This is the third article in the series which we’re using to try and answer the question, “What does it mean to say that ‘God is love’?” The first article (click here: ‘God is love’) looked at the four Greek words for love as written of by C. S. Lewis. We found in 1st John 4:16b, when John wrote that “God is love”, he had written Theos agape. While we answered the question of exactly what that meant, we also realized that we need to look more closely at this idea. It isn’t enough to just settle for the easy answer, based on simply translating the words Theos agape, because that doesn’t really do very much for us in terms of getting a better understanding of exactly what it does mean to say that “God is love”. In the second article, The Branch, The Vine, and Mars’ Hill, we looked at the fact that when John says “…those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” also in 1st John 4:16, we can take the word ‘in’ literally; meaning that we truly are a part of God. But again, it doesn’t mean much to us to say that we are a part of God if all that we can say to define God is Theos agape.
What each of us can say is this: “I am”. It is difficult to say those words without having one of two (or perhaps both) familiar phrases come to mind. In French, “Je pense, donc je suis.” In Latin, “Cogito, ergo sum”. In English, “I think, therefore, I am.” This statement is usually attributed to Descartes, a French philosopher; but the roots of this line of thought have been traced back to St. Augustine. The main reason that we associate this idea with Descartes and not with St. Augustine is that Descartes published his work on this subject in 1637; this was a time when the church’s control had started to diminish. This meant that the church could no longer suppress or control the flow of thoughts and ideas through society, as well as they had been able to do up through the 15th century. This decline in control would eventually allow for the age of enlightenment to come about, at the close of the 18th century (usually dated between 1789 and 1799).
The other “I am” phrase that comes to mind, is found in most of the English translations of the bible in the third chapter of the book of Exodus. This of course, is the traditional answer attributed to God when He was telling Moses His name. The answer, as it has been rendered into English, and as it appears in the main text of almost all bibles, is “I am who I am”. In some of the translations of the bible, there is a footnote attached to the 14th verse of Exodus 3. This footnote points out that the phrase “I am who I am” can also be correctly translated from the original Hebrew as “I will be who I will be.” This calls to mind another more contemporary quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In act 3, scene 1, Hamlet opens up his famous soliloquy with these words: “To be, or not to be; that is the question…” Beyond this connection to the Bard’s work, it may be hard to imagine that it makes very much of a difference whether God answered Moses by saying “I am who I am”, or by saying “I will be who I will be”, but in fact, it makes a big difference.
In using the words “I am”, we take a snapshot of one instance in time. Imagine your baby pictures; if you took one and held it up beside your face, and looked in a mirror, there might be some resemblance, but there are now differences as well, between your appearance, and the original pictures taken of you as a baby.
The same is true of the statement “I am”. It is a snapshot in time. When we add various words to the phrase, we have a variety of statements, but they are all the same: just snapshots. The “I am” statement is a static representation of what was, at that moment in time, when we said “I am”. But to say “I will be who I will be” allows us to set up possibilities for the future. For instance, an overweight person would be stuck with “I am fat”, as being fat. But if they were to say, “I will be thin”, then they have set up a new possibility to work towards. Of course to work towards these new possibilities, we need to have two things. First, we need to have set the goal, and second, we need to have a starting point. This is where the snapshot does become useful. It can serve as a starting point or a point of reference from which to measure our progress toward the possibilities that we establish. A person who smokes may say “I am a smoker, but I will become a non-smoker.” Thus, they have set the goal, and established the possibility of ‘becoming’ something better than what they are at this moment in time.
We know that God supports us in setting up these possibilities, by the fact that Yeshua died on the cross. The church would be quick to point out that His death was given as the sacrifice for our sins, which is true. (If you want to know more about sin, read the series What is Sin?) But the church also thrusts upon us the snapshot of what has been, in the past, insisting that we must declare “I am a sinner” in order to benefit from Yeshua’s sacrifice. Sometimes, the church wants to give the impression that they are presenting us with possibilities, but when they have us declare “I am a sinner, and I will always be a sinner...”, they are really only presenting us with a lack of possibility. The problem with this, is that God doesn’t want us to be stuck in the rut of focusing on our sin. Yeshua’s teaching spoke to the idea that we need to start from where we are, and then try to do better. If we start by saying “I am a sinner”, and accept the gift already given, we can continue by saying “I will be a better person”. Then we set up the idea of what we can be, and we create for ourselves the opportunity to become what can be.
