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The Johannine Writings
BY the Johannine writings are meant the Apocalypse and the fourth gospel, as well as the three catholic epistles to which the name of John is traditionally attached. It is not possible to enter here into a review of the critical questions connected with them, and especially into the question of their authorship. The most recent criticism, while it seems to bring the traditional authorship into greater uncertainty, approaches more nearly than was once common to the position of tradition in another respect: it ascribes all these writings to the same locality, to pretty much the same period, and to the same circle of ideas and sympathies. This is a nearer approach than would once have been thought probable to ascribing them all to the same hand. When a writer like Weizsacker concludes that the Apocalypse and the fourth gospel have so many points of contact that they must have come from one school, while they are nevertheless so distinct that they must have come from different hands,6464Das apostolische Zeitalter, p. 484. it is probably quite legitimate to treat the two in connection, if not to regard them as at one. Thirty years ago it would have been uncritical to speak of them except as the extremist opposites to each other. As for the connection between the gospel and the epistles, or at least the first epistle, with which alone we shall be concerned, that seems to me indubitable. No doubt there are differences between them, and a difference touching closely on our subject — the epistle, like all epistles in contrast with all gospels, having more of what may be called reflection upon Christ’s death, or interpretation of it, than the kindred gospel. But that does not prove, as J. Reville argues,6565Le quatrieme Evangile, p. 51 ff. See also Moffatt, Introduction to the Literature of the New Testament, 589 ff. that they were due to different hands; it only proves that the gospel, however much it may be subdued in form to the style of the writer’s own thoughts, is true to its character as a gospel, and the epistle to its character as an epistle. If these two books cannot be ascribed to the same pen, literary criticism is bankrupt. The whole of the Johannine writings, it may be safely assumed, belongs to the region of Asia Minor, to a school, let us say, which had its headquarters in Ephesus, and to the last quarter, or perhaps the last decade, of the first century of our era.
The opening words of the Apocalypse carry us at once to the heart of our subject. John interweaves with the address of his book to the seven churches a sudden doxology:
‘To Him that loveth us, and loosed us from our sins in His blood, and He made us a kingdom, priests to His God and Father, to Him be the glory and the dominion for ever and ever’ (1:5 f.).
What is before his mind as he speaks is Christ in His exaltation — the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, the prince of the kings of the earth; but he cannot contemplate Him, nor think of the grace and peace which he invokes on the churches from Him, without recurring to the great deed of Christ on which they ultimately depend. Christ’s love is permanent and unchanging, and John thinks of it as such (τῷ ἀγαπῶντι ἡμᾶς, to Him that loveth us); but the great demonstration of it belongs to the past (καὶ λύσαντι ἡμᾶς ἐκ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ἡμῶν ἐν τῷ αἵματι αὐτοῦ). He does not say, ‘who liberates us from our sins,’ as though a progressive purification were in view; but ‘who liberated us,’ pointing to a finished work. It seems to me far the most probable interpretation of ἐν τῷ αἵματι to make ἐν represent the Hebrew בְּof price: Christ’s blood was the cost of our liberation, the ransom price which He paid. This agrees with the word of our Lord Himself in the Gospel about giving His life a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28), and with other passages in the Apocalypse in which the notion of ‘buying’ a people for God finds expression (5:9 and 14:3 f.). Sin, or rather sins, held men in bondage; and from this degrading servitude Christ purchased their freedom at no less a cost than that of His own life. It is not any undefined goodwill, it is the love revealed in this dear-bought emancipation of the sinful, which inspires the doxology, ‘to Him that loveth us.’ Redemption, it may be said, springs from love, yet love is only a word of which we do not know the meaning until it is interpreted for us by redemption.6666λούσαντι (washed) is the reading familiar to us from the Received Text and the Vulgate. It also, as well as λύσαντι, has analogies in the book: cf. 7:14 and the Text. Rec. at 22:14; and Bousset calls attention to the frequent mention of white robes without any particular reference to the blood of Christ. The sacrament of baptism made the figure of washing an obvious one to Christians, quite apart from such suggestions as are given by Psalm 1:4 and Isaiah 1:16, 18, and its influence is apparent in 1 Corinthians 6:11 and Titus 2:14. On the whole, λύσαντι is much the better-supported reading: for the meaning which would go with λούσαντι see below on 7:14
The result of the liberty, bought by Christ’s blood, is that those who were once held by sin are made a kingdom, even priests, to His God and Father. These words are borrowed from the fundamental promise of the Old Covenant in Exodus 19:6. ‘He made us a kingdom’ does not mean ‘He made us kings’ (so some MSS. and AV.). It means, ‘He constituted us a people over whom God reigns’, the dignity conferred on us is not that of sovereignty, but of citizenship. ‘He made us priests’ means that in virtue of His action we are constituted a worshipping people of God; on the ground of it we have access to the Father. Both words together imply that it is the action of Christ, who died for our redemption, to which we owe our standing in God’s sight, and our whole relation to Him so far as it is anything in which we can rejoice. All dignity and all privilege rest on the fact that He set us free from our sins at the cost of His blood. A doxology is not the place at which to seek for the rationale of anything, and we do not find the rationale of these things here. It is the fact only which is brought into view. The vision of Christ calls out the whole contents of the Christian consciousness; the Christian heart is sensible of all it owes to Him, and sensible that it owes it all in some way to His death.
Next in significance to this striking passage come the frequent references in the Apocalypse to the Lamb, and especially to the Lamb as it had been slain. In all, this name occurs twenty-nine times. The most important passages are the following:
(1) ch. 5:6-14. Here the Lamb is represented as sovereign — the object of all praise; as a Lamb which had been sacrificed — ἐσφαγμένον means ‘with the throat cut’; as living and victorious — ἑστηκός (standing). It has the character which sacrifice confers, but it is alive; it is not dead, but it has the virtue of its death in it. It is on the ground of this; death, and of the redemption (or purchase of men for God) effected by it, that all praise is ascribed to the Lamb, and the knowledge and control of all providence put into His hands, ‘Worthy art Thou to take the book and to open the seals of it, for Thou wast slain and didst purchase to God by Thy blood (ἐν τῷ αἵματί σου) out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and didst make them to our God a kingdom and priests, and they shall reign upon the earth.’ Here we have the ideas of 1:5 repeated, with the further thought that love like that displayed in Christ’s death for man’s redemption is worthy not only of all praise, but of having all the future committed to its care. It is really a pictorial way of saying that redeeming love is the last reality in the universe, which all praise must exalt, and to which everything else must be subordinate.
