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Let’s come before the Lord in prayer one more time as we approach his Word. Blessed Lord who caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning, grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them. That we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life which you have given us in our saviour Jesus Christ who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
This morning we begin a new series on the Gospel according to John. We usually call it John, John’s gospel, the Gospel of John, and you’ll hear me say all of those things, but if you have your Bible, you will note it’s actually the Gospel according to John. That title was given some time later as the manuscripts were put together and has been the title with us now for almost two millennia, and it does signify something important. That we do not have four different, varied stories, but we rather have one gospel story according to four different witnesses: Matthew and John who were eyewitnesses, Mark who got the story from Peter, and Luke who investigated these things and talked to those who were eyewitnesses.
I have preached from John’s gospel before, but I have never done a long series through the entire book, and so I come to this with great excitement and some trepidation. All of the books in the Bible are inspired, obviously. They’re all good. You never come and say, “well, what’s the text today, Pastor?” “Ehh, it’s kind of a dud.” No, they’re all good. And yet, I don’t know if I’m just speaking as a pastor or if you feel this way, but there do seem to be, in the topography of biblical truth, some particular high points.
And it always has felt to me as a preacher that there are three books in particular that were sort of the holy grail, no pun intended, of preaching. Isaiah, in the Old Testament; Romans, certainly; and then this book of John. The truths that we meet here are so high and exalted and lofty, and at the same time there is so much here for even little children to learn.
There’s a saying about the gospel of John. I’m sure it’s a saying about the whole Bible and has been referenced with other things as well, but I came across it this week about John. It is said that his gospel is a pool in which a child may wade and an elephant can swim. So think about that. Children wading, zero depth entry, that’s what we love as parents with little kids where you just walk in and you can wade around and you can play and you splash, and this is ground for kids and children to learn in. And yet, there are depths here that even the elephants and the giants of the faith could swim.
It is on the one hand an amazingly simple book. How many people in evangelism have thought “let’s use the gospel of John” or “let’s hand out a little tract with this book in it” because you immediately meet Jesus Christ. Even if you’ve ever studied the original languages, you know that some of the easiest Greek in the New Testament is from the gospel of John, which was a very welcome sight for me as I was looking at it and my Greek can be a bit rusty.
It is amazingly simple and at the same time, we have unfathomably deep truth. Truths here that have occupied the greatest minds in the Church for two millennia. We are introduced in this book to the great mysteries of the faith. So if it seems like, as your pastor, I’m really excited to start this book, I am. And you’re sitting there and you’re bored, at least you can think, “well, he’s excited, so maybe I’ll listen.” Okay?
Reminds me of this great anecdote I heard. I don’t know. It’s one of those stories that if it’s not true, it should be. Benjamin Franklin, founding father, who was no kind of Christian or evangelical Christian at all, but he loved to hear the great revival preacher, evangelist, Calvinist George Whitfield preach. And someone once said to Benjamin Franklin, “Why do you continue to go to hear George Whitfield preach? You don’t believe anything he says.” Franklin replied: “I know, but he does.” And there was something even in that authority which, of course, will not be matched at all this morning, but that drew even a skeptic like Benjamin Franklin. This man believes that heaven and hell hang in the balance with this Word, so perhaps I can at least listen.
The great Reformed theologian Francis Turretin once said “in the Christian religion there are two questions above all others which are difficult.” Now, Turretin was a genius, so, I mean, he only found two things that were really difficult. The rest of us have a lot, but he said two. The first concerns the unity of the three persons in the one essence in the trinity, the other concerns the union of the two natures in the one person in the incarnation. And we will be introduced to these and other great mysteries in this book. We will try to plumb the depths, as failingly as we might, of the doctrine of the trinity and the incarnation, and for someone of Turretin’s caliber to say that those were the two great truths, and then we are introduced to them here in the Gospel of John, is saying something.
We will be stretched, we will be challenged, but we will also be greatly helped. The more we know about God, the more we can worship him. Those two things, head and heart, doctrine and affection, doxology and orthodoxy, do not pull those things apart. Do not go to a church that pits those two things one against the other. If we are to be truly deep-feeling people, we must be deep-thinking people.
