A small community of Christians lived in ancient Ephesus during the late first century AD. They had learned the remarkable news about Jesus and accounts of His life from the apostle Paul. Then the apostle John moved to Ephesus and settled there, bringing his own recollection of Jesus’ life and ministry. In his later years John wrote these recollections down. His desire was above all for his followers to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. He realized that they had not had the privilege of seeing Jesus’ many signs and the miracles He did. John’s authority and deep experience with Jesus ring out from every story John told. As an eyewitness to Jesus’ life, John had heard, seen, and touched the Word of life. John divided his gospel into two main sections. Chapters 1-12 are called the book of signs which tells about Jesus’ public ministry of revealing Himself to the Jewish world. Chapters 13-22 are sometimes called the book of glory and they record Jesus’ private words to His disciples and tells of his death and resurrection. As you read John’s gospel look for signs that point to Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God. Take note of the various audiences Jesus addressed in this gospel. Here are three themes to look for. The first is Jesus as God. John identified Jesus as the Word who was with God at the very beginning, the One who came from the Father to make Him known. Jesus is equal with God and identified Himself with God. Second is Jesus is the Messiah. The miracles recorded in John’s gospel function mostly as signs that point to Jesus’ Messianic identity…signs of God’s presence in Jesus’ works and words, each calling for a commitment. Who indeed is this Jesus? Third, the theme of belief or unbelief. Jesus’ miracles fostered belief in some but only hardened the opposition of others. We often say that seeing is believing but in John, believing is seeing. The first three gospels are similar with common stories and parables. They were written early, perhaps in the late 50’s or 60’s AD. It is quite possible John was written as late as 85 AD. John has a totally different focus and feel to it and unlike Matthew and Luke, John has no long genealogy. He does however trace Jesus’ lineage all the way back to the beginning, before human history. John raised the curtain on his gospel with a stunning description of Jesus Christ as the Word. Both the Jewish and Greek listeners would have recognized the significance of this word…logos. Greeks would have thought of the forces that sustain the universe. Jewish minds would have thought back to God creating the world with His Word. In John’s gospel Jesus shares the same essence as God. The Son existed before time and He was the agent of all creation. John anchors the divinity of Jesus in this ancient Jewish concept of wisdom. The divine Wisdom that has existed from before time with God can now be known in Jesus Christ. In what might be the most outlandish verse written by an apostle, John wrote that this word, this Wisdom, became flesh and lived among us as a human.
John’s gospel introduces Jesus Christ through whom God created everything. This echos Genesis 1:1. Not only did God create everything but now Jesus creates new life in those who believe in Him. John tells us that Jesus Christ, the Word, not only revealed God but He was God. And everything that God does the Word does as well. God created light and dispelled darkness, and the darkness resists God. The Word gave life, which was God’s original gift to His creatures. Now the Word would give these creatures the possibility of new life through rebirth. Light is a key theme in the gospel of John. Darkness can never overcome the light, nor can it understand it. In John’s gospel darkness is equated with hostility. The darkness would try to destroy Jesus ( the light) but it would fail and fail miserably. Instead, the light would successfully bring salvation to the world. God sent John the Baptist to herald Jesus’ coming and to prepare God’s people to receive Jesus as God’s Son and Messiah. Being the coming light was not John The Baptist’s role. He was simply to get everything ready, and announce Jesus. The world cannot recognize the true light even when it encounters its creator. The world lives in rebellion, loving darkness more than light, and people must believe in Jesus to become children of God. The idea that the Word could become flesh and move into the neighborhood stunned both Jews and Greeks. How could this even happen? Jesus’ humanity and divinity were complete, not partial and this forms the bedrock of a Christian understanding of Christ. The Word made His home among us and offered God’s unfailing love and faithfulness. In a society where age was respected and honored, John the Baptist emphasized Jesus’ honor by pointing to His existence even before creation. We have seen God’s unfailing love and faithfulness in the Torah and those qualities are fully revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen the Father except for the Son. John’s gospel gives limited attention to John the Baptist, unlike the first three gospels but John wants us to see that John the Baptist correctly identified and exalted Jesus. And some of John’s disciples leave him to follow Jesus. The Jews expected the Messiah to bring spiritual leadership and political redemption to Israel. Many asked questions of John the Baptist but he really just wanted to be known as the voice crying out in the wilderness.
