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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary

John 1

 

 

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Verse 6

CHARACTERISTICS OF THE BAPTIST

‘There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.’

John 1:6

There are two things about John which we have to remember:—

I. He was a fearless man.—In those days, as now, people were very fond of having their own way; and John went into the midst of these people, and he told them of their sins, and did not spare one of them, whether it was a soldier, or statesman, or king.

II. He was a very humble man.—Men brave in the battlefield are generally the humblest in other things. John did not want anything himself; he wanted to be lost in Christ.

III. He was a burning and a shining light, but only so to prepare for the Sun of Righteousness. He was a burning light, full of the warmth of love; a shining light to light them on the path they ought to go. We all ought to be that. That ought be the object and calling of every one of us.

Rev. Canon Teignmouth Shore.

Illustration

‘A ship was wrecked at sea and a boat was launched with the passengers. But the night grew so terribly dark and the storm beat so fiercely that they gave themselves up as lost. At last, a sailor who knew the coast said he was acquainted with a creek into which they could run if they only had a light. But there was no light. Suddenly, however, they saw a little flicker, and it grew larger, and by its guidance, with a shout of joy, the brave sailors rammed the boat into the creek, and they were saved. That night a little girl, very young, had heard a wild cry above the storm out at sea, and with her little hands she rolled down an old tar-barrel by the shore. She had stuffed it with straw and set a match to it, saying, “Perhaps even my little light may save some one.” And it did. You never know what power you may be to save some shipwrecked life.’

(SECOND OUTLINE)

WITNESSING TO THE LIGHT

Seven hundred years before, Isaiah foretold the office of John the Baptist (Isaiah 40:3), and the Old Testament itself ends with a prophecy of the great messenger of Christ (Malachi 3:1). He was the harbinger, the forerunner, the pioneer of the Lord: to prepare for Christ, to glorify Christ, was the object of his birth and the sum of his existence.

The secret of Christ-like living in public is Christ-like praying in secret; and most certainly John himself was a man of prayer. John was Christ’s witness—

I. By his words.

II. By his life.

III. In his death.

Christ expects all who love Him to be His witnesses. Let us never forget that our religion ought not only to be a possession to be enjoyed, but also a talent for which we are responsible, and a light which by all means we must spread.

—Rev. F. Harper.


Verse 10

BLINDNESS OF HEART

‘He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not.’

John 1:10

These are the words in which the last of the Apostles summed up the direct and visible results of the Incarnation. He is above all impressed with the awful paradox that, when God became man, men were so blind as not to perceive it.

A sad text, and yet it has its consolations.

I. It teaches us that the Presence of our Lord does not depend on our faith, or our love, or our keenness of spiritual vision. He is in the world, although the world knows Him not; and therein have we our best hope for its daily progress from strength to strength.

II. So it is in the discipline of common life; so it is, above all, in that most sacred and blessed ordinance in which He has pledged His Presence to every weary and penitent soul. For in the tenderness of His unfaltering compassion He is there for grace and blessing, although we do not see His Face, although faith is too weak to realise how great a Guest is in our midst.

III. The measure of our power of recognition is not yet the measure of his grace.—That shall only be in that great Epiphany hereafter, when faith is lost in sight. But even here and now we may pray for a lesser yet a true Epiphany, an Epiphany which may enlighten our own poor lives; for we pray that we may have grace to count all that is good and bright and true as the blessing of that Son of God who became the Son of Man, that we, the sons of men, might claim the heritage of the sons of God.

Dean J. H. Bernard.

Illustration

‘We are ready enough to attribute our follies and failures and sins to some evil power external to ourselves which we say we cannot resist. But we are slow to recognise the working of God’s grace in anything that we may think or do which is honourable or patient or unselfish or brave. The temptation of the devil is an excuse which we seize upon with readiness; but the grace of God, which is so much greater a power in life, we pass by as if we at least were in no wise indebted to it in our own persons.’


Verse 14

THE ATTRACTIVENESS OF RELIGION

‘We beheld His glory … full of grace and truth.’

