Category Archives: Reflections on the Gospel according to John

How did John know? How do we?

There is no discounting the importance of John the Baptist’s testimony concerning Jesus. But how did he know that Jesus was the One?  How do any of us know? My Western naturalistic upbringing teaches me to withhold trust in anything that cannot be verified by others.  But we are not alone; the ancients set the bar of credibility fairly high as well- if for no other reason than the fact that Galilee, that seething hotbed of insurrection produced a number of ‘messiah’s’ that led movements to overthrow Roman rule.  Being wrong about following someone could get you and your friends crucified.  It was brutal.

The writer of this gospel said that ‘ I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, “The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. I have seen and testify that this is the Son of God.” (Jn 1:29-32)

Barclay tells us that the dove was a sacred bird in Palestine, neither hunted nor eaten.  “The Rabbis said that the Spirit of God moved and fluttered like a dove over the ancient chaos breathing order and beauty into it. The picture of the dove was one which the Jews knew and loved.”

No, this is not proof, but it is positive identification.  Because people of Jesus day didn’t need to be convinced that Messiah was coming- they needed to be able to recognize him when he came.  It can be compared to sending my brother to pick up my friend at the bus station and telling him, “You’ll know my friend because he will have his pet cockatiel with him- a rather rare identifier, wouldn’t you say? 

But how can we be sure that God spoke to John? In this case, the word and the sign form a self-authenticating pair.  If the John heard only a figment of his imagination,  no man would appear to have the Spirit alight on him. On the other hand, Jesus, the bestower of the Spirit is identified from among many people by reference to and an unusual sign that John could not have conjured.  Much faith is based on this sort of revelation. It does not qualify for proof, for proof refers to evidence of the kind that is repeatable and yields the same result to whomever performs the experiment. But it is a basis for a reasonable belief.

If prophecy X is true, then fulfillment Y will happen.          (Y being an unlikely occurrence.)Y occurs.                             Thus, the credibility of X is supported.

How do we know that John was an authentic prophet?  1) His message of repentance was in line with the prophets before him.                                                                           2) The popularity of a man with an unpopular message suggests spiritual empowerment and anointing.  Remember that baptism was for Gentiles wanting to cleanse themselves in preparation for admission to covenant Judaism. For a Jew to receive baptism would be make the humbling admission that one was an outsider, seeking to enter the covenant God had with Abraham.  This would raise questions about who John thinks he is and why he has the right to do this.(1:24)                                                                                                         3) He is willing to transfer his status and following to the one he has called, the Lamb of God. Furthermore, he says in effect that he is not worthy to be this man’s slave. ( Jn 1:27. To tie and untie sandals was the lowliest of the low. To middle-easterners, shoes were dirty and feet were the most despised part of the body.)

If you want to know who Jesus is, make yourself like John.






What Qualifies for Truth?

Dear Janice,

Forgive me for the length of time you had to wait for my response to your very reasonable questions. I wanted to honour the query by taking the time to answer it thoughtfully, and I thought it best to enter the discussion through your last question, “Why can’t the truth come as a set of ideas?”

For the most part, I have thought of truth as something that matches reality.  The Cambridge  Dictionary of Philosophy calls this the correspondence theory of truth. More formally stated, truth is the property of statements or propositions that correspond to reality.

Now I am a product of the Western modernist tradition so my tendency is to assume that the truth can and should be stated as a set of ideas. That assumption rests on a more fundamental conviction that ultimate reality is something like the natural world, which can be approached through testing, and detached reasoning. If so, then I can apprehend the truth concerning stars or electron states, hamster ovulation or neural networks apart from my personal involvement with them and without any expectation that my identity would be affected by my discoveries.

But what if nature is not the ultimate reality? What if the fine-tuned universe took its form not under the chaotic whims of chance, but the elegant and purposeful crafting of a Personality?  That would imply that the most natural way to ultimate Reality lies in the realm of revealed knowledge, through person-to person-relationships in history. Let me illustrate.

Suppose I am new to Toronto; I want to visit the Royal Ontario Museum and I ask you for help at the Bus Terminal. You could do one of three things. First, you could give me directions to St. Patrick station and tell me to ride the University line north to Museum. But because I am terrible with a sequence of verbal direction to places I’ve never been, you give me your trusty TTC map so I can picture where I’m going. Both the directions and the map are objectively  truthful in the sense that they correspond to a reality.  If I could follow either one faithfully, I’ll get there.  But suppose that I’m still confused and you realize that I’m going to the ROM by personal invitation from a grad student who happened to be one of your tutors in anthropology. ( When I was in Chicago, I  was actually invited for a personal guided tour of the Oriental Institute.) You find this to be a remarkable coincidence and it being a sunny day, you offer to walk with me to my destination and say hello to your teacher.

