Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The Amazing Word of God (John 1:1-5, 14)

Audio (Sound quality is poor because we had to make the .mp3 from the tape)

New Years Day is celebrated as a day of new beginnings. The old year is gone. A new one has come, and with it come new opportunities. Resolutions are made, goals are set, plans begin to take shape. It is fitting on this day of new beginnings to set our eyes on a new study of Scripture. We begin today a study of the Gospel According to John. And the beginning of our study takes us to the beginning of the book; and the beginning of the book takes us to the beginning of it all. With the words, “In the beginning,” the Apostle John seeks to spark a recollection in the minds of his readers. These words were deliberately chosen by the Apostle to echo the very first words one reads in the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Both Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1 inform us that before the universe came into being, God existed from eternity past.

John was an old man when he set about writing this Gospel some fifty to sixty years after the death of Jesus. He had walked with Christ, witnessing His deeds and hearing His words every day for three years. In the half-century since His death, John had continued to serve his Lord faithfully, for thirty years or so in Jerusalem, and by this point for twenty to thirty years in Ephesus. The Gospel had spread throughout the known world through the missionary journeys of Paul and his companions, as well as the rest of the apostles. Paul and Peter had been dead for twenty to thirty years, and the other apostles had also met death, most if not all in martyrdom. Now, as the first century comes to an end, only John remains. Every other book of the New Testament, with the exception of this Gospel, the Revelation, and John’s letters, have been written and circulated to the churches across the Roman Empire. Persecution of the church was intensifying, sparked in some places by the Jews who did not acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, and in other places by the Romans who sought to forcibly eliminate all threats to the unity and power of the Empire. And now, in his advancing years, John sets out to write one more account of the person, the life, the ministry, the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. His purpose for writing is made clear in the end of his Gospel. In 20:30-31, John tells us that he did not write down everything that Jesus said and did, but that he carefully selected the information that he recorded, “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”

In and around Ephesus, there were many Jews and many Gentiles who had converted to Judaism, some of whom did not know who Jesus was, and some of whom did not believe that He was the Messiah, the Savior and Lord. Their thinking had been influenced by the Hebrew Scriptures that we refer to as the Old Testament, as well as by Greek philosophers and other sources. In his opening words, John speaks to them all as he says, “In the beginning was the Word.” The Greek word he uses here is Logos. There was probably no singular word that John could have employed here that would have carried so much relevance to so wide and diverse an audience.

Some 700 years or so before John began to write this Gospel, a philosopher in Ephesus named Heraclitus taught that all of life is in a constant state of change. The only reason that all of life and all the world was not in utter chaos at all times was an overarching power that controlled the universe. This power, considered to be the ultimate Reason beneath all that existed, was known as the Logos. The Jews of John’s day may have known something of Heraclitus and the other Greek philosophers whom he influenced, but the wellspring of their thinking was found elsewhere, in the Hebrew Scriptures. God was the only being who had existed for all eternity, and all that He had done in creation, in revelation, and in salvation had been accomplished by His powerful Word, the Logos. When Jews referred to the Logos, they meant something different from the Greeks, but there were overlaps and similarities. And when John said, “In the beginning was the Word”, the Logos, nearly every person alive at the end of the first century A.D. could say, “Amen.” As Kostenberger says, “It is a mark of John’s considerable theological genius that he is able to find a term … that is at the same time thoroughly biblical—that is, rooted in Old Testament teaching—and highly relevant for his present audience.”[1]  But it is not John’s intent merely to point out the commonality between Christianity, Judaism, and Greek philosophy. Though Jews and Greeks alike considered the Logos to be “the ruling fact of the universe,”[2] for John, the Logos “was not a principle, but a living Being and the source of life.”[3] The Word is not spoken of here as an “it,” but as a “He.” The Logos is a Person, and the Apostle John wants the world to know Him and to experience Him in a profoundly personal way. In the span of a few brief verses, we come to understand that the Logos is God’s Amazing Word.

