In the Beginning

“Where should I begin?” you ask as you begin to tell a true story. Obviously, “At the beginning!” The beginning is where the beloved disciple of Jesus starts when he writes his account of the life of Jesus, the Gospel of John, as you see in John 1:1–5.

Start at the beginning–with the Word. John uses the term “Word” to refer to Jesus. It is not until v.14 that the identification is made. The Word is the eternal Son of God. Logos was used in Greek culture to refer not only to the spoken word, but also to unspoken word, thought, or (in philosophy) a basic underlying principle. Although John uses a term recognized in Greek circles, his primary influence is not Greek philosophy. For readers and hearers with a background in the Old Testament, the opening verse recalls Genesis 1 and the activity of God’s word in creation. God’s speech is active, Psalm 33:6, and effective, Isaiah 55:11. The term is also related to the concept of wisdom, cf. Proverbs 8.

The Word was God! The Word is not an abstract principle or a philosophical construct as Greek philosophers suggested, but a person. That person is not an emanation from God, but is God himself, for John says, “the Word was with God and the Word was God.” All that God is, the Word is! You may find that idea mind-boggling. For John, who shared the confession, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one,” the concept was no less amazing and mysterious. Yet, if you are going to understand the Jesus about whom John writes, you have to start with who he claims to be – God himself. Genesis 1:1 starts at the beginning, and works down through time, describing the creation week, and God’s faithful dealing with his people. John 1:1 starts at the same point–but then takes a step back into eternity. Before anything else was, when only God existed, the Word was. “There was never a time when the Word was not. There never was a thing that did not depend on Him for its very existence. . . . John is affirming that the Word existed before creation, which makes it clear that the Word was not created. It is of the utmost importance to grasp this.” (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, NICNT, pages 73–74) You need a new beginning because mankind’s sin has alienated God from us and has corrupted our world. Brothers and sisters, there is the ground of your hope–not in something that is subject to change–but in the eternal God himself! The Word was God! The word order in Greek emphasizes that he is God. It was a staggering affirmation then–and it still is. This is not a mere affirmation that Jesus is divine in some vague sense. Remember John’s Jewish monotheism. Yet he can do no less than declare that the Word was God! (The Jehovah’s Witness rendering fails to understand Greek grammar and John’s usage.) John is describing the fulfillment of what Isaiah 7 spoke of: Emmanuel, God with us! Near the end of his Gospel he records Thomas’ confession–so that you can share it. John doesn’t say “God was the Word.” He leaves open, what becomes explicit later, the deity of the Father and the Spirit. The emphasis is that the Word is truly all that God is.

The Word is your Creator–worship him. Understand whose birth you are celebrating. The beginning of Christmas is much earlier than that night in Bethlehem. It is earlier than Gabriel’s appearances to Mary and Zechariah. It is earlier than the prophecies in the Old Testament of the coming King. It is earlier than the first promise of the coming of the One who would crush the serpent’s head. It goes back to eternity. Understand just who it is whose birth you are celebrating. Reflecting on the Baby who was laid in the manger, G. K. Chesterton got it right in his poem, “The Wise Men”: “The Child that was ere worlds begun . . . / The Child that played with moon and sun / Is playing with a little hay.” That assertion was shocking to some of John’s readers and was dismissed as foolishness by others. In our post-modern thinking we may discard John’s claim with the comment, “Well, if it works for you, that’s fine.” The element of John’s Gospel we find scandalous is that our separation from God is so serious that it cannot be bridged by the best efforts we make at reaching out to God. Rather, our darkness is so deep that it can be changed only by the new beginning of God becoming flesh.

All that can be said of God can be said of the Word. The most fundamental division is between Creator and creature. The Word is on the Creator side of that distinction. All things (nothing is excluded from that creative sweep) were made through him. John is not denying that the Father is the source of all (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:6) but both persons were active in creation. John has not yet mentioned the Incarnation, but he is setting the stage for you to realize just how stupendous that event is–the one who becomes flesh is none less than the Creator God! This means that the creation is not somehow evil in and of itself. It was made by the living and True God. Your Savior was active in its formation. Your creaturely response to knowing who the Word is can be nothing less than worship. “The thought of incarnation is stupendous, for it means the conjunction in one person of all that belongs to Godhead and all that belongs to manhood. . . . The Son of God was sent and came into this world of sin, of misery, and of death.” (Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol. 2, p. 133)

Live in the light of the Word. John’s Gospel was written so that you might have life. “Life” is one of John’s characteristic terms (this Gospel contains more than 1/4 of the New Testament occurrences of the word). Read the Gospel through and look for the themes that are introduced in John 1:1-18. Jesus claims to be life. He is revealed as the Lord of life. “Life” includes the general sense of animate creation. It more typically refers to “the life,” life eternal, perfect fellowship with God. John’s Gospel was written so that you (and those around you) might have life, 20:31. Understand the teaching of Jesus that he is the way, the truth, and the life. Accept his death and resurrection as your salvation.

The light shines in darkness. Have you seen Portland at night from the West Hills or from the air? Light does shine in darkness. How does that light shine from your life and life of the church? Appreciate that emphasis more when you realize that John lived long before our electric lights. Light of candles and lamps seemed to struggle to penetrate the darkness. In the conflict against evil and sin the Light is not overcome by darkness. “This introduction [to the Gospel of John] shows Jesus to be deity (v. 1) and that he was the creator of the cosmos in the very beginning (vv. 2–3, 10b). Verse 4 begins to show him to be the commencement of another new creation at his incarnation: he was the source of ‘life’ and the creative ‘light’ (v. 4) that ‘shines in the darkness.’ And just as the first light in Gen. 1 was not swallowed up by the darkness, so Jesus as the ‘light’ was not dimmed by the surrounding darkness (v. 5).” (G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, p. 392) The darkness of the world around you will persist in misunderstanding and opposing the Light which has come into the world. But the Light has triumphed, and it will continue to triumph. Piece by piece the details of your life are brought into the light. You cannot continue to walk in darkness, because the triumphant light has begun to shine. How does the Light shine? By the Word.

John introduces you to the Word in a way that is still profoundly counter-cultural. In our world of images and sound bites communication takes place in tweets. John does not paint a picture of Jesus or give you a set of bullet points about him. He does not instant message about the Word. Rather, he gives you a whole book full of words, words that describe who this Jesus is, words that call you to trust in him. Understand who this Word is and walk in his light.

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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