John’s Gospel: Answering questions for the Church
It is commonly said that the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are “synoptic” (providing a synopsis of the life of Christ) but that the gospel of John is “theological” (probing important questions about the Christian Faith). In earlier installments of this series, I have already mentioned that it is important not to push convenient distinctions among the gospel accounts too far: All are called “gospels” not because they are either biographies or theological arguments but because they portray the “good news” of salvation which Jesus Christ brought us through his words and deeds, his life, death and resurrection.
But it is important to remember that the accounts of Matthew and Mark were written relatively early, at least a full generation earlier than the gospel of John, which took final form only after the Church had already enjoyed tremendous growth—about 70 years after Our Lord ascended to His Father. Though some scholars date the final form of Luke’s gospel equally late, that is hardly supported by the events recounted. Even the second volume of Luke’s work, the Acts of the Apostles, recounts no events later than the martyrdom of St. Paul in the mid to late 60s AD.
The significance of this relatively late composition is that while the earlier evangelists were writing primarily to record and spread the good news of Christ as most of the apostles were passing from the scene, John would have been writing primarily for a later Church which was now reflecting back on these events and, certainly, raising important questions about them. It is no surprise, then, that John (the “theologian”) should use his gospel to present extended reflections on key matters like the precise identity and nature of the person of Jesus Christ and the precise identity and nature of the Church’s principal sacramental memorial of Christ, the Eucharist—as well as Christ’s special care of the ongoing Church through the gifts of both the Holy Spirit and the Petrine ministry.
More developed episodes
From the very opening of his gospel John frames his account using a smaller number of longer and more fully-developed episodes, in which the wording—whether his own words or the words of Christ’s dialogues with his questioners—continually presents and probes into key concepts in an effort to help us to understand them more precisely. We need not look past the famous prologue for evidence. Here it is in outline: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God. Christ is the Word of God, through whom all things came to be, and to whom John bears witness as God’s Son. It is precisely in the context of this deep understanding that John proceeds to recount Our Lord’s call to His first disciples.
The second chapter is devoted to the marriage at Cana. In his typical fashion, John emphasizes this event and draws it out, enabling the reader to glimpse the tremendous importance the Father places upon marriage, which can easily be seen as a symbol of the relationship of God to His people, and of Christ to His Church (themes, by the way, that were already known in part through the Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians, written at least a generation earlier, and clearly echoing the Song of Songs in the Old Testament). Similarly, it is noteworthy that in this same chapter John explicates Our Lord’s cleansing of the Temple, immediately pointing out that, when asked for a sign of His authority, Christ began to speak of the supreme sign of the destruction and rebuilding of the Temple in three days—that is, His own Resurrection from the dead.
The gospel is full of such deep and instructive connections. In chapter 3, John begins to present the essentially spiritual nature of Christ’s mission, with His early emphasis on the Holy Spirit. He tells Nicodemus that we must be born again of the Spirit. He cites John the Baptist (whom the people recognized as possessing the Spirit as a prophet) saying that Christ must increase while he, John, must decrease. The following passage is a good example of the evangelist’s style in repeating key spiritual points in various ways to help his audience grasp the true nature of Christ:
He who comes from above is above all; he who is of the earth belongs to the earth, and of the earth he speaks; he who comes from heaven is above all. He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony; he who receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for it is not by measure that he gives the Spirit; the Father loves the son, and has given all things into his hand. He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him. [Jn 3:31-36]
Note especially this idea that, with Christ, “it is not by measure that [the Father] gives the Spirit.” The prophets and all the rest of us receive the Spirit “by measure”, but for Christ the relationship with the Spirit is whole and entire.
