One of the great and enduring biographies of all time is Boswell's Life of Johnson. It is a mammoth work but conveniently available in various abridged and edited editions. It is not only an insight into the life and character of Samuel Johnson from the close observation of James Boswell but an entrance into and panoramic view of 18th century life in London with innumerable mini-portraits of and comments upon many of the leading figures of the time. We are treated to succinct accounts of Johnson's opinions on a wide range of topics and from a Christian perspective it is interesting, if not always gratifying, to discover his views on theological subjects (which mattered very deeply to him as an earnest and sometimes anguished believer), and also on well-known personalities such as George Whitefield, the Wesley brothers John and Charles, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, and Richard Baxter. Johnson was a devout if disturbed Anglican and a man of urgent and eloquent prayer in an attempt to allay his anxieties concerning holy living, genuine faith, and his hope for eternity. He towered over literary London as the colossus of his age but trembled in his heart and bowed as a helpless child before the Master of all things.
Boswell's admiration for Johnson meant that he trailed the great man constantly with an uninterrupted fixation upon him, hearing every word, listening to every conversation, witnessing every action, involving himself in all the events and relationships, personal and social, of the Doctor's life to which he was admitted as a reliable recorder and close friend. Boswell's skill as a biographer, his empathy with the subject of his story, his unfailing attention to detail, his enthusiasm for his task, mean that his readers come to know Samuel Johnson well. We meet Johnson through Boswell and cultivate a profound and appreciative acquaintance with him the longer we linger over the author's affectionate recollections. Boswell's knowledge of his hero becomes ours. In our imaginations we hear Johnson's thundering voice in the coffee houses of Fleet Street, his conversations at the meal table, his strong opinions aired among his guests at his parlour gatherings as night time sets in. The large man in physique and mind looms large before us through the pen portraits of his companion and confidante, and Johnson is confident that his ally will never misrepresent him. He can afford to be frank in his presence and unafraid of his memoirs should such a project ever be published.
All this bears a similarity to the much more elevated and important apostolic writing available to us as the Gospel of John. We come to know Jesus through John. Unlike Boswell, John was not the composer of an extensive and exhaustive biography that took thirty years in the making and was inclusive of every fact and event that Boswell could possibly recall and relate. John is studiously succinct and selective in all that he tells us about Jesus but his account is fully informed (and informative), his relationship to the Saviour profoundly intimate, and his effort more than enthusiastically human. John is inspired supernaturally to impart his knowledge of Jesus to us.
On the human and historical level he was cousin, colleague, and companion to Jesus. He was called, converted, and commissioned by Jesus as disciple and evangelist. John walked with Jesus as a close observer of his life, ministry, death, and risen life. John heard his words and teaching with close attention and passed them on through careful retention of all the facts. John watched his Lord with rapt observation of his deeds and demeanour. He witnessed to him with an accuracy designed to give us reliable access to him. The man who laid his head upon Jesus’ breast and heard his heartbeat wrote with the intent of uniting our hearts to Jesus’ heart and ensuring a mutual indwelling. John was concerned not only to report on Jesus but establish his reader’s rapport with Jesus as a lasting reality. He achieves this not only through, or because of, his skilled and eloquent writing as a man but because of the presence and power of the Spirit of Jesus accompanying the message of the text and illuminating the mind of the person whose eyes peruse it. John’s literature far excels Boswell’s or any other biographer’s in its effect, if not its quality, for it is the Holy Spirit’s revelation of the life and work of Jesus, indeed it happens to be Jesus’ own self disclosure not only through his incarnate life and influence that came to bear upon John as testifier, but though the divine superintendence and support also, that moved and assisted him in compiling both his version of the evangel and his supplementary teaching in his epistles.
The scope of John’s coverage of the saving mission of Jesus' throughout the New Testament is brief in terms of composition but broad in conception. It begins at the very beginning, his term for eternity past. Jesus as the Word is the self-expression of God, truly divine and now come among us as man. His human life and saving action are described through various phases until the culmination of the Lord’s assignment at Calvary and victory over death in his resurrection and life-giving assurance to his followers, and as John weaves his narrative the affirmation of Jesus' deity is the golden thread that is traceable all the way through. Message and miracle point to the mercy of God in his incarnate Son. He is authorized and able to save all those given to him by the Father. He not only restores them but resides within them. He not only rescues them from condemnation but claims them for fellowship and communion. They are retrieved from evil and alienation for the privilege of perfect and perpetual knowledge of himself. John's purpose is that prayerful and believing readers of his writings should be enabled to enjoy a living relationship with Jesus for ever. The shape and sequence of his gospel is designed to draw us into a reverent, trustful, sanctified and affectionate union with the triune God through the mediatorial work of the Saviour. John's writing facilitates our soul's journey back to God and our ongoing joyous journey "into God" through the gracious friendship that he has chosen us for, and confers upon us through Christ's atonement, intercession, preservation, and presentation of our persons to the Father. Our knowledge of God in Christ is a gift exercised through the gift of faith. Our admission to this relationship is solely through the effort and merit of the Lord Jesus, his work and worth. The combined message of John in his gospel, letters, and recorded revelation of Jesus Christ granted him near the end of his ministry (Revelation) is the invitation and means to an absolutely certain and abiding knowledge of God the Holy Trinity. He begins with the advent of the Promised One, proclaims his action and availability on behalf of sinners, and then showers him with the accolades of heaven as he describes "assignment accomplished" and the ingathering of the redeemed to glory. From glory to glory is John's theme concerning Jesus, and as the God-man travels on his way the glory breaks forth magnificently in grace bestowed upon sinners in the shame and suffering of the cross. There we discover our most delightful insight into the nature of God, and gain the possession of the warmth and purity, freeness and permanence of his love.