JOHN THE APOSTLE – now of great age and quite infirm – is reclining on a couch in the afternoon sunshine in Ephesus. Despite the warmth, he draws his cloak a little closer around him and he looks lovingly at the dozen or so people who have gathered to hear him. Some are seated on the walls and steps, some on the paved area by his feet. They all belong to the fellowship of those who follow Jesus in this important Greek outpost of the Roman Empire on the coast of Ionia at the Eastern edge of the Aegean Sea. Among the very elderly Jewish members of the church are converts of the Apostle Paul himself who had founded the church in Ephesus some fifty years earlier, but most of those who have gathered around the Apostle John on this Lord’s Day afternoon in late summer are either young or middle-aged, and the Greeks among them well-outnumber the Jews. It is clear from their dress and speech that they are drawn from the various strata of Ephesus society – though they seem to have no regard to that and are mixing with each other and talking together as perfect equals.
Next to John the Apostle, sitting at a table with an empty scroll in front of him, and pen and ink at the ready, is another John. This is the Apostle’s long-standing friend John the Elder, from the nearby town of Hierapolis. He is here at the request of the elders of the church in Ephesus to record for future generations the euangelion – the good news – that John the Apostle has been preaching for most of his life but, in recent years (ever since he arrived here from Jerusalem) in this very church. The elders recognise that, as John approaches his hundredth year, his days here must be numbered, and they are very concerned that his thrilling recollections of the earthly life of Jesus, and his inspired insights into what the Master’s works and teachings meant, will be lost unless they are committed to parchment, then copied and distributed to the other churches in Asia Minor and beyond.
‘So,’ says John the Elder, ‘Where are you going to begin?’
The apostle looks up into the clear blue sky and watches the swifts flitting backwards and forwards. ‘In the beginning,’ he says.
‘What?’ ventures Archippus, one of the younger Greek men in the group, ‘With John the Baptist, as Mark did in his Gospel?’
John shakes his head. ‘No, we need to go much further back than that to understand who Jesus was – is – and what he was and is about.’
‘Abraham, then?’ says Archippus. ‘Just as Matthew did.’
Again, John shakes his head. ‘Further back still.’
‘I think I know,’ says Ezra, a young Jewish man on the steps. ‘It’s Adam, isn’t it? I’m told there’s a Gospel of Luke that starts with Adam.’
John chuckles. ‘No, no, no. Even further back than that,’ he says. ‘I’ve told you … In the beginning.’
‘But that’s where our Torah – the Five Books of Moses – begins,’ says Ezra. ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth …’
‘Exactly,’ says John. ‘That was the old creation. Now we are in the new creation, and Jesus is what the new creation is all about.’ He turns to John the Elder. ‘So, my dear friend, write it down, please. “In the beginning was –”’ He glances round at all their eager faces, teasing them; and his eyes twinkle with the excitement of what he’s about to say. ‘“In the beginning was – the Word!”’
‘“In the beginning was the Word”’ repeats Ezra, the young Jewish man on the steps. ‘Do you mean the word that God spoke to bring all creation into being?’ I know it says in the Book of Psalms [Psalm 33:6] that “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made; the starry host by the breath of his mouth.” Is that the Word you are talking about?’
‘It is,’ says John. ‘But I suspect our dear Greek brother here might think about the Word in a somewhat different way.’ He looks at Archippus inquiringly.
‘Not so very differently,’ replies Archippus. ‘In our philosophy too, the Word – the Logos – is the principle behind the universe and the instrument through which God made it; and not only brought order to it but also keeps it going. But what puzzles me, John, is that you seem to be saying the Logos – the Word – is God, not just God’s wisdom or the reasoning or thoughts in God’s head. I mean, the way you’ve phrased ‘In the beginning was the Word’ puts the Word back before time itself began … something existing before the universe came into being. So, you must be saying the Word is God, not just something that God imagines or thinks or speaks.’
John nods. ‘Exactly,’ he says. ‘So, let’s add, “and the Word was with God and the Word was God.””
Archippus groans. ‘Now I’m more confused than ever,’ he says.
