By S.D. Gordon
Of all the men who knew Jesus intimately John stands first and highest. He misunderstood for a time. He failed to understand, as did the others. He did not approach the keen insight into Jesus' being and purpose that Mary of Bethany did. But, then, she was a woman. He was a man. Other things being equal (though they almost never are), woman has keener insight into the spirit and motives than has man. But John stood closer to Jesus than any other. Jesus drew him closer. And that speaks volumes for John's fineness of spirit. He alone of the inner twelve did not forsake in the hardest hour that Thursday night, but went in "with Jesus." How grateful must Jesus have been for the presence of His sympathetic friend that black night, with its long intense shadows!
Now John writes about Jesus. And what this closest friend says will be of intensest interest to all lovers of Jesus. But it is of even intenser interest to note keenly when John writes. He waits until the end. He gets the longest range on Jesus that his lengthening years will permit. Distance is essential to perspective. You must get far away from a big thing to see it. The bigger the thing to be seen, the longer the distance needed for good perspective. John shows his early appreciation of the size of Jesus by waiting so long. When all his mental faculties are most matured, when any heat of mere youthful attachment has cooled off, when the eye of the spirit is clearest and keenest, when the facts through long sifting have fallen into right place and relation in the whole circle of truth, then the old man settles to his loving task.
He had been looking long. His perspective has steadily lengthened with the looking years. The object has been getting bigger and bigger to his eyes. He is getting off as far as possible within his earthly span. At last he feels that he has approximately gotten the range. And with the deep glow of his heart gleaming up out of his eyes, he picks up a freshly-sharpened quill to tell folk about Jesus.
As he starts in he takes a fresh, long, earnest look. And so he writes, like a portrait artist working, with his eyes ever gazing at the vision of that glorified Face. He seems to say to himself, "How shall I--how can I ever begin to tell them--about Him!" Then with a master's skill he sets out to find the simplest words he can find, put together in the simplest sentences he can make, so simple folk everywhere may read and get something of a glimpse of this Jesus, whose glory is filling his eyes and flooding his face and spilling out all over the pages as he writes.
He is seeing back so far that he is getting beyond human reach. So he fastens his line into the farthest of the far-reaches of human knowledge, the creation, and then flings the line a bit farther back yet. He must use a human word, if human folk are to understand. So he says "beginning." "In the beginning," the beginningless beginning, away back of the Genesis beginning, the earliest known to man.
Then he recalls the tremendous fact that when, in the later beginning man knew about, the worlds came into existence, it was by a word being spoken, a creative, outspoken word. The power that created things revealed itself in a few simple words. Then he searches into the depths of language for the richest word he knew to express thought outspoken. And taking that word he uses it as a name for this One of whom he is trying to tell. The scholars seem unable to sound the depths of the word that John in his own language uses. It means this, and beyond that, it means this, deeper yet, and then this. And then all of these together, and more. That is John's word. "In the beginning was the Word."
Then with a few swift touches of his pen he says, "This was Jesus before He came among men, the man Jesus whom we know." In the earliest beginning the whole heart and thought of God toward man was outspoken in a person. This person, this outspeaking God, it was He who later became known to us as Jesus. Jesus, away back before the farthest reach of our human knowledge, was God speaking out of His inner heart to us. This Jesus is God speaking out His innermost heart to man. Did you ever long to hear God speak? Look at Jesus. He's God's speech. This One was with God. He was God. It was He who spoke things into being, that creative span of time. Only through Him could anything come into being. All life was in Him, and this life was man's light. It is He who came into our midst, shining in the darkness that could neither take Him in nor hold Him down from shining out.
Every now and then as he writes John's heart seems near the breaking point, and a sob shakes his pen a bit, as it comes over him all anew, and almost overcomes him, how this wondrous Jesus, this throbbing heart of God, was treated. Listen: "He came to His own possessions, and they who were His--own--kinsfolk--and the quiver of John's heart-sob seems to make the type move on the page--His own kinsfolk received him not into their homes, but left Him outside in the cold night; but--a glimpse of that glorious Face steadies him again--as many as did receive Him, whether His own kinsfolk or not, to them He gave the right to become kinsfolk of God, the oldest family of all."
