George A.F. Knight is an Old Testament scholar from new Zealand. This article is adapted from Christ the Center (to be published next year–1999–by Eerdmans), in which he explores the meaning of the incarnation as developed in the Old Testament.
This article appeared in The Christian Century, December 16, 1998, pp. 1212-1214. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Christ, the Light that enlightens everyone, is the creative saving love of God for all people. The Divine became a member of our sinful human family of frail, short-lived creatures of a day.
When it seeks to tell us who Jesus is, John's Gospel begins at the same place as Genesis 1:1. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God [in his "heart"], and the Word was God." (Note that the Word is no "thing," but is "He," on the ground that God is the "living" God of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament.) "He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him. ... What has come into being in him was life [the life of the living God], and the life was the light of all people. " That is why John can write later of Christ: "I am the light of the world," that light that is the creative saving love of God for all peoples.
Straightaway, however, we are up against a problem of meaning. For example, in nonscriptural literature the concept of light could cover a vast spectrum of meaning. The Dead Sea Scrolls, for one, in describing the Qumran community, refers to us as "sons of light," and everyone else as "sons of darkness." In the eyes of Jesus, however, this view of light was not "of God": "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' " This was probably a dictum of the community, for it does not occur in the Old Testament in so many words. Jesus continued, "But I say to you, love your enemies..." (Matt. 5:43). Jesus very likely on occasion met members of the Qumran community, for some members paid occasional visits to the Temple, and he might have warned them that their understanding of light was not in conformity with that of Genesis.
Genesis has come down to us in the Hebrew language. John's Gospel is written in Greek, a language which has no affiliation whatsoever with Hebrew. It has been a well-known fact to people trained in languages that there are occasions in which it is virtually impossible to transfer the meanings of some words expressed in one language accurately to another language, such as from ancient Hebrew into ancient Greek--and so into modern English.
John's employment of the term "Word" can find no equivalent if it is to be translated from Hebrew to Greek. The Greek noun logos which John uses was a very general term among the intellectuals of the Hellenistic world of his day. In the ordinary language of educated people logos might mean speech, narrative, pronouncement, report, teaching, call, sense. "The Greek root log-leg represents a comprehensive and overarching unity of meaning--gather, collect, select, report, speak" (H. Ritt, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament). Among philosophers, beginning with Heraclites of Ephesus (550-480 B.C.E.), right through Hegel and Nietzsche in our era, logos has meant "the essential abiding law of the world, thought and custom."
Some might suppose that John is using Platonic and Stoic concepts of the logos in an attempt to link universal and moral and religious experience with the incarnation. No. There was no need to denigrate the true light, the Logos that enlightens everyone which "was coming into the world" (John 1:9). Christ is all in all in himself:
Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness (Phil. 2:6-7).
Here Christ as God is described in very personal terms. Likewise, what Logos means for John includes being a person, truly human, for true personhood is at the center of Reality, or Truth; for the Truth is that God is the supreme Person.
Today we have inserted this root log into the names of many scientific categories of study; we find it in zoology, pathology, physiology, geology and so on. The concept of logos is accepted today as having affinity primarily with the world of the sciences, all of which, it is believed, give us a handle on ultimate reality and the meaning of human existence. In this perspective, however, logos is an impersonal concept.
John begins his description of the Logos by setting it in comparison with what we read in the first verses of Genesis. He has the Septuagint before him as well as the Hebrew text; it offers him a ready-made translation into Greek. "Let light become, and light became, egeneto." So he employs the same Greek verb when he comes to "The Word became, egeneto, flesh." But in quoting Genesis he wishes to anchor his exegesis in the Hebraic approach to the divine. He does not deny, nor seek to refute, the many possible interpretations which the Hellenistic intelligentsia of his day might read into his particular employment of the word Logos ; it may be that he even believed Christ was also all these philosophical ideas and more at once. What he is doing above all is affirming that there is but one ultimate content to the term "Word," and that content is divine being, one with God himself.
John now expresses what he believes is important for his readers to learn as he leads us to take our eyes off "heaven" and bring them down to "earth." He prepares us for this move by informing us of "a man sent from God," John the Baptist. He was not that heavenly light mentioned in verse 4, "but he came to testify to the light." It certainly needed such an attestation, for what comes next is so ludicrous, so absurd, so incongruous and contrary to natural beliefs about God that it is not surprising to learn that only some "believed in his 'Name'" (a very anthropomorphic and non-Platonic idea!). And then comes the equally astonishing statement that "he gave [them] power to become children of God."
