What does John’s Gospel have to say about the Christian life? Famously, John tells us why he wrote at the end of his Gospel: so that we might “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). We can easily read John’s Gospel and think that it’s only about understanding who Jesus is and believing in him. Those are important, but the problem is we might not think that John’s Gospel is a rich resource for living the Christian life and thinking about Christian ethics.
In this episode of the CCL podcast, Tom Habib, lecturer in New Testament at Moore College, helps us to think about what it means to live the Christian life from the perspective of John’s Gospel.
Links referred to:
- Our October event: The power and pain of perseverance with Mark Thompson (Wednesday 18 October 2023)
- Support the work of the Centre
- Contact the Centre about your ethical questions
Runtime: 29:29 min.
Please note: This transcript has been edited for readability.
Peter Orr: What does John’s Gospel have to say about the Christian life? Famously, John tells us why he wrote at the end of his Gospel: so that we might “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). We can easily read John’s Gospel and think that it’s only about understanding who Jesus is and believing in him. Those are important, but the problem is we might not think that John’s Gospel is a rich resource for living the Christian life and thinking about Christian ethics.
In today’s episode, I’m joined by Tom Habib, lecturer in New Testament at Moore College. He’s going to help us to think about what it means to live the Christian life from the perspective of John’s Gospel. I hope you enjoy the episode.
PO: Hello and welcome to another episode for the Centre for Christian Living podcast. My name is Peter Orr. Chase is still on study leave, and we look forward to reading what he’s working on.
I have another colleague with me today. Tom Habib teaches New Testament and Greek at Moore College. We’re going to talk about John’s Gospel, and what John’s Gospel has to say in the realm of Christian ethics and the Christian life.
PO: But before we do that, I thought we’d get to know Tom a bit. Tom: who’s in your family, and how did you become a Christian?
Tom Habib: Sure. Hi, Pete! I’m married to Jess, and we have three young children who are eight, six and four. They keep us very busy.
How did I become a Christian? I was invited to a youth group when I was a teenager. That’s where I first started reading the Bible and learning about Jesus. It was really through that process of reading the Bible and getting to know Jesus in his word that I came to love him and to see that he loved me. His Spirit did his work of calling me to Christ. It was over a long period of time, but that’s the short answer.
PO: That’s wonderful.
The place of John’s Gospel in Christian ethics
PO: One of the joys of this year for me, Tom, was teaching John’s Gospel with you in the first semester. It’s such a great thing to do with our students here: we open up John’s Gospel and dig into it.
John’s Gospel is one of the richest New Testament books in terms of the way it points us to Jesus and helps us think about Jesus’ relationship—the Son with the Father. John tells us at the end that he’s written his Gospel so that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ. We might not think that John’s Gospel is necessarily a book to go to if we want to think about ethics—living as a Christian in the world. We might, more naturally, go to Matthew’s Gospel and the Sermon on the Mount, or to Paul’s letters.
You did your PhD on John’s Gospel. You’ve thought about it a lot. I know that you think that it has a lot to say on the Christian life. Help us to think through the place of John’s Gospel in Christian ethics.
TH: Yeah, sure. That’s a fair question, because the normal ways in which we look for God’s teaching on how we should live our lives we don’t immediately see in John’s Gospel. There’s no Sermon on the Mount; there’s no Good Samaritan parable; there’s no list of virtues and vices like from Paul. So when we read through John, it can feel like there’s not as much there on how we should live our lives.
In addition, it seems like John is just very repetitive: he has one theme and he’s drilling it into us, and that is, “Believe, believe, believe, believe, believe, believe, and you’ll have life.” I think that sometimes when we have a sermon series on John, or when we’re reading it ourselves, we can think, “Okay, what’s the application for today? Well, ‘Believe’: that’s the application for today.” So it’s definitely understandable why we can think that.
I thought it would be good to read a quote from an American scholar named JT Sanders about the Gospel of John. It’s harsh and probably completely unfair, but it sums up the view that the Gospel of John has no ethics:
Here is not a Christianity that considers that loving is the same as fulfilling the law (Paul) or that the Good Samaritan parable represents a demand (Luke) to stop and render even first aid to the man who has been robbed, beaten, and left there for dead. Johannine Christianity is interested only in whether he believes. “Are you saved, brother?” the Johannine Christian asks the man bleeding to death on the side of the road. “Are you concerned about your soul? Do you believe that Jesus is the one who came down from God? If you believe, you will have eternal life,” promises the Johannine Christian, while the dying man’s blood stains the ground.1
PO: You’ve painted an extreme picture there, but it is true: John says an awful lot about belief and faith, and it’s one of the most helpful books in the New Testament to learn about faith. But does it do more than that?
