Friday, September 14, 2007

The Gospel of John

I am intrigued by the lengthy conversations that Jesus has with various individuals and groups. In the synoptic gospels, we receive the teachings of Jesus in blurbs and brief interactions; but in John, we get full-length views of entire conversations, and there is much to learn from these interactions. While the other Gospel authors, writing 25-30 years after the death of Jesus, set out to give an overview of Jesus’ life to specific audiences, John postpones his writing until much later, some 50-55 years after the death of Jesus. The “synoptic” gospels (from a Greek term which indicates a “looking together”) have basically the same point of view. They all talk about many of the same events and time periods in Jesus’ life. But most of the miracles and discourses that John includes are not found in the other three. The synoptics emphasize Christ’s Galileean ministry, but John talks mostly of His time in Jerusalem. The synoptics emphasize Christ’s parables, His teaching on the Kingdom of Heaven, and His eschatological (end-times) discourses. John emphasizes Jesus’ teaching on who He is, and the related sign-gifts which demonstrate His claims about His own Person. So why is John so different from the other three gospels? What specific purpose did he have in mind that the first three had not already accomplished?

There is a famous assessment of the difference between John’s gospel and the synoptics, made by Clement of Alexandria, an early Church father. He said, “Last of all John, perceiving that the bodily facts had been made plain in the gospel, being urged by his friends [and enemies], and inspired by the Spirit, wrote a spiritual gospel.” This idea that John was written to explain more fully the spiritual or theological truths to which the events of the synoptic gospels already testified is important. He wrote in 90 AD from Ephesus, or perhaps Patmos while in exile. His Gospel, as a testimony to Jesus Christ, is written to “the world” as a whole, rather than to specific groups of people; and his focus is on the relationship between the Father and Son, as the Son came to reveal through signs and wonders (miracles) the glory of the Father and thereby fulfill the mission for which the Father sent Him – that of Mediator. Think, “Out with the old and in with the new,” when you read John’s Gospel. John Calvin said this about the Gospel of John:

All of [the four canonical Gospel writers] had the same object in view, to point out Christ, the three former exhibit His body, but John exhibits His soul. Thus, this Gospel is a key to open the door for understanding the rest; for whoever shall understand the power of Christ, as it is here strikingly portrayed, will afterwards read with advantage what the others relate about the Redeemer who was manifested. John is believed to have written chiefly with the intention of maintaining the Divinity of Christ, in opposition to the wicked blasphemies of Ebion and Cerinthus; and this is asserted by Eusebius and Jerome, in accordance with the general opinion of the ancients. But whatever might be John’s motive for writing at that time, there can be no doubt whatever that God intended a far higher benefit for His Church. He therefore dictated to the Four Evangelists what they should write, in such a manner that, while each had his own part assigned him, the whole might be collected into one body; and it is our duty now to blend the Four by a mutual relation, so that we may permit ourselves to be taught by all of them, as by one mouth. As to John being placed the fourth in order, it was done on account of the time when he wrote, but in reading them, a different order would be more advantageous, which is, that when we wish to read in Matthew and the others, that Christ was given to us by the Father, we should first learn from John the purpose for which He was manifested.

So the synoptics tell us the “what” about the “who,” and John, the one whom Jesus loved, tells us the “why” about the “who.” John’s Gospel can be reduced to 2 sections, the Signs (chapters 1-13) and the Glory (chapters 14-21). First, John evidences many miracles to display that Jesus is who He claims to be (repeatedly through the “I AM” statements). Then John moves to the ministry of Jesus with His disciples focusing on revealing His glory and the glory of the One who sent Him, God the Father. Throughout the Gospel, Christ’s miracles are always wedded to teachings which reveal where faith comes from, how that faith perceives Christ, and what results it brings, in this life and the next. Picture John striving constantly to answer the question, “How faith can be wrought in a heart of darkness?”

The Gospel of John is normally recommended for new believers as a place to start their Bible study. It can be a very simple read. At the same time, however, John’s Gospel has intricacies that are often overlooked in a simple reading of it. John, unlike most other New Testament authors, uses challenging metaphors and deep imagery, often with multiple intentions. He is clearly learned regarding Judaism and the Old Testament.

For example, the structure of John’s Gospel is likened to an encounter with the tabernacle – both of which are symbolic of and fulfilled by the person and works of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 9:1-5). Thus, the major symbolic signs and discourses of Jesus, in John’s gospel, are presented in the same order that one would encounter the tabernacle furniture. I’ll note examples as we work through the Gospel.

It has been said that a child can paddle and splash safely in the waters of the Gospel of John, and an elephant can swim and may even drown in them. At the end, we read in John 20:30-31 that Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may (or may continue to) believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing (or continuing to believe) you may have life in His name.” Why did John write what he did – most of which had not yet been recorded in the other gospels? It was so that, in spite of the heresies that had already begun to arise, the true Church, God’s elect scattered throughout the world, would come to believe and continue to believe in the true Jesus and so have life. (Whether you see the preserving of true doctrine for the church or the evangelization of the world as John’s primary purpose has much to do with a very interesting textual variant in 20:31 – did John mean to imply, “that you might come to believe,” or “that you might keep on believing”? But either way, it is likely that both purposes were in mind to some degree.)

To summarize, we can say that John's gospel is all about who Jesus is, why He came, the nature of the salvation that He has actually accomplished for His sheep, and how one might experience and persevere in the salvation that Jesus provides. These themes are the perfect topics for elaborating on the purpose statement in John 20:31. So that’s John’s Gospel, and we’ll look at it verse-by-verse in the weeks to come.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Truth and...(last one)


I thought of one more "con" to use with the truth. Truth and Conscience. The word conscience is used several times in Scripture, but in regards to truth, the Apostle Paul has the best examples. Let's took a look at some of them.

"Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin and said, 'My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day'" (Acts 23:1). The human conscience confirms behavioral truth. Paul says, "Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them" (Romans 2:14-15). Paul says, "I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 9:1).

As these three examples show, conscience confirms the truth in thought, word, and deed.

Paul says, "Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience" (Romans 13:5). Here we are reminded that truth has consequences, but the consequence is not the only reason to follow the truth. Conscience plays a role in conviction and guilt in regards to the truth.

Paul says, "My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me" (1 Corinthians 4:4). This is a great verse. We learn that a person can have a clear conscience, yet be living outside the truth. There is no excuse, as God is the judge. His judgment is not based on our consciences, but on the truth. Therefore, the conscience can be a victim of lies.

Paul asks in 1 Corinthians 10:29, "Why should my freedom be judged by another's conscience?" This might be the feeling of every sinner. In a world where "self" governs, another rule, especially that determined by somebody else's "self," should not apply to me. Thus, we need an absolute standard of right and wrong, not determined by a human conscience. Thanks be to God that we have His word to serve as our guide.

Paul says, "By setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God" (2 Corinthians 4:2). Paul says, "They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience" (1 Timothy 3:9). Here we see that conscience can discern the truth and appreciate it. But lastly, Paul says, "Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron" (1 Timothy 4:2), and, "To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted" (Titus 1:15). The conscience can be corrupted and seared, which is what we see in the secular world today.

So truth and conscience are intertwined, but the conscience is not always right about the truth. The truth is unchanging, and is always true. Sin corrupts the conscience to be blinded to the truth, and all of us at one time were blind. The conscience, however, by the grace of God, can be enabled to discern truth; once this happens (regeneration), the conscience becomes a powerful tool in defending the truth in thought, word, and deed.