THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JOHN
There were two brothers in the apostolic age, one of whom was the first martyr for the faith, and the other of whom lived on to the very end of the first century and died the very last of the apostles. Those two brothers were James and John. John and James were the sons of Zebedee. Zebedee was a fisherman of Bethsaida, in Galilee, a man well-to-do, apparently; for we are told that he had hired servants. Salome, his wife, perhaps after the death of her husband, was one of those women who followed Jesus in his preachingtours through Palestine and ministered to him of her substance.
John was known to the high priest, and it was he who afterward took care of our Lord's mother, according to his commands, until her death, as tradition relates; all of which is more easy to understand if we suppose that he was a man of some means, and more intelligible still if the tradition be true that Salome, his mother, was a sister of Mary the Virgin. In fact, John may have lived and studied in Jerusalem at the school of the rabbins long before his discipleship began. But we read of him first in connection with Andrew at the Jordan, where the Baptist is preaching. The great preacher of reformation points to Jesus, the Lamb of God, his Lord and theirs, and they all leave the Baptist and follow the Saviour.
It appears that John and James were admitted into an intimacy with Christ enjoyed by no other of the apostles except Peter. These three we find in the inner chamber where the ruler's daughter lies dead, present at that wonderful exhibition of power in her resurrection to life; we find them on the Mount of Transfiguration, beholding the glory of Christ; we find them with our Saviour in Gethsemane, in the depths of his suffering; and Peter and John were among the very first witnesses of our Saviour's resurrection. At the time that our Lord was apprehended in Gethsemane, John, with the other disciples, forsook him and fled; but he seems to have overcome his fears and to have made his way courageously to the judgment-hall. He was present during the trial of Christ; he was present during the crucifixion; there he received the Lord's command to take charge of his mother. He became from that time the adopted son of the Virgin, and he cared for her until her death.
Until the close of the narrative in the Gospels, and in the Acts as well, we find John always in company with Peter. He was at Jerusalem, as Paul tells us, at the close of his narrative, and was one of those who gave right hands of fellowship to the Gentiles; and, remaining in Jerusalem for twenty or twenty-five years after the death of Christ, he was engaged in ministering to the Jews or the Jewish Christians. When the apostle Paul ceased his labors and Peter had suffered martyrdom, the great church at Ephesus and the other churches in Asia Minor needed apostolic supervision; and then, in the prospect of the destruction of Jerusalem, John left Palestine, went to Ephesus, and there remained until his death, which took place probably at the very end of the century. It was 98 or 99, perhaps 100, before the apostle John died.
There was one interval, an interval of persecution, an interval of exile under Nero, about the year 67 or 68, wHen John the apostle was banished to Patmos, a wretched rock in the JEgean Sea, and there the Apocalypse was written and sent to the seven churches of Asia Minor; but with that single exception, John was a resident of Ephesus until he died.
The personal characteristics of the apostle John are exceedingly striking; and it is impossible to understand the Gospel unless we know something about the man. John had two remarkable characteristics. In the first place, he was a man of intuitive perception. He was not a man of logic. It has frequently been said that John never argues, he always affirms. John has all the natural predisposition of a seer. One might say he was a born prophet, as far as man can be born a prophet. By his natural temperament and organization he was fitted for the work of prophesying. The eagle, among the cherubic figures, has always been assigned to John as his proper symbol, the eagle that can gaze undazed upon the brightness of the sun, that can soar aloft higher than any other winged creature, and from that height can see the fish in the very depths of the sea. That was the description of John given by the church Fathers, and there is something very characteristic, striking, and correct in it all. John was a man of intuitive discernment, but he was a man of deep and ardent affections. That was the second characteristic. A man of fiery mind, a man of fiery zeal, great warmth, and fervor of temperament, he joined to some of the very highest intellectual qualifications, the faculties of insight and of spiritual perception, the deepest and most ardent love. He was one who from his nature and fervid temperament was in danger of being biased. This warmth and ardor, if it is undisciplined and untrained, may make a man a mere partisan ; and this warm temperament, these strong impulses, had to be checked and disciplined. You remember that when John and James were commissioned by Christ to precede him, as he was going to Jerusalem, and the Samaritans refused him a night's lodging, John and James thought it was quite a proper time for our Saviour to do as Elijah had done before him, and they asked, " Lord, shall we call down fire from heaven upon them?" It indicated the fiery indignation of these two men.