TH: Yeah. I think part of the problem is where we look for instruction on the Christian life—especially where we look for it today. We look for it in lists and in rules. In the ancient world, that’s not primarily how they taught people how to live good or virtuous lives. This is especially so in Greco-Roman literature, but also in Jewish literature, as well across the ancient world. The way you taught people how to live was by giving them examples: you showed them how to live a virtuous life by providing examples of people who lived virtuous lives, and then you were encouraged to imitate those lives.
A really good example of that would be Plutarch’s Lives. Plutarch was a Greek middle Platonist who wanted to instruct people on how to live. So what did he do? He told stories about famous Greek and Roman leaders and philosophers—stories about what their lives were like so that we would learn from them. That was the whole point. That’s why he created Lives.
In a similar way, when we come to the Gospel of John, John has a lot to teach us about how to live our lives. But the primary form in which he teaches us that is by presenting Jesus as the one we are to imitate. The other characters (if we can call them characters; they’re real people who lived real lives and interacted with Jesus)—from a literary point of view, the characters in the Gospel are also examples for us: either examples to imitate or examples to avoid.
Certainly Jesus is presented to us as this primary example for us to imitate. When you read through John’s Gospel, you come to see that imitation actually lies at the very heart—not only of how we are to live our lives, but at the very heart of how we are to understand the relationship between God the Father and God the Son.
PO: Yeah, that’s really helpful.
PO: So what we’re starting to see is that maybe the ethics—the aspect of the Christian life and the theology—are not two separate things in John’s Gospel. They’re connected. Could you tease this out a little bit more for us? What do we imitate of Jesus? What aspects of his life do we imitate?
TH: Yeah, absolutely. Let’s start with the Father and the Son relationship. In John 5, Jesus tells us that the Father loves the Son by showing everything to the Son, and then the Son does everything that he has seen from his Father (John 5:19-20): “For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise” (John 5:19). You have actually a picture of imitation in the relationship between the Father and the Son. The Son only does everything that the Father does. It is a perfect imitation, if you will, of the Father.
But then this model is actually used as the model of discipleship—how we are to live our lives as we imitate Christ. In John 15:9-12, Jesus says,
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
The Son does everything he sees from the Father. But now, Jesus calls for us to imitate the Son and do what he commands. What is his command? His command is that we love one another. Furthermore, we are to love each other as Christ has loved us. There’s that imitation: what of Jesus, in particular, do we imitate? We imitate his love for us—a love that is exemplified in his death.
I think we see this idea of imitation most clearly at the beginning of the Upper Room Discourse in the second half of John’s Gospel, when Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. He says, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15). Jesus shows us, first of all, by doing it himself; he gets them to understand what it is he’s doing; and then he asks them to do it.
Now, of course, what Jesus is getting them to do is not just wash each other’s feet. This is not the primary thing that he wants them to imitate. That itself is an image of what Jesus is going on to do by dying on the cross for them. We are called to imitate the love that Jesus has shown for us and the service—the sacrificial service, even the shameful service—that Jesus has shown us. Now we are to do that to one another in imitation of Christ.
PO: Thanks Tom, that’s really helpful.
Imitating Christ in practice
PO: Can you help us think about what that looks like for us today?
TH: Yeah, so when we get down to the practical application of imitating Jesus, it doesn’t necessarily mean we have to physically die just like Jesus did. Even though Jesus provides that model for us—that we lay down our life for our brothers and sisters—I think when we get to, say, 1 John, the first epistle that John writes, what we actually see is a creative application of this model. In 1 John 3:16, we get this well-known verse: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” There it is: that’s what we should imitate. That’s what we are to do.
But then look at verses 17-18:
But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:17-18)
For John, imitating Christ as he laid down his life for us is actually done by providing materially for our brothers and sisters. This is an example of creative application.
This was actually really common in the ancient world: back then, when people were held up as examples for us to imitate, no one ever thought that you needed to do exactly what they did. What was encouraged, rather, was that you extracted the principle or the lesson from his or her life, and then applied that creatively to your own life.
I think that’s exactly what we see happening here in 1 John: we have the principle of sacrificial love—of putting others before ourselves—even to the point of pain, or even to the point of shame. Then John gives us a practical application: “Okay, well, if you have a brother or sister who’s in need, provide for them materially.” I mean, if you’re not willing to do that, you’re certainly not going to die for them, are you? So what looks like only one command in John’s Gospel—“Lay down your life for others”—actually becomes something that invades and permeates through all of life.
