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Under an Open Heaven: A New Way of Life Revealed in John's Gospel

Under an Open Heaven: A New Way of Life Revealed in John's Gospel

by John Johnson


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"You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man" (John 1:51 HCSB). When Jesus spoke these mysterious words to Nathanael, He was announcing a new order: life will no longer be the same. And just as the early believers needed a theology to strengthen their souls and steady their nerves in their turbulent times, we too need to know that the abundant life under the opened heaven John describes is not just conceivable—it's a promise.

In subsequent conversations in John's gospel, Jesus unpacks the implications for those willing to step into the life of Christ. Drawing from these conversations, John E. Johnson points out clear applications still useful for our modern lives—handling conflicts with family, overcoming cultural barriers, resisting consumer pressures, and facing life's disappointments.

If you're tired of living a confined life, frustrated by failure, or starving in the midst of plenty, these conversations in John assure you: life doesn't have to stay small. There is a whole new world made possible under God's open heaven.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780825444081
Publisher: Kregel Publications
Publication date: 02/27/2017
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

John E. Johnson is associate professor of pastoral theology at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregeon, and lead pastor of Village Baptist Church in Beaverton, Oregon. He has previously held posts at other churches, including Trinity International Church at The Hague, Netherlands. Johnson has published articles in Bibliotheca Sacra and Trinity Journal.

To learn more, visit his blog at

Read an Excerpt

Under An Open Heaven

A New Way of Life Revealed in John's Gospel

By John E. Johnson

Kregel Publications

Copyright © 2017 John E. Johnson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8254-4408-1



A Conversation with Nathanael JOHN 1:43–51

"You will see greater things than this ." Then [Jesus] said, "I assure you: You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man ."

— JOHN 1:50–51

* * *

The Grey is a chilling movie about a group of unruly oil-rig roughnecks who survive a plane crash in Alaska's wilderness. In merciless weather, they must endure injuries and a vicious pack of rogue wolves. As the wolves take out these men, one by one, the question begins to surface: Is God still out there? Even the film's lead character, John Ottway (Liam Neeson), the roughest of the rough, demands to know. At the end, he is the only one left. Desperate, facing imminent death, he pleads to God for help. He screams out, "Do something!" But the only sound he hears is silence. He senses God is nowhere to be found. The heavens appear to be sealed shut and the key thrown away. The scene ends with this desperate yet self-confident line: "F — it, I'll do it myself."

How many times do we feel alone in the midst of circling predators? They may not be literal wolves but threats that feel like death in the midst of life. There are dead lines at work, dead ends in certain relationships, and dead weights that keep us down. There are the ever-present financial worries that attempt to eat us alive. For some of us, there emerges a dull sense that life is not going as we hoped. For others, there is a heightening awareness of "the accumulated crumbling of one's bodily systems while medicine carries out its maintenance measures and patch jobs."

We all know (at least intellectually) that this is our plight in a broken world. We always face struggles, though the forces that beset us change with the years. We take on many of these "wolves" with our prayers, but our words are sometimes met with silence. It's as if we live under some God-imposed dome. Our fear is that if we are able to break out, we might find that heaven's doors are shut and the curtains are pulled tight. We find ourselves echoing the same question raised in The Grey: Is God still out there?

Over time, it is easy for a low-grade skepticism to begin to take root, the sort that threatens to overthrow faith. Along with the main character in The Grey, we gradually come to a place where we believe that any saving action is up to us.


The gospel of John is out to challenge this outlook on life. Throughout, John describes life under a wide-open heaven, where everything has changed. Jesus broke through the sealed dome and entered into this self-reliant world to declare it is not up to us. And amazingly, He is still here and He is not silent. He came to confront the wolves that threaten death with His promises of life, even an abundant life (John 10:10). It's not His intention that we live desperate, inconsequential lives sealed into our doomed state nor merely succumb to the passage of time. He has opened the doors, pulled back the curtains, stepped into this world, and opened our eyes to see otherworldly realities. Each conversation in John enlarges our picture of an interactive God, telling us what life under an open heaven is about. He intends to remove our self-imagined restrictions, take us through the barriers, and bring us out to the edges.

