Sermon Lesson (the Word): John 1:1-14 (NRSV)
Sermon Lesson (Jesus of Nazareth): Luke 2:1-7 (NRSV)
Old Testament Lesson: Isaiah 9:2-7 (NRSV)
Psalm: Psalm 96 (NRSV)
Referenced Bible Passages: Genesis 1 (NRSV)
Referenced Literary Works: Plato’s The Cave
Referenced Movies: The Matrix by The Wachowski Brothers
The Gospel of John—even at first glance—is very different from any other Gospel in the Bible. Instead of the birth of Jesus, the first chapter of John addresses the topic of “Logos” or the Word, which can be confusing if we don’t understand the context in which the Gospel of John is written.
The Gospel of John was the last of the four gospels to be written down, in roughly AD 100 or thereabouts, in Ephesus (or modern-day Turkey). This was several decades after Mark (written in AD 70, just after the Temple was destroyed).
This tells us three important things about the gospel’s audience.
The first aspect is that the Gospel’s audience is the gentiles. They are non-Jews in every sense of the word (as opposed to Hellenized Jews who were Jewish men and women who were heavily influenced by Greek- and Roman culture). The readers of this gospel do not possess a Jewish framework to understand Jesus. Unlike the audience of Mathew, Mark, and Luke, the readers of John wouldn’t quite grasp the idea of a messiah—or someone sent by the God of Israel to save—specifically—Israel. The readers of John would have little care for Israel or her fate, because Israel had never been their nation and they were not—strictly—children of God in the traditional (or Old Testament) sense, not being born of the Twelve Tribes.
From this, we can determine that at the time John was written down, Christianity had gone global. The belief in Jesus Christ had made its way to Turkey and it was popular enough for a gospel or “teaching of Christ” to be written specifically for gentiles and geared toward their culture. So, we can conclude, that Christianity was no longer (at this point) just a sect of Judaism, as it was in the first few decades after Jesus’s crucifixion.
The second point we need to know and understand is that the Greeks (or gentiles) had a concept called Logos, which we translate into the English Bible as “the Word.” Logos began as a pagan concept with the early Greek philosophers, and doesn’t quite have a single definition. As such, it can also be translated as Reason. To the Greeks, Reason was the “be all and end all.” It was greater than any god on Mount Olympus. It was the order by which the universe operated (at this time, the sun moving around the earth along with the entire night sky). Logos was the guiding principle.
I would like to stress at this point, that translating Logos as both “the Word” and as “Reason” is correct but incomplete. They are both facets of Logos and not the entire concept that this word covers. Logos is also “order” and can be translated as “truth” in certain instances. It is a word with no direct translation and with no single definition because it encapsulates a philosophical idea so beautiful and complex and particular to Hellenistic thought that it doesn’t exist as one set concept in any other neighboring culture.
The third point is that the Greeks believed in two separate worlds. This is not to be confused with the idea of a life on earth and an afterlife in heaven (or hell).
Instead, the Greeks believed in the present life, a life a beauty, but a life of copies and of shadows. The second life was a life of truths and realities. It was an unseen world but one to which the Greek philosopher aspired.
Now, I realize this concept is a little difficult for us to grasp, so I offer up two examples that describe this relationship between the two worlds. The first example of this would be Plato’s The Cave, where humans are trapped in a cave, looking at shadows playing on a cave wall, not knowing that if they were only to stand up and go outside they would learn that the cave is just a shadow of the truth. A modern example of this theory would be The Matrix (1999), where humans are born trapped inside a computer program that looks like the turn of the 21st-century—the real world being a scorched shell of the earth centuries after humans became enslaved to machines.
When Christianity—a Jewish sect—adopted this idea of Logos, it had to be tweaked just a little. The “world of shadows” becomes our life as Christians here in this life. Salvation—true salvation—opens us up to the “world of truths” for us.
In our minds, we might equate this with an earthly life being the “world of shadows” and a heavenly life as “the world of truths,” but it isn’t quite so cut and dry as that. We might experience Beauty and Truth and Knowledge here on earth when we are Saved (all capitalizations intended). When we die, we might, however, be cast into greater shadows than we now experience.
Moving onto the Gospel of John
Where the first three canonical Gospels speak of the Coming of Christ as the birth of a baby, John takes a more Hellenistic (or Greek) approach. He equates the Coming of Christ with the Incarnation of Logos.
Now, although our culture descends from Greek philosophers, the incarnation of Logos has given more than one person a headache when trying to grasp the concept. For this reason, Logos is translated as “the Word” to clarify the idea for modern English-speaking Christians. After all, in Genesis 1, God the Father created the world with words. With God’s words—with order—chaos was reformed into light, dark, earth, sky, and so on. God’s words were also Reason—for you cannot create in a Hellenistic mindset without Reason. Creation is ordered and therefore reasoned thought. Without reason—without Logos, we would only have chaos and lack of understanding and purpose.
