Gospel of John Series
Please turn to John 2:1–12 and let’s read it together.
“On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’
Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, ‘Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.’ So they took it. When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.
After this he went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers and his disciples, and they stayed there for a few days.”
The First Sign Ripples Out
This is the very first “sign” of the seven miraculous signs of the Gospel of John. John calls them “signs” because they are not meant to stand alone, but to point to something greater. Like a road sign that points to a city or a store, the miracles of Jesus aren’t singular events for one person at one time but are meant to be a big arrow pointing us to something special about Jesus, His mission, His character, and His person.
When you’re reading the Gospel of John it’s quite helpful to use these miracles as sort of chapter divisions. As I’ve said before, there are more ways to divide up the book because it’s such an intricate tapestry of stories and themes, but using the signs is perhaps the most straightforward. Let me tell you what I mean:
This first sign, the first miracle Jesus ever performed, was Jesus turning water to wine at a wedding in Cana in Galilee. It’s rich with symbolism. It is an inaugural miracle not only displaying God’s mercy to the people who ran out of wine but as a way for Jesus to inaugurate the Kingdom of God on earth and tell us something special about Himself.
Two key phrases to look at here are when Jesus says, “My hour has not yet come” and at the end when it says Jesus “manifested his glory” and his “disciples believed”.
In the Gospel of John, the “hour” always refers to the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection and glorification when he would receive his true position and sit at God’s right hand. The hour where He accomplishes His greatest work in being an atoning death for all who believe, conquering death by resurrection, and then claiming victory in His ascension and giving of the Holy Spirit. But at this point in His ministry, especially since most people didn’t understand what the Messiah was really going to be like, it wasn’t the right time for Him to reveal Himself openly as Israel’s Messiah. He was telling His mother in no uncertain terms that her timeline was not His, that she didn’t have the right to demand things of Him, and that He was going about His heavenly Father’s business, not hers. Her response is to give control of the situation over to Him, “Do whatever He tells you.” and to step back.
After all, this was only the “third day” of His ministry. He’d gone about 10 Kilometers out of Nazareth, had just gotten the baton from John the Baptist, hadn’t gathered all the apostles yet, and had some things to do. But there He stands, His mother having requested help, the servants waiting for a command, the wedding party embarrassed… and He acts out of grace. But he takes that seemingly small miracle and makes it something huge. At that moment, by God’s appointment and His power, He uses that miracle to inaugurate His Kingdom in a very special way.
And that first sign ripples out all the way to chapter 4:42 – because in this first sign Jesus “manifested His glory” or “displayed” or “showed who He really is by demonstrating His sovereignty over the whole of the material universe and nature itself.” And that power, that demonstration, ripples out. Because Jesus didn’t just make wine – He showed people a “sign” of who He really is.
Wine is a powerful biblical symbol representing things like joy, happiness, conversion, and life itself. It was used in Jewish worship rituals and given as a sacrificial offering to God. It represented God’s covenant with Israel, which He would withhold for disobedience. It was served at times of celebration and to cheer hearts, and given to help the weak and sick as a source of healing and life.
Israel at the time of Jesus was, in a sense, all out of wine and only had dirty water left over. There was no celebration in the land because they were under great oppression from Rome and their religion had been almost thoroughly corrupted by the oppression of the Pharisees and the rest of the wicked Sanhedrin. For Israel, just like the wedding guests, the wine had run out, and all they were left with was dirty water. They needed a miracle.
And so, in this first miracle, Jesus inaugurates the His kingdom, declares his intention, and shows His power, by making wine. He is the wine-giver, the celebration maker, the life bringer, the healer of bodies and souls. But, in a way very typical of Jesus, this multidimensional, world-changing miracle was done in a very small place with very few people. He’s in the town of Cana, at a private party, and only a few disciples. It was a small inauguration but it rippled out.
Consider that Jesus’ next act was to cleanse the temple in Jerusalem. From little Cana to big Jerusalem. Jesus has just inaugurated His Kingdom, turned dirty water into choice wine, and comes into the temple as a warrior prince, defending His father’s castle, demanding they remove the corruption from His kingdom. Just as He had miraculously turned a bunch of dirty washbasins into the best wine anyone had ever tasted, He would also miraculously remove the corruption of sin from people’s hearts and flood it with His own presence and power, so everyone could see what real prayer, real worship, real faith looks like. Just as He purified the water, so He would purify His People and their worship.
Then in chapter 3, Jesus meets Nicodemus, a Pharisee and teacher of Israel, and says that the only way people can be part of His newly inaugurated Kingdom is to be miraculously born again. The Pharisee thought it had to do with obedience and strictness to the law – and Jesus says that’s impossible – and that the change must be far more dramatic. More than simply going through religious motions, a person’s whole being must be radically transformed. He says, “The only way to please God, the only way to enter His Kingdom is if you are completely renewed, reborn, changed from within, born of water and the spirit.”
Just as Jesus turned ordinary water into the best of wine, miraculously overcoming the laws of nature, so He would use His power to cause people to be reborn from worldly beings into spiritual beings. He would make the impossible possible. Just as it’s impossible to convince people that dirty water is amazing wine, so it is impossible for a dirty, corrupt soul to please God. No matter how much you stir or heat or cool or add to that dirty water – it’s going to taste like dirty water. No matter how many good deeds or religious actions you do, no matter how many donations you make or volunteer hours you work, no matter how bad you feel about your wrong or how much you try to ignore it, you’ll never make your soul palatable to God. You need a miracle of transformation.
And so, just like Jesus made dirty water into the best wine, so He takes dead spirits and corrupt souls, and makes them alive, and good, and holy, and acceptable to God. He takes sinners and makes them saints. How? It says at the end of the story with Nicodemus. Just as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the wilderness so that any of the cursed people who looked upon it would be saved from the poisonous snakes, so anyone who would look upon the Christ who was lifted on the cross for their salvation would be saved. They would turn from water to wine the moment they looked to Christ for salvation.
Then, in 3:22-36 the miracle ripples from Cana to Jerusalem to all of Judea. Jesus is on the Judean countryside John the Baptist declares Jesus to be the source of eternal life. Just as the wine was used for ceremony and sacrifice, celebration and healing, and became a symbol of a good and blessed life – so Jesus would show Himself to be the perfected source of sacrifice, celebration, healing, and eternal life. Jesus was the life-giving wine-maker.
Then the ripples of the first miracle move out further, from the town of Cana in Galilee to the big city of Jerusalem, to the whole of the province of Judea, to world of unbelievers as represented by Samaria. And the similarities of the story of the woman at the well and the wedding in Cana are too obvious not to be a thematic echo of the first story.
Consider that both stories start with needing a drink and have water in jars. The first takes place at a wedding, the other is about a woman with many weddings and was currently living with someone out of wedlock. For those at the wedding Jesus provides wine, showing He is the life-giver, and for the Samaritan woman who came for water at the well, He says He is Living Water. At the wedding, He says, “My hour has not yet come” and then inaugurates His Kingdom but to the woman at the well He fully declares Himself to be the Messiah. At the wedding the disciples see the sign and believe, at the well, the Samaritans hear the gospel and believe.