The problem with “What would Jesus do?”
PO: In terms of thinking about how we do this in practice, is what you’re saying just another way of saying, “What would Jesus do?”? Is that essentially what John is calling us to do as we live our lives?
TH: Yeah, it’s a really good question. It’s actually a really important question, because a whole strand of Christianity was built on the idea that all Jesus did for us was provide an example, and that’s the power of Jesus—the power of the gospel. He lived a good life, and if we just lived like him, then that would be great.
A lot of what we call “liberal” Christianity has gone down that route—of Jesus’ death purely as an example. Even though it can be a helpful thing for us to think, “What would Jesus do?” in some ways, the problem with “What would Jesus do?” is that it assumes that the only thing we need to do is look at Jesus and then do what he did.
I think the thing that is missing from that is the thing that John is banging on and on about in every single chapter: belief. You can’t escape from believing in Jesus in John. The reason for that is that the imitation of Jesus is entirely bound up with whether we believe in Jesus. It’s all about whether we actually have a relationship with Jesus in the first place.
The way that John frames this primarily is the question of “Which family are you a part of?” Right at the start of John’s Gospel, if you believe in Jesus, those who believe in Jesus are given the right to become children of God. Now, who do you imitate? Well, children imitate their parents. That’s who you imitate: you imitate your father. As we come into the family of God, we imitate the Son: we imitate Jesus.
John really draws this out in John 8, when Jesus is talking to the Judeans, who assume that they are part of God’s family. Jesus2 actually challenges them on whether they’re part of God’s family on the basis of what they do: “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did” (John 8:39). Then he says in 8:41, “You are doing the works your father did”—their father being the devil (John 8:44). So if you belong to the devil—that is, if you don’t trust in Jesus, if you haven’t been liberated by the Son and you’re still under slavery to sin captivity of the devil—then inevitably you are going to imitate him. You are going to live a life that follows his example.
But Jesus says in John 8 that the Son can set you free (John 8:36). The truth can set you free (John 8:32). We can be liberated and brought into the household of the Son. When we do that, we can then start to imitate Jesus.
PO: We’re going to take a break from our program so that I can tell you about our next in-person event. It’s also happening online if you can’t make it in person to Moore College. On the 18th of October starting at 7:30pm, Mark Thompson, Principal of Moore College, will be talking about perseverance. This whole year, we’ve been thinking about Christian virtues. The virtue Mark will help us to think about is the virtue of perseverance.
Christians can often be caught off-guard by how difficult life can be. There are all sorts of things that can hurt us—grief, relationship problems, and hostility from friends and colleagues because we’re Christians. It’s tempting to give up as a Christian or doubt God’s goodness. Yet the Bible encourages us to keep going in the midst of hardship.
The Bible also reminds us that suffering is not a sign of God’s absence or his displeasure, but of his good presence. The Bible affirms that the storms of life we weather serve to refine our faith as we hope in his promises. Mark will help us to think through the idea of perseverance—what it means to keep going as a Christian—and what resources the Bible gives us to keep going as a Christian.
It would be great to see you at the event. If you can’t make it, as I say, it will also be online. The details are all on the CCL website. We look forward to engaging with you in person or online.
Now let’s get back to our program.
Conscious or unconscious imitation
PO: Can I just push you a little bit further on that—this idea that if we are children of the devil, inevitably we will follow and imitate the devil? We become children of God through believing in Jesus. What’s the difference? Is there an inevitability in how we follow God? What is the place of our conscious imitation in that?
TH: Yeah, that’s a great question. I don’t think it’s “inevitability”; I think “possibility” is probably a better word to use there. I think that when we’re not brought into a relationship with God—when we don’t put our trust in God and we’re not liberated by the Son—then, to a certain extent, we can’t imitate Christ. We are not able to do that, because we are under slavery to the devil.
That doesn’t mean we can’t ever do anything nice, or that we can’t ever be nice to our family or anything like that. But I think the imitation that Jesus requires—that sacrificial love he calls for for our brothers and sisters—that is something that’s true of those who are born of God. That’s what John says in his epistle: this is how we know if people are born of God or not (1 John 3:9, 4:7, 5:18).
Now for those who are born of God, you still can imitate the devil, which is really interesting. Again, this is the challenge in 1 John as well: don’t act like the devil. “We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother” (1 John 3:12). We can still have a tendency to imitate our old “master”, if you will.
