Many people are unaware of their own cultural prejudices. We all make assumptions based on our cultures, and our experiences. Or to put it another way, we all wear tinted lenses that colour the world around us. We often assume everyone sees things the way we do. We may assume that everyone agrees with us.
For example, everyone in London in 1850 ‘knew’ that disease is caused by bad air. The medieval Italian for bad air is ‘mal-aria’. Today everyone knows that disease is caused by germs.
It is normal in the United States to believe that the Christian church is in serious decline. In the United Kingdom it is obvious to many that Christianity is an old myth, illogical and unsuited to a modern society and it will soon die out. They are wrong. In fact, to their frustration, Christian believers are growing rapidly in number in many countries of the world.
When reading the Bible it can help to know that not only do you have cultural assumptions, so did the people of the Bible. It affects how you think of God and heaven, for example.
The Hebrews saw time as a line like a train track. Time started, things happened one after another, and life moved toward a point. Past, present and future. Heaven was in the future. God was, and is, and is to come. Purpose and progress.
The Greeks did not think along a horizontal line like that. They saw heaven as above, and earth as below. They had a vertical line.
The first three Gospels assume that time travels in one direction. John’s Gospel is unable to throw out this cultural assumption because John is a Hebrew, but he includes the Greek idea.
This is why John speaks of Jesus as the one from heaven. In verse 13 for example – “No one has ever gone to heaven and returned. But the Son of Man has come down from heaven.”
John hardly mentions a future time when the kingdom of heaven will be established. The other Gospels talk about a future time when the evil age will end. The new age has begun and will be consummated in the future. Instead John talks a lot about God loving the world and sending Jesus ‘down’.
Perhaps we didn’t realise it, but we have inherited these ways of thinking.
Let me ask you to consider this question. Why is John, a cousin of Jesus and one of his closest disciples, writing with this Greek way of looking at the world?
There would seem to be two parts to the answer. First, it must be because he is writing to Greek thinkers as well as Hebrew thinkers. The experts say he was probably writing in Ephesus.
Second, it was written to believers. The intended audience for John’s Gospel was people who already believed in and followed Jesus. He tells us this himself in Chapter 20, verse 31, the last verse of the Gospel.
“these are written so that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing in him you will have life by the power of his name.”
This Gospel was written so that people might go on believing in Jesus. It was written for mature Christians. It was written for you, so that you will have life.
If you are reading this in a different translation, you may not be able to see clearly what the Hebrew means. The NIV translation, for example, says ‘these are written that you may believe’. And the King James translation says, ‘that ye might believe’. The NLT however says, ‘that you may continue to believe’ because of the Greek grammar, which is present continuous tense.
This is hard to translate. For example, when Jesus says ‘seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you’ the Greek means ‘keep on’ seeking and knocking. So the NLT says, ‘Keep on seeking, and you will find.’
So what we are being told in John 20:13 and in John 3:16 is that everyone who ‘keeps on believing’ in Jesus will not perish but have eternal life. The message is this – keep on believing.
The life is again a present continuous life. It started when we began to believe. Not only does it last forever, it is abundant. We can have quantity and quality of life, if we keep on believing.
What John is not saying straight out, but is obvious if we pause to think about it is this. We can lose this life if we stop believing.
An urgent question now arises. What is believing?
John uses the word ‘believe’ between 85 and 98 times in his Gospel, depending how you count. That is a lot more than the other Gospels.
When we look at these examples we find that John has different ways of using the word.
First, he uses believe in the sense of believe that something is true. Such as believing your friend when they says that they visited Seoul last week. Or that Jesus really lived and died. We believe ‘that’ a historical fact is correct. We can call this credence. This is not the belief that gives life. This is the belief that James mentions when he says in James 2:19, “You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror.”
Next he talks about a higher level of belief. After we accept a fact as true, then we put our trust in that truth. This is belief ‘in’. We can call this belief confidence. I can put my confidence in Jesus. I can trust in Jesus.
In other words, to believe in means to act on your belief. For example, to follow Jesus. Stage one would be to accept that Jesus is who the Bible says he his. Step two would be to act on that belief by becoming his follower or disciple.
If we say we believe in someone in this way but don’t actually follow them, it is superficial belief.
Remember what John said? He said ‘continue to believe’. This is the third level.
‘Faith’ and ‘faithfulness’ are the same word in Greek and Hebrew. We don’t always know which word was meant. If you truly trust a person, you will go on trusting them. If you truly have faith, you will be faithful.
Faith or belief is not one moment in time when we take a step of faith. It is not one moment in time when we make a confession of faith. John is telling us that it is a state of being. He is telling us we have to live in a state of constant belief. An example of this is John 15:4, where Jesus says, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you.” Jesus also says that if we do not remain in him we will be “thrown away like a useless branch”. Jesus says that the branch only has life while it is connected to the vine. We have life only while we remain in Jesus. Or as John has said, we have life only while we believe.
John wrote his Gospel to encourage us all that having accepted that Jesus is the messiah, we would then act on that belief, and hold on to that belief through the rest of our lives come what may. And he also wants us to remember that the truth we believe in is Jesus himself.
Jesus is the truth, the way and the life.