No doubt we have all heard, and probably discovered for ourselves, that the fourth gospel is different from the first three. It certainly seems different and, as we shall shortly see, it is different - but can we see significance in the differences and the continuities with the other gospels? Certainly it was a gospel different enough to be assured of a place in the New Testament in all parts of the Church only in the 4th century. On the other hand our earliest New Testament text, a tiny fragment of papyrus called p52, now in Manchester, contains part of John 18: 31-33 on one side and of John 18: 37-38 on the other. This dates from the first half of the second century (i.e. within sixty years of the gospel’s probable date), indicating that in some parts of the Church the Gospel was a popular one; this is confirmed by the existence of other early manuscripts of parts of John. At the moment, let us look at what the differences are; later we will try to examine what this might mean.
In reading John’s gospel, particularly if we read it in larger chunks than we usually hear in church, we will notice differences in vocabulary. Compared with the other gospels we hear little or nothing of the kingdom of God, the Sadducees, scribes, forgiveness or demons. Rather John has a distinctive use of life, light, darkness, truth, the world, the Jews, to know the Paraclete (in translation Comforter or advocate), the Son, the Father (used more frequently in John). Phrases like “Him who sent me”, and Amen, Amen (translated truly, truly, or verily, verily) are unique to John and “I am …” occurs rarely in the other gospels.
In the other gospels Jesus gives his teaching in brief, pithy forms such as parables and similes (x is like y). In John Jesus speaks in loquacious and sometimes repetitious discourses in which it is not always clear when direct speech ends and comment by the writer begins(e.g. 3:16,17 and 30, 31).
John is inconsistent with matters of historical timing. Does Jesus die on the Passover as in the other gospels or on Passover Eve as in John? While the other gospels mention only one Passover at the end of Jesus’ ministry which may only have been of a few months, John mentions three Passovers indicating a longer ministry. Is the temple cleansed at the beginning or end of the ministry?
In John there is no baptism or temptation, no transfiguration, no confession at Caesarea Philippi, no praying in Gethsemane (Matthew/Mark) or Mount of Olives (Luke) before arrest, no institution of the eucharist by Jesus, no parables or exorcisms. Unique to John are the Wedding at Cana (2:1-11), Nicodemus (3: 1-13), the Samaritan woman (4:1-42), Lazarus (11: 1-44), the footwashing (13: 1-20), the conversation with Pilate (18:28 –19:16) and the resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene (20: 11-29).
Jesus in John speaks mostly of himself rather than the coming kingdom and there is little dialogue with opponents. Jesus has a “divine foreigness” about him, at which we shall look more closely next time.
Some of Jesus’ acts of power in John are called “signs”, a term which is often used polemically in the other gospels (e.g. Luke 11:29). Furthermore these acts are not so much signs of the coming of God’s kingdom but of Jesus’ authority and power with some accenting of these; he can heal at distance (4:43-53), Lazarus has been buried for four days (11.39), not only does he walk on water but brings the boat to land (6:16-21), the wine at Cana is the finest (2:10).
Finally, John has distinctive points of style, in particular the use of irony. All the gospels are ironic in the sense that the reader knows who Jesus is in ways that the characters in the gospel do not. However, John develops this so that the figures of opposition fall into traps of their own making. This is shown most clearly in the dialogue with Pilate in Chapter 18: 28 – 19:16. Pilate mocks Jesus’ claim to be a king, crucifies him for being king but yet he proclaims Jesus King by word (19:15) and in writing (19:19-22) and enthrones him on the cross because he is king. It is Pilate rather than Jesus who is on trial, a verbal ambiguity may indicate that Jesus in in the judgement seat (19:13). The whole scene may be part of a wider motif in which the whole gospel is a kind of lawsuit in which those who seek to question Jesus are interrogated themselves and found wanting.
In the same way John makes subtle use of multiple meanings. In the encounter with Nicodemus (see also Henry Vaughan’s poem “The Night”) Jesus makes use of the various meanings of the Greek ‘another’ (from above, from the beginning, again) and pneuma (wind, breath, or spirit) as in the same place “lifted up” has an ambiguous meaning (3:1-15).
