There are at least two senses in Scripture in which Jesus is the word of God. Though related, one has to do with the idea of revelation, and the other with the Greek word logos.
Jesus as God’s revelation
One way to understand Jesus as God’s word is simply textual—Hebrews says God “speaks” to us by his Son:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 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. (Heb 1:1–3b)
When God spoke through the prophets, the formula was consistent: “And the word of the Lord came to . . .” or, the prophet himself would say, “Thus says the Lord” (see 2 Kings 20:4; 2 Sam 7:4; Ezek 3:16).
And then the prophet conveyed a message previously hidden. Revelation happened.
So what this comparison says simply is that God has spoken through Jesus in the same way (but better) than he did the prophets of old.
But there is another way in which Jesus is the word of God, and the fascinating history of the Greek word-concept logos helps us appreciate it.
Jesus as logos
When we read in John 1:1, “In the beginning was the word (logos) and the word (logos) was with God and the word (logos) was God,” we can see immediately, we need to know what the word logos means.
Here we see the dynamic of context and semantics. We don’t open our Greek dictionaries to the word logos just yet, because the passage itself is telling us a good deal about this word. According to John 1:1–3, logos:
- Was there in the beginning
- Was with God
- Is equivalent to God (“was God”)
- Is a “him” (v. 2, “He [the Word] was in the beginning with God”)
- Is that which all things were made through
Whatever—whoever—this “logos” is, he is fundamental to the universe.
But why is he called logos, and why is logos commonly translated “word”?
Here it’s helpful to turn to a Bible dictionary.
Below you’ll find the full entry on this topic from the Lexham Bible Dictionary, and I hope you’ll read the whole thing, for this reason: it shows how ancient philosophers—way before the Word was made flesh (John 1:14)—groped their way toward an understanding of logos that Jesus perfectly fulfills. At the deepest level of their intellect, they perceived an order to the universe that, according to John, is Jesus himself.
(If you’d prefer to miss out on the fun history lesson, and just want to know how Jesus is the word of God in a few sentences, this is a nice summary from Nijay K. Gupta. Commenting on the use of logos in John 1:1–4, Gupta writes:
The reader is meant to reflect on texts like Gen 1, where God spoke creation into existence with His powerful voice, and Isa 55:10–11 where the great word of the Lord regarding deliverance and hope “goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” While the image of Jesus as “Word” disappears after John 1, the confirmation of this Word-agent identity comes in the powerful teaching and proclamation of Jesus in His ministry (John 4:50; 8:31).1
In summary: Jesus is the “word of God” in that he is the author and sustainer of creation—and new creation.
To see how Scripture connects these two senses of Jesus as God’s word, see John 1:18, especially the phrase “he has made him known” or “declared him.” John combines revelation with the sense of Jesus as the ordering principle or force behind the universe.)
Now for a wonderful history lesson, courtesy of Brian K. Gamel.
A history of the word logos
At a basic level, logos means “to pick up, collect, count up, give account [in a bookkeeping sense]”—the act of bringing concrete items into relation with one another. Mathematicians used it to describe ratios, mathematical descriptions of two measurements in relationship to each other (Brann, Logos, 10–11).
Logos eventually came to communicate the idea of “giving an account” in the sense of explaining a story. Having been identified with language, logos came to mean all that language involves—both the act of sharing information and the thought that produces language.
By the time that Latin gained prominence, the Greek term logos was translated with the term oratio, referring to speech or the way inward thoughts are expressed, and ratio, referring to inward thinking itself (Schopenhauer, Fourfold; Ullman, Semantics, 173).
This wide range in meanings for logos made it a difficult term to translate and comprehend. In the sixth—fourth centuries BC, Greek philosophers made efforts to limit its meaning to rationality and speech. Modern translators must consider the context in which logos appears since its meaning varies widely depending on the author and the time of writing (Schiappa, Protagoras, 91–92, 110).
The Chinese language contains a similar term, tao, which means both “thinking” and “speaking” (Longxi, Tao and Logos, 27). Logos offers no easy translation since the concept of the word is necessarily bound up with Greek-influenced Western ideas (Mbiti, “Challenges of Language,” 145).
Since logos means an account (explanation) of something, some philosophers began to refer to the explanation for order and balance in the universe as a cosmic logos. According to these philosophers, humans can explain things through language because they share in this cosmic logos or rationality.
The ancient mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras (ca. 570–495 BC) believed that a hidden principle of harmony existed in the universe that was responsible for the proportional relations (logos) of one thing to another. Pythagoras enumerated three principles (Hillar, Logos to Trinity, 7):
- the monad (represented by the number 1) from which everything came to exist—the principle of unity
- the dyad (represented by the number 2) that represented the diversity of all things
- the relation (logos) of one thing to another, which explains how the first two principles operated together
These three principles offered an explanation for how the universe could appear random and unpredictable yet remain unified and operational (Hiller, Logos to Trinity, 10).