Now there’s lots of shortcuts to religious emotion, but if you want worship that is experiential, that hits you in your senses and is affective in the best way, there is no shortcut around truth to get real authentic worship. It must always go through truth. And at the same time, the truth that we have here in John’s gospel is certainly not to make us just heady, pat ourselves on the back, walk out of here, and think “I’m so glad that we can be smart Presbyterians.” No. Robust theology is what makes true worship possible. It is also what makes true faith possible.
John’s gospel is so helpful in that he gives us the purpose statement for the book. So we don’t have to scramble around, we don’t have to imagine why did John, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, write this book? What was he trying to accomplish? He very helpfully, famously, gives that to us.
So turn, I know we haven’t gotten to the text yet, I understand this counts as part of the sermon time, but turn to John chapter 20, the very end of the book, John chapter 20, verses 30 and 31. We have a bit of an epilogue in chapter 21, and then we have this conclusion, as it were, at the end of chapter 20. “Now Jesus did many other signs,” so you’re going to find that this gospel is structured in the first part according to a series of signs that Jesus does, and John very carefully organizes them into seven signs. Well, he says, I didn’t even give you all the signs, obviously, “in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that (purpose clause), so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
So best as we can figure this book was written by John as a kind of evangelism, evangelism primarily we think for Jews. We think that because of all of the references to Old Testament history that would presume some knowledge of the scriptures. He is addressing Jews in the diaspora or perhaps Gentiles who are proselytes to the Jewish religion.
You can contrast this purpose statement with another statement that John gives. If you go to end of your Bible, to 1 John, you can see that John likes to do this helpfully. Look at 1 John chapter 5, verse 13, and compare it to the purpose statement we just read.
1 John 5:13: I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.
If you’re familiar with John’s letters, and with his gospel, you know there’s many similarities, the language of beginning, light, life, faith, word. There’s similar vocabulary. But we see a different purpose. 1 John, he says “I’m writing this to those of you who already believe so that you may have confidence,” and he gives in 1 John a number of signs. How do you know that you’re really in Christ? John, by contrast, is that you might believe, not to those who believe, but that you might believe, and then by believing you would have life in His name.
Now, obviously, with you gathered here, many, most of you are in the category of believing in Jesus. But that doesn’t mean you can check out because John would have written this gospel to that audience in particular, but certainly with an eye and an ear to a greater audience to come who would listen in and be strengthened and challenged again and again to put their faith in Jesus and to know this Jesus who is the Christ, the Son of God. In other words, the over-arching aim of the Gospel according to John is that we would believe the long-awaited Messiah, the divine Son of God, is Jesus and that by believing we would have life, eternal life, now and forever, in His name. Not just who is Jesus, but who is the Christ and can you introduce him to me? Do you know who he is? Prove it. That’s what John’s gospel is trying to answer.
So with all of that by way of introduction, go back to John chapter 1. And I know it says in the bulletin that we’re doing just the first three verses, but that seemed a bit adventurous, so let’s just do the first two verses. Just the first two verses.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.”
These first 18 verses, see them marked out in your Bible, form a prologue. Not strictly speaking a preface, a kind of just an introduction, but rather a prologue. Not merely to provide introductory remarks or background material, but to introduce us, just as a musical prologue might, at the beginning of some great composition, introduce you to the themes, and you’d hear the different instruments that are going to be playing, and you’d hear this four-bar phrase, and introduce you to these themes that are going to be much more fully developed in the composition to come. That’s what John is doing. We’re introduced in these first 18 verses to the big ideas of this book. You see words like light, life, being children of God, being born, son, glory, word. We are introduced to the rejection of Jesus, the testimony of John the Baptist, His glory, His grace, His truth.
And these first two verses are particularly striking. Not only lofty theology, but beautiful poetry. Or if it’s not poetry, it’s something close to poetry. Let me read these two verses in the Greek. You all came this morning “would somebody read me some Greek?” Well, your dreams are coming true right now. And most of you don’t know Greek, but listen, listen to a few of the big words. Not big, but big and important. There’s a word “arche” which means beginning. There’s a word “logos” most of you have heard of, it means word. And there’s a word “Theòs” like theology, it means God. Just listen.
