Monday 15 April 2024

What does Jesus teach in the Fourth Gospel? - my renewed understanding and conviction

I have been re-reading the Fourth Gospel (in the Authorized or King James version) with intensity of engagement, and the large sweep of narrative - the miracles and the teaching - that runs from the third through the sixteenth Chapters: from meeting Nicodemus at night to just before Jesus's arrest. 


I am struck afresh and with great force what Jesus does and does-not speak of. Again and again Jesus explains who and what he is; and that he is asking to be believed, loved and "followed". 

(What "following" means is explained in the Good Shepherd section.)

Once his hearers know who Jesus is; they are asked repeatedly to love and follow him - and that is very much the focus and the core of the Gospel.  

Jesus apparently has great difficulty in communicating the simplicity of his message to the disciples; and only just before his arrest (at the end of Chpater 16) does Jesus seem satisfied that the disciples have at last grasped what Jesus has told them so many times.


Jesus does not talk about rules for living, does not talk of morality. Does not tell people how to behave in the details (or indeed the sweep) of everyday life. 

Indeed, this trait is very marked indeed. Jesus is hardly-at-all a moral teacher. When he refers to sin, he nearly always means death, and suchlike realities of this mortal life.  

And when Jesus speaks of "commandments" he essentially means to "love one another" (as he goes on to explain) and Himself - clearly a qualitatively different matter from the commandments of Moses. 

All this is very different from how Jesus is usually described. 


The shaping emphasis is on the life and world to come; not this mortal life and world - it is the post-resurrection reality that ought to shape our current goals and behaviours.

In other words; Jesus is usually talking about having brought a change in ultimate, "cosmic" reality; a change in the set-up of divine creation: new realities and new possibilities. 


Throughout, Jesus talks of his Father as a distinct person from himself: clearly with complete harmony between the two of them, but his Father absolutely as a real and separate person from Jesus himself; a person with whom Jesus has a relationship of the same kind as with the disciples, but vastly greater and perfected. 

Thus Jesus's message is cosmic; but the cosmic is personal - indeed a matter of many persons; because Jesus links God to himself, and to the disciples (broadly considered - not meaning some particular number of men); all those with whom Jesus shares mutual love.

Love is mentioned many, many times; and seems like the core term - a new and all-transcending principle of life - the new reality that Jesus made-happen. Reading this, one is immediately compelled to ponder this astonishing reality that Jesus has placed at the heart of creation  

The Holy Ghost, the Comforter, is described Jesus himself (not a separate person) after he will have ascended to Heaven - and who will be present to all who love and follow Jesus. The Holy Ghost is stated to provide - in a personal way - all that is required of guidance and knowledge.  

This is emphasized: everything the disciples need to know after Jesus has ascended to Heaven, will be provided by the Holy Ghost. 


Something that is very evident is that Jesus asserts the exclusivity of his message. That only by Jesus, via Jesus, can we attain resurrected everlasting life. There is no other way. 

This is asserted as a fact; although what that fact means is apparently very different from the usual way it has been taught in the centuries since - because the Fourth Gospel is utterly indifferent to any form of church. 

The gospel is all about relationships, and these relationships are personal - indeed Jesus declares (at some length, in detail) that they need to be the relationships of friends, rather than hierarchical or formal.  


But Jesus's insistence on the exclusivity of his role in salvation is absolutely hard-line. If resurrection is what people want, there is simply no alternative (when the time comes) to knowing and following Jesus.

The reason why is also explained; which is that those who reject Jesus do not want what Jesus offers. The monotheists (such as the Pharisees) want something altogether different from what Jesus offers: they are rejecting the new cosmic possibilities that Jesus brings. 

What this partial summary fails to do is to describe the power of this reading when I am able to give the engagement full and intense attention; the authority and conviction with which the words and actions of Jesus reach across the centuries; in which these words over-leap the vast complexity of "Christianity" that grew in the generations in-between Jesus and myself. 

Of course, yesterday and today is not the first time I have felt this (as I wrote previously) - but this was a fresh amazement - and evoked a fear that it might not be so!

