Why Study John’s Gospel?
In my childhood, my family was part of a Syrian Christian indigenous church called the Mar Thoma Church, Syriac for ‘St. Thomas Church.’ The public reading of a passage from one of the four Gospels was a part of liturgical services held on Sundays. The Gospels are referred to by the Greek term evangelion. Most preachers based their sermons on a verse or a passage from a lectionary. I cannot recall having heard a sermon from the Epistles or the Acts of the Apostles except for an occasional one on, for instance, Romans 12:1. Most members of such ‘mainstream’ churches may not mind that because, unfortunately, they are not born-again Christians.
At sixteen, I joined a fellowship of born-again Christians. I soon discovered that they were at another point on the spectrum! They emphasized the reading and study of New Testament epistles, particularly Pauline epistles, often at the expense of the four Gospels. Most of them had a shallow understanding of the Gospels. They thought that the Gospels provided elementary information about Jesus, his life and teachings, and about his passion and resurrection. According to them, the ‘real’ stuff begins with the Acts of the Apostles, the Day of Pentecost, to be precise. That’s where they find teachings on salvation, the Church, evangelism, the Holy Spirit, the Second Coming, etc. Therefore, some of them taught that all born-again Christians should focus on Acts and the Epistles, which were more edifying to the soul. What about the four Gospels? Well, those were considered apt for children’s Sunday School lessons!
Over the years, I learned to appreciate the beauty of the Gospels. One of the best things I got to do as a Christian minister was to teach the Gospel of John to seven batches of A-level students in an international school that followed the British curriculum. The curriculum was as rigorous as those followed at Master of Divinity level in many Asian seminaries. What a golden opportunity that was to do an in-depth study of John’s Gospel!
The Gospel’s primary theme is indeed the identity of Jesus Christ based on the evidence of His signs and claims. Who was Jesus? John’s focus on Jesus remained steadfast right from the first verse down to the last. He bore witness to his Lord unashamedly and unapologetically. But beyond that, John’s Gospel addressed the hot button issue in the early Church: the identity of God’s people. Who exactly were the people of God? Could ethnic Israel be considered God’s people just because they descended from Abraham? Was it only they who could believe in Jesus and obtain salvation? Should Gentiles first become Jews in order to gain access to the ‘Jewish’ Messiah? That John dealt with this issue, alongside Acts, Romans, and Galatians, might come as a surprise to many.
The Judaizers among Christians believed that only Jews could be God’s people. Therefore they insisted that all non-Jews should first become Jews before they placed their trust in Jesus Christ. The ‘circumcision’ debate in the first Church Council (Acts 15) wasn’t just about a ritual of initiation. It was about embracing Judaism before embracing the Messiah. The Apostle Paul dealt with this issue in his epistle to the Galatians. He went to the extent of calling down curses upon those Judaizers because he believed that their teaching threatened the core message of the gospel (Galatians 1:8-9).
The Apostle John too cut right through that thorny doctrinal issue. Right from the first chapter, the Apostle deftly handled the all-important questions regarding the identity of Jesus Christ and regarding the identity of God’s people. His carefully crafted narrative may not come across as hard-hitting as St. Paul’s rhetoric. But John’s Gospel does a thorough job, leaving no room for doubt in the mind of an honest student.
Do you think the question – Who are God’s people? – is irrelevant today? A theological viewpoint can shape world history. Two hundred years ago, a man came up with an answer to that question—a deviant one that went against the spirit of John’s Gospel. He concluded that ethnic Israel is still God’s people alongside the Church of Jesus Christ. Yet, millions of Christians joined his bandwagon, thanks to a ‘Study Bible’ that touted his views. That answer gave us nothing but insoluble geopolitical problems and bloodshed in West Asia. Much worse, it hardened the hearts of millions living in the 10-40 window against the Gospel. It is high time Christians reexamined one of their favourite notions about ethnic Israel. Does God indeed have two sets of people—Israel and the Church? The Gospel of John has a definite answer to that question. There is no room for ambiguity.
There is no point trying to get every Christian wrap his mind around Pauline rhetoric in Romans. True to Apostle Peter’s prediction, the weak among us might distort Paul’s lofty teachings (2 Peter 3:16). Turn to John. Beneath John’s eloquent multilayered narrative lies his unequivocal view on God’s people. Discover Jesus, the Messiah. Discover His People. Both these themes form the core of the Gospel. That’s a good reason to study John’s Gospel.
These Are Written So That …
… but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God … — John 20:31
The Gospel of John, also known as the Fourth Gospel, stands out among the four Gospels in the New Testament as the only one which has an explicit purpose statement.
The author stated that his book included a set of carefully selected signs that Jesus performed. He mentioned twice that Jesus had done numerous signs. It was not the author’s intention to document all those miraculous works; neither was such a task feasible.
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book … (John 20:30)
Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (21:25)Hereafter, implicitly stated references (such as 1:12) point to the Gospel of John.
Nevertheless, John stated that he had handpicked certain signs that Jesus did to craft his book. This indicates that the author was very meticulous and careful, as is evident in his work.
… but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (20:31)
Unlike the other Evangelists, John referred to Jesus’ miracles as signs because he believed that those miracles served a purpose. The first sign that we read in John’s Gospel is the turning of water into wine at a wedding in Cana. The series culminates in the raising of Lazarus, a man who was dead for four days. In addition to having a significance of their own, the signs proved the claims of Jesus—that He was the Christ, the Son of God.
The terms ‘Christ’ (or Messiah) and ‘Son of God’ are Jewish terms loaded with religious and political meaning. For centuries, the Jewish people waited expectantly to see the fulfilment of God’s promise to King David—one of David’s descendants would ascend his throne to rule the world with a rod of iron. Psalm 2, a coronation hymn written by David, prophetically describes this longing. Like all other Jewish kings, this promised king would be called the Messiah, God’s anointed. And, like all kings in the ‘Ancient Near East’ he would be called the Son of God. Kings in West Asia claimed they received a new birth from God at the time of their coronation, thus justifying their mandate to rule over their fellowmen. The Messiah was expected to unify all Israel and to liberate them from all oppressive foreign rulers.
Since John says in his purpose statement that he wanted his readers to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, it gives me the impression that this gospel was primarily written for the benefit of a Jewish audience. No other nation was expecting a Messiah at that time. Besides, no other people would have been able to make full sense of a book that is replete with references and allusions to the Hebrew scriptures. There are numerous explicit and implicit references to the Hebrew Bible in John’s Gospel. Apart from obvious references to Moses, the Law, Elijah, the serpent in the wilderness, manna, Abraham, et cetera, the book has quotations from the Psalms, Isaiah, and Zechariah. Allusions to events and themes outnumber direct quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures. For instance, who other than Jews could have understood the Baptist’s announcement regarding Jesus,
Behold, the lamb of God!, which was an obvious reference to their Passover lamb? (1:29; 1:36)
John’s primary mission was to make his Jewish readers consider the all-important question: Who indeed was the man Jesus? John desired to convince Jews that the man known as Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the Messiah, the Son of God, they were longing for. This Messiah called Jesus offered them something that other kings could never give them: eternal life.
John might have expected Jews in Judea and Galilee to read his work. But there are indications that his primary target was the Jewish Diaspora scattered all over the Roman empire. He knew that many Jews – both young and old – who lived outside Palestine had never visited the land of their ancestors. Therefore, John was careful to include crucial geographic and cultural details in his book for the benefit of all readers outside Palestine. For instance, here’s John’s description of the pool called Bethesda.
Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. (5:2, 3)
Jews in Palestine may not have benefitted from this description. Periodic visits to the Temple in Jerusalem was a part of their religious calendar. The details about the pool and its colonnades must have been included for the sake of that part of the Diaspora that had never seen the land of their fathers. This verse not only gives us information about the pool but it also indicates when this Gospel was written—when the pool and its colonnades were still standing! Certainly, that must have been before the year AD 70, when Jerusalem was sacked by Rome after an extended siege that lasted three-and-a-half years. An earlier date, as opposed to a late first-century date, gives us another important reason to trust the author’s testimony about Jesus.
John’s commitment to proclaim the gospel to his own people through the written word is commendable. However, John’s Gospel was not by any means restricted to a Jewish audience. John was mindful of a global audience. He believed that the Logos was
the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world (1:9). He was careful to let his readers know that God loved the world and that whosoever believed in Jesus would not perish (3:16). John included Jesus’ claim that he was the Light of the world (8:12; 9:5; 12:46). John also narrated an incident where a Samaritan woman perceived that Jesus was a ‘Jew’; but it was she and her people who, a little later, addressed Jesus as the Savior of the world! (4:42) John was also careful to explain certain Jewish customs and terminology for the sake of his Gentile readers. The italicized words in these verses illustrate this point.
Now there were set there six waterpots of stone, according to the manner of purification of the Jews, containing twenty or thirty gallons apiece. (2:6)
Then the woman of Samaria said to Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. (4:9)
Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to Him, “Rabboni!” (which is to say, Teacher). (20:16)
Closely linked to the central focus of this book on the identity of Jesus is the book’s pursuit of another vital question: Who are God’s people?
The physical descendants of Abraham claimed to be God’s chosen people. John was one of them. No one dared to question the privileged status that ethnic Israel enjoyed in matters related to God. The Gentiles were outcasts. They had no claim whatsoever to the sacred kingdom of the Messiah. But what effect did the ‘Jesus event’ have on this equation?
Apart from these twin cardinal purposes, the author of John’s Gospel had several other aims such as to encourage and unify the early Church, to explain the spiritual significance of Christian sacraments, to counter the claims of Gnostics, and to affirm the role and status of women disciples. We shall look at these themes in due course.
… but these are written so that … John wrote a book to convince Jews and the rest of the world about Jesus Christ. What are you doing to present the Gospel to your own people or countrymen in a language and format that they understand?
Who Wrote The ‘Fourth Gospel’?
How do we know whether John’s Gospel was written by John, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus Christ? Did John give a title to his work such as, “The Gospel According To John”? Certainly not!
Tradition tells us that the Fourth Gospel was written by John. Why should we believe this tradition? Most scholars claim that the book was not written by John and that it could have been written during the last decade of the first century or even as late as the second century. The apostle John couldn’t have written it, they say. That’s why they prefer to call it the Fourth Gospel.
Why should any of this debate concern an ‘ordinary’ Christian? It’s because several Christian doctrines about the Lord Jesus, his promised of eternal life, the Holy Spirit, and the Church rest on this book. Unless we know for sure that an eye-witness like the Apostle John wrote this Gospel, why should we even take this book seriously? Why would anyone risk their life following teachings ascribed to Jesus if the book itself was written several decades after Jesus had died?
Indeed, a book’s credibility rests on definitive information about its author. Thankfully, the Fourth Gospel makes a definite claim about its author. We find that claim in the last chapter that describes the disciples’ meeting with the risen Lord Jesus. It says,
Peter turned around and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved … This is the disciple who testifies about these things and has written these things … – John 21:20, 24
According to verse 21:24 cited above, it was just one person who
testified about Jesus and
wrote these things—the one referred to as
the disciple whom Jesus loved.
Therefore, I do not wish to consider the claim that a Johannine community of disciples authored this Gospel. Verse 21:24 does not say,
this disciple testified of these things and we wrote these down. It’s an individual who wrote it. There is no way one can doubt this statement without doubting all other claims in this book. Moreover, in the previous chapter, I had shown that this book must have been written before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.
Who was the beloved disciple?
Jesus loved all his disciples. Who was this disciple whom Jesus loved in a special way that he should be known as the one whom Jesus loved? Identifying the beloved disciple shouldn’t be too difficult.
The beloved disciple was certainly one among the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ. It is mentioned that he was with Jesus during the Last Supper,
leaning on Jesus’ bosom (13:23). Following Peter’s prompting, the beloved disciple asked Jesus about the betrayer,
Lord, who is it? (13:25)
This beloved disciple was at the foot of the cross with Mary, the mother of Jesus. Before his death, Jesus entrusted his mother to the care of his beloved disciple.
From that hour, that disciple took her unto his own home (19:26-27). Before heading home, he had indeed witnessed the death of Jesus and the piercing of Jesus’ side.
