God’s functional word: sectarian Christology in John 1

The traditional Christological discourse surrounding John 1:1 seeks to assess the nature of God’s word as it relates to the nature of God the Father. Interpreters involved in this enterprise attempt to understand how the Word can be both God (θεός) and yet distinct from God (ὁ θεός). Early Christians appropriated Greek philosophical terms like “substance” (οὐσία) and “person” (ὑπόστασις) in order to articulate and unravel this ontological paradox and they have used such language ever since.

Few interpreters, however, have engaged with the purpose of God’s word in biblical context. What does God’s word do? Why does God speak? By asking these teleological questions—and not their ontological counterparts—it seems to me that we will be better equipped to understand the meaning of the Logos Christology found chiefly in the Johannine prologue.

God’s living and active word among the prophets

In Israel’s prophetic tradition God’s word functions as both the sign and the instrument of historical-political upheaval. The Lord speaks through his prophet so as to disrupt the immanent socio-political order: “I have put my words in your mouth. I have appointed you today over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and plant (Jeremiah 1:10-11). Through the rhetorical activity of the prophet God signals coming judgement and in the same breath realigns the geopolitical landscape.

Here are two instructive examples of this dynamic from the book of Isaiah.

  • The divine word acts to restore the exiles to their homeland: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty. For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace…” (Isaiah 55:10-13, cf. 40:6-11). God declares “Comfort, o my people,” and there is comfort.
  • The divine word becomes embodied in the Persian warlord Cyrus so that he might bring the idolatrous nations into God’s vassalage: “I have grasped his right hand to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes… From my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear'” (Isaiah 45:1-25). God declares “Submission, o nations,” and there is submission.

The Apostle Paul, no less an Israelite prophet, characterizes his mission in much the same way. He proclaimed “the word of the Lord” to the nations with the result that many Greeks “turned to God from idols” in preparation for the wrath coming upon the pagan world (1 Thessalonians 1:8-10, cf. Galatians 1:15-16). Paul understood this work in terms of “winning obedience from the nations… by word and deed… by the power of God’s spirit” (Romans 15:18-19); and so by delivering his message about Christ’s exaltation—itself the word of God—to the Gentiles, Paul believed he was bringing Israel’s history to its glorious climax. Soon all the kings of the earth would surrender to the God of Israel and his people. With Paul as his spokesman, God would in some mysterious way fulfill his word by means of his word.

The purpose of God’s word in the prophetic context then is to bring about judgement on the earth, to bend history to the heavenly will, to speak into being prosperity or misfortune. The prophetic oracle is thus both promise and catalyst. Having entered the world through the prophet, the divine word becomes the mud that clogs the chariot wheels of history.

God’s embodied wisdom

By identifying Christ as not only the conduit of God’s word, but as the Word itself, early Christians furthered Israel’s prophetic conception of the divine word. Yet they were not alone in making this imaginative leap. While early Christians uniquely identified the Messiah as God’s word, some other Jews found the inner-workings of God’s mind manifested elsewhere.

Those Jews who adhered to the teachings of Jesus Ben Sirach, for instance, believed God’s wisdom was embodied in the Pentateuch, the “book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law that Moses commanded us” (Sirach 24:23). As such, Lady Wisdom had “tented in Jacob” as Israel’s “inheritance,” the means by which God’s holy people might prosper among the ignorant nations (Sirach 24:8)—”Those who obey her will judge the nations, and all who listen to her will live secure” (Sirach 4:15). God’s wisdom thus worked in and through the Law of Moses to exalt Israel in historical-political terms.

Ben Sirach further implies that this wisdom materialized in a particularly Law-observant Jew, Simon the Righteous. Like Lady Wisdom, he appeared “glorious… like the morning star… like the sun shining” when he donned his high-priestly garments (Sirach 50:7-5, 24:16-17, 32). He was towering like a cypress, fruitful like an olive tree, beautiful like rosebushes, and fragrant like incense (50:8-10, 24:13-15). Through him, moreover, God’s wisdom worked to restore glory and power to the nation: Simon “repaired the house… fortified the temple… laid the foundations for the high double walls… In his days a water cistern was dug, a reservoir like the sea in circumference. He considered how to save his people from ruin, and fortified the city against siege” (50:1-4).

Philo too understands the Law as a pristine expression of God’s wisdom. By receiving the Law in God’s presence, Philo claims further that the man Moses became “god and king of the whole nation” and “a well-wrought picture [of the divine], a piece of work beautiful and godlike, a model for those willing to copy it” (Life of Moses 1. 157-158). As witness to the immortal Creator at Sinai, Moses became a glorious image of deity, an image which Israel might emulate and in so doing prosper (1.159-162).

For at least some Jews of the second temple period then, the Law, Simon the high priest, and Moses represented loci of the divine mind. God’s wisdom, like his uttered prophetic word—now hypostasized in Law, priest, and lawgiver—functioned to interrupt and redirect history in accordance with its divinely-ordained course, oftentimes through the disclosure of life-giving ethical truth.

