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A Faith in What Has Been Seen

The apostle John opens his first letter with a concentration of sense-perception verbs, which sets the tone for the rest of the letter. Whatever else John was going to write, he wanted his readers to know that their faith was based on what has been seen, touched, and heard. Thus, he wrote:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life-- 2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us-- 3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3 ESV)

This emphasis on the concreteness of Jesus Christ, who is the content of the faith, is also reflected in John’s description of Jesus’ death. After reporting that both blood and water flowed from the pierced side of Christ, John declares, “He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth-- that you also may believe” (John 19:35 ESV).

Following on from the thought last week that Christ crucified reorders ordinary life, i.e. he didn’t go off into another dimension to effect salvation, a related theme crops up in John’s narration of Jesus’ death: he actually died, just like any other human dies. This theme highlights the concreteness and reality of our faith, so that we do not merely have a faith in ideas but in what has been seen, touched, and heard. Better yet, we have a faith in the one who has been seen, touched, and heard.

We shouldn’t miss the significance of this detail. In many Eastern religions, God is understood to be “unachievable peace, the one who is unaffected by human struggle and drudgery and is inaccessible and exalted high above any hint of such samsara [a cyclical view of the world we inhabit].”[1] In contrast, God in Christ is the God who has been seen, touched, and heard in and through the person of Jesus Christ. Christ, then, moves faith from the realm of mere ideas into concrete reality.

J. H. Bavinck tells the story of Michihata, a Japanese convert from Amida Buddhism to Christianity, to bring this important point home. When he was training for the Buddhist priesthood, Michihata

was frequently addressed by his teachers on the subject of the Amida Buddha and on the promised holy land that would be reached by those who worshipped this Amida Buddha. Then [Michihata] adds, “people always spoke about things only as they exist in our imagination, as reflections of our longings.” Prayers raised were regarded as psychological means for bringing their own souls to the point of stillness and peace. “In other words,” he continues, “neither the Amida Buddha nor paradise had any reality. They were merely projections of our own fantasies, the results of religious art.”[2]

Then, comparing this old view of the world to his new faith in Jesus Christ, Michihata wrote, “First and foremost, Jesus Christ is a real, historical person, not a figment of the imagination, as is the Amida Buddha. That moved my heart to a passionate desire for real salvation through the objectivity of a real cross.”[3]

Finally, Michihata provocatively presents the situation in the world that is faced by everyone as he reflects on the significance of his own conversion: “The real test consists of this: which of the two religions is in a position to quicken life in its followers, and which is not?”[4]

John’s emphasis in both his gospel and his first letter parallels this concern, or better yet prepares the ground for this real test. What is truly worth believing is “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands” because a faith in what has been seen is a real faith which brings real salvation through a real sacrifice on a real cross.

 


[1] Johan H. Bavinck, “Proclaiming Christ to the Nations,” in The J. H. Bavinck Reader, ed. John Bolt, James D. Bratt, and Paul J. Visser (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2013), 129–30.

[2] Bavinck, 136.

[3] Bavinck, 136.

[4] Bavinck, 136.

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