‘The point I’m trying to make,’ says John, ‘is that the Word is both distinct from God yet still one with him. You know as well as I do that that little word pros – “with” – has the sense of moving towards or looking towards someone. It expresses a living relationship. The Word had a divine reality and a being of its own before creation began, but only in relationship with the one that we all now know as the Father. And so too the Father had a divine reality and being of his own, but only in relationship with the Word – the one we all now know as Jesus. God was never lonely or alone. Before all worlds, he was in himself a fellowship, a family, a circle, a dance, a “to and fro” of love.’ He looks across to the table where John the Elder is about to add something more to the parchment. ‘But don’t write that bit down,’ he says. ‘I want to lead up to that quite slowly.’
‘So,’ says Ezra, ‘are we right in thinking that, in some sense, Jesus – this Word, as you are calling him – was somehow in or behind the words like “Let there be light” that God spoke to bring the universe into existence?’
‘Yes, you are’ says John. He brushes away a wasp that is buzzing around his head. ‘So, my good friend there can write this down as well: “He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”’
‘Even that wasp?’ asks Ezra, and everyone laughs.
‘Even that wasp,’ replies John.
There is silence for a moment as the people listening to the Apostle take in what he has said; then someone who hasn’t yet spoken – another of the Greeks – clears his throat and says, rather cautiously, ‘But there are many in this part of the world who wouldn’t agree with you, John. Many who would claim that, in the beginning, both matter and God existed independently, and that matter was bad and had to be worked with by God as best he could, which is why the world is so flawed and imperfect … and does have wasps in it, and worse.’
‘Ah,’ says John. ‘The Darkness. I’ll come to that very shortly. But no, for now, let my assertion stand. Everything in creation was created through the Word and there is nothing in creation that was not created through the Word.’
‘So, all of it was good?’ asks Ezra.
‘You already know the answer to that, Ezra,’ says John. ‘The first chapter of the First Book of Moses [Genesis 1:31] – “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.’ Evil came later; and I’ll talk about it later.’
The wasp was now back and trying to alight on Ezra’s beard. Archippus watches it for a moment, then asks John. ‘If that wasp was made through the Word, is it the Word that animates it? I mean, the wasp breathes in some way, just as we do, and it has skill to fly (which we don’t) and sufficient intelligence to build amazingly nests and to procreate and find food and so on. And that goes for … well, everything; fish, birds, goats, mice, snakes. Even grass and trees and flowers, I suppose – though in a more limited way.’
‘Of course,’ replies John. ‘The Word animates everything that is alive. He, with the Father and the Spirit, has life in himself – life that is not derived from anyone or anything outside of the Godhead. And that life is the life source of the entire universe. Nothing can live in this universe unless he gives life to it and sustains that life in it. As Ezra here will know, it’s spelled out for us in the book of Isaiah where the prophet speaks of God as the one “who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and all that comes out of it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it” [Isaiah 42:5]. But God actually does more than that; in giving life to his creation, he gives light to it too.’ He glances over at the Elder. ‘My dear friend, write this down, if you will: “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.”’
‘Hm,’ says Ezra, flicking the wasp from his beard. ‘Are you now thinking back to the creation story at the very start of the First Book of Moses – where God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light?’
‘In a way,’ replies John. ‘Light was the first gift of God to creation. Without it, none of us would, physically, be able to see anything. But there is an inner light too – a light that is unique to human beings and that is given to them as a quality of the life that the Word imparts to them. It is a spiritual light which goes beyond human reason and enables people like you and me to “see” truth and distinguish it from what is untrue, to “see” beauty and distinguish it from what is ugly, to “see” goodness and distinguish it from what is evil, and to “see” the God who is both behind and within his wondrous creation – holding it together and sustaining it through every moment of time.’
‘Are you saying that every human being has such a light within them?’ asks Archippus. ‘Because I have to tell you that I know lots of people who show very little sign of that being the case.’
John nods. ‘It is true,’ he says, ‘that for many, the light within them is shrouded in darkness – the darkness of sin and unbelief that are part of their estrangement from God. But the light is still there, and it shines forth as soon as a person turns to God and is reconciled with him, puts their trust in Him and is born again, born from above.’ Again, he glances at the Elder who has lifted his stylus. ‘Not yet,’ he says. ‘I’ll get to the new birth in due course.’
‘So, what am I to write?’ asks the Elder.
The apostle thinks for a moment. ‘Simply write this,’ he says, ‘“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not mastered it.”’
‘Mastered it?’ queries Ezra. ‘“katelaben” is a bit ambiguous, isn’t it? Do you mean the darkness hasn’t “understood” the light or hasn’t “overcome” it – the word could mean either?’
