Who Is Jesus? [Part 4: Book of John]
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” —John 14:6
Who is Jesus? Who is your Jesus? Is your Jesus as big as the biblical Jesus, or is your Jesus Jesus Jr.? Is he an overflowing fountain of mercy for your sin, or is he a drill sergeant demanding your perfection? Is he a solid rock, or a rabbit’s foot? Is he wisdom for every doubt, or on academic probation? Is he sweet to your heart, or a threat to your happiness? It’s time to rediscover real, industrial strength Jesus, according to Scripture. He helps sinners who don’t deserve him but can have him, all of him.
This month we’ve been answering the Who is Jesus? question from the gospels of the New Testament. Today we’re in John’s gospel. We don’t have to wonder why he wrote it. He told us his purpose: “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). So John’s gospel is for both unbelievers and believers. It’s for unbelievers, that they may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. But there’s more. It’s also for believers, that by believing we may have life in his name. The gospel of John was never meant to be merely academic for anyone. It has been opening doors to the real Jesus for 2000 years now.
We could approach John’s gospel in several ways. What I’ve decided to do is look briefly at the seven “I am” statements Jesus made. Jesus liked saying “I am this” and “I am that” and just “I am.” And he knew how people would hear him. When he said “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58), he knew people would hear that as a claim to be God. It’s what he meant. Jesus did not say, “Before Abraham was, I was,” meaning that he was older than Abraham. That would have been odd. But he said, “Before Abraham was, I am.” He deliberately echoed how God identified himself to Moses back in the Old Testament. God said, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). Jesus was saying, “That’s who I am. I am God. I am eternal. I am not going away. I cannot be defeated. I will always be. I am.” Jesus was, yes. And he will be. But Jesus also is. That means he is with you today, as no one else can be. “I am” is unlimited and relevant to you today. Whatever you’re facing, something here among his seven “I am” statements will help you. Who is Jesus? Here is what he himself said.
I am the bread of life
“Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst’” (John 6:35). Deep inside every one of us is an emptiness. We feel troubled and restless and anxious. We feel it every day. But we think it’s because we don’t have enough money or the next advanced degree or enough free time or security or recognition or whatever. That isn’t the reason. We could get everything we desire, and nothing would change within. We’re like a man who is famished, so he inhales air, and more air, and more air, and he doesn’t understand why the hunger is never satisfied. The reason is, air cannot satisfy hunger. You could inhale the entire atmosphere of Planet Earth, and you’d still be hungry. Here is what you might not understand about yourself and about Jesus. You have inside yourself a need so deep, only the “I am” can satisfy it. You are not a shallow being. You are profound. Your soul is vast. And the “I am” is an unlimited Friend to empty people. Do not think, “I’ll get around to Jesus once my other desires are taken care of.” You will starve to death. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. I am what you hunger for. I am your completion. I am your satisfaction. Come to me. I will prove it to you.”
I am the light of the world
“Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life’” (John 8:12). We deeply believe we can generate our own light and wisdom and understanding out of our own intelligence. I suppose the age of “the Enlightenment” was as brash as we’ve ever been about how smart we are. But it didn’t work. The Enlightenment is inseparable from the bloodbath of the French Revolution. We’ve proven again and again how brilliant our darkness can be. And this is the world God loves.
But Jesus did not say, “I am a light in the world.” He said more: “I am the light of the world. There is no other. If you ever want to get beyond your own destructive genius and live, follow me.” He is not pointing us to light elsewhere and offering himself as our guide into that light. He is saying, he is the light. To follow him is the only path into the luminous and beautiful humaneness we long for. If you do not follow Jesus, here is the rest of your life: you will bump into one self-inflicted injury after another, you will never know why, you will never understand yourself, but you will continually believe you’ll soon get the hang of how life works with some new approach. Are you willing to stake your whole life on your own flawed perceptions?