….. but yet the same
However, we ought not to exaggerate the differences and distinctions of John’s gospel - as we have seen in earlier series each gospel is distinctive in its message. Like the other gospels John is giving good news using a biographical narrative, obviously telling the same story, beginning with the Baptist’s witness, continuing with miracles and conflicts and culminating in a detailed Passion Narrative and the empty tomb. Like the other gospels it was written anonymously, and like them composed over a long period out of various sources, oral and written.
This brings us to the most distinctive aspect of John’s gospel. We have no definite idea of what John’s sources were. You will recall that Matthew and Luke have Mark as a common source, have another major source in common with each other and Luke may also have used a version of Matthew. We have no idea at all of John’s sources. Although he has things in common with Mark and Luke these are not sufficient to say that he knew either gospel or even that he has sources in common with them, only similar kinds of traditions.
Nonetheless the first three gospels have parallels, however rough, to the incidents in John. There may be more cripples and blind men healed in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but one each (John 5 and 9) makes the necessary point. The dead are raised (Mark 5:21-43 and Luke 7:11-17) even if not as dramatically as Lazarus. Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is a kind of parallel to the praying in Gethsemene, and so on.
More importantly all the gospels share John’s purpose in encouraging and maturing faith (20:31) through an account primarily theological and missionary, rather than historical and biographical, of Jesus and the salvation to be found in him.
Part 2. A different Jesus
As we have seen in earlier articles the clue to the contents of a gospel is often in its opening. In the case of John’s gospel this means the famous prologue which is well known as the gospel for Christmas Day (John 1: 1-18). That this may well have been deliberately composed as the gospel’s opening, emphasises the way in which the gospel’s theology (what it says about God and his working with the world) is expressed through its Christology (what it says of Jesus and his person).
The concrete historical Jesus (1:14), witnessed to by John the Baptist (1:6), founder of the community of Christian believers (1:12-13), is the divine Word before creation (1:1); source of life and creation, distinct from but identifiable with God. This Word, or word, is for all, though responses to him, or it, are diverse (1:9-11) but he is the manifestation of God retaining a perfect relationship with the Father (1:18). Jesus is more than a providential man fulfilling the expectations associated with figures like the “Messiah/Christ” or “Son of God”, but is like Jacob’s ladder (1:51) a mediator from heaven to earth. When John uses the phrase “you shall see” in this verse, he invites the reader to enter into and to see the whole gospel as a testimony to Jesus’ divine origins.
Pre-existence and divinity
Not only the gospel writer but John the Baptist (1:30) and Jesus himself (8:58, 17:3) witness to Jesus as having a pre-existent life with God before all other things. This goes much further then the other gospels or Paul, who sees crucifixion/ resurrection as the point where Jesus’s divine sonship becomes explicit (Romans 1:4). In Mark, Jesus appears as Son of God at baptism (Mark 1:11); in Matthew/Luke, sonship dates from conception (Matthew 1:30; Luke 1:35). However, this is privileged information known by the reader and Jesus is an essentially earthly figure.
Jesus’s divine pre-existence is the lens through which the writer wants us to see the events of the gospel as it unfolds. To describe this pre-existence he uses the title Word (logos in Greek). For Gentile Stoics, the Logos was the divine reason which organises the universe and by which humans govern their passionate or violent natures. Apart from the incarnation (1:14) there is nothing in John’s prologue a Stoic could not accept. Equally, pious Jews could describe the Torah, or the Wisdom of God (Proverbs 8:22ff), in similar terms. Moreover, sophisticated Jews in the Greek speaking world used Logos as an acceptable and appropriate term to discuss the working of God.
As I indicated above, John may have liked the ambiguity of Word and word; the person of Jesus is totally identifiable with the gospel about him. We can also note the power of the Word in the Old Testament to create (Genesis 1, Psalm 33:6 etc.), and to communicate (Jeremiah 2:1 and elsewhere among the prophetic literature). So Word/Logos was an ideal word, with many and flexible associations both Jewish and Gentile, to place Jesus’s origins beyond an earthly existence. The gospel’s identification of the Word with God (1:1) would offend Jewish monotheism (Deut. 6:4); and incarnation, bringing divine attributes of glory, grace and truth, would offend both Jews and Gentiles.