One of the soldiers, however, pierced his side with a spear, and blood and water immediately flowed from it.
This is the statement of one who actually saw it — and his statement may be relied on, and he knows that he is speaking the truth — and it is given in order that you also may be convinced. (19:34-35 OEB)
The beloved disciple certainly had a home in Jerusalem. He was with Peter in that house on Easter morning. Mary, the mother of Jesus must have been there with them. No wonder Mary Magdalene ran to that house after noticing that Jesus’ tomb had been opened. She informed the beloved disciple and the apostle Peter that the stone had been moved from the entrance to the tomb (20:2). As the trio ran to the tomb, the beloved disciple outran Peter but did not enter the tomb (20:4). By now, you might have noticed that the beloved disciple was often found in the company of Peter.
The beloved disciple was one of the seven disciples who met with the risen Lord Jesus near the Sea of Galilee. Who were the seven who had gone fishing that morning? Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples (21:2).
The beloved disciple and Peter were in the same boat. It was the beloved disciple who identified the ‘Stranger’ on the beach and promptly informed his friend Peter,
It is the Lord (21:7). After receiving this crucial piece of information, Peter fastened his outer garment around him and jumped into the water. He was apparently in a hurry to meet with the Lord.
The beloved disciple who authored this gospel went on to describe how Jesus restored his friend Peter. Mind you, Matthew, Mark and Luke did not mention this in their accounts. They just described how Peter betrayed his Master and how he wept bitterly after being caught ‘red-handed’ by Jesus. Even though the beloved disciple was about to conclude his gospel after stating its purpose in 20:30-31, he continued right on to include an account of Peter’s restoration.
After Jesus restored Peter, He predicted that Peter would die as a martyr in his old age (21:18). Jesus then said to Peter,
Follow Me (21:19) Jesus’ prediction should’ve encouraged Peter. First, his death was to happen in his old age. Second, it was Jesus’ way of assuring Peter, You will not deny me again. You’ll indeed be faithful unto death. But it seems that Peter was a little disturbed after hearing those words. He didn’t know what to say. Peter turned and saw his friend—the beloved disciple! He then asked Jesus,
Lord, what about this man? Jesus answered,
If it is my will that he should wait until I come, what has that to do with you? Follow me yourself. (OEB)
The postscript to this gospel follows that statement. It not only tells us who wrote the gospel but also gives us a strong hint regarding the identity of the beloved disciple.
So the report spread among his followers that that disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say that he was not to die, but said
If it is my will that he should wait until I come, what has that to do with you?
It is this disciple who states these things, and who recorded them; and we know that his statement is true.
We need to ask ourselves a few questions. Which disciple’s life could sustain a rumour that he would never die? There’s just one among the Twelve whose long life could have fostered such as rumour. That must be the apostle John, son of Zebedee. The author wished to dismiss that rumour. That’s why he included those lines there.
What about the second half of the verse—
and we know that his statement is true? It might appear to be a certification by a group of editors who certified the truthfulness of John’s testimony. There are those who think that the
we refers to John and his close associates, citing the
famous passageCited by George R. Beasley-Murray, John, 2nd edn., Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000), p. 413. in the Muratorian Canon, according to which:
The fourth of the Gospels is that of John, [one] of the disciples. To his fellow disciples and bishops, who had been urging him [to write], he said, ‘Fast with me from today to three days, and what will be revealed to each one let us tell it to one another.’ In the same night it was revealed to Andrew, [one] of the apostles, that John should write down all things in his own name while all of them should review it.Bruce Metzger’s English translation of The Muratorian Fragment. Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987) pp. 305-7.
Regarding our observation that the beloved disciple was close to Peter, we should now ask, ‘Was the apostle John indeed close to apostle Peter?’ Of course, he was!
Go through Luke’s account of the early church’s mission in Judea and Samaria to see what a good team they made! They were prayer partners who prayed together. On their way to the Temple at the hour of prayer, they healed a beggar who was lame from birth. They preached the gospel to those who gathered around them to see the beggar on his feet. They were arrested twice, beaten and even imprisoned! Much later, Peter and John were sent by the Church at Jerusalem to Samaria to help Philip the evangelist. They prayed over new believers and God poured out His Spirit on them. Indeed, they were friends and partners in ministry (Acts 3:1, 3-4, 11; 4:1, 7, 19; 8:17).
Is this an eye-witness account?
Thus far, we saw that the Fourth Gospel was written by the beloved disciple, none other than the apostle John. That the writer of this Gospel was an eye-witness to Jesus’ glory strengthens the case for John’s authorship.
The disciples indeed saw the glory of Jesus through his miracles (2:11). But on one occasion Jesus revealed his glory in a unique way. That happened on the Mount of Transfiguration. Only Peter, James, and John were with Jesus on that Mount. James did not leave a written record of his experience on the Mount. But Peter referred to that glorious event in his second epistle.
For we did not follow cleverly concocted fables when we made known to you the power and return of our Lord Jesus Christ; no, we were eyewitnesses of his grandeur.
For he received honor and glory from God the Father, when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory:
This is my dear Son, in whom I am delighted.
When this voice was conveyed from heaven, we ourselves heard it, for we were with him on the holy mountain.
(2 Peter 1:16-18 NET)
The third man with Jesus was the apostle John. Did the author of the Fourth Gospel claim that he had seen Jesus’ glory? Indeed, he did.
Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We saw his glory - the glory of the one and only, full of grace and truth, who came from the Father. (1:14 NET)
Yet, there are some who claim that one ‘John the Elder’ wrote the Fourth Gospel towards the end of the first century. That claim goes against our findings in this Gospel. Was that obscure presbyter an eye-witness to Jesus’ glory? Never! I wish these scholars would spend more time reading their Bibles. Scholarship that focuses on human opinion at the expense of textual evidence can easily be overturned.
I have shown you that the author of the Fourth Gospel had to be an apostle who witnessed the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. The evidence in the text supports such a view. Who but an eye-witness could include minute details as these found in this Gospel?
- There were six stone water jars in the house where Jesus turned water into wine; each of those could hold two to three measures of water (2:6 YLT)
- The pool called Bethzada had five covered walkways (5:3)
- Did you know that the five loaves multiplied by Jesus were barley loaves? (6:13)
- The disciples were three or four miles away from the shore when they saw Jesus approaching them, walking on water (6:19)
- Seven disciples had gone fishing in Galilee after Jesus’ resurrection. The author was able to recollect the names of five of them (21:2)
- Jesus ordered them to cast their net on the right side of the boat (21:6)
- The disciples caught a hundred and fifty three large fish that morning (21:11)
- The net did not tear even though they had a miraculous catch! (21:11)
- The disciples’ boat was just a hundred yards away from the land when they realized that the man on the shore was Jesus. (21:8)
- When they landed, they saw a charcoal fire with one fish on it and bread (21:9)
- That was Jesus’ third appearance before his disciples after his resurrection (21:14)
If that’s not impressive enough, look at the precise manner in which John wrote about days and times.
- On the next day John saw Jesus … (1:29)
- Again, the next day John was standing there … (1:35)
- And the hour was about the tenth [4 pm] … (1:39 YLT)
- On the next day he wanted to set out to Galilee … (1:43)
- Now on the third day there was a wedding … (2:1)
- [Jesus] stayed in [Samaria] two days … (4:40, 43)
- On the last day of the feast … (7:37)
- [After hearing about Lazarus] he remained in the place … for two more days … (11:6)
- … Lazarus had been in the tomb four days already (11:17)
- … six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany (12:1)
- … eight days later the disciples were again together … (20:26)
This Gospel is certainly an eye-witness account. How else could a writer have remembered such details?
Finally, the author was careful to name a disciple such as Nathanael and the seeker called Nicodemus. He recorded the only available speech of apostle Thomas.
In spite of all this, two prominent characters in the Gospel remained anonymous, as if by choice. John called himself the beloved disciple as indeed he was. The mother of Jesus too is never named. It seems that both Mary and John – ‘mother’ and ‘son’ – decided to remain anonymous to let the focus of the book remain on their Lord. This Gospel is not about John. It’s his testimony about God who appeared in human flesh, the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Key To John’s Gospel
The first eighteen verses of John’s Gospel serve as a prologue to the book. It offers us a preview of the Gospel. In other words, discovering the theme of the prologue will lead us to the theme of the whole book. An examination of key terms and the structure of the prologue will reveal its theme.
In ancient times, books and epistles were mostly meant to be read out aloud. Writers employed several literary devices to capture the attention of listeners and to drive home their point. These devices included repetition of key words and themes, repetition of entire lines, symmetrical arrangement of lines or themes, alliteration, rhyming sounds and rhythms. One of the common devices used in the holy Scriptures is a reverse symmetry known as chiasmus, after the Greek alphabet X, chi.
There is a definite progression of thought in a chiasmus towards a central thought, after which there is a symmetrical regression to match previously mentioned concepts. The central message of a passage is found at the central pivot of the chiasmus.
Here is an example of a chiasmus. The text is from Matthew 13:13-18. The central idea of this passage is Israel’s deliberate refusal to see God’s hand at work through his Messiah. Click/touch the image to see it enlarged.Source: https://bit.ly/3eJU7kN
Several scholars have come up with their version of the structure of the prologue to John’s Gospel. Here is my adaptation of Culpepper’s sentence diagram. Click/touch the image to see it enlarged.
The symmetry of this passage is obvious from this diagram. The opening four verses correspond to the last three verses. These verses are about the Logos, the eternal Word of God who revealed God to humanity much better than the words of Mosaic Law did. Jesus, the ‘only begotten God,’ revealed God in whose bosom the former rested. Thus, God is portrayed as a plurality of Persons in one Godhead. There was also an anticipation of the works of ‘darkness’ that would try in vain to jeopardize the works of God’s true Light.
Verses 6 to 8 and its corresponding passage, verse 15, are about John the Baptist, whose witness to the Light is portrayed as an integral part of the Christ-event. There are Christians who think that John the Baptist belonged to the Old Testament era! This passage tells us otherwise. Verses 9-10 and their corresponding verse 14 declare the arrival of the true Light into this world in human flesh.
Moving towards the core of this chiasmus, we see how the Christ-event redefined the notion of the ‘people of God.’ There was a time when ethnic Israel was “God’s own” people. It was sufficient to be a descendant of Abraham to be a part of that commonwealth. Not any more! The game of ‘flesh’ was over! Only those who
received Jesus – irrespective of their race – would be given the exclusive right to become children of God! (The term
receive must be interpreted in context; not according to any modern interpretation that talks of
receiving Jesus in your heart.)
The verses are summarised below in order to bring their themes to the fore:
We see that the prologue to John’s gospel is focussed on the identity of Jesus as the Divine Word, the identity of God’s people, the credibility of the Baptist’s witness to God’s ultimate revelation in Jesus, and on the incarnation of the Word. In fact, these themes run through this book. The first two themes are the most prominent.
Wherever Jesus went, the crowds that followed him or listened to his teaching got split into two groups—a large group of Jews who refused to believe in Jesus, claiming to be
Abraham’s descendants; and a smaller group of people who believed in Jesus. The apostle John calls the former group
Jews. The latter group too were from the same Jewish background. But John refuses to call them
Jews. He called them
disciples or the
flock that belonged to Jesus, or the
branches of the true vine. Even John did not wish to be called a
Jews; he wanted his readers to know him as
the disciple whom Jesus loved.
John certainly did not think that God had two sets of people - Israel and the Church! Such a concept is alien to this gospel! If God has two sets of people, John 1:10-13 does not make any sense. Again, if there were two sets of “God’s own people,” why did Jesus tell his stubborn Jewish opponents,
You are from your father the devil? (8:44) No one can be
children of God and
children of the devil at the same time. That idea is central to John’s Gospel!
Therefore, this Gospel, as much as it portrays Jesus as the Messiah, snatches the title of “God’s own people” from ethnic Israel and bestows it upon the disciples of Jesus Christ. The fledgling church, persecuted from town to town by zealous Jews, needed the assurance that they were “God’s own people.” The church was at the receiving end. And, unlike today, John did not have to worry about accusations of being “anti-Semitic.”
