The four gospels speak of the coming for Christ from various perspectives. In Luke there is a strong kingdom emphasis. Luke shows that Christ had come to set up a new type of kingdom on the earth through the gospel and church and that this kingdom would renew the world and our communities, as it renews us from within. The topic in John is the same, however John expresses this same good news in creational language. Rather than speaking of a new kingdom, John speaks of a new creation. But the point John and Luke are making is still the same: the renewing of the world.
So John’s Gospel starts with the first creation. “In the beginning was the word.” John shows that through the word all things were made. Then he says this word is the light that lights every person who comes into the world. And this word then put on flesh to dwell among us, and we beheld his glory (shekinah, meaning spirit). John speaks of the three Old Testament themes which in in the Hebrew mind mean the presence of the one true God: these are light, word and spirit. John says that all these are present in Christ.
John is making several points here. He is showing that just as God rested on the seventh day and dwelled among his people, so he came again in Christ to dwell among us. The gospel of John is the coming of heaven to earth. It is about God making earth his dwelling place once again. This time he comes in Christ to set up a new temple in the earth, through the church, so he can dwell amongst the nations. This joining of heaven and earth in one healed new creation is the theme John shows in the end of Revelation. In John chapter one, John is quite intentionally speaking of Christ coming in the flesh to establish God’s new creation within the world.
In John’s opening chapter he shows that God is once again present among his people. Just as the word, light and Spirit of God brought forth the first creation, God has appeared once again in Christ to bring forth a new creation, a new heaven and new earth, through the gospel. He does this by bringing forth a new temple in the world, through his death and resurrection. When John says, “The light shines in darkness and the darkness cannot prevent it”, he is referring to Genesis chapter one: light sent darkness back. So Christ has come to extinguish darkness fully from God’s creation through renewing all things. John turns the creational language of Genesis one into new creation language through the incarnation, the appearance of God in flesh.
The themes of light, word and spirit continue all the way though John’s Gospel. He shows his glory (shekinah) at the wedding, where by a creative act Jesus turns the water into wine. He does the same with the feeding of the multitude, and by creating eyes in a man born blind, using the same dirt by which he made Adam. John compares Jesus with Moses, the author of Genesis. In all these accounts John is showing that God is at work once again and has come in Christ to initiate a new creation, a new era. To a Jewish mind reading the Gospel of John in the first century, this creational view, of a new heaven and new earth, would have been unmistakably noticed and understood. The message of John is clear. His way of understanding and presenting the gospel as impacting and renewing the whole world we live in cannot be missed.
Traditionally, we have often read these accounts as John establishing the divinity of Christ. The accounts do show his divinity, but this is not the full end of John’s purpose. That is not where John stops. He is leading the Hebrew people into new creation, to join with God in the gospel, to follow Christ into the nations, to bring about renewal of the world. This Gospel of John isn’t just a calling to Christ, but a calling to join with God in his redemptive plan for our cultures and communities. John said he wrote these things so that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ (Jewish Messiah) and in believing have eternal life. But we must understand this from the first century Jewish position. They believed that when the Messiah comes he will renew all things and heal the natural world. Isaiah plainly foretold this and the Jews were eagerly expecting it. They didn’t see eternal life as going to heaven and that was all, but as the coming of the kingdom of God to earth. Eternal life was new heaven and new earth. This is what the Prophets promised them.
In John chapter 13 we see the nature of this new creation. God is bringing us back to Adam and Eve’s first call, to reflect God’s nature and character to others. To do this God desires his full image in the world, as the basis for this reflecting and renewing or our cosmos. This is why his image dwelt with Adam and Eve and again with Israel. This is why his image came fully in Christ and now shines through those who follow him. The gospel is plainly as much about reflecting God’s image through Christ to renew the world’s corruption (Rom 8:19-25), as it is about our personal justification. We are called to move from personal justification to become image bearers for the sake of the world God loves. This is his new earth renewal plan.
What is that image or character of God in John 13 that the Spirit reflects through us? It is self-giving for others. God lays down his life in Christ to serve the world. He gives his blood represented by the Last Supper in the upper room, and by so doing calls us to do the same for others. This is image reflection. He washed the feet of his students and friends and calls to us to follow his example with all others in the world. This is his new creation spreading through the church imbibing the nature of our creator and redeemer. This is the salt and light that transforms our communities, relationships and creation. God just needs a people to walk in it.
Then in chapters 14 to 17 we see Christ’s temple language. Through the cross God was coming once again to dwell among his people. We would become his temple. What does this mean to the Jews? It doesn’t mean going to heaven. The temple was always about God’s plan to inhabit the world to bring his image, blessing and healing to the nations. This was the reason for the temple in the Garden and in the Promised Land. This temple is the meeting place between heaven and earth, so God’s merciful rule can spread in the world. Without the temple all the world had was the curse. With a restored temple the earth now has his benevolent presence again.
