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Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary Preacher's Homiletical
- 1 John
by Editor - Joseph S. Exell
The Preacher’s Complete Homiletic
ON THE GENERAL EPISTLES
I-II Peter, I-II-III John, Jude
OF ST. JOHN THE DIVINE
By the REV. ROBERT TUCK, B.A.
Author of the Commentaries on Hebrews and James
FUNK & WAGNALLS COMPANY
LONDON AND TORONTO
ON THE BOOKS OF THE BIBLE
WITH CRITICAL AND EXPLANATORY NOTES,
INDEXES, ETC., BY VARIOUS AUTHORS
PREACHER’S HOMILETICAL COMMENTARY
HOMILIES FOR SPECIAL OCCASIONS
Church Seasons: Advent, 1 Peter 4:7; 2 Peter 3:1-7; Revelation 1:9; Revelation 22:20-21. St. Thomas’s Day, 1 Peter 1:8. Christmas, 1 John 4:9; 1 John 5:20. Lent, 1 John 3:3; Revelation 2:7. Good Friday, 1 Peter 3:18; 1 Peter 4:1; 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10; Revelation 1:5; Revelation 5:12. Easter, Revelation 1:17-18. Ascension Day, 1 Peter 1:3. Whit Sunday, 1 John 2:20. All Saints’ Day, Revelation 7:9-10.
Holy Communion: 2 Peter 3:11; 2 Peter 3:18; 1 John 1:3; 1 John 3:1; 1 John 3:13-17; 1 John 3:24; Jude 1:21.
Missions to Heathen: Revelation 11:15; Revelation 14:6-7; Revelation 22:17. Bible Society, 2 Peter 1:16-21; Revelation 1:1-3; Revelation 14:6-7.
Special: Ordination, 1 Peter 5:1-4. Workers, 1 Peter 2:12; 1 Peter 4:1-2. Baptism, 1 Peter 3:21. Confirmation, Revelation 2:4. Marriage, 1 Peter 3:1-6. Women, 1 Peter 3:1-6. Harvest, Revelation 14:13-16; Revelation 15:0; Revelation 17:0 -
20. Death, 2 Peter 1:11; 2 Peter 1:14-15; Revelation 14:13; Revelation 21:7. Close of year, Revelation 21:5.
THE FIRST EPISTLE GENERAL OF JOHN
THE earliest Christian traditions ascribe the authorship of five of the New Testament books to the apostle John—the gospel, three epistles, and the book of Revelation. The burden of proof rests on those who doubt or deny the Johannine authorship of either one of them. Eusebius regards the authorship of this first epistle as undisputed. It is, however, remarkable that the author’s name is not given in either the gospel or the epistles, and that, although the name John is found in the book of Revelation, it is not so given as to make us absolutely sure that the apostle John is referred to.
Our confidence in the Johannine authorship of the first epistle really rests upon its similarity of style, phraseology, and thought to the gospel. And this is the more impressive because no style could present more marked peculiarities than that of the fourth gospel. The similarity deeply impresses a reader of the English translation, but it is much more striking to a reader of the original Greek.
The similarity of the subject-matter and doctrine, or setting of the Christian truth, is even more important. “The epistle appears to have been intended as a companion to the gospel. It is a comment on the gospel, ‘a sermon with the gospel for its text.’ References to the gospel are scattered thickly over the whole epistle. The object of the gospel is stated in John 20:31—‘These have been written, that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye may have life in His name’; and the similar object of the epistle is stated in 1 John 5:13—‘These things have I written unto you, that ye may know that ye have eternal life, even unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God.’ The gospel is written to show the way to eternal life through belief in the incarnate Son. The epistle is written to confirm and enforce the gospel, to assure those who believe in the incarnate Son that they have eternal life. The one is an historical, the other an ethical, statement of the truth. Of necessity, both writings, in stating the truth, oppose error; but with this difference: in the gospel St. John simply states the truth and leaves it; in the epistle he commonly, over against the truth, places the error to which it is opposed. St. John’s gospel has been called a summary of Christian theology, his first epistle a summary of Christian ethics. In the gospel the fundamental doctrines of Christianity are given as the foundation of the Christian’s faith; in the epistle they are given as the foundation of the Christian’s life. To sum up the relations of the gospel to the epistle, we may say that the gospel is objective, the epistle subjective; the one is historical, the other moral; the one gives us the theology of the Christ, the other the ethics of the Christian; the one is didactic, the other polemical; the one states the truth as a thesis, the other as an antithesis; the one starts from the human side, the other from the Divine; the one proves that the man Jesus is the Son of God, the other insists that the Son of God is come in the flesh. But the connection between the two is intimate and organic throughout. The gospel suggests principles of conduct which the epistle lays down explicitly; the epistle implies facts which the gospel states as historically true” (A. Plummer, D.D.).