These two themes – the identity of Jesus as the divine WORD of God, and the identity of Jesus’ disciples as God’s people – are central to the Fourth Gospel. These twin themes are also central to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Any one who accepts the Gospel’s claim regarding Jesus Christ must accept God’s new definition of “His people.” Believing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God without accepting His definition of “God’s own people” goes against the grain of the Gospel. It is that grievous heresy that created a group called Judaizers in the first century church. They insisted Gentiles first become Jews before accepting the Jewish Messiah. They were not prepared to accept uncircumcised Gentile Christians as a people on par with them. Circumcision per se was not the problem. Their underlying belief about who got to be part of God’s people was problematic. They failed to understand the futility of ethnicity. A new world order came into being with the arrival of Jesus. The lid over a ‘mystery’ was blown away. God says He can raise up
descendants for Abraham from mere stones! (Matthew 3:9)
Some of the apostle Paul’s epistles – Romans and Galatians for instance – were written to counter Judaizers and their teachings. Paul went to the extent of cursing those who preached any other
gospel (Gal 1:8-9). Such was the gravity of the issue. Luke, the beloved physician, showed the church through his Acts of the Apostles how God did not discriminate against any new believer. God liberally poured out His Spirit on all who turned to Jesus Christ—Jews, Samaritans, God-fearers, and Gentiles. James addressed the church as the
twelve tribes (of Israel) even when no one knew where the ethnic tribes had disappeared.
John’s Gospel indeed has other important themes, as suggested by the themes of light, darkness, witness, and not the least, the incarnation of the Word in human flesh. The author might have been particularly interested in countering Gnostic claims that Jesus could not have come in the flesh. We shall examine these in due time.
Peace be upon God’s Israel that boasts in the cross of Jesus Christ! (Galatians 6:14-16)
The ‘Hour’ Of Victory
The first four books of the New Testament on the life of Jesus are called Gospels for a reason. They are not biographies. These four books do not include a lot of information that regular biographies are made up of. In fact, the latter half of Matthew, Mark, and Luke describes the last journey Jesus undertook—from Caesarea Philippi to Jerusalem. The evangelists focussed on Jesus’ resolute march to his cross!
The evangelists wished to highlight Jesus’ sufferings, death, and his resurrection. Their goal was to announce the good news that Jesus had conquered sin and death to reign as Messiah, and to redeem who trusted Him!
Although all four accounts of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry are similar enough to be called “Gospels,” the first three – Matthew, Mark and Luke – are known as Synoptic Gospels. The term synoptic indicates a similarity in perspective. John’s perspective, however, is unique in more than one way.
One of the ways John is different from the Synoptic Gospels is the way it introduces the theme of the Cross. The Synoptic Gospels introduce this theme by citing Jesus’ prediction of his own death after Peter confessed his faith at Caesarea Philippi (Matthew 16:21 Mark 8:31, Luke 9:22). Until then, the three evangelists remained more or less silent about it. Luke made a fleeting reference to the "sword" that would pierce Mary’s heart (Luke 2:35). In John’s Gospel, however, the shadow of the Cross looms large across the book. Right in the first chapter, we read of John the Baptist’s introduction of Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29, 36).
In chapter three, John included Jesus’ prediction of his own death and the manner in which he would die.
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life. … (3:14-15 ESV)
To “be lifted up” was a euphemism for crucifixion.
Going beyond the inclusion of such predictions, John set a clock ticking in his Gospel! You can almost hear it, if you care to read the book in one sitting. There are frequent references to an “hour” that was fast approaching.
On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee … Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”
And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” (2:1-4 ESV)
Was Jesus’ reference to an
hour just a casual statement about some auspicious time to intervene and solve the problem of insufficient wine? As we read on, we get a clearer picture of
So they [
the Jews] were seeking to arrest him [Jesus], but no one laid a hand on him, because his hour had not yet come. (7:30 ESV)
These words he [Jesus] spoke in the treasury, as he taught in the temple; but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come. (8:20 ESV)
Surely, John was referring to “the hour” of Jesus’ arrest, trial and sufferings. But that’s not all. John wrote his gospel to a certain drumbeat that did not just warn of impending danger to Jesus’ life but one that promised his readers a new hope. The “hour” of Jesus’ passion, in the Messiah’s own words, was the hour of victory over the
the ruler of this world.
Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.
Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”
The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”
Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:27-32 ESV)
Certainly, the hour was the hour of Jesus’ suffering and of subsequent glorification. The hour was at hand! Observe the context of Jesus’ declaration of that momentous truth! Jesus had just entered the city of Jerusalem. Hundreds of people in Jerusalem heard that Jesus had raised Lazarus four days after he was buried (12:9, 12). They were convinced that Jesus was the Messiah who would restore their national fortunes. When they saw him approach Jerusalem, they spread their clothes on the streets to welcome him into the royal city. They shouted, “Hosanna! [Save us!] Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” Even a few Greeks sought his audience. That’s when he dropped the bomb!
Contrary to people’s expectations, Jesus wasn’t going to topple any ruler or cast out the occupying Roman forces. He was engaged in a spiritual battle on a higher plane to cast the devil out of his self-assumed office – “the ruler of this world.” He wanted to destroy the prison gates that kept humanity in slavery to sin, and lead them out into the Kingdom of Heaven. Of course, Jesus would eventually be exalted and glorified as the King of kings. An era of a new universal order of worship that is not restricted to a holy city or holy place would be ushered in (4:23). Even the dead would hear the voice of the Son of Man and be raised! (5:25, 28). However, first, he had to descend into the valley of shadow of death along the Way of the Cross. His prediction of an imminent crucifixion – “when I am lifted up from the earth” – might have shocked his disciples.
To prepare his disciples for the tumultuous days ahead of them, Jesus spent some quality time with them. A detailed account of the private time spent with them is found only in John’s Gospel. We read about it in chapters thirteen through sixteen.
Now before the feast of the passover, Jesus knowing that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto his Father, having loved his own that were in the world, he loved them unto the end. (13:1 ASV)
Jesus had a few important things to say about “the hour”—things pertaining not just to him but also to his disciples.
I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. … But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you. (16:2-4 ESV)
Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. … In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. (16:32-33 ESV)
When his hour of sufferings came, Jesus faced it boldly. After accomplishing everything the Father had assigned to him, he faced death head-on.
When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (19:30 ESV)
John is the only Gospel that bears witness to those words.
John’s purpose in writing this Gospel was to lead readers to eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus made eternal life available to us through his death and resurrection. Jesus became the “lamb of God” to take away our sins. Even after His glorification, the King of kings continues to be known as “the Lamb” (cf Revelation 5:12). Jesus’ redemptive work on the cross is central to the Gospel. It should be accorded the center stage in our worship, service, and all areas of our life.
A Unique Witness
Compared to the three Synoptic Gospels, John’s Gospel has several distinctive features. At a rather pedestrian level, we might notice incidents or teachings mentioned just in John. At a higher level, if we persist in careful observation, we can observe a few remarkable differences.
John’s Gospel starts with a bang. John was forthright about his intention to present Jesus Christ as Messiah and God. He went about that task right from the very first verse. Like Mark, John did not include a ‘birth narrative.’ Nothing was mentioned about Jesus’ birth or childhood except for the declaration that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14). John wished to highlight Jesus’ preexistence as God, along with Yahweh, in one Godhead.
Certain miraculous signs recorded in John are unique in that those are not found in the Synoptic Gospels. For instance, the first miracle at Cana where Jesus turned water into wine; the healing of the invalid man at Bethzada; the healing of the man born blind, and his subsequent trial by Jewish leaders; the raising of Lazarus; and, of course, the account of the miraculous catch of fish at Galilee after Jesus’ resurrection.
Going beyond a plain narration of Jesus’ miraculous signs, John recorded His “I AM” sayings. Corresponding to the main seven signs that Jesus did, there are seven “I AM” sayings. John wanted his readers to connect the dots and discover Jesus as God and Messiah.
- I am the Bread of Life. (6:35)
- I am the Light of the world. (8:12)
- I am the good Shepherd. (10:11)
- I am the Door for the sheep. (10:7, 9)
- I am the resurrection and the life. (11:25)
- I am the Way, the Truth, the Life. (14:6)
- I am the true Vine. (15:1)
Apart from uttering these predicated “I AM” statements, Jesus appropriated the much revered divine Name – “I AM” – through a non-predicated sentence: “I tell you the solemn truth, before Abraham came into existence, I am!” (8:58 NET) This invited the wrath of his Jewish audience. They picked up stones to kill Him. They did not fail to notice that Jesus had claimed to be the Yah (I am that I am) they worshipped.
Careful readers might also note that John included several instances of Jesus ministering to individuals. He is not presented as a Rabbi who was always surrounded by hundreds of people. Jesus excelled in personal outreach. He was the master Fisher of Men. While interacting with individuals, Jesus’ goal was to reveal Himself to them and lead them to life-giving faith. We read of Jesus’ interaction with Simon, Nathanael, Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the man who was born blind, a woman who was caught in adultery, Mary Magdalene, Thomas, and, Peter. It is by no accident that John recorded Jesus’ interaction with both men and women; with Jews and Samaritans; and, with learned Rabbis and unschooled fishermen.
In order to lead some of these individuals to faith, Jesus chose to reveal their secrets. Jesus knew Simon’s name and that of his father. He gave Simon a new name. Nathanael was quick to believe after his secret was revealed. The Samaritan woman went about her town shouting, “Come and see someone who has told me everything that I have done. Can he be the Christ?” Thomas might have been moved by Jesus’ supernatural knowledge about a doubt he had expressed in private about Jesus’ resurrection (4:29 OEB). The gift of prophecy or word of knowledge still remains one of the most powerful tools than can pry open doubting hearts to trust in Jesus.
Staying focussed on eliciting a faith-response from his readers, John recorded faith-confessions of several individuals. While the Synoptic Gospels mention Peter’s famous confession (Matthew 16:16; Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20), John included the confessions of Andrew, Philip, Nathanael, the Samaritans, Peter, Martha, and Thomas.
Andrew to Simon:
“We have found the Messiah!” (1:41)
Philip to Nathanael:
“We have found him of whom Moses wrote in the law, and of whom the prophets also wrote — Jesus of Nazareth, Joseph’s son!” (1:45)
“Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel!” (1:49)
“… We have heard for ourselves, and we know that this one really is the Savior of the world.” (4:42)
“Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God!” (6:68-69)
The man born blind:
“Lord, I believe,” and he worshipped Him. (9:38)
“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God who comes into the world.” (11:27)
“My Lord and my God!” (20:28)
Thomas, who’s silent in the Synoptic Gospels, makes a bold confession in John. After hearing that confession, Jesus said, “Is it because you have seen me that you have believed? Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed!” (20:29)
The apostles saw and believed. The readers of this gospel who echo Thomas’ confession are indeed blessed because they get to believe in Jesus without having seen him in the flesh! John’s Gospel, thus, bears sterling witness to Jesus and stays true to its purpose of leading readers to Christ.
Where Was Jesus From?
We might get the impression that the Gospel of John portrayed the man Jesus as a Judaean although the author was aware that His Master had come from Nazareth, in Galilee. That’s very different from how the Synoptic Gospels presented Jesus.
In the Synoptics, Galilee was the arena where Jesus’ public ministry thrived. His visits to Judea and Jerusalem are mentioned a few times. In John’s Gospel, it’s the other way round. Jesus, for the most part, is seen in Judea. He went to Galilee a few times. Jesus was at a wedding in Cana (2:1-11). Later, he journeyed from Judea via Samaria to Galilee (4:1-4). The Feeding of the Five Thousand happened in Galilee (ch 6). After he returned to Jerusalem to participate in the Feast of the Tabernacles (7:10ff) he remained in Judea till the end.
One of Jesus’ journeys to Galilee, recorded in John 4:43-54, is quite interesting. John emphasised that journey by mentioning it several times in that small passage (v. 43, 45, 46, 47 and 54). That surely must have been a significant journey! More so because John appears to portray Judea as Jesus’ native province where He wasn’t honored. Notice how the Galileans welcomed Him!
