Distinctive Theologies in the Gospel of John
Course: Biblical Theology
At long last we come to the gospel of John, by far the most distinctive of the four gospels in the New Testament. For those who have not read John closely on the heels of one or more of the synoptics, it may be worth reviewing just how different a gospel John is. Many of the details and themes central to the synoptic gospels are largely, if not completely, absent from John: the baptism of Jesus, the calling of the twelve disciples, exorcisms, the transfiguration, parables and Jesus' words over the bread and cup at the Last Supper. On the other hand John has numerous lengthy discourses or dialogues of Jesus with the disciples or with crowds, but none of them is the same as the few found in the synoptics. He has distinctive and dramatic miracles, like turning water into wine, or the resurrection of Lazarus.
Chronologically, he focuses on a period of Jesus' ministry prior to His major Galilean ministry in chapters 2 to 4. And then, during the main phase of Jesus' adult ministry, with just a few parallels to episodes from the synoptic gospels, John focuses primarily on the times Jesus traveled to Jerusalem at the annual festivals of the Jews and the ways that His teachings and claims about His own identity on those occasions demonstrated the fulfillment of the deepest meaning of the rituals and festivals and events that they commemorated. On top of all of this, John's narrative seems to reflect a quite different style of writing than that in the synoptic gospels, including among the teachings of Jesus. The style found among John's accounts of Jesus' teaching is quite similar to John's style as narrator throughout the rest of his gospel.
II. Structure of John's Gospel
Even before we come to focusing on the thematic or theological distinctives that result from these distinctive contents, it is worth asking: Can John be taken seriously as a reliable historical document in light of all of these differences? How and why did he compose his gospel the way he did if, in fact, there are so many differences?
a. No Need to Repeat Information Available in Other Written Gospels or Oral Tradition
It would appear that John recognized (as the last and latest of the gospels to be written, probably in the decade of the 90s of the first century) that much that had already been dealt with well in one or more of the synoptics had become well enough known in Christian circles (whether through the actual final form of those previous gospels or simply through the pervasive oral tradition and preaching of the first Christians) He did not need to repeat a large percentage of it.
It also appears, when one compares in any modern language, but particularly in the original Greek of New Testament times, that, unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke, there is no formal literary relationship between John and any of the synoptics. In the minority of instances where there are parallel texts between John and the synoptics, the actual wording is seldom similar enough for any significant stretch of text to suggest any actual literary borrowing. But, granted we can explain something of the composition of the gospel, can we account for such a seemingly different choice of details and the resulting themes that we are about to survey?
b. Written to Jewish Christians who have been Expelled from their Synagogues because of their Belief in Jesus as Messiah
Part can, no doubt, be explained by the unique context of John. Strong early church tradition associates the aged apostle with ministering in his latter decades in and around Ephesus on the western coast of what today would be called Turkey. By the end of the first century, he had to deal with twin doctrinal challenges in that community, as in many parts of the empire at the end of the first century.
On the one hand, by this stage many local synagogues, formally or informally had rejected, sometimes formally expelling or excommunicating, those of their membership who affirmed allegiance to Jesus as Messiah (much as we discussed in the background to the theology of Matthew, though at this later date on even a more widespread basis). The antagonism between church and synagogue could at times become quite sharp. Compare, for example, this same apostle John's description in the book of Revelation in the letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor, which included Ephesus and neighboring environs, that the local synagogues there were so hostile to Christians that they could be called synagogues of Satan (see especially Revelation 2:9 and 3:9).
c. Written to Address the Influence of Gnosticism
On the other hand, this was the age of emerging Gnosticism. This was a Greek philosophy that posited a sharp break or divide between the material and immaterial parts of creation, including the human being. It was only one's spirit that was believed to survive death. The body, like all of the material universe, was believed to be inherently evil and therefore not redeemable.
This meant that, for the Christian message, those claiming that Jesus was the unique God-man, fully divine and fully human, had to confront the challenge that many Jews posed: How could a man be considered God? And certainly, how could that take place without blasphemously transgressing the boundary between creature and creator? In this more Greek or Gnostic environment, on the other hand, the challenge was: How could God, that which is perfect and invisible and immaterial, take on true human flesh if, in fact, that meant that he (or in some Greek circles she or goddesses) would be inherently evil?