As to the plan of the epistle, but little can be said. We cannot expect from the meditative and mystical John an orderly treatise such as we may get from the logical and trained intellect of Paul. Such a man as St. John always has certain main ideas, and these decide his selection of subjects, and give tone and colour to his treatment of them. He tells us what he feels, rather than what he thinks—though we should recognise that thought may be deep and real when it is controlled by feeling. No one has ever given a satisfactory analysis of the epistle; and it may be wiser not to attempt one, but to divide it simply under the two headings, God is light, and God is love. The practical applications of the first truth bring to view what our “walking in the light” involves; and of the second truth what privileges and obligations attend our relation to the Divine love, as the sons of God.
For homiletic purposes the following general outline of the contents may be found suggestive:—
I. The true nature of fellowship with God, who is light and love, requiring purity and holiness (chaps. 1–2:29).
II. The blessings and duties of sonship. The privilege of adoption demands the corresponding duty of conformity to Christ, the true Son (chaps. 3–4:6).
III. The essential bond of fellowship and sonship is love, both to the Father and to one another (chaps. 1 John 4:7 to 1 John 5:12). (Oxf. Bible, Ap.)
Webster says: “From the general tenor of the epistle, it is clear that the integrity of religious profession had been destroyed by the absence of Christian charity. Moreover, there were false teachers, who endeavoured to overturn the foundation of Christianity by inculcating doubts as to the Divine and human natures in the person of Jesus Christ. The apostle does not strike one by one the dangers of the age, but strikes at the root of them all (chaps. 1 John 4:21, 1 John 5:1). At the same time it is evident, from the undoubtedly polemical tone which pervades the epistle, that the apostle had in view some special antagonism to ‘the truth as it is in Jesus.’ It will appear, we think, that this was substantially the heresy of those early Gnostics known as the Docetæ, who denied the reality of Christ’s human nature, considering His flesh and blood to be a mere illusory appearance (see 1 John 2:22; 1 John 4:3; 2 John 1:7); for though the idealistic philosophy of the Docetæ was not fully developed before the second century, its germ existed in the apostolic age.”
Bengel’s view of the writer’s design is thus given: “Id agit ut beata et sancta cum Deo et Jesu Christo communio fidelium confirmetur.”
THE GNOSTICISM OF ST. JOHN’S LATER LIFE
The principal points in which Gnosticism, in the closing days of St. John’s life, had departed from the truth of the gospel, were
(1) in its doctrine of the person of Christ and of God, and
(2) in its doctrine of sensual sinlessness. The latter point is dealt with by the apostle mainly in his first epistle, the former mainly in his gospel. To this, therefore, we here confine ourselves. According to the Gnostics (of whom Hymenæus, Philetus, Nicolas, and Cerinthus may be taken as types), God was in His essence far too exalted, pure, and spiritual ever to come directly into contact with matter in any form. Whatever He did in the way of creation, providence, etc., was done through the instrumentality of an inferior being, a demiurge. God Himself was an inapproachable, inactive, quiescent Being, interfering in no respect with mundane or material affairs. Certainly, then, God was not incarnate in Christ. A Divine emanation, a Spirit of God, no doubt rested on Christ, descending upon Him, however, not at His birth, but at His baptism—Jesus, up to this time, having been simply a man. In their further view of Christ’s life the Gnostics were divided. Some held that from the time of His baptism the human nature of Christ was a mere appearance or phantom, so that it was only in appearance that He suffered, died, and rose again. Others held that the man Jesus did indeed truly suffer, die, and rise again, but not the Christ—since, according to them, the Divine Spirit was not personally united to Him, but only acted through Him as occasion required, and had no part whatever in those weaknesses and contingencies (as weariness, hunger, pain, and death) which belonged to His manhood. In all these things, therefore, it was not the Christ that suffered, but simply the man Jesus of Nazareth (G. Warington).
