THE CONNECTION OF THE EPISTLE WITH THE GOSPEL OF ST. JOHN
1 John 1:4
FROM the wholesale burning of books at Ephesus, as a consequence of awakened convictions, the most pregnant of all commentators upon the New Testament has drawn a powerful lesson. "True religion," says the writer, "puts bad books out of the way." Ephesus at great expense burnt curious and evil volumes, and the "word of God grew and prevailed." And he proceeds to show how just in the very matter where Ephesus had manifested such costly penitence, she was rewarded by being made a sort of depository of the most precious books which ever came from human pens. St. Paul addresses a letter to the Ephesians. Timothy was Bishop of Ephesus when the two great pastoral Epistles were sent to him. All St. John’s writings point to the same place. The Gospel and Epistles were written there, or with primary reference to the capital of Ionia. The Apocalypse was in all probability first read at Ephesus.
Of this group of Ephesian books we select two of primary importance-the Gospel and First Epistle of St. John. Let us dwell upon the close and thorough connection of the two documents, upon the interpretation of the Epistle by the Gospel, by whatever name we may prefer to designate the connection.
It is said indeed by a very high authority, that while the "whole Epistle is permeated with thoughts of the person and work of Christ," yet "direct references to facts of the Gospel are singularly rare." More particularly it is stated that "we find here none of the foundation and (so to speak) crucial events summarised in the earliest Christian confession as we still find them in the Apostle’s creed." And among these events are placed, "the Birth of the Virgin Mary, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the Session, the Coming to Judgment."
To us there seems to be some exaggeration in this way of putting the matter. A writing which accompanied a sacred history, and which was a spiritual comment upon that very history, was not likely to repeat the history upon which it commented, just in the same shape. Surely the Birth is the necessary condition of having come in the flesh. The incident of the piercing of the side, and the water and blood which flowed from it, is distinctly spoken of; and in that the Crucifixion is implied. Shrinking with shame from Jesus at His Coming, which is spoken of in another verse, has no meaning unless that Coming be to Judgment. The sixth chapter is, if we may so say, the section of "the Blood," in the fourth Gospel. That section standing in the Gospel, standing in the great Sacrament of the Church, standing in the perpetually cleansing and purifying efficacy of the Atonement-ever present as a witness, which becomes personal, because identified with a Living Personality-finds its echo and counterpart in the Epistle towards the beginning and near the close.
We now turn to that which is the most conclusive evidence of connection between two documents-one historical, the other moral and spiritual-of which literary composition is capable. Let us suppose that a writer of profound thoughtfulness has finished, after long elaboration, the historical record of an eventful and many-sided life-a life of supreme importance to a nation, or to the general thought and progress of humanity. The book is sent to the representatives of some community or school. The ideas which its subject has uttered to the world, from their breadth and from the occasional obscurity of expression incident to all great spiritual utterances, need some elucidation. The plan is really exhaustive, and combines the facts of the life with a full insight into their relations; but it may easily be missed by any but thoughtful readers. The author will accompany this main work by something which in modern language we might call an introduction, or appendix, or advertisement, or explanatory pamphlet, or encyclical letter. Now the ancient form of literary composition rendered books packed with thought doubly difficult both to read and write; for they did not admit footnotes, or marginal analyses, or abstracts. St. John then practically says, first to his readers in Asia Minor, then to the Church forever -"With this life of Jesus I send you not only thoughts for your spiritual benefit, moulded round His teaching, but something more; I send you an abstract, a compendium of contents at the beginning of this letter; I also send you at its close a key to the plan on which my Gospel is conceived." And surely a careful reader of the Gospel at its first publication would have desired assistance exactly of this nature. He would have wished to have a synopsis of contents, short but comprehensive, and a synoptical view of the author’s plan-of the idea which guided him in his choice of incidents so momentous and of teaching so varied. We have in the First Epistle two synopses of the Gospel which correspond with a perfect precision to these claims. We have:
(1) a synopsis of the contents of the Gospel;
(2) a synoptical view of the conception from which it was written.
I We find in the Epistle at the very outset a synopsis of the contents of the Gospel.
"That which was from the beginning, that which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, that which we gazed upon, and our hands handled-I speak concerning the Word who is the Life-that which we have seen and heard, declare we unto you also."
What are the contents of the Gospel?