I. God’s Amazing Word is Eternal (v1a)

A story is told about two ancient Greeks, Dimitri and Tasso, trying to solve the mysteries of the universe. Dimitri asks, “If Atlas holds up the world, what holds up Altas?” Tasso says, “Atlas stands on the back of a turtle.” Dimitri replies, “But what does the turtle stand on?” And Tasso says, “Another turtle.” Not satisfied, Dimitri asks again, “And what does that turtle stand on?” To which Tasso unflinchingly responds, “My dear Dimitri, it’s turtles all the way down!”[4] As silly as that sounds to us, it is not too far off from what atheistic naturalism would have us to believe. Acknowledging that everything that exists must have some cause, it is believed by many that there has always been one thing causing another for eternity. We are told that the universe came into being by way of a Big Bang, in which all the matter that presently exists came into being from an explosion of some singular particle or mass in the cosmos. But, you see, the theory cannot explain where that singularity came from. It does not answer the question of origins, it merely moves it backward in time. What we are left with is something called infinite regress, not altogether different from Dimitri’s ridiculous theory of turtles all the way down. That is the only explanation that atheists and naturalists can offer because they are unwilling to acknowledge the existence of an uncaused cause, or uncreated Creator. But John reminds us that there is another theory of origins, one that is found in the very first words of the Bible. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Before there was time, before ever there was any matter in the universe, or any universe to contain the matter, there was God. He has existed for eternity. And with Him in the beginning was His Word, His Logos. “In the beginning was the Word (the Logos), and the Word (the Logos) was with God.” There never was a time when God was not, nor was there a time in which His Word was not. The Word was in the beginning with God (1:2).

There is a distinction here between God and the Logos, His Word. They exist together, eternally, in a perfectly harmonious relationship. The phrase here portrays “the picture of two personal beings facing one another and engaging in intelligent discourse.”[5] Hendriksen renders the phrase, “the Word was face to face with God,” meaning “that the Word existed in the closest possible fellowship” with God.[6]  As Clowney says, the Word was “God’s eternal Fellow.”[7] But the question might be raised, “If God and His Logos, His Word, are two separate and completely distinct beings, how then could both be eternally existent without one being inferior to the other?” In other words, if only God is eternally existent, how then can this Word, this Logos, also be said to be eternally coexistent with Him? And that brings us to the second truth concerning God’s Amazing Word.

II. God’s Amazing Word is God Himself (v1b)

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.” This much we understand thus far. But now John says further, “And the Word was God.” The reason that the Word could coexist eternally with God is that the Word was God. They are distinct from one another, in that their relationship can be described as being with one another; but they are also inseparable from one another. They are one and the same Being. This presents us with a profound mystery, and as Calvin said, “profound mysteries demand sober thinking.”[8] Profound though the mystery may be, it is not beyond searching out, for the Holy Spirit had been preparing the footings for this understanding of God since the first recorded revelation was ever inscribed.

Among the Jews, there was one chief and fundamental conviction concerning the nature of God. They were staunch monotheists, believing foundationally in the existence of only God. In the great passage of Scripture found in Deuteronomy 6, known as the Shema and memorized by nearly every Jewish person since the days of Moses, the Lord had said, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” Throughout their history, the harshest judgments and divine chastenings they had endured came whenever they began to consort with idols. The lesson was learned well through their Scriptures and through their own personal experiences that God was one. In fact one of the driving forces behind the earliest Greek developments in philosophy was that the prevailing notions of many gods who competed and cooperated with one another to control the universe was folly. Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the likes of them, had set out to answer questions that pagan polytheism could not answer, and surprisingly many of them came closer to monotheism than they did to atheism in their quest. By John’s time, though the Roman Empire was filled with lingering notions of many deities in the Greek, Roman, and other ancient pantheons, these ideas were considered by many to be nothing more than superstition and folklore. There was a growing receptivity in the world to the idea that if there was a god at all, there must only be one supreme Deity.

But even in that great passage, the Shema, there were hints of something yet unfathomable. “Hear O Israel, the Lord (YHWH) is our God (Elohim).” That name Elohim was a plural word, yet even this God, whose name was plural, was clearly stated to be “One.” Even in the creation account in Genesis 1, the Hebrews had read, “In the beginning God (Elohim, plural) created (a singular verb) the heavens and the earth.” And as He began His creative work, His Spirit was hovering over the surface of the waters (Genesis 1:2). This God had spoken of Himself, and possibly even to Himself, saying, “Let Us make man in Our image” (Genesis 1:26). Psalm 45 referred to God seated upon His eternal throne, saying of Him that “God, Your God, has anointed You.” David said in Psalm 110, the most frequently quoted Old Testament passage in the New Testament, “The Lord said to my Lord, sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.” Jesus took up this very passage in a debate with the Pharisees, in which He asked them whose son the Christ would be. When they said “The son of David,” Jesus said, “Then how does David in the Spirit call Him ‘Lord,’ … If David then calls Him ‘Lord,’ how is He his son?” And the Bible says that “No one was able to answer Him a word, nor did anyone dare from that day on to ask Him another question” (Matthew 22:41-46).