It is not easy to define Gnosticism. It was a sort of philosophy of religion. We may describe it as a series of imaginative speculations respecting the origin of the universe, and its relation to the supreme Being. It had in the main two ground principles which run through all the bewildering varieties of Gnostic systems:
1. The supremacy of the intellect, and the superiority of enlightenment to faith and conduct. This is the Greek element in Gnosticism.
2. The absolutely evil character of matter and everything material. This is the Oriental element.
The historical and moral character of the gospel, which brings it within the reach of the humblest intellectual power, was set on one side as valueless, or fantastically explained away. Spiritual excellence was made to consist, not in a holy life, but in knowledge of an esoteric kind, open only to the initiated who “knew the depths,” and could say, “This is profound” (A. Plummer, D.D.).
JOHN, THE BELOVED APOSTLE
Peter, James, John, and Andrew formed the first group of men in the apostolic body; but Peter’s strong personality dominated the group, so that it is difficult to realise the marked individuality of the others. Of Andrew we know virtually nothing. Of James we know nothing personally except his martyrdom by Herod; he is always associated with John, and seems to have been the elder brother. John is remarkable for his modesty, his gentle and retiring disposition. He was present at the greater scenes of our Lord’s life. But in no case does he ever press to the front, and no words spoken by him appear to be recorded, save his asking the Master to indicate the betrayer. Even in the early Church John keeps in the background, and in the gospel he is assumed to have written he never separately mentions his own name. This fact may help to explain why Jesus called the two brothers “Sons of Thunder.” James, the elder brother, was the man with the spirit of the zealot, who gave the family characteristic; and the name marks his personality rather than that of John.
But though keeping ever in the background, John belongs to the first group, by a very subtle power of leadership, which often characterises men of his type. His influence is recognisable everywhere; it even affected his Divine Master; it was very powerful on Peter, his friend; it toned the relations of the whole apostolic company. To a surface view Peter is the dominant spirit; but he really is not. He is swayed more than he knows by John. To a deeper view John is the dominant spirit—the man with the personal fascination which everybody felt, to which everybody yielded. That personal power explains the beautiful traditions which have gathered round his story. Peter was the man of action; James was the man of energy; John was the man of motives, who inspired action, toned energy, and ennobled all relations.
It is strange that we should feel to know John so well, seeing that we can get so little material on which to form our judgment of him. We can never get John alone. We can never even get him alone with his Master. Probably our ideas of him are mainly formed from the impression which the gospel and epistles which bear his name produce upon us; but partly also from the loving traditions which have been preserved concerning him. It may be well to see how scanty our materials are.
1. In the synoptic gospels there is no more than the mention of his name, his relation to Zebedee, his partnership with Simon, and his presence, with James and Peter, at the house of Jairus, at the Transfiguration, and in Gethsemane. In none of these cases is he stated to have said or done anything that could specially reveal him to us. He was with his brother when the man was forbidden to preach Christ if he did not follow Him, and when the request was made that a judgment of fire should come on the Samaritan village; but these things were in the mood of the zealot James, rather than of the gentle and sympathetic John. The chief impression we get from the synoptic gospels is that John always kept behind his brother, and let him speak, just as afterwards, in the early Church, he kept behind his friend Peter, and let him speak.
In the fourth gospel a person is named as the “disciple,” “another disciple,” “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” “who also leaned on His breast,” and it is assumed that this is the modest way in which John alludes to himself.
In the Acts of the Apostles John is never referred to save as associated with Peter. Paul only mentions him with James and Cephas, as the three who seemed to be “pillars” of the Church at Jerusalem. No name is signed to the gospel; the first epistle does not begin with a name, or within its limits indicate an authorship; the second and third epistles give the writer only the vague name of the “elder”; and the book of Revelation helps us very little, for the writer does not call himself “John the apostle,” but only “John, who also am your brother.”
