The cover of an issue of U.S. News and World Report asked the question “Who was Jesus?”
Inside it reported on some academic discussions about the identity of the one we call “Lord.” Listen to some of their confusing conclusions: “In just the past two years, Jesus has been depicted variously as a magician and healer, as a religious and social revolutionary and as a radical peasant philosopher. One author has even theorized that Jesus was the leader of the Dead Sea Scrolls community in Qumran, that he survived the Crucifixion and went on to marry twice and father three children.”
Newsweek magazine ran a similar cover story, this one on “The Death of Jesus.” One of the articles focused on a group of seventy-seven liberal scholars known as the “Jesus Seminar.” These people meet twice a year to talk about their opinions regarding who Jesus was and what He actually did.
One of their most curious practices is that of voting about the authenticity of specific passages in the Gospels. Every person is given four beads; when it is time to vote, they simply drop in the appropriate beads. Red beads mean they believe Jesus certainly said or did what the text says. Pink beads indicate that they think Jesus said or did something close to what the text describes. Gray beads signify their doubt that Jesus said or did what the text relates, and black beads represent their certainty that Jesus never thought or did anything like what the text declares.
The following conclusions by the majority in the “Jesus Seminar” are shocking and, I believe, blasphemous! “This “historical” Jesus performed no miracles, but he did have a healer’s touch, a gift for alleviating emotional ills through acceptance and love. He called for an utterly egalitarian Kingdom of God—not on some day of judgment, but in the here and now. He wanted people to experience God directly, unimpeded by hierarchy of temple or state. The authorities executed him, almost casually, after he caused a disturbance in Jerusalem during Passover. Jesus lived on in the hearts of followers old and new, but he did not physically rise from the dead. Taken down from the cross, his body was probably buried in a shallow grave–and may have been eaten by dogs.’”
The identity of Jesus is a topic of discussion not only in scholarly circles today, but also in homes, at coffee shops, and on street corners all around the world!
Some hold that He was “a nice man.” Others believe that He was “an outstanding teacher.” Still others contend that He was “the wisest man who ever lived.” Most people in the world have some opinion of who Jesus of Nazareth really was.
What are we to make of this discussion? While I disagree strongly with the conclusions expressed in the above-mentioned news magazines and am deeply concerned with many popular notions about Jesus, I am fascinated by the fact that 2,000+ years after He lived on the earth, people are still asking about Jesus. The good news for us is that the Gospel of John begins with a definite answer to the question.
It was not long before the Christian church was confronted with a very basic problem. It had begun in Judaism. In the beginning all its members had been Jews. By human descent Jesus was a Jew, and, to all intents and purposes, except for brief visits to the districts of Tyre and Sidon, and to the Decapolis, he was never outside Palestine.
Christianity began amongst the Jews; and therefore inevitably it in spoke in the Jewish language and used Jewish categories of thought.
But although it was cradled in Judaism, it very soon went out into the wider world. Within thirty years of Jesus’s death it had travelled all over Asia Minor and Greece and had arrived in Rome. By A.D. 60 there must have been a 100,000 Greeks in the church for every Jew who was a Christian.
Jewish ideas were completely strange to the Greeks. One outstanding example, the Greeks had never heard of the Messiah. The very center of Jewish expectation, the coming of the Messiah, was an idea that was quite alien to the Greeks. The very category in which the Jewish Christians conceived and presented Jesus meant nothing to them. Here then was the problem-how was Christianity to be presented to the Greek world?
The task of the Christian church was to create in the Greek world a predisposition to receive the Christian message. As E. J. Goodspeed put it, the question was, “Must a Greek who was interested in Christianity be routed through Jewish Messianic ideas and through Jewish ways of thinking, or could some new approach be found which would speak out of his background to his mind and heart?” The problem was how to present Christianity in such a way that a Greek would understand.
About the year A.D. 98 there was a man in Ephesus who was fascinated by that problem. His name was John. He lived in a Greek city. He dealt with Greeks to whom Jewish ideas were strange and unintelligible and even uncouth. How could he find a way to present Christianity to these Greeks in a way that they would welcome and understand?
