Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Soteriology of the Gospel of John

A major theme of John’s Gospel is that Jesus has come into the world from God. He is “the one who came from heaven” (3.13, 31); He has been sent by God the Father (many references!!); He is the light who “has come into the world” (3.19, 12.46), “the bread come down from heaven” (6.32-33, 38, 41-42, 50-51, 58), “the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world” (11.27) and many similar descriptions besides. Jesus’ origin is a significant point of discussion and dispute throughout the gospel. The Jews debate where he is from during the Feast of Tabernacles (7.27-29, 41-43, 52). It forms part of the dispute between Jesus and the Jews in chapter 8 (e.g. 8.14), and between the Pharisees and the blind man healed by Jesus (9.16, 29-33). Even Pilate asks, “where do you come from?” (19.9)

As the Gospel develops, it becomes increasingly clear that Jesus has not only come into the world from God, but he is also leaving the world and returning to God. (e.g. 13.1) Hinted at during the early parts of John (e.g. 6.62, 7.33-34, 12.35-36), His leaving becomes the backdrop to the urgent discussions during the meal on the night of his betrayal. (chs 13-17)
Jesus is the one who has come from heaven, sent by the Father into the world, to subsequently leave the world and return to the Father. The theme is so pervasive that there is no room to go through all the instances of its occurrence, but the questions that logically flows from it lead us easily into our discussion of soteriology. For what purpose did the Father send the Son into the world? Why did he come, and then leave?
Already in the Prologue, we are alerted to the fact that all is not well with Jesus’ coming into the world, and therefore that all is not well with the world. The world was made through Him but “the world did not recognise him” (1.10); “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive Him.” (1.11) The world is, in fact, in darkness (cf. 1.5), a darkness that hates the coming of light into the world, because of its evil (3.19-20; 8.12, 12.35-36, 46). The world stands in danger of judgment (3.18), slaves to sin (8.34; cf. 9.41 etc.) and held captive by the devil (8.44, cf 12.31).[1]
The world is in need of salvation. And so, clearly and wonderfully, the message of John’s gospel is that Jesus has indeed come to save the world!
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (3.17)
“For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.” (12.47)

“We know that this man really is the Saviour of the world.” (4.42) (the testimony of the Samaritans)
If the Father sent the Son into the world to save it, we need to ask two further questions: (1) how, precisely, is this salvation achieved? and (2) to what, or for what, is the world saved?

Jesus came to reveal the Father (e.g. 14.9-11), but salvation is not merely revelation – a new knowledge or enlightenment.[2] John’s Gospel inexorably heads towards a climax in which salvation is definitively accomplished. That defining moment – Jesus’ ‘time’ (2.4; 7.8; 7.30 – is his death and resurrection. Several times, from 5.16 onwards, the Jews attempt to seize Jesus in order to kill him, but they are unable to because “his hour had not yet come.” But it is all heading towards his death.

As the third Passover of John’s Gospel draws nearer, the tension mounts until, having been prepared for His burial by Mary’s anointing Him with oil and having entered into Jerusalem as the king on the donkey[3], the arrival of some Greeks seeking to meet Him moves Jesus to declare that “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (12.23) and “now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.” (12.31) Now is the time for Jesus to die (12.24, 33) and this is the reason why Jesus came (12.27).
What is the significance of Jesus’ death? The clues are scattered throughout the gospel: He is the Lamb of God (i.e. the sacrificial, passover lamb) who takes away the sin of the world. (1.29) He must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. (3.14-15) His flesh is the bread given for the life of the world. (6.51) He is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (10.11, 17-18). He is the one man who will die for the Jewish nation – “and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.” (11.50-52) He is to be lifted up from the earth, in order to draw all people to himself. (12.32-33)

Jesus’ death achieves salvation; perhaps the first epistle of John best expresses the significance of this truth:
He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (2.2)
This is how we know what love is: Jesus laid down his life for us (3.16)
This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (4.10)[4]

Because it is an atoning sacrifice that deals with sin, Jesus’ death brings life. The goal of salvation, or what we are saved into or for is life or eternal life. John’s gospel, like a coral reef or estuary, is teeming with life! In Him (the Word) was life (1.4). Whoever believes in Him has eternal life (3.15, 16, 36). Whoever drinks the water offered by Jesus “will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4.13). The Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it (5.21). He is the bread of heaven that gives life to the world. (6.33) He has come that his sheep may have life, and have it to the full. (10.10) He is the resurrection and the life: anyone who believes in Him will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in him will never die. (11.25-26) And these represent only a selection of relevant texts.