It is so remarkable, and it is the evidence of a strong personality, that, though the notices of him are so limited and unsatisfactory, he nevertheless has impressed himself so strongly on the Christian mind that we feel to know John quite as well as we know Peter.
One of the gravest discussions of modern Biblical criticism concerns the authorship of the fourth gospel and the three epistles. What will satisfy most Bible readers is the manifest harmony of tone, thought, and feeling between these writings, and the apostle of whom it could be said as a characteristic, “Jesus loved him, and he leaned on His breast.” Whether John wrote the book of Revelation need not now be considered. If he did, the mood he was in was a peculiar one; and it is quite possible that John’s character has been misjudged, because he has been too much mixed up with his brother James, and because he has been supposed to have written the highly imaginative and difficult book of Revelation. Such misjudgments may be detected in what is, on the whole, the very suggestive and revealing estimate of Dean Farrar: “St. John and St. Peter—the one the symbol of the contemplative, the other of the practical, life—are undoubtedly the grandest and most attractive figures in the apostolic band. The character of St. John has been often mistaken. Filled as he was with a most Divine tenderness—realising as he did to a greater extent than any of the apostles the full depth and significance of our Lord’s new commandment—rich as his epistles and his gospel are with a meditative and absorbing reverence—dear as he has ever been in consequence to the heart of the mystic and the saint—yet he was something indefinitely far removed from that effeminate pietist which has furnished the usual type under which he has been represented. The name Boanerges, or ‘Sons of Thunder,’ which he shared with his brother James; their joint petition for precedence in the kingdom of God; their passionate request to call down fire from heaven on the offending village of the Samaritans; the burning energy of the patois in which the Apocalypse is written; the impetuous horror with which, according to tradition, St. John recoiled from the presence of the heretic Cerinthus,—all show that in him was the spirit of the eagle, which, rather than the dove, has been his immemorial symbol. And since zeal and enthusiasm have ever been indispensable instruments in spreading the kingdom of heaven, doubtless it was the existence of these elements in his character, side by side with tenderness and devotion, which endeared him so greatly to his Master, and made him ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved.’ The wonderful depth and power of his imagination; the rare combination of contemplativeness and passion, of strength and sweetness, in the same soul; the perfect faith which inspired his devotion, and the perfect love which precluded fear,—these were the gifts and graces which rendered him worthy of leaning his young head on the bosom of his Lord.”
Such a combination is certainly unusual and almost unnatural; and it may well be doubted whether this is the kind of strength that was a characteristic of John. The gentle-spirited, loving man is generally weak when he attempts to do the impulsive and energetic. His power lies in steady and persistent influence rather than in sudden efforts. His is a personal force, related to what he is rather than to what he does; and when John was freed from the association of his zealot brother, and was his simple self, there is no sign whatever of the zealot spirit in him. He was a strong man, a born leader; but he was not strong as Peter was strong, or as James was strong, though both Peter and James felt his strength, the strength of the moisture that sunders the cliffs against which the huge waves dash themselves in vain.
Of the traditions that have been preserved concerning him, the most characteristic and revealing one is that which relates how, toward the very end of his life, when he was so infirm that he had to be carried to the church, and was too weak to preach, he used to say no more than this, “Little children, love one another.” His hearers at last wearied of this, and said, Master, why dost thou always say this?” “It is the Lord’s command,” he replied; “and if this alone is done, it is enough.”
This estimate of John can be fully sustained if we separate him from his brother, and then see how he reveals himself to us
(1) in his associations with Jesus;
(2) in his friendship with Peter; and
(3) in his gospel and epistles, regarded as the work of his advanced life.
I. John reveals himself to us in his associations with Jesus.—We might call him the silent, receptive disciple, and class him with Mary of Bethany, who “sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard His words,” helping Jesus so much by those uplifted eyes—those “homes of silent prayer”—and that sweet receptivity which can always draw out from a man his very best. Jesus could talk to John, for John did not want to talk. What Jesus said to him he knew John would treasure, not in his mere memory, but in an altogether safer place, in his heart. John never wanted to discuss things; he was no critic, and no theologian; he wanted to think over things, to brood over things; and by-and-by he would be able to tell you them all again, with a strange and most attractive personal glow upon them. John was the kind of student whom the teaching-master is sure to love; and he is the student who always gets the best of the Master’s work. It is no wonder that this disciple Jesus loved. Jesus felt that personal fascination of the gentle, thoughtful, loving John just as every one else did. And we may be quite sure that many a considerate little attention was paid to Jesus by one who watched him day by day with so much thoughtful love. There was established a special confidence between them. There must have been many a whispering, and many a revealing sign, before John could have ventured to put down his head that day on his Lord’s shoulder, and gently say, “Lord, which is he that betrayeth Thee?”