In the controversies of the body of the gospel Jesus belligerently asserts his divinity whereas the other gospels merely assume God’s authority for his words and actions (John 5 and 7, 8 and 10, especially 8:42, 8:58, 10:36, 10:38). Similar claims are found in the non-controversial second part of the gospel (13-17).
John and the titles of Jesus
The titles of Jesus are sometimes John’s own coinage as Logos/Word, sometimes familiar New Testament phrases with a distinct nuance.
Lamb of God… (1:29) sounds Jewish enough but is probably John’s own creation. Although there may be some link to the Passover lamb (19:14) this was not a sacrifice to remove sin.
In other gospels Son of God is only used of Jesus by heavenly or other supernatural sources (though compare Matthew 16:16); but it is the basic assumption of John’s gospel from the beginning (1:18) to end (20:31).
Whether and how Jesus is the Messiah/Christ is discussed more directly (4:29, 7:26 and 12:14) than in the other gospels, and is crucial for Christian belief (20:31).
Son of God and Messiah/Christ/Anointed One were titles of the Israelite kings. Nathaniel’s proclamation of Jesus as King of Israel is a revelation to a “true Israelite” (1:49), not one of the unbelieving “Jews”. The crowd try to make Jesus king (6:15); but he is king already (18:36).
Son of Man is used by John to fuse together the death of Jesus and his glorification, the latter achieved by his death rather than a return in power (3:13-15, 12: 20-36). John uses “raised or lifted up” ambiguously (raised on the cross and raised from the dead) and as part of a wider ascent/descent motif – see comment on 1:51 above.
Saviour of the World (4:42) is a pagan title given to emperors and so on, given to Jesus on pagan soil; for John’s understanding, see 3:16.
Lord (Kyrie in Greek) has a wide range of meaning from roughly the equivalent of “sir” to the unutterable divine name of God. In the first part of the gospel “Jesus” or “rabbi” (used positively in this gospel) is common and Lord is used in significant passages (6:68, 9:38). In chapters 13-17 “Lord” is more common and Jesus comments on this (13:13) and this is confirmed in post-resurrection usage (20:2, 13, 20 and 28).
I am…. the Greek words “ego eimi” could mean a simple self-identification but could also be a claim to divinity, based on God’s words in Exodus 3:14. When Jesus uses them (6:20, 18:5 and 8) it might indicate the former but means the latter judging by the reaction in 18:6. John links “I am” to various attributes as follows:
- Bread of life (6:35 in the context of 6:22-71). Jesus is the new manna in the wilderness as expected at the end-time, descended from heaven to satisfy all hungers.
- Light of the World (8:12, 9:5) is uttered in the context of the Feast of Tabernacles when the temple courts were illuminated at night. If we compare John 1:4-5 with Genesis 1:3, has John successfully distinguished the created light from the uncreated Word?
- Door/Good Shepherd (10:1-18) is possibly also a divine claim (Psalm 23:1); in any case Jesus is the way to salvation (10:9), he lays down his life for others and will ultimately lead one flock (10:16).
- Resurrection and the life (11:25), effectively a divine claim (cf 5:21-29) and so blasphemous (11:50).
- Way, truth, life (14:6) – way or walking (Halakah in Hebrew) is the application of the Torah to every day life, so Jesus is the equal of or superior to God’s Law. Truth and life originate in God (Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 3:15-16, 6:40).
As, in Jewish thought, way, life, light, vine/wine/bread, water (John 4:7 – 7:37) are applied to the Torah, John may be presenting Jesus as a new and greater Law of God.
Part 3. A different theology
Until now we have looked at John’s portrait of Jesus as one come from God, who is identified with, and identifies himself with God. Before moving on to Jesus’ work, and other aspects of John’s theology, we must briefly look at two final aspects of his person.
Reverence and reality
In John’s Gospel John the Baptist is reduced to a voice whose sole purpose is to witness to Jesus (1:19-23) who ranks before John (1:30). John is the best man, Jesus the bridegroom, John decreases, John increases (3:28-30); John is a lamp (5:35) but Jesus is Light of the World. The only sign John gives is to witness to Jesus (10:41, cf.1:6-9).
However, in spite of Jesus’ pre-existence, divinity, titles and witness by the Baptist the gospel writer is at some pains to emphasise a humanity in Jesus. His positive use of the word “flesh”, which would have had a negative sound to Paul, underlines this (1:14, 6:51). Jesus can admit to tiredness and thirst and show emotion (11:35 though probably anger rather than grief) and he prays, though he may not need to (11:41-42); finally he really dies (19:34).