After the two days he departed from there to Galilee. (For Jesus himself had testified that a prophet has no honor in his own country.) So when he came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him because they had seen all the things he had done in Jerusalem at the feast (for they themselves had gone to the feast). (v. 43-45 NET)
But wasn’t Jesus a Galilean? Indeed, Jesus had grown up in his mother’s hometown, Nazareth of Galilee. His disciples knew Him as Jesus of Nazareth (1:45). Nathanael even wondered, out aloud, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
The Jews of that time did not know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, David’s town, as a rightful heir to David’s throne. They assumed that Jesus was a Galilean. John cites the words of some people in Jerusalem:
When they heard these words, some of the crowd began to say, “This really is the Prophet!”
Others said, “This is the Christ!”
But still others said, “No, for the Christ doesn’t come from Galilee, does he? Don’t the scriptures say that the Christ is a descendant of David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?”
So there was a division in the crowd because of Jesus. (7:40-43 NET)
John did not feel a need to write a note of explanation. The irony of these statements is self-evident to readers. Jesus’ opponents’ statements, arising from their ignorance, reinforced John’s overall argument that Jesus was the Christ.
There were also people who believed that the true origin of the Messiah should be a mystery. John recorded their thoughts as well.
Can it be that the authorities really know that this is the Christ? But we know where this man comes from, and when the Christ appears, no one will know where he comes from. (7:26-27)
These men thought that they knew where Jesus was from! But they did not! Again, by leaving their claims uncontested, John lets the readers decide for themselves.
Where was Jesus from? From Galilee? Or, was he from Bethlehem? He was certainly born in Bethlehem. Thus, His birth fulfilled Micah’s prophecy (Micah 5:1-2). He was a Galilean, and thereby, he fulfilled another prophecy (Matt 2:23). He was also from Africa—Egypt, to be precise! (Hosea 11:1). All these facts are important.
I think Jesus’ reply to a few presumptive Jews points to a higher reality.
So Jesus proclaimed, as he taught in the temple, “You know me, and you know where I come from. But I have not come of my own accord. He who sent me is true, and Him you do not know. I know Him, for I come from Him, and He sent me.” (7:28-29)
“I know where I came from and where I am going. But you people do not know where I came from or where I am going.” (8:14)
Where was Jesus from? He was from heaven, where His Father has a mansion with many rooms (14:2). He existed from the beginning with God. He was before Abraham, the revered Patriarch (8:58). Jesus was always conscious of the fact that the Father had sent Him.
By consenting to be born as a human in Bethlehem, to be a refugee in Egypt, and to be known as a native of Nazareth, the glorious Son of God elevated various human conditions to a wholly new level. Those who reject Jesus can squabble about his real hometown.
On the other hand, those who believe in Jesus must learn to shun vainglory about their origins and circumstances. Why would any one who knows Jesus, the Heavenly One, ever take pride in fleeting earthly glory—their exclusive homes or space-age cities or high income countries? Even nationalism and extreme patriotism are forms of idolatry! Similarly, from now on, why should Christians from humble circumstances be ashamed of their homes, their lineage, their hometowns or their backward countries, when they know that the Lord Jesus hailed from despicable Nazareth?
In The Beginning …
In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God. The Word was God. — John 1:1
The Fourth Gospel opens with an astounding claim about the Logos, the Word. The implications of this statement are significant because John wrote this book to convince Jews that Jesus was indeed the Messiah (20:31).
The Greek version, rendered literally, reads In the beginning was the Logos …. And what are the opening words of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible?:
In the beginning God ….
John was certainly elevating his Gospel to the stature of the Torah. There’s more to it. Just as the Hebrew Torah marks the beginning of a special revelation of God to mankind, so does the Gospel of John announce the arrival of a new and fuller revelation of God through the the Logos.
The phrase – In the beginning – creates a sense of expectation. The author was about to announce the beginning of something new and wonderful. The new covenant in Jesus Christ was essentially a continuation of what God had done in the past. At the same time, there was a discontinuity too. God was about to discard the shadows of Old Testament symbolism and introduce the reality to which those symbols pointed. The old ways would fade away. The newness of life through Jesus Christ is now available to everyone who believes—to Jews and Gentiles! The true Vine, the good Shepherd, a new unified flock, the fulfilment of the rivers of Living Water that Ezekiel saw, the true light, a new commandment, a new Comforter, and a new mission. The evangelist was poised to introduce all these and more to his people. Why would he choose an opening line other than that of the sacred Torah? In the beginning …
John wanted his Jewish readers to sit up and take notice of the man called Jesus, presented here as the Logos. What all claims did John make about this Logos?
- Just as God Almighty is from the beginning, indicating His eternal preexistence, the Logos too is eternal.
- The Jews knew that everything came into existence through God’s word. John wanted them to know that that Word, was not merely some impersonal creative command that proceeded from God. The Word was a Person who was co-eternal with God, and co-equal with God.
… through Him all things came into being, and nothing came into being apart from Him(v.3).
- The Word was not merely instrumental in creation. He had intrinsic Life in Him. Like God, the Word was indeed the source of Life. In him was life; and the life was the light of men (v.4).
- If the divine Logos was a Person with God, it would certainly imply that there is a certain plurality within God. There is indeed just one Godhead. In the one Godhead, there are more than one Person.
John knew that the greatest stumbling block in the path of Jews was the Christian claim that Jesus was divine. By addressing Jesus’ divinity at the outset, the apostle John took the bull by its horns. He knew that Jews believed two ‘things’ emanated from God—His word and His breath (spirit, in Hebrew, is referred to as ruach, literally ‘breath’). Moreover, to the Jews, the ‘Word of God’ was not an abstract thing; it resided in their sacred scrolls, the Scriptures. The scriptures were the ultimate repository of Jewish wisdom. As Moses said,
Look! I have taught you statutes and ordinances … So be sure to do them, because this will testify of your wise understanding to the people who will learn of all these statutes and say, ‘Indeed, this great nation is a very wise people.’ (Deuteronomy4:5-6)
The Greek word Logos captures the notion of this ancient, God-given wisdom or learning. John’s opening statement, in effect, meant this: “This Logos which you think is your Scriptures … was in the beginning with God; He was God alongside God.”
John’s commitment to make the gospel intelligible to the Jews made him express the good news in their idiom. A Jew couldn’t deny that the
Word of God was distinct from God. But to believe that that Word was a divine Person who became flesh and dwelt among them required faith. It wasn’t blind faith though. There were undeniable signs that John was prepared to write about. All who took the step of faith were rewarded with a right to become children of God (v.12). Those who refused to believe in Jesus opted to remain children of the devil (8:44).
Like John, all Christians are called to be Christ’s witnesses. Are we bold enough to publish the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ? Are we passionate enough to make the Gospel intelligible to our friends and neighbors?
The Logos … The True Light
That was the true light which gives light to every man … — John 1:9
In the first eighteen verses of his Gospel, the apostle John used rich imagery to portray the person of Jesus Christ. After describing Jesus as the eternal, divine, personal Logos (Word) – as opposed to the written Hebrew scriptures that testified of Him – John used a second image that was already popular among Jews. Jesus was the true Light. This is the first of a series of imagery in which John used the adjective ‘true’ or ‘good’ to emphasize the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.
Like the Logos, the motif of ‘light’ too would have struck a chord with his Jewish readers. How were the Jews acquainted with the motif of ‘light’?
One of the first things God did after creating the heavens and the earth was to command,
Let there be light! This is probably why Jews believed that light was extraneous to this universe. It was something that God sent into the dark cosmos. Light symbolized God’s presence, life, salvation, joy, and everything that was good.
The Lord is my light and my salvation;
Whom shall I fear? (Ps 27:1)
Jews considered their Torah and the rest of their scriptures as light because it was received from God as divine revelation.
Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” (Ps 119:105)
For the commandments are like a lamp, instruction is like a light … (Prov 6:23a)
More specifically, light represented specific divine revelation that provided guidance to individuals or to a nation.
O send out Your light and Your truth, let them lead me;
Let them bring me to Your holy hill
And to Your dwelling places. (Ps 43:3)
When John refers to the divine Logos as the true light, we must see this description in relation to the light that the Jews already had. The Hebrew scriptures were indeed unique; those were the only divinely inspired scriptures in the whole world. But here was an opportunity to experience God’s ultimate self-revelation firsthand at close quarters. In other words, a life-giving encounter with the God who chose to appear in flesh and blood – a tangible ‘God with us’ – in fulfillment of scriptural predictions is what makes the study of scriptures worthwhile. The Logos was that true Light that came into the world in flesh and blood.
John makes a direct comparison between Jesus – the Logos in flesh – and the Law that came through Moses:
For the Law was given through Moses;
grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. (1:17)
This direct comparison helps us understand why John chose the word Logos to describe the divine Person who came in human flesh as Jesus. The Logos, who was known as Jesus after his birth, was the ultimate revelation of God (cf
God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. Hebrews 1:1-2 NASB). John went on to explain why Jesus was uniquely suited to reveal God to humanity.
No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us. (1:18 NLT)
That explains it well. Who else can reveal God to us other than Jesus who was in the bosom of the Father? The result is unique: Those who saw Jesus saw God. Those who touched Jesus touched God. Those who received Jesus received God.
Philip said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? ” (John 14:8-9 NASB)
What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life— and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us” (1 John 1:1-2 NASB)
The Jews of those days were careful to study their scriptures. For some reason, in spite of all their study, they could not understand that their scriptures pointed to Jesus. Even Jesus observed this anomaly. Their unbelief was not caused by a lack of evidence; their stubbornness ruined them. To the Jews who refused to believe His claims, Jesus said,
You don’t have His [God’s] word living in you, because you don’t believe the One He sent.
You pore over the Scriptures because you think you have eternal life in them, yet they testify about Me.
And you are not willing to come to Me so that you may have life. (5:38-40 HCSB)
To such Jews, John had a reminder: Jesus was not just any light. He was the true light! Become His disciples and receive eternal life from Him!
To those outside the Jewish fold, John had an important message: Jesus, the true light, is not just for the Jews. Jesus is the true light which gives light to every man. Now that the true light has come, why would anyone try to find God using the feeble candlelight of human religion, human philosophies, mysticism, and other endeavours?
The Victorious Light
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness never overpowered it. — John 1:5
We had already seen, in a previous post, how the opening verse of John’s Gospel reminds us of the opening verse of the Jewish Torah. In John 1:5, the apostle alludes to that primeval event—the arrival of invincible light—as described in Genesis 1.
The creation account in Genesis says darkness covered the newly created watery planet. Darkness isn’t an entity by itself; it is the absence of light. God’s command sent light to the earth. He made light shine on earth in such as way that there was a recurring series of nights (darkness) followed by days (light). The day-night cycle provided the planet a rhythm, a primary measure of time. Thus, God separated the day from the night. Light and darkness appear as a contrasting pair, either symbolically or literally, in the rest of the Bible.
The genre of the creation account demands a literal reading. The darkness mentioned in Genesis 1:2 was just the absence of light. However, in John 1:5, it is clear that John added a layer of symbolic meaning to light and darkness. The Logos is the True Light. If the True Light represents God’s ultimate self-revelation, darkness represents a state of separation from God, dominated by ignorance or false beliefs about God. It is a state of spiritual death. The light of divine revelation that Jesus offers, unlike Gnostic knowledge, does not just inform people about God; it leads them from death to eternal life. This is why Jesus said those who follow Him will have the the light of life (8:12). The apostle too testified, “In him was life, and the life was the light of mankind.” (1:4)
Darkness also represents forces that oppose God’s self-revelation in the Logos, the Word. Thus, right from the beginning of the Gospel, the author introduces the reader to an epic battle between the True Light and the forces of darkness. This conflict runs through the length of this book as a dark thread. We see two groups of people—those who love the Light and are drawn to it; and those who love darkness and stay away from the light. Darkness stands as a metaphor for sin and its resultant shame that cause people to hide from God. According to Jesus, those who welcomed Him belonged to the light while those who rejected Him had chosen to remain in darkness because they did not wish to be exposed.