John 1:14

In what does the attractiveness of our religion consist? There are multitudes to whom the Christian religion has no attractiveness whatever. There are others to whom it is the supremest attraction of their lives.

I. The religion of Jesus Christ is bound up in the Person of Christ, the Babe of Bethlehem. He is the attraction. For Who is He? He is God. He is the Eternal Son of the Eternal Father. He Who was from all eternity in the bosom of the Father, and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Ghost, and was born of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; He Who all along the ages had been creating, inspiring, directing all that had ever made for truth and love in the world, became flesh and dwelt among us. Then what conviction should this lead us to but that He in Himself is worthy of our deepest consideration, of our deepest love?

II. But the attraction lies not only in the fact of our Lord’s personality.—The attraction lies in what John, for instance, and the others beheld and experienced, as being bound up with and demanding from the Person of Christ. Now, what did that Personality contain? In the Babe of Bethlehem there resided, John tells us, a fullness—full of grace and truth.

(a) What is grace that our Lord offers to the world? It means favour. God entertains favour towards His creatures if they are His. But grace is more than mere favour. If God entertains favour towards a creature, then He blesses that creature, and God’s grace becomes, not simply a passing feeling, but a gift; and what gift can it be except such a gift as can enable man to be filled with the fullness of the Divine life? And such a gift it is in Jesus Christ, the free gift of love towards mankind, which enables man to fulfil what God demands.

(b) And He bestows truth as well as grace. If man is to serve God, a true idea of God is necessary. That is why people do not serve God. They do not know God. They have no true idea of God; and once they get a true idea of God they will serve God as intelligent beings should. And Jesus Christ gives us that idea. He is God. All truth is summed up in Him. Truth, as seen in Christ, is no abstract speculation. It is living; it is personal. As grace can help the change, so truth can free.

Rev. H. G. Daniell-Bainbridge.


Verse 18

THE REVELATION OF GOD TO MAN

‘No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him.’

John 1:18

What is meant by Revelation.—Etymologically the term means the drawing aside of a veil.

I. Christians believe that all knowledge is revelation, or the drawing back of the veil. The worldling speaks of invention and discovery, but the God-fearing man calls it revelation. The worldly man would speak of radium as a discovery, but we speak of it as revelation, seeing it has been hid in the secrets of the mountains all the ages and is no secret, and never has been to God, and that God has revealed it to crown the efforts of man’s research. So when I speak to you of Divine revelation I speak of the revelation of God, and not of His essential Being which only God knows; I speak of His relationship to us men for our salvation. You might say, ‘Is it possible that God could reveal Himself to man?’ If it were not possible that God could do it, it must either be that God could not do so, or that men could not perceive the revelation. But God can do it because He is Almighty, and man can receive it because God has created him with capacities of perception, for God is Life and Truth and Power, and man is created to receive life and truth and power. It is possible. But is it necessary? Yes; it is necessary, because, as St. Augustine says, God has created all men for Himself. Our beginning comes from God, and our end is God. Just as yonder streamlet bubbles on and on through many twists and curves till it reaches the ocean from which it originally came, so man progresses onward and onward through many twists and curves till he reaches back to God from Whom he came.

II. Without revelation.—But suppose you will not have the revelation and reject it altogether, what then? There remains but one thing open to thinking man—for it is only the fool that says in his heart, There is no God—the speculative. And the gods of speculation are many. The God we worship to-day is the God of revelation. No man by thought hath found out God, lest any flesh should ‘glory in His Presence.’ God, then, has discovered Himself to us.

III. God’s revelation in Nature.—In Nature we see, if we believe in God, God’s power, His might, His wisdom, ah! and to a great extent His mind. But it is quite obvious that Nature by itself is too limited. So God has revealed Himself to us in human nature, that we may learn of Him of the very nature which He gave us; and His revelation of Himself to us in human nature is in three stages.

(a) In the primitive stage.—St. Paul tells us that all men have enough light to enable them to walk by, that no man is without witness of God. John tells us of the ‘Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” And the Saviour tells us that before Him He will gather all nations—by which He does not mean believers. He will count the following of their light as actions done to Himself.