This is not really too much different than what happened in the beginning. If God just is (and said “I am who I am” to Moses,) we would find ourselves stuck in a ‘Matrix’ like world, where nothing ever changed. But that isn’t the case. Because God said “I will be”, we can easily picture Him at the beginning, mulling over Hamlet’s dilemma, and then arriving at this decision: “I will become”. The opening verses of John’s gospel will help us begin to understand what I mean. The English translation has come down to us this way: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. The same was in the beginning with God.” (John 1:1-2 KJV)
In one of the very first pieces put up on this website, we looked at the Greek word which has been translated into the word ‘Word’ in John 1:1. The Greek word is logos. In A Logical Relationship, we looked at Heraclitus’ use of the word logos and made the connection to our own ability to reason. This time, as we look at the word logos, we find that it also translates as “something that is declared, a thought”. There is also a Greek word in the second verse that bears further consideration. The second verse opens with the words, “the same”. In the NRSV, the words “the same” have been changed to read “He”. If we take a look at the Greek word from verse 2, we find that this word is houtos. Like we saw with the Greek word en in the second article, there are different ways in which this word has been translated and interpreted from the Greek into English. One of the translations is “the same”, another is “He”, a third is “this”; the translation I find most interesting is “these”. Weighing the alternative translations of these words, logos and houtos, gives us a fresh perspective of the opening verses from John. Perhaps the verses should be rewritten this way: In the beginning was the thought of God, I will become! And God manifested this thought, through knowledge and love. And knowledge and love became the thoughts which are God. These were in the beginning with God.
Of course, it would be argued that this new verse makes no mention of the Christ. However, if we look at the traditional translation again, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.”, we see that this verse makes no specific mention of the Christ either. The Church tells us that this verse mentions Christ, because they have labeled him the “essential word of God”. I would suggest that we can find the Christ in a similar way, in our revision of John’s first verses, too.
As we look at the next few verses of John’s gospel, we begin to see a correlation to that period of time which we referred to earlier. Also known as the ‘age of reason’, the term ‘age of enlightenment’ was used to highlight the advancements in philosophy and science that signified the end of the ‘dark ages’. It is no accident that the term enlightenment came to symbolize society’s progression of knowledge. The idea probably comes in part, from the verses we’ll look at right now.
In the 4th and 5th verses from John’s first chapter, we find: “In Him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” It’s interesting to note that in the KJV, verse 5b reads: “and the darkness comprehended it not.”
It is perhaps because of the comments which Yeshua made, and which were recorded in John’s gospel, that the church assigned the identity of the ‘Word’ to the Christ, in the first place. In John 8:12, Yeshua spoke to his disciples declaring this: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” With Yeshua having made this statement, it’s easy to see why, based on John 1:4 (“and the life was the light of all people ”,) and John 8:12 (“I am the light of the world”,) that the church assigned Christ the identity of the ‘Word’.
Phos is the Greek word which has been translated as light in each of these verses, John 1:4, and John 8:12. While the word is correctly translated as light, it also can be translated to mean “truth and knowledge, together with the spiritual purity associated with it.” Using the word phos in this way, to indicate God’s truth and knowledge, is consistent with our earlier interpretation of verses one and two. It is a likely source for the term, ‘age of enlightenment’ and it would also be consistent with Yeshua’s statement in the verse from chapter 8. Furthermore, this helps us understand how Christ is in fact referred to in our revision of the opening of John’s gospel, without separating ourselves from God by referring to Yeshua as the “essential word of God”, and thus creating the impression that he is more ‘Godly’ than ourselves. He tells us that he is the light of the world; this would indicate that he would have personified the knowledge, truth and love that are God. But Yeshua’s purpose was more than to simply be the knowledge and love of God in a human form. He also gave us examples of how we too, can live ‘Godly’ lives, because we too, are a part of God. We do this, by trying to live in the higher self, and overcome the lower self. When we are in the higher self, we demonstrate the knowledge and love that are God, to the world. Christ indicated that this was the case when he explained to his disciples that: “You are the light of the world”. (Matthew 5:14) As you might have guessed, the Greek word for ‘light’ in the verse from Matthew is phos.
In the series on the Beatitudes, we found that in chapter 10 of John’s gospel, when Yeshua referred to himself as the son of God, that in the Greek, those words are huios Theos. These are the same words which he used to describe the ‘peacemakers’ in the 7th Beatitude. It is logical to assume that if Yeshua had intended to differentiate himself from us, that he would not have used the same words, either in the case of huios Theos, or in this case with the word phos, He uses phos to identify himself as the light of the world, just as he uses phos to identify us as the light of the world. Therefore, Yeshua must have intended the connection between him and us to be reinforced by identifying us in exactly the same way that he identified himself, in both instances. But more than that, by referring to us in this way, he makes us equal partners in sharing the knowledge and truth that make up God, with the world around us; and he encourages us to take up the name of God for ourselves. We can best do this by actively deciding to become something better (I will be who I will be), and then doing our best to bring about that decision.
So now, we see that ‘God is love’, we see that God is light, and we see that we are a part of the love and light that are God, so all that is left is to put all of that together, and finally answer to the question, What does it mean to say that ‘God is love’?
Grace and peace to you all,