The Designations of our Lord in John and their Significance

by B. B. Warfield

Same Christology in Synoptics and John

It may certainly be said that, on this showing, little is left by the Synoptists to John, in the way of ascribing essential deity to Jesus. This is true enough. Those who are familiar with the recent literature of the subject will not need to be told that the contradiction which used to be instituted between the Synoptists and John in this matter tends of late to be abandoned. Not only does Dr. Sanday, for example, speak of the teaching of John as only "a series of variations upon the one theme which has its classical expression" in the culminating christological passage of the Synoptists, and remark that it is in Matthew rather than in John that the "only approach to a formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity" occurs in the Gospels;2 but, as we have already seen, purely naturalistic critics like Bousset are emphatic in asserting that between the Synoptists and John, in the matter of the ascription of deity to our Lord, there exists only a difference of degree, not of kind. Whatever else we must say of Wilhelm Wrede's work on the Gospel of Mark, he has certainly rendered it impossible hereafter to appeal from the christology of John to that of the Synoptists. Those who will not have a divine Christ must henceforth seek their human Jesus outside the entire evangelical literature. It is not merely his own individual opinion, then, which Professor Shailer Mathews is giving when he declares that "generally speaking, outside the references to the early Messianic career of Jesus, the Fourth Gospel contains nothing from Jesus that is new": and that, after all, the differences between the Synoptists and John are "a question of degree rather than of sort of treatment."5 He might have omitted, indeed, the qualification with respect to the references to the early Messianic career of Jesus. We have already seen that to the Synoptists also Jesus was consciously the Messiah from the very inception of His work; or rather, in their case, let us say, from the very beginning of His life. After all, it is the Synoptists, not John, who tell us of the proclamation of the Messianic character of this Child before His birth: and it is Luke, not John, who tells us that He was conscious of His unique relation to God as in a very special sense His Father from His earliest childhood.

Differences in Method

The Synoptists and John certainly stand on the same level in their estimate of the person of Jesus, and differ in their presentation of it only in the relative emphasis they throw on this or the other aspect of it. In the Synoptists it is the Messiahship of Jesus which receives the primary emphasis, while His proper deity is introduced incidentally in the course of making clear the greatness of His Messianic dignity. In John, on the contrary, it is the deity of our Lord which takes the first place, and His Messiahship is treated subsidiarily as the appropriate instrumentality through which this divine Being works in bringing life to the dead world. The differences in point of view between them receive a fair illustration in the introductions which the evangelists have severally prefixed to their narratives. Luke begins his Gospel with a short paragraph designed to establish confidence in the trustworthiness of his account of the life and work of the world's Redeemer. Mark opens his with a few words which connect Jesus' career with the subsequent expansion of the religion He founded. Matthew's commences with a reference to the previous development of the people of God, and presents the apparition of Jesus as the culminating act of the God of Israel in establishing His Kingdom in the world. All these take their starting-point in the phenomenal, and busy themselves with exhibiting the superhuman majesty of this man of God's appointment, the Christ of God. John, on the other hand, takes his readers back at once into the noumenal; and invites them to observe how this divine Being came into the world to save the world, and how His saving work was wrought in the capacity of the Messiah of Israel. It is in his prologue, therefore, that John sets forth the platform of his Gospel, which is written with the distinct purpose that its readers may be led to believe that Jesus is not merely the 'Christ,' but the 'Son of God' (20:31); for, that the term 'Son of God' here has a metaphysical significance is scarcely open to question. In this sense John's Gospel is the Gospel of the deity of Christ; although it is clear that we can call it such in contrast with the Synoptists only relatively, not absolutely. In a sense not so fully true of them, however, it was written to manifest the deity of Christ.

