LIFE – John’s message for the 21st Century
In our last blog we saw that Paul’s message of redemption from sin rarely relates to people outside the church in the 21st century, but John’s message of life speaks powerfully into our contemporary society. The effects of godlessness in our society are seen particularly among our young people. In Britain today it is said that 40,000 children are on regular anti-depressants and 8.3% of all 5-15 year olds have a mental health disorder. The thirst for excitement and the openness to drugs, as also the dangers of social media, demonstrates how unsatisfying our young people are finding life. Among adults too we hear the murmured longing that “there must be more to life than what we’ve got”.
Into this context John’s message of LIFE can speak with dynamic attractiveness. Already in John’s Gospel’s opening Prologue this major theme of life is introduced – “in him was life, and the life was the light of humankind” (John 1.4). John will go on to emphasise how Jesus brings the fullness of life here on earth and then eternal life to all who believe in him.
Indeed in 20.31 John declares that his purpose in writing his Gospel is that people might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and that those who are believing may have life in his name.” Although there is the necessary precondition of faith in Jesus, the gift of true, abundant and eternal life lies at the very heart of John’s message in his Gospel.
John’s first letter may be seen as the natural sequel to his Gospel. While the Gospel introduces people to faith in Jesus as God’s son who brings life and light to those who believe in him, John’s first epistle seeks to encourage believers in their life of discipleship. John observes that he “has written these things to you in order that you, believing in the name of the son of God, may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5.13). So, in his Gospel John is writing with the longing that his readers might believe in Jesus and thus receive his gift of life; then in his Epistle John is writing to believers to assure them that they can know with real assurance that they definitely have eternal life. The life Jesus gives is filled with the love and joy of God. We begin this relationship with God here and now; and it climaxes when we enter the presence of the Father himself.
What a fantastic message for the 21st century! As we come to faith in Jesus, we receive his gift of a radically changed life. And then also we have the assurance of eternal life, so death loses its sting. I remember so well the tremendous change in my life when I became a believer in Jesus. Big moral changes ensued; a new personal assurance overcame my fearful lack of self-confidence; warmth of relationships banished the deep loneliness I felt before. Jesus’ promise of abundant life is good news indeed and is just what people need today. And now I am getting old and know that death could come at any time, so Jesus’ gracious promise of eternal life becomes even more wonderfully relevant. In Britain and many countries around the world more and more people are over 65, so the promise of eternal life becomes increasingly ‘good news’.
The gift of abundant life here on earth and eternal life is based on Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus declared, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11.25), thus linking the gift of life to the fact of the resurrection. And both stem from Jesus who in his fundamental nature actually is the resurrection and the life. We may say of the Lord, ‘what he is, he does’. He is love (1 John 4.8), so he loves us and gives eternal life to us (John 3.16). He is the resurrection and the life, so he raises us up to new and eternal life. Already in the New Testament the resurrection begins to relate to the after life, but for Jesus that came with the ascension. His resurrection meant the fullness of life here on earth during the forty days between his death and his ascension. So also for us in our union with Jesus we already can know something of the reality of resurrection life here on earth. What amazing ‘good news’ for those who say, “there must be more to life than what we’ve got”. There certainly is! We rejoice in the resurrection life.
Does the gift of abundant life mean health, wealth and unhindered prosperity and success? I remember being driven through Oslo in rush hour with two girls in the back seat. They held that sort of prosperity belief and constantly claimed from the Lord that he would turn the traffic lights green for us and remove all traffic which was holding us up! After a while they exclaimed that Satan was opposing the will of God for us and we needed to cast him out!
In contrast, in traditional Jewish thought suffering is the necessary introduction to the kingdom of God. Suffering as slaves in Egypt forms the prelude to the glory of the Passover and the giving of the Law. So too Jesus only began to preach the kingdom of God when he heard that the man of God, John the Baptist, had been put in prison (Matthew 4.12, 17). Likewise in Matthew 14 the kingdom sign of Jesus feeding the five thousand follows from Jesus hearing that John had been killed. In John 6 also the feeding of the crowd follows from reference to John the Baptist’s ministry and opposition also to Jesus himself (John 5.32-36, 45-47). In John’s Gospel, as indeed also in the other Gospels, the glorious climax comes in the resurrection of Jesus. But the cross of Jesus must never be left out as the introduction to the resurrection. There can be no resurrection without the cross. Jesus’ gift of new life through his resurrection will always go together with experience of the cross in our lives. Jesus’ cross is for our redemption, our cross is to bring that redemption to a needy world and to form the likeness of Christ in us. Here is glorious good news: beyond the present suffering there shines the joy of life abundant and also eternal life.