John twice alludes to Genesis 1:1—“In the beginning God”—to launch his own writing. In the fourth Gospel we find “In the beginning was the Word” and in 1 John 1 he starts with an almost identical reference “That which was from the beginning.” John, obviously, held this to be critical in orienting his readers to God’s ways.
This Sunday I’ll preach on John 1:1-3 with the New Year having just arrived. As I prepare I’ve been intrigued with John’s two allusions to Genesis. Let me tie them here to my broader interest in God’s eternal triune Conversation.
For one, the verses have an obvious temporality. Beginning refers to something from an earlier time that accounts for a later outcome. Yet our texts all assume a divine ultimacy. In other words they point to an absolute beginning: to that which is the most before now! It implies a starting point before which there was nothing.
And here we have a hitch. The Bible never allows for some sort of starting point in God’s personal existence: his being is unbounded. So “the beginning” may speak of God’s creation of all other forms of being out of nothing. Or it may be a temporal euphemism for God’s greater reality: an arrow that points us as temporal creatures to see and acknowledge our non-temporal source.
Support for the latter option is suggested by Exodus 3 where God’s eternal being is linked to the intransitive verb of being, “I am.” By taking this as an eternal present tense we have a label for God’s existence that still engages us in our present reality. I say, properly, “I am God’s creation” in light of God having already said, “I Am.” John was certainly alert to this dynamic language-bridge by tracking a number of “I am” statements made by Jesus in his life on earth—a usage his enemies treated as blasphemy.
“Beginning” also represents standing or status in a way that may be less familiar to us. The words “chief” or “head” are useful synonyms, as in “the chief factor of the equation” or the “headwaters of the river.” In God’s case he has an absolute status: he surpasses every other claim to standing or significance in the sense that as Creator he is superior to all he creates.
Now let’s take up a question for the New Year. As we think of ourselves coming to the “beginning of the year” how do our personal beginnings fit into God’s absolute “In the beginning”? Are we treating the New Year as the start of one more chapter in life? Or are we, by faith, thinking of our ongoing dependence on God’s unbounded Beginning? So that our more limited sense of having life is set in the context of God’s ultimate Life?
Let’s consider what John wrote in John 1:1. There he distinguishes God’s triune reality when he refers to God by his distinctions as the Father and his Son—with the Spirit assumed in the broader context. By alluding to Genesis 1 he was alert to the divine distinctions implicit in the conversational “let us” language. John takes this feature of Genesis and labels it: the Son is God’s “Word” who reveals the Father—a reality he underlines in John 1:18.
And by using the analogy of language—with Christ portrayed as God’s “Word”—we have the helpful imagery for our faith. We exist as part of God’s Conversation. We also have a connection to our finite viewpoint: each of us fits into the ‘conversation’ of world history. From our birth onward we are part of a unique family history.
So while we can treat each New Year as a temporal transition—as a new phase in our life conversation—it can also have a broader significance. If, for instance, we were to write an autobiography each New Year might be treated as a new chapter of the story. I could write, for instance, “I changed jobs in 2007.” The year offers a helpful reference point in an ongoing story.
The broader reality comes in the way we treat our unique place in world history. Our story is a small but meaningful part of a vastly bigger Story. So John brings words about us to “the Word” who is God. And the Word exists eternally in the absolute Conversation. He and the Father, with the Spirit’s facilitating presence, are always active in a divine exchange. And yet in some sense this absolute conversation is also “finished.”
In other words there are no external elements in God’s Conversation. His eternal being frames all that is. So there will never be an unexpected conversation partner who surprises God, or a particular conversation that is alien to the ultimate Conversation. The triune Being is complete and absolute. He exists as both “the beginning and the end” even as he also exists—in temporal terms—without a starting or an ending point.
We have glimpses of this in Psalm 139 and Ephesians 1. The psalmist reminds us that God’s Conversation includes “[our] book [of days that] were written . . . when as yet there were none of them.” And Paul tells us that God “chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world . . .”
So as we come to each New Year we apply a human convention: a punctuation point of life that sets up a new paragraph of our story. Yet as followers of Christ we have a greater reality in view: our part of God’s eternal Conversation. The beginning of our New Year, then, is framed by his ultimate and timeless Beginning and End.
That invites us, in turn, to frame our daily conversations within God’s Conversation. As believers we come to the New Year in Christ who embraces us in his eternal love. It’s sure to be a remarkable Story.