This "prologue" to the Gospel culminates in a statement which both the world of his day and the world ever since have rejected as destructive of all religious thought about and awareness of the mystery of the divine. It is stated in just one short phrase. It seems to shatter all belief in the concept of a Creator Spirit before whom humankind can but bow in awe and fear. It runs: "The Word became flesh."
Does this mean that the divine became a human being, the nephesh of a Semitic male, a member of our sinful human family of frail, short-lived creatures of a day? Does it mean that the Word of God, God's speech, his dabar , uttered from the heart of his very self, became effective, active, lovingly active, creatively and purposefully vital in the sphere of human life on earth and, in the structure of a mere human nephesh , actually lived in a remote province of the mighty Roman Empire called Galilee? ("Can any good come out of Galilee?" people jibed in those days.) John affirms just that.
He goes further:
From his fullness [remember, the Word is of God and bears, not part of God, not just his breath, which conveys the spoken word, but all of God, all of his wholeness, his pleroma ] we have all received grace upon grace . . No one has ever seen God. It is God's only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.
This is what incarnation means. This is the fulfillment of covenant, this is the meaning of grace.
We have just read that the Logos was the conveyor of the grace of God, and that it was grace that opened the eyes of some to see God's glory; and glory is the anthropomorphic term for God's "outer clothing," as it were. But now, when the Word became flesh (v. 14), this glory was being worn by a human being. When Jesus was "glorified" in the transfiguration scene, he was glorified in his humanity--it was not simply that the disciples became aware of his divinity.
At this point in his exegesis of Logos John refers back to this version of God's glory in the body of Israel, his "son." He writes: "The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son." The Greek word means literally that the Word "tabernacled" among us, that he pitched his tent on our site. And this in turn reminds us of what God did during the Exodus when he "camped" among his people in the cloud over the tabernacle.
John wishes to emphasize that the Word of God had "descended" from the realm of the Spirit and had become no longer a mental image, no longer a philosophical idea, but a human being in history. He referred back to what God, so long before, in the days of Egypt, had ordered Moses to say to Pharoah, "Thus says the LORD, Israel is my first-born son" (Exod. 4:22).
Here we find no discussion on metaphysical lines on the relationship between the divine and the human. Rather, John can declare quite daringly "the glory of a father's only son." And similarly in concrete terms he describes Jesus as being "full of grace and truth." The human son, whom we know as Jesus, through the descent of the Word to our human level, is full of grace, even as God himself is, so that he is also the Truth itself, even as God is. Then, in verse 18, to cap it all, he reiterates the whole Old Testament witness in these words: "No one has ever seen God. It is God's only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known." Or, as the postresurrection language of John 14:7 declares: "If you know me, you will know my Father also."
Today's world finds it difficult to accept the story of creation as it is in Genesis, because it seems to be just another of the many myths that seek to provide a satisfactory explanation of the origin of all things. But those faithful persons who have left us with the Genesis stories traveled on a completely different road.
There is a sense in which the Book of Exodus comes before the Book of Genesis. Exodus tells us how God had brought a rabble of slaves into being as an ordered society of God-conscious human beings. He had spoken the Word to Moses, "Go," as he had done to Abraham, "Go" (Gen. 12:1). In the power of that word Moses went, because God had added, "I will be with you" (Exod. 3:12). "I will be" is the same one word by which God next informs Moses who he is, viz. I AM (v. 14). The power of Egypt is more than a mere mythical monster, it is a stark and dark reality; as such it is representative of the terrors of the chaotic waters of the primal deep. God becomes known to Moses as Yahweh , the third personal form of the one word of divine revelation, ehyeh , I AM.
So God had actually, historically speaking, created Israel, as he had created heaven and earth, out of chaos, now perhaps moral chaos, and he had done so by being with his chosen people as their Savior from the powers of darkness, by his mysterious yet all-loving creative Presence in their experience of life. So God promised to be with Moses and send him to overcome the dark powers of oppression and moral chaos ("bricks without straw"). Yahweh brings his people freedom and order out of their chaos. That understanding of actual deliverance in history became the model for understanding creation.
The appropriate word to be used in connection with "the road traveled" by the authors of both Genesis and Exodus is "grace," for grace represents the love of God incarnate in his saving initiative. John now interpolates this word at this point (1:14) to exegete this new genesis and exodus in the coming of Christ. And by the same grace, sinful men and women could learn to call this Jesus the Son of God, a step beyond what they knew of sonship from the Old Testament--when Israel had been named Son of God (Exod. 4:22) or when Israel's later kings, each in turn representing the nation of Israel in the line of David, had also been called "Son of God" (Ps. 2:7).