In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.
The Fourth Gospel describes the mystery of the identity of Jesus. The Gospel According to John develops a Christology—an explanation of Christ’s nature and origin—while leaving out much of the familiar material that runs through the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, including Jesus’s short aphorisms and parables, references to Jesus’s background, and proclamations about the kingdom of God. Whereas Mark’s Gospel brings us the texture of first-century Palestine with a vivid, concrete, and earthy Jesus, John’s Gospel is filled with long discourses describing Jesus’s divinity. John takes us behind Jesus’s ministry, where we get a glimpse of what it means to believe in Jesus as flesh of the eternal and living God, as the source of light and life, and for a believer to be a “Son of God.” Though John’s narrative diverges from the synoptic Gospels, it is indeed a Gospel, or a telling of good news. It includes the basics of Jesus’s ministry—his preaching, miracles, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. It is likely that John heard the details about these events from a very early oral source common to all the Gospels, but the freedom he uses to interpret these events helps us see clearly that all accounts of Jesus have come to us through the filter of interpretation. John may have been written a bit later than the synoptic Gospels, likely around 90 a.d. The actual author of John’s Gospel was probably an interpreter of John, who was one of Jesus’s original disciples.
John can be divided thematically into halves, preceded by a prologue and followed by an epilogue. The prologue is a poetic introduction that presents the outline of the narrative and the essence of John’s theology. The first half of the Gospel can be characterized as a “Book of Signs.” It tells of Jesus’s ministry, focusing on seven major miracles worked by Jesus and the meaning and significance of those miracles. The second half of John has been called the “Book of Glory.” In it, the narrative moves toward Jesus’s glorification through crucifixion and resurrection. Finally, the book ends with an epilogue, most likely added to the Gospel by a later redactor, which tells of Jesus’s appearance to the disciples after his resurrection.
The Gospel of John begins with a poetic hymn that tells the story of Jesus’s origin, mission, and function. John says that Jesus is the incarnated Word of God, bringing “grace and truth,” replacing the law given by Moses, and making God known in the world (1:17). The narrative opens with John the Baptist identifying himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy; he will prepare the way for the Lord. Indeed, when he meets Jesus, John testifies, “He is the Son of God” (1:34). The next day, hearing John’s testimony, two disciples, including Andrew, begin to follow Jesus. Andrew brings his brother Simon to Jesus, who now accumulates several other followers as well. On the third day after Jesus’s baptism, Jesus and his disciples attend a wedding at Cana in Galilee, where Jesus works a miracle, transforming water into wine. As Passover approaches, Jesus travels to Jerusalem, where he drives the money changers from the temple, charging them to “stop making my Father’s house a marketplace” (2:16). A Pharisee named Nicodemus assumes that Jesus has come from God as a teacher, and Jesus tells him, in solemn, semipoetic lines, that he has been “born from above” (3:3) and that God has given “his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish” (3:16). Jesus leaves Jerusalem and begins to baptize people in Judea. John the Baptist has continued his baptizing, and someone informs him that Jesus too has begun to baptize, assuming that John would be angry at the competition. The Baptist rejoices at the news, knowing that Jesus, as the Son of God, is the greater of the two, and that Jesus is the fulfillment of John’s prophecy.
Jesus travels to Samaria, where he speaks in metaphors and figures of speech with a Samaritan woman and with his disciples. They do not always understand his metaphors, and take Jesus literally when he tells the woman that he has “living water” (4:10) and when he tells his disciples that “I have food to eat that you do not know about” (4:32). Eventually, the woman understands Jesus. Impressed by his knowledge of her past and by his message, she tells the other Samaritans that he is the Christ, meaning that he is the Messiah prophesied in Jewish scriptures. The Samaritans profess belief in him. Returning to Cana in Galilee, Jesus cures a boy who is at death’s door. In Jerusalem once again for a festival, Jesus cures a sick man at the pool of Bethzatha and orders him to pick up his sleeping mat and walk around. As it is the Sabbath, when observant Jews do not carry objects outdoors, the Jews become angry with Jesus, and their anger only increases when Jesus explains that God is his father. Jesus delivers a long discourse, in which he announces that his words bring eternal life, and that rejection of Jesus in favor of the traditional laws is foolish, since Jesus represents the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies.
