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“The Word of Light”

John 1:1-5
Bob DeGray
December 1, 2002

Key Sentence

The Word who is God is the Light of Christmas.


I. The Pre-existent Word was God. (John 1:1-2)
II. The Word created the World (John 1:3)
III. The Word gives Light and Life (John 1:4-5)


        The celebration of Christmas has always been associated with light shining in darkness. The star of Bethlehem illuminates a cold dark sky. Early churches celebrated the Christ Mass, Christmas, with the bringing of light into darkened buildings. In fact, until recent centuries, in every country where Christmas has long been observed it has been celebrated in the dark of winter with the coming of light. Victorian England, with it’s lamps and candles in every window at Christmas time is a perfect example. The Victorians also embraced the quite dangerous tradition of hanging candles on an evergreen tree in the hall. These beautiful but dangerous trees have now been replaced by the hundreds of thousands of Christmas lights that decorate our neighborhoods - and most people have forgotten that there ever was a link between those little bulbs and the light of the world that came at Christmas.

        But there is a link, and it will do our hearts good this Christmas season to remember it and study it. Today we’re beginning a Christmas series in the Gospel of John. Between now and the 25th we’ll explore the prologue to that Gospel, the first eighteen verses, which contain some of the most profound thinking ever done about Christmas and about Jesus. We’ll see that he is the light of the world, the object of our faith, and the Word made flesh. But we’re not going to stop at the prologue. On December 29th and in the weeks following, we’re going to explore the whole first half of the Gospel of John. We’re going to spend some quality time with Jesus. One of the things we’ll find is that every theme in this prologue is picked up and expanded later in the Gospel. John uses the prologue to set the stage for Jesus.

I. The Pre-existent Word was God. (John 1:1-2)

        We begin this week with the first five verses of the Gospel, five of the simplest, most familiar, most significant verses you’ll ever hear. Let me read them to you: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning. 3Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4In him was life, and that life was the light of men. 5The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

The Gospels of Luke and Matthew begin with the story of Jesus’ birth. The Gospel of Mark begins further along, in his ministry years. But the Gospel of John begins way earlier than any of others. It begins, ‘in the beginning,’ just as Genesis does and shows us that ‘the Word’, who is God, was pre-existent. ‘In the beginning’ here is absolute, just as it is in Genesis. This is THE beginning, not the beginning of the Gospel, which is the phrase Mark uses, but the beginning of anything about which anything can be said, a beginning long before the creation of the world, a beginning in eternity past. At that time, John says, if you can call it time, the Word existed. The Word is part of eternity and was there with God before before the world began.

        But what, exactly, or who, exactly is ‘the Word’? The underlying Greek logos, was used very widely in Greek culture and philosophy. To Heraclitus, in 560 B.C., logos was already the principle of order which allowed the universe to continue to exist. He said that nothing moves with aimless feet, that in all life and in all the events of life there is a purpose and a design, and the logos is the controlling power behind that order. Furthermore, logos within a man is what enables him to choose right from wrong and to know truth when he sees it. In this system logos essentially replaces God as the source of all things, including man’s core identity. A number of other Greek philosophers picked up on this idea of the logos and added to it. For Philo, a first century Jewish philosopher much influenced by Plato, there was a synthesis between the Greek concept of logos and the Jewish concept of God. Philo placed logos between God and man, and called logos the principle by which God made the world, and by which he orders the world. Thus the world could be flawed and men could be bad by falling short of the logos without touching the character of God.

        In more common usage, the logos became the embodiment of reason. Thus it is the root of our English word ‘logic’. On a more basic level people speaking Greek used this word to mean expression, speech, message, communication, which is why “Word” is still thought by many to be the most appropriate translation. This fits with our other source of insight into ‘logos’, which is the Hebrew Old Testament. There the ‘word’ of God denoted God-in-action, especially, according to F. F. Bruce, in creation, revelation and deliverance. Don Carson, whose commentary I will refer to frequently in this series, points out that the Lord speaks to the prophet Isaiah when ‘the Word of the Lord’ comes to him. It was by ‘the word of the Lord’ that the heavens were made.’ God simply speaks and his powerful word creates. That same word works deliverance or judgment. When some of his people faced illness that brought them to the brink of death, God ‘sent forth his word and healed them.”