(b) In the progressive stage.—As you know from your Bible history, God chose a family, a nation, to which to commit His Truth, through which He might commit it to the world, which we have.

(c) In the perfect stage.—Here we approach God manifest in the Flesh, the one perfect ‘sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world,’ Christ our God Who showed us how God would live if He came down on earth and lived amongst us men, Who showed us how God could love, could suffer and die for those He loved. And the revelation of God, perfect in Christ, has the force of perfection, and whosoever believeth in Him shall be justified, and he who is justified is sanctified, and whom God sanctifies God perfects. That is the perfect revelation in Christ. ‘No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son which is in the bosom of the Father He hath declared Him.’


Verse 23

A MESSAGE FOR TO-DAY

‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’

John 1:23

An old message; yet one for our own day. Lacking now, indeed, the dramatic surroundings of its first delivery: the man from the desert, with the frame of an ascetic, the eye of a seer, the garb of a prophet, with a reputation for sanctity, heightened by his sudden change from solitude of the wild country to nearer approach to men. The interest excited is natural. The inquiry of the Pharisees pardonable. The disclaimer of John leads up to delivery of his own message—‘Make straight … prepare.…’

How is this a message for to-day? Because—

I. There is still a work to be done in many of our hearts.—The way of the Lord to be prepared there, by repentance, by its fruits in a change of life.

II. There is a work to be done in the community, where there is still so much of open defiance of God’s laws, sullen apathy as to them, careless disregard of them. God not honoured in social habits, standards of right and wrong, any more than in the hearts and lives of the individual.

III. Especially is there a work to be done in the non-Christian world.—People hear in a vague way about non-Christian faiths or about Paganism; but do not realise their forces. Can they be content to leave unevangelised millions without a knowledge of God?

IV. John the Baptist was conscious of a mission.—Has not God also commissioned the Church of this day? Has He not made our duty plain? If that duty be neglected, is it not at our peril?


Verse 26

THE UNKNOWN CHRIST

‘There standeth One among you, Whom ye know not.… The same is He that baptizeth with the Holy Ghost.’

John 1:26; John 1:33

Is the charge still true. Is Christ still unknown in His special prerogative as He that baptizeth with the Holy Ghost?

I. Christ is not an absent force.—He is unseen. His bodily presence is removed from us for a time, but He is still in our midst the Captain of our Salvation, the Leader and Commander of His people. But just as among the crowd that gathered on the banks of Jordan the Carpenter of Nazareth was unrecognised, and few realised the new and immense spiritual leverage that was for them in Jesus Christ, so it is still very often in the present day. Historically He is better known, we worship Him as the Christ, the Messiah of God. Theologically we know Him and acknowledge His Godhead, His mediatorial work, His sacrificial death, His glorious Resurrection and Ascension. But practically He stands is the midst unrecognised, unknown, unsought.

II. With the outside world we are not surprised to find it so.—They have left no room for Christ in their counsels. It would interfere with their gambling and money-making. It suits them better to pretend that Christianity is a spent force, that the teaching of Christ is old-fashioned, a beautiful ideal, but quite impossible under present circumstances.

III. But what about the Christian Churches?—Surely they know that the living Christ is among them waiting to baptize with the Holy Ghost and with fire? The Apostles, in the Holy War they waged against sin and heathenism and corrupt Judaism, only knew two remedies for human depravity, the Blood of the Lamb and the Fire of the Holy Ghost. But the Church of the twentieth century is getting ashamed of the blood and fire of the Gospel of Christ; her confidence is being placed in intellectual attainments, and so, though there never was so much Christian enterprise as in the present day, it is too much on the human level; there is so little of the supernatural, so little of the power of the Holy Ghost, in it, and even our Christian workers seem to forget the Christ Who stands among us waiting to baptize with the Holy Ghost.

IV. There is often the same lack in the daily life and experience of God’s children.—Their present life is full of weakness and failure, of sadness and complaint. And yet Christ is among them, able to save to the uttermost, waiting to baptize with the Holy Ghost. But, alas! they see Him not.

