Part 1: Thinking the unthinkable (John Ch 1)

Outrageous ideas have always changed the world. In 1514, Nicolaus Copernicus made the stupendous claim that the earth revolved around the sun and changed our understanding of the universe forever. In 1916, Albert Einstein stunned the scientific world with his theory of general relativity, undermining some of the most established laws of physics. And late in the first century A.D. a writer known as 'John' offered his readers the most unthinkable idea of all: God incarnate as a human being.

John chapter 1 has had more influence on Christian theology than perhaps any other single chapter in the entire Bible. It's here we get the nearest to a fully-formed doctrine of the Trinity. Here that Jesus is described as the lamb who takes away the sin of the world. But nothing is as shocking, as provocative, or as powerful as the heresy of the Incarnation.

We're so used to these standard Christian doctrines that we forget they are barely found - if at all - in Mark, Matthew and Luke. John is the theological powerhouse of the four. Or at least overtly so - often the nuance of narrated theology has greater power than the endless string of theological statements John shoehorns into his story. But the shoehorning comes later. In this opening chapter we are embroiled in the single most profound, disturbing and heretical idea ever whispered: that the Word became flesh.

The 'Word' in John 1:1 is a translation of the Greek word logos. It's an important word for Greek philosophy; from Heraclitus to Aristotle the logos was an integral part of Greek discourse. But it is with the Stoic tradition in the fourth century B.C. that the logos took on a divine creative power. Then the Jewish philosopher Philo, a Hellenist (meaning someone who had adopted the worldview and practices of Greek culture) from Alexandria developed a mythology of the logos in which, as the firstborn of God, this creative agent bridged the gap between the 'pure' world of the divine and the tainted and shoddy world of matter.

It's a big debate whether John had read Philo or not. But I think he had. Because this opening chapter takes careful aim at Philo's gnostic story. The logos, claims John, is not just the firstborn of God, but was God himself. And he isn't just some creative agent that keeps the fallen world together-but-distant from the 'perfect' deity; he is a human being who walks and talks in a human body.

This is incendiary theology!

But it's not just Philo under fire from John's inspired imagination. Moses, the towering hero of Jewish faith, is also undermined by this revolutionary chapter. Moses' God is shrouded by earthquake, wind and fire. And the Law of Moses has Yahweh utterly separated from sinful humanity, only to be approached under the blood of the lamb which sublates the holy divide between sacred and profane.

But here's what happens in John 1: According to the intro, God has bridged that divide in Jesus, the one John the Baptist - one like Elijah (for whom God was explicitly not in earthquake, wind, or fire - in other words, not like Moses) - claims is the lamb of God who removes the sin of the world! And the chapter ends with a promise that Nathanael will see 'angels of God ascending and descending', a direct reference to Gen 28 and Jacob's experience - a vision from before Moses' uncontaminatable deity - of heaven and earth freely united.

This is nothing short of a defiant theological call to forsake Moses' vision of Yahweh and turn instead to Jesus, God naked in flesh!

The light shines...

Ever since Plato the Greeks had an inbuilt distaste for physical life, preferring instead the realm of abstract forms, of pure reason. And John's opener destroys that division, challenging its debasement of created life head-on.

And ever since Moses the Jews had an inbuilt belief in the sacred separation of Yahweh in his holy firestorm from the debased reality of a sinful world. But John claims that while 'the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.' (1:17)

I hear this same line said, week in, week out in churches and Christian conferences, regular as clockwork: God is a holy God who can't come near sin or he would consume it.

The incarnation mocks that idea.

Jesus, the Messiah, the upgrade to Moses, the logos of God, has got down and dirty with humanity and shines his light into a world that cannot comprehend it.

So listen up Philo! Listen up Moses! Listen up all those who claim that God is too aloof, too holy, too 'out there', too abstract, too big, too mighty, too good, too pure, or too 'other'.

God just walked down your street as a human being.