The seeming reluctance with which John compromises his picture of an omniscient, divine Jesus may show that his purpose was corrective of any tendency towards saying that Jesus only seemed to be mortal and was really a divine saviour with little earthly contact.
Jesus descending and ascending
Outside the Prologue and John 1:51 there is little about Jesus descending, though we may perhaps include the dismissive comments in 6:42 and 7:27, 41-42.
Things are much clearer regarding Jesus’ ascent, which is intimately connected to the crucial theme of the Hour (e.g. 2:4 and 12:27). The Hour unifies suffering, death, enthronement on the cross (12:27-33), resurrection and glorious return to the Father – see 7:33-36 and Chapter 14.
According to John, Jesus’ coming is very divisive. He brings both salvation and judgement (crisis in Greek). His presence was a choice between coming to the Light, or staying in the darkness of sin (3:16-21; 12:35-36). This is a cosmic dualism: light is good, knowledge, truth and love, and darkness is evil, ignorance, lies and hate. Judas is the creature of darkness (13:30). We can be for Jesus or against him. Human society and its leaders chose the latter, showing that they are of the world (cosmos in Greek) and with the powers of darkness; but in condemning Jesus they bring judgement on themselves.
For those who believe Jesus’ death, being raised up/ascending on the cross, is the means of salvation, bringing eternal life (3:11-15), establishing Jesus’ divine authority (8:21-30 note the use of “I am” [he] ), and drawing all to himself (12:32); this is emphasised by the universal nature of Pilate’s proclamation of him as king (19:19-20). This is John’s major understanding of the cross as the ultimate revelation of who Jesus is and of his divine origins and destiny. Although there are hints (10:11, 15:13) after 1:29, there is no reference to the cross as a vicarious sacrifice for sin. Links are made to the Passover lamb, but this was not such a sacrifice(John 19:29 and 36, cf Exodus 12:22 and 45-6).
The end is here and now
Unless our understanding of the New Testament is seriously at fault, Jesus understood his own mission as the proclamation of the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God which involved the ending of the present world order and the final division between the blessed and the cursed. Similarly Paul believed that the coming of the kingdom would be preceded by the return of Jesus in power, glory and judgement; and though this was delayed, it was very near.
The first three gospels reflect this view. Jesus and his ministry may foreshadow the kingdom’s coming but the main emphasis is on the future. This view, which began in the late Old Testament period and gathered pace in the period between the testaments, is called “future (or conventional) eschatology” (i.e. understanding of the things of the end).
John’s Gospel takes the view called “realised eschatology”; the things of the end have already happened or are happening now. The decisive event was the Hour, this was the ultimate glorification following the mini-glorification shown in the signs(17:1-5 summarises this). He does not need to return in glory, it has already been shown. Judgement has occurred in people’s reactions to Jesus and resurrection is available through the One who is resurrection and life (11:25-6). The benefits of the kingdom, joy, peace, fellowship, unity with Christ, are available now (15:11, 14:27, 15:5, 16:20-24) as is eternal life (17:3).
There are still some references to future eschatology, but these (e.g. 5:25-29) are as much about the present. It seems probable that John’s re-drawing of the Christian hope owes much to his understanding of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit and the Paraclete
In spite of John the Baptist’s report of Jesus being descended upon by the Holy Spirit (1:32-34) the Spirit is, during the ministry, largely a promised gift, to be given only when Jesus is glorified (7:39). This happens on Easter Day (20:22-23), rather than at Pentecost (Luke/Acts), although there is a foreshadowing at the time of the crucifixion (19:30) - part of John’s motif of condensing the final gospel events into the Hour of glory.