The first four chapters of the Gospel of John all point back to that first sign, and use story after story, interaction after interaction to show Jesus declaring Himself to be the saviour, showing His power, inaugurating the coming of the kingdom of God, and then spreading that kingdom from a few people to the city, to the province, to the world. From insiders, like the few disciples and Jesus’ mother, to the outsiders like Pharisees and Samaritans.
So many people get caught up in arguments about what kind of wine Jesus made and how alcoholic it was (or wasn’t). They get caught up on Jesus calling his mother “woman” and wondering if Jesus was being rude to her or not – He wasn’t. They get caught up on these minor details that they completely miss what the “sign”, the “miracle” was pointing to! That Jesus is the King, Healer, Life-Giver, Reason for Celebration, and Lamb of God who’s precious blood will be poured out as a sacrifice for people who wouldn’t understand, consumed by people who don’t deserve it, just as that unique and amazing wine Jesus made was poured out to the unsuspecting wedding guests in an act of grace.
There are two points I would like to pull out of this story as an application today.
The first is that things like this are why you need to study your bible. Not just read it devotionally, not just pick out favourite verses, not stick in your favourite books, but to actually study your Bibles. Stories like this one are like onions where you see the first layer and think you understand what’s going on – but then as you connect the story to the Old Testament, the sacrificial system, the imagery of wine, the timing of the story, the locations within, the author’s intention and themes – then the story really comes to life and starts to teach you about Jesus.
It’s one thing to know that Jesus is gracious enough to provide wine to people who needed it, it’s another to understand that this whole section is about the inauguration of the Kingdom of God, the promise of Eternal Life, of the picture of Jesus as not only the wine-giver but the sacrificial wine itself. Of watching that miracle rippling out from town to city to province to the world, and thereby seeing that Jesus’ love isn’t merely for the individuals at the party, or the few disciples that saw and believed – but his love extends to those who do not understand what He did, who drank the best wine not knowing where it came from. It extends to the Jewish people who rejected Him, to the Pharisees who kept challenging Him and made themselves His enemies, and then that to every other person in the world.
He gave His new-wine, His blood, His gift of eternal life to ordinary tradesmen, to his neighbours and friends, to the self-righteous hypocrites, the social rejects, the ones who worship wrong and reject His laws, those steeped in sexual-immorality, the abused, the anguished, the ones who don’t even understand how God or love or sacrifice works. He gives that wine, that grace, that love, that living water, the fruits of His sacrifice, to everyone.
But you can’t see all that unless you study!
Second, I want you to notice that this story speaks to us today.
Consider how this story should inspire us to celebrate our connection to Jesus and His love for us. Dirty water to wine, Repentance to Faith, being confronted by our sin and then offered forgiveness and eternal life from the hands of Jesus, should cause us to celebrate. When life is dark or difficult, the knowledge being part of Jesus’ Kingdom because He chose you from the beginning of time, is something to be thankful for. Knowing He is victorious and has destroyed death is always and ever something to motivate worship. When you are down or sad or afraid, take a minute to consider this story from John.
Jesus loved the disciples enough to show them His glory. Has Jesus shown you His glory? In your life have you witnessed His power?
Jesus loved the wedding guests by providing that which they did not deserve at a quality that astounded them. Have you seen Jesus’ hand of provision giving you undeserved grace? Have you ever gotten something from Jesus that was of such quality, such a gift, that you know it was a miracle? During difficult times, it’s helpful to recall the list of things Jesus has done in the past – for His people and for you.
Jesus loved His mother by reminding her that everything happens by His will and on His timeline. Has Jesus ever set you straight and told you to be patient? Have you ever jumped the gun on His will and ended up regretting it? Sometimes the love of God is shown in making us wait, or sternly reminding us to trust His will.
Jesus loved the Pharisee who kept making excuses and arguments by telling Him the truth and refusing to compromise. Jesus is the way, truth, and life, and no one comes to the Father except through Him. The Pharisee made excuses, and Jesus told him there was only one way. Have you been trying to argue with Jesus about how you should get into heaven, how He should operate in this world, how the church should go, how your future should be? Is He loving you right now by reminding you that He is Lord, He is the Way, He is the wine-maker, the life-giver, the living-water, and you are not? Is He showing you love by demanding you submit to Him and Him alone?
Jesus loved the woman at the well by – well, everything. He spoke to her when custom said not to. He indulged her arguments. He gently confronted her sin. He acknowledged her pain and fear. He worked with her wrong religious beliefs. He gave her forgiveness when, maybe, the whole community, and certainly a Jewish rabbi, wouldn’t. Then He used her, the social reject, as His vessel to carry his Living Water, His New Wine, to a whole bunch of people from her neighbourhood, changing their lives forever. All in the span of a few hours!
Has Jesus been confronting your sin, your wrong beliefs, your pain, and telling you to submit to Him as saviour and Lord, to forgive and be forgiven? Has He been gently reminding you of His love, entering into your pain, sitting through your arguments, telling you the truth, and then inviting you to give it all to Him? Has He shown you grace and is now offering to use you, one who went from dirty water to new wine, to help carry His gospel to your friends?
There’s a lot going on in this story – but it doesn’t just stay on the page. How is Jesus using this story in your life today? He’s still the wine-maker, the living-water, the grace-giver, for you today. My prayer is that you would discover Him in His word, in your prayers, and in your service to His Kingdom.
Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Cana. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 1, p. 405). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
The Art of John’s Gospel
“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.” (John 20:30-31)
We’ve been talking a lot about why John wrote His Gospel, and this passage, coming at the end of the book, is where John himself tells us why. And, as I’ve been studying the structure of the book, I find this sentence to be more and more complex.
I told you before that this gospel is a series of stories, but that doesn’t even scratch the surface of John’s writing. Remember how I said that John’s gospel has many different types of divisions and threads woven through it – like a tapestry? Well, as I continue to study it I’m more and more impressed, and even overwhelmed by how intricate and complex that tapestry really is. This book is less a series of stories and more a work of art.
My family and I went to the National Gallery of Canada a little while ago and were specifically on the hunt for abstract and impressionist paintings.
Impressionist or Abstract art is designed not to show you a specific picture but to elicit a reaction. Impressionists are a little easier to understand because they usually have recognizable forms in them and just mess with the shapes and colours, but Abstractionists pretty much do-away with reality altogether and just try to convey, or “abstract”, the feeling or idea without presenting an actual form.
We sort of whizzed by the more realistic artwork full of old buildings and portraits because we really wanted to see some of the weirder stuff. And the National Gallery did not disappoint.
I had two favourites. The first was a huge room where the artist had set up four different living rooms from four different decades, complete with couches, tables and tv’s all playing the same show. I have no idea what it was meant to convey, but I liked that there were couches.
The other – and I promise you’re not prepared for this – was a video being projected on the wall of a dark hallway. I’m just going to play this one for you.
[Not Available – Just think of a really weird video of mice caught in a window with intense music playing on a loop]
I have no idea what that meant – but it definitely caused an emotional reaction.
