Part 4 A Theological Review of St. John 1-3
The book of John is a theological treaties set forth that we may believe upon Christ as the Son of God. In order to discuss the first chapters of the book as thoroughly but swiftly as possible, we will highlight the theological points in each chapter while briefly providing a summary of the events of the chapter. We will deal with the first chapter extensively as it sets forth a theological premise that are reinforced through the entire book.
Of the four gospels, John is the most particular. The structure of the book is from revelation, to unbelief, to faith (Johnson 1). There has never been a book that has opened in a more dramatic fashion than John. The opening has the dynamic feel as the opening of Genesis. We will talk more about that later. The prologue occupies verse 1-18. Some feel that this comprises a confession of the believing community, a history of salvation in hymn form, or psalmodic form (Johnson 1). The beginning of the section deals with the Word: the person of the Word, the work of the Word, and conflict of the Word.
It is interesting to note that each of the gospel authors start Christ’s life at a different point, John goes all the way back to show that Christ eternally existed as the Word. In fact, the verb used here “was” refers to a continuing existence before the creation of the world (Johnson 3). As if to say, the Word was always in existence.
A Genesis motif is found in the prologue section. Themes of man’s spiritual origin is nestled in the Gospel of Christ and a new creation is only wrought in Christ. The opening phrases found in the prologue is the same found in the Greek version of the Genesis account.
Person of the Word
The term “Word” is particular of John’s gospel. Although appealing to the current Greek thought of John’s day, the term has a Hebraic origin. As such, both communities are familiar with John’s use of the “Word”. The term implies power (Gen 1:3), purpose (Hosea 1:1-2), and redemptive power (Psalm 107:20) (Johnson 4). Christ’s deity is confirmed in the phrase, “and the Word was God.” So on the outset John’s purpose is to trace the origin of Christ as the eternal God. The book must be understood in these terms. If not, the book does not make sense.
Work of the Word
Having established the divinity of Christ, now on to the work of Christ. The text notes he created the worlds and upholds the worlds. Again here is a motif from Genesis as the word of God is the means of creation, i.e. “God said…” The next work of the word is that of revelation. John uses light, life, darkness and death as illustrations throughout his book to draw attention to life and revelation given by Christ. Christ gave men light and life. This is reinforced throughout the book as he gives men sight, and raises them to life. Without the working of Christ, men are left blind and dead. Johnson has an interesting note that the verb used in verse 4 is in the imperfect tense, a durative past. This suggests that the John is referring back to certain acts in the Old Testament that Christ displayed his revelatory work. This would suggest that the revelation of the Old Testament types, shadows, feasts, people, acts, events, etc., were Christ at work revealing himself in them (Johnson 6). As we read through the Old Testament, we should be aware of Christ hidden in it.
Conflict of the Word
Verse 5 “…the darkness comprehended it not”. This suggests that the revelatory work of Christ was resisted. Probably in reference to the opposition by the Jews and depraved men in general. How dark and deep man’s depravity must be to resist and snuff out the light of Christ. Even through the resistance of the world against Christ, he overcomes and continues to shine unto that glorious day.
John the Baptist was a herald of Christ. John was not the light but bore witness of the light. Verse 9 is interesting as it attests that Christ is the only source of spiritual illumination to men. Notice also the wording of verse 12: “gave He power to become the sons of God”. This suggests that the grace of God gives salvation to men and nothing is earned. The privilege and power to become the sons of God is for those who believe upon Christ v. 12. Those that believe are only those that have been born again by the will of God v. 13. Faith, therefore, is a result and outflowing of regeneration. Faith is not the cause of regeneration. Becoming a son of God does not come through natural linage but supernatural birth. This supernatural birth is completely dependent upon the “will of God”. John’s soteriology is devoid of freewill in any capacity this will be developed further in our study.
Verse 14 starts another section in that the Word became flesh. It should be added that He did not cease to be God in becoming flesh. The Lord Jesus exists totally human and totally God in the God-Man. The nature of Man and God do not mix but reside in one divine Person. The word “dwelt among us” which literally means to “tabernacle”. This is in reference to the Deity dwelling in a human body. Also it is a reference to the Old Testament tabernacle. The tabernacle was the means by which God ordained worship by his covenant people. Likewise, we must come to God and worship Him through the God-Man, Jesus Christ. Grace and truth only comes through Him. The law is impotent in that it cannot help man, but only points to grace. Through Christ, grace is given that actually helps man in a moral and spiritual sense. Grace that empowers for living in the light.
Verse 18 gives a precious insight into one of the missions of Christ. No man has seen God but Christ declares God to us. That is Christ interprets God to us. When we view the actions, words, and heart of Christ this is meant to show us God.