The function of the Spirit, released into the Church on Jesus’ returning to the Father is fully explored in Jesus’ final discourse to the disciples (chapters 14-16) where the Spirit is called the paraclete. The various ways this Greek word has been translated – advocate, comforter (i.e. one who stands by to strengthen and encourage), helper, counsellor, show the range of meanings possible, yet none really matches the Paraclete’s function. He is closely related to both Jesus and the Father, the latter sends and gives the Spirit through the Son, whose function of teaching, guidance and relationship is now vested in the Paraclete/Spirit (14:16 and 26; 15:26). Since part of his role is to testify to Jesus and glorify him, the Paraclete stands for Jesus as the prosecutor of the cosmos (16:8-14). This is one more sense in which the end-time judgement has come already in the coming of the Paraclete. It is possible that John, or the Christian community he came from, saw this kind of theology of the Spirit as a response to the delay in Jesus’ return, the presence of the Spirit fulfilled much that was expected through that return. The presence of the Paraclete is the active “personal presence of Jesus in the Christian while Jesus is with the Father” (Raymond E. Brown).
Part 4. The challenges of difference
John’s gospel and the Jews
On the one hand this is a very Jewish gospel, steeped in the language and symbolism of the Jewish scriptures (Old Testament), an understanding of contemporary interpretation of the Torah (Law) – 7:14-24; furthermore salvation comes from the Jews (4:22).
Yet John consistently refers to those making up an increasingly hostile opposition to Jesus as ‘the Jews’ and there is no doubt that the word means the Jewish people as a whole. As John uses it, ‘the Jews’ is often the equivalent of the world (cosmos), that is human society deliberately organising itself apart from God. So, at worst ‘the Jews’ are part of the powers of darkness (see especially 8:44, but take note of the context).
More positively the reaction of Jews to Jesus is more mixed than might first appear. Some hover between belief and unbelief or leave the question open (3:1-10; 7:52; 19:39) or believe ‘privately’) (12:42-43). Others believe because of signs, but are offended by Jesus’ teaching (6:14-15, 41, 52) and (8:31 and 48), such belief has been condemned as inadequate for discipleship early in the gospel (2:23-25) and culminates in the reaction to the raising of Lazarus (11:45 and 46).
At best there is a distancing. Jewish festivals like Passover are ‘of the Jews’, Jesus can talk as if he was not himself a Jew (13:33); but at the heart of the gospel is the conviction that salvation has indeed come from the Jews through the crucifixion of the Jews’ own king.
Reading between the lines, the founding community that eventually produced John’s gospel was one of Christian Jews in dialogue, increasingly acrimonious and, eventually, vindictive to the point of rupture, with non-Christian Jews. By the time the gospel was written the rupture was more or less complete, but the air of dispute and antagonism lived on. The disputes and fierce polemic between Jesus and the Jews reflects this. The ‘Community of John’ had as they saw it been forced away from the ancestral practices of Israel by the unbelieving ‘Jews’ who refused to see that Jesus fulfilled all that was promised in the Torah, the prophets and other scriptures and in Temple worship - and surpassed them, so that ethnic and religious Judaism were no longer the criteria for being born a child of God (1:11-13; 3:3-10).
The Case of the Beloved Disciple
The Beloved Disciple (or disciple ‘whom Jesus loved’) suddenly appears at John 13:23 and is prominent thereafter. Attempts have been made to put a name to this disciple, John the son of Zebedee, Lazarus or Nathaniel, but all founder on the gospel writer’s obvious effort to keep this disciple anonymous. Even so, it is unlikely, though possible, that the Beloved Disciple is simply an invention of the writer, a literary device to fulfil a symbolic role, as for example, a representative of all disciples whom Jesus loves.
It seems more likely that the Beloved Disciple was at least based on a figure known, at least in memory, to the writer and to the community from which he emerged. Hence the concern about his death and his testimony in chap. 21:20-24. He was probably some sort of founding figure to John’s community, may or may not have been a minor disciple of Jesus and, in the gospel, has been idealised to portray the ideal perceptive disciple of, and witness to, Jesus.
So at the supper, he stands in relation to Jesus (13:23 and 25) as Jesus does to God (1:18), though not all translations bring this out. He alone knows who is to betray Jesus (13:21-30), he acts as Jesus’ surrogate, even successor (19:26-27), testifies to Jesus’ death (19:35) and initiates the Easter faith (20: 8, 21: 7). Except in the last case the Disciple’s insights affect no one else, and even this case shows Peter as dependent on the Beloved Disciple’s word as earlier (13:24-25, and probably 18:15-16). The Beloved’s insights and witness are primarily not for the other characters in the gospel but for its readers and hearers (20:31). In other words, like John the Baptist (1:7 and 15), his witness is to who and what Jesus is, rather than eyewitness reporting. This goes on beyond his death into the gospel in its written form (21:24), which others have undertaken.
