Providence, Purpose, & Purity of the Gospel of John
We are returning to our exposition of the Gospel of John this Sunday, and I'd like to reintroduce you to the historical context and purpose of this Gospel, a favorite of many.
The Apostle John writes his gospel from Ephesus sometime near the end of the first century (70-100AD) to call Jew and Jewish proselytes in Asia Minor to believe in Jesus, the Messiah, and to strengthen Christians’s faith amidst first century heresies. John uses the verb “believe” (Gr. pisteuo) 98 times; he tries to stuff it in every nook and cranny; almost every story and teaching contains it. In John’s own words, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31). Seven signs (i.e. miracles) provide a framework for Jesus public ministry in the first half of John (John 1:19-12:50), while Jesus’ private ministry to his disciples (John 13-17) and His passion narrative (17-20) comprise the second half.
It is important to note that John’s concern is evangelistic but also communal in nature. He is concerned that his readers believe and be enfolded into the people of God by faith in order to maintain theological orthdoxy and ethical credibility as a community. John believed Christians’ corporate moral integrity was crucial in order to stand up to the prevailing heterodox (i.e., unorthodox) influences that confused the Christian gospel.
At the end of the first-century teachers of gnosticism like Cerinthus (50-100 AD) argued for an entirely different cosmology than John’s, one with alternative understandings of authority, fairness, loyalty, care, freedom, and sanctity. According to Cerinthus and those who embraced his form of gnosticism, the world was created by a lesser being, the demiurge, and Christ (who, according to gnostics, was divine but not human) was sent to the world by a remote supreme being. Salvation was gained through secret knowledge (gnosis, thus gnosticism) that enabled the redemption of the human spirit. Gnosticism lead to theological death by dividing the divinity and humanity of Jesus. John recognized this danger; he often spoke of Jesus offering life in Himself. Irenaeus relates a story preserved by John’s disciple Polycarp of Smyrna that tells how one day John ran out of a public bath house in Ephesus before he finished bathing when he heard that the gnostic Cerinthus had entered, because he feared the entire bath house would fall in on such an “enemy of truth.” Jesus’ authority and sanctity as the Son of Man, fully God and fully Man, the Word of God, Light of the World, the Bread of Life is at the heart of John’s message as is his expectation that we remain clear-headed, loyal followers of Jesus’ in the face of gnostic heresies that were gaining ground in Asia Minor and threatening the shared moral consensus of Christians at that time.
Augustine (354-430) likened the Gospel of John to an eagle as if to suggest that Matthew, Mark and Luke speak of Jesus from the earth up, while John speaks of Jesus from heaven down. John Chrysostom (349-407) said, “if people actually had the capacity to receive and retain these words, they could no longer exist as mere mortals nor remain on the earth, but would take their stand above all challenges in this life, and having adapted themselves to the condition of angels, would dwell on earth just as if it were heaven.”
Our study of John between now and Lent will focus on chapter 6, which has been called the Grand Central Station of the Gospel of John. So much activity is here! We begin our exposition with the story of the story of the feeding of the five thousand -- the only miracle aside from the resurrection that all four gospels writers tell their audiences. We will conclude with Jesus challenging his disciples to believe and follow him.