1. Once Upon a Time…
I remember my first introduction to television well. It was the 1950s, and I was sitting at home on the couch (with the measles). And the very first programme that I saw was ‘The Picture Book’ from the BBC series ‘Watch With Mother’. The presenter was a lady, and that week, and every week that followed, when it came to storytime she would introduce the story in exactly the same way: ‘Are you sitting comfortably?’. She’d then pause to allow you to nod or say ‘Yes’. Then she’d continue: ‘Then I’ll begin’.
And that quite innocuous line, for some reason or another, has stayed with me. Indeed, it’s a line that was used in the same manner that fairy stories used to begin with: ‘Once upon a time’. It was designed to settle the listener down, and to prepare them for the matter of what would happen next.
Of course, my watching habits quickly progressed to the other ‘Watch With Mother’ shows like: Andy Pandy, Bill and Ben, and (my favourite) The Woodentops. Nevertheless, those words ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin’ have stayed with me even up to the present day.
2. In the Beginning…
Now we can all smile—and I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers things like that—but in a sense don’t we have words in the bible that do the same thing. The words ‘In the beginning…’.
However when those three words ‘In the beginning…’ were used, they were designed, not to introduce a story for our amusement, or even a fairy story, but were designed to grab people’s attention. To prepare those listening for something serious that was about to follow.
And they were used in the very first book of the bible—to introduce the beginning of God’s creation of the world. And they were used in the New Testament (in the Gospel of John)—to describe a new beginning, and to describe the place of Jesus within it. And they were used deliberately by John, to show that the two stories were very much linked.
B. IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD
1. In the Beginning was the Word (1a)
Because the very first thing John does in his Gospel is to equate the two events together.
‘In the beginning was the Word . . .’
In the book of Genesis, God is said to have existed before the creation of the world. And, as John puts it, the ‘Word’ existed before the world was created as well. Indeed John, later, picks up the themes of light and darkness, which God created in the very first day of creation (Genesis 1:3-5). And he relates them to the activity of the ‘Word’ in those first days.
The first point that John makes, then, is that before the world was created, there were at least two distinct personalities that existed—God (the creator, as per the Genesis story), and the ‘Word’ (whom John later names as Jesus). And later if we were to read on in John’s Gospel, he would include a third personality—that of the Holy Spirit.
The point that John makes, then, is that the kind of God that Christians believe in, is the kind of God that transcends this created world. People are not to put their faith in the so-called ‘gods’ who have come into existence since the creation of the world. Or even put their faith in gods they have created themselves. Because a true God is one who is not subordinate to anything in this created universe. And the magnitude of what that means, should be expressed, in every Christian’s life.
2. And the Word was with God (1b)
The second thing that John does in his Gospel is to tie together the relationship of God the creator (in Genesis), with that of the ‘Word’ (in his own Gospel).
‘and the Word was with God.’
Now as far as John was concerned these weren’t two separate gods who did their own thing, and went their own separate ways. No! The Word (Jesus) enjoyed an intimate relationship with the creator God.
The second point that John makes, then, is that in the beginning, before creation even began, there was a close connection between the God (of the Old Testament) and the ‘Word’ of the New (Jesus). Yes, they were two distinctly separate personalities—they weren’t identical. But they were at one with each other.
And, as a consequence, that should be reflected in the kind of God that Christian’s believe in too. Of course, as I said before, John later in his Gospel introduces the third member of the trio—the Holy Spirit. But the truth is that for any Christian to worship God in all his fullness, the recognition of each of the different personalities within the Godhead—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—and their relationship to one another, has to be part of their expression.
3. And the Word was God (1c-2)
The third thing that John does in his Gospel, is to dig a little deeper in the relationship between God and the ‘Word’. Indeed he doesn’t simply suggest that God and the ‘Word’ were equals. On the contrary, John suggests that, in some way, the God of the Old Testament and the ‘Word’ of the new were one.
‘and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.’
John was not just saying that there was something divine about Jesus. He was actually affirming that, in some way, Jesus was God himself.
Now, for all Jews (including John), the idea of their only being one God was something they clung to and defended fiercely. They might have been ground down under the heel by their Roman conquerors, but for the Jews, the Romans were no more than ignorant idolaters, because they believed in many gods. If there was one thing that the Jews knew with unshakeable certainty, it was that there was, and could be, only one God.
As a consequence, the point that John makes is that the kind of God that all Christians should believe in, should reflect the idea that the ‘Word’ (Jesus) was not just a human baby born into the world—in the same way that you and I were. But that Jesus existed in godly form before the creation of the world. And, indeed, in some way was, at least, part of God himself.
Now, that’s not an easy concept for anyone to understand—let alone express in the Christian faith. And the Genesis story doesn’t really help us in this matter either. But then right from the start Genesis assumes that its readers have a good knowledge of the nature of God, and it doesn’t try to explain it at all.
Nevertheless, in these first few verses of John’s Gospel, John gives us an inkling of a description of the nature of God—which, perhaps, could be best described by what in history would become the idea of the Trinity: One God, but three distinct personalities. Something beyond our comprehension. But something, equally, deserving of the need of appropriate expression in our lives.
4. Everything came into being through him (3-5)
And then, having placed the ‘Word’ (Jesus) outside of history, and as part of the Godhead itself, the fourth thing that John does is to describe Jesus’s place in the creation of the world.