‘Maybe I mean both,’ says John. ‘The darkness – or the evil one behind the darkness – has certainly never understood the nature of the light, but neither has it ever been able to extinguish it. The most the darkness has ever been able to do is contain or restrict the light by shutting it away under a clay jar of unbelief, lies, lust, greed and so on. Light and darkness are not equals. The smallest candle can make darkness retreat to the corners of a very large room.’
John stifles a yawn. ‘Oh dear, I’m sorry, my children,’ he says, ‘but I am very, very tired. Our celebration of our dear Lord’s resurrection at the Breaking of Bread last night and our worship this morning, has taken its toll on me physically, I’m afraid. Perhaps – even though the Lord’s Day is not a day of rest like the Sabbath – I should go to my room and rest for a while. We can resume later perhaps, when the sun is going down …’
As the huge red sun begins to sink behind the Ephesus skyline, the aged apostle John shuffles slowly from his doorway and re-joins Archippus, Ezra and the other half-dozen or so who had gathered earlier in the afternoon to hear him begin to dictate his Gospel to John the Elder from Hieropolis who has agreed to act as his amanuensis.
In his absence, the little group have brought to a table in the small courtyard, bread, wine and oil, as well as olives, cheese, sardines and figs. There is already a warm glow from a brazier of charcoal that has been lit, ready to ward off the evening chill once the sun falls below the horizon. As John the Elder catches sight of the apostle, he hurriedly pops the remains of a sardine into his mouth, wipes his fingers on his robe, and reaches for his scroll and his pen.
‘So, where had we got to?’ asks John, as he seats himself at the table, pours himself some wine, takes bread and dips it in a saucer of olive oil.
John the Elder clears his throat. ‘In the beginning was the Word,’ he reads, ‘and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’
‘Good,’ says the Apostle. ‘So now write this – “There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe.”’
‘Are you talking about yourself?’ asks Archippus, looking a bit puzzled.
‘No, of course not,’ says John the Apostle. ‘As I shall make clear very shortly, I’m talking about John the Baptiser – the one who first bore witness to the Light that has dawned upon the world in the person of Jesus. But I do understand your confusion; let’s face it, there are far too many “Johns” around the place.’ And as everyone smiles, he turns to the Elder and tells him: ‘Maybe you’d better find a different way of identifying me, my friend, whenever I crop up in the story that I’m about to unfold!’
But Ezra is hardly listening. ‘John the Baptiser?’ he echoes. ‘Why are you bringing him into the story at this point?’
‘Need you ask?’ says John. ‘You live here in Ephesus like the rest of us. You have probably heard from some of the older members of our fellowship how, 50 years ago, long before I came here, an Alexandrian, a teacher called Apollos, caused some problems in the church in this city by elevating the Baptiser over Jesus and had to be put straight by Priscilla and Aquila [Acts 18:24-26]. You know that there are still Baptiser sects in this very city; and you know too that as soon as anyone starts talking about the Light, as I now am, there are those, even in our own fellowship, who would have us think not of Jesus but of the Baptiser. They see him as the one who brought the light to Israel again after centuries of darkness.
‘Of course, I understand why they should see him in that way. Don’t forget, Ezra, that Andrew and I were, for a while, disciples of the Baptiser before Jesus came on the scene and we, at John’s prompting, began to follow Jesus instead. But John the Baptiser was amazing – I don’t deny it. For 400 years there had been no prophet in Israel; then the Baptiser came striding out of the desert – huge wooden staff, rough garments of camel hair, leather belt round his waist, wild matted hair, shaggy beard, voice like thunder. Watching him, listening to him, was like seeing the great prophet Elijah back in action! And the effect he had on the crowds who flocked to him out in the desert by the Jordan was extraordinary – he brought life-changing repentance, a moral revolution.
‘So, yes, I understand why those who were once followers of his, think he was the Light; but he wasn’t; and here and now, before I go any further with my story, I want to nip all such thinking in the bud. It was the Word who was God, not the Baptiser – he was a mere human being sent by God. It was the Word who was Life and Light, not the Baptiser – he was sent only to bear witness to the Light, and his one and only aim was that we should all love and revere and put our trust in that Word, in Jesus, not in him.’
Archippus picks up a fig and looks thoughtfully at it. ‘Why are witnesses so important to you, John. I’ve noticed you mention witnesses a lot in your preaching.’ He bites into the ripe sweet fruit.
‘Well, you tell me,’ says John. ‘Suppose you are up before the court accused of a crime. Why will the witnesses be important?’
