return to religion-online

The Gospel of John by William R. Cannon


Before his election to the episcopacy in 1968 United Methodist Bishop William R. Cannon served as Professor of Church History and then Dean of Chandler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. Other books by Bishop Cannon include The Gospel Of John, Jesus The Servant, and The Book Of Acts. The Gospel of John was published by The Upper Room, 1985. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Paul Mobley.


Chapter 7: The Incarnate Truth


Matthew collects the main body of Jesus' teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus teaches his new disciples on a small hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

John presents the teachings of our Lord in the form of discourses given to the disciples around the supper table in the upper room at the end of Jesus' last meal with them.

But the manner of the Johannine presentation is such that there is no clear discrimination between the words of Jesus and the thoughts of God which his words convey. Neither is there any clear distinction between the person speaking and his spoken words. Jesus exemplified in his own person the truth of what he declaimed.

For once in history, divine truth has clothed itself in the personality of a single, particular human being. Jesus was Truth talking about truth, just as he was the Way pointing out the way.

Assurance (14:1-15)

The eleven were disconsolate. They had come together with their master to enjoy a sumptuous meal in anticipation of the celebration of the Passover that would begin a night hence. But the meal turned out to be as lugubrious as a funeral wake. The disciples learned in the course of it that one of them was a traitor, that the most prominent of them would deny that he ever knew their teacher, and that the teacher would leave them never to return. Even Jesus himself had confessed that he was troubled, sore of heart, and depressed in spirit.

But then he reassured them. There was no reason for them to be upset. It was only natural for them to be sad over losing him, but he was just going a little ahead of them to prepare them a permanent place in God's own heavenly abode.

There is some difficulty in the expression "the Father's house of many mansions," so that some translations substitute "rooms" for "mansions." I don't think this substitute is a good translation of the Greek, nor do I think it is adequate to Jesus' meaning. Some scholars say that when a young Jew in that day got married, he brought his bride back to a home he himself had built for her on his father's estate. The newlyweds did not live under the same roof with the husband's parents. They had a home of their own on the family estate. If the parents were rich, that home might be a mansion.

God is rich. Jesus is saying to his followers that in the household of his Father he will himself build each of them a mansion, and they will live right there in heaven with him. The troubles of this life will be dissipated in the joy of the life to come. Disconsolation will be displaced by consolation. Anguish, fear, and pain will be destroyed by serenity, confidence, and total well-being. His leaving will be a preparation for their coming.

The way to him they already know, for he has shown it to them. But Thomas objected. He says, "Lord, we do not even know where you are going. How can we know the way to get there?" Jesus says that his own life should be the pattern of theirs. If they follow his example, that will be the way for them. It will lead them into the Father's house. "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; henceforth you know him and have seen him" (14:6-7, RSV).

Philip broke in to say: "Show him to us then. If we can be shown God, we won't need to concern ourselves with anything more."

Jesus' response was, "If I have been with you as long as I have and you have known me intimately, how can you ask for anything more. You have had God with you all this time, and yet your request indicates that you have never recognized me for who and what I am." Jesus had been, all along, the walking embodiment of God. His word had been God's word and his deeds God's deeds. "If you can't believe that God is acting in me, at least try to accept me on the basis of the value of the works I have performed." The ultimate proof of Christianity lies in what it changes.

Jesus assured the eleven that they will be able to carry on his work on earth for him, and the very things he has done they also will do, and even greater things than these because of his departure to the Father. The reason was that, when they ask something in his name, he will come himself to perform through them what they request. To evoke the name of Christ is to effect his nature as well as his power in the performance of what is prayed for. The Christian cannot pray for anything contrary to the nature and purpose of Christ. To pray in his name is to want what he wants. We cannot love him without keeping his commandments. To disobey Christ is to abandon our love for him. He promises to do anything we ask him to do if we ask it in his name, which means that what we ask must be an expression of his nature, not our own.

The destiny of all true disciples is to be with the Father by living with Jesus a life in keeping with his very own.

The Holy Spirit (14:16-31)

The source of assurance is the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised the disciples will take his place in their lives after he had gone from them. The Spirit will do for them everything that Jesus has done. He will be their counselor and comforter and will enable them to discern truth. Jesus had dwelt among them as another human being in their midst and has dealt with them as friend to friend. But the divine Presence will enter each one of their lives and will make his abode in their hearts and personalities. Jesus' stay had been temporary. He was about to leave them. But the Holy Spirit will stay with them forever. His presence will separate them from all others. That presence will give them their distinctiveness. Secular society will be entirely different from them

and they from it, because that society will not possess the Spirit and so will not be able to understand or appreciate his ways. The eleven and all other followers of Jesus will always be segregated spiritually from the rest of humankind. And the instrument of such segregation is the divine Presence. The Holy Spirit is God living inside his own people.