‘Everything came into being through him. Indeed, nothing came into being without him. In him was life, and this life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.’
As far as John was concerned everything owes its existence to Jesus. Having said that, John was also very careful to differentiate between the roles of the Father and the Son. The world was not made by Jesus, but it was made through him. Both the Father and Jesus, having their distinctive parts to play.
And the same goes for the creation of life—the most significant element in all creation. As far as John was concerned, all of us, you and me, owe our existence to the Father—and the Son by whom we were created. But John goes a step further. Because Jesus not only brought life (in terms of our physical being), but he, now, brings light too (providing what we need for our eternal well-being as well).
What John is saying, therefore, is that the kind of God that Christians should believe in, is one where the expression of dependence for life and dependence for eternal well-being are acknowledged and appreciated.
God’s creation, as we know it, is not eternal—it has a limited life span. But the light that Jesus brings—is eternal. And it is that which brings us salvation.
In the first five verses of John’s Gospel, then, we have some very powerful imagery. The book of Genesis may well spell out the six days of creation—and in some detail. But the one thing that it doesn’t spell out is the nature of God himself.
Genesis assumes its readers already have that picture. But John’s Gospel makes no such assumption. And so in the first five verses John spells out for his readers: The existence of the Word (Jesus) before creation; the relationship between Jesus and the God of creation; the idea of them being two distinct personalities—whilst at the same time there only being one God; and Jesus’s unique place not only in creation but being the light of the world as well.
In other words, John deals with the very weighty issue of who Jesus really is, and why we need to depend upon him for our eternal salvation.
And as a consequence, an appropriate question for us today would be, ‘How should a Christian respond to the kind of God and the kind of ‘Word’ described by John? What should we do to respond to the images of God that John describes?’
And to answer that question, I’m going to suggest four things:
1. In the Beginning was the Word
And the first thing is that much is often made of us being made in God’s image (whatever that means)—and how mankind is distinct from the rest of creation. But, having said that, the fact is that there are a number of differences between us and God too. Not least of which is that God pre-existed creation, and, by nature, he has a tremendous creative power,
Now in some churches God is held in great reverence and awe. (Or using an Old Testament expression ‘fear’). There is an emphasis on the nature of who he is: his power, his holiness, the things that make him distinct from us, and for all that he stands for.
As a consequence, if our response to God is to be truly appropriate, then it must include reverence and awe. It must include the concept of the ‘holiness’ of God. Because God is not someone to take lightly. And we do so at our own peril.
2. And the Word was with God
But having said that, the second thing is that the Father and Jesus had an intimate relationship. That they were two—but at one. And the fact that man has been created in God’s image, suggests that we need to take into account the more compassionate and caring side of God as well.
Indeed in some churches, Jesus is expressed more as a friend and a colleague, rather than a God to be feared. Someone who walks with people and shares their sorrows and their joys.
And if our response to God is to be truly appropriate, we need that too. Because, if we miss out on the intimate side of God—the companion on the way, the one who wants to come to our rescue—then, we really are denying an essential part of who he is.
3. And the Word was God
But mix these two ideas together and we get a third thing. Because if God and the ‘Word’ are in one sense two distinct personalities (and if we add in the Holy Spirit—three distinct personalities), and yet at the same time, there is only one God, we should quickly come to the idea that somehow we have a balancing act to do. And we need to keep all the different aspects in perspective.
Yes! We need to express reverence and awe. And yes, at the same time, we need to express the intimacy of a personal relationship. (And add in here, the need to exercise the gifts that Holy Spirit brings—as John mentions later in his Gospel). But if we can take all that, and get it into some sort of balance, then we really will be starting to get some way towards making a balanced (and an appropriate) response to God for ourselves.
Because to emphasis one aspect to the detriment of another, means that we’ve got everything out of balance, and have failed to see the whole picture.
4. Everything Came into Being Through Him
And then, the fourth thing is that just as the Word (Jesus) did not create things himself, but the Father created things through him—he used Jesus in his creative work—then we should allow God to use us in his continuing involvement in the world. We need to play our part in the redemption of the world as well.
The instruction that God gave man at creation was: “Be fruitful, multiply in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Govern over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and over every living thing that crawls along the ground.” Genesis 1:28b).
And the words of Jesus to some disciples: “Come, follow me. I will make you fishers of men.” (Mark 1:17).
Both commands require our involvement and our willing participation in God’s work. As a consequence, our responsibilities are very clear. We are not just to sit back and think about what God has done for us. Our role is to be very active indeed.
Being the people that God created us to be, can be pretty scary. However if we can get our expression of God right—and in balance—then we really have nothing to be frightened of at all.
Now I started off today telling you about an insignificant event in my life. But one that has stayed with me. Those words: “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” What we’ve ended up with, though, is with the expression “In the beginning…” And with a few verses of scripture that are anything but insignificant.
Indeed, in five short verses—the first five verses of John’s Gospel—we have opened up for us nothing less than a picture of the nature of God himself. And this is not just some sort of made-up God—one moulded to meet our purposes—this is a God who existed before creation itself.
What we have to do, then, is to consider our response to our creator and redeemer. We also need to consider whether our current response is adequate, or whether it falls short of an appropriate response to John’s picture of just who God really is.
Posted: 13th October 2021
(c) 2021, Brian A Curtis