I’m no art critic, obviously, but in my opinion the best art is something you can look at and study over and over and over and each time, still feel something special, discover new things about it and yourself through it, and come to new realizations about the artist, time-period, or whatever they were trying to convey.
A lot of people get that sort of thing from Vincent van Gogh in a painting like Starry Night. The first time they see it they feel a connection to the colours, see the beauty of the whole, start to feel the pull of the brush strokes. But then, as they look at it further they see more intricacies in the lines, more shapes, and things like the tree in front of the exaggeration of the church steeple. Then, as you read about the author you start to understand more. Van Gogh suffered greatly from depression but he knew God. He painted eleven stars in the sky and a great light. The windows in the town are lit, but the church is dark… the perspective is far from the town, but the sky is intensely close. A huge, dark tree stands blocking his view but points upwards to the lights of heaven. Is this how Van Gogh felt? Was this meant to point to Joseph’s vision from Genesis 37. Joseph was a dreamer, outcast from his family. Was Vincent an outcast because of his mental illness, unjustly suffering like Joseph did, but was also conveying his hope in God. Maybe? And I’m sure there’s more.
With that in mind, I want to read you what one commentator I read this week said about the gospel of John:
“The Gospel of John is a text that constantly creates the impression that more is going on than immediately meets the eye. The author deploys the power of metaphor and symbol in a masterful way, so that the stories and teachings of Jesus are constantly and mutually illuminated by referring to other texts within the book. Each story has been coordinated with other parts of the narrative, so that stories acquire more layers of meaning than the surface one. John is a master of irony, so that characters constantly say more than they intend, and sometimes even the opposite of what they mean. Jesus is consistently misunderstood, foregrounding the question of what is the true meaning of his words. The Gospel is also shot through with intertextual connections to the Hebrew Bible that expand the meaning of any given story when they are observed and then pondered. This book was written not only to make some sense to first-time readers, but it was also designed to be studied in order to yield it’s full cornucopia of meaning to only the most attentive of students. Its frequently riddling character… is meant to tease the intelligence and entice the readers into its world of multidimensional meaning.” (Richard Bauckham, The Gospel of Glory: Major Themes in Johannine Theology, 131-132)
As I’ve been studying it this week, and hopefully as you’ve been reading in preparation for this series, these “multidimensional meanings”, “symbols” and “intertextual connections” are all starting to come to light – and it’s fascinating.
Did You See the Signs?
Which brings us back to our main text today. When John gives the why he wrote the book he said,
“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.”
This too has multidimensional meanings. John uses very specific words to address the mega-themes he’s been weaving through the book. Have you ever gotten to the end of a mystery novel or one of those movies with a twist ending, and immediately wanted to start the whole thing over just so you can see what you were supposed to be seeing all along? And then when you do, you’re like, “Wow, how did I miss this? It’s so obvious!”
I think this verse is like that. John says, “My book is arranged by ‘signs’, did you see them all? Do you know what they were pointing to? Do you know why they were there? Did you see how many people in the stories saw the same signs and yet didn’t understand them? Are you doing the same thing? Which side are you on? The side of seeing and believing or seeing and rejecting? And further, these signs weren’t just pointing out that Jesus is the Christ, but that Jesus is the Son of God! Did you notice that? Did you see that Jesus did things no one else can do? Did you realize you weren’t just reading a history book, but the story of the Word made Flesh, the Creator of the Universe, the Son of God walking the earth? And if you did see all the signs, and understand who I’ve been saying Jesus is… will you believe in Him as the only one who can give you the thing I’ve been pointing at over and over again – eternal life? I have written all these signs down so you can meet the real Jesus – but not just meet Him as an historical figure – but as the one who can bring you from eternal death to eternal life. Will you believe?”
The whole book is designed that way. It’s sign upon sign, layer upon layer, meaning upon meaning, revelation upon revelation – all culminating in the big question: Do you believe?
What I want to do now is play for you one of “The Bible Project” videos describing this. I think they do a great job of visualizing all of these intricacies and dimensions. They don’t cover them all, because there are many, but they do a really great job and I think you’ll appreciate John’s Gospel more after watching it.
I’ve spent so much time talking about the structure and themes of the Gospel of John because I want you really open your eyes when reading it – and to be inspired to sit down and read it in big chunks so you can get the whole story. I’ve provided the handout from The Bible Project so you can see all the divisions and get a general idea for what these sections are trying to convey.
And while you read. I want you to not only be studying the words with your mind but to be opening up your heart to what John is trying to say about Jesus. He’s not just showing you what Jesus did but wants you to identify with the characters in the story so you can be confronted by the person and works of Jesus and be forced to reckon with them. In what ways are you like Nicodemus? What if you were the Samaritan Woman? How have you been like the crowds coming to Jesus for bread, but refusing to accept His Words? What does it mean that Jesus, the Word of God became human, the Glory of God was housed in flesh, and that He laid down his life for you? And finally, in light of all this – do you believe? And has that belief shown itself in a changed life filled with thanksgiving and obedience to Jesus?
May you be blessed by the reading of God’s Word this week.
A few weeks ago I told you that the gospel of John is all about explaining who Jesus really is. If you recall, I said that by the time the Gospel of John was written, the gospels and letters of the New Testament had already been written and been circulating individually for some decades, so a lot of people had already been introduced to Jesus, but there was also a lot of false teaching going on.
So, when John wrote his gospel he wanted to make it absolutely clear that everyone who read it would understand the singular claims Jesus Christ made about Himself and why the Christians followed Him. Remember, most of the first believers were Jews, so it was a pretty big deal that so many of them had started worshipping a man the same way that they had been worshipping Yahweh. These Jewish people had stopped following the Sanhedrin, stopped believing in the Old Testament sacrificial system, started meeting in their homes, said that there was no need for the priesthood anymore, and changed their day of worship from Saturday to Sunday. That’s a pretty radical change.
And as John was writing, the message of this Jewish Messiah named Jesus of Nazareth was shaking the whole world. Everyone from trade union leaders to city officials to pagan temple leaders to the emperors themselves were having to figure out what to do with these people known as “Christians” because their message was upending everything.
We live in what is known as the “information age”, a time where news stories from around the world can be shared instantly with almost every person on the planet – even directly to their pocket no matter where they are in the world. I saw this great tweet a while back that said, “Do y’all remember, before the internet, that people thought the cause of stupidity was the lack of access to information? Yeah. It wasn’t that.” I totally agree. Even in our “information age” where we have access to a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips, people are still making up and believing lies about almost everything.
Imagine how difficult it was to keep the story of Jesus Christ straight in the first century as the gospel spread throughout the Roman world. After the post-Pentecost diaspora, when thousands of new Christians left Jerusalem because of the persecution, even the Apostles couldn’t keep up. They would sometimes go into a city and find a Christian church there already set up and would have to straighten out some of the things they’d not understood, gotten wrong, or just plain made up. That’s why we have the letters of the New Testament and the gospels. It’s God’s way of giving the world the straight truth about Jesus.
So, when John was writing this gospel, he already knew what all the other letters said, and since his home base was in Ephesus, probably at the most important seminary in the world, he also knew the majority of the false teachings. Now, he could have written a letter like Paul’s, combatting the false teachings point by point, but that’s not what he did.
