Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ January 8, 2012 ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5, NRSV)
John’s Gospel, his account of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, opens with these three words, “In the beginning…” Those words sound familiar to anybody here? They are, of course, an echo of the very words which open the Hebrew Scriptures. The whole story of God’s work in the world opens with Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
What would the President of the United Statesbe attempting to do if he began his Inaugural Address with these words, “We the people of theUnited States, in order to form a more perfectUnion”? By going back to the Constitution, to the foundational document of our nation, he would be telling us that his presidency was going to be another chapter in the grand story of this great democratic experiment we call the United States of America.
In the same way, John is making clear right from the start that what he is about to tell us about this carpenter’s son from Nazareth is not simply the story of one character in one place at one time. This Jesus, instead, is part of the much larger story of God’s working in this world. In other words, what God is doing through Jesus has everything to do with what God has already done. His Gospel, John makes it clear, is just the next scene in this magnificent and ageless drama.
Now, before we look at what John says next, let me offer a word of warning. We are about to go swimming in some deep waters. And try as we might, we are not going to be able to reach the bottom.
When I was a kid we’d play a game every summer in the pool. Our city pool had a deep end, maybe 12 or 14 feet deep. As kids, we liked to see who could swim all the way down and touch the bottom at the deepest point. To make the contest legitimate, we’d sink a few pennies so that you had to prove you’d actually made it to the bottom.
As a young kid and a new swimmer, it was a challenge. At the time, 12 feet was a long way. And when I got down that far the pressure on my ears was strong, even painful. I still vividly remember that panicky feeling of racing back to the surface of the water, afraid that I was going to pass out for lack of breath before I got there.
The deepest water in the world can be found in a part of thePacific Oceancalled the Mariana Trench. I’ve read that the waters there go nearly 7 miles deep. Mount Everestcould fit inside that space. Now, imagine trying to dive down and pick up a penny at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. The thought itself is ridiculous.
The words we just read from the opening of John’s Gospel run so unfathomably deep that we will never come close to seeing, much less reaching, the bottom. I could preach on these first five verses alone for this entire year and we would barely scratch the surface. There is such profound truth here, much of it far too profound for our human minds to ever grasp.
Once in while I’ll catch our dog, Tawnie, looking at some electronic device in our house, the television or the computer, and she’ll do this thing where she perks up her ears and tilts her head to the side in this blank stare that says, “I have absolutely no idea what it is I’m looking at.”
If you make a good faith effort to study and understand these opening verses of John’s Gospel, you will have a similar reaction. When you do, do not despair. Remember that John is trying to use finite human language to capture and describe the nature of our infinite God. Were he the most brilliant wordsmith in the world, he would still fall woefully short.
So will I as I try to interpret what he writes here. In fact, I may not be able to explain his words to you very well at all. All I may be able to do is to tell you what they say.
Listen again to what they say. With great intentionality, John begins his Gospel with these words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”
John reminds us what we learned in Genesis. Before there was anything, before there was time, before all of creation existed, before life as we know it, there was God. Always, there was God. God has no beginning and no ending. God has no birthday. God is outside the bounds of time and space.
This is not new information, of course. This was not John telling the people of his day something that they did not already know. They knew the eternal nature of God. What was new information for them, however, was this declaration that the Word, that Jesus, was also there at the beginning. Now, this was something new.
You see, Jesus’ existence did not begin in the womb of the virgin, Mary. He was born on earth, it’s true, in Bethlehemat Christmas. But he existed long before Bethlehemever was, long before even the earth itself ever was. Jesus was there in the beginning. Jesus was there before the beginning. There was never a time when Jesus was not. For John’s readers, and maybe even for some of us, this is something new.
John goes further and tells us these two things about Jesus in the beginning. First, he says, Jesus was with God in the beginning. Second, Jesus was God in the beginning.
This is where the waters start to run deep. This is where your head should be tilting to the side a bit. How can you be with a person and also, at the same time, be that person. Imagine if I talked like this. Imagine me telling you after church today, “Hey, I was with Jeff on Tuesday. I was Jeff on Tuesday.” You’d want to know what I was smoking on Tuesday.
On the one hand, if Jesus was with God in the beginning, that implies there were at least two persons present at the beginning, Jesus and God. Throw in the Holy Spirit, as scripture does at other points, and now we have three persons there in the beginning. All of a sudden it’s getting crowded at the beginning.
On the other hand, if Jesus is God in the beginning, and the Spirit, as we learn elsewhere in scripture, is also God, then we now only have one person in the beginning, God.
Now, I’m no mathematician, but even I know those numbers just don’t add up. 1 plus 1 plus 1 does not equal 1.