That was a much more simple thing to do than we are wont to assume. Strangely indeed it is supposed that intensely patriotic and bigoted Jews adopted the Roman triclinia for the most sacred rite of their religion; and it has been a sore puzzle to explain how a man reclining on a couch could lay his head on his neighbour’s breast. Leonardo da Vinci pictures the disciples sitting on forms beside a long and narrow table, and then it must have been a very conspicuous thing for John to lean on his Master’s bosom. But, of course, the Jews kept the Passover Feast in Jewish style, seated on their feet, on mats that were arranged on the floor, round a small low table; and then it was the simplest thing possible for a neighbour to put down his head on his neighbour’s shoulder; and this was what John did. A simple, beautiful, revealing incident, that shows the Master to us, and shows us John. John was one of those men who call out love, who can be loved, who can help others by letting them love him, and who can responsively meet love with love.
Do we sufficiently realise that we serve Christ and our fellows, in the sweetest and most gracious way, just by being lovable, and making every one love us? John served Jesus as no other person, except Mary of Bethany, ever did, by drawing out towards him his Lord’s personal affection. John never knew what a comfort and help that lovingness of his always was to the Lord. We are constantly talking about what we can do for Christ, and urging one another to do something, or something more. And we miss seeing that to be gentle, loving, sympathetic, and receptive, as John was, serves Christ even better than our doings in His service. To be attractive to Him, so that He can find personal pleasure in us—do we think enough of that? Yet of that the beloved John is the great example.
II. John reveals himself in his friendship with Peter.—It was a case of pure and helpful friendship, that was as beautiful as the familiar friendship of David and Jonathan. There must have been basal likenesses in the two men to make the friendship possible. There must have been marked differences in order to make the friendship interesting, and mutually helpful. They became friends when working at the fishing together; and if we may read their friendship by the light of similar cases, we should say that John influenced Peter much more powerfully than Peter influenced John. The matured and restrained character is always more influential than the impulsive; and there is a secret leading which is altogether more powerful than the self-asserting man can ever gain. In this friendship John never appears prominent, and never has much to say; but it is easy to read between the lines, and trace the power he exerted on his friend. Nothing could be more tender and gracious than his ways at the time of Peter’s fall. He had secured Peter’s admission to the high priest’s palace; so he felt in some sense responsible for the temptation which overwhelmed him. Peter “went out and wept bitterly”; and we may be sure that John went out too, and helped his friend in that time of humiliation; for when Peter is introduced to us again, John is with him, and their friendship seems closer and tenderer than ever, so that Peter even can forget himself, and ask the Divine Master what blessing He has for his friend. It would even seem as if that hour of stern experiences had so deepened the spiritual life of Peter, that for a time he gained an unusual power over John. For when they both ran to the sepulchre at the news of the Resurrection, though John outran Peter, it was Peter who found the courage to venture into the tomb, and his doing so drew in his friend John. It was an unspeakable blessing to Peter to have such a friend as John. Peter was the kind of man who must not be interfered with. You must let him talk, and yourself say nothing. You must let him give you advice, and never attempt to give him any. You must do what he tells you, but never tell him what to do. And John was the kind of man who could constantly interfere with Peter, without his suspecting it, or attempting to resist.
And is not that the truly invaluable kind of friend? He never humbles us, but he is constantly keeping us straight. His very presence calms us: we never see him without feeling better and wiser. Even in the New Testament records, in the Acts of the Apostles, have you noticed what a half-fear we have that Peter will do something imprudent if he is alone? We do not feel quite sure of him even at Lydda and Joppa. But we know it is quite right if John is with him. That is the revelation of a character and disposition in John which, when repeated nowadays, secures for us our dearest and most helpful life friendship. If we are to be friends, we may well want to be such friends as John was.
