Introduction to John's Gospel

John  •  20 min. read  •  grade level: 8
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My present desire, with God’s grace, is to speak more particularly of the Gospel by John; or, as the expression is, “according to John”—that is, that form or character of the Gospel which it has been the good pleasure of the Holy Spirit to convey through him.
It is a portion of God’s Word which has been very precious to the saints. Many a soul has enjoyed it as such, without, perhaps, exactly knowing why it was so; for the correctness of our spiritual tastes and desires is often above the measure of our spiritual intelligence. And it is well that it is so.
Before, however, I give what appears to me to be the general character and order of this Gospel, I will suggest some introductory things which have helped me, as I judge, to a fuller understanding and enjoyment of it myself. May the Lord control and guide our thoughts!
From the whole of their history, the people of Israel might have learned how entirely dependent they were on those resources which God had in Himself, beyond, and independent of, their own system; for by such resources they had, in all stages of their history, been sustained and conducted. Their father Abraham had been called by an act of sovereign grace (Josh. 24:2-32And Joshua said unto all the people, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Your fathers dwelt on the other side of the flood in old time, even Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nachor: and they served other gods. 3And I took your father Abraham from the other side of the flood, and led him throughout all the land of Canaan, and multiplied his seed, and gave him Isaac. (Joshua 24:2‑3)). God’s own hand had preserved and strangely multiplied them in Egypt (Ex. 1:1212But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew. And they were grieved because of the children of Israel. (Exodus 1:12)). In distant solitudes, where Israel was not known, Moses was prepared to be their deliverer from Egypt. All through the wilderness their journey had shown them their utter dependence on God. By His Spirit, and not by might nor by power, did Joshua, after Moses, fulfil his ministry, reducing the nations of Canaan. And afterwards, though in different circumstances, there was still the same thing. Joshua’s sword, which had been the verifier of the Lord’s faithfulness to Abraham and his seed, had no sooner been sheathed, and the blessing transferred from the hand of God which had brought it, to the hand of Israel which was to keep it, than it was lost: it slipped away from its new guardian at once. Faithlessness and weakness were now as clearly marked in Israel, as truth and power had been in Jehovah. Israel and Canaan were Adam and the garden again. Before the first chapter of the Book of Judges closes, Israel, by disobedience, had forfeited everything. The inhabitants of the land were not driven out. But the rest of that book only shows us the presence of God among them; repairing the mischief, from time to time, with His own hand, and by the energy of His Spirit.
And this must needs be the character of God’s acting in a time of forfeited blessing. Either judgment must be executed in righteousness, or blessing be brought in in sovereign grace. Man, by the previous trial, having been found wanting, must be humbled and set aside, and God come in with some new energy of His own to do a strange act—something beside the order of the dispensation, and independent of what were properly its resources. All the deliverances wrought for Israel in the times of the judges are accordingly of this character. The appearance in Israel of Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson, is such a thing as the system, if maintained by its own resources in its own path, would never have led to.
We have a sample of this even previous to the times of the judges. The irregular ministry of Eldad and Medad and their companions was the sovereign provision of God, through the Spirit, for the failure in Moses, for his refusal, through impatience, to proceed with the work that had been exclusively committed to himself. He learned to the rebuke of his unbelief that the Lord’s hand had not waxed short (Num. 11).
Thus as to Deborah—“She judged Israel at that time.” But this was not quite such a successor to him who was “king in Jeshurun” as we might have counted upon. The honor had passed into the hand of a woman, for Israel was out of order. Trespass had come in with a disturbing force, and the remedy must be applied, if at all, by God’s own hand. And so it was. Therefore, in her magnificent song she sings—“O my soul, thou hast trodden down strength”; a confession that the source of her strength and victory was all in God, and that in the energy of the Spirit, and in that only, she had fought the battle of the Lord, and conquered.