The Prologue of John

In his prologue, then, John tells us with clear and even crisp distinctness what in His essential Being he conceives the Jesus to be whose life and teaching in the world he is to give an account of in his Gospel. And what he tells us is, in one word, that this Jesus is God. In telling this he makes use of a phraseology not only not found in the other evangelists, but absolutely peculiar to himself. The person of whom he is speaking he identifies at the close of the prologue (1:17) by the solemn compound name of 'Jesus Christ,' as Mark and Matthew also at the opening of their Gospels had made use of the same great name to identify the subject of their discourse; and, like them, John also makes no further use of this full name in his Gospel (cf., however, 17:3). The particular designation he applies to this person in order to describe His essential nature is 'the Word' (ὁ λόγος). Of this 'Word' he declares that He was in the beginning, that is, that He is of eternal subsistence; that He was eternally "with God," that is, that He is in some high sense distinct from God; and yet that He was eternally Himself God, that is, that He is in some deep sense identical with God (1:1, 1, 1); and nevertheless that in due time He became flesh, that is, that He took upon Himself a human nature (1:14), and so came under the observation of men and was pointed out by John the Baptist as the 'Coming One,' that is, the Messiah. In further elucidation of His essential nature, He is described as the 'only begotten from the Father' (1:14) or even more poignantly as 'God only-begotten' (1:18).
All this phraseology is unique in the New Testament. Nowhere else except Rev 19:13 is Jesus Christ called the 'Word' (1:1, 1, 1, 14 only, with the possible exceptions of 1 Jno 1:1, Heb 4:12). Nowhere else, except Jno 3:16, 18, 1 Jno 4:9, is He called the 'Only Begotten.' Yet the general sense intended to be conveyed is perfectly clear. John wishes to declare Jesus Christ God; but not God in such a sense that there is no other God but He. Therefore he calls Him 'the Word,'—'the Word' who is indeed God but also alongside of God, that is to say, God as Revealer: and he adds that He is 'God only begotten,' the idea conveyed by which is not derivation of essence, but uniqueness of relation, so that what is declared is that beside Jesus Christ there is no other,—He is the sole complete representation of God on earth. In harmony with these designations he calls Him also in this prologue the 'Light' (1:[4, 5], 7, 8, 9)—a designation more fully developed by our Lord Himself in His discourses. The effect of the whole is to emphasize in the strongest manner at the inception of the Gospel the divine nature of the 'Jesus Christ' who is to be the subject of its narrative: and thus to set forth the aspect in which His life and work are here to be depicted.

Jesus' Narrative Name in John

The key-note of the Gospel having been thus set, however, John, so soon as the prologue is over and he takes up the narrative proper, leaves these high designations behind him and prosecutes his narrative, like the other evangelists, by means of the simple designation 'Jesus.' As truly to John as to the Synoptists, thus, the narrative name of our Lord is the simple 'Jesus,' which occurs nearly 250 times. It is varied in the narrative only by a very occasional use of 'the Lord' in its stead (4:1, 6:23, 11:2, 20:20, 21:[7], 12). No other designation is employed by John himself outside the prologue, except in the closing verse of the narrative proper (20:31), where he declares that he has written to the end that it might be believed that 'Jesus'—the 'Jesus' of whom he had so currently spoken—is 'the Christ, the Son of God.' It is possible, no doubt, to take the 'Jesus Christ' of 17:3 as a parenthetical insertion from his hand, and to assign to him the paragraph 3:16–21, in which Jesus is spoken of as 'the Son,' God's 'only begotten Son,' 'the only begotten Son of God.' But these exceptions, even if they be all allowed, only slightly break in upon the habitual usage by which John speaks of our Lord simply as 'Jesus,' varied occasionally to 'the Lord.' They would merely bear witness to the fact that the high reverence to the person of our Lord manifested in the designations of the prologue continues to condition the thought of the writer throughout, and occasionally manifests itself in the appearance of similarly lofty designations in the narrative.

Jesus' Popular Designations

As in the other evangelists, further, the simple 'Jesus' is reserved for the narrative name, and is placed on the lips of no one of the speakers who appear in its course. It is made clear, however, that it was by this name that our Lord was known to His contemporaries, and He is accordingly distinguished by those who speak of Him as "the man that is called Jesus" (9:11), "Jesus, the Son of Joseph" (6:42), "Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Joseph" (1:45), or the simple "Jesus of Nazareth" (18:5, 7, 19:19). In the reports of remarks about Him the simple demonstrative pronoun indeed is sometimes made to do duty as the only designation needed, occasionally, possibly, with an accent of contempt (6:42, 42, 52, 7:15, 35, 9:16, [24]; 18:30), but ordinarily merely designatorily (1:2, 30, 33, 34, 3:26, 4:29, 42, 6:14, 46, [50, 58]; 7:25, 26, 31, 40, 41, 46, 9:33, 11:37, 37, 47). And sometimes He is represented as spoken of merely as "this man" (ἄνθρωπος, 9:16, 24, 11:47, 18:17, 29), or indeed simply as a man (ἀνήρ, 1:30 only; ἄνθρωπος, 4:29, 5:12, 7:46, [51]; [8:40, 9:11, 16, 16, 24, 10:33]; 11:47, 50, 18:14, 17, 29, 19:5).

