A few weeks ago I preached the final message in my series on “Church on Purpose” — a look at the reasons for some of the things we do. I planned the series to end in December with a sermon on the incarnation of Christ — “The Word was Made Flesh” — using John 1:14 as my starting point. I’d like to write on this sermon in several installments.
I already touched on this in “The Reason” for Everything. I talked briefly about the meanings associated with the Greek word logos, translated as “Word” in John 1. (This article will make more sense if you read that one first.) Now, I’d like to look at how ancient philosophers used logos, and how John showed the shortcomings of human philosophy when compared to God’s wonderful self-revelation.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Human Philosophers “Discover” Logos
It is hardly surprising that a word with such a broad range of meanings, and these particular meanings, should draw the attention of human philosophers. As early as 500 B.C., Heraclitus of Ephesus began to talk about “the Logos,” playing on the different meanings of the word. He called it the controlling principle of the universe, that all things happen according to the Logos, but that people do not understand it.
Although this Logos is eternally valid, yet men are unable to understand it — not only before hearing it, but even after they have heard it for the first time. That is to say, although all things come to pass in accordance with this Logos, men seem to be quite without any experience of it – at least if they are judged in the light of such words and deeds as I am here setting forth.
We should let ourselves be guided by what is common to all. Yet, although the Logos is common to all, most men live as if each of them had a private intelligence of his own.
For Heraclitus, then, the Logos was the single rule or guiding principle of life, but people couldn’t seem to understand it and live by it.
For Plato, the Logos is almost an impersonal creator, the pattern by which creation was formed, the archetypal idea of all of creation, while the Stoics such as Marcus Aurelius saw it as the generative principle of all things, matter and life. Aurelius came after the time of John’s writings, but the Stoic philosophy was already widespread in the first century AD.
Philo of Alexandria was a Jewish philosopher who lived from around 25 BC to 50 AD. He tried to show that Greek philosophy and the Old Testament were two reliable sources of truth which could be fused together. Unsurprisingly, given the importance in the Old Testament of the Word of God, he adopted the idea of the Logos. For Philo, the Logos was the archetypal idea (agreeing with Plato), but since he drew on the Old Testament, for him it was the reflection of God in the world. The Logos was the image of God in man (Genesis 1:27), the glory of God revealed in creation (Psalm 19), the means by which God speaks (prophecy) His will and mind to man, the mediator by which God reaches man, etc. But for Philo, this was not a person, this was a reflection, an underlying idea in the world.
Using (and Refuting) the Philosophers
These philosophical ideas had been around for years when John wrote — indeed, all but Philo’s had been around for centuries. They had pervaded the thinking of many of John’s readers. As with any human ideas, they contained both truth and error. John did not shy away from the challenge.
When Paul went to Mars Hill in Athens, he acknowledged the truth that the Athenians had admitted — there was a God who was unknown to them — and then proceeded to correct their mistaken ideas about this unknown God. In the first eighteen verses of his Gospel account, John does something similar with the philosophies of his day, acknowledging the truth of what they’ve said, refuting the error, and using the whole discussion to unfold the wonder of Jesus Christ, the Word (Logos) Who was made flesh.
Jesus as Logos vs. the Philosopher’s Logos
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2 The same was in the beginning with God.
John begins with a statement these philosophers could affirm (“in the beginning was the Logos“), another that some might accept (“the Word was with God”), and a third that all would have questioned (“the Word was God”). He stakes out his ground right from the beginning — for John, the Logos is a Person, and not just any Person, but God Himself, distinct (and so with God) yet also God. The Tri-Unity of God is in view here, for verse one is meaningless unless there is both a diversity and a unity within God. But John’s focus is not so much on the Triune nature of God as it is on the Person he is calling the Word. He rejects from the beginning the idea of logos as an impersonal force or principle in nature.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
The philosophers saw the logos as the pattern or principle underlying nature. Here, it is as if John says, “Close, but not really. He is more than just the pattern, He is the active mover in creation. He made everything.”
