COMMENTARY ON THE GOSPEL
ACCORDING TO ST. JOHN
THE REV. WILLIAM BRUCE
THE gospel of the beloved apostle has so much a character of its own, that it is generally treated separately by those who take a synoptical view of the gospels.
In writing his gospel, John is supposed to have had two objects in view;—to record some parts of the Lord’s life and teaching which the other evangelists had omitted; and to counteract the influence of Gnosticism, which had even then begun to infect the church, and the tendency of which was, to substitute the visionary embodiment of a time-born Aeon for the actual incarnation of the Eternal Word.1 There is no reason to doubt that the gospel may have had a special as well as a general use to perform; and that the Divine and the human purpose in writing it may have coincided, since every good intention, like every good and every perfect gift, is from above. Such an opinion is only objectionable so far as it assigns to the gospel a merely human authorship, or reduces the inspiration of Scripture to the superintending influence of the Holy Spirit. As this is a point of great importance, and as the present Commentary proceeds on the principle that the Scriptures are divinely inspired, I have treated of this subject in an introductory chapter. My object here is to consider the relation which John’s gospel has to the others, in reference to the Lord, to the church, and to man in his spiritual character.
The Word of God, considered as a series of successive revelations, reflects the character, and is indeed a history, of the human race, as they lived and acted under the several dispensations of the church, to which these revelations were made. As there is, an analogy between the history of the race and that of the individual, these dispensations, which mark the great epochs of man’s spiritual history, are analogous to the successive states of human life, from its beginning to the completion of regeneration. The Old Testament describes those states which precede, and are preparatory to, the actual commencement of the regenerate life. The period from Adam to Christ, in the history of the race, is analogous to the period of man’s life, from the time of his first, to the time of his second, birth; from the time he is born in the image of the first Adam, who was made a living soul, to the time he is born in the image of the second Adam, who was made a quickening Spirit.2 The gospels, therefore, which contain the history of the Lord’s life, from his birth to his ascension, and thus describe the entire process of his glorification, also include the period, and describe the process, of man’s regeneration, as the effect and image of the Lord’s work. While the New Testament has thus a distinct character in relation to the Old, its several parts have a distinct character in relation to each other. Assuming that the existence of lour gospels, each containing a history of the Lord’s life, is not of man but of God, we may conclude that this originated in a purpose worthy of Divine wisdom. We cannot, therefore, consistently with their Divine authorship, regard the gospels simply as repetitions, sometimes with perplexing variations, nor even as supplements, one of another. True, every gospel contains something that is not to be found in the others; and John’s is not the least conspicuous in this respect. To his gospel we owe the Lord’s discourse with Mcodemus on the new birth; with the woman of Samaria on the living water, and with the Jews on the bread of life; with Martha on the resurrection; with his disciples on his oneness with the Father; and his sublime prayer that the Father would perfect in him the work of Glorification, as the crowning act of Reconciliation. To it also we are indebted for the record of some of the Lord’s beneficent works; as, the cure of the impotent man at the pool of Bethesda; the gift of sight to one born blind; the raising of Lazarus from the dead; and the washing of His disciples’ feet. But there are also some particulars in which John’s gospel differs from the others in its character as well as in its contents. The other evangelists relate more of the public, he relates more of the private, life and teaching of our Lord; nearly one half of his gospel being occupied with the record of transactions that took place in the presence of the disciples only, most of them of the profoundest nature and of the deepest import. It is admitted by all commentators that John’s gospel is more spiritual in its character than the others; that it concentrates our attention more fully upon the single person of the Lord; and that it gives more of the Lord’s doctrine than of his history.
What has been remarked respecting the distinctive characters of the two most eminent of the Lord’s apostles,—that John was a lover of Jesus, and that Peter was a lover of Christ, may be said of the four evangelists. John’s gospel is more the history of Jesus; the others are more the history of Christ. John presents the Lord to us more in his personal, the others more in his Messianic, character; he presents Him more in His character of Jesus the Saviour, the others more in His character of Christ the King; he presents Him more in the character of Divine Love, they more in the character of Divine Truth. His gospel presents the Lord’s life and teaching, more in their moral than in their intellectual aspect; and as more calculated to make Him the Object of love than of faith to His disciples. Perhaps there is no better view of this subject than that suggested by Noble,3—that Matthew and Mark relate more to the external, Luke and John more to the internal, life of the Lord and his disciples. According to this view, the gospels may be understood to describe the progressive advancement of the Lord’s glorification and of man’s regeneration. As John’s is the last of the gospels, so does it describe the last and most perfect of these states, and eminently, in relation to man, that state in which all lower graces are centred in love to the Lord, the crowning grace of the religious life.
