One of the great dangers in our walk with God is to become dulled and jaded by the everyday – more than that – to allow God to become ordinary, common, taken for granted.
In 1973, the Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of the famed conductor, Eugene Ormandy traveled to China on a goodwill tour. They played a joint concert with the Chinese national orchestra. During the rehearsal, the Chinese orchestra played Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for the visiting musicians. And they played it very poorly. At the end of the first movement, the Chinese conductor passed the baton to Ormandy. What a transformation! They played brilliantly and precisely. You would have thought Ormandy had been conducting them for years. As the members of the Philadelphia orchestra listened, they were impressed in a new way with Ormandy’s talent and genius. They suddenly realized that they had taken him for granted and lost sight of the greatness of their conductor.
I submit that when our lives are out of sync and we are more often conquered than conquerors, we must reclaim our sense of awe in our God who created the world with a word, who made man in his own image, who sent his only Son to die for us. To do that we must go back to the Gospels – to walk with the Savior side by side – to hear the words anew.
The early church told the story long before it was ever written down. Acts 2 tells us “they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching” – and what they were teaching was about Jesus. When the church was scattered in Acts 8, we are told, “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went” – and what did they preach? They preached about Jesus.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he confessed that he didn’t try to impress them with his superior wisdom and eloquence, but “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor 1:2)
The Gospel, as Paul defined it in 1 Cor 15, is “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”
The four books in our Bible that are called Gospels are books that tell the story of Jesus. They are not just biographical sketches, nor reference books on the sayings of Jesus. They are not history books, though they are historically accurate. Luke says he interviewed eyewitnesses and carefully investigated everything that he wrote and that he wrote an “orderly account” of everything that Jesus said and did. John says “I was an eyewitness – my eyes saw, my ears heard, my hands touched.” But John says he wrote with a purpose: But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (Jn 20:31) The Gospels were written to bring people to faith.
Why four Gospels? Why not one comprehensive, authoritative account? Instead, there are four Gospels. John himself recognized the enormity of the undertaking when he concluded his Gospel: Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. (Jn 21:25) Yet, there is one story with many dimensions. Each Gospel while telling the same story is unique in its perspective, its focus, its purpose.
Matthew wrote a Gospel for the Jews. His theme was “the Messiah has come,” and his Gospel is full of OT scriptures and prophecies.
Mark wrote a Gospel for the Romans. He has less emphasis on dialogue and more on action – his favorite word is “immediately”. His theme was Jesus as Servant. Mark was a close friend of Peter and his Gospel reflects Peter’s telling of the story.
Luke, himself a Greek, wrote a Gospel for the Gentiles. There is less OT scripture and more of an emphasis on women and foreigners and outcasts. Luke, without diminishing the deity of Jesus, focuses our attention on Jesus’ humanity. He is the one who came to seek and save the lost.
The apostle John, living in Ephesus in the final decade of the first century, wrote his Gospel to people whose lives were far removed from Palestine and Jewish culture. Pharisees and Passover lambs were long ago and far away. To a church that was entering its third generation, these things were not only distant but confusing. They had read the Gospels of Mark and Matthew and Luke, but they were written to different people. They needed to know, not just what, but why. And so John writes to the universal church almost 30 years after the other three Gospels were written, over sixty years after Jesus’ crucifixion. They need to know, not just about Jesus, they need to know Jesus. They are the very ones whom Jesus had in mind when he said to Thomas, “Because you have seen me you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (Jn 20:29) Or even more so in Jesus’ prayer in John 17, when he says, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message.”
I said a few minutes ago that John’s purpose in writing was to bring people to believe that Jesus is the Christ, and that by believing they might have life in his name.
You cannot have eternal life without an eternal Savior. Matthew and Luke are both concerned with establishing a genealogy of the Christ. Matthew begins with Abraham (Jesus is the fulfillment of the promises of God to Abraham); Luke traces his lineage all the way back to Adam (Jesus was the hope of every man who is lost in sin). John dispenses with all that – his genealogy is contained in six simple words: “In the beginning was the Word…”
“In the beginning” is not so much a measure of time as it is foundational: “In the beginning of beginnings, before there was time, before there was heaven or earth or light or darkness, there was God. God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. Jesus was there, the world was created through him, we were created in his eternal image.
John could have said, “In the beginning was Jesus,” but he said, “In the beginning was the Word.” This idea of Word was a wonderfully Jewish concept of God’s power and deity – it is God in action, in creation, in revelation, in deliverance. It was the expression of the personality and power of God – God “spoke” the world into existence with the Word.
It was also a bridge word into the Greek culture and mindset. Jesus was the Logos – it plugged into the Greek understanding of transcendence and eternality.
And Jesus, the eternal Word was with God. That word “with” is expressing the most intimate kind of relationship. In John 17, Jesus will pray to the Father, “you are in me and I am in you.” And yet, there is a separateness. Jesus is not the Father, the Father is not the Holy Spirit. They are one and yet they are three distinct personalities. They are “with” each other.
But notice that John doesn’t stop by saying “the Word was with God.” He continues by saying, “and the Word was God.” Jesus was not simply and merely a man, not a divine being among a pantheon of gods in the ancient world, but God himself, incarnate, yet eternal.