Not surprisingly then, a large percentage of the distinctive contents, particularly in the middle chapters of John's gospel, do reflect the intense debates already in Jesus' life with Jewish leaders and at times larger crowds in Jerusalem. This is precisely what we should have expected Jesus, as a law-abiding Jew, to attend. We expect this even though the synoptics have chosen not to narrate any trips to Jerusalem of the adult Jesus prior to the Passover at which He would lose His earthly life.
At the same time, the opening and closing portions of John's gospel very much stress His true humanity. We, as modern readers, reading John's prologue (1:1-18) see the strong affirmations of Jesus' deity. Indeed, the very first verse begins affirming that the Word was God. But it may well be that, to emerging Gnostics in an around the church in Ephesus, this was John's way of beginning with a point of common ground, but then driving the discussion to the climactic point on which "Orthodox and Gnostic" Christians disagreed: namely, the true humanity of Jesus, the true incarnation affirmed in 1:14 – "The Word became flesh and dwelled among us."
For the same reasons, at the end of the gospel, John goes out of his way to stress in the passion narrative the true humanity of Jesus when Pilate declares, bringing out the condemned prisoner: "Behold the man" – not behold your king, which is what the subject of conversation has most recently been. And again, when the soldiers discovered Jesus dead, or appearing to be dead, and to confirm it thrust a sword into His side, out flowed blood and water. This indeed happens in the pericardial sac around the heart for a very recently deceased victim. Likewise too, the two chapters of resurrection appearances at the end of John's gospel (20 and 21) represent first Mary Magdalene and the apostle Thomas (20) and then Peter and the beloved disciple John (21), each in their own ways overcoming doubts and misunderstanding and disbelief and lack of recognition of Jesus to recognize His complete human bodily resurrection from the dead. Indeed, all of the signs and miracles throughout John's gospel are meant to function as pointers to bring people to faith in Christ or to strengthen that faith, as the purpose statement of John 20:31 so clearly states.
III. John's View of Jesus
Much else could be said in this context, but it is time, in a short lecture series on The Theology of the Gospels, to turn to enumerating those Johannine theological distinctives in more detail.
a. Titles of Jesus
Views of Jesus include not only distinctive titles and functions, but, lest we think that John is too far removed from the synoptics, it is intriguing to note that both in his nearly closing purpose statement in John 20:31 and throughout the gospel, with a fair degree of frequency, the titles Christ and Son of God (or simply Son) appear exactly as in Mark's headline which we discussed in lecture 4 (see again Mark 1:1). Jesus is both the Christ (the Messiah, the Anointed Deliverer of Israel) and the Son of God (the One with a unique and uniquely intimate relationship, sonship, with His heavenly Father).
But Son in the gospel of John more consistently begins to move in a direction of and shade over toward the more divine sense of that title which is less frequent in the synoptics. This is only appropriate as another thirty years may have passed since the writing of the synoptics. John 3:31-36 is a key passage that sums up John's Christology in significant measure: "The One who comes from above is above all, for the One whom God has sent speaks the words of God. To Him, God gives the Spirit without limit. The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in His hands. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life and whoever rejects the Son will not see life."
1. The "Logos"
Four other emphases are also considerably distinct within the teachings about Jesus that are both dominant and/or distinctive in the fourth gospel. The logos (the Word): only John calls Jesus the Word. The Greek term logos had a remarkably broad usage and application. In Jewish circles, it was the word often used to represent God's spoken word, through which creation itself was brought into being. In Greco-Roman circles it was often viewed as some aspect of God or the gods that reflected his, her, or their means of communicating with humanity. In pure Stoic Pantheism (in which God was not distinct from creation) it often referred to the world soul or life force that was believed to animate and fill all the universe, all the material and immaterial parts of creation.
So it was a term much like Son of Man in the synoptics, with enough ambiguity in its background and yet a rich history of use as well. Jesus, and particularly John's portrait of Jesus, could invest it with His own distinctive meaning. And clearly, one of the dominant emphases for the fourth gospel is Jesus as Revealer of God the Father. He is Revealer in terms of His deeds, to be sure, but Revealer even more so in terms of His words, because He was, indeed, the very Word of God.