III. John reveals himself in his writings, in his gospel and epistles.—On this point a hint or two may be given, but elaborate treatment is impossible. He was altogether remarkable for his keen insight of spiritual things. Paul had the masculine characteristic, and loved to think a thing out. John had the feminine characteristic, and saw at once the conclusion which Paul laboriously reached. Paul’s key-note was faith; John’s was love. Faith reposes on conclusions. Love grasps persons, and imagines all lovely things as associated with the person. Or we may say that to Paul faith is belief, to John faith is trust.
That spiritual insight brought forcibly to John three truths. One of these he embodied especially in his gospel, the other two in his epistles. It was in the line of his characteristic disposition to make much of the person of Christ. Christ Himself was of absorbing interest to John. He delighted to think about His graciousness and about His mystery; so John’s gospel touches but lightly what Jesus did, or what Jesus said, save as His sayings revealed what Jesus was. John is ever trying rightly to understand Jesus Himself, and to make his reader understand Him. Godet puts this distinction somewhat skilfully: “In the mind of St. Paul, the idea of salvation predominates; in St. John, that of the Saviour. It is in the fact of deliverance that Paul finds the Liberator, in salvation itself that he discovers the Author of salvation. In the mind of John, on the other hand, the person of the Liberator takes precedence; salvation is to him only an emanation from the Saviour, Jesus Himself communicating Himself to the soul.”
Concerning the person of Christ, what John saw at once, and saw ever more clearly, was the double truth of His humanity and His Divinity. It would seem as if he was supremely jealous of his Lord’s veritable humanity; and yet his gospel is a series of holy persuasions of the truth of His Divinity. John brings you into the presence of his Friend, the “Man Christ Jesus”; but he never leaves you until you can see in Him what he can so plainly see, the “Son of God with power.” To John the Man he knew so well is ever “manifesting forth His glory,” that we might believe on Him.
And in relation to the person of Christ, the two impressions which were deepened by advancing years in the apostle, and find the most attractive setting in his epistles, were the stainless purity of Christ, and the deathless love of Christ. That purity he saw to be the inspiration of righteousness in Christ’s disciples. That love he saw to be the inspiration of fellowship, union, self-sacrificing brotherhood, in Christ’s disciples. “He that hath this hope in Him purifieth himself, even as He is pure.” “Truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.” “He that loveth God love his brother also.”
We have been brought into the near presence of a delightful man, naturally amiable in disposition, with an unusual personal fascination that everybody felt—a man with natural amiability sanctified, as it only can be sanctified, by the closest personal fellowship with the Lord Jesus Christ. And I want to be sure that one thing is pressed home on all our hearts—that about one thing we are all set thinking. Character brings the truest nearness to Christ, and the fullest revelations of Christ. John was not the “beloved disciple” because he was unusually clever, but because he was lovable. We often think we shall never really know Christ, since the holy mystery of Him is altogether beyond our mental grasp. John teaches us that Christ is best apprehended by the soul; that if we are in any degree like Him, we shall be able to see Him; and that the more we are like Him, the better—the more clearly and the more fully—we shall see Him.
And this character-apprehension of Christ is no sign of weakness. It is perfectly consistent with the truest moral strength. John was in no sense weak or sentimental. You must be feeling that, after all, John was the really strong man of the apostolic company—stronger than zealot James, stronger than assertive Peter, stronger even than intellectual Paul. Let love be the key-note of character, and we shall nobly minister to Christ our Master, and strongly influence all who come within our reach.
