He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
John has made it clear to his disciples that his time of fame is coming to an end because Jesus has arrived. John’s job had been to herald the arrival of Jesus. John’s job had been completed. When you set out to build a house, there may be a twinge of sorrow at the close of the enterprise, but the sorrow is swallowed up by the joy of completing the job. The vacant lot is now a home and all the accompanying blessings. There is no sense of jealousy in John; he has done the work he was sent to do. He’s built the house and makes way for the one who will build a nation.
“He who comes from above is above all,” is a startling statement that Jesus is more than a prophet. Jesus has come from above. Did John understand the deity of Jesus at this point? That is unclear. The apostles struggled throughout their time of discipleship to understand who Jesus was. It took Jesus’ resurrection for them to finally understand his identity, that he was actually God.
We have become accustomed to the idea of a god-man but, if you think about it for a minute, you will realize what a strange possibility it actually is. God came to earth in the form of a man? But John testifies that Jesus has “come from above”. John says this in spite of being Jesus’ cousin. He knows there is something supernatural about Jesus. Jesus has come from heaven. He had not been selected out of the ranks of men, as God had done many times before with the prophets of Israel. As God did with John himself. In the case of Jesus, God sent someone from heaven. Because Jesus is from heaven, he has a rank that is above all people on earth.
John makes the point that, since Jesus has been in heaven, what he has to say about it is a first-hand account. What Jesus has to say about the nature of God and the nature of his kingdom is the testimony of one who knows both well. The implication is that all should listen carefully to what he has to say. But John also observes that people are disinclined to do so. Why is that? Because people have their minds set on things of the earth.
What does it mean to be earthly minded? No doubt, there are many ways to explain this. What I think it means, fundamentally, is to base understanding on one’s own experience. It is a kind of solipsism. Truth is what it appears to be to me. I judge all. I am the final arbiter of all questions. To take responsibility for my life I must look to myself. Purpose is defined as all that serves my best interests. Whatever provides me with comfort and pleasure and health and security and the esteem of others—those are seen as the good. Anything that stands in the way of my pursuits is bad. Additionally, to be earthly minded is to embrace the culture of death. Life on earth is a short-term loan and it must be spent to the last drop because when the loan comes due and payment is made, nothing remains.
This in contrast to the kingdom of heaven where actions are based on their eternal consequences and where actions are measured on the basis of service. In the kingdom of heaven, the self is taken into account but it is not the only person taken into account. How actions affect others is extremely important. Actions are to be blessings. But above these conditions, actions and thoughts take God into account first. God deserves adoration and he deserves to have our actions guided by loyalty to him. He created us out of love and he rescued by the grace of his soul. We behave like he behaves because we understand the goodness of his actions through how they have been showered on us.
John insists that whoever accepts the testimony of Jesus “sets his seal” to the idea that God is true. This phrase may be missed by present day readers, as it is in reference to something rarely practiced any more. A seal would be a unique design that might be set in wax or in some other soft material. If you have a diploma hanging on your wall, it likely has a seal on it that represents the school where you graduated. Another place where we still see seals is on notarized documents. Every once in a while you may be required to provide evidence for the veracity or your existence, for example, by having a notary sign a document, accompanied by the notary’s seal. So John is saying that to believe in Jesus is to commit to him. It is to make the belief public , official, and irrevocable.
In the next sentence John explains why believers commit to this Jesus. First, there is the implication that the believers recognize that Jesus’ words are truly from God. We humans are complex spirits. We have an amazing capacity to suppress truth. Invariably, this suppression is applied to truths that we find inconvenient. We may recognize something as true and, yet, due to what we perceive to be the high cost of conforming to that truth, we will seek high and low for a narrative that, at least, seems like rational thought that undermines the inconvenient truth. We almost always can find a tribe of individuals who will sing together the contradictory chorus, because we also believe that a large number of people believing a certain way is confirming evidence. Of course, this is delusional, as well. There is hardly any shakier ground than popular thought. And who could imagine a lynch mob acting wrongly.
But, on the other side of this, humans do have the capacity to recognize truth. I think this capacity is best exercised in the quiet of reflection. It is cultivated by an openness to the truth, with a presupposition that the truth, even when inconvenient, is of greater worth in the long run than any imposter. And it is cultivated by exposure to the best opposing arguments to any given question. And it is cultivated by exposure to the thoughts of the wise.