(2) The next passage is that in 7:14, about the martyrs in the Neronic (or Domitianic?) persecution. ‘One of the elders answered me, saying, These that are clothed in the white robes, who are they, and whence did they come? and I said to Him, My Lord, Thou knowest. And He said to me, These are they that come out of the great tribulation, and they washed their robes and made them white ἐν τῷ αἵματι τοῦ ἀρνίου (in the blood of the Lamb).’ Here what is referred to is evidently the power of Christ’s death to sanctify men, though how it is exercised we are not told. The people seen in this vision, the endless procession coming out of the great tribulation, were martyrs and confessors. They had taken up their cross and followed Jesus to the end. They had drunk of His cup, and been baptized with His baptism. They had resisted unto blood, striving against sins, and now they were pure even as He was pure. But the inspiration to all this, and the strength for it, was not their own, they owed it to Him. They washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb; it was the power of His Passion, descending into their hearts, which enabled them to do what they did. Once more, the rationale is wanting. Some may feel that none is needed — that the Cross acts immediately in this way on those who are of the truth: none, at all events, is given. We can only feel that the Cross must have some divine meaning in it when it exercises so overwhelming a constraint.
(3) The third passage has also a relation to martyrdom, or at least to fidelity in a time of terrible persecution.
‘And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb, and because of the word of their testimony, and they loved not their life unto death’ (12:11).
It is implied in this that but for the blood of the Lamb they would not have been able to overcome; the pressure put on them would have been too great, and they would inevitably have succumbed to it.6767Compare Moffatt ad loc. in Expositor’s Greek Testament: ‘In opposition to the contemporary Jewish tradition (Ap. Bar. 2. 2, 14. 12; 4 Esd. 7. 77 etc.), it is not reliance on works but the consciousness of redemption which enables them to bear witness and to bear the consequences of their witness.’ But with a motive behind them like the blood of the Lamb they were invincible. Now nothing can be a motive unless it has a meaning; nothing can be a motive in the line and in the sense implied here unless it has a gracious meaning. To say that they overcame, because of the blood of the Lamb, is the same as to say that the love of Christ constrained them. They dared not, with the Cross on which He died for them before their eyes, betray this cause by cowardice, and love their own lives more than He had loved His. They must be His, as He had been theirs. It is taken for granted here that in the blood of the Lamb there had been a great demonstration of love to them; in other words, that the death of Christ was capable of being defined in such a way, in relation to their necessities, as to bear this interpretation. It is because it is an incomparable demonstration of love that it is an irresistible motive. And though the relation is not thought out nor defined here — where it would have been utterly out of place — it is not forcing the language in the least to assume that it must have existed in fact for the author.
There are two other passages which might be brought into connection with our subject — 13:8, and 21:27 — in which reference is made to ‘the Lamb’s book of life.’ In this book the names are written of those who are to inherit life everlasting: those whose names are not found there die the second death. Nothing could express more strongly the writer’s conviction that there is no salvation in any other than the Lamb: that in Jesus Christ and Him crucified is the whole hope of a sinful world. It is very common to take the first of the two passages just quoted as though it spoke of ‘the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world,’ and to argue from it that atonement is no afterthought, that redemption belongs to the very being of God and the nature of things; but though these are expressions upon which a Christian meaning can be put, they find no support in this passage. The words ‘from the foundation of the world’ are not to be construed with ‘slain,’ but with ‘written,’ as the parallel passage proves; it is the names of the redeemed that stand from eternity in the Lamb’s book of life, not the death or sacrifice of the Lamb which is carried back from Calvary and is vested with an eternal, as distinct from its historical, reality. An apostle would probably have felt that the historical reality was compromised by such a conception, or that something was taken away from its absolute significance. But even discounting this, it has no exegetic support.6868The use of this text which is here rejected is found e. g. in Contentio Veritatis, p. 298, where Mr. Inge writes: ‘These [the death and resurrection of Christ] are eternal acts, even as the generation of the Son of God is an eternal act. They belong to the unchangeable and everoperating counsels of God. So it is possible for the New Testament writers to say that the Lamb was slain for us from the foundation of the world, and that the rock which followed the Israelites through the wilderness was Christ. The passion of Christ was itself (as the Greek Fathers called it) a sacrament of mystery of an eternal truth: it was the supreme sacrament of human history; the outward and visible sign of a great supra-temporal fact.’ This point of view, whatever its legitimacy or illegitimacy, is certainly much more characteristic of the Greek Fathers than of the New Testament writers. To the latter Christ is the equivalent of absolute spiritual reality. They never raise the abstract question of the relation of time to eternity; and though the eternal import of the historical, in the life and death of Jesus, is the foundation of all their thinking, they never describe the Passion as the sacrament or symbol of any reality beyond itself.
If we try to put together the various lights which the Apocalypse casts on the death of Jesus, we may say:
(1) That death is regarded as a great demonstration of love (1:5).
(3) It is a death which has an abiding power — ἀρνίον ὡς ἐσφαγμένον (5:6), not σφαγέν.6969Compare St. Paul’s use of the perfect participle ἐσταυρωμένον, 1 Corinthians 1:23, 2 Corinthians 2:2 and Galatians 3:1.
(4) This abiding power is exercised in this, that it enables men to be faithful to Christ under persecution, to suffer with Him rather than sin, finally, rather to die than sin (12:11). Christ Himself was a martyr, and the typical Christian is a martyr too. To be a martyr is to furnish the decisive proof that the abiding power of Christ’s blood is being exercised over one’s life.
