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The Prologue to John's Gospel (Jn 1:1-18) - Jesus the Logos

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Unlike Matthew or Luke, John does not describe the birth of Jesus. Instead, in his prologue, he gives a theological introduction, answering the question, “Who is Jesus?” The same question is continues to be asked throughout the book.

In the genealogies of Jesus, Matthew traces the ancestry of Jesus back to Abraham, and Luke continues back to Adam. John traces his ancestry back to the time even before the creation of the world, when Jesus was with God, as the co-creator of the universe.

The prologue forms a summary of the remainder of the gospel. There are many familiar words and expressions found in the prologue which continue through the rest of the gospel. These include life (v4), light and darkness (v5), witness and testimony (v7), believe (v7,12), coming into the world (v9), rejection by his people (v11), glory (v14), grace and truth (v14), Moses and the law (v17), the Son (v18), revelation of the Father (v18).

By contrast, the description of Jesus as the Word is only found in the prologue, and is only used to describe Jesus before he came into the world, showing that Jesus was pre-existent with the Father. Once Jesus is born into the world, John changes from the Word to the Son.

The Logos in John's Gospel

The Greek word “Logos”, translated “Word” in English, is one of the characteristic words of John's writings. There is no exact equivalent to Logos in English. It has a deeper meaning than word, being the expression of God’s mind, a communication from God, and being a personal entity which was with God.

The idea of Logos was developed both in Greek and Hebrew thinking. However, it is difficult to determine how much John was influenced by these ideas.

Old Testament background

The word as the powerful creative and sustaining agency of God, with the possibility of it being personified. The word is the active work of God. There are no abstract qualities without action. The Word of God is God in action, in creation, revelation and deliverance.

1. The creative power of the word of God.

The word was God’s method of creation. “God said, Let there be ...” (Gen 1). “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made” (Ps 33:6), “He spoke and it came to be” (Ps 33:9). The same truth is stated by the author of Hebrews, “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible” (Heb 11:3)

2. The word as a revelation from God.

The word of God (Heb: Dabar Yahweh) showed God in action, in revelation, or in deliverance, or judgement. The characteristic statement of the prophets was, “Thus says the Lord”. Jeremiah frequently said, “The word of the LORD came to me” (eg. Jer 18:5). A well known statement in the Psalms, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps 119:105 ), and in Isaiah, “my word be that goes out from my mouth, it shall not return to me empty” (Is 55:11)

3. The word as wisdom from God.

In wisdom literature, wisdom is a gift from God, as given to Solomon, a gift of his grace. In Proverbs, the young man is urged to seek wisdom to ensure a successful life. Also in Proverbes, wisdom is personified, being present at the creation of the world (8:27), described as being the agent through which God created the world (8:26,29-30). However, wisdom itself was created (v22), not eternal.

In the apocryphal writings, wisdom described in personal terms, who pervades and penetrates all things, but without being identified as a person. Wisdom is a breath of the power of God, similar to the description of the word and Spirit at creation. Wisdom as a reflection of the eternal light. “For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things. For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance to her. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness” (Wisdom of Solomon 7:24-26). In Ecclesiasticus, wisdom personified as coming from the mouth of the Most High, covering the earth like a mist. “Wisdom praises herself, and tells of her glory in the midst of her people. In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth, and in the presence of his hosts she tells of her glory: ...” ( Ecclus 24:1ff)

Rabbinic thinking about the nature of the Torah (law)

There are several parallels between the law and the Logos in John’s prologue. The Jewish rabbis believed that the Torah was an intermediary between God and the world. They believed that the law had been created before the foundation of the world, so was pre-existent. They referred to the Torah as God’s daughter, the firstborn which created heaven and earth and its words being life for the world. In the Rabbinic Targums, the Aramaic term “Memra”, meaning Word sometimes replaced the divine name Yahweh, because of the Jewish reluctance to speak the name of God. But in his prologue, John shows the superiority of Jesus to the law. The law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus (v17).

In Greek thinking

Long before John's gospel was written, the Logos was used in a philosophical sense by the Greek philosophers. Until recently Greek thinking was thought to be the greatest influence on John’s gospel.

Heraclitus of Ephesus (c500 BC) was the first Greek writer to describe a logos principle. He was attempting to describe some abiding or static principle in a world continually subject to change. The logos became his philosophical explanation of the divine being, the unchanging law or reason in an ever changing world. Anaxagoras described the logos as more of a mediator between men and a transcendent distant unknowable God, which was the principle which regulated the cosmos.