Formulas of Address

In the narrative of John our Lord is represented as customarily addressed by His followers, as He Himself informs us (13:13, 14), as 'Teacher' (διδάσχαλε) and 'Lord' (χύριε), the correlatives of which are 'disciples' (μαθηταί passim) and 'servants,' that is 'slaves' (δούλοι, 13:16, 15:15, 20). The actual formula 'Teacher,' however, occurs very rarely (1:38, 20:16, in 11:28 it is an appellative, implying its use in address; cf. 3:2, 13:13, 14), although its place is in part supplied by the comparatively frequent Aramaic form 'Rabbi' (1:38, 49, 3:2, 4:31, 6:25, 9:2, 11:8; used of John the Baptist, 3:26), varied on one occasion to 'Rabboni' (20:16). The most common honorific form of address is 'Lord' (4:11, 15, 19, 49, 5:7, 6:34, 68, 9:36, 38, 11:3, 12, 21, 27, 32, 34, 39, 13:6, 9, 25, 36, 37, 14:5, 8, 22; [20:15]; 21:15, 20, 21; of Philip, 12:21). Of course, seeing that He was currently addressed as 'Teacher,' 'Lord,' He could not but be spoken of by these titles, used appellatively: 'the Teacher' (11:28, cf. 13:13, 14, 3:2) rarely, and comparatively frequently 'the Lord' (20:2, 13, 18, 25, 21:7). The latter usage the evangelist himself adopts in his own person (4:1, 6:23, 11:2, 20:20, 21:7, 12). It is noteworthy that the title 'the Lord' is in this Gospel confined to Jesus, never occuring of God the Father except in a very few citations from the Old Testament (12:13, 38, cf. 1:23). It is an odd circumstance that the appellative use of 'Lord' of Jesus occurs, however, only after His resurrection. We say this is an odd circumstance, because our Lord is represented as Himself telling us that it was applied to Him during His life (13:13, 14), as indeed it could not fail to be from the currency of the corresponding formula of address with respect to Him. This circumstance must be set down, therefore, as merely an accident of the record.


From the substance of the passages in which it is employed, we get very little guidance to the significance of 'the Lord' as thus applied to Jesus. It is only obvious that it is used with reverential recognition of His authority. Only in the great passage (20:28) where Thomas' doubt breaks down at the sight of his risen Master and he cries to Him, "My Lord and my God," do we catch an unmistakable suggestion of its highest meaning. That this exclamation was addressed to Christ is expressly stated: "Thomas answered and said to Him." The strong emotion with which it was spoken is obvious. It is not so clear, however, what precise connotation is to be ascribed to the term 'my Lord' in it. There may be a climax in the progress from 'my Lord' to 'my God.' But it seems impossible to doubt that in this collocation 'Lord' can fall little short of 'God' in significance; else the conjunction of the two would be incongruous. Possibly both terms should be taken as asserting deity, the former with the emphasis upon the subjection, and the latter with the emphasis on the awe, due to deity. In any event in combination the two terms express as strongly as could be expressed the deity of Jesus; and the conjoint ascription is expressly accepted and commended by Jesus. It must rank, therefore, as an item of self-testimony on our Lord's part to His Godhead.

Jesus, the 'Christ'

The ascription to our Lord of prophetic character is, as in the other evangelists, cursorily noted (4:19, 6:14, 7:40, [52]; 9:17), as is also our Lord's own acceptance of the rôle (4:44). But in John, too, it is particularly the specifically Messianic titles which attract attention. The simple designation 'the Christ' is not, indeed, frequently applied directly to our Lord, although it is made clear that He announced Himself as 'the Christ,' and was accepted as such by His followers, and therefore raised continual questionings in the minds of outsiders whether He were indeed 'the Christ.' John the Baptist is represented as frankly confessing that he was not himself 'the Christ,' but His forerunner (1:20, 25, 3:28), pointing not obscurely to Jesus as the Messiah. And accordingly John's disciples following their master's suggestion find in Jesus 'the Messiah' (1:41), which the evangelist interprets to us as 'the Christ.' When the woman of Samaria confesses her knowledge that 'Messiah' (who, adds the evangelist again, is called 'Christ') is to come, our Lord majestically declares Himself to be Him (4:25, 26). The speculation of the people over His Messianic character finds repeated mention (4:29, 7:26, 27, 31, 41, 41, 42, 9:22, 10:24, 12:34). Jesus Himself is represented as calling out from Martha the full confession, in which the current Messianic titles are accumulated with unwonted richness: "Yea, Lord: I have believed that Thou art the Christ, the Son of God, He that cometh into the world" (11:27). And the evangelist himself, with some similar repetition of titles, explains that the purpose he had in view in writing his Gospel was that it might be believed that "Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God" (20:31), and announces as the full name of the subject of his narrative, at its inception and possibly at one point in its course where explicit identification seemed to him useful, 'Jesus Christ' (1:17, cf. 17:3). We must not pass over this list of passages without noting that on two occasions the Aramaic term 'Messiah' occurs (1:41, 4:25), the only instances of its occurrence in the New Testament.

