Imagine that you could transport yourself to the first century and were able to join the small group of people that comprised the inner circle of Jesus. You traveled with him, watched him touch people, listened to him teach and preach, and interacted with the crowds as they tried to grasp what he had just said to them. You were one of the few that got to see him perform miracles, heal the sick and display consistent command over the natural order. You got to watch him in his private moments, observing how he interacted with God. You got to hear the intimate cries of his heart and the longings of his soul. You had unfettered access and saw the most personal dimensions of most amazing human being that has ever lived.
Now, imagine that you have to describe that experience to people. You have to try to capture the essence of the most incredible source of love and beauty that you have ever seen. Everyone around you wants to try and comprehend who Jesus was, and they are begging you to explain it.
What types of words do you use to describe the indescribable? How do you take that which is infinite and accurately portray it with finite words?
The Apostle John was one of those people that had intimate access to Jesus and studied both his public and private life. John was mesmerized by the person of Jesus, and because of that, struggled with the dilemma that all who have tried to write about the extraordinary have faced.
How do you describe the indescribable? How do you find the right word to describe the transcendent without immediately losing the meaning due to the lack of a word or words robust enough to capture the full dimension of what you are trying to describe?
I imagine that John experimented with the full range of vocabulary as he attempted to tell the world who Jesus was. I imagine that he tested different ones with people seeing which came the closest to capturing the transcendent qualities that he himself experienced in the person of Jesus.
John wrote four letters that became part of the Bible, and there was a word he came back to time and time again in his attempt to describe the indescribable.
If John had only one word to describe Jesus, it was an easy choice:
That is how he described Jesus at the beginning:
“In the beginning was the Word… in him was LIFE.” (John 1.1-4)
There must have been so much that John wanted to say about Jesus. Certainly he wanted people to know about the power, the presence, the love, and the miracles of Jesus. He had witnessed first hand the ways that Jesus could move a whole crowd or transform a single person’s destiny. How do you convey all of that in a succinct yet comprehensive way?
For John, the word LIFE conveyed just that. “In him was life.” Everything else somehow flowed from that single reality.
The Gospel of John opened by describing Jesus as life, and it finished there as well:
“Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20.30-31)
The centrality of this word in John’s vocabulary is fascinating to me. That is who John understood Jesus to be, and it is the vision that he cast for everyone that would listen to him.
What’s even more intriguing to me is that he never wavered on this. While many of us adopt different emphases as we transition through different phases of life, John never wavered from seeing Jesus as life. He used this word to describe Jesus when he was young, and he used this word to describe Jesus when he was old.
Of the 12 disciples, it was John who lived the longest (by a long shot). The other 11 disciples were martyred, and John came close (its a crazy story, but the short version is that an emperor tried to burn him alive… unsuccessfully). He ended up living into his late nineties, and it is believed that it was during this time that he wrote his final three letters (First, Second, and Third John).
Those letters are especially significant to me, because they reflect the thoughts and ideas of an old man who had seen a lot, and who wanted to invest his insights into a new generation of leaders. These young men and women knew only the legend of Jesus, and they were hungry to learn from their elder statesman what he was really like. When John describes Jesus, he comes back to the same word – life:
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.” (1 John 1.1-2)
John then finished this letter with the same idea that he started with:
“And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” (1 John 5.11-14)
If John could have only one word to describe Jesus, it was the word life. To have Jesus was to have life – that is what John went to his grave believing. It was what he wanted young believers in the first century to know, and I believe it is what he would tell us today. Pursue life abundantly… and more importantly, pursue the One who is life itself.