Imagine yourself as one of Jesus’ followers during the first century. Suppose you wanted to communicate who Jesus is and what he does for us to the people around you. Imagine further that the people around you fit into two different cultures. You know fellow Jews like yourself, but you also know Greeks who have no knowledge whatsoever of the Hebrew Scriptures. And suppose that you want to communicate to these two diverse groups who Jesus is and what he does using just one term. What term would you use?
That was the situation faced by the author of the Gospel of John. The term that John came up with, to communicate who Jesus is and what he does, was the logos, the word. The logos was a concept meaningful to Jews and Greeks.
Professor John Patterson once wrote, “The spoken word to the Hebrew was fearfully alive…. It was a unit of energy charged with power. It flies like a bullet to its billet.” For that reason, the Hebrew language has fewer than 10,000 words whereas Greek has 200,000.
Most of the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew. However, by Jesus’ time the majority of Jews no longer spoke Hebrew. Rather, they spoke a language called Aramaic that was a development of Hebrew. The Old Testament was therefore translated into Aramaic and these translations were called the Targums. Interestingly enough, the Targums, when referring to God, would often replace God’s name with the phrase the word of God.
However, that is only half of the story. John also wanted to communicate Christ to the Greeks. The Greeks had a term, Logos, which had a very interesting history. In 560 BC there was a Greek philosopher named Heraclitus who believed that everything in the world was constantly changing. His famous illustration of this was that it is impossible to step into the same river twice. Why? Because if you step into a river, step out, and step in again, the water you first stepped into has flown downstream.
Now, if life is in a complete state of flux then why is not everything in chaos? Heraclitus’ answer was that change in the universe is not haphazard; it is controlled by the Logos, or the Word, the Reasoning power behind the universe. The Logos was to Heraclitus also the power that enabled human beings to reason and to tell right from wrong.
Once the Greeks got hold of this idea of the Logos, they never let go of it. Heraclitus’ ideas about the Logos caught on and became firmly embedded in Greek culture and the Greek way of thinking.
Therefore, when John came along and wanted to communicate to Jews and to Greeks who Jesus is and what he does, he found a ready concept in the Jewish and the Greek cultures. That concept was summed up in one Greek word. Thus, John introduces us to Jesus using that term, the Logos, in the opening eighteen verses of his Gospel.
I like what C. S. Lewis has to say about the Logos….
It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to Him. When it becomes really necessary (i.e., for our spiritual life, not for controversy or curiosity) to know whether a particular passage is rightly translated or is Myth (but of course Myth specially chosen by God from among countless Myths to carry a spiritual truth) or history, we shall no doubt be guided to the right answer. But we must not use the Bible (our fathers too often did) as a sort of Encyclopedia out of which texts (isolated from their context and not read without attention to the whole nature & purport of the books in which they occur) can be taken for use as weapons. (From a letter to Mrs. Johnson, November 8, 1952)
You can listen to sermons on these chapters from the Gospel of John here: Power for Living.