Jesus' own Use of 'Jesus Christ'

Nor should we leave unnoticed the somewhat difficult question whether 'Jesus Christ' in 17:3 is intended as a word of our Lord's or is to be understood as a parenthetical explanation of the evangelist's. No doubt it is easiest to take it as an insertion of the evangelist's. The term 'Jesus Christ' occurs elsewhere in the Gospels only as a form of the evangelists' own, employed in the rarest manner as the most ceremonious and solemn of all direct designations of Jesus (Mt 1:18 [16:21], Mk 1:1, Jno 1:17); and there seems something incongruous in placing this full name on the lips of Jesus Himself, implying as it does that 'Christ' had already for Him acquired the quality of a proper name, and indeed that the compound 'Jesus Christ' had become, though of course not with the loss of its Messianic implications, yet very much itself a proper name. Nevertheless the structure of the sentence is not favorable to its assignment to the evangelist. Our Lord, speaking in these opening verses of His great prayer in the third person ("Thy Son," "Thy Son," "to Him," "to Him," verses 1 and 2), declares that eternal life consists in knowing the Father and Him whom the Father has sent (verse 3). To each of these persons, thus formally mentioned, then, a fuller designation is descriptively added: the words run: "That they may know Thee, 'the only true God,' and Him whom Thou didst send, 'Jesus Christ.' " The balance of the clauses seem to imply that they stand together, and that accordingly if 'Jesus Christ' is to be taken as an explanatory addition, so must also 'the only true God.' Dr. Westcott accordingly makes this supposition, and urges in its support that 'the only true God' is in John's manner (cf. 1 Jno 5:20) and not in our Lord's: and that it is in no way derogatory to John's truthfulness as a reporter that he should thus insert brief explanations, no doubt the compressed representation of much of our Lord's teaching. On the other hand, it may be urged that it is very easy to exaggerate the difficulty of supposing our Lord to have used the phrase in question. He is certainly speaking of Himself: He has just designated Himself the 'Son' (verse 2); and now designates Himself by the phrase, "Whom Thou didst send." Why, continuing the use of the third person, should He not solemnly designate Himself by name, and, doing so, why should He not employ the full ceremonious name of 'Jesus Christ'? This, of course, would imply that 'Christ,' in its constant application to Him, had already become, in our Lord's life-time, at least a quasi-proper name. We have seen already, however, that this was very much the case (Mk 9:41, Mt 24:5, 27:17, 22); and if Jesus could speak of Himself as 'Christ,' there seems no compelling reason why He should not speak of Himself as 'Jesus Christ.' No doubt even this difficulty might be avoided by taking 'Christ' here predicatively: "That they may know Thee the only true God and Him whom Thou didst send, Jesus, as the Christ." The structure of the sentence again, however, is not favorable to this construction, which would break the parallelism of the clauses. It seems more natural on the whole, therefore, to take 'Jesus Christ' together as Jesus' own self-designation of Himself; though if any feel a difficulty in assuming that He already used 'Christ' in this combination completely as a proper name, there seems no reason why it should not be understood as appellative: "Him whom Thou didst send, even Jesus the Messiah." It must be recognized, indeed, that this appellative connotation is in any event not entirely lost, but throughout the whole use of the name 'Jesus Christ' in the Apostolic Church retains its force. In this passage we have only the earliest instance of the combination of the two names 'Jesus,' as the personal, and 'Christ,' as the official designation, into one quasi-proper name: and the solemn employment of it thus by Jesus gives us the point of departure for its Apostolic use from Pentecost on (Acts 2:38, 3:6, 4:10, 8:12, 37, etc.) whenever great solemnity demanded the employment of this ceremonious name. This fixed Apostolic usage from the first days of the infant Church finds its best explanation in such a solemn employment of it by our Lord as we have here recorded for us by John.

