John 1, the Word, and Jesus

John 1 has some of the deepest reflection on the identity of Christ in the entire New Testament. Every Christmas, I return to this passage to contemplate the incarnation. Without fail, I am always awed at what I find in the first fourteen verses of this chapter. Unfortunately, some of the language John uses can be confusing to us. If we don’t understand the words John uses in this passage, the beauty of what John’s saying will go right over our heads.

In John 1:1, John famously states that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”[1] As Christians, we’re used to talking about the Bible as the Word of God. However, when John says that Jesus is the Word, he’s using the word “Word” in a different sense. He doesn’t mean to say that Jesus is the Bible. Instead, when John says “Word,” he’s using the Greek word λόγος (this word translates to “Word”). By using this word, John is pulling elements from a larger system of thought.

Prior to Christianity, a Jewish philosopher named Philo of Alexandria talked about God’s Word. To start off, Philo liked what the ancient Greek philosophers said God is like. For example, Plato taught that a perfect being like God could never change.[2] After all, if God is perfect, any change would make him imperfect. Similarly, the Stoic philosophers taught that the best way for a human to live was to keep our emotions from controlling our lives. If that’s what’s best for us, then it’s certainly best for God not to be ruled by emotions.[3] Philo thought that the way the philosophers understood God made a lot of sense.

While this sounds a lot like how we understand God, there was a problem. Philo realized that the way that the Greek philosophers describe God sounds different from the way that the Old Testament describes God. According to the philosophers, God never changes, isn’t affected by emotions, and has limited contact with wayward humanity. According to the Old Testament, however, God is interested in our lives and shows up in creation. Philo wanted to reconcile these two ways of understanding who God is.

Philo reconciled the two different pictures of God by developing the idea of God’s Word. According to Philo, God is high and holy like the Greek philosophers said; however, he interacts with creation through his Word. The Word of God is God’s ambassador to his creation, the source of his revelation, and the one through whom he created the world.[4]

When John says that Jesus is the Word of God, he’s pulling on elements of this tradition. Thus, in John 1:1-3, John talks about how Jesus was present at the creation of the world. He also teaches that Jesus gave life to all of us. Then, in John 1:4-5, John focuses on how Jesus gives spiritual understanding to human beings. All of this is consistent with Philo’s idea of the Word of God. The Word of God is God’s active agent in creation and is how holy God interacts with sinful humanity.

John goes much further than Philo ever did, however. John says that not only does God interact with us through the divine Word, but that the Word of God became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. Philo never saw this important detail! According to the New Testament, the divine Word put on flesh and walked among us. When we celebrate the incarnation each Christmas, we’re celebrating the fact that “the Word became flesh.”[5] The Word of God didn’t just interact with us. He became one of us.

Notes & Sources

[1] John 1:1, all scripture quotations are taken from the NIV.

[2] Plato, “The Republic,” in Plato: Complete Works, ed. and trans., John Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1997), 2.381.

[3] Millard Erickson, God the Father Almighty: A Contemporary Exploration of the Divine Attributes (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 1998), 145.

[4] Emil Schürer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ; Second Division, Vol. 3, trans., Sophia Taylor and Peter Christie (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2014), 374-76.

[5] John 1:14.

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