‘To establish the truth or otherwise of the charge against me,’ replies Archippus.
‘Exactly. And is the kind of person who bears witness of any importance?’
‘Well, yes … very much so,’ replies Archippus. ‘If a witness is of good standing in the community and has a reputation for uprightness and honesty, the magistrates will find him or her far more believable than a village layabout or drunk.’
‘Indeed, they will,’ says John. ‘And that is why I am reminding people at this point that it was John the Baptiser no less – the greatest Israelite of his day, the revered ‘Voice in the Wilderness’ – who freely came forward during his lifetime to bear witness to the authenticity of Jesus as the Light of the World.’ He looks over to John the Elder. ‘So, my dear friend, you may add, if you will – “He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.” There are, of course, other witnesses – seven or eight of them – and we’ll get to them as the days go on, but for now we’ll stick with just the Baptiser.’
Now the sun has set, and the Apostle moves closer to the brazier which glows in the deepening darkness. ‘You see,’ he says, holding out his hands to the warmth, ‘although the Light was already here – had, in fact, been here since the world began – the Light was now coming into the world in a unique way. But here’s the saddest thing: the very people whom, for centuries, God had been training to recognise the Light when he came, completely failed to do so – even when he was standing right in front of them! The brightest and best Israelite there would ever be had, if you like, turned up on Israel’s own doorstep – had come to his own home – but they treated him like an intruder and bolted the door against him. It turned out that the blindness of Israel, of the Jewish people, was just as deep and dense as the blindness of the rest of humankind who, from the beginning, had been enjoying the light without having the faintest idea of where it was coming from.’
A young Greek man who hasn’t spoken until now, clears his throat and asks, rather timidly: ‘But John (and forgive me if I’m speaking out of turn) are you suggesting that our great philosophers – Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras and so on – had the light of Christ within them, just as, say, your prophet Isaiah and your prophet Ezekiel?’
‘Of course, Leandros,’ replies John. ‘Light is light. There is only one Light. If your Plato arrived at a truth and declared it, he could have done so only because the true Light, the one Light, the Christ-Light, the Word, had birthed that truth within him. We Jews have always liked to think we have a monopoly on light, but it has never been so. I have heard that even our brother Paul, who founded this church of ours here in Ephesus, once quoted the Cretan poet Epimenides to the people of Athens, also the Cilician poet Aratus – pagans, both. Yes! That’s shocked you, hasn’t it Ezra? “Why quote them?” you’re thinking. Well Paul quoted them because what they said was true. In God we do “live and move and have our being;” we are indeed “God’s offspring” [Acts 17:24]. And Paul realised that, because what they said was true, it could have come only from the Light within them. All light, wherever you find it, and in whomsoever you find it, comes from the one and only source of light – the Light himself, the Word, Jesus!’
‘But getting back to what you were saying about the Light not being recognised,’ says Barnabas, a friend of Ezra. ‘That’s not strictly true, is it? There were some who recognised Jesus for who and what he was. You, for a start! As you’ve told us, you left the Baptiser to follow him.’
John smiles. ‘Well said, Barnabas! Yes, there were those of us who just knew, almost immediately, that he was the Promised One – the one God’s people had always been on the lookout for. So, within a few weeks of Jesus being baptised in the Jordan, there were a dozen of us who had given up everything and fully committed our lives to him, and then there were increasing numbers who, while not becoming what you might call full-time disciples, recognised him and opened their hearts to him in welcome. But what I am saying is that most of the Jews didn’t. Jesus didn’t match up to their idea of what God’s promised Rescuer would look like, you see, so they simply turned their backs on him. Or perhaps I should say that Jesus didn’t match up to their idea of what God himself was like. Because that’s how it was for us, you see. We found that when we were with Jesus – when we watched him and saw the love, the compassion, the joy, the peace, the power, and the grace that came pouring out of him – we knew that we were in some way seeing God himself in front of us, though we hardly dared to put that into words back then! For us God now had a new name – the name of Jesus – and as we placed our trust in that God whose new name was Jesus, Jesus gave us the right – authorised us, you might say – to become children of God!’
Ezra gets up and adds another handful of charcoal to the brazier. ‘But, John,’ he says, ‘are we not all children of God? You yourself have just quoted with approval some Greek poet or other as saying “we are all God’s offspring,” and this very afternoon you were saying that everything, everyone, came into being through God. Surely, God is the Father of all.’
