2 “In the beginning was the word”

Every Bible student will inevitably be involved at some time in seeking to explain the opening verses of John’s Gospel. And all who have done so will probably have felt a slight dis-ease at beginning the discussion by saying that “the word” in Greek is logos…because it is always far better to make a point from the Bible text that one has in front of them, rather than claiming to know Greek. Remember that the majority of us don’t even know the Greek alphabet, so arguments based on Greek ought best to be avoided where possible. In recent times I have slightly changed my approach to explaining this passage and I submit it for your reflection. The key is to get our contact to let us systematically explain the phrases one by one. Of course you can’t make all of the following points to a person in a conversation, but it’s as well to have the background clear in one’s own mind.

2-1 “In the beginning was the word”

2-2 Wisdom In Proverbs

2-3 “The word was made flesh”

2-4 “The word was God”

2-5 “All things were made by him”

2-6 Appendix: How was the word made flesh?

2-1 “In the beginning was the word”

“The word”

Just look at the many times this phrase occurs in the Gospel records. It doesn’t mean ‘the whole Bible’. It means clearly enough and without any dispute ‘the Gospel message’ (e.g. Mk. 2:2; 4:33; 16:20; Lk. 3:2; Jn. 12:48; 14:24; Acts 4:4; 11:19). The Gospel was preached to Abraham in that it comprises the promises to Him and their fulfilment in Jesus (Gal. 3:8). That word of promise was “made flesh” in Jesus; “the word of the oath” of the new covenant, of the promises made to Abraham, “maketh the son” (Heb. 7:28). This is just another way of saying that the word– of the promises, of the Gospel- was made flesh in Jesus. Note how in Rom. 9:6,9 “the word” is called “the word of promise”- those made to Abraham. The same Greek words translated 'Word' and 'made' occur together in 1 Cor. 15:54- where we read of the word [AV " saying" ] of the Old Testament prophets being 'made' true by being fulfilled [AV " be brought to pass" ]. The word of the promises was made flesh, it was fulfilled, in Jesus. The 'word was made flesh', in one sense, in that the Lord Jesus was " made...of the seed of David according to the flesh" (Rom. 1:3)- i.e. God's word of promise to David was fulfilled in the fleshly person of Jesus. The Greek words for " made" and " flesh" only occur together in these two places- as if Rom. 1:3 is interpreting Jn. 1:14 for us. But note the admission of a leading theologian: “Neither the fourth Gospel nor Hebrews ever speaks of the eternal Word…in terms which compel us to regard it as a person”(1).

" In the beginning was the word"

John’s Gospel tends to repeat the ideas of the other gospel records but in more spiritual terms. Matthew and Luke begin their accounts of the message by giving the genealogies of Jesus, explaining that His birth was the fulfilment, the ‘making flesh’, of the promises to Abraham and David. And Mark begins by defining his “beginning of the gospel” as the fact that Jesus was the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophets. John is really doing the same, in essence. But he is using more spiritual language. In the beginning was the word- the word of promise, the word of prophecy, all through the Old Testament. And that word was “made flesh” in Jesus, and on account of that word, all things in the new creation had and would come into being. Whilst John is written in Greek, clearly enough Hebrew thought is behind the words. "The Hebrew term debarim [words] can also mean 'history'" (2). The whole salvation history of God, from the promise in Eden onwards, was about the Lord Jesus and was made flesh in His life and death.

Luke’s prologue states that he was an “eyewitness and minister of the word…from the beginning”; he refers to the word of the Gospel that later became flesh in Jesus. John’s prologue is so similar: “That which was from the beginning, that which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, that which we beheldthe word of life” (1 Jn. 1:1 RV). Jn. 1:14 matched this with: “The word was made flesh, and we beheld his glory”. John 6 shows how John seeks to present Jesus Himself as the words which give eternal life if eaten / digested (Jn. 6:63). And some commented: “This is a hard saying, who can hear him?” (Jn. 6:60 RVmg.), as if to present Jesus the person as the embodiment of His sayings / words.

Jesus was the word of God shown in a real, live person. All the principles which Old Testament history had taught, the symbology of the law, the outworking of the types of history, all this was now living and speaking in a person. Luke’s Gospel makes the same point as John’s but in a different way. Over 90% of Luke’s Greek is taken from the Septuagint. All the time he is consciously and unconsciously alluding to the Old Testament as having its fulfilment in the things of Jesus. As an example of unconscious allusion, consider Lk. 1:27: “A virgin betrothed to a man”. This is right out of Dt. 22:23 LXX “If there be a virgin betrothed to a man…”. The context is quite different, but the wording is the same. And in many other cases, Luke picks up phraseology from the LXX apparently without attention to the context. He saw the whole of the OT as having its fulfilment in the story of Jesus. He introduces his Gospel record as an account “of those matters which have been fulfilled” (Lk. 1:1 RV). And “those matters” he defines in Lk. 1:2 as the things of “the word”. The RV especially shows his stress on the theme of fulfilment (Lk. 1:20, 23, 37, 45, 54, 55, 57, 70). In essence he is introducing his Gospel just as John does.

