The Bible is old.
It was written a long time ago, by people who lived in another world, dealt with different issues, and saw the universe in different ways. Because the Bible is old, it reads differently than books we read today. It uses different rhetorical styles. It relies on language that modern readers may find inaccessible, or even off-putting. It makes points that we might miss, or misunderstand.
The Bible is old, and it can seem complicated. Various authors wrote it and others assembled it over hundreds of years.
We still read the Bible today because, even though it is old, it deals with real issues that are a part of the world we live in today. The Bible’s themes, ideas, and images act as threads, weaving the Bible into an enduring, cohesive whole.
One of the most powerful examples of this is found in the gospel of John and the related books 1, 2 and 3 John. Christian legend and tradition claims that these books were written by John, elder statesman of the Ephesian church, on the heels of a profound betrayal that left their church wracked with doubt and sadness. John responds by taking up a thread from the creation narrative, using it to re-introduce Jesus and explain how God is, and always has been, at work in the world.
Not only did John’s work help shore up these battered churches, it continues to provide rich, theological answers to basic questions we deal with today.
How does the universe work?
How should we live?
How Does the Universe Work?
There is perhaps no more basic human frustration than the question ‘how does the world work?’ It can also be phrased ‘who is God and what is that God like?’ or ‘who is organizing this place?’
A.W. Tozer famously said that
‘What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.‘
People and cultures operate from a core set of assumptions about how the universe is organized. There are rules that govern it and how we should live our lives. Those beliefs are going to shape people’s day-to-day lives, including relationships, spending, entertainment, and more.
In other words, all people and cultures have a god they serve. While there are a variety of basic approaches to the divine, there are two basic types of ‘gods’ that have cropped up throughout history and remain prevalent today.
First, there is the loving but libertarian god. This god just wants you to be happy, and do whatever it takes to make you happy. Then there is the god of justice. This god has a particular way he likes to do things, and if you break his rules, watch out, because God is coming to get you!
While we may be able to point to times and places in Christian history where these gods pop up, it is important to recognize that neither of them are the God that John is writing about.
To understand who God is to John, we need to trace a thread back to the creation story in Genesis.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters…
Then God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. Then he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day’ and the darkness ‘night’.
The ancient Hebrew account of how the world started begins with chaos. The word ‘darkness’, choshek, could be translated misery, destruction, death, ignorance, sorrow, wickedness, obscurity.
In Genesis, creation begins with God proclaiming light in darkness. In a time of the world’s misery, ignorance and sorrow, God shines a light.
Who is God? How is the world organized? The answer in Genesis is that, first and foremost, God is the one who brings light to darkness, order to chaos.
This thread is picked up in the Gospel of John. While Matthew and Luke rely on the family setting to introduce Jesus, John begins by picking up the creation thread from Genesis.
In the beginning the Word already existed.
The Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He existed in the beginning with God.
God created everything through him,
and nothing was created except through him.
The Word gave life to everything that was created,
and his life brought light to everyone.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness can never extinguish it.
According to Genesis, God is the great order-bringer who brings light to the darkness. John shows us that Jesus is with God, inseparable from God. Prof. N.T. Wright describes it this way:
John’s opening move is, of course, bold. It borders (one might think) on blasphemy. Are you really sitting down to write a new Genesis?
‘Yes!’ replies John, ‘because that is the truth to which I am bearing witness. I am telling a story about something that has happened in which heaven and earth have come together in a whole new way, about the long and dark fulfillment of the creator’s purposes for his creation.’
He picks up the thread again in 1st John. This time, he wants the churches in his network not only to remember Jesus’ place in creation, but also of their experience of Jesus’ incarnation. Picking up the thread again, John says to them that Jesus lived on earth, he was real, tangible, and present among them only a generation or two prior.
We proclaim to you the one who existed from the beginning, whom we have heard and seen. We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands. He is the Word of life. This one who is life itself was revealed to us, and we have seen him… our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.
1 John 1:1-4
Having set this expectation about Jesus’ place, but cosmically and historically, John goes on to describe the relationship of Jesus to the Church.
My dear children, I am writing this to you so that you will not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate who pleads our case before the Father. He is Jesus Christ, the one who is truly righteous.
1 John 2:1-2
Anyone who denies the Son doesn’t have the Father, either. But anyone who acknowledges the Son has the Father also.
1 John 2:23
From this ancient network of churches in Ephesus up until today, people ask, ‘Who is God?’ John answers the question by sewing a thread from creation to incarnation. John says God brings light to darkness, order to chaos, hope to despair. Although God is infinite and incomprehensible, we have Jesus to help us relate to God.
To put more simply, according to John, God is like Jesus.According to John, God is like Jesus. Click To Tweet
How Should We Live?
John doesn’t stop at grand theological questions but uses this thread to push into the practical life of the Church.
Dear friends, I am not writing a new commandment for you; rather it is an old one you have had from the very beginning. This old commandment—to love one another—is the same message you heard before. Yet it is also new. Jesus lived the truth of this commandment, and you also are living it. For the darkness is disappearing, and the true light is already shining.
1 John 2:7-8
If this sounds familiar, and really all of 1 John sounds familiar, just look back at Jesus’ final discourse recorded in John 13-17. John Chapter 13 takes place at a meal the night before Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus’ followers show up for the dinner party. Because people walked around in sandals on dusty roads, it was customary to greet your guests by having a servant wash their feet. Jesus greets them, dressed as a servant, and then he himself washes their feet.
Now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other.
Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.
John’s Gospel shows how Jesus spent his final moments with his students, teaching them to love. Now in 1 John, the author picks up this thread, and weaves it together with the thread about creation to answer our burning question ‘how should we live?’
We live in a dark world. It can feel like we’re stumbling through school, through careers, through relationships. We grope for rules to help us navigate. The Jewish culture famously had the 10 commandments, as well as 613 other official laws, and countless unofficial laws.
But to Jesus, all of that law, all of that tradition could be summed up in one simple statement ‘love each other as I have loved you’.
Now John’s thread weaves from creation, to incarnation, to the day-to-day reality of life in Christian community. Jesus is the light, and that light shines in a dark world, guiding us in to live lives of sacrificial love.John's thread has weaves from creation, to incarnation, to the day-to-day reality of life in Christian community. Jesus is the light, and that light shines in a dark world guiding us in to live lives of sacrificial love. Click To Tweet
How does the universe work?
God is like Jesus.
How should we live?
Love each other.
If you are fascinated by this string woven throughout Scripture, you will love our new course, The Storied World of the Bible. The course won’t be available for a few more weeks, but in the meantime you can dig into our free course on Philemon—and you’ll be the first to find out when new resources are available!
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