This morning we begin a new series of sermons and I’m giving you really something in the way of an introduction. I regret it in a way that we’re not simply plunging into the magnificent beginning of the Gospel of John, taking it up as John begins his great account of the Lord Jesus Christ, but I thought it was important to say some things about what is without question one of the most controverted books in the Bible and in the New Testament today.
There is a reason for that. There is a reason why on the typical American university campus the Gospel of John would be largely dismissed as a significant witness to the history, the life, the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ. There is a reason why almost everyone wishes to account for the gospel as we know it in some other way. The teaching of the Christian church three generations after the Lord, after it has been influenced by Greco-Roman philosophy and the religious currents of the day, and after time has passed sufficient to mould the oral tradition into a more supernatural account of the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is because the Gospel of John more than perhaps any other book in the Bible places the issue of the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Man an the only conceivable Savior of the world before us in an absolutely unmistakable way. Unbelief must be offended at the Gospel of John. It has been offended by it. Very clever people have done their best to undermine our confidence in it. I want to deal a little bit with that this morning before we make our way into this book of treasures that lies before us.
As an introduction we’ll read just the first five verses of Chapter one and then the purpose statement that John himself provides for us near the end of his gospel — the last two verses of chapter twenty.
In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God. He was with God in the beginning through Him all things were made, without Him nothing was made that has been made. In Him was life and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not understood it.
And it still does not today, especially in religion classes in colleges and seminaries around the world.
And then chapter twenty verses thirty and thirty one.
Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God and that by believing you may have life in his name.
I’m looking forward to this series and hope you are as well. Christians, I think, have almost by instinct a special affection for the gospel of John. Even if they couldn’t explain exactly why it is. It is, after all, the most theologically reflective of all the gospels, that is to say it explains more than the other gospels do. It is the most straightforward presentation of Jesus Christ as the Savior of sinners that we have in the Bible.
I remember that for years, the most popular, or one of the most popular classes at Covenant College was my father’s class in the Gospel of John. Now he didn’t teach that class in the way in which a college class in John would be taught today in college or even a class in theological seminary. He didn’t discuss at length the various opinions about the authorship of the Gospel that have been set forward by scholars. He simply assumed for entirely adequate reasons, in my judgment, that the author of the Gospel was the disciple and the apostle John, the son of Zebedee, the brother of James, the John of “Peter, James, and John” — that inner circle of the Lord’s disciples, and who identifies himself, interestingly, as the author of the Gospel by never mentioning his own name and referring to himself always by odd but memorable circumlocutions. He refers to himself in one case as “the other disciple”. In several cases he is the “the disciple that Jesus loved,” as the NIV has translated it or, more accurately, as in the older translations, “the beloved disciple.” Interestingly, and suggestively, it seems to me, John’s brother James is likewise not mentioned by name in the Gospel that he wrote. The early church was confused about some books of the Bible and their authorship but they were not confused at all about whom it was who wrote the fourth gospel. That was John the brother of James the son of Zebedee.
And my father didn’t deal with all the speculations now-a-days abroad concerning the literary history of the Gospel, the sources and the traditions that supposedly underlie some part or piece or section of the gospel. The man we have called John, the scholars say, stitched these various traditions together near the end of the century but we can still separate them one from another and tell exactly what they are and how they came to be and under the influence of what philosophy and what religious idea or principle abroad in the Greco-Roman world at the time. He simply dealt with the text as we have it.
The popularity of the class was due to the fact that many students, many of whom came, of course, from Christian homes, gained, for the first time in their lives, a systematic grasp of their faith. I’ve had men who are now ministers in the Presbyterian Church in America tell me that they put together their faith intellectually for the first time in my father’s class in the Gospel of John. In some ways, it is ideally suited for that purpose, even more so than Romans. For while Romans presents the Christian faith in Jesus Christ and his salvation wonderfully systematically, with immense intellectual sophistication and integrity, and deals along the way with the common objections that are usually raised against our faith at this point or that, John does much the same thing but in a more directly personal, immediately spiritual way. John welds together, as no other New Testament author does, the history of Christ’s life, ministry, death, and resurrection, and the meaning of that history, its significance. John is, I suppose we could say, an historical commentary on the life and work of Jesus Christ.