Though the Bible never actually uses this word, the church has long referred to this mathematically-perplexing nature of God as the Trinity – one God known to us in three persons, the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. And ever since the church has taught this truth, the church has struggled to understand this truth. It’s a very confounding and mysterious concept. And since I’ve been a pastor, countless numbers of people have asked me to explain to them the mystery of the Trinity.
When I was younger, I used to try. I had all these fancy analogies I’d use to try and help people understand. Unfortunately, I fear that in every case I ended up doing violence to this truth. Rather then expanding people’s minds to be able to contain this truth of the nature of God, I’d end up carving up the truth of the nature of God in a futile attempt to squeeze it into people’s minds.
My dog will never be able to understand my computer. I can’t even understand my computer! And try as we may, we will never be able to understand the Trinitarian nature of our God. The waters simply run far too deep.
Rather than leading us to despair, however, this realization actually ought to be a source of great encouragement and faith. For imagine if we could explain and understand the nature of God. What sort of God would our God be if we could explain him? I can’t really even understand the complexities of another human being. Would I really want to worship and trust and revere a God I could wrap my brain around? Would a creature worship a creator it could understand?
No, this is one of those places in the Christian faith – and there are many places like this – where we simply cannot explain what God is telling us in his Word. Instead of explanation, what is required here is faith, faith that in spite of the fact that we can’t understand it, this really is the way things are. Actually, it’s imperative that we have faith that the God of Creation is one God who exists in three persons. For as I hope to begin to show you in a moment, this reality has endless implications for our lives.
John himself knows we must have faith specifically that Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter’s son, is one of the three persons of the Trinity. John puts this truth right up front, in the very first words of his Gospel, because he knows we need to see everything we read in the chapters that follow in light of this truth. This Jesus we are about to learn about, this one who went around teaching and performing miracles, this one who was crucified, this one who rose from the dead, he is God. And he has been here since the beginning. The whole story changes when you read it in light of this reality.
So, with this reality in mind, I want to point out three timeless truths we can say about Jesus, each of which has profound relevance for us today.
First, because Jesus is God that means that in Jesus, we are able to finally see what God is truly like. In Colossians 1:15, the Apostle Paul tells us that Jesus is “the image of the invisible God.” In other words, the God we cannot see and know can now be seen and known in Christ. Jesus himself told his disciples in John 14:9, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”
One of the tragic mistakes that people often make is to imagine that we read about one God in the Old Testament and another God in the New Testament. We are tempted to describe the God of the Old Testament as an angry, violent, vengeful sort of deity. At the same time we can see Jesus as a great relief because he, in our minds, is a gracious, and kind, and compassionate sort of God.
The witness of scripture will not allow for this dichotomy. What we see in Jesus is precisely what we find in the Father. The characteristics in one are completely found in the other. And scripture bears this out. Yes, there are some hard things about God we read in the Old Testament. But at the same time, some of the most gracious and compassionate words about God, and from God, are also found in the Old Testament. In the same way, while Jesus is extraordinarily loving and compassionate, some of the Bible’s harshest words of judgment and discipline come out of the mouth of Jesus.
Yes, the Gospels portray Jesus as one who loves beyond comparison, forgives lavishly, sacrifices everything, and goes to the ends of the earth, even to death itself, to bring us back home to God. But when we see this heart in Jesus, we are looking at the very heart of the Father as well. This is one of the reasons why the Gospels are such good news! When we see Jesus, we see God.
Here’s a second truth we can say about Jesus which comes out of the reality that he is God. In Jesus we don’t only see what God is like; we also see what God is doing.
In this passage John describes Jesus as “the Word.” In the original Greek, the word is logos. What an odd way to describe Jesus. But it makes sense once you understand how words were understood in that ancient culture.
In our day, we think words are cheap. And no wonder. There are about half-a-million books published every year. That’s about 1,500 a day. That’s a lot of words. Add to that the nearly half-a-billion websites on the intenet, and the thousands and thousands of magazines and newspapers published every day and we’ve got more words than we know what to do with. And I haven’t even counted the billions of text messages and e-mails that fly around our world all the time. In our day, we think words our cheap. It’s just a matter of supply and demand.
That is not, however, the way 1st century Jews understood words. It’s not how we should understand them either. In those days, people better understood that a word is not simply something that communicates a message. Rather, they knew that a word is intimately connected to the one who speaks it or the one who hears it. As one writer put it, when I speak my words are a part of me. They are full of my breath, made by my throat, my tongue, my lips. And when I speak a word, people assume that I intended it. That is why when my actions don’t match my words, people come back to my and say, “But you said…”
Our words are a part of us. Furthermore, our words don’t just deliver a message, they also have the power to change reality. For example, if I say to you, “I love you”, or, “I hate you,” or, “I forgive you,” or, “I’m afraid of you,” those words don’t just say something, they do something. And likely they do something that can never be fully undone.