(5) Hence the blood of Christ both does something once for all — in breaking the bond which sin holds us by, and bringing us into such a relation to God that we are a people of priests — and does something progressively, in assuring our gradual assimilation to Jesus Christ the faithful witness. In both respects the Christian life is absolutely indebted to it; without it, it could neither begin nor go on. There is the same experience, it may be said, of Christ’s death, the same practical appreciation of it, and the same exultant and devout utterance of that appreciation in the language of worship, which we find in St. Paul; but, as we might expect, when the nature of the composition is taken into account, we do not find any such dialectic treatment of this Christian experience, and of the ideas it involves, as in the writings of the apostle of the Gentiles.
We may now proceed to the examination of the gospel. The general conception of the fourth gospel is that what we owe to Christ is life, eternal life; and this life, it may further be said, we owe to the Person rather than to anything He does. This is true without any qualification of the prologue (ch. 1:1-18), and it is true of the gospel so far as the influence of the prologue can be traced through it. If we use the word redemption at all — and it occurs naturally to us as we come from the Apocalypse — we must say that redemption is conceived in the gospel as taking place through revelation. Jesus redeems men, or gives them life, by revealing to them the truth about God. The revelation is made in His own Person — by His words and deeds, no doubt, but supremely by what He is.
‘This is life eternal, that they should know Thee, the only true God, and Him whom Thou didst send, Jesus Christ’ (17:3).
The work of redemption, to borrow the dogmatic category, is interpreted through the prophetic office of Christ almost exclusively. It is on this basis that the ordinary contrasts are drawn between the theology of St. Paul and that of the four gospels and if we do not look too closely they can be drawn in very broad lines; to change the figure, they can be put in epigrammatic and striking forms. Thus it may be said that in St. John the great and fundamental idea is revelation; God makes Himself known to men, and in making Himself known He redeems them; to see Him in His true nature is to be withdrawn from the world of sin. In St. Paul, on the other hand, revelation is through redemption. It is because God in Jesus Christ takes the responsibilities of the sinful world upon Himself, so reconciling the world to Himself, that we know what He is the relation of revelation and redemption is reversed. It agrees with this, again, that as Schultz has put it,7070Die Gottheit Christi, 447. ‘Also nicht als ein Einzelereigniss, nicht in Beziehung auf das Gesetz, nicht als Opfer in gewohnlichem Sinne hat der Tod Christi seine Bedeutung (sc. in John). Nicht um des Todes willen ist das Fleisch Christi nothig gewesen, sondern der Tod ist nothig gewesen um des Fleisches willen. in St. John the death of Jesus only comes, though it comes inevitably, because of the flesh; the Word was made flesh, and therefore must share the fate of all flesh, fulfill the destiny of man by a perfect death as by a perfect life. In St. Paul, on the contrary, it is the death which is the primary thing; except for the purpose of dying for man’s redemption Christ would never have been here in the flesh at all. It agrees with this further, so it is said, that whereas in St. Paul (as in the synoptic gospels) the people in whom Jesus is most interested, and who are most interested in Him, are the sinners who need redemption and whom He died to redeem, in St. John the sinners have practically disappeared, and the persons who have an interest in Jesus are the relatively good people who are prepared to appreciate the revelation He has brought. ‘He that doeth the truth cometh to the light’ (3:21). ‘Every one that is of the truth heareth My voice’ (18:37). A sentence like 10:26, ‘Ye do not believe, because ye are not of My sheep,’ would, according to Holtzmann, have been exactly reversed in the synoptics; it would have been, ‘You are not of My sheep, because you do not believe.’7171Neut. Theologie, 2. p. 492. The trick of such contrasts is easily learned, but does not strike one as very valuable. It depends for its plausibility on those generalities in which there is always some delusion hidden. It depends in this case, for example, on taking the somewhat abstract and speculative standpoint of the prologue, and allowing that to dominate the historical parts of the gospel. But if we turn from the prologue to the gospel itself, in which Jesus actually figures, and in which His words and deeds are before us, we receive a different impression. There is a great deal which resists the speculative solvent supposed to be contained in the Logos theory. There is, in particular, a great deal bearing upon the death of Christ and its significance, which goes to discredit those abstract contrasts which have just been illustrated. When we do take such a closer look at the gospel, what do we find?
We find that the death of Christ in a great variety of ways comes to the front, as something which is of peculiar significance for the evangelist.
(1) The first allusion to it is that which is put into the lips of John the Baptist in 1:29: ‘Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world.’ If these are not the words of the Baptist, they are all the more the words of the evangelist, and define his standpoint from the outset. That they refer to the death of Jesus does not seem to me open to question. Granting that ὁ αἴρων τὴν ἁμαρτίαν τοῦ κόσμου is rightly rendered qui tollit or qui aufert peccatum mundi — who takes away, not who takes on him, the sin of the world — we have to take the subject of the sentence into consideration, the Lamb. When sin is taken away by a lamb, it is taken away sacrificially; it is borne off by being in some sense — in the case of an unintelligent sacrifice, only a figurative sense — borne. It is not too much to say that the conception of Christ’s death as a sacrifice for sin, put thus, at the very beginning of the gospel, into the lips of the great witness to Jesus, is meant to convey decisively the evangelist’s own conception of Jesus and His work. He is here to put away sin — that sums up His vocation; and He does not put it away by the method of denunciation, like the Baptist, but by the sacrificial method, in which it has to be borne. On this passage, see Garvie, Studies in the inner Life of Jesus, p. 125.
(2) There is a further allusion to the death of Jesus in 2:19: ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will build it up.’ This, according to the evangelist, He spoke concerning the temple of His body. The evangelist’s interpretation has been treated with very little respect by critics of all schools. It is not necessary to defend it; but I repeat, that if this is not what Jesus meant, all the more must we recognize the preoccupation of the evangelist himself with the idea. He drags it in, we must believe, where it is out of place, only because it is the center of all his thoughts about Jesus; it is in it he instinctively seeks the key to anything mysterious in the Master’s words.
