Our purpose is to understand this first verse of the Gospel of John as nearly as possible as a first century Greek-speaker would. While it is clear enough in English, we want to make sure we get all the implications. This is especially necessary since part of it is disputed by cults such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and theological liberals also.
John 1:1 is made up of three propositions concerning "the Word" connected with the conjunction 'and.' This shows the Hebrew mentality of John, who, like all the New Testament writers but Luke, was a Hebrew. This is a typical type of Hebrew affirmation using independent statements without any obvious relationship given. But also John probably wants to make these three declarations as equal-valued theological points.
An important thing to note immediately is that all three affirmations have to do with "the Word." This is the Greek term logos that can refer to a word, statement, message, or announcement. With the article it would give the idea or "the one who has a message or announcement." This shows one aspect of Christ's role in the Tri-Unity: He is the revealer. We see parallel ideas in 1:18, stating that Christ "declares" the Father, and later in 14:9 where Jesus says, "the one who has seen me has seen the Father." To this we can add Paul's affirmation in Col. 1:15 that "He [Christ] is the image of the invisible God." Of course, it is clearly revealed without any ambiguity who this Logos is in 1:14 and the following verses: it is Jesus the Christ who came to earth and is the subject of this gospel.
"In the beginning was the Word"
The first declaration begins with a time reference, "In the beginning." John uses the same Greek phrase as the Septuagint's translation of the Hebrew phrase that begins Genesis 1:1. The Septuagint is a Greek version of the Old Testament translated a few hundred years before Christ. It was extensively used by first-century Jews, and is frequently cited in the New Testament. That Hebrew phrase, "in the beginning" is the name of the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible, making it very familiar to Jews. We also see the same Greek phrase in the first epistle of John 1:1. In addition, the apostle Paul says of Christ, "He is the beginning" (Col. 1:18), using the same term for 'beginning' as John. With this undoubted allusion to the time frame of Gen. 1:1 John is placing his affirmation about Christ before creation. In other words, if Gen. 1:1 is before creation, then John 1:1 is before creation.
What the apostle declares here under inspiration is difficult to convey completely in English. We put actions in the past but our English tenses don't distinguish the type of action unless we use a helping verb ("he was studying"). Greek, on the other hand, can make a simple statement about the past time—that it just happened. But it can also make a statement about a past continuous action or progressive action, which is what we find here. The verb translated was (eimi) is here in the imperfect tense, not the simple past (aorist), and therefore emphasizes that this action or state of being is going on continuously. So John is saying that the Word, in the beginning, before creation, was continually existing.
Another important point is that this verb does not mean come into being, as Jehovah's Witness theology claims. There is another Greek verb entirely for "to be born," or "to come into being." This is the verb ginomai. This verb is used of Christ in 1:14 "He was made flesh." Here the humanity of Christ is emphasized: His flesh was added in the incarnation. In John 8:58, Jesus says, "before Abraham was [ginomai—to become or be born], I am [eimi]." Here we find a nice distinction: Abraham came into existence at a point in time; Christ simply always was.
1:1a could be translated: "In the beginning the Word already was," or, "The Word was continually existing in the beginning." When time and being began, the Word was already in existence as the foundation of all.
So here we have the eternal existence of the Word.
"...and the Word was with God"
The key word in this declaration is with—the preposition pros with the accusative case. The same construction is used in 1 John 1:2. The basic meaning is of the preposition is 'near.' So one common meaning is "in company with." This meaning can be clearly seen in Matt. 13:56 ("His sisters, are they not all with us?"). See also 1 Thess. 3:4 ("when we were with you") and 2 Cor. 5:8 ("present with the Lord").
But in addition, pros with accusative case can indicate motion toward. We can see this in Luke 15:18 ("go to my Father"); and John 12:32 ("draw all people to Myself"). The commentator Godet thinks (p. 245) that the basic concept of motion in pros added to the verb of rest ("was") indicates that Christ's essential tendency was orientation toward God. This orientation can be seen as leading to communion between the Son and the Father, which implies distinction.
