In the Beginning was the Word

Prologue to the Gospel of John. Home Moravian Church Adult Bible Class. Originally aired on October 8, 2006Introduction:               Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. It has been a week filled with disturbing news from the centers of government to rural communities. Our prayers are with our Amish brothers and sisters in Pennsylvania who faced such evil this week. Together we pray to the Prince of Peace who grants the peace that passes all understanding. We worry so much about foreign terrorists, but this week is a reminder that hatred and abuse live in our own neighborhoods and that weapons of mass murder are easy to obtain in America. Also this week at Home Church, we laid to rest one of our saints, John Hutchinson, who was a regular participant in this Bible class and a model of Christian devotion.             On a much lighter note, my daughter Madeleine turned seven this week. We had a party at our house on Saturday with lots of laughter. Before we turn our attention to the opening chapter of John’s Gospel, I have something that might amuse you. My daughter Sarah went to the Shakespeare Festival with her confirmation mentor this week. Something not included in the play were these recently discovered Shakespearean instructions for dancing the Hokey Pokey:O proud left foot, that ventures quick within
Then soon upon a backward journey lithe.
Anon, once more the gesture, then begin:
Command sinistral pedestal to writhe.
Commence thou then the fervid Hokey-Poke,
A mad gyration, hips in wanton swirl.
To spin! A wilde release from Heavens yoke.
Blessed dervish! Surely canst go, girl.
The Hoke, the poke — banish now thy doubt
Verily, I say, ’tis what it’s all about.
 The Prologue as Poetry:        That was just a reminder that in poetry and prose, it is important that the style match the subject matter. It is good that the style of the prologue to John’s Gospel matches the dignity of its message. Let me read the opening lines in Greek so that you can get a sense of its poetic qualities. There is little doubt that the opening verses of the Gospel of John were originally a poem or even a hymn that was sung in the church founded by the Beloved Disciple. We do not know for sure when the hymn was written. We don’t even know if the hymn is older or more recent than the rest of the Gospel. It is possible that the evangelist chose or composed this hymn to express in summary form the themes of his book, but it is just as likely that a later editor, perhaps a student, added this beautiful hymn to his master’s gospel story.             One thing is clear to most readers of the opening hymn. Someone inserted statements in it that were not there originally. These parenthetical statements read like prose rather than poetry. They are explanatory insertions that deal with two main topics. One is the relationship of Jesus to John the Baptist and the other the relationship of Jesus to the Jews. We will see that these are important themes throughout the Gospel, but the parentheses do detract from the beauty and meaning of the original hymn. I am going to read the prologue today without the insertions using the translation of Raymond Brown, who was the leading Johanine scholar in America in the 20th century. Beginning:      The Gospel of Mark opens with the phrase: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” In contrast, John’s Gospel begins with an echo of the grand opening of the book of Genesis, the first of the five books of the Law, which we call the Pentateuch. “In the beginning God created…” You may recall from a year ago that the opening lines of the Hebrew Bible may be translated several ways. It could even be translated “When God began to create the heavens and the earth,” but the Greek of John’s Gospel is not ambiguous. It is referring to the beginning of time and creation itself. The Word was with God before the visible world was crafted by God.            Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy of Jesus tracing his ancestry back to Abraham, and Luke includes a genealogy that goes back to Adam, but John’s vision is much larger than simply the history of Jesus’ family or even the human race. His account of the life of Jesus begins with creation itself. Christ has cosmic significance for John, and his work of redemption involves the whole order of the universe. That is a bold claim and this verse would become a lynchpin of orthodox Christian doctrine. Without this prologue Christian teaching on Jesus might have developed in quite different ways.Logos:             One of the most difficult words to translate in the New Testament is the simple word “Word” here in the Prologue. The Greek word is logos. Nowhere else in Scripture is Jesus called the Logos or Word of God, except in the Book of Revelation. Even in the Gospel of John, this phrase is not used except for the Prologue. Even so, the logos would become one of the most important ways in which the early church understood Jesus.             It is a very important word, but there is no consensus on how to translate the logos. Normally it is simply translated as “word,” which is how Jewish scribes in Alexandria translated the Old Testament idea of the ‘word of God’ into Greek. In Greek, the Old Testament prophets spoke the logos of God. Certainly, the author of John’s Gospel was familiar with the Greek version of the Old Testament, and he may have used logos in the sense of the “Word of the Lord” as spoken by the biblical prophets. That appears to be the way Christ is seen in as the Word in Revelation. If this in the case, the prologue of John becomes a little more manageable. Jesus is simply a divine profit doing God’s will on earth.            