How do we know that John, the writer of the Gospel of John, is not a “religion salesman?” People in sales have a very important function but we all have experience of someone who has tried very hard to sell us something we do not need, or something that does not even work. How do we know that John isn’t that kind of salesman? How do we know he is not trying to sell us on some new fabricated-from-thin-air religion? After all, there is a plethora of books and blogs written by “Jesus experts” who would tell us that indeed Christianity and the Jesus of Christianity is a human invention.
John’s sales pitch starts early. The Gospel of John begins with what is probably the most startling introduction in all of literature:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. . . . And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-4,14)
The startling nature of these verses may be lost on the Christian reader who has come to love these words and the Lord they point to. But imagine you are one of the early readers of this book, you have heard something about Jesus and have picked up John’s Gospel in order to be introduced more fully to him. John tells us that you start, not with the birth of Jesus, but long before, in fact before Creation. Right from the get go you may well find all this to be blasphemous if you are Jewish, or utter foolishness if you are not. As you read John’s Gospel the claims John makes about Jesus, what he said and did, do not get any less extraordinary. There is no doubt that John is seeking to introduce us to someone who is extraordinary. In fact he is introducing us to God the Son who is risen from the dead. But why should we buy it? Why should we believe John? How do we know he is genuine in his testimony about Jesus and not some religion salesman selling a bogus product?
Those of us who are Christian will appeal to the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of Scripture. God is not going to reveal Himself in Jesus to one generation only for the memory of Jesus to be distorted for the generations to come. But even those of us who are not Christian have good reason to weigh carefully the words of John before trashing him as a mere salesman of religion. Take, for example, these words of John:
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
There is so much theology presented in this verse that we often fail to notice a simple truth: “we have seen his glory.” We, as in, “I, John, have seen personally and am an eyewitness to the things I am writing,” and we, as in, “I am not the only one, there are other eyewitnesses that you can check what I am saying with.” This is eyewitness testimony. Further, the final words of the book:
20 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them . . . This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. 25 But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (John 21:20-25)
These reinforce that the writer was someone who was right in the middle of the life and ministry of Jesus, someone seeing and hearing all that is going on, someone who was close to Jesus. This friend of Jesus is identified in early Christian records as being John the apostle, the same John that wrote the following:
1 We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— 3 we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3)
While the Christian can appeal to the work of the Holy Spirit, both in the writing and the reading of Scripture, we can also appeal to historical documents. The Biblical Gospels were not written long after the events they describe by people far from them in time and place as many people erroneously believe. Two of them were written by men who rubbed shoulders constantly with eyewitnesses, Mark being a companion to Peter, and Luke often being a companion of, and mixing in many of the same circles as, Paul. The other two Gospels were written by eyewitnesses themselves, Matthew Levi the tax collector, and John the “beloved disciple.” Though taking different perspectives and emphasizing different things, all four agree as to who Jesus is. But did these men make up a new religion to sell to anyone who would hear?
It has been said (I think by J. Warner Wallace?) that people who tell lies, who engage in fraudulent activity, are doing so in order to get a) money, b) sex, or c) power. The Gospel writers were not getting rich, but getting into danger. Being Christ followers the Gospel writers would have kept to the strict sexual ethics they record Jesus as affirming, so sex would not be a motivating factor. As for power, persecution was more the norm. These were men willing to die for the truth of what they were sharing about Jesus. These men were willing to pick up a cross and follow. No salesman trying to sell a product he knows is bogus will do that.
Who would you rather listen to? The “Jesus experts” of our day, the people who 2000 years after the events would like you to buy their books? Or John, who was right in the middle of the events he relates, who was an intimate friend of Jesus whom he describes, who devoted his life and was willing to give his life for the truth he was sharing? Who is the religion salesman here really?
What do the people trying to sell you books want you to know about Jesus? All manner of quite diverse theories, but what they hold in common is that you do not need to care about Jesus. What does John want you to know about Jesus? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16) John wants you to know that Jesus cares about you.
(All references are taken from the NRSV. All emphasis are mine)