A Larger Story
The Apostle John opens his gospel with the words “In the beginning…” Sound familiar? That’s how Genesis 1:1 opens, “In the beginning…”
With this one phrase John not only connects his gospel to the larger body of the Hebrew Scriptures, but he also connects his gospel to the larger story of redemption that the Israelites believed they were a part of. There is also implication that the work of this Jewish rabbi from Nazareth is equal in magnitude to the Creation of the cosmos. John connects the creation of all things to this story of New Creation.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. All things were created through him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. That light shines in the darkness, and yet the darkness did not overcome it. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We observed his glory, the glory as the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-5; 14)
Logos and Zoe
John’s gospel is the most theological and possibly the most artfully written book in the New Testament. The themes and words and stories John selects for his telling of the story he witnessed is layered and beautiful. One of the themes and layered metaphors John uses is related to his use of a particular Greek word. John borrows a term from Classical Greek philosophy. The Greek word translated as “the Word” is the Greek word λόγος, or logos.
The idea of the “logos” is first attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, and the idea is beyond my intellectual capacity to explain in a way that does justice to the idea.
In short, the “logos” was the idea that there was something fundamentally and absolutely true that brought order and purpose to the universe. The “logos” was the unifying force or principle that governed and pervaded the reasonable order we see in the universe. The “logos” was the organizing principle that brought order to the ever changing nature of life and reality.
Later Greek philosophers adapted the idea of the “logos” and applied it to human reason and rationality.
A sort of modern way of understanding this would be to say that the “logos” is the ultimate reality behind the existence of all things. The idea of “logos” is still talked about in academia today. Professor and clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson said,
You could think about it as the power of speech to transform reality. But even more importantly, more fundamentally, it’s the power of truthful speech to transform reality in a positive direction. We have this magical ability to change the future, and we do that through action, obviously. But action is oriented by thought, and thought is mediated by dialog. And so it’s speech, in particular, that’s of critical importance to this logos process. The logos is symbolically represented in the figure of Christ, who’s the word that was there at the beginning of time. So that’s a very complicated topic, but what it essentially means is that the West has formulated a symbolic representation of the ideal human being, and that ideal human being is the person who speaks the truth to change the world.
Like I said, the depth of the concept in historical philosophy and modern day academics is beyond my current capacity to explain.
John begins his gospel by essentially affirming this secular, Greek idea of the “logos.” He sort of basically says, “Yeah, you guys were on to something here.” Paul does this in Acts when he is in Athens. In Athens, they built an altar to the “unknown god.” Paul says, “I am going to proclaim truth to you about this ‘unknown god’” (Acts 17:23).
What I love about this is that sometimes Christians tend to take a defensive posture towards secular ideas whether they are found in science, philosophy, psychology, or even ideas from other religions. I believe the biblical witness shows us that we can claim all truth wherever we find it as God’s truth and apply redemptive revelation to it. So, when science discovers something true about nature, when psychology offers insights for mental health, and even when other religions affirm moral truths—we don’t have to reject the truths, but rather we can re-ascribe the implications in a way that points to Jesus.
John says that the organizing force that brings order and purpose to the cosmos is pre-existent, and that this pre-existent Word, the “logos,” is also the originating source and sustainer of all things.
In fact, he says that in this “logos” was life. The Greek word here is ζωή or zoe. This word for life carries more than just the idea of biological life. Zoe has to do with the vitality and fullness of life. We might say when someone has a sort of contagious joy that they are “full of life.” We often understand that there are things that are “life-giving” and “fulfulling.” Many of us have experienced a concert, an adrenaline inducing ride, or once in a life-time opportunity and said something along the lines of “I feel so alive.” That’s “zoe.”
Zoe is a sunrise with painted with brilliant hues of purple, pink, yellow and orange. Zoe is a hot cup of coffee paired with a delectable strawberry scone. Zoe is laughing with family until it hurts. Zoe is finishing a half-marathon and with that finish accomplishing a goal you never thought possible. Zoe is your wedding day.
Zoe is what permeates the Christmas spirit of joy that we can all identify with yet can’t quite explain. Zoe is the sense that life and life-giving things are good, right, and true. Which is why John says that this Zoe gives light to all men. John also says that the darkness, evil and chaos, did not and by implication will not overcome it.
So, for John, this pre-existent “logos”—this “ultimate reality” that brings beauty, life, love, music, joy, and orderly purpose—was with God and is God.
It Gets Personal
But it gets better. You see, for the Greeks, the “logos” was an impersonal force or Divine reason.
