DIVINE BOOKENDS: The Apostle John and the Deity of Christ

There is a striking similarity between two canonical books written by the Apostle John, namely his first letter, 1 John, and his Gospel. Both writings have corresponding bookends.

How does 1 John start?

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.”

Compare this with the Prologue to the Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Observe the common motifs:

  1. Both are concerned with a reality that goes back to “the beginning.”

  2. In both cases the central focus is on “the Word.”

  3. Both accounts locate the source of “life”, that is, the life of the Age to Come (‘eternal life’) in the Word.

  4. Both are concerned with this life being made known, revealed, through the Word.

  5. Both are concerned with the Word becoming flesh, becoming fully human - able to be heard, seen, looked at and touched.

  6. Both stress the importance of testifying to this reality via John the Baptist (Gospel) and the apostles (1 John).

  7. Both stress that it is through the Word that it is possible to have a vital relationship with God as “children of God” (Gospel) and in fellowship with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, via the apostolic gospel (1 John).

The Gospel begins explicitly by stating that “the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” 1 John implicitly understands fellowship with ‘God’ as being fellowship with the Father and his Son. In the New Testament the phrase “son of God”, as a title for Jesus, often merely connotes he is the Messiah. But there are many occasions, especially in John’s Gospel, where the title goes beyond this, pointing to Jesus’ identity as the second member of the Trinity, the divine Son of God. It is almost certain that this is the implication when Jesus is referred to as “his Son” at 1 John 1:3, especially when it is recognised that the standard New Testament concatenation of Father and Son and of Theos and Kurios, is due to a Christian re-reading of the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). So, for example, at 1 Corinthians 8:6 Paul takes the Greek renderings of “LORD” and “God”, namely kurios and theos respectively, and understands the “one God” worshipped by Christians to be “the Father” and our “one Lord”, Jesus Christ.

Both John’s Gospel and 1 John begin with the understanding that Jesus is both fully God and fully human.

Now consider how both the Gospel and 1 John end. First, consider the close of 1 John:

19 We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. 20 We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.

21 Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.

It is recognised by scholars that John 21 constitutes an appendix to the Gospel. So the main body of the Gospel, John 20, closes as follows:

24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Yet again consider shared motifs:

  1. Both conclusions stress that Jesus is the source of life, “eternal life”, that is, life in the Age to Come.

  2. Both are concerned with Jesus’ identity as “the Son of God.” As I stated above, the title “Son of God” does indeed include the identification of Jesus as the Messiah. But for John “Son of God”, as a study of Gospel uses reveals, transcends this identity.

  3. John’s Gospel closes with Thomas confessing, “My Lord and my God!” 1 John closes by identifying Jesus as “the true God.”

Significantly, then, both in his Gospel and in his first letter, John begins and ends by highlighting the reality that Jesus is God.

It is further striking that in 1 John, immediately after identifying Jesus as “the true God and eternal life”, occur these last words: “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” The epistle especially warns against ‘antichrists.’ English words that involve the prefix anti typically carry the idea of being “against” something. So antibiotics combat harmful microorganisms. Similarly, we have anticoagulants and antidepressants. Antidiscrimination opposes discrimination, and so on. However, in Greek the preposition anti is better understood as connoting “in place of.”

John is particularly combatting false teaching which does not reject Jesus holus bolus, but which involves presenting false understandings of Jesus, hence, for example, 1 John 5:22: “Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist – he denies the Father and the Son.” Or again in 4:2-3 we read: “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.” John is alluding to false teaching about Jesus that was worming its way into Christian communities, for example, that Jesus only appeared to have a body, but was not a real flesh and blood human being. Hence the way 1 John begins, with emphasis on Jesus being not merely heard, seen and looked at, but also one touched by the hands of John and other apostles.

In this first letter John is stressing how crucial it is for Christians to remain true to the Jesus they know through the apostolic gospel and to reject false views of Jesus. It is precisely because Jesus is “the true God”, that to accept false teaching about Jesus and adopt a false Jesus is to commit idolatry. However, the proof that one really knows Jesus is not merely expressed in orthodox doctrinal beliefs. It must also be lived out, demonstrated in a life of righteousness and expressions of genuine love, as John repeatedly emphasises in this epistle. John says that the person who claims to know Jesus but doesn’t do what he commands is a liar in whom the truth does not dwell (1 John 2:4). So it necessarily follows that such persons are also idolaters because they are worshipping a doctrinal abstraction and not the real Jesus, given that knowing Jesus makes no discernible difference to their life and character.

John wants us, like Thomas, to come to Jesus and cry out in wonder, "My Lord and my God."

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