That You May Believe: New Life in the Son
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by Joseph Skip Ryan
Description: The apostle John was a passionate witness to Christ's life, death, and resurrection, and in his gospel he shows us the Jesus he knew and loved. Skip Ryan has carefully chosen portions from John's Gospel and illuminates them with stories of God's grace in the lives of ordinary people so that you too might believe and have a deeper faith in God.
eBook Publisher: Crossway Books, 2009
eBookwise Release Date: July 2009
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [611 KB]
Reading time: 418-585 min.
THE BELOVED DISCIPLE
Many other signs therefore Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name (John 20:30-31).
This is the disciple who bears witness of these things, and wrote these things; and we know that his witness is true. And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books which were written (21:24-25).
There was reclining on Jesus' breast one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved (13:23).
WE CAN LEARN MUCH about the Gospel of John by looking at the disciple himself. What was John like? What was his background and how did he see himself? Who was he writing to and why did he write this book? Let's develop a profile of John at the very beginning of this study.
JOHN' S PROFILE
Apparently John was an upper-middle-class Jewish businessman from Palestine, the son of a businessman named Zebedee. He had a brother named James. Together James and John were called the Sons of Thunder (Mark 3:17), perhaps because they once asked the Lord if they should call fire down from heaven on a particularly disrespectful and unbelieving Samaritan village (Luke 9:54). Zebedee and Sons, Inc., was a fishing company. These were not itinerant or poor fisherman throwing lines off a dock somewhere; they probably had a substantial business. They owned their own boats (Luke 5:3) and employed others (Mark 1:20).
It appears that John was a well-educated Jewish layman. He wasn't a rabbi or a prophet, but he was particularly knowledgeable in the texts of the Old Testament. He repeatedly quotes from the Old Testament in his writings. He refers to Father Abraham, to the tabernacle, the temple, the feasts, Jacob's ladder, Jacob's well, manna, and the Sabbath. He consistently refers to things that a Jewish layperson who has taken his or her Bible seriously would understand.
John probably spoke three languages. Speaking multiple languages was not that uncommon for people living in the ancient world, as it is not that uncommon for many in the world today. We Americans are somewhat disadvantaged in this regard. Until recently, our particular borders, the oceans on both sides, and our particular history have promoted the use of one language.
John spoke Aramaic, the everyday speech of his time, as a first language; but he also spoke Hebrew, the ceremonial religious language. Greek was the lingua franca of the day, used in commerce and business all over the ancient world. Greek was also the language that would have linked John to the Mediterranean world of his day. Some who had contact with the Roman army or administration might even have known a little Latin.
John was a man of his world. He grew up in Galilee and lived in Judea--in Jerusalem--for a time. Most scholars believe that after the destruction of Jerusalem in A. D. 70, when Jews were scattered throughout the world, John lived for a time in the city of Ephesus, in the western part of Asia Minor, which today is Turkey. Then his final years were spent in exile on the island of Patmos, off the coast of western Turkey.
Moving around as John did sounds more modern than ancient. We usually think people in ancient times lived in one place and never moved, but John traveled a good bit. It's like being born in Pittsburgh, growing up in New York, going to school in Boston and Philadelphia, then living in Virginia and Texas (as I have). In this sense, John's life was more modern than ancient.
JOHN' S WITNESS
How did John see himself? How did he understand his role? First of all, John saw himself as a truthful witness to the events and meaning of Jesus Christ's life, death, and resurrection. At the very end of the book of John he claims that his testimony is true. He says, "We know that his witness is true" (John 21:24). That statement is interesting because it is written in the third person, but that is characteristic of John. Never once in his Gospel does John speak of himself in the first person.
He also says (21:25) that his witness is selective. He says that if everything was written down that could be written about Jesus Christ, there would be no library in the world that could contain it all. So John picks and chooses for his purposes.
Apparently John was well acquainted with the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke because his Gospel was written later. But his writing is very different than that of the Synoptic Gospels. Even a casual reading of these four Gospels will tell you that John's cadence and emphases are different. For example, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke there are many accounts of Jesus doing battle with the demons. There is not one such account in all of John's Gospel. Instead, in John we find a "theology of the devil." In John 8 there is a big discussion as Jesus interacts with the Jewish leaders about the nature of the devil as a father of lies. Apparently John is not interested just in the action that Jesus undertook with the demons. Perhaps he assumes that his readers have already read Matthew, Mark, and Luke. He takes it a step further for his purposes and goes into more analysis about why and how and what it means for Jesus to cast out a demon.
John wasn't just truthful and selective; he was also passionate. Truth without passion is like light without heat; you can learn a lot of truth, but it is of little use if it doesn't affect you, warm your heart, and move you to action. Any other kind of truth is dry. Does that describe the kind of sermons you hear on Sunday mornings, or do they have both light and heat? Every good sermon should have a lot of light, a lot of truth, a lot of understanding of what the Word is saying, inviting you to use your brain. But every good sermon should also have a fair amount of heat. It should warm your heart, move you to conviction, compel you to action, and motivate you to something new and different.
