The beginning of the Gospel according to John sounds more like Genesis than the other gospels: “In the beginning … .” In fact, John uses the same opening phrase as the Greek translation of the Old Testament.
Many different questions come to mind when we look at the first 18 verses of John. He weaves the themes of this prologue throughout the storyline of the book: Jesus is light and life (1:4-5); John the Baptist is the witness par excellence (1:6-8, 15); people can become God’s children (1:12-13); Christ reveals God as no other can (1:15-18).
We will look at these themes more as we encounter them later. For now, we will look at three issues: (1) Why does John call Jesus “the Word”? (2) Why is the prologue of John so different than the rest of this Gospel (or any other gospel)? (3) How does this passage show the uniqueness of Christianity?
Let’s take the first question: Why does John call Jesus “the Word”? Word, or Logos (in Greek), is a word that occurs both in Greek philosophy and Jewish religious texts. For many Greeks, Logos was a principle that is both behind and in all of reality. A Jewish philosopher named Philo used this word to describe an attribute of God. The Greek translation of Psalm 33:6 is the closest to John’s usage: God creates the world by His Logos, and in John everything comes into being through the Word. The Logos of God is God’s expression of Himself. John 1 is one of the major reasons Christians believe that Jesus is the second person of the Trinity. To paraphrase biblical scholar Gerald Borchert, we see both community and unity in the Godhead: “The Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).
The second question is why this prologue is so different. If you are reading through the New Testament, then you read John 1 not long after you read about Jesus’ appearance to the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24. We transition from the moving resurrection story to short sentences about deep subjects. To call this passage “philosophical poetry” is probably not completely accurate, but we can think of the prologue this way: These verses answer some of our deepest questions in such a way that the style of writing matches the worth of the subject. It’s exalted language about an exalted God.
Now to the last question: What makes Christianity unique in John 1:1-18? The great theologian Augustine of Hippo says in book seven of his “Confessions” that in his non-Christian philosophical reading, he had encountered the substance of the first verses of John. When he reached verse 14, however, he saw something he had never seen before: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the one and only from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Several philosophies and religions have held that perhaps some eternal principle existed with or within God, but no one held that this eternal Logos came to dwell with humans as a human. Christianity holds to the Incarnation: The Word came fully in the flesh (Latin: in carne).
God has come to us, and His glory exploded into the world. This truth overwhelmed John, and it overwhelms all who continue to take his words seriously.