You’ve probably heard the old illustration that when they teach a bank teller or cashier to spot counterfeits they don’t teach them every way it someone can counterfeit a bill, right? What do they do? They teach them what a real bill looks like so that they know everything that doesn’t match it is wrong. That’s what John did. With all the misinformation and confusion and false teaching about Jesus, God had Him write a supplement to the other gospels and letters that would give an abundantly clear picture of who Jesus is and why Christians worship Him.
Which brings us to the structure of the letter. John didn’t write the way we might normally think a biography is written. He didn’t start at birth, go year by year hitting the high-points, and then ending with the death. John, instead, writes thematically.
Imagine you’ve been asked to describe what a person is like. Maybe it’s a eulogy at a funeral or you’re the reference for someone on their resume. You’re not really being asked to give a chronological outline of their life, right? You’re being asked what kind of person they were. How would you do that? You wouldn’t give their resume. You’d start with a single character trait and then give an example. Then you’d talk about how people responded to him.
For example: “My friend is a really hard worker. Let me tell you about a time he went over and above for a group he was working with. Some people get annoyed with my friend because he tends to set the bar really high for himself and it tends to point out the lazy members of whatever team he’s on, but he’s not showing off. He just really believes in working hard.”
Or: “My grandfather was a really brave man. Let me tell you a story about something he did to show his bravery, not just when he served in WWII but when he was at home too. Some people thought my grandpa stuck his nose where it didn’t belong, and some of us relatives kept telling him to stop jumping into help people all the time, especially when he got older, but it didn’t make any difference. My grandpa was willing to jump in and help anyone, anywhere no matter what.”
That’s what John does. Matthew and Mark already gave Jesus’ resume and Luke already gave an orderly biographical account of Jesus’ life, so God inspired John to write with a different purpose. John wants you to meet know Jesus the way He does, and so he tells stories.
The Thread of “Light”
But these stories aren’t merely disconnected events pointing to a few character details – far from. These stories are woven like an intricate tapestry. If you’ve ever seen the backside of a cross-stitch, sewing project or tapestry you’ll have an appreciation for all the crazy connections that you don’t really see at first. And if you’ve been unwise enough to pull on a thread from one of those projects, you’ll know just how surprising it is to see how much that one thread is holding together.
Let me give you an example of what I mean by an intricate thread. When John starts his gospel he begins with
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)
John uses some very simple language to convey some huge concepts. “In the beginning” points to the very first words of the Bible and how God created all that there is simply by speaking, “Let there be light.” Then John says, in effect, “You know how the words you speak are not you but are you at the same time? You know how your mind and will and personality is conveyed by your words? Well, Jesus is the Word of God and was with God before time began and, in fact, is God. Jesus made all things. Jesus is the source of life. When God said, “let there be light” and then “let there be life”, that was Jesus. Jesus is the source of all life and all light.
Now look at verses 9-11,
“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.”
Jesus, the creator of light, the source of all light and life, came into the world, but was rejected. Why? Flip over to John 3:19-21:
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
Now flip to John 8:12. Jesus is being confronted by some Pharisees, who, even though they’ve seen Jesus’ miracles and heard his message refuse to follow Him.
“Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’”
Now look at John 9:5. Jesus says,
“As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
Huge claim, right? John says that Jesus is God and is the source of all light and life. He says that when Jesus came into the world He was the true light and that the reason anyone rejected Him was that they preferred darkness and continued to live in darkness. Then John says that he didn’t come up with this concept, Jesus Himself kept saying He was the light of the world. So what did Jesus do to prove He was the creator of light and the light of the world? Look at the sub-heading of chapter 9. He healed a man who was born blind. He brought light to a place no one could ever bring it before. Then, we see the Pharisees argue with the man who was healed from blindness. A simple man who saw the light (both figuratively and literally) standing before a bunch of religious professionals who refuse.
Now flip to John 12:27. We’re now in the last week of Jesus’ life. Judas has agreed to betray Jesus and He has just performed the Triumphal Entry. He’s been preaching and teaching and performing miracles for a few years now and is standing before the crowds who have just been chanting “Hosanna!” Read from verse 27,
“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven: ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.”
There stands Jesus, after the Triumphal Entry where he has declared Himself King and Messiah before the crowds. But He knows they don’t get it. He prays and God Himself responds. But the people can’t understand. They are in the dark. Jesus explains, again, that he’s going to be crucified.
And what do we see?
“So the crowd answered him, ‘We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?’”
He’s standing right in front of you! The skies have just answered his prayer! He’s raised the dead, caused the lame to walk, the blind to see! He has been calling Himself the “Son of Man” non-stop for three years! But even then, they are in darkness. He’s one week away from having them chant “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” and send Him to the cross.
Look at verse 35,
“So Jesus said to them, ‘The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.’ When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them. Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him…”
Now look at verse 44, which contains the last time we read the word “light” in the Gospel of John, completing the thread. Jesus has shone His light everywhere, but has been rejected over and over by people who love the darkness. Verse 42 said that the Pharisees had so much influence over people, had kept them in the dark so effectively, that even people in authority were afraid to declare their belief in Jesus. Now, He’s days away from being crucified at the hands of the people He’d come to save. It was so overwhelming that for a time he went away and hid himself, an act declaring His sadness, God’s imminent judgment, and that His work as the light of men, the revealer of God, was done.
At the end we read Jesus’ last public declaration – His one, final, ultimatum before He would go off with the disciples to the Last Supper, Gethsemane, and then the cross. This is his very last public teaching. He turns to this crowd and it says,
“And Jesus cried out and said, ‘Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.’”
Then, those that loved the darkness, who would not receive His words, tracked Him down, brought Him before an illegal court with false charges and fake witnesses, lied to Governor Pilate about what Jesus did, who found no guilt in Him but still had Him flogged and mocked and then crucified. One of the soldiers even stabbed Jesus through the heart to make sure he was dead.
One would believe that the darkness had won at that point.
Have you ever gotten to what you thought was the end of a book or movie and then checked to see how many pages or how many minutes are left – and been surprised how much there still is to go? I wonder if the first people reading the story of Jesus felt that way. How can there be another two chapters after this! What else is there to say?
But let’s go back to the very first verses of John’s gospel, the first mention of “light”.
“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4)
Death was not the end. Darkness didn’t win. Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to many, many people.
Now look at 1:9-13 again,
“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
Remember? Jesus is the originator, the source, of “life” and of “light”, right? Those two concepts are woven together and then threaded all through the tapestry of John’s Gospel. If you leave the darkness and follow Jesus, the “true light”, you not only gain “true light”, but “true life” – a life that doesn’t end. Eternal life.
What amazes me is that we only tugged on one thread today. “Light”. There are so many more. I hope to cover a few more threads before we get into the into the verse-by-verse study because it will help us see the big themes before we study the individual stories.
