The Preexistence of the Word
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. (1:1–2)
Archē (beginning) can mean “source,” or “origin” (cf. Col. 1:18; Rev. 3:14);or “rule,” “authority,” “ruler,” or “one in authority” (cf. Luke 12:11; 20:20; Rom. 8:38; 1 Cor. 15:24; Eph. 1:21; 3:10; 6:12; Col. 1:16; 2:10, 15; Titus 3:1). Both of those connotations are true of Christ, who is both the Creator of the universe (v. 3; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2) and its ruler (Col. 2:10; Eph. 1:20–22; Phil. 2:9–11). But archē refers here to the beginning of the universe depicted in Genesis 1:1.
Jesus Christ was already in existence when the heavens and the earth were created; thus, He is not a created being, but existed from all eternity. (Since time began with the creation of the physical universe, whatever existed before that creation is eternal.) “The Logos [Word] did not then begin to be, but at that point at which all else began to be, He already was. In the beginning, place it where you may, the Word already existed. In other words, the Logos is before time, eternal.” (Marcus Dods, “John” in W. Robertson Nicoll, ed. The Expositors’ Bible Commentary [Reprint; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2002], 1:683. Emphasis in original.). That truth provides definitive proof of Christ’s deity, for only God is eternal.
The imperfect tense of the verb eimi (was), describing continuing action in the past, further reinforces the eternal preexistence of the Word. It indicates that He was continuously in existence before the beginning. But even more significant is the use of eimi instead of ginomai (“became”). The latter term refers to things that come into existence (cf. 1:3, 10, 12, 14). Had John used ginomai, he would have implied that the Word came into existence at the beginning along with the rest of creation. But eimi stresses that the Word always existed; there was never a point when He came into being.
The concept of the Word (logos) is one imbued with meaning for both Jews and Greeks. To the Greek philosophers, the logos was the impersonal, abstract principle of reason and order in the universe. It was in some sense a creative force, and also the source of wisdom. The average Greek may not have fully understood all the nuances of meaning with which the philosophers invested the term logos. Yet even to laymen the term would have signified one of the most important principles in the universe.
To the Greeks, then, John presented Jesus as the personification and embodiment of the logos. Unlike the Greek concept, however, Jesus was not an impersonal source, force, principle, or emanation. In Him, the true logos who was God became a man—a concept foreign to Greek thought.
But logos was not just a Greek concept. The word of the Lord was also a significant Old Testament theme, well-known to the Jews. The word of the Lord was the expression of divine power and wisdom. By His word God introduced the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 15:1), gave Israel the Ten Commandments (Ex. 24:3–4; Deut. 5:5; cf. Ex. 34:28; Deut. 9:10), attended the building of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6:11–13), revealed God to Samuel (1 Sam. 3:21), pronounced judgment on the house of Eli (1 Kings 2:27), counseled Elijah (1 Kings 19:9ff.), directed Israel through God’s spokesmen (cf. 1 Sam. 15:10ff.; 2 Sam. 7:4ff.; 24:11ff.; 1 Kings 16:1–4; 17:2–4., 8ff.; 18:1; 21:17–19; 2 Chron. 11:2–4), was the agent of creation (Ps. 33:6), and revealed Scripture to the prophets (Jer. 1:2; Ezek. 1:3; Dan. 9:2; Hos. 1:1; Joel 1:1; Jonah 1:1; Mic. 1:1; Zeph. 1:1; Hag. 1:1; Zech. 1:1; Mal. 1:1).
John presented Jesus to his Jewish readers as the incarnation of divine power and revelation. He initiated the new covenant (Luke 22:20; Heb. 9:15; 12:24), instructs believers (John 10:27), unites them into a spiritual temple (1 Cor. 3:16–17; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:21), revealed God to man (John 1:18; 14:7–9), judges those who reject Him (John 3:18; 5:22), directs the church through those whom He has raised up to lead it (Eph. 4:11–12; 1 Tim. 5:17; Titus 1:5; 1 Peter 5:1–3), was the agent of creation (John 1:3; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2), and inspired the Scripture penned by the New Testament writers (John 14:26) through the Holy Spirit whom He sent (John 15:26). As the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ is God’s final word to mankind: “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son” (Heb. 1:1–2).