The Stoic philosophers, led by Zeno, around 300 BC thought that the basis of the universe was a creative fire, or logos. This was the source of all things, which pervaded everything, or otherwise was the force responsible for the creative cycles in nature. This led towards pantheism, with the logos being the soul of the world, the spirit behind the universe.

Philo, the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher, combined Jewish and Greek thinking in his writings, attempting to find a Jewish source for Greek philosophy. He also developed a logos doctrine. He said that the Logos has no distinct personality, but was the mind of God, the rudder to guide all things in their course. The Logos was God's first born son, and is therefore eternal. It was God's ambassador, man's advocate and high priest, a mediator between God and his creation. He did not link the Logos with light and life, as in John’s writing. There was no possible suggestion that the logos could become incarnate. This was alien to Greek thought, which considered physical matter as being evil. The Logos had the function of mediator between a remote God and the physical world, but was never personalised.

Why did John call Jesus the Logos?

It is significant to note that Jesus is only referred to as the Logos in the prologue, after which this title is dropped. John uses the Logos to describe Jesus before he came into the world, so that Jews would understand that Jesus was pre-existent with the Father. Once Jesus is born into the world and begins his ministry, John changes his vocabulary from Logos to Son. Jesus is the living incarnation of God’s speech, giving visible expression in the world to the invisible power and presence of God.

John introduced Jesus as the true Logos in order to prepare people for his presentation of Jesus as the Son of God. The Logos introduces a presentation of Jesus as a person who is both God and man.

He gives no explanation of the Logos at the beginning of the prologue, only making the Logos personal, assuming that the readers will identify his idea. Greeks would think he is describing the rational principle of the universe, but would be amazed at the logos being personalised and incarnate. Jews would not be so surprised, being prepared for the personalised pre-existent Wisdom, but would be surprised at his incarnation in flesh.

Characteristics of Jesus as the Logos

1) His relationship with the Father

Before creation, the Logos was with God (v1-2), but was distinct from God. There was eternal fellowship between the Logos and God, he was literally "face to face with God". The Logos was there in the beginning, being pre-existent, which points to the deity of the Logos. The Logos is eternally with God, having the very nature of God, but was to be distinguished from God.

2) His relationship with the created world

All things were made through him (v3), (as Col 1:15), just as the word of God spoke all created beings into being in Genesis. There is no distinction between the creative power of God and of Logos, but the Logos is clearly to be distinguished from creation itself. There is no hint of panthesism.

3) His relationship with men

The word became flesh (v14), a thought which was totally alien to Greek thinking. The theoretical abstract idea had become a real person, with the same nature as men. John brings together Jesus the word, with his message the word, linking the messenger with the message. The eternal divine word was incarnated as a man. Jesus was the real man, set in history, and was also divine. The paradox was to combine true humanity with the divine nature. John drew upon contemporary thought, but denied the prevailing conviction of dualism by saying that the Logos became flesh (v14).

John also calls Jesus the Logos (word) of life at the beginning of 1 John, in very similar language to the gospel prologue. “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (1 Jn 1:1)

In the Book of Revelation, when Jesus the conqueror appears on the white horse, he is called The Word of God. “Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God.” (Rev 19:13).

The text of the Prologue

The Pre-existent Word (v1-5)

There is a deliberate parallel in the way John introduces his gospel with the beginning of Genesis. (v1). The OT begins, “In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). The first word of the book, “In the beginning” was the Jewish title for the Book of Genesis. John begins, “In the beginning was the Word” (v1). The Greek Septuagint and John’s gospel begin with exactly the same Greek words, “en arche”, meaning in the beginning. This connects the Gospel with the beginning of creation, linking and comparing Jesus the new creation with the original creation.

In the beginning of the universe, the Word was already there, existing with God, before anything was made. Similar statements are made elsewhere in John's writings, “The word of life which was from the beginning” (1 John 1:1). Jesus had the glory of God in the presence of God before the world existed (17:5) and was loved by God before the foundation of the world (17:24).

“The word was with God, and the word was God” (v1). At first sight, this statement seems to contradict itself. It is a paradox. It declares that the Word shares the very nature of God, but yet the Word is to be distinguished from God. The Logos is distinct, but should be identified as God. There is individuality, separateness and distinctness, as well as identity and oneness between God and the Word. This is part of the mystery of the Trinity. This tension between unity and distinction runs through the rest of John's gospel, particularly seen when Jesus accepts the declaration of Thomas as, "My Lord and God" (20:28).