But I cannot end without giving an invitation. Over and over Jesus gives the invitation to walk away from the darkness and into His light. God loved the world so much that He sent Jesus to show us His light and to bring us freedom from the darkness of death and sin. And anyone who believes in Jesus – who believes Jesus, the man who is God, sacrificed Himself on the Cross for their sins, and then rose again on the third day – can be saved. Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world, He came to save it. But that salvation requires something of you.
You must believe – and demonstrate that belief by walking away from darkness. As Jesus said, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
So, I ask you today. If you are a believer, if you have seen the light, have you walked away from darkness? Has Jesus been exposing dark parts of you, and your response has been to pull away from Jesus and try to remain in the dark because you love the things of darkness more than you want Jesus? More than you want life? I beg you to repent. To drag that sin into the light, confess it to Jesus and to another believer, and let Jesus kill that sin before you are overcome by that darkness.
And, if you are not a believer today, is it because Jesus has asked you to give up something you know is wrong, but you want to keep doing it, so you are simply refusing to believe? You’ve felt the presence of God, seen the work of God in your life, even felt the conviction to give up your sins and come to Jesus – but you know He requires that you drag that sin into the light so He can kill it forever?
What do you hope to gain? Why would you trade light for darkness, life for death? What good will it do you if you gain this whole world by giving your heart to darkness – but end up forfeiting your soul to eternal death in Hell?
All you must do is stop, get on your knees, renounce the darkness and accept that Jesus is the one, True light and only source of true light. “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…”
Now is the time.
We’re just beginning a new series on the Gospel of John. Last week we did a bit of an overview of who John was, and his audience was, how John’s gospel fits in with the other three, and that the major theme is introducing and defending who Jesus really is. He’s writing decades after the other three gospels were written. The Apostle Paul had written his letters to all the churches many years before and had already died.
The people reading and hearing this book about Jesus were now 50 years away from when the actual events occurred. Many of them lived far away from Jerusalem, where they took place. And many of the people who saw the life, death and resurrection had already died, so the information about Jesus was almost all second-hand. But John hadn’t died, and when he was quite old, maybe 90 years old, the Holy Spirit compelled him to write his own eye-witness account of his experiences with Jesus, addressing not only the false-teachings about Him, but also giving another side to the story, another aspect that would complement the already existing gospels to give a much bigger, much clearer picture of Jesus so no one would be able to doubt who He really is.
Why Context is Important
You might be asking, why is all this context so important? Why not just jump into chapter 1 verse 1 and get going with what the book actually says instead of spending so much time on the background. My answer is because doing that leads to mistakes in interpretation. Context is critically important to our understanding of the Bible.
We sometimes have the unfortunate habit of actually disconnecting Bible verses from the Bible. Many of you likely have a bible verse on your phone, on a mug, a shirt, or your wall at home. And while that’s good to do, for the most part, it can sometimes lead to pretty serious misunderstandings of what God actually meant in that verse.
My favourite version of this, for example, is how many times you hear people quote Matthew 7:1 where Jesus says, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” I’ve heard this used, most often, as the reason why everyone should mind their own business and never, ever, tell someone that something they are doing is wrong.
Is that what it means? No. That takes it out of the context. What about John 5:24 where Jesus says, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” What about Luke 17:3 where Jesus says, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him…” Obviously “Judge not” doesn’t mean “never judge”. So what does it mean? Well, let’s look at the context. In Matthew 7, Jesus is giving the Sermon on the Mount and is just about to say, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (7:5). In other words, Jesus isn’t saying, “Don’t ever judge”, He’s saying, “don’t judge like a hypocrite”. Don’t be unduly harsh or arrogant in how you look at other people’s sins, or God will do the same thing to you. In other words, when you judge, because you will absolutely need to judge right and wrong, good and evil, wise and foolish… do so with as much generosity and grace as God has given you.
That’s just one, obvious example of what is called “proof-texting”, and it comes from not understanding the context of the verse. And in not understanding it, we apply it wrong. And when we apply it wrong, sin isn’t confronted and people are left miserable in the clutches of the enemy. We don’t want to do that, so before we study any book of the Bible, before we start taking apart the chapters and verses and words, we always spend time talking about the background of the whole book.
Who wrote it? Who were they writing to? What genre of book is it? Why did they write it? Is it poetry, history, proverb, instructions, allegory, a letter addressing a certain topic? That will change how you read it, right? When was it written? Before the Babylonian exile or after? Before the destruction of the Temple or after? Before Jesus or after? That matters because it all helps in interpreting what God was saying to the people who originally heard the message and how we should be reading it today.
Context, CLRA, & the CBOQ
Let me give you another example, this time with a bit more contemporary controversy. Right now, in the CBOQ (our denomination, the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec) there are a few churches who are now accepting members, teachers, leaders, and elders who are actively part of the LGBTQ community. This all came to a head a few years ago when Danforth Baptist Church in Toronto, which is associated with the CBOQ, released a statement saying they will no longer consider “sexual orientation or gender identity” when choosing leaders for their church.
This has caused division in the churches of the denomination. Some are in favour it, others are against it, and some don’t know what to think. The more conservative churches that are against the idea of LGBTQ leadership in the church formed a coalition called CLRA or the “Covenant Life Renewal Association” and came to the leadership of the CBOQ demanding action be taken against Danforth and other churches that would follow their example. So, for about three years now the leadership of the CBOQ has been trying to figure out what to do – and stalling. They’ve refused to take a stand on the issue and it has frustrated the conservative wing greatly – to the point where some have left or are considering leaving the CBOQ altogether.
I’m actually headed to a meeting this coming Thursday where I’ll be part of something I’ve never heard of happening before. Two different denominational leaders, one from the CBOQ and the other from the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptists (FEB), will be giving separate presentations to the same group of pastors and church leaders. First, the president and former president of the CBOQ will give an update on how the committee is dealing with the LGBTQ issue (which I do not expect to go very well, considering I recently received an update email from the committee where they just kicked the can down the road a bit farther). Then, in the afternoon, Steve Jones, the National President of all of the whole Fellowship Baptist denomination will explain how they dealt with the LGBTQ issue and then give information to anyone who wants to transfer to their denomination. It is absolutely wild to me that two denominational presidents will be in the same room with the same pastors giving pitches about their denominational stances on this issue.
Consequently, this could be a very important week in the life of our church. Why? Because in our church we believe that as much as we love people in the LGBTQ community, as welcome as they are in our church and ministries, and as much grace and generosity we want to give them, we must draw the line where God draws it. And that means that people who live and promote an LGBTQ lifestyle cannot be members, leaders, or teachers in our church.
We don’t say this because we believe that we are better than the people in the LGBTQ community. We don’t hate them or think they are undeserving of God’s love. We hold to this standard because this is what the Bible teaches and no matter what culture says or what pressures we face, “We must obey God…” (Acts 5:29)
What does all this have to do with context? Well, it goes back to that statement made by the Danforth church and what brought about the big split in the CBOQ. I want to read part of it to you so you can see how it went down.
It begins, “Because God has welcomed us into his family through faith in Jesus Christ and calls us to pursue love and justice for all, Danforth Church is welcoming and inclusive of all people regardless of age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, family makeup, social status, income, ability, or physical or mental health.” With that, we wholeheartedly agree. Everyone is welcome at our church and at the feet of Jesus.