Jesus' Relation to God

We ought not to pass finally from this passage without fairly facing the apparent contrast which is drawn in it between Jesus Christ as the Sent of God and the God who sent Him, described here as "the only true God," that is to say, Him to whom alone belongs the reality of the idea of God. From this contrast it has often been rashly inferred that Jesus Christ is here by implication affirmed not to be God; at least not in the highest and truest sense. This, however, it is obvious, would throw the declarations in this Gospel of the relation of Christ to the Father into the greatest confusion. He who has explained that He and the Father are One (10:30, cf. 5:18), and that to have seen Him is to have seen the Father (14:9, cf. 8:19, 10:15, 14:7), and who commended the confession of Him by His follower as "his Lord and his God" (20:28), can scarcely be supposed here so pointedly to deny Himself incidentally to be the God He so frequently affirms Himself to be. It is quite clear, indeed, that the relation of our Lord to the Father is not represented by John, whether in his own person or in the words he reports from the lips of Jesus, as a perfectly simple one. Its complexity is already apparent in the puzzling opening words of the Gospel, where the evangelist is not content to declare Him merely to have been from eternity with God, or merely to have been from eternity God, but unites the two statements as if only by their union could the whole truth be enunciated. We may legitimately say that this double way of speaking of Christ confuses us; and that we cannot fully understand it. We are not entitled to say that it is the index of confusion in the mind of the evangelist—or in the mind of the greater Speaker whose words the evangelist reports,—unless it is perfectly clear that there is no conception of the relation to the Father of Him whom the evangelist calls by predilection the 'Son of God,' even the 'Only begotten Son' or indeed 'God only begotten,' on the supposition of which as lying in his mind the double mode of speaking of Him which we find confusing may be reduced to a real harmony. And it is undeniable that on the supposition of that conception which has come in the Church to be called the doctrine of the Trinity,—especially as supplemented by those other two conceptions known as the doctrines of the Two Natures of Christ and of the Eternal Covenant of Redemption,—as forming the background of the evangelist's varied modes of speaking of Christ, and of our Lord's own varied mode of speaking of Himself as reported by John, all appearance of disharmony between these declarations disappears. To say this, however, is to say that these great doctrines are taught by John and by our Lord as reported by Him: for surely there is no more effective way of teaching doctrines than always to speak on their presupposition, and in a manner which is confusing and apparently self-contradictory except they be presupposed. Whatever we may ourselves find of mystery in these doctrines, it is only fair to recognize that they express part of the fundamental basis of the religious thought of the Gospel of John and of the great Teacher whose words that Gospel so richly reports to us.


It is only another way of calling Jesus the 'Christ' to call Him the 'King of Israel.' This Nathanael does when Jesus manifested to him His super-human knowledge of his heart, exclaiming: "Rabbi, Thou art the Son of God, Thou art the King of Israel" (1:49)—where the order of the titles used is perhaps due to the primary impression being that of the possession of supernatural powers, from which the Messianic office is inferred. It is as 'King,' too, that Jesus was acclaimed as He made His triumphal entrance into Jerusalem: "Hosanna: Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel" (12:13, cf. 6:15)—in which acclamation the evangelist sees the fulfillment of the prophecy of Zech 9:9 of the coming of the King of Zion riding on the ass (12:15). At His trial, again, Pilate demanded of Him whether He was the 'King of the Jews,' using the natural heathen phraseology (18:33), and received a reply which, while accepting the ascription, was directed to undeceive Pilate with respect to the character of His Kingship: it is not of this world (18:37). In that understanding of it (18:37) Jesus has no hesitation in claiming the title (18:37). The subsequent ascription of this title to Him was mockery and part of His humiliation (18:39, 19:3, [12], 14, 15, 15, 19, 21.) but at the same time part of the testimony that He lived and died as the Messianic King.

Accumulation of Titles, Jesus' Mission

We should not pass finally away from the passages in which Jesus is called 'Christ' and 'King' without noting somewhat more particularly the accumulation or Messianic designations in such passages as 20:31, where the evangelist says he has written in order to create faith in Jesus as "the Christ, the Son of God," and 1:49, where Nathanael declares Him "the Son of God, the King of Israel," and especially at 11:27, where Martha declares her faith in Him as "the Christ, the Son of God, Him that cometh into the world." The use of the term 'Son of God' in these passages as a general synonym of 'Christ,' but yet not necessarily a synonym of no higher suggestion, we reserve for later discussion. The designation 'He that cometh,' more fully defined here by the addition of "into the world," we have already met with in Matthew (11:3) and Luke (7:19, 20). A clause in Jno 6:14, "This is of a truth the prophet that cometh into the world," may suggest that the epithet was associated in the popular mind with the Messianic interpretation of Deuteronomy 18:15–18: and we have seen that our Lord associated it with the great passage in Isa 61:1 seq. In itself, however, it appears to conceive the Messiah fundamentally simply as the promised one (cf. 4:25), and to emphasize with reference to Him chiefly that He is to come into the world upon a mission. As such it is supported even more copiously in John than in the other evangelists by a pervasive self-testimony of Jesus laying stress on His 'coming' or His 'having been sent,' which keeps His work sharply before us as the performance of a task which had been committed to Him and constitutes John's Gospel above all the rest the Gospel of the Mission. In the repeated assertions made by our Lord that He "came" into the world, obviously with implications of voluntariness of action (cf. 1:[9], 11, [15], [27], [30], 3:[19], 4:[25, 25], 5:43, 6:14, 7:[27], [31], 9:39, 10:10, 12:[13], [15], 15:22, 18:37), some are explicit as to the point whence He came, which is defined as heaven (3:31, 31), or the Person from whom He came, who is named as God (7:28 seq. 8:14–16, 42, 16:28, 17:8); while others declare plainly the object of His coming, which is not to judge but to save the world (12:46, 47). The correlation of the coming from the Father and being sent by the Father is express in passages like 17:8, and the sending is most copiously testified to, sometimes in the use of the simple verb πέμπω (4:34, 5:23, 24, 30, 37, 6:38, 39, 44, 7:16, 18, 28, 33, 8:16, 18, 26, 29, 9:4, 12:44, 45, 49, 13:20, 14:24, 15:21, 16:5, 20:21) and sometimes rather in the use of the more specific ἀποστέλλω, which emphasizes the specialness of the mission, and is most commonly cast in the aorist tense with a reference to the actual fact of the mission (3:17, 34, 5:38, 6:29, 57, 7:29, 8:42, 10:36, 11:42, 17:3, 8, 18, 21, 23, 25), though sometimes in the perfect tense with a reference to the abiding effect of it (5:36, 20:21). The effect of this whole body of passages is to throw over the whole of our Lord's self-testimony in this Gospel the most intense sense of His engagement upon a definite mission, for the performance of which He, sent by the Father in His love, has come forth from God, or, more locally expressed, from heaven, into the world. They supply a most compelling mass of evidence, therefore, taken in the large, to His preëxistence, and to His superhuman dignity to which His earthly career stands related as a humiliation to be accounted for only by its being also a mission of love (12:46, 47).

