If you were to ask any self-respecting Jew of the first century to identify the single most important event in the history of Israel, almost all would give the same answer.
Embedded deep within Jewish teaching was the unshakeable confidence that the Exodus, more than any other episode in the nation’s history, becomes the visible pattern for Yahweh’s ongoing redemptive activity among his people.
No other series of events more clearly demonstrates God’s salvific purposes for his people more than Israel’s liberation from Egypt and the subsequent journey to the land of promise.
In the Beginning
By the time that the Apostle John penned his gospel account of the life and ministry of Christ (AD 70-100), the Exodus narrative had provided a framework for the Jewish hope and anticipation for deliverance for over one thousand years.
In essence, it was the Exodus, which shaped Israel’s belief that God would once again restore his people and establish his kingdom reign. John was aware of this Jewish audience and their Exodus perspective as he wrote of the life of Christ.
However, John was very much aware that he was speaking to a much broader audience than merely the Jews. His gospel strategy demonstrated that the apostle was sensitive to the cultural and religious views of his day and he wrote in such a way to arrest the attention of them all.
In addition to the Jewish contingency, John was also addressing the Greek observers whose minds were thoroughly forged by the mythology and philosophy of their day. This cultural lens was evident to John and clearly it was in his mind as evidenced by his use of the Greek word, λόγος (logos). The word, logos, is a very ancient word likely having been coined in the fifth or sixth century BC.
This word, according to Leon Morris in The Gospel According to John, was employed by Greek philosophers “to denote something like the world-soul, the soul of the universe.” The word logos underwent greater development at the hands of a group of people in John’s day called Stoics. The Stoics in the first century did not see a connection in any way between the logos and God or Jesus as we typically would today.
According to the Stoics, logos was an impersonal principle or force in the world. In fact, they believed the logos to be the supreme “force that originated and permeated and directed all things.” John could not have used a more poignant word to arouse the minds of the Greeks than this word, which the philosophers believed to be the greatest power in the universe.
Notice how masterfully John crafted his gospel account in order that it might apprehend the thoughts and minds of both the Jews and the Stoics. Here, John speaks into this eclectic culture these earth-shattering words, “In the beginning was the word (logos) and the word (logos) was with God and the word (logos) was God” (John 1:1).
In the very first statement, John has grabbed the attention of both groups. The words, “In the beginning. . .” are reminiscent of Genesis 1:1, and they serve as a bridge linking the Old Testament promises to the New Testament fulfillments.
The Stoics as well now had a peaked interest in John’s opening words because they heard him using their own language as he expounded upon the origin of the logos. John chose each word with surgical precision in order to cut across the established mindsets of the broad culture of his day.
John’s introduction, verses 1-13, builds ever-increasing momentum like a crescendo in a Mozart symphony until the climax of the extraordinary claim in verse 14, “And the Word (logos) became flesh and dwelt among us and we saw His glory. . .” The Jewish and Stoic minds, alike, would have gasped at such an outlandish claim but for far different reasons.
The modern reader of John’s gospel will find just as much reason to be amazed by his words and maybe even for the very same reasons as the first-century readers. So just what might the first-century readers have thought as they heard John’s message for the very first time?
The Greek Stoics viewed the gods as being impersonal and detached from the world, and in the Greek mind that was a good thing. The only reason a god would come to earth or engage the earthly realm would be for the purpose of judging or bringing punishment in some way, and it is for this reason that the Greeks were always concerned with “appeasing” the gods and keeping them happy.
To hear John say that the logos (the supreme force and power in the universe) “became flesh” (John 1:14) would have been a stunning statement for the Greeks to hear and even more challenging to comprehend. The apostle was not merely repeating Greek teaching here, he was presenting something brand new and revolutionary.
John, in a sense, is in agreement with the Stoics that the Logos can refer to the greatest power in the universe and the starting point for everything, but he is correcting the false belief that the Logos is impersonal and somehow unconnected from our world.
In fact, it becomes increasingly clear as John precedes that, in his understanding, the logos is none other than Jesus himself. The Logos is the very one whom John the Baptist bore witness about (John 1:15) and the one who is at the Father’s side, Jesus Christ. After hearing John’s gospel, the Greeks are able finally to give the Logos a name, and that name is unmistakably, Jesus.
But what would it be like to hear John’s opening words with Jewish ears? Once again, they would have immediately seen the intended connection between John’s “In the beginning” and the “In the beginning” of Genesis 1, but the multiple Old Testament allusions would not have ended there.
Consider the description of the incarnation of the Logos and how the Jews might have wrestled with its implications. From the earliest of days, the words of Yahweh would have resonated in the minds of every little Jewish boy and girl, “You cannot see my face, for no man can see me and live” (Exodus 33:20).
There was no greater reality of God in the Jewish mind than the fact that God was greater, higher, and holier than a mere man could comprehend and certainly far more transcendent than a man could stand.
Again, the Exodus and the wilderness wandering experience provide the image for understanding God’s place among his people and the utter inability of a rebellious people to draw near to a holy God.
In Exodus 25, this God who Moses described as “a consuming fire” (Exodus 24:17) gave instruction to “construct a sanctuary for Me that I may dwell among them,” and this sanctuary was to be built according to the “pattern” (Exodus 25:9), which God, himself would give.
But this tabernacle, which served as a sanctuary was not only built according to a pattern given by God, this tabernacle would, itself, serve as a pattern for a much greater tabernacle and sanctuary in order to serve God’s greater, eternal purposes in time.
This tabernacle in all of its splendor was also known as the “tent of meeting” (Exodus 33:7), and it is here that Moses would enter and the LORD “would speak to Moses face to face as a man speaks to his friend (Exodus 33:11). “Whenever Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent; and Yahweh would speak with Moses” (Exodus 33:9). Whenever the people would see the cloud, which represented the very presence of God, they would “arise and worship” (Exodus 33:10).
When John says that the Logos “became flesh and dwelt among us and we saw His glory” (John 1:14), he is drawing from the image of the tabernacle in order to communicate to his Jewish listeners the startling revelation that Jesus Christ, the Logos of God, was indeed the fulfillment of what the Old Testament had long anticipated. The word “dwelt” in verse 14 literally means to tabernacle.
According to John, the God of the Old Testament, who in times past only would meet with Moses in the tent of meeting while all of Israel looked on and worshipped, had now stepped out from the tabernacle to take his place among the people. In essence, Jesus, himself, had become the tabernacle where God and His people would once again meet together as friends.
What Does This Mean?
Our great God is not distant and aloof, but rather, in Christ, He is in our midst and deeply engaged in our world and in the lives we live. We are not relegated to merely observe and worship from a safe distance, but rather we are exhorted to “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). Like Moses in the Old Testament, all who boldly draw near to God confidently in Christ alone will behold his glory and find grace in His presence.
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Dr. Rick Kirby, along with his wife and children, lives in Anderson, South Carolina. Rick serves as a corporate chaplain in the upstate of South Carolina, in addition to shepherding micro-church movements, which he does in partnership with the Evangelical Free Church in America and the Creo Collective. Rick has written as a freelance writer for organizations such as The INJOY Group, InTouch Ministries, and Walk Through the Bible. Rick holds a Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degree from Erskine Theological Seminary. Through the years, Rick’s family has been deeply engaged in discipling efforts globally in India, Romania, Brazil, Ecuador and most recently in Puerto Rico. Among the many things Rick enjoys are woodworking in his woodshop and roasting (and drinking) coffee. You can find other works by Kirby at www.rickkirby.org.