Who is the Word?

john 1
Excerpt from John 1 from manuscript GA 01 (courtesy of CSNTM.org)

The Gospel of John is important. And, in a piece of writing noted for its Christology, the prologue (John 1:1-18) is rightly considered to be a masterpiece. Because it’s so important, it’s attracted any number of critics and false teachers who desperately try to explain why it doesn’t actually say … what it actually says.

An ordinary Christian can go batty pondering all the controversies inherent in this passage. Was John 1:1 (“and the Word was God”) translated correctly? Have Christians been influenced by pagan, Greek philosophy to interpret “the Word” as the co-equal, co-eternal Son of God? These are good questions, and lots of good theologians and bible teachers have lots of good answers for them. But, setting these issues aside for a time, if you take a step back and just consider the content as a literary unit the message is very clear.

Who is the Word?

At1 the very beginning, when the creation happened, the Word was there (Jn 1:1a). So, whoever this Word is, He’s eternal. He’s prior to creation. More than that, the Word is with God (Jn 1:1b). God is before creation, and so is the Word. They’re together. They share the same space; they’re with one another. Even better yet, the Word actually is God (Jn 1:1c).

But, how can this be? How can the Word actually be God? John is saying the Word is somehow distinct from God and there at the beginning with God. Yet, the Word is God, too. What does this mean? It shows us that God and the Word are both eternal, they both stand outside of creation, and they both share the same nature. They’re one, and yet they’re distinct, too.

And, God made everything through the Word (Jn 1:3). The language conveys personal agency, and the Word is the living, active and personal agent who made creation on God’s behalf. “Without Him was not anything made that was made,” (Jn 1:3). Why is that? It’s because “in him was life” (Jn 1:4); that is, the Word contains life and is the source of life and creation. This life is the light which shines the way for men to come to faith; to escape from the figurative darkness of sin and wickedness (Jn 1:4b-5).

The Apostle John then briefly explained the Baptist’s ministry. God sent him to tell people about the Word (note the distinction again). John proclaimed the Word was the light for all men “that all might believe through him,” (Jn 1:7). John himself wasn’t the light, “but came to bear witness about the light,” (Jn 1:8).

The irony, of course, is that the very Creator of creation came into the world, “yet the world did not know him,” (Jn 1:10). He came to His own people, and they rejected Him (Jn 1:11). Notice that it isn’t God who came to His people; it was the Word. Of course, the Word shares the same nature as God so He can properly be said to be God. But, in this prologue, the Word and God are distinguished from one another. John will go on to speak of the Father in contrast to the Son later in the book. For now, however, it’s enough to know John is painting a deliberate contrast between God and the Word.

It’s true people rejected the Word. But, that’s not the end of the story. It all doesn’t end in tragedy and darkness. After all, “[t]he light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it,” (Jn 1:5). In fact, the Apostle hastens to add, to everyone who did receive the Word (that is, who believed in His name; in effect, who He was as the incarnate God-Man), the Word did something very special. He gave these people the right or privilege to become God’s children (Jn 1:12). The Word didn’t give people the power to become His children; He made them God’s children.

People aren’t born into God’s family; they have to be adopted by God. John explains God’s children don’t come to Him by blood relation, or by the sexual desires of a man or woman who produce a child, or even the desires of the husband himself. People don’t become God’s children by physical descent, or by the will of any of his parents. How, then? They’re born from God’s will.

Again, notice the delineation of roles:

  • God wills people to become His children
  • This will is actuated when they receive the Word by believing on His name; that is, in who He is as the incarnate GodMan.

This is beautiful, and the Apostle tells us how it all came about. The Word “became flesh and dwelt among us,” (Jn 1:14). This is the incarnation, where the Word added a human nature to His divine nature.2 God (i.e. the Father) didn’t become flesh and come here; the Word did. John and the other apostles are eyewitnesses who saw the Word’s glory! What kind of glory was it? It was the glory of the unique, one and only Son who comes from the Father, full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14). In other words, it was the same as the Father’s glory.

