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Character of the Gospel.
The last record made of the Life and Words of our Lord is contained in the Fourth Gospel. The only survivor of the band that had attended his footsteps, heard his words, beheld his life, and been a witness of his resurrection, was John. The consciousness that he was closing the record, giving the last witness, and paying the last tribute to the Master which would come from a personal witness, must have produced a profound impression upon John when he undertook the task of outlining the ministry of Christ. Apart from all promptings of the Spirit, which would bring, all things to remembrance, he would be moved by his love and reverence for the Savior to give the truest possible revelation of his heart, life and majesty.
That this consciousness was ever present is manifest from the first to the last line of the Gospel. The last is the deepest, the highest, the most tender and loving, the most spiritual and the best of all the Gospels. Origen calls it “the crown of all the Gospels.” Dr. Schaff pronounces it the most influential work of literature that was ever given to the world. There can be no doubt that John, with the exception of Paul, is the greatest human force that has appeared in Church history, and it may be regarded certain that no single book of the Bible has exerted as profound and far-reaching an influence as the Gospel of John. Nor is it difficult to account for this. He not only wrote after all the other apostles had passed from earth; after Jerusalem had fallen, the Jewish nation scattered, the church separated from the synagogue, the Jewish and Gentile Christians moulded into one, and the Jews regarded by even Jewish converts as an alien people, but he was a member of the apostolic band; one, too, of the sacred inner circle who were permitted to look into the very heart of Christ. Nay, more, of these three he was the “beloved apostle,” the one who leaned on the bosom of the Lord, who spoke with him as a confidential friend, and who had charge of the mother of Christ after the tragedy of the cross. Surely there never was anyone else who enjoyed such precious advantages or who so nobly used them.
The appreciative reader is struck with the difference between John and the other Evangelists as soon as he reads the first sentence. He is conscious that a loftier and sweeter key has been struck. He has entered the Holy of Holies of the New Testament. He is in the presence of the Divine. It is not the tender, helpless Babe of Bethlehem, hanging on the bosom of an earthly mother, that meets him at the threshold, but the Incarnate Word, the Word who was in the beginning with God and is God. Yet while the Lord first appears clothed with Divine majesty, and though no one else has so exalted his matchless glory, yet, on the other hand, no one else has so lifted the veil from the humanity of the Master, revealed his heart and the tenderness of his soul in the intimacy of his private life. It is John who takes us within the sacred circle and allows us to sit at the Master's feet and listen to his “table talk” with his own beloved disciples. While we have combined, such exalted revelations of the “One sent by the Father,” on the one hand, and such near views of the loving Brother, upon the other, 19 all is told in a plain, clear and natural way; simple as the story of a child and yet lofty as the flight of a seraph. If we search for the peculiarities that make it different from the other Gospels the following will be most apparent:
I. It is the Gospel of the Incarnation. The emphasis is upon the grand truth that Christ is the Word made flesh, the One sent from the Father, the Bread of Life come down from heaven, the One who hath life in himself and is therefore the Life of men, the Vine from whence the branches draw their life, the Light that cometh into the world, the I AM, the Son of God. John expressly disclaims having recorded all the words and deeds of the Lord, and assures us that he had selected from almost infinite resources. He has omitted much that is recorded in the other Gospels; he has added five miracles that they omitted and a series of discourses to which they hardly alluded, but a study of his material will show that the leading thought has been its bearing upon the oneness of Christ with the Father. We search in vain for many things found in the other Evangelists that portray the human side of the Redeemer's nature. No genealogies are given, there is no mention of the birth at Bethlehem, or of the life at Nazareth; the childhood is passed over as well as the baptism of our Lord, and the Lord appears before the reader, in the very beginning, not only as the Son of man but as the Son of God. The Divine Word is traced, step by step, as he speaks and acts in human form, as he controls the elements of nature, creates food and drink for man, creates new organs in those without them from birth, unlocks the tomb and calls forth a friend from the embrace of death, as he speaks to friends and foes of his relations to the Father, as he suffers and is humiliated, and in the sublimest of all miracles, overthrows Death who claimed him as a victim. He is traced when he comes forth a conqueror because “he had life in himself,” and after a continued