To begin, John leaps into an apparent void with his story. It has been nearly four hundred years since God has spoken through a prophet. Miracles have largely ceased after Mount Carmel; visions and dreams have diminished. By the end of the Old Testament, an unresponsive people have seemingly pushed God into early retirement. 2 Meanwhile, empires come and go. Rome is now the dominant force oppressing Israel. And the Jews are desperate for God to unretire, to throw open the doors of heaven and answer their prayers. Though they desperately long for a messiah who will overturn Rome and vindicate Israel, they insist that this messiah must conform to their expectations of what a messiah is like. In the meantime, they have to rely on their own wits, their own strength. They have to defeat the wolves themselves.

And then, an opening. God breaks His silence. How appropriate that He is introduced in John as "the Word" — God is now audible, oh yes, and visible as "the Word became flesh" (1:14). Like someone returning from a long journey, He suddenly emerges and speaks. There is this Godward force changing the landscape. He directs the winds. He creates Burgundy out of H2O. He speaks with the kind of power that can level the old-growth cedars of Lebanon. He rebukes and invites and liberates us from any notion that we are forced to go it alone. Something about the Word, Jesus, causes men to drop everything and follow.

It still happens.


Andrew and other early disciples drop everything to cast their lot with Jesus (1:39). They're convinced they've found the Messiah. But some, like Nathanael, hold back. He looks at Philip and others and wonders if their bull-manure detectors are broken. There have been too many failed promises. Expectations have hit painful dead ends. There have been plenty of bogus messiahs in and around Galilee. The time for messianic dreams to be fulfilled is surely now, but the résumé of this character does not fit. The man is a Nazarene, but they expect the Messiah to come from Bethlehem. Anyone with basic Sunday school training knows this. (Later, in 7:41–42, this will be a huge sticking point for others.)

Furthermore, Nathanael and others like him are incredulous that the one prophesied in the Old Testament — the fulfillment of all the biblical prophets' longings and visions — would come from a place as irrelevant as Nazareth. The anticipated King who conquers the dark oppressor cannot emerge from some backwater town!3 To Nathanael this is insane, floating on ludicrous, lost in a sea of nonsense.

Imagine today anyone suggesting that the Messiah will be born in a homeless shelter, move to a place like Norton, Kansas, work a minimum-wage union job, hang out with riffraff, need to borrow a junker car for a parade in His honor, wash dirt off His workers' feet, get Himself arrested and convicted of a crime, and finally be sentenced to the death penalty. Nathanael depends upon his own sight. He has his expectations. Messiahs do not do this.

The tone of Nathanael's response in John 1:46 is flippant (and maybe a little hostile). Even his own hometown, Cana, is a village larger and more prosperous than Nazareth, that speck on the map nine miles to the south. It's so obscure it is not mentioned in a list of sixty-three Galilean towns in the Talmud. But chances are there's a crosstown rivalry of sorts. These are communities that harbor deep suspicions of one another (just like the rivalry between Scappoose and St. Helens on the north side of Portland, and nearly every other small town adjacent to another).

Nathanael is just being realistic. Like most skeptics, he's sensible enough to question far-fetched claims to fame. The more significant the claim, the more it requires exploring, questioning. If Nathanael is to believe in this emerging new voice, he has to see it. Jesus has to meet his expectations and fit into his categories. He has to respond at a prayer's notice, especially when wolves circle his path. The Messiah has to come in glorious and grand terms, in ways that make sense. If not, Nathanael will suspend judgment until he has sufficient evidence. Until the real Messiah shows up, Nathanael will deal with unanswered prayers. He will keep relying upon himself.

Skepticism is not necessarily a bad thing. It's a form of protection against believing too much. Suspicion guards us from giving credit card information to Nigerian lawyers or obeisance to weeping icons of Mary. With John Ortberg, each of us declares: "I don't believe in Bigfoot or Stonehenge or the Loch Ness monster. I don't believe Elvis is still alive and working as a short-order cook at Taco Bell. ... I don't believe extra-terrestrials periodically visit the earth and give rides on their spacecrafts, partly because they never seem to land in Pasadena and give rides to physicists from Cal Tech."

