It should be a truism that the most important person in Christianity is Christ. Christians derive their name from Him, pray through and to Him, worship Him, and imitate Him. The danger is in substituting a savior from our own imagination for the genuine Messiah.
One way to avoid falling into this trap is by looking carefully and humbly at the accounts of the earthly life of Christ in Scripture. In this column, we will work our way through one of these accounts: The Gospel according to John. An ancient tradition says that to understand something, we need to answer four questions: (1) What is it? (2) What is it made of? (3) What is it for? (4) How did it come into existence? We’ll look at the first two questions this month as we begin to think through the fourth Gospel.
What is the Gospel according to John? More basically, what is a gospel? The word translated “gospel” (euangelion) is a word that means “good news” or “good report.” We think of this word today as a religious term: “gospel music,” “gospel preaching,” or “gospel-driven” church. In the ancient world, however, this word wasn’t necessarily religious. The word could refer to a political or military event. The announcement of victory ringing through the United States on VE Day, for example, was a “gospel” in this sense. The Gospel according to John is an announcement, therefore, of something good — something big.
What is the Gospel according to John made of? Or, less awkwardly, what’s in the book? Commentators often divide the book into two major parts. “Signs” dominate the first major section, which is 1:19-12:50. (See, for example, John 2:11, 23; 3:2; 6:26; 7:31; 11:47; and 12:37.) John never uses the primary word in the New Testament for miracle, dunamis. The wonders Jesus performs are “signs”; they reveal something vital about Him. In the second section (13:1-20:31), the cross is like a long, dark shadow that ends in the light of the new creation of chapter 20. Sandwiching these two sections, the first 18 verses of the book poetically introduce the main themes of the book, and the last chapter ties up loose ends.
John differs much from the other gospels. John doesn’t include the temptation of Jesus, Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi, the transfiguration, exorcisms, parables, and most of the miracles that the other gospels record. The language reads differently, and Jesus’ cleansing (or cursing?) of the temple occurs much earlier. John includes, however, some of the most memorable signs and characters in the Bible, and, in John, Jesus is the Lamb of God, the fountain of living water, the bread of life, the light of the world, the good shepherd, the resurrection, the true vine, the way, the truth, and the life.
Like the other gospels, the Gospel according to John is an account of the most important piece of “good news” that a person can hear. Just as two portraits of the same person can be strikingly different yet equally and completely true, this gospel is just as true, just as reliable, and just as necessary as the others. We must pay close attention to this book to know the one we worship, imitate, and love — or, rather, the one who loves us (John 3:16).