(3) The third reference is indisputable, though the terms in which it is expressed may not be free from ambiguity. It is that in ch. 3:14 in which Jesus is represented as comparing Himself to the brazen serpent, ‘Even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.’ The expression ‘lifted up’ occurs in one or two other places, and the same happy or unhappy ambiguity attaches to it in all. Thus in ch. 8:28 Jesus says to the Jews, ‘When ye have lifted up the Son of Man, then shall ye know that I am He,’ etc. In 12:32 we have: ‘And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself. ’ Here the evangelist again has a note which has excited the contempt of critics. ‘This He said, indicating by what kind of death He was to die’ (12:33). All that the Jews seem to have taken out of the word was the idea of ‘removal’; for they contrast the inevitable ‘uplifting’ of the Son of Man with the ‘abiding of the Christ for ever.’ Here it is by no means necessary to join in the common censure of the evangelist. Where the ‘uplifting’ is spoken of indefinitely, it may be conceived, properly enough, to include the exaltation; but where it is spoken of as the act of the Jews (8:28), and compared to the elevation of the brazen serpent on a pole (3:14 f.), the allusion to the Cross is unmistakable. There is, indeed, an exact parallel to it in Ezra 6:11 (RV.), though the word ὑψοῦν is not used: ‘Also I have made a decree that whosoever shall alter this word, let timber be pulled down from his house, and let him be lifted up and fastened thereon. ’ That was the death which Jesus died, and to such a death the evangelist understood Him to refer when he used the word which he represents by ὑψοῦν. The word had the advantage — for no doubt it was counted an advantage — of carrying a double meaning, of raising the mind at once to the cross and to the heavenly throne. But nothing is more characteristic of the writer, or of Jesus as He is set before us in this gospel, than the unification of these two things. They are inseparable parts of the same whole. Hence the peculiar use of the term ‘glorify’ (e.g., ‘Now is the Son of Man glorified,’ 13:31) to express what happens to Christ in His death. There is no conception of a humiliation in death followed and rewarded by an exaltation; on the contrary, Christ is lifted up and ascends through His death, His glory is revealed in that whole experience which death initiates, and into which it enters, more than in all His miracles. The mere fact that words like ὑψωθῆναι and δοξασθῆναι are the evangelist’s chosen words to describe Christ’s death shows how thought had been preoccupied with it, and how, the prologue notwithstanding, the Christian soul felt itself here at the heart of the revelation and of the redeeming power of God.
(4) The death of Christ is again alluded to, in all probability, in chap. 6, and that in close connection with the life which is His supreme gift to men; He speaks there of His flesh, which He will give for the life of the world, and of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of Man (6:51-53). If it were possible, as I do not think it is, to deny that there is any reference in this chapter to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, it might be possible also to deny that it contained any reference to Christ’s death. Verses like those just quoted would merely be an enigmatic and defiant manner (such as we frequently find at the close of a discussion in the fourth gospel) of putting the general truth of 5:57: ‘He that eateth Me, he it is who shall live because of Me.’ ‘My flesh’ and ‘My blood’ would in this case only be a more concrete and pictorial ‘Me’; there would not of necessity be any reference to the death. But when we remember the period at which the gospel came into use, the sacramental allusion (see below), both here and in the third chapter, seems to me quite indisputable; and this carries with it the allusion to Christ’s death as in some way or other the life of the world.
(5) In the tenth chapter we again come upon passages in which there is nothing equivocal.
‘I am the Good Shepherd: the Good Shepherd layeth down His life for the sheep’ (10:11).
This, it might be said, is only an ideal way of putting it; it is what the Good Shepherd would do if the situation emerged which required it. But it is not put so by the evangelist. The need has emerged, and the laying down of His life with a view to its resumption is made the sum and substance of the vocation of Jesus.
‘Therefore doth My Father love Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one taketh it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it again. This commandment have I received from My Father’ (10:17 f.).
Christ’s death is not an incident of His life, it is the aim of it. The laying down of His life is not an accident in His career, it is His vocation; it is that in which the divine purpose of His life is revealed.
(6) A peculiar solemnity attaches in the gospel to a sixth allusion to Christ’s death, that which is made in the unconscious prophecy of Caiaphas. A prophecy is that which a man speaks under the impulse of the Holy Spirit, and the evangelist means us to understand that a divine authority attaches for once to the words of this bad man. ‘Being high priest that fateful year, he prophesied that Jesus was to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather together in one the children of God who were scattered abroad.’ Some interest of the nation, and this great interest of the family of God, were conditioned by the death of Jesus, however that death may be related to the ends it was to achieve.
(7) In the twelfth chapter there are several significant allusions. There is the corn of wheat which, unless it fall into the ground and die, abides alone, but if it die, bears much fruit (12:24) — a similitude in which the influence of Jesus is made to depend directly on His death; and in close connection with this there is the anticipation of the near and awful future, the shadow of which struck dark and cold upon the Savior’s soul.
‘Now is My soul troubled, and what shall I say? Father, save Me from this hour. But for this cause came I unto this hour’ (12:27).
‘This hour’ is the great crisis in the life of Jesus, the hour which no one could anticipate (7:30 and 8:20), but from which, now that it has come, He will not shrink. It has come, in the sense already explained, as the hour in which the Son of Man is to be glorified: the hour in which He is to drink the cup which the Father gives Him to drink, and to crown the work the Father has given Him to do. The way in which He is moved by it, shrinks from it, accepts it, reveals the place it holds in His mind, and in that of the evangelist also.
