Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.(John 20:30-31 ESV)
I’ve learned a lot about genuine faith from reading the Gospel of John these past few months (for devotionals and for teaching Sunday School). I learned about Jesus’ identity, his Father, and his mission of salvation, about how outward religiosity can hide stubborn unbelief (the Jewish leaders) and false belief (the crowds), and more. But out of all the takeaways from my time in John, what stood out to me most were the scattered stories of genuine belief I found throughout the book.
In his prologue, John foreshadows for his readers what Jesus’ ministry will look like:
He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:10-13 ESV)
In chapters 1-12 (which cover Jesus’ three years of ministry up until his final week) that’s exactly what we see. Jesus comes to Israel. He does miracles; he pleads for them to recognize and believe in him, but they reject him over and over again. But in the midst of widespread unbelief, John slips in stories of what it looks like to really encounter Jesus. In chapter 3 we find Nicodemus, a top religious leader who comes to Jesus by night looking for answers. In chapter 4, we read of an adulterous Samaritan woman receiving Jesus as her living water. In chapter 9, we see Jesus heal a blind man and in chapter 10, watch him raise Lazarus from the dead, to the joy of Mary and Martha.
At first, I didn’t quite know what to make of these stories. On the one hand, I was always happy to find a positive response to Jesus in a book mostly filled with depressing rejection. On the other hand, these weren’t conversions as I normally thought of them; Jesus had not yet died on the cross, so they couldn’t have known the full Gospel that we know today. What exactly did these characters know about Jesus? How could they know enough to be Christians after a short conversation or encounter? John’s sparse details left open plenty of other questions for my curiosity: what happens to Nicodemus between chapter 3 and when he pops up again later in the narrative? Did the Samaritan woman and the blind man persevere in their faith after Jesus leaves? I didn’t doubt that these characters truly believed and remained in Jesus, but still, John’s lack of elaboration left me wanting to know how it all worked.
But if everything John writes is so that we would believe, then what is he trying to teach us from these stories? Here’s what I think: the essence of the Gospel is a personal encounter with Jesus.
In these stories, we get to know Jesus and the beauty of his character. We see his stern wisdom as he humbles the great religious teacher; his heart of grace as he crosses cultural and social boundaries for a despised woman and a forgotten man; and the interplay of his power, compassion, and sovereignty when he raises Lazarus. We see him meet broken people just like us in their greatest need: Nicodemus, in his empty religion; the Samaritan woman, in her loneliness; the blind man, in his poverty and isolation; and Mary and Martha, in the grief of a lost loved one. We see him restore each of their sin, suffering, and sadness and watch their joyful reactions in real time. Each character responds in his or her own unique way: Nicodemus swallows his pride and the fear of his peers to defend Jesus (chapter 7) and anoint his dead body (chapter 19). The Samaritan woman evangelizes and brings revival to her oft-maligned people. The blind man courageously defies the Pharisees even though it means excommunication from the synagogue. And Mary responds in lavish worship by pouring out expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet.
This, John says, is what genuine belief is. It is when we see the character of Jesus as he meets us in our deepest need, and we respond in worship. John doesn’t tell us every detail about these characters. He doesn’t need to. When you experience Jesus in such a personal way, John says, you never forget. You never walk away. You can’t. If you need more information about him, you go out and get it. If hard times come, you persevere and cling to him. Even though we may not know everything about these characters, we know this for certain: they saw Jesus for who he really was.
Before reading the book of John, I had been in a spiritual dry season. One big reason, I realized, was that despite my ‘Gospel-centered-ness’, I had allowed the Gospel to become general instead of personal. I had begun to think of it as a 4-point outline for random evangelism, a way to judge whether someone was a ‘solid’ Christian or not, a truth to offer as advice, a theory that needed to be theologically precise, and a right answer that made your sermon or your worship set legitimate, but somewhere along the way, it had ceased to be personal. The Gospel was something I was supposed to be amazed at and love at all times and in all situations, but not something I was amazed at because it met my deepest need. Even though I was thinking, talking, and singing about the Gospel, I had allowed it to become divorced from the story of Scripture and from my own life.
As I read the stories of John, it was odd; I felt more connected to these personal encounters than I did when I thought about Jesus dying for my sins. I felt like they showed me the beauty of Christ and really connected to my struggles, while the cross felt like a tired cliche. But when I thought about it, I realized that wasn’t right at all. These stories aren’t more personal than the Gospel; they are parables about the Gospel. Everything I loved about these stories is exemplified times infinity at the cross. I loved watching the beauty of Jesus character as he sought out the outcast and sinner–the cross displays that love fully. I loved watching the responses as each person saw Jesus meet their greatest need. At the cross, Jesus met my greatest need–my sinful standing before a wrathful God.
This past Easter, I had the privilege to share on John 21 about Jesus’ restoration of Peter. After wrapping up his wonderful Gospel with his thesis (the passage I started this post with), John cannot help but give us one more story–one more chance to see the wonderful love of Christ. Peter, burdened by the guilt of denying Jesus, decides to go back to his old life as a fisherman. When he returns after a long night of failed fishing, Jesus is standing at the shore. He performs the same miracle that he did when he first called Peter–a miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5:1-11). In doing so, he sends this powerful message to Peter: It was never about your strength; you’ve always been a fisher of men by my grace alone. You were then, at the start, and you are now, even in your failure. Peter, I still want you as my follower. I still love you. Come follow me.
I was thankful that Jesus is not just this personal with Peter, or with Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman, the blind man, Mary and Martha, and the other disciples. He has sought me out personally. At the cross, he has revealed his character in the most personal of ways. And at the cross, he has personally met and healed my every longing need. To him be the glory!
And, as an added bonus, for the first time in quite a few months, I wrote a song! I hope you enjoy.
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. (John 10:14-15 ESV)