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  Copyright © 2001 Jeanie C. Crain
Last modified: March, 2002

    I began this study listing several significant interpretive statements concerning John:

  1. Christ is God in action, creating, revealing, redeeming, the agent of creation, the personal word of God. Jesus is divine light coming into a world primarily existing in darkness; Jesus not only is light in contrast to darkness but is the author of life itself.

  2.  For John, the words "In the beginning" are most likely a conscious allusion to the opening words of Genesis--"In the beginning." Other concepts which occur prominently in Gen 1 are also found in John's prologue: "life" (1:4) "light" (1:4) and "darkness" (1:5). Gen 1 describes the first (physical) creation; John 1describes the new (spiritual) creation. But this is not to play off a false dichotomy between "physical" and "spiritual"; the first creation was both physical and spiritual. The new creation is really a re-creation, of the spiritual (first) but also the physical. (In spite of the common understanding of John's `spiritual' emphasis, the "physical" re-creation should not be overlooked; this occurs in John 2 with the changing of water into wine, in John 11 with the resurrection of Lazarus, and the emphasis of John 20-21 on the aftermath of Jesus' own resurrection.) NET Bible/index.htm

  3. In John clearly, Christ  is Jesus, the Galilean who embodies God’s kingdom and a new Judaism focused upon John the Baptist’s repentance and baptism, but the change demanded is now internal and spiritual; life, light, God himself, indwells within the human being who has recognized and confessed that God’s kingdom is spiritual and not physical; nonetheless, those focused on the kingdom will become enactors of the Word.

  4. Becoming children of God is a spiritual process: God intervenes.  The birth process is not the decision of a husband, not the result of sexual desire, not the will of parents, but an opening of a barren womb (humans existentially incapable of generating spiritual life), the giving of God’s gracious gift of spiritual re-birth. Nicodemus illustrates human inability to reason through to spiritual enlightenment.  The theme, though, is an old one: God creates and sustains life. Remember Eve: “I have gotten a man from the Lord” (4.1).

  5. The struggle between the Old and the New in John, between Jews and Christians, is  a continuing pattern of justice and grace running concurrently through history. The law [and the demand for justice]17 "was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (7).

  6. John serves as precursor to Christianity, as is born out in  the following: 29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!30 This is he of whom I said, `After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me.'31 I myself did not know him; but for this I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel."32 And John bore witness, "I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him.33 I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, `He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.'34 And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God." Here, note the contrast of two baptisms: one physical, tied to repentance, change of heart, and connected to the older tradition of purification; the other, spiritual, a baptism of the Holy Spirit.

  7. John's testimony is that Jesus is  “the Word become flesh,” the Word “taking up residence among us,” grace and truth come from the Father, the one who comes after John but is greater, the eternally existent one, the fullness of God’s gift, the culmination of the law through Moses, Jesus Christ himself God, the one and only dwelling in the presence of God who makes God known. This is the Christ of Christianity. John links Jesus to the Hebrew tradition of Moses and the law, a climactic revealing of God’s just commands at Sinai. Jesus embodies this law tabernacled in the flesh; no clean break exists between the Old and the New, but rather, the New becomes the fulfillment and completion of the Old.  In Jesus, the roles of prophet, priest, and king rest fulfilled in one embodiment. John as the culminating prophet points to Jesus as fulfillment of prophecy and law. John’s testimony is unmitigating: Jesus is the Son of God.

  8. Jesus calling his disciples is a Galilean walking among common humanity, and his disciples recognize him as the fulfillment of the prophesied messiah; that he is not a political messiah in the expected sense will be clear by the end of John.  Two of John’s disciples follow.  Brother finds brother with the proclamation, “We have found the Messiah. In Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter, Jesus calls to Philip, “Follow me.” Philip in turn finds Nathanael, telling him “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote. Part of the charisma for those standing before Jesus is the penetrating gaze into the heart and soul of the person, a knowledge of what the person is.

  9. Already present in John is the Christian understanding of the messiah. That Nathanael is an Israelite without guile suggests, as Oxford annotated points out, "No deceit, no qualities of Jacob before he became Israel" (Genesis 27.35; Genesis 32.28).  I find intriguing, too, Nathanael’s question: "46 Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Jonah, son of Ammitai and reluctant prophet to the Ninevites, comes from Nazareth. Elsewhere in a work on Jonah, I have argued that Jonah pictures the redemptive work of God universally. In that way, the Old Testament frequently creates prototypes of the redemptive work of Jesus in the New Testament.