John has a way of reaching away back, and then by a swift use of pen coming quickly to his own time, and then he keeps swinging back over the ground he has been over, but each time with some added touch, like the true artist he is.
John's statement, "the world was made by Him," takes one back at once to the early Genesis chapters. There the creating One, who, by a word, brings things into existence is called God. And then, that we may identify Him, is called by a name, Jehovah. The creator is God named Jehovah. And this Jehovah, John says, was the One who afterward became a Man, and pitched His tent among men. And as one reads the old chapters through, this is the God, the Jehovah, who appears in varying ways to these Old Testament men, one after another. He talked and walked and worked with Adam in completing the work of creation, and then broken-hearted led him out of the forfeited garden.
Then to make his standpoint unmistakably plain to every one, before starting in on the witness borne by the herald, he makes a summary. All that he has been saying he now sums up in these tremendous words, "God--no one ever yet has seen; the only begotten God, in the bosom of the Father, this One has been the spokesman." In what He was, and in what He did as well as in what He said, He hath been the spokesman. Here is a difference made between the Father God, whom no one has seen, and the only begotten God, who has been telling the Father out.
Now God revealed Himself to men in the Old Testament times. Repeatedly in the Old Testament it distinctly speaks of men seeing God in varying ways and talking with Him. Adam walked with Him, and Enoch, and Noah. Abraham had a vision, and talked with the three men whose spokesman speaks as God. Isaac has a night-vision and Jacob a dream and a night meeting with a mysterious wrestler. Moses spoke with Him "face to face" and "mouth to mouth," and is said to have seen His "form." Yet after that first forty days on the mount when Moses hungrily asks for more, He is told that no man could endure the sight of that great glory of God's face. And he is put in to a cleft of the rock, and God's hand put over the opening (in the simple language of the record), and then only the hinder part of God passing is seen, while the wondrous voice speaks. Yet the impression so made upon Moses far exceeds anything previous and completely overawes and melts him down. The elders of Israel "saw God," yet the most distinct impression of anything seen is of the beautiful pavement under His feet. Isaiah's most definite impression, when the great vision came to him, was of a train of glory, seraphim and smoke and a voice. Ezekiel has rare power in detailed description. He has overpowering visions of the "glory of Jehovah." Yet the most definite that he can make the description is a storm gathering, a cloud, a fire, a centre spot of brightness, a clearness as of amber, and four very unusual living creatures.
These men "saw" God. He "appeared" to them. Evidently that means many different things, yet the word is always honestly used. It never means as we gaze into another man's face. But always there is that profound impression of having been in God's own presence. They met Him. They saw Him. They heard His voice.
Yet John says here, "God--no one ever yet at any time has seen; the only begotten God, in the bosom of the Father--this One has been the spokesman." Clearly John, sweeping the whole range of past time, means this: they saw Him whom we call Jesus. Jesus is Jehovah, the only begotten God. To all these men the only begotten God was the spokesman of the Father.
Sometimes it was a voice that came with softness but unmistakable clearness to the inner spirit of man, a soundless voice. Sometimes in a dream, a more realistic vision of the night or of the day time; again, in the form of a man, thus foreshadowing the future great coming. This One who came to them in various ways, this Jehovah has come to men as Jesus. This is John's statement. This is the setting of His gospel. The setting becomes a part of the interpretation of what the gospel contains. It explains what this that follows meant to John.
Is it surprising that John's Gospel has been pitched upon as the critics' chief battle-field of the New Testament? Battle-field is a good word. The fire has been thick and fast, needle-guns--sharp needles--and machine-guns--Gatling guns and rattling--but no smokeless powder. The cloud of smoke of a beautiful scholarly gray tinge has quite filled the air. Men have been swinging away from a man, the Man to a book. But no critic's delicately shaded and shadowing cloud of either dust or smoke, or both, can hide away the Man. He's too tall and big. The simple hearted man who will step aside from the smoke and noise to the shade of a quiet tree, or the quiet of some corner, with this marvellous bit of manuscript from John's pen for his keen, Spirit-cleared eye, will be enraptured to find a Man, the Man, the God-Man.
