December 14, 1997
Jesus: The Word, Life, & Light. . .
One day Jesus took his disciples to a place called Caesarea Phillipi. Caesarea Phillipi is Gentile country, located 25 miles north of Galilee and sits at the base of Mount Hermon, which towers some 8,000 feet above the valley floor. It is a majestic site, snow-capped almost the year round. From ancient times, the people of the area had long thought it a sacred mountain. Visiting the city you could see high on the cliffs behind it, a cave dedicated to the Greek god Pan.
It was in this setting, Gentile territory with Gentiles gods and goddesses, that Jesus posed this question to his disciples: Who do you say I am? And it was Peter who responded: You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God. No sooner were the words out of Peter’s mouth, then Jesus tells Peter: This was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.
It is important to remember this. All the seeing and hearing and touching in the world is insufficient for someone to come to the knowledge of the truth about who Jesus of Nazareth is. It is a truth received only when it is revealed. Until the Father shines the light of his glory into our eyes, we remain blind in our darkness.
Over the next three weeks I will be preaching from these first 18 verses of the Gospel of John. In them John himself answers Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am?” With that in mind, let us read John 1.1-18. [Read Jn. 1.1-18]
1. Introduction to John’s Prologue
These 18 verses make up what scholars have call John’s Prologue. What’s a prologue? A prologue is a book’s introduction. In a prologue, an author introduces the key terms and themes that he will develop in his book. And so John does in this prologue. On the back of your sermon notes, I’ve provided you a set of columns showing some of the connections between the Key Words & Themes in John’s Prologue and their development in his Gospel.
Now this prologue is organized around three themes: 1] v.1-5 Jesus is the Word; 2] v.6-13 Jesus is the Light of Salvation; 3] v.14-18 Jesus is the Revelation of God’s glory.
Now let me say something important about how to interpret John’s gospel. Of the gospel writers, John’s vocabulary is the smallest. Yet, the terms he does use have universal religious appeal like the words: life, light, world, darkness, truth, and glory. They carry a weight of meaning and are put to multiple service by John. All of this to say, John invites us, his readers, to linger over his words and their layers of meaning.
In once sense, you must approach John’s gospel as you would a great salmon dinner. You cannot gulp it down. You must instead linger over the salmon slowly, carefully, picking out the succulent pink flesh from the bones, savoring each bite. Yet, unlike salmon, John’s gospel has no bones; it’s all meat!
So that is what we will do today -- linger a while over the rich meat of this gospel. With that aside, let us look at the first verse.
2. “In the Beginning was. . .”
John opens his gospel with a puzzling term “the Word.” (I warned you, didn’t I?). Three times it is used in this first verse, and once again in v.14. And after that he never uses it again.
Now the first thing he says about the Word is, it was in the beginning: “In the beginning was the Word.” John eventually identifies the Word with Jesus, God’s Son. So what special thing does he want to tell us about the Word by telling us that it was in the beginning? I think two things:
1] First, the phrase “in the beginning was” is a strong way to say that the Word is eternal. The Word wasn’t created in the beginning. It didn’t begin in the beginning. It was in the beginning. The verb “was” has the force meaning “already was.” In the beginning the Word already was in existence. So John says this Jesus, the Son of God, the Word, was already existing eternally in the beginning.
But he is saying more. He could have easily begun by saying “The Word was from all eternity.” But he doesn’t, does he? What does he say? “In the beginning. . .” That leads us to our second point:
2] Who can read these words and not have his mind instantly transported back to Genesis 1.1 “In the beginning God . . .”? That is the very first sentence of the very first book of this Bible. Do you see how important this is? Had John said “The Word was eternal” he would still be speaking abstractly. It would still be a phrase easily confused with similar phrases found in other religions. But by saying “in the beginning was the Word,” John defines the Word by confining our interpretations to that beginning. Everything now that follows this first clause, the entire gospel about Jesus of Nazareth is confined to that beginning. The Biblical beginning. The Torah, the Word of God. And that means the Biblical God.
Whoever Jesus is, he is no Muslim Jesus, no Hindu Jesus, no Buddhist Jesus, no New Age Jesus, no Mormon Jesus, no Jehovah’s Witnesses Jesus. Because he is not defined by the Quran but by the Bible. Not by the Tripitaka, but by the Bible. Not by the Book of Mormon, but by the Bible. He is the Biblical Jesus! By this, John keeps us from making Jesus into a wax nose which we can twist and turn to distort to our own private likings. If you want to know who Jesus is, you will only find him as revealed on the pages of this book.