(1) A lofty and dogmatic procemium, which tells us of "the Word who was in the beginning with God-in Whom was life."
(2) Discourses and utterances, sometimes running on through pages, sometimes brief and broken.
(3) Works, sometimes miraculous, sometimes wrought into the common contexture of human life-looks, influences, seen by the very eyes of St. John and others, gazed upon with ever deepening joy and wonder.
(4) Incidents which proved that all this issued from One who was intensely human; that it was as real as life and humanity-historical, not visionary; the doing and the effluence of a Manhood which could be, and which was, grasped by human hands.
Such is a synopsis of the Gospel precisely as it is given in the beginning of the First Epistle.
(1) The Epistle mentions first, "that which was from the beginning." There is the compendium of the procemium of the Gospel.
(2) One of the most important constituent parts of the Gospel is to be found in its ample preservation of dialogues, in which the Saviour is one interlocutor; of monologues spoken to the hushed hearts of the disciples, or to the listening Heart of the Father, yet not in tones so low that their love did not find it audible. This element of the narrative is summed up by the writer of the Epistle in two words-"That which we heard."
(3) The works of benevolence or power, the doings and sufferings-the pathos or joy which springs up from them in the souls of the disciples occupy a large portion of the Gospel. All these come under the heading,
"that which we have seen with our eyes, that which we gazed upon," with one unbroken gaze of wonder as so beautiful, and of awe as so divine.
(4) The assertion of the reality of the Manhood of Him who was yet the Life manifested-a reality through all His words, works, sufferings-finds its strong, bold summary in this compendium of the contents of the Gospel, "and our hands have handled." Nay, a still shorter compendium, follows:
(1) The Life with the Father.
(2) The Life manifested.
II But we have more than a synopsis which embraces the contents of the Gospel at the beginning of the Epistle. We have towards its close a second synopsis of the whole framework of the Gospel; not now the theory of the Person of Christ, which in such a life was necessarily placed at its beginning, but of the human conception which pervaded the Evangelist’s composition.
The second synopsis, not of the contents of the Gospel, but of the aim and conception which it assumed in the form into which it was moulded by St. John, is given by the Epistle with a fulness which omits scarcely a paragraph of the Gospel. In the space of six verses of the fifth chapter the word witness, as verb or substantive, is repeated ten times. The simplicity of St. John’s artless rhetoric can make no more emphatic claim on our attention. The Gospel is indeed a tissue woven out of many lines of evidence human and divine. Compress its purpose into one single word. No doubt it is supremely the Gospel of the Divinity of Jesus. But, next to that, it may best be defined as the Gospel of Witness. These witnesses we may take in the order of the Epistle. St. John feels that his Gospel is more than a book; it is a past made everlastingly present. Such as the great Life was in history, so it stands forever. Jesus is "the propitiation," "is righteous," "is here." So the great influences round His Person, the manifold witnesses of His Life, stand witnessing forever in the Gospel and in the Church. What are these?
(1) The Spirit is ever witnessing. So our Lord in the Gospel-"when the Comforter is come, He shall witness of Me." No one can doubt that the Spirit is one preeminent subject of the Gospel. Indeed, teaching about Him, above all as the witness to Christ, occupies three unbroken chapters in one place.
(2) The water is ever witnessing. So long as St. John’s Gospel lasts, and permeates the Church with its influence, the water must so testify. There is scarcely a paragraph of it where water is not; almost always with some relation to Christ. The witness of the Baptist is, "I baptize with water." The Jordan itself bears witness that all its waters cannot give that which He bestows who is "preferred before" John. Is not the water of Cana that was made wine a witness to His glory? The birth of "water and of the Spirit," is another witness. And so in the Gospel, section after section. The water of Jacob’s well; the water of the pool of Bethesda; the waters of the sea of Galilee, with their stormy waves upon which He walked; the water outpoured at the feast of tabernacles, with its application to the river of living water; the water of Siloam; the water poured into the basin, when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet; the water which, with the blood, streamed from the riven side upon the cross; the water of the sea of Galilee in its gentler mood, when Jesus showed Himself on its beach to the seven; as long as all this is recorded in the Gospel, as long as the sacrament of Baptism, with its visible water and its invisible grace working in the regenerate, abides among the faithful; -so long is the water ever witnessing.