But there are reasons to suspect that the author of the Gospel meant more than this by using the word logos. The logos here is seen as an important part of the work of God in creation. It is likely the author had in mind the idea of the logos as rational speech and thought from Greek philosophy. It is the “word” by which we understand the universe in which we live. The English word “logic” is based on the Greek word logos. Logos also supplies the root of all those “ologies” that you see in college catalogs: Psychology, Sociology, Geology, Pathology. We use “ology” to mean “the study of” something, but that means that we use words to make sense of something. For the Greeks, science and philosophy rely on the logos.            According to some schools of Greek philosophy, the cosmos was formed through the logos. In this sense, logos means the natural order of the universe. The reason that the ancient scientists could calculate the circumference of the Earth and predict future eclipses was because they believed that the universe makes sense. It works by cosmic laws of order. The universe is logical, they said, because it was formed by the Logos. We do not know if the author of John meant to say that the rational order of the universe was in the beginning with God, but the early readers of this Gospel certainly read it that way. In the beginning was the rationality of God. This became an important part of Christian theology.Sophia:            There is a way to bring together the Greek understanding of the logos and the Hebrew idea of the creative and prophetic word of God, and that is the idea of divine Wisdom. In Proverbs 8:22-36 we have a poem to divine wisdom, which in Greek was called Sophia. “The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts long ago.” The poem goes on to say that Sophia was with God as he crafted each part of the earth and skies. The parallels between Proverbs 8 and John 1 have been noted since the 3rd century, and there have been those who have read John 1 as saying, “In the beginning was Wisdom.” Since Sophia is a feminine word in Greek, in recent years feminist theologians have read the Prologue as saying, “In the beginning was Sophia.” But that is probably straying too far from the actual text. The author could have said that quite easily in Greek, but he chose to say logos. So we are left with the rich and stimulating ambiguity of the phrase “In the beginning was the Word.” The key point is that this was God’s creative word: the word that spoke the worlds into being in Genesis.The Word was God:               For more than seventeen hundred years scholars have discussed and debated the meaning of logos, but that is only the beginning of the issues related to the Prologue. This hymn to Christ goes on to say that the Word was “with God” and “was God.” It seems so simple, but each of those phrases has all sorts of translation difficulties, most of which are too complicated for a Sunday morning. Part of the problem is the preposition, which originally meant to approach something or to face something. By John’s time, it often meant to accompany someone in the sense of going with someone. The early commentators on John’s gospel were not sure how to interpret this little phrase. Did it mean that the Word accompanied God in the act of creation? Or did it mean that the Word contemplated and worshiped God as he created? Does it refer to an eternal relationship between God and the Word? One thing we can determine is that the relationship of the Word and God was there before humans were created. The Word is in a special relationship to God.Was God:       That alone is a mind-expanding concept for the opening verse of the story of Jesus, but the Prologue goes further. “And the Word was God.” This has even more difficulties in translation because the Greek word for God here, theos, does not have a definite article. Some people have translated this as “The Word was a god,” which raises all kinds of difficulties, and is unlikely to say the least. Some have rendered this verse as “The Word was divine” (Raymond Brown, Gospel of John, vol. 1,, 5), but the author of John could have said that directly. The intention of the phrase does seem to be that the Word was what God is. Curiously, the phrase actually places the word God first. Creation:        In saying that the Word was God, this does not mean that the Word is no longer God or that the Word no longer exists. It is saying that the divine nature of the Word was from the very beginning. Part of the artistry of this hymn is that it builds like a staircase, perhaps a spiral staircase, so that the repetition of key ideas adds to the overall effect rather than distracting from it. The role of the Word in creation is clarified in verse 3. “All things came into being through him.” If the Word was God from the beginning, then it makes sense that the Word was part of God’s creative activity in the beginning.             