The 'Lamb of God'

The fact of this mission is also, no doubt, implicated in the designation 'the Holy One of God' (6:69), which is elicited on one occasion as a confession from His followers; that is to say, no doubt, the One whom the Father has set apart for a given work and consecrated to its performance (6:27, 10:36). It would also be the implication of the designation 'the Chosen One of God,' if that were the correct reading in 1:34, where the Baptist bears his witness really, however, to His divine Sonship. Another designation given to Him exclusively by the Baptist throws, however, a most illuminating light on the nature of His mission. "Behold," John is reported as crying, as he saw Jesus coming towards him after His baptism, "Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world": and again on the next day, as he saw Him walking by, "Behold the Lamb of God" (1:29, 36). That this was in intention and effect a Messianic title is made clear from the sequel. Disciples of John, following Jesus on this suggestion, report to their friends that they have "found the Messiah (which is being interpreted, Christ)" (1:41). The source of the phrase is, of course, the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, through which, however, a further reference is made to the whole sacrificial system, culminating in the Passover. By it the mission of Jesus is described as including an expiatory sacrifice of Himself for the salvation of the world: it, therefore, only gives point to and explains the modus of what is more generally declared by our Lord Himself in such a passage as 12:47: "I came … to save the world." The Messianic character of this saving work is thrown up in a clear light by the confession of the Samaritans who, having been invited to come and see whether Jesus were not the 'Christ' (4:29), when they heard Jesus concluded for themselves that He was "indeed the Saviour of the world" (4:42).

Figurative Designations

Quite a series of designations, mostly figurative in character, expressive of the same general conception, are applied by our Lord to Himself. Thus He calls Himself the 'Light of the world' (8:12, 9:5, 12:35, 36, 46, cf. 3:19, 20, 21, 11:9, 10), which is explained as the "light of life" (8:12), even as the evangelist himself had with the same reference to "life" called Him 'the Light of Men' (1:4, 5, 7, 8, 9). The ultimate source of this designation is no doubt to be found in such passages in the Old Testament as Is 9:1, 2, which is quoted and applied to Jesus by both Matthew (4:16) and Luke (2:32). Similarly He calls Himself 'the Door' by entering through which alone can salvation be had (10:7, 9); the 'Bread of God' or 'of Life,' by eating which alone can life be obtained (6:33, 6:35, 41, 49, 7:41); 'the Good Shepherd' who gives His life for the sheep (10:11, 14, cf. 10:2, 16); and without figure definitely 'the Resurrection and the Life,' believing in whom the dead shall live and the living never die (11:25). Perhaps to the same general circle of ideas belongs the title 'Paraclete' (14:16) or 'Advocate,' which seems to imply that our Lord conceives Himself under this designation as coming to the help of the needy. And we should probably think of the designation 'Bridegroom' (3:29) in the same light: but in this Gospel our Lord's application to Himself of this designation with a reference to His death, familiar to us from the Synoptics, is not recorded: there is only an employment of it of our Lord by the Baptist with no reference to the days to come when the 'Bridegroom' should be taken away.