So with Gideon. He was not of Judah (to whom such honor by ancient right belonged), but of Manasseh; and his family the least in Manasseh. But such a one is called away from his threshing, to bear that sword which was soon to distinguish itself as “the sword of the Lord and of Gideon.” And what was this sword of such renown? Three hundred men with trumpets and pitchers! Strange weapons of war against the host of Midian! But Midian ran before them. A cake of barley bread tumbled in, and overturned the tents of the enemy! For it was the Lord Himself Who was now in action again, and the treasure of Israel’s strength might therefore lie in an earthen vessel. (2 Cor. 4:77But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. (2 Corinthians 4:7) seems to be an allusion to Gideon’s lamps and pitchers.)
And Jephthah, in his turn, tells the same tale. The son of a strange woman, he had been disclaimed by his brethren in Israel, and cast out among the Gentiles. But this is the one whom the Lord chooses to be Israel’s saviour in the day of their trouble. But where is Israel’s honor now? Where is the glory and worth of their own system, when he whom his brethren despised and cast out as a base thing is their only hope in their calamity? The honor was not theirs, nor was the strength of their own system their help and defense now. The Spirit of God, in sovereign grace to Israel, comes upon Jephthah. The battle was the Lord’s. Israel had again destroyed himself, but in God was his help.
And all this we have again displayed in Samson. All that ushers in and conducts him in this strange course of action, speaks of the strength and way of God alone. There was nothing in the system of Israel that could account for it. Samson was a child of promise, raised up in the dishonored tribe of Dan; and, thus, was a sign of God’s grace and sovereignty. And according to this, he is at once separated to God, and drawn, as far as might be, out of the strict Jewish order and line of things. The path which he trod lay right across the beaten path of Israel. The secret of God was with him. None knew the riddle but himself. His kindred in the flesh did not know it; and he has done with father, and mother, and country, and the law of Israel, and is under a new and special dispensation. Contrary to the law, and yet by the direction of the Law-giver, he marries a daughter of the Philistines. He did not go the common way of Israel, or use the resources of Israel; but strange and surprising acts marked his course, from the time that the Spirit first moved him in the camp of Dan, to the time when he died in the midst of the Philistine lords. All that he did was of one great character. An unknown energy stirred and conducted him. Israel’s resources were by all this again set aside, and God Himself was displayed in His grace and power.
So, after the Book of Judges closes, we see the same thing. Samuel, like Samson, was a child of promise; and a child of promise is always the sign of grace (Rom. 9:88That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed. (Romans 9:8)); for it says, “Not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” And, therefore, at his birth, his mother celebrates, through the Holy Spirit, the praises of grace. He becomes at first a mere waiting-boy in the tabernacle; from thence he is called forth that all Israel might know him to be the prophet of God; and finally they see in him the raiser of the stone Ebenezer, the deliverer and help of the nation.
And after him, in David, we again see God’s own way and resources displayed in the time of Israel’s need. For David was taken from the sheep-folds to feed Israel. His father and his brethren took no account of him; Israel knows him not; but the Lord chooses and anoints him. He becomes, for a while, an exiled and a needy wanderer; but at last he has the kingdom settled in his house by a covenant of sure mercies forever.
Thus, from the call of Abraham their father to the exaltation of David their king through Moses, Joshua, the judges, and Samuel, every stage in this wondrous journey is accomplished in the grace of God—the resources of their own system, that which lay in their own hands, proving utterly vain.
And I would add, that the prophets were another line of witnesses to the same truth. They were raised up, for Israel’s guidance, by an extraordinary energy of the Spirit. The primitive settlement of things in Israel did not provide such a ministry. The nation was to stand in the remembrance and obedience of the words which Moses had delivered. (See Deut. 6,11,31). But upon their forgetting these words, an extraordinary presence of the Spirit of God is called for, and then displayed in the person and ministry of the prophets.