Nathanael just wants reliable proof. He is like some people I know who sit in the pews with their arms folded, wearing an incredulous Missouri spirit that says, "Show me." Maybe Jesus is the Messiah. Maybe He did walk on water and declare sovereignty over creation. Maybe. But what if an academic like Doron Nof, a professor of oceanography at Florida State University, has it right when he acknowledges that Jesus walked on water, but it was an isolated patch of floating ice due to global cooling? The greatest fear of a skeptic is to be taken in. Nathanael will need to hear more before he makes a decision.

Maybe we need to hear more. Doubts about God also find their way into our lives. How do I reconcile a congregant's tragedy with the words of the sage, "No disaster overcomes the righteous" (Prov. 12:21)? Where is God when the world seems to be oppressing me — when my ongoing prayer requests seem to evaporate into thin air? Why am I not experiencing this peace "which passeth all understanding" (Phil. 4:7 KJV) now that I have cast my worries upon Him? Why didn't He alert me to the symptoms before it was too late? Why am I the subject of an investigation that is fueled by a lawsuit-happy person wanting to make a quick buck? Why doesn't God intervene before some mindless shooter steps into a Charleston African Methodist Episcopal church or walks onto a southern Oregon campus?

Even pastors occasionally "hang on to faith by [their] finger nails"! Doubts creep into the pulpit. How can I preach certain parts of Joshua that sound disturbingly like genocide? What about these dietary restrictions? (Does God really have something against lobsters?) We preach revival, but we sometimes wonder if God will ever show back up. In our darker moments, we might wonder if He ever did. Was it just old-time media hype? If God is God, why doesn't He intervene when my sermon seems to lose heat? If the Spirit of God is so mightily present, and the Word is sharper than any two-edged sword, how is it some remain so unaffected?

James 5:16 declares that the intense prayers of the righteous accomplish much, but what have my pastoral prayers really accomplished? Does the prayer of faith really heal the sick? If Jesus is this living water, why am I so dry? Open doubts and honest searching fill in some of our space, encroaching on trust and sensibility, threatening to make a shambles of our faith. We expect God to ride into our lives and conquer the inescapable consequences of being finite creatures in a broken world. When it doesn't happen, we wonder if anything can be done.

Like us, Nathanael has to be careful with his skepticism. If we hold on to doubts too long, they can curdle into unbelief. In Not Sure: A Pastor's Journey from Faith to Doubt, John Suk describes how skepticism worked like a slow erosion in his soul. He began asking questions: Is the creation story real? Were the exodus accounts exaggerated? What about Israel's ethnic cleansing? As he puts it, "It was as if different corners of my brain were holding onto contradictory ideas and maps all at the same time." Uncertainty replaces certainty, and unbelief shoves belief aside.

Nathanael is on the brink of missing the true Messiah because he's holding the wrong map.


Jesus may not impress Nathanael with His street address or nonmilitary bearing, but He blows Nathanael away with what He knows and what He can see (John 1:47–48). The Son of God speaks to him as if He has known him his whole life. He comes across as one who has fathomed Nathanael's deepest being. This is because He knows Nathanael better than Nathanael knows himself. God does not perceive us fragmentarily; He knows us and everything exhaustively. He knew Nathanael in eternity past when He conceived him in His mind. He knows all about Nathanael's present moral choices. He sees his whole future. Jesus is fully aware that Nathanael is not a man prone to cunning and treachery; Nathanael is the antithesis of deceit. He is devout. Jesus compliments Nathanael's integrity, all while acknowledging and accepting his open doubts and questions.

When Nathanael asks Jesus how He knows him, Jesus unnerves him with His answer: "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you." Something supernatural has just happened. In these words, Jesus pierces Nathanael's sense of hiddenness. How does He know? Here is someone who knows his rising and his sitting. Something has opened. There is exposure.

This is someone who knows our movements, sees our lives.

Some years ago, when I was in Stavanger, Norway, and wearied with denominational meetings, I decided to escape. I had read about a geographic wonder called Preikestolen, better known as Pulpit Rock. I thought every preacher who comes to Norway should have the experience of climbing it. So I went AWOL, gone missing from the committee on committees (there really are these committees). I took a ferry, then grabbed a bus, and finally hired a taxi to get to the trailhead. It was a spectacular early October day, and there was no one on the trail except for a few mountain goats. After two hours of climbing, I made it up to the top of this massive cliff, 1,982 feet in elevation. In the solitude, looking out over the Norwegian fjords, I was lifted into an unforgettable spiritual experience. And then it came to me — no one on this earth knows where I am at this moment. But sitting in the presence of God, I realized — He does! "You observe my travels and my rest; You are aware of all my ways" (Ps. 139:3). He knows our itinerary before it is printed. He knows how the film ends before we've seen it.