(3) The Blood is ever "witnessing." Expiation once for all; purification continually from the blood outpoured; drinking the blood of the Son of Man by participation in the sacrament of His love, with the grace and strength that it gives day by day to innumerable souls; the Gospel concentrated into that great sacrifice; the Church’s gifts of benediction summarised in the unspeakable Gift; this is the unceasing witness of the Blood.
(4) "The witness of men" fills the Gospel from beginning to end. The glorious series of confessions wrung from willing and unwilling hearts form the points of division round which the whole narrative may be grouped. Let us think of all those attestations which lie between the Baptist’s precious testimony, with the sweet yet fainter utterances of Andrew, Philip, Nathanael, and the perfect creed of Christendom condensed into the burning words of Thomas-"my Lord and my God." What a range of feeling and faith; what a variety of attestation coming from human souls, sometimes wrung from them half unwillingly, sometimes uttered at crisis moments with an impulse that could not be resisted! The witness of men in the Gospel, and the assurance of one testimony that was to be given by the Apostles individually and collectively, besides the evidences already named, include the following-the witness of Nicodemus, of the Samaritan woman, of the Samaritans, of the impotent man at the pool of Bethesda, of Simon Peter, of the officers of the Jewish authorities, of the blind man, of Pilate.
(5) The "witness of God" occupies also a great position in the fourth Gospel. That witness may be said to be given in five forms: the witness of the Father, of Christ Himself, of the Holy Spirit, of Scripture, of miracles. This great cloud of witnesses, human and divine, finds its appropriate completion in another subjective witness. The whole body of evidence passes from the region of the intellectual to that of the moral and spiritual life. The evidence acquires that evidentness which is to all our knowledge what the sap is to the tree. The faithful carries it in his heart; it goes about with him, rests with him day and night, is close to him in life and death. He, the principle of whose being is belief ever going out of itself and resting its acts of faith on the Son of God, has all that manifold witness in him.
It would be easy to enlarge upon the verbal connection between the Epistle before us and the Gospel which it accompanied. We might draw out (as has often been done) a list of quotations from the Gospel, a whole common treasury of mystic language; but we prefer to leave an undivided impression upon the mind. A document which gives us a synopsis of the contents of another document at the beginning, and a synoptical analysis of its predominant idea at the close, covering the entire work, and capable of absorbing every part of it (except some necessary adjuncts of a rich and crowded narrative), has a connection with it which is vital and integral. The Epistle is at once an abstract of the contents of the Gospel, and a key to its purport. To the Gospel, at least to it and the Epistle considered as integrally one, the Apostle refers when he says: "these things write we unto you."
St. John had asserted that one end of his declaration was to make his readers hold fast "fellowship with us," i.e., with the Church as the Apostolic Church; aye, and that fellowship of ours is "with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ; and these things," he continues (with special reference to his Gospel, as spoken of in his opening words), "we write unto you, that your joy may be fulfilled."
There is as truly a joy as a "patience and comfort of the Scriptures." The Apostle here speaks of "your joy," but that implies his also.
All great literature, like all else that is beautiful, is a "joy forever." To the true student his books are this. But this is so only with a few really great books. We are not speaking of works of exact science. Butler, Pascal, Bacon, Shakespeare, Homer, Scott, theirs is work of which congenial spirits never grow quite tired. But to be capable of giving out joy, books must have been written with it. The Scotch poet tells us that no poet ever found the Muse until he had learned to walk beside the brook, and "to think long." That which is not thought over with pleasure; that which, as it gradually rises before the author in its unity, does not fill him with delight; will never permanently give pleasure to readers. He must know joy before he can say -"these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full."
The book that is to give joy must be a part of a man’s self. That is just what most books are not. They are laborious, diligent, useful perhaps; they are not interesting or delightful. How touching it is, when the poor old stiff hand must write, and the overworked brain think, for bread! Is there anything so pathetic in literature as Scott setting his back bravely to the wall, and forcing from his imagination the reluctant creations which used to issue with such splendid profusion from its haunted chambers?
