In my childhood, my family was part of a Syrian Christian indigenous church called the Mar Thoma Church, Syriac for ‘St. Thomas Church.’ The public reading of a passage from one of the four Gospels was a part of liturgical services held on Sundays. The Gospels are referred to by the Greek term evangelion. Most preachers based their sermons on a verse or a passage from a lectionary. I cannot recall having heard a sermon from the Epistles or the Acts of the Apostles except for an occasional one on, for instance, Romans 12.
At sixteen, I joined a fellowship of born-again Christians. I soon discovered that they were at another point on the spectrum! They emphasized the reading and study of New Testament epistles, particularly Pauline epistles, often at the expense of the four Gospels. Most of them had a shallow understanding of the Gospels. They thought that the Gospels provided elementary information about Jesus, his life and teachings, and about his passion and resurrection. According to them, the ‘real’ stuff begins with the Acts of the Apostles, the Day of Pentecost, to be precise. That’s where they find teachings on salvation, the Church, evangelism, the Holy Spirit, the Second Coming, etc. Therefore, some of them taught that all born-again Christians should focus on Acts and the Epistles, which were more edifying to the soul. What about the four Gospels? Well, those were considered apt for children’s Sunday School lessons!
Over the years, I learned to appreciate the beauty of the Gospels. One of the best things I got to do as a Christian minister was to teach the Gospel of John to seven batches of A-level students in an international school that followed the British curriculum. The curriculum was as rigorous as those followed at Master of Divinity level in many Asian seminaries. What a golden opportunity that was to do an in-depth study of John’s Gospel!
The primary theme of the Gospel is indeed the identity of Jesus Christ based on the evidence of his signs and claims. John’s focus on Jesus remains steadfast from the first verse to the last. He bears witness to his Lord unashamedly and unapologetically. But beyond that, John’s Gospel addresses the hot button issue in the early Church: the identity of God’s people. Who exactly were the people of God? Could ethnic Israel be considered God’s people just because they descended from Abraham? Was it only they who could believe in Jesus and obtain salvation? Should Gentiles first become Jews to gain access to the ‘Jewish’ Messiah? I am sure this comes as a surprise to many Christians that John deals with these questions in his Gospel.
The Judaizers among Christians believed that only Jews could be God’s people. Therefore they insisted that all non-Jews should first become Jews before they placed their trust in Jesus Christ. The ‘circumcision’ debate in the first Church Council (Acts 15) wasn’t just about a ritual. It was about embracing Judaism before embracing the Messiah. The Apostle Paul dealt with this issue in his epistle to the Galatians. He went to the extent of calling down curses upon the Judaizers because he believed that their teaching threatened the core message of the gospel (Gal 1:8-9).
The Apostle John cut right through that thorny doctrinal issue. Right from the first chapter, the Apostle deftly handled the all-important question regarding the identity of Jesus Christ and the identity of God’s people. His carefully crafted narrative may not come across as hard-hitting as St. Paul’s rhetoric. But John’s Gospel does a thorough job, leaving no room for doubt in the mind of an honest student.
Do you think the question – Who are God’s people? – is irrelevant to the world? A theological viewpoint can shape world history. Two hundred years ago, a man came up with an answer to that question—a deviant one that went against the spirit of John’s Gospel. Yet, millions of Christians joined his bandwagon, thanks to a ‘Study Bible’ that touted his views. That answer gave us nothing but insoluble geopolitical problems and bloodshed in West Asia. Much worse, it hardened the hearts of millions living in the 10-40 window against the Gospel. It is high time Christians reexamined one of their favourite notions about ethnic Israel. Does God indeed have two sets of people—Israel and the Church? The Gospel of John has a definite answer to that question. There is no room for ambiguity. There is no point trying to get every Christian wrap his mind around Pauline rhetoric in Romans. True to Apostle Peter’s prediction, the weak among us might distort Paul’s lofty teachings (2 Peter 3:16). Turn to John. Beneath John’s eloquent multilayered narrative lies his unequivocal view on God’s people. Discover Jesus, the Messiah. Discover His People. Both these themes form the core of the Gospel.