Then they get into their statements and they need to be read very carefully. Statement 1 is, “We share and uphold the values of love, justice and equal rights for all people, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, family makeup, social status, income, ability, or physical or mental health; and we desire to reflect the heart of God and the attitude of Jesus Christ towards those who have been marginalized”. That sounds good, and upon first glance seems right on, but it really needs some clarification.
We totally agree with the idea of everyone being worthy of love and justice and that we should love the marginalized like Jesus does – but what do they mean by “equal rights for all people”? For example, they say that they believe that people of any “age” should have “equal rights”. Does that mean a 3-year-old should have the same right to vote as a 21-year-old? Should a 3-year-old be allowed to borrow money, get a tattoo, or quit school if they want to? Probably not, so “equal rights” sounds nice, but really needs some clarification.
Statements numbers 2, 3 and 4 is where things really become problematic. Number 2 says, “We find our agreement in the core and primary beliefs of the Christian faith reflected, for example, in the Nicene and Apostles Creeds; and we accept a diversity of views among us on many other theological and/or disputable matters….”. Certainly, those creeds give the basic outline of the Christian faith. I’ve taught both of them here. But they are certainly not comprehensive statements of everything we believe. For example, neither creed covers murder or greed or lying. It doesn’t say they’re right or wrong. Is murder one of those “disputable matters” we should “accept a diversity of views” about? Probably not. But it’s not in the Apostles Creed, so…. In the same way, why would we say that something as foundational as human sexuality and gender, which are also not covered in the creeds, are “disputable”?
The third statement goes even farther saying, “We acknowledge that the cultural, social and religious contexts of the scriptures are significant in our interpretation of biblical passages and that humility is required in holding positions on secondary and/or disputable matters…” There’s our word for today: “context”, except it’s using it the exact opposite way we are using it today. What they are saying is that because the bible was written in a different culture, with different social norms, and different religious contexts, it must therefore no longer be applicable to today – and we can, therefore, dismiss much of what the Bible says and interpret it much more broadly because it was written for a different people at a different time.
These are the same people who argue that the Bible doesn’t have anything to say to contemporary audiences about human sexuality and gender because it was written to a bunch of backwards people in ancient times. I hear the argument all the time that if Christians believe homosexuality is wrong, then they shouldn’t be eating shellfish or wearing polyester-cotton blends either because the Bible forbids those too – and we’re hypocrites for picking and choosing which verses we obey.
They grab verse like Leviticus 19:19 which prohibits wearing cloth of two kinds of material and equate it to verses in 1 Corinthians and Romans and 1 Timothy that teach homosexuality is a sin. But that’s terrible biblical interpretation! That’s worse than the “judge not” proof-texting we were talking about before. It’s a non-argument for anyone who knows anything about the Bible.
The laws about not eating shellfish or wearing mixed cloths or all the other ones about how to treat menstruating women or not boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk were laws given specifically to the nation of Israel, not everyone. It was partly to make them look weird and different from the rest of the nations around them – to show their holiness, their set-apartness. In fact, many of the food laws specifically say that they are for the Israelites and not everyone.
I don’t want to get into the whole thing right now, but in the Bible, you will see three different kinds of laws: Civil Laws given specifically to the Israelites, Ceremonial Laws that defined how they practiced worship, and Moral Laws based which are universal for all people.
When Jesus came, He expanded the kingdom to include gentiles who don’t have to follow the Civil Laws of Israel, and He fulfilled all the Ceremonial Laws, creating a new way to worship God that wasn’t based around the Temple anymore. The only Laws left, and which are universal for all people, for all time because they are based on God’s nature and not one group of people, are God’s Moral Laws. Part of Biblical interpretation is understanding these different kinds of laws and which ones are applicable to believers today.
So, are blending cloths on the same interpretive level human sexuality and gender? No. Not even close.
But are the fact that these laws were written to an ancient culture significant? Yes, as is the fact that they are being taught to and interpreted by people who live thousands of years later in different cultures all over the world. So yes, culture is significant. Part of my job as a preacher is to grapple with the texts so I can “understand the principles and imperatives within” and then present them to a contemporary audience in an understandable way. That’s my job. That’s been the job of Bible preachers and teachers forever. Figure out what God was saying and then sharing the meaning and application for today.
But, when I’m looking at a verse I do not have the right to contradict what God is saying because it disagrees with my current, contemporary context. Regardless of how much our society wants to reinterpret morality, humans do not get to dismiss something that God plainly teaches as truth-for-all-time just because they don’t want to believe it anymore.
I was reading another pastor’s interpretation of the Danforth Statement and he pointed out how ironic it is that Danforth would say that Christians must come by our interpretation of biblical passages with “humility” – because they’re not using the word in a biblical way. What they mean is that a humble person should never think they really know what the Bible means. That somehow, as Michael Krueger said, “To be uncertain is to be humble. To be certain is to be arrogant.”
But that’s not biblical humility. Biblical humility says, “God has been crystal clear about some things and I’m going to believe it and obey it regardless of what I feel about it or what pressures I face from society.” In the words of Isaiah 66:2, “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” Or 2 Corinthians 10:5, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…” In John 14:15 Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commands.” That means that Jesus has clearly commanded us to do specific things. In Luke 11:28 Jesus said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
That means we study, study, study, using all the resources at our disposal to figure out the clear meaning of what God is saying in any given passage and then work hard to do what He says. That’s biblical humility. If you can make a good, biblical argument for something – then Christians should teach and obey it. If you want us to support LGBTQ, don’t appeal to culture or feelings, appeal to scripture. Let God’s Word be the final voice to speak on the issue.
That’s not what Danforth is doing. Let me read statement 4 so you can see how they believe people should interpret the will and word of God. “We hold that people have the right and responsibility to seek and hear God for themselves, and to determine and respond to God’s will for their lives within the context of the Biblical values of love, faithfulness, monogamy, respect and integrity, and within a community of accountability…”
Again, on the surface, this seems to be something we can agree with. God does meet people as individuals, and each believer does have access to the same Word and the same Spirit, and each is invited to pray and be led by God. But the context and application of this statement are dangerous. The implication here is that a person’s “seeking and hearing” can be divorced from proper, biblical interpretation. They cherry-pick words like “love, faithfulness, respect, and accountability”, but they neglect to say that every believer’s interpretation of God’s will must come under the authority of His revealed Word. We can’t just go off and make up a god of our own design, or pick and choose the biblical values we like while getting rid of the ones that make us uncomfortable.
And that’s what Danforth and the other churches like them are doing, and that’s why Jason and I are headed off to a meeting in Hamilton this week. Because clear biblical interpretation and obedience to God’s word are critically important – and we only want to be associated with groups that hold to that standard.
We weren’t able to get much into John today, because of this discussion of the context and the meeting on Thursday, but we’ll get into it more next week, and then I hope to start in chapter 1 verse 1 the week after. But before I close this message I want to read a passage of scripture that perfectly summarizes the issue that we’ve been talking about today: interpretation, misinterpretation, contextualization, and pressures that preachers, and really all Christians, face when it comes to obeying God’s word. It comes from 2 Timothy 3-4.