Then John took his argument a step further. In His eternal preexistence the Word was with God. The English translation does not bring out the full richness of the Greek expression (pros ton theon). That phrase means far more than merely that the Word existed with God; it “[gives] the picture of two personal beings facing one another and engaging in intelligent discourse” (W. Robert Cook, The Theology of John [Chicago: Moody, 1979], 49). From all eternity Jesus, as the second person of the trinity, was “with the Father [pros ton patera]” (1 John 1:2) in deep, intimate fellowship. Perhaps pros ton theon could best be rendered “face-to-face.” The Word is a person, not an attribute of God or an emanation from Him. And He is of the same essence as the Father.
Yet in an act of infinite condescension, Jesus left the glory of heaven and the privilege of face-to-face communion with His Father (cf. John 17:5). He willingly “emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.… He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:7–8). Charles Wesley captured some of the wonder of that marvelous truth in the familiar hymn “And Can It Be That I Should Gain?”:
He left His Father’s throne above,
So free, so infinite His grace!
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race.
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
John’s description of the Word reached its pinnacle in the third clause of this opening verse. Not only did the Word exist from all eternity, and have face-to-face fellowship with God the Father, but also the Word was God. That simple statement, only four words in both English and Greek (theos ēn ho logos), is perhaps the clearest and most direct declaration of the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ to be found anywhere in Scripture.
But despite their clarity, heretical groups almost from the moment John penned these words have twisted their meaning to support their false doctrines concerning the nature of the Lord Jesus Christ. Noting that theos (God) is anarthrous (not preceded by the definite article), some argue that it is an indefinite noun and mistranslate the phrase, “the Word was divine” (i.e., merely possessing some of the qualities of God) or, even more appalling, “the Word was a god.”
The absence of the article before theos, however, does not make it indefinite. Logos (Word) has the definite article to show that it is the subject of the sentence (since it is in the same case as theos). Thus the rendering “God was the Word” is invalid, because “the Word,” not “God,” is the subject. It would also be theologically incorrect, because it would equate the Father (“God” whom the Word was with in the preceding clause) with the Word, thus denying that the two are separate persons. The predicate nominative (God) describes the nature of the Word, showing that He is of the same essence as the Father (cf. H. E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament [Toronto: MacMillan, 1957], 139–40; A. T. Robertson, The Minister and His Greek New Testament [Reprint: Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978], 67–68).
According to the rules of Greek grammar, when the predicate nominative (God in this clause) precedes the verb, it cannot be considered indefinite (and thus translated “a god” instead of God) merely because it does not have the article. That the term God is definite and refers to the true God is obvious for several reasons. First, theos appears without the definite article four other times in the immediate context (vv. 6, 12, 13, 18; cf. 3:2, 21; 9:16; Matt. 5:9). Not even the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ distorted translation of the Bible renders the anarthrous theos “a god” in those verses. Second, if John’s meaning was that the Word was divine, or a god, there were ways he could have phrased it to make that unmistakably clear. For example, if he meant to say that the Word was merely in some sense divine, he could have used the adjective theios (cf. 2 Peter 1:4). It must be remembered that, as Robert L. Reymond notes, “No standard Greek lexicon offers ‘divine’ as one of the meanings of theos, nor does the noun become an adjective when it ‘sheds’ its article” (Jesus, Divine Messiah [Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presb. & Ref., 1990], 303). Or if he had wanted to say that the Word was a god, he could have written ho logos ēn theos. If John had written ho theos ēn ho logos, the two nouns (theos and logos) would be interchangeable, and God and the Word would be identical. That would have meant that the Father was the Word, which, as noted above, would deny the Trinity. But as Leon Morris asks rhetorically, “How else [other than theos ēn ho logos] in Greek would one say, ‘the Word was God’?” (The Gospel According to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979], 77 n. 15).
Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, John chose the precise wording that accurately conveys the true nature of the Word, Jesus Christ. “By theos without the article, John neither indicates, on the one hand, identity of Person with the Father; nor yet, on the other, any lower nature than that of God Himself” (H. A. W. Meyer, Critical and Exegetical Hand-Book to the Gospel of John [Reprint; Winona Lake, Ind.: Alpha, 1979], 48).
Underscoring their significance, John restated the profound truths of verse 1 in verse 2. He emphasized again the eternity of the Word; He already was in existence in the beginning when everything else was created. As it did in verse 1, the imperfect tense of the verb eimi (was) describes the Word’s continuous existence before the beginning. And as John also noted in verse 1, that existence was one of intimate fellowship with God the Father.