The question of baptism arose. Jewish baptisms were ritual washings for becoming ceremonially pure following contact with impurity. John announcement of Jesus’ arrival required that participants confess their sins and be baptized. Later baptism became the symbol of membership in Jesus’ kingdom. It sounds like John the Baptist was out in the Jordan River everyday baptizing people and calling them to repent and turn to God. John recognized Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. In the Old Testament the Israelites sacrificed lambs at the Passover feast as offerings. Jesus IS the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And then John appears to speak in riddles. He tells people that Jesus is far greater than he is and Jesus existed long before John the Baptist. John even testified that he had been there at Jesus baptism and he had witnessed the Holy Spirit descend from the heavens like a dove.
The rest of chapter 1 introduces the template for discipleship in John’s gospels. Disciples, or learners, desired to come and see Jesus and when they encountered Him they remained with him. Simon Peter is well known in the gospels, not so much for his courage or faith but for his failings. Yet Jesus named him Cephas, the rock in which He would build His church. Thomas is known for his doubts and Judas for betraying Jesus. Philip was a Greek name and Nathanael was a Hebrew name. Both came from Galilee where there was a mix of cultures. Jesus grew up in Nazareth, a mountain village southwest of the Sea of Galilee. This village was not considered famous enough to be the hometown of a great leader. Jesus captured Nathanael’s attention by knowing his character and then He captured his worship by supernaturally knowing his previous actions. Nathanael witnessed a miracle and took an amazing leap of faith. Often Jesus used the phrase “I tell you the truth” to emphasize what He was about to say, and for John, the Greek word amen is always doubled. John the apostle used several names for Jesus; Son of God, Son of Man, Messiah. Knowing Jesus’ true identity is necessary to fully understand and follow Him.
Jesus illustrated His identity and work through the institutions and festivals of Judaism. In chapter two alone Jesus appeared in two symbolic Jewish ceremonies. First, at a wedding in Cana Jesus turned water into wine, the best wine of the wedding. He replaced the ritual cleansing water with His own superior wine. Later Jesus cleansed the temple. Weddings were a huge deal in Jesus day. There were parades and processions of the bride and groom. Sometimes the celebrations could last upwards of a week and the families were expected to have enough food and drink for everyone who came. Running out of wine would have been a faux pax the family would have never lived down. Not only was a wedding banquet a primary celebration in Jewish village life but this account also served to symbolize the joy of the Messiah’s arrival. Jesus first distanced Himself from the problem. His mission and its timing could not be set by a human agenda. Jesus had offered His first miraculous sign and in it He revealed the glory of God. Jesus was a faithful man and He went to Jerusalem for the passover. Those who came to Jerusalem needed to have approved sacrifices for worship and from this need a huge business grew, selling animals and exchanging money for temple currency. All this business was taking place in the temple. Jesus demanded the temple be restored to its original purposes. The first three gospels put this story near the end of their gospels but John leads off with it. This was the beginning of Jesus being at odds with the temple leadership. It is possible John places this account here to emphasize a connection between the cleansing of the temple and the transforming water into wine. Both the temple and the stone jars were instruments of purification in Judaism. Others believe Jesus cleared the temple both at the beginning and the end of His ministry.
Herod the great began reconstructing the temple’s magnificent structure in 20 B.C. and work continued on it until 64 AD. It was destroyed in 70 AD. This is why Jesus’ audience was so taken aback when Jesus said he could tear down the temple and rebuild it in three days. They didn’t understand He was referring to His body. No one needed to tell Jesus about human nature. Witnessing a miracle from God can inspire belief but it is not the deepest faith possible. Because of the signs Jesus was doing in the temple people began to trust Jesus but He didn’t trust them. John links the end of chapter 2 with the beginning of chapter 3 by referring to human nature. Nicodemus was saturated in religious knowledge and he had witnessed Jesus’ work. But, he had not experienced spiritual rebirth. He was a Pharisee, though perhaps not a typical Pharisee. Nicodemus came to Jesus under the cover of darkness. Maybe he feared public association with Jesus. But night also symbolizes the realm of evil, untruth, and unbelief. John’s expression from above means from God. To experience spiritual rebirth, a person must be completely renewed through God’s power. Nicodemus however interpreted Jesus’ words physically. How could a fully grown person be born again? He demonstrated that those in darkness cannot understand Jesus or other heavenly things. In both the Greek and the Hebrew the word for wind can also mean breath or spirit. The Spirit comes from heaven and cannot be contained or controlled. There is great distance between earth and heaven and Jesus came to bridge that gap. Jesus was lifted up on the cross so that all people could understand the way of salvation, look to Him in faith, and have eternal life. John 3:16 is basic to Christian understanding. There are no National or racial limits to God’s love, and the Son came to save, not condemn. As light penetrates and exposes the world’s darkness, God’s judgement on the world has already begun. When people live in spiritual darkness they don’t desire to be enlightened by Jesus who is the light of the world. Evil and darkness do not ignore the light. They wage war against it trying to bring it down but the darkness will never extinguish this light.
