1.3 “In the beginning was the word”
Every Bible student will inevitably be involved at
some time in seeking to explain the opening verses of John’s Gospel.
And all who have done so will probably have felt a slight dis-ease
at beginning the discussion by saying that “the word” in Greek is
logos…because it is always far better to make a point from
the Bible text that one has in front of them, rather than claiming
to know Greek. Remember that the majority of us don’t even know
the Greek alphabet, so arguments based on Greek ought best to be
avoided where possible. In recent times I have slightly changed
my approach to explaining this passage and I submit it for your
reflection. The key is to get our contact to let us systematically
explain the phrases one by one. Of course you can’t make all
of the following points to a person in a conversation, but it’s
as well to have the background clear in one’s own mind.
1-3-1 “In the beginning was the word”
1-3-2 Wisdom In Proverbs
1-3-3 “The word was made flesh”
1-3-4 “The word was God”
1-3-5 “All things were made
1-3-6 Appendix: How was the word made flesh?
1-3-1 “In the beginning was the word”
Just look at the many times this phrase occurs in the Gospel records. It doesn’t mean ‘the whole Bible’. It means clearly enough and without any dispute ‘the Gospel message’ (e.g. Mk. 2:2; 4:33; 16:20; Lk. 3:2; Jn. 12:48; 14:24; Acts 4:4; 11:19). The Gospel was preached to Abraham in that it comprises the promises to Him and their fulfilment in Jesus (Gal. 3:8). That word of promise was “made flesh” in Jesus; “the word of the oath” of the new covenant, of the promises made to Abraham, “maketh the son” (Heb. 7:28). This is just another way of saying that the word– of the promises, of the Gospel- was made flesh in Jesus. Note how in Rom. 9:6,9 “the word” is called “the word of promise”- those made to Abraham. The same Greek words translated 'Word' and 'made' occur together in 1 Cor. 15:54- where we read of the word [AV " saying" ] of the Old Testament prophets being 'made' true by being fulfilled [AV " be brought to pass" ]. The word of the promises was made flesh, it was fulfilled, in Jesus. The 'word was made flesh', in one sense, in that the Lord Jesus was " made...of the seed of David according to the flesh" (Rom. 1:3)- i.e. God's word of promise to David was fulfilled in the fleshly person of Jesus. The Greek words for " made" and " flesh" only occur together in these two places- as if Rom. 1:3 is interpreting Jn. 1:14 for us. But note the admission of a leading theologian: “Neither the fourth Gospel nor Hebrews ever speaks of the eternal Word…in terms which compel us to regard it as a person”(1).
" In the beginning was the word"
John’s Gospel tends to repeat the ideas of the other gospel records
but in more spiritual terms. Matthew and Luke begin their accounts
of the message by giving the genealogies of Jesus, explaining that
His birth was the fulfilment, the ‘making flesh’, of the promises
to Abraham and David. And Mark begins by defining his “beginning
of the gospel” as the fact that Jesus was the fulfilment of the
Old Testament prophets. John is really doing the same, in essence.
But he is using more spiritual language. In the beginning was the
word- the word of promise, the word of prophecy, all through the
Old Testament. And that word was “made flesh” in Jesus, and on account
of that word, all things in the new creation had and would come
into being. Whilst John is written in Greek, clearly enough Hebrew
thought is behind the words. "The Hebrew term debarim
[words] can also mean 'history'" (2). The whole salvation history
of God, from the promise in Eden onwards, was about the Lord Jesus
and was made flesh in His life and death.
Luke’s prologue states that he was an “eyewitness and
minister of the word…from the beginning”; he refers
to the word of the Gospel that later became flesh in Jesus. John’s
prologue is so similar: “That which was from the beginning,
that which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes,
that which we beheld…the word of life” (1 Jn.
1:1 RV). Jn. 1:14 matched this with: “The word was made
flesh, and we beheld his glory”. John 6 shows how John
seeks to present Jesus Himself as the words which give eternal life
if eaten / digested (Jn. 6:63). And some commented: “This is a hard
saying, who can hear him?” (Jn. 6:60 RVmg.), as if to present Jesus
the person as the embodiment of His sayings / words.
Jesus was the word of God shown in a real, live person. All the principles which Old Testament history had taught, the symbology of the law, the outworking of the types of history, all this was now living and speaking in a person. Luke’s Gospel makes the same point as John’s but in a different way. Over 90% of Luke’s Greek is taken from the Septuagint. All the time he is consciously and unconsciously alluding to the Old Testament as having its fulfilment in the things of Jesus. As an example of unconscious allusion, consider Lk. 1:27: “A virgin betrothed to a man”. This is right out of Dt. 22:23 LXX “If there be a virgin betrothed to a man…”. The context is quite different, but the wording is the same. And in many other cases, Luke picks up phraseology from the LXX apparently without attention to the context. He saw the whole of the OT as having its fulfilment in the story of Jesus. He introduces his Gospel record as an account “of those matters which have been fulfilled” (Lk. 1:1 RV). And “those matters” he defines in Lk. 1:2 as the things of “the word”. The RV especially shows his stress on the theme of fulfilment (Lk. 1:20, 23, 37, 45, 54, 55, 57, 70). In essence he is introducing his Gospel just as John does.