There are parallels to the prologue of John in other hymns to Christ in the New Testament. The most famous are found in Philippians 2 and Colossians 1. These hymns all address a common theme. Christ is the true image of God who existed from the beginning and who came to earth in human form. Like John’s prologue, Colossians speaks of all things being made through Christ. In this light, it is particularly interesting that one of the earliest references to Christianity from a non-Christian source is a letter from Pliny to the emperor Trajan in 117 AD. He refers to people who sing hymns to Christ “as to a god.” There is also a collection of 2nd century Christian hymns called the Odes of Solomon that express similar themes. In recent years it has become popular to say that the church proclaimed Jesus as divine in the 4th century, but the truth is that by the end of the 1st century the followers of Jesus viewed him as the Word of God in human flesh. Trinity:            From 200 AD to 500 AD the church had many battles over how to express the divinity of Christ. We don’t need to go into all of those fights this morning, but it is important to recognize that the fights concerned how Christ was divine, not whether he was divine. Over time, the doctrine of the Trinity was formulated and approved by church councils. The doctrine attempts to clarify the relationship and work of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. According to orthodox teaching, all three are God yet each is distinct. For the most part theologians and worshipers alike have viewed the Father as the Creator and the Son as the Redeemer, but the Gospel of John was written before the great councils. It was an important resource for the theologians of the Church, but John’s gospel does not separate the work of the Father and Son. For those accustomed to the Nicene and Apostles Creeds, it is a bit of a shock to read the Prologue of John where the Word is the Creator.             We’ll keep coming back to the question of the relationship of the Father and the Son in John’s Gospel, but the important point for today is that the all things were created through the Word of God. It might interest Moravians to learn that for about 100 years, Moravian liturgies, catechisms, and hymns consistently held to the perspective of John’s Gospel that Christ was the Creator as well as the Redeemer. Jesus:             It is important for us to recognize, however, that the Gospel of John does not proclaim that Jesus was the Creator. It was the Word that was with God and was God, not the human being Jesus of Nazareth. When we refer to the “pre-existent” Christ, we are speaking of twin aspects of the Son of God. One is that the Word or the Son or the Christ, whatever term you prefer, existed prior to the person Jesus who was born on a specific day during the reign of Caesar Augustus. The Word or Son became incarnate in Jesus, but the incarnation marked a new phase of history. Thus, we should not look for Jesus in the Old Testament, but Christians may see traces of the Son of God in the ancient Scriptures.Life:    This is a lot of theology in just three verses of an ancient hymn, and we should not push things too far. This is the language of praise and worship, not philosophy or science, and the following verses give insight into why we should praise the Word. “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” This will be one of the central themes of the entire Gospel; in fact, this is the good news itself. The Word of God is a life-giving word. The parallel with the first chapter of Genesis become important here. Creation is life and light. The work of Jesus described in the rest of the Gospel will be the work of restoring creation and bringing light and truth to the world. Forms of Christianity that promote death and destruction are contrary to the nature of Christ in John’s Gospel. Forms of Christianity that promote ignorance and small-mindedness are contrary to the nature of Christ in John’s Gospel. The mission of the church is to bring light to the world, not darkness, despair, or destruction.Darkness:       There is opposition to this mission, though. The Gospel of John will address the historical reality that Jesus of Nazareth was murdered by the Roman Empire with the complicity of the high priests in Jerusalem. This is alluded to in a beautiful piece of poetry in the Prologue. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” There is a sense of cosmic struggle here between the forces of light, life, and creation and the force of darkness and non-existence. The nature of that struggle varies according to translation. This verse could mean that the darkness did not comprehend or grasp the meaning of the light. It could mean that the darkness did not receive or accept the light. Or that the darkness could not overcome or overpower the light.               I think it is likely that all of these are meant. Ignorance, fear, and evil are often combined and are most clearly recognized in their unthinking opposition to goodness. The hopeful aspect of the Gospel is that the light continues to shine even in a world where nations drop bombs on weddings and men kill children to silence their own demons. 

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Comments

  • char58  On November 1, 2007 at 12:52 pm

    Do a “find” on profit. That sentence has two typos. This is great, and I have enjoyed reading it. If this is a hymn, then it was meant to be sung, so someone who knows Greek could sing it?

    They tried to bury the author of the Hokey Pokey, did you hear? They couldn’t get him in the coffin. They kept putting his right leg in, and it would come out. Sorry, and I completely understand if this is not added to your comments!

    Charlotte Fairchild, we met during the Faith of our Daughters conference two years ago. I was the Southern Baptist minister with the Fertile Prayers book who knows Al Reynolds, the librarian.

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