—Rev. F. S. Webster.


Verse 29

THE LAMB OF GOD

‘The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, Which taketh away the sin of the world.’

John 1:29

John stands before the ministry in the same attitude as that in which the herald angel stands before the infancy, both the one and the other appealing to us to join our song with theirs—‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’ What, then, did John see as the sun’s rays smote upon him, and caused him to utter this voice?

I. He saw a revelation of goodness; he saw a sight which he had never seen before, not even when he thought of his good old father and his blameless mother—a sight which he had never seen in Pharisee or religious Israelite as they flocked out to hear him, and to be baptized; he saw a good Man, a perfect Man, a Man such as man was meant to be; Whom he called a Lamb, in all that was symbolised in that title, of freedom from blemish or taint of ill, even from those faults of good men which so often cause their good to be evil spoken of.

II. ‘Behold the Lamb of God.’—John saw more than an image, an ideal of spotless purity and blameless life; Christ to him was not only his Master and his Pattern; He was his Saviour; while he speaks of the Lamb of God, the Lamb which God Himself provided for the sacrifice, as of old He provided the sacrifice for Abraham. The Lamb, which might be spoken of as ‘of God,’ in its Divine and unblemished nature, this Lamb recalls to him the smoking altar of the daily morning and evening sacrifice in the Temple, the paschal victims which, perhaps, were even then passing him in flocks, being driven up to Jerusalem for the feast—just as the shepherds at Bethlehem also, who, on Jewish testimony, are said to have been guarding the flocks used in sacrifice, would have heard with wonder of a Saviour, of a salvation mightier than any which the blood of sacrifice was able to procure.

III. ‘Which taketh away the sin of the world.’—Here is the last and strongest appeal of Christmas. ‘For this purpose the Son of God was manifested that He might destroy the works of the devil.’ ‘The sin of the world.’ This is something more than the individual sins of human beings, the corruption of humanity, the blight of failure, and the curse of frustrated purpose known as sin. That is one of the saddest and most ironical sides of our modern Christmas rejoicing—that sin should be regarded as an appropriate exhibition of joy at its extinction. But the joy of this mighty deliverance wrought is a great one. It almost staggers the imagination to think of a world without sin, to think of London without sin, a golden city of fair streams and unpolluted life; and yet the possibility is there, the victory is won. There is only one line of fortresses which holds out, and that is human free-will. And the free-will which I know most about is my own. Strange it is that that which, on the testimony of all experience and of all language, is our greatest bane, should still hold its ground by the free-will of man. Yet so it is, and nothing but the surrender of man’s free-will to God is going to alter it. No civilisation, no education, no change of circumstance, no knowledge of life and its conditions, is going to alter it. It must be the surrender of the free-will of man to God, which is to put into motion this purchased deliverance.

Rev. Canon Newbolt.

Illustration

‘In some parts of England the old custom still lingers of ringing on Christmas Eve the devil’s knell. As the bell peals out at midnight this is to symbolise in the poetry of religion that the power of the devil was crippled by the Virgin Birth on Christmas Day.’


Verse 33

THE UNKNOWN CHRIST

‘There standeth One among you, Whom ye know not.… The same is He that baptizeth with the Holy Ghost.’

John 1:26; John 1:33

Is the charge still true. Is Christ still unknown in His special prerogative as He that baptizeth with the Holy Ghost?

I. Christ is not an absent force.—He is unseen. His bodily presence is removed from us for a time, but He is still in our midst the Captain of our Salvation, the Leader and Commander of His people. But just as among the crowd that gathered on the banks of Jordan the Carpenter of Nazareth was unrecognised, and few realised the new and immense spiritual leverage that was for them in Jesus Christ, so it is still very often in the present day. Historically He is better known, we worship Him as the Christ, the Messiah of God. Theologically we know Him and acknowledge His Godhead, His mediatorial work, His sacrificial death, His glorious Resurrection and Ascension. But practically He stands is the midst unrecognised, unknown, unsought.