Some years ago I asked my child how she knew the apostle John in the pictures. "Oh," she said, "I always know John because he has long hair and looks like a woman." I suppose that idea of the apostle John is very prevalent in the church. John is thought to be the disciple of love, and often love is thought to be weakness. How very different from that is the truth! Why, John and James were Boanerges, "sons of thunder." They were full of hot indignation against wrong. No weakness there. But that hot indignation was subdued, that warmth of temperament was disciplined by the rebukes of Christ and by the sorrows through which they passed, until at last John became the disciple of love. John in his last days was continually repeating, as the tradition relates, "Little children, love one another." Love is the solvent of all difficulties. Love, and all other things shall be added to it.
It is said of Charles II that he was a man utterly incapable of gratitude for benefits received, and utterly incapable of indignation for wrongs done him. The only emotion of which he seemed to be capable was the emotion of contempt. An absolute incapacity for indignation against moral evil was his chief characteristic. There is no feature of human character that so indicates absolute worthlessness in the sight of God as the incapacity to hate that which is wrong. And why? Because hatred of wrong is the necessary correlative of love for the right. Do not tell me that a man loves virtue and purity, in whom a deed of shameful impurity and injustice awakens no moral revulsion. Now the depth and strength of John's love showed itself in his power to hate that which was evil; and, therefore, you will find that in John's Gospel and in John's Epistles, combined with this deep, this earnest affection, there is at the same time a power of moral indignation. "Ye that love the Lord hate evil." "Be ye angry," that is the command of God, "and sin not!" Let not personal, private, passionate feeling mingle with your anger; but calm and judicial indignation against moral evil is absolutely inseparable from a true Christian character.
Here, then, were the two great characteristics of John the apostle. He was first, a man of marvelous intuitive insight; and then secondly, that vast intellectual endowment was balanced and interfused in every part with a depth and fervor of Christian love; and it was intellectual power, enlightened and made energetic by love, that made John capable of recognizing the wonderful truths that he, better than any other of the apostles, has proclaimed to us. It was this intellectual insight, lit up by deep Christian feeling, that enabled him to comprehend, as none other of the apostles did comprehend, the greatness and glory of the person of Jesus, the incarnate Word of God; and then it was this intellectual power, lit up by deep feeling, which enabled him, better than any other of the apostles, to understand that union between Christ and the Father, and that union between Christ and the believer, of which we should know so much less if we did not have the Gospel according to John.
John the apostle was the author of the Gospel. I do not need to go through a process of proof, although this is a question very much disputed in later times. There is argument which to my mind is absolutely convincing, and which to any candid mind ought to carry most perfect conviction. The author of that Gospel was certainly a Jew; the author of that Gospel was a Jew familiar with Palestine; the author of that Gospel was one of the apostles, because he tells of discussions in the narrowest of the apostolic circles, and of secret retreats of the apostles, as only an apostle could do. He was not only an apostle, but he was one of the sons of Zebedee. It is very curious that where the names of the apostles are mentioned in order, the order is not the same as that given in the first three Gospels. There John and James are mentioned first. When John in his Gospel comes to mention their names, the sons of Zebedee come always last. The modesty of the apostle is in itself a signature to the Gospel. Though he never mentions his own name, and only speaks of himself now and then as the disciple whom Jesus loved, it is very evident that he, and he only, is the author of the fourth Gospel. We have in the Gospel itself direct declarations that this is the apostle who has seen and witnessed these things.
