Our little red tool box sits on a chest of drawers in the garage. Smaller than the average toolbox, it contains the most basic tools needed to function in a home and for those “some assembly required” purchases: hammer, screwdrivers, tape measure, pliers, etc. Without these basics we would be really helpless. Of all the tools in the box, the Phillips-head screw driver is easily the most used and so it has a place of special honor on top of the heap.
Words are the fundamental tools of language. Of all the words in the English vocabulary, “word” itself has taken on many uses and meanings. For example, we may ask someone to give us his word, we believe a man is as good as his word, up to date information on a subject is considered the latest word, in an argument we want the last word and, when someone says something truthful or insightful we might simply respond: “Word.” You might call word one of our most used tools.
Language evolves over time. When reading ancient literature, including the Bible, we miss something when we gloss over some phrases, including this one about the Word:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)
First, the Gospel of John, unlike that of Luke, is not considered a biography so much as a thematic presentation of Jesus’ life. John wanted people to understand that Jesus’ actions and teachings are inseparable from who he is. He shows Jesus as fully God and fully human–he took on full humanity but never ceased being eternal God (Creator, Sustainer of all things, source of eternal life). As one of Jesus’ disciples and eye witness to the things he recorded, John wanted to convey this foundational truth so that people could believe that Jesus really was the Son of God.
John wrote to people of different cultures and backgrounds. Many in his reading audience were Greeks. To them, John wanted to show that Jesus is not only different from but superior to the mythological gods of their traditions. John wanted to prove to his Jewish readers that Jesus is the fulfillment of all Old Testament literature, also referred to as the written Word.
So, what does John mean when he calls Jesus the Word? Theologians and philosophers of both cultures used the term in many different ways. In Hebrew Scripture, the Word was an agent of creation (Psalm 33:6), the source and message to his people through the prophets (Hosea 1:2) and God’s law and standard of holiness (Psalm 119:11). To Greek philosophers the Word was the principle of reason that governed the world, while to Hebrews the Word was another way of saying God. John’s introduction to his Gospel clearly explains that he his talking about Jesus (vs. 14) as a human being he knew and loved and, simultaneously God–Creator of all things, the ultimate revelation of God and, the living manifestation of his holiness.To the Jewish readers, “the Word was God” (in reference to Jesus or any man) was blasphemous; to the Greek reader, “the Word became flesh” was unthinkable. John introduced a completely new use of the Word as gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ.
As we read the first chapter of the Gospel of John with this deeper understanding, layers of meaning and truth open up to us. What John is saying was–and is–revolutionary. To John, to think that Jesus was just a good man or a great teacher was to miss the point entirely. Here he emphatically insists that with the advent, death and resurrection of Jesus, God has had the last Word.