“En archē ēn ho Lógos, kaì ho Lógos ēn pròs tòn Theón, kaì Theòs ēn ho Lógos. Houtos ēn archē pròs tòn Theón.”
There is a purposeful rhythm to it, and even just hearing it read once you can almost hear it is. It is like walking up and down a staircase. That if you were to just track with those Greek words, those three words I gave you, “arche, Lógos, Theòs,” you go through the two verses and you have “beginning, word, word, God” up the staircase, and then you go back down, “God, word, word, beginning.” There’s a parallelism. John is giving us this lofty theology in this beautiful form.
I have no elaborate outline for you this morning. Sorry to disappoint you, I don’t have three points that all start with the same letter. What I want us to do is very simply walk through verse 1 and worship. You ask “what’s the application?” Now a good sermon should have application, right? And sometimes the application is go, you know, call your mom after the service. The application is, you know, go plan a date night with your spouse, or read your Bible, or share your faith, and there’s lots of application we’ll find throughout this book. But there will also be many times like this morning, the application is to know Jesus. To know Jesus. You say “well, I know Jesus.” Well, do you know, do you really know, Jesus?
Sometimes we’re so quick to, “okay, all right, okay, I got that, I got that, now give me the three things that I need to do. What are the how-to steps?” We’re very practical, pragmatic people. Just “okay, now tell me what do I do tomorrow morning? Give me, you know, three points, two points, one point, something that I can do.”
Sometimes the thing that God wants you to do is to sit back and look at marvel. And it is amazing how much amazement is applicable in your life, in a hundred different ways. Because you come in her with all sorts of things and you want to know this about your kids and you want to know this and what to do and how to pray better, and sometimes what God wants to give us is just “take a deep breath and get to know me.” And that’s what we’re going to find in this gospel. And that’s what we find in this first verse.
“In the beginning was the Word.” En archē ēn ho Lógos. The first thing that ought to get your attention is that phrase “in the beginning.” If you know your Bibles even a little bit, that’s going to give you immediate echoes of Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Every Jew would have been familiar, just like virtually every Christian would be familiar that the Bible begins with those famous words.
If I were to give you some opening lines of some famous novels, I bet just the first few words would immediately bring to your attention, “ah, that’s what book we’re talking about.”
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Okay, if we had a quiz here you could get that, A Tale of Two Cities.
How about “Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Anyone know that one? Okay, I won’t ask you, you can write these down, tell me if you get them all right afterward. That’s Leo Tolstoy Anna Karenina.
How about this one? “It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking 13.” That’s from George Orwell’s book 1984 which you know anything about that dystopian novel and sort of big brother watching over you, the clocks were striking 13 because they had been decreed to go 13 now, an eerie beginning.
Or how about this, which my wife knew right away, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”? She knew it, not because that was me, but because that’s Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.
One more. “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” You know that one? C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
When you come to this book, “in the beginning,” it’s like for those of you who grew up on Star Wars hearing the phrase “May the force be with you.” You hear that and it just becomes sort of cultural parlance, you are brought into a galaxy far, far away. So it is you come to this book “in the beginning.”
The first book of the Bible, in Hebrew, is called, we call it Genesis, in Hebrew they would call it “Bereshit,” which is the first word of the Bible. “Bereshit bara Elohim et hashamayim ve’et ha’aretz.” In the beginning, God created. It’s the word in the beginning. When they open their Bibles, of course, they wouldn’t have head them, they would have had a scroll in the temple or in the synagogue, they would have seen the very first word was this word “beginning.”
Now you would expect, especially a good Jew listening to this, “in the beginning” sounds familiar, “in the beginning, God” because that’s how Genesis begins. The first thing we learn about God in the Bible is that He is. Even before we are introduced to God as creator, we are introduced to the God who is God. The theological term for that attribute is His “aseity” which means His self-existence. We are introduced to a God who is, always is, always has been, always will be. At the beginning of time, there was God. Before there was time, there was God. He is eternal. In the beginning, God.
