The gospels of Matthew and Luke start with a birth story. Mark starts with John the Baptist’s announcement.
John starts with the beginning.
I mean, literally, the beginning. The well-known opening line is, “In the beginning was the Word.” This doesn’t refer to the day Jesus was born, or even the day he was conceived. This isn’t a reference to Isaiah’s writings from the 500s BC about the suffering servant to come. When John says, “In the beginning,” he means it in the same sense of another well-known opening line:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).
So John is telling us that the “Word” was there from the beginning. And there is, indeed, a Word in the creation story.
In Genesis 1, where God creates the world in six steps, each day begins with three words:
“And God said…”
God doesn’t hammer the world into being. God doesn’t mold it, or bake it, or draw it, either. God speaks it. Creation is made by God’s word.
“In the beginning was the Word.” God’s spoken Word.
The gospel of John is written in Greek, which means in the original text it reads, “In the beginning was the logos.” Logos was a word with deep meaning when the gospel of John was written around 90 AD. Philosophers like Heraclitus and Plato and the Stoics often used it to refer to divine action and identity, as well as universal reason and understanding.
One philosopher in particular was a man named Philo who lived in Alexandria, the Roman province of Egypt. Philo was part of a Jewish movement that attempted to reconcile Greek philosophy with their own faith and Scriptures. Philo especially drew on the idea of logos in his writings, using it over 1,300 times. In his usage it refers to the stuff that holds all things together, the means by which God created the world, the firstborn of creation, and the way humanity is drawn to God, among other things.
Philo lived from about 25 BC to 50 AD, which means he’d be a contemporary of the One whose birth we’re about to celebrate. It also means he lived and worked shortly before the gospel of John was written… putting logos in regular use and circulation as a way to talk about God at work in the world.
“In the beginning was the logos, the Word.”
So what is the Word? Or should we say, who?
Knowing the answer, we might state John’s opening line less poetically but more clearly: “In the beginning was Jesus.”
He was there. He was always there!
This is a way to affirm Jesus’ role in the Trinity. You know, God in three persons? Jesus was not just a wise prophet, a good teacher, a special person. At Christmas we’re celebrating the incarnation of God himself.
This puts a twist on our Christmas celebrations. If you think about it, we’re celebrating the birth of the One who has no birth, the start of the One who was there from the start. “In the beginning was the Word,” right? So why make a big deal of Jesus’ birthday, if it’s not really his birthday, so to speak?
Like in so many cases where Jesus is concerned, we’re dealing with a both/and moment. Yes, Jesus is God, one of the three-part Trinity. Yes, Jesus was there from the beginning, so the start of his existence like for you and me. But also: Jesus had a birth, and that birth is important.
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
Jesus was there in the beginning, but Jesus also has a birth at a specific moment in time.
Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, but Jesus also became one of us as a first-century Jew.
Jesus predates birthdays, but Jesus also has a birthday.
Jesus is both God and human, all at once.
It’s mysterious that way.
So mysterious that the early church struggled with this concept.
Since this is a sermon and not a book, I’ll not torture you with many examples of debates over Jesus’ divinity. Let’s just take one big one: The Council of Nicea in 325 AD.
Emperor Constantine had been sole ruler of the Roman world for just a year. He observed a dangerous disunity among Christians, so he called this council of all the bishops in order to try to establish some ground rules. For example, they agreed on date for Easter – that’s good to agree on. But the main showdown was over how to define the special status of Jesus.
On one side, there’s Arius of Alexandria. Arius has deep reverence for his God. Out of that reverence, he asserts that there can only be one God. Jesus is certainly more than human, but not fully divine.
Arius’ beliefs were popularly known because he had a habit of putting them into hymns. During the debates at the Council, he burst into song:
The uncreated God has made the Son
A beginning of things created,
And by adoption has God made the Son
Into an advancement of himself.
Yet the Son’s substance is
Removed from the substance of the Father:
The Son is not equal to the Father,
Nor does he share the same substance.
God is the all-wise Father,
And the Son is the teacher of his mysteries.
The members of the Holy Trinity
Share unequal glories.
I guess we lose something in translation, because that doesn’t seem like much of a toe-tapper to me. Did the other bishops get it annoyingly stuck in their heads like the latest Taylor Swift hit?
Anyway, on the other side we have Bishop Athanasius. No songs for him (that I know of) – just a good, solid argument: How could Jesus give us forgiveness and eternal life if he wasn’t fully divine? Athanasius also pointed to passages like John 10:30: “I and the Father are one.”
In the end, Athanasius won the argument, and we modern Christians are left with the Nicene Creed:
“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one being with the Father;
through him all things were made.”
Can you see their argument in here?
Can you also see why they were arguing?
It is hard to understand. We have the benefit of several thousand years of theological debates and church history. Other men and women have wrestled with this stuff so that we might understand it better. But if we pause to think about it, there is a mystery here:
“In the beginning was the Word,”
“The Word became flesh and lived among us.”
I like that John puts those two affirmations within just a few verses of each other. Jesus Christ, fully human and fully divine. Both at the same time, in a way that’s hard to comprehend but important to hold together.
What a beautiful mystery.
As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, let’s allow ourselves to enter into a state of wonder. Let’s open our eyes to the awesome fact that our infinite God became a finite human being. Let’s celebrate the birth of the one who lived long before he was born.
The Story of Christianity, Vol. I by Justo L. Gonzalez (see in index, “Philo,” “logos,” and “Word”).
The New Interpreters’ Dictionary of the Bible (see entry on “The Word.”).
Turning Points by Mark A. Noll (see chapter on the Council of Nicea).