2 Timothy is from the Apostle Paul to his protégé Timothy as Paul was sitting in a Roman prison, awaiting death. He’s writing to Timothy about persevering in the gospel and care for the churches, even in spite of great suffering from outside and within. Paul figures this may be the last message he may ever give to young Timothy and tells him to keep on fighting for the faith. Paul speaks of many who used to call themselves faithful followers of Jesus, but who have abandoned him and the gospel because of persecution and compromise.
He writes to Timothy about suffering being normal for all believers and how the only way to persevere is by God’s power. He says the only way to access God’s power is to know God’s Word and to believe the true and only Gospel of Jesus Christ. He says that the only way to know the Gospel is through the scriptures. He says that those who believe those scriptures will persevere, but those who do not will show themselves by leaving the faith. So he entreats Timothy to keep preaching, keep teaching, keep studying, and to deal with all false teaching as though it is deadly cancer that needs to be cut out or the church will die.
Even at the close of the letter, Paul asks Timothy to come and visit him one last time and to bring his books with him so Paul can keep studying and writing until the very end. The gospel, the Word of God, is constantly under attack and Paul wants to keep helping believers to rightly interpret the scriptures so they won’t believe lies and lose their connection to God.
In truth, I want to read the whole of the book, because it is one, solid argument from front to back about what we are talking about today – the importance of rightly studying God’s word – but we don’t have time. So, as I read, listen to how Paul speaks of the dangers of misinterpretation and the importance of studying so we can know the truth.
“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith. But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men.
You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”
That’s what I want to do, and what I want for each of you as well. I don’t want you seeking out people to tell you what you want to hear. I want you to know the truth about by that truth be set free. I want all of us to stand on the firm foundation of the Word of God, to preach and teach His Word, to be sober-minded, endure whatever suffering comes as a result of our beliefs and to fulfil the ministries and good works God has given us to do.
An Introduction to the Gospel of John
Please open up to John 20:30-21, but before we jump in and read it, we need a little context. We are starting a series on the Gospel of John today, but I don’t’ want to jump straight into verse one. In fact, we’re going to start near the end. But first, some background.
The Gospel of John is just that, John’s presentation of the Gospel, the good news, about Jesus Christ. John’s is the last of the gospels written and tells the story of Jesus differently than Matthew, Mark and Luke. Those three are called the Synoptic Gospels because they are a “synopsis” or “summary” of the story of Jesus. They were all written within a couple decades of each other, from 50 to around 70AD, and each to a different audience. Mark wrote to convince the Gentiles of why they should follow Jesus as God, Matthew wrote to the Jews to show them that Jesus was their Messiah, and then Doctor Luke wrote his gospel and Acts together as an eye-witness account of Jesus’ life and ministry, and the birth of the church, for everyone.
These Synoptic Gospels were copied and circulated all over the place for about 20 years. At that time, most of, if not all of the Apostles died, except John. In 90AD, 50 years after he witnessed Jesus earthly ministry, John was still alive and ministering in Ephesus, a central hub and ministry training centre for many of the churches around the world. It wouldn’t be too long, maybe only 5 years, until even greater persecution against the church would cause John to be arrested, boiled in oil, and then exiled to the penal island of Patmos where he would write the Book of Revelation.
As he grew older in his ministry in Ephesus, God placed upon his heart to write his own Gospel, his own explanation of why people should believe in Jesus. But he would do it from his own perspective. Matthew, Mark and Luke had already written their defences of the Gospel so he didn’t need to re-write those again. He wrote something different. He wrote a “spiritual gospel”, a sort of supplement and complement to the other three. (Macarthur Study Bible – Pg 1569-1570) That’s why many of the stories in John’s book are different than Matthew, Mark and Luke’s – and why, when they overlap, John gives some more information and explanation.
So, for example, John’s gospel doesn’t start with the birth narrative. That’s already covered really well in Matthew and Luke. Instead, John starts with a greater understanding of where Jesus came from. Matthew starts with Jesus’ lineage and then tells the birth narrative because he was convincing his Jewish audience that Jesus was the Messiah and rightful King in the line of David. Luke begins with the story of John the Baptist because he’s picking up right where the Old Testament left off, and then gets into the birth narrative from an eye-witness account, likely after talking to Mary herself.
John didn’t’ need to do that. How does John start?
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:1–3)
John goes all the way back before the beginning of the Bible, before the beginning of time, to explain to His readers who Jesus really is. They’ve probably already read the other Gospels, and we all know that the first 50 years of the church was full of non-stop false-teaching about Jesus. By the time of John’s writing, the Apostle Paul had already written all his letters to the churches and been dead for over 20 years. As John writes his gospel, he does so with one eye on combatting the false-teachings about Jesus and the other on making an apologetic, a defence, for who Jesus really is. So, when the Apostle John starts his gospel, he expands his readers’ minds helping them understand something about Jesus that people weren’t grasping – so no one would ever have a doubt about who He is ever again. This Jesus, whom he is about to present, is fully God and fully man.
John is writing as an evangelist. He’s trying to convince people of who Jesus really is. Throughout the Gospel, John arranges the stories thematically to as “signs” that point to who Jesus not only said He is but showed He is. Like in John 6 when Jesus miraculously feeds thousands of people and then says, “I am the bread of life.” (6:35). John tells the story of Jesus do something miraculous, shows people misunderstanding that miracle, demonstrates how the current religious leaders are wrong, and then connects that story to Jesus explaining in no uncertain terms who He is and what the miracle meant. John does this over and over, using seven different miracles as the outline to explain seven different perspectives, so no one reading would have any doubts about who Jesus really is.
In John’s own words, near the end of the Gospel, John gives his mission statement: “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.” (John 20:30–31)
One Beggar to Another
John’s mission wasn’t merely to present facts about Jesus, to correct people who got the story wrong, or to show us how Jesus lived so we could do the same. That wasn’t his main motivation. He wrote this Gospel, as did the other gospel writers, as did Paul and Peter and everyone else who wrote a book of the New Testament – to tell the truth about, and convince people to follow the one, true, Jesus. Not a version of Jesus that fit with their worldview, not a pick-and-choose, buffet-style Jesus assembled from a bunch of different sources, not the Jewish version of Jesus, the Greek version of Jesus, or any other version of Jesus – and not because they just wanted everyone to think they were right or special or unique.
The Gospel writers wrote, as someone else put it,
“as one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.” (D.T. Niles)
That’s what evangelism, the sharing of the gospel, is all about. I’m subscribed to a bunch of different Christian YouTube channels and one thing that keeps popping up in my feed are videos of street evangelists with megaphones arguing with other people with megaphones. That’s not really the kind of evangelism we see in scriptures, but it’s the sort that gets clicks and attention. As they say though, it seems to be all heat and no light.
