To add depth to your faith and ardor to your devotion to the Lord this Advent season, spend extra time pondering the first sentence of John’s Gospel.
He writes, “In the beginning was the Word….” — on the face of it a perplexing line. Why didn’t he just write, “In the beginning was Jesus?” That’s who the fourth gospel is about, after all.
Or, John could have written: “In the beginning was the Messiah.” That term would be familiar to the Jews but not so familiar to others. He wanted both Jews and Gentiles to understand what he had to say.
Here’s the background:
When John wrote his Gospel, he was an old man living in Ephesus, where there were large populations of both Greeks and Jews.
To make his message attractive to the Greek mind while at the same time remaining true to Jewish thought, he had to find the right word to introduce Jesus to both.
Here’s why “Word” worked for his Greek readers:
More than five hundred years earlier, a Greek thinker named Heraclitus had lived in Ephesus. This man wrestled with the notion that all of existence was in flux. Nothing seemed to stand still.
To illustrate, he noted that one couldn’t step into the same river twice. If you step into the water, then step out of the water, then step back in, he reasoned, you are not stepping into the same river.
But if everything was in process of change all the time, Heraclitus pondered, why was all of existence not in chaos? He concluded that there was some unifying, ordering principle or influence over all. He called this the Logos – which meant “word” or “reason.” This idea had survived in Greek thought for more than 500 years.
Jewish thought had a similar idea. God’s “word” is presented in the scriptures over and over again as imbued with power. The story of Creation bears this out. In Genesis 1, eight times we read: “And God said” — and each time, His word brought an additional component of creation into being.
Jeremiah writes, “Is not my word like fire?” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29). From the Psalms we read, “By the word of God were the heavens made” (Psalm 33:6). William Barclay writes, “the phrase the ‘word of God’ became one of the commonest forms of Jewish expression.”
In the light of all this, John concluded, Logos (word), was the best expression to open the mind of the Greek reader to who Jesus was and why he came, and at the same time to be true to the Jewish understanding as John talked about Christ — the Messiah’s first coming.
By saying “in the beginning,” John adds a new and deeper understanding for both Greek and Jew. In this way, he asserts that Jesus always existed; he is eternal!
And, he further adds the staggering news that, indeed, “The Word was God.”
The sentence with which John begins his good news account can stir us deeply: Jesus, the Word, is eternal. He is God, and in him God came into our sphere as an infant. We discover who he is and we call him Jesus, our Lord.
That truth, if reflected on prayerfully again and again during Advent, will deepen faith and Christian joy.
Photo credit: Gytha69 (via flickr.com)