The Very Heart of the First Christians’ Thoughts

As with other preliminary statements, John wants his readers to hold this image of the victorious battle in mind throughout what follows, particularly when Jesus confronts Pilate, arguing about kingdom, truth and power—and then going to his death as Rome does what it does best only to discover that it has been lured into a trap, leading to the moment when God does what God does best, namely creation and new creation.

This is the heart of the New Testament’s theology of atonement, the heart of what the early Christians believed about God’s action in Jesus. We see it—to look outside John for just a moment—in the fourth chapter of Acts, where the disciples, having been threatened by the authorities, pray a prayer based closely on Psalm 2, celebrating the fact that the nations did their worst and that, when their power was exhausted by their rage against the Messiah, God exalted and enthroned the Messiah and served notice on the powers of the world that their time was up and that they had better come into line.

War Is Overcome

The song of Virgil is overcome by the song of Moses and Miriam, the victory song of the Exodus people—which in Exodus 15 ends, of course, with the establishment of the temple itself.

The dark waters of chaos are overcome with the creation of the heaven-and-earth reality of the original cosmos. The dark waters of the flood are overcome with the Ark, itself symbolizing a new temple. The overcoming of the Red Sea leads to the construction of the Tabernacle.

In Daniel 7 the monsters come up out of the sea, the same terrifying symbolism that Melville exploited in Moby Dick, and God vindicates the true human, not now an Ishmael but ‘one like a son of man,’ giving him authority over the monsters and through him establishing his kingdom on earth as in heaven.

John has built all of this and more into his account of God’s action in Jesus. Jesus as Israel’s Messiah wins the victory, the Lion of Judah over the Eagle of Rome, the God-reflecting human against the monsters, the ‘son of man’ as himself the ladder between earth and heaven (1:51). His body, the ultimate ‘temple,’ will be destroyed and rebuilt in three days (2:19–22).

Here, too, we are to hold this picture in our minds as we read the story of the crucifixion and resurrection in chapters 19 and 20, so that, for instance, the breathing of Jesus’s spirit on the disciples in 20:19–24 is itself an important temple-moment, with the disciples thereby constituted as the new-temple people for the world.

The tabernacle and Solomon’s temple were always designed as small working models of the intended new creation. Now, with the preparation of the Farewell Discourses behind them, the disciples are to be the living and active temple in which the Spirit dwells—the new reality corresponding to the promise of Ezekiel 43—with the living water flowing from this temple, as from the Garden of Eden, to refresh and irrigate the whole world.

The Johannine theme of divine victory, like the equivalent moments in Hebrews 2 or Colossians 2, not to mention the Synoptic gospels and Revelation, is bound up with the theme of the temple which is itself a central way, perhaps the central way, in which the early Christians thought and spoke of God’s action in Jesus and what it meant.

The Food of Love

There remains one theme, vast and all-embracing. John’s music is indeed the food of love, and by agapē he means the covenant love of God for his people and, through his people, for the world. ‘Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end,’ eis telos (13:1).

This is yet another heading which functions as a lens through which we are to see the events of arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection. It looks back to the famous ‘God so loved the world’ in 3:16 and on to the challenge to Peter: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” in chapter 21.

Here, as with Paul, I think we often fail to draw out the fact that this is covenantal language, whose natural home is in Exodus and Deuteronomy, in the Psalms and in Isaiah, particularly in the promises of restoration after the exile.

That is, for John, the ultimate meaning of incarnation and cross, the word agapē does not feature in the prologue, just as the word logos is conspicuously absent in the rest of the Gospel.

But the reality is everywhere, with creation itself as the act of overflowing divine love and the covenant with Israel the agonizing subsequent phase of that same love, all held together in the love of Father and Son for one another which is the deepest secret of both the prologue and of the Gospel as a whole.

And this is the final prayer of Jesus as the High Priest at the end of chapter 17: ‘May the love with which you loved me be in them, and I in them.’ This is temple language. It is thus the language of creation and new creation, of Jesus as the Image and the disciples, receiving the Spirit, as themselves the new image-bearing new temple, of the new world which will emerge once the final battle with the dark powers has been fought and won.

All these themes converge, with much more for which there has been no time here. We could have told a very similar story from Paul, from the Synoptics, from Hebrews, from First Peter, or from Revelation. Here, I think, we are near the heart of what the first Christians thought and wished to say about God’s action in Jesus.

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