… the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil deeds hates the light and does not come to the light, so that their deeds will not be exposed. But the one who practices the truth comes to the light, so that it may be plainly evident that his deeds have been done in God. (3:19-21 NET)
Darkness represents blindness. Some choose to be blind. Those who refuse to believe in Jesus claim to have sight but they are blind. Jesus said to the man who was born blind, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that those who do not see may gain their sight, and the ones who see may become blind.” (9:38)
Further, darkness represents the devil and his works. The children of darkness are under the devil’s sway. Jesus encountered active opposition from such folks. The Jews in Judea who refused to believe in Jesus called him a demon possessed Samaritan (8:48). They sought to kill Jesus (8:40). Jewish leaders used threats to prevent people from following Jesus (9:22). The chief priests (yes, plural!) in Jerusalem plotted to kill Lazarus too because news of his resurrection caused many Jews from Jerusalem to believe in Jesus (12:9-10). Jesus called such murderous Jews the children of the devil.
You people are from your father the devil, and you want to do what your father desires. He was a murderer from the beginning (8:44)
The murderous devil had taken hold of Judas Iscariot, about whom Jesus said, “Didn’t I choose you, the twelve, and yet one of you is the devil?” (6:70-71) The full force of diabolic darkness was unleashed upon Jesus through Judas’ betrayal, the subsequent illegal arrest, a sham trial, and ultimately, cruel crucifixion. No wonder John compares that phase of Jesus’ life with night. (11:8-10)
And after Judas took the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. (13:27)
Judas took the piece of bread and went out immediately. (Now it was night.) (13:30)
The sentence – Now it was night – is not merely a description of time. It has a dramatic effect. That night was different from all other nights.
The darkness of ignorance, falsehood, sin, death or even the reign of the devil had to make way for Jesus, the heavenly Light that came into the world. Jesus faced the dark schemes of the devil that night. His victory was so complete that He declared, “It is finished” before taking his last breath. The battle against sin, death, and the devil was over. A new dawn was ushered in through His resurrection.
Those who proclaim Jesus partake in His ultimate victory in spite of apparent ‘dark nights’ they might face in their earthly life. One day, the whole earth will be full of the knowledge of God through Jesus Christ. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness never overpowered it.
A Witness From God
There came a man, sent from God, whose name was John. He was not the light, but came that he might bear witness of the light. — John 1:6-8
John the Baptist was an integral part of God’s mission of redemption through Jesus Christ. God sent him on a mission. His miraculous birth and his name were announced by an angel. He was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb. But even centuries before his birth, prophets Isaiah and Malachi had prophesied about the Baptist’s ministry in relation to the Messiah’s mission.
The ministry of John the Baptist was two-fold: he was to be Jesus’ forerunner—to prepare His way not just for His first coming but also for the second. That is, John was to (i) to testify of Jesus, “the Lamb of God,” at the beginning of His earthly ministry (1:29), and (ii) he was to warn unrepentant Jews of God’s imminent judgement upon their nation at the second coming of the Messiah.
There are a couple of prophecies in Malachi that indicate the Baptist’s role as a harbinger of divine judgement on the Jewish nation. They had survived the Babylonian exile and had returned to Palestine. They were heading to a worse punishment — if they failed to repent and believe in God’s Messiah. Considering those events in the light of Jesus’ teachings, we know that the messenger or Elijah God promised to send was none other than John the Baptist (Matthew 11:14). One of the tasks of this messenger was to clear before the Lord a path for His judgement!
“I am about to send my messenger, who will clear the way before me. Indeed, the Lord you are seeking will suddenly come to his temple, and the messenger of the covenant, whom you long for, is certainly coming,” says the LORD who rules over all. Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can keep standing when he appears? (Malachi 3:1-2a NET)
Look, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord arrives. He will encourage fathers and their children to return to me, so that I will not come and strike the earth with judgment. (Malachi 4:5-6 NET)
The judgment described here tells us that one of John the Baptist’s tasks was to give Israel a final opportunity to repent before the ‘coming’ of the Messiah. Malachi’s prediction of the ‘coming’ of the Lord ‘to his temple’ was certainly not about the first coming of the Messiah; the purpose of Jesus’ incarnation as a human was not to condemn or punish anyone (3:17). Indeed, He was furious about the moral decay that corrupted even the nerve center of the Jewish nation. Therefore, He cleansed their temple and overturned the tables of money changers. Thereby, He warned Jewish leaders about his intention to destroy their temple during his second coming. The prediction in Malachi about the Lord’s coming to his temple is, therefore, about the Messiah’s second coming. Judgement would fall upon the temple (Malachi 3:2) and on their land (the Hebrew word ‘erets is better rendered as land in Malachi 4:6).
John was faithful in his task of proclaiming judgement and in calling people to repentance. He did not mince his words.
… when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, "You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? (Matthew 3:7 NET)
Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 3:10 NET)
John introduced Jesus as the One who baptizes God’s people with the Holy Spirit (1:33). There was another baptism – that of fire – awaiting those who would reject Jesus. After the grain is gathered into the barn the chaff is set on fire. Without realizing this, some Christians pray for a baptism in fire.
I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am - I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire (Matthew 3:11-12).
If John’s mission, according to Malachi, was to warn ethnic Israel about God’s imminent judgement on the Jewish temple and on their land, we cannot insert, on our timeline, a period of indefinite length between John the Baptist’s ministry and the Messiah’s judgement upon Israel. In other words, if there was supposed to be a gap of several centuries between the preaching of John the Baptist and the destruction of the temple, how could the Baptizer be considered as someone who prepared the Lord’s way towards that judgement? In fact, Jerusalem’s woes started in AD 67 when Roman legions besieged her. That period of tribulation culminated in her fall in AD 70. The time was relatively short – less than four decades, which was commonly accepted as time span of a generation (see Matthew 24:34) – between the Baptist’s warnings and the Lord’s second coming to inflict judgement on Jerusalem.
Before that second coming, there had to be a first coming that offered salvation and consolation to Israel, as predicted in Isaiah 40:1-3. The voice of the one shouting in the wilderness – John the Baptist – reminded Israel of God’s favour upon them.
“Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak kindly to Jerusalem …”
A voice cries out, “In the wilderness clear a way for the LORD; construct in the desert a road for our God.
Every valley must be elevated, and every mountain and hill leveled. The rough terrain will become a level plain, the rugged landscape a wide valley. The splendor of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it at the same time. For the LORD has decreed it.”
Jewish leaders were aware of this prophecy. Therefore, when he was questioned, John confessed to them that he was indeed that voice.
John said, “I am the voice of one shouting in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.” (John 1:23 NET)
John the Baptist bore witness of the splendour of Yahweh that was made manifest through the Person of Jesus, the Christ. He was faithful to God and to his mandate as a witness. He went ahead of Jesus, proclaiming the very message that Jesus eventually would preach: the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God, and an invitation to escape God’s wrath through repentance. Two of John’s disciples followed Jesus after hearing his testimony. One of them was Andrew (1:37-40). The other could have been the beloved disciple. These two disciples formed the nucleus of Jesus’ new movement. This shows us another vital link between John’s ministry and that of Jesus’ ministry. John’s task was to turn people from their sins, baptize them, and to redirect them to the Messiah. Attempts to portray the Baptist’s ministry as relic of the ‘Old Covenant’ times are misplaced.
Never once did John try to seek attention or glory for himself. He did not make false claims about himself. His sole aim was to glorify Jesus. When he came to know that Jesus was making more disciples, he said, “He must become more important while I become less important.” (3:30)
Is it any wonder that Jesus said about John the Baptist, “I tell you the truth, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist”?
The Power Of Testimony
… that he might bear witness of the light. — John 1:6-8
God values testimonies. The kingdom of God makes good use of faithful witnesses who boldly testify about Jesus Christ. A witness’ words – either spoken or written – affirm God’s Truth. They help create faith in listeners and readers. That God should create a man called John for the sole purpose of being Jesus’ forerunner and witness tells us a lot about the value God places on testimony.
John’s Gospel too is a testimony. It’s the testimony of a man who claims he ‘beheld’ the glory of Jesus as the glory of the one and only Son of God (1:14). He saw and experienced Jesus’ miracles. He was an eye-witness to Jesus’ death on a cross (19:35). He saw the empty tomb and testified about meeting with the resurrected Lord (20:8; 21:2). The written record of his testimony generates faith in readers.
After listening to John the Baptizer, Andrew followed Jesus. Later, Andrew found Simon and testified to him, “We have found the Messiah.” (1:41) That testimony led Simon to Jesus. After Jesus called Philip to be His disciple, the latter went in search of Nathanael. Philip’s testimony to Nathanael was a little more elaborate although he did not have all the answers.
Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Philip said to him, “Come and see.” (1:45-46 ESV)
The Samaritan woman who experienced a life-changing encounter with Jesus rushed to her town and cried out, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” She rested her case on her experience with Christ. The paralytic at Bethsaida refused to testify of Jesus’ power; instead, he took sides with Jesus’ enemies (5:15-16, 18). On the other hand, the blind man whose sight was restored stood firmly in his testimony. In fact, the unschooled beggar used his testimony skillfully, by way of persuasive suggestion, to invite his interrogators to follow Jesus.
So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him, since he has opened your eyes?”
He said, “He is a prophet.” (9:17 ESV)
So for the second time they called the man who had been blind and said to him, “Give glory to God. We know that this man is a sinner.”
He answered, “Whether he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”
He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” And they reviled him …
The man answered, “Why, this is an amazing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
They answered him, “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” And they cast him out. (9:24-27; 30-34 ESV)
We get to appreciate the man’s boldness when we see how scared his elderly parents were to acknowledge that it was Jesus who healed their son who was born blind! Those who testify boldly pay a heavy price. The parents did not wish to be excommunicated. The bold witness was thrown out. But Jesus was waiting to receive him! (v.35)
Jesus too made several claims about Himself. When the Jews accused him of bearing witness to himself, Jesus claimed that God the Father too bore witness for Him. In fact, the miracles that Jesus performed were given to Him by the Father. Those ‘works’ proved that God had sent him.
But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me. (5:36)
Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me …” (10:25)
In spite of the numerous signs that Jesus performed, the Jews chose to reject Him.
Jesus commanded His disciples to bear witness to Him. They would have the privilege of experiencing God’s indwelling presence through the Holy Spirit, ‘the Helper’.
“But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.” (15:26-27)
Words are unnecessary, we are told, in God’s service. Actions, they say, are everything. ‘Being’ a witness is more important than bearing witness, preachers say. But John’s Gospel helps us understand that the phrase silent witness is an oxymoron. How can one be a witness without bearing witness to something that he has seen or heard or experienced? Is there any place for a silent witness in a court of law?
Some might ask, “What about Lazarus? There’s no record of him saying Thank you to Jesus, let alone bearing witness of his resurrection from the dead.” In the case of Lazarus, the multitudes who witnessed his resurrection at Jesus’ command spread the word far and wide that people came from afar just to see the man. It’s the living who knew that the corpse was in the grave for four days, far beyond the possibility of resuscitation. What does a dead man know about time? Moreover, there is nothing that indicates that Lazarus was always mute about his new lease of life.
When was the last time you bore witness of Jesus Christ? You may not know much about Jesus or about the Bible. But if you have experienced Jesus’ work in your life, you can talk about Him. If people ask difficult questions, invite them to meet with Jesus in prayer, “Come and see!”
The Word and The World
He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. — John 1:10
The cosmos was made through the Logos, the Word of God. The word ‘world’, referring to what was made through the Word, stands for Planet Earth and everything in it. On the other hand, the final occurrence of the Greek word cosmos, rendered as ‘world’ in this verse, refers to the world’s inhabitants who did not recognize Jesus as their Maker.
This is the second time the evangelist refers to the Logos as the Creator. In John 1:3, he had already mentioned it soon after claiming that the Logos was God.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.
It is important to note that the apostle John’s proclamation of the Logos as Creator is an integral part of his proclamation of the Logos as God. If you believe the Logos (Jesus) is God, you need to believe that He is the Creator who created everything according to the biblical account of creation. Everyone is free to accept or reject these claims. But anyone who calls himself a Christian – after trashing the doctrine of creation and embracing naturalistic explanations about a spontaneous or ‘guided’ evolution of the Universe – does violence to the Gospel’s claim about Jesus.