Suddenly the solution flashed upon him. In both Greek and Jewish thought there existed the conception of the word. Here was something which could be worked out to meet the double world of Greek Jew. Here was something which belonged to the heritage of both races and that both could understand.
Where the Book Begins
The way John began his Gospel is significant. First, he did not “quietly slip in the back door.” He ‘put it out there at the outset.
Second, John did not begin with the easiest matters and then slowly work toward the more difficult.
Third, John did not introduce his Gospel with an area of universal agreement and then move toward more divisive topics.
Politicians are often masters of saying what people want to hear. They know their crowds and say whatever will please and excite them. Later, when faced with different crowds, they alter their messages to please their new listeners. They try to avoid, or at least delay, any mention of matters that may be controversial. John, as he began his Gospel, demonstrated that he had absolutely no political instincts!
The Gospel of John storms up the sidewalk, bangs on the front door of our hearts, and immediately confronts us with the most demanding and potentially divisive message ever heard! We should brace ourselves, for John begins with an earthshaking declaration!
John 1:1-2 (ESV) In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God.
God’s glory had dwelt in the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34) and in the temple (1 Kings 8:10-11); but that glory had departed from the disobedient Israel (Ezek. 9:3; 10:4, 18; 11:22-23).
When Solomon dedicated the temple, he asked this question in 1 Kings 8:27: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth?”
Then this marvelous thing happened: the glory of God came to His people again, in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ! It was John’s task to write to both Jews and Gentiles.
John’s prologue gives us a glimmer of the book’s major themes: the deity of Christ; Christ as light and life, the word shrouded in darkness, the witness of John the Baptist, Israel’s rejection of their Savior, Gentile acceptance, and examples of the glory, grace, and truth of Christ.
In this prologue, John establishes five arguments as to why Jesus was, in fact, divine:
1. He was eternal (vs. 1-2)
2. He was the Creator (vs. 3-5, 9)
3. He gave spiritual life (vs. 10-13)
4. He manifested glory (vs. 14-17)
5. He explained God (vs. 18)
We will look at the first one today…and Lord willing, the others in coming weeks.
Jesus is the eternal word, the creative word, and the incarnate word.
The LOGOS, or Word, is the subject here of main discussion. It means “to lay by, to collect, to put words side by side, to speak, to express an opinion.” It implies the intelligence behind the idea, the idea itself, and the transmissible expression of it.
To the Jew, a word was far more than a sound. It had an active and independent existence and which actually did things. “The spoken word to the Hebrew was fearfully alive…It was a unit of energy charged with power.
“It flies like a bullet to its billet,” one writer said. For that very reason the Hebrew was sparing of words. Hebrew speech has fewer than 10,000 words…Greek speech has 200,000.
The words “God said…” in the creative chapters of Genesis remind us of God’s power. In fact, whenever it (logos) is used, it brought to mind the Word of God and the Reason of God:
The Old Testament depicted God’s utterance, the actual statement of His purpose, as having power in itself to effect the thing purposed. Genesis 1 tells us how at creation ‘God said, Let there be …and there was …’ (Gen. 1:3). ‘By the word of the LORD were the heavens made … he spake, and it was done’ (Ps. 33:6, 9). The Word of God is thus God at work.” J. I. Packer, p. 48.
3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
6 And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7 And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so.
9 And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so.
11 And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so.
14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so.
20 And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.” 21 So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.
22 And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds—livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so.
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
29 And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31
The Son of God in Eternity
Matthew and Luke begin with the birth of John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus, and Mark begins with the ministry of John the Baptist.
The first words of John’s Gospel, “In the beginning … ,” bring to mind the account of creation in Genesis 1. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the phrase in Genesis 1:1 is the same as the phrase in the Greek text of John 1:1.
This cannot be merely coincidental; it must be intentional. When Moses wrote the Book of Genesis, he began, “In the beginning God …” John is doing virtually the same thing in the first two verses of his Gospel.