So, when we move to John 1 – we read that “In the beginning was the Word.” We know this intellectually if we take a step back and think. We’ve seen words (plural) in Genesis 1. Lots and lots of words, in fact, such as “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). We see how God the Father wields the Word—wields logic—wields truth—wields Reason… to create all of existence.
But there is more to it than that.
While Logos is decidedly a Hellenistic idea and concept, the writer of John recognized that Logos was Christ misunderstood for so long. Christ was Reason. Christ was Logic. Christ was Truth. Christ was the Word of God, perfected in human form. God spoke words at the beginning of time, but two thousand years ago when he spoke, it was Christ who formed the words and spread the message here on earth.
The writer of John was brilliant because he looked at a pagan concept and realized it was incomplete, it was half-formed, half-realized, and half-baked. They understood Logos, but they didn’t understand who Logos was … The answer to that question was (quite obviously) Jesus.
Furthermore, by coopting the concept of “Logos” John was able to slot Christ and Christianity firmly into Greek philosophic thought. By grafting the idea of Christ onto Logos, John had an entire world view he could employ without having to build from the ground up.
While the Jewish people had the concept of Messiah and the God of Abraham … the Greeks had thought and reason and philosophy and Logos. It was brilliant of the writer of John to look at his audience and explain Jesus in ways they could already understand. He used their language, their history, their philosophy—and in the process created some of the most beautiful language and complex descriptions of the Persons of God in the entire Bible.
Is this Lying or being inauthentic?
Before John (give or take a few years), Christianity was a sect of Judaism. It was built on Jewish thought and tradition… but soon the followers of Christ realized that Jesus’s message was universal and the good news was meant for all men and women, not just descendants of Abraham.
Whenever you take an idea or a concept and move it from one culture to the next, the idea never exactly fits. The vocabulary isn’t present. The history of a concept may not be universal even if its message, built upon that history, is itself universal.
The brilliance of Christianity is its universal message of salvation and redemption. However, when coming into new cultures, it doesn’t always make sense the first time it is explained. Ever wonder why we have a “white Jesus”? It’s because Europeans couldn’t relate to a short Mediterranean fellow with a bushy beard, black eyes, and curly hair … so European converts painted and drew someone who looked like them so that, with a glance, they knew that Jesus was just like them.
Are you fond of the Huron Carol? Originally written in French and Huron, the baby Jesus in it is sent by Gitchhi-Manitu (the head god of the Hurons) and is given gifts of fur upon his birth. This is not exactly the story we have in the Bible, but would the First Nations understand what myrrh was—let alone why it was precious?
Why do we celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25th? After all, modern scholars place it in and around the month of March. We celebrate it in December, whoever, because the twenty-firth is just a few days after the solstice—the darkest and shortest day of the year in Western Europe. This is a time of fires and candles and a day of knowing that, no matter how cold or snowy, the days will be getting longer again, and light has been restored to the world.
Christianity used the ideas and the language already in operation and utilized them so that new cultures would better be able to relate.
That in no way, shape, or form makes it untrue.
It simply means that Christianity is adaptable. It also means that Christianity and her followers are intelligent enough to find comparisons between two ideas and two languages.
A Quick Recap
Where Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us of a human man who worked within the framework of first-century Palestine, John gives us the concept of the Second Person of God, who has been with God the Father since before time itself. Through this second person—through the word—through Logos—through Christ, everything was made.
Which is wrong?
Neither. Jesus was both a man, born of a human mother, and is also the Second Person of God in the Holy Trinity. We know that he was 100% flesh and 100% God. The first three gospels tell us the story of the man. The fourth Gospel begins with the story of the Word, or the Second Person of God, whom we know as Jesus Christ.
If neither is wrong, then which is correct then?
Both. This is a basic foundation upon which Christianity is built and which the majority of modern Christians agree (minus a few outliers).
The Word Eternal
The Word has always existed, before time itself, and will continue to exist after the end of all we know. As such, Jesus Christ is both eternal and everlasting.
It doesn’t matter what name we call him—Jesus, Y’eshua ibn Yusef, God the Son, Son of God, the Word, Lord, Savior, Messiah, Christ …. What matters is that he came to us in human form to tell us of the love of God, a love which Jesus Christ himself shares and can bring into all of our lives.
The story of Christmas is not just the story of a baby being born. It is the story of Love coming into the world—a love which has existed since the beginning and far after the end.
A Companion Youtube Sermon on “Jesus of Nazareth” will be uploaded on Saturday, December 19, 2020