(8) Just as the Lamb of God at the beginning of the gospel (1:29) connected it with Isaiah 53, so does the quotation in chap. 12:38 give us the same key to its interpretation at the end. ‘Though He had done so many signs before them, they did not believe on Him, that the word of Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled which he said: Lord, who hath believed our report, and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?’ Taken alone, this passage could not be made to bear any special reference to the death of Christ or to its interpretation; but occurring as it does after the triple and unmistakable references of the corn, of wheat, the dreaded hour, and the lifting up from the earth (vv. 24, 27, 32), it seems to me rather probable than otherwise that it is meant to bring before the reader’s mind, by a sufficient hint, the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, as the Old Testament, and therefore the divine, solution of the mysteriously disappointing career of Jesus.
(9) If this instance is reckoned doubtful, there can be no doubt about the one in the fifteenth chapter:
‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ (15:13).
It is characteristic of St. John, we are told, as opposed to St. Paul, that in St. John Jesus died for His friends; St. Paul thinks of Him as dying for His enemies (Romans 5:10). It is an inept remark. Jesus at the moment is speaking to His friends, and about the supreme pledge of love He is going to give them. In other places, St. John, like St. Paul, represents Him as giving His flesh ‘for the life of the world’ (6:51), and lays stress on the fact that it is God’s love for the world, in its all-inclusive yet individualizing intensity, which explains His ‘lifting up’ (3:14). This is the great thing on which they agree: the highest revelation of love is made in the death of Jesus.
(10) A singular and striking allusion to His death has been found in our Lord’s intercessory prayer: ‘For their sakes I sanctify Myself that they also may be sanctified in truth’ (17:19). The meaning of this will be considered presently (see below).
(11) there is the story of the Passion itself. A peculiar significance attaching to the death of Jesus is implied
(a) by the fullness with which the story is told;
(b) by the references in it to the fulfillment of prophecy, which mean that a divine purpose was being carried out by it (19:24 = Psalm 22:18; 19:28 f. = Psalm 69:21; 19:36 f. = Exodus 12:46, Zechariah 12:10); and
(c) by the peculiarly emphatic attestation given to some mysterious circumstances attendant on it, the sense of which might have remained hidden from us but for the interpretation of them provided in the first epistle. ‘One of the soldiers with a spear pierced His side, and there came out immediately blood and water. And he that hath seen hath borne witness, and his witness is true, and he knoweth that he saith true, that ye also may believe. For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: A bone of Him shall not be broken. And again, another Scripture says: They shall look on Him whom they pierced’ (19:36 f., cf. 1st epistle, 5:6).
This series of passages has not been cited at random, but to dissipate the impression which many people have, and which some writers on New Testament theology propagate, that the death of Christ has no place in the fourth gospel corresponding to that which it has elsewhere in the New Testament. I think they are sufficient to dissipate such an impression. No doubt there is much in the fourth gospel which makes it plausible to say, St. Paul deals with the work of Christ, St. John with His person; for St. Paul, Christ only lives to die; for St. John, He dies because death is the only issue from life; but such contrasts do as much to mislead as to illumine. As soon as we are past the prologue, into the scenery of what Jesus actually said, did, thought, feared, and suffered, we see that His death really fills the place it does everywhere in the New Testament, and has the same decisive importance. Indeed, the constant complaint of commentators is that the evangelist drags it in at inappropriate places, a complaint which, so far as it is justified, only shows how completely his mind was absorbed and dominated by the Cross.
But does this prominence of the death of Jesus in the gospel throw any light upon its meaning? Is it defined by St. John (or by Jesus in the fourth gospel) in any such relations as by St. Paul? Allowing for the fact that the writer’s mind is not of a dialectical turn like that of St. Paul, but given rather to intuition than to reflection — in other words, to the contemplation of results rather than of processes, of ends rather than of means or conditions — we must answer these questions in the affirmative.
In St. John, as in St. Paul, Christ’s death is set in relation to the love and saving will of God.
‘God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life’ (3:16).
Again, in St. John as in St. Paul, Christ’s death is related to His own love: ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ (15:13). This is the favorite text of Abaelard, quoted again and again as having the whole secret of the atonement in it: everything, according to Abaelard, lies in this, that there is love in Christ’s death, with power in it to evoke love, the response of love being the whole experience of salvation. The more fully Christ’s love wins from us the answer of love, the more fully are we justified and saved; that is all.7272See Abaelard in Migne, vol. 178, p. 836: ‘Justior quoque, id est amplius Dominum diligens, quisque fit post passionem Christi quam ante, quia amplius in amorem accendit completum beneficium quam speratum. Redemptio itaque nostra est illa summa in nobis per passionem Christ dilectio quae non solum a servitute peccati liberat, sed veram nobis libertatem filiorum Dei acquirit, ut amore ejus potius quam timore cuncta impleamus, qui nobis tantam exhibuit gratiam qua major inveniri ipso attestante non potest.’ He then refers to John 15:13, Luke 12:49 and Romans 5:5. Without raising the question whether the act of Christ in laying down His life must not be related in some real way to our real necessities before it can either be or be conceived to be an act of love at all, we may notice that its character as connected with His love is again emphasized in the allegory of the Good Shepherd. The perfect freedom with which Christ acts the shepherd’s part, on to the final sacrifice which it demands, is apparently the characteristic of His work to which He attaches the greatest importance. And it is so because it is through the freshness with which the surrender of life is made that the love which is its motive is revealed. ‘I lay down My life of Myself. No one taketh it from Me. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it again’ (10:17 f.). This spontaneity on the part of Jesus, when it is put in relation to the love of the Father in giving the Son, appears as obedience. The authority or liberty He has to lay down His life and to take it again is a commandment He has received from the Father. Equally with St. Paul or with the writer to the Hebrews, St. John could use the term ‘obedience’ to describe the whole work of Christ; but just as with them, with him too it is loving obedience to a will of love, an attitude at once to God’s purpose and to man’s need which makes the Passion the sublimest of actions, and justifies the paradox of the gospel that the Cross is a ‘lifting up’ or a glorifying of Jesus.
