Immediately ahead of us in the Church year is a ‘watershed’. The Church Year goes from essentially following the life of Christ—and there are the two parts to this: ‘The Time of Christmas’ and ‘The Time of Easter’, and then the year goes to what, to many, seems to be a step down or a step away, that of ‘The Time of the Church’. Ahead of us is the season of Pentecost.
It is easy to picture what is ahead of us as a step in the downward direction, away from Christ and toward a focus on His Church. But as I look at the words of Jesus when he gave his so-called ‘Farewell Discourse’ in the Gospel according to John, I do not see a step down. I see an earnest desire for his significant and gracious presence to continue among his followers. I see essentially the same focus that there was there before. Jesus was close to his followers; he was concerned for his followers. And he certainly did not want them to think of his departure as a step down or a step away from him.
I also think that the whole of this gospel account has been moving in that direction of resolving the issue of Christ’s presence. In chapter one, the writer states that this ‘Word’ has ‘set up a tent’ (in verse 14, it is the word ‘dwelt’) with us. Jesus is around with his disciples. He talks with them. He talks with some others—a great variety of people. And he talks a lot about his presence. The special ‘I am’ statements that he gives connect his gracious presence to things that are frequently around them. And then he blesses those who have not seen and yet believe (20:29).
So, as that end comes near, within that Farewell Discourse, Jesus identifies himself as someone who has, literally, been ‘called alongside’—literally in Latin, an Advocate—but also a Counselor, a Helper, a Comforter—you cannot go wrong with any of those translations. When someone significant has been called to your side, there are so many positive ways to describe it!
Within this discourse, Jesus makes it clear, several times, that there will be ANOTHER ‘who is called alongside’. This is the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth (16:13).
As I look at this discourse as a whole, I see a pattern within it. (Certainly there are many who do not see the discourse as a whole. Especially, near the middle—and the end of chapter 14, Jesus says, ‘Rise, let us go from here,’ and this is an opportunity to see a break within the continuity. But there is also a chance to see a meaningful progression within the discourse.)
There are four verbs that this second ‘Advocate’ will do. He will teach all things (14:26); he will remind the followers of all things Jesus told his followers (14:26); he will witness concerning Jesus (15:26); and he will convict/convince the world concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment (16:8). There are obviously a lot of things going on here. But there seems to be a pattern when you compare and contrast those verbs with each other.
The first two emphasize what is taught. The teaching happens, and then there is a reminder of what is taught. The second two seem to have a positive and negative theme. A witness concerning Jesus would be a positive thing, just as a witness supports the truth that is spoken in court. But the convicting or the convincing of the world is definitely a negative thing, a negative truth that also needs to be spoken. (The world needs help—that is why God loved it in John 3:16!)
These days, when I hear that there is a list of four things, I cannot help but compare it to the four gospel accounts—just as the number five in the New Testament probably relates in some way to the first five books of the Old Testament. There are four ‘corners’ of the earth, there are four rings to the ark of the covenant (see Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule II, XI), there are four living creatures on God’s throne—one on each side, and so, there are also four gospel accounts. Four is an important number.
Many will probably be unfamiliar with this fact, but there is another order to the four gospel accounts (rather than Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), and this order, historically, makes much more sense than the one we currently have. The order of what is sometimes called the ‘Western’ text is that of the authors who were of the original twelve disciples are first, and then, those who were secretaries of Jesus’ followers are second (with the longer work of each pair before the shorter one): Matthew, John, Luke, Mark.
With this order, I see some connections between these four verbs and the four gospel accounts. Matthew and John both focus on teaching, with John functioning more as a reminder. (John does not have many of the ‘basics’ about Jesus, but he brings up some of the important things about Jesus and his work of salvation.) Luke is a good, positive witness, to Jesus’ work. Within that account, Jesus is the obedient one, in the temple when he is young and all through the account as he heads toward Jerusalem that last, final time. From Mark’s perspective, Jesus seems to be a bit more negative. He is sometimes difficult to deal with, even for his disciples! (We will see that in much more detail this coming year.) With Luke and Mark compared to the living creatures of an ox and a lion (respectively), there is power within both of those creatures. Within an ox, it is power to help (to plough a field, for example); within a lion, it is power to cause some chaos.
I would encourage you not to look at the variety within the four gospel accounts solely due to the variety of the authors or even due to the variety among their original recipients. The reason for the variety could also be that God has one very important message to get out to ALL people, and he wants to get it out in four slightly different ways.
I would also encourage you to see the four accounts as four different ways to approach the throne of our heavenly Father in worship. Each of them has the authority of the Father. And, as Jesus relates in this discourse, each of them has been breathed out or inspired by the Spirit, the other one who has been called alongside to help.
The connection between these four verbs and the four accounts may be one of the reasons that these four accounts, as a whole, were accepted by the Christian community so very early. Something else to keep in mind is that there is a ‘break’ in between the second and third verbs, and this is where the break in the narrative comes. (‘Rise, let us go from here.’) In John 15, Jesus is talking about a vine growing somewhat wildly, if it were not pruned, and this fits well with the transition between authors who were some of the original twelve followers and those who were only secretaries (of, admittedly, important people—Peter and Paul). The book of Acts certainly describes a wild ride, but, in the end, the Lord is still in charge of things (see Acts 28:31).
Perhaps this has been a helpful perspective. Perhaps it has been a bit confusing. Please feel free to comment.