There’s a scene in Goethe’s Faust in which Dr. Faust sets out to translate the New Testament into German. Reading John 1:1, he decides that “Word” is an inadequate translation for the Greek word logos and goes looking for an alternative. He tries “In the beginning was the Thought,” and “In the beginning was the Power,” but neither is good enough; in the end, he triumphantly renders it, “In the beginning was the Act.”
Now, we’ll come back to the accuracy of that translation in a minute; but you can see why he would read “In the beginning was the Word” and think, “That’s odd; there has to be a better way to put that.” It is odd. If John wants to talk about Jesus, why doesn’t he just talk about Jesus like everyone else? What’s all this “Word” stuff?
The answer is that he wants to say more about Jesus than he could just by talking about Jesus the Jewish carpenter. To do that, he grabbed hold of a word that carried particular meaning for everyone in his audience. To the Greeks, for instance, logos was almost a religious concept. It meant “word,” but it was more than that; it also meant “reason” or “understanding.” That’s where we get words like “biology”—bios meant “life,” and so we have the logos, the understanding, of life: the science of living organisms.
Philosophers like Heraclitus carried this further. The great idea for Heraclitus is that everything is always changing; for instance, he said that it’s impossible to step into the same river twice, because when you when you step back in, it’s a different river—the water has flowed on and everything has changed. The problem is, if all is change, why isn’t life complete chaos? His answer was the Logos, the eternal principle of reason and order which underlies the universe and holds it all together. Other Greek thinkers took this and carried it forward, and so there was this concept of the Logos as the mind of God—an impersonal God, to be sure—which guides, controls, and directs all things.
If this was an important concept to the Greeks, though, it meant even more to the Jews. The Hebrew word for “word” is dabar, which has a much more active sense to it than logos; in fact, dabar doesn’t just mean “word,” but can also mean “deed” or “act.” This is particularly true when it’s used of God; again and again in Scripture, right from the start, we see “the word of the LORD” as the agent of his powerful creative or redeeming work. He speaks, and the world comes to be; the word of the LORD comes to the prophets, and they speak, and the world changes. In Isaiah 55:11, God declares, “My word that goes out from my mouth shall not return to me empty, but shall achieve my purpose, and shall accomplish that for which I sent it”; in the Psalms, we have descriptions of God sending out his word to heal his people and to melt the winter snows. God’s word is his act, it is his power in motion to carry out his will. Faust’s translation may be reductionist, especially given Goethe’s Germany, but it isn’t really wrong.
You can see then that the word logos already holds great meaning for both Jews and Greeks; John can say what he wants to say about Jesus by calling him “the Word,” because his audience will already have an idea what that means. It’s hard to describe Jesus in a way that really captures his greatness and his uniqueness, because we try to understand him in terms of our normal frame of reference—to find someone we can compare him to, so that we can say, “Jesus is like that,” when in truth Jesus is like no one else who ever lived, either before him or after. To keep us from imagining Jesus as merely human is very difficult; but that’s what John is trying to do.
He starts, then, on a cosmic scale: “In the beginning was the Word.” He’s echoing the first words of Genesis, but at the same time, he’s going beyond them. Genesis begins “when God created the heavens and the earth,” but John looks further back: to the beginning of all things, the root of the universe, the point of origin, before anything existed, when there was only God. That’s why William Barclay rendered this, “When the world had its beginning, the Word was already there,” because it’s a beginning before the world’s beginning. From before there was time, the Word, Jesus, was there.
But not only was the Word there, “the Word was with God.” Or rather, the Greek word here isn’t the word “with,” but a word we usually translate “to” or “toward”; but to say “The Word was toward God” sounds rather strange. The point here, I think, is that the Word didn’t just exist alongside God with no connection, as if they were only neighbors, but in close relationship with him. We might say, “the Word was face-to-face with God,” on intimate terms with him. In making this statement, John is stressing two things: one, that the Word is a distinct person from God as the Jews conceived of God, the person whom the New Testament calls the Father; and two, that there is deep fellowship between God and the Word, a deep personal relationship.
Having established that distinction, John comes back with the statement, “the Word was God.” This must have floored his Jewish readers; in defiance of the pagan world around them, they understood that there was only one God, who alone created the world and was separate from it, not to be confused with any part of his creation. They could affirm the Word as a created being, highest of the angels, but God? Hard stuff, yet John the Jew affirms it unflinchingly: the Word was God. Not identical with God as the Jews understood God, for John has already made it clear that the Word is a separate person, but fully God; we might say that the Word was as truly God as God the Father was. Anything that might be said of God might be said of the Word, and vice versa; anything that is true of one is true of the other.
Lest this lead to any false conclusions, John follows this up with the statement, “The Word was in the beginning with God.” He reaffirms that the Word is distinct from God and eternal together with God; the Word was not created by God, nor is “the Word” simply another name for God. At the same time, though, the Word isn’t a second God, either, because the Word and God are one. How this can be so is beyond our ability to understand, yet John affirms it as true; and from this point, and others, the early church would come to affirm the doctrine of the Trinity, that God is three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in one being, God. This, too, is beyond our ability to fully understand; and yet the Scriptures lead us there, the Spirit leads us there, and so we affirm it as true, even as we acknowledge it as a mystery.
Now, these are deep waters, and you may well be wondering why John starts here—why he doesn’t start off with stories of angels and pregnancy and birth and sheep like Matthew and Luke do; but again, it’s because he’s trying to do something different. Their concern was to establish Jesus’ bonafides, if you will—to show where he came from and make the case that he was indeed the long-promised Messiah of the Jews. John, writing later, doesn’t need to repeat what they’ve already done, so he wants to make a different case: his concern is to show why it matters. He’s answering the “so what?” question and telling us why we should care.
Familiarity has dulled our ears to the answer he gives, but it’s still an answer to stagger our souls to the core if we’ll really hear it: an unmarried girl got pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy who was God. Not thought he was God, not was very godly, not was a minor god, not was close to God—but was, completely and totally in every atom of his being, the one and only God who created everything that is and keeps it all going with a thought. He was fully human—he was born human, he ate, he laughed, he wept like any other human, and he died like any other human, only much, much worse—and yet he was also fully God. At the same time, God was up in heaven, but God was also down here walking the earth as one of us, and they loved each other perfectly, and wanted us to share in their perfect love—and that’s why God was born among the animals and the outcasts and the poor, so that the broken relationship between us and him could be healed.
And because of this, we can know God. There are people out there who argue—you may know some of them—that we really can’t limit God by saying anything about him, and we certainly have no right to tell anyone else that their ideas about God might be wrong, because God is simply too big for our puny efforts to describe him. (In particular, we have no right to tell them that anything they’re doing is wrong, because that doesn’t fit their idea of God.) Those folks are right about how big God is, no question, but they’re wrong in their assumption that Christianity is merely human efforts to describe him—because in Jesus, God described himself. In Jesus, God came down and he took everything he’d ever told us to that point and said, “Look—see me? This is what all this looks like. This is who I am.” Jesus was born, and we stopped having to hear about God second-hand for a while—he spoke to us directly and told us the truth about himself, and us, and the world. Because of Jesus, we can know God; we can trust God; we can believe in God. Because of Jesus, we need not be afraid, for God is with us.