In the Beginning Was the Word (John 1-12)

In just a little bit, we’re going to take a look at the gospel of John, but before we do that, I want to spend a few minutes talking about some Jewish theology and then some Greek philosophy, and then we’re going to see how John tries to put those two things together.

            First of all, let’s talk about Jewish theology.  The Jewish people had a long history.  They could look back and trace their heritage all the way from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to Moses, to David, to all of the priests and prophets.

            And an important part of their theology was this understanding of the Word of God.  The Jews believed that God would speak at times through men that he raised up, called prophets.  And sometimes he would even speak through the priests.  They believed that God would speak through men, and that those things would then be written down and recorded, as if God were speaking directly to people with authority.

            But the Jews also understood that the Word of God was not just what is found in Scripture, but that the Word of God was the active agent through which God accomplished his will in this world.  In other words, God’s Word didn’t just say things; God’s Word did things. 

            For example, in Genesis chapter 1, we find that God speaks, and it is through God’s Word that creation comes into existence.  In Isaiah 55, God said that his Word goes out into all the nations of the earth, and that it doesn’t return void.  It always accomplishes what it was sent out to accomplish.

            And so, for the Jewish people, this idea of the Word of God was extremely important. The Word of God, spoken through the prophets, written in the Scriptures, and every time God acted in the world, that was his Word.

            But, in the first century, there was this other group of people — the Greeks — who weren’t so much concerned about theology.  But they loved philosophy.  And they didn’t trace their heritage back to Abraham.  Instead, they traced it back to a fellow by the name of Heraclitus, who was a Greek philosopher who lived before the days of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

            Heraclitus taught that this world is in a constant state of change and there is a whole lot of chaos and disorder in this world.  His now famous illustration is that you can never put your foot into the same river twice, because the river is constantly moving and constantly changing, and so is life. There’s nothing constant, just continual change.

            And as Heraclitus looked at this world with all of its change and chaos, he tried to figure out a way to explain how there can still be harmony in this world, how there can be order.  And so, he came up with this concept of the Word — the Logos is what they would have called it in Greek.

            Heraclitus said that the Logos is the principle of order under which this world exists.  The Logos is what keeps the stars in their right places in the sky.  The Logos is what causes the sun to rise and set every day.  Logos is what provides order to this world, and any harmony or order that is in this world is because of the Logos, the Word.  And his teaching about the Word influenced Greek philosophy all the way up to the time of Jesus.

            When the apostle John wrote his gospel, he was thinking about these two different groups of people – the Jews and the Greeks.  And so, he approaches his gospel in a different way from the other gospel writers.

            As I’m sure you know, there are four gospels that tell the story of the life of Jesus here on this earth.  Three of them – Matthew, Mark and Luke – all tell that story in a very similar way.  In fact, we call them the “synoptic” gospels which means they are “viewed from the same angle”. 

            But the gospel of John is very different from the others.  You won’t find any parables in the gospel of John.  You won’t read about Jesus’ birth or the temptations in the wilderness, or the transfiguration, or Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. 

            On the other hand, you will find a lot of stories that the other gospel writers chose not to include.  For example, Jesus’ first miracle of turning water into wine, Nicodemus and his discussion with Jesus about the second birth, the Samaritan woman by the well, the woman caught in adultery, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, and the washing of the disciples’ feet.

            And one of the reasons why the gospel of John is so different is because John wrote his gospel for a different reason.  The gospel of Matthew was written to the Jews to show them that Jesus was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies.  Mark was written to the Romans and includes lots of action.  Luke was written to give a very orderly historical account of Jesus’ life, and especially to show how Jesus connected with the outcasts of his day.

            But John?  Well, John tells us why he wrote his gospel.  In John 20:31, “These are written so 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 wanted to show us that Jesus wasn’t just a good man; he was the Son of God.

            So how could he talk about Jesus in a way that would connect with both the Jews and the Greeks of his day, two very different people who had very different backgrounds?  Let’s watch this video on the first half of the gospel of John and then I’ll be back to see how the apostle John introduces Jesus.

            Show VIDEO (John, part 1)

            As the video pointed out, the opening words of John’s gospel echo the first words of the Bible, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)

            And John begins his gospel by saying, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:1-3)

            Those of us who are teachers and preachers have spent much of our lives in libraries and bookstores.  Take us to a hardware store, and we may not know what we’re doing, but drop us in the middle of a pile of books, and we’re very comfortable.  So, when John starts his gospel, “In the beginning was the Word”, immediately, he gets my attention. 

            And I think this was John’s way of connecting with both the Jews and the Greeks.   Remember, for the Jews, the Word of God was how God communicated with them and how God did things in this world.  And for the Greeks, the Word of God was what held this world together.  And so, John uses that one phrase – the Word, the Logos – to introduce Jesus.  “In the beginning was the Word.”