God’s incarnate prophetic word

John’s Logos poem demonstrates that some Jews also came to see Jesus as a fount of divine wisdom. For these first Jewish believers, Jesus was, of course, a prophet who relayed God’s word to the people.1 By preaching his message of the kingdom, Jesus somehow called God’s reign over the earth into being.2 In this sense he was a rather conventional prophet.

Still, in the earliest traditions it was Jesus’ deeds of power, not his words, that definitively established the content of God’s word—that is, the kingdom—in the world. By casting out demons, healing the sick, and raising the dead, the gospel of the kingdom—God’s word to Israel—was fulfilled and made manifest in concrete ways (Matthew 10:7-8, Luke 11:20, 17:20-21). By saving Israelites, Jesus built up God’s saving-kingdom in Israel. Jesus not only spoke God’s words about kingdom come, he performed them as a spirit-possessed healer.

Herein lies one origin of early Christian Logos Christology: God’s prophet had become God’s living and active word. Jesus was not merely the harbinger of God’s kingdom, he was himself the kingdom’s founder and executor. As the “Word of God [concerning the kingdom]” made man, Christ himself would therefore soon become “King of kings and Lord of lords” over the earth by “striking down the nations” with the sword of his mouth (Revelation 19:11-16). Here in the Apocalypse Jesus the prophet of God’s kingdom-word has transfigured into Jesus the instrument of God’s kingdom-word. Jesus the doomsayer has become doom; the augur of vengeance has become vengeance itself.

The Johannine word: A double-edged sword of light

While both John 1 and Revelation 19 identify Christ as God’s word, the Fourth Evangelist’s purposes are distinctive, having more in common with Philo and Sirach than with Jeremiah or Isaiah. John’s ultimate concern lies in managing his community’s theological (and thus also social and ethical) divorce from other forms of Judaism3—not with the historical-political concerns that are characteristic of Hebrew prophecy.

The Word that becomes flesh in John 1 is not a word concerning the apocalyptic kingdom that comes to upend the theo-political order. This Word, rather, is more theological than prophetic—it “tents” in Israel so as to “make known” Israel’s God (1:18) and in so doing bring others into intimate relationship with God as “sons” (1:12-13).4 At stake here then is “[divine] truth and [divine] favor” in an abstract and sectarian sense (1:17)5—a truth that, like light, distinguishes God’s people from outsiders who live in spiritual darkness, Jew and pagan alike. Such language is meant to embolden the “secret” believer (John 7:12-13, 12:42, 19:38, 20:19, cf. 9:22) by persuading him that he possesses a preeminent spiritual status through his belief in the dying and rising Christ, God’s incarnate word.

For the Johannine community comprehension of this knowledge of God found in Christ secured, above all else, an “eternal life” that was safe from the scheming of the non-believing Jews who drove Christians out of their synagogues. Just as God’s wisdom had long ago become the Law (Sirach 24), thus separating Jew from Gentile, God’s people from the heathen, so now God’s word had become Jesus the Messiah so as to separate God’s sons, heirs of eternal life, from the Devil’s brood, heirs of destruction (John 8:44, 1 John 3:10). In this proudly schismatic light, estrangement from the synagogue represented, paradoxically, divine vindication. God was amputating the wicked from his people.

So Christ—but more specifically Christ’s controversial teaching-ministry—has in John become the instrument of God’s word of incorporeal judgement, a sword of light (Claíomh Solais) to “pierce even to the point of dividing soul from spirit, and joints from marrow… able to judge the desires and thoughts of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). The Johannine Jesus is, in this way, a light that discerns the good from the evil (John 1:5, 3:19-20, 9:39, 12:46).

The Christological debates of the theologians are therefore, I think, misguided. The author of John’s Logos poem simply has no intention of telling us what Jesus is as God’s word—whether he is God or god, deity or divinity—as if to clarify the constitution or architecture of God, of Father and Son. Instead, he is interested to tell us what Jesus does as God’s word. Like the Law, like Moses, and like Simon the Righteous, Jesus was for the Johannine community the definitive expression of and, indeed, the definitive instrument of God’s penetrating judgement, a thorn of schism in Israel. Inasmuch as God’s word is itself θεός in Johannine understanding, Christ revealed God in such a way as to impeccably execute God’s threshing of his people. In Christ, God himself was slicing the people in two.

1—The Johannine tradition in particular emphasizes Jesus’ role as God’s representative (John 7:16, 8:28, 12:49).

2—The parables of the sower and the growing seed might exemplify this. The seed (i.e. God’s word spoken through Jesus) sown in good soil produces fruit for the eschatological harvest.

3—A brilliant insight developed by Louis Martyn in History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel.

4—In the ancient world fathers passed on important knowledge to their sons so that they could one day govern the household rightly. In this regard religious and professional information was particularly crucial.

5—The author sets the revelatory value of Christ in opposition to Moses here and elsewhere: “The law indeed was given through Moses; favor and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is the only god, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:17-18, cf. 5:39-40).

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