Each year in the weeks or months before Christmas I look over the list of what I have preached about on previous Christmases to see if there are any significant texts I have overlooked and to pick a new set of topics. And when I did that this year I made an interesting discovery. I discovered that in all my years of preaching I have never preached a Christmas message from the opening chapter of John’s gospel, the chapter that begins: “In the beginning was the Word” (v. 1).
This has been a significant omission, thought it is understandable. It is understandable because at Christmas we usually focus on the Christmas stories, that is, the birth narratives, and John is one of two gospels that omits these narratives entirely. The other gospel is Mark, which begins with the ministry of John the Baptist. Only Matthew and Luke tell of the actual birth of Jesus. So we focus naturally on those gospels, on the accounts of the appearance of the angel to Mary and later to Joseph, the decree of Caesar which drew the holy family to Bethlehem, the birth itself, the announcement of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds by the joyful heavenly host, the visits of the shepherds to the stable, the appearance of the star, and the journey of the Magi to locate and worship the child. And, of course, we often think about the Old Testament prophecies of the birth of Jesus and of New Testament texts that explain it.
John’s more abstract beginning does not appeal to us as much as the nativity stories. Yet it is an important account, since it was written to tell us what the birth of Jesus Christ was all about. John does this in an amazing preface of only fourteen verses.
Perhaps the most brilliant thing about this preface is the word John uses to refer to Jesus Christ. It is the word “word,” logos in the Greek language in which the gospel was originally written. It occurs four times in this preface, three times in verse 1 and once in verse 14.
About six hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ there was a philosopher who lived in Ephesus whose name was Heraclitus. He is the philosopher who said that you can never step in the same river twice. What he meant by that was that life is in a state of perpetual change. To use the river illustration, you can step into the river once and then step out again. But by the time you step in the second time the river will have flowed on, and it will no longer be the same river. To Heraclitus and the philosophers who followed him, all of life seemed like that. Everything is in a state of change. Nothing is holding still, not even ourselves.
“But if that is so,” asked Heraclitus, “how is it that everything is not in a state of perpetual chaos? Why isn’t everything moving off in all kinds of directions at once?” That question was asked quite often by the Greek philosophers. Heraclitus answered that nature is not in chaos because the change we see is not mere random change, but ordered change. And if it is ordered change, this must be because there is an all-embracing mind, reason, or order that stands behind it and controls it. Heraclitus did not know what or who this divine mind or reason was, so he used the word logos (“word”) to describe it. According to Heraclitus, the logos was the ordering principle in all matter.
But the Greeks were all very thorough in their thinking, and Heraclitus was not likely to stop with this. So once he had discovered what he believed to be the explanation for order in nature, Heraclitus took the same idea and extended it to the ordering of events in history and to the mental order that governs the minds of men and women. At this point the philosopher’s logos became very much like what we would call “God’s providential ordering of events” or “the reason behind reasoning” or “the Word before all words.”
But notice this. Although Heraclitus and the philosophers who followed him believed they had discovered the explanation of order in the midst of constant change, this explanation was still only the product of their own abstract reasoning and thus an abstract thing itself. It was a “word,” but it was a silent word, if I may put it like that. Thoughtful Greeks still longed for a “word” that could be heard.
We are told that one day, when Plato was sitting with the students who gathered around him to learn how to think, the great philosopher said to them rather wistfully, thus confessing his limitations but also his great longing for this knowledge, “It may be that some day there will come forth from God a Word, a logos, who will reveal all mysteries and make everything plain.”
Plato had never heard this Word, though he believed it existed, as did Heraclitus. He lived in a silent universe presided over by a hidden God. But here, in the preface to the fourth gospel, John, the beloved disciple, writes that what Plato and others longed for has now come. The Logos has come forth from God, and he has made God known.
Remember that, because it is very important. At Christmas time we sing Joseph Mohr’s wonderfully simple and appealing Christmas carol “Silent Night.” And I suppose there was a certain silence to that special night in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. But remember that although we sing about a “silent night,” we do not have a silent God. As Francis Schaeffer wrote, “God is there and he is not silent.” The Word that was before all words has been spoken clearly.
Verse 14 of this chapter makes clear that the “Word” John is writing about in the first verse is Jesus Christ.