That is why, I venture to say, many, many more people have come to a living faith in Jesus Christ by reading the Gospel of John than have come to that same faith and life reading Paul’s Letter to the Romans. We could not do without Paul, we could not do without the Romans, but Paul’s Letter to the Romans was written explicitly for Christians – he says it was. John says that he wrote his letter no doubt to lead unbelievers to faith and confidence and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and salvation in his name!
Indeed, one of the truly brilliant things about John’s writing in the Gospel is the way in which it serves so many purposes at once. He is writing to Jews and Gentiles at the same time, not an easy thing to do in the first century when those people were at loggerheads with one another about virtually everything. He was writing to Christians and non-Christians at one and the same time not an easy thing to do. It takes a true gift to do that. Dr. Schaeffer had it; C.S. Lewis had it in our century. John had it in the first century. Indeed, I think John is the quintessential example of this gift.
You may have noticed yourself, in reading the Gospel of John, in the course of your Christian life, that though it covers the same history that is covered by the other gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it reads and sounds very different. Jesus even sounds different in John than he sounds in Matthew, Mark and Luke – the Synoptic Gospels, so-called because they all have pretty much the same viewpoint and are so very much different from the 4th Gospel as they are like one another.
There is a great deal in the fourth Gospel that would be of particular interest to Jews and of very little interest to Gentiles. For example, the book begins with the words “In the beginning…,” which any Jew would immediately recognize as the opening words of the Bible. He is going back to Genesis 1:1, he is starting his story from there. In many other ways he writes in a fashion that only the Jew is likely to understand and appreciate.
On the other hand, there is a great deal in John that has clearly adapted to the understanding, the thought-world of the Gentile. Even the opening of the prologue, where Jesus is identified with the Word, “the logos,” would have immediately caught the ear of a Gentile hearer, who was used to the idea of the “logos”—an important principle of philosophy in Greco-Roman world and culture. Similarly, the contrast between light and darkness, it was everywhere in the ancient world of that time.
In a similar way, John’s presentation of the Lord’s speeches, makes Jesus sound different in John than he sounds in the other Gospels, though that difference is often overstated. But John was taking the essential teaching of the Lord Jesus, which he had heard himself, and he is putting it into another language to appeal to another listener. He describes Jesus’ teaching, as he describes the customs and the theology of the Jews in language that the Gentiles could understand and grasp and appreciate. He has set us a wonderful example in that, accommodating the truth to the culture we’re trying to reach. He writes in Greek to reach the Greeks, an astonishing thing when you think about it. Except for Luke, every book of the New Testament was written in Greek by someone for whom Greek was not his ordinary language; it was not the language in which he was raised. It was not his mother tongue; it was truth being communicated to the world, in a language it can understand. But he also uses the OT with a sophistication only a Jew was likely to appreciate.
You may be aware that the differences in the language and thought-forms found in John – I’ve given two examples, the use of “logos”; the contrast between light and darkness, which he introduces right there at the beginning of the gospel – has been taken by some scholars to prove that John was attempting either to mix Christianity with other philosophical and religious ideas that he found in his culture, or is describing for us a Christianity that has already been reshaped, refashioned, reformed, by its encounter with that other philosophy, that other religious culture in the Greco-Roman world. But, really, all it means is that John used the parlance of his day to communicate the truth about Christ in an effective fashion. We’re always doing this, by the way, taking the language of one thing and giving it a new meaning, a new significance, a new use. We all, you and I, we all talk about the bottom line. I don’t suppose a day goes by I don’t hear somebody talk about the bottom line. And they are almost never talking about accounting, which is where the term comes from. It has punch. People know what it means and we use it. John is doing the same thing in simply a much more sublime and important way.