The truth of Jesus Christ’s deity and full equality with the Father is a nonnegotiable element of the Christian faith. In 2 John 10 John warned, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching [the biblical teaching concerning Christ; cf. vv. 7, 9], do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting.” Believers are not to aid heretical false teachers in any way, including giving those who have blasphemed Christ food and lodging, since the one who does so “participates in [their] evil deeds” (v. 11). Such seemingly uncharitable behavior is perfectly justified toward false teachers who deny the deity of our Lord and the gospel, since they are under God’s curse:
There are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed! (Gal. 1:7–9)
Emphasizing their deadly danger, both Paul (Acts 20:29) and Jesus (Matt. 7:15) described false teachers as wolves in disguise. They are not to be welcomed into the sheepfold, but guarded against and avoided.
Confusion about the deity of Christ is inexcusable, because the biblical teaching regarding it is clear and unmistakable. Jesus Christ is the eternally preexistent Word, who enjoys full face-to-face communion and divine life with the Father, and is Himself God.
Introducing John’s Gospel
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The Gospel of John has blessed the hearts of God’s people through the centuries. It has been called “God’s love letter to the world.” Luther wrote of it, “This is the unique, tender, genuine chief Gospel. … Should a tyrant succeed in destroying the Holy Scriptures and only a single copy of the Epistle to the Romans and the Gospel according to John escape him, Christianity would be saved.” Luther must have especially loved the Gospel because he preached on it for many years from the pulpit of the parish church of Wittenberg.
Some of the most widely known and best-loved texts in the Word of God are from this Gospel—John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”; John 6:35: “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty”; John 10:11: “I am the good shepherd”; John 11:25: “I am the resurrection and the life”; John 15:1: “I am the true vine.” There is the beloved fourteenth chapter: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back, and take you to be with me that you may also be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.… I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:1–4, 6).
Because of these and other passages, it is not surprising that the Gospel of John has been a source of blessing to untold generations of God’s people. It has probably been the means by which more persons have come to know Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord than any other single portion of Scripture.
A Unique Gospel
But the Gospel of John is merely one of four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—all of which tell of the life of Jesus Christ on earth. So we need to ask: What makes this Gospel unique? What makes John different? As one begins to read it, he soon notices some very obvious differences. Because of their similarities, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the synoptic Gospels; the three look at the life of Christ from similar viewpoints and employ similar and, at times, even identical language. John stands apart.
In the first place, John omits many things that either one or more than one of the synoptic Gospels include. John gives no account of Christ’s birth. There is no mention of his baptism, although John clearly presupposes a knowledge of Christ’s baptism on the part of his readers. The institution of the Lord’s Supper is not included. There is no ascension. What is perhaps most striking of all, there are no parables, those pithy sayings of Jesus that occupy such a prominent place in the other accounts of Christ’s teachings.
At the same time John shows a detailed knowledge of things that the other Gospels omit. For instance, John reports on an early ministry of Jesus in Judea. He indicates that the duration of Christ’s ministry was close to three years, not one year, which is the impression one gets from reading the synoptic Gospels. John alone speaks of the changing of the water into wine at Cana. He alone tells of Nicodemus, of the woman of Samaria, of the raising of Lazarus. Only in John do we find the great discourses spoken by Jesus to his own disciples during the final week in Jerusalem.
It is probably because John is so different (and so spiritual) that some scholars have attacked this book strongly. Otherwise, it seems strange that this Gospel, which has been such a blessing to Christian people, should become the outstanding example among the New Testament books of what a section of God’s Word can suffer at the hands of the higher critics of the Scriptures. One would have thought that the historical accuracy and apostolic authorship of John would have been defended stoutly. But this has not been the case until recently. Instead there had been a generation of scholarship (not so many years ago) that thought that John was not at all reliable. In this period all but the most conservative scholars said that the Gospel must have been written at least 150 or even 200 years after Christ’s death. Many placed it in a literary category of its own as being something very much like theological fiction.
Today this is no longer true. There has been a remarkable change in the scholarly climate surrounding John’s Gospel, with the result that it is becoming increasingly inadequate to deny the Johannine authorship. A new claim is even being made for the reliability of the Gospel as history. Moreover, this claim has come about, not because the scholarly world itself is becoming more conservative but because the evidence for the reliability of John has simply overshadowed the most destructive of the academic theories. Thus today men of such academic stature as Oscar Cullmann of the University of Basel, Switzerland, and John A. T. Robinson of England argue that the Gospel may well embody the testimony of a genuine eyewitness, as it claims. And some, like the late Near Eastern archaeologist William F. Albright, are willing to date the book in the a.d. 60s, that is, within thirty or forty years of Christ’s death and resurrection.
