How do we understand John’s statement that: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1.1)? Was John a monotheist? A polytheist? Is he introducing something new to Christianity here?
To get at the answer to this question one has to understand the cultural and religious milieu in which John wrote. John was a Jew and whatever else one can say about the religious positions of the Jews in Palestine at the time of Christ, they were fiercely monotheistic. In all of the archaeological digs in Israel, they have never discovered an idol in the time after the Jews came back from exile in Babylon. The exile had weaned that desire out of them. In addition, John lived in a time after the Maccabean Wars in which the Jews had fought again and again attempts to make them worship anything but God. So exasperated had the Romans become at the Jews’ insistence that they would worship only their God, that they finally gave in and made the only religious exemption in their entire empire. Jews alone could worship their own God and not the emperor. They had paid for this right in much blood.
In addition all of the earliest Christian writings hold to one God. In coming to faith in Christ the Jews who had become Christians did not reject their faith in or understanding that God was one. Their understanding had been reshaped, not changed.
All that to say that John knew what he was doing here. He writes in such a way that we understand that God was one, and that Christ was God. He carefully constructs his words so that we see that Christ is a distinct personality from God, and yet he is God. Here is how Marvin Vincent puts it:
The Logos of John is the real, personal God (1:1), the Word, who was originally before the creation with God, and was God, one in essence and nature, yet personally distinct (1:1, 18); the revealer and interpreter of the hidden being of God; the reflection and visible image of God, and the organ of all His manifestations to the world.
So was John a monotheist? Yes, he was. Had his understanding of what that meant been changed by his interaction with Christ? Yes it had.
Here is how one commentator works out this truth:
John came from a people who were fiercely monotheistic. Their faith in one holy living God was no academic affair; it was a life and death matter which no amount of social pressure or cruel persecution could stamp out. So the confession, “the Word was God,” was a startling affirmation of faith that could only be made by one who had accepted the invitation of Jesus to “come and see” and had ended up beholding His glory, which could only have been the glory of “the only begotten of the Father.” John had moved beyond the monotheism of the Law into the rich wonder of the Incarnate Word’s being very God.
May we hold our faith and our understanding of who God is and who Christ is with the same commitment with which the early believers held it. May it be to us “a life and death matter which no amount of social pressure or cruel persecution” can stamp out.