1 John is believed to have had this in view when he wrote in his epistles: “Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come ; and even now already is it in the world” (1 Epistle iv. 2). “For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist” (2 Epistle 7).
2 For a development of this idea see an article, by the author of this work, in the Intellectual Repository for 1846, under the title of ” Remains.”
3 “Plenary Inspiration,” Lect. vi. sec. 2.
” ALL Scripture is given by inspiration of God,”1 for “holy men of old spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”2 Divine in its origin, Scripture is most holy in its nature, and is, in reality, as well as in name, the Word of God. Looking up to the Majesty on high, we may say, as our Lord when addressing the Father said, THY WORD is TRUTH. Not simply true, as being free from error, but Truth itself, as emanating from Him ” who is Light, and in whom is no darkness at all”3
But the Truth which the Word is differs from the truth as it outwardly appears. The Word is in the truest sense a revelation of the mind of God, but it is a revelation of the Divine mind, not simply as expressed in the words of human language, but as clothed in the forms of human thought. Revelation has, therefore, two sides—a Divine and a human. On its Divine side it is absolute truth, on its human side it is relative truth. The absolute truth of the Word is, like its Divine Author, eternal, unchangeable, universal; its relative truth, like its human writers, is temporal, variable, local. The absolute truth of Scripture is not, therefore, that which appears in its cosmogony, its science, its history, or even in its ecclesiastical laws and institutions. These are forms of human thought which belong to the periods in which the Word was written, and are but the human vesture in which Divine Truth clothed itself, when it descended from God to the abodes of men. The Old and New Testaments are striking examples of this. In descending into the Hebrew mind, Revelation clothed itself with the forms of Hebrew thought. Much of it, for this reason, consists of the history of that peculiar people, and not a little of its teaching is accommodated to their particular state of mental development and imperfect spiritual discernment. The Hebrew Scriptures contain no direct revelation of the immortality of the soul, and speak of none but temporal rewards and punishments; other laws besides that of divorce were given them ” for the hardness of their hearts,” and their whole system of sacrificial worship was the adaptation of an existing ritual to their carnal state. The New Testament is addressed to a higher condition of mind. Life and immortality are brought to light by the gospel; God, as a Spirit, is to be worshipped in spirit and in truth; the law of ordinances is abolished; and the moral law is raised to a higher standard. While these striking differences are manifest in the letter of the Word, its Divinity and spirituality are everywhere the same; the only difference being that in some parts they are more deeply and completely veiled than in others. All the Lord’s words are spirit and are life, but His spiritual and living words are embodied in literal forms of expression having different degrees of transparency, but which, considered by themselves, are not living, and therefore not life-giving: “for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.”3
The distinction we have now pointed out must not be confounded with that which some commentators make between certain parts of Scripture which they allow to be of Divine, and others which they deem to be only of human, authority. This theory divides the Word into two separate portions, one of which is inspired, and the other not. The apostolic doctrine is, that all Scripture is given by inspiration; and all is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. The whole Word is Divine, and the whole is human ; Divine in its essence, human in its form. Not one part, but one side, of revelation is Divine, and one human.
But even that side of revelation which is formally human is essentially Divine. Although the literal form of the Word is moulded by man’s state, it is not determined by his will. The materials for this Temple of the Divine presence have indeed been supplied by man, but its Maker and Builder is God. The stones may even have been rough-hewn in the quarry of the human mind, but no sound of human hammer or of axe has been heard in the Sacred Edifice while building.4 In this, as in all other respects, the written is like the incarnate Word. When God as the Eternal Word came down from heaven to tabernacle among men, the humanity, with which he clothed Himself, took its outward form from the nature of the virgin-mother, and its quality from her state, but it was neither originated nor formed by her will. Begotten of God, and therefore inwardly Divine, the humanity was afterwards ” curiously wrought” according to the Divine laws of creation, which are independent both of the will and the power of man. The revealed, like the incarnate Word, is therefore Divinity clothed with humanity. On its Divine side the Word is all that the Lord was as the Son of God; on its human side it is all that the Lord was as the Son of man. Like the maternal humanity of the Lord, the natural sense of the Word exhibits signs of its human parentage. What is said of the incarnate Word is equally true of the revealed Word. ” He hath no form or comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.”5 ” His visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men.”6 The letter of the Word is deficient in the graces of style which men so much admire in human compositions; and it is marred by the moral infirmities of many who have borne a conspicuous part in the events and transactions it records.
