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Wednesday, November 5, 2014
Jesus as the Unique incarnation of God, Jewish thinking and John 1:1-18
John 1:1-2 "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God."
In reflecting upon the first eighteen verses of John's Gospel, what is deemed by many "The Prologue of John", it struck me just how unique these eighteen verses are in comparison to all other statements from other sources outside the Bible. The marvel of John's prologue is not only in the choice of wording, but also in how the wording could affirm the true identity of God incarnate while dismantling competing worldviews.
Today's post is more of a thumbnail sketch of thoughts regarding how a traditional Jewish mind may had reacted to what John especially wrote in John 1:1-3. My hope is that these thoughts will serve to highlight how amazing the opening verses of John's Gospel really are, and why it is they are truly unique in comparison to all other would be contenders.
A quick note on what I mean "traditional Jewish thought"
I underscore "traditional Judaism" in distinction to the Jewish Old Covenant scriptures divinely inspired by God and fulifilled by the Lord Jesus Christ in His first advent. When I say "traditional Judaism", I am speaking of the centuries of commentaries and traditional Jewish thinking that developed between the Old and New Testament and became authoritative among the various Jewish groups existing in Jesus' day. The Jewish people developed a method of studying the scripture called "Midrash", which very loosely understood refers to a sort of commentary on the Old Testament, particularly the Torah or first five books of the Bible. The Apostle John of course wrote his prologue (John 1:1-18) with knowledge of what would had been some of the prevailing opinion among Jewish scholars and the priestly interpreters of his day. As John wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, his word choice would had been intentional.
Undoubtedly, John's prologue would had upset the proverbial "apple cart" of Traditional Judaism's intepretation of God and His creative activities. The Orthodox Jews to this day still appeal to the centuries of commentary and traditional interpretation of the Old Testament scriptures. As will be seen below, the quotes from traditional Jewish thinking vs what John wrote will bear out how profound and unique Jesus Christ truly is as the Unique incarnation of God in human flesh.
The significance of Jesus Christ as "the Word"
When you consider the meaning of the word "word" in the Jewish mind, and compare it to what John wrote, you discover that John was asserting no less than the Full and uncontested Deity of Jesus Christ. For the Jew looking at passages like Genesis 1 through the lens of Jewish tradition, God's creative activity entailed Him "speaking" things into existence. The Hebrew word for the first five books of the Bible is "Torah", and the word itself comes from a Hebrew verb which means "to instruct, to guide". As you read on further, the idea of "Torah" and the term "word" go hand-in-hand, both referring what God did in creating the heavens and the earth (speaking = word) and how He did so (Torah).
Rightly so Christians confess that the Torah (another name for the first five books of the Old Testament) were verbally and Divinely inspired by God to Moses. Without a doubt the God of Biblical revelation is, in the words of Christian scholar "Francis Shaeffer, "the talking God". In the Jewish mind, to study the "Torah" meant to consult the very book which would in reality instruct and guide the believer to know the mind of God and really God Himself.
As one looks a little bit into the Jewish commentaries on the Torah (called Midrash, meaning "interpretation"), for the Jewish tradition and the Jewish Rabbis (or teachers), the Torah was not just merely referring to the first five books of the Bible, but something far more. For them, Torah had always existed with God from eternity.
Jacob Neusner, a Judaic scholar, notes the following on Genesis 1:1 in his book on traditional Jewish commentary on the Torah "Invitation to Midrash": "We read the intersecting verse as if the Torah were speaking. Hence the Torah was beside God like a little child." As Neusner examines one of the Jewish commentaries (or Midrash) on Genesis 1:1, we see this curious statement from one of those Jewish commentaries (called the Genesis Rabbah): "Thus the Holy One, blessed be he, consulted the Torah when He created the world."
What is the big deal about these insights? Simply put: the Jewish mind would had seen God's creative activity as involving Him consulting what was the contents of His own mind (the Torah) and thus the "Word" being the very embodiment of the Torah.
For traditional Jewish thinking, God was consulting His mind and what He saw within Himself, resulting in those thoughts (Torah) manifesting in a verbal activity (Word) and thus: the creation. For traditional Judaism, what God did was speak (Word) as a result of the consultations He made in His own mind with regards to the Torah that had always been on His mind.
