Wow! It’s been so much fun working through John these last few months. I’m not used to sticking with one subject for so long, but I’ve found the study intensely rewarding.
There’s clearly something special about John. The comments and page views for John have held up much, much better than for other textual studies I’ve done.
(I suspect it’s the appeal of the book’s central character.)
Saved by faith (without apology)
So what’s the theme of John? Well, the author says it plainly —
(John 20:31 ESV) 31 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.
What is the substance of saving faith? That Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.
What is the result of saving faith? Life in his name.
It’s really not complicated, and yet many in the Churches of Christ flee this painfully obvious conclusion because it seems to diminish the importance of water baptism. Nonetheless, by the power of inspiration, the book says what it says. We really have no choice but to own it.
I mean, it’s not as though John isn’t entirely serious about what he says. He says the same thing in nearly every chapter —
(John 1:12-13) Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
(John 3:14-18) Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
(John 3:36) “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.”
(John 5:24) “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”
(John 6:29) Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
(John 6:35) Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”
(John 6:40) “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
(John 6:47) “I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life.”
(John 7:38-39) “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.”By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.
(John 11:25-26) Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies;and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
(John 12:46) “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.”
(John 20:31) 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.
So what does it mean to believe? Obviously enough, to believe is to accept the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. These are two Old Testament phrases meaning the king prophesied as coming to rule God’s Kingdom when the Kingdom is finally established.
“Son of God” is taken from Psalm 2, where it refers to the coronation of God’s king —
(Psa 2:1 ESV) 6 “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” 7 I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. 8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.”
“Messiah” means Anointed One and is taken from such passages as —
(Psa 2:2-4 ESV) 2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, 3 “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” 4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.
(Isa 61:1-2 ESV) The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;
This means that faith is about much more than accepting that Jesus is a part of the Godhead, in hypostatic union with God. Indeed, it’s not really about the language of the Nicene Creed at all. It’s about the Prophets of the Tanakh, not 4th Century church controversies.
And that being the case, you cannot escape the conclusion that Jesus is Lord, that is, king of the universe. John certainly makes the same point —
(John 3:35 ESV) The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand.
(John 13:1 ESV) 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, 4 rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist.
Hence, it’s impossible to truly believe that Jesus is the Messiah and not simultaneously submit to Jesus as Lord (Rom 10:9). After all, the Greek word for “faith” can also be translated “faithfulness.” To have faith in Jesus is to be faithful to Jesus.
Moreover, to believe in Jesus is to love him. Those are theoretically two different things, but you cannot believe the person described in John to be the Messiah and not fall in love. The point is not that there is some abstract person called “Messiah.” The point is that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah — the same Jesus who washed Judas’ feet.
You see, we tend to abstract Jesus into the “Second Person of the Godhead,” and we forget that the Gospels focus almost entirely on the works and words of Jesus of Nazareth, so that the Jesus in whom we believe is a living person to us, not a mere ideal — indeed, a living person who reveals to us the very character of God, the image to which we are called.
One of the great mistakes of Christianity has been to focus on the metaphysical characteristics of the Son of God and to be so focused on the mystery of the Trinity that we entirely overlook the flesh-and-blood revelation found in the Jesus who walked the earth. And our faith would be far richer, far more motivating, and far more effective if we’d stop being dazzled by the metaphysical theories spun the theologians and focus our attentions on the Jesus who wept at the death of Lazarus.
Now, if “faith” includes faithfulness, and if faith necessarily produces love, it makes perfect sense that Jesus would say —
(John 14:15 ESV) 15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
Of course. To be faithful to Jesus necessarily includes keeping his commandments — not perfectly, of course, but rather having a penitent heart that seeks always to obey, even when it inevitably fails.
The point, therefore, is not that we prove our love by obeying a rulebook. The point is that, by coming to know Jesus, by reading his words and his deeds, and by seeking to emulate them, we come to know Jesus, and so come to love him all the more.
(John 17:3 ESV) 3 And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
Notice that Jesus equates faith with knowing God. After all, if faith in Jesus brings life, and if knowing God and Jesus produces life, then faith and knowing God and Jesus must be equivalent in some sense.
Faith saves because it brings us close enough to Jesus to know him. You can’t know Jesus if you don’t have faith that he is the Messiah. Thus, faith opens the door to knowledge about Jesus.
Knowledge of Jesus brings knowledge of God, because Jesus is the image of God.
(John 12:44-45 ESV) 44 And Jesus cried out and said, “Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. 45 And whoever sees me sees him who sent me.”
And knowledge of God saves (John 17:3).
Make no mistake, the Jesus described in John is constantly pointing beyond himself toward God, just as the Spirit is given to point beyond himself toward Jesus.
It’s ultimately all about knowledge of God — with the critically important caveat that truth — true knowledge — only comes via Jesus. There is no other way (John 14:6).
So why is it so incredibly important that we come to know God? Why did God go to such trouble, and suffer so greatly, just to reveal himself? Well, because he has a purpose beyond merely hauling us all to heaven when we die.
We’d like to pretend that heaven is the end of it all, because that would make salvation and Jesus’ death all about us. But it’s not.
Rather, God’s purpose is to reshape us, to transform us, into his own image — an image revealed in Jesus. Thus, to vary from the image of Jesus is to sin, and to conform to the image of Jesus is to be pleasing to God.