We spent two days looking at the big picture of the prologue to John’s gospel (1:1-18) – how it functioned like an ancient letter of introduction, describing who Jesus was, authorising him as the Father’s representative, and urging us to receive and trust him if we wanted to access the favour of God. Now, we’ll go through it line-by-line as we unpack the rich theology it contains.
John 1:1-2 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.
“In the beginning” is how the Hebrew Bible starts (Gen 1:1). To start the story of Jesus, John takes us back to the start of everything: to creation itself. What’s more, he doesn’t call him “Jesus” or “Christ” (Messiah) until verse 17 – or even note that he took on human form until verse 14. He simply refers to him as the “Word.” This is the opposite to how the other Gospels begin, starting with the human Jesus and his place in the story of Israel:
Matthew 1:1, 18 This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham… 18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about…
Mark 1:1-2, 9 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet… 9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee…
Luke 1:5, 2:6-7, 3:23 In the time of Herod king of Judea… , 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son… 23 Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry…
The other Gospels start with the human Jesus, born into Israel’s story. Over the course of his ministry, they show how he demonstrates his identity as the Messiah – the anointed one who would bring in God’s kingdom. And then slowly revealing him as no mere human servant of God, but God himself. (This is often called “Christology from below” – starting with the human Jesus and working your way up.)
John, by contrast, starts from the “top.” He begins with the divine Word who was there at creation, and then introduces us to when this Word became flesh and lived among us.
What’s the Word?
This is a very complicated concept, which I’ll try to keep as simple as possible. John describes Jesus using the Greek word logos. At it’s most basic level, this means the same as the English word “word.” But if words can have freight, then this word, logos, is like a B-double semi-trailer that’s been dangerously overloaded, sporting half a dozen seemingly contradictory hazardous goods labels, and the driver has lost the cargo manifest. In other words, there’s a lot of potential stuff inside it that needs to be carefully unpacked, but we can’t be 100% sure what it is.
Here’s a quick overview:
In early Greek philosophy, logos came to mean something like “rational thought.” By the time of the Stoic philosophers, logos referred to “reason” – a universal principle of order by which the world was set up, and which a rational person could learn to live in tune with. You can see how our term “logic” is related.
At around the time of Jesus, a Greek Jew named Philo connected this Stoic idea of logos with the Jewish idea of wisdom. These were very similar ideas, with wisdom being thought of as the principle by which God created the world, by which he continues to hold it together, and by which a person could order their lives. Wisdom was even personified (spoken of as though it were a personal being) in poems like Job 28, and here in Proverbs:
Prov 8:22-30 The LORD brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old; I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be. When there were no watery depths, I was given birth, when there were no springs overflowing with water; before the mountains were settled in place, before the hills, I was given birth, before he made the world or its fields or any of the dust of the earth. I was there when he set the heavens in place… and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. Then I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence.
We also see it in Jewish writings from the century or so before Jesus. For example, in the wisdom of Solomon:
7:26 Wisdom is ‘a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.’
1:14 Wisdom ‘created all things that they might exist’.
1:7 Wisdom is ‘that which holds all things together’.
So if John knew Philo (which is debatable), or if he was operating in the same Jewish-Greek thought world (which I think is quite likely), he might have been picking up on this idea of the logos being what the Old Testament called wisdom. (Paul does this, too, in e.g. Col 1:15-20, 1 Cor 8:6, Phil 2:6.)
His point, then, is that Jesus is the eternal wisdom of God, now having taken on flesh. Some even think John may well have wanted to call Jesus “wisdom,” but the Greek word for that is a feminine word, sophia, so he went for the masculine logos. (“In the beginning was Sophie” may have sent the wrong message.)
But the fact that he does choose a term drawn from Greek philosophy, rather than from Jewish culture, is interesting. It universalises his presentation of Jesus using the language and philosophy of the empire, rather than just the story of Israel. To call Jesus “Messiah” (or “Christ” in Greek) declares him to be the fulfilment of everything the Jews were longing for. But to call him the logos, it broadens the appeal:
- For the Jews, it still presents him as the wisdom of God, personified in poetry in the Old Testament, but now with us in person.
- For the Greeks, it describes Jesus as everything they were longing for: the rational principle by which the world operated and in tune with which they wanted to live. And guess what: this logos is not just an abstract, impersonal principle or “force” (like in Star Wars). The logos didn’t remain distant and uninvolved, but came to us as a personal being, in human form.
For us, Jesus is everything our culture is looking for. Whether it be to live in tune with Mother Earth, or the “law of attraction” and positive thinking, or market forces, or scientific rationalism, or whatever else people look to in order to find reason and order – and a way to structure their lives. Guess what? Two thousand years ago, that principle of order in the universe turned up as one of us! We have access to the creative force behind the universe without having to get a degree in quantum mechanics, or hug a tree, or pay through the nose to hear a motivational talk from Tony Robbins or a book endorsed by Oprah.
Jesus is wisdom and order and reason personified!