...Leading-on to a new affirmation of faith and another experience of conviction; of direct validation. 


What Jesus is saying and offering in the Fourth Gospel is astonishing to me, breathtaking in its originality and radicalism.

For me it is something that I want deeply, something I therefore really want to be true! And the whole thing therefore hinges on whether I personally believe what Jesus is saying - whether I believe He was who he said, and whether I regard as true what he claimed. 

After which, according to the Fourth Gospel; I am told to turn to the Holy Ghost (that is; to Jesus himself, in person, as available to us here-and-now) to provide exactly that knowledge, and the comfort that derives from conviction of its truth.  


Note added: I see that I failed to complete the circuit of the above description; because no matter how overwhelming a spiritual experience may be at the time of experiencing it - such conviction does not last. Almost immediately, the experience is subjected to doubts, and indeed is readily explained-away by all kinds of familiar materialistic/ scientistic arguments (just a dream, a delusion, wishful thinking etc.). That is the situation of modern man - and not by accident. As men who have become conscious of much that was once spontaneous and implicit; modern Men must consciously choose. We must decide whether or not to believe our spiritual experiences; whether or not to regard them as an intuition of ultimate reality. This is a free choice, and one for which we ought to take personal responsibility. Specifcially; we ought not to desire to be permanently overwhelmed by a conviction so powerful and lasting that we never get out from under it. Nor should we regard such inescapable experiences as the most valid. Because that would be to desire to be un-free and to evade personal responsibility. Therefore - to complete the circuit - I freely choose to believe as real that religious experience of conviction: I choose to make its validity a bottom line assumption for me. 


Francis Berger said...

My experience is similar when I reread the Fourth Gospel. Your highlighting of the cosmic aspect of Jesus' message and offer cannot be stressed enough. Jesus changed reality in a cosmic sense, yet too many are unopen the new possibilities and new realities.

A recent comment over at my place questions the very relevance of the question of how to get to Heaven when it set against the backdrop of more "pressing" matters like society and demography.

Post-resurrection reality ought to shape our current goals and behaviours, but it seems post-resurrection reality is regarded as a kind of hindrance to "pre-resurrection, this-worldly" reality. It gets in the way of all the worldly things we need to do and accomplish in mortal life, etc.

The afterlife as afterthought appears to be the essence of what constitutes contemporary Christianity. Resurrected life as a giant hypothetical, as opposed to the very "real" reality of this life and this-world. I can't think of anything more un-Christian, perhaps even anti-Christian.

As a side note, the bulk of the Synoptics has done little more than cloud or confuse the simplicity, force, and beauty of the Fourth Gospel.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Frank - What I find absolutely remarkable, is that all this is plain to see when the Fourth Gospel is read as a unit. But it seems that "nobody" has read it this way - either ever, or for a very long time.

This was my point at the start of Lazarus Writes. People who read the Fourth Gospel today (and for centuries) do so through very distorting spectacles; through a variety of historical, scriptural and theological assumptions that - at the end of the day - utterly *neuter* the meaning and implications of the Gospel...

After all this, the Fourth Gospel becomes merely decorative - almost disposible in substantive terms; just an illustration of ideas derived from the Synoptics, the Epistles - and a framework derived from extra-scriptural philosophy.

A said...

I had in childhood the profound notion that the Truth of God should be knowable and simple, and readily available whatever one's situation. It never went farther than that though, but this appears a fulfillment of that desire. The simplicity of a loving relationship, which all should have the most basic experience of through being born, and further knowledge communicable through the Holy Ghost.

If for this to be possible, to listen and know through prayer, silence, and intuition we also see the worldly impetus to overwhelm our sensory input. Endless games, visual, audio, reading - as never before access to every form of external knowledge yet apparently dumber than ever.

Epimetheus said...

That the relationship between myself and Christ should be a friendship, or even could be a friendship, even a brotherly friendship, hasn't ever clicked until reading your article just now. My relationship in prayer has always been slavish pleading to an indifferent master.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Epi - John 15 covers this aspect in some detail.