How John’s Gospel Helps Us Understand God’s Mission

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Theology of Mission

Let’s zero in on the aim of God’s mission. Why did he create the world? What is his plan for humanity? Why send Jesus? We must start with these foundational questions before exploring how God accomplishes his mission and what role the church may have in it. Doing so will be a safeguard for us, ensuring that our theology of mission has God as its foundation. And to do this, let us turn to the Gospel of John.

The Revelation of God

John’s Gospel helps us understand God’s mission because he is writing it in order to advance that mission. John says he has “written 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” (John 20:31). John is writing so that men and women would be drawn into relationship with God. How does John go about that evangelistic work? By revealing the character, the very glory, of God.1 For John, revelation is the only thing that makes communion possible.

John’s prologue prepares the reader to see how God’s revelation opens the door for divine-human communion (John 1:1–18). Jesus is the Word, the Logos, of God (John 1:1), the one who will help us understand (the logic of) God. The very God who “in the beginning . . . created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1) is now being revealed by the one who was “in the beginning with God” (John 1:2). Jesus is God and was with God, and he is now revealing the glory of God to the world in his incarnation.

In this way, Jesus is the true light coming to help humanity see God (John 1:4–5, 9). We read that the Word took on flesh in such a way that men could “see his glory” (John 1:14). It is likely that John expected his readers to know the book of Exodus, for this enfleshed one came and “tabernacled among us” as the one who is “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Indeed, Jesus is “the Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6).

Jesus’s mission, according to John’s prologue, is to reveal God the Father. John 1:18 seems to imply that humanity needs the incarnation, not only to make possible the sacrifice of the Lamb of God but more fundamentally because humanity needs to see the Father: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” How can humanity come to the invisible God? In the Old Testament, the Lord appeared in fire in the bush and at night, in smoke behind the veil, and in lightning on the mountain. He may even have taken on angelic or human form as the angel of the Lord (e.g., Gen. 18, Judg. 13), but he was always veiled. But now the Son has revealed the Father. “He is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), his “exact imprint” (Heb. 1:3). In Christ, the glory of God is stamped onto humanity, the Father engraved in the person of his Son for all to read; or as D. A. Carson says, “Jesus is the exegesis of God.”2

Not only in John’s prologue but throughout his ministry, Jesus is disclosing God to mankind. He does this through his teaching and ministry. He says that he is speaking the Father’s words and wielding the Father’s authority (John 7:17–18; 8:28; 12:49–50; 14:10). He reveals the Father through his works. “I can do nothing on my own,” says Jesus (John 5:30). His signs reveal the glory of God (John 2:11; John 11:4, 40). With every action Jesus is simply doing what he sees the Father doing (John 5:19).

Perhaps nowhere is the glory of God more clearly displayed than in Jesus’s journey to the cross.

He also discloses the Father through his person. Christ’s “I am” statements in John’s Gospel reveal that he is the one who provided food in the wilderness (John 6:22–59), light for the world (John 8:12–20; 9:5; 12:46), the God of Abraham (John 8:58), the way to God (John 10:7, 9; 14:6), the shepherd of God’s people (John 10:11, 14), the Son of God (John 10:36), the life-giving God (John 11:25), the sustainer (John 15:1–5). He is elsewhere revealed to be the true sacrifice for the sins of the world (John 1:29), the giver of the water of life (John 4:7–11; 7:37–39), the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, and the high and lifted-up Lord of Isaiah 6 (John 12:38–41). Each title and metaphor corresponds to the Yahweh we see in the Old Testament.

Perhaps nowhere is the glory of God more clearly displayed than in Jesus’s journey to the cross. In his sacrificial death—in falling to the earth and dying like a grain of wheat—Jesus is the revelation of the glory of God (John 12:23–24). While certainly Christ could have intended his resurrection, ascension, and glorification in heaven to be included in the statement “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” the immediate context suggests that his atoning death is central, as does the parallel of John 13:31–32. Of course, these glories do not need to compete. Richard Bauckham argues that they complement each other. The cross, he writes, is “the climax of the revelation of God’s glory in the flesh.” Nevertheless, he says, “it is the degradation and the death, in the light of the resurrection, that constitute the ultimate manifestation of God’s glory to the world.”3 And what will be the twofold effect of this victorious sacrifice? First, “the judgment of this world” in which “the ruler of this world [will] be cast out” (John 12:31). And, second, salvation for mankind: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself ” (John 12:32).

We would have to repeat John’s entire Gospel to chronicle all that it reveals about God. In short, John’s Gospel reveals Jesus, for to know Jesus is to know the Father. To see Jesus is to see the Father. As Andreas Köstenberger has argued: “Revelation is the overarching category for John in describing the work of the Son.”4 And the design of this divine revelation is that we might believe and be saved and so experience genuine communion with God.


  1. So D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 90–95, who argues that John’s Gospel is an evangelistic document aimed at Jews, calling them to respond to “God’s gracious self-disclosure in Jesus” (93).
  2. Carson, John, 135. Exegesis is the approach to biblical studies that seeks the truth of Scripture from within the text, with meaning shining out of its pages, as opposed to an approach that reads our own meaning into it.
  3. Richard Bauckham, Gospel of Glory: Major Themes in Johannine Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), 60–61 (emphasis added).

This article is adapted from The Mission of God and the Witness of the Church by Justin A. Schell.

Justin A. Schell

Justin A. Schell (MAR and MAME, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) is the US Director for Union, a ministry that seeks the reformation of Christ’s church worldwide. He is also the Director of Executive Projects for the Lausanne Movement and has served cross-culturally in the Muslim world. 

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