The Christian Life. According to the Gospel of John, life begins with a divine act. Humans do not fit themselves for the kingdom of God. They cannot. They are sinful. The word “sin” occurs 17 times in John’s Gospel, a total exceeded in the NT only in Romans and Hebrews. Sin is very real, and to “die in your sins” is the ultimate horror (8:21). But there is no necessity for this, for the Lamb of God came to take away the sins of the world (1:29). Deliverance from sin and entrance into life are divine acts. For this it is necessary to be born of the Spirit (3:5, 8). There is dispute about whether we should understand John 3:3 in terms of being “born again” or “born from above.” For the present purpose the resolution of the difficulty is not important. Both are involved. To enter the kingdom is, not to continue as one was, but to be born all over again. And this rebirth is not a matter of human striving, but a work of the Spirit. The emphasis is on what God does in bringing about life in men and women.
This life is often called “eternal life,” though “life” seems to mean much the same. The adjective “eternal” means literally “pertaining to an age.” The Jews divided time into the age before creation, the present age, and the age to come. Theoretically, then, “eternal” could apply to any of these ages, but in practice it was used of the age to come. Sometimes this means “everlasting,” for the coming age was thought to have no end. But sometimes the emphasis is on quality—it is the life proper to the coming age, an age that differs in many respects from the present age. John uses the adjective about three times as often as any other NT writer. Scripture nevers says that God has eternal life, only God has life “in himself” (5:26). But God gives eternal life to believers (e.g., Jn 3:15). He gives it at a cost, the cost of the Son (3:16).
Often Jesus speaks simply of “life,” and this means much the same in most places. The Father has given to him the property of having life in himself (5:26), but this property is not shared by anything or anyone else. All other life is derivative. It does not even exist by itself, so to speak, after Christ made it. It exists only “in” him. Only those who come to Christ have life (5:40); the same truth may be put in terms of eating his flesh and drinking his blood (6:53, 54). He gave his flesh for the life of the world (6:51); thus the reference to eating and drinking is a symbolic way of referring to receiving him in his character as the Savior who died for men. When he gives life, the recipients never perish (10:28). Jesus can speak of coming to give men life, and give it more abundantly (10:10). So closely is life associated with him that twice he is said to be life (11:25; 14:6).
Life is God’s gift, and those who enter it do so because of an activity of the Spirit within them. But the other side of this coin is that only those who believe are reborn. John recognizes the importance of believing. His Gospel uses the verb “believe” no less than 98 times (next most frequent in the NT are Acts with 37, then Romans with 21).
“Believe” occurs in a variety of constructions. Sometimes it is followed by “that,” referring to truths humans believe; sometimes the idea is simply of believing people or believing facts. A very interesting construction—“believing into” Jesus—is used 36 times. This brings out the element of personal trust.
We should not make firm distinctions between the various usages of “believe.” In the last resort they come to mean much the same thing. Really to believe “that” (i.e., the facts about Christ) means trusting him, just as “believing in” him or simply believing him means trusting him. However it is worded, this verb shows the central importance of coming to a place of faith in Christ. There is no substitute for that.
John has a great deal to say about love and emphasizes its importance. Fundamentally this is God’s love. The Father loves the Son, a truth that is insisted on a number of times (3:35; 10:17; 15:9; 17:24 etc.). But he loves humans too, and we have the great declaration that he loved the world (3:16). This surpasses anything so far known in Judaism and represents a specifically Christian understanding of V 2, p 1198 p 1198 God. God’s great and sacrificial love cannot but have its consequences. It awakes an answering love in men, and there are several references to men loving Christ (14:15, 21, 23).
Christians also have love for one another, and this is the characteristic mark of discipleship. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (13:35). Jesus repeatedly commanded his followers to love one another (13:34; 15:12, 17). There are two Greek verbs for “to love” in the NT and John’s Gospel has each of them more than twice as often as any other book of the NT except 1 John. The Christian owes all he has and is to the love of God in Christ; it is the most natural thing that he should respond with an answering love, and such an answering love overflows in love to men.
Like life, light is specially linked with Christ, who is indeed called “the light of the world” (8:12; 9:5). The prologue states, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (1:4). The linking of life and light is like that in Psalm 36:9, and it brings out the truth that wherever there is life and light, Christ has been at work. The prologue goes on immediately to say that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (1:5). This is the conflict between light and darkness discussed above. Light drives darkness away. They cannot coexist. If there is even a little light, there is no longer darkness. The metaphor is a vivid one for the opposition of good and evil.
John carried this through in his exposition of the Christian life. Christ has indeed come “as light into the world” (12:46) and those who follow him will not walk in darkness but “will have the light of life” (8:12). To love darkness rather than light is itself condemnation (3:19), depriving oneself of all the blessing that comes from loving light.
The concept of truth is closely linked with Jesus. Truth is not simply information about Jesus; he is the truth (14:6). Or he is said to be “full of grace and truth” (1:14). John the Baptist came to bear witness to Jesus (1:6, 7), and he bore witness to the truth (5:33). It is not surprising that truth is connected with salvation, as it is elsewhere in the NT (e.g., Eph 1:13; Gal 2:5). As John reaches the climax of his Gospel, he records that Pilate asked, “What is truth?” (18:38). There is no formal answer, but John’s passion narrative clearly shows what truth really is. The cross is in mind also when Jesus says, “For their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth” (17:19).
Truth links up with salvation in other ways. Thus Jesus says that if people abide in his word, they are truly his disciples, “and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (8:31, 32). Jesus is not speaking of truth as a philosophical concept, the knowledge of which brings genuine intellectual freedom. He is speaking about the life which a person can live free from bondage to evil. That is an immensely liberating experience, and it comes from a right relationship to Jesus. It is in line with this that believers can be said to be “of the truth” (18:37) or to sanctify themselves “in the truth” (17:17). On the other hand, the devil is one who does not stand in the truth, and there is no truth in him (8:44).
Truth is so distinctive of Jesus that he can be said to have come into the world in order to bear witness to the truth (18:37; cf. 8:40). Truth is linked similarly with the Spirit. He is “the Spirit of truth” (14:17), and part of his work is to guide men “into all the truth” (16:13). Moreover, those who approach God must worship “in Spirit and in truth” (4:23, 24).
More could be said. In many circles today there is extensive discussion of the Johannine community. It is true that John’s Gospel records Jesus speaking of a fold and also of a vine whereof believers are branches, as well as other indications that believers belong together; but it never uses the word “church.” Many scholars think of baptism in connection with John 3 and see communion in John 6, but neither term is used. What is clear is the emphasis on Christ and on the new life provided for believers by his death and resurrection and the gift of the Spirit.
Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “John the Apostle, Life and Writings Of,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 1197–1198.