You see, throughout the Old Testament, there were these divinely inspired statements, clearly declaring that God is One Being, yet also hinting at the fact that there was some plurality in God. He is One, and at the same time He is more than One. When Christ came into the world, these truths began to take fuller shape in the minds of His followers, and all the more as He began to teach about the Holy Spirit. John is acknowledging that here as He says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In the early days of the Christian church, it was this very verse that the Fathers turned to most often for defense as they began to attempt to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity – the One God who exists in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I suppose there are a million or more errors one can commit in trying to explain the Trinity, and only one way to be sure to stay right on the matter. We insist that God is One, and that He eternally exists in the three Persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This Word, who existed in the beginning with God, distinct from God, was also God. And God is One.

III. God’s Amazing Word Created All that Exists (v3-5)

How did the universe, and all that is in it, come into being? Genesis tells us, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and John tells us, “In the beginning was the Word,” and “All things came into being through Him.” You will recall from Genesis that when God created the heavens and the earth, He spoke the created things into being. For example, while the earth was formless and void and covered in darkness, God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. Over and over again, the creation account tells us that “God said,” and what He said came into being. The Psalmist reflected on this poetically in Psalm 33:6, saying, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of His mouth all their host.” Thus, John is saying nothing new here when He says that the eternal Word of God, the divine Logos, is the creator of all that is. He says it positively, then restates it negatively: “Apart from Him, nothing came into being that has come into being.” So, if you are taking notes, here’s a list of everything besides God and His Word that was not created by God and His Word: NOTHING! There is no list. There are no exceptions. The Word, the Logos, is eternal and He is God, and He created everything that has ever come into existence.

As we read the account of creation in Genesis, we find that the multitude of things that God created can be classified into two categories: things that are light and things that are life. Now, what were the raw materials that God used to create these things? Quite simply, there were no raw materials. God created ex nihilo, from nothing. Hebrews 11:3 says that “the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible.” So how did the Logos create light and life from nothing? It is because light and life are inherent in who He is. “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men.” Because He is life, He is able to impart life to that which has none. Because He is light, He is able to impart light into the darkness that exists apart from Him. This is true in creation, it is true in revelation, and it is true in redemption. Apart from God’s revelation of Himself and His truth, all is death and darkness. But by His eternal Word, He has revealed life and light to all mankind. And apart from Him, there is no spiritual, eternal life; only spiritual death and spiritual darkness. But God has acted by His Word to bring both spiritual and eternal light and life to humanity. He has shone into the darkness. He shone into the darkness of creation and there was light and life. He has spoken His divine Word into the void and brought the light and life of the knowledge of Himself. He has acted in history to bring the spiritually dead into life and those who grope in spiritual darkness into His marvelous light.

John says, “The light shines in the darkness,” but he says that “the darkness did not comprehend it.” You will observe in some translations of the English Bible a variation in the wording here, perhaps in the text or in a footnote, which indicates that this may read, “the darkness did not overpower it.” Both senses of the word are correct. Where the light of God and His Logos has shone, it has not been comprehended by men because we are darkened by our sin. Mankind sees the created order all around, but does not comprehend that God and His Word are the source of this light. Mankind has an insatiable longing for spiritual and eternal realities, but cannot identify on our own power the source nor the object of that longing. We possess both a realization of right and wrong, and the profound awareness that we are most often guilty of the wrong and incapable of the right. But we do not know what to do about it. There is light, but left our own devices, we cannot comprehend it. Even still, however, the light of God and His word are not overpowered by our darkness. Just as the blackness of the darkest room is shattered by the striking of a single match, so the darkness of this world filled with sin cannot extinguish the light of God, try as it may. A person in that room can see the light, though he or she may not know what is the source of that light. So it is that rejecting the belief that God created the universe and all that is in it does not make those things go away, and it does not disprove the truthfulness of it. Rejecting the truth of God’s revelation does not render it invalid. And refusing God’s offer of redemption does not open for humanity another way to Him. Though we may not comprehend the light that shines in the darkness, neither can we overpower that light that shines in the darkness. True light and true life are found only in God and in His eternally divine Word. God has made this light and life known throughout all of time in various ways and in varying degrees. The writer of Hebrews said that God “spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways” (Hebrews 1:1). But in these last days, He has spoken a final Word. And this brings us to the wondrous truth of God’s Amazing Word in verse 14.