The next section is the testimony of John the Baptist. The message of the John to the nation was repent. The second thrust of his message was the coming of Christ. The baptism of John was unto repentance and was inferior to Christ’s baptism with the Holy Spirit. His theme was Christ. He did not point to himself and noted that only in Christ was promises fulfilled. The famous statement by John, “behold the Lamb of God” has two distinct Old Testament motifs that converge into Jesus Christ. 1. The paschal lamb and various sacrifices prescribed by the Law. Christ is seen and the true Passover lamb that provides atonement for His people. 2. The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 and particularly verse 7. It seems that the development of this theology started in Genesis 22 further developed in Exodus 12, then on to Isaiah 53, ultimately finding its convergence and fulfillment in Christ in John 1:29.
The lamb took away the “sin” of the world. That is to say the singular “sin” which probably refers to the guilt of sin that passed upon humanity through Adam’s sin. He took the sin away in that he paid the penalty of the sin, quenching the wrath of God. Further testimony of John concerning Christ is that He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and that He is the Son of God the fullness of the covenant relationship of God with Israel.
The end of the chapter deals with the calling of his first disciples, notably Simon, Andrew, Phillip and Nathanael. An interesting Old Testament reference is involved in the calling of Nathanael. Apparently Nathanael was in meditation, probably on scripture verses, underneath a fig tree. Johnson points out that according to Jewish culture under figs trees were a common place to meditate upon the Torah (Johnson 5). Upon seeing Nathanael coming unto Him, Jesus pointed out that he was an “Israelite in whom is no guile”. Now this is an interesting address. Notice the context of the Lord’s scripture reference in his conversation with Nathanael deals with Jacob, particularly Jacob’s vision of a ladder. Johnson says that when the Lord speaks of guile he is talking about Jacob’s beguiling nature. So the paraphrase of Christ’s opening address to Nathanael would be “behold Israel with no Jacob” or “behold a new Jacob with no old Jacob” (Johnson 5). This refers to the new nature of Nathanael upon coming to Christ. This is a result of the New Birth that apparently happened to Nathanael the same as it happened with Jacob.
When Nathanael heard this he was struck, probably because this is the very scripture he was meditating upon. He asks how Jesus knew this. Jesus told him he saw him under the fig tree. Jesus goes on to proclaim Himself using the same scriptures that Nathanael was in mediation upon: He was the ladder that Angels ascended and descended upon. Christ is the mediator between God and man, he is facilitator of God’s providential work on earth. Praise God!
Water to Wine
The first of the sign or miracle of Christ was done at a wedding. When the wedding ran out of wine, at the request of Mary, Jesus commanded 6 water pots be filled with water. When the governor of the wedding drew out and drunk he noted the incredible quality of the wine. He remarked they saved the best wine for last.
This being the first miracle recorded by John, has several significant points. First off, the six water pots, which were used in Jewish purification, may refer to the Mosaic economy being inadequate to provide for the needs of man. Through Christ, the Holy Spirit now can meet the needs of the human condition. Secondly, the grapes/the wine is symbolic of the Blood of the New Covenant (Matthew 26:28). This is to signify that the New Covenant of Christ’s blood is greater than the Old.
Further, the miracle resulted in the display of the creative powers of Christ. The creative powers that were on display in the Genesis account of creation. This primes the pump for a greater a display of creative power later in the book. Namely the raising the dead, both in physical and spiritual sense. Also the sacredness of this miracle was done in the context of the family sphere, thus hallowing it. This seems to suggest that God’s power has impact on every facet of human existence, whither social, cultural, religious, financial, etc. Being the first miracle in 400 years, the significant cannot be misplaced. The event signaled the coming age of redemption, another chapter in the seamless book of salvation. This chapter was Christ’s, not in type as the later chapters, but in the flesh. It was “his hour”.
The purpose of the miracle is stated in verse 11, that those that saw might believe. This is in accordance with the purpose of the book recorded in chapter 20:30-31, that given the signs people may believe upon Christ. Note that only the disciples believed. This seems to suggest that in the minds of others, the sign sadly passed out of mind without any lasting effect.
Cleansing of the Temple
The next selection we have is the cleansing of the temple. The first act in turning water to wine was of grace and kindness. The subject we are dealing with now is Jesus’ wrath against un-holiness. Christ remonstrance in the temple was accompanied with a scourge. This was a display of authority. Also, Christ identified Himself with deity in His statement, “make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise” (John 2:16). The temple had become a place for widespread capitalism. The use of an Old Testament passage is used in explaining this event: Psalm 69:9.