Just as clearly, John recounts these longer episodes—and circles around again and again as if the words available to him are inadequate to fully capture such infinite realities—in order to elicit genuine, interior, spiritual conversion from his readers. We could seize upon almost any chapter to illustrate this truth, but I will simply take up the next five: In chapter 4, in Our Lord’s interaction with the Samaritan woman, He is eliciting Faith while also teaching His disciples that His food is to do the will of His Father. In chapter 5, when He heals on the Sabbath, He uses the objections of the Jewish leaders to explain His relationship to the Father, who has committed all judgment to the Son, who knows and does all that the Father knows and does, because—and note this well—“as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (Jn 5:26). This is as clear a philosophical statement of Christ’s Divinity as we can possibly expect.
Then in chapter 6—the great Eucharistic discourse—John describes Our Lord’s effort to teach that He is giving his life to men, that He is giving His flesh and blood so that they may share His life. At this point, many leave Him, but He does elicit Peter’s confession of Faith—and predicts His betrayal. In chapter 7, John uses the debates over whether Jesus is “the Christ” to drive home his point about the need for spiritual conversion, even quoting Our Lord when He said: “Do not judge by appearances, but judge rightly” (7:24). In the same chapter, John begins to build the tension between Christ’s manifest divinity and the deliberate refusal of the Jewish leaders to admit what should be obvious to them. Indeed, he shows how ludicrous that refusal has become, in that they dismiss His claims because Scripture shows no prophet coming from Galilee but, rather from Bethlehem: They had not even taken the trouble to look into Our Lord’s ancestry and birth!
Finally, in chapter 8, John makes it even clearer that the whole issue at stake is whether the Jews are willing to open themselves to Christ’s claims. First we have the long debate over Christ’s authority as one who knows the Father, and His insistence that those who reject them do not have God or even Abraham as their Father, but Satan:
If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing; it is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say that he is your God. But you have not known him; I know him. If I said I do not know him, I should be a liar like you; but I do know him and I keep his word. Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad…. Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am. [Jn 8:54-58]
Similarly, in chapter 9, John recounts in detail the story of Christ’s healing of the man who was blind from birth, and the reaction of the Jewish leaders to that cure. The evangelist uses this episode to teach that an honest, logical, proper apprehension of Our Lord’s claims marks a fundamental spiritual difference among those who are confronted with the reality of Who He is. For the Pharisees first validate the cure, and then get in a petty quarrel with the no-longer-blind man over what this cure means. The man’s parents are afraid of the Jews because the word has already gone out that they will put any who accept Christ out of the Synagogue—that is, they are already hardened against Him, and their investigation is a pretense. Accordingly, they anger the man born blind, who can only state the obvious:
Why, this is a marvel! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if any one is a worshipper of God and does his will, God listens to him. Never since the world began has it been heard that any one opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing. [9:30-34]
Thus do Christ’s deeds testify on His behalf. But the Pharisees expel the one cured from the synagogue, saying: “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” Then, when some of the Pharisees heard Jesus tell the man that “for judgment I came into the word, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind” (v. 39), they ask him derisively, “Are we also blind?”, and Jesus answers both deeply and frankly:
If you were blind, you would have no guilt, but now that you say, “We see,” your guilt remains. [Jn 9:41]
Clearly, John has been carefully teaching about two deeply related spiritual concepts: First, about who Christ is; second, about the need for interior honesty in evaluating His claims. On these two things, John teaches, does salvation depend.
If you do not believe me, believe my works
Chapter ten concludes these episodes of mounting clarity about Christ and increasing hardness of heart among the Jewish leaders. After describing Himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep—a commission He says is given to Him by His Father—another long debate with the Jews follows. The two points Jesus (and John) wish to make in this debate are:
- If you do not believe my words, then believe my works, for they are works done by the power of God that testify to me.
- I am the Son of God. I and the Father are one.
John, more clearly than the other three evangelists, consistently explains this connection between Christ and the Father, and how we know beyond a shadow of doubt that He is not only the Christ foretold by the prophets but the Son of God in the fullest possible sense of being God Himself, one with the Father. Then, in chapter 11, John recounts in detail the raising of Lazarus, in which Christ affirms: “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25). But the Jewish leaders are so far gone now that Caiaphas declares “it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people” (11:50), and the result of all this is not only a plot to kill Christ Himself but perhaps, even more amazingly, a plot to kill Lazarus (chapter 12) who had already died once!
