Look and See the Living God
John may have been the only one of Jesus’ twelve disciples not to die a violent death, but don’t let that fool you that his lot in life was easy. As the last surviving disciple by far, he was burdened by a barrage of unwanted attention.
The enemies of Christianity, particularly the Romans, had marked him out as a dangerous eyewitness to the life of Jesus. He had been there when Jesus healed the blind and fed the hungry, there when he was nailed to a Roman cross, and there when he left behind an empty tomb. John hadn’t stopped preaching about what he had seen for sixty years, and he knew that if old age didn’t claim his life soon then his increasingly agitated enemies surely would.1 In around 90AD, just before the Emperor Domitian exiled him to the Greek island of Patmos, John decided it was time to preserve his memories in a gospel.2 Irenaeus, who was taught by John’s young helper Polycarp, informs us that:
John the Lord’s disciple, the one who leaned back on his chest, published a gospel whilst living at Ephesus in Asia ... John made his permanent home in Ephesus until the time of Trajan.3
When John saw that his time witnessing on earth was nearly over, he wrote his gospel as a witness to generations yet to come.
John was also being watched by the many false teachers who had latched themselves onto the growing Christian faith like limpets to the hull of a mighty warship. Some of them played down Jesus’ divinity while others played down his humanity, but both groups found common ground in their resentment towards the aged apostle who refuted their theories with facts about the Jesus that he knew. Note the way John fills his gospel with vivid eyewitness descriptions,4 and with words like seeing and knowing and bearing testimony and the truth.5 John wants his readers to appreciate that he knew the real Jesus – fully God and fully man – and that his gospel exposes the speculations of people who try to reshape the Messiah in a mould of their own making.
Most concerning of all, John was troubled by the starstruck gaze of the many well-meaning Christians who hailed him as their hero. Note the way he writes his gospel in a manner which prevents us from placing him on a pedestal as a saint. Matthew, Mark and Luke mention John and his brother James a total of thirty-nine times in their gospels, but John never mentions himself or his brother by name at all!6 He might mention less famous disciples such as Philip and Thomas and Nathanael, but he purposely redirects his readers’ attention away from himself by making anonymous references to “the disciple Jesus loved”.7 As for the rumour among his fans that he might not die until Jesus returned in glory, he quashes their misguided hero worship in 21:23. In a world where too many people looked at John instead of Jesus, he wrote this gospel to plead with each of his readers to Look and see the Living God!
All of this makes John’s gospel essential reading for anyone who wants to know the real Jesus today. Like us, John had copies of the gospels which Matthew, Mark and Luke had written earlier, but he believed that we needed something more. They are known as the ‘Synoptic’ gospels because they all ‘share a common perspective’ on the life and ministry of Jesus, whereas the second-century church leader Clement of Alexandria explains that John’s gospel takes a different view: “John, perceiving that the outward facts had been set forth in those gospels, urged on by his friends and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual gospel.”8 John doesn’t tell us that Jesus told parables, drove out demons, healed lepers, was transfigured or prayed agonised prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane. Instead, he duplicates as little material as possible in order to tell unrecorded stories which open our eyes to see the real Jesus in his untold glory.
In chapters 1-4, John uses fresh incidents from Jesus’ early ministry to encourage us to look at Jesus alone. In chapters 5-12, he uses more new stories to teach us to look at who Jesus really is. In chapters 13-17, he records Jesus’ handover teaching to his disciples and encourages us to look at what Jesus has given you. This leads into his conclusion in chapters 18-21, where he gives final reasons to look at Jesus and win. All along the way, he punctuates his gospel with frequent exhortations to “Look!” and “Come and see!” and “Open your eyes!” to see the Living God.
If you are unsure what you believe about Jesus of Nazareth, then this should all strike you as very good news. John wrote this gospel to give you a ringside seat from which to watch the Galilean carpenter whose message changed the world. Mark writes to tell us what Jesus did, and Matthew and Luke write to explain why Jesus did it, but John’s main concern is to help us discover who Jesus is and what it means for us to follow him today. He tells us in 20:31 that he wrote this gospel for you and me, so that “you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
If you already believe in Jesus but want to know him more, then this should also strike you as very good news. The most accurate Greek manuscripts of 20:31 use a present tense which can be literally translated “so that you may go on believing that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by going on believing you may go on having life in his name.” Read that way, John is telling us that he wrote his gospel to turn our head knowledge about Jesus into genuine experience of new life through him.
So sit back and enjoy the life-changing message of John’s gospel. It was the message which the early Christians needed to hear in the face of Roman persecution, false teaching and hero-worship, and it’s still the message we need to hear amidst the pressures of today.
John therefore hands us his gospel, still as fresh as when he wrote it, and tells us to do the same as his first-century readers. He invites us to fix our eyes on the Jesus that he knew. He tells us to look and see the Living God.
This is one of a series of extracts from Phil Moore’s book Straight to the Heart of John. This and other books in the series can be purchased through his website.
1 John had recounted these events so often over 60 years that, in conjunction with what he describes in 14:26, they were still as fresh in his memory as the events of the day before.
2 See Revelation 1:9. Despite John’s use of a present tense to describe Jerusalem in 5:2, his language and perspective backs up the united view of the Early Church leaders Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen and Clement that John wrote this gospel at the end of the 1st century.
3 Trajan became emperor in 98AD, and Irenaeus wrote in c.180AD in “Against Heresies” (3.1.1 & 3.3.4). Linked to John 21:20&24, this quote tells us the anonymous disciple in the gospel is John.
4 John describes scenes in particular detail in 6:10, 12:3, 13:23-25 & 18:10.
5 John uses five different Greek words for seeing, and also stresses he is an eyewitness in 1 John 1:1-3.
6 The closest he comes is when he refers to “the sons of Zebedee” in 21:2. No one but John himself could make such a glaring omission, which supports the unanimous Early Church view that John wrote this gospel.
7 John 13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7, 21:20 & 21:24.
8 Quoted by Eusebius of Caesarea just after 300AD in his “Church History” (6.14.7). Since Luke 1:1-4 suggests that Luke had copies of the first two gospels, it is also fair to assume that John had copies of all three.