Chapter 5: The Incarnate Life

The Gospel of John
by William R. Cannon

Chapter 5: The Incarnate Life

Life has to be incarnate. Unlike word, which can be written as well as spoken, or deed, which is always separate and distinct from the person who performs it, or even light, which can be distinguished from the object which generates it, life is inseparable from the organism which it animates and to which it gives movement and responsiveness to the environment. A living organism is entirely different from an inanimate object. But apart from the organism itself and its behavior, it is impossible to identify life as a material, or substance, that can be added to or subtracted from the organism.

All we can observe is that the organism is entirely different when it loses its life. It decays and wastes away, and we are not aware of it any more. Yet we never see or feel that life that originally gave it its nature. Life has to be in a tangible entity in order for us to be aware of it, for to us it has no being in itself. The human body is a composition of chemical elements that we find elsewhere in nature. What makes it human is its living intelligence, that is, the force of intelligent life that is incarnate within it. "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul" (Gen. 2:7).

Though life is always incarnate, the degree of its intensity varies. A person is more alive than an animal, and the movement and adaptability of most animals is greater than that of fish and insects. Eternal life inheres only in the being of God, so that life in any form is God's gift. Apart from God, there is nothing in the world that has always been alive; and everything that is alive sooner or later dies. For a person to have his or her life restored to that person after death, the restoration can come only from the hands of God.

Therefore, the incarnate life that John presents is divine and eternal life, not its human derivative, and this life finds tangible expression in the person of Jesus Christ and him alone. He is the personification of God's own everlasting life. And it is a person's attachment to him and belief in him that guarantees that person eternal life. "Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live" (John 11:25).


The Feast of Dedication (10:22-42)

What we dealt with in the last chapter took place before, during, and just after the Feast of Tabernacles, an appropriate season for Jesus to declare himself to be the Light of the world. What we are to discuss now begins three months after that feast. Fall has given way to winter. The harvests of autumn have been displaced by the rains and cold when everything has been stored into barns and the fields await a later time for sowing.

The Feast of the Dedication of the Temple came in December; it was based on an important event in Jewish history. Antiochus Epiphanes, who ruled the Asiatic segment of the Greek empire, had set up an idol in the Temple in Jerusalem. This act desecrated it, making it unsuitable to the Jews as a place of worship. What he did was known as "the abomination of desolation." In 165 B.C., Judas Maccabaeus, after a successful revolt against the Greek overlord, cleansed the Temple and made it a fit place for worship again. The Feast of Dedication celebrated this event. It was not one of the great biblical feasts which recalled watershed events in the Old Testament. Its origin was later, going no further back than the intertestamentary period. It did not compare in importance or length of celebration with the Passover or the Feast of Tabernacles, for that matter. But it was a feast. And it was on the calendar of any pious Jew who had the leisure to observe it. Jesus was on hand in Jerusalem to keep it. Indeed, John implies that our Lord never left Jerusalem between Tabernacles and Dedication. Evidently he did not go anywhere between the two feasts.

Although the obvious reference of Dedication was the cleansing of the Temple by Judas Maccabaeus, it had at this time a covert meaning which to the Jewish mind was more poignant. The Maccabean period was the last epoch of Jewish independence. It was the period of freedom just before the Roman conquest. As a result, the Jews celebrated it more intensely than they would otherwise. It reminded them of God's promise of a Messiah, a deliverer, who would restore them to their former power and glory, giving them their freedom.

Therefore, John's chronological reference to the date when the Jews asked Jesus what to both them and him was the supreme question is a theological reference as well. As the earlier Feast of Tabernacles symbolized the incarnation, God's tabernacle with his people in the person of his own son, so this later Feast of Dedication symbolized the dedication of the son of God to his mission, the climax of which would be his voluntary sacrifice of himself for the sins of humanity.

On this feast, the Jews asked Jesus not to keep them in suspense any longer but to tell them frankly whether he was their Messiah or not. Jesus responded that he has been trying to tell them ever since he began his mission but that they have been too stubborn to believe him. He pointed to the works he had done among them. These works were testimony aplenty to who he was. He said that they have been unable to believe because they don't really belong to him. Only those who had had the hardihood to follow him were really his. What God had given, no one could allure away. Jesus' followers were his always to keep. Then came the supreme declaration. This is the Gospel's clap of thunder. Jesus declared: "I and my Father are one" (10:30).

The Jews went wild at the utterance of these words. To equate one's self with God was blasphemy to them. They picked up stones to kill Jesus on the spot. Before they could hurl them, however, he mocked them by asking, "For what good work now will you kill me?"