Thus, by a line of teachers or prophets, as by another line of rulers or deliverers, testimony to the need of God’s resources in their behalf was left with every succeeding generation of Israel. This was continuously telling out to them that they could not stand in their own covenant, and that all their hope of final honor and rest lay in the grace and power of God. And so we know it will be. Israel will stand as God’s people, in the latter day, in the strength that is laid up for them in Jesus; to Whom, therefore, these two lines of witnesses point, and in Whom, as the true Prophet of Israel, and as the true King of Israel, they will both end. And what refreshing will it be for those who are weary of man, and “sick of his wisdom and his doings,” to walk in a sphere where man shall be hid, and God alone displayed! “The loftiness of man shall be bowed down, and the haughtiness of men shall be made low: and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day.”
But there was another and a deeper purpose of God, which was also constantly seen in the history of Israel. The eminent persons I have been noticing were all of Israel, and pledged only Israel’s mercies. But God had purposes beyond Israel— purposes touching the Gentiles of a very exalted character; and this He signified by another line of witnesses, formed, as we shall now see, of eminent personages who were all of them Gentiles, or strangers to Israel.
There appears to have been a body of Gentiles at all times living in the midst of Israel, who take an inferior rank to Israel, though enjoying blessings and ordinances with them. (See Ex. 20:1010But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: (Exodus 20:10); Lev. 17:1212Therefore I said unto the children of Israel, No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood. (Leviticus 17:12); Lev. 18:2626Ye shall therefore keep my statutes and my judgments, and shall not commit any of these abominations; neither any of your own nation, nor any stranger that sojourneth among you: (Leviticus 18:26); Lev. 26:2222I will also send wild beasts among you, which shall rob you of your children, and destroy your cattle, and make you few in number; and your high ways shall be desolate. (Leviticus 26:22); Num. 9:1414And if a stranger shall sojourn among you, and will keep the passover unto the Lord; according to the ordinance of the passover, and according to the manner thereof, so shall he do: ye shall have one ordinance, both for the stranger, and for him that was born in the land. (Numbers 9:14); Num. 15:14-16, 2914And if a stranger sojourn with you, or whosoever be among you in your generations, and will offer an offering made by fire, of a sweet savor unto the Lord; as ye do, so he shall do. 15One ordinance shall be both for you of the congregation, and also for the stranger that sojourneth with you, an ordinance for ever in your generations: as ye are, so shall the stranger be before the Lord. 16One law and one manner shall be for you, and for the stranger that sojourneth with you. (Numbers 15:14‑16)
29Ye shall have one law for him that sinneth through ignorance, both for him that is born among the children of Israel, and for the stranger that sojourneth among them. (Numbers 15:29)
; Num. 19:1010And he that gathereth the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even: and it shall be unto the children of Israel, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among them, for a statute for ever. (Numbers 19:10); Num. 35:1515These six cities shall be a refuge, both for the children of Israel, and for the stranger, and for the sojourner among them: that every one that killeth any person unawares may flee thither. (Numbers 35:15); Josh. 8:3535There was not a word of all that Moses commanded, which Joshua read not before all the congregation of Israel, with the women, and the little ones, and the strangers that were conversant among them. (Joshua 8:35); 1 Chron. 22:22And David commanded to gather together the strangers that were in the land of Israel; and he set masons to hew wrought stones to build the house of God. (1 Chronicles 22:2); 2 Chron. 2:1717And Solomon numbered all the strangers that were in the land of Israel, after the numbering wherewith David his father had numbered them; and they were found an hundred and fifty thousand and three thousand and six hundred. (2 Chronicles 2:17); 2 Chron. 15:99And he gathered all Judah and Benjamin, and the strangers with them out of Ephraim and Manasseh, and out of Simeon: for they fell to him out of Israel in abundance, when they saw that the Lord his God was with him. (2 Chronicles 15:9); 2 Chron. 30:2525And all the congregation of Judah, with the priests and the Levites, and all the congregation that came out of Israel, and the strangers that came out of the land of Israel, and that dwelt in Judah, rejoiced. (2 Chronicles 30:25).) But there was also a line of distinguished Gentiles, who, whenever they appeared in the history, took a place, and were called into scenes and services, as did, on the other hand, greatly raise them above the level of Israel. Both of these things are, I judge, very significant, illustrating the plans then reserved in God’s counsels for the Gentiles and strangers, the great body of whom will hereafter in the kingdom take a place subordinate to Israel, though in Israel’s joy; while there will be an elect and distinguished body of them (those who are now called out to form the Church of God), whose place and dignity will be far above the place and dignity of Israel (Rev. 21:9-11, 23-249And there came unto me one of the seven angels which had the seven vials full of the seven last plagues, and talked with me, saying, Come hither, I will show thee the bride, the Lamb's wife. 10And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, 11Having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal; (Revelation 21:9‑11)
23And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof. 24And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honor into it. (Revelation 21:23‑24)
The first of these distinguished strangers who meets us is Melchizedek. The honor that was put upon him needs not to be particularly spoken of; it is generally so well understood, but he only begins a series of persons, illustrious in their generation and day, like himself.
