THE GLORY OF THE WORD
John 1:1:—"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
The first verse of the Gospel of John contains one of the most weighty statements of the deity of our Lord in the New Testament. It is not the only weighty statement, much less the only distinct statement, of the deity of our Lord in the New Testament. Rather, the whole New Testament is a testimony to our Lord's deity; and we can read no part of it sympathetically without catching this note sounding through it.
Particularly we need to disabuse our minds of the banality by which the Synoptic Gospels used to be distinguished as the Gospels of the human Jesus, from the Gospel of John as the Gospel of the Divine Jesus. The Synoptic Gospels teach the deity of Jesus as truly and, indeed, as emphatically as the Gospel of John, though not in precisely the same manner. Whatever else William Wrede did or did not do with his book on the Gospel of Mark, he made it impossible forever afterwards to look upon Mark as a naive collection of all that His followers could recall of the human Jesus; and Johannes Weiss will not be gainsaid when he points out that the Jesus of "the oldest Gospel" has already advanced far toward the Jesus of the latest Gospel. He is to be criticized only for speaking of an "advance" in this connexion, and of that "advance" as not quite complete. Recent critics are fairly falling over one another in their rush to recognize that the conception of a Divine Messiah was not only Primitive-Christian, but Pre-Christian, and that belief in the deity of Jesus, was, therefore, already included in acceptance of Him as Messiah. We meot no new thing, then, when we read in the first verse of John's Gospel a crisp declaration that Jesus is God. But we do meet something new in the manner in which this declaration is made. It would not be quite exact to say that it is new that John begins his Gospel with a declaration of the deity of Jesus. Mark also begins his Gospel with a declaration of the deity of Jesus; if, at least, the reading is right which makes him use the term, "the Son of God," in his opening sentence—"The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." It can hardly be maintained that the "Son of God" is not to be understood here in its ontological sense. The difference between the Synoptics and John here is only a difference in what we may call their mode of approach to the common theme. It would not be misleadingly expressed if we said that in the Synoptics the divine nature of the man Jesus is exhibited, while in John the human life of the divine Word is portrayed. In this sense, John does take his start from the deity of our Lord as the Synoptics do not. The deity of our Lord is made by John his point of departure in his delineation of this divine life in the world, while the Synoptics take their start from the birth of Jesus, or the opening of his public ministry.
It is due to this difference that John's Gospel alone opens with a prologue, which takes us back at once into the depths of Eternal Reality, and tells us who and what that being actually was, whose life-history in the world is about to be depicted. There is probably no more pregnant piece of writing in the world than this prologue to John's Gospel. And there is no part of this pregnant prologue more pregnant than its first verse. There are just seventeen words in it; we can count only eight different words in it: but these few words are simply bursting with significance. In the first place, our Lord is designated here by a unique name, and that a name big with meaning. And then, under this unique name, three declarations are calmly made of Him—so calmly as almost to betray us into taking them as mere matters of course—each of which, separately considered, is of tremendous import, and the three together, in combination, of more tremendous import still. When we have read these three limpid sentences—"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God"—we have read things which even the angels, desiring to look into them, might well despair of plumbing.
When we say that the name given here to our Lord—the "Word"—is unique, we have, of course, the New Testament only in mind. And even so, to be absolutely exact, we must note that John repeats it a little lower down in this prologue, when he tells us of this Word, here declared to have been in the beginning, with God, and Himself God, that he became flesh; and indeed echoes it in the opening words of his first Epistle and in a splendid description of the conquering Christ in the Apocalypse. These instances, however, do not abate the fact that this designation belongs in a very special sense to these opening clauses of John's prologue. There is nothing to prepare us for it here: it just suddenly appears before us in these three great declarations in unrelieved startlingness. And perhaps the most striking thing about it is that John does not present it to us as a mysterious designation of Jesus, as a remarkable designation of Him, or, we must add, even as a new designation of Him. He employs it quite simply and without apparent consciousness that he is doing anything either startling or new.