Then we have the testimony of the church Fathers, which I need not narrate to you, although there is a great abundance. Papias, one of the earliest of them, says that John, who leaned upon the Saviour's breast, when in Ephesus wrote the Gospel which bears his name; and the Gnostics of the second century not only knew of the Gospel, but recognized the fact of its genuineness; although at the same time they did not accept many of its declarations. All this external evidence, however, would not be so convincing if we were not able to remove two objections which have been made to the genuineness of the Gospel. It is said, for example, that it is impossible the author of the Gospel should be the same person who wrote the Apocalypse, for the Apocalypse is written in a very different style. The Apocalypse shows a very imperfect knowledge of the Greek language, unfamiliarity with the laws of Greek composition, and the spirit of the Apocalypse is very decidedly different from the spirit of the Gospel. My answer to this is that up to about the year 60, or 65 perhaps, John lived in Palestine, and John was a Hebrew of the Hebrews. It has been said that he put the Hebrew soul into the Greek language. He probably was accustomed from his youth to the use of the Aramaic. Greek was not his mother tongue, nor did he in Palestine constantly use Greek. He goes to Ephesus. There, or immediately after, at Patmos, the Apocalypse is written—written at the time when he is more familiar with Hebrew than he is with Greek. Hebrew constructions appear in the Apocalypse. There are infelicities, not to say inaccuracies, of grammar. One of the Greek prepositions that is naturally followed by the genitive is actually followed by the nominative in the Greek which John writes. Yet, at the same time, you find that this energetic, fiery spirit which the Gospels would lead us to attribute to John, is precisely the spirit of the Apocalypse, written just before the destruction of Jerusalem, and in view of the coming doom of the holy city. Its predictions and prophecies of coming wrath are precisely the production which we should expect from John's mind at that particular time. Thirty years pass away. Jerusalem has fallen. There is no longer any prophecy of this sort to utter. During that time John is softened; age has come upon him; he has become a gentle and loving old man; and, as the tradition which attributes to him this constant inculcation of the duty of love is probably a true one, it is very natural to suppose that thirty years after, when he writes the Gospel, his style should differ from his early style in these two particulars. In the first place, Greek has now become to him his mother tongue, as it were; Greek is now as familiar as Hebrew was before. A man's style changes very much in the course of years.
If I were to say that because the editorials of George William Curtis, in " Harper's Weekly," were so solid, so calm, so statesmanlike, he could not possibly have written that fervid, eloquent, and poetic style that I found in the " Potiphar Papers " so many years ago, I should simply show that I did not know the possibilities of change in one's literary style during the long course of a human life. Just so, if I should say, because John in the Gospel writes a smooth, flowing, correct Greek style, he could not have written the Apocalypse, I should show an equal ignorance of the laws of human nature.
The Gospel, therefore, was written far away from Palestine, at a time that was remote from the events which were recorded. It was written out of John's memory, but yet it was written under the guidance and inspiration of that Spirit which was promised to bring all things to remembrance, and which enabled John not only to recall what Jesus had uttered, even when Jesus' discourses were long, but also gave John an insight into the meaning of Jesus' words. And this suggests the second objection which is urged against John's authorship. It is said that these long discourses attributed to Jesus are not only beyond the power of human memory to reproduce, but are manifestly the work of some later author who mixes his own words with those of our Lord, so that there is no telling where the words of Jesus end and the words of the Evangelist begin. We must concede that there is a problem here. But the key is in our hands if we remember Jesus' promise of the Holy Spirit. There was a natural preparation of the apostle for his work. He had been trained in the synagogue and possibly in the rabbinic schools. He had been accustomed to memorize and to repeat the Scriptures. Doctor Bruce maintained that the apostles could all of them reproduce the whole Old Testament from memory. John's insight and affection made the retention and recall of Jesus' words the joy and comfort of his life. His preaching made this reproduction more and more clear and effective. Little by little the non-essential was purged away, till only the substantial remained. And the living Spirit of Jesus was with his apostle, according to Jesus' promise, correcting, explaining, and even, when necessary, adding to the material in John's mind, so that his Gospel is a truthful representation of Jesus' own mind and heart. If he adds to what our Lord originally spoke, he does this under the inspiration and authority of Christ himself, and in his Gospel we have our Lord himself speaking to us.