John watches the sparks rise like fireflies into the darkness. ‘Father of all? Yes,’ he says, ‘but there’s more to sonship than having a father. It’s not really about biology or creation. A man may “father” a child without that child ever being his “son” in any meaningful way. Many a child has never known who his father was; and many another child who has known who his father was has shown no resemblance to him and shared nothing of his father’s character and nature. Because of the work of the Evil One, humankind has very little of true sonship about it. There is, in truth, only one “Son of the Father” and that is Jesus, but as we place our trust in him and give him our allegiance, he makes it possible for us to share his sonship. It’s not sonship in the way that I was a son of Zebedee, the fisherman of Galilee. No other human being was involved in bringing me to birth as God’s son – it was God himself who did that and did it by his Holy Spirit.’
Archippus is filling his own cup. ‘Would you like more wine, John?’ he asks.
‘Just pour me a little,’ replies the Apostle, ‘while I tell my dear friend here what he should write.’
As Archippus reaches for John’s cup, John turns to the Elder. ‘Are you ready?’ he asks. ‘I’ve just said that the Baptiser was not the Light but came to bear witness to the Light, so now I would like you to put … “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”’ He lifts his cup and drinks from it. ‘And that, I think, is probably enough for today …’
It is early morning, just after dawn. Barnabas, Ezra’s friend, is helping the Apostle to wash and dress. As John shuffles out through the doorway and stands blinking in the sunlight, Barnabas squeezes past him carrying the chamber pot and empties it in the gutter of the street. All able-bodied members of the church in Ephesus take turns to look after John and make sure he has everything he needs. For every one of them, it is an absolute privilege and not a burden. As Barnabas splashes some clean water in the pot and rinses it out, Archippus arrives with John’s breakfast – a bowl of barley porridge and a bunch of sweet yellow grapes. John takes the food, gives thanks for it, then sits to eat as others begin to gather in the courtyard. Last to come is John the Elder who, this morning, is accompanied by Phoebe, in whose house he is lodging. She carries his scroll, his pen and his ink-pot.
John looks around at everyone. ‘Welcome, welcome one and all,’ he says; and the buzz of conversation around him immediately dies away. ‘Now … the next thing I would like my dear friend there to write down for me is perhaps the most important thing I will ever say. Certainly, it is at the very heart of the Gospel that you all have decided the Elder should write in my name. Yesterday I was talking about the Word; how it was both with God and was God, in eternity before anything else existed; how the entire universe of time, space and matter came into being through that Word; how the Word brought life and light to the whole of creation. Well now what I have to say is this: “The Word” – listen carefully – “became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Have you got that, dear friend? “The Word became flesh.”’
There is a silence as John lets his words sink in and make their impact. Archippus holds his hand out in front of him and looks at it, pinching the skin on the back of it into a fold between his other thumb and forefinger. ‘Sarx,’ he mutters. ‘The Word became sarx.’ Then, he looks back to the Apostle. ‘To most Greeks,’ he says, ‘what you claim is something quite impossible. We Greeks are brought up to believe that sarx – the flesh – is corrupt, evil, and something that God can have nothing to do with. We are taught that the body is a prison from which we should aspire to break free. The concept of the One behind the entire universe actually entering that universe and becoming flesh is something no normal Greek could ever get his head round. It is madness.’
‘But it is true,’ says John. ‘The Word became flesh.’
‘Perhaps “appeared as flesh” might be better,’ suggests Leandros. ‘As a child I was told stories of the gods who appeared to men as mortals and as other things – Zeus, for instance, once took the shape of a swan and …’
John holds up his hand to stop him. ‘No, no, no!’ he cries. ‘Egeneto! The Word became flesh. He did not just appear to be a man; he did not merely inhabit the body of a man. Once born of Mary, he could not have thrown his humanity off, even if he had wanted to. He became a man – a thing of blood, bone, skin, sinew. The Word that was with God and was God from all eternity now had eyes, ears, a nose and a mouth. He had arms and legs, hands and feet. He had a heart, a liver, lungs, kidneys, spleen, bowels, bladder.’ John points at the chamber pot that Archippus had left on the wall drying in the morning sun. ‘Let me tell you, my young friend, that the Word – Jesus – needed one of those things by his bed just as much as I do, just as much as you do. I should know – I spent three years with him, night and day. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. He really did; and it is vital that everyone understands that.’