After him we meet with Asenath and Zipporah, the wives respectively of Joseph and Moses. They were both strangers to Abraham; but they became the mothers of those children who were given to these two illustrious fathers in Israel, while they were in their days separated from Israel; and they held dignities which the chiefest daughters in Israel might have envied.
We are next introduced to Jethro, who, on Israel’s coming out of Egypt, takes upon him, without rebuke, though he was but a stranger, to do priestly service in the presence of Aaron, and to give counsel touching affairs of state to Moses. This was occupying for a while, a very eminent place in the midst of Israel. The brightest glories in Israel were outshone. Moses and Aaron, the king and the priest in Jeshurun, are set aside by this stranger. Fair token, like Melchizedek before, of great things to come to the Gentiles.
After Jethro we see Rahab, another stranger, but one who, we may all remember, was brought to have a high memorial in Israel; such a memorial as the daughters of the land longed for continually. For the Hope of Israel comes through her after the flesh (Matt. 1:55And Salmon begat Booz of Rachab; and Booz begat Obed of Ruth; and Obed begat Jesse; (Matthew 1:5)); and she is the one whose faith is spoken of in connection with that of their father Abraham. (See James 2.)
Next, in Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, we see the stranger again illustrious. It was by her hand, in a very special manner, that God subdued the king of Canaan before the children of Israel, so that her praise is thus rehearsed: “Blessed above women shall Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite be, blessed shall she be above women in the tent.”
Then, in another female, in Ruth the Moabitess, we see the stranger again. Though the daughter of an unclean and rejected people, she is given a place equal to the chiefest mothers in Israel. Like Rahab before her, the Hope of the nation comes through her, according to the flesh (Matt. 1:55And Salmon begat Booz of Rachab; and Booz begat Obed of Ruth; and Obed begat Jesse; (Matthew 1:5)); and she is given a standing equal in dignity with that of Rachel herself (Ruth 4:1111And all the people that were in the gate, and the elders, said, We are witnesses. The Lord make the woman that is come into thine house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel: and do thou worthily in Ephratah, and be famous in Bethlehem: (Ruth 4:11)). She had no natural kinship with Israel; but, through grace, she is grafted on Israel, to become the bearer of the Stem of Jesse, on whose branch, as we know, every hope of the people hangs.
And afterwards, in the times of David, we have the stranger kept most honorably in view. This appears first in Uriah. He was a Hittite; but his fidelity to the God of Israel, and self-devoting zeal in the cause of Israel, shine out blessedly in contrast with even Israel’s chiefest and noblest and best child in that day. This poor relic of the defiled Gentiles rebukes no less a son of Israel than King David himself.
