February 24, 2013
In the movie, Ben Hur, Ben Hur had been imprisoned by the Romans and was being taken to a galley ship where he would be forced to row. He was tired and thirsty and had dropped to the ground from exhaustion. He cried out, “God, help me!”
At that moment Jesus (the film never showed His face, but only His back) reached down to give him a drink. When the Roman soldier in charge saw this, he yelled at Jesus to leave the man alone and raised his whip. Jesus turned and looked at the soldier, who stood there immobilized in awe as he looked at Jesus’ face (which the camera did not show). He lowered his whip and turned away. The effect that the film wanted to convey is that an encounter with Jesus Christ would stun and perhaps even soften the hardest of men.
John begins his Gospel by stunning us with his description of Jesus Christ. He never mentions Jesus’ name until verse 17, but it becomes clear right away that he is talking about Jesus. Rather than beginning with the story of His birth, John confronts us with His deity in eternity. Moses begins Genesis (1:1) by confronting us with the majesty of God, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In the same way, John 1:1 confronts us with the majesty of Jesus Christ, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John wants us to stand in awe of Jesus as God and as the One who reveals the unseen God to us, just as a word reveals an unseen thought.
It is foundational to the Christian faith and crucial to your personal faith that you understand and embrace the truth that Jesus Christ is fully God. Bishop Moule once stated (source unknown), “A Savior not quite God is a bridge broken at the farther end.” John Mitchell put it (An Everlasting Love [Multnomah Press], pp. 13, 14), “If Jesus is not God, then we are sinners without a Savior…. If Jesus were only a man, then He died for His own sins. And we are still in our sins. We have no hope.” In order to reconcile sinful people to the holy God, Jesus must be God in human flesh. John skillfully presents this in the prologue (1:1-18) of his Gospel. Colin Kruse (John [IVP Academic], pp. 59-60) points out:
The Prologue … introduces the main themes that are to appear throughout the Gospel: Jesus’ pre-existence (1:1a/ 17:5), Jesus’ union with God (1:1c/8:58; 10:30; 20:28), the coming of life in Jesus (1:4a/5:26; 6:33; 10:10; 11:25-26; 14:6), the coming of light in Jesus (1:4b, 9/3:19; 8:12; 12:46), the conflict between light and darkness (1:5/ 3:19; 8:12; 12:35, 46), believing in Jesus (1:7, 12/2:11; 3:16, 18, 36; 5:24; 6:69; 11:25; 14:1; 16:27; 17:21; 20:25), the rejection of Jesus (1:10c, 11/4:44; 7:1; 8:59; 10:31; 12:37-40; 15:18), divine regeneration (1:13/3:1-7), the glory of Jesus (1:14/12:41; 17:5, 22, 24), the grace and truth of God in Jesus (1:14, 17/4:24; 8:32; 14:6; 17:17; 18:38), Jesus and Moses/the law (1:17/1:45; 3:14; 5:46; 6:32; 7:19; 9:29), only Jesus has seen God (1:18/6:46), and Jesus’ revelation of the Father (1:18/3:34; 8:19, 38; 12:49-50; 14:6-11; 17:8).
Kruse compares the Prologue in John to a foyer in a theater, where you can see various scenes from the drama that you are about to see inside. Kruse and several other writers point out a chiastic structure in the prologue, with the center of it on verses 12 & 13, which is the central theme of John, that when we believe in Jesus we are born of God and become children of God. But today we have to limit ourselves to 1:1-5, where John shows us that…
Jesus Christ is the eternal Word, the Creator of everything, who reveals the life and light of God to this dark world.
We cannot know God, who (1 Tim. 6:16) “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see,” unless He chooses to reveal Himself to us. John’s point is that God has revealed Himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ.
John 1:1-2: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” We need to be clear on what John is affirming here, because it is foundational for the Christian faith. Four things:
“In the beginning,” as I said, takes us back to Genesis 1:1, when God created the heavens and the earth. The verb “was” indicates that at the beginning of the universe, the Word already was in existence. John wants us to see that he is writing about a new creation that centers in the eternal Word, who is also the Creator of all things (1:3). Both statements (Gen. 1:1 & John 1:1) don’t let you debate the question, “Does God exist?” They don’t ask for your opinion, “What do you think about it.” Rather, before you have time to duck, they hit you right between the eyes: “In the beginning, God….” “In the beginning was the Word…” John means that there never was a time when the Word was not.
Whenever Scripture makes such a bold declaration of Jesus’ deity, you can be sure that the enemy will attack it. Virtually all heresies down through history to the present deny either the full deity or the true humanity of Jesus Christ. The heretic Arius and his modern disciples, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, argue that Jesus was not eternal; rather, He was the first created being. The Jehovah’s Witnesses base this in part on Paul’s statement (Col. 1:15), “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” But if they would read the very next verse, Paul explains what he means by “the firstborn” (1:16-17): “For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether throne or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” If all things have been created through Him, then clearly He is not created. He is eternal.
