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Revelation

The Mind of John

Analysis of John, the philosophical disciple

It is a problem that most tourists in a foreign country have encountered. You don’t speak the language and you need to know “where’s the restroom.” You pull out your handy phrase book -- and prepare yourself to be smiled at, as if you were the village idiot.

So imagine yourself with this problem: you speak and think in Hebrew and Aramaic. You live where the rest of the world speaks Greek. Not only do you have a different language to learn -- you have a different way of thought.

John, the Apostle, found himself in that situation. When writing his Gospel, it had already been resolved that the Greek Christian need not become a Jew first. What had not been resolved was how the Greek was to understand his Christianity -- in other words, the message of salvation had to be translated in thought as well as word. We have this problem today with many of our Lord’s parables. They are often agricultural, as most people of most times have been farmers or lived near enough to understand them. If you’re not a gardener, you may understand them intellectually, but not down in the fingers. John’s problem was to put the Gospel in such terms that the Greek understood it down in the fingers. The result is the ultimate cross-cultural success: the Gospel of John is the first book translated into any new language by the Bible translators.

Logos

John accomplished this (in the first place) by the use of the word logos. This word is used by the Greek and the Jew to mean two very different things. John’s genius is that he correctly identifies them as the same thing. We need to understand just what each race meant.

Greek ideas

The “logos” of the Greek was the solution to a philosophical problem. God (by which they meant the ultimate in abstract perfection) would be perfect. Therefore, He would be unchanging (perhaps better “it”) because He could not become more perfect nor less perfect (if he could get worse, he wouldn’t be perfect to begin with). The world is his creation (not necessarily ex nihilo). It is in constant change -- according to fixed rules; or as they would say, it is in flux.

So far, so good. The Greeks saw the dilemma this way: if God sustains the universe, why does it change? If He doesn’t, why are the rules fixed?

The problem may appear silly to us, but it worried the Greek philosophers. They came up with the solution (which, by the way, is correct). God in essence does not sustain the universe; his logos (we might translate it “reason”) does sustain the universe.

This solved the problem very nicely, and gave them a powerful philosophical tool as well. They saw the logos in two lights:

·         It is the “reason” (in the sense of logical though, Mr. Spock) behind the universe. It is “rationale thought”. God being perfect, He is the source of it, and it sustains the universe. This is explicitly confirmed in Scripture:

(Col 1:16-17 NIV) For by him {Jesus} all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. {17} He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. {emphasis added}

·         It is the “reason” (in the sense we say “he’s lost his reason” to mean insanity) of man. This too is confirmed in Scripture:

(Gen 1:26-27 NIV) Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." {27} So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

What is the image of God? Is it not that we, like He, are “rational” beings?

Jewish “Word”

The Jews translated the Old Testament into Greek. When they did, they used the word logos to translate the concept we might call today “The Word of God.” They did not so much mean by that the written Scriptures (as we say “The Bible is the Word of God”) as much as they did something mystic, alive and powerful:

(Isa 55:10-11 NIV) As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, {11} so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

(Heb 4:12 NIV) For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

You see the point, I hope? The Word is “living and active”; it “goes out from my mouth” (says God) -- it is as if it is a force beyond description, only incidentally written down on paper. Indeed, the ideal writing surface for the Word is the human heart. Indeed, the mystic quality of the “word of the Lord” extended to giving life itself:

(Ezek 37:4 NIV) Then he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones and say to them, 'Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!

John’s Great Synthesis

John the Apostle took these two conceptions, and stunned the thinkers of the world -- then and now -- with his simple pronouncement:

·         The Greek conception of logos and the Hebrew conception are in fact one in the same thing.

·         They are not only the “same thing” -- they are the same person.

·         And that person is Jesus Christ, who has walked among us on the earth.

(John 1:1-5 NIV) In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. {2} He was with God in the beginning. {3} Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. {4} In him was life, and that life was the light of men. {5} The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

(John 1:14 NIV) The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Two Worlds

The Greeks had another conception which John put to us. They understood reality to have two components: our imperfect (“natural”) world, and a perfect -- or to use their phrase, “real” (Greek alethines) world. A table in the natural world was but an imperfect copy of the perfect table in the real world.