THE PECULIARITIES OF ST. JOHN’S THEOLOGY
Biblical theology undertakes to define the various types of teaching which are found in sacred Scripture. It aims to distinguish each type as sharply as possible from every other, in order to set the given writer’s method of thought, and style, and argument in the strongest relief. No type of New Testament teaching has more of individuality than the Johannine; none has characteristics at once more marked, and more difficult to define. Prominent among St. John’s peculiarities is the tendency to group his thoughts around certain great central truths. In the gospel, and in the first epistle, his thought moves out from certain formative and determining conceptions which he has of his subject. The prologue to his gospel is designed to present the apostle’s loftiest conception of the person of his Master, and of His relation to mankind. So the epistle opens with a reference to eternity, in which the content of the gospel message was stored up ready to come to the world in Christ. In both cases this secret of God which is to be disclosed to mankind is life or light. St. John grounds the work of Christ in His person. The incarnate life of Jesus is the “transactional” revelation of principles and forces which are essential and eternal in His very being. His bringing of life and light to men, on His mission to earth, was grounded in the larger and deeper truth that He had always been illumining the minds of men. All through the Old Testament period of revelation the true light of the Logos was shining into the lives, not of the Jews only, but of all men. This fact, again, was based on the essential nature of the Logos, who was with God in the beginning, and was God. But in the development of his thought St. John starts from this last and highest point. Thus the specific Messianic mission of Jesus to earth is grounded in His universal relation to the world and man, and this relation, in turn, is grounded in His essential nature. In accord with this mode of thought we find that the action of God is always conceived of as springing from the Divine nature. What God has done in revelation and redemption it was according to His nature to do. In revealing Himself to men in Christ He has expressed under a personal form His own thoughts, feelings, and will. God has come to the world in Christ. In the epistle he deduces his whole teaching concerning the nature and demands of the Christian life from the idea of the ethical nature of God.
This peculiarity of thought, which centralises ideas in their logical source or ground, is pervading and fundamental in the writings of St. John. The apostle’s mind penetrates to the heart of things, and dwells in rapt contemplation upon those deepest realities with which all true religion is mainly concerned. Religion is altogether a matter of personal relations. It is God-likeness—fellowship with Christ, sympathy with His Spirit, fraternal helpfulness among men. His treatment of the truths of religion is intensely ethical and spiritual; it is characterised by an intense sense of God. To St. John the life, teaching, and death of Jesus are the language in which God has written out most plainly His deepest thoughts and feelings toward mankind.
Just as the acts of God flow out of His nature, and the work of Christ is grounded on what He is, so the acts and choices of men are determined by what the men are in their fixed preferences and character. This correspondence between character and conduct St. John does not conceive after the manner of philosophical determinism; he treats it as the result of an ethical necessity. It naturally results from this mode of view that man is regarded as a unit in all his powers and actions. All the acts of a man involve his total personality. To know the truth is to possess it as a determining power in one’s life; to know God is to be in harmony and sympathy with His will. Religion is life after the type which has been perfectly exemplified in Jesus Christ. Neither a barren intellectualism nor a dreamy and impractical mysticism in religion could ever develop along the lines of teaching which St. John has marked out.
The mind of the apostle seems to see all things in their principles and essential ideas. This peculiarity of thought gives rise to a species of realism. All the forces of goodness are comprehended by him under some general idea, like light or truth; while all the forms of evil are summed up as darkness or falsehood. The whole course of history illustrates the conflict of these opposing powers or principles. The character and actions of men correspond to the principle which sways their lives. The apostle’s habit of thinking in antitheses is an illustration of this peculiarity of his mind. Accordingly, his writings are characterised by a species of dualism—not the metaphysical dualism which makes evil an essential and eternal principle of the universe, but a moral dualism which, as a matter of fact, finds illustration in human history from the beginning of the race.
St. John conceives of religion as consisting in the immediate, personal relation of the soul to God or to Christ. It begins with an impartation from God. To be born of God means to receive from Him a communication of spiritual life, whereby the soul is more and more transformed into Christ-likeness. To the mind of St. John, religion signifies the progressive attainment by man of his true type or idea—not, indeed, by efforts of his own, but by his appropriation and use of that Divine power which God freely bestows upon him. The Christ-like life is the true life, and the only life.
Another peculiarity of the Johannine theology is seen in the way in which the apostle blends the religious life in this world with the eternal, spiritual order. By his conception of eternal life as a present possession, he unites this world with the world to come. To his mind the spiritual life is the heavenly life already begun. St. John has given us a purely ethical and spiritual conception of religion. The whole emphasis is laid upon the inner quality of the life. Nothing is said of institutions—not even of the Church. No emphasis is laid upon sacraments.
