Bible & Theology

Why is Jesus Called the Word? (John 1:1)

The prologue to John’s Gospel is a masterful blend of poetic beauty, mysterious metaphor, and dense theology. While Luke’s Gospel begins chronicling the details of the beloved “Christmas Story,” John transports us back to “the beginning”—the same phrase used in Genesis 1:1 to describe the creation of all things, including time itself. MacLaren comments:

In it the deep ocean of the divine nature is partially disclosed, though no created eye can either plunge to discern its depths or travel beyond our horizon to its boundless, shoreless extent. The remainder of the passage deals with the majestic march of the self-revealing Word through creation, and illumination of humanity, up to the climax in the Incarnation.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn. 1:1). Verse 14 makes it plain that the Word is Jesus: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The Word is not the creation of God. Long before the Word arrived in human flesh, he was creating and sustaining the universe alongside the Father, with whom he is equal in power and glory. The Word is both with God (the Father) and actually God (the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity).

In this all-important declaration of the deity of Jesus, why does John choose to call him the Word (or in Greek, logos). When we think of a word, we typically think of something that someone says or writes. But for God’s Old Testament people, the word of God was more than mere communication.

In the creation account, God speaks the world into existence: “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen. 1:3). Psalm 33 reveals that everything created by God’s word: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host.”

As Old Testament revelation unfolds, God’s word is represented as a person. In Proverbs 8, God’s word is personified as Lady Wisdom, who states, “When he established the heavens, I was there” (v.27). His word is further personified as going forth to accomplish a mission: “so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:11). When God’s people needed deliverance, “they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from their destruction” (Ps. 107:19-20).

In creation and salvation, the word is distinct from God and yet carries the same weight of authority and powerful influence as God himself. This close relationship between the Lord and the Word of the Lord is stretched further in the Jewish Targums—a paraphrase and interpretation of the Hebrew Old Testament written in Aramaic (the primary language that Jesus spoke). The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges notes:

Where Scripture speaks of a direct communication from God to man, the Targums substituted the Memra, or “Word of God.” Thus in Genesis 3:8-9, instead of “they heard the voice of the Lord God,” the Targums have “they heard the voice of the Word of the Lord God;” and instead of “God called unto Adam,” they put “the Word of the Lord called unto Adam,” and so on. “The Word of the Lord” is said to occur 150 times in a single Targum of the Pentateuch.

In the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, which is still in popular use, the entry for “Memra” or “Logos” reads: “‘The Word,’ in the sense of the creative or directive word or speech of God manifesting His power in the world of matter or mind; a term used especially in the Targum as a substitute for ‘the Lord’ when an anthropomorphic expression is to be avoided.”

While John’s use of the word Logos closely relates to this Jewish usage, it would have also appealed to his Greek audience. Plato referred to the Logos as the divine mind and reason that is behind the entire universe.

John adapted familiar language to speak about Jesus as the ultimate way in which God makes himself known (revelation) and interacts with the world (creating, saving, healing). We read of Jesus that “All things were made through him” (v.3) and “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (v.4). Paul writes about “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). As the Word, Jesus is the manifestation of God Himself, revealed as the creator, savior, and healer of his people.

As Fred Sanders notes, “You and I can send a word out without meaning much by it, or without being really committed to it. But when God speaks, he puts himself into it.” The best way for God to make himself known was not to say something to us but to become the Word among us. Jesus as the Word is the unfailing God on mission in a dark world. He has showed up, in peculiar glory, full of grace and truth, to save and deliver.

To the Word who reveals the Father’s glory and delivers us from darkness, be majesty and praise, forever and ever, Amen.