That it is not a new designation of our Lord to either John or to his readers, is already apparent from the fact that no emphasis falls on it what
ever. It occurs three times, it is true, in these three short clauses. But the words are so arranged that the emphasis is always thrown elsewhere—on what is asserted of the Word, not on the designation itself—while the designation appears as a matter of course. And the employment of the same designation in the opening words of the contemporaneous First Epistle of John is a clear proof that it was not first applied to our Lord in this prologue. We must dismiss from our minds, therefore, the fancy that John invented the designation, "The Word," for our Lord. We must suppose it to have been a current designation of our Lord in the circles for which John was writing, and that it needed no explanation from him of its meaning.
Whence the term came, and precisely what it means when applied to Jesus, are, of course, another matter. We cannot talk of its being borrowed from Philo, or from the philosophy which Philo represents. There is nothing more certain than that John does not use it in the sense which it bears in Philo, or in the philosophy which lies behind Philo. It is not much more likely that it was borrowed directly from the native Jewish speculations, which, like the speculations of Philo and those whom he most closely followed, are governed by the need for something to mediate between the transcendent God and the world of space and time. But this general type of thinking was very widely diffused, and the modes of speech which it developed naturally penetrated, in more or less modified meanings, much more deeply into the life and language of the people than the conceptions these modes of speech were invented to express. All terms of this sort have their roots in some system of thought, but come to those who ultimately employ them with a varied history behind them, in the course of which they have lost much of the shades of suggestion with which they started, and have picked up others on the way. We have no safe guidance to their meaning on the lips of any given speaker, except his actual usage of them. And to judge by John's actual usage of the term, "the Word," applied as a designation to our Lord, it has travelled far indeed from its Neo-Stoic or Philonian beginnings—if those were its beginnings—before it reached his hands. What he means by it is obviously so different from what Philo or the Neo-Stoics meant by it, that, in most important respects, it is its precise contradiction. What is clearest about it is that he uses it as a designation of Jesus of the highest import, as attributing to Him properly divine functions, if not directly a properly divine nature. As a man's word is the expression of his being, so, when Jesus is spoken of as the Word by way of eminence, that is, as the Word of God, He is designated as the manifested God.
Speaking thus of Jesus by this great designation, John makes three assertions concerning Him. In the first of these he declares His eternal subsistence. In the second, His eternal intercommunion with God. In the third, His eternal identity with God. Let us look briefly at these three great assertions in turn.
The first of them runs in our English version thus: "In the beginning was the Word." This rendering, however, scarcely brings out its full sense. The words are so ordered in the original as to throw all the emphasis—and it is a strong emphasis—on the words, "in the beginning," and "was." The verb "was," in other words, is not a mere copula, but a strong assertion of existence. We might perhaps bring part of its meaning out by changing the order of the words and reading: "In the beginning the Word was." What is declared is that "in the beginning"—not "from the beginning" but "in the beginning,"—when first things began to be, the Word, not came into being, so that He might be the first of those things which came into being, but already was. Absolute eternity of being is asserted for the Word in as precise and as strong language as absolute eternity of being can be asserted. The Word antedates the beginning of things; He already was—the imperfect of continuous existence—when things began to be. Go back now to the first verse of Genesis, of which there is an obvious echo here, and read that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth—the Hebrew periphrasis for the universe. The Word already was before God thus began to speak things into existence. We cannot be surprised, then, to read in the next verse, with the emphasis of accumulated assertion, that "all things" without exception "were made by Him, and apart from Him there was not one thing made which has been made." The Word was not made; He always was. All that has been made was made by Him.
