“In beginning was the Word, and the Word was with the God, and God was the Word” (a very literal translation of John 1:1).
My previous article asked whether or not it is necessary to believe that Jesus is the One True God in order to be considered a Christian. My answer was “no”, and Biblical reasons were given for that answer. However, since there are a handful of Bible verses which seem to teach that Jesus is the One God, I discussed one of those verses (John 10:30), and said that I would be looking at other such verses in future articles. So today I want to look at John 1:1.
At “first blush”, this verse would indeed seem to be conclusive on the matter. Doesn’t it specifically say “and the Word was God”, as all of the major (popular) translations render it? Yet there are immediate questions that pop up for any thinking person. The verse also says “the Word was with God”, and that certainly means that the Word was distinct from God. I can’t be with someone, and at the same time be the ‘someone’ I’m with, can I? Yet that would appear to be what John said, wouldn’t it? How is that to be explained? Was John so ignorant as to contradict himself in the same sentence?
The answer to this logical dilemma lies in the Greek language and sentence structure, Greek of course being the language in which John wrote. While the Greek language has a definite article (“the”), it does not have an indefinite article (“a” or “an”). So if a noun is intended to be indefinite (“a” man, rather than “the” man – John, Joe, or Dave for instance), it would be written without an article (“man” rather than “the man”). In John 1:1, as shown in the ‘very literal’ rendering above, “Word” has the definite article all 3 times it appears in the verse. “God”, however, has the definite article the first time (“and the Word was with the God“), but not the second time (“and God was the Word“).
There are 2 questions we have to ask about John’s phrasing and sentence structure: (1) why didn’t he speak of “the God” in the third phrase as he did in the second phrase; and (2) since “the Word” is clearly the subject of the sentence, and each phrase within the sentence, why did John put “God” first in the last phrase? In other words, combining those 2 questions, why didn’t John say “and the Word was the God” rather than “and God was the Word”?
To answer question (2) first: while in English the order in which words appear in a sentence will normally determine whether a word is the subject or the predicate of the sentence, that is not the case in Greek (and a number of other languages). That is, we would say “Jack is a mechanic”, but it would be awkward English (to put it mildly) to say “a mechanic is Jack”. In Greek that is not the case. A word will appear in a sentence according to the emphasis the writer (or speaker) wishes to place on the word. So if a Greek speaker wishes to emphasize the fact that Jack’s occupation is mechanic, he would say “a mechanic is Jack” – in that way emphasizing the word “mechanic”. In the third phrase in John’s sentence, he wanted to emphasize the word “god”, showing who (or what) the Word is, so he put it first, and before the verb “was”. “God was the Word”.
But, to go back to the first question, why didn’t John say “the God was the Word”? That would have really settled the matter of the Deity of Christ, wouldn’t it? But instead John used “god” without the article, and that indicated an “indefinite” meaning for the word “god”. In other words, John knew his Greek well enough to know what he was doing, and he deliberately did not say “the” God. To have done so would have introduced a contradiction by saying that the Word was with “the” God, and yet at the same time was “the” God; that is, the Word was with his Father, and at the same time was his own Father. But without the article, the word “god” takes on an adjectival meaning, describing the nature of the Word, not a noun describing the “person” of the word. That is, as Goodspeed’s translation renders it, “the Word was divine” (and Moffat’s translation renders it “the logos [word] was divine”). Being the “self expression” of God, and the son of God, he naturally ‘inherits’ the nature and character of God.
A good parallel, to show how this works in the Greek language, is the instance in John 10 where the Jews were getting ready to stone Jesus. In verse 33, they explain why they were planning to stone him: “It is not for a good work that we stone you but for blasphemy; because you, being a man, make yourself God”. A very literal rendering would be: “because you, man [no article] being, make yourself god [no article]”. “Man” without the article, would be equivalent to “human”: “You, being human…” “God” without the article, is equivalent to “divine”, or “a god”. “You, being human, make yourself a god [or divine]”. Even the Jews did not accuse Jesus of claiming to be “the God” – that is, of identifying himself with the one true God, the Father. But they were offended that he seemed to be claiming to be “a god”, one having a divine nature rather than human. Jesus’ answer, though, was that their Law, in which they claimed to trust and which they thought could not be broken, called men, to whom the word of God came, ‘gods’; so there could be no evil in Jesus, whom God had consecrated and sent into the world, calling himself God’s son. Jesus considered himself ‘god’ only in the same way that other men (his brothers, as being children or sons of God, made in God’s image) were called gods in the very Scriptures the Jews acknowledged as “Law”. That is, Jesus claimed for himself nothing that is not common to all men. He is the unmarred and shining example of what the rest of humanity is by nature also; but the image of God in us is marred, and needs to be restored; and Jesus’ ministry was and is to restore us to the image of God. Did Jesus have ‘glory’ with the Father before the world was made (John 17:5)? Well, the glory which he had by the gift of the Father he gives to his brothers (John 17:22). Does all the fullness of God dwell in Jesus (Colossians 1:19; 2:9)? Believers in Christ are “his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:23), and it is the purpose of God that we also shall be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:19) and the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13). No, the Word is not “the” God, but he is the image and likeness of “the” God, and so are we (or we shall be)! Jesus is our “elder brother” to whose image we will be conformed (Romans 8:29). We will never be “the God”, but we are by nature “god-like” or “divine”, and we will yet actively “partake” of that divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).
I will take up the teaching of John in verse 3 (“all things were made through him”) when I look at Colossians 1:15-20 – which I believe will be my next article.