Words of Advent, Part 1
Plot twists force us to rethink everything in light of what's been true from the beginning. This is what makes plot twists so interesting.
In the late 60s and early 70s, Charleston Heston starred in two movies that feature two of the greatest plot twists ever. (I've purposefully chosen older movies here in order to keep from spoiling the viewing experience of more current films.) In the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes four American astronauts are in deep hibernation when their spaceship crash lands on a strange world where apes speak and rule over enslaved humans. At the end of the film, the last surviving astronaut (played by Charleston Heston) escapes the treacherous primate civilization. While traveling on a desolate beach he discovers the Statue of Liberty washed up on the shore. This revelation triggers the terrible realization that the horrible planet run by beasts actually arose from the ruins of his own world: earth.
The whole movie must be rethought in light of the plot twist. Heston is not on another world, but in America of the future. The planet is actually earth. The space ship has traveled in time instead of space. (By the way, we should not be surprised by such a dramatic turn, when we realize that the first draft of the script for Planet of the Apes was written by twist-loving Twilight Zone creator, Rod Serling.)
Five years later, Charleston Heston made another movie with a shocking plot twist: Soylent Green. The movie takes place in the year 2022. New York City has become overpopulated with 40 million residents. Pollution has brought global warming. All natural resources have been destroyed, leaving 40 million people desperate for food. To alleviate the hunger, the Soylent Company has created a new food product: Soylent Green. While investigating the brutal murder of a corporate official of the Soylent Company, police detective Ty Thorn (played by Heston), uncovers a horrifying conspiracy. The movie ends with Thorn, seriously wounded and nearly hysterical, shouting the truth about Soylent Green to anyone that will listen: "It's people. Soylent Green is made out of people! Listen to me... You've got to tell them! Soylent Green is people!"
This "word" changes everything. Everything that precedes it must be rethought in light of this new revelation. New York City has become a culture of cannibals eating the remains of the dead. Though it was true the entire time, it is only revealed by the twist.
At heart, John's Gospel is about a new word - the Word, the Logos - that changes everything: The "Word" that was with God, and yet, is God "has become flesh" (John 1:1, 14). This is the ultimate plot twist in the story of God and God's creation. Now, everything that precedes the revelation of this "Word" must be reexamined and redefined.
What has always been true is now revealed. It was true the entire time, but the twist changes everything we assume. Everything we think about God, creation, life, and love is radically redefined in light of the coming of the Christ.
John, amazed by the Word, goes all the way back to the beginning - to Genesis 1:1 itself: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" - in order to retell the human story in view of Christ. Much like watching a movie again, this new "Word" fills out the story and provides added depth and meaning.
The Divine Life
The twist that changes everything takes us back to a time before time - to eternity past:
"In the beginning was the Word (Greek: Logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. This one was in the beginning with God" (John 1:1-2).
Before all things - before creation itself - we find the Logos in relationship with God. The expression "In the beginning"
does not refer to the beginning of some particular process, a definite localized point of time, but rather to the indefinite eternity which preceded all time, the immeasurable past. The Logos cannot be said to have come into being at any given moment; He always was.
From eternity, the Logos has been with God (stated twice in verses 1 and 2). The Greek phrase translated "with" is pros ton theon and literally means "turned toward God." The Logos is in a face-to-face relationship and yet, paradoxically, the Logos is God (1). What (or Who) is the Logos?
John is a Jew but he writes for a global audience, so it is not surprising that he uses the Greek word logos to stir interest in both Greek and Jewish readers. Logos resonates with Jewish traditions about the power, wisdom, and word of God. It also resonates with Greek philosophical teachings concerning the energy that shapes the universe.
In the ancient Greek language, logos was originally a word meaning "word," "speech," "account," or "reason." Beginning with Heraclitus (c. 535-475 BC) it became a technical term in philosophy for the principle of order and knowledge. However, ancient philosophers used the term in different ways. Aristotle and the Sophists used the term to mean "reasoned discourse." The Stoic philosophers beginning with Zeno of Citium (334-262 BC) identified the term with the divine animating principle pervading the universe - the animating life force or "world soul."
Though this background provides for some provocative connections, the dominant connection arises from the Hebrew tradition. For the Jews, logos primarily referred to God's spoken word - a word that creates, reveals, and delivers. God's word called Abraham to be a blessing to the nations, delivered Israel from Egyptian oppression, revealed the torah to Moses, and provoked prophetic pronouncements.
The God of Israel is a God who speaks - a God who reveals Godself through actions and language. In the Hebrew tradition, sin has its origin in denying God as a speaking and revealing God. The Serpent's temptation began with, "Has God really said?"
Why does God speak? God speaks because God desires a relationship with people. It is through words that we address and engage with others. Communication is essential to establish and maintain a healthy, growing relationship.
In John 1:1, we encounter the paradox that the "Word" (logos) is differentiated from and yet identified with God. This is in accordance with our basic use of language. To hear a person's word is to hear the person. However, a person's word can be differentiated and yet identified with the one who speaks it. In the same way, the Logos is differentiated from and yet identified with God.
The grand twist of John's prologue is that Jesus is God's word to the world. He is differentiated, yet identified with God. In Jesus, God communicates in a form we can receive.
The good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (the plot twist that changes everything) is that the eternal Word - the Logos that is with God and is God - has entered our world to speak God's truth to our human situation. Jesus, the Word made flesh, is God's word to the world: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us... the only begotten God/Son who is in the bosom of the Father, has made God known" (John 1:14, 18).
The one thing we all share is flesh. The eternal Word of God is embodied in our human fragility and immersed in the human experience. God's revelation is communicated in a way we can all understand and relate to - in the person of Jesus Christ. God's Logos - active in Israel's salvation, proclaimed in Israel's scriptures - is now embodied in Jesus.