I am the door of the sheep
“So Jesus again said to them, ‘Truly, truly I say to you, I am the door of the sheep’” (John 10:7). And what was his point? Verse 9: “If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.” Jesus is the one and only way into the people of God, the flock of God. There is no other way in. Jesus alone gives us entrance. And he allows us in freely and gladly. He allows in all kinds of people. But we all enter in through him, and he is where we find pasture, green pastures and still waters. He is not like our false shepherds, our Hitlers and Stalins and the other tyrants who Jesus bluntly says steal and kill and destroy (John 10:10). The tyrants and bullies of this world tell us the biblical promise of heaven is a myth. But their promises are a utopian dream, never to be believed. Jesus said, “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37). There is a reason why the front door of this church is red. It’s an old tradition from the Anglican church, because we come into the church through the blood of Christ, and every sinner can find a place here.
I am the good shepherd
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Don’t think of a shepherd’s job as romantic, and don’t think of sheep as cuddly. Being a shepherd is dirty work, it’s tiring work, because sheep are dumb. When the Bible tells us we are the flock of God, we should not feel flattered. It isn’t a pretty picture. But Jesus is the good shepherd. What does he mean by that? He means he is the ideal shepherd. He is noble and unselfish. He is no hired hand who does the minimum to get by. In fact, Jesus does even more than work hard for us. He lays down his life for us – at the cross. When he did his cross-work, he beat back the marauding wolf pack of the devil and all our guilt and every one of our sins and everything that depletes us of life. Who else is qualified to care for you like that? Who else can be your good shepherd to protect you, provide for you, defend you, care for you? Name one person you know – family member, therapist, coach, anyone – who can love you in so relevant a way and at such cost to himself. Name one. Jesus said to you, “I am the good shepherd.”
I am the resurrection and the life
“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live’” (John 11:25). Jesus wasn’t saying, “Come to church, and I’ll give you a better start to your busy week.” He was saying, “Come to me, I’ll raise you up on that great and final day. If you believe in me, I will conquer your death. I will save not only your soul but also your body.” When he said, “I am the resurrection,” he was not talking about some shadowy posthumous existence far away from everything we like. The word “resurrection” means bodily resurrection. Your body, the humblest part of you – God cares about your body. If you believe in Jesus, the road your body travels through this life into death stops being a one-way road and Jesus makes it a U-turn, but with a body he makes new forever, like his own resurrection body. “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” Don’t you want to live forever?
He also said, “I am the life.” He didn’t say, “I am alive.” Why say that? It’s too obvious. When Jesus said, “I am the life,” he meant, “I am myself the life you long for, the life that is truly life. Your existence right now is a living death. Apart from me, you have nothing but death, in all its forms, and it will defeat you. But I am the life, I am what you most desire. It isn’t off at the other end of the universe beyond your reach. I have come down, to give you the life no one can take away.” What Jesus gives is a life that starts now, and it’s a life so deep not even death can destroy it. He proved it, by his own resurrection. Who else has that on their resume?
I am the way, the truth, the life
“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (John 14:6). He didn’t say, “I will show you the way,” but “I am the way.” So, there goes any thought that Jesus is one religious voice among others. This verse is why Jesus has always been controversial. He told us he is the only way to God. He told us he is the only truth to be completely trusted. He told us he is the only life to hope for. There is no other. He was not saying the other religions have no wisdom to offer at all. But he was saying, if you follow them, even follow them perfectly, you will still end up lost from the way you want to travel, blind to the truth you most need to see, and excluded from the life you long to experience. You cannot depend on other paths and other truths and other hopes. They will all let you down at some point. Jesus only can be depended on entirely, with abandon. To Jesus only we can surrender control without fear of betrayal. Everything man-made eventually breaks down. And Jesus said what he said just before he died on the cross, when it appeared as though his way led nowhere and his truth was shouted down by lies and his life was defeated in death. It appeared that everything dark was most real. Marilynne Robinson, in her book The Death of Adam, articulated the cynicism of our times:
“It is as if there is nothing to mourn or to admire, only a hidden narrative now and then apparent through the false, surface narrative. And the hidden narrative, because it is ugly and sinister, is therefore true.”