3. “The Word”
Now we have a good foundation for the next question. What does he mean by “The Word”? Why does John use this puzzling term “the Word”? The Greek is the “Logos.” It is a peculiar term. In the entire Bible it is only found here in its absolute form “the Word.” Moreover, it is not easily defined and that for two reasons:
A. First, the dictionary meaning of Logos has a wide range of meaning. It can refer to “reason” or “thought,” to the expression of reason or thought, which we’d call “speech,” “message.” It usually doesn’t refer to one single term; rather, its use is similar as when we ask someone “What the word?” and what we intend to here is not a single word but a statement or message.
B. Secondly, in the ancient world, the term “Logos” was a philosophical term freighted with meaning. For example, in the popular philosophical movement called Stoicism, the Logos meant “the rational principle by which all things exist.” That is, the Logos was an impersonal force, an abstract principle, not a concrete person.
In the hands of the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, and under the influence of Plato, the Logos was thought to be the intermediary between God and the world. Philo can even speak of the Logos as that through which the world was made. Yet, again, it was an attribute of God, not a person.
C. A third understanding is found among certain Jewish thinkers, who, in the two centuries prior to the time of Christ, developed a dynamic conception of the Wisdom of God. They gave to God’s Wisdom characteristics of a person. This is a poetic device already present in the book of Proverbs. For example, Solomon speaks of Wisdom as a Woman. So we read: “Wisdom calls aloud in the street, she raises her voice in the public squares. . . how long will you fools hate knowledge.”
In the hands of these Jewish thinkers, Wisdom is at times treated as being identical to God and at other times as distinct from God.
D. However, it is best to take John’s own clue to define and interpret his terms such as “Logos/Word” in light of Biblical usage. And when we do, what do we find?
In the beginning and from the beginning “God’s word” is shown to be something very dynamic. And that in three ways: By his word, God 1] powerfully creates the world, 2] powerfully reveals himself; and 3] powerfully saves us.
So for example, Ps. 33.6 By the word of the LORD were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth. God’s word is powerful to create.
The word of the Lord is also God’s self-expression, self-revelation. So much is this the case, that we find in Jeremiah an unusual phrase: “The word of the Lord came to me saying. . .” Again, “The word of the Lord came to me: ‘What do you see, Jeremiah?’” Do you see what is going on? The Word of the Lord is not only from the Lord but is the Lord. The Word of the Lord is identified with God himself speaking. The Word of the Lord is the Lord revealing himself to us.
Finally, God’s word is a saving word: Ps. 107.20 He sent forth his word and healed them; he rescued them from the grave. Also, 1 Peter 1:23 For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.
So John most likely seeks to evoke in us and have us recall God’s powerfully creating, revealing and saving Word. Yet, we know something else is going on here. For John doesn’t say “the word of the Lord” nor the word of God” but he uses the term “the Word” alone, absolutely. Just “The Word.”
Moreover, by saying that this Word was “in the beginning,” John wants us to see more than just than the Word at the Beginning. As we saw, the term “was” puts us not at the beginning, but before it; before creation, before time itself, into eternity. Up until now, though a Jew might find it odd to speak of “the Word” instead of “the word of the Lord, or “God’s word,” he would not have thought John usage radical. But it is in the next two clauses that shatters all of our preconceived notions about God and this Word. Listen: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.”
4. “The Word was with God”
Are you surprised by that phrase? We are used to speaking about God’s word. Or, that God speaks a word. He sends out his word to create, save and reveal. But in all of these uses we are speaking about the word as a thing, or an attribute. As a thing, God powerfully uses his word. As an attribute, God is a speaking God.
Yet, John here makes a terribly odd statement. He says: “and the Word was with God.” It is odd for two reasons. The underlying Greek preposition translated here as “with”(“provV”) typically means “to, or towards.” So we could translate: “And the word was to God, towards God.” Yet, there are times when the word provV means “with.” Yet, whether translated as “towards” or “with” the typical context is between persons, not things, or things to or with a person.
So by this phrase, John suggests that the Word is not only distinct from God, but as a person with God, together with God. And this is most strange. The Bible itself doesn’t talk that about God’s attributes. We don’t say Eternity, or Omniscience was with God, or “towards” God. So what does John mean? Listen to the third clause.
5. “And the Word Was God.”
If we still thought the Word was a thing or attribute of God’s, no John’s third clause removes all doubt. The Word is not a thing, nor an attribute of God’s, but is God. “And the Word was God.”
Now this must be emphasized because Jehovah’s Witnesses twist this and translate it as “And the word was a god.” And since they do not believe in many gods, and because they believe that only Jehovah is God, what they are saying in effect is that the Word is godlike, divine.