Remember, there is very strong evidence in the tradition that the Apostle John concluded his ministry as the pastor of the church in Ephesus. In that important Greco-Roman city, he would have had an extensive ministry to Gentiles, most of the people in his church would have been Gentiles, and he would have thought long and hard about how to communicate the truth about Jesus Christ in terms that they would find understandable and meaningful. But he was also a Jew, and he was recollecting events that took place in the life of a Jew and occurred in Judea. There were many Jews still in the church in Ephesus and they were still trying to reach Jews for Christ.
The Gospel of John is a brilliant achievement in its effort to communicate the gospel to everyone, whatever his background, his religion, his culture. That is, after all, what he has told us was his purpose in writing the Gospel – that people who read it might believe that Jesus was the Christ and believing might find life in his name. And this particular effort on John’s part – reaching both to Jew and Gentile – produced a universal language, accessible to everyone: simple, clear, persuasive, which is why you and I would probably without thinking much about it almost immediately recommend the Gospel of John to seekers and to new Christians. Because we’re confident that in John they are going to find Jesus Christ in a fashion they can understand. That was John’s magnificent achievement — the fisherman…amazing.
But, what about those differences between John and the other three gospels that liberal scholarship makes so much of. In some ways they are quite striking. Ninety percent of the gospel of John is without parallel in the other three Gospels. What is more, when John describes or reports an event the other Gospels also describe or report, he uses language, terminology, that is very different. Gives details that the others don’t. John tells of the Lord’s ministry in times and places and at times the Synoptic Gospels don’t mention at all. Indeed, if we had only the synoptic gospels, we would think that Jesus’ public ministry lasted one year. Virtually all our understanding of the chronology of the Lord’s ministry comes from John’s gospel and it is from material he gives us that we understand that that synoptic ministry is to be fit or rather spread over a period of three years. Virtually all of the synoptic history of the Lord’s ministry takes place in Galilee, except the passion week itself. Most all of John’s history takes place in Judea in the environs of the city of Jerusalem.
John fills out the picture of those three wonderful, remarkable years in a way that really needed filling out, which may be one reason why they finally convinced him to write the gospel. People were getting the wrong idea, the wrong impression from the sparser account, the Spartan account in the synoptic gospels. Indeed, the closer one looks, the more one realizes that we would never really have understood even the material that we find in Matthew, Mark and Luke if we hadn’t also been given the gospel of John.
John includes miracles that the Synoptics do not include – indeed, all but two of the miracles that John reports are known only from John’s gospel, including perhaps the most decisive and historically significant miracle of all the Lord’s miracles–the raising of Lazarus from the dead just days before his crucifixion. He includes speeches that are not found in the Synoptic gospels and visa versa. He does not include the Sermon on the Mount but has the long and very important “Bread of Life” discourse following the feeding of the 5,000 that the Synoptic gospels do not have. And so on.
But, on closer inspection, I think you’ll find that John and the other gospels have what scholars call an “interlocking” relationship. It seems clear that John knew the other gospels – of course he did; how could he not – and wrote with a view to what was already included in their works, these works written by his friends and colleagues: Peter and Matthew, and Luke, of course. Whether he knew Luke or met Luke we cannot say. For example, the Synoptic Gospels tell us that the Lord had a very close friendship with Mary, and Martha, and their brother Lazarus. Mary and Martha lived in Bethany, near Jerusalem. The synoptic gospels account of the Lord’s ministry tells us almost exclusively of what he did in Galilee. How did he have a relationship so close, so significant, with a couple that lived at the opposite end of the Holy Land, near Jerusalem in Bethany. Only John’s additional information about the Lord’s ministry in the south during the Galilean ministry before it and after it explains where that friendship came from and how it was maintained through the public ministry.