The last selection is a dialogue between Christ and the Jews concerning the destroying of the temple. They asked for a sign from Jesus and his response is ironic. Christ claimed the temple would be destroyed, but He would raise it up again. Of course He was talking about the temple of His body. The statement is ironic in that the Jews would be the means to bring about the ultimate sign. They would destroy the temple, Christ would raise it up. Interesting is that only the death of Christ could accomplish in the truest sense what the Temple set out to do: atone for sin.
This section is broken up into three major headings: 1. The dialogue of Jesus and Nicodemus, and 2. Spiritual discourse of the person and work of Christ 3. Jesus and John the Baptist.
Nicodemus was a high profile member of the sect of the Pharisees. They were a highly devoted, stringent, and doctrinally correct, sect. Their error lied in that they tended to externalize their faith, that is place more value on the external keeping of the law as a means of salvation. Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, probably out of fear. He observes that Jesus was a teacher from God because of His miracles. Jesus turns the conversation abruptly. Jesus’ line of thought concerns the new birth, or being “born again” v 3.
Regeneration or being born again is the prerequisite for entrance in to the spiritual or the kingdom of heaven. Johnson defines regeneration as “the communication of new spiritual life to man by the operation of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God” (Johnson 8). Why is regeneration a necessity? Because the human spiritual condition is dead in trespasses and sin (Ephesians 2:1). There is no capacity to live spiritually so the Holy Spirit must quicken the dead sinner in a spiritual sense. The scriptures are clear that natural man cannot please God or receive anything from God (Romans 8:8, I Cor. 2:14). The new birth is necessary before the person can exercise faith and repentance. This is clear from our previous section in John 1:12, 13. Faith is a result of being born from above. John also states this in I John 5:1 “whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God…” The tense here suggest that being born again proceeds faith. Paul teaches that natural man “cannot please God” and is “enmity against God” (Romans 8:7-9). Only those that have the Spirit of God are of God (Romans 8:9). So natural man cannot please God, yet Hebrews 11:1, 2, states that faith pleases God. In order not to make the Bible contradict itself and achieve harmony of scriptures, we concluded that faith that pleases God is given to the regenerate man as a gift. Furthermore, the scriptures teach that the natural man cannot receive things of God (I Cor. 2:14). This soteriology is very clear.
Nicodemus is incredulous at this teaching and asks the Lord if a man can enter into the natural womb for the second time. Answering this claim, Christ refers to baptism of the Spirit and water. The teaching of scripture does not suggest that Spirit regeneration comes through the sacrament of Baptism. The best interpretation seems to suggest that the term water, used here in connection with the Spirit, is a symbolic expression of the Spirit’s work: that work is cleansing. So Christ is saying that unless one is born again by the cleansing work of the Spirit he cannot see the kingdom of God. To further illustrate the work of the Spirit, the symbol of the wind is used. This seems like a reference to the Holy Spirit’s creative work moving upon the face of the waters in the Genesis account.
Jesus adds that what is born of flesh is flesh and spirit is spirit. This reminds me of the Paul’s statement in Romans 8:9 “But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.” Jesus states that only that which is born of the Spirit can partake in spiritual matters. That includes faith and repentance. Johnson quoting Hoskyns says, “there is no evolution from flesh to spirit” (Johnson 8).
Jesus upbraids Nicodemus for his ignorance of this teaching. Jesus no doubt is referring to the Ezekiel 36:26-28, Isaiah 44:3, and Jeremiah 31:33 passages where the new birth is set forth. Jesus expresses astonishment that Nicodemus does not know this truth, seeing he is a teacher of Israel. Jesus makes an interesting statement in verse 12 “If I have told you earthly things, and you believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you of heavenly things?” The earthly things refer to the sense experience we have as a result of the new birth. We can experience the change of heart, the imparted faith, the sorrow of sin, and the urgency of repentance. These speak to us in a sensory way, thus earthly things. The heavenly things are obtained only by revelation of the word of God alone. So, Jesus is saying if you cannot receive the earthly things that are suited and salted to make it palatable for you, how can you believe the heavily things that are given only by revelation from God’s word. The reasoning leads to verse 13. Jesus comes from heaven with such heavenly knowledge and gives it to us.
The next section uses an Old Testament illustration: the brazen serpent (Numbers 21:9). So far John’s gospel holds a pattern of Old Testament usages: first the creative Word in Genesis, then the ladder of Jacob’s dream, and now the brazen serpent. The first symbolized the Creator, the next symbolized the mediator, now he move to the means of mediation. The symbolism is simple, just as the ancient Israelites were smitten with deadly snake venom, so men are dying in trespasses and sins. The origin of the deadly malady in both instances involved a snake. The brazen serpent was hung for all to look upon, and as they looked, they were healed. The connection is that Christ was made to bear our sins upon the tree and as we look upon Him in faith, we live. The remedy was immediate, and supernatural in both instances. This passage, although simple, is very important. It sets the premise for the next line of thought that includes the beloved 16th verse.