‘Why not just say that the Word became an anthropos – a man,’ asks Ezra. ‘Sarx – flesh – suggests humanity in all its weakness and brokenness and, well, fallenness.’
‘But that’s the very point, Ezra,’ cries John. ‘The Word had to enter our weakness and brokenness and fallenness to lift us out of it. Flesh is humanity trapped in darkness; the Light had to enter our darkness bring us out into the light. In the incarnation, the Word’s identity with us became total. When the Word became human it was not some special “heavenly” humanity of a different order from ours. It was the same humanity as ours, but it and it alone remained untainted by sin. When he made his dwelling among us, his human nature was the same ours. He could have fallen short of the perfection that God looks for and desires in humanity – he was constantly tempted to do so – but he never did, and therein lies our salvation. He had to become what we are, but without falling, in order to make us what he is.
There is a silence as everyone ties to grasp the enormity of what John has just said; then Archippus speaks. ‘Why that word eskenosen?’ he asks. ‘It literally means “pitched his tent” rather than “made his dwelling,” doesn’t it?’
John smiles and looks to the person sitting next to Archippus. “Any ideas about that, Ezra. You know your Torah better than most!’
‘Well,’ says Ezra,’ when I hear that verb used, I’m taken back to the days when Moses was leading our people, the Jews, out of Egypt and through the desert, heading for the Promised Land. It was then that God “pitched his tent” with his people. God had commanded Moses to make for him a tabernacle – a large portable tent covered in animal skins – for him to dwell in and accompany the Children of Israel as they journeyed through the wilderness [Exodus 25:8]. And you mentioned “glory”. Is it not written in the Torah, in the Second Book of Moses [Exodus 40:34], that when the tabernacle had been completed, “the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle?”’
John nods approvingly. ‘So, what do you think I am saying?’ he asks.
‘Hm …’ Ezra thinks for a moment. ‘That the very same God – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – who in some way dwelt with his people in a tent in the wilderness 1,500 years ago came to dwell with them, just 70 or so years ago, in the most mind-blowing, almost unbelievable, way, by inhabiting not a tent of skins but a body of skin … and blood and bone.’ Ezra pauses, shaking his head in wonder. ‘God had promised it, had he not, 600 years ago through the mouth of his prophet Zechariah – “I will come and tabernacle among you,” he had said [Zechariah 2:10] – though we had no idea what he might mean by that! But, if I’m right, John, then surely it must be that when the Word became flesh by being formed in Mary’s womb and born of her in Bethlehem, he did not cease to be the Word – God is still God! – but became, while continuing to be the Word, something that he had never been before – a human being? Am I right in thinking that he, he – Oh, my head’s hurting just trying to put this into words – that he somehow took his divinity into his humanity and his humanity into his divinity so that they became one … and indeed remain one?’
John claps his hands with delight. ‘Oh, well done, Ezra,’ he says. ‘Well done.’ He glances into the clear blue sky from which the sun’s rays are now beating down on them. ‘There is now One in heaven with the Father who is both truly God and truly Man! Yes!’
He turns his eyes back to Archippus. ‘My friend, I don’t want to break anyone’s train of thought, but would you mind helping me move into the shade of that olive tree, please? I’m getting very uncomfortable sitting here. Then, once you’ve got me settled, perhaps we can hear what others might want to say …’
John is now seated in the shade, sipping from a cup of water that Ezra has fetched him from the nearby well. Barnabas clears his throat. ‘John,’ he says. ‘When you say, “We have seen his glory,” are you referring to the Transfiguration? I recall your once telling us how Jesus took you and James and Peter up a mountain and was transfigured before you so that his clothes became dazzling white – whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them – and he was talking with Moses and Elijah.’
John nods slowly. ‘I suppose I do have that memory in my mind,’ he says. ‘It was an unforgettable experience, being given an actual glimpse of how things are in the heavenly kingdom; and then – when Peter began to freak out and suggested we should build shelters for Jesus and Moses and Elijah – watching the dense cloud wrap itself around us so that we could see no one anymore, and hearing that voice – a real voice, deep, warm, and majestic – from within the cloud saying, “This is my son, whom I love. Listen to him.” Yes, I cannot deny I do have that in my mind. But that’s not a story I feel I should share with anyone now. I know Mark has done so in his gospel, but I feel it might send the wrong message, you see. It implies that Jesus was not lit up with the glory of God all the rest of the time we knew him; and that is simple not true, not true at all.’ He lapses into silence.
