Unlocking the Riches of John's Gospel
By Ray Bystrom
This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2004 edition of inTouch magazine. For reprint permission contact the Director of Public Relations at 1-800-251-6227.
It has been said that John’s Gospel is like a river in which a lamb may bathe and an elephant swim – it’s both shallow and deep at the same time. As a consequence, both the new convert and the mature disciple will profit from a careful reading of John’s Gospel.
But how does one best read John’s Gospel? Well, for starters, read it in one sitting. Most of us don’t read Scripture this way; we read a “slice” today and another “chunk” tomorrow, or the next week. If you do this with John, you miss his stylistic features and as a result, his primary theological message. You see, in John’s Gospel style and theology are inseparably linked. So read John in a single sitting. It’s only 879 verses in length. If you read quickly, it takes a mere 60 minutes. Reading slowly, you can do it in two hours at most.
When you read John in a single sitting, what do you discover? I frequently ask my students to find a small pocket or devotional Bible with fine print, photocopy John’s Gospel, cut apart the various columns and chapters, and finally paste them in sequence on a large sheet of whiteboard. In this way, they get to see the Gospel at a glance, noting the natural literary divisions rather than simply the artificial chapter units as we have them in our Bibles.
If you do this, you discover that the public ministry of Jesus (his words and works) begins in chapter one and extends through to chapter 12. Then Jesus teaches his disciples in private in chapters 13-17. John wraps up the story of Jesus with his arrest, trial, crucifixion, death, and post-resurrection appearances in chapters 18-21. You also notice that there are seven “signs” (miracle stories) of Jesus in the first 12 chapters and that Jesus' death, or “hour” of glorification, is the focus of chapters 13-21. For this reason, some scholars even refer to chapters 1-12 as the “Book of Signs” and chapters 13-21 as the “Book of Glory.” The story of Jesus in John clearly has a beginning, middle, and end.
You also learn that Jesus is in control of his destiny in John’s Gospel. His entire life and ministry reaches its climax with his death and resurrection. The author signals this movement by means of a series of references to Jesus' “hour” (2:4; 7:30; 8:20; 12:23, 27; 13:1; 17:1) We are told that the hour of Jesus “has not yet arrived,” "is coming," and then finally “has arrived.” These are clear allusions to his death and resurrection.
Further, as Jesus moves toward his death, conflict with his opponents intensifies. There is very little conflict in the first four chapters as Jesus ministers in Galilee and Samaria (wedding at Cana, dialogue with Nicodemus, encounter with the Samaritan woman, and healing of the official’s son). The only exception to this pattern in chapters 1-4 is the incident of the cleansing of the Temple that seems to foreshadow the struggle between Jesus and his Jewish opponents. But then in the large section of John 5-12, intense hostility emerges between Jesus and his Jewish opponents as he heals the lame man on the Sabbath, claims to be the bread of life, and declares that he is the light of the world at the Feast of Tabernacles. Finally, the religious leaders conspire to kill him and then they do – they crucify him, with a little help from Rome.
And you don’t want to miss the dramatic way John portrays Jesus' reception by the people of Palestine. When the story begins in chapter one there is a small intimate circle of disciples, family members and friends around Jesus. We see this little group together at the wedding in Cana of Galilee where Jesus turns water to wine. Then the Jesus movement quickly expands to include a huge mass of people from Judea and Galilee who want to crown him king (6:15). But then the works and words of Jesus start to offend his opponents in Judea (5:16-18) and his disciples in Galilee (6:66). Soon he no longer enjoys a crowd that welcomes him with open arms. Instead, he is confronted with a cacophony of hostile voices, including his brothers, the people, and the religious leaders. After his opponents conspire to kill him, his contacts narrow again to the few close disciples with whom he began his ministry (13-17).