Jesus was about to leave the eleven, and they knew it. But then Jesus promised that he would come back to them, implying thereby that he himself would be their comforter. This does not mean that this will take place at the end of time. He said it will be in a little while. On the surface, this refers to our Lord's post-resurrection experiences. But it also has a more permanent meaning, for even the post-resurrection experiences are short lived. What he means is that the comfort of the Holy Spirit is his comfort as well. God has but one nature; so the work of the Holy Spirit is the work of Father and Son as well. The Holy Spirit will call to remembrance all that Jesus himself taught and did during his earthly sojourn. "As long as you love me," Jesus tells them, "I will manifest myself to you. But that manifestation will be to you and other followers who love me, and to you and them alone." One of the disciples, Judas, but not Judas Iscariot, asked how Jesus could display himself to them and not to everybody else. Jesus' answer was that this manifestation will not be public. He and the Father will through the Holy Spirit, display themselves inwardly to those in whose lives they abide, and they will abide only with them who observe and keep the truth Jesus has taught them. The Greek word for "manifest" is unique in the New Testament to this chapter of John (14:21), and its meaning is quite different from the other words for "manifest" in the rest of the Bible. It is not a theophany as it is in the Old Testament but a personal experience.

The disciples will lose Jesus and yet keep him at the same time. Therefore, they should rejoice. He told them that if they really loved him, they could not help but rejoice, for he would again be with his Father who is greater than he. This does not mean that there are degrees of power and glory in the Godhead and that the Son is less in majesty than the Father. It means that the Son will soon shed the impotence of his humanity and regain the omnipotence of his divinity and be back with the Father who has guided and protected him while he lived as a human being on earth. He warned them against the prince of this world and all the secularistic, materialistic, and atheistic influences that militate through evil against them. These powers have never had and can never have any control over him.

The disciples' hope of rescue from evil and its power is in keeping the commandments God gave him and he has given to them. The Holy Spirit will enable them to do so through the divine power and love dwelling in them.

The Disciples (15:1-25)

The transition from chapter 14 to chapter 15 in the Fourth Gospel is puzzling. The puzzle has nothing to do with the inspiring content of the two chapters, but rather with their arrangement. At the end of chapter 14, Jesus said, "Arise, let us go hence" (14:31). But four chapters later the reader discovers the same departure: "When Jesus had spoken these words, he went forth with his disciples over the brook Cedron, where was a garden, into the which he entered, and his disciples" (18:1). Where or when were the words in chapters 15 through 17 spoken? The last line of chapter 14 and the first sentence of chapter 18 must go together.

This problem has led some scholars to suggest that the material in this part of the Gospel of John is out of order. They insist chapters 15 through 17 must be placed before chapter 14 if chapter 14 concludes the table talk Jesus had with the disciples at the Last Supper. But to do this destroys the progression of thought in the discourse; the material does not make sense when rearranged. The trouble the disciples were experiencing was occasioned by their fear of losing Jesus. This is the reason for the assurance he gave them. And the cause of that assurance is the Holy Spirit, whom he promised them. Only after such assurance was he in a position to talk with them about themselves and give them the confidence and courage to face the hardships that will befall them.

What happened was probably that Jesus said, "Get ready. We must go now," but continued to talk to them, so that he talked as long after his suggestion that they start to leave as he had before. This is unusual with us in our hurried Western world. It was the usual practice in the leisurely Eastern world of the first century.

Jesus likened himself to a vine and the disciples to its branches, while God the Father is pictured as the farmer who cultivates the vineyard. The Father keeps the vine up on its trellis. He waters and tends the soil, so that the vine is properly nourished. He takes pride in his grapes. But this means that he also prunes the vine and removes the dead branches from it. The grapes hang on the branches. Dead branches bear no fruit. The analogy is plain. The disciples derive their life and strength from Jesus. If they break away from him, they are unproductive and die and have to be destroyed like broken branches on a grapevine.

Israel is often pictured in prophetic literature as a vine. She is the vine of God. Jesus himself as a new vine will be the new Israel of God. His new community, the Church, is the continuation in history of his very self, giving the fruit of his redemption to the world. This new community expresses itself and does its work through its members, the first of whom are the original disciples. Whatever fruit they bear is a result of their labors. But they cannot do anything apart from Jesus. Only as they keep his commandments and display his love, each for the other, and also for the world they are sent to save, can they remain his disciples and carry out to success the mission he has given them. They must imitate Jesus in everything. They must shirk no hardship. They must be willing if necessary to die for his cause. "Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord" (15:20).