Fredrick Buechner writes, “[When we speak] something that lay hidden in the heart is irrevocably released through speech into time, is given substance and tossed like a stone into the pool of history, where the concentric rings lap out endlessly.”
In the Jewish language, word means both “word” and “deed.” Thus, to say something is to do something. This is as true with God as it is with anyone. Remember, for instance, how God created the universe. God did not create with his hands. God created with his words. God simply spoke and light, earth, sky, water, plants, animals came into being. This is also how Jesus did his work. Rarely did Jesus use his hands. Instead, he just spoke words and all at once blind people could see, lame people danced, dead people stood up, water turned into wine, thunder and lightning vanished.
This is more extraordinary good news. What is God doing in this world? God is doing the things we saw the Word, Jesus, doing when he was here. God is bringing good news to the poor, comfort to the brokenhearted, freedom to those who are trapped, sight to those who are blind, understanding to those who are ignorant, favor and grace to those who are guilty and ashamed, life to those who are dying, status as sons and daughters to those who are orphans.
Jesus is the Word of God. That means that in Jesus we do not only gain information to see what God is like, we also see in Jesus what God is doing. Jesus is God’s agent, the one through whom God carries out his plans. This has always been Jesus’ part to play, even in the beginning. As John reminds us, “Through him, [the Word], all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” Not one single atom in creation, the things we can see and touch and even the things we cannot see or touch like emotion, time, dreams, desires, romance, knowledge, all of it was created by, and is redeemed by, and will be sustained by God in Christ.
This leads us to a third truth which comes out of the reality that Jesus is God. Since Christ, as God, is the very author of all of life, the one through whom all things are created, redeemed, and sustained, this means that when it comes to life, Jesus can be trusted. In fact, who else in this life can we really trust besides the author of life?
One of my kids recently received an iTouch as a gift. The other day I picked it up and was playing with some of the functions, and I quickly became aware that the little device in my hands had the capability of doing so much more than I, with my limited knowledge, could make it do. And the thought occurred to me, how great it would be to have Steve Jobs himself come to my house and spend an hour showing me how to get the most out of this computer that his company designed. Unfortunately, that wasn’t going to happen, even if he were still alive. Still, it was fun to imagine.
In the same way, if you want to understand all that life has to offer, to experience all that life holds, who better to teach you and guide you than the One through whom all of life came to be in the first place?
The problem is that we are often tempted to think that the experience of Jesus was limited to a very brief part of history in a very remote corner of the world. “Sure, we say, Jesus was the authority when it came to life in 1st century Palestine. But life in 21st centuryAmerica? Not so much. His teaching made sense back in the day. But times are so different now. So much has changed.”
We must not think like this. Jesus is the author of life, all of life. Jesus possesses deep wisdom, the deepest wisdom, about all aspects of life. Nobody knows more about marriage, or parenting, or work, or health, or rest, or sexuality, or finances, or nature, or government, or friendship, than does Jesus. And Jesus’ teaching on these and every other conceivable aspect of life is timeless because, Jesus himself is timeless. He was here in the beginning. He is here now. He will be here in the end. As Hebrews 13:8 declares, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
John makes this very point when he writes in his prologue, “What has come into being 4in [Jesus] was life,* and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Jesus, the author of life, is life. He doesn’t just bring life, he is life. In him is life! In him we can find the light that leads us through life, and into life.
This is more extraordinary news because we live in a world where the two fundamental and immovable obstacles which we face are darkness and death. We have been blinded by our sin, by our insistence on trying to live life apart from God. As a result we have been made incapable of seeing the truth about ourselves, or God, or life itself. We have been left in the darkness. And this darkness, as darkness always does, leads to death. Death is coming to claim each of us. Unless a savior comes, there is no escape. Darkness and death, both rooted in our sin, are the fundamental, immovable problems in our world.
But here is the good news, the best news of all. Jesus, who is God, is a light shining in the darkness and life which death can never overcome. When we trust Jesus, when we have faith in Jesus, when we place all aspects of our lives in Jesus’ hands, when we live in his presence and bask in his glory, we share in the light and the life that is in him. When it come down to it, it’s the only way to live!
