1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God.
A few years ago the Associated Press reported that a Manhattan civil court judge had granted a 42-year-old man named Jose Luis Espinal the right to change his name. This, of course, is not particularly newsworthy in and of itself. What makes it interesting was that Espinal wanted to change his name to Jesus Christ.
Judge Diane Lebedeff granted Espinal’s request, much, I should point out, to his delight.
His reason for wanting to do so? I’ll let you hear his words: “I am the person that is that name,” Espinal said. “This was not done for any reason other than I am that person. You’re dealing with the real deal.”
Mr. Espinal will simply have to forgive us if (1) we prefer the use of his given name and (2) we are more than skeptical of his claim to be “the real deal.”
When it comes to Jesus, there’s only one “real deal,” and He did not have to petition a judge for the name. He was given it by God, and He reigns on high forevermore.
In truth, I think we can fairly summarize John’s purpose in writing his gospel as a desire to present “the real deal” to the church. We’ll look at why John wished to do so in a moment, but, first, let me take a moment and explain why this issue is so very important.
The fact of the matter is that the church rises and falls on its view of Christ. The question, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15) is the most crucial question the church must answer. If we get that wrong, we get everything else wrong. If we answer it well, we do so to the strengthening, edification, and growth of the church.
We may allow ourselves to be unsure of many things, but we dare not be unsure of the identity of Jesus. John understood this point well, and so he wrote an entire gospel to show how and why Jesus was the real deal.
John is not ambiguous in his gospel about why he wrote it. He spells out why clearly in the last two verses of the next-to-the-last chapter in the book:
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written 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.” (John 20:30-31)
We see, then, that John’s purpose was two-fold: (1) to lead the readers of this gospel to belief in Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of God,” and (2) to lead the readers of the gospel to salvation and a new way of living life as through believing on Christ.
John’s purpose, then, is not mere biography. In truth, none of the gospels are mere biography. Yet it has been universally recognized that John’s gospel is unique from the first three gospels (the so-called “synoptic gospels”).
John’s gospel, including how he arranged and presented it, has as its goal nothing less than the presentation of “the real deal” to all who will listen and see. He is not concerned with information for information’s sake. Instead, he is concerned with life-changing good news that, when embraced, forever changes the life the one who believes.
Why should John’s gospel be studied today? There are many reasons, but two in particular are noteworthy:
1. John was writing in a religious culture that was very similar to our own.
The late New Testament scholar E. Earle Ellis wrote that, “In many ways John probably would feel more at home in our century than in any since his own day.” While Ellis wrote this sentiment in 1965, it is nothing but more true today.
John’s world was one of great societal, political, and religious upheaval. Religiously, the church was in a very similar situation at the end of the first century to the situation in which she finds herself today at the beginning of the twenty-first.
The basic doctrines of the church, particularly the person and nature of Jesus, were being redefined by heretical groups from within the church in the first century. Particularly, John’s culture had to deal with the threat of two heresies: Gnosticism and Docetism. Both of these movements sought to say that Jesus had been misunderstood, that he was really, for instance, a teacher of secret, hidden knowledge, or, in the case of Docetism, that he was not really human, flesh and blood.
The church was also in a great time of conflict with those outside of the faith. In particular, John’s gospel reveals a growing conflict between the early Chrstians and the Jews. This is a time when the Christians are being expelled from the synagogues, and tension is rife.
It was also a time when the church was threatened from outside by pagan Greek philosophies and secular ideas. The gospel was foolishness to the Greeks, and they relished in lampooning the faith.
So it was a time of great uncertainty and of great spiritual danger. When John wrote, nothing less than the very definition of Christianity and the very identity of Christ was at stake.
And so it is in our world: the threat of radical Islam and it’s redefinition of Christ, the rise of a new kind of militant atheism that is aggressively telling young Christians that there is no God and that claims the church has spoken a lie about Jesus, the undermining of the reliability of the Bible…all of these realities and more have caused a feeling of unease in the church, a quiet sense among otherwise faithful people that we cannot know who Jesus was and what He meant.
It is to these questions that John directs this gospel. The gospel of John is a clear trumpet blast of truth in the midst of a time of great uncertainty.
2.We should also study John because John understood the vital connection between right belief and right living.
Right belief is the basis or foundation of right living. To embrace Jesus and His radical person is to embrace the radical implications of Jesus in one’s life.
This is what is so very frustrating about those who say, “It does not matter what you believe about Jesus so long as you follow Him.”
But it does matter a great deal to me because the identity of the one I am following will dictate how I follow and to what extent I follow.
If, for instance, I think that Jesus is merely good but not divine, I will trust Him up until the point that He asks me to do something that makes no sense to me. I will, in other words, listen to the sound advice of a man I think is good, but I would not lay down my life for him if I thought he was merely good.
It matters who you think Jesus is, and, to this end, John writes his amazing gospel under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus the Word
At the outset of John’s gospel, he does something most surprising. He applies a title to Jesus that no other writer applies. He calls Jesus, “the Word.” The Greek word for this is “logos.” Jesus is, “the Logos!”
