What is this Book for?
John 20:30-31, Remsen Bible Fellowship, 07/26/2020
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life--the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us--that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”
This is how the apostle John opens his first epistle (1 John 1:1-4). Notice the language. It’s concrete. That which we have heard. Seen. Touched with our hands. It was made manifest, made clearly visible and we saw it and now we’re telling you. John wrote that letter to a church, a gathering of believers, and he was writing of what he had seen first hand. He wasn’t someone who had heard of Jesus, he had heard Jesus. He hadn’t read about the resurrection, he had touched the risen Christ. There is no ambiguity in his mind about his message, because he is an eyewitness.
This is important for us, and it’s important to John himself. Do you remember John 19:35, during the account of the crucifixion? There John writres, He who saw it has borne witness-his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth. He will reiterate this point again as he concludes his narrative in 21:24. John is an eyewitness to the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. He gives first-hand testimony of his deeds and teaching. He is a reliable source.
But why is he writing? Why did John write the gospel which bears his name? In John 20:30-31, we read his answer:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 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.
As we examine this purpose statement, these words which ought to frame the whole gospel for us, I want to organize our thoughts under three headings: John’s method, John’s structure, and John’s aim.
The first thing we find in v30 is the method used by the apostle: selective story telling. Which might sound strange. How can a writer of Scripture be selective? But it doesn’t sound quite so sacreligious when we take time to consider what is said in the final verse of John, John 21:25,
Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
Jesus’ works were broad ranging, far reaching, and too numerous to count. John actually does provide quite a bit of new material compared to the other gospels. Written some decades after it’s counterparts, it repeats only two miracles found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. So he includes a lot, but of necessity it is selective.
You can’t put any person’s whole life into a book, so any time an author sets out to write such a work they are going to be making choices. Why do authors of narrative nonfiction (history, biography, memoir, etc), make the selections they do? The driving reason behind those selections is that there is a Story to tell, and the stories, facts, tidbits, dialogue, and all other content will be filtered (if the writer is skillful) through the lens of: does this drive the narrative forward? Does this help illustrate the point I’m wanting to make, does it cast this character in the light I want in the reader’s mind? Am I usefully moving the Story forward, or am I slowing it down with needless details?
So John has selected particular stories to tell us, and signs to show us. But what is motivating the particular selections he makes? What is the Story he seeks to tell? What is the question he seeks to answer?
Verse 31, again, states, 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. This would seem to indicate that John's intention is to answer this question: Who is Jesus? The answer he provides: The Christ (or the Jewish Messiah, the anointed one from God), the Son of God.
That idea (based on this verse), that John’s main question he seeks to answer is: who is Jesus? has been my assumption throughout the entirety of our study in John’s gospel. However, in an article published in the Journal of Biblical Literature in 1987 (and then more briefly in his excellent commentary, the Gospel According to John), D.A. Carson makes the argument that we ought to understand those words in a slightly different order. His argument essentially boils down to this: in v31, the Greek phrase, ἵνα πιστεύητε ὅτι, translated so that you may believe that refers not to who Jesus is, but to who the Messiah, the Son of God is (he takes Messiah and Son of God as basically synonyms). So the question then becomes: Who is the Messiah, the Son of God? Answer: Jesus.
This makes a lot of intuitive sense to me as I read John. I'm not by any means versed enough in Greek to make much of a judgement on Carson's linguistic argument, though I sat with it long enough this week that I'm pretty sure I grasp what he is saying. To me the question is, which of these questions makes the best sense of the book?
In the end, either question is going to give us substantially the same answers, because John labors who Jesus is, where he comes from, and what his mission is. But the nature of John’s selectivity in constructing the narrative of signs (see v30) will be shaped by which question he is asking. I'm convinced that Carson is correct: the question driving John is, Who is the Messiah? As John records the statements Jesus made, the signs he performed, his substitutionary and atoning death on the cross followed by the Resurrection, it all points to this world transforming answer: The Messiah, the Son of God, is Jesus of Nazareth. To an audience of unbelieving Jews, this would be compelling evidence to come to Jesus. He is the one they were waiting for.
If all of that was confusing, let me put it in a nutshell. I’ve been working under the assumption that John is trying to answer the question, “who is Jesus?” But it seems to me that the question, “who is the Messiah?” makes more sense of John’s gospel. In short, Jesus isn’t John’s question, he’s the answer.
This message runs all through the book, but I just want to sit down, as it were, with chapter one and see how from the very beginning John’s gospel is shaped by this question. Who is Messiah? We’ll look at texts from the OT that Jewish and God-fearing readers would have recognized as having reference to Messiah or the Anointed One from God, and then see how John presents Jesus as the answer to those expectations-and how he exceeds them as the Messiah who is not merely human, but who is the Son of God. Again, these themes run all through John, but we’re going to focus on one chapter, just to get a sense of how deeply this book is marinated with Messianic expectation.
The Creative Word of God
Genesis 1:1, In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
Psalm 33:6, By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host.
