Edited by Rev. John Adams, B.D.
Studies in the Thought of the Fourth Gospel
By W. B. Selbie, MA., D.D.
THE LIVING WORD
(John i. 1, 14)
The main purpose which the writer of the Fourth Gospel had in view was to demonstrate that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. And he seeks to do this not so much by argument as by illustration. He suffers Jesus to speak for Himself, and become, as it were, His own apology. Only in selecting incidents and discourses to record, he does so with the one object that they shall show forth the divine glory of his Master. And the same purpose appears in the introduction or prologue which occupies the first eighteen verses of the Gospel. There the writer gives a bird’s eye view of his whole theme. He sums up in a few short sentences the meaning and purpose of the life of Christ, from the point of view of the place it may be supposed to hold in the Divine order. He intimates that it is no ordinary biography that he is about to write. There is an aim behind it all, a meaning within it, and an end to be served by it, that lift it on to a plane by itself, and cause us to see in it the form and manifestation of the Divine Will.
And so for a moment the evangelist goes back to the beginning of things. He brings before us a being whom he calls "The Word,” who was God, and was with God, and through whom God wrought. And he would have us understand that in the birth of Jesus Christ the Word was made flesh and tabernacled among men.
1. The Word.
Now it is important to note here that St. John uses this term "Word" as one which would be familiar to his readers. He makes no apology for it, and gives no stated definition of its meaning. We must regard it, therefore, as being not a mere catchword of the philosophical schools, but a term which would be fairly well understood in those Jewish and Hellenistic circles to which the writer appealed. Indeed we need not go further than the New Testament itself in order to understand this. As soon as Jewish religion reached a reflective stage men were faced with the difficulty of intelligently apprehending an invisible, infinite, and eternal God. It was necessary in some way to relate Him to mankind, to bridge over the chasm between His infinite nature and the lowliness of men. Men cried aloud for a mediator to open up for them the way to the Divine. And the needed link was sometimes found in what was called, even in the earliest times, "the Word of God.” The name itself is significant, and is its own interpreter. A man’s word is that by which he expresses himself, and communicates with other men. It is not himself but proceeds from him and is part of him, and is his legitimate revelation and expression. So "the Word of God" is God’s life and will in active expression. It is with God from the beginning, and through it God acts. Between Him as creative author on the one hand and His works on the other, "the Word" stands, the expression of His inmost nature and of His divine power. And so St. John, turning from the wondrous manifestation of God in Christ to discover its source and history, finds it naturally enough in this ancient conception of "the Word,” which thus becomes the bridge of connection between Jewish monotheism and the Christian trinity.
And the meaning has its own use and attraction for us, in spite of the difficulties which lie on the surface. We are driven by the same necessity that compelled these ancient writers; we too have to give a reason for the faith that is in us. The moment we come to look on Jesus Christ as God manifest in the flesh, and see in Him an object of worship and the Lord and Master of our lives — we are bound to ask ourselves as to the mystery of His being, as to His place in the Divine order. If He is to us God blessed for ever, we cannot conceive of a time when He was not. His coming among men in the form of a man will be but a single incident in a vast career. The Incarnation of the Word is not a mere Divine afterthought, a chance expedient made necessary by an unexpected course of events in the world; it was part of the Divine economy from the beginning. His coming was the fulfilment of an age-long purpose. If we are to give to Christ the place He claims in our thought and reverence, we must see Him as with God from the beginning, and find in Him the agent of the Divine life. By Him all things were made, "the atoms which we call ultimate; the myriad modes and forms and fashions into which the atoms are transmuted and built up; heat and light and electricity; the world of colour and the world of sound; the courses of the stars, the strength of mountains, the raiment of lilies, the beauty and wonder of bird and insect life, the uncouth animals, the mind of man"; and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him, too, was life. This universe, the garment we see God by, is a manifestation of the Divine Word, God making Himself known, unfolding His glory in the light of His love, as the flower unveils itself before the sunshine of spring. And He did not leave Himself without witness. The Word of God had breath in many a saint and seer of old. Away on the dim confines of history we read of men to whom He spake with authority, and to whom a message came as from God. The religions of the world speak to His work, though with confused, discordant voices. All the intellectual advance which men have made, the slow discoveries of science, the development of art, the passion of the race for larger life and fuller liberty, are manifestations of the Divine Word and speak of His coming among men, who was with God from the beginning, and by whom were all things made. And in turning our thoughts to Him as to the pre-existent Christ, whose place in history stretches far beyond His life in Palestine, St. John is but answering the lawful demands of our intelligence, and establishing our faith upon a foundation that will endure.