But now that we’ve been brought into this new family, there’s a fittingness to imitating the Son. It’s not just a fittingness, but a power as well. I think this is where we really get into the idea in the Upper Room Discourse of what it means to love Jesus and what it means to be empowered by his Spirit.
So yes: we enter into the family of God through faith, we abide in this family, and we begin to imitate Jesus as we love Him. This is what Jesus says again and again: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15); “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me” (John 14:21); “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word” (John 14:23). What we actually see is our imitation of Jesus is dependent on how our relationship with Jesus is going. The more we love Jesus, the more we see how we’ve been loved by him and then changed by that, the more our love will result in imitation.
We see that in a human level with our families: kids who love their parents tend to imitate them. Kids who hate their parents don’t tend to imitate them. I think we need to believe in Christ. We enter into the family of God, but that is sustained, and our imitation grows more and more to be like Christ, the more we love him.
The only other thing to say, then, is that this is not done by our own power: when we come to believe in Jesus, Jesus says that God’s Spirit is brought in us.
PO: Thanks, that’s very helpful.
The role of the Spirit in imitation
PO: I was going to ask you about the role of the Spirit. Obviously the Spirit brings us into relationship and sustains us. Could you tease out more what John says about the role of the Spirit—particularly in this idea of imitating Jesus?
TH: Yes. As you said, the Spirit is the one who brings us into the family of God. John 3:5 says we are born of the Spirit, so the Spirit’s work is first to bring us into this family.
Secondly, it is by the Spirit that the Son and the Father come to live in us (John 14:15-23). We have the indwelling presence of God within us by the Spirit. I take it that it’s only by this means that we can then imitate the Son. The Spirit empowers us to imitate him.
Now, if we really want to get down into details, how does he do that? I think one of the primary ways he does this is by recalling Christ for us. This is what John tells us that the Spirit will do:
He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:14-15)
The Spirit communicates Christ to us as we hear his words. Again, it really comes back to John’s Gospel: as you’re reading it and as you see Christ in the Gospel, the Spirit is the one who makes Christ known to you—the one who reveals Christ. Furthermore, as he reveals Christ, you imitate him and follow him. The Spirit is the one who recalls Christ. Recollection is a huge part of imitation. He recalls Christ for us so that we can imitate him.
That was very much my story as I was reading the Gospels as a teenager: I saw Christ, I put my trust in him, and now begins that lifelong very imperfect journey of imitation as the Spirit recalls Christ for me.
PO: That’s so helpful, Tom—just seeing how in John’s Gospel, with his theology, his view of Christ and his doctrine of salvation, these are all connected to how we live the Christian life. It’s just a reminder not to compartmentalise these things.
The role of minor characters in John’s Gospel
PO: I wonder if we could take a different tack for a moment—different, but related, in terms of imitation more broadly. I know you’ve done quite a lot of work on characters in John’s Gospel. There are other characters: what’s the role of the other characters—the “minor” characters, we might say—particularly in terms of this idea of imitation in the Christian life?
TH: Yeah, I think that, as evangelicals—especially here in Sydney—we are very wary of reading into the text things like characters as examples for us. That’s come from a good place: it’s because we want to affirm that the Scriptures are not just moral lessons for us, but that they’re about God. They’re about Christ. They point us to him and point us to put our trust in him.
But I wonder if there’s been an overcorrection. Certainly in John’s Gospel—but all throughout the Scriptures in both the Old Testament and New Testament—I think the characters do provide us with moral examples. That might not be the only purpose of a passage, and certainly the Scriptures are pointing us to Christ ultimately. But they are also teaching us how to live I think characters do play a big part in that.
It’s really important to notice that there are no perfect characters in the Bible, except for Jesus, and so there are no perfect examples. But I think there’s a lot that we can learn from these characters, both positive and negative.
I’ll give you a few examples from John. I find the first disciples in John 1 really interesting in how they respond to Jesus. Take Andrew and the other disciples—the first ones who go from John the Baptist and turn to Jesus—and consider what we’re told about them: they’re invited to come and see the Lord, and they remain with Jesus for the whole day. I think that’s an invitation for us as we come to consider Christ. Furthermore, it’s not just an invitation for those who aren’t Christian, but an invitation for Christians as well—an invitation for meditation and for reflection on Christ. They are a positive example for us of how we should live.