This last offer, though it takes the most effort on your part,  is the best for me because I can’t possibly misinterpret your directions and you would personally introduce me.

This is the force of Jesus’ claim,  ” I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  No man comes to the Father but through me.”  Through his life, he demonstrated the pattern of loving submission to God, that we are to emulate – the Way. Through his words and deeds, we have an absolutely faithful and dynamic picture of the Father’s attitudes and intentions-the truth.  Then by putting ourselves in his hands he puts something of his own life and spirit within us that allows us to follow him as he walks us to his Father’s side-the Life.

Everyone who has ever come to God has been given access through him, whether one realizes it or not. (Jn 1:4, 8:56-58)

So that is how I have come to understand that the
Truth is not just a set of ideas.  If ultimate reality is really the Creator and not the creation, then Truth is a person and can only be represented by a person who can bring us into intimate union with the Creator.

Now what is the implication for those who seek to know the Truth.  Now truth about anything, propositional truth, is just information, most of which has no immediate bearing on our lives.  Now I believe that the existentialists are right in saying  that life cannot be thought, it can only be lived. Information can be understood, even enjoyed, but Truth has to be lived by choosing – by authentic commitment.  A woman who knows several men who would make good husbands but can’t decide on which one, has by default chosen singleness.

It is for this reason, that the call to relationship comes embedded within the revelation of Truth as a person.

The Face of God

God  no one has seen ever yet; [the] only-begotten God the [one] being in the bosom of the Father he has made [him] known.– That is a direct word to word english translation of the greek text of John 1:18, which is helpful for people like myself, who do not read Greek.

The writer of John’s gospel calls the reader to believe in him- what is the main substance of that belief? It is to entrust oneself to the claim that Jesus is who he says he is.  To be sure, he claimed to be God’s Anointed One- the Messiah, but few Jews of his time expected the Messiah anything other than a mere human being.

Most Christians of the modern era fail to gasp and the audacity of this claim, or to grasp how much ink and blood was spilled over it- we take it for granted as a point of doctrine.  But the functional impact of this claim is that God is knowable in the most intimate way to humankind through his darling Son. What a comfort to know that the claims of Christ reflect the authority of God, his words are God’s very thoughts, feelings, and intentions, his pronouncement of forgiveness-the seal of God’s own forgiveness, the tears of Christ – God’s own anguish, the sympathy of Christ God’s own tenderness, the anger of Christ-God’s own indignation, the promise of Christ- God’s own guarantee, the blood of Christ-God’s own purification for sin, the resurrection of Christ- God’s own victory over death, breath of Christ, God’s own Spirit.

Now to set the record straight concerning William Barclay. It is said that he has suspicions about the Trinity.  But here is a direct quote from his Daily Study Bible and I think it is clear at this time anyway, that he remains true to the text of John.

(i) Jesus is unique. The Greek word is monogenes (Greek #3439), which the King James Version translates only-begotten. It is true that that is what monogenes (Greek #3439) literally means; but long before this it had lost its purely physical sense, and had come to have two special meanings. It had come to mean unique and specially beloved. Obviously an only son has a unique place and a unique love in his father’s heart. So this word came to express uniqueness more than anything else. It is the conviction of the New Testament that there is no one like Jesus. He alone can bring God to men and bring men to God.

(ii) Jesus is God. Here we have the very same form of expression as we had in the first verse of the chapter. This does not mean that Jesus is identical with God; it does mean that in mind and character and being he is one with God. In this case it might be better if we thought of it as meaning that Jesus is divine. To see him is to see what God is.

[My comment: Keep in mind that in most places, when John uses the word God, he refers to the Father.  Athanasian Trinitarianism holds that the Son is not identical with the Father, but he is one with the Father in being.]

(iii) Jesus is in the bosom of the Father. To be in the bosom of someone is the Hebrew phrase which expresses the deepest intimacy possible in human life. It is used of mother and child; it is used of husband and wife; a man speaks of the wife of his bosom (Numbers 11:12; Deuteronomy 13:6); it is used of two friends who are in complete communion with one another. When John uses this phrase about Jesus, he means that between Jesus and God there is complete and uninterrupted intimacy. It is because Jesus is so intimate with God, that he is one with God and can reveal him to men.

In Jesus Christ the distant, unknowable, invisible, unreachable God has come to men; and God can never be a stranger to us again.