The questions in conclusion become "Do the chapter interpretations support these assertions?" and "What more should be said about John?" The answer to the first question is clearly yes; the second presents the real challenge. Several other points should be emphasized:

  1. John clearly sees a beginning and creation, not the eternal forms of Greek thought. Importantly, the eternal God performed a creation within time: "In the beginning, God created..." Time in John moves from beginning to end, a linear historical timeline.

  2. Jesus address a kingdom of God that can be touched, felt, seen. Bruce Chilton in Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography (Doubleday, 2000) makes exact this point: "God was not only Abba [to Mary his mother], but his Kingdom could be seen, touched, and shared..." He goes on to say the divine kingdom can be seen in how one person relates to another. That kingdom of truth, justice, and compassion are "within our grasp...if only we would seize them."

  3. John strikes, as Edersheim has noted, "the pen through Alexandrianism... by making God substance."

  4. Jesus is the new Adam.  A new creation evolves through the ministry of Jesus, now identified as Christ, the founder of Christianity. The wedding at Cana also symbolizes the union of two worlds, the old and new. Christ as bridegroom initiates the new era of Christ-ianity. The wine symbolizes transformation: water into wine, and later, death into life. Clearly, the good wine has been kept until this time. Jesus' feat is interpreted as the "sign" for which the Jews have waited. The cleansing of the temple signals preparatory actions for the new era, and the public ministry of Jesus,  much as Leviticus prepares the Israelites for their entrance into Canaan.

  5. To read John, one must understand John's purpose as theological rather than historical. Interestingly, though, John, even more than the synoptic writers, presents Jesus accurately within Galilean and Judaean culture. Throughout John, the reader encounters parallelisms: theological versus historical, baptism by spirit versus baptism by water, God's kingdom versus earthly kingdom, spiritual birth versus physical birth, spirit in general versus flesh, revelation and appropriate witness versus evidence, Jesus/Christ as God and Jesus as human. The separation should not be strict, however, since the kingdom of God realizes itself in divine activity on earth.

  6. Theology and the need to develop Chist-ianity explain the critical importance of content in John. For example, developing Christianity explains why inclusion of  the mixed-blood Samaritan woman (4-29) and the conversation at the well. That the well is Jacob's well brings together, once again in John, the old and new, the new (and Christ-ianity) embodied in the metaphor of living water that eternally quenches thirst. Christianity is the purpose, too, of locating the place of worship:The same universal outreach to humankind explains the prolonged visit of Jesus in the City of Samaria (40) in order than many might believe (41) and identify Jesus as Christ, the Savior of the world (42) That Jesus returns to Galilee and Cana, where the water has been transformed into wine is structurally, once again, related to John's purpose in writing this gospel: that people might believe that Jesus is the messiah, the Son of God, and that, believing, they might have eternal life (20.31). Finally, importantly, Jesus' second sign is more marvelous than wine: the transformation of death into life in the official's son, itself a symbol of the transformation achieved in the believing heart. This is the second sign and the uncontested Christ! In John, Jesus connects the past to the  present.

  7. Although salvation comes from the Jews, in John, Jesus points the way to the superior worship of the Father "in spirit and truth: God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth."

  8. Johannine theology reveals a World mission, the work of Jesus, later his disciples, and finally, Christianity.

  9.  From the beginning, John identifies Christ as the once coming from God, who reveals a new era of grace. If, in fact, the wedding in Cana inaugurates the new messianic age, then the Sabbath in John 5  has become Sunday, and legalistic concerns no longer apply. John rules out any passive understanding of God’s spiritual work as ever resting.  The only rest, in fact, to be achieved is the rest provided in the Kingdom. Perhaps the key verse is the following: “17 But Jesus answered them, "My Father is working still, and I am working." A new kingdom forms about the messianic work.