Similarly, I think Nathaniel is a really positive picture, even though we often think of him in a negative sense, because he asks, “What good can come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Again, he is somebody who comes and sees, and, I think, is actually upheld as a true Israelite. Here is a picture of what someone from Israel should do in response to Jesus, as opposed to the other Judeans in the story who reject Jesus.
Then, of course, you get negative examples. The primary character in John’s Gospel who is a vehicle for the negative examples are who I would call “the Judeans”. They are sometimes called “the Jews”. I think it’s really important to notice that even though these characters are primarily portrayed in a negative light, not all the Judeans are. In fact, by the time we get to John 11, we find that a lot of Judeans are believing in Jesus.
Why is that? What’s going on there? I think that what John is actually doing is undermining the whole idea that ethnicity is the primary factor in whether you’re in the family of God. It doesn’t matter if you’re Judean or not; what matters is your faith response to Jesus.
So we have a group of people who, for some, would see their ethnic identity as Judean as the primary factor in whether they’re part of the covenant family of God. Yet by the end of the Gospel, we have some Judeans who believe and other Judeans who don’t. We have a schism taking place that tears apart this ethnic category. There’s a lot that we can learn from the characters—not just even in terms of moral instruction, but in terms of theology.
PO: I’ve heard you talk about characters in terms of being complex characters. Do you want to say a little bit about that? Our tendency is to look for “goodies” and “baddies”, but what about the idea of a complex character?
TH: Yeah. I think it’s important to recognise that in the ancient world, there certainly was the sense of “goodies” and “baddies” in a way that there isn’t today. If we’re watching a really good show on Netflix or something like that, we don’t want a boring “good” character or a boring “bad” character; we want a really bad character who they make us love—who we really sympathise with and who we think is great, because that’s what life is like. Life is complicated and it’s hard to judge.
That’s not so much what the ancient world was like. In the ancient world, the primary purpose of characters was, as I said, to teach virtue. So you did need to be clear on whether somebody was acting virtuously or not.
On the one hand, I think we are meant to come with a little bit more of a clear framework of “How is this character acting? Is what they’re doing good in the moral framework of the Gospel? Should we see this as a positive example or not?” But then you do get characters where that’s difficult to do.
One of those characters in John’s Gospel is Nicodemus: he’s very hard to pin down—partly because it’s hard to know whether he believes in Jesus, in the end, or not. What are you meant to do with him?
This was a bit of the work that I did in my doctoral thesis: I argued that the purpose of complex characters in ancient characterisation is different to modern complex characters. In a modern novel, a character is complex because we cannot evaluate them: they’re beyond evaluation, because there is no clear, normative moral framework. In the ancient world, complex characters explored complex moral ideas. They didn’t deny morality, they didn’t deny that there was a good way of life, but they recognised that often there is a complexity to this.
I think when you come to Nicodemus, the complexity that’s being explored is how can a person who is committed to being a Judean, who is committed to the law of Moses, and who is committed to what the law teaches become somebody who trusts in Jesus? Are those two things compatible at all? What we see as we go through the Gospel is Nicodemus continually being faithful to the law of Moses, yet moving closer and closer to Christ.
In addition, we see other Judeans—especially Pharisees—who think they’re being faithful to the law of Moses and who are not believing in Christ or rejecting Christ. Yet when you get to the end of the Gospel, you see that morally, they are not behaving in a way that is in line with what the law teaches. John 18-19 is full of this rich irony: they claim to be defending the law, but they say, “We have no king but Caesar”, which is a complete blasphemy. They actually deny the law. This is Jesus’ point in John 8 as well: you don’t do what Abraham does.
So what you actually see in the complexity of Nicodemus is a coming together of two seemingly contradictory ideas—that someone can be both a Judean committed to the law of Moses and a follower of Jesus. They seem contradictory, because the very reason why Jesus was put to death was because he was blaspheming. He was going against the law. He was breaking the Sabbath. Yet someone who truly follows the law will come to a belief in Jesus. That’s an example of how we can understand complex characterisation in the Bible.
PO: Tom, thank you so much. That’s been really helpful. I’m very thankful to God for the opportunity to work on these things with you as we teach students here at Moore College, but I’m also thankful also for the work you’ve done. It’s been really helpful in helping us to see how John’s Gospel and John’s letters are such a rich resource—not only for growing in our understanding of who God is and who Jesus is, but also in how to live the Christian life. Thank you very much!
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1 Jack T Sanders, Ethics in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 99-100.
2 Editor’s note: Tom says “John” in the audio.
Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.