'Son of Man'

In this Gospel, however, as in the Synoptists, the title 'Son of Man' comes forward as one of our Lord's favorite self-designations; and it is charged here, too, with the implication of a mission, involving suffering and death but issuing in triumph. If we seek the guidance here, as we did in the case of the Synoptist use of the title, of the substance of the passages in which it occurs, we shall learn that the 'Son of Man' is no earthly being. He came down from heaven whither He shall ultimately return (6:62). His sojourn on earth is due to a task which He has undertaken, and to which He is "sealed" (6:27). This task is to give eternal life to men (6:27); and He accomplishes this by giving them His flesh to eat and His blood to drink, whence they obtain life in themselves (6:53, cf. 6:27). Of course this is symbolical language for dying for men. Accordingly our Lord declares that it is necessary that the 'Son of Man' be "lifted up," that whosoever believes in Him may have eternal life (3:15), and He announces it as His precise mission, received of the Father, to be thus "lifted up" (8:28, 12:34). Nevertheless, it is only that He may enter His glory that He dies (12:23, 13:31), and it is given to Him to exercise judgment also (5:27). Here there is open proclamation of His preëxistence, of His humiliation for an end, and of His passage through this humiliation to His primitive glory.

'Son of God'

The culminating Messianic designation in John, however, is 'the Son of God,' which comes fully to its rights in this Gospel. This designation occurs not only, as in the other evangelists, in the more technical form of 'the Son of God' (1:34, 1:49, 5:25, 9:35, 10:36, 11:4, 27, 19:7, 20:31), and the simple absolute 'the Son' (3:17, 35, 36, 36, 5:19, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 23, 26, 6:40, 8:36, 14:13, 17:1), but also in a form peculiar to John, 'the only begotten Son,' or simply (3:16, 17) 'the only begotten' (1:14, cf. 1:18, 'God only begotten'). That the title 'Son of God' is a Messianic title is clear from such passages as 1:49, 11:27, 20:31, in which it is used side by side with 'the Christ,' 'the King of Israel,' 'the Coming One,' as their synonym, although not necessarily as a synonym of no higher connotation. There is no reason to doubt that here, too, as in the other evangelists, 'Son of God' carries with it the implication of supernatural origin and thus designates the Messiah from a point of view which recognized that He was more than man. What is noteworthy is that in John 'the Son of God' becomes very distinctly a self-designation of Jesus' own (5:25, 9:35, 10:36, 11:4): and it is noteworthy that in connection with this designation He claims for Himself not only miraculous powers (9:35, 11:4), but the divine prerogative of judgment (5:25, cf. 27); and that He was understood, in employing it of Himself, to "make Himself equal with God," and therefore to blaspheme (10:33, 36).


It is, however, in the use of the simple 'the Son' (3:17, 36, 36, 5:19, 22, 6:40, 8:36), often set in direct correlation with 'the Father' (3:35, 5:19, 20, 21, 23, 23, 26, 14:13, 17:1), that the deepest suggestion of the filial relation in which our Lord felt Himself to stand to the Father comes out. And these passages must be considered in conjunction with the very numerous passages in which He who never speaks of God as "our Father," putting Himself in the same category with others who would then share with Him the filial relation, speaks of God either as 'the Father,' or appropriatingly as 'My Father.' There are over eighty passages of the former kind,16 and nearly thirty of the latter. The uniqueness of the relation indicated is brought out by the connection of the simple 'the Son' with the emphatically unique 'only begotten Son of God' (3:16, 17). Although, of course, the passage in which this is most pointedly done may be the evangelist's and not our Lord's, the phrase 'Only begotten Son' or even the term 'Only begotten' applied to Christ, occurs nowhere else, except in John's own words (1:14, 18, 1 Jno 4:9, cf. Heb 11:17), and that affords a reason for assigning the paragraph 3:16–21 to him. Such a passage as 5:18, however, makes perfectly clear the high connotation which was attached to the constant claim of Jesus to be in a peculiar sense God's 'Son,' entitled to speak of Him in an appropriating way as His 'Father.' The Jews sought to kill Him, remarks the evangelist, because of this mode of speech: "He called God His own Father (πατέρα ἴδιον), making Himself equal (ἴσον) with God." And indeed He leaves no prerogative to the Father which He does not claim as 'Son' to share. There has been given Him authority over all flesh (17:2), and the destinies of men are determined by Him (3:17, 6:40); He quickens whom He will (5:21) and executes judgment on whom He will (5:22). Whatever the Father does He knows, and indeed all that the Father does He does (5:19). He even has received of the Father to have life in Himself (5:26). Though He declares indeed that the Father is greater than He (14:28), this must be consistent with an essential oneness with the Father, because He explicitly asserts that He and the Father are one (10:30), that He is in the Father and the Father in Him (10:38), and that to have seen Him was to have seen the Father (14:9). It may be that some mysterious subordination of God the Son to God the Father is suggested in the declaration that the Father is greater than He (14:28), and many certainly have so interpreted it, constructing their doctrine of God upon that view. But it seems more likely that our Lord is speaking on this occasion of His earthly state in which He is not only acting as the Delegate of the Father and hence as His subordinate—the "sent" of the Father; but also in His dual nature as the God-man, is of Himself in His humanity, of a lower grade of being than God, without derogation to His equality with the Father in His higher, truly divine nature. If this be what He means, there is no contradiction between the strong affirmations of His not merely equality (5:18) with God, but His oneness with Him (10:30), His interpenetration with Him (10:38) as sharer in all His knowledge and deeds (14:9), and His equally strong affirmation of His inferiority to Him (14:28), illustrated as it is by numerous assertions of dependence on Him and of an attitude of obedience to Him.