Notice that John more precisely defines “God” here as “the Father.” It was His glory that descended on Sinai (Ex 19:16-19), that filled the tabernacle (Ex 40:34-38) and Solomon’s temple (1 Kgs 8:1-11). It was also His glory that left that same temple during the exile (Ezek 8-10), and hasn’t returned since. The Word’s glory is just like that.

This Word is the one who John the Baptist preached about. He told everyone the Word would come on the scene after him, but outranks him. Why does the Word outrank John, a true prophet from God? Because the Word came before John (Jn 1:15). This makes sense, because the Word created Creation according to the Father’s will and only walks the earth because He “became flesh and dwelt among us,” (Jn 1:14).

The Word’s glory, which John and the others saw and marveled at, is full of grace and truth. Why does John say this? Because from His grace all believers continue to receive grace upon grace; that is, an unending low of graces while pile atop one another (Jn 1:16). What’s so marvelous about this cascade of grace upon grace? Well, the Apostle says, the law came from Moses, but grace and truth came from Jesus Christ (Jn 1:17). Here John stops being coy and explicitly identifies Jesus as the Word.

This is the New Covenant; the new and better way that Jesus inaugurated with His life, death, burial and resurrection. The law of Moses did bring grace and forgiveness to the believer but that atonement wasn’t final and permanent; it was on layaway. The law of Moses did point to the truth of Christ but it didn’t contain that truth; it was a marker along the way. John was obliquely referring to the new and better covenant, which all believers show and tell the world about as they celebrate the Lord’s Supper in local churches.

Nobody has ever seen God. But, the only God who is at the Father’s side has made Him known (Jn 1:18). Once again, John draws a distinction between Father and Son, and identifies Jesus as God once more. Moses is the penultimate Israelite, but he couldn’t see God. Jesus sits at the Father’s side, and He’s come here to make Him known to us. Moses served his purpose, and even he knew someone else would come from God (Deut 18:15f). That someone is Jesus, the Word who was there before the beginning, who can fully reveal God to sinful men.

The Word is God the Son Incarnate

John’s prologue isn’t hard to understand. But, too many people make it hard (which isn’t at all the same thing) when they refuse to read it as a literary unit, or have a theological agenda, or waste sermons explaining the joys of Colwell’s Rule in John 1:1. The prologue is about Christ, and it tells us He is distinct from the Father, and co-equal and co-eternal with Him. It’s a synopsis of Christ’s identity and ministry. It’s the Apostle’s dustjacket summary of the incarnation:

The Word existed before Creation. The Word made Creation. The Word was with God before Creation, and He’s also God, too. God made everything through the Word, who contains and embodies life itself and acts as a light for all men. That light shined in the darkness, and Satan still hasn’t overcome it.

God sent John the Baptist to tell everyone about the Word, but the world rejected the Word anyway. But, for those few who did receive the Word, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become God’s children. To do all this, the Word took on flesh, dwelt among us, and eyewitnesses saw His glory. His glory was like that of the only Son’s, identical to the Father’s, full of grace and truth. And, the Word pours out grace upon grace to His people; to those who received Him. Moses brought the law, but Jesus brought the new and better covenant characterized by grace and truth.

Nobody has ever seen God, but Jesus (the only God) who sits at the Father’s side has made Him known to all who have ears to hear. He’s better than Moses. He’s Moses’ successor. And, to all who receive Him He gives the privilege to become a child of God, according to God’s will.

Notes

1 The preposition here (Ἐν ἀρχῇ) is temporal, and the sense is “at the beginning;” that is, at the point in time at which creation began.