This distinction from God the Father that we see here is what gives us the idea of personhood. So in this we can see the mystery of the Tri-unity: Christ partakes of the same nature and essence as the Father, but at the same time is distinct from Him in person. As Jesus Christ, incarnated and physically living on earth, He can call God, "my Father". Jehovah's Witnesses, willfully sidestepping this essence/person distinction, stumble at this form of address as they do "Son of God."
Here John is showing us the Word's distinction from the Father.
"...and the Word was God"
Here is the Greek with an interlinear translation with numbers for word order:
As many people know, the New World Translation (Jehovah's Witnesses) has "a god". That makes Christ equal with the Devil in their thinking. But also that would be polytheism, though they try to deny it. They translate this way because there is no article with theos. But not having the article in Greek does not mean the noun is indefinite. Greek has no indefinite article as English does. There are other ways of showing indefiniteness in the Greek language. Actually, in three places in chapter one—verses 6, 12, and 13—the New World Translation has "God" even though it is the same construction. This shows an obvious bias on the part of Jehovah's Witnesses.
Logos is the subject of the clause as indicated by having the article. God—theos—is placed first for emphasis. In a Greek construction like this where a noun basically renames the subject, comes before the verb, and is without the article, it is normal for that noun to be qualitative. That is the case with the noun God here. In other words, John wants to indicate a quality of the Word. He is saying that the Word has the quality of god-ness. It is not enough to say "and the Word is divine." Rather his point is that, as Morris puts in his commentary: "All that may be said about God may fitly be said about the Word" (p. 76). He is also not saying that the Word and God are the same or identical. He is simply telling us that the Word has all the qualities of God. The NEB translation has "what God was the Word was." Another good translation is from the NET Bible: "and the Word was fully God."
To this we need to compare other statements about Christ in John's writings. Probably the most direct are three occasions in which the Jews tried to kill Jesus after claims He made. One is in 5:18, after He called God His Father (5:17). Another is 8:59, after Jesus had claimed (8:58) that, "before Abraham came into being, I am." In 10:30 Jesus says, "I and the Father are one." In addition to masculine and feminine gender, Greek has the neuter gender. "One" here is neuter so he is not talking about one person (that would be masculine) but one essence. The verb "are" is plural; "we are." After this statement, the Jews tried to stone him. They understood exactly what He meant. And in v. 33 they explain specifically that the reason for the stoning is that He made himself to be God.
We also can look at the New Testament teaching as a whole. Matthew 29:19 commands us to "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the NAME of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." Notice there is only ONE name, but three Persons. And Paul closes Second Corinthians with the prayer "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen." Making the three equal means both Christ and the Holy Spirit have to be God as far as essence is concerned. In Rev. 1:8 God is quoted as saying that He is Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. When we compare verse 17 we see Christ speaking, saying that He is the first and the last. In 2 Pet. 1:1 we read, "our God and Savior Jesus Christ." This is an example of the Greek principle of two substantives (God and Savior here) referring to the same thing because they are controlled by one article. See also Titus 2:13 for the same usage, again with Christ.
We simply cannot avoid taking theos as qualitative here. John is not talking about unity of person—the second declaration in 1:1b ruled this out. Rather, he is claiming that the Word and God have unity of essence. He puts theos first for emphasis; he is emphatically affirming the deity of the Word. So this third proposition in 1:1c is actually a strong support for the deity of Christ. In fact, according to Wallace (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 269), "The construction the evangelist chose to express this idea was the most concise way he could have stated that the Word was fully God and yet was distinct from the Father."
In this third proposition, we see the Word's Oneness with God with regard to essence.
All that John says here about the Word fits perfectly with the classic doctrine of the Trinity/Tri-unity. Even though the Tri-unity cannot be understood, and cannot really be illustrated, we must accept the biblical testimony as to the nature of the Godhead.