2. Lamb of God
A second distinctive title is Lamb of God, found particularly in John 1 in the context of John the Baptist's testimony about Jesus. This has the Old Testament background in terms of the Passover lamb – a sacrificial offering to denote forgiveness of sins and take the place of humans who deserve to die for their sins. But also perhaps, it alludes to the sheep led to the slaughter in the context of the Suffering Servant texts and predictions in Isaiah, particularly Isaiah 53.
3. Wisdom of God
Even more so than in Matthew, for John, Jesus is thirdly the Wisdom of God. He is Wisdom personified (much as in Proverbs 8 and 9), but separated even more from God to become a distinct person, while still one being with the Father. But more so merely than God's Wisdom, this function in the gospel of John quickly shades over into the One He has sent – the divinely appointed Agent, the sent One (in Hebrew the shaliach) to do God's will, to display His glory, to reveal His nature to humankind. The Agent acts on behalf of the Master who has sent Him in ways that begin to blur the distinction at times between the two.
And then fourthly and finally and certainly most dramatically and prepared for by these three previous distinct titles or roles, Jesus becomes God Himself, actually divine. Not that He replaces God the Father or is the sum total of all that there is to God, but He represents what God is like when He takes upon Himself human flesh. Thus, the opening verse of the gospel refers to the Word in the beginning, with a deliberate allusion to Genesis 1:1, from before creation onward. "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God." So they are separate and distinct. But "the Word was God." So they are not distinct gods but distinct centers of personal consciousness within one God.
Seven times in John's gospel, He uses the affirmation "I am" followed by a metaphorical predicate that reflects some aspect of this divinity: the Bread of life; the Light of the world; the Sheep Gate; the Good Shepherd; the Resurrection and the Life; the Way and the Truth and the Life; and the True Vine. And in a passage like 10:30 and following, He claims to be one with the Father – not just a oneness of will or unity or purpose (though those certainly are true statements), but in a way that at least some of the Jews present interpreted as again crossing that threshold between the creature and the Creator. Those who did not believe His claims accused Him of blaspheming and took up stones to attempt to stone Him to death, although they failed.
Again, after the resurrection, Thomas seeing Christ's scars and acknowledging that He is indeed risen from the dead, cries out in worship: "My Lord and my God." Interestingly, these are the very titles that, at least by the end of the first century in the reign of Domitian, were clearly attributed to and accepted by the emperor in Rome as titles of worship that he alone was worthy of. Here is an implicit, but nevertheless clear, challenge to that claim which Christians would have found blasphemous. Only Jesus is ultimate Master and God.
IV. Themes in the Gospel of John
a. Benefits of Eternal Life
Other distinctive themes (and there are more of these in John's gospel than in any of the other three) include a strong emphasis on the benefits of eternal life through following Jesus. Accepting His free gift of salvation is something that begins now in this life already, even if only in part. Or, to put it in the language we used when discussing the synoptic gospels, the emphasis on the already of the kingdom. John frequently substitutes the expression eternal life, which does not do a disservice to Jesus' teaching, because, even in Matthew's account of the rich young ruler in chapter 19, kingdom of God and being saved and experiencing eternal life are used as parallel expressions for each other. John then reflects eternal life as beginning now in the present and extending on into the future. In terms of the already but not yet language, clearly he is more interested in emphasizing the already.
Thus we read in a passage like John 3:18, "Whoever believes in Him [that is, Jesus] is not condemned. But whoever does not believe, stands condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son." Here, it is eternal death that begins in this life as well. But now compare 5:24, "Whoever hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life and will not be condemned. He has crossed over [past tense, already in this life], he has crossed over from death into life." Compare similar sentiments in John 3:36, 9:39 and 12:31. Yet a future hope is not entirely absent. There are references to the coming resurrection of both the just and the unjust (see especially chapter 5:25-29).
b. John Refers to Miracles as "Signs"
A second additional distinctive theme is that John does not refer to Christ's miracles (though he narrates a good seven of them) as powers or wonders, the terms most commonly used in the synoptics. Rather he refers to them as signs (sēmeion), pointers that should lead people to faith or strengthen already existing faith. This does not mean that John's gospel promises miracles on demand for those who just have enough faith.