The Word is no doubt widely different in its outward form and appearance from what it would have been, if the state of mankind at the time it was revealed had been less degraded. The sinfulness of men has caused a change in the outward condition of the Word, analogous to that which the idolatry of Israel produced in the tables of the Decalogue. The commandments, as first delivered to Moses, were written with the finger of God on tables which were the work of God.7 But when, on seeing the people dancing round the golden calf, he cast tne tables in anger from his hand, and broke them, he was instructed to hew out two other tables, like those he had broken; and on these two human tables God wrote the same Divine words which were on the iirst tables, which He Himself had formed. So, but for the sinfulness of man the literal sense of the Word would have been the work of God, as the spiritual sense, which is inscribed upon it, is the writing of God. We do not mean to say that the Word would not have been given through the instrumentality of man ; but there would have been more of the Divine and less of the merely human in it, more of the heavenly and less of the earthly in its composition. The letter of the “Word would have been a more perfect image of its spirit. It would have contained no indications of an angry God; no command to slaughter nations and seize on their heritage ; no sanction of concubinage or plurality of wives; no worship of God by offering him the blood of slain beasts.
We must, however, carefully guard against supposing these to be blemishes, or even imperfections, in the written Word. On the contrary, they are justly to be regarded as evidences of the perfection of Scripture, as a wise means to a beneficent end. A form of revelation more perfect in itself—expressed more in accordance with absolute truth, would have been less suited, or rather, would have been entirely unsuited, to the imperfect nature and degenerate state of man. The Divine Word bears the image of the earthly, in order that, by coming nearer to man in his earthly state, it may raise him to the image of the Divine and to the state of the heavenly.
While the Word, like those to whom it has come, bears the image of the earthly, it has within itself the means of its own exaltation, or, as we might say, of its own glorification, and thus of the exaltation of those who sincerely follow its teaching. Rude and carnal as some of it appears, it is animated by a spirit as pure and holy as the most perfect form of Revelation would have contained. As the same Divinity dwelt in the Son of Mary that spake through the angel in the burning bush, or that shone forth from the countenance of the Son of man in the midst of the golden candlesticks; as the same Divine words were written upon the tables which Moses made, that had been written on the tables which were the work of God; so, the Word which we possess is as much the Temple of the Divine presence as if it had been framed more directly by the Divine hand. Take a part as an example of the whole. The history of Israel is but an earthly tablet, on which are written, in characters of light, the Divine history of man’s regeneration. His bondage and deliverance, his dangers and escapes, his privations and supplies, his trials and triumphs, his weary pilgrimage and everlasting rest,—these are the Divine revelation which God hasinscribed on the literal history of the chosen people as the representatives of a spiritual church.
But it may be asked, and with reason, how are we to discern the Divine essence, which is within, by means of the human form, which is without? what is there to guide us with anything like certainty in our search after this pearl of great price, this heavenly treasure hid in an earthly field ?
If there were no law of inspiration there would be no rule of interpretation. But there is such a law; therefore there is such a rule. When Divine thought clothes itself with the forms of human thought, it assumes such only as are correspondent with itself. The Divine and the human, the spiritual and the natural, are thus joined by Correspondence, and by the law of Correspondence the Divine can be seen in the human, the spiritual in the natural. That Divine Truth clothes itself with corresponding forms of human thought may be seen by one reflection. The natural forms which the Divine Word has put on in revelation, are those which the Eternal Word had put forth in creation. These forms are not less natural, because they have been taken from the human mind. Nature is the basis of all human thought. Natural thoughts are but the mental images of natural things, variously combined and modified.
How, in the inspiration of the Scriptures, Divine Truth clothed itself in the forms of human thought, and expressed itself in the words of human language, it may be necessary to consider. Plenary inspiration implies verbal inspiration. Verbal inspiration implies that the very words used by the sacred writers were pronounced in their ears. But how is this to be understood consistently with the idea that the words of inspiration were supplied by the sacred writers themselves? The laws of the spiritual world explain how Revelation was given. Angels and spirits cannot utter a word of human language, and yet they speak with every man in his own tongue. The angels so spake with the patriarchs; and so, no doubt, did the apostles with the multitude on the day of Pentecost, when every man heard them in his own language. Angelic speech could not be conveyed through a natural atmosphere, and could not therefore come to men by an external way. Angels speak with men by an internal way. They clothe their ideas in the language which they ihrl in the storehouse of the human memory; and thus they speak with every one in his own tongue. This is in accordance with the law of correspondence, by which the spiritual and natural worlds are connected, and by which their inhabitants communicate with each other. When God spoke to the prophets and apostles, it was through the medium of an angel, whom He filled for the time with his presence. And He communicated His Word to the sacred writers according to the same law as that by which angels themselves communicate with men. From this circumstance it is that Divine Truth, not only clothes itself with the forms of human thought that belong to the age in which it is revealed, but that it also assumes the characteristic style and expressions of the individuals through whom the revelation has been given. In these respects the writings of the prophets differ from those of the evangelists, and one prophet and one evangelist differs from another. Every inspired book has something peculiar to itself and characteristic of its writer. No doubt the Lord chooses his instruments; and there is something in the character of the instrument in accordance with the nature of the message he is to deliver, or the truths he is to reveal. And those truths clothe themselves with the language which the mind of the writer contains that correspond with itself.