In doing this, John could not have chosen a more loaded word. The word “word” had various meanings to different groups at the time in which John wrote.
For instance, the Stoic philosophers believed that the world was governed and held together by a kind of universal spirit or soul, a rational principle that gave meaning and direction to all things. They called this universal spirit “the word” or “the logos.”
Others see a connection between this word “word” and the Jewish use of the word “wisdom.” For instance, wisdom is personified in Proverbs 1:20-33 as a woman crying aloud. Furthermore, consider the similarities between John’s description of “the Word” in John 1 and Proverbs’ depiction of the voice of wisdom in Proverbs 8:
22 “The LORD possessed me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of old.
23Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
24When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
25Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth,
26before he had made the earth with its fields,
or the first of the dust of the world.
27When he established the heavens, I was there;
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
29when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
30then I was beside him, like a master workman,
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
31 rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the children of man.
32“And now, O sons, listen to me:
blessed are those who keep my ways.
33 Hear instruction and be wise,
and do not neglect it.
34 Blessed is the one who listens to me,
watching daily at my gates,
waiting beside my doors.
35For whoever finds me finds life
and obtains favor from the LORD,
36but he who fails to find me injures himself;
all who hate me love death.”
But that is not all. Others have pointed out that the word “word” was used as a title for God Himself in the Aramaic translations of the Old Testament called “the Targums.” John Roning has recently argued this case in his The Jewish Targums and John’s Logos Theology:
“This book depends entirely on, and argues for, the view that John’s decision to call Jesus ‘the Word,’ the Logos…was influenced by the Targums, the Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Scriptures, many or most of which were prepared for recitation in the synagogue after the reading of the Hebrew text. In hundreds of cases in these Targums, where the MT refers to God, the corresponding Targum passage refers to the divine Word. Considered against this background, calling Jesus ‘the Word’ is a way of identifying him with the God of Israel.”
Clearly the word “word” (logos) meant many things to many people.
This makes verse one all the more significant: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
What was John trying to do? Which understanding of “word” was he trying to redefine in applying the title to Christ?
Likely, he was thinking of all of these understandings. In other words, John appears to be aware that the word has many meanings and he seems to be making a general statement about how Christ is the fulfillment of every previous attempt to understand and describe God.
What the Stoics envisioned as the cosmic soul of the universe was nothing less than Christ Himself, for “he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:17)
What the Old Testament calls the wisdom of God is nothing less than Christ Himself.
When the Targums spoke of God as “the Word” they were really, if unknowingly, speaking of Christ Himself.
Jesus, then, is the fulfillment of all attempts to envision who God is. He is the fruition and culmination of all titles. He is “the Word” of God!
In this sense, what John is doing may not be terribly different from what Paul did when he addressed the Athenians in Acts 17:22-23:
“Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.
John, likewise, is going to explain the God to whom others were reaching without full knowledge. John, like Paul, was doing nothing less than showing the world “the real deal.”
Jesus, the God-Man
As staggering as this is, there are even more reasons for awe at the person of Christ.
Imagine with me for a moment that you are a Jewish man or woman or boy or girl. You have been raised in a faithful Jewish home. You are familiar with the Hebrew scriptures. Their words and phrases are ingrained in your thinking.
Were somebody to approach you and say, “In the beginning…”, you would instinctively finish the sentence, “God created the Heavens and the earth.”
These words are as familiar to you, a faithful Jew, as the air you breathe. You know the language. You know the order of things.
“In the beginning…God.”
It is the foundational statement of your faith. It is the very essence of your understanding of reality.
“In the beginning…God.”
Then imagine with me that you come upon a friend of yours who is reading a scroll. You ask what he is reading. “Something unusual,” he says. “Something troubling.”
“Well,” you say, “let me hear it.”
“Ok, listen to this,” your friend replies. Then he begins to read: “In the beginning…”
Ah! But you know these words. You do not remember a time when you did not know them! You finish the sentence out loud for your friend: “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the earth.”
“That is not unusual,” you say to your friend with a smile.
“No,” he responds. “Listen to how this reads: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
“In the beginning was the Word?” you ask. “Well, I have heard some of the rabbis speak of God as the Word. That is not the usual way of putting it, but I understand.”
“No, no, no,” your friend continues. “Listen to this: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…”
Imagine how you, a devout Jew, would receive this startling statement. “The word became…flesh?!”
Do you see what John has done here? It is quite scandalous on the face of it. He is applying the Genesis language of creation to Christ Himself. He is saying that this Jesus is none other than He who created the Heavens and the earth.
He is saying that this Word, this Jesus, is God Himself among us.
The assertion is no less amazing to us today than it would have been to a first-century Jew. It is a bold assertion of the deity and divinity of Jesus. It is an assertion that has shaken the world for over two-millennia now.
But, most importantly, it is an assertion that has the potential, if grasped and believed, to change your life utterly and profoundly. For the Word has not only been spoken, He has been spoken to you and for you.
 E. Earle Ellis, The World of St. John. Bible Guides. eds. William Barclay and F.F. Bruce (London: Lutterworth Press, 1965), 94.
 John Ronning, The Jewish Targums and John’s Logos Theology. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), 1.