Lesson 2: Who is God? (John 1: 1-5, 10-13)

Madonna and Child - RaphaelWhat is John up to? Seems to me he is tackling perhaps the most difficult problem of Christianity: how to explain what it means to proclaim a human being is God. There is no way you can convey how he does this inside the limitations of an electronic blog, so what I’ll offer is theological shorthand.

You could read the other three gospels as if they claim Jesus lived such a perfect life, especially in his death, that God raised him up and gave him equal status. John offers an incarnational theology that claims Jesus is simply the manifestation of God as he is forever. The Crucifix is the Christian image best associated with the first approach and the Madonna and Child with John’s.

His first sentence indicates John is going to do this by combining Hebrew and Greek traditions. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” It echoes Genesis 1 where God’s spirit moves over the waters of chaos and creates by speaking words. God is a spirit beyond human control or knowledge who relates to humans through words. In the Old Testament God’s Word, especially the Law, represents him in our world. His people cannot see him and live. They are to refrain from attempts of make graven images of him. Everything is word.

You also see John using ideas from many Greek philosophers who saw Reason as a principle permeating all things. The Reason shared by all people and things makes it possible for us to communicate with each other and know what is beyond ourselves. It enables us to make common sense from the Kaleidoscope of sense experience. Many philosophers associated this with Logos, the spoken word that is Reason’s primary tool.

John seems to feel justified doing this, because of the Old Testament Wisdom tradition is very compatible. His second sentence “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life” echoes Proverbs 8: 23-36.

So John can say God, the Word he characterizes as Real Life and Light, has always been among us even though we did not discern Him. “The life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.”

He was always with his own people, the Israelites, in a special way; but most of them rejected him. “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”

So God came among us as a human to make apparent who he is and what he offers. We are now dealing with personal relationships rather than intellectual concepts. Next week we’ll look at what John means when he proclaims, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

But in the meantime, take notice of what John’s definition of God offers. It is much more profound than the silly ones being tossed around in our society these days. God is not a supernatural man somewhere out there who has the power to do as he pleases. He does not mechanically start up the universe and then for the most part sit back. John makes clear he is not speaking of creation as a moment in the past that gets things started. God’s Word is the source of all life, the ultimate reality on which all based, but it also still sustains life and permeates all things. Creation is an ongoing activity. The daily Jewish prayer that thanks God for renewing creation every morning acknowledges this.

Notice, too, John does not offer a picture of God intervening by breaking natural law when he is provoked or summoned in prayer. God as ongoing creative spirit has no trouble with scientific findings or evolutionary theory. They are simply part of the story, the way God operates. Once you get thorough the awkward language and repetition, you find John’s incarnational theology has a lot to offer our modern technological society.

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  1. Bob Nordvall says:

    You can look at John’s explanation of God as consistent with Old Testament traditions even if couching them in a different vocabulary. To me the more problematic issue is John’s conception of Jesus as a part of God when compared to what Jesus himself said about his “divinity.” I haven’t followed all the deliberations of the Jesus Seminar as to which sayings in the Bible attributed to Jesus they believe to be genuine. So I guess you could have on the one hand all sayings of Jesus in the Bible and on the other hand the ones modern scholars believe are more reliable. In any case, without having closely reviewed the Biblical passages, it is my impression that John’s conception of Jesus goes well beyond what Jesus claimed for himself outside the book of John.

  2. John says:

    First of all the Bible tells us that God is a spirit (John 4:24). From the beginning to the end he Word of God also speaks about the Spirit of God. We don’t really know what exactly the spiritual mater is. The experience throughout the human history shows that spirits can go through material objects and can be in human bodies.
    The very first name used in the Bible is Elohim. This is a plural form of El which means strong, mighty. This the word used to differentiate God from humans. The word Elohim is used almost exclusively for God with a one exception where it is used for angels. This type of usage shows that it is assigned to give distinction between humans and spirits. The Word of God shows that there are two groups of spiritual beings – the eternal and the created spirits.
    Most of the time in the Old Testament the word translated for God is Elohim. There are some places where the word El or Eloah is used. If you check the original Hebrew words and the meaning in the Strongs dictionary you will find that almost everywhere it is Elohim – the mighty ones. The reason to translate it as singular is the Hebrew tradition which says that the plural form is only to show respect to the majestic Creator. Even with that we can find in Genesis 1:26 And Elohim (the Mighty Ones) said, let us make man in our image… This type of use is actually throughout the Old Testament but the evident original meaning has been translated literally only a few times. Many people think of the word “God“ as of a personal name. The fact is that when you read the Bible you can find many different Names of God. All of them signify different sides of the personality of the Creator and are not just tags. By using the word Elohim the Bible shows the nature of the beings behind it. They are the mighty ones. The spiritual beings have capabilities beyond ours. That is why in the Bible they are called the Mighty Ones – Elohim.
    The name Jehovah splits the group of the spiritual beings in two. It means “I am who I am”, signifying the eternal nature of our Creator. It shows that the group of Elohim has eternal spirits and created spirits. Even from Genesis we know that there is the Father, the Son and the Spirit of God. These three are the Jehovah Elohim – the Eternal Mighty Ones, the Creators of our world and the humanity. These names – the Father, the Son and the Spirit are also with special meaning. It is for our benefit that they use these names so we can have the analogy and clear understanding of their nature and attitude towards us. It is written that Jesus (Yehoshua in the original text), the Savior, the Word of God will have a new name in the new Kingdom of God (Rev 3:12 Him that overcomes will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name.). God uses the names in His Word to show the nature of persons, the change in their lives and His plan. Abram was named Abraham, Sarai – Sarah, Jacob – Israel. You also will have a new name in the Kingdom (Rev 2:17 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says unto the churches; To him that overcomes will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knows saving he that receives it.). In the Old Testament all names of people and places have meaning that show signs for us.
    Let’s summarize all that was explained before. Jehovah is not a personal name but signifies the true nature of the Most High spiritual beings. Elohim which is the most common word behind “God” means the mighty ones. It is used most of the times for our Creators but in general shows the group of the spiritual beings. Here is a visual representation:
    1. Elohim (the mighty ones):
    – Jehovah (the Eternal Ones)

    – Angels (created spirits)

    2. Man (has a spirit but also a physical body):
    – Men
    – Women

    3. Animals (have spirits but also physical bodies)
    – Many kinds

    4. Plants
    – Many kinds

    5. Non-living matter

    In many cultures angels are called gods with names that express the nature of Elohim. The Semitic nations use El. In north European cultures they are called elves (or elf for singular).
    The names of God give us understanding for the nature of the beings that created our world. The names in the Bible show also the different types and categories of beings which we encounter. Elohim and Jehovah show the type of the beings.

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