Other sermons have a lot of heat but not much light. You may be in tears at the end of the sermon, but five minutes later you don't know why. We need a good balance.
John was truthful in a passionate way. He was not neutral about Jesus Christ. The Gospels are not dispassionate history. Some might say that the truth of one's testimony or account is compromised if too much passion is involved. The truth, however, does not have to be dispassionate. In fact, the truth should not be dispassionate. Imagine the first witnesses to Auschwitz after World War II as they came upon that horror and told about it later. Would you expect them to be dispassionate? It would be obscene if they were. To be dispassionate about the truth of Christ is almost blasphemous, because the truth of Christ should move us, as it moved John.
JOHN' S AUDIENCE
John was an evangelist to culturally diverse people. His purpose is stated directly in John 20:31: "These have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name." Perhaps a better rendering of this verse would be, "These things have been written that you may believe that the Christ, the Son of God, is Jesus." Reversing the subject and the object clarifies John's emphasis. John's basic question is not, Who is Jesus, but, Who is Messiah? Who would ask that question? Who is John trying to reach? There has been a lot of scholarly blood spilled about who John's target audience is. Many say he is more or less ignoring Jews and seeking to reach Greeks. But who would ask the question, Who is Messiah? A Jew or a Greek? A Jew, of course. John's primary audience is the Jews who have been scattered throughout the Greek world by virtue of the destruction of Jerusalem in A. D. 70. They are the ones who would be looking for the Messiah. John sees himself as an evangelist to a cosmopolitan culture where people with different religious backgrounds are expecting the Messiah. John is pressing them to ask, Is Jesus the One we seek? So John's target audience is Jews who know the Old Testament because of their family background but who are now living in a Greek city such as Ephesus, which is ruled by the Romans. They speak two or three languages and are urban, educated people.
Along with them, John wants to reach the Greeks or Romans who live in the same cities and in the same environment as the Jews. Perhaps what is going on here is what Paul alluded to in his first chapter of Romans when he said that the gospel is to be preached first to the Jew and then to the Greek. This is what John and Paul may be suggesting: don't discount the Greek, but go first to the Old Testament believers in this multiple-culture setting.
I spent a few days in Santa Fe, New Mexico, last summer. It is a beautiful place, but what a complex culture! There is the old Spanish culture, the Native American culture, the Mexican culture, the Old Westculture, and the modern, New Age, neo-pagan culture. Santa Fe is spiritual potpourri. Could an evangelist in Santa Fe ignore the fact that the Mayan Indian selling jewelry in the town square is wearing a cowboy hat? Could he ignore the fact that the Mexican American is greatly influenced in his understanding of his own culture by the old Spanish culture and the New Age cultures all around him, as well as by his own Mexican roots? Multiple cultures affect the way the evangelist would talk about Christ. Multiple cultures affect John as he writes his Gospel account.
To use a musical metaphor, John is transposing the gospel into another cultural key. The reader of John must stand amid these multiple cultures with John and see him persuade especially Jews but also the Greeks in the world to which the Jews were scattered. John stays mindful of the fact that these Jewish people are now displaced. For example, he uses the Greek word for Messiah, Christos. Why? Because he knows that the Jewish people living in a Greek culture are more likely to use the Greek word for Messiah, not the old Hebrew word. He calls the Sea of Galilee (its Jewish name) the Sea of Tiberias. John knows that these Jews living in a Greek world would come to accept the name Tiberius for that lake because that is what the Greeks around them called it.
When you move to a new place, you learn a new vocabulary. Eleven years ago, before I moved to Texas, I had never once heard the expression, "That dog don't hunt." But now I say it all the time because now I'm a Texan and I have learned to speak like a Texan. I have taken on the vocabulary of the culture in which I live.
JOHN' S PASSION
John is not just a witness; he is a passionate witness who wants to communicate cross-culturally in order to get people to believe in Christ. That is why various forms of the term believe appear a hundred times in this Gospel and only about fifty times in the other three Gospels combined.
John is not just a witness; he is not just an evangelist. Above all else he is the beloved disciple. John never directly refers to himself, but four times in this Gospel he speaks of himself in the third person as the disciple whom Jesus loved. The first time is in John 13:23: "There was reclining on Jesus' breast one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved." Customarily, those attending a formal meal in New Testament times would put the left elbow on a cushion and lean onto the table. Today we are always telling our children to get their elbows off the table, but it was acceptable in that day. The diner would actually be leaning to the left, so that his head would come close to the person on his left. To be immediately to the right of the Lord was not only a place of honor, it also provided an opportunity for a private conversation between John and Jesus.