        In later Jewish literature this ‘Word’ began to seem like a person, like the ‘wisdom’ that speaks in Proverbs. But John is not thinking of mere personification when he says that the Word was with God. Instead what he means is that in the beginning, when the universe was brought into existence, the divine word by which it was brought into existence was already there, in fellowship with God as a co-worker. John chooses a rather unusual word for ‘with’ in this statement, a word that would normally be translated ‘toward’ and is only used as ‘with’ when a person is with a person, usually in some fairly intimate relationship. John may already be pointing out, rather subtly, that the ‘Word’ he is talking about is a person ‘with’ God and therefore distinguishable from God and enjoying a personal relationship with him. Barclay says that there has always been the closest and most intimate connection between the Word and God, between Jesus and God. Jesus is the one person in all the universe who can reveal to us what God is like and how God feels toward us - what his love and heart and mind and will are toward us.

        So the Word was with God - and yet in the next breath John goes on to claim that ‘the Word was God.’ This is the translation demanded by the Greek phrase ‘theos hen ho logos’, literally God was the Word, except that in Greek the Word is clearly the subject and God is the object, so we translate it ‘the Word was God.’ Jehovah’s Witnesses deny that it can say that, and their training manual ‘Reasoning from the Scriptures’ argues that because ‘theos’ here has no article, John is not referring to God as a specific being, but to qualities of ‘God-ness’. They translate the phrase ‘The Word was a god.’ Many others have tried to say the same thing, that the word was not God, but merely divine. But there is a perfectly good word in Greek for divine, and it’s not used here. And there are many places in the New Testament where a noun has no article and yet is specific. Later on in this chapter John will say ‘you are the king of Israel’ - the word ‘king’ has no article. We do the same in English when we say “I’m going to the store, or I’m going to town” with no article.

        Hundreds of years ago a Greek scholar named Colwell showed that that this particular construction, where the object of the verb is placed before the verb and the subject after, almost never has an article. Indeed the effect of ordering the words this way is to emphasize ‘God’, as if John were saying ‘and the word was God’. On the other hand, if John had included the article he would have been saying something quite untrue. He would have been so identifying the Word with God that there would have been no distinction possible between Father and Son - and Spirit. In that case, it would be nonsense to say, as he has already said, that the Word was with God. The word does not by Himself make up the entire Godhead, nevertheless, the Word is God in every sense of divinity that the Bible has to offer.

        The words of verse 2, ‘He was with God in the beginning’ serve to reinforce this thought, because they place the phrase ‘the Word was God’ at the pinnacle of this brief description. It starts and ends with ‘in the beginning’. It goes on and back to say, that he was ‘with’ God, and it culminates with the truth that he was God. The pre-existent word is God. That’s the message that John has packed into these first two verses, and he intends that we read the whole Gospel in light of this truth. Never forget that when you see Jesus acting and hear him speaking, you are seeing and hearing the one who was with God before all time and is himself God.

II. The Word created the World (John 1:3)

        Verse 3 teaches us something more about this Word who was with God: Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. The Word was God’s agent in creation. The two parts of the verse say the same thing - we’ve already seen that John likes repetition. Positively, through him everything came into being. Negatively, nothing that does exists was made without Him. Once again, there is a conscious echo here of Genesis 1, where each day of creation is initiated by God’s word. And God said ‘Let there be light’ - Genesis 1:3. And God said, "Let there be an expanse between the waters." And God said, "Let the water under the sky be gathered” And God said, "Let the land produce vegetation”

        And God said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky.” And God said, "Let the water teem with living creatures.” And God said, "Let the land produce living creatures.” And God said “Let us make man in our image.” Who is ‘us’ in that last phrase? It is God the Father. And it is God the Spirit who hovered over the waters. And it is God the Son who is ‘the Word’ God used to carry out his plan of creation. Psalm 33:6 says ‘by the word of the Lord the heavens were made’. Now we know who that Word is: he is God and God’s co-worker from the beginning.

        That the pre-existent Christ created everything is a common theme in the New Testament as well. In Colossians chapter 1, where Paul is extolling the character and nature of Christ, he says that“by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.” The letter to the Hebrews begins with the author saying “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.” So Jesus is God’s agent in creation, the one through whom God spoke to make all that we see and all that cannot be seen.

III. The Word gives Light and Life (John 1:4-5)

        The Word was pre-existent, before all things. The Word was God, just as much God as the Father himself. The Word was the Father’s agent in creation; the Father spoke, but the Word was not merely a word, He was a person who carried out the Father’s will. The last key truth we learn in these verses is that this same Word brings life and light to a darkened world. John 1:4-5
4In him was life, and that life was the light of men. 5The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

        Light and life are common religious symbols. They are used by pagan, Eastern and Islamic religions. They are used extensively in the Bible. They are often used by John. In this Gospel life and light are two of the great basic themes on which the story is built. Like a composer introducing the themes of a great oratorio in the overture, John introduces the great themes of his gospel here in the prologue.