At this point someone may say, “What has produced such a turnabout in the ways these men view the Gospel?” It is a good question. The answers to it are significant.
First, many ancient manuscripts and parchments of John or parts of John have been discovered, and these have pushed back the dating of the book. For a long time, before the great harvest of archaeological discoveries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the earliest copies of the fourth Gospel were from the fourth century, about a.d. 325 to 340. While this was much more impressive than any manuscript evidence for other ancient writings—for instance, the earliest manuscripts of Homer’s verses were written about 2,000 years after his death—nevertheless, it gave scholars liberty enough to date John so late that it could not have been written by anyone who knew Jesus or even by anyone who could have known those who had known him.
The discovery of more ancient manuscripts has changed this. One ancient scrap of papyrus, which was originally found in Egypt as part of the wrapping of a mummy and is now part of the papyrus collection at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England, alone destroys these theories. This piece of papyrus contains just a few verses of John 18 (vv. 31–34, 37, 38). But it dates from the first quarter of the second century—in other words, less than one hundred years after Christ—and thus shows that John’s Gospel had been written early enough to have had a copy pass to Egypt to be used there and then to be discarded by the year a.d. 125. This is conclusive evidence for a fairly early dating of the Gospel.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
The second major factor in a reassessment of the dating and historical accuracy of John’s Gospel has been the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. These were uncovered in 1947 and the years immediately following, but the impact of their discovery is continuing even now as the scrolls are being unrolled, assembled, translated, and published.
Before the scrolls were discovered, scholars evaluated the differences between John and the synoptic Gospels in a way that was highly unfavorable to John. For instance, they noticed the unique language of John’s Gospel, with its contrasts between light and darkness, life and death, the world below and the world above, and so on. They noticed that the contrasts were generally lacking in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. “Well,” they said, “it is obvious that the first three Gospels are Jewish and reflect a Jewish setting. But it is also obvious that John’s work is not. John’s Gospel must come from a Greek setting. Therefore, we must seek the origin of these unique terms not in the actual speech of Jesus of Nazareth but in Greek thought and particularly in Hellenistic Gnosticism.”
Then the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. These revealed a whole world of nonconformist Judaism that had simply not been known to scholars previously. The home of the scrolls was Qumran, not far from Jerusalem, in the very area where John placed the earliest events of Christ’s ministry. And what was most significant, the literature revealed the same use of the so-called Greek terms (logos, light, darkness, life, death) that are found in John’s Gospel and actually provided a far closer parallel to them.
One scholar, A. M. Hunter of Aberdeen University in Scotland, writes of these discoveries: “The dualism which pervades the Johannine writings is of precisely the same kind as we discover in the Dead Sea Scrolls.” John A. T. Robinson writes: “I detect a growing readiness to recognize that this [the historical background of John’s gospel] is not to be sought at the end of the first century or the beginning of the second, in Ephesus or Alexandria, among the Gnostics or the Greeks. Rather, there is no compelling need to let our gaze wander very far, either in space or time, beyond a fairly limited area of southern Palestine in the fairly limited interval between the crucifixion and the fall of Jerusalem.” He adds that the Dead Sea Scrolls “may really represent an actual background, and not merely a possible environment, for the distinctive categories of the Gospel.”2Other Factors
The historical trustworthiness of John’s Gospel is also supported by John’s accurate knowledge of the geography of Palestine. This has been vindicated increasingly by archaeological discoveries.
To be sure, John mentions many places that are also mentioned by the synoptic Gospels, so critics could say that these were only known secondhand from their writings. For instance, John could hardly tell the story of Jesus without mentioning Bethsaida (1:44; 12:21), the praetorium (18:28, 33; 19:9), Bethany (11:18), and so on. But John also speaks accurately of Ephraim (11:54), Sychar (4:5, which is probably to be identified with Shechem at Tell Balatah), Solomon’s Porch (10:23), the brook Kidron, which Jesus crossed to reach Gethsemane (18:1), and Bethany beyond Jordan, which John carefully distinguished from the other Bethany near Jerusalem (1:28). All of these places are now known, and John himself has again and again been demonstrated to be accurate.
Two archaeological discoveries are particularly interesting. In 5:2, John mentions a pool called Bethesda that, he says, had five porches. For years no one had even heard of this pool. What is more, since John’s description made it sound like a pentagon, and since there had never been any pentagon-shaped pools in antiquity, the existence of this pool was thought by many New Testament scholars to be doubtful. Now, however, approximately fifty to seventy-five feet below the present level of the city of Jerusalem, archaeologists have uncovered a large rectangular pool surrounded by four covered colonnades and having an additional colonnade crossing it in the middle somewhat like a bridge. In other words, there was a pool with five porches, as John said. It is conclusive evidence of John’s accurate knowledge of the city of Jerusalem as it was before its destruction by the Roman general Titus in a.d. 70.