It may be necessary to explain what we mean by Correspondence, which forms the bond of connection between the letter and the spirit of Scripture, and by means of which we see the spiritual in the literal sense.
Correspondence is the mutual relation of one thing to another. Two things correspond when they bear such a relation that the one exactly answers to the other. There is one peculiarity in the sense in which we employ the term. Correspondence is generally understood to mean the relation existing between two natural objects ; we use it to express the relation which exists between spiritual and natural things. There is such a relation between the infinite and the finite, between the spiritual world and the natural, between the soul and the body. There is one condition inseparable from all spiritual correspondence, which distinguishes it from all natural analogies: the thing corresponding derives its existence from that to whicli it corresponds, Correspondence, therefore, is the relation which exists between a spiritual cause and its natural effect; and the science of correspondence is the knowledge of that relation. The correspondence between the natural and spiritual worlds, and between the natural and spiritual senses of the Word, is grounded in this circumstance, that all natural things have a spiritual cause, the natural world having its proximate cause in the spiritual world, and the natural sense of the Word in its spiritual sense. These are therefore united by correspondence.
The nature of Correspondence, and its difference from all natural analogies, will be best understood by an example. Every one perceives that there is an analogy between the different seasons of the year and the natural divisions of the day, and between these and the natural periods of human life. The morning of the day answers by analogy to the spring of the year, mid-day to summer, evening to autumn, and night to winter. Again, the morning and the spring answer to the season of childhood and youth, mid-day and summer to manhood, evening and autumn to declining years, and night and winter to old age. However exact and beautiful these may be as analogies, they are not in the strict sense correspondences ; they all belong to the sphere of nature. They may serve to point a moral, but they teach no spiritual truth. They, however, become spiritual correspondences, and teach a spiritual truth, when they are understood as answering, not to successive periods of man’s natural existence, but to the successive states of his spiritual life, as these follow each other in the progress of his regeneration. Under this view morning, spring, and childhood all answer by correspondence to that season of the spiritual life, at whatever period of natural life it may commence, when the soul is first turned in sincerity to God, and the thoughts and affections are opened to receive His light and love, so that the seeds of truth, previously sown in the mind, begin to germinate. Summer corresponds to that state of spiritual maturity when religious knowledge ripens into spiritual intelligence, and the rnind rejoices in the splendour of truth, and the prospects which that truth opens to its view. Autumn answers to that state when the splendour of truth has passed into the beauty of holiness, and religion, from having its primary seat in the intellect, has taken up its principal abode m the heart, and its energies are determined to the fruits of a holy life. Here the analogy might seem to end, for no winter can close the year, no night can succeed the day, in the Christian life, hut the regenerate soul must he ever advancing to higher and “better states of light and love.8 The analogy however is still complete, for although, in the spiritual life, the winter and the night do not follow the autumn and the evening, they precede the spring and the morning, of the regenerate life. Even in his primeval state man was in the cold of natural love hefore he was in the warmth of spiritual love, and in the darkness of ignorance hefore he received the light of knowledge, for “the evening and the morning were the first day.”9 Now, however, his night is not only the darkness of ignorance, but the gross darkness of error; and his winter is not only the absence of spiritual love, but the presence of spiritual hatred. The beginning of regeneration, the spring-time and morning of the new life, is when the Spirit of God moves upon the face of the waters, and the light dispels the darkness,—when the affections are first moved by the influence of Divine Love, and the thoughts are enlightened with the light of Divine Truth. And when the love and light of God are admitted into the rnind, and the re-creation of the soul has once commenced, a stedfast and persevering co-operation with the Lord will open up a succession of states increasing in perfection and happiness, and ending in a state and place, where there is no night and no winter, where the light shall increase more and more unto the perfect day, and where, to reverse the figure of the poet, autumn shall pour her treasures into the lap of spring, a spring increasing in freshness and beauty for ever.
1 2 Tim. iii. 16.
2 2 Peter i. 21.
3 1 John. 5.
3 2 Cor. iii. 6.
4 1 Kings vi. 7.
5 Is. liii. 2.
6 Is. iii. 14.
7 Ex. xxxii. 16.
8 We here speak of night and winter as permanent states. As temporary states, alternating with those of day and summer, in the progress of the regenerate life, we have the assurance of the Divine Word that they shall never cease. Gen. viii. 22.
9 Gen. i. 6.