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The Teachings of Jesus

The Gospel of John, 1 John

The Gospel of John is very different in style from the three Synoptic Gospels. Instead of the familiar parables, Jesus gives sometimes lengthy discourses. For understanding Jesus’s teachings, this Gospel is an important complement to the other three.

The Gospel of John gives us insight into Jesus’s understanding of faith. He performs miracles so that people will believe, but he never intends these miraculous works to be ends in themselves. In fact, he expresses frustration that people will only have faith if they are impressed by some incredible sign. To Jesus, this is not what faith is really all about.

For Jesus, “bread” is more than food for the body, “living water” is more than water flowing from a well, and being “born again” (or “from above”) is more than simply passing through the womb. These are all symbols of faith, of living consciously in the Covenant, of having eternal life.

And what is the way to eternal life? Is it simply a matter of belief?

Here we must be very careful. In English we have different words for “faith” and “belief.” In New Testament Greek there is no such distinction. In English the word “belief” is specific and limited; we tend to think of belief as the mind’s assent to a particular proposition. The Greek word pisteuo, usually translated as “believe,” means much more. It is the entire experience of belief, trust, confidence and faith all taken together. It is a transforming experience, a profound inner change affecting not only the mind but the spirit as well. In most cases “have faith in” would be a better translation.

To “believe” in Jesus in this original sense means not merely to consent to certain ideas about Jesus but to have confidence in him and especially in what he came to teach, to experience its truth, to live it as a reality, to be transformed by it. If we understood “believe” in this fuller New Testament sense, then the question of whether someone can “believe” in Jesus and still act immorally could never arise. Anyone who professes belief in Jesus but who still lives an immoral life gives evidence of not really having been transformed by the teaching, and therefore of not really having faith.

This becomes much clearer when we consider the essence of this teaching, which this Gospel gives us more explicitly than any other. Often in this Gospel Jesus associates eternal life with “belief,” or more properly, with faith. But in one key passage he says that eternal life is God’s commandment. God’s commandment takes many forms as it applies itself to different circumstances, but Jesus brings it all down to this: God’s commandment means “that you love one another, as I have loved you.”

Jesus goes on to state that God will never abandon those who keep the commandment, but will be present with them in the form of an “advocate,” “counselor,” or “comforter” - these are all various translations of the Greek word parakletos. Literally the word means “called to the side of,” the one who is by your side, who never leaves you. This is the deepest meaning of the Covenant: those who devote themselves to seeking God’s love - that is, to being loving in the sense that God is loving - are assured of God’s continuing presence no matter what life may require them to endure.

And why should this be? The First Letter of John tells us that “God is love.” God’s very nature is love. Not just any love - as Jesus said before, it’s easy to love when someone loves you back - but love unlimited by self-interest. When we love in this manner, then God’s essence is present within us. What we have become begins to reflect what God is. And as it does so, God’s presence with us is assured.

In tracing the main line of spiritual history from Abraham to Jesus we have rediscovered the Covenant - God’s promise to humanity - and what it means. All that remains is to test it in our individual lives.

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