“In the beginning was the Word…” John 1:1
In my last post introducing the Gospel of John, we covered much of the context, quirks, construction, and goals of John’s gospel. We mentioned that John will lean heavily both on Jewish Scriptures and Greek culture as his source material. And here, in the first words of this gospel, we are hit with it. But before we jump into that, I would like to spend a minute explaining what the word gospel actually means.
Gospel, euaggelion in the Greek, simply means a proclamation of good things. However, as it is with our own language, words hold more meaning by they are used in society. Euaggelion was a political word and much more. It was used to proclaim a new emperor in the world. When a new Caesar conquered a new region, overthrew an old leader, or was born a euaggelion was announced. We have many such gospels decades before the birth of Christ of new world leaders coming on the scene. These gospels were not just a news article but propaganda singing the glory and god-likeness of the leader. A new spiritual reality ordained by the gods has arrived expecting your allegiance. Here’s an example of an inscription found in Priene, a city in the same area John would have been pastoring from around 9 BC:
“It seemed good to the Greeks of Asia, in the opinion of the high priest Apollonius of Menophilus Azanitus: Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since the Caesar through his appearance has exceeded the hopes of all former gospels, surpassing not only the benefactors that came before him, but also leaving no hope that anyone in the future will surpass him, and since for the world the birthday of the god was the beginning of his gospels…”
When Jesus comes to proclaim the Gospel, He intentionally utilized this word (euaggelion) to tell of His arrival as the emperor (Caesar) of God’s Kingdom on earth. When the Gospel writers record their gospels, they are sending out the story of God’s Kingdom as the new reality that governs the world. This is even more true for the audience of John’s gospel because the Roman province of Anatolia (Asia Minor) was a hotbed of emperor worship.
So John’s gospel is his collection of material that conveys Jesus as the world’s king over any world power, gods, and institutions. What John then records will describe how this came about, this kingdom’s agenda, and what the new Caesar is like. And John starts with verse 1 of chapter 1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Before we move too quickly to the words “word” and “God,” we have to pause and understand that John is first leveraging Creation to introduce his gospel. “In the beginning” is the same phrase that kicks off God’s creation and ordering of the world in its original good state. For John, Jesus will continue this work and John will continue to refer back to Creation not just with words but with his plot. As mentioned in the last post, John will weave a complex tapestry together of multiple threads to paint this kingdom. We will cover John’s use of Creation language in further posts.
More Than A Word
But rather than starting with “in the beginning, God” as Genesis 1:1 does, John says “In the beginning was the Word.” The Greek word is logos and much has been written about why John uses it. Logos is one of those words that hold a deep and rich layer of meaning. In its most basic form, it means a spoken word but also can mean a teaching and logic (more on this later). We get our word logo from it. But more than that, in Greek philosophy and theology, logos was the divine logic that gave the physical world its form and reason. This concept dates back to the 6th century BC with the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. He taught that Logos was a universal existence that was common to all things. “This Logos holds always but humans always prove unable to understand it, both before hearing it and when they have first heard it…For though all things come to be in accordance with this Logos…” In a world of constant change and chaos, it was what held all things together and united the All and the One (unity with diversity).
Heraclitus’ contemporary Parmenides taught Logos was pure thought that existed on the other side of this deceptive world. Dualism was a common trait of Greek philosophy, bifurcating all of existence into two separate halves, forms (spiritual) and physical where the physical is but a façade of the spiritual. Parmenides’ interpretation of Logos squarely put it into the spiritual realm unreachable by in the spiritual realm meaning it could not be experienced fully in our earthly experiences.
With Sophists, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, Logos was primarily the means towards truth through discourse. It was not simply a statement but rather the proof of truth. Logos was the means through which society came closer to truth and moved further away from falsehood. It no longer was something ethereal but rather was the means that an individual could play a responsible role in society as it progressed.
Later, the Stoic philosophers would use logos to refer to Providence and the soul of the universe. Logos was the source of all truth that animated the universe. Not just merely a force or material, Logos was considered God and nature. It was through a connection to Logos that humanity could have access to knowledge and live moral lives.
People Of The Word
So while it is obvious that John is making a Greek philosophical claim, it is also just as important to consider his Jewish background. As logos meant more than just a word but specifically a spoken proof, as in a teaching, by John using the same three words of Genesis to introduce his gospel, John is directly linking this Logos back to the creation. In the creation, God speaks things into existence and order. The result is a good world full of life and potential left in the hands of God’s image bearers to steward and maximize its potential as partners with God. When another character speaks, it is the serpent that questions what God said and God’s motives. From here, the story starts to collapse.
Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, God intervenes to bring people back into a partnership with Him as Adam and Eve were originally. God continues to speak to His people at multiple key moments until we ascend Sinai. At this point, God speaks to Moses to set apart a nation of priests in a wedding ceremony were God’s words are given as a contract of the arrangement. As a part of this arrangement, God emphasizes the importance of His words. His words are the basis of His people’s covenant with Him and He will often recall the words when they stray from it. They are to teach their children His words when they wake up, when they are about to fall asleep, and as they go about their day. They are to bind His words to their foreheads and wrists.
God’s word not only created the world but it also sustains creation (Psalm 33:4-6; Psalm 147:15-18). It was the source of life and for this reason “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3). The Word was a way of living and to bring clarity in dark times (Psalm 119:105). It was meant to guide Israel’s kings so that their hearts wouldn’t leave their brothers (Deuteronomy 17:18-20). When the people did step away from the word, the word of God would correct them (1 Kings 21:17-19). “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who are on the mountain of Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy” (Amos 4:1). This nation of priests God created to bless all the nations of the earth had to be a people of the Word.
The Jews saw their history as a chronicle of their devotion or lack thereof to the words of God. During the Jews’ exile in Babylon, they created a system and society that revolves around teachings of God. By the time of the New Testament, Jewish children by the age of 5 have already memorized the Tanakh and 12-year-olds have memorized much of the rest. The Jewish fervor to the word was deeper than perhaps anything we could imagine.
For the Jew, God’s word was more than just instruction but His means of interacting with the world. “so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). The word of God was not merely a fleeting expression but was an extension of God’s own being and eternality. “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8). The word of the Lord could create life and destroy it: “I have slain them by the words of my mouth” (Hosea 6:5). A common occurrence is found in the Old Testament of “the word of the Lord” coming to a person. It is not simply spoken to them by the Word itself visits the person and then it speaks (Genesis 15:1; 2 Samuel 7:4-5; 1 Kings 13:9; Isaiah 38:4-5; Jeremiah 1:4; Jonah 1:1; Zechariah 1:1). It’s almost as if the Word itself is God’s acting agent.
It is not surprising then that Jewish teachers would teach that the Word of God was more than just His speech but a living entity flowing from the God’s essence. In the Targums (oral rabbinic commentary on Jewish scriptures), “The Word of the Lord” would often be used to replace the name of God. The Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (25 BC – 50 AD) said in The Special Laws, “Now the image of God is the Word, by which all the world was made” (IVI, 81, page 541). Philo would actually identify “the angel of the Lord” as the Logos. Philo followed Platonic dualism that taught there was a division between imperfect matter and perfect form where God was. He believed that God used agents to interact with our world and the Logos was the highest of these agents. Philo called the Logos “the first-born of God” that “is the bond of everything, holding all things together and binding all the parts, and prevents them from being dissolved and separated.” Philo wrote these things during the time of Jesus and the early church.
It’s into this deeply Jewish and Greek understanding that John kicks off his gospel by introducing the Word that was in the beginning of creation, “was with God, and the Word was God.” This first verse was not that controversial for John’s initial audience. It is what John does in the following verses that would shock them. It is important to note that at this point, John has not equated the Word with Jesus. Indeed he will, but he purposefully starts with the concept of Logos before he pulls back the veil to reveal the Logos’ alter ego. We too often read our theology back into Scripture without allowing the writers’ narratives to play out.
I promise you that this series will not be one in-depth word study after another. While this post may seem like overkill for one word, it is important to set the groundwork. The way John introduces his gospel is the opening scene for the story he is about to tell. It is not enough to have a destination but you must also know where you are before the journey is possible. John takes us on this journey with the first step being the philosophically and spiritually cryptic word of logos. Why does he start with that? Why does “the Word” never appear again in his gospel after verse 14?
My goal is not to get lost in the etymology of every significant word but rather to unravel the grand narrative John is telling. The opening scene sets the tone and the journey for the rest of the story. We must understand John’s opening words to appreciate the rest. So we will pick up the pace as we move into our next post where we will cover the rest of chapter 1 (and touch on John 2:1).