“No one has ever seen God; the only God,e who is at the Father’s side,f he has made him known.”  -ESV

The Life that is the Light of all Mankind

Dear Friends,

I have been thinking about John 1:9 for several days.  

Whenever I consider religious claims from the point of view of an outsider, I hear their claims as one listens to the local weather report.   E.g. “It’s cold with a 60% chance of precipitation. “The forecast may be true but everyone rightly assumes that the prediction applies only to the local region. One never thinks of a local report as applicable to a whole continent. What’s true in the Buddhist system of thought may not be true in the Muslim world view. 

Here in John 1:9, we have an unashamedly bold and inclusive statement: “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world”.  What does that claim assert? 

1) That there is a true light. Given the Hebrew background, this should be interpreted as the knowledge of the Way of the LORD, his Torah.  For the Jews say that the Torah is the light of the world and by it a person may find illumination to walk the path of life without stumbling – to direct a person in time of doubt and difficulty and a comfort in time of fear and distress–the Way of Righteousness. (Psa 119:105)  People of every age assume they already have the light, that they inherently know the difference between right and wrong,  good and evil, the way of conflict and the way of peace. But history reveals how great is the darkness that we take for light.  Have we not been the most certain of ourselves at those very times when we were in the greatest error? We think of the great certainty with which slaveowners exploited slaves, or in which previous generations went to war to ‘defend’ their country, or persecuted those of another ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation-all of which appear so shameful in hindsight.  What scripture says is that our cultures are normally in a state of darkness and we need the light as we need nothing else.  When the light is finally followed, it leads to goodness and peace. 

 2) There exists a light that is universal to all people… Jew, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist … there is a way of righteousness that calls to every human being in every time and place. 

Political correctness now insists on pluralism-that what is true for me need not be true for you.  Yet it also insists on being inclusive; that no group of people should be cut off from privileges that another group enjoys. 

Well it can’t go both ways-  To include everyone in privilege is to include everyone in responsibility. John’s claim is just that.  The Logos is that life that is the light of all mankind, and to that light every man and woman is called to respond. I have heard Jews, Muslims, and Hindus all tell of how Christ  is the fulfillment of their greatest aspirations to purity, truth and the knowledge of God. When a Christian says that Jesus is my God,  he ought not be saying that he has exclusive claim on God, but rather that God has an exclusive claim on him

3) That light was coming into the world as a person.  Philosophers love to speak of ideas.  Hebrews will speak of light as the metaphor for Truth, revelation, and salvation. Because the light became a human, we know that revelation, Truth, and salvation are not abstract ideas.   His life and conversation  reveal the anguish and affection of that One for whom the Old Testament prophets spoke.  His love of his disciples and acceptance of outcasts are God’s love enacted.   His living and dying and rising again are the salvation of the world. 

Psa 36:9 says “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.”  

My friends, as you grow and see the larger world, and shed the cultural enclave of our homes and church community , look for the Light that is still as fresh and as transformative as ever. 

Grace and Peace, 


What ‘The Word’ Meant to the Hebrews

The Hebrew word for ‘word’ is transliterated, dabar. Dabar is word-act.  It is the thing, the matter, the issue.

Men’s solemn words such as promises and blessings cannot be retracted. We remember the story of Jacob’s deception.  Pretending to be his brother Esau, he deceived his father Isaac into giving him the blessing of the firstborn. Once spoken, the word of blessing could not be retracted, despite the pleading of Esau.  Gen 27:37,38

In the Jewish mind, there is a 1:1 correlation between word and the reality to which it refers. The Hebrew bible begins with the Holy One calling light into existence.  Isaiah understands the transforming power of the divine word…

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven,and do not return to it without watering the earth  and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.       Isa 55:10,11

Jeremiah asks rhetorically,  Is not my word like fire, and says the LORD, like a hammer which breaks the rocks in pieces?  Jer 23:29

Barclay raises another important development into the understanding of the word of God.  Hebrew was no longer  spoken at the time of Jesus.  Jews of Palestine spoke Aramaic.  The translators of the Aramaic scriptures, the Targams, were fascinated with the transcendence of God.  Seeking to avoid the directness of  anthropomorphisms, they changed texts such as Deut 33:27, which speaks of God’s everlasting arms, to read,  “The eternal God is thy refuge, and by his word the world was created.”  God’s word is now as stand-in, for God’s direct activity.  The phrase, word of God is found at least 320 times in the Jonathan Targum. This periphrasis for the name of God became a widely used Jewish expression.