In our text, John emphasizes the same thing (1:3), “apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.” Obviously, if Jesus is a created being, then He came into being and verse 3 is false. But John denies this and asserts that everything that had a beginning (that came into being) came into being through Jesus. He is eternal. There never was a time when the Word was not in existence. Jesus is eternal God!
John continues, “and the Word was with God.” Leon Morris (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans, 1971], p. 76) explains the preposition (“with”): “The whole existence of the Word was oriented towards the Father. Probably we should understand from the preposition the two ideas of accompaniment and relationship…. Not only did the Word exist ‘in the beginning,’ but He existed in the closest possible connection with the Father.” This shows that the Word is not an impersonal idea or philosophy, but a Person. This Person is distinguishable from God, although (as the first and third phrases of 1:1 show), He is eternal God.
In verse 2, John repeats the first two phrases of verse 1, both for emphasis and to make sure that we understand what he is saying. The Word was in the beginning with God. While the Word is God (1:1c), the Word is distinct from God.
Although our finite minds cannot comprehend the mystery of the Trinity, Scripture is clear that God is one God who exists in three distinct persons. Each person is fully God and yet He is not three Gods, but one God (see Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology [Zondervan, 1994], pp. 226-258).
The third phrase is, “and the Word was God.” As Morris states (p. 76), “Nothing higher could be said. All that may be said about God may fitly be said about the Word. This statement should not be watered down.” He clarifies (p. 77), “John is not merely saying that there is something divine about Jesus. He is affirming that He is God, and doing so emphatically as we see from the word order in the Greek.”
If you’ve had an encounter with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, you know that they claim that the Greek text (and their New World Translation says, “the word was a god,” because there is no Greek definite article before “God.” How should you answer their claim?
First, this is the only way in Greek to say, “the Word was God.” If John had put the definite article before God, it would have equated the Word totally with God, thus negating the distinction between the Word and God that he made in the second phrase. It would not have allowed for the Father and the Holy Spirit to be God (another serious heresy).
Second, you could say, “While neither of us understands the technicalities of Greek grammar well enough to discuss the matter intelligently, knowledgeable Greek scholars point out the inconsistency of the New World Translation and they affirm the translation as it appears in every literal modern translation.” (See Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics [Zondervan], pp. 266-269.) Wallace (p. 269) argues that the Greek construction here emphasizes the qualitative aspect of the Word, which means that He had all the attributes, qualities and essence of the Father, though they differed in person. He states (ibid., italics and bold type his), “The construction the evangelist chose to express this idea was the most concise way he could have stated that the Word was God and yet was distinct from the Father.”
Third, there are many other Scriptures that clearly proclaim Jesus as God, even within John’s Gospel. In John 5:18, the Jews sought to kill Jesus because He was making Himself equal with God. In response, Jesus doesn’t correct them by saying, “I didn’t mean to imply that I’m God!” Rather, He claims (5:22b-23a) that the Father “has given all judgment to the Son, so that all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father.” That’s a bold claim to deity! When, at the climax of John’s gospel (20:28), Thomas sees the risen Jesus, he proclaims, “My Lord and my God!” He was not making an exclamation, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim, which would have used God’s name in vain. Surely, Jesus would have rebuked him. Instead, Jesus affirmed Thomas’ confession. (Also, see John 8:58; 10:30; 14:9.)
Years later, on the Isle of Patmos, the apostle John had a vision of the risen Lord (Rev. 1:17-18). John fell before Him as a dead man. Jesus said, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades.” Isaiah 44:6 says, “Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: ‘I am the first and I am the last, and there is no God besides Me.’” In light of Isaiah, clearly Jesus was claiming to be the Lord of hosts, the only living and true God! C. K. Barrett (cited by Kruse, p. 59) comments on John 1:1, “John intends that the whole of his Gospel shall be read in the light of this verse. The deeds and words of Jesus are the deeds and words of God; if this be not true the book is blasphemous.”
Thus verse 1 affirms, Jesus is eternal; He is the second person of the Trinity; and, He is God. Also, it affirms that…
John 1:14 clearly makes this identification: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Many pages have been written on the possible links between John’s concept of “the Word” in relation to how it was used in Greek philosophy. They viewed the “logos” as the rational mind that ruled the universe. The problem is, we can’t really know to what extent John may or may not have had the Greek concepts in mind when he called Jesus “the Word.” Perhaps John, aware of the Greek ideas, used this term to show them the true meaning of the “logos.”
