The Gospel of John differs from the other gospel accounts in many ways, chiefly among them—the beginning of his account of Jesus. Like the other Gospel writers, John wants us to understand that Jesus is God made flesh—the only God who became truly man. Matthew and Luke approached this by explaining the virgin birth. But John’s prologue gives a theological explanation or Jesus’ coming into the world, beginning with His eternal original before the creation of all things.
John starts in chapter 1 with, “In the beginning was the Word.” This mirrors the way in which the Old Testament begins in Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” John places Jesus where we expect God: in the beginning. The subject of this Gospel, the man—Jesus—who lived, died, and rose again, is thus identified as God.
John 1:1 teaches Jesus’ deity in three respects, beginning with His eternal being: “In the beginning was the Word.” When creation “was made”, Jesus—here designated as “the Word”—already “was” (existed). This was an important statement during the Church’s fight with the earliest heretics in the 3rd century A.D. Consider Arius, for instance, whose heresy articulated ideas that began percolating during John’s life and prompted the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. Arius maintained that Jesus, though certainly godlike in many ways, was nonetheless not God. Arius argued that Jesus was a created being, however, glorious and close to God. But John tells us, instead, that when time and creation began, Jesus already “was”. Leon Morris explains, “The Word existed before creation, which makes it clear that the Word was not created…. The Word is not to be included among created things.”[i]
If the Word already was in the beginning, then either He must have been with God or He must have been God. John teaches both. His second statement is that “the Word was with God.” This tells us that the Word is a person who has a relationship with God. In the creation account of Genesis chapter 1, we read “and God said” nine times. It was by God’s Word that He brought creation into being. John now tells us that this Word is a person who was “with God”. This statement sheds light on Genesis 1:26 which reads, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image.’” God was speaking to the Word. John clarifies in verses 2-3, “He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” So the Word is God’s executor in creation, the agent who accomplishes God’s will. God said in Genesis 1:3, “Let there be light” and the Word made light. All throughout the Bible, it is God’s Word that does God’s will. Psalm 33:6 emphasizes this by stating, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made.” And Psalm 107:20 states, “He sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from their destruction.” So the Word who made creation also brings God’s salvation.
With this in mind, we see that John wants us to understand, not only the eternity of the Word, but also the personhood of the Word. The Word is a person, the companion of God Himself. This warns us against another perennial heresy, namely, that which denies the distinct personhood of the various members of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity states, “In the unity of the Godhead there are three persons […]: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit” (Westminster Confession of Faith 2.3). It is hard for us to understand how there can be only one God, but three distinct persons in that God, but verses such as this cause us to believe it. When John speaks of the Word, he means God the Son, Jesus Christ, who eternally lives in relationship with, and does the will of, God the Father. Some people would deny that these are distinct persons, instead seeing the Father and Son as different modes of the one, undifferentiated God. But while one person can be by himself, he is never with himself; John insists that the Word is a distinct person: “the Word was with God.”
Third, verse 1 makes a straightforward statement that the Word not only is a companion to God, but is Himself divine. Secular voices as diverse as conspiracy-theory novelist Dan Brown, in his best-seller The Da Vinci Code, and liberal scholar Bart Ehrman, assert that Christians never considered Jesus to be God until the Council of Nicea in the fourth century.[ii] But here, in clear language, the apostle John writes, “And the Word was God.” He repeats this claim in John 1:18, saying that the One “who is at the Father’s side” is Himself “the only God”. Likewise, at the Gospel’s end, when the resurrected Jesus appears to doubting Thomas, the disciple falls before Him and cries, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). That is the Christian confession. John wants us to know from the beginning of his Gospel that Jesus Christ, the Word, is God.
Because it states Christ’s deity so plainly, John 1:1 has long come under attack, beginning with Arius. His argument, used by Jehovah’s Witnesses today, was that John does not teach that Jesus is God, but rather that Jesus is a “godlike creature”. He is divine, but not a deity. This is based on the fact that in this final phrase of verse 1, John places a definite article (“the”) before “Word”, but not before “God”. Jehovah’s Witnesses argue, “John says, ‘The Word was a God’, but not the God.”
What is our reply? First, it is clear throughout the Gospel that John intends us to identify Jesus as God. Our teaching of Christ’s deity does not depend on this verse, and what John says elsewhere clarifies his meaning here. Consider, for instance, the indisputable assertion of deity in John 1:18, which describes Jesus as “the only God, who is at the Father’s side”. Second, if John meant that Jesus was divine but not a deity, there was a perfectly good Greek word (theios) that he did not use. The word he did use (theos) means “God”, and not “godlike”. Third, while the Arian and Jehovah’s Witnesses argument might convince novices in New Testament Greek, the Greek grammar does not demand a definite article for both of the nouns when they are joined in this way. It is common for one definite article to serve for both nouns, and so the grammatical argument is simply wrong. Fourth, there is an obvious reason for John’s construction. His point is to identify the Word both as God (meaning “God the Father”) and also as distinct from God. If he had written, “the Word was the God”, that would be identifying Jesus with God in a way that would render them indistinguishable. His point is clearly to specify Christ’s deity, while also distinguishing him from God the Father.
Martin Luther said, “This text is a strong and valid attestation of the divinity of Christ. Everything depends on this doctrine. It serves to maintain and support all other doctrines of our Christian faith. Therefore the devil assailed it very early in the history of Christendom, and he continues to do so in our day.”[iii] John, in his Gospel, wants us to realize Christ’s deity and His relationship to God the Father, insisting on Jesus’ divine Sonship for our salvation. Jesus is God the Executor, doing the will of His Father (God the Ordainer), within the perfect harmony of the Trinity. A.W. Pink nicely wraps up this discussion when he says, “The One who was heralded by the angels to the Bethlehem shepherds, who walked this earth for thirty-three years, who was crucified at Calvary and who rose in triumph from the grave, and who forty days later departed from these scenes, was none other than the Lord of glory.”[iv]
[i] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, rev. ed., New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 65-66
[ii] Bart Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions San Francisco Harper One: 2010), 260
[iii] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 22, Sermons on the Gospel of St. John, Chapters 1-4 (St. Louis: Concordia, 1957), 19, 25.)
[iv] Arthur W. Pink, Exposition of the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), 17.