From The Daily Bible Study Series
by William Barclay
1:1-2 When the world had its beginning, the word was already there; and the word was with God; and the word was God. This word was in the beginning with God.
The beginning of John’s gospel is of such importance and of such depth of meaning that we must study it almost verse by verse.* It is John’s great thought that Jesus is none other than God’s creative and life-giving and light-giving word, that Jesus is the power of God which created the world and the reason of God which sustains the world come to earth in human and bodily form.
Here at the beginning John says three things about the Word; which is to say that he says three things about Jesus.
(i) The Word was already there at the very beginning things. John’s thought is going back to the first verse of the Bible. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). What John is saying is this—the Word is not one of the created things; the Word was there before creation.The Word is not part of the world which came into being in time; the Word is part of eternity and was there with God before time and the world began. John was thinking of what is known as the preexistence of Christ.
In many ways this idea of preexistence is very difficult, if not altogether impossible, to grasp. But it does mean one very simple, very practical, and very tremendous thing. If the Word was with God before time began, if God’s Word is part of the eternal scheme of things, it means that God was always like Jesus. Sometimes we tend to think of God as stern and avenging; and we tend to think that something Jesus did changed God’s anger into love and altered his attitude to men. The New Testament knows nothing of that idea. The whole New Testament tells us, this passage of John especially, that God has always been like Jesus. What Jesus did was to open a window in time that we might see the eternal and unchanging love of God.
We may well ask, “What then about some of the things that we read in the Old Testament? What about the passages which speak about commandments of God to wipe out whole cities and to destroy men, women and children? What of the anger and the destructiveness and the jealousy of God that we sometimes read of in the older parts of Scripture?” The answer is this—it is not God who has changed; it is men’s knowledge of him that has changed. Men wrote these things because they did not know any better; that was the stage which their knowledge of God had reached.
When a child is learning any subject, he has to learn it stage by stage. He does not begin with full knowledge; he begins with what he can grasp and goes on to more and more. When he begins music appreciation, he does not start with a Bach Prelude and Fugue; he starts with something much more simple; and goes through stage after stage until his knowledge grows. It was that way with men and God. They could only grasp and understand God’s nature and his ways in part. It was only when Jesus came that they saw fully and completely what God has always been like.
It is told that a little girl was once confronted with some of the more bloodthirsty and savage parts of the Old Testament. Her comment was: “But that happened before God became a Christian!” If we may so put it with all reverence, when John says that the Word was always there, he is saying that God was always a Christian. He is telling us that God was and is and ever shall be like Jesus; but men could never know and realize that until Jesus came.
(ii) John goes on to say that the Word was with God. What does he mean by that? He means that always there has been the closest connection between the Word and God. Let us put that in another and a simpler way—there has always been the most intimate connection between Jesus and God. That means no one can tell us what God is like, what God’s will is for us, what God’s love and heart and mind are like, as Jesus can.
Let us take a simple human analogy. If we want to know what someone really thinks and feels about something, and if we are unable to approach the person ourselves, we do not go to someone who is merely an acquaintance of that person, to someone who has known him only a short time; we go to someone whom we know to be an intimate friend of many years’ standing. We know that he will really be able to interpret the mind and the heart of the other person to us.
It is something like that that John is saying about Jesus. He is saying that Jesus has always been with God. Let us use very human language because it is the only language we can use. John is saying that Jesus is so intimate with God that God has no secrets from him; and that, therefore, Jesus is the one person in all the universe who can reveal to us what God is like and how God feels towards us.
(iii) Finally John says that the Word was God. This is a difficult saying for us to understand, and it is difficult because Greek, in which John wrote, had a different way of saying things from the way in which English speaks. When Greek uses a noun it almost always uses the definite article with it. The Greek for God is theos and the definite article is ho. When Greek speaks about God it does not simply say theos; it says ho theos. Now when Greek does not use the definite article with a noun that noun becomes much more like an adjective. John did not say that the Word was ho theos ; that would have been to say that the Word was identical with God. He said that the Word was theos—without the definite article—which means that the Word was, we might say, of the very same character and quality and essence and being as God. When John said the Word was God he was not saying that Jesus was identical with God; he was saying that Jesus was so perfectly the same as God in mind, in heart, in being that in him we perfectly see what God is like.
So right at the beginning of his Gospel John lays it down that in Jesus, and in him alone, there is perfectly revealed to men all that God always was and always will be, and all that he feels towards and desires for men.
[*italics of the 1955 edition restored but not text, which differs slightly]