But I think the clear link in John 1 with Genesis 1 primarily roots his meaning of “logos” in the Old Testament (Andreas Kostenberger, John [Baker], p. 27). Genesis 1 repeatedly states, “and God said ….” Psalm 33:6 states, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made….” Verse 9 repeats, “For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast.” Psalm 107:20 declares, “He sent His word and healed them ….” God’s word accomplishes the purpose for which He sends it forth (Isa. 55:11). There is creative power in the word of God and Jesus is that Word. So when John calls Jesus “the Word,” he means that God has spoken to us and revealed Himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ, the eternal Creator of all things. Also, consider these two things:
You cannot know my thoughts unless I put them into words. God is spirit, and thus invisible to our finite senses (1 Tim. 6:16). John (1:18) says, “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God [some manuscripts read, “Son”] who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” Jesus Himself asserted (John 14:9), “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” Thus it is only through Jesus that we can know God personally (Luke 10:22).
Hebrews 1:1-2 asserts, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.” If God has spoken to us through Jesus, His Word, then we had better listen to and obey Jesus! John 3:36 draws the line, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” To ignore God’s word to us in Jesus is a serious mistake! Jesus is the eternal God, the authoritative Word of God. Ignore Him to your eternal peril! Thus in verses 1 & 2, John asserts that Jesus is the eternal Word of God, distinct from the Father and yet equally God with the Father. The Father has spoken to us in Jesus Christ.
John 1:3: “All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.” I’ve already pointed out that if everything that has come into being came into being through Jesus, then clearly Jesus never came into being. He has existed eternally.
The Bible teaches that all three members of the Trinity were involved in creation. God the Father created everything, but He did it through Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:16-17; Heb. 1:1-3). Also, the Spirit of God participated in creation (Gen. 1:2). God’s statement (Gen. 1:26), “Let Us make man in Our image” implies the involvement of the trinity in the creation of human beings.
As with the person of Christ, it is not just a coincidence that Satan has so strongly attacked the biblical doctrine of creation. If God created everything that exists out of nothing by the word of His power, then contrary to what atheists claim, matter is not eternal. Only God is eternal. Creation also points to the amazing power and intelligence of God. It shows us that we are finite, limited creatures and thus we must submit to God and depend on Him. In other words, if Jesus is the creator, then He is God, which means, I am not God! And that is a fundamental lesson in all of life!
John 1:4: “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men.” John uses “life” 36 times in his Gospel, more than any other New Testament book. D. A. Carson (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 119) argues that in light of verses 1-3, “the life inhering in the Word is related not to salvation but to creation.” The next phrase, “the life was the Light of men,” then either points to the fact of man being created in the image of God or to the way in which God’s invisible attributes, eternal power and divine nature are revealed in creation (Rom. 1:20). But since John goes on to develop the truth that Jesus came to earth to bring spiritual life to those who are dead in their sins and spiritual light to those who live in darkness, verse 4 may have a dual meaning, pointing back to creation, but also ahead to the salvation Jesus brings.
So the application is, those who are spiritually dead in their sins need life and Jesus is the source of that life. They are spiritually in darkness, but when they are born again, the light goes on. As Paul puts it (2 Cor. 4:4, 6), referring to those who are perishing, “in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God…. For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” Finally,
John 1:5, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” The word translated “comprehend” can have two meanings, much like our word “grasp.” It can mean to comprehend or grasp mentally, or it can mean to overcome or take hold of something in the sense of mastering it physically. If it refers to creation, then John’s meaning is that when God said, “Let there be light,” it overcame the darkness. If you turn on a light in a dark room, the darkness loses and the light prevails. But John uses the present tense here, which probably focuses on Jesus’ coming to earth and the conflict between Him and the powers of darkness that unfold in this Gospel. They crucified Him, but He arose and conquered the darkness. His salvation conquers the spiritual darkness in every heart that trusts in Him.
But the word may also be translated “comprehend,” and this meaning also fits a theme in this Gospel. In 1:10b, those in the world “did not know Him.” In 1:11b, even His own people “did not receive Him.” Jesus points out (3:19-20) that those in the darkness love the darkness and hate the Light because their deeds are evil. Thus they didn’t “comprehend” Jesus. Because sinners walk in darkness (8:12), they fail to see who Jesus really is. In John 8:48, they actually accuse Him of having a demon! So perhaps John’s use of this ambiguous term has both meanings: the darkness will not overcome the Light as it comes through Jesus. Also, the darkness cannot comprehend the Light, unless Jesus opens their blind eyes to see.
So John’s point in this opening stunning description of Jesus Christ is to tell us that He is the eternal Word, the Creator of everything, and that He reveals the life and light of God to this dark world. Have you ever been stunned like that soldier in Ben Hur because God opened your eyes to see who Jesus really is? Because He is the eternal God, we should believe in Him and submit everything in our lives to Him as the Sovereign Lord. Because He is the Creator, we should worship Him as we see His handiwork in what He has made. If His life is in us, our salvation is secure. Because He is our life, we should be filled with hope because we will spend eternity with Him. Because He is our light, we should let Him shine into every decision we make and into every area of our lives. To know God, look to Jesus, the eternal Word of God!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation