Divine Sovereignty in John’s Gospel

John stresses the theme of divine sovereignty along three distinguishable, but closely related themes: divine sovereignty in salvation, divine sovereignty granted to the Son, and divine sovereignty in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Each theme carries a special significance. To summarize,

  1. The theme of divine sovereignty in salvation puts salvation completely out of the realm of human effort and locates it in God’s gracious initiative from conception to completion.

  2. The theme of divine sovereignty granted to the Son signifies the Son’s coequality with the Father in both honor and essence.

  3. The theme of divine sovereignty in connection with Christ’s atoning work signifies that Christ’s crucifixion was no accident, but an eternally-conceived plan of God to bring salvation to humans. As such, it demands from us a response to believe in the Son for eternal life.

John’s emphasis on divine sovereignty occurs in connection with three related themes: man’s salvation, Jesus’ authority, and Jesus’ death and resurrection. Concerning the first theme—man’s salvation—John makes it clear that the right to be a child of God originates exclusively from God’s sovereign will. He states this both positively (“[God] gave the right to become children of God,” 1:12) and negatively (“who were born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God,” 1:13). This list of three negatives is intended to rule out any human contribution to salvation. No one becomes a child of God by his or her biological heritage (“not of blood,” a polemic against the ethno-exclusivity of the Jews). Neither can one become a child of God by sheer determination or coercion (“nor of the will of man”). God’s sovereign determination alone can bring about a person’s spiritual birth.

The very metaphor of salvation as rebirth (or birth from above) also speaks to the sovereignty of God in salvation. Jesus was making a statement of fact, not issuing a command, when he told Nicodemus, “You must be born again” (3:7). This statement can be rendered literally, “It is necessary (dei) for you [plural] to be born again/from above.” By its very meaning, birth does not imply any origination or even participation with the person being born.

John emphasizes in chapter six even more explicitly that God is sovereign to save. He quotes Christ as saying, “All that the Father gives me will come to me” (6:37). Negatively, but even more striking, Jesus states, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (6:44). Echoing words and ideas from 1:13, Christ says, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all” (6:63). And again he stresses that “no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (6:65). Thus the metaphor of the new birth and explicit statements regarding God’s divine initiative in salvation bolster this theme of God’s sovereignty in originating man’s salvation.

Besides emphasizing God’s sovereignty with regard to the origin of salvation, John also emphasizes God’s sovereignty with regard to the perpetuation of salvation: God is sovereign to keep those whom he saves. Christ says, “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (6:37). Linking God’s sovereign will with a believer’s future resurrection he says, “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (6:39). In the very next verse he emphasizes the same thing: “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (6:40). In words that have spoken great assurance to believers of every generation, Christ says, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (10:28-29). God’s sovereignty in securing a believer’s salvation is also highlighted in Christ’s high priestly prayer: “While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction” (17:12). If that last phrase, “except the son of destruction,” seems to weaken the point of God’s sovereignty in securing salvation, the reader needs only to continue reading: “that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” The “loss” of Judas as part of God’s sovereign plan was stated earlier in chapter six: “Jesus answered them, ‘Did I not choose you, the Twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.’ He spoke of Judas . . . for he, one of the Twelve, was going to betray him.” Thus John emphasizes God’s sovereignty in securing believers in salvation.

John’s emphasis on God’s sovereignty in salvation serves a twofold purpose. First, it puts salvation completely out of the realm of human effort or inheritance. As a sovereign decision of God, salvation cannot be earned. A salvation that is earned or inherited is no salvation at all. Second, it locates salvation, from beginning to end, in the gracious initiative of God John. Salvation was never sourced in man to begin with. Someone who thinks of salvation as something that he or she can “lose” fails to understand salvation from God’s perspective. Believers cannot lose their salvation because salvation was never theirs to lose (in the Johannine sense). Rather, God holds believers in an eternal grasp that will not be loosened (John 10:27-30). These two truths are pregnant with practical application. We see that works-reliant faiths are fraudulent, man-centered philosophies. We also see that faith groups claiming that salvation can be lost falsely understand salvation to be a work, based on man’s efforts, rather than rightly understanding salvation to be a work of God’s sovereign initiative. Further, a person who has believed in Jesus (and is bearing the kind of fruit Jesus said would be true of believers) need not fret about whether he or she has “lost” salvation. Neither should we fear that such assurance will lead to careless, presumptuous living. Someone who is truly born of God will bear God’s likeness (1 John 2:29; 3:9). Someone who consistently fails to show God’s likeness demonstrates rather that he or she never trusted in Christ, not that salvation was “lost.”

John emphasizes God’s sovereignty also in connection with the authority of Jesus Christ. The sovereign initiative to save originates with the Father, but is given to the Son. Jesus explains that the Father “has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (5:26). Having been granted this authority, the Son has the sovereignty to call the dead to life (5:25). The Father ordains who will come to the Son, and “gives” these to him (6:39). The Father also ordains the Son as the way a person comes to salvation: “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (6:40). We see that sovereignty in salvation has been given to the Son because Jesus clearly claims that he himself will raise up believers in the last day (6:39, 40, 44, 54). That the phrase “raise it/him up on the last day,” occurs four times within fifteen verses signifies its importance. Also, Christ’s claim that “he will live because of me” stresses this same idea (6:57), as well as Christ’s sovereign statement to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (11:25-26). Again in John 10, the Son’s sovereignty to grant salvation blazes into view: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Perhaps the most remarkable statement concerning the Son’s sovereignty in salvation is found in 5:21: “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.” John could not be any clearer about the divine prerogative of the Son to save.

John emphasizes the sovereignty of the Son to signify that the Son deserves honor equal with the Father, indeed, that he is one with the Father. Jesus has full authority to grant life to whomever he wishes (John 5:21). Therefore, he should be honored just as much as the Father is honored (5:23). In fact, the actions and honor of the Father and the Son are so inextricably tied that to failure to honor the Son is failure to honor the Father (5:24). Jesus takes this even a step further in explicating his sovereignty in the security of salvation (John 10:27-30). He says that no one can snatch a believer out of his hand, and in the next sentence he says that no one can snatch a believer out of his Father’s hand. Whose hand is it, then? It is both the Father and the Son’s, for, as Jesus shockingly claimed, “I and my Father are one.” The neuter gender of the word “one” implies that the Father and the Son are a single entity. The Jews’ response demonstrated that they understood Jesus to be making full claim to deity (10:31). Thus, John’s emphasis on the Son’s sovereignty in salvation signifies the Son’s coequality with the Father in both honor and essence.

Finally, John traces the theme of divine sovereignty in Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is helpful here to note John’s use of the verb dei (“it is necessary”) in connection with divine necessity. Jesus alludes to his atoning death in 3:14 by saying, “So must (dei) the Son of Man be lifted up.” In 10:16, Jesus says, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must (dei) bring them also.” We find this language of divine necessity even on the lips of Christ’s opponents who queried, “How can you say that the Son of Man must be (dei) lifted up?” (12:34). Finally, John uses this verb in connection with Christ’s resurrection from the dead: “For as yet [the disciples] did not understand the Scripture, that he must (dei) rise from the dead.” Thus John’s use of dei emphasizes divine sovereignty, especially with regard to Christ’s atoning work.

Besides this verbal clue, we find explicit statements of divine sovereignty in connection with Christ’s death and resurrection. John is careful to point out the many prophetic fulfillments concerning Christ’s death. In so doing, it is clear that the crucifixion was in accord with God’s sovereign plan, and only superficially the result of an angry mob and compliant Roman rulers. Further, Jesus emphasizes his sovereign control over his death and resurrection when he says, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (10:17-18). No clearer statement about Christ’s intentionality in his atoning death could be made. The crucifixion would not be an event coerced by the Jews or hijacked by the Roman government. Rather, it was an exercise of Jesus’ sovereign will, veiled in the fury of his opponents. When on trial before Pilate, Jesus was intent on stating that Pilate’s authority to crucify him was only derived from God: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (19:11). Thus, John stresses divine sovereignty in connection with Christ’s work of atonement.

By stressing divine sovereignty in connection with Christ’s atoning work, John signifies that the crucifixion was no accident (John 10:17-18)t. It was the eternally-conceived plan of God to bring salvation to humans (3:14). Jesus’ death and resurrection are far more than historical events. We should not think of Christ’s crucifixion as what was done to Jesus, but as what Jesus did. In love he laid down his life as a ransom for the sins of the human race (John 3:16). No one can see the cross and resurrection as anything less than the pivotal moment in history. In fact, because Jesus’ death and resurrection was his sovereign decision, it demands more from us than mere observation. It demands from us a response to believe in him for eternal life (John 11:25).