Or take the charge that all the Synoptic gospels tell us was leveled against the Lord at his trial, that poor excuse for a trial, namely that he had threatened to destroy the temple. All three synoptic gospels tells us that the charge was made against him – though the evidence was too insubstantial to convict him on it – , but only John tells us that the Lord actually said something like this, at some point in his ministry, indeed very early on in his ministry, John chapter two verse nineteen: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days”, remember? Or this. Matthew, Mark, and Luke have the Lord calling the twelve disciples to himself, as it were virtually out of the blue. But that summons is so much easier to understand when we learn in John that the Lord had had previous contact with these men and that their fundamental shift in allegiance to him had already occurred.
Or, consider this interesting example of the difference between John and the other three gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. You remember how important the casting out of demons is in the three synoptic gospels and the demonstration of the Lord’s authority over those demons in the account of his ministry in those gospels. Think of Legion and the pigs; or think of the Canaanite woman who came to the Lord in desperation on behalf of her demon possessed daughter and made that remarkably faithful statement, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” How often in synoptic gospels we read summaries of the Lord’s healing ministry, and it always includes, a summary always includes, the statement that he cast demons out of those who were possessed by them.
John does not include a single exorcism; he doesn’t mention that one ever took place. Now, there may be good reasons why he left that out of his account. There were all kinds of pretended exorcists in the Greco-Roman world of John’s day, a class of pagan miracle-workers who went around making money off of gullible people and John may have wanted to take very great care that his Gentile readers did not confuse Jesus with them. [Carson, 54] But, while John does not report any of the Lord’s casting out of demons, he does give us perhaps the most elaborate theology of the devil and his work of any of the gospels. It is in John, if you remember, that you read in chapter 8 a record of the Lord’s telling the Jewish leaders that they are children of the devil and that in opposing him, they were doing their father’s bidding! In other words, John does not report the particular events the synoptics reported, but he is very interested in the underlying theology that is revealed in those events.
And, while this is by no means a hard and fast distinction, it is still true by and large that the synoptic gospels record the Lord’s public speeches and discourses and utterances while John specializes in his private ones, to individuals and to his disciples. It is in John, for example, that we have the Lord’s conversation with the woman at the well in Samaria. It is in John that all that marvelous and so important material concerning what Jesus said to his disciples the night of his betrayal there in the Upper Room the night of his betrayal. What he said while washing their feet, the new commandment to love one another, the coming of the Holy Spirit, all of that is in John only. Many other instances like those of the interlocking relationship between John on the one hand and Matthew, Mark and Luke on the other.
As to the differences between John and the Gospels, the three gospels, as to all the difference, the significance that liberal scholarship attaches to those differences, the stubborn refusal to accept John’s claim to be an eyewitness of what he has written about, the claim that scholars make that they can discern in John’s gospel the development of an oral tradition over several generations influenced by this Greco-Roman philosophy or that, until all of it was summed up and written down by some editor near the end of the century. That John is an account more of what Christians believed seventy or eighty years after Jesus Christ than it is an account of what Jesus actually said and did. I say, in regard to all of that, let me just read this one tart riposte from an English scholar.
“There is a world – I do not say a world in which all scholars live but one at any rate into which all of them sometimes stray; and which some of them seem permanently to inhabit – which is not the world in which I live. In my world, if The Times and The Telegraph both tell one story in somewhat different terms, nobody concludes that one of them must have copied the other, nor that the variations in the story have some esoteric significance. But in the world of which I am speaking this would be taken for granted. There, no story is ever derived from the facts but always from somebody else’s version of the same story. … In my world, almost every book, except some produced by Government departments, is written by one author. In that world almost every book is produced by a committee, and some of them by a whole series of committees. In my world, if I read that Mr. Churchill, in 1935, said that Europe was heading for a disastrous war, I applaud his foresight. In that world, no prophecy, however vaguely worded, is ever made except after the event. In my world we say, ‘The first world-war took place in 1914-1915.’ In that world they say, ‘The world-war narrative took shape in the third decade of the twentieth century.’ In my world men and women live for considerable time – seventy, eighty, even a hundred years – and they are equipped with a thing called memory. In that world (it would appear) they come into being, write a book, and forthwith perish, all in a flash, and it is noted of them with astonishment that they ‘preserve traces of primitive tradition’ about things which happened well within their own lifetime.” [A.H.N. Green-Armytage, John Who Saw, cited in Carson, 50]
In John we have the personal recollection of a man who was there, a man who was one of three of the Lord’s most intimate associates through the three years of the public ministry. Further, in his Gospel we also have the theological reflection and explanation and interpretation of one who was the Lord’s Apostle, who spoke with the Lord about these things in the days between his resurrection and his ascension to the right hand and then was given the Holy Spirit in a great measure to teach him what was true about Christ’s life, his ministry, his death, his resurrection, his coming again, and all the rest. All of that makes the differences between John and the other gospels – all three of which also rest on eyewitness testimony and apostolic authority – I say all that makes the differences between them fabulously interesting and significant, but in no way a problem.