Jesus is presented in the very first verses of John as the One who is God, and yet is with God. He’s distinct from the Father, yet united to him. To use the theological language that developed in early Christianity, the Son proceeds from the Father. The Word goes forth from the Father and is the agent of the Father’s creation. He is truly God.
The One who is preceded
There was an expectation in the Old Testament that Messiah would not burst on the scene totally at random. Rather, there would be someone, an Elijah-like prophetic figure, who would come and prepare the way.
Do you see the expectation of the priests and Levites in v19? They assume that this eccentric prophet and preacher of righteousness in the desert must either be the Messiah, or the prophet, or Elijah. And John says, don’t look at me, look at the One I’ll point to. He’s coming! He’s the worthy One, not me.
The Light from On High
One of the major Messianic promises which was looked to between the close of the OT and the coming of Christ was Numbers 24:15-17.
John 1:14, 18
The Lamb of God
You are likely familiar with Exodus 12, where God brings salvation to his people by bringing death upon Egypt. How are the people of Israel spared when the angel of death passes through town? By being covered with the blood of the Lamb. He passes over the homes covered by the blood, hence the name of the feast which commemorates it: Passover. We find that metaphor of a sheep led to slaughter being picked up by the prophet Isaiah in his song of the suffering servant.
The Giver of the Spirit
The Messiah who hails from Galilee
The Jews all knew that the Messiah was to be of David’s people, of the tribe of Judah. But is there OT evidence that he was to come from the North?
Isaiah 9:1, 6-7
John 1:40-41, 45-49
The Meeting Place of Heaven and Earth
Jesus picks up this imagery and makes the point that he is the meeting place between God and man, heaven and earth.
I don’t know if all that time I spent at the beginning seemed too abstract or detached. Maybe you were thinking, who cares whether Jesus is the question or the answer, as long as we’re focused on him, right? Which is at least partly true. But the reason this felt like such a lightbulb for me is that it drove me to look closer at how each part of John’s gospel connects to the Old Testament. The Bible all hangs together, it is of one piece. The same Divine Author who was inspiring the writers of Numbers and Deuteronomy and Psalms and Isaiah and Malachi is the same Divine Author who is inspiring the writing of John’s gospel (and his letters and the other gospels and Acts and the epistles and revelation). When we read the OT we should be asking, what does this point forward to? And when we read the NT we should be asking, what echoes do I hear?
John clearly wants us to hear echoes, and he does so knowing that many of his readers have these Messianic expectations built into their psyche. What he wants them to see is that Jesus answers those expectations-and exceeds them. The Messiah, the Son of God, is Jesus.
What does John want us to do with this information? He tells us in v31 that everything he has written was so that we might believe, and that by believing you may have life in his [Jesus’] name. Having considered the content of the belief (that the Messiah, the Son of God, is Jesus), we should ask what is the belief itself? What does it mean to believe?
Reading through John’s gospel, one thing clear: he is not seeking a mere intellectual assent. Saying, oh yes, that’s what I think! is not the sort of belief he is driving for. John 2:23-25,
Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.
Jesus looks at the belief of those who have seen him do signs, and yet he doesn’t entrust himself to them. Implied in the text is that they are duplicitous, wishy-washy, and that this faith of theirs is short-lived. John 6:25-31
25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30 So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? 31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ”
This group has chased Jesus around the lake after he had fed them miraculously the day before. And when he chastises them and says, you need spiritual and enduring food, they say well, we need a sign. Jesus had just fed five thousand men, women and children besides! And they need a sign. They have faith that Jesus has power that can be used for their benefit. But they don’t have a faith that eats his flesh and drinks his blood (6:53). They aren’t receiving him by faith, they’re standing there waiting for the genie to do another magic trick.
The faith Jesus seeks isn’t a temporary faith, a faith based only on what it can see, a faith looking only for immediate tangible benefit. He’s seeking a faith that sees what God has done in the past, and subsequently trusts him for the present and the future. This sort of faith is summarized by trusting in Jesus, receiving him for all that he is, and following him. The New City Catechism, in answer to question 30, “What is faith in Jesus Christ?”, answers this way:
Faith in Jesus Christ is acknowledging the truth of everything that God has revealed in his Word, trusting in him, and also receiving and resting on him alone for salvation as he is offered to us in the gospel.
This strikes the same note as John’s emphasis on abiding.
John 8:31-32, So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
Believing in Jesus certainly must begin with intellectual or mental agreement, “I think Messiah, the rescuer from God, is Jesus. I think if I trust him I can be forgiven of my sins.” It must begin there. But it cannot stay there. True, lasting, belief leads to a life characterized by abiding in Christ and his word. Trusting and following him wherever he leads. You see, all those who have been genuinely born from above (see chapter 3) have the Spirit dwelling in them. And having come to know the Truth (Jesus, see 14:6) and being filled with his Spirit, they are transferred from death to life. Darkness to light. They receive the greatest gift they could ever receive: adoption into the family of God (1:12). John wants you to trust Jesus in this consistent, lasting way.
Do you? Have you received this gift of everlasting life? The Messiah, the Savior of the World, God’s only Son is Jesus. He was sent into the world that whoever believes in him would not perish, but have everlasting life. Are you trusting in him?