Eternal Sonship

Thus, so clear and pervasive is the assertion of deity through the medium of His designation of Himself as 'Son' and the use of this term of Him by the evangelist, that the chief point of interest in the term rises above this assertion and concerns a deeper matter. Does the Sonship asserted belong to our Lord in His earthly manifestation merely; or does it set forth a relation existing between Him as a preëxistent person and God conceived even in eternity as His Father? In other words, is the term 'Son' a term of economical or of ontological relation? The question is not an easy one to determine. But, on the whole, it seems that it should be answered in the latter sense. The force of a passage like 3:16‚ (cf. 3:35, 5:20)—"God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son"—seems to turn on the intimacy of the relation expressed by the term "only begotten Son" having been already existent before the giving: otherwise how is the greatness of the love expressed in the giving to be measured? Similarly in a passage like 3:17 there seems an implication of the Sonship as underlying the mission: He was sent on this mission because He was Son,—He did not become Son by being sent. In like manner the remarkable phrase "God only begotten" in Jno 1:18 appears to be most readily explained by supposing that it was as God that He was the unique Son: and, if so, it seems easiest to understand "the glory of an Only Begotten of the Father," which men saw in the incarnate Christ (1:14) as the glory brought with Him from heaven. In this case, it is obvious, John goes far toward outlining the foundations of the doctrine of the Trinity for us: and it is a mistake not to see in his doctrine of the Logos and of the Only Begotten God and of the Divine Son, the elements of that doctrine.


With this high doctrine of the divine Sonship in connection with Jesus the way is prepared for the express assertion that He is God. This, as has already been incidentally pointed out, is done in express words in this Gospel. The evangelist declares that that 'Word' which, on becoming flesh, is identified with 'Jesus Christ,' was in the beginning with God and was 'God' (1:1), and calls Him in distinction from the Father, 'God only begotten' (1:18). And Thomas, his doubts of the resurrection removed, greets Him with the great cry, "My Lord and my God" (20:28): and more to the point, our Lord Himself, who had elsewhere declared Himself one with God (10:30), and had asserted that He and the Father interpenetrated one another (10:38), and that to have seen Him was to have seen the Father (14:9), expressly commended Thomas for this great confession and thereby bore His own testimony to His proper deity (20:29). The deity of Jesus which in the Synoptists is in every way implied is, therefore, in John expressly asserted, and that in the use of the most direct terminology the Greek language afforded. To this extent, it is to be allowed that John's Gospel is in advance of the Synoptists.

'God' no New Title

This advance is commonly represented as the index of the development that had taken place between the time when the Synoptics were written and the much later time when John was written. John, coming from a period almost a generation later than the Synoptics, it is said, naturally reflects a later point of view. Of course John's Gospel was written thirty or thirty-five years after the Synoptics. But it is an illusion to suppose that it therefore sets forth a later or more developed point of view than that embedded in the Synoptics. The Synoptics present a divine Christ, as we have seen, and are written out of a point of view which is simply saturated with reverence for Christ as divine. John is written from no higher point of view, and records nothing from the life of Jesus which more profoundly reveals His consciousness of oneness with the Father than the great utterance of Mt 11:27, or which more clearly announces the fundamental idea of what we call the Trinity than the great utterance of Mt 28:19. There is no advance in conception in John over the Synoptics: there is only a difference in the phraseology employed to express the same conception. The Synoptics present Jesus Christ as God; only they do not happen to say 'God' when speaking of Him: they say 'Son of Man,' 'Son of God,' Sharer in 'the Name.' It did not, however, require thirty years for men who thoroughly believed Jesus to be divine to learn to express it by calling Him 'God.' In a word, it is in the mere accident of literary expression, not in the substance of doctrine, that the Synoptics and John differ in their assertion of the deity of Christ. Accidents of literary expression are not products of time, and differences in modes of expression do not argue intervals of time.

Source: Warfield, B. B. (1907). The Lord of Glory: A Study of the Designations of Our Lord in the New Testament with Especial Reference to His Deity.

Wed, 01/20/2021 - 13:55 -- john_hendryx

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