We get the stranger again in these times of David, in Ittai the Gittite (2 Sam. 15). He, with all his men, appears to have joined himself to David, and the language of such an act was what Ruth’s had been before to Naomi, “Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” He was not of Israel, but more true to Israel’s king than Israel; for when his people had revolted to Absalom, and the land was in rebellion, it was this stranger that clung to David whether for life or death.
But in these same days of David, the stranger, or Gentile, is again introduced to us in the person of Araunah; and, as usual, in a way of eminence and honor. David’s transgression had brought the nation under judgment; and the angel of the Lord was going through the land slaying his thousands, when, at the bidding of the Lord, his hand is stayed at the threshing-floor of this Jebusite. There it was that mercy first rejoiced against judgment. Sin was reigning in Israel unto death; but grace is made to reign unto life first in this inheritance of the Gentile. What a high distinction was this! What a note of favor to the Gentiles! Surely all this had a voice, though there was no speech nor language.
Then again, in the times of the kings, I may notice both the widow of Sarepta, and Naaman the Syrian; not that they were either of them ever brought to high estate in Israel, as were other strangers whom I have noticed, but they were made the standing monuments of distinguishing and electing grace. (See Luke 4:25-2725But I tell you of a truth, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elias, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when great famine was throughout all the land; 26But unto none of them was Elias sent, save unto Sarepta, a city of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow. 27And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Eliseus the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, saving Naaman the Syrian. (Luke 4:25‑27)). And after these we reach Jehonadab the son of Rechab (2 Kings 10). He is made assessor, with Jehu, in judgment on the house of Ahab.
Thus, among the patriarchs, and successively in the times of Moses, of Joshua, of the judges, of David, and of the kings, the stranger, is occasionally presented to us, and always in distinction. But beside this occasional testimony, there was the abiding presence and testimony of the Gentile in Israel: I mean in that family to which this Jehonadab belonged: the family of the Rechabites, who continued in Israel from the earliest times down to the latest, from Moses to Jeremiah (Judges 1:1616And the children of the Kenite, Moses' father in law, went up out of the city of palm trees with the children of Judah into the wilderness of Judah, which lieth in the south of Arad; and they went and dwelt among the people. (Judges 1:16); 1 Chron. 3:55; Jer. 35:88Thus have we obeyed the voice of Jonadab the son of Rechab our father in all that he hath charged us, to drink no wine all our days, we, our wives, our sons, nor our daughters; (Jeremiah 35:8)). And all through these many centuries they dwelt as strangers in the land. At the very first they went up from the city to dwell in the wilderness, and at the very end they are seen maintaining the same character. They neither built houses, nor bought fields, nor sowed seed, nor planted vineyards; all the days they dwelt in tents, and did not eat of the fruit of the vine. They were a standing order of Nazarites, more separated to God than even Israel; and so faithful were they to their consecration vows, that at the end, when the, Lord was pronouncing judgment upon His own people, He pledged to them that they should not want a man to stand before Him forever. Throughout the long period of their tabernacling in Israel, wherever we hear of them, it is always to their praise, always taking such a place of honor, and sustaining such a character of holiness, as distinguishes them, like the other strangers, quite above the level of the nation. (I may add the cases of the centurion and the Syrophenician, as the strangers who appear in the midst of Israel when the times of the New Testament had begun. For, like their more ancient brethren, they appear in great distinction. The Lord signalizes them both.)
Now, upon all this I would observe, that, as Melchizedek ought to have been to the Jews a notice of a better order of priesthood than that of Aaron (Heb. 7), so this line of strangers, following, as it were, in the train of Melchizedek, might have been the constant notice of better things in reserve for the Gentiles than all that which had distinguished Israel. Israel might by them have been prepared for the calling out of the Church, which, with the Son of God as her Head, is the true stranger upon earth, and which is to hold a more honored place under God than Israel ever knew. The Church is that to which all these eminent strangers pointed beforehand. For the Church does not tread in Israel’s path. She is a stranger where Israel was at home. Her citizenship is in heaven, and not on the earth. The saints are the sons of God, and the world knows them not, even as it knew not Christ. They stand as at the end of the world (1 Cor. 10:1111Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come. (1 Corinthians 10:11)), dead and risen with Christ. Jesus was given no place on earth; and they, as with Him, do but sojourn here, separated in principle from all around them, as the Rechabites were separated from Israel, among whom they did but tabernacle, or pitch their tents.