Rejecting the Trinity, the Jehovah’s Witnesses translate this in their New World translation “the Word was a God”, adding the indefinite article. According to the vast majority of Greek scholars, this violates Greek grammar. Apparently the New World translation does not even follow this pattern of translation in other passages having the same grammatical structure.

The Logos was the agent of creation (v2-3). The Word was pre-existent with God before creation, and the Word was also the agent of all creation, the co-creator with God the Father. Nothing that exists came into being apart from him. John states this both ways, the Word made everything, and nothing was made without him.

Similar statements are made elsewhere in the NT. Jesus as the co-creator of the universe is also declared by Paul, “in him all things in heaven and on earth were created” (Col 1:16) and in Hebrews, “a Son, ... through whom he also created the worlds” (Heb 1:2). In letter to Laodicea in the Book of Revelation, Jesus is described as the origin or beginning of God's creation (Rev 3:14)

“In him was life” (v4). This can refer either to the life of creation, or the eternal life which Jesus brought, and is available by faith. One of the characteristics of John's writing is that some words and phrases are deliberately open to two meanings, a physical meaning and a spiritual meaning. The people listening to Jesus often took them physically, when Jesus meant them spiritually. Other examples are when Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again (3:3), which Nicodemus understood physically. Jesus offered living water to the woman at the well, which she understood to mean physical water (4:13-15).

The word “light” is also used this way in the prologue. “The life was the light of all people (men)” (v4). Physically, the Logos, as God's agent of creation, created light which shone in the physical darkness (Gen 1:4), and spiritually, the Logos is the light of the world that shines in the spiritual darkness of the world. In other places, light also has this double meaning. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world” (9:5), just before healing the man born blind. Jesus was able to restore sight to the physically blind, as well as giving sight to the spiritually blind. By being the revelation of God, men and women could see God.

An aside about the ministry of John the Baptist as witness to the Word (v6-8)

For 400 years before him, there had been no prophet, no word from God. After the written prophets, the Jews believed that the Spirit had been quenched, and would remain so, until the coming of the Messiah. The preaching of John marked the end of this silent period, so many people believed that John was the Messiah (Jn 1:20)

Some of the twelve disciples were followers of John before they followed Jesus, probably including John (1:35). A group called the Mandeans followed John the Baptist as the central figure and the light of the world. In he visited Ephesus, Paul encountered a group who only knew the baptism of John (Acts 19:1-7). Perhaps John is making this point clear to these people that John the Baptist came as a witness to the light, but was not the light himself (v8). John the Baptist describes himself as merely a voice (v23), therefore not the Messiah.

John came to testify to the light (v8). The most significant aspect of John's ministry was to witness or testify to Jesus (1:26-27). He calls people to faith in Jesus, not in himself. John was not the light, but he came to testify to the light (v8). There is a strong theme in John's Gospel, showing that John the Baptist was less important than Jesus. John said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (3:30), and it is noted that Jesus performed many signs, but John performed no signs (10:41). There are quite a number of references to John the Baptist in the gospel (1:6-9,15,19-37, 3:22-30, 4:1-2, 5:31-36, 10:40-42).

John the Baptist is contrasted with the true light which was coming into the world (v9). This is another characteristic phrase in John (3:19, 6:14, 11:27 ...) to describe the incarnation, when Jesus came into the world.

The Word in the world (v10-14)

This paragraph describes the incarnation of the pre-existent word and the response to him. When the Word came into the world, there was a separation between the people who accepted him, and those who rejected him (v10). John uses the word “world”" in two ways: Jesus made the physical world, his mission was to the world (3:16), but the world rejected him. So the world describes the physical world as well as the alien unbelieving culture that was opposed to Jesus and his disciples.

He was not only rejected by the world, but also by his own people (v11). John uses the term “the Jews” as a mostly negative phrase to describe the Jewish leaders who rejected him as their Messiah.

Those who received him by faith, by believing in him, could become children of God (v12). Note that it is not correct to describe all humanity as God’s children. All of mankind are God’s creation, made in his image, but are not necessarily part of his family. Only those who receive Jesus, the Word, by faith, become his children. This is the main message of John’s Gospel summarised at the end, “these are written so that you come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).

We become children of God by bring born of God (v13). John carefully distinguishes this from natural birth, of blood or the will of the flesh. This concept is expanded in chapter 3, being born again of the Spirit (3:5), where Nicodemus misunderstood it as a second physical birth. This would challenge the Jews who believed that they were children of God because they were the physical children of Abraham. He expands on this in chapter 8, where he describes the Jews as sons of their father, the Devil (8:33)

The essence of the incarnation is that “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (v14). This needs to be seen in the historical context of those who denied that Jesus came in the flesh, which is also addressed in 1 & 2 John, “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.” (1 Jn 4:2-3), and “Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh - any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist!” (2 Jn 7).