There are books that scholars use which place the four gospels side by side in parallel columns on the page. In that way one can compare at a glance how the gospel reports are similar, how they differ, when they are reporting/describing the same thing. The ordinary name for such a book is a Harmony of the Gospels. Harmony! And that is just the right idea. Four notes that agree with one another so well that they are beautiful to hear at the same time. And in the case of the gospels, four accounts of our Lord’s life and ministry which together produce a beautiful whole.
We are going to concentrate on one of those gospels, the Gospel of John. Some years ago we preached through the gospel of Luke, some years before that the gospel of Mark. John is quite different from those two. And we will enjoy those differences, believe me. Just as we enjoyed the synoptic gospels when we considered them paragraph by paragraph in years past. One of the four records of the life, the teaching, the work, the passion, the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, the most comprehensive of those four in the way of explaining his life, his death, his resurrection, and all of the meaning that is in those things for us.
William Temple, a stoutly evangelical Archbishop of Canterbury, earlier in the 20th century (it is hard to remember that’s no longer this century), wrote a wonderfully suggestive little book on the Gospel of John in which he suggested that what you have in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, is something that more nearly approximates a photograph and what you have in John is a portrait. Well, clearly, a good photograph is superior to a bad portrait, but a great portrait painter can give us more than we could ever get in the very best photograph, for a portrait painter can give us the whole man all at once. He can give us all at once what we would never see at any given moment in the life of that man. John was the greatest painter for whom the Lord Christ ever sat!
John gives us Jesus Christ in his fullness, in a way that even John himself never saw the Lord when they were together in the world. All through the Gospel we are going to find John explaining what Jesus thought and what Jesus said and why he said and did what he said and did, all of which, of course, John himself didn’t understand at the time. It was after the Lord had risen from the dead, perhaps in some cases, years after, that John came to the full understanding of what he had himself seen and what he himself had heard.
Robert Browning, great poet, has a poem about John’s Gospel, and in that poem he says that same thing about John. He has John say:
“What first were guessed as points, I now saw stars,
And recorded them in the Gospel I have writ.”
[Temple, Readings, xvii]
So, what we have before us, Lord willing, in the months that now follow, is one of the greatest, one of the most beautiful and compelling portraits of the Lord Jesus Christ. I think probably the greatest we have in all the Bible. It will be ours to open our minds and our hearts as wide as we possible can to embrace what John is going to set before us week after week. And to encourage us to that end, let me conclude with these words about the Gospel from a great scholar and a great Christian who had searched the Gospel of John down to its depths. And there is a summons here for us.
“…in the highest and best sense of the word, John’s is the Gospel of passion. It is the Gospel of passionate, never-failing, brooding love. He who wrote it understood his Master as only love can understand. Long years he had kept him, and what he did and what he said, treasured up not merely in his mind but in his heart; and his understanding had ripened as the years fled by – for ‘it is the heart that makes the theologian.’ In his old age, he brings out of the treasures of his teeming memory, words of life for the healing of the nations. Would these things have perished from the memory of man, had it not been for him? The Gospel could not have been written save by him who leaned on Jesus’ breast. It can be understood only by those who lean on Jesus’ breast.” [Warfield, “The Gospel of John,” Selected Shorter Writings, ii, 645-646]