The gospel of John famously opens, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." John 1:14-18 makes it clear that this "Word" that John is talking about is Jesus Christ. This passage is one of many clear and powerful testimonies to the deity of Christ in the New Testament. Yet, there is a detail we often overlook: why did John call Jesus "the Word"? The answer is that the term "the Word" was highly significant to the Jewish culture of the time and in fact, made John's point about who Jesus was all the more clear.1
The Old Testament Background
In Genesis 1, we read of God speaking all things into existence. Psalm 33:6 states, "By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, And by the breath of His mouth all their host." Creation was brought about through the Word of God, just as John observed of the Word, "All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being," (John 1:3). Further, the Word of God is several times described in the Old Testament as one sent forth from God to accomplish a mission, and even returning to Him afterward:
Isaiah 55:10-11, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, And do not return there without watering the earth And making it bear and sprout, And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it."
Psalm 107:19-20, "Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble; He saved them out of their distresses. He sent His word and healed them, And delivered them from their destructions."
Psalm 147:15-18, "He sends forth His command to the earth; His word runs very swiftly. He gives snow like wool; He scatters the frost like ashes. He casts forth His ice as fragments; Who can stand before His cold? He sends forth His word and melts them; He causes His wind to blow and the waters to flow."
Further, Psalm 56 even offers praise in worship to God's Word:
Psalm 56:4, "In God, whose word I praise, In God I have put my trust; I shall not be afraid. What can mere man do to me?"
Psalm 56:10-11, "In God, whose word I praise, In God I have put my trust; I shall not be afraid. What can mere man do to me?"
And note how the Psalm ends:
Psalm 56:13 (ESV), "For you have delivered my soul from death, yes, my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of life."
Compare this again to John's testimony concerning the Word:
John 1:4 (ESV), "In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."
This Old Testament data alone presents us some intriguing parallels between Jesus and God's Word. However, by the time of the New Testament, this had been further developed in Jewish thought. As Messianic Jewish scholar Dr. Michael Brown explains:
"Since God was often perceived as somehow 'untouchable,' it was necessary to provide some kind of link between the Lord and his earthly creation. One of the important links was "the Word," called memra in Aramaic (from the Hebrew and Aramaic root "to say," the root used throughout the creation account in Genesis 1, when God said and the material world came into existence). We find this memra concept hundreds of times in the Aramaic Targums, the translations and paraphrases of the Hebrew Scriptures that were read in the synagogues before, during, and after the time of Jesus."2
In a Targum of Genesis 28:20-21, for example, instead of vowing that the Lord will be his God, Jacob vows that the Word of the Lord will be his God.3 In the Targum of Genesis 9:12, instead of a covenant between God and Noah, a covenant is made between God's Word and Noah.4 In places like Exodus 20:1, the Targums even have the Word speaking words of His own,5 and one late Targum of Deuteronomy 4:7 describes the Word sitting on His throne and receiving the prayers of the people.6
The Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, also relied heavily on this tradition of the Word to explain God's interactions with His creation. Writing in Greek, he utilized the word "logos" rather than the Aramaic "memra."7 Logos is the same word John utilized in his gospel.
The Samaritans appear to have shared a similar tradition. One apocryphal Samaritan work known as "Samaritan Joshua,"8 retells the story of Balaam from Numbers 22-24. When God is going to confront Balaam, the text says:
"God then desired to make a manifestation of His mysteries: now behold He could not do this Himself, nor could He do it through one who worshiped after the manner of the children of Israel, nor could He do it in writing, nor by the agency of any of His angels, but only by sending unto him His very Command. And the companion of Balaam, upon beholding the specter of the Command of God, fled away"9
The Command of God then goes on to converse with Balaam, speaking in the first person as God. God cannot, in a sense, simply appear before Balaam (which is consistent with Exodus 33:20, "man shall not see me and live"). Yet, through sending His Command, God does appear before Balaam and reveal His mysteries. Just as John 1:18 says, "No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known," (ESV).
When we put all this together, we see that the Jews of Jesus day understood the Word of God to be much more than mere communication through language. The Word was personal, interactive, and alive. The Word was sent by God to reveal God, yet spoke as God and was worthy of worship and praise as God. The Word could rightly be distinguished from God, but could just as rightly be said to be the one true God. Indeed, just as John wrote, "the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Using this established language, John could communicate the reality of the incarnation. As Dr. Brown again explains:
"If John had simply written, 'God became a human being,' that would have given a false impression, leading one to think that the Lord was no longer filling the universe or reigning in heaven, having abandoned his throne to take up residence here. Instead, John tells us that it was the divine Word that became a human being, and through the Word we know God personally"10
Thus, by using the language of "the Word," John carefully expressed the reality that Jesus was fully and completely the one true God, but He did not exhaust all that God is. The Father who sent Jesus is also the one true God. God sent God, and in this, there is no contradiction. John called Jesus "the Word" to help us see that.
- 1. For the article that follows, I owe a great debt of gratitude to Dr. Michael Brown, not only for his published work in the "Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus" series (particularly Volume 2) from which much of this research derives, but also for his personal correspondence with me that helped me to build on his work. For further information on this topic, I direct you to his fine publication
- 2. Michael L. Brown, "Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus - Volume 2: Theological Objections" (Baker Books, 2000) 18-19
- 3. ibid, 21
- 4. ibid, 19
- 5. ibid, 20
- 6. ibid, 21
- 7. ibid, 21-22
- 8. This document was not viewed as in any way inspired or authoritative, but it is an interesting source of Samaritan tradition and interpretation on certain matters.
- 9. Robert T. Anderson and Terry Giles, "Tradition Kept: The Literature of the Samaritans" (Hendrickson Publishers, 2005) 72
- 10. Michael L. Brown, "Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus - Volume 2: Theological Objections" (Baker Books, 2000) 22