In passing, it is interesting to reflect upon the Lord’s comment
that where two or three are gathered together in His Name, He is
in their midst. For this evidently alludes to a Rabbinic saying
preserved in the Mishnah (Aboth 3.2) that “If two sit together
and study Torah [the first five books of Moses], the divine presence
rests between them”. The Lord was likening Himself (His ‘Name’)
to the Torah, the Old Testament word of God; and His presence would
be felt if that Law was studied as it ought to be.
In confirmation of all this, it has been observed that " The
numerical use of logos in the Johannine writings overwhelmingly
favours " message" (some 25 times), not a personified
word; and elsewhere in the NT the use of " word" with
genitival complement also support the message motif: " word
of God" ..." word of the Kingdom" ..." word
of the cross" " (3). So our
equation of " the word" with the essence of the Gospel
message rather than Jesus personally is in harmony with other occurrences
of logos. That said, there evidently is a personification
of sorts going on. Personifications of the word of God weren't uncommon
in the literature of the time. Thus Wisdom of Solomon 18:15 speaks
of how "Thine all powerful word leaped from heaven down from
the royal throne". Because "for the Hebrew the word once
spoken has a kind of substantive existence of its own" (4)
, e.g. a blessing or curse had a kind of life of their own, it's
not surprising that logos is personified.
One way of understanding the prologue in Jn. 1 is to consider how
it is interpreted in the prologue we find in John's first epistle.
It appears that John's Gospel was the standard text for a group
of converts that grew up around him; John then wrote his epistles
in order to correct wrong interpretations of his Gospel record that
were being introduced by itinerant false teachers into the house
churches which he had founded. For example, " God so loved
the world..." (Jn. 3:16) seems to have been misunderstood by
the false prophets against whom John was contending, to mean that
a believer can be of the world. Hence 1 Jn. 2:16 warns the brethren
that they cannot 'love the world' in the sense of having worldly
behaviour and desires. On the other hand, John saw the faithful
ecclesias to whom he was writing as those who had been faithful
to the Gospel he had preached to them, as outlined in the Gospel
of John. He had recorded there the promise that " You will
know the truth" (Jn. 8:32), and he writes in his letters to
a community " who have come to know the truth" (2 Jn.
1), i.e. who had fulfilled and obeyed the Gospel of Jesus which
he had preached to them initially. This thesis is explained at length
in Raymond Brown(5) .
With this in mind, it appears that the prologue of 1 Jn. is a conscious allusion to and clarification of that of Jn. 1. Consider the following links:
In the beginning was the word
What was from the beginning
The word was with God
The eternal life which was with
[Gk. in the presence of] God
In [the word] was life
The word of life
The life was the light of men
God is light
The light shines in darkness
In Him there is no darkness at
The word became flesh
This life was revealed
And dwelt amongst us
and was manifested to us
We beheld his glory
What we looked at
Of his fullness we have all received
The fellowship which we have is
Through Jesus Christ
the Father and with his son
The only Son of God
You will note that the parallel for " the word" of Jn. 1 is 'the
life' in 1 Jn. 1, the life which Jesus lived, the type of life which
is lived by the Father in Heaven. That word was made flesh (Jn.
1:14) in the sense that this life was revealed to us in the life
and death of Jesus. So the word becoming flesh has nothing to do
with a pre-existent Jesus physically coming down from Heaven and
being born of Mary. It could well be that the evident links between
the prologue to John's Gospel and the prologue to his epistle are
because he is correcting a misunderstanding that had arisen about
the prologue to his Gospel. 1 Jn. 1:2 spells it out clearly- it
was the impersonal "eternal life" which was "with
the Father", and it was this which "became flesh"
in a form that had been personally touched and handled by John in
the personal body of the Lord Jesus. And perhaps it is in the context
of incipient trinitarianism that John warns that those who deny
that Jesus was "in the flesh" are actually antiChrist.
(1) G.B. Caird, Christ For
Us Today (London: SCM, 1968) p. 79.
(2) Oscar Cullmann, The Christology Of The
New Testament (London: SCM, 1971) p. 261.
(3) Raymond Brown, The Epistles
of John (Garden City: Doubleday, 1982) p. 164.
(4) C.H. Dodd, The Interpretation Of The Fourth
Gospel (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1960) p. 264.
(5) The Community of the Beloved
Disciple (New York: Paulist, 1979) and in his The Epistles
of John (Garden City: Doubleday, 1982). These are lengthy and
at times difficult reads, and I can't agree with all the conclusions,
and yet I'd heartily recommend them to serious Bible students.
One pleasing feature of his writings is his frequent admission
that trinitarian theology is an interpretation of what the NT writers,
especially John, actually wrote- and they themselves didn’t have
the trinity in mind when they wrote as they did. He comments on
the hymn of Phil. 2 about Christ taking the “form of God”: “Many
scholars today doubt that “being in the form of God” and “accepting
the form of a servant” refers to incarnation” [The Community
Of The Beloved Disciple p. 46].