Nathanael is suddenly aware of this reality. Jesus shows this skeptic that He knows when he sits down and when he stands up. Jesus is radically and totally other than — other than us and other than our reality. Ironically, this is enough for Nathanael. Skeptical as he is, it does not take much to overwhelm him. It turns out his wonder is not so expansive, his expectations not so great, and his skepticism not so deep.

What about our wonder, our expectations?


Nathanael needed his vision expanded. With just a few words, he suddenly sees a Messiah who sees what humanity can't see, who defies what humanity expects, who is completely other. Nathanael falls down and worships. As New Testament scholar F. Dale Bruner put it, "guileless, cool, rational, studious, intellectual [and skeptical] Nathanael now has an emotional, almost a Southern Baptist conversion." In the span of a moment he moves from skeptic to follower.

We expect Jesus will be pleased with Nathanael's profession of faith. But as the conversation reveals, Jesus is not so impressed with Nathanael's response, any more than He is with any of us who impulsively respond to the invitation. People see some miracle or hear a testimony that has stirred their emotions, and down the aisle they go. In some cases, it might be fair to ask the same question: "Is this all that it took to convince you?" Jesus is not so moved by spontaneous reactions to make Him King of their lives (John 6:14–15, 26). He will not assume belief just because people declare they do believe (2:23–25; 8:30–32). Too often, it is short-lived.

Jesus has something greater for Nathanael to see. For us to see. Jesus is about to make one of the most profound statements in Scripture. This will be the true test of faith. Nathanael is about to see a supernatural vision that will shatter his mind — shatter our minds. He will see greater realities, the sort of things prophets and righteous men have longed to see (Matt. 13:16–17). But by God's expansive love, we are allowed to glimpse! Jesus says to Nathanael, "You will see greater things than this" (John 1:50).

He then says to him, "I assure you: You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man" (v. 51). Here's where a more careful look at the text is crucial — critical to the argument of this book. The "you" is plural, twice in this verse. We are all invited into a vision that will confront every doubt and unnerve every skeptic. Jesus announces a staggering event, the event prophets longed to see. It's an event that is neither past nor future. The tense implies a present event with effects that continue out into the future. The heavens have opened, and they remain open.


Excerpted from Under An Open Heaven by John E. Johnson. Copyright © 2017 John E. Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Kregel Publications.
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.

Table of Contents


Foreword, Gary Thomas, 9,
Acknowledgments, 11,
Before We Begin, 13,
1 Life Is About Expanding One's Vision A Conversation with Nathanael (JOHN 1:43–51), 21,
2 Life Is About Experiencing God's Sudden Shifts A Conversation with Mary (JOHN 2:1–12), 39,
3 Life Is About Moving with the Spirit A Conversation with Nicodemus (JOHN 3:1–15), 55,
4 Life Is About Dismantling Barriers A Conversation with the Woman at the Well (JOHN 4:7–26), 71,
5 Life Is About Living Expansively A Conversation with an Invalid (JOHN 5:1–15), 89,
6 Life Is About Consuming the Better Food A Conversation with the Crowd (JOHN 6:22–71), 103,
7 Life Is About Something to Live and Die For A Conversation with His Brothers (JOHN 7:1–9), 119,
8 Life Is About Being Set Free A Conversation with Unbelieving Believers (JOHN 8:30–59), 133,
9 Life Is About Seeing the Light A Conversation with the Man Born Blind (JOHN 9:1–41), 151,
10 Life Is About Living by God's Timing and God's Purposes ... A Conversation with Martha (JOHN 11:1–3, 17–44), 167,
11 Life Is About Pursuing Your Divine Race A Conversation with His Followers (JOHN 13–17), 187,
12 Life Is About Flourishing Under God's Authority A Conversation with Pilate (JOHN 18:28–19:11), 215,
13 Life Is About Restoration Replacing Failure A Conversation with Peter (JOHN 21:1–19), 229,
Conclusion, 239,
Notes, 245,
Bibliography, 255,
About the Author, 263,

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