Read an Excerpt
Insights on John
By Charles R. Swindoll
ZondervanCopyright © 2010 Charles R. Swindoll
All right reserved.
John had lived long enough to see it all, from the beginning all the way to the end. As a brash, blustering young man, the idea of tramping around the wilderness of Judea to follow John the Baptizer appealed to him a great deal. So he left his thriving fishing enterprise in the hands of his brother, James, and abandoned his privileged status for a diet of locusts and wild honey-and the chance to prepare Israel for the coming of Messiah. He helped the forerunner of the Christ baptize thousands of repentant Jews and supported this strange, Elijah-like figure as he called down judgment on the corrupt temple leaders.
Finally the day came when John saw the long-awaited Anointed One. He looked nothing like what John had imagined; but his wilderness mentor, John the Baptizer, was unequivocal. This was the One. He and another of John's disciples decided to get a closer look, to follow Him home, to hear what He had to say about Himself and Israel. And before the dawn of the next day, he knew. They had found the Messiah.
The time he spent with Jesus flew by in the beat of a lash, yet it remained vividly clear in his mind for more than seventy years. He saw the man who he thought would be a conquering, super-David, Savior of Israel, instead stripped, beaten mercilessly, and hung on a cross like a petty thug. He saw the sky darken as the Light of the world faded into death. He saw his hope resurrected to assume a more glorious form than he could have imagined. He stood in awe as the presence of God filled the squabbling, self-promoting disciples and transformed them into the bones and muscle, hands and feet of Christ's body.
As the blood of his martyred brothers inspired new believers, John nurtured them. As Paul, Barnabas, Silas, Apollos, Luke, Timothy, Titus, and a host of other missionaries zealously expanded the church westward, John shored up its foundation. As critics bashed, John defended. As imposters subverted, John exposed them. As false prophets misled, John refuted their heretical message. He condensed his teaching into three letters, which originally circulated within the churches of Asia Minor around AD 65.
After John outlived all his martyred peers, Emperor Domitian exiled the apostle to the nearly barren isle of Patmos. There he saw the future of the world, all the way to its destruction and re-creation; he preserved everything he witnessed in "The Revelation." After Domitian's death, John rested in the care of the church in Ephesus, which in turn enjoyed his gentle, grandfatherlike shepherding.
The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) had been staples of church teaching as early as AD 50. They told the story of Jesus from different perspectives, yet each one included many of the same events, largely taken from His ministry in Galilee. Decades later, Christianity grew into more than a movement; it became sophisticated system of thought. And this maturity brought new challenges. The danger came less in the form of physical attacks or religious opposition, and more by philosophical corruption and theological compromise. Furthermore, the biography of Jesus lacked a much-needed cosmic dimension.
So, in the final years of his life-when the nearness of death gives memories an eternal glow-and after having witnessed the most significant period of history the world has ever known, John wrote of his Master.
"THAT YOU MAY BELIEVE"
The gospel of John is a masterpiece of storytelling, both charming in its simplicity and challenging in its depth-a rare work of literature that fun-loving children and deep-thinking philosophers can equally appreciate. John's God-breathed account of Christ's earthly ministry uses such elementary Greek that it reads like a child's primer; for that reason, it is usually the first book novice learners of Koine learn to translate. Yet philosophers and theologians spend lifetimes trying to fully comprehend the profound truths John presents. Martin Luther marveled over the dual nature of John's writing, admitting, "I have never read a book written in simpler words than this one, and yet the words are inexpressible."
John's gospel presents God as Father more tenderly than any other book in the Bible. It boldly and unambiguously establishes the dual nature of Jesus Christ-fully God and fully human, perfectly united in one person. And it reveals the mystery of the Holy Spirit unlike any other gospel. Moreover, John's narrative provides a broad range of practical lessons to guide the believer through life. Several passages come to our rescue when leading someone to faith in Jesus Christ, while others bring comfort and consolation when we must bury a cherished loved one. From the gospel of John, we learn about our increasing estrangement from the world and our deepening intimacy with the Almighty, and we begin to appreciate the priority the Lord places on unity in the family of God.
