02 December 2015

Commentary on 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.

-John 1:1-2 (NASB)

From the very first words of John's gospel, it's obvious that this won't be a straightforward story. Jesus Christ, of course, is the focus of this book, but the evangelist won't actually mention him by name until verse 17. Instead, he begins with a more abstract title: logos (λόγος - "the Word").

John's audience, if they were familiar with the Septuagint (the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek), probably would have identified logos with God's universe-creating word of power, as in Psalm 33:6:

By the word [λόγω] of the Lord the heavens were made,
And by the breath of His mouth all their host.

If the readers were familiar with contemporary Jewish philosophers, they might have also heard of Philo of Alexandria's concept of the logos, which he identified with the Angel of the Lord. For Philo, the logos was an immaterial, adequate shadow of God, containing the fullness of His supernatural wisdom and power. Or perhaps they would have known of the Stoic concept of logos, dating back to 300 BC. Zeno and other stoics considered the logos to be the material, driving principle behind all life and action in the universe.

John's use of the term logos signals that he wants to provide his readers with a narrative deeper than a mere recounting of historical events. That doesn't mean he's going to play fast and loose with the facts. It does mean, though, that he's more concerned with spiritual truths than he is with giving an exact, detailed chronology of Christ's life and ministry.

We can tell from this first sentence that John's project is ambitious. The scope of his narrative begins not with Jesus's human birth in Bethlehem, but with the very origins of the universe itself. Moreover, the sentence echoes the first sentence in Genesis: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." The implication is that, like some evangelistic Paul Harvey, John is here to tell The Rest of the Story.

John clearly asserts three things about the Word in verse 1:
  1. The Word was present in the beginning (time)
  2. The Word was in God's presence (location)
  3. The Word was distinguishable from God, and yet one with Him (identity)
In verse 2, John repeats his first two assertions, but uses the pronoun οὗτος ("this one," or "he / she / it"): This One existed in the very beginning, and This One was together with God at that time. The repetition underlines the fact that the Word was both distinct from God and present with Him before the world existed.

So, then, the stage is set, and the actors are present:
SCENE: The beginning of all things.
Enter GOD, accompanied closely by THE WORD, the embodiment of His dynamic creative power. They are distinct, yet somehow one.
And without even reading the next verse, we know what must follow. After all, here we are, surrounded by a fully-formed, wondrous world...

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