Some will hate them just as they hated Jesus, and they will persecute them just as they persecuted Jesus. But others will hear and receive them as they themselves heard and received Jesus. The success they have in winning people to Jesus' cause and making them disciples like themselves will be their love. True love in the end is sacrificial: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (15:13). That is what Jesus was doing for them. He

no longer called them servants or even pupils. They were his friends. He treated them as equals. He loved them more than he loved himself. Everything the Father has told him he has shared with them.

However, they must be prepared for rejection. Just as the secular world rejected him, it will reject them, too. People who hated Jesus will hate his followers. In hating Jesus and his followers, they hate God as well, for all Jesus did was in compliance with God's commandment. The paradox of life is that often those we do the most for turn out to be our worst enemies. Jesus quoted to his disciples a messianic prophecy from the Old Testament: "They hated me without a cause" (15:25; compare Psalm 35:19; 69:4).

 

Witness (15:26-16:33)

Likewise, the followers of Jesus can expect similar treatment from the very people they attempt most to help and to save. The business of the disciples is to witness to Jesus. The eleven had been trained by their master to do this, since they had been with him since the very beginning of his ministry. He handpicked them for the task. He had been their living example. Even so, the Holy Spirit, who will be to them both comfort and truth, will enhance their witness by his own, for he, too, will testify to Jesus and the validity of his work.

Jesus told his disciples what to expect from society, so that they would not be surprised when disaster befell them. They were all Jews. But the Jews would expel them from the synagogues. It was customary then to exclude a person from the synagogue for a month if that person criticized the religious authorities. If a person's offense against the Jewish religion was great enough, such a one might be denied admission to the synagogue for as long as six months. Though rare, excommunication might take place when the offender was excluded from synagogue and temple for an indefinite period of time. This latter state might be the disciples' fate for promoting the teachings of an executed criminal. Indeed, they might as well expect death itself, for the Jewish religious leaders would think they themselves were fulfilling the will of God in executing followers of the Galilean they were about to execute. People would do these things to the followers of Jesus, because they would never come themselves to know Jesus and the Father who sent him.

Our Lord told the eleven that he could appreciate the sorrow they felt in losing him. But really they would be better off now without him, because his departure from them would precipitate the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit not only would comfort them and enable them to know the truth but also would comfort the world and possess the power not to be overcome by the world.

The Spirit's mission to the world is threefold:

• The Holy Spirit will convict people of sin. The root of sin is the failure to recognize and accept Jesus Christ as both the way to God and the truth about God.

• The Holy Spirit will convince people of the rightness of God. He will lead them to see the inadequacy of their own standards of behavior by showing them God's purpose for his creation and for them as his creatures.

• The Holy Spirit will bring them to judgment. By him they will be brought to accountability. They will be judged by God in compliance with his disclosure of himself in Jesus Christ.

Therefore, the disciples need not lose confidence nor despair, for the victory of the Holy Spirit over the world will be their be their victory, too. They will share in triumph.

In the meantime, the divine Presence will be their support and strength. Jesus' earthly stay with them was too short. He did not have time to teach them all he wanted them to know. But, as occasion arises, the Holy Spirit will enable them to discern the truth. And they will find that everything the Holy Spirit teaches them will revolve around him and point toward him, because everything the Father has he has given to the Son and the Son shares equally with the Father. The Holy Spirit does not initiate; the Spirit confirms. The Comforter does not add anything new to the teachings of Jesus. His mission is to enable people to see the validity of what Jesus taught and to appropriate his message as their own. More than all else, the divine Presence empowers believers to live as Jesus lived.

At this point in the discourse, Jesus introduced a paradox. He said that in a little while they will not see him. And yet in a little while they will see him. They are befuddled by this contradiction. How can they not see him and yet see him?

The only explanation he gives is that he is going to his Father. But that reason is the answer to their question. The crucifixion will take him from them, seemingly forever. Death erects an insurmountable barrier. But the resurrection will restore him to them. They will see him in his post-resurrection appearances. When he goes back to the Father, he will regain the divine attributes he had before he became a human being. He will possess once more the Father's omnipresence.

The disciples will be able, after the return of their master to heaven, to ask anything in his name and receive what they ask for. It has never occurred to them heretofore to ask God for anything in Jesus' name, for Jesus has been with them, in simple fellowship. But, when he is gone, they will know the true relationship that has always existed between him and the Father. They will realize the Father himself loves them because they love his son.

