Chapter 3: John

Many Witnesses, One Lord
by William Barclay

Chapter 3: John

The Gospel of the Word

To very many people the Fourth Gospel is the high-water mark of the NT. "Chiefest of the Gospels," Luther called it, "unique, tender and true." Very early in the history of the Church the four living creatures of the Revelation (4:7) were used as the symbols of the Gospels. The allocation of them varies, but according to Augustine the man stands for Mark, who gives us the most human picture of Jesus; the lion stands for Matthew, who shows us Jesus as the Messiah, the lion of Judah; the ox stands for Luke, for the ox is the animal of sacrifice, and Luke shows us Jesus as the sacrifice and the Saviour for the sins of the world; and the eagle stands for John, "because John took a higher flight, and soared in his preaching much more sublimely than the other three" (Homilies on John, 36). It is said that only the eagle of all living creatures can look straight into the sun; so John looks more directly into the blaze of divine truth than any other of the Gospel writers. Certain things have to be noted about John.

1. John did not write until almost An 100. His Gospel is, therefore, the product of long thought and of long living with Jesus and of long experience of the Spirit. W. M. Macgregor has a sermon entitled What Jesus becomes to a man who has known him long, and that is an excellent descrip- tion of John's Gospel. John was more concerned with the meaning of the facts of Jesus' life than with the facts themselves. It is in John that we get the highest teaching of the Spirit. "I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth" (John 16. 12, 13). For John that promise had come true; he saw things that only years in the Spirit could teach; and his Gospel may well be called the Gospel of the Sprit.

2. All tradition has it that John did not write alone. The account of the writing of the Fourth Gospel in the Muratorian Canon, the earliest list of the books of the NT, cannot be factually correct, but it is certainly true in principle: "When his fellow-disciples and bishops urged John (to write)", he said: "Fast together with me for three days, and let us tell to each other what shall be revealed to each one of us." On the same night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles, that, with all of them reviewing it, John should describe all things in his own name. "The picture is that of a group sitting in the Spirit and remembering and saying to each other: "You remember what Jesus said. . . and now we know that this is what he meant." In John we have the product of what happens when two or three are gathered together in the name of Jesus (Matthew 18.20).

3. John was confronted with a different problem from that of the other Gospel writers. They had been Jews writing in Jewish terms largely for Jews, or for those brought up in the Jewish tradition; but John was in Ephesus and he had to find some way of expressing the truth of the Gospel in a way that a Greek could understand. To call Jesus Son of David or even Messiah would be to a Greek quite unintelligible. John found his new way in the conception of Jesus as the Logos, the Word. This conception has three advantages.

(a) It has a universal background. In any circumstances a word is two things. First, a word is the expression of a thought. We think and then we express the thought in words. So then to call Jesus the Word is to call him the expression of the thought of God. Second, a word is a means of communication. Therefore, to call Jesus the Word is to say that he is the person and the means whereby God communicates with men.

(b) It has a Jewish background. To a Jew a word was not simply a sound in the air. A word was a thing which did things; it was an effective unit of energy. A word did not only say things; it did things. If that is true of a human word, how much more it must be true of the divine word. The word of God does not return void and ineffective; it does what God designed it to do (Isaiah 55:11) The word of God is like a hammer that breaks the rocks in pieces (Jeremiah 23.29). By the word of God the heavens were made (Psalm 33:6-9). Every act of creation begins, "And God said . . ." (Genesis 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26). So then to say that Jesus is the word of God is to say that he is the dynamic, creative power of God in action.

Here we have to insert into the pattern another basic fact. Logos does not only mean word; it also means reason. There is in fact no English term which covers both these meanings, and that is why Moffatt in his translation does not attempt to translate it, but simply says: "The Logos became flesh." Now in Judaism another idea became increasingly common, the place of Wisdom, Sophia, in the work and design of God. In Proverbs 8:22-31 Wisdom is there from the beginning, and before the beginning, the master workman who was God's agent in the creation of the world. This is still further developed in the inter-testamental Wisdom literature. Wisdom was present at creation and was the instrument of God's creating work (Wisdom 9:1, 2, 9). Wisdom is nothing else than the breath of the power of God, and the clear effluence of the glory of the Almighty (Wisdom 7:25). Here again we have the idea of Reason, Wisdom, Logos, Sophia as the creative power and energy of God, existing before the world began.

(c) It has a Greek background. In Greek thought the Logos had a very special function. The Greek thinkers were impressed by the diversity of the universe, and by the principle of change and alteration which obviously operates within it. But they were also deeply impressed by the dependability of the universe, by the fact that this is a reliable universe with a pattern and a plan in it, in which all things follow in their appointed order and in which a cause always produces the same effect. So they asked, what keeps the stars in their courses, what makes the sun rise and set, what brings back the seasons in their appointed order, what is it that puts mind into man? Their answer was that this is the work of the Logos, the mind of God operating in the world. So then to call Jesus the Logos is to say that he is the mind of God, become a flesh and blood human creature. It is as if John said: "For centuries you have been speaking and thinking about the Logos, the mind of God, and you have been tracing the Logos in the structure of the universe. If you want to see the mind of God full displayed, look at Jesus."