It is possible, however, to go further in defining the death of Christ in the fourth gospel. Proceeding as it does from the love of the Father and the Son, it is nevertheless not conceived as arbitrary. It is free, but there is a rational necessity for it. The Son of Man must be lifted up if He is to save those who believe. The corn of wheat must fall into the ground and die if it is not to abide alone. Not much, indeed, is said to explain this. The various ends secured by Christ’s death — the advantage of the flock for which as the Good Shepherd He lays down His life (10:11), the eternal life of those who believe in Him (3:14 f.), the rallying round Him as a center of the scattered children of God, so that He becomes the head of a new humanity (11:52): these, no doubt, are all dependent upon it somehow; but how, the evangelist is at no pains to tell. But we do no violence to his thought when we put this and that in the gospel together in order to discern what he does not explicitly say. Everything, we have seen, comes from the love of God; the death of Christ is to be construed in harmony with this, not in any antagonism to it. But the love of God to the world is never conceived in Scripture abstractly. It is not manifested in some evolutionary process which is necessarily determined a priori, as might be hastily inferred from the prologue to the fourth gospel; to conceive it so would be to deny its grace. It is conceived, practically, in relation to definite needs of man which it meets; it is manifested not on the analogy of natural forces, which simply are what they are, but on the analogy of the free actions of men, which are determined by specific motives. To deny this is to lose the living and gracious God of revelation, and to take in His place a metaphysical phantom. God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. The giving of the Son at least includes the giving of Him to that death which, as we have seen, pervades the gospel from beginning to end; indeed, the death is emphasized in the immediate context (3:14 f.). Nor are we left without sufficiently clear hints as to the necessity which determined the gift. In the passage just referred to (3:16), we see that apart from it men are lost; they perish, instead of having eternal life. St. John’s mind revolves round these ultimate ideas, death and life, rather than their moral equivalents or presuppositions, sin and righteousness; but we cannot suppose that he did not include in ‘death’ and ‘life’ all that we mean by these latter words.
That he did include all this we see when the consequence of refusing the gift of God is presented in the terrible word of Jesus, ‘If ye believe not that I am He, ye shall die in your sins’ (8:24); or when the evangelist himself writes,
‘He that believeth on the Son hath eternal life; he that disobeyeth the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him’ (3:36).
The love of God, then, represented in the gift of Christ, has in view, according to the fourth gospel, the sin of the world, its exposure to the divine wrath, its perishing if left to itself; and the gift in which that love is embodied, if it is to be intelligently apprehended at all, must also have a definite relation to this concrete case. If it delivers men from perishing under the wrath of God, and from the sin by which that wrath is evoked, then an intelligible relation to sin and to the divine wrath is implicit in the writer’s consciousness of it, whether he has given articulate expression to such a relation or not. It is quite legitimate here to emphasize such passages as 1:29, where, as has been already shown, a sacrificial deliverance from sin is represented as the sum and substance of the gospel; and 20:23, where the power which the Risen Lord confers on His disciples in virtue of all that He has achieved is a power connected with the forgiveness of sins. It may seem to some a less obvious instance, but the striking word of Jesus in 17:19 points in the same direction. ‘For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.’ What men needed was to be sanctified, that is, to be consecrated to God. It was not in their power — surely no reason can be conceived for this but that which lies in their sin — to consecrate themselves, and what they were not able to do for themselves Christ did for them in His own Person. He consecrated Himself to God in His death. That the reference is to His death does not seem open to question; the present tense, ἁγιάζω, which suggests something going on at the moment, and the circumstances of the Speaker, whose mind is full of what is at hand, put out of court the idea that the word is intended to describe His life as a whole. His life was past, and now, in His own Person, through death, He is about to establish between God and man a relation which men could never have established for themselves, but into which they can truly enter, and into which they will be drawn once it is established by Him. This seems to me the exact equivalent of the Pauline doctrine that Christ dies our death that we may be drawn into the fellowship of His death, and so put right with God. He acts — ‘I sanctify Myself’; men are acted on — ‘that they also may be sanctified.’ He establishes the reconciliation; they, to use Pauline language, receive it (Romans 5:11).
I have spoken of the gospel throughout as if it expressed the mind of the writer rather than that of the subject. The necessity of such a concession to the current criticism is shaken when we pass to the epistle, for there we find the death of Christ and its significance put in a light which more imperatively recalls the other New Testament epistles, and which differentiates this one to a considerable extent from the gospel. The contrast with the epistle on this very point is one of the evidences that the gospel is truer to its assumed historical position than many would admit; it is not his own mind the writer wishes to impart, but the mind of Christ; and though it is certainly by the same hand as the epistle, he does not feel at liberty to say everything in it that the epistle allows him to say.
For example, we frequently find in the epistle explicitly stated, what we have as a rule to infer in the gospel, the connection between the death of Christ and sin. Thus in 1:7: ‘The blood of Jesus His Son cleanseth us from all sin.’ In 2:1 f.:
‘These things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any one sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is a propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.’
In 2:12: ‘I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for His name’s sake.’ In 3:5: ‘Ye know that He was manifested to take away sins.’ In 4:10: ‘Not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son a propitiation for our sins.’ The whole Person and Work of Christ, we see here, His whole manifestation in the world, but in some signal way His death, are set in relation to sin. It is characteristic of the writer, here as in the gospel, that his interest is in the end or result, the actual cleansing of the soul from sin, its sanctification not in the sense of 1 Corinthians 6:11, or of Hebrews 10:29, but in the sense of modern Protestant theology. This sanctification is dependent on the death of Christ. If we walk in the light as God is in the light, the blood of Jesus His Son continuously and progressively cleanses us from all sin: our sanctification is gradually achieved under its influence (1:7). It is the removal of sin in this sense which is referred to also in 3:5: ‘He was manifested, that He might put sins away.’ It is by no means necessary, for the understanding of the evangelist here, that we should adopt the strange caprice which fascinated Westcott, and distinguish with him in the blood of Christ
(1) His death, and
(2) His life; or
(1) His blood shed, and
(2) His blood offered; or
(1) His life laid down, and
No doubt these distinctions were meant to safeguard a real religious interest, they were meant to secure the truth that it is a living Savior who saves, and that He actually does save, from sin, and that He does so in the last resort by the communication of His own life; but I venture to say that a more groundless fancy never haunted and troubled the interpretation of any part of Scripture than that which is introduced by this distinction into the Epistle to the Hebrews and the First Epistle of John. The New Testament writers, though they speak often of Christ’s death, never think of a dead Christ: their Christ is One who became dead and is alive for evermore, and in His immortal life the virtue of His death is present. He did something when He died, and that something He continues to make effective for men in His Risen Life; but there is no meaning in saying that by His death His life — as something other than His death — is ‘liberated’ and ‘made available’ for men: on the contrary, what makes His risen life significant and a saving power for sinners is neither more nor less than this, that His death is in it; it is the life of one who by dying has dealt with the fatal necessities of man’s situation, and in doing so has given a supreme demonstration of His love.
