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Concerning the Word of Life

The text traditionally identified as the First Letter of John is not really a letter. It lacks both the epistolary greeting and thanksgiving and the final autobiographical detail and salutation. It is, rather, a pamphlet written to warn the members of the community about the antichrists who have departed from the community and are trying to deceive those members who may be wavering as to which group to belong.

The anonymous author of this pamphlet wrote a clear and repetitious introduction stating its central theme. He wishes his readers to know that “the eternal life which was with the Father has been manifest to us.” In due course, he will tell them it is very important to proclaim that he was manifest “in the flesh,” that he came not only “in water” but “in water and in blood.” In other words, the life that was manifest integrated itself fully into the human reality. It did not come as a foreigner, a passer-by, a tourist, a spy. It came in flesh and blood as human, not as a divine messenger, or a divine interloper.

Trying to pin down the manifestation of eternal life among humans, the author affirms that Jesus is the Christ and that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. This is a bit confusing because in the first case “Christ” is a title (Messiah), while in the second “Christ” has become Jesus’ last name. Still, it is clear that the author intends his readers to believe that Jesus’ was not just the life of one more man. They should also believe, however, that the eternal life that was manifest was fully human. Thus he calls this phenomenon that was seen, looked at, heard, and touched Christ, Son, Son of God, Son Jesus Christ, and finishes the pamphlet proclaiming, “This is the true God and eternal life.”

Early Christians proclaimed the truth of their faith in Jesus Christ using many titles. Besides the ones found in this pamphlet, Christ (Messiah), Son, Son of God, they referred to the Son of Man, the Servant of the Lord, the Lamb of God, the Son of David, the First-Born of the Dead, the First-Born of Every Creature, the Savior, the Lord. The one title typical of the Johannine literature, which became the foundation for all further theological attempts to understand the person of Jesus Christ on account of its rich philosophical possibilities, is the Word. Both the ancients and we, at times, dismiss words as inconsequential and cheap. Thus, our author advises his readers, “Little children, let us not love in word or language, but in works and truth.” But that was not the norm.

One of the greatest theological breakthroughs of the Old Testament was the concept that God and the world are related by a word, a spoken word. This was a break with all the conceptions of the relationship as material. In most stories of creation, the world came about as the result of a birth or a death. The body of a defeated god provided the material for the construction of the universe, or everything began out of an egg.

Both stories of creation in Genesis understand that to create God came to a reality already there. Genesis 2 has God come to a desert wasteland, where he puts four rivers and then plants a garden. With dust and water, he fashions the body of a man and gives him life by breathing on his mouth. Then he operates on man to extract a rib to give life to a woman. Doing all this work, God is depicted as an objective reality within the world. This story of creation shares elements with other ancient stories.

Genesis 1, however, says that God hovered over waters enveloped in darkness. Then God said, “Let there be light.” That word of God brought about light and the light unobtrusively and naturally triumphed over the darkness to create a day. Throughout this story, God never touches anything, never steps into the world. At the core of this story of creation is the notion of the Word. Words are not physical realities. They are not material, but they are concrete and they are powerful.

When someone utters a word it is like an arrow that has left its bow and will accomplish its task no matter what. When someone gives you a word, you can discard it, reject it, or keep it—not in your pocket or purse, of course, but in your heart. To live by the word spoken by God is “to remember.” Light and life came to the world not from God’s exertion with matter, nor from the sun, the moon, or the stars, but by the word of the Lord. As the Psalmist concisely puts it, “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, the earth and all that in them is.”

When the Old Testament texts were translated into Greek, beginning in the middle of the third century B.C.E., the Hebrew word dabar became the Greek word Logos, which can mean thought, reason, word, discourse. Jewish philosophers immediately began to exploit the rich range of meaning of the word logos in their attempts to understand the creation of the world. Greek philosophers had already differentiated between the thought held in the mind for which no word had yet been found, and the thought in the mind for which a word had been found.

I often find myself having a thought for which I need to find a word. I think of one word and reject it as not right. I think of another and find myself rejecting it also. I experience real satisfaction when I feel that I have finally found exactly the word I needed to express my thought. Greek philosophers, apparently, also had such experiences and, therefore, distinguished between “unexpressed logos” and “expressed logos.” In this way, logos became a bridge over the most challenging philosophical chasm, that between subjective and objective reality.

The author of the Gospel of John found here the tool with which to understand how God, who is absolute subject and not at all an object of the world, could become an object in the person of Jesus Christ. It had been possible because he was the Logos, the subjective divine being who had become expressed as a human being. The author of the pamphlet we are reading picked it up from there. That he appreciated the subjective aspect of logos is clear from his counsel: “love not in logos [subjective thought] or language [objectified thought].”

What is really intriguing about this author, however, is that he does not say that the objective manifestation of the logos granted human beings information that gives “saving knowledge.” Not at all, for him the logos is not related to thought, language, discourse, information, doctrines. Throughout his pamphlet, the author contrasts sharply witnessing to the truth and lying. For him, however, the truth that counts does not give information. It gives life.

The writing on which he is engaged, which will make his joy complete, is “concerning the Logos of Life.” The whole purpose of the coming of the Son in the flesh, not only in water, but in water and blood, was to create in the word the fellowship of life eternal. That is the link between God and humanity. The Word of Truth (subjective) is the Word of Life (objective). The objectification of the Word brings about life, not information. When God reveals what becomes manifest it is not Her/His Knowledge, but Her/His Life. What believers actually receive when they abide in the truth of the Son is eternal life.

Herold Weiss is a professor emeritus at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana. For twenty years, he was an affiliate professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, in a western Chicago suburb. He is the author of A Day of Gladness: The Sabbath Among Jews and Christians in Antiquity.

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