Resurrected Living
"What are you going to do with your new resurrected life? This is the heroic question." Richard Rohr

The Poetry of God: John 1:1-5

“Who, in fact, will ever comprehend ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God?'”

– Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of John

I can’t explain a blessed thing
Not a fallen star or a feathered wing
Or how a man in chains has the strength to sing
Just one thing is clear to me
There’s always more than what appears to be
And when the light’s just right, I swear I see
Poetry

– Walt Wilkins

Have you ever had a friend who knows a movie or TV show so well they quote it all the time? In fact, a lot of times they are quoting the movie or TV show and you miss it because you do not know it as well as they do. It is a part of who they are. It is the language they speak.  

Something like this is happening in the Bible. The language of the New Testament is the Old Testament. There are Biblical references all over the place and most of the time the Biblical writers do not let us know this is going on. They assume we know the Bible well enough that we will catch these references ourselves. One of the most obvious times this occurs is at the beginning of the Gospel of John.

“In the beginning was the Word…”

We recognize this. We remember it from the book of Genesis, but the parallels do not stop there. The opening of the Gospel of John goes on to mention creation and light and darkness. These first five verses mirror the first five verses in the book of Genesis. Place them side by side and there are multiple parallels. This is no coincidence. All of this is on purpose.  

We are to read the Bible recognizing it is one big story. Each part is connected to other parts of Scripture. Creation is an essential element in the story. It is where it all begins. John is taking us back to the creation story and revealing details we did not know before.  

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:1-3)

The Word was with God in the beginning. He was with God before creation and he is God. How could Jesus be with God and be God? We hear in these statements echoes of the Trinity. The Father is God. Jesus is God. The Holy Spirit is God. There is only one God.  

How are we to make sense of this? John gives us a clue. He presents these facts to us in the form of a poem. The Trinity is a mystery. It is beautiful. It is not so much for us to understand because it is beyond us. It belongs to the ways of God that are beyond our comprehension. We are to believe it, not understand it. It is poetry.

If you are into mathematics, engineering, or logic, then you might not be thrilled to learn that the Bible contains a lot of poetry. Human beings are complex. Some of us appreciate logic and reasoning while others enjoy arts and music. The good news is the Bible speaks of God in multiple ways. What we cannot do is ignore any of these ways. We cannot say, “I want the laws because they are rational and make sense, but I don’t want any of the Psalms.” Nor can we say, “I just want the Psalms because they are poetic and moving, but I don’t want any of the laws.” We need both, just as we need the poetic descriptions of God along with the more rational descriptions of God.  

We need to recognize that because God is beyond us, because we cannot wrap our minds around all that is God, poetry is a more adequate form of description for God. Logic is something for us to understand completely. Poetry often pushes the limits of our understanding. This is why poetry gets closer to describing God than logic, and yet both of them fall short. God is God. Our minds are unable to grasp everything about him and this is ok. In fact, it should be comforting. This is what makes him God.  

Because we have a poem, we should understand what is written in a different way. We approach it poetically rather than logically. We see this in verse 4. 

“In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” (John 1:4)

One of the key words used in this opening section is the word life. How do we understand this word? When we think of creation and life, we are probably thinking naturally. Jesus is creator. Jesus is the reason we are alive today. He designed us and made life on earth possible. These are good and godly thoughts, but is that all that John has in mind? I don’t believe so. In poetry, words can have more than one meaning. The apostle Paul tells us what we read in the Bible is often this way. There is the letter of the law and there is the spirit of the law. We can read the Bible naturally and we can also read it spiritually. We know what life means naturally, but what does it mean spiritually?

John was writing in a time when people were dead spiritually. There was no life in them. John is looking back to creation but he is also looking forward. Jesus is about to bring forth life just as he did in the beginning. He is going to do something new. He is going to bring about new creation. This is what the Gospel of John is all about. We need more than physical life. We need spiritual life. We need living water. Jesus is the source of life we need.

