Picking a favorite book in the Bible is kind of like picking a favorite child. But if I had to choose one, I would say that the Gospel of John currently occupies that position in my heart. Whenever I quote the Bible or use a passage to illustrate some point, I find myself going to John more often than not. And for deep theology, John chapter 1 is hard to rival.
There is so much to learn from John that an entire blog could be devoted to simply studying his gospel and it’s tempting to turn this blog in that direction. In this post, however, I want to look at how John used different verbs to emphasize the eternal nature of Jesus – identified in John 1 as “The Word” (ὁ λόγος).
Back in Exodus 3:14, in God’s discourse with Moses, He identifies Himself to Moses as ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν (LXX), “I am the one who is” or, in the KJV, “I am that I am.” By the time of the NT, this use of the emphatic had become a personal name for God. Jesus, of course, referred to Himself as the ἐγώ εἰμι. The most notable example occurs in John 8:58 but there are actually many other instances.
The imperfect form of εἰμι is ἦν (3rd person, singular). Could the use of ἦν carry any similar significance to the use of the emphatic ἐγώ εἰμι? In John 1:1, we see the repeated use of ἦν.
ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.
The Word WAS in the beginning,
And the Word WAS with God,
And the Word WAS God.
The imperfect aspect implies a continuous action in the past. I’ve heard Dr. Spiros Zodhiates (and others) argue that continuous action implied by the imperfect aspect means that ἦν here could be translated more like, “In the beginning, the Word already was.” For the longest time, I was skeptical of his claim. After all, ἦν is an extremely common form and I considered this to be an unusual meaning. Consider, for example, the wedding in Cana described in John 2:1 where it says, καὶ ἦν ἡ μήτηρ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ ἐκεῖ·, “and the mother of Jesus was there.” It would make no sense to say, “and the mother of Jesus was already there.” Now, I believe in the eternal existence of Jesus, but I thought his translation was a stretch. I dismissed Zodhiates’ claim as being overreaching.
Lately, though, I’ve had a change of heart. While reading Wallace’s, The Basics of New Testament Syntax, I came across his simple observation that opened my eyes to the possibility. In John’s monologue (v. 1-18), there are many uses of this imperfect verb:
v. 2: οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν. (This one was in the beginning with God)
v. 4: ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν, καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων· (In Him was life, and the life was the light of men)
v. 9: ἦν τὸ φῶς τὸ ἀληθινόν, ὃ φωτίζει πάντα ἄνθρωπον, ἐρχόμενον εἰς τὸν κόσμον. (It/He was the true light, which illuminates every man, coming into the world).
John uses the word liberally and in what seems to be in a very ordinary sense. But in v. 6, we see a curious departure.
ἐγένετο ἄνθρωπος ἀπεσταλμένος παρὰ θεοῦ ὄνομα αὐτῷ Ἰωάννης·
“There came a man -- having been sent from God -- whose name [is] John,” (Young’s Literal)
The use here of γίνομαι (ἐγένετο) rather than ἦν sort of leaps out. In John 3:1, concerning the coming of Nicodemus to Jesus, John wrote:
ἦν δὲ ἄνθρωπος ἐκ τῶν Φαρισαίων, Νικόδημος ὄνομα αὐτῷ
“And there was a man of the Pharisees, Nicodemus his name,” (Young’s Literal)
John could have very easily used the same construction concerning John the Baptist yet he chose ἐγένετο rather than ἦν. It is as though John was saying, “Jesus was but John became.”
When looking at the entire passage, it’s conspicuous that ἦν is only ever used to refer to the Word. Everything else is modified by ἐγένετο:
v. 3: πάντα δι' αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν ὃ γέγονεν (All things were made through Him, and without Him was made not even one thing which had been made)
v. 10: ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ ἦν καὶ ὁ κόσμος δι' αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο (He was in the world and the world was made through Him)
Toward the conclusion of John’s monologue (v. 14), comes another use of the verb ἐγένετο:
Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο
“And the word became flesh.”
If I may make an amplified translation of that, it might sound something like: And the Word (which always was) became flesh (something it had never been before).
I admit it’s not the typical understanding of the verb ἦν but I think a case can be made here. In this passage, John seems to overtly contrast the Word with everything else. The Word alone always “was.” Everything else “became.”