The second archaeological discovery involves the probable identification of Aenon near Salim, which John mentions in 3:23, as having “plenty of water” in the Jordan valley. It was obviously the place where John the Baptist found adequate water for his baptizing.
These three lines of evidence—the evidence of the manuscripts, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the knowledge of ancient geography—are also supported by other lines of discoveries. There has been an attempt to show that the author of the fourth Gospel (whoever he may have been) must have spoken in Aramaic because, according to those who are experts in this field, Aramaic idiom underlies John’s Gospel. Careful study of the text has convinced other scholars that the material preserved by John may be as old as Pauline theology or the traditions preserved by the Synoptics. Thus, a better knowledge of the author of the fourth Gospel and his times has succeeded in pushing scholars away from the critical postures they once held, and has caused them to admit not only the possibility of apostolic authorship but to speak even more surely of an early and very reliable tradition that underlies and is in fact preserved in the writing of the Gospel.
What does this have to do with a study of what is obviously a spiritual Gospel? Just this: John himself insists upon the reliability of the things about which he writes. Take 1 John 1:1, 3 as an example. There John writes, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. … We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.” In other words, John says that he is writing to them about a person whom he has heard, seen, and touched. Hence, he is writing about something objectively true that will bear the brunt of historical investigation.
John sounds the same note in the Gospel: “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30–31).
There are always people who will say that faith is something that must be entirely divorced from evidence. But that is not stated in the Bible. Faith is believing in something or someone on the basis of evidence and then acting upon it. In this case, John has provided evidence for the full deity of Jesus so that readers, whether in his age or ours, might believe it and commit their lives to Jesus as their Savior.
In John’s Gospel we have an accurate record of things that were said and done in Palestine almost 2,000 years ago by a Jew named Jesus of Nazareth and that are presented to us as evidence for his extraordinary claims. If one will believe this and approach the record honestly with an open mind, God will use it to bring that person to fullness of faith in the Lord Jesus as God’s Son and his Savior. This was John’s purpose in writing his Gospel. It is my primary purpose in writing these studies.
What will happen in your case? It all depends on whether or not you open your mind to John’s teaching. Sometime ago I was talking to a young man who was very critical of Christianity.
“Have you investigated the evidence?” I asked him.
“What do you mean? How does one do that?” he asked.
“Go home this week and begin to read John’s Gospel,” I answered. “But before you begin, take a moment to pray something like this: ‘God, I do not know if you exist or, if you do, whether you hear me. But if you exist and if you hear me, I want you to know that I am an honest seeker after truth. If this Book of John can really speak to me and show me that Jesus is the Son of God and is God, I ask you to prove that to me while I read it. And if you prove it, then I will believe in him and serve him forever.’ ” I told him that if he did that, God would speak to him and that he would be convinced that all the things that are written about Jesus of Nazareth in this book are true and that he is the Son of God and our Savior.
The young man went home. I saw him a week later, and I asked, “Did you read the book?”
He answered, “Well, I have to admit that there are other things to which I give a higher priority.”
Here is another case. A Christian at the University of Pennsylvania entered into a series of Bible studies in John’s Gospel with a young woman who was not a Christian. The two young women went through several chapters where Jesus is declared many times to be God, but none of it clicked with the non-Christian. Suddenly, in the midst of a study of the third chapter of John, and after many weeks of study, the inquiring non-Christian exclaimed, “Why, I see it! Jesus Christ is God! He is God.” That was the turning point, and several weeks later she became a Christian.
That is what we are looking for in the following studies of John’s Gospel. Moreover, as that happens, we will also look for a strengthening and encouraging of believers in the service of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God and our Lord.
Jesus Christ is God
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.
What do you think of Jesus Christ? Who is he? According to Christianity this is the most important question you or anyone else will ever have to face. It is important because it is inescapable—you will have to answer it sooner or later, in this world or in the world to come—and because the quality of your life here and your eternal destiny depend upon your answer. Who is Jesus Christ? If he was only a man, then you can safely forget him. If he is God, as he claimed to be, and as all Christians believe, then you should yield your life to him. You should worship and serve him faithfully.