  10. John focuses upon the self-manifestation of Christ, with the corresponding growth of opposition consequent upon it. Jesus, in John, proclaims a  connected address, the theme being his own character, mission, authority, and credentials as the Son of God. It is the Christology of Jesus, and instead of being a retraction of the claim to divinity which the Jews accused him of making, it is a complete and amplified reassertion of it.   The heart of the revelation has now been given in Jesus' keynote address (chap. 5), in which he claims to have the divine prerogatives of life-giver and judge. These two rights will be depicted throughout the rest of the Gospel, beginning immediately with the description of Jesus as the Bread of Life--the one who not only gives life but sustains it. We also see judgment taking place as people are unable to receive this revelation. First the Jews and then most of Jesus' disciples are offended rather than enlightened. By the end of the chapter only the Twelve are left. http://bible.gospelcom

  11. Jesus' identity reveals itself in his works.  As illustrated in John 6.33, Jesus is the bread of life come down from heaven, feeding and meeting the needs of humankind. Without surprise, when Jesus feeds the crowds, they are fed, filled, with an abundance left over.

  12.  Jesus was misunderstood and resisted, representing both traditionalist and new age,  misunderstood: paradoxically, in the revelation of old and new becoming the one evolving, unfolding will of God for the salvation of humankind.

  13. Every act of Jesus points to his identity as the Word, Logos, Bread, Light, Bridegroom, Anointed One, Messiah, Son of God/Son of man. 

  14. Jesus proclaims ultimately One Way. The Way contrasts to two ways, the human way that leads to inevitable choice; the Way reveals itself as God’s way through flesh redeemed; the other way  lies, evidencing itself as both an illusion and delusion, a lie, and existentially, the lie of all lies; the denial of life.

  15. John brings to a head the crisis that has been building in Jerusalem. Jesus becomes the true referent of the law,  the fulfillment of Judaism as represented by its feasts and temple. Now Jesus forms a new community apart from the institutions of Judaism, with himself as its center and guide. 

  16. In Jesus' day, many believe, but many others reject the Good Shepherd, preferring the hireling who cares not for the sheep.

  17. Lazarus provides the climatic act in John, declaring Jesus to be the resurrection and the life.

  18. By chapter twelve, an organizing principle in John realizes itself: The hour has come, and judgment "is at hand" (31). 31 Jesus explains, "Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself," using still the present (now is) and the future (the ruler of this world will be driven out).

  19. Following the midsection of John with the rejection of the Shepherd King and the hour finally come, John 13 contains Jesus’ farewell supper, farewell discourse and prayer;  the prelude for coming events bringing the Kingdom of God to humankind universally, an act that turns tragedy into glorious victory.  

  20.  John 14 begins contains Jesus' farewell discourse and prayer, a discourse continuing through John 17.26 and interpreting Jesus' completed work on earth and relation to believers, according to the Oxford annotation.

  21. Right relationship of believers evidences itself in bearing fruit; the teachings of Jesus, Paul, and James do not conflict.

  22.  Jesus himself  suffers the pains of the birthing process to effect new creation.

  23. Jesus demonstrates the most noble of behaviors: commitment and carrying through on the one real choice—to complete the life-work given to us, perhaps unasked for, in some cases, unwanted; to stand on a precipice and decide the future.

  24. As does John, the reader must proclaim Christ God! 

  25. The ultimate mission of Jesus has been to protect those who follow him, and this must become the mission of the church: thus, in John 17, the high priestly prayer of Jesus asks for protection and unity of all believers.

  26. T

  27. One finds  Jesus applying to himself the divine Name of Exod 3:14, "I AM," amounts to  a theophany which causes even his enemies to recoil and prostrate themselves, a vivid reminder to the reader of the Gospel that even in the most  dark hour of his life, Jesus holds ultimate power over his enemies and the powers of darkness, because he is the one who bears the divine Name.  

  28.  The inscription on the cross brings together the two identities of Jesus Christ: "Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, 'Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews'" (19)  Furthermore, Jesus as man and Christ as God are also identified, the full revelation of the cross. With John, this is no accident: Jesus is God. Pilate, ironically, is the one to point to truth in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek.

  29. John stresses  the perfection of Christ, the perfection of all that God has done in creation and redemption and the perfection of all that he will do in the ultimate glorification of all things (Kym Smith,

  30. Knowledge of Jesus, no matter how well-attested, is still  partial. Everything that Jesus did during his three and one-half years of earthly ministry is not known. This supports the major theme of the Fourth Gospel: Jesus is repeatedly identified as God, and though he may be truly known on the basis of his self-disclosure, he can never be known exhaustively. There is far more to know about Jesus than could ever be written down, or even known (Net Bible).

