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The Word

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  (John 1:1, NIV)

Isn’t the start of John’s Gospel surprising?

This passage is read every year at carol services, and many sermons are preached on it.  But preachers find themselves having to explain that when John says “the Word” he means Jesus (which he does).  Isn’t there a little part of us that wishes John had just called Him Jesus right from the start?  In the beginning was Jesus, and Jesus was with God, and Jesus was God.  Why doesn’t John call a spade a spade?  Why the Word?

Commentaries on the gospel make suggestions.  Sometimes in the ancient world the Greek word logos (the word translated word here) was used to refer to reason, or the rational principles by which everything works.  That sounds rather too impersonal to refer to a real human like Jesus.  A first-century Jew called Philo used logos to refer to the ideal man, from whom all actual humans derive.  Maybe – but this idea owes more to Plato than the Bible.

Surely the safest place to look for John’s meaning is to see how he himself uses the word logos in the rest of his gospel.  It comes forty times, though only once more specifically applied to Jesus (1:14).  When it’s used in the singular, the idea of a message best captures it.  And that, in the context of the gospel, makes total sense.

As John goes on to tell us, No-one has ever seen God.  But God the one and only [son], who is at the father’s side, has made him known. (1:18)  How has this happened?  The Word was with God in the very beginning, and was God – and has now come down to earth: The Word was made flesh and made his dwelling among us. (1:14)  The incarnation – and all that went with it – are God’s supreme self-disclosure.

This also fits with the Old Testament background, where a great distinctive of the God of the Bible is that he speaks.  The phrase the Word of the Lord comes 245 times.  And now He has made himself known, fully and finally, in Jesus.

So when we read the word “Word” at the start of John, the point the evangelist wants to make to us is that God has spoken.  John chooses the Word to make that point as clearly as he can.

I looked up “Incarnation” in the index of The Oxford Very Short Guide to Agnosticism.  It isn’t mentioned.  Jesus is mentioned – in passing – twice in 134 pages.  Agnosticism would be a much easier position to hold if God hadn’t made himself known by becoming one of us, with so much evidence to show us that this is what he has done.

But God is not silent.  He has spoken – by the Word.  Time to listen.

Happy Christmas!
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