Reading John 1:1-18; John 21:25
In Sunday School, we discussed the witness of John the Baptist. I appreciate this lesson, John is full of the testimonies and witness of those who knew Jesus. Understanding these testimonies is an important part of understanding the message that is in the gospel — however I think it is important to get a broader overview of what the gospel writer is trying to do. As we will be spending 3 months in John, I think it is important to talk about the message John is trying to get across.
As you know, there are four gospels. You might have observed that Matthew, Mark and Luke have a lot in common with one another. Mark is the shortest of the three. I could summarize Mark by calling it the “Acts of Jesus”. Mark tells us where Jesus went, and what he did when he went there. Luke and Matthew either quote or summarize large parts of Mark, and the narrative of what Jesus did is broken up by the things that Jesus taught. Most Bible scholars believe that the writers of Matthew and Luke had a copy of Mark, and a book of Jesus sayings, currently known as Q. These scholars also speak of M and L, when talking about sources that the gospel writers did not have in common.
Mark offers a running narrative that is full of action; one of the most common words in Mark is “Immediately”. Jesus was always going somewhere, and doing something. Mark is by far the shortest gospel. It takes about an hour and half to read Mark out loud. Story tellers have memorized the whole gospel of Mark, and have used it to tell the story of Jesus in a single setting — and when I have listened to a story teller reciting Mark, he had my full attention. I think it is likely Mark was intended to be heard exactly this way.
Luke and Matthew contain most of Mark between them — neither one contains all of Mark, and both leave out different parts of Mark. Luke and Matthew also contain various sayings of Jesus; again, there is a significant overlap, but whatever Q is, neither felt it necessary to simply copy it, just as they did not simply copy Mark. The general assumption, as I said, is that both gospel writers were using Mark, a collection of Jesus saying — and, each had some other sources which they used to write their introduction. Because of the similarity of these three gospels, people can compare and contrast them — and speculate on why the two writers chose to include what they chose to include. People who are especially prone to speculation can attempt to re-create the collection of sayings that was used to write Luke and Matthew — and, such attempts at reconstruction have been published.
John is different. There is very little in common between John and the other gospels. John does not follow Mark’s narrative, and the sayings and teachings of Jesus that are found in John are not found in Matthew and Luke. John is independent of the other three; John is in some ways the most important gospel because it has a completely different focus. The other three gospels focus on what Jesus did and taught — John’s gospel focuses on who Jesus is. Traditionally one of the names given to the author of John is John the Theologian; and this is because John directly taught about the deity of Christ, and what is implied by it. John starts out by telling us that Jesus is both God, and revelation — and it ends by telling us that Jesus is a better revelation of who God is than any book — and, all the books in the world couldn’t contain what Jesus was.
One might say that John complements the other gospels. The theological teaching in the Gospel of John is one of the most important beliefs of traditional Christianity. John teaches us that if we know Jesus, we know God; that knowing Jesus is the best way that we have of knowing God — better than all the books in the world. If we approach the other gospels with the lesson we learn from John’s gospel, we get to see what God would say and do; because we also read John.
The first major implication this has is one for everybody who loves books, and has the tendency to approach God through books. As great as the Bible is, it is not the chief revelation of God — Jesus is. While I, being very much a book person, noticed that Jesus is the Word of God, according to scripture. Oddly enough, it was a Muslim friend who convinced me to think about what this means — my friend was talking about how wonderful the Koran was, and actually used some of the same language that John uses to tell what the role of Jesus was. I started to realize that we believe that the Word became flesh, and lived among us — scripture, for Christians, points us to Jesus and tells us that if we know the Son, we will know the Father.
The second major implication is one that exposes flaws that develop in our theology. Everybody imagines what God must be like — and, the God of our imagination is not always like what Christ revealed to us. If we know God by knowing Jesus, then if we think God is one thing, and Jesus is something else, there is a flaw in our understanding of the God. Last week, I told you that at one time, I imagined a God that was easily offended and angered. My first view of sin was those things that anger God — therefore, Jesus must be there to save us from God’s anger. But, the idea that Jesus saves us from God makes no sense if John is right: It isn’t God’s anger problem its our sin problem. Jesus came to save us from ourselves.
There is a third implication that is very important for those of us who read John — that Jesus is still knowable. If Jesus is the light that gives Light to all people, than there is something about this revelation that is not limited to the time Jesus spent with his disciples. I have an Evangelical background — this background will always be part of the way I approach my faith. I grew up with language talking about how important it is to have a personal relationship with Jesus. Like other Evangelical children, I learned how important it was to ask Christ into my heart.
While this is confusing in many ways (small children have a problem understanding metaphor) — it is an expression of a belief that Jesus is knowable, and that the individual should know Jesus beyond simply knowing Jesus through reputation. This is something that I am convinced is right — we should know Jesus, we need to have a relationship with Jesus. All the written words in the world are no substitute for knowing Jesus.
One of my favorite implications is that God isn’t distant and uncaring. When I imagine the God that created the universe, without considering Jesus — I imagine a God that is too big to notice me. The universe seems to run as it runs — miracles are rare. The idea that God can even have compassion, or that God would notice us would not occur to me, if it were left to my imagination. Jesus is the very definition of compassion! When Jesus lived on Earth, he experienced the same thing we experience. Sometimes He was hungry, sometimes He was tired, and He died a torturous death under an oppressive government. Compassion literally means to suffer with — and scripture told us that is what Jesus did; Jesus suffered all those things that humans suffer.
John is a remarkable Gospel; John tells us how we can know who God is, and what God’s character is like. Often, people start their views of what God might be by imagining God. We start with a philosopher’s God, and try to guess God’s nature by the things we observe in the universe. The great western Theologian Thomas Aquinus started there, and he wrote a convincing argument: but, my Theology teacher Chris Kettler pointed out the problem with Aquinus is that when we try to prove God, and then figure out what the God we just proved must be, this God only exists in our imagination. The God Aquinus proves in the first part of Suma Theologica is very different than the God that Jesus showed us. Aquinus starts with the philosophers God, then he is forced to try and reconcile the philosophers God with the God we know through Jesus. It is impossible to know God unless God lets us see what God is like — God has to come to us, or we cannot know God. Speculating on what the creator must be like is just speculation; but because God became flesh and dwelt among us, we can know God. Jesus is God’s revelation to us — because Jesus came here, we know God. This is the good news John taught us; that because we know Jesus, we know God.