What elements of Christian doctrine is the Johannine theology especially adapted to supply? The Johannine type of thought has been far less influential than the Pauline type of thought in shaping the great dogmatic systems. The Christian doctrine of God has usually been developed from the legal conceptions of His nature and relations to men which underlie St. Paul’s Jewish forms of thought. The dominant idea of St. John concerning God as light and love has not been the characteristic or central conception of the prevailing historic theologies. Christian thought concerning God has continued through all the centuries predominantly Jewish, taking its colour from the terms of St. Paul’s polemic against Judaism, and growing more and more stereotyped in that form through the influence upon it of the severe logic of certain great minds of a strongly legal cast—such as Augustine, Calvin, and Grotius. The soteriology of the Church has been characteristically Pauline. But without detracting from the great truths which Paulinism has contributed to Christian thought, there is much reason to desire that the spiritual mysticism of St. John should acquire its legitimate influence in theology and life. The tendency of an increased appreciation and application of St. John’s method of thought must be to lead to a better adjustment of doctrine and life.
Theology is theory; religion is life. Theology purports to be the intellectual equivalent—which must always be approximate only—of the realities of the religious life. The true method of thought respecting theology and religion is not to separate them, but to assign to each of them its true function. There can be no religion without theology—unless religion can be divorced from thought—since theology begins with the simplest efforts of the mind to construe its religious ideas and experiences, and to interpret their significance, ground, and end. But for this very reason theology is secondary.
The apostle John has placed in the foreground of all his teaching the realities of the religious life—God as love, man as needy—fellowship with God through likeness to Christ, as eternal life. He seems willing to trust the religious life to give direction and shape to religious thought. He thus places at the centre what by its very nature is central (George B. Stevens).
ESTIMATE OF ST. JOHN’S PECULIARITY
We shall not, we think, be mistaken if we say that the profound necessity which filled the soul of John from the first was the desire for the infinite. The name of mal de l’infini has been given to that nameless desire which consumes sensitive and dreamy natures until they have found the object of their aspirations. From St. John’s writings we can perceive that this was the necessity of his nature which opened his soul to the gospel. It is not without significance that the word “life” is the dominant one in his writings. In life we see the natural vanity and emptiness of finite existence, saturated with the richness of infinite being. It is the heart of the creature quenching its thirst with peace, with holiness, with strength, by immediate access to the supreme fountain-head. It is man lifted to God, and God living in man. This seems to have been the ideal of John from his youth.
A contemplative and reserved nature is the soil in which poetical or philosophical geniuses grow. The philosophic faculty, which consists in the power of ascending rapidly from each individual fact to its general principle, is evidently the child of contemplation; and the poetical mind, which is quick at discovering at once the concrete image in which the abstract idea may be clothed and embodied, presupposes the habit of surrendering oneself to a meditative reverie, of which the only aim is to fix more firmly in the mind the idea with which it is preoccupied, and to give it a body. The first of these faculties comes out most conspicuously in his gospel; the second in the great Biblical poem, the Apocalypse. In the former every manifestation of the person of Jesus is contemplated from the point of view of its eternal and spiritual significance. Reading this narrative with attention, we feel the Divine Word throbbing in every fibre of the flesh of the Son of man. Each of His miracles is like the illumination of some one of the aspects of His dignity as the Son. The various effects which are seen produced around His path, however accidental they may seem at first sight, are all referred to their distinctive principles, whether in the direction of good or evil; and beyond the secondary causes we can always discover, in the two domains of light and darkness, the higher cause, God or Satan.
From this we understand why it is that his polemics against heresy, which are naturally not found in the gospel, but which develop themselves in the first epistle, should be summary and affirmative, not analytical or discursive—thundering, such as to befit the son of thunder.
[The points of view of the four great apostles may be thus presented.] Entering upon the course along which the Church was to travel, Peter fixes his eyes upon the proposed goal—that is, the promised glory; this was the point of attraction, the originating spring of the movement. James simply sketches the route—holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord. Paul points out the entrance into that route—personal justification, reconciliation with God, the alone Good, apart from communion with whom man can do nothing. John, lastly, contemplates this whole work under the form of a Divine life communicated to man through the medium of righteousness, with the view to producing holiness, and in prospect of the final glory (Godet).