We reverse these concepts in our minds, being raised in a naturalist society. But a simple example will suffice. Do you remember the scene in Crocodile Dundee? Mick is accosted by a mugger with a switchblade who demands his money. His girlfriend says, “You’d better give it to him, Mick; he has a knife.”

“A knife? That’s not a knife,” replies Mick. Pulling out a slightly anemic saber, Mick puts it under the hood’s chin and replies, “Now that -- that’s a knife!” Had he said, “that’s a real knife” the word would mean the same as it meant to the Greeks.

John uses this exact phrasing to describe Jesus as real:

·         He is real light.[1]

·         He is real bread.[2]

·         He is the real vine.[3]

·         He is the real judgment.[4]

The Hebrews also had a conception of two worlds: this one (marred by sin and imperfect) and the one to come -- a perfect world.

(Isa 65:17-18 NIV) "Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. {18} But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.

Once again, John takes these two conceptions and rams them together -- the “real” world is the one to come, when all things will be made new.

God is His Attributes

John anticipated the work of Thomas Aquinas by about a thousand years -- no mean feat. In John’s time, philosophers did not distinguish existence from essence; this distinction really awaited Thomas Aquinas. John did, however, explicitly declare God to be His attributes:

·         God is Spirit:

(John 4:24 NIV) God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth." (red letters disputed).

·         God (Jesus) is Life; John alone records this remark:

(John 14:6 NIV) Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

·         God is Light:

(1 John 1:5 NIV) This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.

·         God is Love:

(1 John 4:8 NIV) Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

You see the pattern. “God is...” is so closely related to “I AM” (the name of God) that this identification screams the idea that God is His attributes. This integrates the Old Testament idea of the attributes of God (see, for example, Wisdom in Proverbs 1:20ff -- “Wisdom calls aloud in the street.....”) having a life of their own with the philosophical “real” of the Greeks. They meet in God.

Other Cerebral Ruminations

Certain other features of John’s writings need to be pointed out, as they have a bearing on Revelation:

·         John’s treatment of miracles is somewhat different from the other Gospel writers. They very often emphasize the sympathy (KJV pity) that Jesus had on the sufferer; John usually emphasizes the glory to God.

·         He also follows his miracles with a discourse. There is some debate in this as to where the “red letters” end (all being inspired, of course). Miracles are not only the glory of Jesus, they have a point.

·         John is fervent against the Gnostic heresy. In doing this, we see three primary things which bear on Revelation:

·         First, Jesus is never portrayed as “less than God.”

·         Next, Jesus is shown as having a physical body. The implications are tremendous: if the Perfect Man had a physical body, how then can matter be intrinsically evil?

·         Finally, the Gnostic doctrine had particular appeal because its devotees were “in on the secret.” John, in opposing them and in his simple but deep style, says that the secrets of God are now revealed. The Gospel is not a “secret society” item, but is a mystery plainly revealed; as Paul puts it:

(Col 1:25-26 NIV) I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness-- {26} the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints.

Summary: the “Thought Process” of John

So what does all this mean to us? What bearing does it have on Revelation? We see these patterns in John’s thought:

·         John integrates diverse cultural ideas (Greek and Jew), blending them easily by showing that both are contained within the word of God - Jesus.

·         He is at home with the abstract; with the metaphor; with the philosophical. Such a man does not need details but can reason with the symbolic.

·         John does this work by raising the mystical and the philosophical to the level of the revealed Word of God.

For us, then, as we study prophecy (and in particular Revelation) we are going to need the same mental tools:

·         We’re going to have to accustom ourselves to ideas from a different time and a different culture. Just because something could be interpreted in light of today’s technology does not make it so.[5]

·         We are going to need the ability to deal with metaphor, particularly in symbols and pictures -- recognizing that a metaphor may have both a moral and a prediction contained in it.

·         Ultimately, all that we interpret must turn on and focus toward the Word of God -- Jesus, the Christ, the word become flesh.


[1] John 1:9

[2] John 6:32

[3] John 15:1

[4] John 8:16

[5] I have seen Nahum 2:4 interpreted (from the KJV, which has “broad ways” instead of “squares”) as predicting freeways.

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