John’s community – church or sect?
In the other gospels twelve apostles are called and commissioned by Jesus and given authority to act on his behalf (Mark 3:14-15). In John only five are specifically called and their only authority is as disciples, i.e. those who follow (1:43). The ‘twelve’ are only mentioned three times (6:68-69, 71 and 20:24) almost incidentally. In chapter 21 Peter’s dependence on the Beloved Disciple is emphasised and, although Peter is given status as a pastor, the Beloved follows faithfully without prompting. While not repudiating the traditions about the apostles and the pastoral ministry which grew out of them, John judges authority to lie in faithful following of Jesus.
As with ‘ministry’ so with ‘sacraments’. There are a good many ‘sacramental’ overtones in the language used at various points which lead us to suppose that John had a ‘high’ view of baptism and eucharist. On closer examination this proves highly questionable.
In the first place Jesus is not baptised in this gospel. The writer puts a distance between Jesus and the practice of baptism (3:22, 4:1-2), and Jesus does not initiate the eucharist at the Last Supper (ch. 13). On the other hand, the story of Nicodemus (ch. 3, especially 3:5) indicates that John believed that baptism was the way of spiritual birth and entrance into spiritual life (compare Romans 6:3-4). At the same time the footwashing (13:1-30) shows a baptism, rooted in the death of Jesus, which is not in itself proof against evil (13:10-11) but which is necessary (13:8).
Similarly chapter 6 appears to contain a good deal of very positive teaching about the eucharist, but the real emphasis is on Jesus the Wisdom from on High, offering his teaching, the true nourishment (compare the Living Water of ch. 4); Jesus the incarnate Word giving his flesh (i.e. his death) for the life of the world. There are eucharistic overtones in 6:51-8 but the whole chapter ends with a passage on commitment, following and betrayal. All in all, for this gospel sacraments are acknowledged but not central.
In the Farewell Discourse Jesus roots the coming Christian life in obedience to his commands, in love and service; but this seems rather narrow in scope (chps. 13-17). Disciples are to love one another (13:34) not neighbours or enemies (Matthew 5:44; Romans 12). Though this love is of an intensity that impresses outsiders (13:35), involves great humility (13:14), is rooted in the love between the Father and the Son as shown in the Son’s mission in the world (3:16 but note 3:18), and can risk death (15:13), all is limited to insiders - to “friends”.
Sitting loose to formal organisations of ministry, keeping a distance from sacraments, suspicious of the ‘world’, committed to a cosmic dualism centred on the person of Jesus and looking intensely towards each others’ needs rather than those outside, does John’s community have the characteristics of a sect? We cannot go so far, we know too little about the diversity of churches in the first century. We may say that its attitude to church management, worship and initiation shows radical diversion from what we encounter elsewhere in the New Testament. Further, separation from Judaism and a continuing lively and acrimonious debate with it had left bruises and scars which may be enough to account for the sectarian feel of the gospel. The community behind this gospel may have perceived itself as expelled from the synagogue, but only on the fringes of Christian bodies, and may have reacted in somewhat alienated ways to both.
The impact of John’s gospel
Obviously I cannot tell you what the impact of John’s gospel should be, you must read it for yourselves and see. I would suggest its impact is both positive and negative. John’s attitude towards the ‘Jews’ whatever its origin has had a baleful influence on Jewish –Christian relations throughout Christian history, and so needs to be acknowledged, not ignored, excused or swept under the carpet. This is especially true on Good Friday when John provides the gospel for the day.
We may find John’s incarnate Christ, proclaiming his own divinity and condemning those who cannot acknowledge him as both as unhistorical and hard to take. However, faith and discipleship do require commitment, which means making choices; and by refusing to choose we judge ourselves. John’s Jesus dramatises and radicalises the necessity for this commitment.
Similarly, while we may find difficulties with John’s cosmic dualism and the inward looking attitudes apparent in his community, the Church is not the world and does not live by the world’s values and how we accommodate those values in the interests of love for the world (3:16) must be a matter of constant scrutiny.
Finally, do not take my word for anything I have written in this article; read the gospel according to John and decide.