This view is known as Docetism (from the Greek Dokeo meaning to seem or to appear). Because they believed in a dualism between the pure spirit, and the evil physical world, they could not believe that the Messiah took a physical form, but only seemed to be a real human, rather like a ghost. He would not leave a shadow on the ground, and you could pass your hand through him. Others believed that Jesus was born as a normal human being, and only became the Christ when the Spirit came upon him at his baptism.

John declares that the pre-existent Word took human form, and became fully human. John makes it very clear throughout his book that the Logos was fully God, and fully human.

The words “lived among us” (v14) are based on the word for the tabernacle, so would mean that he pitched his tent among us. It shows the temporary nature of the incarnation, what he lived “for a little while” among humans. The book of Hebrews says that “for a little while”" he became lower than the angels (Heb 2:9). This also alludes to the tent or tabernacle where God dwelt in his glory in the wilderness (Ex 25). It has always been God's desire to dwell in the midst of his people. God’s glory was in the tabernacle in the midst of the tribes of Israel in the wilderness (Ex 40). At the consummation, God will dwell with his people, "See, the home (tabernacle) of God is among men" (Rev 21:3)

He is described as the Father’s only son (v14,18). The word is “monogenes”, and is sometimes translated 'only begotten Son'. This does not mean that Jesus was a created being, but instead it declares the uniqueness of the Son. He is the one and only Son of God. In the NT there are a number of times an only son or daughter is mentioned. It was the widow of Nain’s only son who had died (Lk 7:12), Jairus’ only daughter who was dying (Lk 8:42), the man's only child who was demon possessed (Lk 9:38), and Abraham was called to sacrifice his only son (Heb 11:17). In each of these it was the one and only child’s life that was threatened or who had died. This adds a poignant sadness to the story, as well as great joy when the child's life was restored. It gives emphasis to the fact that the child was the only one, so if it died, there would be an unimaginable loss to the parents.

In John's gospel, Jesus is described as the only (monogenes) Son a number of times. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son ..." (3:16) and, "those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God" (3:18). In each case, the emphasis is that God had only one Son. Jesus was unique in his relationship with the Father, and the Father gave up his one and only Son to save us.

The superiority of the Son (v15-18)

In the final paragraph of the prologue, John declares that the Son is superior to John the Baptist and to the law and Moses, and is the ultimate revelation from the Father.

He begins with the testimony of John the Baptist (v15). As in 1:6-8, John declares the superiority of the Son over himself. Here he declares the Jesus is superior, because he came before him. John’s ministry began shortly before Jesus’s ministry, and John was born about six months before Jesus. However, John was born as an ordinary human being, but Jesus was the pre-existent Word who existed before he was born.

For the first time in the prologue, John declares who the Word is - Jesus Christ (v17). Jesus is greater than John, but he is also greater than Moses, through whom God gave the OT law. The fullness of grace and truth came through Jesus, so Jesus is the full revelation of God.

“No one has ever seen God” (v18). In the OT no one could see God and live (Ex 33:20). Even Moses was only allowed to see God's back, for a brief moment (Ex 33:23)

“God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart” (v18). One characteristic of John’s Gospel is the insight we are given into the intimate relation between the Father and the Son. Jesus claimed a unique and complete knowledge of the Father (6:46). There was a mutual love between the Father and the Son before the creation of the world (17:24). Jesus carried out the works of the Father on the earth (5:19-20). They had the same purpose (6:38-39), work (8:29), honour (5:23), witness 8:16- 18), ownership (17:10) and teaching (7:16-17). There was a unity of essence between them, so that to see the son was to see the Father, and to know the Son was to know the Father (12:44-45, 14:7,13,20). Here, the Son had access to the innermost being of the Father (v18) - he was close to the Father’s heart.

This phrase also has a connection with John himself, who describes himself as the disciple who Jesus loved (13:23). At the last supper, John was reclining next to Jesus. He was literally close to the heart of Jesus. As they reclined at table, his head would be almost lying against the chest of Jesus. John was close to the heart of Jesus, as Jesus was close to the Father’s heart.

For more about the seating arrangement of the last supper and its significance, see the reclining at table page.

So, this Word was with God, and was God, who created the universe. He came into the world as a human being, greater than John the Baptist, or Moses. He was the very fullness of grace and truth. He was God the Son, the only Son, who made God known to us. And we can have life if we believe in him. This is the message of John's Gospel.