"Good work!" they retort. "Do you consider blasphemy good? How can you, a mere man, make yourself God?"

"Why your own Law," Jesus claims, "supports my contention. It describes as gods those to whom the work of God was given." At this point, Jesus quoted from the Book of Psalms, where it is written: "I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the Most High" (Psalm 82:6). "If this can be said of mere mortals like yourselves, why is it blasphemy for him whom the Father consecrated and sent to refer to himself as the Son of God?" (10:35-36, AP).

The test is the quality of the work. "If you can't believe in my own personal authenticity, then evaluate if what I do is what God himself would do if he were in my place; then accept the value and authenticity of my works. If you do, you will then realize that the Father is in me and that I am in the Father" (10:37-38, AP).

Indeed, the very life of God is incarnate in his son.

At this point, since the leaders of Jewry were out to kill him, Jesus left Jerusalem and repaired beyond Jordan to the place where his public ministry began. He went to the very site where John the Baptist baptized and where he himself had been heralded as the lamb of god who takes away the sins of the world. To be sure, John the Baptist was no longer there. He was dead, but the memory of his testimony to Jesus lived on. The people admitted that the Baptist performed no miracles, but everything he had said about Jesus proved to be true. Many now believed Jesus to be the son of God.

Those who did believe came out to him in the wilderness just as folk had gone out to John the Baptist before him. True belief initiates action on the part of the believer. Once people are convinced, they bestir themselves and move on their own initiative toward God.

It is important to realize that Jesus went to the site where the Israelites under Joshua made their entrance into the promised land. Jesus was ready to make his entrance as well. He would recapitulate the history of his people. But his conquest would be different from theirs. They won geographical territory for themselves in order to build a nation. Jesus would give himself up in order to build the kingdom of God in the hearts of all believers. He would enter the promised land in order to bring the life of God which he uniquely possessed to those who will receive it.

The Raising of Lazarus from the Dead (11:1-44)

John records only six miracles Jesus performed. Five of these are unique to his Gospel. Only in the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand does he report one of the miracles which the synoptics relate. The raising of the dead by Jesus is not peculiar to the Fourth Gospel, however. Mark tells that he raised the daughter of Jairus from the dead (Mark 5:21-43). And Luke reports the restoration of life which Jesus gave to the widow's son as he was being carried out in a funeral procession through the gate of the city of Nain to the cemetery (Luke 7:11-17). Even so, the raising of Lazarus is different from the other two. They appear as further and more impressive examples of our Lord's miraculous power and therefore take their place alongside his other mighty acts. But the raising of Lazarus is much more than an example of Jesus' gifts as a worker of miracles. It is God's display of himself in and through Jesus as the source of life and its preserver beyond time and throughout all eternity. This is John's proof that the Father was with and in his son, the evidence of Jesus' affirmation: "I and my Father are one" (10:30).

This miracle is the climax of the Fourth Gospel. Jesus, in bringing himself to Lazarus, brought him new life as well. Jesus performed this his last and greatest miracle on the eve of his own passion. Soon he would be doomed to death. The life he gave another was presented under the shadow of his own death. Nonetheless, what our Lord did in raising Lazarus from the dead is the supreme demonstration that he is God's life incarnate and that the life he brings is not diminished by death. "Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live" (5:25).

Jesus was still on the other side of the Jordan River when he received word that Lazarus was ill. The evangelist does not tell us the nature of that illness or how grave it was, but we presume it was serious, else Jesus would not have been informed of it at all. The context implies that with the message comes also the urgent request that Jesus come and cope with it. The evangelist does tell us that the sick man, Lazarus, and his two sisters were very close friends of Jesus.

Jesus responded, "This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it" (11:4, RSV). Yet, in the light of what follows, Jesus could not mean by this that Lazarus would not die. The disciples took him to mean that. They were more fearful of Jesus' safety if he returned to Jerusalem than they were of Lazarus' demise. Their response was that he will recover anyway. Why should Jesus bother to go to him? Why should he take any risks with his own life'? Jesus had said to them, "Lazarus is asleep, and I must wake him" (11:11, AP). If he is just asleep, they retorted, he will eventually wake up of his own accord. Jesus had to be candid with them and tell them outright that Lazarus was dead.

There are other instances in the New Testament when "fall asleep" is used as a synonym for death (Acts 13:36; 1 Cor. 11:30; 15:16-20; I Thess. 4:13). As a result of Jesus' usage of sleep in relationship to death, this wording is familiar among peoples where Christianity is prevalent.

