The Gospel of John

john eagle louis glanzmanBoth our readings today came from writings associated with the name John, and the Sundays after Easter are the period which the church devotes to those writings in its worship. There are five books in the New Testament that fall into this category: the Gospel according to John, the three letters of John, and the Book of Revelation. The question of the relationship between those writings is a wonderful field for speculation, because there are so many people called John who might have written them; so many that they could each have been written by a different John, although I think three different Johns is the most that has been suggested. My opinion is that they were all written by John the Apostle, but it’s important to be aware that the New Testament itself leaves that as an open question, and there is a reason for that, even if we don’t know it.

I talked about Revelation a few weeks ago when we looked at the apocalyptic literature in the Bible, and today I’m going to talk mostly about the gospel, leaving the epistles for another time. The gospel, incidentally, is where there are the most questions about authorship, because while the letters and Revelation were definitely written by someone called John, the gospel only claims to have been written by the disciple whom Jesus loved, and very deliberately avoids naming that disciple. There are reasons for thinking that it was the apostle John, but the text very deliberately avoids saying so, and this deliberate anonymity has its own point to make; everyone has to make up his own mind about that, but for me this is not the statement of a witness to Jesus, but the story of Jesus who is Himself the faithful witness, as John calls Him in the book of Revelation.

There are many other differences between John and the other three gospels, and they are deep differences. The other three gospels are so similar to each other that they are often called the ‘synoptic’ gospels, which is a fancy way of saying ‘gospels with a common point of view’. John’s point of view is very different. Most of what happens in John happens in Jerusalem, whereas in the other gospels what happens in Galilee is given equal time. In the synoptics, Jesus makes one journey to Jerusalem in His teaching ministry, and is put to death as a result of it; in John’s gospel Jesus’s public ministry in Jerusalem is spread over three years. The synoptic gospels are full of Jesus’s parables, and Jesus’s practice of teaching in parables is given significance in itself. In John’s gospel, there are no parables, and Jesus’s teaching practice seems very different, but the significance of its style is unexplored. In the synoptics, on the night before Jesus was crucified he shared the Lord’s Supper with the disciples, and gave it to them as a way to remember what He had done for them; in John’s gospel, no mention is made of this, instead he tells us that Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, and gives them servanthood as a way to continue His work in the world. None of these things are necessarily contradictions between the two points of view, but they are so different that they do make us think—why is John different?

An important part of understanding John’s gospel is understanding its historical context. The evidence suggests that, like the Epistle to the Hebrews, it was written for Jewish believers who were wavering in their faith, and was written during the process of Christians and Jews going separate ways. There was of course tension between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders even during His ministry, and between the same leaders and the first Christians as they began their rôle as Christ’s witnesses in Jerusalem. But some of this tension was normal, because there was always someone claiming to be the Messiah; that was an ongoing part of Jewish life at this period, as we know from contemporary historical sources. And the religious leaders must always have been in a bit of tension with any possible Messiah, since it wasn’t at all clear what the coming of the Messiah would mean for their place in Jewish life.

But some time after the year 70 AD, a generation after Jesus’s death and resurrection, this tension became so acute that Jewish Christians began to be banned from their local synagogues. And as we all know, being Jewish isn’t just a matter of what you believe, it’s a matter of family, belonging, it’s the whole world you grew up in; to leave it doesn’t just mean finding a new church and having Grandma mutter about the younger generation, it means going into exile, being cut off from friends and family, it means finding a whole new life. And some Jewish Christians gave up their faith in Christ rather than their Jewish identity. John’s gospel was written for Jewish Christians who were tempted to do that. It was written to remind them that they would be more true to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob if they gave up the synagogue than if they gave up the Messiah, because the Messiah was that same God, but become Man.

John does this in a sort of visionary way, telling a true story but not the way a historian would tell it, rather the way a poet, perhaps even a prophet, might tell it, exploring the way Jesus related to the traditional elements of Judaism. Which means it’s very easy for us, who don’t have much knowledge of Judaism, to miss the significance of much of what John says. Even the way it begins is a challenge to the Old Testament faith: the Old Testament begins, In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth; John begins, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. Before God even created the heavens and the earth, Jesus was with Him, and in fact was Him. When God created the heavens and the earth, He did so through Jesus. All things were made through him, John goes on, and without him was not anything made that was made. The Old Testament creation story is rewritten to take the Messiah into account. The synagogue only has half the story. Let there be light, says Genesis; let the light be known, says John, because the one through whom the light came into existence is now in the world, visible in Jesus of Nazareth. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. True life is found with Him, even when your earthly family casts you out.

Interwoven with this new creation account is the new prophetic witness to it, that of John the Baptist, whom Jesus had said in Matthew’s gospel was the greatest of the prophets. This is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” as the prophet Isaiah said’.