But John puts a twist on Genesis 1:1. Instead of meeting Theos, which is the word for God, we are introduced to the word Lógos, or Lógos, which is the Greek word for “word.” This is how in the Greek translation of Genesis it begins “En archē ____ ho Theòs.” In the beginning, God created.
Here’s how the Greek begins in John 1: “En archē ēn ho Lógos.” Very deliberately the same structure, except instead of meeting Theòs, he introduces us to Lógos. What did John mean by this term? It can be translated as word, talk, speech, conversation. There’s a whole school of thought, the stoics in the Greco-Roman world, thought of the logos as that rationale principal by which everything existed. And John certainly would have been familiar with these Greek ideas, but more so his assumptions come from the Old Testament. He clearly has in mind the story of Genesis. We’ll get to this next week, Lord willing, but look at the following verses, three, four and five, and think of Genesis. What does Genesis say after “in the beginning, God, He created”? Well, then we’re introduced to the God who speaks the Word into existence, we’re introduced to a command of life, we’re introduced to light and darkness, and so John gives us all of these themes.
“In him was life”, verse 4, “the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness.” He is very deliberately pulling into his gospel this conceptual world of Genesis. Genesis introduces us to a God who always has been. We meet on the very first words of the Bible a being without beginning, and now John introduces us to the same, but this one he calls “the Word.” So we meet this important doctrine, the pre-existence of the Word.
Now, again, I want you to look carefully at your Bibles in front of you. Look at the difference, you don’t have to know any Greek to see this. Look at the difference in the verbs between verse 1 and verse 3. Verse 3, which we’ll get to when we speak of creation, “all things were made through him.” It’s the word “became,” all things became through him, without him was not anything became that has become. Or here it’s translated as “made.” So “becamde. “ord “became,” all things became through him, without him was not anything became that has become. Or here it’s trane” is the verb.
But look at verse 1: In the beginning was the Word. It does not say “in the beginning became the Word.” Creation had a beginning. It became. There was a time when there was not creation, and then it became. There was not when the Word was not. So it does not say “the Word became in the beginning,” but rather “in the beginning was the Word.” There never was when the Word was not. So whatever you can say about the eternality of God in Genesis, you can say about the Word in John’s gospel. In the beginning was the Word.
“And,” next phrase, “the Word was with God.” “Kaì ho Lógos en pròs tòn Theón.” And the word with was God. So you think, but maybe in that first phrase, “in the beginning was the Word,” maybe John was just giving us a kind of synonym for God. There’s a lot of names for God in the Old Testament and sometimes he’s called a king or a father, and maybe now we’re just getting simply another name. So that’s interesting, “in the beginning God created the heavens,” now we have “in the beginning, there was the Word.” The Word is just, you know, interchangeable, just swap it out. But no, that’s not what John is saying. He’s not just giving us a synonym. You say tomato, I say tomato, some of you say tomater. He’s not just doing that. We see the two words are not interchangeable. The Word and God exist and we don’t, we don’t yet know how this mystery is going to work, but somehow in this very second phrase of the gospel we see they exist as two persons? One is not the other. There is a distinction, for it says that the Word was with God, or some say you could even translate it as “toward God,” implying accompaniment, side-by-side-ment, relationship.
Verse 2 makes this clear: “He was in the beginning with God.”
Now we’ll come to creation next week. “God spoke.” You say “Where is the Word in Genesis? How come we don’t meet Lógos in Genesis chapter 1 if John tells us in the beginning was Lógos?” Well, think about it. Of course you meet Lógos in Genesis chapter 1. Because God spoke. He said “Let there be light, and there was light.” As I learned from VeggieTales, God just went “thht” and there it was. By his speech, creation came into being.
So to use the later theological language, we are introduced here in already just the second little clause of John’s gospel, that there have existed from all eternity two subsistences, two somethings, God and the Word. God and the Word. They were both there in the beginning. Okay, so now you have all of this. Keep in mind the audience are Jews who are proselytes to Judaism, who are of all people absolutely steeped in monotheism. Only one God, hear, O Israel, the Shema of Deuteronomy 6, one God.
