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by Editor - William Robertson Nicoll
In order to read the Gospel of St. John with some intelligence, it is necessary to understand its purpose and its plan. For in the whole range of literature there is no composition which is a more perfect work of art, or which more rigidly excludes whatever does not subserve its main end. From the first word to the last there is no paragraph, sentence, or expression which is out of its place, or with which we could dispense. Part hangs together with part in perfect balance. The sequence may at times be obscure, but sequence there always is. The relevancy of this or that remark may not at first sight be apparent, but irrelevancy is impossible to this writer.
The object which the Evangelist had in view in writing this Gospel we are not left to find out for ourselves. He explicitly says that his purpose in writing was to promote the belief that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31). This purpose, he judges, he will best accomplish, not by writing an essay, nor by framing an abstract argument in advocacy of the claims of Jesus, but by reproducing in his Gospel those manifestations of His glory which elicited faith in the first disciples and in others. That which had produced faith in his own case and in that of his fellow-disciples, will, he thinks, if fairly set before men, produce faith in them also. He relates, therefore, with the utmost simplicity of language, the scenes in which Jesus seemed to him most significantly to have revealed His power and His goodness, and most forcibly to have demonstrated that the Father was in Him. At the same time he keeps steadily in view the circumstance that these manifestations had not always produced faith, but that alongside of a growing faith there ran an increasing unbelief which at length assumed the form of hostility and outrage. This unbelief he feels called upon to account for. He feels called upon to demonstrate that its true reason lay, not in the inadequacy of Christ’s manifestations, but in the unreasonable and unspiritual requirements of the unbelieving, and in their alienation from God. The Gospel thus forms the primary apologetic, which by its very simplicity and closeness to reality touches at every point the underlying causes and principles of faith and unbelief.
The object of the Gospel being kept in view, the plan is at once perceived. Apart from the Prologue (John 1:1-18) and the Appendix (John 21:1-25), the body of the work falls into two nearly equal parts, John 1:19 - John 12:1-50, and John 13:1-38; John 14:1-31; John 15:1-27; John 16:1-33; John 17:1-26; John 18:1-40; John 19:1-42; John 20:1-31. In the former part the Evangelist relates, with a singular felicity of selection, the scenes in which Jesus made those self-revelations which it was most important that men should understand, and the discussions in which their full significance was brought out. Thus he shows how the glory of Christ was manifested at the marriage in Cana, in the cleansing of the Temple, in the conversation with the Samaritans, in the healing of the impotent man, in the feeding of the five thousand, in the cure of the man born blind; and how, through these various signs or object-lessons, Jesus makes Himself known as the Life, the Light, the Judge of men, or, in one word, as the Son doing the Father’s works, manifesting the Father’s presence, disclosing in His various words and deeds “the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”
These manifestations culminate in the raising of Lazarus, recorded in the eleventh chapter. This final sign, while in “many of the Jews” (John 11:45) it produced faith, aggravated at the same time the unbelief of the authorities, who “from that day forth took counsel together for to put Him to death” (John 11:53). The twelfth chapter, therefore, holds a place by itself. In it we have three incidents related, and all related for the same purpose, namely, to demonstrate that there was now no further need of such manifestations of the glory of Jesus as had already been given, and that all things were now ripe for the catastrophe. The incidents in which this became apparent were Mary’s anointing of Jesus, His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the enquiry of the Greeks. By introducing these three incidents together at this point, John wishes to show (1) that Jesus was now embalmed in the love of His intimate friends, (2) that He had found in the untutored instincts of the people a response to His claim, and (3) that even in the still wider circle of the outlying nations His name was known. He may, therefore, now safely finish His self-revelation. It has done its work. And the completeness of its result is seen, not only in this widely-extended impression and firmly-rooted attachment, but also in the maturity of unbelief which now took active steps to take Jesus and put Him to death.
This part of the Gospel therefore appropriately closes with the words: “These things spake Jesus and departed, and did hide Himself from them” (John 12:36). The public manifestation of Jesus is closed.
Between the first and the second part of the Gospel there is interposed a paragraph (John 12:37-50), in which John briefly points out that the rejection of Jesus by the Jews was no more than had been predicted by the prophet Isaiah, and that it reflects no suspicion on the manifestations of His relation to the Father which Jesus had made. He then sums up in one or two sentences the significance and consequences of receiving and of rejecting Jesus.
In the second part of the Gospel the writer is still guided by the same purpose of showing how Jesus manifested His glory. This is obvious not merely from the contents of this second part, but also from the fact that in the language of John the death of Jesus is constantly referred to as His glorification, being the “lifting up” which was an essential step to, or part of, His glorification. Before entering upon the last scenes, which are described in John chaps. 13-19, Jesus is assured that in His death the Father is to glorify His Name (John 12:28); and in the prayer recorded in the seventeenth chapter, which closes the explanations which our Lord Himself made of His work, it is still the manifestation of His glory that is in His thoughts. The characteristic which distinguishes this second part of the Gospel is, that Jesus no longer manifests His glory to the people in signs of manifest power, but now, in John chapters 13-27, further discloses His glory privately to the Twelve; and in chapters xviii. and xix. passes triumphantly through the ultimate trial which still lay between Him and the final consummation of His glory. That this final glory has been achieved is witnessed by the Resurrection, the record of which, and of its results in faith, occupies the twentieth chapter. De Wette has the credit of being the first to discern that the entire Gospel is held together by this idea of the manifestation of Christ’s glory, and that “the glory of our Lord appears in all its brightness in the second part of the narrative (John 13:1-38; John 14:1-31; John 15:1-27; John 16:1-33; John 17:1-26; John 18:1-40; John 19:1-42; John 20:1-31), and that (a) inwardly and morally in His sufferings and death (John 13:1-38; John 14:1-31; John 15:1-27; John 16:1-33; John 17:1-26; John 18:1-40; John 19:1-42), and (b) outwardly and sensibly, in the triumphant event of the Resurrection.”
The best tabulated division of the Gospel with which I am acquainted is that which the Rev. A. Halliday Douglas, M.A., of Huntly, has printed for private circulation. By the kindness of the author I am allowed to publish it here.
THE DIVISIONS OF ST. JOHN’S GOSPEL.
The Prologue or Introduction. John 1:1-18.
Part I. The Manifestation of Christ’s Glory in Life and Power. John 1:19 - John 12:1-36.
1. Christ’s Announcement of Himself, and the Beginnings of Faith and Unbelief. John chaps. 1:19 - John 4:1-54.
2. The Period of Conflict. John chaps. 5 - John 12:36.
The Evangelist’s Pause for Reflection, and Review of Christ’s Teaching. John chaps.12:36-50.
Part II. The Manifestation of Christ’s Glory in Suffering and Death. John chaps.13 - 20.
1. Moral Victory in Suffering:-
a. In Anticipation. John chaps. 13 - 17. [Faith finally settled in the disciples, and unbelief cast out from among them.]
b. In the Actual Struggle. John chaps. 18 -19. [Unbelief apparently victorious, faith scarcely saved.]
2. Actual Victory over Death. John chap. 20. [Faith proved right, and unbelief condemned.]
The Epilogue or Appendix. John chap. 21.
the Fourth Week after Epiphany