Heraclitus (ca. 535–475 BC) was the first Greek philosopher to imbue the word logos with metaphysical meaning. He understood logos as a principle of universal coherence and saw the world as a collection of unified things all kept in order by logos (Hillar, Logos to Trinity, 10). In this way, he developed Pythagoras’ understanding of logos as ratio-relation even if he was unaware of Pythagoras’ work (Brann, Logos, 39).
Heraclitus believed that a single principle of harmony existed behind all of nature. The world exhibits order because it reflects the nature of the logos that structures it. Furthermore, the orderly transition of one thing into another was a process of proportional change, also dictated by logos. The logos is to the world (κόσμος, kosmos) as law (νόμος, nomos) is to the city (πόλις, polis; Johnstone, Listening to Logos, 55–57).
For Heraclitus, logos is the only reality that exists; all events and processes are instances of this one underlying principle. Thus, the logos is common and available to all people. Successful or truthful speech is a reflection of the logos at work within people because it reflects the universal truth of the world. When people reject this truth, they reject the harmony of the logos inherent in the world; instead, they believe thinking and rationality are private possessions rather than unity among all people. Heraclitus rejects myths because they lead people to believe that they have a private understanding of the world even though the logos is common to all people (Morgan, Myth and Philosophy, 55–59).
Later philosophers like Aristotle attributed to Heraclitus a belief that the logos was identified with fire or some elemental material from which all things came into being. It is unclear whether his attribution is accurate since Heraclitus uses the term to describe both the stable and the dynamic elements of the universe (e.g., fire, which is constantly burning, and thus changing, but still remaining the same). Heraclitus does, however, clearly identify speech and language with the universal logos, as they are the proportioned, ordered use of sounds. Language is a manifestation of the logos, and thus language manifests reality (Johnstone, Listening to Logos, 58–59).
The Sophists were a group of professional educators who offered instruction in the ability to speak effectively, usually for political purposes. For a fee, these instructors would train a student in the art of logos—speech, reasoning, and argumentation (Johnstone, Listening to the Logos, 92). The Sophists primarily understood logos as rhetoric—the ability to persuade an audience based on the power of one’s speech (Schiappa, Protagoras, 54). The Sophists were transitional figures in Greek history. They operated between the writers of epic poetry (e.g., Homer and Hesiod) and the later era of technical Greek philosophy. They used both mythic and rational forms of speech, and although they favored the latter, they did not argue against myth (Morgan, Myth and Philosophy, 93; Wians, “From Muthos,” 3).
Protagoras (490–420 BC), whom Plato credits with creating the role of the Sophist as a professional instructor, was the first Sophist who definitively preferred argument over poetry, logos over mythos. He was interested in the correct use of language (orthos logos) to rightly describe the world (Schiappa, Protagoras, 57). Protagoras believed that everything that exists does so because it exists in language. He believed it was not possible to describe an objective reality apart from the reality that speech (logos) creates. Therefore, nothing exists beyond the boundary of language. Thus, truth is competitive—only the consensus of the community in hearing and evaluating an argument can determine what is real (Johnstone, Listening to the Logos, 99).
Protagoras thus attempted to explain a “logos of logos“—a rational account of speech and argumentation. He is therefore considered the father of linguistics (Schiappa, Protagoras, 162). His understanding of logos demonstrates an alternative way in which logos is responsible for the creation of the world since every account (logos) of reality must involve speech and argumentation.
Plato and Aristotle
Plato and Aristotle largely rejected the cosmic sense of logos and opted for a more traditional understanding of it as the speech and rationality of humans. Aristotle also draws attention to the difference between rationality and other means of rhetorical persuasion.
Since Socrates did not leave behind any written texts, information about his beliefs remains fragmentary and contested. In the form in which his views are preserved through his student Plato’s work, Socrates understood logos as a tool for self-examination and self-knowledge, highlighting his preference for inquiry through conversation and dialogue (Johnstone, Listening to Logos, 142).
Plato likewise identifies logos as a tool for self-examination and self-knowledge, as demonstrated by his emphasis on the Socratic dialogues. For Plato, logos referred to speech and the rationality associated with it. Logos was a true, rational account of the world, as opposed to myth (μῦθος, mythos). Plato identified logos with speech so strongly that he attempted to explain speaking as “the stream that flows from this thought and sounds out through the mouth” (Longxi, Tao and Logos, 32).
Plato did not appropriate Heraclitus’ understanding of the logos as cosmic order and harmony; he used the term in a much more traditional manner (Brann, Logos, 109). However, he did refer to the proportion (logos) by which people should live their lives, and he called proportion one of the ideal forms of good. To the extent that people exhibited rational behavior in the form of speech, Plato believed that the proportion of the universe was present in the human soul (Johnstone, Listening to Logos, 168–69).