As we step into John’s gospel, we immediately slide through a time tunnel that transports us to eternity past. In eternity–before man, before creation, before time itself–there existed the everlasting, triune God.
The first predicate of the LOGOS is eternity. This passage is one of the summits of Scripture. In fact, it probably reaches the highest of human thought. What is the thought that reaches the height of human concepts? It is this: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is…
- the Word of God
- the Creator of Life
- the Very Being and Essence of Life.
If Jesus Christ is the Word of God, then men must hear and understand that Word or else be lost forever in ignorance of God Himself.
Christ was preexistent. This means He was there before creation. He had always existed.
“In the beginning [en archei]” does not mean from the beginning. Jesus Christ was already there. He did not become; He was not created; He never had a beginning. He “was in the beginning with God” (cp. John 17:5; John 8:58).
The word “was” (en) is the Greek imperfect tense of eimi which is the word so often used for deity. It means to be or I am. To be means continuous existence, without beginning or origin.
The phrase “In the beginning” is essentially the same as that of Genesis 1:1. The expression does not refer to the beginning of some particular process, a definite localized point of time, but rather to the indefinite eternity which preceded all time, the immeasurable past.
In this first chapter of his Gospel, John does not mention the name “Jesus” until verse 17, and then not again until verse 29. He does not say, nor can he, that “Jesus” was in the beginning. “Jesus” is the name given to the God-man, born of the virgin Mary. It is His human name, which is given Him only after His incarnation.
In John 1:1-3, John is speaking of our Lord’s pre-existence as “the second person of the Godhead.” When John refers to our Lord here, he calls Him “the Word.”
There was no danger of this being misunderstood; Old Testament readers would pick up the reference at once. God’s Word in the Old Testament is His creative utterance, His power in action fulfilling His purpose.
By and large, the terms “Messiah,” “Son of God,” and “Jesus” are only appropriate when referring to our Lord after His incarnation. Our Lord has always existed as God, and He has always existed in unity and fellowship with God the Father. But He did not become God incarnate (Jesus) until the incarnation, described by Matthew and Luke.
The most obvious and important connection John makes is this: The God who created the universe is the One who was found lying in a Bethlehem manger.
This affirmation of the deity of Jesus Christ is constantly made in the Gospel of John. Jesus claims not only to be God, but to have come down from the Father in heaven. This is what those who trust in Him come to believe. This is what His enemies seek to deny:
“The one who comes from above is superior to all. The one who is from the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is superior to all” (John 3:31).
For this reason the Jewish authorities were trying even harder to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was also calling God his own Father, thus making himself equal with God (John 5:18).
31 “Our ancestors ate the manna in the desert, just as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32 Then Jesus said to them, “I tell you the solemn truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but my Father is giving you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:31-33).
“For I have come down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me” (John 6:38).
47 I tell you the solemn truth, the one who believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, and they died. 50 This is the bread that has come down from heaven, so that a person may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats from this bread he will live forever. The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” … 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like your ancestors ate and died. The one who eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:47-51,58)
28 Then Jesus shouted out while teaching in the temple, “You both know me and know where I come from! And I have not come on my own initiative, but the one who sent me is true. You do not know him, 29 but I know him, because I have come from him and he sent me” (John 7:28-29).
Jesus answered, “Even if I testify about myself, my testimony is true, because I know where I came from and where I am going. But you people do not know where I came from or where I am going” (John 8:14).
Jesus replied, “You people are from below; I am from above. You people are from this world; I am not from this world” (John 8:23).
40 But now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth I heard from God. Abraham did not do this! 41 You people are doing the deeds of your father.” Then they said to Jesus, “We were not born as a result of sexual immorality! We have only one Father, God himself. 42 Jesus replied, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come from God and am now here. I have not come on my own initiative, but he sent me” (John 8:40-42).
56 Your father Abraham was overjoyed to see my day, and he saw it and was glad.” 57 Then the Jewish people who had been listening to him replied, “You are not yet fifty years old! Have you seen Abraham?”