II. With the outside world we are not surprised to find it so.—They have left no room for Christ in their counsels. It would interfere with their gambling and money-making. It suits them better to pretend that Christianity is a spent force, that the teaching of Christ is old-fashioned, a beautiful ideal, but quite impossible under present circumstances.

III. But what about the Christian Churches?—Surely they know that the living Christ is among them waiting to baptize with the Holy Ghost and with fire? The Apostles, in the Holy War they waged against sin and heathenism and corrupt Judaism, only knew two remedies for human depravity, the Blood of the Lamb and the Fire of the Holy Ghost. But the Church of the twentieth century is getting ashamed of the blood and fire of the Gospel of Christ; her confidence is being placed in intellectual attainments, and so, though there never was so much Christian enterprise as in the present day, it is too much on the human level; there is so little of the supernatural, so little of the power of the Holy Ghost, in it, and even our Christian workers seem to forget the Christ Who stands among us waiting to baptize with the Holy Ghost.

IV. There is often the same lack in the daily life and experience of God’s children.—Their present life is full of weakness and failure, of sadness and complaint. And yet Christ is among them, able to save to the uttermost, waiting to baptize with the Holy Ghost. But, alas! they see Him not.

—Rev. F. S. Webster.


Verses 35-37

A REPEATED EFFORT

‘Again the next day after John stood, and two of his disciples; and looking upon Jesus as He walked he saith, Behold the Lamb of God! And the two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus.’

John 1:35-37

But yesterday the Baptist stood to bear that testimony which contained the whole Gospel for all ages, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, Which taketh away the sin of the world.’ And the Evangelist records no response, none of those eager throngs which wait upon modern revivals, of souls touched, if it be but for the moment, in sudden conviction of generous enthusiasm. His testimony, as we say, fell flat; but the next day he renews it, and, as we are told, no less a person than St. Andrew was the result of the repeated effort. We clergy, to whom God intrusts His message, that we may proclaim it, are peculiarly liable to be disheartened. But this is a difficulty not peculiar to clergy, or to leaders of movements, or to prophets who can see over the heads of their fellow-men. The frequent call in the Gospel to perseverance, the insistence on importunity even, in dealing with God, the frequent appeals to endure, to wait patiently, to look to the end, all show that it is in human nature to be easily disheartened and to give in, and to mistake the want of immediate success for the failure which waits on a bad cause. Is it too much to build up such an inference on the silence of the Evangelist?

I. It is a temptation which has been and is incident to the human race to doubt the efficacy of God’s message in the face of failure. Look at this tendency all down the ages. God’s message is too strict; we must relax it. God’s message is too lax; we must tighten it. The Christian must be strengthened and the basis of Christianity be widened by an admixture of the world’s spirit; and quickly the fabric begins to totter, and the desert is filled with solitaries escaping from the fallen house. The Church is not strict enough, the message is too lax, the tares must be rooted out from the wheat, the Church of Christ must gather in her net only good fish, the wedding invitation must on no account be extended to bad as well as good, and Donatism troubles the Church. Now it is the Renaissance, now it is the Reformation, now it is the revival in modern days of new forms of earnestness; and then the tendency to discard the old and try the new is irresistible. Men have not faith to proclaim once more the old message, to make a repeated effort, and the message of God is lost, His testimony is silenced, because men have attributed it to the failure of human imperfection or the weakness which belongs to its faithless proclamation by unworthy prophets. We do need more and more to feel that the Word of God has not lost its virtue, that the old proclamation of the Gospel has still power to win many a St. Andrew, to attract what is best in the generous minds and aspirations around us.

II. Surely John would call to us all to make a repeated effort, and I would venture to emphasise this fact, that it will be found necessary again and again thus to repeat it. We do not start on a fated course, impelled by heredity and shaped by environment. The very Sacraments themselves, as we know full well, are no charm which acts with mechanical accuracy. Holy Baptism merely puts us into a state of salvation, that is, a state in which we may be saved with perseverance and effort. Again and again the appeal is made to us to work together with God in working out our own salvation. Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he keep what he has received. We may never look forward to a time when we can dispense with all this machinery of spiritual help, from a height of unruffled calm, where effort is neither necessary nor desirable.