Remember that John writes long after the Synoptists. You find, therefore, that there is absolutely no reference to the destruction of Jerusalem, for all this had taken place already. You find that the apostle writes of things in Palestine, as if he were in the midst of people who knew but little of Palestine. You find that, when he speaks of the feasts, he does not speak of the feasts as a Hebrew would, but calls them the "feasts of the Jews "; and you find that, when he uses the word "rabbi," he must needs interpret: "it being interpreted, is teacher." When he uses the word "Messiah," he says, " it being interpreted, is Christ "; and when he comes to speak of the Samaritans, he must say, " the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans." All this would be unnecessary unless he were far away from Palestine, and were writing to people to whom these things were unfamiliar. Then it is also the fact that the writer seems to be acquainted with the synoptic Gospels; otherwise I think it is inexplicable how he, of all men, should omit any account of the transfiguration, as he does; and it is also curious that John, when he makes allusion to certain of the events which are mentioned by the Synoptists, should do so with the addition of new material, should put the evidence in a new light, should put them to a new use; which evidently shows that he has his own purpose and object in thus referring to them. The miracle of the five thousand, for example, which appears in the Synoptists, is given us in detail by John; but you find that the object with John is just the object that he has in his relation of other miracles, namely, to speak of them as signs or symbols of great truths. The multiplying of the bread was not detailed simply in order that we might get before us the power of Jesus, but in order that Christ might be presented to us as the Bread of Life, the Bread that cometh down from heaven. The opening of the eyes of the blind is related simply because John wished to set before us the power of Christ to open our spiritual eyes.
In John's Gospel all the miracles are followed by discourses, and the miracles are only the text of the discourses. The miracles are not related for themselves only, but for the sake of the truths that they teach. If it were not for John we would not have the opening of the eyes of the blind made to illustrate the opening of the eyes of the spiritually blind, and the raising of the dead made to illustrate the raising of those who are dead in trespasses and sins.
John relates six miracles, and five of them are wholly new; only one, the feeding of the five thousand, being given to us by the Synoptists. We have an omission of all the parables that are given us in Matthew, Mark, and Luke; an omission of the Sermon on the Mount, and an omission of the last prophecies in regard to the destruction of Jerusalem; in fact, twothirds of John's Gospel is wholly new. So we see that the Gospel of John adds a large mass of new material to what had been given us before by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It is written, therefore, as a sort of supplement to these Gospels, and with full knowledge that they already existed. Yet, why was this Gospel written? I have not yet touched upon what is really the main object of my remarks to-day; for unless we get clearly before us the central idea of the Gospel according to John, we shall not get the instruction from it that we should. John represents Christ, then, as the Incarnate Word of God, God manifest in the flesh, the Life and the Light of men. It is the aim of John to set before us the spiritual and divine side of Christ, as the Synoptists had set before us the human side of Christ.
Eusebius, one of the church Fathers, says that the three Evangelists—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—have given us the body of the truth; and the elders of Ephesus urged John to write a spiritual Gospel: i. e., a Gospel which should put into that body the spirit which John knew so much more than the rest. Says Cicero: "The eye sees only that which it brings with it, the power of seeing." John, with his intuitive insight and fervent love, saw the divine side of Christ, as Plato saw the loftier aspects of Socrates' character, while Xenophon did not. John represents Christ to us, then, as the Word of God, who was in the beginning with God and who was God, who is the Revealer of God to man, the Creator of all things, not simply a human messenger, but the very Truth of God, and the King of Truth.
It is the aim of John, by this revelation, to raise up all Christian life to a new level, to lead all Christians to live their lives in union with Christ, the Son of God. The expression which we have in Paul's Epistle, "The life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me," is only an expression of the doctrine that you find more fully brought out in the Gospel according to John.