To this great assertion of express eternity of being, there is now added in the second clause another equally great assertion; or rather a greater assertion, for these three clauses are arranged in a climactic series. "In the beginning the Word already was—and the Word was with God." This new assertion is still under the government of the words, "in the beginning": it declares the eternal mode of existence of this eternally existent Word. And the mode of existence declared for Him places Him in an ineffable immediacy of relation to God. The phrase, "with God," is not the common expression for "with God," but a more pregnant one. It intimates not merely co-existence, or some sort of local relation, but an active relation of intercourse. The Word, existing from all eternity, exists from all eternity in intercommunion with God. His eternal existence was not a solitary one. A relation is as
serted; and a relation implies a duality. The relation which is asserted is a very intimate one; and it is a distinctly personal one. There can be intercourse only between persons. When it is said, then, that the Word "was"—it is still the eternal "was" of continuous existence—"in the beginning" in communion with God, the eternally distinct personality of the Word is not obscurely suggested. From all eternity the Word subsisted alongside of God in personal intercommunion with Him. He has been from all eternity God's Fellow.
The intimacy of the relation intimated is startlingly brought home to us by a later phrase of this prologue. Here we are told in language of almost unexampled pregnancy that the Word— called on this occasion by the tremendous name of "God Only-begotten"—is (the timeless present of eternal existence) ceaselessly, not merely in, but "into the bosom of God." This is the expression for the closest and most intimate relation conceivable for persons; and the language in which it is cast conveys the idea at once of a continuation of its unbroken continuity and of its ceaseless renewal. It is in this intimacy of communion that the Word is declared to have been eternally "with God."
But even this great assertion is not enough to declare of the Word. There is a supplement to even it; and a supplement which is so far a correction that it seems purposely added to prevent it from being supposed that enough has already been said. The Word is not merely even thus closely associated with God; He is God Himself. "And the Word was with God—and the Word was God." Eternally subsisting alongside of and in communion with God, the Word is yet not a separate Being over against God. In some deep sense distinct from God, He is at the same time in some high sense identical with God.
It is difficult to reproduce in English the strength of this assertion. The term "God" not only occupies the position of emphasis, but is placed in immediate juxtaposition with the words "with God" of the preceding clause, and, therefore, in sharp contrast with them. The term "God" thus comes out with a tremendous corrective force. "The Word was with God, do I say—nay God is what the Word was!" The rapidity of the movement of thought and the stress thrown thus on this new assertion are extreme. The meaning is that John was not willing to have the one statement made without its complement being at once added to it. He wishes us to understand that it is too little to say of the Word even that He is God's co-eternal Fellow. We must say of Him that He is the eternal God's very self.
The term God in this great assertion is without the article. This does not weaken the affirmation. It is primarily merely a grammatical fact. The predicate regularly lacks the article; quasiproper names, like "God," require it only when an individualizing emphasis is necessary. The bearing of the absence of the article here on the force of the assertion is that thus there is thrown into relief the quality of Godhood in the God with whom the Word is identified. Whatever makes God the Being which we call God, that John affirms the Word to have eternally been. Thus the Word is with the utmost energy and explication asserted to be all that God is; and yet the correction of the assertion that the Word "was with God" as incomplete, is not pushed into a contradiction of it as untrue. The Word, though identical with God, is not in such a manner identical with God, that he may not also be declared to be "with God"—in communion with God. There remains a duality of Persons standing in the express relation of intercommunion, while there is established an identity of Being. What is asserted is that He who has been eternally with God has been at the same time in an ineffable fashion eternally God's self.
Certainly these are three tremendous assertions which John makes here of that Word, who, having become flesh, we know as Jesus Christ—eternal subsistence, eternal intercommunion with God, eternal identity with God. The conception in which they can combine is certainly not an easy or a simple one. It is what we know as the doctrine of the Trinity. In telling us who and what Jesus Christ really is, John thus introduces us to the doctrine of the Trinity. If we were told nothing about the Trinity except what we are told in this single verse, it would yet lie before us in its whole principle. There is no other key which will unlock the mystery of the eternal Being of the Word as here described to us. We are but expressing John's meaning, then—in other words, but nevertheless nothing but his meaning— when we declare that Jesus Christ is the Second Person of the Adorable Trinity. This is, in brief, what John teaches us in the first verse of his Gospel.