But John is also clear that human understanding is fragile and easily confused. The remedy is God himself through the Holy Spirit. This is a reminder to us about the need for God’s grace. How will we see the truth? God must open our eyes. Does this mean we are without agency or responsibility? No. We still must wish to have our eyes opened. We must wish to see. We can, in fact, pray to God that he will help us see. Our human agency is also a gift from God. We should never take it for granted by imagining ourselves to be helpless and in the clutches of fate…or materialistic determinism.
John tells us that God provides the Spirit “without measure”. This could mean a number of things, I’m sure. In keeping with the idea of sanctification, it means that God continues to add his Spirit to Christians over the course of their lives or, at least, that is his objective. To those he has given much, he will give more. The presence of God’s Spirit has always meant understanding, but it has also meant power. The power of God’s Spirit is something the Church has underutilized or under-expected. This is a bit like leaving a Maserati in the garage. “Without measure” also suggests that God is pouring out his Spirit into many people. He will save out of every tribe and nation. He will save men and women, old and young. He will save the rich and powerful; he will save the poor and helpless. Jesus Christ, in the depth of his soul, is generous.
“The Father loves the Son.” For the Christian, or even for those familiar with the basics of Christianity, this seems obvious, but we should not fail to notice how foundationally critical it is. Most religions don’t have such foundations. The Greco-Roman pantheon, for example, is made up of capricious “supermen” who are as likely to fight one another as they are to hang out in the banquet halls together, guzzling wine. The fundamental relationships in the Christian universe: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are relationships of absolute love. This fact, plus the fact of God’s sovereignty, make clear the direction of all history. It is the basis of all hope. More pointedly, the Father has given all authority to the Son. This is truly exciting news for us helpless humans. This Jesus is the one who laid down his life for our sakes. Now he has been given charge over us. Nothing stands between us and him. Therefore, we are in a great place.
And here is the fundamental truth about salvation. We cannot save ourselves. There is no standard that we can achieve, unless we make one up along the lines of, “I did more good than harm in my life.” There are two problems with this standard, though. The first is that we can never actually be sure whether we have done more good than harm. The effects of our actions are impossible to measure. Perhaps that trip to the corner store that I decided to take by car instead of by foot, warmed the earth just enough that the floodwaters increased just enough so that Sally Jones was unable to escape from her house in time. Or maybe I’m just not very honest in my mental calculations about the good and bad I’ve done. Wishful thinking is our nature. Honest self-assessment is a medicine too harsh. The reason I balance the checkbook on a monthly basis is that, with rare exception, my wife and I spent more money than I estimated. I need that regular reality check. (And, so, the real meaning of the term, “checkbook”.) The second problem is that even if we could successfully meet the requirements of our own standards, it would be useless to do so. What authority do we as individuals have? What power over life and death? What does it signify when we meet the demands that we have made up?
Strangely, amazingly, the real rules about salvation are easier than the ones we make up. The rules (the rule is) that we believe in Jesus Christ. We trust that he will save us. He is able. He is willing. We must trust him in all things.
In contrast, John reminds us that those who refuse to trust Jesus remain under the curse of death. Not all want to acknowledge that death is a curse, but this is really a matter of semantics. Everyone recognizes that we live under the shadow of death. The shadow deepens as we age, but even young children are troubled by it. Death is coming for us, and we don’t like it. And we are warned about it for a long time. Physically we grow in strength until roughly age 25. From that point we are in a state of decay. We all feel this, year by year, and it is a great oppression. We manage our ailments with a sense of hope that our miraculous body will heal of them. And it does, mostly. Except that, as we age, we heal to a state that is just a little bit less vigorous than the vigor of the past. As we age we are taunted by the fact that some of the activities we used to do with joy have become nearly impossible for us. Or, at least, the subsequent pain of them exceeds the joy of the activity. We lose our magnificence as we age, and it is a reminder that death is approaching.
We can medicate this reality. Or we can wallow in misery. Or we can do, as some choose, to end our lives early, concluding that death is preferable to the accumulating decay. Or we can look to Jesus, the one who was raised from the dead, incorruptible. Christian incorruptibility refers to both the body and the spirit. We’ll be dunking the basketball again…and the other players on the court won’t cheat.