These things will take place subsequently. But right then, that very night, the disciples would desert him and go back to their homes. Jesus wouldn't have anyone to support him. Yet he would have all the support in the whole of creation, for the Father was with him.

In losing him, the disciples would go through the pain of childbirth. But in recovering him in his divine existence, they would experience the joy of the mother in her newborn child. Jesus assured his disciples of power. The power would come through the trials and tribulations the world would inflict on them. Still they need not be disturbed. Their master, they will know by his living presence, has overcome and defeated the world.

 

The High Priestly Prayer (17:1-26)

Naturally, Jesus ended his discourse with his disciples after the supper in the upper room with prayer. The prayer he prayed is the longest prayer recorded in the four Gospels. Though the synoptics indicate that he prayed often, what he said in those prayers is generally by them left unrecorded. In most instances he had withdrawn from them and was alone; so they did not hear what he said. The exceptions were the Lord's Prayer, which Matthew and Luke record, and a few others, which are very short, consisting only of a sentence or two, such as the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest.

This prayer, like the Lord's Prayer, is a public utterance, albeit that the public in both cases is limited to the disciples. Nonetheless it has liturgical significance.

The nature of the prayer is priestly. Its purpose is the same as that of the prayer the high priest would make on the Day of Atonement, when the ram was driven out into the wilderness with the sins of the people symbolically on its back. The Lamb of God is about to be offered up for the sins of the world. This is his prayer of consecration. He is both the high priest and also the sacrifice which the high priest offers to God.

The prayer is liturgical. It is a pattern for the disciples to use in the future as is the Lord's Prayer. We do not say it by rote in services of worship as we do the Lord's Prayer. But we observe its principles when we pray, and its structure has dictated that of subsequent prayers through the centuries. It is instruction for worship, because it teaches theology, as well as inspires devotion.

The high priestly prayer begins, as does the Lord's Prayer, in adoration and praise. It ascribes glory to God. But it does this in an entirely different way than does the Lord's Prayer. Jesus himself prays the Father to glorify him, his son, in order that he may glorify the Father. He acknowledges that the Father has already glorified him on earth through the mission he has enabled him to perform, and now he asks the Father to lend him his own glory, or rather to give him back the glory he had before his incarnation, the glory he possessed from the foundation of the world.

What does this mean? It means that Jesus Christ is divine. When we pray to God, we also pray to Christ, because he has shared deity with the Father throughout all eternity. The glory of God is the glory of both the Father and the son.

Therefore, the very ascription of glory to the Father is also a petition that that same glory will be manifested in the son, as it has been already by the son to the disciples whom the Father has given him. Since this is a priestly prayer, it is prayed in intercession for the disciples. Jesus asks the Father to keep them in unity with him and with one another as he and the Father are in perfect unity with each other. Jesus prayed the Father to keep the disciples as he himself kept them while he was with them on earth. He does not ask the Father to deliver them out of the world with its bad influences but to protect them from evil as they live and serve in the world. Jesus prays God to sanctify the disciples, so that they might be a sanctifying influence in the world. Like the high priest, who sanctifies himself in the manner prescribed by Moses, in order to represent the needs of the people to God, Jesus sanctifies himself in order that through his priestly service and sacrifice, his disciples might be sanctified. He thanks the Father for having kept them intact. Only one has forsaken him.

The prayer closes with a petition for all humankind. Jesus prays the Father to make the disciples one, as he and the Father are one, so that through their ministry together the world might believe on him and know that God the Father has sent him. The absolute unity that exists between Father and son must likewise exist among the followers of Jesus if they are to carry out their mission and thereby bring salvation in the name of Jesus to the whole world. The purpose of our Lord's mission on earth has been to declare God's will and to make possible for all people the love the Father has had for him. He wants humankind to share in that love, and his desire is to dwell in them as the Father has dwelt in him.

 

Questions For Reflection And Study

1. The ultimate proof of Christianity lies in what it does." How do you respond to that assertion? Is Christianity something that can be proven?

2. Do you agree that the Holy Spirit segregates believers from non-believers? If so, in what ways? Does God's activity in our lives cause division? Is that God's intent, or is it caused by our response?

3. If showing love is how we win others to Christ, why will others reject and persecute us?

4. What phrase from Jesus' high priestly prayer evokes a strong response in you? Why?

5. Jesus asks God to keep believers in unity. In what ways has this prayer been answered? In what ways has it not been answered? What helps us toward unity? What hinders it?

Viewed 134636 times.