The plan of this Gospel corresponds perfectly to its object. We have, first of all, a prologue in which, so to speak, the subject is set forth and enlarged upon. "The Word of God who was in the beginning with God and was God," that Word of God becomes human flesh and enters into our human life, and lives the life of our God before us. There are two parallel results or effects within the limits of humanity. One of these effects is upon the unregenerate and unbelieving; and you have a continual growth of unbelief in this Son of God, who has come from above to enlighten men, and you have various types of unbelief. You have the enmity of the high priests and the Pharisees, you have the weakness and cowardice of Pilate, the governor, and you have the despicable treachery of Judas. This unbelief is continually growing, and the signs of this growth are continuous, as you read the narrative from the beginning to the end, until at last it culminates in hatefulness and enmity, and the result is the crucifixion of the Son of God. In other words, unbelief in its enmity to Christ rises up and puts the Son of God out of the world.
But, on the other hand, side by side with this, there is a growth in faith in a parallel line to the destruction of faith, as the result of this manifestation of the Son of God. You have faith beginning in weakness, and then growing from strong to stronger until, at last, it is capable of overcoming the world. You have types of faith. You have those types, first, in Nathanael, a man without guile. A type of faith in Nicodemus, inward faith which, after all, was not strong enough to make him willing to confess the name of Christ. A type of faith in Andrew, an openhearted and unthinking faith. A type of faith in Philip, always willing and wanting to bring men to Jesus. Then you have the type of faith which you find in the woman of Samaria; and then, finally, you have the culminating type of faith in Thomas, when that naturally most unbelieving of all the apostles becomes so affected by this transcendent manifestation of the Son of God that all his doubts are removed, and at last he is brought to bow down at the Saviour's feet and to cry, " My Lord and my God." When this last triumph of faith is reached, and the hardest of the apostles to reach is brought into absolute submission to Jesus as his very God, then the Gospel ends. Then the thesis has been proved, and that final confession of Christ is followed by the natural conclusion of the Gospel. These things are told in order that we might know that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and believing we might have life in his name. So the Gospel properly ends with the twentieth chapter.
The twenty-first chapter is nothing but an epilogue, subsequently added by John himself, added for a particular purpose, because there grew up in the church at that time the idea that the promise of Christ to John meant that he should never die; and John, himself, in his very last days appears to have added that chapter with an account of the circumstances under which that saying was made to him by Christ, and an interpretation of the meaning of it; so that the Gospel according to John properly ends with the twentieth chapter, with a confession on the part of Thomas that Jesus is his Lord.
So there are evidences of structure in the Gospel which are very striking, and which will make the reading more interesting to us if we will notice them as we read.
Notice now the relation of this Gospel to the synoptic Gospels. The Gospel according to John is the Gospel of the spirit, while the synoptic Gospels give us the gospel of the facts. In it we have revealed to us the heart of Jesus, as it is not revealed in the synoptic Gospels. This Gospel gives us the spiritual side of our Lord, while the synoptic Gospels give us the earthly side.
There is a relation of this Gospel to the Apocalypse. It is the spiritual interpretation of the book of Revelation. John's declarations in the Gospel with regard to Christ's person and work were the result of long preaching and long contemplation on the part of the beloved apostle, who lived longer than the other apostles, at the end of the century, and who quite outgrew the fire and fury of his earlier writing in the Apocalypse.
Then there is a relation of this Gospel to the Epistles of John. The Epistles of John are running comments upon the same great facts, a subsequent addition probably to the Gospel itself, the Gospel beginning with the Son of God in heaven, and showing us that this Word had become embodied in humanity, and, on the other hand, the Epistles going through the reverse process, and showing that this Jesus whom they had handled and whom they had seen with their eyes here upon the earth was absolutely the Son of God, who came down from heaven.
So there is evidence, not only of an internal unity in the Gospel itself, but of an organic relation of the Gospel with John's other writings, in the providence of God and under the direction of his Spirit, which shows it to be a part of the whole system of truth given us in the New Testament.
