Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1261
The Gospel of John, or the fourth Gospel, is narrower than the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) in the compass of its themes, yet perhaps it penetrates more directly and deeply into the mystery of the person of God’s Son. The Gospel is the last, the most artistic from a literary point of view, the most reflective, and the most explicitly theological of the canonical accounts of Jesus. Written late in the first century c.e. at a time when Jewish Christians were no longer welcome in synagogues and when Gentile Christians formed a minority in Greco-Roman society, its purpose was to lay out sufficient evidence pointing to Jesus of Nazareth as the one sent by God to reinforce the faith of believers and to commend Jesus to the rest of the world.
To say that the Gospel of John is anonymous is technically true, for the author alludes to himself merely as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” and does not supply his name. The unanimous and uncontested consensus of the church fathers, including the scribes who appended titles to the Gospel records from about the year 125 c.e. and the numerous bishops and elders of Asia Minor (now Turkey) in the second century who claimed to have known the author face to face during his period of residence at Ephesus after he fled Palestine during the Jewish/Roman war that ended in 70 c.e., is that the beloved disciple was John, the son of Zebedee, a member of the twelve who were closest to Jesus. With this identification, the internal facts are congruent, though the case is not conclusive enough to forestall critics who are inclined to propose alternatives, and indeed the latter hold sway in the field of scholarship.
The general structure of the Gospel is straightforward. A prologue (1:1-18) states the thesis that God’s eternal Word became flesh and lived among us and was rejected by many but was received by some, who recognized him as God’s supreme self-expression. Roughly the first half of the Gospel has Jesus revealing himself by sign and discourse to an ever more disbelieving and hostile world (1:19, chapter 12). Then he focuses on the small circle of those who have indeed believed in him, to commission them to carry on in his footsteps after his imminent departure (chapters 13-17). There follows an account of Jesus’ passion, death, and burial (chapters 18-19) and of several of his appearances to his disciples in his state of resurrection (chapters 20-21).
Already in the opening paragraph, the living Word is the creative source of life and light for the human race. These two key concepts unify the miracles of Jesus that the author has selected to signify Jesus’ divine power to vivify and illumine those who believe in him: turning water into wine, healing a royal official’s son of a fatal illness, healing an invalid by the pool of Bethzatha, multiplying bread and fish to feed a crowd of five thousand, walking on the sea, opening the eyes of a man born blind, and the crowning sign, the resuscitation of his friend Lazarus from the dead. Along with the narrative signs are discourses and dialogues of Jesus that stake his claims verbally. The meaning of this part of the Gospel emerges from suggestive interplay between sign and discourse. For example: Jesus’ ability to change water into wine foreshadows the distinction between being born in a fleshly sense and being born again/from above, which Jesus spells out to Nicodemus, and immediately after feeding the five thousand, Jesus presents himself as the bread of the world. Jesus demonstrates that he is the light of the world by giving the blind sight and that he is the resurrection and the life by raising Lazarus from the dead. Thus the “signs” are earthly, tangible tokens of Jesus’ prerogative to bestow light and life on those his Father gives him.
Strong Christological titles and self-claims by Jesus pervade the Gospel of John. Among the more prominent titles are “the Word,” “the Christ” (meaning Messiah), the “King of Israel,” “Son (of God),” “rabbi,” “prophet,” and “son of man.” Each had a rich background in the Hebrew scriptures or in Palestinian culture contemporary with Jesus, and they gained fresh content by their mutual association and application to Jesus in the context of the fourth Gospel. Analogous to the seven signs, yet in no simple correspondence with them, are the seven declarations of Jesus as to who he was: the Bread; the Light of the world; the Door of the sheepfold; the Good Shepherd; the Resurrection and the Life; the Way, the Truth, and the Life; and the Vine. Also, not belonging to the seven but perhaps the most shocking declaration of all, “Before Abraham was, I am,” echoes the covenantal name of God vouchsafed to Moses.
The revelation of Jesus as the human being uniquely suffused with the glory of God is tightly integrated with the divine purpose that he should give his life for the sake of sinners and to deliver those who believe in him from judgment. Narrative momentum toward the cross builds from the first chapter, where John the Baptist twice introduces Jesus as the “Lamb of God” who takes away sin. It is intensified by repeated statements that Jesus’ “hour” has not yet come, until in chapters 12-13, it arrives. The climax is Jesus’ final cry, “It is finished,” just before he yields up his spirit. So closely are the glory motif and the motif of self-sacrifice intertwined that the author can even speak in one sweep of Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension to heaven as his “being glorified.”
Two special verses, gracing Jesus with the predicate of “God” (lacking the Greek definite article, however, to preserve the distinctness and the ultimacy of his Father) and standing at the beginning and the end of the Gospel so as to enclose the whole, represent the apex of Christological development in the first Christian century. Although the striking affirmation that the Word “was with God, and was God” (1:1) invites metaphysical speculation of the sort that blossomed into the doctrine of the Trinity several centuries later, the accent of the Gospel of John falls not on what the Second Person is in himself but on the significance of his becoming flesh for humanity: “my Lord and my God” said Thomas (20:28). According to the author, precisely that acknowledgment holds the promise of eternal life for any who believe.
Different responses to Jesus are illustrated by a host of other characters. The more positive responses can be seen in the actions of Andrew, Peter, Philip, and Nathanael, who become disciples; Nicodemus, a disciple in secret; the fallen woman of Samaria, through whom others too come to believe; the blind man enabled to see, gradually coming to recognize Jesus as Messiah; the fickle crowd who believe because of his signs but to whom Jesus will not entrust himself; and the temple police, sent to arrest him but won over by his words. Less positive, even hostile responses can be seen in the actions of the invalid, who receives a healing but informs against Jesus to the authorities; the multitude who want another free meal but are offended by Jesus’ offer of his body and blood; Caiaphas, the opportunist high priest, ready to do away with an innocent Jesus to hold on to political power and privileges; and Peter, who in danger thrice denies knowing his Lord, yet later affirms his love for him and is reinstated as shepherd of the flock.
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