So now we’re a few words into the gospel and circuits are firing, and minds are being blown, how does this work? Because I thought “in the beginning was God” and you told us that “in the beginning” is the Word? Well, maybe that’s another, that’s just the same thing. But now you said that Word was with God.
And now we go even one step up into rarefied air. “And the Word was God.”
Okay, so if you were tracking, you thought “okay, maybe the Word is just a synonym for God because of the second clause.” No, the Word was with God, so there is some distinction there. But then, maybe you would think, “well, this is maybe an emanation from God or some of demi-god.” Sorry, Moana is not good theology. Good songs, bad theology.
Some kind of lesser being that has existed eternally with God? You know, something kind of oozing from God, something sort of less than God who was with God, some principal of God that was there. And John quickly dispels us of that notion. He tells us, no, the Word that was with God is also the Word that was God. What does that phrase mean? How should we understand Theòs?
Some of you may have friends or know people or have people knocked on your door before who are Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Jehovah’s Witness translation of the Bible called, called the “New World” translation, very famously, or infamously, translates this as “a god.” “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was a god,” because they are like modern-day Arians and so deny the full deity of the Son equal in essence with the Father. And if you ever talk to someone, they will tell you, and they will come well-equipped with a little bit of Greek, and they will tell you that the word God at the end of verse 1 is an indefinite noun.
So if you have “the” is our definite article in English, the pulpit, a or an is called an indefinite article, a watch, a glass. So in Greek you don’t have an indefinite y Moana is not good theology. But then, maybe you would think, “well, this is maybe an emanation from god nning was God”article, but you either have an article or not. And you could see and open up your Greek and someone will come into your home and do this if they were a Jehovah’s Witness and they might show that it says “and the Word was God.” And they would say, “look, there’s no definite article there.” There was a definite article earlier when it said the “the Word was with God,” it used the word tone, theon, that’s the “the” in Greek, that’s the definite article, but there’s no article here. So shouldn’t we translate it as “a god”? Maybe John is just saying that the Word was with God, he’s eternal, but the Word was a god, a sort of lesser being.
Well, if you ever talk to a Jehovah’s Witness along these lines, you can remember some of these points or perhaps you can say “I heard a sermon about this once, let me go check.” 282 times in the New Testament we have the word “Theòs” without the definite article, so don’t think “oh, this is only time it ever happens.” It happens 282 times, and in only 16 of those occasions does the Jehovah’s Witness’ Bible translate it as “a god, gods, gods” or something like that, so they’re certainly not consistent with that principle.
Also, if you look at chapter 1, the word “Theòs,” “God,” occurs eight times in this chapter. Verse 1, verse 2, verse 6, verse 12, verse 13, and verse 18, and has the article only twice. And yet six times the Jehovah’s Witness translates it as “God,” capital G. So that principal that they want to tell you in verse 1 they don’t even hold throughout the first verses of the book.
There are a lot of complicated terminology and Greek grammar that we won’t get into, but it is, and you can look it up if you want to read it for yourself, it is simply the case that when you have nouns like this, used together with these “I am” verbs, in this position they often do not receive the definite article. And, in fact, there’s probably a deliberate theological reason that John is structuring it the way that he is, because “Theòs” at the end of verse 1 has a slightly nuance than “ho Theòs” referred to earlier in verse 1. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God,” God thinking of the Father, “and the Word was God.” First God, definite article, second God, no definite article. That doesn’t mean it should be translated “a god” but it may be that John is trying to explain to his audience, who would have been much more familiar with the Greek than any of us are, that there is some distinction. “The God,” that is, the Father, and “the Word” is God, but not the Father.
He’s saying, in other words, what God was, the Word was. He shares the nature and the essence of God. The Word shares the very stuff of God-ness. John could not have more succinctly stated in an economy of words that the Word is divine and God and yet the Word is not the Father God.