John says that this ultimate reality is not just an impersonal Divine force, but that the Divine is a personal God and by nature also relational. And, this God became flesh.
The “logos” became flesh and dwelt among us. The idea behind the word “dwelt” is that the “logos” tabernacled or took up habitation among men. This language here would have reminded any Jewish readers of the tabernacle in the wilderness. The central place in which the very presence of God was believed to inhabit among God’s people.
John says that ultimate reality was embodied in the person of Jesus Christ and he dwelt among man!
The glory of this ultimate reality as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ is full of grace and truth. Think about that. Grace and truth.
Christmas and Embodied Deity
So what do a few Greek words and tabernacles have to do with us?
Jesus is the embodiment of God—of ultimate reality. Paul put it this way: For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form… (Colossians 2:9). The author of Hebrews wrote, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of his nature, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:3).
Christmas is about more than just a baby in a manger. Christmas is about more than just the necessary prelude to the main event of Christ’s atoning work on the cross.
Christmas is about the incarnation. The “enfleshing” of the Divine nature. Christmas is about the expression of God’s love being revealed in a person. The transcendent divine nature took on flesh. Part of the message of Christmas is that God is fundamentally a relational, personal being.
Pre-existent transcendence is deeply and fundamentally personal—God is relational.
What is more, He desires a relationship with you!
And, this divine, transcendent reality is good. When the fullness of God is embodied, we see that God is full of grace and truth.
When all the fullness of deity took up residence in a First Century Jewish rabbi…
When the divine nature could be passed by on the street, heard teaching in a synagogue, hosted at a dinner party…
When God became human…
…We see Jesus. We see that God has compassion for the poor, the power to heal the sick, and the desire to associate with outcasts.
Jesus is the supreme revelation of the Divine nature and this revelation culminates in the humiliation of the Messiah through his death on the cross. The paradox is that in this humiliation, the supreme revelation of God in Jesus is glorified.
I am convinced that the glory of God on the cross is not just about the atoning work of Jesus’ death for our sin, but it is also about the self-giving love of God on display in Jesus.
When the “logos” that gives “zoe” is embodied in the person of Jesus Christ, ultimate reality is revealed to be fundamentally personal and radically oriented towards self-giving love.
The Logos Was With God… The Logos Is God…
There’s this cool scene in Exodus 33 where Moses asks to see God’s glory. God tells him that he cannot see his face because it would kill him. This is not to mean God’s literal face. Essentially, God is telling Moses that the weight of the fullness of his glory would crush him. So, he will pass by Moses and declare his name.
Exodus 34:4-7 records Moses going to the top of Mount Sinai and God doing as he said. He passes by Moses and declares his name. Verses 6-7 are the most quoted verses in the whole of the Old Testament:
The Lord—the Lord is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love and truth, maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But he will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ iniquity on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation.
Many people get hung up on the “bringing consequences of the fathers’ iniquity on the children and grandchildren. There’s a lot there to unpack there and it is not what it seems. In short, God will make things that sin has destroyed right and will hold people accountable. Not only that, our actions have far reaching consequences. Just ask a child of an alcoholic or an abusive parent or of divorced parents if their parent’s sins have brought consequences upon them.
What is important to notice in this passage is that the order in the original Hebrew indicates importance and repetition indicates emphasis.
When God describes himself, he leads with his compassion and grace and emphasizes his faithful love by mentioning it twice.
In his book God Has a Name, John Mark Comer connects this to John 1. He writes:
Usually people read ‘grace and truth’ and talk about how Jesus was the perfect balance of grace and niceness and loved mixed with truth and the backbone and the courage to say what needed to be said. That’s totally true. It’s just not remotely the point that John is making. John is ripping all this language out of the Exodus—‘tabernacled’ and ‘glory’ and ‘love and faithfulness’—as a way of retelling the Sinai story around Jesus. He’s making the point that in Jesus, we see the Creator God’s glory—his presence and beauty—like never before. In Jesus, Yahweh becomes a human being. In Jesus, we get a new, evocative, crystal-clear glimpse of what God is actually like.
Christmas reminds us that the Word became flesh and showed us what God is like. It turns out, God is full of compassion and grace, he is faithfully true, and he made the debt of sin right by absorbing it’s consequences on the cross!
What is God like? Do you have impressions and ideas of God that are void of any personal or relational attributes? Or, when you think about God do you think about a loving, relational, and personal being?
If you are a follower of Jesus then we are called to imitate Christ. This raises the question: Does our imitation of Jesus reflect and exemplify grace and truth?
May Christmas be a reminder of God’s deeply personal nature and of his self-giving love for you.