Of the conditions under which an inspired writer pursued his labours we know but little. But some conditions are apparent in the books of St. John with which we are now concerned. The fourth Gospel is a book written without arriere pensee, without literary conceit, without the paralysing dread of criticism. What verdict the polished society of Ephesus would pronounce; what sneers would circulate in philosophic quarters; what the numerous heretics would murmur in their conventicles; what Critics within the Church might venture to whisper, missing perhaps favourite thoughts and catch words; St. John cared no more than if he were dead. He communed with the memories of the past; he listened for the music of the Voice which had been the teacher of his life. To be faithful to these memories, to recall these words, to be true to Jesus, was his one aim. No one can doubt that the Gospel was written with a full delight. No one who is capable of feeling ever has doubted that it was written as if with "a feather dropped from an angel’s wing"; that without aiming at anything but truth, it attains in parts at least a transcendent beauty. At the close of the procemium, after the completest theological formula which the Church has ever possessed-the still, even pressure of a tide of thought-we have a parenthetic sentence, like the splendid unexpected rush and swell of a sudden wave ("we beheld the glory, the glory as of the Only Begotten of the Father"); then after the parenthesis a soft and murmuring fall of the whole great tide ("full of grace and truth"). Can we suppose that the Apostle hung over his sentence with literary zest? The number of writers is small who can give us an everlasting truth by a single word, a single pencil touch; who, having their mind loaded with thought, are wise enough to keep that strong and eloquent silence which is the prerogative only of the highest genius. St. John gives us one of these everlasting pictures, of these inexhaustible symbols, in three little words-"He then having received the sop, went immediately out, and it was night." Do we suppose that he admired the perfect effect of that powerful self-restraint? Just before the crucifixion he writes-"Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crowns of thorns, and the purple robe, and Pilate saith unto them, Behold the Man!" The pathos, the majesty, the royalty of sorrow, the admiration and pity of Pilate, have been for centuries the inspiration of Christian art. Did St. John congratulate himself upon the image of sorrow and of beauty which stands forever in these lines? With St. John as a writer it is as with St. John delineated in the fresco at Padua by the genius of Giotto. The form of the ascending saint is made visible through a reticulation of rays of light in colours as splendid as ever came from mortal pencil; but the rays issue entirely from the Saviour, whose face and form are full before him.
The feeling of the Church has always been that the Gospel of St. John was a solemn work of faith and prayer. The oldest extant fragment upon the canon of the New Testament tells us that the Gospel was undertaken after earnest invitations from the brethren and the bishops, with solemn united fasting; not without special revelation to Andrew the Apostle that John was to do the work. A later and much less important document, connected in its origin with Patmos, embodies one beautiful legend about the composition of the Gospel. It tells how the Apostle was about to leave Patmos for Ephesus; how the Christians of the island besought him to leave in writing an account of the Incarnation, and mysterious life of the Son of God; how St. John and his chosen friends went forth from the haunts of men about a mile, and halted in a quiet spot called the gorge of Rest, and then ascended the mountain which overhung it. There they remained three days. "Then," writes Prochorus, "he ordered me to go down to the town for paper and ink. And after two days I found him standing rapt in prayer. Said he to me -‘take the ink and paper, and stand on my right hand.’ And I did so. And there was a great lightning and thunder, so that the mountain shook. And I fell on the ground as if dead. Whereupon John stretched forth his hand and took hold of me, and said-'stand up at this spot at my right hand.’ After which he prayed again, and after his prayer said unto me-’son Prochorus, what thou hearest from my mouth, write upon the sheets.’ And having opened his mouth as he was standing praying, and looking up to heaven, he began to say-‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ And so following on, he spake in order, standing as he was, and I wrote sitting."
True instinct which tells us that the Gospel of St. John was the fruit of prayer as well as of memory; that it was thought out in some valley of rest, some hush among the hills; that it came from a solemn joy which it breathed forth upon others! "These things write I unto you, that your joy may be fulfilled." Generation after generation it has been so. In the numbers numberless of the Redeemed, there can be very few who have not been brightened by the joy of that book. Still, at one funeral after another, hearts are soothed by the word in it which says-"I am the Resurrection and the Life." Still the sorrowful and the dying ask to hear again and again "Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid." A brave young officer sent to the war in Africa, from a regiment at home, where he had caused grief by his extravagance, penitent and dying in his tent, during the fatal day of Isandula, scrawled in pencil -"Dying, dear father and mother - happy-for Jesus says, ‘He that cometh to Me I will in no wise castout."’ Our English Communion Office, with its divine beauty, is a texture shot through and through with golden threads from the discourse at Capernaum. Still are the disciples glad when they see the Lord in that record. It is the book of the church’s smiles; it is the gladness of the saints; it is the purest fountain of joy in all the literature of earth.