        The idea of the Word as having life implies several wonderful things. First, the Word has life in himself. John 5:26 explains that “as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself.” Only God is intrinsically alive - everything else takes life from him. But not the Son - not the Word - he is intrinsically alive just like the Father. Second, because he has life in himself he is able to create life. The creative Word is not limited to the creation of time and space, but also makes life in his own image and in the image of his Father. Third, he is the source of life for us. Jesus will say later in John that he has come that we may have life. He will claim to be the way, the truth, and the life. He will say “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”

        Probably the most astounding thing about this one who has life in himself is that in order to give us life he lays down his life. Christmas tells us of the incarnation of the one who came to give us life, but Easter tells us that he gave his life as a ransom for many. He says “greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends.” That’s what we celebrate in Communion - his body that was broken, his blood that was shed for us. And yet his life was ultimately indestructible, as the author of Hebrews says, so that even after death he was still ‘the life’, and by his resurrection he showed the eternal nature of the life that he gave us. In John, when describing himself as ‘the good shepherd,’ Jesus said “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life__only to take it up again.” So the Word is life. His life is pre-existing. By his life he creates life. And by the sacrifice of his life he gives eternal life to all who will believe in him.

        In the same way, the Word is light. He is the light of the world, a claim Jesus will make twice in this Gospel. Once again, the thought of light goes back to Genesis. In the beginning God said ‘let there be light.’ That physical light shown in the darkness and dispelled it. Darkness and light are not exact opposites, because darkness is not as potent as light. Light dispels darkness, but darkness never dispels light. The light of a single candle drives the darkness from a whole room, and the light of a single star illuminates all the earth. So even in the physical realm the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.

        But John says that the light he is talking about now is the light of men. Physical light is used in this Gospel as a metaphor for spiritual and moral and ethical realities. ‘Darkness’ in John is not only the absence of light, but the symbol of evil and ignorance. Light not only reveals creation, but symbolizes good and truth and the knowledge of salvation. Apart from the light brought by the Messiah, people love darkness, because their deeds are evil, John 3:19, and when light does put in an appearance, they hate it because they do not want their deeds exposed. There is a darkness of sin in people’s hearts, a darkness that does not want to be dispersed.

        Nonetheless, whenever the light shines in the darkness, the light has the victory. Neither physical light nor spiritual light can be quenched by darkness. Thus when the light of salvation comes into a person’s life their sin is forgiven, their heart cleansed, and the light of Jesus replaces their darkness. When a person comes into the light, they see where they are and they know where they are going. The path that was dark becomes bright. Without Jesus we are like people groping on an unknown road on the way to destruction. But with him the way is clear and the pathway leads to life.

        In Jesus we find light and life. At the communion table we especially focus on the life he brings, and at Christmas we focus on the light he brings. We light the advent candles, we light the trees, we have candlelight services, all to remember the coming of light into a dark world.

        In the verses we read this morning we saw the promise of that light. Isaiah 9:2 said “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. . . . For unto us a child is born.” Later in Isaiah God gives his Messiah the title ‘servant’ and says of him “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” Later Paul says that through Jesus the Father has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” At Christmas we celebrate the light of the world, the Word who is light, the one who shines in darkness, the one who gives his life to give us life and light.

        Robert Lewis Stevenson, best known for his adventure story Treasure Island was in poor health during much of his childhood. One night his nurse found him with his nose pressed against the frosty pane of his bedroom window. "Child, come away from there. You'll catch you death of cold," she fussed. But young Robert wouldn't budge. He sat, mesmerized, as he watched an old lamplighter slowly working his way through the black night, lighting each street lamp along his route. Pointing, Robert exclaimed, "See; look there; there's a man poking holes in the darkness."

        On a larger scale the same thing happened during World War II. One of the boldest decisions in naval warfare was made by Admiral Marc Mitscher in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Late in the afternoon of June 20, 1944, Mitscher had dispatched a bombing mission against the fleeing Japanese fleet. It was pitch dark when the first of the flyers began returning to their carriers. But the fleet was under strict wartime blackout regulations to guard against the threat of Japanese submarines. On the other hand, the pilots' fuel supplies were low and many of the flyers would surely never find the carriers. Admiral Mitscher took a calculated risk. He turned on the lights. One returning flyer described the scene as a "Hollywood premier, Christmas at Rockerfeller Center and the Fourth of July all rolled into one." For two hours the planes landed. Some 80 pilots, weary and out of gas, ditched in the sea but few were lost. Mitscher poked a hole in the darkness through which many were saved.

        On an even larger scale, Jesus, the Word of God, the Light of the World, poked a hole in the darkness at Christmas to let in the light of life and the light of salvation. Through that hole countless men, women and children have been saved from the perils of the darkness. God’s pre-existent Word, God’s creative Word, is to us the word of life and light. His name is Jesus.