There are many things which John gives us in this Gospel, but which are not given to us elsewhere. For example, we have an account of the Judean ministry, which hardly comes to us at all in the synoptic Gospels. The scene of John is mainly laid in Judea, whereas the scene of the synoptic Gospels is mainly laid in Galilee. We have here very much more to do with the scribes and Pharisees, high priests, and rulers of the people than we have in the synoptic Gospels. Then, moreover, we have here two great miracles, the two greatest, the first and the last: the miracle performed at the H
wedding-feast of Cana, and the last and most wonderful of Christ's miracles, the raising of Lazarus from the dead. These are given us only by John.
We have not given to us here at all the Sermon on the Mount, and yet we have in place of that Sermon on the Mount the next longest discourse of Christ, that last profound discourse to his disciples upon the very eve of his suffering. This has been called the " holy of holies " of the book of God. How much we should lose if we had not these chapters in which Jesus tells us: "Let not your heart be troubled, ye believe in God, believe also in me." If there be any portion of Scripture that brings us near to Christ himself and lets us into the very secrets of the divine nature, it is these last chapters of John's Gospel. We have not these discourses anywhere else. We owe them entirely to John.
Now notice that John deals very little with the outward. John does not tell us anything about baptism, or the command to be baptized; but John does tell us the meaning of baptism in the discourse with Nicodemus: "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot see the kingdom of God "—the necessity of an inward birth that is symbolized outwardly by baptism. John does not tell us anything about the Lord's Supper and its institution; but he does tell us of that profound discourse which sets forth the central truth which the Lord's Supper symbolizes.
John does not tell us anything with regard to the external organization of the Christian church, but he tells us most about that union of the believer with Christ which is the basis of the Christian church. Unless a man knows something of that union of the believer with his Saviour, he cannot be a Christian nor has he any right to a place in the Christian church. It is, then, the vital truth itself, the central thing itself, that John with his clear insight sets forth to us in the most glowing way. Mark, you remember, begins his story with the public ministry of Christ; Matthew and Luke begin with the birth of the Saviour; but John alone begins with the Eternal Word with the Father before the world was.
The style of John corresponds perfectly to the matter that he has to set forth. It is distinguished by wonderful fulness, but, at the same time, by wonderful depth. It is profound, yet simple. It is astonishing how few words John uses, and how constantly repeated those words are—life and death, light and darkness, God and Satan. All these words come over and over and over again.
These words are rich words. They are full of meaning. They are like the gold coins which only the great lord keeps about him, and with which he makes his payments. It is the Gospel of holy love and peace. There is a contemplative, quiet, calm spirit running through it all, a spirit that is not of this world.
I have often thought that the skeptic, if he would but read this Gospel according to John, and ponder it as he should, would find in it a sufficient evidence of the truth of Christianity. Christ is set forth here in such a way that a man cannot mistake the dignity and glory of the representation, if he be a man who has any sense of his personal needs, if he knows himself at all to be a sinner.
It has been said that "poetry is the art of putting infinity into things." To show the relation of our life to the infinite is the aim of poetry. Judged by that standard, this Gospel according to John is the greatest poem that was ever written, the greatest composition of any sort, indeed, that was ever written upon this earth. If there were one single book of the Bible which I could retain, providing all the rest were taken from me, it is this Gospel according to John, for this sets before me my Lord and my Saviour as no other Gospel does.
Yet such a man as John Stuart Mill read this Gospel and called it unintelligible and insipid. May God forgive him! An unregenerate heart and self-complacent soul may read the Gospel of John, and it will seem like a mystic tale, with little sense or meaning; but for the man who knows himself to be a sinner, above all, the man who has had any sense whatever of his dependence upon Christ, for such a man this Gospel is the very word of Christ himself, and it makes Christ manifest in his beauty and glory.
The work of a forger? Such a production as this, written by one who pretended to be a disciple of Christ in the second century, for merely political purposes? It is as absurd as to tell me that Beelzebub has been casting out devils for these eighteen hundred years. This Gospel according to John has cast out too many evil spirits to permit us to attribute it to a forger. It can have its authorship only in a heart that was filled with Christ himself, only in a heart that was drawn near to the living God by the mighty inspiration of his Spirit.