The book of John is the fourth of four Gospels of Jesus Christ and is unique among those in its portrayal of the story. John doesn’t so much focus on narrating a history of what Jesus did, as is common in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but on proclaiming who Jesus was, and what His life, death, and resurrection meant.
In this note, we’ll briefly look at how John saw Jesus in relation to God, typically identified as “God the Father” in our English translations.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Until recently, I hadn’t explored this verse to try to understand exactly what John had in his mind while writing it.
From this English translation, we see John asserting four central claims about Jesus:
In the Beginning was the Word
First, he says “In the beginning” (‘Ev ἀρχῇ). This is the same Greek construction used in Gen 1:1a in the Septuagint (which translates 7225. רֵאשִׁית rē’šiyṯ) announcing the creation of the Universe. The phrase is designed to convey the idea of the start of all things. So John is positioning Jesus in the realm of eternity occupied by God (Θεὸς, Theos). John seems here to not only be claiming a timelessness for Jesus but blatantly setting up the parallel with Genesis 1 – the narrative in which God speaks Creation into existence.
He names Jesus the “Word” – (Gr. Λόγος, Logos). Why logos? The common understanding of this term at that time was the idea of static knowledge, over time taking on the sense of “the mind of God” – something far removed from physical reality. But John’s usage here would have caught his readers off-guard. Here he is featuring the meaning of “speech”, or, indeed, the words spoken, in a bold allusion to Genesis 1’s poem: “And God said…” John’s allusion here brings out the Logos idea of action: speaking; instantiating the thing spoken — creating; causing to happen. In using this term, we get our first hint that John saw Jesus as the Creator, which he later confirms (John 1:10).
And the Word was With God
In this phrase in Greek, there is a definite article (the) that is missing from our English translations – “the God” (ton theon/ τὸν Θεόν). As Greek dictionaries point out, this phrase “the God” is typically used to refer to God the Father, referring to the God of the Hebrew Bible, YHVH, rather than the Godhead — 2316. Θεός Theós.
Here he doesn’t articulate what “with” means to him. If we just rely on our English translations were left visualizing something like two divine beings side-by-side sharing companionship, or partnership, or perhaps even a Son with His Father.
But this Greek term, 4314. πρός prós, doesn’t convey the idea of a passive “with-ness”. It has a dynamic sense, conveying motion, action, interfacing, or interacting with. I’m reminded of Moses’ interactions with God in the Tabernacle “face to face” (Ex 33:11, Nu 12:8, Dt 34:10).
And the Word Was God
And lastly, he says that (in our English translations) “and the Word was God”. Now this phrase as written is powerful enough – Jesus is God. John is asserting the identity relationship between Jesus and God. But that’s not what John actually said/wrote.
What John said is “and God (Θεὸς, Theos) was the Word (Λόγος, Logos). There’s no definite article in front of this occurrence of “God”, so it is usually interpreted as the one God, without differentiation of personalities. And John tells us it is this God who is the Word, Jesus.
Here’s what the interlinear of the verse looks like:
Now Greek scholars tell us that this idiom of flipping the subject and object in John 1:1c is a technique used to provide additional emphasis to what is being said. English translators of Koine Greek know this, and so apparently undo such phrases to read as they would have without that idiom being used.
But what is John emphasizing?
He said God was Jesus. Unfortunately, he didn’t explain his meaning; only a declarative statement.
Because he didn’t elaborate, John’s precise meaning was debated by early Church leaders for three centuries until being resolved, at least for the Church itself, at its First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD[i]. The result of this meeting was the Church’s Doctrine of the Trinity which acknowledged One God having three “persons”: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit/Ghost.
Is the Church’s Doctrine of the Trinity what John meant to claim with his verse? I think there’s a reason for doubt. Why?
First of all, we should remember that John wasn’t writing a theology dissertation here. No, he was conveying his interpretation of his first-hand knowledge of the person of Christ, based on what he had seen living with Jesus for three years, seeing His miracles (John 2:1-11, John 4:43-54, John 5:1-9, John 6:1-5, John 6:16-25, John 9:1-41, John 11:1-44), seeing Him transfigured (Lk 9:28-36), and seeing him following His resurrection (John, 21:20-23).
Given this first-hand knowledge, John pens a statement (in John 1:1c) that is considerably less flexible than “Jesus was God” for several reasons.
First, “Jesus was God” allows the reader room to ask “in what way” or “in what respect” was Jesus God? The reader knows John is referring to his Rabbi, the man, Jesus, who we know from the other Gospels and historical sources. So he’s forced to rationalize in his mind just how John saw Jesus as God.
“God was Jesus” gives us much less room for speculation. Here John seems to be emphasizing the incarnation – the “en-fleshing” of the one true God in the form of Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:14).
John surely understood, having lived with a man who ate and drank and slept and went to the bathroom and laughed and cried, that he was proclaiming something quantitatively different than the One true God. He understood that “God is spirit” (John 4:24), and he had been living these years with what clearly appeared to be a man.
So having all these thoughts in his mind, what would it take John to confess this most remarkable statement: “God was the Word” – the God of the Universe was Jesus?
Let’s do some speculation. Elsewhere John identifies Jesus as “the Son of God” (John 20:30-31). The Bible only uses the phrase “Son of God” in reference to the Messiah – the One to be sent by the God of the Hebrew Bible. So John, mindful of the Hebrew Bible’s prophecies, concludes, that yes, this person Jesus was the prophesied Christ.
John could have referred to Jesus as “the Son of Man” which Jesus does repeatedly in John’s book. But he doesn’t.
For John, Jesus was Messiah, and God: a man sent by God and God Himself.
What reality would fit John’s characterization? What would have to be true for this to be correct?
It seems the only set of conditions that fulfill all the requirements of John’s identification is that Jesus was a manifestation of the One true God. God sent Himself as Israel’s Messiah, wrapped as He was in human flesh.
If you have been taught to believe that Jesus was just a man that “received God’s Spirit” (John 1:32-34), or that He was a political rabble-rouser against Jewish Temple authorities, or that He was merely a Rabbi/teacher admonishing Israel to return to faithfulness to their God, then you don’t agree with John.
John doesn’t allow us that interpretation.