Rev. Canon Newbolt.

Illustrations

(1) ‘It is only by effort, and by repeated effort, that we are going to emerge from the difficulties which beset us. You may have noticed the strange appeal that is made to us by the Church every time we approach the altar: “Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins and intend to lead a new life.” Day by day this is said to us that there should be the constant determination to lead a new life. And it is only those who are in earnest who will be able to justify this language, for they know how it is only by the great rush of grace within, surging and bursting up, the stronger and the fuller for the obstacles which it encounters, that we are able to meet the new difficulties of a new day with the new grace of a renewed strength.’

(2) ‘The Baptist was not afraid to repeat himself, and the Bible is not afraid to repeat itself. People to-day commend “original” preachers, the men who never repeat themselves; but I do not see why a preacher should not repeat the truths of God. It is not the first blow that causes the tree to fall, but the last. Thousands of blows may have intervened, and every one of them was necessary. When a great truth takes possession of a man’s mind he is bound to repeat himself. The story of the Gospel of Christ never gets old, and great truths may be repeated.’


Verse 45-46

EXPERIENCE THE TEST OF TRUTH

‘Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, We have found Him, of Whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth,’ etc.

John 1:45-46

Philip, believing in Christ himself, immediately endeavours to make a believer of Nathanael.

I. The man who has lighted on heavenly treasure has found that, the direct tendency of which is to the overcoming selfishness; the man who has discovered a remedy for his spiritual maladies has discovered that which, on being applied, transforms the character and produces solicitude for the well-being of others. The wealth acquired by the believer in Christ is a wealth which, so to speak, is kept through being disbursed; the cure accomplished through the blood of the Redeemer is a cure which is radical only in proportion as it seeks its own extension.

II. Note well the reception which the gospel is likely to meet with, even from men of openness and sincerity. Nathanael says to Philip, ‘Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?’ Nathanael is the representative of a large body of men who, having taken up a prejudice, whose justice they perhaps never examined, act on it as a principle, whilst they seem scarcely to suspect that they may be opposing or rejecting the truth. Let all who have been accustomed to take up some taunt against the Gospel, till they have virtually made the taunt itself gospel, or turned the proverb into a text—let them learn that, though they may be candid, for so was Nathanael, they may, like him, risk the loss of what is worth more than thought can measure, out of adherence to a surmise or a saying, which they have only to investigate to prove it erroneous.

III. Notice once more the treatment which a prejudiced man should receive from a believer.—It is very observable that Philip declined all controversy with Nathanael, though a fairer opening could hardly have been offered. His only anxiety was to bring Nathanael into personal communication with Jesus; this was the method which had succeeded with himself, and he felt as though it could not possibly fail with another.

—Rev. Canon Melvill.

(SECOND OUTLINE)

PREJUDICE OVERCOME

It is sometimes a hard task to bring preconceptions and prejudices to the touchstone of fact. But it is a religious duty.

I. In regard to Christian missions there is often the kind of conflict seen in the case of Philip and Nathanael. Philip speaks from personal conviction and experience: ‘We have found Him … Jesus of Nazareth.’ Nathanael replies with a natural prejudice: ‘Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?’ Natural, as expecting a Messiah to hail from Bethlehem, a religious teacher from Jerusalem; neither from so unpromising an origin as Nazareth of Galilee. Thus prejudice commonly has something behind it, and must be dealt with accordingly. Philip meets prejudice with the right answer: ‘Come and see.’ Fact is the best antidote to fancy.

II. Prejudice keeps many from seeing and doing their duty in regard to Christian missions.—‘Can any good thing,’ ‘Does any good thing’ come of all their work?

III. The best answer: ‘Come and see.’—Consider the facts fairly and dispassionately. Observe the independent testimony of sound observers. The profit to the Church at home must not be forgotten. The relation of missions to colonisation may be recalled. But our chief interest is in the spiritual results, which so amply vindicate the faith which says, ‘Come and see.’

 


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Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on John 1:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/cpc/john-1.html. 1876.

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