Not only the Prophets, but the Law also becomes something new: the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ, John says, and shows how the law is fulfilled in and replaced by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ again and again as the gospel proceeds. When John introduces the earthly Jesus, He is calling into being a new people, symbolised by His calling of the disciples, one of whom He gives a new name, Peter instead of Cephas. When John describes the public ministry of Jesus, he does not give it in a historic, chronological account as the synoptic gospels do, but structures it around the Jewish festivals, each of which was designed to proclaim something about the relationship of God to the people of the Old Testament, and shows how Jesus is the true meaning of that festival. In Chapter 6, the feeding of the five thousand is placed at the time of the Passover, and in it Jesus describes Himself explicitly as the true manna from heaven and implicitly as the unleavened bread of the Passover. John repeats this point by telling the crucifixion story so that Jesus is put to death at the same time as the lambs for the Passover meal, fulfilling the Baptist’s description of Him as the lamb of God.

In chapters 7 and 8, it’s the Feast of Tabernacles that is the context. This feast had prayers for rain as one of its most important parts, and Jesus presents Himself as living water that brings thirst to a permanent end, just as He had promised to be the bread of life for those who said ‘give us this bread always’. Another part of the Feast of Tabernacles was the lighting up of the Court of Women in the Temple, and Jesus presents Himself as the true light. In chapter 10, it’s the feast of the Dedication, when Jesus presents Himself, rather than the altar of the Temple, as the one dedicated or consecrated by the Father. ‘For Jewish believers who have been cut off from the celebration of the law’s festivals, what Jesus signifies now fulfils the meaning of those festivals and takes their place’, says Professor of New Testament Andrew Lincoln in his commentary on John.

Jesus also makes Himself the true meaning of the Law. Jesus does show in a couple of places that the Jewish religious leaders misunderstand the law, but the basic presentation is that the law does not apply to Jesus; as the lawgiver, with God since before the beginning, He is greater than the law. In 5.17 Jesus admits He is working on the Sabbath, but says that’s irrelevant in His case because God is at work even on the Sabbath and therefore so is He. In His first public demonstration of Himself at the wedding in Cana, He takes the water of purification required by the law and turns it into the wine of the Messianic age described by the prophets. In Chapter 4 Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman, who was not allowed to worship according to the law, and assures her that her worship is exactly what God wants, and she not only greets Him as Messiah but proceeds to spread the good news of His coming among the Samaritans.

John calls Jesus the Word, the logos, at the beginning of His gospel, meaning to many contemporaries the rational element in creation, but to Jews also the Word in the sense of the true meaning of Scripture. John doesn’t quote the Old Testament nearly as often as the synoptic writers do, and when he does it is usually a verse that they have not quoted, just rounding off their work. But John’s imagery is soaked in the Old Testament in a way that to those who know the Old Testament well is very evocative: Jesus’s promise that people will see angels ascending and descending on Him echoing Jacob’s dream at Bethel, His promise that He will be lifted up as the bronze serpent was lifted up in the desert, His comparison of Himself to the manna in the wilderness, His imagery of Himself as a lamb, as a shepherd, as a vine, are all examples. Sometimes the comparisons are to more places than the reader can take in at one reading, like one made concerning the living water image, which combines in a single quote references to the water from the rock in Exodus, the water of Salvation in Isaiah, and the water that flows from the Temple in Ezekiel and Zachariah.

In John’s gospel Jesus is more than the fulfilment of Judaism, He is in some way a replacement of it; the synagogue only has half the story, and the whole gospel is a way of saying don’t give up the whole for the sake of the half. This is sometimes thought of as anti-Jewish, but that’s a misunderstanding of John’s position, not to mention Jesus’s. John does not abandon belief in the Hebrew Scriptures, but interprets them in a new way. John does not repudiate descent from Abraham, but like Paul makes that descent dependent on faith, not genetics. John’s phrase Salvation is of the Jews confirms their place in God’s plan. The emergence of Christianity was seen, and must continue to be seen by Christians, at least, not as the emergence of a separate religion, but as the emergence of a heart-breaking division within Judaism, between those who believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah, and those who wait for another. In the first century it was those waiting for another who insisted on separation, and the Christians who refused to accept that, as Paul’s passionate declarations of loyalty to His Jewish roots in Romans 9 and 11 make painfully clear. And not the least of John’s points for us today as that we should not accept the separation either, but continue to reach out to the Jewish community in love.

John’s gospel was written for those cast out of their families because of their love of Jesus and their determination to live by faith in Him as God and obedience to Him as God’s Word. It says just what Jesus said in Matthew’s gospel, Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother, I am the true family of believers, but it says it in story rather than sermon. As committed Christianity seems to be less and less welcome in the world in which we live, John’s writings will more and more become our resource. Don’t wait to read them until you’re wavering in your commitment, read them now, so that you never need waver. It is the purest and most concentrated presentation of the saving truth about Jesus Christ that the Bible has to offer, and it will help you be stronger than you ever dreamed you could be. When the time comes, as it comes to everyone, when the choice before you is life as the world believes it to be, or the faith you hold, remember John’s words, these things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name. When you are being cast out from the life you’ve always known, from what’s comfortable and secure but only half of what’s true, remember Jesus’s words to the Jews who had believed in him, If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.

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