‘Do go on, John,’ says Barnabas after a while. ‘In what sense was he “lit up with the glory of God” the rest of the time too?’
‘Well,’ says John. ‘Let’s go back to the Torah – the glory of God filling the tabernacle and then the temple and so on. As you well know, Barnabas, the Hebrew word for glory in those scriptures is kabod and the nearest word for it in Greek is doxa. But, for me, kabod is really what “glory” is all about; and kabod is not primarily about brightness but about weight, heaviness. It is what gives a thing or a person worth and value and makes them important and impressive. As everyone knows, the heavier a basket of fish, the greater its value. So, when I’m talking about Jesus’ glory, what I’m trying to convey is that he was – well, how can I put it? – He was heavy with divinity. And, if you had eyes to see it, it shone through always, not just on that mountain. You could not be with him for very long before you became aware of the weight of it; and the worth, the splendour, of that divinity took your breath away. He would suddenly do something, say something, and it was as if a curtain had been torn away for a moment and you were being given a glimpse of just who he really was, where he was really from, and what that really meant. And when that happened, you were left dizzy, disoriented, unsteady on your feet. It was more than just suddenly grasping a spiritual truth of some kind. It was actually like gazing through a doorway into another world and realising the world you were looking into was this world as it was always meant to be and will one day be; a world where all the riches of the Father’s grace and truth are forever streaming out through Jesus – the One and Only, the Son whom the Father loves.’
‘Can you give us an example,’ asks Ezra.
‘I can give you many,’ replies John. ‘And I will – but all in good time; not right now.’
Barnabas speaks up again. ‘That phrase “grace and truth,”’ he says. It has just struck me; it’s the Greek equivalent of “love and faithfulness,” is it not? The Hebrew word chesed – steadfast love, loving kindness – has become the Greek word charis – grace, and the Hebrew word emeth – faithfulness, certainty – has become the Greek word aletheia – truth.’
John’s eyes sparkle. ‘Go on,’ he says.
‘It’s there in the Second Book of Moses,’ says Barnabas, excitedly. ‘When Moses is on Mount Sinai and asks God to show him his “glory” [Exodus 33:18], God says, “You cannot see my glory, but I’ll show you my goodness. Then he passes in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness [Exodus 34:6]. Love and faithfulness … grace and truth … they’re the same thing! You’re saying that the same God who passed in front of Moses showing his glory in his love and faithfulness, has now, in Jesus, passed in front of the world showing that same glory in his love and faithfulness – his grace and truth!’
John claps his hands. ‘How faithful is the Spirit in leading us into all truth, just as he promised he would,’ he says. ‘And, look, the sun is high in the sky; is it not time for lunch? I’m feeling hungry again.’
Over a light lunch of bread, goat’s cheese, olives and pickled cucumber, John and his group of friends, continue their discussion of the glory of God and how it was seen in Jesus. Eventually, conversations dwindle and those seated around John look at him expectantly.
‘So, what do you want to say next,’ asks the Elder.
‘Well, first – as a kind of aside – I just want to make it quite clear that when the Baptiser bore witness to the Light that had come into the world he was in fact bearing witness to the Word that had become flesh. I don’t want anyone running away with the idea that the Light and the Word are two different people! No, they are one and the same person – and in a moment I’ll spell out for all who will hear and read this Gospel just who that person is. So, write: “John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, ‘This was the one I spoke about when I said, “He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.”’”’
Archippus clears his throat. ‘I’m sorry, John; I’m not sure I quite understand that.’
John sighs. ‘You need to understand, Archippus, that God spoke to the Baptiser – revealed things to him; and, even before there was anyone around whom the Baptiser could identify as the Light and the Word, God had revealed to him that such a person was on his way. Not only that, he had also revealed to the Baptiser that when the Word-become-flesh did finally arrive, he, the Word, must necessarily take precedence over him, the Baptiser. Why? Because the Word incarnate was protos the Baptiser – “first before him” in every sense. The flesh-and-blood Word that the Baptiser was waiting for and expecting was, he had been told, the One who had existed with God (and who was God) before the world began.’
John sucks on a piece of cucumber. ‘Anyway,’ he says, ‘that aside, I now want to pick up again on what I said about the fact that the Word who became flesh was “full” of grace and truth.’ He turns to the Elder. ‘So, my dear friend, please write next: “Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given.” He glances at Archippus. ‘There’s no difficulty in understanding that, I hope,’ he says with a smile.