Light and life are affixed to one another in this incident. When the disciples remonstrated with Jesus, warning him of the danger he faced in returning to Jerusalem, he said that there are only twelve hours in a day. One walking in daylight will not stumble, because the light of the world is evident One walking at night is apt to stumble, because the light is gone. Literally speaking, this observation of Jesus is out of context and has no relevance to the issue under discussion. But symbolically understood, it means that Jesus carries light with him, for he is the Light of the world, and that light gives the power of life to any who believe.

Jesus deliberately tarried two days after he received the message. He told the disciples that he was glad he was not in Bethany when Lazarus was taken ill. Otherwise, he would have healed him as he had healed others. Now he will perform a far greater miracle, which would confirm their belief and strengthen their witnessing.

Thomas, who later would doubt that it was Jesus who was raised from the dead, at this point insisted that he and the others accompany Jesus so that if he should be killed they would be killed with him.

Lazarus had expired before Jesus ever got the message of his illness. The evangelist tells us that when Jesus did arrive in Bethany, Lazarus had been buried four days.

Bethany is in easy walking distance of Jerusalem, only two miles away on the other side of the Mount of Olives. Bethany lies on the eastern slope facing Jericho and the Dead Sea. Jesus had come from the other side of the River Jordan, crossing the wilderness of Judea en route. Indeed, he must have been some place almost midway between Jerusalem and Mount Nebo, from the peak of which Moses had seen the promised land. Consequently he had a long, hard journey on foot to Bethany.

Jewish friends had come from nearby Jerusalem to comfort Lazarus's two sisters, Martha and Mary, in their grief. Then news arrived that Jesus, too, was on his way to lend them the strength of his presence in this time of deep sorrow. When Martha heard that he was approaching the village, she ran out to meet him. Mary was too disconsolate to leave the house. She was more introverted than Martha; her thoughts were turned inward.

When Martha encountered Jesus, she greeted him with the desperate, agonizing exclamation: "Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died!" (11:21, AP) Then she added, wistfully, longingly, not quite daring to hope, "But I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee" (11:22).

Jesus' response, though positive, was not positive enough for her. When our Lord said, "Thy brother shall rise again," Martha replied, "O, 1 know that. We all shall rise again on the last day." Then our Lord made the cataclysmic announcement that he himself is the incarnate life of God that can never die and that he is capable of bestowing that life on any who also will receive it. "He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die" (11:25-26).

"Martha," he said calmly, "do you believe this?"

"Yes, Lord," she replied, "for I realize you are the son of God." What Martha longed for but really dared not hope would happen, she sensed now was about to take place. She was standing in the presence of God's eternal life personified in the human Jesus.

Evidently Jesus asked where Mary was. No doubt, he was disappointed that she had not come out with her sister to greet him, for Martha went swiftly to her, saying, "The Master is come, and calleth for thee" (11:28). John tells us she spoke to Mary secretly. Why? We do not know. Perhaps she wanted Mary to see him alone. But, if this was her reason, she was thwarted; because the Jewish mourners, thinking Mary was going to the tomb to weep there for her brother, followed her. They were all about her when she reached Jesus. Her greeting was precisely the same as her sister's had been: "If only you had been here, my brother would not have died" (11:32, AP).

But Jesus' response was entirely different. When he saw her and her entourage both weeping, he groaned and was troubled. The Greek language conveys the implication that he was disgusted. Disgusted at the Jews because they were professional mourners. They did what they did for a fee. And troubled with Mary that she had become disconsolate to the point of being hysterical. She lost control of herself because of her grief. But when they took Jesus to Lazarus' burial place, he wept, too. His weeping was noticeable, for the Jews said, "See how he must have loved him!" (11:36, AP).

But others, more skeptical, said, "Couldn't this man who opened the eyes of the blind have kept Lazarus from dying ?"

All admitted what Jesus might have done while Lazarus was still alive. None even began to imagine what Jesus could do and would do now that Lazarus was dead.

Suddenly the action changed. Jesus did not respond to what he found in this mournful situation. He created an entirely different situation. He seized the initiative. He did not respond just in comforting and understanding love to the death of a friend, trying to bring solace and peace to his disturbed family. No, immediately he dispelled sorrow with joy and transformed tragedy into triumph. He commanded that the stone at the mouth of the tomb be rolled aside, even though Martha protested that her brother's body would already have begun to decay and the odor from it would be unbearable.

Nonetheless, Jesus cried out, "Lazarus, come forth!" And he who was dead stood before them alive, still bound, hand and foot, in his grave clothes. "Loose him," Jesus said, "and let him go" (11:44).