            While Matthew and Luke trace their accounts of Jesus back to Joseph and Mary, and then even further back to the patriarchs, John traces Jesus all the way back to before God created anything.  There was a point in time when this world as we know it did not exist.  And then there was a time when God created all things.  But before that happened, the Son of God already existed.  Before anything in this world came into being, Jesus had already been here for all eternity.

            But John doesn’t mention Jesus’ name – not yet anyway.  We know he’s talking about Jesus because in verse 14 he will tell us that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”, but for now, John simply refers to him as “the Word”.

            He says to the Greeks, “You know that Logos that Heraclitus was talking about, the Word that holds this world together”?  There actually is something that does that.  His name is Jesus.

            And he says to the Jews, “You know how the Word of God is important to you because it’s how God speaks with authority and how he accomplishes his will”?  That describes Jesus perfectly.  He is the Word.

            And it seems so appropriate to refer to Jesus in that way.  Imagine that God wants to communicate with humans.  In order to do that, he has a big problem.

            Randy Harris tells about something that happened when he worked with a bus ministry.  They would take an old school bus around the neighborhood, pick up kids and bring them to church. 

            One day they picked up a child about 3 years old and he’s standing at the back of the bus.  One of the rules on the bus was there’s no standing, because standing leads to falling, falling leads to bleeding and bleeding leads to problems.  So, Randy said to the kid, “Sit down.  The bus is getting ready to leave.”  But the kid ignores him.

            Randy said it a little louder, “The bus is getting ready to leave.  Sit down.”  And again, the kid ignores him.  The third time, Randy shouts at the child.  Finally, another kid on the bus says, “He can’t hear you.  He’s deaf.” 

            So, Randy picks the little boy up and takes him to the front of the bus and sits him down next to him.  The child is about 3 years old and he’s deaf.  The bus drive was about an hour long, so Randy starts thinking, “How am I going to communicate with this little guy?”  He thought about doing sign language, but the kid didn’t know how to sign.  For that matter, neither did Randy.  He thought about passing notes, but the kid is only three years old, he can’t read.  There was absolutely nothing Randy could do.

            Randy later made the observation, “The gap between God and me is much larger than the gap between this little guy and me.”

            And he was right.  To communicate with us, God had a problem.  And unless God could figure out a way to solve that problem, we’re left with an even bigger problem.

            When God has a conversation among the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — I have no idea what language they use to communicate.  But, if God is going to speak with us, he’s going to have to come down to our level, because there’s no way for us to get up to his level.  That’s why “the Word became flesh”, so that we could understand God on our level.

            And there is this recurring theme throughout the gospel of John where Jesus says in a variety of ways, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.”  The gospel of John is all about God’s effort to let us see who he really is.  John wants us to know that if we really want to see God, we need to take a look at Jesus. 

            In John chapter 14, Philip is pleading with Jesus, “Show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” (John 14:8).  And Jesus almost seems to be a bit exasperated by what Philip says.  He says, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?  Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.” (John 14:9-10)

            And there are these statements throughout John’s gospel that tell us over and over that Jesus was the visible representation of the Father.  In the very first chapter, John tells us that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14). And just a few verses later, John acknowledges that no one has seen the Father, but that Jesus “has made him known” (John 1:18).

            In John chapter 8the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Where is your Father?”  And Jesus replied by saying, “You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also” (John 8:19).

            Inchapter 10, Jesus said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).  

            In chapter 12, Jesus said, “whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me” (John 12:44-45).

            All of these verses make it clear that Jesus had talked about his connection with God numerous times while he was with his disciples.  And we can tell by the way he responded to Philip that he expected his disciples to understand. “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?  (John 14:9).

          What Philip had failed to realize is that God revealed himself in Jesus Christ.  Jesus has been hanging out with God forever, literally.  The Father and the Son are so close that John not only says, “the Word was with God”, but he also says, “the Word was God.”

            In Colossians 1, Paul referred to Christ as “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).  And the author of Hebrews wrote concerning Christ, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3).  If you’ve seen Jesus, you’ve seen God.

            If we know the Christ of the New Testament, we also know the Father of the Old Testament. Far too often, those two are pitted against one another as separate and distinct entities. The Old Testament God impatiently blasts sinners in his wrath and vengeance, whereas the New Testament Jesus graciously and patiently serves and dies for sinners. But John makes it clear that they have the exact same characteristics.  The better we come to know Jesus Christ, the better we come to understand the God of the Old Testament.

            Most of us have had the experience of having somebody give us a recommendation.  Who do you want to give you a recommendation?  You want someone who knows you best.  They’re in the best position to reveal to someone else who you really are.  In the same way, Jesus comes to reveal the Father to us, because Jesus is the one who knows God the best.