Christians who attempt to straddle both worlds believe that Jesus is the Creator who made everything through naturalistic processes over a period of millions of years. They feel more compelled to account for scientific ‘evidence’ than to abide by the biblical witness. The Bible, they claim, does not specify how God made the universe. Such ‘Christian evolutionists’ will find it extremely difficult to reconcile their views with John’s portrayal of Jesus as the Creator.
There are a few incidents recorded in John that hark back to the Genesis account of creation. Not only do these passages undergird Jesus’ role as Creator, but these also tell us how He went about creating the world. The most prominent of these is the manner in which Jesus healed the man who was born blind. Strangely, as it might seem, Jesus spat on the ground, made clay, applied it on the man’s eyes, and commanded him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.” Why did Jesus have to make clay? In the absence of water at hand, why did He go to the extent of spitting on the ground in order to make clay? With just a word, He could have given the man a new pair of eyes. Jesus chose to enact the creation scene in which Adam’s body was sculpted by God. If, through this incident, Jesus wasn’t affirming the Genesis account of Adam’s creation out of the dust of the earth, what was He doing? Any Jewish reader or an eye-witness to the incident would have been reminded of the way God created the first man using the dust of the earth. Jesus proved beyond all doubt that it was His hands and His Spirit that had turned a lump of clay into a living soul.
Christians who ‘believe’ in evolution or any other naturalistic explanation of human origin do not believe that humanity came from one man Adam. Instead, they believe that the Genesis account of creation is a myth or a legend. They think there were several such Adams, on many continents, all of whom had evolved from lower forms of life at various times. Different races of humanity, we are told, arose from those different Adams and Eves. Not only does such a view go against the Genesis account, but it also bolsters evils such as racism, eugenics, and the dehumanization of certain groups of people. Jesus affirmed Genesis. Jesus, the Second Adam, affirmed the creation of the first couple, Adam and Eve (Matthew 19:4). If you choose to believe in Jesus, you must believe the Genesis account of creation.
After He rose again from the dead, Jesus appeared to His disciples. He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Why did He have to breathe on them? Unaware of the significance of Jesus’ unique action, many modern pastors and preachers take it upon themselves to breathe on people so that they can receive the Spirit of God! The apostles were the nucleus of Jesus’ global Church. Jesus wished to make a statement about His sovereign role as Creator and Lord of the Church. It was a new beginning. Jesus breathed His Spirit into the newly formed Body of Christ, the Church, in a way that reminded His disciples of how He had breathed the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils! This was a vital moment of revelation that etched Jesus’ lordship over His Church onto the minds of his apostles. Therefore, when Jesus baptized them with the Holy Spirit after His ascension, they knew for sure that the gift of the Holy Spirit, poured out on them and on the rest of hundred-and-twenty in the Upper Room, was indeed from their Lord and Master.
None of the human theories of origins tells us anything about the origin of sin or death. We are dust and to dust we will return—a universal phenomenon that science cannot explain or prevent! Besides, we are fundamentally sinful and wicked. Not everyone acts equally wicked but everyone can be as wicked as he could be, given the right conditions. Our Humanism cannot explain this basic flaw in man. The brightest among us assume that evil and death are part and parcel of the universe.
The Bible tells us about the Fall of Man. The Bible’s claim that Eve was the first one to be deceived might irk women. But they should note that the good news of Jesus’ resurrection was first entrusted to a woman, that too in a garden (20:11-18). If it had not been for the Bible, no one would have been able to view sin and its consequences as unnatural intrusions into God’s perfect world. That intrusion was engineered by the devil. The story of the serpent in the Garden of Eden was not a cock-and-bull story. The Lord Jesus affirmed the influence of a literal devil on humanity. To his Jewish opponents Jesus said,
You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it. (8:44)
The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. (10:10)
Jesus had come to destroy the works of the devil and to evict him from his unlawful lordship over humanity (12:31). Jesus offers eternal life to a mortal humanity.
The doctrine of creation is vital to our doctrine of Christ. The story of creation is just not another story. The rest of the Bible is anchored to it.
The Children Of God
‘The world did not recognize Him … His own did not receive Him … but to all who have received Him – those who believe in His name – He has given the right to become God’s children …’ – John 1:10-13
The Prologue to John’s Gospel gives us the gist of the whole book. The focus of the Prologue, and hence of the book, is on the divine Logos who came into this world to bring about a radical change in the relationship between God and man.
Until the arrival of Logos as Jesus, the people in the world were neatly divided into two categories—those who were God’s own and those who were not. Who were God’s own people? The children of Israel who lived in a covenant relationship with Yahweh were considered to be God’s own. They were physical descendants of Jacob, whose name God had changed to Israel. Jacob was the grandson of Abraham. The whole nation of ethnic Israel prided themselves to be children of Abraham and God’s own people. God had a special relationship with them. God revealed Himself to them through His might acts among them and through what He spoke to them through His prophets.
The rest of the nations were to know God through Israel. As a nation, Israel had failed in their mission to tell the world about the living God or His salvation. Therefore, when it came to their response to Jesus, John wasn’t surprised at all that the world did not recognize Him. Those outside the nation of Israel had not received any specific revelation about God or His Messiah. They did not recognize Jesus as the Creator who walked among them.
Israel was unable to come up with a similar excuse regarding their negative response to Jesus. Jesus had come to His own. He performed miraculous signs in their midst to show them who He was. He taught them with authority. With the power of His word, He even raised the dead. Yet, they refused to believe His claims. They did not receive Him. The consequence of such a refusal was drastic. Their privilege of being God’s own would now go to all who receive Jesus. Leon Morris observes that the construct all who received him is quite ‘unusual’ in Greek. Yet, John might have used it deliberately to create the impression that one group has replaced the other. In Morris’ words,
This has the effect of setting them [that is, those who received the Logos] over against the rejectors of the last two verses and of putting a certain emphasis on those who received the Word.Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John, NICNT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.
Once and for all, God changed the way He related with the world. Anyone, from within Israel or from outside, who received Jesus would have the right to become the children of God! Physical descent from Abraham became a thing of no consequence because these children of God were “children not born by human parents or by human desire or a husband’s decision, but by God.” (1:13) Notice the repetition. John was driving home his message to the Jews: Do not boast in your ancestry. A person’s response to Jesus is the only factor that will decide whether they are God’s child.
In fact, John the Baptist was more direct. He said to the Jews,
… and don’t think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones! – Matthew 3:9
Jesus too trashed the claims of his Jewish opponents regarding their ancestry. They boasted of being Abraham’s descendants. Jesus told them what they actually were as long as they continued to reject Him: “You people are from your father the devil, and you want to do what your father desires.” – John 8:44a
There is a widespread misconception among Christians that John invented a new category of people called “children of God” to refer to Christians. According to them, ethnic Israel continues to be God’s own people regardless of their response to Jesus Christ. In addition to that privileged nation, they say, there is another body called the “children of God” consisting of those who received Jesus. In their understanding, the world is divided into three categories: Israel, the Church, and the Gentiles. The misconception can easily be eliminated when one understands that ethnic Israel had been known as “children of God.” It is not a new “Christian” category. Take a look at these verses from the Hebrew Bible.
You are the sons of the Lord your God; you shall not cut yourselves nor shave your forehead for the sake of the dead. – Deuteronomy 14:1
Although it was said to them, "You are not my people," it will be said to them, "You are children of the living God!" – Hosea 1:10b
I said, “You are gods,
And all of you are sons of the Most High. – Psalm 82:6
Not only did God call Israel his sons or children, the people of Israel referred to themselves as God’s children. For instance, see how the psalmist Asaph refers to Israel in Psalm 73.
If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
Behold, I would have betrayed the generation of Your children. (v.15)
Moses wrote a song predicting Israel’s apostasy. In it he described how the children of Israel would depart from Yahweh to turn to other gods.
They have acted corruptly toward Him,
They are not His children, because of their defect;
But are a perverse and crooked generation. – Deuteronomy 32:5
Israel was God’s own. They were His children. Their refusal to receive Jesus resulted in the loss of their privileged position as God’s children. That privilege went to all who received Jesus. This is in line with what Jesus said to Jewish leaders:
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:
‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is from the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?
For this reason I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. – Matt 21:42-43
A plain reading of John 1:10-13 in context should help anyone see that Israel’s rejection of her Messiah resulted in their disqualification as God’s own people. [They will remain disqualified as long as they continue in unbelief (Romans 11:23).] In fact, a sentence diagram will make it all the more clear that this radical change in God’s definition of who’s in and who’s out forms the focal point of the Prologue and of the whole Gospel.
It was not just the title “children of God” that got transferred from ethnic Israel to the followers of Jesus Christ. The New Testament, in more than one way, acknowledges the followers of Christ as God’s true Israel. Jesus’ choice of twelve disciples was not an accident. He deliberately raised up the Twelve to be the foundation of the new Israel, the Church, built on Him, the cornerstone. The Twelve apostles, He said, would sit on twelve thrones to judge the twelve tribe of Israel (Matthew 19:28). Jesus wasn’t referring to ethnic Israel at all. No one at that time knew where the lost tribes of Israel were. The Jews in Palestine at that time belonged to just three tribes—Judah, Benjamin and Levi. Yet, Jesus referred to the twelve tribes. No, He wasn’t referring to some eschatalogical reunion of all twelve ethnic tribes of Israel. Jesus was referring to the Church as did James in his epistle,
From James, a slave of God and the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes dispersed abroad. Greetings! – James 1:1
Other titles that once belonged to ethnic Israel now apply to the Church of Jesus Christ. Apostle Peter went all out in his description of the church using terms that were once applied just to ethnic Israel.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. – 1 Peter 2:9
The question about the identity of God’s people is not a matter of frivolous theological discussion. It belongs to the core of the Gospel because it is tied to the question of Jesus’ identity. It is sinful, not just heretic, if we call a group of unbelievers “God’s people” just because they are descendants of Abraham or because they follow a particular religion. It is equally sinful if we fail to recognize followers of Jesus Christ as “God’s people.” The Judaizers of the first century made this cardinal error when they insisted that Gentiles followers of Christ should first become Jews if they wanted to become “God’s people.” That’s why they were asked to undergo circumcision. It was not just a matter of another ritual. The New Testament definition “God’s people” was at stake. The core of the gospel faced a crucial challenge. That’s why St Paul went to the extent of invoking a double curse on those Judaizers. (Galatians 1:8-9)
You might ask me, If the Abrahamic coventant and one’s standing as a descendant of Abraham is of no use, why then did Paul say that all Israel will be saved?
A partial hardening has happened to Israel until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved …
In regard to the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but in regard to election they are dearly loved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable. – Romans 11:25-26, 28-29
This passage is often used as a trump card by Evangelicals. If their intention is tell the world that ethnic Israel will be saved automatically just because they are descendants of Abraham, they are in danger of admitting that all the world will be saved apart from faith in Christ! Why not read this passage in context? What does verses 30 to 32 say? To Gentile believers, St Paul says:
Just as you were formerly disobedient to God, but have now received mercy due to their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy.
For God has consigned all people to disobedience so that he may show mercy to them all.
So, it’s not just on Israel that God will have mercy. He will have mercy on all. If you say that all Israel will be saved without faith in Christ, you will also have to say that all people will be saved without faith in Christ because of what verse 32 says. This is the danger of proof-texting, that is, plucking verses out of context to make it say what you want it to say!
St. Paul had made it abundantly clear that Jews would be saved only through Jesus Christ (Romans 11:23). And even if the majority of ethnic Israel were to perish without Christ, Paul was willing to acknowledge that those unbelievers were never worthy of being called Abraham’s sons in the first place (Romans 9:6-8). In fact, the true children of Abraham are all who believe in Jesus Christ. Through Jesus Christ, Abraham because the father of many nations. He is the father of all believers. “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:16,29)
If Jews or ethnic Israel will be saved automatically without trusting Jesus Christ, why did Paul experience “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in his heart thinking about Jews headed to perdition? Why did he wish that he could trade places with them instead of letting them be accursed? (Romans 9:1-3) Why did he pray earnestly for their salvation? (Romans 10:1)
The Modern Evangelical claim that God has two sets of people – one based on their Abrahamic descent and the other based on faith in Jesus Christ – undercuts the very gospel that they preach. There’s only one Gospel. That Gospel is not the gospel of genetics or heredity or of endless genealogies; it is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Those who disobey the gospel will perish, says the Bible.
