(John 1:1 ESV) In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The “Word” translates logos, meaning most literally “word” but also a “command.” The Ten Commandments were sometimes referred as the ten logōn, the Ten Words.
Logos does not appear in Genesis 1, but the reference is clear. The text repeatedly declares, “God said” or “God called.” God is pictured as speaking in words, and by his words creating. Thus, God’s word is the power by which he creates.
To set the mood —
By calling Jesus the logos, John tells us that God created the heavens and the earth through Jesus.
(John 1:3 ESV) 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.
There are subtleties here. For example, consider the meaning of Jesus as the Logos in light of —
(Heb 1:3a ESV) He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.
“Radiance” or “effulgence” refers to the brightness that surrounds a light, such as the glow around a candlelight. Now, an astonishing thing about radiance is that it clearly has as its source the light in the center — the flame or candlelight — but the radiance is just as old as the flame.
Just so, the Word emanates from God, but is as ancient and eternal as God. To say that God acts through the Word or that the Word comes from God does not mean that the Word is younger than God or that there ever was a time when God the Father existed and the Word did not.
In short, by a beautiful word-picture, John explains the relationship of Father and Son in terms that give a hint into the incomprehensible. We see that “Son” does not necessarily mean “younger” or “created by” but rather “coming from.” Exactly how that works is surely beyond human understanding, but there’s no logical paradox here.
Thus, John can tell us that Jesus was both “with God” and “God” all at once. Where does the flame end and the radiance begin?
Now, it’s very troublesome to some for such profound matters to be discussed in terms of metaphor. We Westerners want mathematical precision — but the most profound things in life are rarely subject to mathematics or symbolic logic. Your choice of spouse, your favorite hobby, your choice of career … nearly every truly important decision you make is far more about poetry than prose.
And so it’s no surprise that the scriptures contain so much poetry. The shame is that most of us Westerners refuse to read it. We want commands, laws, and hard, sharp-edged propositions, and yet God seems more comfortable speaking in terms of metaphor and story. We worship an Eastern God.
Logos in Greek Philosophy
Heraclitus might in fact be called the first western philosopher, for his writings were perhaps the first to set forth a coherent system of thought akin to what we now term philosophy. Although his writings are preserved only in fragments quoted in the writings of others, we know that he described an elaborate system touching on the ubiquity of change, the dynamic interplay of opposites, and a profound unity of things. The Logos seemed to figure heavily in his thought and he described it as a universal, underlying principle, through which all things come to pass and in which all things share.
This notion of The Logos was further developed by Stoic philosophers over the next few centuries. The Stoics spoke of The Logos as the Seminal Reason, through which all things came to be, by which all things were ordered, and to which all things returned.
Perhaps the most extensive accounting of The Logos was by Philo of Alexandria, a Hellenistic Jew who lived around the time of Christ. Philo wrote allegories of Old Testament books authored by Moses, interpreting them in the light of Greek philosophy. He used the term, logos,refer more than 1300 times in his writings, in many varied ways. Of particular note are his references to The Logos as the Divine Reason, by participation in which humans are rational; the model of the universe; the superintendent or governor of the universe; and the first-born son of God.
Now, I hold firmly to the belief that John’s primary allusion is to Genesis 1, but it’s also doubtlessly true that he was aware of the meaning of logos in Greek philosophy. Therefore, he brilliantly unites a Jewish and Greek theme by calling Jesus the Logos, as not only the word through which God spoke the world into existence, but also the the underlying, eternal power that holds the universe together.
(Col 1:16-17 ESV) 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
(Heb 1:3a ESV) 3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.
These are just the sorts of things that the philosophers attribute to the Logos.
The same is true of modern science. The Big Bang theory posits that the universe was created from nothing — except a law of nature that makes the spontaneous formation of the universe possible. The Greeks would call such a law the Logos. And John would point out that laws aren’t true just because. There must be some reality, some power behind the law to make the word a command.