I remember being out in downtown Ottawa one night and there was a man standing on a street corner holding a sign that I think simply just had Matthew 3:2 on it,
“Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
As I walked past him I read the sign and tried to catch his eye to wave at him. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt that he had good motives and I wanted to give him a sort of a, “Hey man, I don’t know you, but good for you for standing out here holding a bible verse.” But he wouldn’t acknowledge me. He just stood there with a gloomy look on his face, staring into nothingness. I kept waving though and I watched as he looked at me, and then looked away. So I started waving more. He didn’t move. So I stopped walking, stared right at him, and started waving and waving. Eventually, about a minute later, he begrudgingly gave me a little hand-twist and I smiled and went on my way.
From what I’ve read and experienced, that dude is basically what the world thinks we are when we say we’re Christians. A bunch of grumpy, judgemental, joyless people who generally dislike the world around them, and are carrying a message that no one really seems to understand. It’s not true – well, it’s not true for most of the Christians that I know – but it’s the stereotype, right?
And honestly, no one reading that guy’s sign is going to understand what it says anymore. What percentage of people in the Byward Market on a Friday night, do you think, know what any of those words mean? What does “repent” mean? What is the “kingdom of heaven”? What does “at hand” mean? It’s basically gibberish to 95% of Canada.
But the gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t gibberish. It’s not religion or opinion or a methodology or a good, old story to tell to make us feel better, or a hammer to beat down our enemies. It’s the difference between life and death. “…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.” That, at the very least, implies that those who do not believe in his name do not have “life”. It means they are “dead”. People who share, and teach, and defend, the gospel of Jesus – whether we’re talking about Matthew, Luke, John, or Paul – or Billy Graham or Dwight L Moody – or Pastors and Small Group Leaders and Sunday School Teachers – or just you sitting in a coffee shop or at your kitchen table telling your story to someone else – are not coming from a “high-horse” down to the ignorant masses to explain how we know the right way of doing religion.
No, we are just “one beggar telling another beggar where we found the bread.” The Apostles don’t elevate themselves in their books, but instead, debase themselves, showing how they were lost, blind, and afraid. The hero of the gospels, or Acts, or the letters, is never the author, nor any the apostles. The followers of Jesus don’t come off in a very good light. Matthew was a despised tax collector, Mark was a coward who took off on both Jesus and Paul, Peter stuck his foot in his mouth over and over and then denied Jesus at His most desperate hour. All of the men who would become the apostles repeatedly showed their ignorance, sin, selfishness, and cowardice. When they told the story of Jesus, they didn’t shine – Jesus did.
When Paul tells the story of His conversion he pulls no punches either. He loved himself above all, hated Jesus, and got great pleasure from abusing Christians as much as he could. Over and over Paul marvels at how much grace Jesus showed him. When Paul wrote to his protégé Timothy near the end of his life, after serving God for many years and suffering much for the faith, he said,
“I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Timothy 1:12–17)
The closer Paul got to Jesus, the smaller Paul got and the larger Jesus got. I love that line in verse 16, “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” Paul often wondered why Jesus would save him, one who hated Him so much and did so much damage to His people. And after a long while, this is what he had figured out. Jesus gave him mercy because if he could be saved – if Jesus could save Saul of Tarsus, the most fearsome opponent to the church alive, a man even the apostles were nervous around – anyone could be saved.
The Heart of Evangelism
That’s the heart of evangelism, that’s the heart of the New Testament, the heart with which John writes his gospel with, and the heart of every good preacher, teacher, and Christian who is sharing their faith. We don’t speak about how great we are because we found Jesus – we tell people how great Jesus is because He found us.
When we weren’t looking for Him, Jesus showed Himself to us. When we were up to our eyeballs in sin and self, spiritually dead, unable to even recognize good from evil, Jesus broke through and showed us the consequences of that sin, died for those sins, killed those sins inside of us, and then raise us to new life. When we were desperately seeking a way to rid ourselves of guilt and shame and fear through our own willpower, through religion, through lifestyle, through spiritualism, Jesus broke our wills and told us the truth about where salvation, freedom, and life really comes from. When we were hurting, afraid, lonely, and lost, using all sorts of means to distract and numb ourselves from pain – Jesus broke through the fog, shared His love with us, offered us a new life, a new path, with Him as the Lord of our lives instead of us, and made it possible for us to conquer those sins and feel what life is really like.
When we share the gospel, I mean really share our story, our testimony, the good news of Jesus Christ, it comes from the same heart that Paul wrote with. Someone asks us, “Why do you live and talk and think like you do? Why do you have hope when everything is so hopeless? Why can you say you feel forgiven when I know the terrible things you’ve done? How can you possibly forgive the person who hurt you so badly? Where does your strength of character, your peace, your patience, your kindness, your love, your joy, your generosity, your gentleness, your courage, come from?”
Our answer is the same as every other Christian’s. “Listen, man. Any good you see in me doesn’t come from me. I’m a sinner. I still sin a lot. I still love myself far more than I should. If you were inside my head sometimes, you wouldn’t be asking that question. But here’s what happened. Even though I was steeped in my own ignorance, even though I thought I was better and smarter than God, even though I kept doing things my way, Jesus changed my life. He showed me grace. Something happened one day that I can’t explain. At that moment, Jesus met me. It was like seeing light or hearing sound for the first time. And when I saw that bit of light, I wanted more and asked Him to help me. So He pointed me at His word, His people, and His way. He told me to step off the throne of my life and give it all to Him. And I did. He showed me my ignorance and sin, and how my life was no life at all but was steeped in death – and then He offered to save me from it. He was gentle, kind, and patient, but firm. Whereat one time I hated authority, I despised anyone telling me what to do, now I craved it. I want life the way He offers it, the way He lives it. That change wasn’t me. He did it all.
He helped me see what was wrong and still is. He helped me get clean from it and still is. But it wasn’t just that He gave me people to help me – which He did – He worked a miracle inside me. It like He took out my old heart and replaced it with a new one. I’m not the same person I was. He didn’t just change a couple things – He changed all of me. My priorities are different, my outlook is different, my interests are different, the way I see the world, and people, and politics, and work, and life, and death, and eternity are all very, very different than before. And that’s because of Him. It’s because, in His mercy, He changed me.
And so, here’s the secret. Every day, I go to Him. When I wake up, I talk to Him and He talks to me through His word and in my spirit – in my heart. As I go through my day, no matter what’s happening, I know He’s with me. I’m never alone. When I need wisdom, I ask and he gives it to me. When I sin and mess up – which is a lot – He always, always forgives me and then tells me what I need to do to fix it. When I’m frustrated and angry, or tempted, or afraid, I talk to Him, I read His Word, and He always, always, shows up. I can’t explain it. All I can say is that Jesus is real and alive, and I know Him personally – but more important… He knows me. That’s what’s different about me.”
That’s the heart and message I want to start this series out with. Yes, we may get into some more academic, systematic theology, jargony bits, because explaining the truth accurately is important – but I want it to always be at the front of our minds that John’s Gospel, and by extension this church, the ministries we have here, my ministry, and everything we do is motivated by the knowledge that true life, the meaning of life, abundant life, is only found by believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as He is found in the Bible.
My encouragement to you is to read and study and pray along with me so that we can grow together in faith, hope, and love for Jesus, His Gospel, His people, and His Word.