In fact, there are very interesting variations in terms of human preparedness for the miraculous. Just in the gospel of John alone (to say nothing of the synoptics all together), in chapter 5 Jesus heals a paralytic who was unable to reach the pool of Bethesda to experience what he believed were its healing waters. And afterwards He tells the man: "Go and sin no more, lest something worse befall you" – seemingly implying that it was this man's lack of faith, indeed his outright sin or disobedience, which had some connection was his previous malady.
But then, chapter 9, with the blind man, who is involved with another pool of water in Jerusalem. He is told to wash in the pool of Siloam to experience full healing. He is someone, at the beginning of chapter 9, that John describes as having been blind from birth. Imagine the puzzle in the disciple's minds (given that the common Old Testament notion, apparently reinforced by Jesus in the healing miracle of chapter 5, that sickness or chronic disability was often a punishment for sin) as they struggle to figure out how such punishment could begin already at birth. So they ask: Who sinned, this man (perhaps thinking he had done something already in the womb of his mother) or his parents (no doubt, reflecting on those Old Testament principles in which the sins of the ancestors are visited on coming generations, at times for a considerable length of time)? Jesus replies that neither of those options is true in this case, but that this has taken place so that God's glory might be revealed: namely, the glory that is disclosed when Jesus heals the man.
So there is no uniform connection between sin and sickness, between faith and healing. There are times when people's faith leads to signs or miracles in John more generally. There are times, as with the turning of water into wine and the healing of the nobleman's son (in John 2 and 4 respectively), when the signs are meant to instill faith, and apparently do, in fact, function in that way, where there is little or no faith prior to the working of the miracles. The nearly closing chapter (John 20:21) finds Jesus praising Thomas' belief based on the sign of the resurrection which he has now encountered first hand. And yet it goes on, in what is seemingly higher praise, to say: "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."
It may be that we are to understand three stages in John's concept of faith: an initial childlike stage that is at least open to faith which is required before God will grant any sign; a preliminary faith that sometimes is based solely or too much on signs; and a mature faith that no longer requires them, even if God might in His sovereignty choose to graciously grant them at times.
c. Doctrine of the Trinity
A third distinctive and dominant theme in John's gospel involves the clearest steps found anywhere in the gospels toward a full-blown doctrine of the Trinity: one God in three persons. This would be clarified in subsequent centuries to an even greater degree. And there is the accompanying unity based on the unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit that Jesus' followers ought to display. John 14:11 uses the language of interpenetration. Jesus insists that He is in the Father and the Father is in Him. Then, when He leaves, the Spirit will replace Him as another Counselor or Comforter, performing many of the identical roles that He has played (John 14:16). In His so-called high priestly prayer in chapter 17, He speaks of the Father glorifying the Son so that the Son can glorify the Father, and vice versa.
There also appears to be a hierarchy that in no way infringes on the full equality of the persons of the Trinity, especially in 14:28 when Jesus declares: "The Father is greater than I." This is perhaps meant to be a model of how humans can be fundamentally equal to one another and still, in various contexts, be required to function in roles of authority and submission. But it is authority and submission based on perfect love and perfect unity.
Thus, the challenge of Jesus' prayer for His followers in John 17 is indeed striking with these background texts, when He asks of His Father and He prays that they too (we who are Christians) might be one just as Jesus says: "You, the Father, are in Me and I am in You". And this unity in turn is to be so marvelous that it will be a powerful evangelistic force in the world (verse 23). Surely the church has a long way to go in modeling this before a fallen world.
d. Election and Security of the Believer
Of all the gospels, John also in greatest detail and most clearly describes the election and the security of the believer. Among the texts that are most famous in this respect are 6:39. Jesus, speaking again: "This is the will of Him who sent Me, the Father, that I shall lose none of all that He has given Me, but raise them up at the last day." And again, in 10:29, "My Father who has given them to Me is greater than all; no one shall snatch them out of My Father's hand." In 15:16 we read that the disciples did not choose Jesus but He chose them. And more ominously, Judas betrayal in 17:12 demonstrates that he was not elected to salvation: "Christ protected all that the Father gave Him, but the betrayer was the one doomed to destruction."