It is no secret that Christians have contributed millions of dollars to help unbelieving Jews migrate to Palestine, to expand their settlements at the expense of Palestinians, and to help them buy weapons of war. John’s Gospel challenges such Christians to take a stand for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What Jews and Gentiles need today is eternal life through Jesus Christ. The Jews are no more in danger than they were during Paul’s time. They were no less opposed to the gospel then than they are now. Yet, Paul preached the gospel to them instead of funding their rebellion against Rome. Preach the gospel! If it offends anyone, so be it.
Throughout John’s Gospel, the author shows us the conflict between those who had been God’s own and a minority who were conferred with the right to become God’s children. John affirmed the fledgling Church. In his own way he contributed to solving the challenge that Judaizers posed to the early church. John was bold in confessing that a positive response to Jesus, in faith, was the only thing that decided man’s standing before God. This message was reinforced in John 3:16 — that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.
The Word Became Flesh
‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.’ — John 1:14 ESV
After having described the divine Logos as the eternal Creator and Life Giver, John had shifted his attention to His arrival on the earth in verse 9: The true Light … was coming into the world. In verse 14, he describes that arrival using the most succinct of expressions—“the Word became flesh.”
We will not be able to gauge the impact of those words without getting acquainted with the Gnostic worldview that prevailed among many Jews and Christians of the early centuries. According to Gnosticism, the Almighty God is perfect. However, the imperfect nature of the universe poses a problem. How could a perfect God give rise to an imperfect cosmos? The universe, they say, might have emanated from the Perfect God but it was far too corrupt and removed from Him. They’re unable to hold the Perfect God responsible for the imperfections in the created order. They say, there must be intermediate divine beings between the Perfect God and the imperfect universe. They perceive the flawed material-cum-psychic cosmos as created by Sophia (literally, wisdom) who herself was flawed. She is also referred to as the half-maker or Demiurgos since she created the cosmos using material that emanated from the Perfect God.Stephan A. Hoeller, ‘The Gnostic World View: A Brief Summary of Gnosticism.’ The Gnostic Archive. Accessed on 18 Oct 2020. Thus, they hold this lesser ‘god’ responsibile for all the imperfections, sufferings, and evil in the world. When they read the Bible, they see Yahweh the Creator as that flawed Demiurgos! No wonder they’re fascinated by the ‘friendly’ serpent who offered Adam and Eve the prospect of ‘enlightenment’ (“your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God”) to escape the Creator’s tyranny.Anon. ‘The Serpents of Eden.’ Precepts of Alchemy. Accessed on 18 Oct 2020.
Further, Gnosticism teaches that humanity consists of a perfectly divine (spiritual) component which co-exists with an imperfect, perishable physical-psychic component. The bane of humanity, they claim, lies in its ignorance about this divine spark and the resultant failure to develop it. Gnostics do not desire a salvation from sin or karma, as in Hinduism, but from ignorance that causes people to live below their divine state. Gnosticism encourages its followers to get hold of gnosis, knowledge, to be enlightened about their inner divine spark. Gnosticism created a Jesus after its own image. Gnostics see Jesus as a supreme example of an ‘enlightened’ person who “realized in himself that he and what he called the Father were one, and he lived out of that knowledge of the Christhood of his nature.”Joseph Campbell The Power of Myth. ed. Betty Sue Flowers. New York: Doubleday, 1988. Cited by Douglas Groothuis, ‘Gnosticism and the Gnostic Jesus.’ Christian Research Journal. 13/2 1990. Accessed on 18 Oct 2020.
According to Gnosticism, people get bogged down by their own imperfections and by their attachment to the material world. Unless humans break free and rise above all earthly attractions, even death cannot liberate them. They will be hurled back into the cosmos to be enslaved in another imperfect body ridden with disease, pain and passions. That is very similar to the Hindu or Buddhist belief called ‘reincarnation.’ Modern Gnosticism appears to share common space with Jewish Kabbalah, Hinduism, the New Age, and Buddhism in many areas such as the attainment of ‘enlightenment’ or the ‘awakening’ of the kundalini through transcendental meditation, yoga, etc.
The Apostle John deftly downplayed the significance of Gnostic pursuit of hidden knowledge as a passport to salvation. True knowledge came through Jesus Christ, the Logos. He was the true Light. Truth, according to John, is a Person called Jesus Christ (John 14:6). On the other hand, all men and women are sinners who have the potential to outdo each other in wickedness given the right circumstances. No one can wish away or ignore the fallen nature of man. We are “children of the devil” and enslaved to sin until Jesus sets us free (John 8:36). What we need is not a sudden nirvana or enlightenment about some divinity buried deep within our fallen soul. We need salvation from sin and its consequences lest we die in our sins. “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins,” said Jesus (8:24 ESV). That’s contrary to the Gnostic, Hindu and Buddhist claim that all that fallen humans need is a bolt of enlightenment about their own divinity.
Gnosticism was so influential that it affected the early church. In fact, Gnostics did not call themselves by that name. They went around as regular Jews or Christians. Jewish gnosticism was many centuries older than Christianity. The Church Fathers regarded Judaism as the primary source of Gnosticism. In fact, Hebrew words and divine names are found in several gnostic systems. Magic too was an important part of this secret science.Joseph Jacobs and Ludwig Blau. “Gnosticism.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 1906. Accessed on 18 Oct 2020.
A follower of Gnosticism would have been appalled if he were told that the perfect, eternal God created the world and everything in it. Gnostic ‘Christians’ believed that the Creator God mentioned in the Hebrew Bible was the ‘lesser god’ and that ‘Master Jesus’ came from the Perfect God to rescue people from the lesser god’s clutches! Marcion (c.85- c.160), like other Gnostics, drove a wedge between Yahweh and Jesus Christ. He claimed that the Creator God of the Hebrew Bible was a vengeful, angry God while Jesus was entirely good. Therefore, he said, the God of the Hebrews was different from the One whom Jesus called Father.
Marcion rejected the Hebrew scriptures. He mutilated the Gospels and Epistles by weeding out all passages that referred to the Hebrew Scriptures or to the God of Israel. For instance, “Our Father who art in heaven” became “Father”—as found in the NIV rendition of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke! Those who pray to a “Father” could be praying to just about any father including the devil! It takes a certain conviction to address the God of the Hebrews as the Father of Jesus Christ. Sadly, like Marcion, some modern Christians are biased against the Hebrew Bible. They love the titles “Old Testament” and “New Testament“ as if those were divinely inspired. There are pastors who preach only from the ‘New Testament’ because they consider the latter twenty-seven books as a canon within the Christian canon of sixty-six books. Any reference to the Hebrew Bible is frowned upon. They are content with their little “pocket Testaments.” What is left of the ‘New Testament’ if all allusions to the Hebrew Bible are taken away?
Bishop Polycarp, a disciple of apostle John, once met Marcion. Marcion asked, “Do you recognize me?” Polycarp shot back, “I do recognize you, the first-born of Satan.”Irenaeus. Against Heresies. Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325. Book III, Chapter 3, 4. Accessed on 18 Oct 2020. This is how vigorously the early Church responded to Gnosticism.
In their eagerness to discredit Yahweh, the Gnostics claimed that the Law given to Moses was flawed. They rejected God’s commandments. Marcion came up with a list of contradictions between the Torah and the teachings of Jesus Christ in his book Antitheses. The Gospel was pitched against the Law—as many Christians do today! This was rightly rejected by Tertullian as an attempt to portray Yahweh and the Father of Jesus as two gods! Tertullian wrote, “These are Marcion’s Antitheses, or contradictory propositions, which aim at committing the gospel to a variance with the law” so that “they may contend for a diversity of gods also.”Tertullian. Against Marcion, Book I, Chapter 19. Accessed on 18 Oct 2020.
Their disdain towards God’s laws led Gnostics to lead profligate lives. Their low view of the body encouraged them to ignore sins committed in the flesh. They could not understand how the body of all things could be the temple of the holy and almighty God. A holy life got ruled out. They would argue it was not possible to live a holy life as long as they were trapped in their body. What then is left of Christian life? Like modern proponents of “hyper grace” or anti-nomianism, Gnostics perverted the grace of God into licentiousness. “For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” –Jude v3, 4.
Is it any wonder that the apostle John took on these notions head-on by declaring that the Logos (the Word, the true Wisdom) was from the beginning with God? He was the Creator of the material universe. Nothing that was created was made without Him. Jews, Gnostics included, were John’s primary target. John was not only exalting Jesus as the eternal, divine Creator, but he was also elevating the created order to a higher, sacramental plane befitting the holiness of the perfect God Almighty. He was attacking the Gnostic view which claimed the Perfect God could have nothing to do with the creation of this ‘lowly’ universe.
Besides, John wrote, the Word was God. He was not at variance with God Almighty who crafted the Torah. Jesus was born under that Law. He and his apostles affirmed the Ten Commandments. Jesus died within the framework of the Jewish ritual Law to take on the role of the Lamb of God. He was the eternal High Priest and the Temple of God. He fulfilled the ritual law in Himself. Those laws regarding sacrifices and rituals still hold good in Him. That’s why we need not offer animal sacrifices.
The Torah consists of three distinct sets of regulations, namely, the Decalogue (Ten Commandments), the ritual law (laws regarding sacrifices and worship), and the civic law (laws governing civil and criminal jurisprudence). The ritual law was fulfilled in Christ and his supreme sacrifice. The civic laws do not apply today because God’s people are not confined to a single nation state. Jesus’ new commandment – love one another – captures our duty to one another. It is sufficiently expounded by further instructions from the apostles. The Moral Law or the Decalogue was never abolished. Instead, in the Sermon on the Mount, He taught God’s true intent behind those commandments. In conclusion, He compared those who obeyed His commandments to a wise man who built his house on a rock as opposed to a foolish man who built on sand. (Matthew 7:24-27) Jesus wanted all his disciples to teach new disciples to obey His commands (Matthew 28:19). It is a part of the Great Commission.
Christian life is not a lawless life. Jesus forgives our sins for free on account of his vicarious death. That forgiveness is not a license to sin or to condone sin. He expects us to walk the high road of God’s righteousness in the power of the Holy Spirit. As the Apostle Paul put it,
“By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he [God] condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” – Romans 8:3 ESV
James reminded the Church to remain obedient to God’s perfect law.
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. – James 1:22-25 ESV
What ‘law’ was James referring to? He had the Decalogue and the ‘royal law’ as summarised by the Lord Jesus.
If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. …
For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” [the sixth commandment] also said, [the seventh commandment] “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. – James 2:8, 11-12 ESV.
And yet, I know that there are Christians out there who cry foul, “You are preaching salvation by works. We live under grace and not under the Law.” That’s because they are unaware that the word ‘Law’ in the Bible has at least five different senses. At times, it is used to refer to the whole of Hebrew scriptures or the Decalogue while at other times, to the ritual law. Christians are not under Jewish ritual law but no one is above God’s Moral Law. Christians who pitch Grace against Law are not beyond redemption, provided they’re willing to learn.
The apostle John too made it clear that obedience to God’s commandments was a non-negotiable Christian tenet. Here’s more on obedience from Johannine writings:
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. – Jesus, (14:15 ESV)
Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him. – Jesus, (14:21 ESV)
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. – Jesus, (15:10 ESV)
By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. (1 John 5:2)
Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him … (1 John 2:4 ESV; cf 1 John 2:3; 3:22; 3:24; and 5:3)
Indeed, we were freely forgiven and justified by the Grace of God. None of us could have done anything to earn God’s forgiveness. Righteousness was imputed to us for free. But the obedience that lies ahead of us in time isn’t imputed to us! God has provided us everything we need for life and godliness. We need to obey what we need to obey. We are left without any excuse. Let us work out our salvation with fear and trembling, exhorted St Paul.
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12 ESV)
If you still don’t see the need for obedience in Christian life, please follow Marcion’s example and strike off those offending words from the Great Commission so that it reads like:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
It would be unthinkable for Gnostics to acknowledge that a Perfect God could ever identify Himself with a fallen world, let alone become a man to save the world. Therefore, Gnostic ‘Christians’ were unwilling to believe that Jesus was fully human.