In passing, it is interesting to reflect upon the Lord’s comment that where two or three are gathered together in His Name, He is in their midst. For this evidently alludes to a Rabbinic saying preserved in the Mishnah (Aboth 3.2) that “If two sit together and study Torah [the first five books of Moses], the divine presence rests between them”. The Lord was likening Himself (His ‘Name’) to the Torah, the Old Testament word of God; and His presence would be felt if that Law was studied as it ought to be.

In confirmation of all this, it has been observed that " The numerical use of logos in the Johannine writings overwhelmingly favours " message" (some 25 times), not a personified word; and elsewhere in the NT the use of " word" with genitival complement also support the message motif: " word of God" ..." word of the Kingdom" ..." word of the cross" " (3). So our equation of " the word" with the essence of the Gospel message rather than Jesus personally is in harmony with other occurrences of logos. That said, there evidently is a personification of sorts going on. Personifications of the word of God weren't uncommon in the literature of the time. Thus Wisdom of Solomon 18:15 speaks of how "Thine all powerful word leaped from heaven down from the royal throne". Because "for the Hebrew the word once spoken has a kind of substantive existence of its own" (4) , e.g. a blessing or curse had a kind of life of their own, it's not surprising that logos is personified.

One way of understanding the prologue in Jn. 1 is to consider how it is interpreted in the prologue we find in John's first epistle. It appears that John's Gospel was the standard text for a group of converts that grew up around him; John then wrote his epistles in order to correct wrong interpretations of his Gospel record that were being introduced by itinerant false teachers into the house churches which he had founded. For example, " God so loved the world..." (Jn. 3:16) seems to have been misunderstood by the false prophets against whom John was contending, to mean that a believer can be of the world. Hence 1 Jn. 2:16 warns the brethren that they cannot 'love the world' in the sense of having worldly behaviour and desires. On the other hand, John saw the faithful churches to whom he was writing as those who had been faithful to the Gospel he had preached to them, as outlined in the Gospel of John. He had recorded there the promise that " You will know the truth" (Jn. 8:32), and he writes in his letters to a community " who have come to know the truth" (2 Jn. 1), i.e. who had fulfilled and obeyed the Gospel of Jesus which he had preached to them initially. This thesis is explained at length in Raymond Brown(5) .

With this in mind, it appears that the prologue of 1 Jn. is a conscious allusion to and clarification of that of Jn. 1. Consider the following links:

In the beginning was the word

What was from the beginning

The word was with God

The eternal life which was with [Gk. in the presence of] God

In [the word] was life

The word of life

The life was the light of men

God is light

The light shines in darkness

In Him there is no darkness at all

The word became flesh

This life was revealed

And dwelt amongst us

and was manifested to us

We beheld his glory

What we looked at

Of his fullness we have all received

The fellowship which we have is with

Through Jesus Christ

the Father and with his son

The only Son of God

Jesus Christ

You will note that the parallel for " the word" of Jn. 1 is 'the life' in 1 Jn. 1, the life which Jesus lived, the type of life which is lived by the Father in Heaven. That word was made flesh (Jn. 1:14) in the sense that this life was revealed to us in the life and death of Jesus. So the word becoming flesh has nothing to do with a pre-existent Jesus physically coming down from Heaven and being born of Mary. It could well be that the evident links between the prologue to John's Gospel and the prologue to his epistle are because he is correcting a misunderstanding that had arisen about the prologue to his Gospel. 1 Jn. 1:2 spells it out clearly- it was the impersonal "eternal life" which was "with the Father", and it was this which "became flesh" in a form that had been personally touched and handled by John in the personal body of the Lord Jesus. And perhaps it is in the context of incipient trinitarianism that John warns that those who deny that Jesus was "in the flesh" are actually antiChrist.


(1) G.B. Caird, Christ For Us Today (London: SCM, 1968) p. 79.

(2) Oscar Cullmann, The Christology Of The New Testament (London: SCM, 1971) p. 261.

(3) Raymond Brown, The Epistles of John (Garden City: Doubleday, 1982) p. 164.

(4) C.H. Dodd, The Interpretation Of The Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1960) p. 264.

(5) The Community of the Beloved Disciple (New York: Paulist, 1979) and in his The Epistles of John (Garden City: Doubleday, 1982). These are lengthy and at times difficult reads, and I can't agree with all the conclusions, and yet I'd heartily recommend them to serious Bible students. One pleasing feature of his writings is his frequent admission that trinitarian theology is an interpretation of what the NT writers, especially John, actually wrote- and they themselves didn’t have the trinity in mind when they wrote as they did. He comments on the hymn of Phil. 2 about Christ taking the “form of God”: “Many scholars today doubt that “being in the form of God” and “accepting the form of a servant” refers to incarnation” [The Community Of The Beloved Disciple p. 46].




Back Back

Next Next