            And so, we have this recurring theme in the gospel of John:  Jesus was with the Father.  He’s the one who has come down from heaven.  The Father and I are one.  God is in the flesh for us to see.  God is communicating to us in a way that we are able to get it.

            But the disciples didn’t always get it.  Over and over, the disciples and the crowds of people see Jesus and the signs he performs, and they eat the food he feeds them, but they still don’t understand who he is.  John lets us know that while Jesus showed us exactly what God is like, there were a lot of folks who failed to understand. 

            One of the saddest lines in the gospel of John comes early on in chapter 1, verse 10: “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.”

            I think one of the most difficult things we can possibly experience here on this earth is to love someone who doesn’t recognize us.  If you are a father or a mother with a young baby, it is an exciting day when that baby begins to lock eyes with you in recognition.  But, as our loved ones begin to age, sometimes that recognition fades.  It’s a painful thing to take care of a spouse, or a mother or a father with Alzheimer’s.  You love them with all your heart, but they don’t really know who you are.

            And so, I have to imagine that the apostle John had a tear in his eye when he wrote those words, “[Jesus] was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.  He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” (John 1:10-11).  For the most part, humanity never recognized who Jesus really was, God in the flesh.

            But that’s what the first chapter of John’s gospel wants us to know.  That Jesus, who is God’s Son and fully God, also became fully human.  The infinite became finite.  The eternal one entered time.  The invisible became visible.  Spirit God became flesh and blood and lived out our day-to-day existence to show us in a very concrete and practical way just who God is. 

            And, as a result, we don’t have to guess what God is like.  We don’t have to sit around wondering what makes God happy, what makes God sad, and what makes God angry.  We can just look at Jesus.

            James Bryan Smith uses the phrase, “coming to know the God that Jesus knows”.  But you could take it one step further and say, “We’re invited to know the God that Jesus is.”  It’s an invitation not just to learn all the titles that Jesus is given, or to learn all of the “I Am” statements that appear throughout this gospel. 

            Seven times in the gospel of John, Jesus said, “I Am”.  “I am the bread of life.” “I am the light of the world.”  “I am the door of the sheep.” “I am the resurrection and the life.”  “I am the good shepherd.” “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” “I am the true vine.”

            Some scholars believe that when Jesus used that phrase, “I Am”, he wanted us to think about that time when Moses was standing in front of a burning bush in the wilderness and God spoke to him and identified himself as “I Am.”   And I think that when Jesus used that phrase “I am” over and over, he meant for us to make the connection that he is one with the God who is “I Am” in the book of Exodus.

            The concept of Jesus as the Word and all of these “I Am” statements of Jesus are all doing the same thing.  They are giving Jesus the credentials for being the one who can truly show us who God is.  If you really want to know what God is like, you just look at Jesus because he can honestly say, “The Father and I are one.”  We’ve been together for eternity.  I’m the one who is fully qualified to reveal God to you.

            And all the words that have been written can’t tell us as much about God as the living embodiment, Jesus Christ.  When we see Jesus, we see the Final Word.

            The problem, though, is that you and I, we can’t see Jesus.  When Philip wanted to see the Father, Jesus told him that seeing him was enough.  “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.”  But, what about us?  We can’t see the Father, and we can’t see Jesus either.  So, what are we supposed to do?

            If it’s indeed the case that Jesus came to make the Father known, I think we can take it one step further and say that those of us who are the followers of Jesus are here to make him known.  The more we can share what Jesus is like, the more people will come to see what God the Father is like.

            Our job is to make Jesus known.  Known in our families.  In our schools.  And workplaces.  And neighborhoods.  Wherever we are.  The church is here to make Jesus known, so that Jesus can make God known. 

            It’s our job to share the message about the Word of God who “became flesh and dwelt among us”.  To share the message of how God came and lived among us through Jesus Christ.  To rescue us and heal us and embrace us with a perfect love, offering us eternal life with him.

            And it’s our responsibility to not only to talk about Jesus, but also to live in such a way that people around us can see Jesus.  Because, whether you realize it or not, everything you say and do is telling people something about Jesus.  When people read your comments on Facebook, that affects what they think about Jesus, because you claim to be a disciple of Christ.  When people see the love you show toward those who are in need, that affects what they think about Jesus, because you claim to be a disciple of Christ.  When you respond to people either in a kind way or in a harsh way, that affects what they think about Jesus, because you claim to be a disciple of Christ. 

            Our goal is to step out of the way and let people see Jesus, because Jesus is what will draw people.  In fact, that’s exactly what he said in John 12:32, “When I am lifted up … I will draw all people to myself.” 

            So, in the gospel of John, we see how John lifts Jesus up.   We see how John shows us Jesus, and Jesus, in turn, shows us God.   But if we’re going to be the representatives of Jesus in this world, then we need to get to know him better so that we can show and tell others just how wonderful he is.  And we need to live like Jesus.

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