Returning to Galilee, Jesus is approached by a crowd of people looking for inspiration. To feed them, he works a miracle, providing food for 5,000 people with only five loaves of bread and two fish. Later that evening, Jesus’s disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee and are surprised to find Jesus walking across the water toward them. The next day, crowds of people come in search of Jesus, and he explains the significance of the miracle of the loaves: “I am the bread of life / no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father” (6:35). Using the symbol of bread, Jesus explains that belief in him and in God, his father, will give eternal life. Many of his listeners disbelieve him, and Jesus teaches that belief in him is a foreordained gift from God: “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (6:65). Peter, however, remains with Jesus and professes his faith.
At the Feast of Booths, the Jewish holiday Sukkoth, Jesus returns to Jerusalem with the pilgrims and begins preaching in the temple. He urges the people not to hold his previous violation of the Sabbath against him, saying, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (7:24). Many people wonder whether Jesus is the Christ, or Son of God, and the authorities want to arrest him but do not dare. The authorities bring him an adulterous woman and, in an attempt to entrap him, ask him whether or not she is guilty. Jesus responds, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (8:7). A long discourse ensues, in which Jesus responds to questions and accusations from the assembled people. Jesus predicts his own death and ascension, and explains that his authority comes from his origin in God and his fulfillment of the word of God. He accuses his listeners of being slaves to sin and, as sinners, of being illegitimate sons of God. Claiming to precede Abraham and to derive his glory from God, Jesus finally infuriates the crowd and barely escapes being stoned.
Jesus comes upon a man blind from birth and gives the man sight. The Pharisees are frustrated to realize that Jesus really has cured the man, who now professes faith in him. For their failure to believe, Jesus pronounces the Pharisees blind and teaches that he is the good shepherd, and that it is only through him that the sheep of Israel’s flock shall be saved. Months pass, and at the Feast of Dedication, the Jewish holiday Hanukkah, Jesus is again confronted by the Jews in the temple, who ask whether or not he is the Christ. He responds by announcing that he is the Son of God, united with God. The crowd tries to stone him, but Jesus escapes Jerusalem.
Jesus is called to Bethany, the village where two of his devout followers, Mary and Martha, live with their brother Lazarus, who has fallen sick. Arriving in Bethany too late, Jesus finds Lazarus dead. He works a miracle to inspire belief in the observers, resurrecting Lazarus. Hearing of this spectacle, the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, including the chief priests, decides to kill both Jesus and Lazarus. Nevertheless, Jesus travels to Jerusalem for Passover. He has foreseen his own death, as well as the salvation that he will bring through his sacrifice. Many of the Jews, despite witnessing signs of Jesus’s divinity, continue to disbelieve, and Jesus decries their lack of faith.
At the Passover meal, or Seder, Jesus preaches extensively to the apostles. Through washing their feet, he teaches them that they must serve each other, saying, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another” (13:34). Jesus stresses his unity with God: “I am in the Father, and the Father is in me” (14:10). Jesus foresees his own death and his betrayal by Judas. “I am going to the Father,” he tells the apostles (14:28). Jesus assures the apostles that in Jesus’s place, God will send an advocate, the Spirit of God, who will continue to dwell with the faithful, and who will lead them toward truth and salvation. He warns them that even after his death, they will continue to be persecuted, but that their ultimate salvation is imminent. Hearing this prophesy, the apostles finally express their firm belief in Jesus, and Jesus responds triumphantly, “I have conquered the world” (16:33). In a long, private prayer, Jesus addresses God directly, asking him to consecrate, glorify, and protect the faithful.