John the Baptist identifies Jesus as the one who is truly from above. Before John was thrown into prison he and Jesus and their disciples worked together at the Jordan River but once John was arrested Jesus moved north into Galilee. The end of chapter 3 is a rather lengthy speech by John the Baptist. Two things brought this about. First people were questioning the legitimacy of his baptism and second his disciples were concerned that people were beginning to follow Jesus instead of John. But John the Baptist saw Jesus as the bridegroom and he was simply the friend of the bridegroom. This response deflected glory onto Jesus and away from himself. It also elevated Jesus’ stature. Jesus had come from above so He was the one uniquely qualified to reveal the Father. God gave the gift of eternal life, promising new life and intimacy in a present experience with God. Those who reject the Son will not see life. The world in its darkness stands under God’s angry judgement.
At a historic well in hated Samaria, Jesus offered Himself as living water. Jesus engaged and confronted people with the revelation of God, and they either followed or fell away. The Samaritan woman contrasted with Nicodemus at every turn. She was a woman, a Samaritan, a sinner and not righteous, and an outcast. While Nicodemus fell silent and never responded to Jesus challenges this woman acknowledged Jesus as Lord, remained in the light, and exhibited signs of discipleship. As Jesus and His disciples were leaving Jerusalem and Judah to head north, they had to travel through Samaria. There was harsh conflict between the Samaritans and the Jews. Jesus and the disciples had arrived at Jacob’s well. Due to the heat it was customary for the women to draw water early in the morning or evening. But this woman lived in isolation, separated from her community. Jesus was compassionate towards outcasts. The woman was taken aback because social taboos would keep a Jewish teacher like Jesus from speaking to her. But Jesus didn’t let social taboos constrain Him from giving her what she needed. This area had no rivers and so no living water, but Jesus was speaking symbolically. Jacob’s well was more than 100 feet deep and it required a long rope for drawing water. The woman still didn’t fully comprehend what was happening to her. The notion of a fresh bubbling spring was a powerful image in the dry climate of Israel. Those who come to God will neither hunger or thirst. She asked Jesus for this water but didn’t grasp the spiritual implications of His words. To overcome the spiritual barrier Jesus addressed her sin. Jesus revealed knowledge about the woman that was inaccessible to the average person. But as the woman’s understanding of Jesus unfolded, her names for Him became increasingly well informed. First she called Jesus sir, recognizing Him as a Jew. Later she thought He might be the Messiah and finally the people of the village recognized Him as Savior of the world. The Samaritans worshiped at Mount Gerizim which towered above Shechem.
Worshiping in Spirit and truth occurs as God’s Spirit reveals God’s truth and reality to the worshiper. Jesus Christ is truth. Eventually Jesus told the woman He was the Messiah. She was a bit tentative about Jesus’ identity but she ran into the village and invited everyone to “Come and see”. Testifying to others is a mark of discipleship. As Jesus was speaking to this woman the disciples were in the village buying food. When they returned they urged Jesus to eat but He began to speak symbolically to them and they didn’t understand. They would figure it out later but Jesus was all about receiving His nourishment from doing what His Father told Him to do. Jesus spoke of planting seeds and harvesting. A local parable said there were four months between planting and harvesting but Jesus told them He had planted a seed at the well and He was already reaping the harvest of belief among the Samaritans. The woman’s testimony was compelling. But the people of Jerusalem did not respond to Jesus with faith and many believed because of the faith of this Samaritan woman who was an outcast and a sinner. The Samaritans had experienced for themselves that Jesus was true. Unlike Jesus’ fellow Jews, the Galileans welcomed Him but their welcome was based on awe of Jesus miracles.
Jesus sharply criticized the Galileans who desired miraculous signs and wonders before they would believe. We end the chapter with Jesus healing a government officials son. The father of this child encountered Jesus and begged Him to come to his house because his son was sick and dying. The man begged but Jesus had no intention of going. Instead Jesus simply spoke the word. The man believed and headed home. As the man traveled one of his servants met him with the news his son was alive and well. When the man asked when this had happened and he was told the time: it was the very time Jesus told him his son would live. From that time on the man and his entire household believed in Jesus.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W