Jesus the Divine Servant: Suffering, Substitution, Exaltation

Before taking Theology of the New Testament with Dr. Thomas Schreiner, I was familiar with the concept of the servant of the Lord. But my understanding was sketchy: it lacked cohesive structure. After I heard Dr. Schreiner’s lecture on this topic and studied the section in his book that deals with it, I grasped the overall framework, thoroughly enough, at least, to give a summary here. As part of Christology, the study of Jesus as the servant of the Lord compels me to stand in awe–and worship. I’ve framed this topic in answer to three key questions: (1) What does Isaiah mean by “servant of the Lord?” (2) Do the Gospel writers identify Jesus as the Isaiah’s servant of the Lord? (3) What does it mean for us that Jesus is the servant of the Lord?

(1) What does Isaiah mean by “servant of the Lord?”

In order to understand Jesus as the servant of the Lord, we must investigate this term in Old Testament context, specifically Isaiah’s prophecy. In some passages, Isaiah clearly uses “servant” as a referent for the nation of Israel (41:8-9; 44:1-2; 45:4). But in other passages, Isaiah uses “servant” to refer to something distinct from Israel: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:5-6). In this passage the servant must be distinct from Israel becomes he redeems Israel and brings salvation to other nations. We see this distinction also in Isaiah 42 where the servant is commissioned to be “a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon” (Isaiah 42:7). Thus, this “servant” in Isaiah cannot refer to Israel exclusively.

As we read Isaiah’s famous passage on the suffering servant (52:13-53:12), we see even more clearly the features of this servant. He will be exalted (52:13) yet marred beyond recognition (14). He will bear Israel’s sorrows and stand as substitute for the punishment of their sins (53:4-5). Somehow his life will extend beyond the “grave,” for he will “see his offspring” and “prolong his days” (53:9-10). Thus, we see not only that this distinct servant redeems Israel, but also how he redeems Israel—by vicarious suffering.

We find it clear that by “servant,” Isaiah could mean either the nation of Israel or a person who is distinct from Israel. But this question lingers: “If this individual is not the nation of Israel, how are the two related?” Isaiah 53:12 provides a clue when it says that the servant “was numbered with the transgressors.” If we understand “the transgressors” to mean individual Israelites, then the servant is a part of Israel, yet distinct from it. Dr. Schreiner suggests that the servant (distinct from Israel) serves as a representative of Israel. As Israel’s representative, the servant “is both Israel and transcends Israel” (New Testament Theology, 264).

(2) Do the Gospel writers identify Jesus as Isaiah’s servant of the Lord?

Matthew, Mark and Luke do not explicitly link Jesus to Isaiah’s suffering servant. But they drop enough clues to lead us to this conclusion. In Luke’s gospel, for example, Jesus claims that he is the fulfillment of Isaiah 53:12: “And he was numbered with the transgressors.” In Mark’s gospel, Jesus alludes to Isaiah 53 when he states his mission for coming into the world: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The words “serve,” “ransom” and “many” provide links to Isaiah 52:12 (“servant”), 53:5 (“the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all”), and 10-11 (“many”).

John’s gospel forges an even stronger connection between Jesus of Nazareth and Isaiah’s servant. His theme of Jesus being “lifted up”(John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34) hearkens back to Isaiah 52:13: “He shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.” We sense that John was immersed in the words and ideas of Isaiah, with his theme of people’s failure to believe and hardening their hearts (John 12:40, cf. Isaiah 52:15, 53:1).

(3) What does it mean for us that Jesus is the servant of the Lord?

From Isaiah and the gospel writers, we understand that Jesus’ identity as the divine servant points to his role of sacrificial substitute for humankind (Mark 10:45; Isaiah 53:5). Whereas Israel failed to perfectly serve the Lord, Jesus steps in as Israel’s perfect representative and bears the punishment for her failures (Isaiah 53:6). Jesus’s vicarious service and suffering becomes the pathway to his exaltation (John 12:32-36). Consistent with God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12:3), the benefits of the servant’s (Jesus’) exaltation extend beyond the borders of Israel, bringing the offer of salvation to all nations of the earth (Isaiah 49:5-7; John 12:20-23).