John took a deliberate approach. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he carefully crafted each sentence to unveil the fascinating mysteries of heaven in simple language, and he painstakingly chose which facts to relate and which to leave out. In his own words, "there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written" (21:25). Rather than pen a document that quadrupled the size of the Old Testament, he chose the "less is more" approach and strategically chose which stories to relate in order to accomplish his primary purpose: "so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name" (20:31).
WHY FOUR GOSPELS?
Why do we have four biographies of Jesus when one could have done the job? Why not fourteen? In reality, we do not have four gospels; we have one gospel from four vantage points. We have one biography from four witnesses, each writer providing a unique perspective.
If we were to document the life of Jesus using only pictures, we could choose one of two methods. We could use a motion picture camera to record every movement in detail, and if the reel were long enough, replay His life from birth, to death, to resurrection, and beyond. The running time of the film would exceed thirty-three years of nonstop viewing! Or we could capture key moments in still photographs-perhaps from several angles at once-and tell the story of His life in a photo essay. The benefits would be obvious. The story can be told briefly, yet adequately, allowing time to reflect on the details of the most important moments. In the case of the gospels, we have four albums of Christ's life, created by individuals who highlighted different, yet crucial themes.
Matthew was a Jewish disciple of Jesus Christ who once earned his living as a tax collector, an official of the Roman government. Moved by the Spirit of God, he wrote a biography of Jesus from a Hebrew point of view, emphasizing the regal rights of Jesus as Messiah and legitimate King of Israel. He traced Christ's genealogy to Abraham, through King David. It's a Jewish book written by a Jew to his fellow sons of the covenant. His primary theme: The Messiah has come.
Mark was not one of the Twelve, but the son of a follower named Mary (Acts 12:12) and a close associate of Barnabas, Paul, and Peter. He presented Christ's ministry from a practical, action-oriented point of view, in a narrative frequently punctuated by the phrase "and immediately." This style would have appealed to the can-do Romans of the first century, who respected deep thinkers but looked to men of action for leadership. Mark's gospel shows Jesus to be the no-nonsense Godman who came from heaven to complete a task. He "did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). Mark's primary theme: The Son of God came to seek, serve, and save.
Luke was a physician, probably born and reared in Macedonia. He was a Gentile, not a Jew. He wrote to neither the spiritually privileged Jew nor the politically privileged Roman, but to common Greeks, most of whom had no power, no wealth, and no hope. Luke's gospel highlights the humanity of Jesus, favoring the title "Son of Man" and providing details about His humble birth, His ordinary boyhood, His compassion for the poor and sick, and the global scope of His ministry. Luke's genealogy traces Jesus' lineage all the way back to Adam, the father of all humanity. Luke's primary theme: The Son of Man came to redeem all of humanity.
John certainly knew of these gospels and probably taught from them for many years before deciding, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that the biography of Jesus remained incomplete. The Christian world knew Jesus as King of the Jews, Jesus as the servant, and Jesus as the Son of Man, but there remained a need for the theme, Jesus as the Son of God. John wrote his gospel so that we would know that the Son of Man is God in human flesh-completely human, yet no less God than when, "in the beginning," He spoke the universe into existence.
The gospel of John provides no genealogy, illustrating the fact that Deity has no beginning. The gospel of John offers no childhood details and retells no parables, perhaps to emphasize His transcendent nature as God. The gospel of John bypasses Jesus' temptation in the wilderness, His transfiguration on the mountain, His commissioning the disciples after His resurrection, and His ascension from earth.
Instead, John writes from a philosophical and theological perspective, placing great emphasis on the miracles of Jesus, which he calls "signs." For John, the miracles indicated a supernatural happening, proof that what many considered to be theoretical truths were in fact real and tangible. The Word had become flesh to give all of humanity every reason to believe and to leave us with no excuse for doubt. John's primary theme: The man we know as Jesus is none other than God on earth.