    It would, perhaps, be easy to conclude this study of John by the above last assertion that Jesus is repeatedly identified as God, and though he may be truly known on the basis of his self-disclosure, he can never be known exhaustively. While that statement remains true, the question that really must be heard by the reader and answered remains: "Whom do you say that I am?"  Consider the Oxford Commentary on the "The Four Gospels":

John’s Christology. With this is allied the greatest difference of all: in the Synoptic Gospels the subject of revelation is the kingship or reign of God, of which Jesus is the messenger. In John the primary object of revelation is Jesus himself and his glory, or rather the revelation of God’s glory in him, climaxing in the hour of the exaltation and glorification of Jesus, the cross and resurrection. The crucifixion is no longer a shameful humiliation which has to be explained as the will of God expressed in Scripture; it is a royal progress which enables the divinity of Jesus to shine through, and leaves Jesus reigning from the cross until he himself triumphantly signifies that all is fulfilled.

Nevertheless, it is a secret Jesus who is being revealed, and the theme of seeking Jesus runs through the gospel from 1:38 ‘What do you seek?’ to 20:15 ‘Whom do you seek?’ One feature of this is the series of puzzled questions by which the dialogues are advanced (e.g. 3:4, 9; 4:9, 11, 29, 33; 6:9, 28, 42, 52, etc.).

Oxford Bible Commentaries. Published in the United States
by Oxford University Press Inc., New York 

© Oxford University Press 2000

Those who seek will find, as promised in Luke, 11.9-13:

7 "Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 9 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10 Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

The revelation of Jesus in John controls consistently the structure and theology of the book, culminating in the purpose of the writing itself: "But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name" (31). John, from the beginning, confronts the reader with Jesus, Son of God, asking the reader to believe. As many in Jesus' day heard, saw, and believed, many today continue to proclaim this revelation; many, likewise, continue to reject the revelation.

    Let's review John's progressive unfolding of the revelation, completely explained in his opening chapter. First, John the Baptist testifies to the identity of Jesus as "true light" in a world that does not recognize him:


10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

These verses and the following come from The New Revised Standard Version, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1989.

The very next day John declares Jesus to be the Lamb of God: The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! ....And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God." (29 34). In Galilee, Nathaniel testifies that Jesus is the "Son of God...the king of Israel" (49). Jesus' first sign, the symbolic turning of water into wine, reveals his glory: When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom   and said to him, "Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now." Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him" (2.9-11). With the Passover at hand, Jesus, in Jerusalem reveals the intent that the temple will be replaced by his own body:

3 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”[4]

The revelation continues with a representative from the temple, Nicodemus, being instructed of heavenly things known only by one who has descended from heaven, the Son of Man, who will again ascend (12, 13). When in the same chapter a discussion about purification arises between John's disciples and a Jew, John clearly tells them he is not the Messiah but rather has been sent ahead to announce him, reminding them "no one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven" (28). He uses the metaphor of one rejoicing in the presence of the bridegroom. The revelation continues, extending to the Samaritan woman who acknowledges the 'Messiah is coming" to be told overtly, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you" (26). After feeding the five thousand, Jesus emphasizes the importance of believing both what Moses has written and what he himself has demonstrated: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; 38 for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me" (6.36-38). Even after the questioning Jews begin to complain, Jesus restates "I am the bread of life...the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heave" (6.41-51). Many among the crowds indicate belief based upon what they have seen Jesus perform (7.31), with even some authorities beginning to suspect he really is the Messiah (26). Again, in John, the revelation is straight forward. Nonetheless, because his time has not come, Jesus continues to walk among the people, revealing himself by yet another metaphor, this of the Good Shepherd in John's chapter ten. The reader should recall, as pointed out earlier in our deliberations, that shepherd motif brought with it rich connotations of Messianic expectation. Finally comes the climactic resurrection of Lazarus in chapter eleven with the continuing promise: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (26) to which Martha replies,  “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world" (27). Following this resurrection, the tempo increases with Jesus telling his disciples "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified" (12.23). With his departure in sight, Jesus next begins in chapter fourteen to instruct concerning the way to the Father: "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (6). Even still, Philip must ask to be shown the way, only to be reminded, "I am in the Father and the Father is in me" (10). Yet another metaphor reveals itself in chapter fifteen: "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower" (1). Technically, Jesus instructs concerning unity and love." With the hour realizing itself, Jesus tells the disciples he will not much longer speak to them in figures of speech, for they having loved him and the Father through him, believe that he has, in fact, come from God (16. 25-28). His glorification, Jesus knows, comes from having completed the work of the father (17. 1-8). Under Pilate's questioning, Jesus pointing Pilate to the state of his own heart, Jesus tells Pilate, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice" (18.37). At the tomb, Jesus tells Mary not to hold onto him but to go to his brothers and tell them, "I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God" (20.15-17). And finally, John concludes, summarizing everything that he has written, "But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah,the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name" (31). If, in fact, these chapters have been so written, then the one questions remains: Whom do you say I am?