This is the heart of the Gospel. There are many human beings who say things about God, but in Jesus the Word comes from God in human form. God speaks to the world through the words Jesus utters, the actions he performs, and the death that he dies. In Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, people not only receive information about God, but are granted an encounter with God. And the prologue prepares readers to see the whole story of Jesus as God's act of communicating through his embodied Word.
In Jesus, God's divine life has come to us. This is the "life" that pre-exists life on earth - indeed, that pre-exists all creation, even existence itself. This "life" has been called many names: the divine life, the uncreated life, the heavenly life. It is the life of perfect union and communion between the Logos and God (or as we will later discover, between Son and Father). Though this divine life of perfect love goes by many names, John's favorite term for this is "eternal life."
The "eternal life" of God is a life that precedes all things. It is the source, meaning, and goal of all biological life. It is not biological life, for it is a life that exists before creation - a relationship that precedes creation (John 1:3-4).
This loving communion between God and the Logos - between Father and Son - precedes all creation. It is the truth behind and before "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1). The revelation of the Word in Jesus is the plot twist that forces us to rethink everything, starting with life itself.
The divine life is the reason for all life - both biological and spiritual. All created life springs from the divine life and love: "All things came into being through him, and apart from him nothing came into being that has come into being" (John 1:3).
Contrary to conventional thinking, God did not create in order to display the unparalleled magnificence of divine power. Nor did God create out of any sense of loneliness of need. Rather, it was from the fullness of the divine life shared between God and the Logos that God created. Divine Love is the source of creation. God's desire is that all creation share in the fullness of divine life and love.
All biological life (John 1:3) finds its origin, meaning, and goal in the divine life (John 1:1-2). The world is not self-generated or ultimate. The world owes its existence to God who called it into being. God is the source and goal of all things: "not one thing came into being" apart from God (John 1:3). Nothing and no one is fully independent of God. Everything owes its existence to the Word of God.
No matter what your cosmogony - from Big Bang and evolution theory to creationism - the truth remains the same: All biological life depends on the divine life.
One might argue that "It all starts with the Big Bang!" That may be true of biological life, but not the divine life. The divine life precedes all things. (And even those who embrace this theory rarely deal with the fact that the Big Bang is not the true beginning of all things. What is the origin of the small, hot, dense singularity that birthed the universe? Where did it come from? What actually "triggered" it? And why? What does it mean?)
Since we've mapped the human genome, cloned sheep, and are beginning to master Artificial Intelligence, others might argue that since we can now "create life" God is irrelevant. This reminds me of a joke: A group of scientists once said to God, "We don't need you God. We can take dirt and create life." God replied, "Ok. Let's make this even. Get your own dirt." God is the source of life. We create only because God first creates.
Two types of life are presented in John's opening verses: the eternal divine life of God (John 1:1-2) and the biological life that arises from God's creative word (John 1:3). Physically, all people receive biological life from God, but this does not mean that everyone possesses the eternal life that comes through faith. All people are related to God as God's creatures, but not all are reconciled to God by faith, participating in the divine life of God. Put simply, you can be alive physically (which is a gift from God), but dying spiritually.
Thus, the question that constantly arises in John's Gospel is this: Do you have this life - true life, the eternal life of God that comes by faith? This eternal life is not merely a quantity of life, but a quality of life. Quantitatively, eternal life extends beyond the present. A relationship with God is not terminated by death. God does not abandon believers but gives them a future through Christ's resurrection. Qualitatively, eternal life begins now through a relationship with God in Christ.
According to Jesus' high priestly prayer in John 17, the very reason for the revelation of the divine life in Jesus is that we (biological life) might share in the divine life of God: "And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent" (John 17:3).
Indeed, John writes this gospel with one goal in mind: "so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:31). This verse makes no sense if it is simply referring to biological life. We've all already got life (otherwise, you wouldn't be reading this!). But not everyone possesses "life in his name" - the eternal, divine life of God. This life can be known by trusting God's Logos - God's Word revealed in Christ.
The Twist that Changes Everything
Jesus is the "Word" that changes everything. He is the new twist to the plot that redefines everything. All that precedes his coming must be rethought in light of this new revelation: The eternal Word - whose being is "turned towards" the Father in love and intimacy - became fragile flesh in order to lead us into the very life of God. This eternal life precedes all biological life and is its source, reason, and goal.
Though the eternal loving communion of Logos and God - Son and Father - was true the entire time, it is only fully revealed in the coming of Christ. But it is revealed for the purpose that we might receive this life and, in doing so, rethink everything!
We must rethink our view of God and creation. God is not a solitary monad exercising sovereign power for God's own selfish ends, but rather, God is love - the eternal loving personal communion of Father, Son, and Spirit. Creation finds its source, meaning, and goal in the love of God revealed in Christ. All creation arises from the Divine love and exists to know this love.
We must also rethink our understanding of life. There is more to life (true life) than biological life. The ultimate meaning to life is not just the existential meaning we make ourselves, as if there were no transcendent, true, or ultimate meaning to the world. No, the meaning of life is the mystery of love. We live because of God's love and true life is found by dwelling in God's love. This is true whether we recognize it or not... just like the twists in a story.
 Merrill C. Tenny, John, The Gospel of Belief: An Analytic Study of the Text (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1987), 64.
 Craig R. Koester, The Word of Life: A Theology of John's Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 27.
 Though John does not expand upon the experience of the divine life here, Jesus will later shed light on the nature of this life in his high priestly prayer recorded in John 17. It is a life of shared glory (17:5) and eternal love (17:24,26)
© Richard J. Vincent, 2010