To the Gnostics, the body is far too fallen and imperfect to deserve any attention. Anything to do with the body — including marriage and conjugal responsibilities — is considered a necessary evil. In the early Church, there were Christians who, under the sway of Gnosticism, discounted the importance of marriageHence the exhortation: “Let marriage be held in honor among all” – Hebrews 13:4 and sexual relations between married couples.“Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, … who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods” – 1 Timothy 4:1-3 Asceticism and harsh treatment of the body were considered super-spiritual exercises.“These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” – Colossians 2:20-23
There are Christians today who claim to be orthodox in their doctrines but will balk at the biblical statement that Jesus endured every kind of temptation. Quite unintentionally they doubt the full humanity of Jesus. Even after reading Hebrews 4:15 they are unwilling to entertain the thought that Jesus could have experienced temptations to commit sexual sins. “He wasn’t that human, was he?” would be their classic objection! As a result, they behave like Docetists, who believed that Jesus just appeared to be human but in reality wasn’t a human.
In his epistles, John refers to Gnostic ‘Christians’ as antichrists. Who were the antichrists?
Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. — 1 John 2:18 ESV
Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. — 1 John 2:22 ESV
For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. — 2 John 1:7 ESV
John, thus, raised a standard against the onslaught of Gnosticism into the early Church. In his Gospel, John did not miss any opportunity to portray Jesus as a complete human just as he portrayed Him as completely divine. His statement — the Word became flesh — comes as the shortest yet most powerful polemic against Gnosticism and Doceticism.
As Pope John Paul II observed, this statement brought the body in through the front door of theology.
The fact that theology also includes the body should not astonish or surprise anyone who is conscious of the mystery and reality of the Incarnation. Through the fact that the Word of God became flesh, the body entered theology — that is, the science that has divinity for its object — I would say, through the main door.Pope John Paul, II. Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. by M. Waldstein. Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2006.
The apostle John didn’t stop countering Gnosticism with his “the Word became flesh” punch line in 1:14. He went on to present Jesus as someone who enjoyed earthly life in a good way. He wasn’t a recluse, a guru who sat atop Mount Everest in solitary meditation. Instead, Jesus was human enough to enjoy a wedding feast complete with fine wine and other expressions of Jewish nuptial celebration. When the host ran out of wine, he created gallons of exquisite wine out of plain water! His first miracle affirmed the material world, the act of creation, the institution of marriage, weddings, human culture, celebration, good food, and, of course, fine wine! And here’s more:
- At Jacob’s well, outside the Samaritan town of Sychar, Jesus was weary and thirsty. That shows how he was human like the rest of us.
- In Galilee, he fed the hungry masses with freshly created bread and fish. He called Himself the bread of life.
- Jesus elevated the humble acts of eating and drinking as symbols of receiving His words and His vicarious death (6:53-56, 63).
- While giving sight to a man born blind, Jesus spat on the ground, made clay, and applied it on his eyes, reminding everyone of God’s creation of Adam out of the dust of the earth.
- Jesus declared that He has the authority to raise the dead. The human body is not a prison to be cast aside at the time of death; instead, it is something that will be raised up and glorified to embrace eternity. (5:25-29)
- Outside Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus wept.
- In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus experienced anguish like any other man.
- At the hands of Roman soldiers, Jesus experienced torture. He bled. He died. When his lifeless body was pierced, blood and ‘water’ oozed out.
Jesus was flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone. He couldn’t have been more human just as He couldn’t be more divine. He tabernacled among his disciples. Just as the ancient Tabernacle of meeting sat on terra firma without being separated from the ground even by a simple flooring or carpet, Jesus’ incarnation brought him down to our level. John had to emphasize this truth. Instead of just saying that Jesus became a man, he had to use the rather crude word in Greek, flesh. The Word became flesh!.
The usual English translation “The Word became flesh” can be misleading. Did the divine Logos change into flesh thereby ceasing to be God? O’Neil argues for a better translation of the Greek word egeneto. (1991, 127)
The Word did not turn into flesh, did not change its nature and become flesh, did not masquerade as flesh, and did not come on the scene as flesh… . ‘The Word was born flesh’ or ‘the Word was made flesh.’J. C. O’Neil. “The Word Did Not ‘Become’ Flesh.” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft. 82:125–27.
John’s claim that the divine Logos was ‘born flesh’ ran contrary to Gnostic beliefs. It would have appeared foolish in the eyes of the Greeks who considered Wisdom and Reason as separate from and superior to the material world. The notion of divine apparitions was not new. But this went way beyond that. To the Jews, this might have sounded like another heresy. They could not imagine a plurality in the Godhead that would allow such an incarnation. But John has a testimony to share with anyone who has an ear: “We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
The incarnation of the Logos was a new beginning. It gave Him a new name—Jesus. Before that moment, He wasn’t known by that name. Neither was God, the One from whom the Logos came, known as the Father. God became the Father and the Logos became His Son.
Moses and Jesus Christ
‘For we have all received from his fullness one gracious gift after another. For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came about through Jesus Christ.’ — John 1:16-17 NET
This is the first occurrence of the name Jesus in John’s Gospel. John identified Jesus as the Christ. This is significant because the eternal Logos was never known as Jesus before He was ‘born flesh’ or ‘made flesh.’ He was named Jesus because He would save His people from their sins. The incarnation was indeed a new beginning.
John had already mentioned how he was among those who witnessed the glory of the incarnate Logos who was ‘full of grace and truth.’ (v.14) It seems John could never overemphasize the fullness of grace – unmerited blessings of God – and of truth embodied in Jesus Christ. Therefore, he waxed eloquent about it even in this brief Prologue. John was eager to show his readers that Truth is not limited to a set of propositions or hidden knowledge. Truth is a Person—a man called Jesus Christ.
John wanted his Jewish readers to know Jesus was greater than anyone they had known. Clearly, Jesus ranked above John the Baptist. The Baptiser had confessed, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me’ (v.15). But the Gospel’s portrayal of Jesus’ greatness doesn’t end with a comparison between Jesus and John the Baptist. The apostle was bold enough to stir up a hornet’s nest by taking it all the way back to Moses, the great leader and founder of Judaism.
‘The law was given through Moses …’ The word ‘Law’ is used in at least five different senses in the New Testament. It is commonly used to refer to the Law that was given to Moses at Sinai. The Mosaic Law is found within the Torah. The Torah consists of the Ten Commandments; laws regarding rituals, sacrifices, and purity; and laws to govern civil disputes or criminal cases. The Mosaic Law created Judaism with all its rituals and practices. Before the law was given, there were no Jews. Abraham was not a Jew. Neither were any of the Patriarchs or their descendants all the way down to the time of the Exodus. When God handed down the Law to Moses, God entered into a covenant with Israel. Moses was the mediator of that covenant (Exodus 24:8). Israel pledged to keep the Law and thus was born Judaism. Therefore, the word Law, referring to the Mosaic Law, is another way of referring to Judaism.
‘The law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came about through Jesus Christ.’ This comparison is clearly between Moses and Jesus. Jesus Christ is far superior to Moses. This statement, however, was not intended to set Jesus in opposition to the Law of Moses. Moses did not come up with the Law. It was given through Moses. It was given by God, the Father of Jesus Christ. (Herein lies another blow to Gnosticism which taught that the Father of Jesus Christ was different and superior to the ‘inferior’ Elohim who gave the Hebrews their Law.)
Why is Jesus Christ superior to Moses? Why is it better to be a follower of Jesus Christ than to be a Jew? According to John’s Gospel, the answer is simple and straightforward. The Law (or Judaism) was instituted to lead a people to Jesus Christ. The Law testified about Jesus Christ. That’s what Jesus said to the Jews who refused to believe in Him.
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. …
Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?
— Jesus Christ, (5:39-40, 45-47 ESV)
One of the key things that Jesus taught his disciples was to reread the Hebrew Scriptures in the light of His incarnation. He expounded the Torah, the books of the Prophets, and the Poetic books, and showed his disciples that the Hebrew Scriptures were actually about Him, the Messiah. After his resurrection, Jesus met two men on their way to Emmaus. Without realizing that they were in Jesus’ company, the men discussed the problem of the ‘empty tomb.’ They refused to believe that Jesus had come back to life although their associates had told them about the empty tomb and about a meeting with angels. This is what Jesus told those two doubters:
“O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. — Luke 24:25-27
And Jesus said to his disciples, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures … — Luke 24:44-45
Those who follow Judaism, carefully studying the Hebrew Scriptures, and yet fail to see Jesus as the Christ (or Messiah) miss the whole point of Judaism! But both Jesus and the apostle Paul did not despair about the unbelievers among Jews because they knew that not all who belonged to ethnic Israel were chosen to receive a revelation of the Messiah (cf. Romans 9:1-7)I am telling the truth in Christ (I am not lying!), for my conscience assures me in the Holy Spirit - I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed - cut off from Christ - for the sake of my people, my fellow countrymen, who are Israelites. To them belong the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from them, by human descent, came the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever! Amen.
It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all those who are descended from Israel are truly Israel, nor are all the children Abraham’s true descendants; rather “through Isaac will your descendants be counted.” — Romans 9:1-7 NET Bible
It was Jewish unbelief that made Jesus narrate the Parable of the Sower and the Seeds. Only a small portion of the seeds sown fell on good soil and yielded a harvest (Matthew 13:1-9). Jesus also said that not all of the Jews of his time belonged to his ‘flock.’ To those who stubbornly refused to believe Him, Jesus said, “You do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice … I give them eternal life …” (10:26-28 ESV) A clear distinction was made between Jesus’ flock and those outside who were destined to destruction.
The apostle Paul too explained the function of Mosaic Law. God had granted His promises to Abraham and to his promised Son. That promised Son was Jesus Christ.Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his descendant. Scripture does not say, "and to the descendants," referring to many, but "and to your descendant," referring to one, who is Christ. — Galatians 3:16 The Law was given 430 years later in order to restrain Abraham’s descendants from sin. Israel had to be nurtured within the safe confines of God’s law, protected from polytheism, idolatry, superstitions, occultism, and immorality of the nations around them. God wanted to prepare Israel to receive their Saviour. This is how St. Paul described it:
Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made …
Now before [Christian] faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came …
But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. …
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
— Galatians 3:19, 23, 25, 28, 29
My drawing illustrates Paul’s statement about the purpose of the Law.
Even though God’s law was good and holy, it could not save Israel. First of all, none of the Israelites could obey it perfectly. Besides, disobeying one regulation was as good as disobeying the whole Law. As a result, they were not only sinners like the rest of the world but were also under a curse brought about by their disobedience to the Law. The Law was designed to help people understand the high moral standards of God. But it could not prevent people from sinning or rescue those who had already sinned. (Romans 7:7-12)
Jesus came under the law to rescue those under the Law and those who were outside it. He did not despise or set aside God’s Law. Instead, he upheld the Law and fulfilled it (Matthew 5:17). He obeyed its provisions and lived a sinless life. He did what the Law could not do (Romans 8:3a). Jesus, through his sacrificial death, paid the penalty for the sins of the whole world. He is able to liberate those under the Law from its charges and its curse. He is able to save Gentiles who had never been under the Law. Thus, all believers in Jesus Christ – whether from Jewish or Gentile background – can become God’s children and be known as Abraham’s offspring.
The laws regarding sacrifices, ritual purity, priesthood, tabernacle, etc., were fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The old covenant was replaced by the new covenant sealed with the blood of Jesus Christ. The moral Law of God – the Ten Commandments – still holds good because Jesus and the apostles affirmed it.
The Law of Moses served its purpose. The nomos (law) pointed towards the Logos, the Word. It prepared a people to receive their Messiah. There is no reason why anyone should continue in Judaism after God sent Jesus, the embodiment of God’s Word, to give us eternal life.
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About the Author:
Philip Eapen, an environmental scientist by training, devoted his life to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ ever since he realised that the world needs Jesus Christ more than anyone or anything else. Apart from sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, Philip also teaches Christians in order to equip them for service. If you wish to extend financial support, contribute using Paypal. If you’re in India, scan this code to pay via any Unified Payment Interface (UPI) app such as PayTM or GooglePay.