(d) One final piece has to be fitted into the pattern. Almost at the same time as Jesus and Paul there lived in Alexandria a great Jewish thinker called Philo; he knew Jewish thought and he knew Greek thought as no one else has ever known both. He was the bridge between them. In his voluminous works there are no fewer than six hundred references to the Logos, and basically they all have the same essential thought. God is high and lifted up, utterly transcendent. He cannot himself communicate directly with sinful man. His means of communication, his liaison with the world is the Logos. "The Father, who has begotten all things, granted as his choicest privilege to the chief messenger and most august Logos that he should stand in the midst between the created and the Creator." So to say that Jesus is the Logos is to say that he is God's supreme means of communication with men.

So then all these lines converge on the one thought that the Logos, with its double meaning of word and reason, is the expression of the mind of God, and the power of God in action. In Jesus we see in human action the mind of God.

Let us now turn to the Prologue, the first 18 verses of the Fourth Gospel to see what John has to say about Jesus as the Logos. We find that he has five things to say.

1. He tells us what Jesus personally was. He begins with a brief statement which provides the translator with a problem not far from insoluble in the English language. "The Word", say both the AV and the RSV, "was God" (John 1:1). Moffatt is one of the few modern translators who dare to depart from that rendering. "The Logos", he translates, "was divine." In a matter like this we cannot do other than go to the Greek, which is theos en ho logos. Theos is the Greek for God, en for was, ho for the, logos for word. Now normally, except for special reasons, Greek nouns always have the definite article in front of them, and we can see at once here that theos the noun for God has not got the definite article in front of it. When a Greek noun has not got the article in front of it, it becomes rather a description than an identification, and has the character of an adjective rather than of a noun. We can see exactly the same in English. If I say: "James is the man", then I identify James with some definite man whom I have in mind; but, if 1 say: "James is man", then I am simply describing James as human, and the word man has become a description and not an identification. If John had said ho theos en ho logos, using a definite article in front of both nouns, then he would definitely have identified the logos with God, but because he has no definite article in front of theos it becomes a description, and more of an adjective than a noun. The translation then becomes, to put it rather clumsily, "The Word was in the same class as God, belonged to the same order of being as God". The only modern translator who fairly and squarely faced this problem is Kenneth Wuest, who has: "The Word was as to his essence essential deity." But it is here that the NEB has brilliantly solved the problem with the absolutely accurate rendering: "What God was the Word was."

John is not here identifying the Word with God. To put it very simply, he does not say that Jesus was God. What he does say is that no human description of Jesus can be adequate, and that Jesus, however you are going to define it, must be described in terms of God. "I know men," said Napoleon, "and Jesus Christ is more than a man."

But no sooner has John presented us with a problem in translation than he presents us with a problem in theology. "In the beginning", he says, "was the Word." "He was in the beginning with God" (John 1:1, 2). Here we come upon the doctrine which is known as the doctrine of the preexistence of the Word, or the pre-existence of the Son. There is no more difficult doctrine to understand in all theological thinking. It quite clearly cannot mean that this flesh and blood man Jesus existed before the creation of the world. What then does it mean?

We do not say that in what follows there is anything like a full account of the meaning of the pre-existence of the Son or of the Word, but, whatever else that doctrine may or may not mean, it does mean this. Let us remind ourselves what John basically means when he called Jesus the Word; he meant that in Jesus we see perfectly displayed in human form the mind of God. To put it at its very simplest, he meant that God is like Jesus. This means that, when we see Jesus feeding the hungry and healing the sick and being the friend of outcasts and sinners, when we see Jesus dying on the Cross, we can say: "God is like that." Now, if we go on to speak of the pre-existence of the Logos, one thing at least that we must mean is that God was always like that. The mind of God, the attitude of God towards men, was always from all eternity to all eternity that which we see in Jesus.

To grasp this is of the most crucial importance. There are certain ways of speaking about Jesus which imply, or even come near to stating, that Jesus did something to change the attitude of God to men, that somehow Jesus changed God's wrath into love, that somehow Jesus persuaded God to hold his hand and to pacify his anger to withhold his judgment of condemnation, that, to put it very crudely, Jesus by his sufferings and his death bought off God. It is perfectly possible to speak in such a way as to leave an impression of an opposition and a contrast between Jesus and God. Jesus is presented as forgiving love; God is presented as awful holiness; and Jesus is depicted as winning forgiveness for men from God.

But, if we insist that the Logos was in the beginning and before the beginning, it means very simply that God was always like Jesus and always will be, and that Jesus did not come to change the attitude of God to men, but to show quite unmistakably what that attitude is and always was.

2. John goes on to tell us what Jesus did. "All things were made by him, and without him was not anything made that was made" (John 1:3). The Word, the Son, Jesus is thus connected with the creation of the world, which for a modern mind has always been a difficult idea, and yet an idea integral to NT thought. "By him", says Paul, "all things were created, that are in heaven and that are in earth, visible and invisible" (Colossians 1:16). The writer to the Hebrews speaks of the Son by whom God made the worlds (Hebrews 1:2). Paul speaks of the Lord Jesus Christ by whom are all things (I Corinthians 8:6).