I do not, however, speak of the histories of these strangers as typical. I only point to the fact of their high exaltation in Israel as being a notice from God of His high, exalted purposes concerning the Church, the true stranger. The histories of some of them; may have been typical. But it is not the details of their histories that I have been looking at, but simply the fact of their exaltation in Israel. I would not, however, refuse to observe how sweetly Exodus 2:16-2216Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters: and they came and drew water, and filled the troughs to water their father's flock. 17And the shepherds came and drove them away: but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock. 18And when they came to Reuel their father, he said, How is it that ye are come so soon to day? 19And they said, An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds, and also drew water enough for us, and watered the flock. 20And he said unto his daughters, And where is he? why is it that ye have left the man? call him, that he may eat bread. 21And Moses was content to dwell with the man: and he gave Moses Zipporah his daughter. 22And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land. (Exodus 2:16‑22) unfolds the Church, during the interval from Israel’s rejection of Messiah to Messiah’s final deliverance of Israel. Zipporah (to whom I have already alluded) becomes debtor for deliverance and life (of which water, or a well, is the constant emblem) to Moses, in the day of his exile from Israel; and by this he entitles himself to receive her as his wife from the hand, and with the full approval, of her father. All this is beautifully significant of the mystery of Christ, and the Father, and the Church. And in further proof of this being a type, we may remember that Stephen speaks of the rejection of Joseph and of Moses by their brethren, as kindred with the rejection of Christ by the Jews. Joseph’s and Moses’ marriage with Gentiles clearly, therefore, set forth the Lord’s union with the Church during His rejection and estrangement from Israel.
And I would just notice, that Jehovah’s estimate of what a stranger was to expect, and the Holy Spirit’s estimate, by Paul, of what a saint should expect, are the same (Deut. 10:1818He doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and widow, and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment. (Deuteronomy 10:18); 1 Tim. 6:88And having food and raiment let us be therewith content. (1 Timothy 6:8)).
Thus two lines of personage end in Christ. The line of distinguished Israelites or Jewish worthies, who were called forth in the special energy of the Spirit for the help and guidance of Israel, ends, as I have already noticed, in Christ, as Israel’s true Prophet and King, the God of Jeshurun, Who, in the latter day, is to be the Shield of their help, and the Sword of their excellency. The line of distinguished Gentile strangers, who sustained a character, and bore dignities and honors, far above the level or ordinary calling of Israel, ends in Christ as the Head of His body, the Church. And the coming kingdom will manifest Him, and those who are severally associated with Him, in these several glories. All things in heaven and on earth shall be then gathered in Him. The true strangers, or the saints, will shine in the heavens, “as the sun in the kingdom of their Father,” and Israel will find their rest, their holy rest, on the earth, under David their Prince and Shepherd.
Now, all this leads me to our Gospel; for of Christ as the Son of God, the stranger upon earth, and of the saints who have association with Him in that character, and in relationship to the Father, the Gospel by John is the appropriated witness. Indeed, it is that which gives it its distinction, and makes it, I believe, a portion of the oracles of God most precious to us.
May we have understanding hearts, to understand the secrets disclosed in this heavenly Word! Could we but discern it, every line of it carries with it its own divine authority. But, beloved, the only safe and profitable knowledge is that which we get in communion with the Lord through the Spirit; and that which, when acquired, ministers to still more enlarged communion. May we prove this more and more!
I would now follow our Gospel in its order, observing briefly, and as I may have grace given me, upon it. It will be found naturally to distribute itself into four parts; at least as I have judged, and would now submit to the judgment of my brethren.