2 “Accordingly, while the distinctness of both natures and substances was preserved, and both met in one Person, lowliness was assumed by majesty, weakness by power, mortality by eternity; and, in order to pay the debt of our condition, the inviolable nature was united to the passible, so that as the appropriate remedy for our ills, one and the same ‘Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus,’ might from one element be capable of dying and also from the other be incapable. Therefore in the entire and perfect nature of very man was born very God, whole in what was his, whole in what was ours,” (Leo the Great, “The Tome of St. Leo,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, 14 vols., ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Henry R. Percival (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900), 14:255.

 

Learning from Smart, Dead Guys

Ikone_Athanasius_von_AlexandriaWe really don’t know everything. I know – it’s crazy. Christians stand on the shoulders of dedicated, intelligent and devout brothers and sisters from days gone by. Our very vocabulary, the categories and structures of our theology have been shaped by the controversies and issues of bygone days.

This is why creeds and confessions are such valuable tools in a Christian’s arsenal. See, for example:

  1. The 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith
  2. The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith
  3. The Belgic Confession

So, because Christians before us have already puzzled and thought until their puzzlers were sore, I’ve decided to take some time to read about Christology from some 4th century Christians. Last year, I translated the Nicene-Constantinople Creed (381 AD). I plan to write a short introduction and commentary on it, and basically use it as a vehicle to teach 4th century Christology.

In order to really understand what was going on in the 4th century, I need to do two things:

  1. I need to read some good history books, and
  2. I need to read what Christians from the 4th century actually wrote about Christ, and see how they responded to the Arian heresies and the controversy about the Holy Spirit.

That’s where Athanasius of Alexandria comes in. He was a key figure in the Christological controversies of the 4th century; perhaps the key player. I don’t have time to read everything he wrote (that would take a while!), but I am taking time to read some of it.

That brings me to the point. The man was a genius. It’s always humbling to learn something from really smart, dead guys. And, to top it off, Athanasius didn’t even have wireless internet!

In this short excerpt from his work On the Incarnation of the Word, Athanasius tackled the objection that Jesus’ death was humiliating and unfitting for the Son of God. Read what he has to say, and think about it:

For perhaps a man might say even as follows: If it was necessary for His death to take place before all, and with witnesses, that the story of His Resurrection also might be believed, it would have been better at any rate for Him to have devised for Himself a glorious death, if only to escape the ignominy of the Cross.

But had He done even this, He would give ground for suspicion against Himself, that He was not powerful against every death, but only against the death devised for Him; and so again there would have been a pretext for disbelief about the Resurrection all the same. So death came to His body, not from Himself, but from hostile counsels, in order that whatever death they offered to the Saviour, this He might utterly do away.

And just as a noble wrestler, great in skill and courage, does not pick out his antagonists for himself, lest he should raise a suspicion of his being afraid of some of them, but puts it in the choice of the onlookers, and especially so if they happen to be his enemies, so that against whomsoever they match him, him he may throw, and be believed superior to them all; so also the Life of all, our Lord and Saviour, even Christ, did not devise a death for His own body, so as not to appear to be fearing some other death; but He accepted on the Cross, and endured, a death inflicted by others, and above all by His enemies, which they thought dreadful and ignominious and not to be faced; so that this also being destroyed, both He Himself might be believed to be the Life, and the power of death be brought utterly to nought.

So something surprising and startling has happened; for the death, which they thought to inflict as a disgrace, was actually a monument of victory against death itself. Whence neither did He suffer the death of John, his head being severed, nor, as Esaias, was He sawn in sunder; in order that even in death He might still keep His body undivided and in perfect soundness, and no pretext be afforded to those that would divide the Church.[1]

You’d be surprised how much you read in Christian books is really just a regurgitation of stuff somebody else said a long time ago. I’m learning a lot from Athanasius. I can also see where our understanding of theology has, in some instances, advanced beyond him – particularly in the 5th century, leading up to the Chalcedonian Creed. But, what an explanation he provided here!

You can learn a lot from smart, dead guys . . .

Notes:

[1] Athanasius of Alexandria, “On the Incarnation of the Word,” in NPNF2, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Archibald T. Robertson (New York, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1892), 4:49.