2. The Incarnation.
But at last, in the fullness of the times, "the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” All other revelation of God to men, in whatever form it was given, was but preparatory to this final and perfect outshining of the Divine light and outpouring of the Divine love. At the birth of Jesus Christ the tabernacle of our flesh received a new inmate, one greater and more glorious than had been known before. It was the culmination of the Divine purpose from the beginning, and through it Christ becomes at once the centre of history and the focus of revelation. To realise this we must stand where the first disciples did. They came from contemplating the life and deeds and words of Jesus Christ to seek an explanation of them, to understand their meaning and purpose. And they could only find what they sought as they raised Jesus to the throne of the universe, and saw in Him the fulfilment of God’s infinite design. Their idea of the Incarnation is not derived from curious thinkers, either Jewish or Greek; it is not the outcome of their philosophy, whatever that may have been; it is an historical postulate. It is not something that they invented; it happened, and it had to be explained. As has been said: "Here as in all cases, philosophy is the interpreter of history; it never has been, it never can be, its creator.” ' The prologue of this Fourth Gospel is an anticipation of the history that follows; the history is the commentary on the prologue. St. John is an idealist; but the ideal of which he here speaks has had its counterpart in a reality which he has seen and known. To him it is an easy and natural thing that the Jesus of history should become the Christ of faith.
But to turn now from St. John to ourselves. We need to see more clearly yet the bearing of the doctrine of the Word that became flesh upon our own thought and life. Shall we say then, for one thing, that we have here God’s complete, highest, and final revelation of Himself, and that therefore it is moral and spiritual rather than material in its expression. The Incarnation is God’s answer to man’s long search after Him; an answer that becomes more intelligible the farther we advance in spiritual understanding. It is true indeed that we often seek to go beyond Christ. We are not content with the revelation of God in Him, but look for one more after the devices and desires of our own hearts, in which we may discern unmistakably the power and glory which we conceive as Divine. We fail to see that the lowly Jesus, living as a man among men, emptying Himself of all Divine prerogative, and obedient even unto death, is a worthy representative of the eternal God. We must remember that revelation depends upon man’s power to see; and but a little reflection will convince us that no startling display of superhuman might, no dazzling vision of physical splendour, could ever have produced half the effect that has come from the meek and quiet testimony of Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed, God does not reveal Himself in any crushing or overpowering manifestation of physical force as He does in the even tenor of a quiet human life. He is not in earthquake, or thunder, or rushing wind, or fire, but in a still small voice. Much as we may be repelled by the outward humiliation of the life of Jesus Christ, it needs only a very little insight to show us that there is here a diviner thing, than any earthly glory or material force. The revelation in Jesus Christ was a revelation to men, and therefore He came as a man. It is not that God created an ideal supernatural person — a superman — untouched by the feeling of our infirmities, raised above our weakness and pain, feeling for us perhaps, but not feeling with us. In such a one there would have been no revelation that men could use or understand. We mean something else, something far higher, when we say: "The Word was made flesh.” There is the Divine personality with God from the beginning, the expression of His power, the manifestation of His will. And He takes to Himself human form — a life, a mind, a person like ours, perfect in the sense of being perfectly human, not of an inhuman or monstrous kind. But through the earthly tabernacle the heavenly light shines. He stands confessed a God, by a goodness which puts all the goodness of the world to shame, by a purity that sullies that of men, as snow shows whitest linen dark beside it. Look where we will, we can find no more perfect type of God than in the sublime moral personality of Jesus Christ.
And here begin the lessons of the Incarnation for us. In Christ God is revealed, and from Him man takes, for all time, his idea ‘of the Divine. God seems a long way off when we have to look for Him in heaven. It surely brings Him nearer when we see Him by our side toiling and suffering as we have to toil and suffer. The life of Jesus Christ is an accomplished fact in the history of the Divine, and we can never go back upon the knowledge that the Eternal Himself has taken our form, shared our experience, borne our sicknesses, suffered for our sins, and has done so not merely to show forth His glory and demonstrate His superiority, but that we might live His life and be partakers of His joy. The eternal indwelling of God in the natural universe is a truth that has been accepted by many devout minds, but never had it been conceived in so lofty, inspiring, and comforting a form as in the Christ of this Gospel. There the Divine and the human are in close organic connection. God with us, "the Word made flesh,” in the person of Jesus Christ teaches a lesson of Divine sympathy with man which no theories or doctrines could ever bring home to our hearts. There
Men and women whom no arguments would convince, and who could comprehend no dogmas, can follow the Apostle when he shows them in the life of Jesus Christ, as he knew it, One who was at once human and Divine, "the Word made flesh.”