When Israel was exiled to Babylon and the presence and glory left the temple, God promised in Ezekiel his presence would return. After Israel returned from Babylon to their land and Zerubbabel rebuilt the temple, and later Herod built it again, the shekinah never did return to the new temple. Haggai promised the glory (shekinah) of the latter house shall be greater than the shekinah in the former temple (Solomon’s temple), but that glory never did return. God said he was returning to his land and temple but up till the time of Jesus that had never happened. There is no account after the return of Israel from Babylon till the days of Jesus roughly 400 years later of the shekinah filling the temple, as it previously filled the tabernacle of Moses and filled the temple Solomon dedicated.
In chapters 14-17 John shows us that this is what the coming of Christ means. He came to fulfil God’s promise of his return to his Jewish people, and his return to his temple. These chapters in John are the shekinah chapters. Christ shares how through his death and resurrection, through our obedience in following him, he will fill his body/temple/church with his Spirit so we would become the dwelling place of God. “Through the Holy Spirit I and the Father in you.” (See also Acts 15:16, the return of God to Israel in the New Covenant.) This is the direct fulfilment of the Old Testament prophets about the return of God to his temple. “Father, I have given them the shekinah you gave me.” (John 17:22) This was fulfilled in the church on the Day of Pentecost.
And what was the reason for the coming of God back to his temple? Ezekiel makes it plain. When the temple is rebuilt by the Messiah it issues forth the blessing and renewal of God throughout the whole world. The whole world is brought to life by the presence of God in his church (Ezekiel 47). Ezekiel speaks of all nations coming to life. Then Ezekiel goes on to show the land divided up between the twelve tribes of Israel and being filled with God’s glory. The twelve tribes are symbolic of the blessing of Israel going to the whole of humanity and the land is the whole of the earth, just as the twelve tribes carry the same symbolism in the book of Revelation. Israel fulfils its mission to the world though their Messiah and his shekinah filled body/temple. This is the new heaven and new earth John is declaring in his shekinah chapters.
Moving on in John we see new creation being declared through John’s account of the death and resurrection of Christ. It’s an historical account, but it’s also a poetic account reflecting the creation narrative in Genesis. Its purpose is to show the Jewish people the work that God is doing in raising Christ from the dead. It is the beginning of a new creation era. John declared Christ was crucified on the sixth day of the week. He was buried and rested in the grave the whole of the seventh day. Then John states, “On the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb…” Here John announces the beginning of a new creation week. In Genesis we have the first creation week. Here Jesus rises on Day One to start his new creation, his kingdom reign, the beginning of the era in which he subdues all his enemies on earth under him.
And what does Christ rise with? He rises with his earthly body transformed. So in this new creation it is the flesh of this world that is renewed. It is our material creation that is transformed. This is showing the faith of the Jewish people. Resurrection isn’t merely spiritual, it is also our fleshly bodies, and the eventual transformation of the whole natural world we live in. Fleshly bodies are for living on this earth. A resurrected fleshly body is to live in God’s new transformed united heaven and earth. Christ is the first fruits of this resurrection and of the transformation of our whole creation.
But one of the most glaring things John mentioned is who it was that first came to the tomb and that became the first apostle of Christ’s resurrection and new creation. It was Mary Magdalene. Not only was she a woman, but a former prostitute, out of whom Jesus drove seven demons. In those days women were not allowed to be witnesses in a court of law. But Jesus makes them the number one witnesses of his resurrection, the most important event in eternity. This was a very deliberate act of God in showing the nature of his new creation; that a renewing had begun that would transform all the values of our societies, turning covetous empires into caring communities. Women were shunned by their society. The Pharisees used to pray, “Thank you Lord that you didn’t make me a gentile and you didn’t make me a woman.” It was a completely patriarchal society, just as we see right through the Old Testament cultures, horribly self-centred. But here in the gospel God sows a new leaven into the world that will renew us all.
God makes the greatest announcement in eternity through a renewed sinner, someone despised by society. By worldly values this looks like a great indignity for Christ, conceived out of wedlock, rejected by the religious people, welcomed by loathed shepherds, and now announced by a former prostitute. Most people like their arrival to be announced by important people. You would think God would want the president of the USA to announce the dawn of our new creation. But Mary was God’s choice. This is the new world God is making through his church.
This brings us back to John 13 and the nature of this new creation. It isn’t based on the values of the old world, which is now passing away. In the new world, it is the meek that rise, it is the sick who are cared for, it is the sinner and looser who are sought out. This first example we see after Christ’s resurrection begins to permeate our all our societies. Slavery, racism, and the exploitation of others are eventually brought under Christ’s reign as we wake up to God’s purpose for the church in the world: “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord. And you shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, soul and strength, and you shall love your neighbour (friend and enemy) as yourself.”