This connection of ideas becomes apparent when we notice that St. John uses a word akin to St. Paul’s ἱλαστήριον in describing the relation of Christ to sin. Jesus Christ the righteous, he says, is the ἱλασμός for our sins (2:2); and again, he says, God of his own accord loved us, and sent His Son a propitiation for our sins (4:10). It is impossible to suppose that St. John used this word in any other relations than those in which it is found (or in which the cognate terms are found) in Hebrews or in St. Paul. The characteristic words of religion cannot be applied in new ways at will. Now the idea of ἱλασμός or propitiation is not an insulated idea — indeed there cannot be any such thing. It is part of a system of ideas, which we have to reconstruct with the means at our disposal. It is related, for one thing, to the idea of sin. It is sin, according to the uniform teaching of the New Testament, which creates the necessity for it, and which is in some sense the object of it. In other words, sin is the problem with which ἱλασμός deals. St. John agrees with all New Testament writers in regarding sin as a problem. It cannot simply be ignored or suppressed; something has to be done with it, and the effective something (when its removal is in view) has been done by Christ the ἱλασμός. Again, the idea of ἱλασμός is related to the ideas of sacrifice and intercession. When St. John says that Jesus Christ the righteous is the propitiation for our sins, this is implied. He has spoken almost immediately before about the blood of Jesus cleansing from all sin; he speaks further on with significant emphasis about His coming in blood as well as in water (5:6); and he no doubt conceived Jesus as set forth, as St. Paul has it (Romans 3:25), in His blood in this propitiatory character. Further, the idea of ἱλασμός by being related to sin is related also to some divine law or order which sin has violated, and which is acknowledged in its inviolable rights by the ἱλασμός. This is what is meant when the propitiation is described as Jesus Christ the Righteous. All that is divine, all the moral order of the world, all that we mean by the Law of God, has right done by it in the death of Christ. Sin, in that sense, is neutralized by the propitiation, and if men could enter into it, or if the benefit of it could come to them, sin would no more be a barrier to their fellowship with God. The propitiation would draw them to God and put them right with Him, and as it held their hearts more closely it would more effectually and thoroughly cleanse them from every taint of sin. The power of sanctification is lodged in it as well as the condition of the sinner’s primary acceptance with God. The first of these — the power of sanctification — preponderates in the epistle; but it would be as complete a negation of its teaching, as of that of every New Testament writing, to say that the second — the sinner’s acceptance with God — is dependent upon it. The very reverse is the case. The sin of the whole world has been atoned for, as the apostle expressly asserts (2:2); and it is on the basis of this work finished for all, and assumed to underlie everything, that the progressive purification of the Christian proceeds. It is the virtue of the ἱλασμός, in which all sin has been dealt with for its removal, and dealt with according to the realities of the divine law involved in the case, which eventually effects sanctification.
Perhaps the most striking thing in the first Epistle of St. John is the manner in which the propitiation of Christ is related to the love of God. The connection of the two things is, as we have seen, universal in the New Testament. No one could teach more emphatically than St. Paul, for example, that it is to the love of God we owe the presence of Jesus in the world and His work for men. No one could contrast what the love of God has done for us in Christ more emphatically than St. Paul does with the utmost which men will do from love for each other. But St. John rises above all comparisons to an absolute point of view at which propitiation and love become ideas which explain each other, and which have no adequate illustration apart from each other. He not only defines the propitiation by relation to love — God Himself loved us and sent His Son a propitiation for our sins (4:10); He defines love by relation to the propitiation — in this have we come to know what love is, that He laid down His life for us (3:16). The emphasis in this last sentence is on the expressly contrasted words ἐκεῖνος ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν. It is the contrast of what He is and of what we are, of the sinless Son of God and the sinful sons of men, in which the nerve of the proposition lies. So far from finding any kind of contrast between love and propitiation, the apostle can convey no idea of love to any one except by pointing to the propitiation — love is what is manifested there; and he can give no account of the propitiation but by saying, Behold what manner of love. For him, to say ‘God is love’ is exactly the same as to say ‘God has in His Son made atonement for the sin of the world.’ If the propitiatory death of Jesus is eliminated from the love of God, it might be unfair to say that the love of God is robbed of all meaning, but it is certainly robbed of its apostolic meaning. It has no longer that meaning which goes deeper than sin, sorrow, and death, and which recreates life in the adoring joy, wonder, and purity of the first Epistle of St. John.