‘None at all,’ replies Archippus. ‘I think all of us here know the truth of what you’ve just said. The love of God and his goodness towards us is like an ocean, and its waves break constantly into our lives like waves on a beach. As each is spent, another follows; and so it goes on, meeting every need that arises.’
‘And just like the ocean,’ adds Barnabas, ‘that steadfast, unmerited love of God towards us is never diminished – however many shores there are and however many waves of grace break on them.’
‘Amen,’ says Ezra. ‘Amen … But, John, what about the Law. Surely that was a love-gift to Israel too. As Barnabas was pointing out before lunch, God hasn’t changed; he has always been full of grace and truth … or love and faithfulness, as we say in Hebrew.’
‘Ah,’ says John. ‘The Law was given by God, yes. And, certainly, it was an expression of God’s love for his people. It provided a guide for living in accordance with his will and for going along with the grain of the universe rather than working against it. It was intended as a manual of blessing. But it was external to them; it wasn’t written in their hearts. The law was given, but not grace and truth. Grace and truth weren’t given; they came through Jesus. They are internal, and now, the outpouring of grace into our lives no longer rests on our conforming with a list of “dos and don’ts” but on our relationship with the One through whom all grace and goodness flows – our Lord Jesus Christ.’
John the Elder looks at the old Apostle. ‘How shall I phrase that?’ he asks.
‘Write, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ,”’ says John. ‘And then write, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”’
‘Hurrah! You’ve done it at last!’ cries Archippus.
‘Done what?’ asks John.
‘Called the Word by name,’ says Archippus. ‘Called him “Jesus” and underlined the fact that Jesus is God.’
‘Indeed, I have,’ replies John. ‘But mark what I’ve said next. “No one has ever seen God.” God is invisible and although the Word became flesh in Jesus, God remains invisible. But in Jesus we see exactly what the invisible God is like. He, being the Son of God, is the image of his Father. He is God’s exact representation.’
‘But why have you called Jesus the one and only Son who “is in closest relationship with the Father,” asks Ezra. ‘Your Greek is literally, “who has his being in the Father’s bosom – in the Father’s kolpos?” It seems a very odd thing to say.’
‘Once,’ says John, ‘I was in the bosom of Jesus. It was at that last meal we had with him before he went to the cross. As we reclined at the table, I laid my head on his breast and found myself wrapped in his love, listening to his heartbeat, feeling his warmth. To be “in his bosom” spoke to me of the strong bond between us, the intimacy we shared, our oneness.’
The Apostle’s eyes filled with tears at the remembrance. ‘So, what I’m wanting to stress is that he, Jesus, is the one who is always and forever, lying on the Father’s breast; that Father and Son are indivisible in their strong love for each other; that they share one life, one nature, one mind, one purpose; and that to see the one is to see the other.’
‘So that is why you have used the verb exegeomai to explain that Jesus has made the Father known,’ says Archippus. ‘It is the verb we Greeks use to describe the revelation of some truth about the gods.’
‘And the verb that we Jews use to describe the revelation that our rabbis give us of truths hidden in the Torah,’ adds Ezra.
‘Indeed,’ says John, ‘Indeed. Jesus is the Revealer of the Father. Never, ever forget it. Remember how I said earlier that the Word was full not only of grace but also of aleithia – “full of truth?” Well, what does that word mean, literally?’
‘A … “un-” … leithia … “veiled,” says Archippus. ‘“Unveiled” or “not hidden.”’
‘Exactly,’ says John. ‘The truth of something or someone is what you arrive at once there is nothing about that person or thing that remains hidden from you. And Jesus was full of truth precisely because he was a complete unveiling of God to us. A perfect revelation of the Father.’
He turns to the Elder who has put down his pen. ‘And with that, my dear friend, I think the introduction to my Gospel is done.’
‘So, what comes next?’ asks Barnabas.
‘Next,’ says the Apostle, ‘I shall move from eternity to time and I shall tell how the earthly ministry of our Lord and Saviour began and how I and others became caught up in it.’ He yawns. ‘But before I do that, I’m afraid I must rest for a while.’
He glances around the little group who surround him. ‘And perhaps, while I do that, some of you could go to the harbour and get some fish for us to eat tonight. Not red snappers or anything like that – you know I can no longer cope with the tiny bones any more. But bream would be good, or bass. Oh, and we need more wine. Archippus, will you and Ezra get me to my bed and I will give you some coins for the food …’