I’ve recently noticed how often people quote John 10.10 ‘I have come that they might have life, and life in abundance’, often in the context of ethical debate. (I am not sure whether it is happening more, or just whether I am more alert to it.) When one person is arguing for a more restrictive ethical position, the response is given ‘But that doesn’t correspond to Jesus’ promise to give us life in abundance’, as a way of pushing back against a sense of restriction or limitation that is felt to be unreasonable. All roads lead to Rome, and in our current context all ethical issues lead to sexuality, so of course this has been appealed to in the sexuality debates. Dan Via, in his short book Homosexuality and the Bible, debating with Robert Gagnon, makes this case explicitly: since Jesus promises life in all its fulness (an alternative translation), and denying sexual expression to sexual urges does not look like ‘fulness’, then this teaching of Jesus must allow expression of our sexual orientation in sexual relationships. I am surprised to see this argument repeated, since it is so evidently flawed—the promise is made by someone single and celibate, so his own life contradicts this unless we think Jesus was asexual—but repeated it is.
We need to think, though, about the wider use of this phrase. What does ‘abundance’ mean in our culture, and what does it communicate when we use this language? It is sobering to search the internet for images of ‘abundance’, since there is no end of formulas about health, wealth and happiness, and links to methods of ‘affirmation’ about how wealthy I can become if only I repeat each morning ‘Wealth is naturally drawn to me’. (I was introduced to these ideas of ‘visualisation’ thirty years ago in a course on ‘new age thinking’ which was supposed to make us more effective as business managers. Not much appears to have changed.) We live in such a deeply materialistic culture that I think it is hard for many of us to dissociate ‘abundant life’ from material prosperity and security, and the gratification of our desires. Yet this also illustrates the appeal of our using it. There is a perception that Christians are, generally speaking, miserable and mean, and that the Christian life is one of denial and restriction. To counter this, we want to talk about joy and fulness of life—and rightly so. But without some qualification, can ‘abundant life’ communicate this well?
The term perissos, translated ‘abundant’ or ‘to the full’ is quite a strong word, deriving from the verb perisseuo which means ‘to overflow’. It only occurs here in John, and is not a very common idea in this gospel at all, though the verb does occur more often in the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). It occurs twice in Matt 13.12 and 25.29 where Matthew repeats Jesus’ enigmatic saying ‘those who have will be given more, those who do not have, even what they have will be taken from them’. And it functions as symbolic of Jesus’ life and ministry in the ‘overflow’ of bread that is left over after the feeding of the 5,000 and the 4,000 (Matt 14.20, 15.37, Luke 9.17). But the term has a double edge given to it by Jesus’ warning:
Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions’ (Luke 12.15).
Something similar is happening in Paul; in 2 Cor 8.2 he talks about the ‘overflow’ of the Macedonian Christians, which has come from their trials and poverty!
Within John 10 there are also some key dynamics that we need to note. Firstly, the emphasis on ‘life in all its fulness’ sits within the gospel’s emphasis on life (and its contrast with darkness) which is a key theological idea pervading the whole narrative from the very first chapter. This is part of John’s eschatological perspective, which for English readers is often muted: the term ‘eternal life’ is John’s equivalent of ‘the kingdom of God’, that which Jesus brings as the anointed one from the Father and which we must enter as we become disciples. The phrase in fact means ‘life of the age’, that is, the age to come, and though this often appears to be ‘realised’ in John’s gospel, it has an irreducibly future dimension to it.
We also need to note the context of conflict in which this saying comes; Jesus as the true shepherd is contrasting himself with ‘thieves and robbers’ who come to kill and destroy, whereas he comes to being security and life. Many commentators think this comes in the context of great insecurity for John’s readers. Jesus’ teaching about himself as good shepherd follows on from the healing of the man born blind in John 9; as a result of his testimony, he is ‘put out of the synagogue’ (John 9.22, 34) which might well have echoed the experience of Jesus’ followers in the 80s as ‘church’ and ‘synagogue’ split. This would have been a serious challenge to Christians, as they lost the protection of Jewish identity in an Empire that was hostile to new religious movements. In other words, Jesus’ promise of ‘life in abundance’ was key because it contradicted the appearance of things, rather than confirmed it.
I have been particularly challenged by this phrase whilst thinking about the messages to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3, and in particular the message to the church in Smyrna. It is the second of the seven, and this second message, along with the second last, to Philadelphia, are the two which contain no rebuke for the Christians in these cities. Smyrna was then, as now, a prosperous port, and one of the principal cities in the Roman province of Asia, rivalling Ephesus. It second-century bishop, Polycarp, was martyred for his faith, and the account of his life and death is one of the earliest accounts of martyrdom in the early church. It is the only one of the seven cities which still has an active Christian community.
The message from the risen Jesus is the shortest of the seven, at 90 words, and it is quite stark in its message. The Christians there are suffering ‘tribulations’, the term for suffering as they await the kingdom that is to come whilst living in a world which does not know God, and ‘poverty’. It appears that they are suffering the accusations recorded in John 9 from the Jewish community, and worse is to come. In an anticipation of what later happens to Polycarp, they are warned that some will be put in prison and they will be ‘tested’. The are called to be faithful ‘even to the point of death’.
What does ‘abundant life’ look like for these Smyrnan Christians? Two things stand out. Firstly, this life is hidden. Jesus knows their poverty ‘yet you are rich’. The outward appearance of their life is unimpressive, yet the hidden reality is that they are rich in faith and in the grace of God they have received in Christ. Second, this life is future, and they are called to live in the light not of how things are now, but how things will be. Their focus has to be on the ultimate realities—which will only clearly be seen in the ultimate revelation of the kingdom. As in John 10, the spiritual reality of abundant life stands in stark contrast to how things look in the outward appearance—it is prosperity, but not as we know it.
We do need to share the good news of Jesus’ offer of abundant life. But how do we do that in a way which avoids the misunderstandings that arise from our culture’s conception of what abundance looks like? Answers on a postcard, please…
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?