manifestation to his disciples, ascends in order that the Comforter might come “to abide with them forever.” Never for a moment does John lose sight of the truth that the Savior in the “brightness of the Father's glory and the express image of his person.” Yet it must not be supposed that in this respect there is any contradiction between John and the other Gospels. While the Savior is regarded from different standpoints the pictures are in complete harmony. John shows us the mother and “his brethren,” the Baptist as the “Voice in the wilderness” who bears witness of Christ; he reveals the Lord “groaning” and “troubled in spirit,” as weeping at the grave of a friend, or weary at Jacob's well. He attests that with his own eyes he saw him wounded to death and die, and indeed he concedes all they narrate of the human life of our Lord. On the other hand, they affirm, if with less emphasis, the matchless majesty of the Son of God. He is conceived without sin, is the Lord of David (Matt. 22:43), claims power on earth to forgive sins, declares himself the judge of the world (Matt. 7:21 and 25:31-46), will come riding on the clouds of heaven, will come in his glory with his holy angels with him, will take his seat on the throne of glory to judge all nations, is seen on the Mount of Transfiguration shining with heavenly glory, declares after the resurrection that all power in heaven and earth is 20 given into his hands, associates himself with the Father and the Holy Spirit in the baptismal formula, as the connecting link between the two and thus assumes a place on the very throne of the Deity. There is nothing in the Johannean conception of the Son that is higher. This statement with which Matthew closes shows in what sense he uses the term Immanuel, “God with us,” in the very first chapter of his Gospel (1:23). Indeed, it is strange that any candid man should have held that the Christ of John is a different conception from the Christ of the three Evangelists. With all four he is the Son of man, but with all four he is the Son of God, not a son, but the Son of God, and it is because he made this claim before the Sanhedrim, according to these Gospels, that he was condemned to death. In the earlier Gospels the Son of David, the Son of Mary, is demonstrated to be the Son of God; in the last Gospel he is seen as the Godhead in bodily form, the Son of God who is the manifestation of the Father. In the first three the human is divine; in the Fourth the Divine is human.
II. The Gospel of John is the Gospel of Love. It is true that the same doctrine is taught by the others. There the Savior declares that love is the very basis of eternal life; there is taught, perhaps the sweetest of all parables, that of the Good Samaritan. Yet there is an emphasis of love by John not found elsewhere. He it is who declares, “God is love,” and of this he gives the highest possible proof in the fact that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life.” Here it is that Christ is revealed as the “Good Shepherd who layeth down his life for his sheep;” here is also given the New Commandment, “Love one another, as I have loved you;” and here it is, also, the sin of unbelief in rejecting a Savior whose very being is love, is most fully described.
III. It is the most Spiritual Gospel. Within about a hundred years of the time when it was written Clement of Alexandria declared that John wrote a Gospel of spiritual things, while the earlier Evangelists wrote Gospels of material things. By this he meant that they were more matter of fact, and did not enter into the deep questions, or take the deep spiritual views which are constantly exhibited in John. As the student of Scripture drinks more deeply into the word of God he will observe this more and more. Not only does John bring to the front the profoundest questions, but he beholds a significance in every act of Christ. Every miracle and act becomes a kind of parable. The water of the well of Jacob gives occasion to the precious utterances concerning the Living Water; the feeding of the Five Thousand brings out the discourses on the Bread of Life; the rejection of the healed blind man by his spiritual shepherds calls out the beautiful picture of the Good Shepherd; the fruit of the Vine on the table of the Last Supper occasions the delineation of the True Vine. Not only does John unfold a deep spiritual meaning, as just described, but he gives an emphasis to the Holy Spirit that is not found in the preceding Gospels. They are by no means silent; they speak of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the sin against it, praying for it, baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and of the promise of the Father that the disciples shall be endued with its power in Jerusalem, 21 but it is John who unfolds the great doctrine of the Comforter, outlines his work, and declares in explicit terms that he shall be a perpetual possession of the church. Nor can it be doubted that when he penned, “He shall guide you into all truth,” “shall bring all things to your remembrance,” that he was gratefully conscious of the Spirit's help in bringing the Savior's life and discourses vividly to memory, a half century after his ascension to the heavenly throne.
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