Aristotle (384–322 BC) used logos in relation to definition, proportion, and rationality. He also used logos in reference to the quality that separated humans from animals; in this way, logos was highly identified with speech. In Aristotle’s teachings, the human soul possesses logos by means of rational thinking, which is the power humans possess to go beyond sense perception and attain true knowledge (Johnstone, Listening to Logos, 198, 212).
Logos was one of three means of rhetorical persuasion in Aristotle’s understanding, the other two being pathos (emotion) and ethos (character projection). Here Aristotle contrasted rational argument with appeals to emotion and exhortation to attain a certain character. Lexis (style) could be separated from logos (argument)—a goal toward which every good orator should strive (Powell, “Rhetoric and Rationality,” 1).
Living according to reason (logos) was the goal of ethics. Nature exists in an ordered, rational manner, and living in harmony with this order led to the good life. Thus, Aristotle shares something of Heraclitus’ understanding of logos as a universal principle of order: Logos orders the world; it is the design that directs everything; it is the foundation for human wisdom. Logos is central to the quality of natural law. Humans are capable of understanding the universal logos only because they possess logos as a faculty of their souls. Humans participate in the divine precisely in this fashion (Johnstone, Listening to Logos, 204–05, 213, 267).
But Aristotle categorized Heraclitus as a “physicist,” believing Heraclitus’ understanding of logos was material (since he sometimes seemed to identify logos with fire). For Aristotle, logos appears to be the inner rationale of the universe as opposed to a single cosmic principle of order existing outside of (or apart from) the universe (Brann, Logos, 43, 87, 109).
Later philosophical schools recovered the cosmic sense of logos that those like Heraclitus advocated. For example, Stoics claimed a universal logos was behind the entire shape of the world and that to live ethically was to live according to this shape. Philo combined his knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures with Greek philosophy to create an understanding of logos as God’s mediator with creation, an idea that became very popular for early Christians.
The Stoics revived Heraclitus’ emphasis on logos as a cosmological and divine entity. For the Stoics, god, nature, and logos were one and the same. The Stoics understood fire as a primal element identified with logos, both of which are identified with Zeus (Brann, Logos, 110).
The Stoics believed all things were composed of matter, which was passive and inert; the active, ordering principle was logos. Stoics understood logos as the immanent power, force, or law in reality. The true god was identified with logos, but the creator of the material world—often referred to as the demiurge—made the universe using the logos as a template. Therefore, what is logical appears so because it is consistent with the ordering principle that shaped the world (Hiller, Logos to Trinity, 24–25).
The sum of Stoic ethics lies in living according to nature so that all of one’s faculties are dominated by rationality. Living according to nature meant living in accord with the design of the universe, thus bringing humans into harmony with the universe itself. Stoicism was highly influential in the Hellenistic world.
Philo of Alexandria
Middle Platonism (prominent from ca. 80 BC–AD 220) was a philosophy dependent on Plato. It emphasized the primary reality of the immaterial and sometimes adopted logos as a term for the active force of God in the world. This philosophy directly influenced Philo of Alexandria, perhaps one of the greatest Greek writers (probably the most expansive) on logos.
Philo (ca. 20 BC–AD 50) was the primary example of Hellenistic Judaism as he sought to interpret the Mosaic law in light of Greek philosophy (particularly Middle Platonism). However, since Greek metaphysics were impersonal, Philo merged the personal, anthropomorphic God of the Hebrew Scriptures with Greek thought. The resulting ideas and formulations provided the conceptual foundation for later Christians (Hiller, Logos to Trinity, 39).
Philo understood logos as the utterance of God’s word found in the Old Testament since God’s words do not differ from God’s actions. In his view, the logos was the ordering and guiding agent of creation. God created the world instantly, but it took six days for the logos to order the world correctly. It was also the pattern for all creation, providing the paradigm for both the world and humanity. In this way, human beings were not created as God’s image, but according to God’s image—that is, the logos; humans have rational capacity because of their connection to the logos.
The logos served so many functions in Philo’s thought that it is difficult to succinctly and comprehensively describe them all. Perhaps most important for the future development of logos within Christianity, Philo identified the logos as eternally begotten by God, calling it the first begotten son of the uncreated Father. God does not govern creation directly but only through the logos, which is the cosmic bond holding all things together. The logos was thus an essential intermediate entity existing between God, who was completely transcendent, and the material universe (Hillar, Logos to Trinity, 55–65).
Although the author of John’s Gospel may not have been directly familiar with Philo’s works, the author clearly relies on the same conceptual framework for understanding logos. In John’s prologue, God creates by way of the logos (John 1:3), similar to Philo’s teachings. The logos is the only begotten Son of the Father (John 1:14), who acts as mediator between God and the people who do not know God (John 1:18), also like in Philo. The major difference between Philo and John comes with John’s identification of the logos with the historical person of Jesus. The idea of the incarnation of the logos (John 1:14) launched an entirely new chapter in understanding logos and provided Christianity with one of its foundational beliefs (Haenchen, John, 109–11).2