Martin Luther said “the Word was God was to prevent Arianism,” which is the ancient heresy that said that the Son was only like the Father in deity. And Luther said the phrase “the Word was with God” was to protect against Sabellianism, which was an ancient heresy, Modalism basically, saying that the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit are just kind of modes of being, like water, ice, and vapor. I know this is frustrating, but if you ever get to talk to your kids about the trinity and you start to go into analogy, just stop, just time out, just time out, because no human analogy is going to work.
John is stating very carefully and deliberately that Jesus, though we haven’t met Jesus yet, that the Word was God but this Word is to be distinguished from God who we will know as the Father. So again, verse 1 says “in the beginning was the Word,” and when we get down to verse 14 notice “the Word became flesh.” Verse 1, verse 14 we have coming at us both the mystery of the incarnation and of the trinity. So the Word didn’t become God, the Word was God, the Word didn’t come into existence, but the Word did become flesh. The Word took on this new state of being as a man.
And so it is no coincidence that the bookends to John’s gospel, the beginning and the end, start with this bold declaration of the full deity and divinity of the Word. John 1, which we have been studying, “in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” and then think of the end of John chapter 20, what happens? You know, doubting Thomas is there and he says “harrumph, I’m not going to believe this unless I can, you know, poke at you in your side and see the nail marks in your fingers,” and he does it, and you remember what Thomas says to the Lord: “My God and my Lord.” Bookending the gospel is this clear, definitive, unambiguous statement of the deity of Christ, the Son of God.
Now here’s what I want you to notice as we close. Like a good beginning to any great story, John, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is building tension. Notice the divine Word doesn’t yet have a name. We can presume that John’s original audience would have known something of these gospel stories, maybe would have been anticipating where he’s going with this, but you just imagine, if you were reading through this, somehow you could transport yourself to a place in time where you were encountering this for the very first time. Maybe that is a description of somebody here. You have this lofty language, this poetic language, this incredibly majestic theology, and you don’t yet know who this is. You say “who is Word? This Word that is from the very beginning. This Word who was with God and yet this Word was God.”
We’re so familiar with these and we hear them every year at Christmas, and we know them so well, they just have a familiar cadence to us, that we scarcely are struck anymore by the scandal and the miracle and the exhilaration of these verses. Because you wouldn’t find yourself at the edge of your seat? “Wow, if this is true, how do I hear from this Word?” Don’t you want to know this Word? Wouldn’t it be amazing to be known by this Word? And then what if the story continued? After knowing this pre-existent Word in distinction from God and yet fully God, how does this work and what if you could hear that this Word, the one in whom there was no beginning, the one who never had a time when He was not, the One who is, in fact, timeless and eternal, what if this Word walked among us?
This is a Christology from above. What if people saw this Word who was in the beginning, and could touch Him and be with Him? And what if in some astounding way this Word came like one of us, and looked like us? Got hungry like us. Took a nap like us and wept like us, and then died like us. And then rose again. Now that would be some story. Wouldn’t you like to meet that Word? Wouldn’t you fall on your face and worship at the feet of that Word?
For the Word who is God has another name. And as a good storyteller in this prologue, John is going to build the tension. Who is he? He’s been rejected. Who is he? John spoke of him. Who is he? And it won’t’ be until verse 17, “the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus.” Wow. Jesus. “The carpenter’s son? Jesus of Nazareth? Nowheresville? That Jesus? Are you sure? I knew his mom and dad. I knew his brothers and sisters. I knew who his teacher was who helped him learn how to read and do his letters… That Jesus?” That Jesus, who walked and lived and died among them. That Jesus who rose. That Jesus who reigns. That Jesus who is coming again.
So let us love and sing and wonder for the Word.
What an amazing story. A true story. A story that did not begin in a manger or in a dream in Israel two millennia ago, but began before there even were mangers or millennia. Even before there was a beginning. Oh, Father, we pray that in these weeks and months and we hope probably years to come in this book, you will remind us of things we have forgotten, you will teach us things we didn’t know, and you will bring to us, rekindle in us, not only a love but a worship and a wonder for the Word made flesh. We come, oh Christ, to you, true God, true man, the Word who was with God and the Word who is God. Amen.