If you are one who has never answered this question personally or if you have assumed (perhaps without much investigation) that Jesus was only a man, then the Gospel of John was written particularly for you. It was written for those who do not yet believe that Jesus Christ is God, to lead them to that conclusion.
I do not know which literary critic once said, “A novel without a purpose is like a life without a career. In order to be a story it must have something to say.” But, whoever the author may have been, the statement itself is a correct one. What is more, it is as correct for biblical literature as it is for works by purely human authors. In one sense the Gospel of John has the same purpose as each of the other three Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. That is, John wishes to present to the reader the earthly life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew who was born under the reign of Herod the Great and who died when Pontius Pilate was the Roman procurator in Judea. In another sense, however, John has a purpose that is distinctly his own. That purpose is to show that Jesus Christ is God. That is his thesis.
To some extent, Matthew’s Gospel portrays the Lord Jesus primarily as the Jewish Messiah. In fact, it is possible to argue that everything that goes into his account of Christ’s life supports that theme. Mark’s purpose is to reveal Jesus Christ as God’s servant. Luke deals with Christ’s humanity. John, however, reveals Jesus as the eternal, preexisting Son of God who became man in order to reveal the Father and to bring men access into eternal life through his historical death and literal resurrection. How do we know that? We know it because John says so. He writes, “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30–31).
Arthur W. Pink, one of the great students of this Gospel, has written, “In this book we are shown that the one who was heralded by the angels to the Bethlehem shepherds, who walked this earth for thirty-three years, who was crucified at Calvary, who rose in triumph from the grave, and who forty days later departed from these scenes, was none other than the Lord of Glory. The evidence for this is overwhelming, the proofs almost without number, and the effect of contemplating them must be to bow our hearts in worship before ‘the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ’ (Titus 2:13).”
It is not surprising, therefore, when we turn from the end of John’s Gospel to the beginning, that we find John presenting there the thesis that Jesus Christ is God.
I think that John would have done very well in one of our universities today. When you write a paper in a university the best way to do it—although you can be more subtle than this—is to say in your opening paragraph what it is that you are setting out to prove, then prove it, and when you get to the end, sum it all up and say, “See, I did it. It’s just what I said I would do at the beginning.” That is exactly what John does. He starts out in the first two verses stating that Jesus Christ is God. He proves it in twenty-one chapters. Then, when he gets to the end he says that the things written in his book were written so that you and I, his readers, might know that Jesus Christ is God and that we might believe on him.
At the beginning he says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning” (John 1:1, 2). We know from verse 14 that the Word is Jesus, for in that verse John says that “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Thus, we find John to be saying that Jesus existed from the beginning, that he was with God in the beginning, and that he was God. In other words, the opening verses of the Gospel contain a full statement of Christ’s divinity.
These verses teach three things about the divinity of Jesus Christ.
The first statement is that Jesus existed “in the beginning.” In other words, Jesus was preexistent. He was “before” all things. There are several ways in which the phrase “in the beginning” is used in the Bible. In 1 John it is used of the beginning of Christ’s earthly ministry. John writes, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1). In the first verse of the Book of Genesis the phrase is used of the beginning of creation: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The use of the phrase in John’s Gospel goes beyond even that, however, for John says that when you begin to talk about Jesus Christ you can do so properly only when you go back beyond his earthly life—back beyond the beginnings of creation—into eternity. That is where Jesus Christ was.
Moreover, this is found wherever the Bible speaks in detail about Christ’s person. The author of the Book of Hebrews looks back to the beginning when he says, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 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” (Heb. 1:1–2). The Book of Revelation reveals Jesus to be the “Alpha and Omega… the First and the Last” (Rev. 1:8, 17). Paul writes that before Jesus became man he was “in very nature God” and had “equality with God” (Phil. 2:6). These statements all point to the preexistence of Jesus as one important aspect of his divinity.
The second statement is that Jesus Christ was with God. This is an affirmation of Christ’s separate personality, and it is a very subtle statement. John wishes to say, and indeed he does say, that Jesus is fully God. He reports Jesus as saying, “anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). But John is aware also that the Trinity is involved here, that there is a diversity within the Godhead. Thus he also expresses this truth in his statement.
The final phrase is a declaration that Jesus is fully divine, for John says, “and the Word was God,” or literally, “and God was the Word.” This means that everything that can be said about God the Father can be said about God the Son. In Jesus dwells all the wisdom, glory, power, love, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth of the Father. In him, God the Father is known. John then sums up his teaching by saying, “He was with God in the beginning” (v. 2). With these words the highly emphatic and unequivocal statement of the full divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ is ended.