Why is there such a lack of spiritual life in the world? We get another poetic answer.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

We live in a world full of darkness. There is evil and darkness everywhere we look. The darkness is pervasive. It has infiltrated all of our lives. We are part of the problem. We cannot point our finger and act as if we are not to blame. We are and because of this we need a Savior.  

The good news is darkness and light are not equal powers. The cosmic battle that will play out before our eyes in this gospel is not one we have to worry about the outcome. Light shines in the darkness. The darkness has not overcome it. Light is more powerful than darkness. Jesus is greater than Satan. The ways of God lead to life. The ways of Satan lead to death. We know all of this. What happens in the end or what happens to us is not a mystery. The only question is what we will choose. Will we embrace Jesus? Will we embrace his way of life, or will we embrace something else?

Although there are mysterious elements within this poem concerning the nature of God, there are also things that are plain as day. John wants us to know from the beginning who Jesus is. We are not left to wonder. There is no hiding the identity of Jesus in this account. It is revealed in the first verse of the first chapter of the book.  

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

Because this is poetry, it should cause us to slow down and read it slowly.  You don’t rush through a poem. You meditate upon it. You chew on it. You let it simmer. This is how we are meant to read this section of Scripture.  

The first thing we might want to meditate on is what John calls Jesus. He calls him the logos. There is really no good way of translating this Greek word, but we do use it in English. We find it in words like biology, psychology, physiology, and other words with the same ending. Ok, so we use it, but what does it mean? Our word biology is nothing more than the combination of two Greek words.  The first word is bios which means life. The second is logos which means all the collected thoughts.  Biology means all the collected thoughts on life. It is the science of living organisms. It is where we study cells and all that makes living possible. 

Word is not a perfect translation for logos, but it is not bad either.  Think about what words are. They are an expression of who we are. We cannot be known without words. We use words to tell others all about ourselves. If we think of words as an expression of ourselves, then this gets close to the Greek idea of logos. Jesus is the full expression, or revelation, of God. As we see Jesus interact with others, as he teaches, as he ministers, we are seeing God.

In case we fail to grasp this, we are also invited to meditate on the eternal nature of Jesus and his role in creation. Some of this stretches the limits of our mental capabilities. After all, we are finite beings contemplating God who is infinite. What is undeniable is who Jesus is. We may not understand all the intricacies of the Trinity, but John makes clear the identity of who this Gospel is all about. Jesus is eternal. Jesus is creator. Jesus is God. Jesus is life, and Jesus is light. We learn all this in the first five verses. We know who Jesus is.

So what?  The answer to this question is given at the end of the Gospel of John.

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)

The word translated belief here is more accurately translated trust. Some have even suggested it means allegiance. When Jesus called his disciples he was looking for more than them affirming something in their minds. They all could have stayed home and kept fishing if mental assent was all that Jesus desired. He was looking for followers. He was looking for apprentices who would learn his ways and follow in his footsteps. He was looking for commitment and faithfulness.  

From just the first five verses we know who Jesus is and what he wants to do. The question “So what?” is for us to answer. Jesus is God.  Jesus created us. Jesus is light. Jesus came to give us life.  

So what are we going to do?

We can ignore him. We can pretend like none of this matters. We can distract ourselves with other things. We can run the other direction. Or, we can deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him. We can love him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. We can cherish his words in our hearts and do our best to live by them.  

We know who Jesus is. So what? We know what leads to life. So what? This is the question we have to answer every day. The identity of Jesus is not a mystery. The key to an abundant life is not a secret. John is not hiding anything from us. It is all in these verses. It is as plain as day. The only question is what we will do with it. Will we waste our lives on things that do not matter, or will we dedicate ourselves to Jesus? Will we meditate on his words? Will we desire to be like him? Will we abandon our other allegiances to follow Jesus?  

We need to know what we are getting into when we pick up something as powerful as a Gospel, and John does not disappoint.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)

Now that we know, what will we do?

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