Finally, as you read John’s Gospel observe the clear tension between belief and unbelief. The author presents a series of different responses to Jesus' works or words. Some believe in Jesus' saving work (4:53), a few believe but fail to confess their faith for fear of the religious leaders (12:42), but many more refuse to believe and their unbelief is epitomized by “the Jews” (12:37). The response of unbelief is signaled in the Prologue: “he came to his own, but his own received him not” (1:12). So why does John emphasize this conflict between belief and unbelief? He wants to instill belief in his readers as the concluding verse of chapter twenty makes clear: “These things are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (20:30).
The richness of John’s style
These are some of the ways the author of John’s Gospel organizes the larger units of his Gospel. But he also uses some interesting literary techniques with the smaller units. For example, we must not miss the poetic form of the Prologue (1:1-18). The characteristic feature of this poetry is parallelism, a structure familiar to us from the Psalms. It consists of lines of almost the same length, each composed of a clause. Sometimes one line picks up a word from the previous line and lifts it a “step” higher. Hence, it’s called step or climactic parallelism. We see this poetic form clearly in 1:4 as illustrated below.
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 ( the light).
Misunderstanding is another literary motif common to John’s Gospel. Jesus makes a statement, a character in the story expresses misunderstanding, and then Jesus proceeds to explain the true meaning of his remarks. This pattern is found no fewer than nine times in John (3:3-8; 4:10-15; 4:31-38; 6:47-58; 7:33-36; 8:21-30; 8:31-47; 8:56-58; 11:11-15). Typically this pattern emerges when Jesus' statement calls for a figurative interpretation but is given literal meaning by the character in the story. A good example of this pattern is found in Jesus' dialogue with Nicodemus who hears Jesus say, “You must be born again. He thinks Jesus wants him to enter his mother’s womb to be born again. Of course, Jesus means, "You must be born from above, or born of the Spirit, as 3:8 makes clear. Often misunderstanding is triggered by a word with a double meaning. In this case, behind the English word "again” is the Greek adverb anothen which can mean either “again” or “from above.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus comes “from above” (heaven) as 3:31 makes clear and he is inviting Nicodemus to enter the womb of the Spirit and receive new life.
Irony is frequent in John. Often people will say things about Jesus that are more meaningful than they realize or intend. For example, the trial of Jesus before Pilate ends on an ironic note. Pilate asks the religious leaders, “Shall I crucify your king?” In an appalling act of apostasy, they claim they have no king but Caesar (19:15). Ironically, this denial is truer than they realize. For with these words, they deny their theocratic heritage (Psalm 145:1; I Samuel 8:7); they deny the kingship of God.
Yet another literary device used frequently in John is called inclusio. By means of inclusio the author ends a text in a manner that’s similar to how he began it. For example, there’s an inclusio between John 20 and John 1. In 20:15, the risen Lord asks Mary Magdalene, “Who is it you are looking for?” (Greek,Tina zeteis). The alert reader immediately recalls the first words of Jesus in John spoken to the two disciples who were following him: “What do you want?” (Greek, Ti Zeteite). In this way, the author brings us full circle, back to the beginning.
One final literary pattern is worth noting. John frequently supplies parenthetical notes. For example, when the chief priests and soldiers attempt to arrest Jesus in the garden, Jesus says, “If you are looking for me, then let these men go” (18:8). In the next verse, the author adds a parenthetical note: “This happened so that the words he has spoken would be fulfilled: 'I have not lost one of those you gave me’” (18:9). His remark indicates that what was spoken by Jesus earlier in the Gospel (17:12; 10:27-28; 10:15; 6:37-39) is now being fulfilled. With this note the alert reader is given a theologically rich perspective of the arrest scene in the garden. The authorities take Jesus, but only after he has negotiated the release of his disciples. Jesus is the good shepherd who lays down his life and he lays it down for his friends (15:13), negotiating their freedom.
There you have it – a few keys to unlocking the riches of John’s Gospel. By the way, in case you missed it, Jesus of Nazareth is the center of John’s Gospel. As one scholar notes, 55% of all the verbs pertain to words spoken by Jesus or works performed by him. John’s story is all about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Ray Bystrom’s commentary on the Gospel of John, God Among Us, is available from Kindred Productions at www.kindredproductions.com.