18:1, and Isaiah 55:11, of the many prophets who came to the Jews from God proclaiming His message, and the Word describes the relationship between God and the Chosen People. These Old Testament passages show how the Word of God is action or deed. The term also refers to God’s communication with His people and often means His message. In these verses, the Word of God signifies His participation and provision. Pink notes that a word is a medium of manifestation, a means of communication and a method of revelation. Jesus “as the word reveals the attributes and perfections of God. How fully has Christ revealed God! He displayed His power. He manifested His wisdom. He exhibited His holiness. He made known His grace. He unveiled His heart. In Christ, and nowhere else, is God fully and finally revealed.”[vii]
Some suggest a relationship between Word and Wisdom as found in the wisdom books like Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, and the Pentateuch, because of the many similarities. Several passages in John’s Gospel expose parallels between Wisdom and Word, including John 3:18-20, John 4:5-13, and John 8:22-30.Keener writes, “what makes this suggested background so appealing is that we have clear evidence that texts in which wisdom is personified or functions hypostatically circulated widely before John wrote, and John and his readers would naturally have shared a common understanding of this background.” [viii] John employed the practice of teaching from what is known to what is not known in the sense he used the familiar in Judaism to convey the radically new concept found in Jesus. It is incorrect to establish a strong correlation between “wisdom” in the Old Testament with “word” in the Gospel, but the similarities could provide a bridge for John to explain Jesus. There are similarities; “Wisdom” was present since the beginning, although it was created and it was a means of revelation. The way the Apostle John wrote about the Word being with God conveys a greater degree of preexistence than found in Jewish writings of the same period. Also, the Word in this Gospel subtly differs from Wisdom in the Old Testament, and likely the reason the word Wisdom is not found in this Gospel, even though it does borrow ideas and concepts from Wisdom to help the reader understand Jesus. John Calvin wrote that the Apostle John calls Jesus the Word “simply because, first, he is the eternal wisdom and will of God; and secondly, because he is the exact image of God’s purpose.” [ix] Here Calvin masterfully combines the concepts of the wisdom, will, and identity of Jesus.
The second portion of the first verse reads “and the logos was with God.” It is not easy to translate the Greek into English, but it does begin to reveal and define the relationship between Jesus and God. “The description of the Word with God in heaven before creation is remarkably brief; there is not the slightest indication of interest in metaphysical speculation about relationships within God or in what later theology would call Trinitarian processions.” [x] In a literal sense, the verse means the Word faces toward God or the Word was with God. The translation that the Word faces God indicates the intimacy of the relationship, and the last phrase in the Prologue, which speaks of the Word in the bosom of the Father, also supports this premise. Most scholars believe the more accurate translation is to say the Word was with God, but the other is also feasible. The Word and God enjoy the closest possible of relationships. The word “with” denotes companionship, equality, trust, love, and similar concepts. “This shows the reader what position was being occupied, who was originally divine, but then became flesh in order to bring the message from the Father, whom no one has ever seen.” [xi] This could also be seen as a defense against the Docetic idea that Jesus was only an idea or ideal in the mind of God and manifested in time. John states in these verses that Jesus was with God from the beginning, not a later creation. Note also, the Word was with God from the beginning; there is no implication of creation or beginning. “This phrase or word usage “is an affirmation of Christ’s separate personality and it is a very subtle statement.” [xii] We can see the intimacy of the relationship in the prayers of Jesus and His love toward the disciples. In the high priestly prayer in John 17:5, Jesus alluded to His relationship with the Father from the beginning.
This second portion also means there is more than one entity within the Godhead. Genesis did not fully explain the concept of the Trinity, but the first words in Genesis suggest God is more than one. The term “God” has as its Hebrew origin the word “Elohim,” which is a plural noun. The second verse in the Gospel of John reinforces the concept of the eternal nature of the logos. Genesis 1:3, Genesis 1:9 and Genesis 1:26 are some of the verses that use “Elohim” instead of “God” to illustrate the triune nature of God. “So, when heaven and earth were created, there was the Word of God, already existing in the closest association with God and partaking the essence of God.” [xiii]
Returning to the last phrase of John’s first verse, “and the Word was God” is the crescendo of the first sentence. The first phrase introduces the reader to the Word. The second phrase builds on the first and reveals the relationship between the Word and God. The last phrase, “and the Word was God,” is the thunder and lightning bolts the first two phrases create in the minds of the reader. The second verse continues to explain the nature of his subject, but the noun “He” replaces “Word,” and the use of “He” continues in this passage. Again, these words define and describe the second personality of the triune God. The third verse establishes the purpose and role of Jesus. It reads, “All things came into being through Him; and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being,” which reveals the centrality of Jesus and further defines His role and relationship with God, the Father. “The affirmation that all things were made through wisdom or even through God’s word would have been thoroughly in keeping with Jewish belief.” [xiv] John emphasizes in this verse that through Jesus all was made, clarifying His role and importance. John uses the positive to make a statement and then the negative to rephrase the thought. The beginning words in verse three of His creating “all things” is an absolute statement that emphatically reveals the power of the Word and His central role in creation.
Copyright © 2016 Craig B. Manning. All rights reserved.