Later in chapter 12 (44-50), Our Lord summarizes his teaching just after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem and just before His betrayal and death. This may be taken also as a summary of John’s main points so far:
- Belief in Christ is belief in the Father.
- Christ is the light of the world.
- All that He has said and done has been not on his own authority but from God.
- Therefore, on the last day His words will judge those who willfully reject Him.
We could continue singling out the instructional themes of John’s Gospel as they occur right on to the close of the book. Again, it is John’s method to recount a relatively small number of incidents at considerable length, with actual debates and discussions surrounding them, in order to get at who Christ is, the nature of His sacrifice and His gift of self to the Church in the Eucharist, the ongoing gift of the Holy Spirit and of the Petrine ministry. I have not yet dealt with the last two items but, having explored John’s method, it is sufficient to point quickly to the later chapters in which these are most fully developed.
The Holy Spirit and the Church
In chapter 13, Our Lord teaches the nature of priestly service to his apostles by washing their feet, giving the new commandment to love one another, while at the same time foretelling Peter’s denial and preparing for His death. In chapter 14, then, he begins to apply His two great remedies.
First, the Holy Spirit: Our Lord says that He is going away to prepare a place for his disciples, affirming that He Himself is the way, the truth and the life, and if they have seen Him, they have seen the Father. Then, so that they might bear this separation fruitfully, He promises to send the Holy Spirit, who will “teach you all things, and bring to remembrance all that I have said to you” (14:26). He goes on to say that they will bear fruit if they abide in Him, not as servants but as friends, and that, despite the world’s hatred, the Holy Spirit will enable them to witness to Him in all circumstances (ch. 15). Finally, He insists that His return to the Father is advantageous for them because He can send the Holy Spirit who “will guide you into all truth” (16:13).
Second, the special character of the Church and the Petrine ministry: The last thing John recounts before Our Lord’s arrest is His great prayer for the Church. First Christ prayers for his present disciples:
I have manifested your name to the men whom you gave me…I have given them the words you gave me…. I am praying for them; I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours…. And now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world…. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one…. I have given them your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not pray that you should take them out of the world, but that you should keep them from the evil one…. Sanctify them in truth…. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth. [17:6-19]
And then he prays for all of his future disciples:
I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word…. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which you have given me in your love for me before the foundation of the world…. I made known to them your name, and I will make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them. [17:20-26]
There follows immediately John’s account of the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. But after His resurrection, John shows Our Lord as doing two immensely important things. First, he definitively gives His closest disciples the power to forgive sins through the power of the Holy Spirit: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (20:22-23).
Second, in his appearance at the Sea of Tiberias, Our Lord singles out Peter from the others and confirms his authoritative mission in the Church. This is done through the dramatic the threefold commission which crowns Peter’s repentance for his threefold denial: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?...Feed my lambs…. Simon, son of John, do you love me?... Tend my sheep…. Simon, son of John, do you love me?... Feed my sheep” (21:15-19).
John’s is indeed a particularly rich gospel. We can term it “theologically rich” because it deliberately strengthens and enhances the early Church’s understanding of the key issues on which they must necessarily be reflecting two generations after the Resurrection: The person of Christ and His sacramental presence in the Eucharist, on the one hand; and the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the Petrine ministry in the ongoing life of the Church, on the other. Remember also that the Christians for whom John was writing already knew the Church had been described by St. Paul as the body and bride of Christ. John adds insight into how this body is moved and protected by God.
Taken together, these great themes—developed significantly through the evangelist’s particular style and selection of episodes from the life of Christ—must be taken to have admirably fulfilled the very purpose he claimed for his gospel in chapter 20, verses 30 and 31:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.
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