Whom Moses Saw.
What did Jesus say about Himself? The critics of the world, including the skeptical, infidel critics, seem to agree fully and easily on a few things about this Jesus on whose dissection they have expended so much time and strength. They agree that in the purity of His life, the moral power of His character, the wisdom of His teachings, the rare poise of His conduct and judgment, the influence exerted upon men, He clear over-tops the whole race. Surely His own opinion of Himself is well worth having. And it is easy to get, and tremendous when gotten. It fits into John's conception with unlabored simplicity and naturalness.
According, then, to Jesus' own words, He had come down out of heaven, and, by and by, would go back again to where He was before. He had come on an errand for the Father down into the world, and when the errand was finished He would go back home to the Father again. He had seen the Father, and He was the only one who had ever seen Him. He was the Son of God in a sense that nobody else was, a begotten Son, and the only Son who had been begotten. Therefore He naturally called God His Father, and not only that, but His own Father, making Himself equal with the Father.
This statement it was that swung the leaders over from silent contempt to aggression in their treatment of Him. The Jews understood this perfectly and instantly. They refused to accept it. Reckoning it blasphemous, they attempted to stone Him. They were partly right. If it were not true, it was blasphemous, and their law required stoning. Yet they were fools in their thought, and not even keen fools. For no blasphemous man could have revealed the character and moral glory that Jesus constantly revealed before their eyes.
Then follows one of John's exquisite reports of Jesus' words in reply. In it run side by side the essential unity of spirit between Father and Son, with the absolute life-giving or creative power invested in the Son. A sweet, loving, loyal unity of spirit is between the two. It is love unity. There can be none closer. In this unity the Son has full control of life for all the race of men, and final adjustment of the character wrought out by each. At His word all who have gone down under death's touch will come into life again, and each by the character he has developed will go by a moral gravitation to his natural place.
And then follows the bringing forward of witnesses, John, the Father, the works, the Scriptures, and the climax is reached in the one whose name was ever on their lips--Moses. And this is the significant reference to Moses, "He wrote of Me." Sift into that phrase a bit. It cannot mean, he wrote of me in the sacrifices provided for with such minute care. For Moses clearly had had no such thought. It might be supposed to mean that unconsciously to himself there was, in his writings about the sacrifices, that which would be seen later to refer to Jesus in His dying. And there is the resemblance in purity between Moses' sacrifices and the great Sacrifice. Yet where there is so much plain meaning lying out on the face of the thing, this obscure meaning may be dropped or checked in as an incidental. There is a single allusion in Moses' writing to a prophet coming like himself.
But Moses is ever absorbed in writing about a wondrous One who revealed Himself to him in the burning bush, the pillar of cloud and fire, the little peaked tent off by itself on the outskirts of the camp, and the soft distinct voice. There was the One with whom He had twice spent forty days in the mount, and whose great glory left its traces in his face. Ever Moses is writing of this wondrous Jehovah. Jesus quietly says, "He wrote of Me."
Another time He said, "I and the Father are one," provoking another stoning. Invisibly holding back their hands He said, "The Father is in Me, and I in the Father," and again they are aroused. In connection with this word "Father," it may be noted that the Old Testament has been called the "dispensation of the Father." But this seems scarcely accurate. God speaking, appearing there is spoken of as Father very rarely, and then chiefly in the great promises of the future glory. The common name for Him is Jehovah. Jesus practically gives us the name Father for God. He constantly refers to God as His Father. It was He who taught us to call God Father. He never speaks of Jehovah, but of the Father. His language in this always fits in perfectly, as of course it would, with John's standpoint, that Jesus is the Jehovah of the Old Testament times. A little later Jesus says, "Moses gave you not the manna from heaven, but--my Father giveth (note the change in the time element of the word)--giveth you the true bread." It is a sort of broken, readjusted sentence, as though He was going to say who it was that gave the manna, and then changes to speaking of the Father and the present. He does not say who it was that did give that manna. It is plain enough from John's standpoint what he understands Jesus to mean as he puts the incident into his story.
Jesus is God Wooing Man.
