There are times when we are not sure why something is written in the Scriptures. I am thinking of the strange event, or the confusing piece of instruction, or the inclusion of an obscure detail. When we come across such things, we are tempted (and probably well-advised) to pass them by without reading too much into them. There are other times, however, when the biblical author states directly and explicitly the purpose for which he has written. Such passages are worth noting, not only for the sake of biblical interpretation, but also for preaching.
Here at the end of his gospel, the fourth evangelist makes crystal clear why he has written these things about Jesus. Although it would have been practically impossible to record it all (see 21:25), John could have recorded many other things about Jesus and His work (after all, Jesus is ultimately responsible for everything, as John says in 1:3). But John chose to write these things for a specific purpose: “So that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name” (20:31). A sermon based on this text could have the same goal. Imagine yourself concluding the sermon by saying, “These things have been preached so that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.” Indeed, every Christian sermon should be able to add such a post-script.
But what should precede it? John preceded his post-script after twenty chapters of details about Jesus and the miraculous signs. What will you say in the twenty minutes set aside for this sermon? The text presents several options.
1. “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” Notice the two narrative streams which come together in this description of Jesus’ identity. The first is that Jesus is the Christ (ὁ Χριστός). He is the Messiah, the anointed one, the promised one. He is the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham and his offspring. When John identifies Jesus as “the Christ,” he identifies Jesus as the fulfillment of all the promises God made to the children of Israel. This narrative stream highlights God’s gracious and sovereign choice of a particular people.
When John identifies Jesus as “the Christ,” he identifies Jesus as the fulfillment of all the promises God made to the children of Israel. This
But John also calls Him, “the Son of God.” This stream, which resembles Luke’s genealogy more than Matthew’s, goes back even further. Throughout his gospel, John speaks of Jesus as the Son of God (1:14, 33-34, 49; 3:16-19, 35-36; 5:19-26; 10:35-36; 11:4, 26-27; 19:7-8). Not only did Jesus come for God’s chosen people, He also came for all creation. This stream highlights the cosmic nature of God’s grace and reign.
Both streams come together at Easter. In His resurrection from the dead, Jesus’ demonstrates His relationship to Abraham and all creation (recall John 8:56-59). A sermon highlighting these two streams would emphasize the larger biblical narrative that centers around God’s gracious salvation in Christ.
2. “Belief and life.” John 20:31 identifies two distinct, yet closely related, goals of his writing. He wrote these things so the reader would believe in Jesus and have life in His name. Both are prominent themes throughout the preceding twenty chapters. Regarding the call to believe in Jesus, there are too many instances to list (do a search and notice how frequently John emphasizes believing in Jesus. It begins with a universal call in 1:7). Regarding life, John is similarly profuse. From the disciples’ confession in chapter 6 (“You have the words of eternal life”) to Jesus self-description in chapter 10 (“I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly”), Jesus’ interest in granting life to a dying creation is unmistakable.
A sermon that focuses on this twofold goal of John’s Gospel might emphasize the connection between faith in Jesus and the new and eternal life which necessarily follows. For a congregation struggling to believe, the former would be appropriate to highlight. For a congregation struggling to live the Christian life, you might emphasize the latter.
3. “These are written.” A third option would be to lean into the purpose of the Scriptures and help your hearers recognize the purpose of everything we say and do as Christians. This might be especially appropriate at a time when the global pandemic is forcing us to ask questions about why (and how) we do anything. In other words, you could cast the entire worship service, or the entire ministry of your congregation, or the entire work of God through the Church on earth in these terms. Why do we meet for worship weekly, in person OR online? Why do we have Sunday School and Confirmation and adult Bible studies? Why do we participate in daily devotions and read the Scriptures? Why do we baptize, absolve sins, eat and drink the Lord’s Supper? Why do we reach out with the Gospel to each other and to the world? We do all these things so everyone may believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing everyone may have life in His name. A sermon that takes this approach might use creative variations of John 20:31 as a recurring refrain to help frame the entire Christian existence around John’s purpose for writing.
We have only begun our celebration of Easter, of course. Which means any of these approaches would center in and around Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and the promise it holds for you and your hearers. Alleluia! He is risen for us. He is risen for us, indeed. Alleluia!
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching John 20:19-31.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach John 20:19-31.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Peter Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through John 20:19-31.