Knowledge of God
At this point we need some practical applications. What does it matter to say that Jesus Christ is God?
First, to say that Jesus Christ is God is to say that we can now know the truth about God. We can know what he is like. The counterpart to this statement is that apart from Jesus Christ we really cannot know him. Is God the god of Plato’s imagination? We do not know. Is he the god of Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher? Is he the god of other philosophers? Is he the god of the mystics? The answer is that apart from Jesus Christ we do not know what God is like. But if Jesus Christ is God, then we do know, because to know the Lord Jesus Christ is to know God. There is no knowledge of God apart from a knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, and there is no knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ apart from a knowledge of the Bible.
One of the saddest stories in the Word of God concerns this theme. It is in John’s Gospel. Toward the end of his ministry, Jesus explained carefully that he was going away from the disciples but that he was going to prepare a place for them and would one day return. The disciples were depressed at the thought of his leaving them. He went on to say that if they had really known him, they would have known the Father. At this point Philip, who was one of the disciples asked him, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us” (John 14:8). In other words, Philip was saying, “If I could just see God, I would be satisfied.” How sad! The disciples had been with Jesus for almost three years and now were nearing the end of his ministry. Still they had not fully recognized that Jesus is God and that they were coming to know God through him. Jesus then had to answer by saying, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (v. 9).
If you want to know what God is like, study the life of Jesus Christ. Read the Bible! The things recorded there of Jesus Christ are true. What is more, if you read them, you will find that the Holy Spirit of God, who is the Spirit of truth, will interpret and explain them to you.
Always Like Jesus
The second practical application of the truth that Jesus Christ is God is that God was always like Jesus. William Barclay, who knew this truth, writes, “If the Word was with God before time began, if God’s Word is part of the eternal scheme of things, it means that God was always like Jesus. Sometimes we tend to think of God as just and holy and stern and avenging; and we tend to think that something that Jesus did changed God’s anger into love, and altered God’s attitude to men. The New Testament knows nothing of that idea. The whole New Testament tells us, and this passage of John especially tells us, that God has always been like Jesus.”
Does Jesus Christ hate sin? Yes! So God has always hated sin also. Does Jesus Christ love the sinner? Yes! Therefore, God loves him also. Barclay says, “What Jesus did was to open a window in time that we might see the eternal and unchanging love of God.” In fact, God so hates sin and so loves the sinner that in eternity he planned the way in which he would redeem the race. We read the Old Testament and we find God saying, “There must be an atonement for sin.” We read the accounts of Christ’s life and death, and we find God saying, “There is the atonement for sin.” We come to our time and as the Word of God is preached we find God speaking to our hearts and saying, “That was the atonement for sin. Believe it and be saved.” God has always been like Jesus.
An Acceptable Sacrifice
Third, the truth that Jesus Christ is God means that his death on the cross was significant. It means that in this way he himself became the one sufficient and acceptable sacrifice for man’s sin. If you or I were to be so foolish as to make a statement that we would die for another man’s sins and then were somehow to lose our lives, in terms of sin our death would mean nothing. We are sinners. If we were to die for sin, or pretend to do it, the only sin we could die for would be our own. But Jesus had no sin. Being God, he is sinless. Hence, when he died, he died for the sins of others, in their place; he removed forever the burden of sin from those who believe on him.
Finally, because Jesus Christ is God, it means that he is able to satisfy all the needs of your heart. God is infinite. Jesus is also infinite. Therefore he is able to satisfy you out of that inexhaustible immensity.
There is a story that illustrates this truth. Do you remember the verses in Ephesians in which Paul prays that the Christians to whom he is writing might “have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:18–19)? These verses speak of the four dimensions of God’s love—breadth, length, depth, and height—and they say that out of that fullness God is able to satisfy the one who comes to him. During the Napoleonic period in Europe some of the emperor’s soldiers opened a prison that had been used by the Spanish Inquisition. There were many dungeons in the prison, but in one of them the soldiers found something particularly interesting. They found the remains of a prisoner, the flesh and clothing all long since gone and only an ankle bone in a chain to tell his story. On the wall, however, carved into the stone with some sharp piece of metal, there was a crude cross. And around the cross were the Spanish words for the four dimensions of Ephesians 3:18–19. Above was the word “height.” Below was the word “depth.” On one side there was the word “breadth.” On the other there was the word “length.” Clearly, as this poor, persecuted soul was lying in chains and was dying, he comforted himself with the thought that God who in himself contains the breadth, length, depth, and height of all things was able to satisfy him fully. He is able to satisfy you fully whatever your need or your longing.