    I've been intrigued by John Shelby Spong's Liberating the Gospel: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes (HarperCollins, 1996); I've also read his Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture. Much of what Spong says about John resonates with sound scholarship and truth. For example, John, as the last gospel written records a Christian interpretation of Jewish religion. A migration does seem to have occurred, with Paul, writing first, designating the resurrection as the ultimate revelatory point; Mark, the earliest gospel, emphasizes Jesus' inauguration and baptism; Matthew and Luke  point to the conception as revelatory; John takes the designation and revelation even further back, declaring that "Jesus both came from God and had returned to God" (227). Like Spong, I believe "the power and presence of Jesus... lie behind the literal words of holy scripture" (333), that much is to be learned by looking biblical symbols, myths, legends, midrashic traditions (333).  I share with Spong the belief that the Western concentration on an external world anchored in time, space, and objectivity has trouble embracing the truth found in myth, legend, intuition, and poetry (18). I do not agree, however, that one must forfeit much of the literal view of the gospels but suggest, rather, that the literal reveals a less profound interpretation of "the God experience encountered in Jesus of Nazareth." In fact, I find it interesting, perhaps ironic that as time moves forward in a linear way, the revelation of Jesus in the gospels moves backwards in that same time frame to a progressively more complete revelation of Jesus' impact on the community of believers. Like Spong, we find insufficient evidence to dismiss Jesus' historicity and a great deal of evidence that what people encounter in Jesus is God. Jesus' presence certainly points to a God moment:

For that moment was a God moment, not an earthly moment, and we do not have a God language available to us . So the words they used [the writers] were neither objective nor literal.  These words...were much more like curtains drawn apart to reveal the mystery of a living God, a God who was for them real beyond the power that any words could finally describe. (327).

The writer of John knows that indeed people yearn for sense and conviction and are drawn by that yearning and sometimes will seek "security at the price of truth" (329). Spong answers personally whom he has found Jesus to be: 

Jesus is for me the life of God being lived out in the human arena. His was a life so full and whole that it was not diminished when he was abused. It is the kind of life that removes the barriers that impede others and calls them to abundant living... The divine life has but one purpose, namely, to invite you and me into the fullness of our own lives... Jesus is... the conduit through which the love of God was loosed into human history. Jesus lived the love of God. This love was and is wasteful love, embracing love, inclusive love... Jesus is...a human expression of the 'Being' of God. This is the Being expressed under the human limits--inside both time and space. (332)

This Jesus teaches people to be themselves, to be the selves they are, but more than simply living as selves, this abundant and wasteful love demands a right relationship with others.

Our consciousness is raised to the realm of the holy. That realm surrounds us constantly but is rarely seen. Yet when our lives are touched by a God presence, scales do fall, as it were, from our eyes, and we see far beyond our own limits into the realm of the hold. It is in that realm that we begin to understand the essence of this Christ... Ultimately, the role of the Christian is to build a world in which all people might be given the strength that would enable them to live, to love, and to be all that God created them to be. So disciples of Jesus must finally live for others. (334)

John's gospel seeks to soar beyond timebound words to reveal the ineffable wonder of Jesus, to carry us "beyond all our human limits into the wonder and transcendence of God... for abundant life in the Spirit carries us into the timelessness of God" (Spong, 232). Thus, John uses metaphor to convey a truth too great to contain itself in words. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."