Imagine if one evening the sun went down in the west but then didn’t come back up in the east the next morning. Imagine that somehow the sun was gone from the universe forever. What would life be like on this endlessly dark and cold planet? We could sustain ourselves for a while with the resources we have stored up. Even when a car on the freeway runs out of gas, it coasts for awhile before coming to a complete stop. But eventually, without the sun, life on this earth would also coast to a complete stop. As one writer put it, “Without light there is no vision, no view of reality, no confident journeying, no growth save of chill and evil things, no health, no life.”
Sometimes I wonder if God put this big fat sun in the sky, and made it come up every morning and march in front of us across the sky every day to remind us that we cannot sustain life on our own. Maybe the sun is meant to point us daily to the Son, to remind us that the One who made the sun has come into the world to bring light that is meant to give life to us all.
The testimony of these opening verses of John’s Gospel, and, in fact, the testimony of John’s whole Gospel, is that the enduring relevance of Jesus is found in the reality that he was, and is, and will always be the light and life of the world. He is God who has entered into our world and has come to bring life to ordinary human beings, living their ordinary lives, and coping daily with their ordinary surroundings. He has come to deliver God’s life to men and women where they are and as they are, to men and women like you and me.
There are deep waters, I know. Still, the testimony of John, from the very first verses of his Gospel, is that the carpenter’s son fromNazareth, the one he is going to spend the next twenty-one chapters introducing us to, is this life. His testimony is that the eternal Word, the one through whom history emerged, entered, at one point, into history. His testimony is that had we been alive at that point in history, we literally and physically could have sat across the dinner table from the eternal Word, watched him heal the sick, heard him teach with authority, listened to him scream from the cross, and visited his empty tomb three days later.
John is not presenting an idea, or a concept, or a principle. John is presenting a person, a person who has been here since the beginning. All of life hinges on whether or not we, in faith, take him at his word. Amen.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
~ Read John 1:1-18 again. What stands out to you from verses 1-5 in particular?
~ John tells us that Jesus was with God in the beginning. John also tells us that Jesus was God in the beginning. How can Jesus be both with God and also be God at the same time? Are you able to hold these two truths side by side in your mind?
~ Do you think your faith would be strengthened if you could better understand the Trinity? Is so, how so? Why or why not?
~ Why do you think John refers to Jesus as “the Word”?
~ Why is light an appropriate metaphor for Jesus? How has Jesus been a light in your life?
~ Here are three statements that a person might make after hearing the truth John puts forth in this passage. On the line below each statement, indicate how you would respond, making a mark somewhere on the continuum from “Who Cares” to “This Changes Everything”.
-Statement #1 – Because I have faith in Jesus Christ, I share in his eternal life now and forever. Death is not the end. It is only the beginning, a transition into an even greater life.
WHO CARES____________________________________THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING
-Statement #2 – Because I have faith in Christ, I have the creator and sustainer of the universe looking after the day-to-day affairs of my life. My life has a new meaning, direction and harmony because the author of life is in control.
WHO CARES____________________________________THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING
-Statement #3 – Because I have faith in Christ, I have the illumination of Christ to guide me in the everyday decisions of my life. The radiance and glory of God now reside in my life to give light to a dark world.
WHO CARES____________________________________THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING
Further Scripture Readings for the Week:
Monday: Colossians 1:15-23 – Image of the Invisible
Tuesday Isaiah 55:1-13 – God’s Word never in vain
Wednesday: John 5:16-30 – Life through the Son
Thursday: Proverbs 8:22-31- Before the world began
Friday: I John 1:5-2:14 – Walk in the light
Saturday : In preparation for worship on Sunday, read and reflect on John 1:6-13.
 See, for instance, Genesis 1:2, Job 26:13, Psalm 33:6.
 See, for instance, Acts 5:3-4, II Corinthians 3:17-18, I Corinthians 6:19, Ephesians 2:22.
 N.T. Wright, John for Everyone, (Louisville:Westminster John Knox Press, c. 2002), p. 3.
 Fredrick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, (New York: Harper & Row, c. 1973), p. 96.
 See this truth also expressed marvelously in Psalm 33:6 and Psalm 107:20.
 See both Luke 4:14-21 and Matthew 5:3-11 for brilliant descriptions of what God did do, and is doing, in Jesus.
 This is, in fact, what Peter calls Jesus in Acts 3:15. It’s a wonderful way to describe Jesus.
 Paul writes brilliantly about this in Romans 1:18-25.
 E.M. Blaiklock, as quoted by James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John, Volume 1, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, c. 1995), p. 45.
 I’m borrowing (stealing, actually) words here from Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, (San Francisco: Harper, c. 1997), p. 13.