Why the Gospel?

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : John 20:30-31

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.

John 20:30,31 rsv

The story is told of the poet Robert Browning that he happened once to attend incognito a meeting at which his poetry was being discussed. He sat in the back of the room and listened as various views were expressed about the meaning of one of his poems and what its author was trying to convey. Finally, Browning could restrain himself no longer. Without revealing his identity, he rose to his feet and told the group what his purpose in the poem had actually been. The gathered critics listened politely, but afterwards agreed among themselves that the stranger’s views could not be correct. They understood better than he, they thought, what Browning’s purpose had been!

The story reminds us of how important it is to let authors speaks for themselves, to listen to their own expressions of purpose in what they’ve written. We have a marvelous opportunity to do that in the case of the Gospel according to John in the New Testament. We aren’t left in any doubt as to the author’s aim. Listen: This is from John, chapter 20, verses 30 and 31:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.

There’s the writer’s purpose, clearly expressed. There is his answer to the question, “Why the Gospel?”

A PURPOSEFUL SELECTION

Notice how he calls attention first to what he hasn’t included. There were “many other signs,” says John, that Jesus had done in the presence of His disciples. Apparently the Lord performed many miracles of healing, provision and deliverance which none of the New Testament writers have told us about. There were apparently many other clear indications of who He was and what He came to do, many signs that went unrecorded. They had significance for that generation, but were not preserved for those to come.

This is John’s way of saying that his Gospel (and he could have said this for the other three as well) made no attempt to be exhaustive. None of the four evangelists set out to write a complete biography of Jesus. There was much more they could have told. Think of the gaps in the record of His life. Between the time of His birth and age 12, we know very little. Between age 12 and the time when His public ministry began, about 18 years later, even less. John’s gospel, the one we’re looking at today, has nothing at all to say about Jesus’ birth, His baptism or His youth. John doesn’t even tell us how the original disciples were chosen by Jesus. He has very little to say about His ministry in Galilee. He includes none of the parables we find in the other three gospels. Nearly half of John’s account is taken up with the incidents of one week at the end of Jesus’ life and the things that happened after He rose from the dead.

John was obviously and intentionally selective in preparing this gospel. As he pondered what might be written of Jesus’ life and teaching, His miracles and mission, John had a distinct purpose in view all the time. That guided him, apparently, in every decision about what to include and what to omit, what to pass over lightly and what to deal with at length. He could have added a great deal more of interest and profit but here is why he did what he did.

WRITTEN TO AWAKEN FAITH

John wrote this gospel in order that his readers and hearers might believe. The gospel was intended to create and strengthen faith. As this disciple of Jesus pondered carefully and prayerfully the mass of material that might have been included, he kept asking himself the question: what will best lead to faith? What will help people most to believe? The gospel was written from faith to faith, in faith for faith. We can’t understand it unless we keep that in view.

The faith which John wants to see created in people centers, he says, in Jesus. He wants them to believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah of Israel. His plan and prayer is that those who read the gospel will realize that Jesus is God’s anointed One, the Savior promised to God’s people. John includes, accordingly, passages from the Old Testament. John the Baptist is shown to be the messenger promised in Isaiah, preparing the way of the Lord. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is said to fulfill prophecies in the psalms and in the prophet Zechariah. The betrayal by Judas is also presented as a fulfillment of prophecy, as is the venomous hatred of Jesus’ enemies. The events surrounding His crucifixion, even to their details, are shown to be foreshadowed in the Old Testament witness.

And this use of the Old Testament literature is not only a matter of direct quotation. In chapter after chapter in John, we find references to persons and events in the ancient Scriptures which now find their highest fulfillment in Jesus. He is like the brass serpent which Moses raised up before the camp in the wilderness, in that those who look toward Him will find salvation. He is the true vine of which Isaiah had prophesied, the ladder between earth and heaven which Jacob saw in dreams of the night. He himself is the central figure of the shepherd’s psalm (the 23rd), the living bread to which the wilderness manna was a pointer. He’s the temple seen in Ezekiel’s vision from whose inmost being living waters flow. John shows Jesus fulfilling God’s age-old promise and Israel’s great hope. He wants everyone to know that Jesus is indeed the Christ.

But the faith he seeks has to do not only with the work Jesus does, the office He fulfills, but also with His person. John believes and wants others to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. He begins the gospel by showing that the one who became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth was the everlasting Word. He had been with God in the beginning, sharing God’s nature, agent in all His creative works.