Yet, balancing this emphasis on God's electing choices, is John's equally significant emphasis that believers must choose to abide, or remain, in Christ (particularly in John 15). They must remain in Him so that they can bear much fruit (verse 4). But this is not simply remaining in order to experience Christian maturity, as opposed to staying in an immature Christian state. Verse 2 offers the solemn warning that the Father cuts off every branch that bears no fruit. It is not acceptable to simply refer to this as the same as the pruning that He describes in this context, because cutting off branches may allow the rest of a plant to continue to grow or indeed grow better. But it means the death, the complete end of existence for the branches cut off.
John's own harmonization of these apparently contradictory lines of thought appears in his first letter (1 John 2:19). There are people who do abandon what they previously have professed with respect to Christian faith: that is, abandon it altogether, leave Christ, leave His Church and follow some other contradictory, incompatible, false teaching. This took place in Ephesus not long after John's gospel was written and John replies to it in 1 John 2:19. He describes such people, saying: "They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained. [The verb to abide, or to remain, with us is used in John 15] But their going showed that none of them belonged to us."
Yes, there are promises for security of the believer throughout the New Testament and particularly in John's writings. But the security and assurance of salvation are present only as people remain in the vine – continue believing in Jesus, remain connected to Him. If they do not, it demonstrates that they never really truly were connected. But it means also that, short of repentance, they will be lost. So with John's precious promises must be also be paired his equally crucial warnings.
e. Jesus' Death, Resurrection and Glorification
Still another dominant and distinctive theme in John's gospel is his portrait of the death of Christ – not as a single event in time, but as already anticipating and symbolic of His coming resurrection and ascension and return to the right hand of the Father. This has come to be known as Jesus' exaltation, or enthronement, or glorification. Thus, we read in 12:32, "But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to Myself." Presumably Christ here is anticipating both His physical crucifixion and His spiritual exaltation – the posture of arms extended and body distended on the cross, but also anticipating the heavenly journey after His death and resurrection. John 7:39, 12:16, 23 and 13:31 all anticipate His coming hour of glory with similar double meanings.
f. Role of the Holy Spirit as Counselor, Comforter and Advocate
Yet another theme in our list is the Holy Spirit. In Greek, this is the word parakletos, sometimes rendered into English just as the term Paraklete. This is a word for which there is no single translation in most modern languages. It combines such concepts as Counselor or Comforter or Advocate. F. F. Bruce discerns five discrete roles for the Paraklete in John 14 to 16 alone: He is a Helper of God's people (14:15-21); He is an interpreter of God's revelation (14:25-31); a witness or one who testifies to the truth of God (15:26-16:4); a Prosecutor, one who convicts the world of its sin, of its lack of adequate righteousness and God's coming judgment (16:5-11); and of Revealer of God's truth and of God Himself (16:12-16).
It is possible at the end of the first century that certain wings of the church were moving more and more in the direction of an institutionalization that goes beyond what the New Testament itself endorsed. John's community was a bit of a holdout or a carry-over from an earlier era, when the Spirit's role was seen as more significant than authoritative hierarchical offices for those who held them to make decisions governing the entire body of the local Christian community.
g. John's Gospel does not Record Jesus' Baptism or His Words over the Food at the Last Supper
One of the puzzling features of John's narrative, as we have already mentioned, is the absence of explicit reference to Jesus' baptism and to His words over the bread and cup at the Last Supper. These absences are made all the more notable, unlike many other absences of synoptic incidence from John, because apart from these specific details John has more information in his opening episode about John the Baptist of the events immediately surrounding Christ's baptism than do any of the synoptics. And in even more dramatic fashion in John 13-17, what never is narrated in more than one long chapter in the synoptics spans five chapters in John's gospel: namely, the events of the last night of Jesus' life and the last meal that they enjoyed together. And yet not a word about what has come to be known as the Lord's Supper or the Eucharist or Holy Communion.