“Who is This?”
This is John’s thesis. We are going to see the evidence for it as we go on in these studies. But even here we must raise the question with which we began and which is above all questions: What do you think of Jesus Christ? Who is he?
This was the question that was raised all through Christ’s earthly ministry. When Jesus rode into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey on what we call Palm Sunday the people turned to one another and asked, “Who is this?” (Matt. 21:10). The disciples asked the question after Jesus had stilled the storm on the Lake of Galilee: “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (Mark 4:41). Herod asked, “I beheaded John. Who, then, is this I hear such things about?” (Luke 9:9). When Jesus forgave the sins of the paralytic, the scribes and Pharisees asked themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Luke 5:21).
This is the question. Is Jesus only a man? If he is, you can afford to forget him. Or is he God? If he is God, then he demands your belief and your total allegiance. Do you believe that Jesus is God? You should be able to say with doubting Thomas, in the story that is really the spiritual climax of the fourth Gospel, “My Lord and my God.” To draw back from making that confession is to perish. To believe it is to enter into eternal life.
1 John opens his gospel with a majestic declaration: “In the beginning was the Word.” Before human history ever began, even before creation itself, “the Word already was” (NEB). The Word was not, as Arius would later claim, a created being—first in the order of creation, but nevertheless part of it.
The concept of logos (“word,” GK 3364) has an extensive and varied background in Greek religious and philosophical thought. As far back as Heraclitus (fifth century BC), the logos was understood to be the unifying principle of all things. For the Sophists, the logos was predominantly human reason. Philo, a prolific writer and leading citizen of the Jewish community in Alexandria, used the term more than thirteen hundred times as a mediating figure linking the transcendent God and the world (cf. TDNT 4:88). In general, Greek speculation viewed the logos as the principle of reason or order in the world (Bruce, 29).
In Hebrew thought, the word of God was a dynamic concept. God spoke and the world came into existence (Ge 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14 et al.; Ps 33:6 [“By the word of the Lord were the heavens made”]; cf. Heb 11:3). In Proverbs 8:22–31, wisdom is personified and its role in creation is described.
While it is helpful to be aware of Greek and Semitic backgrounds, John’s doctrine of the logos is only incidentally related. John does not begin with a metaphysical concept but with the person and work of the historical Christ. W. F. Howard (IB, 8:442) notes that “Jesus is not to be interpreted by Logos: Logos is intelligible only as we think of Jesus. At the same time it is true that the broad and varied usage of the term provided an excellent link to contemporary thought and allowed John the opportunity to redefine logos in terms of the incarnate Son of God.
Having established the eternal nature of the Word, John now proceeds to declare that the Word was both “with God” and at the same time “was God.” Never has so much christological truth been compressed into such a brief statement. Contrary to the later teaching of Sabellius (a third-century Roman theologian), the Word was personally distinct from God the Father. The common use of pros (“with,” GK 4639) followed by the accusative expresses motion toward. In this context it pictures the Word in a face-to-face relationship with the Father. BDAG, 875, cites John 1:1 as an example of the preposition meaning “(in company) with.”
Not only was the Word with God; the Word was God. Tasker, 42, notes that the unique contribution of the prologue is that “it reveals the Word of God not merely as an attribute of God, but as a distinct Person within the Godhead.” The lack of an article before theos (“God,” GK 2536) does not allow it to be translated “divine” (as some have suggested), for the lack is simply common practice for predicate nouns. Had John wanted to say that the Word was divine, he had at hand a perfectly good Greek term (theios [GK 2521]; cf. Ac 17:29). The tendency to regard the Word as somewhat less than God gave rise to the sixteenth-century heretical movement known as Socinianism, which held that the historical Jesus was a good man but only a man. He became God after his resurrection when the Father delegated to him certain divine powers. Socinus’s position laid the foundation for later Unitarian movements. All such heresies overlook the clear teaching of the fourth gospel that the Word was God, or, as the NEB so aptly translates, “What God was, the Word was.” In essence, God and the Word are one.
2 John restates the fact that the Word was “with God in the beginning.” Essential truths bear repetition! The verb ēn (“was,” GK 1639) has no particular temporal boundaries and should be contrasted with another verb (egeneto, “became,” GK 1181) in v. 14. The Word as eternal Son stands outside time but in the incarnation became the historical Jesus. As in the previous verse, the preposition pros implies personal relationship and communication.