The narrative moves quickly toward its conclusion. Jesus is arrested by the soldiers whom Judas leads to him. He is brought first before the Jewish high priest, and then before Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect. Pilate repeatedly interrogates Jesus, who refuses to confirm the allegation against him—that he has acted treasonably against Caesar by declaring himself King of the Jews. Pilate is reluctant to condemn Jesus, but the Jews agitate for Jesus’s execution, and eventually Pilate consents. Jesus is crucified, and the soldiers cast lots to determine who will get his clothing. Pilate affixes a notice to the cross, reading “Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews” (19:19). Jesus dies, and to ensure his death, a solider pierces his side with a lance. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus bury Jesus on a Friday.
On Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene comes to Jesus’s grave and finds it empty. Jesus appears to her, and she brings the news of his resurrection to the disciples. Later that day, he appears to the disciples, whom he charges with the propagation of his message: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (20:21). Thomas is absent from the room, and he expresses doubt as to the resurrection until, a week later, Jesus reappears to him as well.
For I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.
For John, Jesus’s miracles are not simply wonders to astonish onlookers, but signs pointing to his glory that come from the presence of God within him. In the early stages of his ministry, John tells of an encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at the well. At this time, the Samaritans were a group of people despised by the Jews, and casual conversation between men and women was taboo. Jesus asks the woman to fetch him water, but she misunderstands his words to mean literal water. Quickly, she learns that the water to which he refers is already in her presence, that Jesus is “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life,” to which she replies, “Sir, give me this water so that I may never be thirsty” (4:14-15). This story is not a short parable, but an opportunity for Jesus to explain elaborately his personhood using life giving symbols characteristic of John’s writing: water, words, bread, and light. John tells of this Samaritan woman leaving to then become a successful missionary of the “good news” in Samaria (4:42).
All the Gospel narratives diverge dramatically after the point at which Mark ends: the discovery of the empty tomb and the astonishment of the women. In Matthew, the women run to tell the disciples and are met by the risen Jesus on the way. In Luke, the women tell of their discovery of an empty tomb, but no one believes them until the resurrected Jesus makes a series of appearances before the other disciples. Here, in John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene tells Peter and another disciple of the empty tomb, and, though she first mistakes him for a gardener, Jesus appears to her and discloses his identity. After his appearance to Mary, the risen Jesus appears to the disciples as a group, and John dramatizes the spiritual presence of Christ when Jesus breathes on his disciples. In both Hebrew and Greek, the word for “breath” is the same as that for “spirit.”
The Gospel of John is perhaps the most difficult of the Gospels to understand, not because John is more complex than the others—Luke is perhaps the most technically difficult of the Gospels—but because it is so different from the other Gospels. Reading John in the context of the other Gospels can be a jarring experience, because the theological significance of the picture that John paints of Jesus’s life is in many respects specific to John himself. Even John’s solemn and poetic presentation is quite different from that of the other Gospels. The Gospel is also resistant to ecumenicalism, or attempts to reconcile varying religions; in the Gospel of John, Jesus declares, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life, No one comes to the Father except through me” (14:16).
Yet the Gospel of John also contains some of the most beautiful parts of the New Testament, such as Jesus’s statement, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (8:7). Scholars believe that this story was circulating orally, and that church leaders were reluctant to add it into any of the synoptic Gospels because in official church doctrine, forgiveness for adultery was impossible. Instead of focusing on an official church, John’s Gospel focuses on individual believers and their relationships to Jesus.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of John is its development of Christology, a discourse on the nature and origin of Jesus. Unlike Matthew and Luke, John is not interested in the details of Jesus’s birth. Both Matthew and Luke stress that Jesus is born of a human mother who has somehow been visited by the Holy Spirit. John skips entirely the question of Jesus’s conception. In fact, taken by itself, John offers no indication of any supernatural birth. Instead, John pictures Jesus as the Son of God in a sense that might be described as metaphorical. Jesus may well be a real human who possesses flesh and blood, but he is also the incarnation of the Divine Word. Indeed, just as Jesus himself is the Son of God, John speaks of Jesus giving his followers “power to become children of God”—descent from God is an attitude of faith and a gift of grace (1:12).
This is a great place to start in the bible!
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