In speaking of the death of Christ, it would not be just either to the gospel or to the Epistle of St. John to ignore the place held in both by the sacraments. That place has been ignored by some and disputed by others; but if we realize the date at which both documents were written, the place which the sacraments had in Christian worship at the time, and the inevitableness with which ordinary Christians must have thought, and as we know did think, of the sacraments when they read, it seems to me indisputable. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, it is no exaggeration to say, were full in the writer’s view at many points. He must have thought of baptism when he wrote in the third chapter of the gospel the words about being born of water and spirit; he must have thought of the Supper as he wrote in the sixth about eating the flesh of the Son of Man and drinking His blood. I cannot doubt that he thought of both when he told in 19:34 of the blood and water that issued from the pierced side of Jesus, and again in the epistle (5:6 f.) urged that Jesus Christ came through water and blood, adding, with unambiguous emphasis, not in the water only, but in the water and in the blood. The water and the blood were always present in the church in the form of the sacraments, and the evangelist uses the sacraments here as witnesses to the historical reality of the life and experiences of Jesus. Christian baptism answers to His baptism; the Christian feast in which faith partakes of His body and blood is a perpetual testimony to His passion. It is in this last that St. John is peculiarly interested as he writes the epistle. There were teachers abroad, of whom Cerinthus is a type, who preached a Christ that had come in the water only, not in the blood. The redeeming love and power of God, they held, had descended on Jesus at His baptism, and been with Him in His ministry of teaching and healing: there is a divine reality in this, therefore, on which we can depend. But they had withdrawn from Him before the Passion,: there is therefore no corresponding divine reality there. It is against such a view that the apostle makes the elaborate and emphatic protest of 5:6 f., ‘not in the water only, but in the water and in the blood.’ To deny the divine reality and saving significance of the Passion was to rob the most sacred rite of the Christian religion at once of its basis and its import; it was to abolish the Lord’s Supper. The apostle appeals to the Lord’s Supper against such a view. A Christ who did not come by blood — a Christ whose flesh was not the true meat and His blood the true drink, as the celebration of the Supper and the liturgical language used at it implied — a Christ who did not by His death bring life to men — was not the Christ known to the faith and acknowledged in the worship of the church. The sacraments, but especially the sacrament of the Supper, are the stronghold of the New Testament doctrine concerning the death of Christ.
But there is another side to this. While the apostle sees in the sacraments a testimony to the historicity of the baptism and death of Christ, and to the perpetual presence in the church of the saving power of the Lord’s Passion, and while he insists upon their historicity as against those who denied that Jesus Christ had come in flesh, and who made the life on earth, and especially the death, phantasmal, so far as a revelation of God was concerned, he protests on the other hand against those who would materialize the history. He checks them at every point by introducing and emphasizing the Spirit. Thus in the gospel, chap. 3, he speaks once of being born of water and spirit, but from that point onward the water is ignored, we hear of the Spirit alone; of its breathing where it will, of being born of the Spirit, of every one who is so born. So also in the sixth chapter, after using the strongest language about eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of Man — language in which enigmatic defiance to antipathetic minds is carried to the furthest point — he precludes all possibility of religious materialism by the words.
‘It is the Spirit which gives life; the flesh is of no use for this; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life’ (6:63).
Words and speech address man on the spiritual side of his nature, and it is on this side that everything included in Christ — ‘he that eateth Me,’ He says — finds access to us. And finally, in the epistle, after laying the stress we have seen on the water and the blood, he concludes: ‘And the Spirit is that which beareth witness, for the Spirit is the truth. For three are they that bear witness, the Spirit and the water and the blood, and the three agree in one. ’ In every case the historical is asserted, but care is taken that it shall not be materialized, a primacy is given to the spiritual. On the other hand, there is no such spiritualizing as would leave to the historical merely a position of vanishing or relative importance. There is no sublimation of Christianity into ‘ethical’ or ‘spiritual principles,’ or into ‘eternal facts,’ which absolve us from all obligation to a Savior who came in blood. Except through the historical, there is no Christianity at all, but neither is there any Christianity until the historical has been spiritually comprehended.
This is closely connected with our subject. Christianity is as real as the blood of Christ: it is as real as the agony in the garden and the death on the Cross. It is not less real than this, nor more real; it has no reality whatever which is separable from these historical things. Yet it is not in their mere externality, as events in past time, that they establish Christianity or save men from their sins. It is as their spiritual meaning is recognized, and makes a spiritual appeal to men, and awakes a spiritual response. It, is when that awful experience of Jesus is revealed as a propitiation for sins, an assumption of our responsibilities by One who does right by the eternal law which we have wronged, and does it for us at this tremendous cost; it, is then that the soul of man is reached by the divine love, and through penitence and faith drawn away from evil, and born again of God. It is then that the blood of Jesus, God’s Son, cleanses from all sin. It is then that in His death the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in Him.
A friendly critic of this book pointed out what he regarded as a serious omission in it — the want of any reference to the death of Christ as a victory over Satan. This is a point of view which is principally found in the fourth gospel. Thus it is with His death and its consequences in view that Jesus says,
‘Now is the judgment of this world; now shall the prince of this world be east out; and I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Myself’ (ch. 12:31 f.).
As his hour comes nearer He says again,
‘I shall no longer speak much with you, for the prince of the world cometh, and in Me he hath nothing’ (ch. 14:30).>
And finally, in the description of the work and power of the Spirit, who is to take His place in the hearts of the disciples after His departure, the same conception recurs.
‘He when He is come will convict the world . . . of judgment, because the prince of this world has been judged’ (16:11).
A mind which does not naturally personalize the principle of evil — turning the principle into a prince — has the same embarrassment in dealing with these passages as with the Pauline ones referred to earlier in this work. Possibly we get out too easily with our abstract nouns. The evil in the world may be represented as a principle, or an atmosphere, or an abstraction of some kind, by a spectator who is not engaged in conflict with it; but for One whose life is spent in conflict, for One who resists unto blood in the strife against it and finds it impossible not to do so, evil may assume a more malignant, and therefore a more personal aspect. It is not an unconscious but a willful and wicked force. It is not a vis inertiae in the moral world, but an awful Enemy of God. It reveals the intensity of the conflict, the stress of the battle which Jesus fought, that the power which He vanquished is represented thus. There is no suggestion in the fourth gospel that the Prince of this World had any rights in it — even relative and temporary rights, such as might be supposed to belong to the angels who gave the law, and who were superseded in their authority by Christ; the Prince of this World has no rights at all, and that is what Jesus demonstrates by His death. He has nothing in Christ; he is judged, he is cast out; through the death on the Cross the kingdom of this world is taken from him, and becomes the kingdom of God and of His Christ.
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