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What does "the Word was with God" mean in John 1:1-2?

Word RTF

Question:  Dear Dr. Luginbill, I am wondering about the phrase in John 1:1: "And the Word was with God". I know that the words are pros ton theon, if I'm not mistaken. Doesn't that literally mean that The Word was "toward" God? I have been in a discussion with some people who think that pros ton theon means "pertaining to God." Can it be interpreted this way?  Anyway, I would appreciate your expert opinion on it. Thank you and God bless you.

Response:  Your understanding of the Greek preposition pros is essentially correct. Just like any English preposition, it covers a lot of ground. And, more to the point, just like any English preposition, it is possible to use it in ways that are somewhat unusual (and so command attention). John's use of pros in Jn.1:1-2 is unique. If John had used the dative case, it would mean something like the Word was "with God" or even "at God's place" (in the sense of the French chez moi), for that is the typical usage. It can mean, as your correspondents suggest, "related to" and often does have this meaning, but in the following sense: "we were talking/thinking/having a discussion about/concerning/related to [something] (where the "something" would be the object of pros). In the absence of a verbal context to indicate what this "related topic" would be (as is the case in Jn.1:1), we don't find this use of pros (i.e., it doesn't mean "related to" in the sense of "kith and kin", only in the sense of "concerning"). No, the use of pros in John 1:1-2 is a very unusual one, and it defies English translation. You suggest "face to face", and that is pretty close (although the idea of "a face" is not in the preposition). "Directed/oriented towards [on a common level]" is closer, though this too is hard to work into a translation. Here are two possible ways to bring through the meaning of pros in John 1:1-2:

The Word existed in the beginning: the Word was both present with the [Father] God
[before creation] and the Word was God [in His own right]. This same One was present with the [Father] God in the beginning

The Word [Jesus Christ] existed at the very beginning, and there was reciprocity between the Word and God [the Father]. This One both existed and enjoyed reciprocity with God from the very beginning.

It is clear to me that John, under the guidance of the Spirit, has gone to great lengths (i.e., coming up with this inspired use of pros) to make clear that while the Word was in the presence of God, the Word was also separate from God the Father, and at the same time not inferior to God the Father. These are all crucial points for understanding our Lord Jesus Christ's 1) co-equal divinity, 2) separate Person, and 3) unique role in the Father's plan (see on the Trinity, Bible Basics:  Essential Doctrines of the Bible; Part 1: Theology: The Study of God). We can compare Paul's similarly careful (and similarly unusual) language in Philippians chapter two, where he likewise wishes to describe Christ's pre-incarnate divinity (with the word harpagmos in verse six giving translators fits):

You too should have this attitude which Christ Jesus had. Since He already existed in the very form of God, equality with God was [certainly] not something He thought He had to grasp for. Yet in spite of this [co-equal divinity He already possessed], He deprived Himself of His status and took on the form of a slave, [and was] born in the likeness of men. He humbled Himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even [His] death on [the] cross [for us all].
Philippians 2:5-8

To return to our main passage and your specific question, "pertaining to God", suggested by your correspondents, can't work as a translation, because there is no transitive verbal idea for the Word to "pertain to" here (it doesn't work with the copulative verb "to be"). On the other hand, translating simply "with" doesn't bring out the idea of the Word and God the Father facing each other on an equal basis. I don't much like "face to face" because it is so anthropomorphic, and because John could easily have said prosopon pros prosopon (literally, "face to face") had he wanted to (it is a very common NT usage). After all, we too who are most definitely not divine will "see Him face to face": 1Cor.13:12; cf. 1Jn.3:2). But the simple, spare pros conveys everything to us in a powerful way, God the Father and the Word, together as One, yet unique and distinct, and with distinct roles in the Plan of God.

As I mentioned, you can find out more about the Trinity in Bible Basics: Essential Doctrines of the Bible; Part 1: Theology: The Study of God. I quote here footnote #6 from that study, because the information it contains is particularly relevant to this discussion:

In verse one of John 1:1-3, the clause "the Word was God" cannot legitimately be translated "the Word was a God". First, earlier in the verse, the apostle John had used the definite article with the Greek word theos to refer to the Father according to customary usage ("the [sc. Father] God"), and so to use the identical combination again to refer to the Word would be potentially confusing, making it seem as if "the Word" was really identical to "the [sc. Father] God", one of the very points that John is disproving here. Secondly, Greek does not possess an indefinite article ("a/an"), but it does have an indefinite pronoun ("a certain one"; Greek tis) - the very word that a Greek reader would expect here if the point was that Christ was somehow a god, but not really "God". So John only had three ways to write this: 1) the Word was "the God" (but this would mean that there was no real distinction between the Father and Christ); 2) the Word was "a certain god" (but this would mean that Christ was a lesser sort of divinity, not God on the level of the Father); or 3) the Word was "God" - what John actually did write, thus fully and unambiguously attributing deity to the Word as distinct from the Father.

Hope this helps!

Yours in the Word.

Bob L.


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