The Deity of Christ in the Gospel of John

20120808-084729.jpgBy Leif L.

It is crucial for Christians to understand the message of the prologue to the Gospel of John. The teaching embodied in this small portion of sacred text contain the center of New Testament teaching which the gospel of God revolves: the doctrine of the Person of Christ.

John Answers, “Who Is Jesus?”

The gospel of John is a theological work, with a very different structure than we find in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). It does not rely as heavily on stories and parables for teaching, rather it employs clearly delineated declaration of truths.

One of those truths relates to the Person of Christ. John answers the question, “Who is Jesus?” differently than the other gospels. I believe the reason that he approaches and explains this issue so exquisitely and clearly in his prologue is because there were debates in the Apostolic church regarding the deity of the man that walked among them, and died for their sins.

The Gospel according to John was the last book of the sacred canon to be penned, written around 96 AD. Most of the New Testament, including the other gospels, were written decades earlier. The Synoptic Gospels focus on Jesus’ life, starting with his birth, and ending with his death, resurrection and ascension. Only John gives clear testimony of his existence prior to the incarnation.

The apostolic church was living so close in time to the revelation of Jesus’ humanity, that the question of his deity may not have been a primary issue for these first believers. Peter’s preaching in the first few chapters of the book of Acts don’t make a clear statement regarding Jesus’ divinity (though there are strong allusions to it; compare Acts 2:21 to 4:12; Peter understood that Jesus was “Ha Shem”, the Hebrew God bearing the most Holy Name, through whom only was salvation).

There is no way avoid the fact that when John wrote his gospel, he wished to dispel any misunderstandings that may have been lurking regarding the deity if the Son of God. John writes with purpose, opening the book with a unique set of words that are strong and direct.

The Text, the Message

John 1:1-3, Translated from Codex Sinaiticus:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2 He was in the beginning with God.
3 All things came into being through him, and without him came into being not one thing that is in being.

The “Word” (Gr. logos) is the pre-incarnate Son of God, and “Jesus Christ” is the name of the Son of God when he took upon himself human flesh. To simplify this article, I use the common New Testament names/titles Jesus and Christ.

In this passage, John is teaching the following points:

  • Jesus is God,
  • more specifically Jesus is the God of Genesis, who created the heavens and the earth
  • Because everything that came into existence came through him, he could not have come into existence at a point in time, but is the eternal Word, always one with the Father

What does “God” mean?

John tells us that the Word “was God”. The English word “god” or “God” in our English versions are translated from the words elohim in Hebrew and theos in Greek. How are we supposed to understand this as applied to the Word? In what sense or to what degree is Jesus “God”? What does John mean by “God”? Does he teaching that he was a divine being, perhaps “a god”, with a small “g”, as some teach?

It is true that the word “god” is used with much latitude in the Scriptures. People are called “gods” by Jesus in John 10:34, 35. Clearly, this is a limited kind of deity, as humans do not cause their own being, and do not possess the attributes of God with a capital “G”. We are not omniscient, omnipotent, or possessing creative powers, with the ability to bring into being something from nothing.

John does not leave us in bewilderment as to the meaning of “God” as applied to the Word. Approaching these verses by splintering them and then examining the pieces will be of little help in understanding what John really teaches about the divine nature of the Son of God. The sense with which he uses the term in the first few verses of his gospel need to be understood in a larger context.

There are three classifications of personal beings revealed in the Scriptures;

  • Deity (God-kind)
  • Angelic beings (angel-kind)
  • Humans (mankind)

Where does Jesus fall in these classifications? John says that the Word is God. Then he defines Jesus’ Godhood; he does not leave us in doubt as to the nature of his deity.

There is a clear parallel to Genesis 1:1 in this passage in John; in Genesis, God is introduced as creator; he is God because he is the creator of all things. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. You can not separate God from creator; the Scripture is prefaced with that theological axiom.

Genesis: In the beginning was God

John: In the beginning was the Word

John is offering a literary parallel and a theological explanation and connection to Genesis. He is declaring the supreme exaltation of the Son; that the Son is actually one with the God who created all things, and also the God who brought everything into existence.

Genesis: In the beginning God created

John: In the beginning the Word created

In Genesis, God is first. In John, the Word is first. It seems clear that John is identifying the Word as God, the one who created the heavens and the earth in Genesis 1:1. If we could possibly miss this connection, he goes on to say in verse three, that all things came into being through him (the Word), and without him nothing came into being that exists.

This declaration in verse three precludes a doctrine of a Son who was generated in time. If everything came into being through the Son, and there is nothing that exists that he did not generate, then logically, the Son was neither brought into being or generated in time. This is the Biblical meaning of “beginning” in this context; the origin or source. The word in verse three that is translated as “made” is the Greek ginomai, which means “to generate”. From Strong’s Greek dictionary:

G1096 γίνομαι * ginomai * ghin’-om-ahee * A prolonged and middle form of a primary verb; to cause to be (“gen” -erate), that is, (reflexively) to become (come into being)

John is teaching us that everything that came into being came into existence through the Son; therefore, the Son did not come into being. Upon the basis of his creative acts, and the fact that he himself lacks a created nature, is his deity based. This is the Biblical meaning of the word “God” when applied to the “Word”.

Clarifications

For Jehovah’s Witnesses, or others with a similar point of view who may be reading this blog, I wish to clarify that I am not confusing the Son with the Father. The Word is the Son, who was with God the Father in the beginning. The Son is a separate person from the Father, but united in his divine nature with his Father, so that both the Father and Son are equal in their being, in that both are uncreated. That is the plain teaching of John 1:1-3, and the purpose of this article is to explain that.

Also, I affirm that the Son is begotten of the Father. John is plain on this point. However, begotten does not mean created. That there is a derivation of the Son from the Father is clear in Scripture and orthodox teaching, but “begotten” cannot mean “generated in time“, for John teaches that the Son is uncreated, as part of his nature that sets him apart from every created being. I will post articles here in the future from Christian theologians who do an excellent job of explaining the meaning of “begotten” in reference to the Father and Son.

Conclusion

The Word is uncreated and therefore truly God, not in a limited sense, but in the full sense of the word. God is the uncreated creator, the one who has always been. He is the one who brought all things into existence, creating ex-nihilo, creating by fiat. He creates simply because he can, and is not interdependent on what he creates.

Man, when called “god”, does not fit into these categories. Man has a beginning, and is therefore finite. Man does not create anything, he simply changes the appearance of or reorganizes what God has already created. What man makes is not created by fiat (simply because he wills, with no external force compelling him). Man is driven by needs, and creates to fulfill or meet those needs.

Jesus is the uncreated, infinite, eternal creator. Mankind is a finite creation. If Jesus is not eternally God, then the gap between him and the Father is immeasurable; he would be much closer in nature to angels and humans on the scale of personal classification, than to the Father, and the appellation of “God” is misapplied. Any two finite numbers, regardless of size, are much like each other and contrast with infinity. One-million is in really no closer to infinity than one; if Jesus is described as “one million”, and we as “one”, on the scale of infinity he is no closer to the Father in nature than we are. Therefore he is not truly God, but “a god”, the noblest of God’s creation, made by the word of God, and not the very Word of God, inseparable from God.

Anything less than infinite, is infinitely less. And the teaching of Scripture is that our Saviour is not a creature, but an uncreated being, one with the Father from all eternity.

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