The miracle of miracles had taken place. Death had been displaced by life through the power of the incarnate life of God.

Reaction and Interpretation (11:45-57)

Seeing is believing. The Jewish mourners could not possibly deny what they had witnessed. A man they had helped to bury, whose death they had mourned, one who had been in the tomb four days, was now as much alive as they were. There was no way they could dispute such evidence.

Perhaps all present accepted the evidence, but some did not subscribe to the teaching of him who supplied that evidence. They could accept the fact that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. This does not mean, however, that they had to accept Jesus as their master and Savior as well. Some did. Others did not. Those who did not reported to the Pharisees what they had seen.

Thaumaturgists (miracle workers) abounded in Jesus' day. The magicians could do amazing and incredible things. To some spectators, Jesus was just another magician, the greatest of the lot, no doubt, but not necessarily deserving of anything more than a magician's fame.

In order to disabuse the minds of his audience that he belonged to the magicians' trade, Jesus had prayed aloud to the Father and asked his help in restoring Lazarus from death to life. He had done this entirely for the sake of his onlookers. He did not need to do it. The will of the Father is the same as the will of the son. Jesus knew in advance that he had the full support and help of his heavenly Father. He did not need to pray for anything. But he wanted the people to know that the miracle he was about to perform was done in compliance with the will of God, so that they might correctly interpret his action as God's will.

You and I have to pray. Our wills are not always in harmony with the will of God. When we make petitions, we close our requests with the submissive acknowledgement: "Not my will but thy will be done." It was impossible for Jesus not to express in action as well as thought the will of his heavenly Father.

It is interesting that the Sanhedrin itself was convinced when the news reached Jerusalem that Jesus had raised a man from the dead. Evidently the evidence for the miracle was so strong that even this body did not question its authenticity. The concern of the Sanhedrin was that Jesus' power would win the allegiance of most of the people to him. Because of the structure of his teachings and the loyalty of the people to him, they worried that he would precipitate a revolt from Rome. This would lead to the destruction of the Temple and the massacre of the Jewish people. Therefore, the Sanhedrin began to conspire to put Jesus to death. "It is better," the high priest said, "for one man to die than to allow the whole nation to perish."

Caiaphas did not really comprehend the truth of his own advice. Jesus would die on the cross as a sacrifice for the sins of humanity and thereby, in his own oblation of himself once offered, be a full and sufficient sacrifice for all humankind. His death would spiritually enable all who believe on him to live. But, on the other hand, what Caiaphas proposed would not spare his own people. Jerusalem and its Temple would be destroyed and the Jewish people decimated. Caiaphas's advice was ironic.

The plot against Jesus led him to return for a time to the town of Ephraim on the edge of the wilderness. The populace of Jerusalem, knowing that the authorities were determined to arrest and perhaps kill Jesus, wondered whether or not he would attend the Feast of the Passover that year. He would attend, but he would bide his time. He knew he would become the sacrificial lamb, but he wanted to await the exact time for its offering.

John records only six miracles out of all that Jesus performed. But in recording these six, he spelled out his Christology. Jesus is adequate for the whole needs of humanity:

1. He satisfies all legitimate human desires by supplying wine from water at a wedding feast.

2. He cures a child about to die of what appeared to be an incurable disease.

3. He makes a lame man walk.

4. He feeds a multitude who have no bread or meat.

5. He gives sight to a blind man. Indeed, all facets of human need are met by him.

6. He calls a person from death back to life again, proving thereby that even "the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and they that hear shall live" (5:25).


 Questions For Reflection And Study

 1. Jesus' words to the Jews about not believing in him come down hard on doubters. Does this seem to fit in with how Jesus usually dealt with people? Why do you think his words were so harsh in this instance?

2. "Jesus would give himself up in order to build the kingdom in the hearts of believers." What have you given up to build the kingdom in believers? What are you unwilling to give up?

3. Jesus said those who walk in the light do not stumble. If walking in the light means walking in God's way, with God's guidance, how do we explain the serious mistakes (stumblings) of committed believers?

4. Jesus and Lazarus' sisters wept and showed their grief. When Christians die, family members who are self-controlled and show no obvious grief are sometimes praised as strong and a people of exceptionally strong faith. What do you suppose are the assumptions behind such thinking?

5. List the miracles reported so far in this Gospel. How do the works of Jesus reported here compare to what believers do now? Are we and our churches involved in meeting the same sorts of needs that Jesus was? Which kinds of outreach do we avoid?