Doesn't it seem a bit odd at first that John says, in effect, "I am the disciple whom Jesus loved"? To speak of one's self that way seems a little self-centered, and there is a subtle suggestion that maybe Jesus doesn't love other people as much! But that is not at all what John is suggesting.
For a Christian to think of himself as someone whom Jesus loves is not to suggest that other Christians are loved less; he is simply making it personal. It is the same thing that Paul does in Galatians 2:20 when he says that Jesus loved him and gave Himself for him. Every Christian needs to realize that remarkable truth.
There is a wonderful psychological dynamic in John's claim. D. A. Carson, in The Gospel According to John, says, "[T]hose who are most profoundly aware of their own sin and need, and who in consequence most deeply feel the wonders of the grace of God that has reached out and saved them, even them, are those who are most likely to talk about themselves as the objects of God's love in Christ Jesus." John is deeply aware that he is loved.
[Footnote 1 : D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, Mich. : Eerdmans, 1991), 76.]
I was thinking about being beloved of Christ and talking about it with one dear woman in our church. She said, "Oh, I need to hear that because I keep doubting it; I keep wondering, I keep questioning whether I'm doing enough, and I need to be released from that bondage and know that the Lord loves me--not only in spite of my sin but in the midst of it." The Lord wants us to grow into disciples and to grow away from all our folly and sin. But it is because we are so beloved in Him that He will change and transform us.
John saw himself as a Son of Thunder who would become the Apostle of Love. His response wasn't arrogance; it was amazement. He was simply overwhelmed by Jesus' love for him in the midst of his sin. We need to be overwhelmed, because we need to become more truthful and more passionate in our witness to Jesus Christ. Shallow understanding makes weak witnesses. We need to believe not just that the gospel is true but that it is true for us. That will make us passionate believers who will be transformed and who will then speak out of overflowing hearts as we dig deep into the content of the Word.
John shapes his whole Gospel with this theme: Jesus was and is the eternal Son of God who came from the Father, who bears the unique name, I AM, and who is the Father's special representative in this world. He came to bring lost sinners to the Father, out of death into life, out of darkness into light, out of hate into love.
We need to become culturally aware communicators at the outset of this new millennium. The evangelical church in America is becoming more culturally complex than ever. It is not your father's Oldsmobile; it is not the church that it was even ten years ago. It is not and never will be again.
That cultural complication will help us all hear the gospel better. When I see a brother listening to the gospel who doesn't look like me, act like me, or come from the same background as I do, it helps me hear the gospel better. I look at him and ask, How is he hearing what that preacher is saying? If we are all the same, then all we are doing is hearing it through the grid of our own established, hardened, cultural biases. The danger is that we won't hear the gospel at all.
From a church in another city, a large church considered wealthy and culturally homogenous, comes this account. One Sunday morning the church was very full and the pastor had just started his sermon. Everyone in the church looked nice, buttoned down, and clean-cut. Then a man entered the rear of the sanctuary who didn't fit. He wore blue jeans, an old ragged shirt, and an earring, and his hair was wild. Someone had been a passionate and truthful witness to that man on the street, and he had come to Christ. So now, he thought, I need to go to church. Well, there's a church, so I'll go in. He walked in a few minutes late, and the church was full, with no place to sit in the back. He kept walking down the middle aisle, looking for a seat, but he couldn't find one. As he searched from side to side, everyone watched. He arrived at the front of the sanctuary, and then he did what no one else in that church had ever done before. He just sat right down in front on the floor.
A few of the people who found that a bit culturally unconventional quietly made sounds of disapproval. Then, from about three-fourths of the way back, an old gentleman, an elder in the church, stood up. He was an elder's elder, with beautiful silver hair, a three-piece suit, and a watch fob. He walked down the aisle with everyone so silent that the only sound was the clink of his cane on the floor. Most were assuming that this elder was going to give a piece of his mind to that young man. But with great pain in his frail knees, he sat down on the floor next to that fellow so that he wouldn't be alone as he came to worship the Son of God.
We need to become beloved disciples just like John. Not only do we need to be effective and sensitive cultural communicators, but we also need to see ourselves as beloved disciples, disciples whom Jesus loves. Let us never separate truth and love. They don't separate. You are a beloved disciple if you are a disciple at all. We need to be amazed that we are so loved.
Like the woman I was talking to that day, we need to be willing to see that the only thing stronger than our pernicious attempts to prove to Jesus how worthy we are of Him is the effectiveness of His grace--which cuts to our heart, convicts us of sin, shows us our failure, shows us the phoniness of our own righteousness, and then picks us up and says, "You are loved."
If you are beginning the journey of faith with Jesus Christ, not even sure you've crossed that starting line, the Gospel of John is for you. And for those of us who are down the road a way, the Gospel of John is for us. For both groups, the wonder is that Jesus is truth and love, the Christ, the Son of God and that He quite simply overpowers us and overwhelms us by His love.