What is remarkable about John's opening statement about Jesus as the Word in John 1:1-3 is the fact that "The Word" is not merely viewed as a symbolic Person in the form of God's mind who co-existed with God from the beginning (the traditional Jewish view), rather "The Word" was indeed a Real, true Person co-existing with and sharing in the Divine nature with God from all eternity!
Plainly put: the "power" and "principle" that is the "Word" in traditional Jewish Thought is shown by Divine revelation to be a genuine Person. This Person was "in the beginning", like we see God in the beginning in Genesis 1:1. Furthermore, this Person, "The Word", was "with God". In the original language of John 1:1, we could say "The Word" was "face to face" with God, indicating a co-equal, intimacy that is unshared by any creature. Then to push the envelope all the way, John then says "The Word was God" and then in verse 2 "and He was with God". To say "The Word" was a "He" brings in the element of True personality.
The Uniqueness of "The Word made flesh"
To ascribe personality, equality to God and distinct existence to "The Word" would had been mind-blowing enough to the traditional Jewish mindset in Jesus' day. However what John would say in John 1:14 would had demonstrated the uniqueness of what John was saying: "And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth." When we truly think about the concept of what the term "incarnation" means, it is radical and unique to the Biblical revelation. In traditional Judaism, God and His creative activity was something that "happened up there" and "in eternity".
For God to reveal His words and thoughts in a book was indicator of His role as the revealing God. However, in John's teaching about the incarnation, the revelatory activity of God reaches its fullest point in the humanity of Jesus Christ. Thus the Old Testament scriptures were revealed to anticipate and prepare the Jewish nation and ultimately the world for the coming of the Son in human flesh. How do we know this? The 27 New Testament books were Divinely inspired by God to explain and unfold all that Jesus did and achieved in His incarnation, life, death, burial, resurrection and ascension! Furthermore, the New Testament in concert with the Old Testament prophecies predict the second coming of Jesus - God in human flesh - to conquer the kingdoms of this world and to bring about the completion of the Father's purposes for His people and the created order. (see 1 Corinthians 15:23-28) In short - the Bible is all about Jesus - The Unique Incarnation of God!
Jesus Christ did not merely come "appearing to be like a man", nor did He appear to temporarily take on the form of a human being and then shed such a form once He ascended back into Heaven. John is saying that the One being very God with Elohim (name of God in Genesis 1:1) chose to come and take unto Himself a second way of expressing (i.e a nature) the full revelation of His person - namely humanity. Jesus Christ, in the words of famed Baptist preacher Adrian Rogers: "Was so much man as if he were not God, and yet so much God as if he were not man." This same Jesus of course since His incarnation has been and forever will be fully and completely God and fully and completely man.
The glory of the incarnation
The Jews conceived of God's glory as that manifestation of His presence and power that appeared in the tabernacle and temple of Solomon or on top of Mount Sinai in the book of Exodus. However to conceive of God's glory being manifested in the lowliness of human flesh would had been so contrary to what was expected.
Certainly the Old Testament prophecies (Isaiah 7:14; 9:6-7; Micah 5:1-3) predicted God the Redeemer somehow coming to redeem His people and being with them, however the full reality of that would not be revealed nor expected until the night Jesus came. John's prologue of John 1:1-18 served to fully express to the Jewish mind the meaning of this signficant event - that Jesus Christ is the Unique incarnation of God!
My goal in today's post was to underscore the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the Unique Incarnation of God. By peering somewhat into the traditional Jewish take on passages such as Genesis 1:1, there is no way that the Apostle John, as a Jew, could had simply "made up" or "adapted contemporary" Jewish thinking to compose the opening verses of His Gospel. Such Jewish thinking can frame why we see various truths expressed like they are in God's Word, being that part of John's readership would had been of a Jewish background, with John himself being of Jewish descent. However the contents and full meaning of Jesus Christ as the sole and unique revelation of God in history has no parallel. Truly the only explanation we can give is that the reality of Jesus' incarnation was a Divine revelation from God through the pen of the Apostle John. Let's praise God today that He in the Person of the Son chose to come and take upon Himself human flesh and achieve the once-and-for all salvation for His people.