The connection of the Word, the Son, with creation was an idea which arose to combat a certain heresy which we shall meet again as we study other NT books. In the Graeco- Roman world there was a type of thought which goes by the general name of Gnosticism. Gnosticism sought to explain the evil in the world by means of a thorough-going dualism. It said that from all eternity there has been in the world two realities, Spirit, which is God, and matter. Spirit and matter are co-eternal. Matter is the stuff, the raw material, out of which the world is made, and from the beginning matter is essentially flawed and imperfect. This is to say that the world is made out of bad stuff. Since matter is bad the God who is pure spirit cannot touch it. He therefore put out a series of aeons or emanations, each one a little more distant from himself, stretching like a kind of ladder between himself and matter. The further the series descended, the further the emanation was from God, the more ignorant of God it was. As the series still further descended, to ignorance there was added hostility; and so at the end of the series there is an aeon, the Demiurge, the World-fashioner, who is utterly ignorant of, and totally hostile to, the true God who is spirit, and by that power the world was created. Creation is essentially evil because it was carried out by an ignorant, hostile, inferior deity working with flawed and imperfect material. Given the premises, it is a perfectly logical explanation of the presence of evil in the world.

The Christian answer is No; creation is not the work of a hostile, bungling, ignorant power; it is the work of the Logos, the Word, the Son. Now let us see what this practically means.

Let us again remind ourselves who the Logos is -- the Logos is the perfect expression of the mind of God. In the kindness and the graciousness and the love of Jesus we see God in action. If then the Logos is the agent of creation it means that the principle which is in the created world is the same principle as is in Jesus Christ. It means that the God of creation and the God of redemption are one and the same; it means that the love which is in redemption is in creation also.

There are times when only the clinging to that principle prevents the complete collapse of faith. There are times when life seems our enemy. Pain may agonize the body and sorrow may bring anguish to the mind; wave upon wave of disaster may engulf life. But, if we believe that the principle of creation and the principle of redemption are the same, then we can be absolutely sure that life is out to make us and not to break us, that "it means intensely and means good", and we too can say: "God, thou art love, I build my faith on that." The idea of the Christ of creation is not merely a cosmological speculation: it is also many a time the stay and the refuge of the broken heart.

3. Jesus goes on to tell us what Jesus became. "The Word became flesh" (John 1:14). To John's readers this must have seemed the most startling statement in the whole Gospel. Augustine, who was a very great classical scholar, said in his Confessions (6:9) that he had found in the great classical thinkers some kind of parallel for everything in the Gospels except this one statement, "The Word became flesh."

For a Gnostic the body is clearly essentially evil, for the body is matter. But apart from Gnosticism there was in Graeco-Roman thought a profound belief that the one thing to be desired was to be rid of the body. Soma sema ran the Orphic jingle, "The body is a tomb". The body, said Philolaus, is a house of detention in which the soul is imprisoned to expiate its sin. Philosophy, said Plato. is the study of dying; to have a body is to be contaminated with evil; the body is a prison-house and death the only release (Phaeda 64-67). Epictetus described himself as a poor soul shackled to a corpse (Fragment 23). Seneca spoke of the detestable habitation of the body (Letters 92:110). That God could in any sense take upon himself a body was to the Greek incredible. We shall later, when we are studying John's letters, see how this conception drifted into the Church and threatened disastrous consequences to the Christian faith. At the moment it is enough to say this, no Christian can ever despise the body, for God himself took this human flesh upon him.

4. John goes on to say what Jesus gives. As John sees it, Jesus gives three things.

(a) Jesus gives life. This is the statement which is the beginning the middle and the end of the Fourth Gospel. The Gospel begins: "In him was life" (1:4). In the middle Jesus claims that he came to give life and life more abundant (10:10). The Gospel ends with the statement that it was written to enable men to believe in Jesus Christ and to have life through his name (20:31).

This life is eternal life. The word for eternal is aionios, which means far more than life which lasts indefinitely, for quite clearly mere prolongation of life might be the supreme punishment and curse. Aionios in Greek is a word of mystery; there is only one person to whom it may properly be applied and that one person is God. Eternal life is nothing other than the life of God. The gift of Jesus Christ here and now is a foretaste of the life divine.

(b) Jesus gives light. He is the true light (1:9). The word for true is here alethinos, which means real or genuine, as opposed to that which is substitute and counterfeit. Jesus is the real light. Other lights flicker and die, mislead and seduce; he alone is the light which is real and which leads to reality.

(c) Jesus gives the new birth (1:12, 13). The change he works is so radical that it cannot be called anything less than a new birth. In him life begins again, and in him the coward becomes the hero, the sinner becomes the saint, and the man of the world becomes the man of God.

5. Lastly, John tells us what Jesus suffered. He came to his own world and the world did not know him; he came to his own home and his people refused to receive him (1:10, 11). Here is the tragedy of the glory offered, and the glory refused.

To John the supreme fact about Jesus is that Jesus is the perfect expression of the mind of God. We can be quite certain that God cares and God shares. Of whom, then, shall we be afraid?