IV. God’s Amazing Word Became Flesh (v14)

In the summer of 2005, Dr. George Braswell took several of us seminary students to visit and dialogue with a Reformed Jewish Rabbi at a synagogue in Raleigh. It was one of the most enlightening experiences of my academic career. We talked at length about many theological issues and many passages of Scripture. At one point, the Rabbi said, “Do you know that passage in Proverbs 8 where Wisdom is personified in human terms?” And of course, we were well familiar with that passage. There, Wisdom is said to call out to humanity, beckoning to be received and understood. Wisdom is said to have existed with God before anything else was ever created, and when it was all created, Wisdom was at work beside Him as a master workman. The Rabbi said, “What would you say if I told you that we believe that this Wisdom is nothing other than the Torah, the living Word of God?” I spoke up among my peers and said to the Rabbi, “What would you say if I told you that I agree with you, but that I also believe that this Wisdom, the Torah, the living Word of God, became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ?” The Rabbi, sadly, seemed to ignore my comment, and made no response. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not comprehend it.

This is exactly what John is saying here in verse 14. In the beginning was the Word, the Logos. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word created everything exists with no exceptions. This Word has within Himself both life and the light of men. And this Word, the eternal and divine Logos, “became flesh and dwelt among us.” John is referring to nothing other than the incarnation—God becoming flesh—that occurred when Jesus the Christ came into the world. A week ago we celebrated the miracle of His birth. But though Jesus was born into the world on a certain day to a virgin mother, He did not begin to exist on that day. The baby whose birth we celebrate at Christmas is the eternal and divine Logos, the living and amazing Word of God, who became flesh and dwelt among us. It is He who created the world and all that it contains. It is He who is life and light. It is He who shines in the darkness. Though the darkness did not comprehend Him, neither could the darkness overpower Him. Though the darkness of man in this sin-darkened world crucified Him, He overpowered the darkest of the dark and triumphed over the tomb in glorious resurrection.

He became flesh and dwelt among us. The word that John uses means literally that “He pitched His tent” among us. We might say that He tabernacled among us. The idea of it carries us back to the days of old in which the glory of God resided among His people in a tabernacle in the wilderness. During the days of the Exodus, a stranger might ask a Hebrew, “Where can I find God?” and the Hebrew would say, “He lives there, in that tent in the midst of us.” John is saying to the world, “If you want to know where to find God, you will find Him there, in that tent of flesh—in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ—who came to us and dwelt among us.” Moses cried out to God, saying “Show me your glory!” John says that when the Word became flesh, we beheld His glory, glory that no one other than the Father ever had. This was the Son who was of the same eternal and divine nature as the Father. He was fully man, born in the flesh. But He was fully God, glorious and filled with grace and truth.

Every human being, whether they admit it or not, desperately needs and longs to find life, and light, and glory, and grace, and truth. And all of those longing are satisfied in Jesus, and only in Him. He is the Amazing Word of God. He existed in the beginning with God and He is God. He created everything that is. He is life and light to all men. He is filled with glory, grace and truth. And He became one of us—He became flesh. In Him God dwells among His people. He is Immanuel, God with us. And all that the Apostle John has written about Him here and in the chapters and verses to follow has been written that you might believe that He is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life abundant and eternal in His name.

Today we stand on the threshold of a new year, a time of new beginnings. In Jesus, God has given the world a new beginning. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God … and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In Him, you have the opportunity for more than just a new year. He offers you a new life. The Apostle Paul said, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). My prayer is that you would begin this year believing that Jesus is God, He is the Christ, He is Lord, and He is the Savior of humanity, delivering us from the darkness of our sin by His sinless life, His sacrificial death, and His glorious resurrection; and that believing, you may have life in His name. And if you have that life in Him, I pray that the year ahead will find you growing, in the words of Peter, “in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18), walking with Him through each day that comes, serving Him faithfully and making Him known fervently. May this be the resolution of all His people for 2012.

[1] Andreas Kostenberger, John (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 5.
[2] William Temple, quoted in Morris, 123.
[3] Morris, 123.
[4] Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2007), 1.
[5] W. Robert Cook, The Theology of John (Chicago: Moody, 1979), 49.
[6] Hendriksen, 70.
[7] Edmund Clowney, cited in Carson, 117.
[8] John Calvin, John (Crossway Classic Commentaries; Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994), 15. 

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