But is John saying this? Not at all. If John wanted to say that the Word was godlike instead of God, he had a perfectly good Greek word at his disposal qeio". Instead of saying the Word was qeovV, he would have said the word was qeio". But he doesn’t, does he. He says, the Word was God.
Now by both of these clauses, John guards against two errors. They are Modalism and Arianism.
1] Modalism teaches that the Son is the same person as the Father. They are just different titles for the same person. Like saying “I’m pastor and I’m husband.” Modalism doesn’t recognize that the one God subsists in three distinct persons, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Modalism confuses the persons of the Godhead.
The other error, Arianism, teaches that in terms of being the Son is less than or inferior to God. The Son may be godlike, but he is not God.
What does John tell us about the Word, the Son? In the second clause, John makes a distinction between the Word and God. He says in effect that the Word is not the same person as God the Father. And saying such, he removes Modalism from all consideration.
In the third clause, he removes Arianism from consideration. He says the Word is of the same being as God. The Word is God.
And in saying these two things, the wonder of the Godhead is revealed. Our God is one God, in three persons. And all this is said for the following reason which he gives in v.2 “He was in the beginning with God.” This Jesus, whom John calls the Word, is God and comes from God and was in the beginning with God.
Is there anything else we need to know? Yes, says John. Listen to what he says in v.3-5. This Word is: 1] v.3 the agent of creation, 2] v.4 the source of all life and the light of men, and 3] in v.5 the light that conquers the darkness.
Then, in v.3 he tells us of the Word’s relationship to creation. v.3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. The Word is not merely the means of creation, but the personal agent. God the Father creates all things through the Son. In Genesis 1.3ff God creates by speaking, saying this and that, decreeing “Let their be . . .” Often we read: “And God said. But there the word of God is the word (lowercase letter) meaning the thing by which God creates or the activity of God in creating. Yet, here, in v.3 we find that God (that is, God the Father) creates all things through the Son. And this is the witness of Scripture everywhere. So Heb. 1.2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.
So then, everything that you see, and everything you don’t see, all that exists be it angel, human, animal, plant or rock. Be it small as a proton or large as a galaxy, everything is created by the Word, the Son, Jesus and nothing that exists, exists apart from the Word creating it.
Next, in v. 4 We are told the Word was the source of all life.
In him was life, and that life was the light of men. By saying that in the Son was life, John tells us that the Son is the source of all life. He is the Fount of all life. John traces every river and rivulet, steam and trickle of life to its source, its fount, its spring -- Jesus. The trees, and animals, your friends and colleagues, all have life because of Jesus. In him was and is life.
Yet, that is only half of the verse. And the life was the light of men. Life and light are frequently joined in Scripture. The psalmist says of the Lord: Psalm 36:9 For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light. Here light is a figure for revelation. Scholars speak of it as “general revelation.” In and through all things, God reveals himself to man. So Jesus is not only the life-bringer but the light-bearer.
Then, in v.5 with studied ambiguity, he says: 5 The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
Up until now he has been using the past tense. But in v.5 he changes tenses. The light shines. It is shining now. It is ongoing in its shining. Saying this, John bring us down from eternity where the Word was with God, down from beginning of Creation, which was made by the Word, down into the present, into the here, now, already and always where the light shines in the darkness.
Like an astronomer, he moves from speaking of the sun in itself, and now runs our eyes and ears and hearts down the sun’s beam where it shatters the earth shrouded in darkness and brings us light. And his words are words of victory. “And the darkness has not understood it.” The alternative reading is to be preferred: “and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Jesus shatters the darkness of men’s minds. He conquers all lies and falsehood, all deceit, darkness, sin and death. And it is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Word, the Life, and the Light that shines even now in this very place to answer the question: “Who do you say I am?”
If your minds are tired, that’s good. They should be. If your hearts feel sore, like muscles stretched after a hard workout, that is good, John wants to stretch our little minds. We are not talking here about anything so easily grasped as quantum physics or general relativity. No, that is child’s chatter compared to the knowledge of God, the knowledge of Jesus. They may send your mind spinning, he will set your minds free! Oh, Joy. Joy. Joy to the World. The Light has Come. The Life has come. The Word has come. Joy!
 The incident is recorded in Matt. 16.15; Mk. 8.29; Lk. 9.20. Peter’s answer differs accordingly. Mt. 16.15 “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Mk. 8.29 “You are the Christ.” Lk. 9.20 “You are the Christ of God.” These are not contradictory statements. Nor is Matthew’s record a subsequent redaction. It is far easier to see Mark and Luke in light of Matthew’s record than vice-versa. Moreover, since Mark and Luke record the application of “Son of God” to Jesus, its presence here in Matthew is not unlikely.