I wish we could read these words as those first Jews who first heard them must have felt. It would have taken their breath away. They were raised on the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” And when John wrote, “The Word was with God and the Word was God” they must have gasped. When Jesus said, “I and the Father are one,” and “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father;” when Thomas cried out, “My Lord and my God!” when they themselves asked the question, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” they were treading on sacred ground.
This will be the theme throughout John’s Gospel – Jesus was not just a man, nor merely a divine being – he was God who became flesh and lived among us.
John begins to describe this beginning, of which Jesus was a part: “Through him all things were made that have been made.” Let’s add this to our list of very difficult things to understand: Jesus was not a created being – he is eternal – he has always been and will always be. You and I are born mortal. Before we entered this world, we did not exist. Jesus has always existed. When Jesus told the Jews, “Before Abraham was, I am” he was saying, “I have always been – I was there when Abraham was born.”
Not only was Jesus there, he was the one who created all things. Let me share a couple of NT passages that give us a sense of this:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Col 1:15-17)
In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. (Heb 1:1-3)
Not only was the world created through him, but he sustains the world. Creation was not just an action in some distant point in the past, Jesus is active within his creation, even now, sustaining it and caring for it. Which brings us to verse 4: “In him was life and that life was the light of men.”
There are two kinds of life in John: one is the Greek word “Bios” that describes physical life, and “Zoe” which describes spiritual or eternal life. Genesis describes God’s first creation. John’s theme is God’s new creation. The Word is the source and sustainer of both. This new creation is wrapped up in what John calls “life.”
John ties who Jesus is and what he is doing into this “life.”
In John 3:16, Jesus says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” There is our word, “zoe.” Jesus came to bring life. But Jesus didn’t just come so that you might live a few more years, he came so that you might have a different kind of life.
In John 10:10, Jesus will say, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” There is our word, “zoe.” Jesus didn’t just come so that you might fill this life with a few more possessions. He came so that you might have a different kind of life.
In John 5:24, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”
There it is: what Jesus came to do was to change what kind of life you are living. If all your life is about is focused on this life – living longer, accumulating more stuff, you’re missing out on real life. And real life doesn’t stop at the grave. When you “cross over from death to life” everything changes. It is that point from which you start looking with an eternal perspective. Things are no longer just about here and now – you begin to see things through God’s eyes, in terms of God’s kingdom. Jesus called that moment, being “born again.” And that’s not some trite political phrase, that is that moment when life truly begins. It is when you come up out of the water of baptism and start walking in a new life. You have died to sin and to self, you were buried, and then when you came up out of the water, it was in union with Jesus’ resurrection. You were born again into eternal life.
Jesus gave the most succinct and lucid definition of eternal life in his prayer in John 17:3 – “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Eternal life is not defined in length of years, but in a relationship – knowing God. If you know God, you have eternal life. And the only way to know God is through his son Jesus Christ.
Jesus not only gives life, he is life – he is the source of life. If your source of life is in anything or anyone else – all that you have and are ends at the grave.
And not only is Jesus life, but he is also light. John continues in vs. 5: “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.” We live in a world of darkness. We stumble and fall, we struggle to stay on the path. Without light we are wandering aimlessly, lost. But Jesus came to bring light – to be the light – and he promises to guide us through the difficulties and storms of life.
And then John says something so unexpected, but so true: “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” Doesn’t that ring true? When confronted with the light, the world doesn’t know what to do with it. Its first reaction isn’t rejection, it is surprise. What are you doing here? What should we do with you? When Jesus appeared in the world, that was their reaction: Who is he – Elijah, one of the prophets, could he be the Messiah? No, he’s not like any Messiah I’ve ever heard about. He doesn’t look like a king, he doesn’t act like a general, he doesn’t have an army or a kingdom – he can’t be the Messiah. And if he doesn’t keep the Sabbath and hangs out with sinners he can’t be from God.
And when the world doesn’t understand something, what is its reaction? It rejects it. And that’s where John goes in verse 10: “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (Jn 1:10-11)
The very ones who should have recognized him and joyfully welcomed him rejected him. He was everything they needed, but nothing they wanted. Oh yes, they wanted a Messiah, but they wanted a powerful king, a conquering general, they wanted a Savior who would deliver them from Roman occupation, not a Savior who would deliver them from their sin. And they pinned an exclamation point on their rejection of him by crucifying him.
But, that’s not the whole of the story. As Paul Harvey used to say, here’s the rest of the story:
“Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (Jn 1:12-13)
The crowds swarmed around him, wanting to see the spectacle, experience a miracle, be amazed by the show, but they were the same ones who later shouted “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
But there were some who saw through the hype of the crowds and saw that Jesus was everything he claimed to be – the Son of God, the Messiah. And they put their faith in him. And because they put their faith in Jesus, they received the very thing that Jesus came to give everyone: eternal life. John says they were given the right to become children of God – they were introduced into a relationship that not only changed their lives, but changed their eternity.
Aren’t those the same reactions today? There are those who flat out reject Jesus. They want a Savior, but they want one made in their own image, of their own choosing. And there are those who jump on the bandwagon and wave the flags and make Jesus a figurehead to rally around. But when push comes to shove, they’re more in love with the show than the Savior. And then there are those who see through it all and come to Jesus, not on their terms, but on his. They come with humbled hearts and yielded wills and find in Jesus everything they have been looking for and more. He is their Savior, but he is also their friend.