3. The Unveiling of Love.
And so from the Incarnation itself, with all its revelation of the nature of God, we turn to the purpose behind it, and see the answer to the old question, "Cur Deus Homo,” "Why God became man,” in a love that transcends all our earthly affections. In Jesus Christ, with His life among men and His sacrifice for men, we see the 'love of God for the world. And knowledge of this love is the only true guide to the meaning of the Incarnation. For it is not enough that we have revealed to us the fact that God is with man. Contact is not communion. "The Word made flesh" brings God to our very doors, but does not unite us with Him. Such communion is only possible through love. Now, as St. John himself tells us, " God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Incarnation is the manifestation, not of God’s power or justice, but of His love. In "the Word made flesh, and dwelling among us, full of grace and truth,” we have the expression of what has been the mind of God to the world from the beginning. We see there, in the life and character of Jesus Christ, written in indelible lines, the deep, strong yearning of God for the human race, His overmastering desire that men should not perish but have everlasting life. It is no mere accident that this evangelist, who dwells so fully on the eternal glory of the Christ, on His pre-existence, and presence with the Father for all time, should dwell also with the same insistence upon His love. Indeed, the two things go together. It is not only that the story of Christ’s love makes it less difficult to comprehend the breadth and length and depth and height of His revelation, but we read His love also in the knowledge of His power, for it shows us the Father’s heart and mind from the beginning when we realise that He is "the Word made flesh.” And it needed the love of God in Christ to awaken our love for Him in return. Only in love for God do we truly find Him. In loving us God appeals to our whole personality. Love alone is the function of the whole man, and when God loves us and we love Him, communion between us is complete. This is the sum and substance of the revelation in Christ. His love begets our sincere affection, which becomes for us the door to the Divine heart and mind. You may speculate about God never so subtly, and yet you may fail to come near Him. "You must love Him, ere to you He shall seem worthy of your love.” Learn to love Him, and you know Him at once. And as you behold Him in Jesus Christ, living among men and dying for them, touched into rarest compassion by their needs, and filling them with new life and better hopes by the example of His holiness, you find in Him one whom having not seen you love, and you have some glimmering of a solution of the "mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Christ Jesus: to the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places, might be known by the Church the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which He purposed in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”
And so perhaps we may be able to see that this teaching of the Fourth Gospel about "the Word with God, and the Word was God,” and "the Word made flesh,” is not a mere spinning of intellectual cobwebs, but has some real bearing on Christian life. The form of it may be likely to repel rather than attract and convince. But we too have faith, and if we are wise we shall give a reason for it. We believe in Jesus Christ; we have seen Him as pictured in the Gospels; we have been caught by the loveliness of His character; and under the warmth of His We our better self has revived. He is an influence for good in our lives, the strength and reality of which we cannot ignore. We admit probably that He is a revelation from God, and that we can speak of Him truly in no other way. And here we are brought just to the point at which St. John found himself, and are constrained to do as he did. We become unconsciously theologians. We cannot rest in the simple following of Jesus Christ, in doing His will, in trying to be like Him. We cannot but ask why? Who is He that His will should become the law of a man’s life, that He should so strangely affect our character and attract our love? And once we start on this quest, we do not know that we shall reach any satisfactory goal unless we follow the way which St. John has cut out for us. Men have tried to find a place and a reason for Christ, short of confessing His Divinity in the full sense in which this Gospel sets it before us; but they have never succeeded in satisfying either mind or conscience in so doing. 'It may be hard for us to accept St. John’s position, if we approach it simply as a theological discussion or intellectual problem. But if we come to it from a direct experience of Jesus Christ, we shall find in it a solution of questions which have forced themselves upon us. If we take towards Him the attitude which the evangelist took, His claim seems justified. In doing His will, sharing His ideals, and thinking His thoughts after Him, we come to understand how He can be to men the very Word of God.