The Greatest Text
John 3:16 has been noted to be a miniature Bible. The words of this text are beloved by millions over the centuries. The majesty of this verse cannot be overestimated. The flow of the verse seems to gather the proceeding doctrine from chapter one until know and blossom it into this incredible flower of truth.
There is some uncertainty about who is giving this narrative. The words of Christ and John seem to merge. It is clear by the word “for” that Jesus is continuing his discourse with Nicodemus. The subject of the verse is God. The action of the verse is how that he loves–by giving Christ. The object of the love of God is the world.
Without going into volumes, I shall speak of the controversy of the verse. It would seem that the most contingent phrase would be “God so loved the world…” Does this mean that God loves everyone? Well scripture teaches that God does not love all people as he does his elect Romans 9:13, Psalm 7:11, 45:7. The use of the word world has several different usages. For instance scriptures such as John 12:19, 6:33, 4:42 all make reference to the word “world”. The obvious meaning of these verses is not all people at all times, but only certain people in certain instances. To make the usage of the word here to refer to all of humanity at all times would not be in agreement with the rest of scriptures. Cases in point are as follows: John 17:9 Christ does not pray for the world but those that the Father has given Him. If God loves all people at all times then why does Christ only pray for those the Father has given Him? Also, Christ is seen as only loving the church and giving Himself for it Ephesians 5:25. So we can clearly see that God does not love everyone in the same capacity that is with redemptive love.
Johnson makes a good point:
“The term is often used in the sense of a body of people inclusive of both Jews and Gentiles, and in view of the strong nationalistic background out of which John writes, it is most likely that he also has used the term in that sense. I believe that is the sense of the term in the reference of the expression, “the savior of the world” (John 4:42), to the Messiah. What a strange thing it would be, if He should be called, “the Savior of the world” and yet not be that… No one should make statements about the usage of the term until he has wrestled with such studies of the usage of the term world…” (Johnson 6).
It seems the appropriate use of the term would suggest that God loves gentiles as well as Jews. It will not only be Jews that make up His people, but the inclusion of Gentiles.
The measure of the love of God is the gift of His Only Begotten Son. Here we have another Old Testament reference: Abraham’s offering of Isaac in Genesis 22. The term “love” is a redemptive love that reaches back into eternity. This is sacrificial love for God’s elect that secures a definite salvation. Christ is not a potential Savior, but an actual one. The gift purchased is eternal life as opposed to the alternative of eternal perishing.
The term ‘whosoever” is an open invitation. Yet, we must view it in light of our previous statement. One must be spiritually quickened in order to believe. The gift of faith is given to those made spiritually alive. So those made spiritually have the capacity to believe. Thus whosoever believes will have eternal life. This is sound soteriology. The alternative makes faith a work, thus being born again a work, robbing God of his glory and scripture of its truthfulness.
Verse 17-21 gives a recap of the previous doctrine set forth. That Christ saved by his atonement the world (church) (v. 17). Those that believe are justified, those that believe not are condemned (v 18). That humanity is in a state of depravity rejecting light and righteousness. The natural state of man will not come to God of his own will and power. This depravity is the reason for judgment (v.19, 20). In verse 21 there is no teaching that suggest men work their way to the light. Men are not justified by their works or their natural state. We must be careful not to make scripture contradict one another. God has produced a nature in man by the new birth that allows them to produce works of light. God is the author and force behind our works (Phil. 2:12-13).
The remainder of the chapter deals with a historical narrative. Jesus and his disciples came unto Judaea baptizing. John was also baptizing nearby. John’s disciples came to him noting that all men were going to Jesus to be baptized. John said that his ministry was given by God, and he must decrease while Christ must increase. John testified of Christ being sent by God and having the Spirit without measure and that whoever believes in the Son of God has everlasting life.
I have greatly enjoyed the commentary provided by S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. This commentary has been one of the best I have read. He keeps the application to a minimum and has rich, meaty theological content and word studies. He uses fitting phrases and quotes that give the commentary a devotional feel rather than keeping his writing purely technical. The length of the commentary is impressive and would take months to complete a detailed overview of his entire work. I limited my work to the first three chapters due to its rich theological content and that it sets forth some of the greatest teaching found in scriptures.
Lastly, I appreciate the Reformed perspective the commentary has. Being a reformed believer myself, it has greatly blessed me in my life and studies.
Johnson, S. Lewis. Believers Bible Bulletin: The Gospel of John. The SLJ Institute. 1982. Lesson 1-17. Web. 26 February 2015.