In Jesus is life; He is life, and he offers life to whoever will believe in him. The offer of life is possible because Jesus lay down his life and took it up again. But what is this eternal life that is offered? On the one hand it is the hope of resurrection (e.g. 5.28-29; 6.39-40 etc.). It is, moreover, an ongoing-forever life (e.g. 5.51). It is a qualitatively different life - full life (10.10). It is life that, while with the fuller realisation to come, is entered into now (e.g. 5.24) Finally, “this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (17.3) Knowing God – in the language of 1 John, “fellowship with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (1 John 1.3) – is ultimately what we are saved for, although not in a an individual beatific vision kind of way, since fellowship with (and love for) each other is included within that fellowship with God, both in John 17 and throughout 1 John.
To sum up, the Father sent the Son into the world to save the world. That salvation was accomplished through the death and resurrection of Jesus with the result that whoever believes in Him receives eternal life. That is the soteriology of John’s gospel. To conclude, I wish to offer a couple of reflections.
1. Jesus’ coming precipitates a crisis for the world – and therefore for each one of us. The world was already in darkness, humanity was already enslaved in sin and captive to the devil. But now, with the entrance of the Creator onto the world he has created, the issues are intensifed, the terms of debate subtly altered. Now that he has come, it is with Christ we must reckon. This is shown e.g. in 3.18 where condemnation is issued “because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” This should remind us of the vital importance (and glory) of Christ’s coming and give us confidence to keep on preaching Him first and foremost.
2. In examining the soteriology of (mainly) the gospel of John, I have tried to avoid moving too quickly to reading John merely with soteriological questions in view. i.e. I didn’t want to simply structure this paper, say, as (1) what is the problem, according to John? (2) what is the solution? (3) what is the result (or goal) of salvation? I thought it would be more helpful to try to wrestle with some of the themes that shape John itself, and from them draw out the soteriology. Hence me starting with discussing Jesus coming into, and going out of, the world. Whether this approach has worked or not I don’t know, but I certainly found the predominance of that particular theme very striking, and it was helpful for me to then follow through with the soteriological questions from that framework.
3. This study has also reaffirmed for me the centrality of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus’ death. According to Marshall, “there have been repeated attempts to deny the central and sacrificial character of the death of Jesus in this Gospel” but, as Marshall goes on to say, “they can be confidently rejected.”[5] Jesus’s “hour”, the defining moment of his mission, is his death and the clues are sufficient throughout the gospel, and made even clearer in the statements in 1 John quoted above. If Jesus had not died for our sins, there would be no salvation.
this was an assignment I wrote for NTI

Carson, D.A. (1991) The Gospel According to John (Leicester: IVP)
Kruse, C.G. (2000) The Letters of John (Leicester: Apollos)
Marshall, I.H. (2004) New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP)

[1] We could add here, the link between sin and the devil in 1 John 3.8-10: “the one who does what is sinful is of the devil” while “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.”
[2] cf. Marshall p.512-3, Carson p.94
[3] in contrast to the previous passover when the crowd tried to make Jesus king by force, not understanding that his kingship was to be exercised by giving his life for the world (ch. 6)
[4] According to Kruse (pp.35, 174-178) the references to blood in 1 John 5.6-7 also refer to the atoning sacrifice of Jesus’ death.
[5] Marshall p.519, fn 40


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this. I'm working on a theme paper with a focus on soteriology right now, and this is a huge help in terms of getting some great places to start direction wise.

Skippy said...

Thanks for your comment! Seeing the theme of Jesus' coming into the world and then leaving the world has really been helpful for me in understanding the gospel of John as a whole. It's amazing how ubiquitous it is once you begin to notice it. And from there flow all kinds of soteriological questions.