Think of how many witnesses there are in the Gospel according to John who testify that Jesus is the Son of God. There is John the Baptist in chapter 1 who says that. Jesus speaks of Himself again and again as the Son. He announces, “I and my Father are one (John 10:30) … He that has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). He teaches that all should worship the Son even as they worship the Father. And we see the disciples also growing in this conviction. When others are turning away, they express their confidence that Jesus is the holy One of God. Finally, Thomas, the renowned doubter, speaks for all of them when he cries out after beholding the risen Christ, “My Lord and my God.” That’s the faith that John wants to see in everyone who reads or hears his gospel. That’s what everything in the book leads up to. Every saying of Jesus, every work of Jesus, every experience through which He passes is brought forward by John so that people may know that Jesus is the Word made flesh, the Eternal God come to us in a genuinely human life.

For some who are exposed to the gospel, this will be an initial faith as they read or hear. They will come to trust in Jesus as Messiah and Son of God for the first time. Thus the gospel will fulfill an “evangelistic” purpose, in the narrower sense of that word. But John has in mind also the many who will read and hear the gospel who have already begun to believe. They will be nurtured and strengthened in that faith. They will grasp more clearly how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament prophecies. They will trust more deeply in Him as God incarnate, as the hope of the world and their Savior.

WRITTEN TO IMPART LIFE

Now for the second half of his purpose. “That believing,” he writes, “you may have life in his name.” The faith John is after is faith in “Jesus Christ the living Lord.” That also plays a part in the selection of his material. Biblical scholar Karl Heim has pointed out that disciples tend to collect everything they can about a dead prophet. They search for every scrap of his biography, every incident in his life, every word he ever spoke. That retrieval is so important because it’s all they have of him. But with a living person, the emphasis is decidedly different. The gospel writers, the evangelists, say about Jesus only what is necessary to introduce Him to others. Then they can know Him personally. In other words, genuine faith in Christ is not knowledge about a figure in the past. It’s a personal, relational knowledge of someone presently alive. John doesn’t want the people who read the gospel only to have facts, insights, memories. He longs that they may have life and that comes from personal acquaintance with the living Lord Jesus Christ.

Believing in Jesus is never merely an intellectual exercise. It involves hearing the good news, accepting the truth, but it means much more than that. The very first chapter of this gospel brings together believing in Jesus’ name with receiving Him into our hearts. Think of the images in John’s gospel that suggest this to us. We are to partake of Christ as the living bread. We are to drink deeply of Him as the living water. We are branches in Him, the true vine; that is, we share a common life. He is Himself the resurrection and the life. When we put our trust in Him, we are born again. We enter into life abundant. We become sons and daughters of the resurrection. When we come to know God through Jesus Christ, we have – right now – eternal life. Faith joins us to Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit and makes us partakers of His risen life. The life is all in Christ. We have it because by faith we belong to Him.

WHY CHRISTMAS?

Now think for a moment about how all this relates to Christmas, to the Incarnation, to the coming of Jesus to share our humanity and live among us. Why did God send His Son? Why did Jesus enter our history? Was it not so that we might believe that God has visited us in Him, has sent us salvation in Him? And so that believing in Him we can become partakers of God’s own life – abundant and eternal? He came as “Emmanuel,” to be God with us. His name was “Jesus” because He would save His people from their sins. He was light in a dark place. He brought joy into the world because He came to bring us from death to life. That’s what Christmas was for, to quicken faith and to impart life. The purpose of the “Gospel According to John” was the purpose of God in sending His Son so that we might believe in Him and have life eternal.

And to bring it close to home, that’s what He wants for all who celebrate the birth of Jesus this year. Nothing else, friends, will make the season complete; not intoxicants surely, not parties, not gifts and decorations, not even warm firesides and family occasions. Without faith in Jesus Christ, we miss its real meaning. And without new life, we lack its very best gift.

So read the story again this year – the gospel story. Try to read John’s account that we’ve been looking at all the way through. That will be a marvelous experience for you. Read about God’s supreme gift, about Jesus’ great adventure, about the miracle of seeking, suffering love that came to us at Christmas. Ponder how much God must care for you and me that He has sent us His own dear Son. Realize who this Bethlehem baby, this Christmas child really is and why He came. Let the grand purpose of God and of all His servants be fulfilled in you. With a grateful, open heart, trust in this Jesus and through Him rejoice in a new and abundant life. And God bless you as you do!