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
The philosophers may have seen the logos as the generative principle behind all of matter and nature, but John says, “No, Jesus is the One who is truly Life, the Life and the Light of men.”
And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
Heraclitus had said that people did not understand and live by the logos. In this verse, it is almost as if John says to Heraclitus, “Yes, you are right, and you do not comprehend the Logos, either. For He is light and you are in darkness.”
The Logos was made Flesh
To this point, the humanistic philosophers of John’s day might have found this an interesting discussion. They were always looking to hear some new thing (Acts 17:21), new gods and ideas, and this could have sounded like some expansion of Heraclitus’ old logos philosophy. To talk about the Logos as a deity who came but was received by few (John 1:10-12) would have been an interesting philosophical idea to many of them.
But now, John wrote words completely alien to the pagan philosophers:
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
Not only was the Logos a divine Person, He was also Man. He was made flesh, human, and lived among men. The pagans had stories about gods living among men, but not about them actually becoming human. And yet, that is what John said — He became flesh, fully human. Yet, He was still fully divine, the only begotten (see my article from earlier this month on this). Though John was again using the term Logos in this verse, he was unfolding truths completely beyond the conception of any pagan philosopher.
This was also similar to, but beyond, Philo’s ideas. He had said logos is the image of God in man, but John says, “No, He is not just the image of God in man, He is God Himself, become Man.”
Why Did John Use this “Philosophers’ Word”?
Why did John use a word that pagan philosophers had used so extensively in their ideas? Perhaps that is the wrong question to ask.
As discussed in my earlier article, this word conveyed many truths about the Lord Jesus. By calling Him “the Word,” John was saying that He was the message from God, the way God was revealing Himself to us. When the Word was made flesh, the Logos appeared on earth in terms that we could understand, in Divine Writing our eyes could read. The Divine Word became a Human Word while fully retaining His Divine Nature, the glory of the only-begotten of the Father. More than anything else, Logos, the Word, meant this:
No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.
John was also telling us that Jesus is the “Reason,” the Creator, the Life, all the things about which the philosophers had speculated, though their ideas fell short of the truth of His Person. All of those ideas were bound up with the meaning of the word logos, and John clearly meant to use those meanings, by the way he expanded on the real truth of the real Logos.
But John wasn’t endorsing the philosophers, and their ideas are hardly noticed any longer. The most famous use of that word is found in John 1:1, referring to Jesus Christ, God the Son. Hardly anyone thinks of Heraclitus or Plato or Philo when they encounter Logos now — they think of Jesus in the first chapter of John. Logos became, as God clearly intended all along, a wonderful word to describe the work of the Incarnate (human) Christ, a word, The Word, that rings down the ages.
The question is not why John used a word of the philosophers. The real question is why a sovereign God allowed them to develop their ideas around a word He intended to use in Scripture to describe Jesus Christ. Why did God, who after all works through all of Scripture, permit these ideas to form?
The Scripture doesn’t tell us, but perhaps it was for very much the same purpose that our God allowed the Athenians to build an altar “To the unknown God.” Though John’s message is timeless and needs no knowledge of pagan philosophies for us to understand what he wrote, perhaps there was a message for the pagans of his day, and those who had been influenced in their thinking by those philosophers.
Perhaps, for those people, the message was something like this: “You have talked about the Logos, but you do not know Him. I do know Him, for I have seen Him. He is much more than you think, for He is God Himself, yet He became a man so that He could be the Logos, the message to us of who God is. He is Light, and those in darkness do not know Him. He came unto His own, and they didn’t receive Him, but you can become God’s child if you will receive, rather than your own ideas, the true Logos, who came to declare the Father. He is Light and Life.”
Today, though we are little influenced by the logos philosophies of John’s day, that message still rings. The True Logos, come in the flesh, is still Light and Life, declaring the Father.