After hearing D.A. Carson’s forty-minute lecture on John’s Gospel, I had the opportunity to ask him three “post-game interview” questions on the book. Watch the video or read the transcript below.
Kevin Halloran: Dr. Carson, you’ve written a commentary on John, you’ve preached and taught John – I’m guessing for many decades – and you may be the living expert on the book. How has the message of John changed your life personally?
D. A. Carson: Some people ask me from time to time what’s my favorite biblical book? And I have to say that my favorite biblical book is the one I’m currently working on. So, for the years that I devoted myself to John’s Gospel, then obviously, John’s Gospel was my chief focus, and since then I’ve preached through it several times and written a couple of popular books that spin off it. I’ve gotten involved in debates on it and so on. In that sense, it is important to me. I see its importance in the debates in the third and fourth century – both the Trinity and contemporary debates about Jesus and His identity as both God and human being. It is often used in evangelistic efforts in university campuses and elsewhere. It has been hugely helpful for me to spend literally years of my life working through the original text and try to understand it and submit my thought to God’s self-revealed thoughts in His most Holy Word. At the same time, I don’t want to give the impression that John’s Gospel is objectively more important than every other book of the Bible. I am in no position to say that. I also wrote a commentary on Matthew. When I was working on the Matthew commentary, I felt just as strongly about Matthew as I came, ultimately, to feel about John. I’ve preached through large parts of Ezekiel, as well, and love that book, too. The more you spend on any book of the Bible, read it and understand it well, the more that book captures you. The challenge is to do this with more and more and more and more books before you die. It’s really the whole of Scripture that captures you and not just one book.
KH: In the Gospel of John, John wants to lead readers to a certain point. He has an intention behind what he’s writing. Can you explain the importance of tracing the narrative flow from start to finish in the book of John?
DC: Yes, I would argue that the importance of tracing out the narrative flow is the importance of tracing out the narrative flow in any book that has narrative, that is to say, as opposed to using the Bible in a kind of proof-texting way that pulls out a blessed thought for the day. It is really important in narrative texts to follow the flow to see how it builds its own emphases, so that your agenda is determined by the text as a text and not by individually selected little bits that you can fit together in different ways. And that’s especially so in a book that is not only narrative but is building toward a climax, namely the importance of the cross and resurrection and all that means for Christian living and Christian faith. Somebody has said that the four Gospels, including John, are basically a long passion narrative with a lengthy introduction. That’s not quite true. But you understand why people say that when you see how much emphasis the death and resurrection have in John’s Gospel and in all the canonical Gospels. So, to read the thing in flow enables you to see how it’s put together, how the emphases build, how you’re driven to the cross and resurrection. That’s what John wants you to see. To have reflections on John 3, on the new birth, without any consideration that that’s where the theme of being lifted up is introduced and that that takes you directly to the cross, then you’re robbing yourself of seeing how the earlier bits and pieces drive you to the climax of the whole thing.
KH: We know that all of Scripture speaks to us today. What particular elements from the book of John do you think speak powerfully to our secular and postmodern world?
DC: There are many. The first, and this almost by way of flat out contradiction, is that the book is openly unashamedly in your face supernatural. There are many people in the secular arena who treat history as that which takes place in space and time and is caused and effects things in space and time and it leaves no place for God intervening. Which means that you have no place for the resurrection. In the Old Testament you have no place for the burning bush or the miracle of the crossing of the dead sea. John’s gospel is unabashedly, unashamedly super-naturalistic. Unless you come to grips with that you’re not going to be able to understand John’s gospel. It’s not a psychological manual. It’s not a feel-good book.
At the same time it presents, in its own categories, the fundamental flaw, the fundamental wrongness. Namely, unbelief. That lies at the heart of a great deal of secular commitments. Unbelief toward anything outside ourselves. We are our own judge. We view sin as a social construct. We view unbelief as a personal choice, maybe even as a sign of freedom and maturity. And over against all of that, Jesus Himself unambiguously teaches that the worst slavery is the slavery to sin and the worst shackles are the unbelief that fail to see what God has done and is doing. To see how all of that has been addressed by the work of Christ if you actually come to see it, it changes everything. It changes how you understand yourself and God. How you understand reality. How you understand your life, its purposes, its goals, the nature of faith. It’s not, sort of, a blind casting yourself on something mystical or mythical so you can have pie in the sky when you die by and by. It’s none of those things. It’s grounded heavily in truth and faith is a God given gift to enable you to perceive and grasp and cast your life on that truth. And the truth is bound with historic events. Jesus dying in space, time, history and rising from the dead in space, time, history on which you must cast your life in self abandonment. In genuine repentance, in genuine faith in order to receive eternal life.