“The Word (Logos) became flesh and made His dwelling among us” (John 1:14, TNIV).
A mixture of culture and history has softened one of the most subversive sentences in the New Testament. The cultural gap between the world of Jesus and Paul and today’s world of Bush and Bono is one that needs to be constantly considered. The waters of culture and history need to be navigated carefully so we can, as communities, imagine the possible intention behind the words of Paul, John, Mark, Timothy and others.
The world of the New Testament was as complex as the streets of New York or perhaps more applicable, the streets of Baghdad. Agendas, ideas and perspectives were all jostling for influence. The scenario was one of occupation with many different responses to the occupiers—from those that prospered from the situation to those that today we would call insurgents. In this milieu of voices we can, at the risk of over generalization, distinguish two influential worldviews, the Jewish and the Greek. Though there were many variances of each and combinations of the two, within the two worldviews are held the dominant ideas that shaped the New Testament landscape.
So, how would the beginning of John’s gospel be interpreted by these two paradigms? Both would center on John’s deliberate and provocative use of the word Logos. This has been translated into English as “Word,” yet it had much more depth for the Jewish or Greek reader. To the Jew, Logos referred to the spoken word of God, which created the heavens and the earth, the all-powerful active word, considered with awe and importantly fear. Logos is the means by which God’s presence interacts with creation, perhaps best summed up by the phrase “divine expression.” One of the significant aspects about the definition of Logos for the Jew was that Logos is categorically different to humanity; indeed to encounter Logos would mean certain death.
For the philosophical Greek, Logos referred to the impersonal force at the center of the universe. This entity is a non-physical form that is perfect, therefore, to the Greek opposite to all physical life. So to the Greek and Jew, the word Logos carried within its definition the idea of being the opposite of humanity, specifically in being not physical. In this context, the beginning of John comes to life.
When John writes “the logos became flesh,” both the Greek and the Jew would have wiped their eyes, perhaps swore to themselves and read and re-read the sentence. John struck at the heart of the two reigning worldviews and in one sentence undermined both of them, essentially by saying that the “divine expression,” the “impersonal force” has become human, has taken a real physical form. That sentence in the context of the two dominant perspectives was literally nonsense, causing the reader a mixture of confusion, offence and perhaps a deep inquisitiveness.
John’s sentence effectively echoes Paul’s definition of the gospel as being a “foolishness to the Greeks” and a “stumbling block to the Jews.” The sentence was an invitation to the audience, inviting the reader to suspend all that they knew to be true and delve into recent events surrounding the story of Jesus of Nazareth whose birth, life and death have ushered in a new reality.
John subverted the contemporary worldview in a poetic and powerful way choosing to do so in a manner that redeemed existing ideas, redefining instead of replacing. We, as witnesses to same gospel, are invited to follow John’s lead. As we engage with culture, we walk into areas of influence such as the music industry, education, government, Hollywood and others, bringing our subversive lives and ideas that redefine concepts such as sexuality, wealth, hope, success and entertainment. As we subvert, we bear witness to an alternative reality: the kingdom of God that both embraces and transforms all it touches.