“Word of God” is a phrase used widely in evangelical circles as a synonym for “Bible,” though according to the Gospel of John, Jesus is the Word. In the Word of Faith churches I’ve been associated with (and to a slightly lesser degree in many other churches, as well), this has led to a peculiar interchange of “Bible” and “Jesus,” with only the vaguest and often superstitious notion of how they connect. In fact, the New Testament word for “Word” has a rich history and meaning.
The Greek word is logos. The overwhelming number of times logos appears in the New Testament, it is translated “word,” but with a variety of applications. In many cases, it can mean “something spoken.” In fact, it derives from the verb lego, meaning “to speak.” In classical Greek, however, it was used to denote reasoned speech, leading to the English word “logic.”
Many early Greek philosophers, such as Aristotle, used logos as the word for reason. Often the meaning was extended to an association with God. As far back as the sixth century B.C., Heraclitus used logos as the name for the universal or divine reason that controlled the universe. Heraclitus taught that this Reason (logos) always exists and that “all things take place according to this Reason.” (Quoted by Hippolytus, On the Refutation of All Heresies IV) The logos was seen as an expression of the divine force or intelligence behind life and existence. This general idea permeated Greek thinking for hundreds of years with a variety of nuances.
In the first century, most philosophers still espoused some form of the logos concept of reason. The Stoics, for example, held a belief similar to that expressed by Heraclitus. The logos was the divine reason underlying all life. One thing all of these philosophies had in common was the conviction that the true logos transcended the material world, which was flawed and corrupt by comparison.
In time, the concepts of Greek philosophy began to influence Jewish thought. The idea that perfection could only be found in the spiritual world and that anything connected to physical matter was inherently flawed created a difficulty in rabbinical teaching. How could God, the ultimate perfection, have any contact with a sinful world?
The solution to this problem was to assume intermediary forces or powers between God and his creation. These powers acted on God’s behalf. They were separate from God and yet completely identified with God. These emanations from God were most commonly known as the logos or the word of God.
This idea was demonstrated in the early explanatory paraphrases of the scriptures called targumim. The word logos does not appear, of course, since a targum was written in Aramaic. The equivalent word was memra, and it was used to identify an intermediary buffering agent between God and his creation. To make the point, the word memra was added to the biblical text.
For example, in Targum Onkelos, Adam and Eve heard “the Word (Memra) of God walking in the garden.” Targum Johathan described how the “Word (Memra) of the Lord made them to dwell in His land.” In Exodus 3:12, God told Moses, “I will be with you.” The Palestinian Targum version of that verse reads, “I, My Memra, will be with you.” For Jews of the first century, it was the Memra of God that performed the work of God, providing a convenient buffer between God and creation.
The most prolific exposition of this new understanding of the logos came from the first century Jewish philosopher, Philo. For Philo, the Logos, like the Memra, was a buffer to separate the world from God.
“And the Father who created the universe has given to his archangelic and most ancient Word a pre-eminent gift, to stand on the confines of both, and separated that which had been created from the Creator.” (Philo, Who is the Heir of Divine Things 205)
In this place of separation, the “Word” of Philo’s writings was sent by God for the benefit of creation.
“And this same Word is continually a suppliant to the immortal God on behalf of the mortal race, which is exposed to affliction and misery; and is also the ambassador sent by the Ruler of all to the subject race.” (Philo, Who is the Heir of Divine Things 205)
As an intermediary, the Word was neither God nor created, but something in between. Philo puts in the mouth of the Word a boast:
“And I stood in the midst, between the Lord and You. Neither being uncreated as God, nor yet created as you, but being in the midst between these two extremities, like a hostage, as it were, to both parties: a hostage to the Creator, as a pledge and security that the whole race would never fly off and revolt entirely, choosing disorder rather than order, and to the creature, to lead it to entertain a confident hope that the merciful God would not overlook his own work.” (Philo, Who is the Heir of Divine Things 206)
This Logos was more than just a spoken word. It was a visible, tangible entity, a Voice that was seen. Philo pointed to Exodus 20:18, where the people “saw” the voice of God, rather than “heard it,” a phenomenon linked to the Logos, “not different in any respect from the sources of reason.” (Philo, On the Migration of Abraham 47)
The Logos, then, or the Word of God, in Philo’s thinking, was the expression of God, a tangible, angel-like force that translated the will of God into the world, and which represented mankind to God. It was far more than just the written Scripture. The scope of Logos is hinted at by comparison with another New Testament word, rhema, which also means “word.” Rhema specifically refers to an utterance. Philo distinguished between logos and rhema as the difference between “the whole word of God, and by every portion of it.” (Allegorical Interpretations III 176) The logos is the full expression as opposed to an utterance, or only part of it.
The Logos of John
Anyone familiar with the Gospel of John will immediately recognize the similarities of the Word in the opening verses to the Memra of the Targumim and the Logos of Philo.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)
The Word here, the Logos of the New Testament, is clearly identified as Jesus. He was with God and was God, yet was distinct from the Father as a separate personality. He came as an intermediary between God and man, bringing light to the world in the same way that the Memra of the Targumim and the Logos of Philo did. The Word of the New Testament shined in the darkness and gave human beings the right to become children of God. From the first thirteen verses of John, the description of the Word could be that of Targum Jonathan or Targum Onkelos or Philo.
But then John makes a distinction that sets his Logos dramatically apart from theirs.
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
This profound difference of the Word of God in the New Testament is of the utmost importance to John. God never intended his Logos to act as a buffer to keep God and mankind separated, but rather a bridge to unite mankind with God. Plato, Epictetus and Philo all saw contact between a perfect God and a flawed material world as impossible. John portrayed it as God’s plan. The philosophical and religious systems around John, at their core ideology, saw God as comparatively separated from or uninterested in this world. John saw God as intimately involved with his creation, so much so that the Word injected himself into creation. He became flesh.
John felt this to be of such significance that he identified the denial of this belief as a trait of antichrist.
“This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.” (1 John 4:2-3)
The Word was Jesus, the full expression of God. The divine Reason behind creation was expressed through Jesus. The purpose of the Logos was not isolation from the world, but an intentional intervention in the material world.
By inference, we can say that when Jesus told his disciples to go into the world and make disciples (Matthew 28:19), his focus was not on getting us into heaven (though salvation comes with it), but rather he expected us to carry on his intervention—we might even call it an invasion—into the world system to redeem and deliver people from the evil and the oppression of the world.