EDITOR’S NOTE: Below, William F. Cook, professor of New Testament interpretation, discusses his new commentary, John: Jesus Christ is God, with Towers writer Andrew J.W. Smith.
AJWS: There’s been so much written about the gospel of John. Why write this commentary?
WC: When I wrote this commentary, I realized that some of the great commentaries in recent years have been written on John’s Gospel, but there’s not a lot that has been written for the non-specialist, where someone could pick up a commentary and read through an exegesis of the text that’s not encumbered by a lot of footnotes, that you didn’t need a lot of language skills to be able to interpret, that you’d be able to get a straightforward, clear explanation of the text and at the same time for the commentary to offer personal application that’s grounded in the meaning of the text that would leave an impression on the soul of the reader.
Commentaries are typically intended to explain the text, but not apply the text, and the commentaries that are heavily application-oriented often don’t do an adequate job explaining the text and tying the application back into the meaning of the text. So I wanted to give an explanation of the text and then help the reader understand how this text should apply to their soul.
It’s intended for a person who might not know who Leon Morris and D.A. Carson and even Andreas Köstenberger are. So I wanted to write something that was accessible to the person that loved the Bible, wanted to know the Gospel of John, weren’t prepared or equipped to read a 600-page commentary, but could work through a commentary of 300 pages reading the Bible with an open commentary and see a straightforward explanation of the biblical text.
There are also study questions at the end of every section, that take the reader back not only to the text, but also to make application to personal life, which typically commentaries don’t do. I think one advantage of being a pastor and a seminary professor is I’m always thinking about the relevance for a congregation of people of what I’m teaching. So in one sense, even writing the commentary I had my own congregation in mind as I thought about what kind of instruction they would need and what kind of help they could use in making legitimate application.
AJWS: So you want people to read the commentary alongside their Bibles?
WC: Yes, what I encourage is for them to have an open Bible and read the Bible and the commentary together, so that the commentary isn’t read apart from the Bible.
AJWS: What’s unique about the Gospel of John compared to the Synoptic Gospels?
WC: You know, the thing I like about John’s Gospel is John was the last living apostle, he had 55 years to reflect on the words and deeds of Jesus. All the other apostles are gone, he’s had over five decades to think about it. He’s intentionally chosen every scene, he’s crafted every vignette in a way that encourages the reader to have deeper faith in Jesus. So he brings out a theological perspective that I think goes beyond the Synoptic Gospels. The Synoptic Gospels are theologians and historians, but John had 55 years to think about it and craft and write it in a way that I think brings out a relevance for readers at the end of the first century that maybe goes beyond what the Synoptic writers did, all probably writing before A.D. 70.
AJWS: What works on the Gospel of John have influenced you the most?
WC: The commentary that has influenced me the most is the one by Morris, and Carson and Köstenberger have very much influenced me as well. I use Carson in my M.Div. courses as a required textbook and I’ve used Köstenberger as one of my options in my Ph.D. seminars. Leon Morris wrote in a time when evangelical scholarship was not highly respected. So Leon Morris and F.F. Bruce were really two of the first evangelical scholars that gained a high degree of credibility with critical scholarship outside evangelicalism. Just the sheer size of Morris’ commentary highlights the depth of his understanding of the biblical text, but if you’ve ever read Leon Morris, he has a spiritual side in his commentaries that really influenced me early on. It’s more than a straight explanation of the text, he would often — a sentence here, a paragraph there — bring out further implications for living.
AJWS: How would you distill the message of John?
WC: He tells us the purpose in John 20:30-31 — “That you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” So what I try to do as I work through the text in my classes and in the book is think about two things: How does that purpose statement play out in each episode and, secondly, how is his Christology highlighted in each story? The subtitle of the commentary is, “Jesus Christ is God.” So in the very beginning of the commentary, in the Prologue, that’s the key thought, in 1:1 and 1:18 there are unambiguous statements about the deity of Christ. So he wants to communicate to the reader, “You can’t grasp what I’m about to describe to you if you don’t grasp that he is God in the flesh.” So those two things I kept in mind: How does his purpose statement work its way out and how is he showing in this particular episode who Jesus is?
AJWS: What’s your favorite story in the Gospel of John?
WC: There’s two stories and they are similar stories: the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4 and the other is the story of the healing of the blind man in John 9. Both these stories are similar in that, as the narrative unfolds, each of them come to have a better and better understanding of who Jesus is. The blind man is asked, “Who healed you?” and he says, “The man Jesus healed me.” The Pharisees ask him, “What do you think about him?” and he says, “He is a prophet.” And then he ends up confessing Jesus to be the Lord and he worships him. He’s the only person in the Gospel described as specifically worshipping Jesus. So what he does in John 9, and I think he does the same thing in John 4, he shows how Jesus leads a person out of spiritual darkness in the blind man and moral darkness in the Samaritan woman to spiritual light and life.
I relate to both those stories because I come from a spiritually dark upbringing. I was a pagan at 19 and didn’t know Genesis from Revelation. I didn’t know anything about the Bible, I’d only been in church a handful of times in my life. So when the Lord began to work in me — I see myself in that blind man — I can look back and see how at 19 he slowly began to draw me out of the darkness into the light until one day, I walked into a minister’s office and told him I’d like to be a Christian but didn’t know how one became a Christian. I also see myself in the story of the Samaritan woman. My mother was married at least four times and just months before she died, I was able to lead her to the Lord. So I see my mother in the Samaritan woman.
AJWS: While you were writing this book, what were your writing habits like?
WC: They were hectic. Between teaching and pastoring, I would be able to write for periods of time and then not pick it up for quite some time. So then I would basically go back and re-read everything I had written to get myself caught up into where I was in the flow of my writing. I find that I write better when I’m in a flow rather than sporadically, I can’t just sit down and pick up something and start writing after not touching it for two weeks. So I’ve read through it many times.
The challenge was writing a book for my intended audience in a highly academic setting. After I finished the commentary, I eliminated almost every transliteration of every Greek word. I went back and looked at the footnotes and asked whether I needed all those footnotes and eliminated a lot of those. I went back very meticulously to make sure the book reflected the audience I was writing for — a person who has never seriously read through the Gospel of John. I wanted that person to be able to pick up the commentary, read it in a relatively short period of time with an open Bible, without being encumbered by Greek and Hebrew and footnotes.