When Jesus rose from the grave, he destroyed cynicism. But only he ever did. No one comes to the Father except through him. So, if you like God and want to talk about God but downplay Jesus, you lose both. Centuries ago Thomas à Kempis paraphrased John 14:6 this way:
Follow me. I am the way and the truth and the life. Without the way there is no going; without the truth there is no knowing; without the life there is no living. I am the way which you must follow; the truth which you must believe; the life for which you must hope. I am the inviolable way, the infallible truth, the never-ending life. I am the straightest way; the sovereign truth; life true, life blessed, life uncreated.
Can you receive that? If not, you’re lost. If you can, Jesus is yours forever.
I am the true vine
“I am the true vine” (John 15:1). In the Old Testament, the vine was Israel, the people of God. But Jesus said, “I am the true vine, not like the failure that you were for so long.” He isn’t offering a better church. He’s offering himself, with his life and richness flowing into us. We don’t support him. He supports us. He is not our rigid rule; he is our vitality. Everything we do that comes alive comes from him. We are not left to our good intentions and disciplines. Jesus is the true vine, and the Father has grafted us into him. Because he lives, we will live forever.
Now, we’ve seen who Jesus is from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. How do we benefit from that? How are we helped by who he is? The most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16, tells us how:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
The key phrase is “… whoever believes in him….” Whoever, anyone, including you, can have the real Jesus. How? By believing in him. So, whatever John means by “believe in him,” that’s how we get the real Jesus. Believing in him is the single requirement. God will not demand anything more later on. You don’t have to prove anything to God. You don’t have to measure up or make the grade. In fact, if you think you do, you exclude yourself. If you think you’re qualified, you’re not. If you think you’re unqualified, you are. All God commands and requires of us comes down to this: “. . . whoever believes in him.” How then do we do that? What does it mean for you and me to “believe in him”?
In John’s gospel he uses this verb “believe” around 98 times. The noun “faith” never appears in John’s gospel. He speaks only of active “believing.” And the way John uses this verb “believe” appears nowhere in Greek literature before the New Testament. John invented a new expression to communicate what it means to believe in Jesus. It’s not like believing in anything else. Let me translate John literally. Our English Bibles have to say “believe in” Jesus, to make good English. But John literally speaks of “believing into” Jesus. That’s the way he puts it here in John 3:16 and frequently in his gospel – “whoever believes into him.”
Real Christianity is not just believing in Jesus as a fact of history, important as that is, but it’s believing into Jesus as a relationship of personal trust and need and dependence. For example, in John 1:12 believing into Jesus is the same as receiving him. In John 6:35 Jesus believing into Jesus is coming to him. Real faith is entering into Jesus as the new environment, the new spiritual ecology where you can thrive, because you were made to be there. An old hymn put it this way:
Out of my bondage, sorrow and night, Jesus, I come;
Into Thy freedom, gladness and light, Jesus, I come to Thee;
Out of my sickness into Thy health,
Out of my want and into Thy wealth,
Out of my sin and into Thyself, Jesus, I come to Thee.
God is opening that door to you today. Are you willing? What do we leave behind? Our sin? Yes. And we don’t mind that. What else is harder for us to leave behind? Control. Believing into Jesus is leaving behind the illusion of our own control and waving the white flag of surrender to his control. But if we’re fed up with ourselves, if we’re broken enough and defeated enough and embarrassed enough, it’s not that hard. It’s a relief.
Do you believe that you are better off with him controlling your life than with you controlling your life? Are you glad to put yourself over into his hands? If so, you have believed into him. And he will keep every promise to you. His every “I am” is changing everything for you. But if you’ve never felt settled in his control, if you’ve never become decisive for Jesus, why not give that up and come into Jesus right now?