It is a staggering idea to contemplate God choosing self-sacrifice in order to create the opportunity for reconciliation between Himself and his rebellious creation. In fact, Paul would word the matter in the following way: “God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor 5:19). The agent through whom this is accomplished is Jesus Christ in His death so that we (humanity – “us”) may potentially experience the reconciliation of God (2 Cor 5:14-21).
The Gospel of John provides a fuller detail as to how God was reconciling the world to himself. The record of John is, however, unlike Matthew’s Gospel which begins with the Hebrew genealogical table which emphasizes the Lord’s lineage from David and Abraham (Matt 1:1-17). It is unlike Mark’s abrupt mention of “the beginning” of the gospel, which is marked by Jesus’ ministry inaugurated by the baptism by John (Mark 1:1-14).
It is even unlike Luke’s historically grounded retelling, beginning from Jesus’ birth announcements to the unfolding of the universal gospel call as seen in Luke’s second volume Acts (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-9). John begins the narration of his Gospel Account from the very beginning. In this way John stands upon unique footing.
Jesus the Eternal Word
Although not being distinct in its message and general outline, John’s Gospel Account is a maverick of sorts, focusing upon the cosmic drama mentioned above which grounds the gospel message. To provide his readers the needed perspective in order to appreciate all that proceeds, John pens the first line of his account with the following words:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:1-3 ESV)
This eternal “Word” is explicitly identified as the Father’s son – Jesus – who indeed “became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14). John further affirms, “and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:14; As an important side note stands the fact that the term “Father” is used approximately 107 times as the name for “God” in John’s Gospel).
This is a profound truth regarding Jesus’ nature and ought to inform our understanding of the Gospel message as well. Let us consider a few ideas from John 1:1, as expressed in three clauses: (a) “In the beginning was the Word,” (b) “the Word was with God,” and (c) “the Word was God.” The rich language of the first verse of John’s Gospel conveys the divine nature of “the Word” (Grk. logos), who in fact is the pre-incarnate Jesus (i.e. before he put on his human identity).
Many times the “beginnings” of Jesus of Nazareth are only considered from the standpoint of his birth and baptism; however, the implications of John 1:1 demonstrate that His beginnings are from eternity (Micah 5.2). As Jack Cottrell succinctly writes:
Each of these clauses affirms the divine nature of the Logos. The first asserts his eternity, since he was already there when everything else had its beginning (see vv. 2-3). The second asserts his eternal coordination with God. He is distinguished from God, yet placed alongside God. The third clause declares his identity or equality with God.
In order to truly appreciate the gospel proclamation, it is a vital matter to understand that Jesus had an existence before he walked the rocky soil of Palestine in the 1st Century A.D. In fact, Jesus was/is an eternal divine being, namely God.
For this reason, the Gospel of John continuously makes reference to Jesus’ divine nature (5:16-17, 25-27, 6:41, 8:58), Jesus’ claims to divine authority and commission (2:16, 4:34), plus the difficulty held by those who heard Jesus make these claims (5:18, 6:42), and the rejection experienced because of this inability to accept both the human nature of Jesus and his claims to “God-hood” (2:16, 8:59). Nevertheless, it is clear from the very beginning of the Gospel of John, that his inspired Apostles believed and taught that Jesus was/is an eternal being who predates time and our universe, and has entered into His creation (John 1:2-3, 17:5).
Is Jesus “a god”?
It is a tragedy that there are groups which claim allegiance to Jesus and yet they deny the biblical doctrine of the eternal deity of Christ. One such group, the Jehovah Witnesses, offer the translation for John 1:1 in the following way:
In [the] beginning the Word was, and the Word was the God, and the Word was a god. (brackets original)
In the footnote to this passage, they refer to Appendix 6A which sets forth their justification for the translation “the Word was a god.”
The essential thrust of the argument is, according to them, a grammatical one. It is here, however, that the theological bias of the Watchtower New World Translation is evident. They argue that in New Testament Greek (koine) a noun with the article “points to an identity, a personality”, but a predicate noun without the article “preceding the verb points to a quality about someone.” Accordingly, it is argued that “it does not identify him [Jesus] as one and the same as God himself.”
The Watchtower followers are determined to maintain the “oneness” of God as is traditionally understood as monotheism (Deut 6:4-5); however, they affirm the “oneness” of Jehovah at the expense of robbing Jesus of His eternal divine nature – His “God-hood.” They go so far as to affirm that the Word (Jesus) is a creation of God: “The Word’s preeminent position among God’s creatures as the Firstborn, the one through whom God created all things.” This is but a primer of their teaching on Jesus.
While an exhaustive response cannot be given here, the following two responses are enlisted which demonstrate the weakness – even blasphemy – of the Watchtower “reasoning”. First, the “no-article-a-god” argument based upon grammar is faulty at best, if not theologically biased at worst. As Frank Pack writes, when John writes “the Word was God” he is expressing “the quality or nature” of the Word/Logos. John was not affirming that Jesus is the same person as the Father (“the Word was with God”), but that the Word was distinct in person, and yet shares the same Divine nature (Grk. theos; cf. John 20:28; Phil 2:5-8).
Second, the Gospel of John explicitly sets the “Word” as the agent through which “all things were made” (1:3). In fact, the Watchtower’s New World Translation words the last clause of verse 3 this way: “and apart from him not even one thing came into existence.” It ought to go without saying that Jesus did not self-create himself. Moreover, John expands our understanding of the creation story and is purposeful in echoing Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (ESV). It is God (Heb. ’elohim) who said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen 1:26). Denying John’s placement of Jesus in eternity and at the beginning is a tragic failure to accept basic bible teaching.
John 1:1 is a powerful passage serving as a gateway to understanding Jesus and the gospel story. The Eternal Divine Agent of creation (John 1:1-3) put upon himself the nature of “flesh” (1:14) and became “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (1:30). May we, unlike those who deny the Lord’s deity, respond to Jesus as Thomas did and herald Him as our Lord and our God (John 20:28).
- Unless otherwise noted the translation employed is the English Standard Version (ESV) of the The Holy Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001).
- Jack Cottrell, The Faith Once for All (Joplin, MO: College Press, 2002), 236.
- (NWT) New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures with References, rev. ed. (Brooklyn, NY: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, 1984). Recently, the 2013 revision of the Watchtower’s New World Translation still maintains the following rendition of verse 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.” The editors have removed the brackets; however, the online edition the footnote (*) on “was a god” reads: “Or ‘was divine.'” This is not a shift in their Christology, but it is a better translation than “a god”; furthermore, it is a step in the right direction by deriving understanding of Jesus based upon the language of the text first.
- “Appendix 6A,” NWT, 1579. The pages for these notes have been reproduced here for those wishing to see the actual Watchtower source.
- Aid to Bible Understanding, 919.
- Frank Pack, Gospel of John 1:29; cf. Dana and Mantey, Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 139-40