In 2017 and into Lent 2018, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.
This week I'm studying John. This post is based on my article, “John, the Different Gospel,” in Adult Bible Studies (Teacher), March-April-May, 1999), 2-5.
Here's an outline of the gospel:
1: Introduction. The Word is with God and the Word is God, and the Word became flesh. John the Baptist is not the Word but came to bear witness.
2:1-5:47: Speeches, miracles, and incidents: the wedding at Cana, the “cleansing” of the Temple, the meeting with Nicodemus, the meeting with the Samaritan woman, healing opportunities, and conflicts with authorities. Of course, this is where we find the famous John 3:16.
6:1-10:42: Miracles like the feeding of the five thousand, the healing of the man born blind; Jesus’ Temple teachings, and more conflicts. Chapter 10 has some of the gospel’s most famous phrases: “I am the gate [or “door”]. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (vs. 9). “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (vs. 10b). “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (vs. 11). “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold” (vs. 16). “The Father and I are one” (vs. 30). “…the scripture cannot be annulled [or “broken”]… (vs. 35b).
11:1-12:50: The raising of Lazarus, foreshadowing of Jesus’ “hour”, the anointing by Mary, and the entry into Jerusalem. “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25). The appearance of Greeks (i.e. Gentiles) in chapter 12 is a bit of foreshadowing, that Jesus will be executed by Gentiles and also that his message will eventually go out into the Gentile world.
The content of John's Gospel turns toward Jesus' last days in Jerusalem.
13:1-17:26: The washing of the disciples’ feet, his farewell speech to them, and his “high priestly prayer.” “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (14:6).
18:1-19:42: Jesus’ arrest, trial, death, and burial.
20: Jesus’ resurrection appearances and an allusion to his ascension.
21: His resurrection appearance at the sea.
Anyone who has read the Gospels know that John is both similar to and quite different from the Synoptic Gospels. The Synoptics, of course, were likely written as part of shared traditions, with Matthew and Luke reliant upon Mark and other sources. John shares with the Synoptics the basic outline of Jesus’ ministry: the work of John the Baptist; the call of the disciples; Jesus’ ministry of healing, teaching, and controversy; the entry into Jerusalem; the Last Supper; Jesus’ trial, passion, and death; and the Resurrection. John and the Synoptics also share several stories: the incident at the Temple, the healing of the son of the official, the feeding of the five thousand, the sea miracle, the confession of Peter, and the anointing at Bethany.
The Synoptics has stories that John lacks, like infancy stories, and the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. While Jesus teaches in parables in the Synoptics, he teaches in longer discourses in John.
The Synoptics seem to have a one-year ministry for Jesus (that is, they only mention one Passover); but John mentions three Passovers (2:13, 6:4, 11:55). In John, Jesus journeys to Jerusalem three times (2:13, 5:1; 7:10), but in the Synoptics, Jesus’ ministry is mostly in Galilee and its vicinity, and Jesus only goes down to Jerusalem at the end.
John has stories that the Synoptics lack: the miracle of the wine; the Samaritan woman; the healing at Beth-sada; the healing of the man born blind; and the raising of Lazarus. Although the story of the woman caught in adultery is not in the oldest manuscripts of John, it did become added to John later, and it is not found in the Synoptics.
In John, Jesus died the day before Passover (18:28; 19:14), which was on a Friday, while in the Synoptics, Good Friday was the first day of Passover.
In John, the disciples have less of a role, compared to Matthew, Mark, and Luke—although Nathaniel (chapter 1) and Thomas (chapter 20) have significant appearances, and Peter is important in all four Gospels. John’s gospel refers to “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” whom church tradition back to Irenaeus has identified as John. If John was not the actual author, his testimony is the foundation of the narrative (21:24).
While John has a few parables and proverbs, Jesus talks less about the kingdom of God than of themes like light and life, in longer monologues, dialogues, and stories. Jesus’ speech is John 14-17 is a little longer than his other long speech, the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7).
While in the Synoptics Jesus uses third-person references to the Son of Man, and Jesus also tells people not to say anything about their experiences of his healing, etc. But in John, Jesus speaks more boldly about himself; he refers to his unity with God the Father, and the fact that Jesus does the work of the Father (5:17, 5:38, 6:45, 8:29, 14:6, and others. John's gospel is more of a theological reflection upon the meaning of Jesus.
Certainly the prologue of John is unlike anything we’ve seen so far in the New Testament. The Gospel author affirms that Jesus is the creative glory of God, who has now become human and dwells among the people. That word “dwells” makes us think of the “dwelling” of the glory of God in the Temple.
Although Jesus refers to God’s Holy Spirit in the other Gospels, John chapter 14 has Jesus teaching more about the parakletos, or “Paraclete,” which means counselor, comforter, advocate in different translations. The Spirit will continue Jesus’ ministry after Jesus is no longer physically present with his followers.
John’s Gospel also affirms a very present presence of Christ, not just in the end times (5:24, 12:31, 14:30, 17:3-4, and others). The “ruler of this world” is already condemned, and God’s life is already given to believers (5:24). We are thus called to believe and have confidence even though we have not experienced Jesus’ physical presence (20:29b, 31).
In a way, the very last verse of John includes all of us, as we have our own stories of the living Christ that we can tell, and all the books in the world could scarcely contain all of our testimonies from all the centuries.