During the autumn before His death, while in attendance on one of the Jerusalem feasts, the leaders are boasting of their direct descent from Abraham, and attacking Jesus. On their part the quarrel of words gets very bitter. They ask sharply, "Who do you pretend to be? Nobody can be as great as Abraham; yet your words suggest that you think you are." Then came from Jesus' lips the words, spoken in all probability very quietly, "Your father Abraham exulted that he might see my day, and he saw it, and was glad." It is a tremendous statement, staggering to one who has not yet grasped it.
In attempting to find its meaning, some of our writing friends have supposed it means that, after Abraham's death, when he was in the other world, at the time of Jesus being on the earth, he was conscious of Jesus having come and was glad. But this hardly seems likely, else it would read, "He sees, and is glad." The seeing and gladness were both in a day gone by. Others have supposed that it refers to the scene on Moriah's top, when the ram used as a sacrifice instead of Isaac enabled Abraham to see ahead by faith, not actually, the coming One. But this, too, seems a bit far-fetched, because Abraham was surprised by the occurrences of that day. He fully expected to sacrifice his son, apparently, so there could be no exultant looking forward to that day for him. And deeper yet, the coming One was not expected to be a sacrifice, but a king.
The natural meaning seems to lie back in Abraham's own life. Abraham was Israel's link with the idolatrous heathen, as well as the beginning of the new life away from idolatry. He grew up among an idolatrous people, yet in his heart there was a yearning for the true God. Back in his old home there came to him one day the definite inner voice to cut loose from these people, his own dear kinsfolk, and go out to a strange unknown land, with what seemed an indefinite goal, and there would come to him a vision of the true God.
It was a radical step for a man of seventy-five years to take. He was living among his own kinsfolk. His nest was feathered. It meant leaving a certainty for an uncertainty. It meant breaking his habit of life, a very hard thing to do, and starting out on a wandering roaming life. Not unlikely his neighbors thought it a queer thing, a wild goose chase, this going off to a strange land in response to a call of God that he might see a vision of the true God. Decidedly visionary. But the old man was clear about the voice. The fire burned within to know God, the real true God. All else counted as nothing against that. He would see God. And a warming glow filled his heart and shone in his eyes and kept him steady during the break, the good-byes, the start away, the journeying among strangers. Into the strange land he came, and pitched his tent. And--one night--in his tent--among these strange Canaanites, there came the promised vision. "Jehovah appeared unto Abraham," and tied up there anew with him the promise made back in his native land. This seems to be the simple explanation of these words about Abraham. "He exulted that he might see my day. He saw ... and was glad."
With a contemptuous curl of the lip instantly they come back with: "Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham?" More quietly than ever, with the calmness of conscious truth, come those tremendous words, emphasized with the strongest phrase He ever used, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, before Abraham was born, I am." The common version omits "born," and so the sharp contrast is not made clear. Abraham was born. He came into existence. Jesus says "I am." That "I am" is meant to mean absolute existence. An eternal now without beginning or ending. Their Jewish ears are instantly caught by that short sentence. Jesus was identifying Himself with the One who uttered that sentence out of the burning bush! Again stones for speech. Again the invisible power holds their feverish impotent hands. That "I am" explains the meaning of the expression "my day." It stretches it out backward beyond Abraham's day. It lengthens it infinitely at both ends.
This is Jesus' point of view, this marvellous Jesus. He is the Jehovah in Genesis' first chapters. It is with Him that Adam broke tryst that day, and with Him that Enoch renewed the tryst after such a long wait, and took those long walks. It is His voice and presence in the black topped, flaming mount that awed the Israel crowd so. His voice it was that won and impressed so winsomely the man waiting in the hand-covered cleft of the rock that early morning, and long after, that other rugged, footsore man, standing with face covered in the mouth of a cave. Isaiah saw His glory that memorable day in the temple. It was He who rode upon the storm before Ezekiel's wondering eyes and who walks with His faithful ones on the seven times heated coals, and reveals to Daniel's opened ears the vision of his people's future. Jehovah--He comes as Jesus. Jesus--He is Jehovah. No sending of messengers for this great work of winning His darling back to the original image and mastery and dominion will do for our God. He comes Himself. Jesus is God coming down to woo man up to Himself again.