Finally, Jewish wisdom literature personified wisdom. In Proverbs 8, she is spoken of as the chief architect, the master craftsman joyfully working with the God as he fashions the world, and one who delighting in and seeking the welfare of the children of men.

Barclay summarizes:  “So when John was searching for a way in which he could commend Christianity he found in his own faith and in the record of his own people the idea of the word, the ordinary word which is in itself not merely a sound, but a dynamic thing, the word of God by which God created the world, the word of the Targums which expressed the very idea of the action of God, the wisdom of the Wisdom Literature which was the eternal creative and illuminating power of God. So John said: “If you wish to see that word of God, if you wish to see the creative power of God, if you wish to see that word which brought the world into existence and which gives light and life to every man, look at Jesus Christ. In him the word of God came among you.””

What ‘The Word’ Meant to Greeks

Barclay tells us that John’s gospel was written in Ephesus around A.D. 100 and addressed to Hellenistic audience.  How would he announce the coming of Messiah and translate his identity and mission into the thought world of his Greek readers?  660 years before John, an Ephesian philosopher named Heraclitus gave us the famous image of flux – that one can’t step into the same river twice,  since the river will have changed in the mean time. (Yes Disney’s Pochohantas studied philosophy too.  Haven’t you have experienced that sense of anticipation as you came home to reconnect with your friends, only to realize with some sadness perhaps, that each one has moved on with life and warm memories of happy times cannot be relived.)

Was all of life in a chaotic state of flux in which one can have no root?  Or was there something that gave continuity to the changing elements of the universe? Hereclitis said that the something was the Logos, the principle of order that underlies the physical universe.  More than that, it is the pattern that guides the unfolding of world events.  The logos is the purpose, plan, and design controlling nature and history.  “The Logos was nothing less than the mind of God controlling the world and every man in it. ”  The idea was a hit with the Stoics.  The logos must be the principle that guides the stars in their path in the sky, the tides in their ebb and flow, and the pattern of the seasons.

But Barclay reminds us of yet another seminal thinker. Philo was the famous philosopher of Alexandria who sought to harmonize the wisdom of the Jews and the Greeks. Steeped in the knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures and the greatness of Greek thought, Philo knew and loved the Logos, the Word, the reason of God. It was the tiller by which God piloted the universe, the trademark with which the creation is stamped.  The human mind was imprinted with the Logos, giving us the faculty of reason.  It was the intermediary between the world and its Maker, “the priest who set the soul before God.”

“So John came to the Greeks and said: For centuries you have been thinking and writing and dreaming about the Logos (Greek #3056), the power which made the world, the power which keeps the order of the world, the power by which men think and reason and know, the power by which men come into contact with God. Jesus is that Logos come down to earth.” “The word,” said John, “became flesh.” We could put it another way–“The Mind of God became a person.”


The Light Shines in the Darkness

The following is a condensed version of Barclay’s Daily Study Bible 

1:9 He was the real light, who, in his coming into the world, gives light to every man.

(i)  He dispelled the shadows of doubt.  One of the Greeks said, “It is difficult to find out about God, and when you have found out about him it is impossible to tell anyone else about him.”  In the coming of Jesus,  people saw God in full display – the “radiance of his glory, the exact representation of his being. ”  Heb 1:3

(ii) He dispelled the shadows of despair.  Seneca said that people are aware of their helplessness.  “They hate their sins but cannot leave them.” Unable to improve ourselves or better our world, we live in the pessimism of despair. Jesus came with more than knowledge- he embodies the power to transform.  The darkness of pessimism and despair was gone for ever.

(iii) His coming diespelled the darkness of death. “The ancient world feared death. At the best, death was annihilation and the soul of man shuddered at the thought. At the worst, it was torture by whatever gods there be and the soul of man was afraid. But Jesus by his coming, by his life, his death, his Resurrection showed that death was only the way to a larger life.”

Barclay writes, ” The ancient world was exclusive. The Jew hated the Gentile and held that Gentiles were created for no other purpose than to be fuel for the fires of hell.”  [My comment: now to be sure Gentiles, especially Christian Gentiles have reciprocated by enacting their hostility against Jews for millennia afterward.] Isaiah saw that Israel’s destiny was to be a light to the Gentiles (Isaiah 42:6Isaiah 49:6) but that was a destiny which Israel had always definitely refused. The Greek world never dreamed that knowledge was for every man. The Roman world looked down on the barbarians, the lesser breeds without the law. But Jesus came to be a light to every man. Only the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has a heart big enough to hold all the world.”