Adding to the intrigue is the fact that, in a completely different context in John's gospel, appear language from Jesus Himself that many readers have seen as allusions to what in many branches of Christianity have become known as the sacraments (or elsewhere as the ordinances) of Baptism and the Lord's Supper. John 3:5, "No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit," has often been taken as just such an allusion to baptism. And again 6:53, "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you." If that is not cannibalism, as some in the Roman world misunderstood early Christian belief and practice, then is it teaching that one must partake of the sacrament to have eternal life? This would appear unlikely, because in the same context we read that it is the Spirit, and not the flesh, that alone brings life.
Perhaps we should understand instead that John is speaking metaphorically about close unity with the crucified Christ (6:53) and metaphorically about the cleansing work of the Spirit (3:5). Perhaps in fact, by omitting explicit references to Baptism and the Lord's Supper where the synoptics contain them, he is again trying to counter a growing institutionalization of the church near the end of the first century that may be already on the verge of elevating the sacraments to too prominent a role in the church, such that some are beginning to say that they are requirements for salvation. But these are more speculative comments than those we have made in the other categories thus far in this lecture.
h. John the Baptist's Authority is Minimized
Equally speculative, but equally suggestive also, has to do with the way in which John the Baptist's authority is consistently minimized throughout John's gospel, especially when compared to the synoptics' portrait. Thus, the Baptist is only a witness. He must decrease while Christ must increase. He explicitly denies that he is even a prophet like Elijah. The synoptics allow that figuratively, he is Elijah come again in the power and spirit of Elijah. And when interviewers in John 1 come from the Jerusalem authorities to ask John about his identity, they not only ask about a possible prophetic role, but if he is the Christ. This he flat out denies. Why emphasize this unless, as we know there were in the mid-second century in parts of the Greek world of the day, already some near the end of the first century who perhaps were overly exalting John the Baptist and indeed at times giving him, rather than Jesus, Messianic status?
i. Concluding Comments
Two final comments about dominant and distinctive Johannine themes – Jesus relationship to Judaism and the resulting relationship of John's community to Judaism. Like Matthew, he has often been accused of being anti-Semitic, or better put anti-Jewish, because of his seemingly sweeping use of the term the Jews for all of Jesus' opponents. This expression appears 68 times in John, but only 16 times in Matthew, Mark and Luke combined. But, looking at individual contexts, this term sometimes means merely Judeans as opposed to Galileans (those in the southern part of Israel rather than in the north). Sometimes it is a kind of shorthand or code term for the Jewish leaders, at least those opposed to Jesus. And never does it mean more than simply those members of the Jewish nation and religion who rejected Christ. Let's not forget that all of His first followers, even in John's gospel, were Jewish, as Jesus himself was. There is nothing even in the strong text such as John 8:44, "You are of your father the devil," that indicts all Jews of Jesus' time, much less of all time. And, short of that sweeping statement, it is not legitimate to speak of John as anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish.
Finally, there are what have been called dualisms or oppositions of a number of different kinds in the fourth gospel. John certainly does like to paint theological pictures in very black and white terms, to use a modern metaphorical dualism. Thus we see light contrasted with darkness; life versus death; love versus judgment; that which is from above with that which is from below; spirit versus flesh; truth versus falsehood; those who believe versus the world. And everyone of these oppositions reflects those or that which is on God's side as determined by their reaction to Jesus and those who are against God as determined also by their reaction, in this case a rejection rather than an acceptance of Jesus.
At the end of our lecture series then, it is appropriate to ask the question: Which side are you on? If in all the shades of grey, as it were, with all of the humanly erected divisions into which humanity can be categorized, there are from God's perspective only ultimately two: those who follow Jesus and those who reject Him. It is my prayer that all who hear these tapes and all who hear the gospel in any form will respond by accepting the marvelous, wonderful, eternal, free, utterly undeserved gift of spectacularly joyous life experienced in part, but only in part in this life, but guaranteed for those who are truly God's people who demonstrate it because they remain in Him, in Jesus, until the end, until the end of this age or their lives, whichever comes first. And thus can look forward to unending happiness in a life to come.