Matthew wrote, "This is the Messiah, the King; worship Him." Mark wrote, "This is the Servant who served humanity; follow Him." Luke wrote, "This is the only man among men without sin; emulate Him." John says, "This is God in human flesh; believe in Him."
THE CRISIS OF FAITH
John declares, in effect, "I'm not writing merely to inform. I'm not writing merely to entertain. I'm writing to stir the heart of the reader to believe." The Greek word translated "believe" appears ninety-eight times in the gospel of John-multiple times per chapter. But what does it mean "to believe"? Does it mean to believe the historical personage of Christ, to accept the fact that a man named Jesus lived at some point in time? Does it mean to admire Him, or to emulate Him, or to take up His revolutionary cause? Does it mean to entertain warm feelings, or to venerate Him as more than human, or to devote time and energy in order to please Him?
No. Those kinds of belief are good-some are even necessary. But the kind of belief John calls all his readers to embrace encompasses much more. First, the Greek term pisteuo means "to acknowledge the truth as truth." When I say that I believe the book of John, I mean to say that I accept its content as truth. To believe in Christ is, first, to accept what He says as truth. Second, and more importantly, pisteuo means "to trust, to rely upon, to derive confidence in" something or someone. When I say I believe in Jesus Christ, I declare that I trust Him, I rely on Him, I have placed my complete confidence in Him; everything I know about this life and whatever occurs after death depends on His claims about Himself and how I must respond to His offer of grace.
In the past few years, churches all across the United States have experienced remarkable growth, and the "megachurch" phenomenon has encircled the globe. It's exciting to see. The burgeoning numbers packing these sanctuaries, however, include multitudes caught up in a movement who listen with Bibles in their laps and take copious notes on what they hear from week to week, but have never given themselves over to the message of Jesus Christ and placed their absolute trust in Him. They listen and learn and nod in agreement, but they do not believe. They have not submitted their hearts and wills to the truth of Jesus Christ-His identity as God and His offer of eternal life through faith alone.
Another important aspect of John's call to belief is that we are invited to believe in Jesus Christ, the person-not merely His message, His teaching, His example, or His challenge to live in a certain way. We are called first and foremost to believe in Him. This was the intellectual and moral crisis presented to people of all kinds in John's narrative, many of whom responded with belief, complete trust. Consider just six examples.
John, the forerunner of the Messiah: "I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, 'He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.' I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God" (1:33-34). Nathanael, the cynical disciple: "Nathanael said to [Philip], 'Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?' Philip said to him, 'Come and see.' Jesus saw Nathanael coming to Him, and said of him, 'Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!' Nathanael said to Him, 'How do You know me?' Jesus answered and said to him, 'Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.' Nathanael answered Him, 'Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel'" (1:46-49). Peter, the impulsive disciple: "As a result of this [difficult teaching] many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore. So Jesus said to the twelve, 'You do not want to go away also, do you?' Simon Peter answered Him, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God'" (6:66-69). Martha, the dutiful follower: "Martha said to [Jesus], 'I know that [Lazarus] will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.' Jesus said to her, 'I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?' She said to Him, 'Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world'" (11:24-27). Thomas, the pensive disciple: "Then [Jesus] said to Thomas, 'Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.' Thomas answered and said to Him, 'My Lord and my God!' Jesus said to him, 'Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed'" (20:27-29). John, the biographer: "Many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name" (20:30-31).
SIGNS AND DISCOURSES
John's narrative is remarkable in several respects, not the least of which is its structure. The first verse of chapter 13 marks a dramatic shift in the story of Christ's earthly ministry so that the final nine chapters read very differently than the first twelve. Chapters 1 through 12 describe an extensive, very public ministry and message. Chapters 13 through 21 bring us behind closed doors to witness the private ministry of Jesus. Chapters 1 through 12 carry us through a period of more than three years, while the final eight chapters span four days (not including the epilogue of chapter 21, which took place at some point within the forty days of Christ's resurrection). The first section highlights the miracles of Jesus, while the second section records His discourses with the Twelve.
Excerpted from Insights on John by Charles R. Swindoll Copyright © 2010 by Charles R. Swindoll. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.