by Rev. David A. Moffat
I approach the Gospel of John with some trepidation. It is a book I struggled with in college, particularly in its presentation of Jesus’ relationship to the Father. Whilst it is certainly true that there is much in John I can appreciate and understand, there is very much more which puzzles me.
For me, John is not a gospel to read seeking simple answers. In fact, this is one of the lessons John teaches me – simple answers are fine to a point, but where Truth is concerned no trite verbal definition will suffice. You can imagine the challenge of having to teach a course on it! But in a sense the mental and spiritual struggle it stimulates is its message. Little wonder Clement of Alexandria called it ‘The Spiritual Gospel’ (A.M. Hunter . Introducing the New Testament. 3rd edition, 1972. St Ives: SCM Press. page 61).
John approaches his gospel in a fundamentally different way from Matthew, Mark and Luke (the ‘Synoptic’ gospels). Scholars are generally of the opinion that John was the last of the four to be written. Aware of the other records of Jesus’ life, as John must have been, he does not attempt to create an historically accurate description of everything Jesus said and did. The very last verse of the gospel testifies to this: “And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen.” (John 21:25, all quotations are taken from the NKJV, see also John 20:30). I can most easily summarise the gospel by drawing your attention to some of its key words: belief & unbelief, testimony & witness, light & darkness, life & death.
Very few of Jesus’ important teachings recorded in the other gospels are shared by John. There are no stories which might be labelled as ‘parables’, although the clear use of allegory is present. There is no equivalent to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount or any of the other major discourses. Careful study reveals echoes and allusions to Jesus’ words in the other gospels, but these are not always obvious (compare John 15:26-16:4 & Matthew 10:16-26, John 4:44 & Matthew 12:57 for example). The same is true of the miracles.
The teachings in John’s gospel occur in Jesus’ conversations with individuals and groups of people. Sometimes these encounters are friendly, sometimes they are hostile. What John seems particularly interested in recorded is the reaction these teachings engender in Jesus’ listeners. There are many examples to look at: Nicodemus (chapter 3), the Samaritan Woman at the well (chapter 4), the disciples (chapters 14-17), and the rather fluid group John refers to as “the Jews” (see below). Each of these exchanges is life-changing, for better or for worse. John is presenting these same conversations and asking his reader, “How will you react to Jesus?”
One of the common threads through the teachings is the listeners’ repeated misunderstanding. It is through these misunderstandings and Jesus’ corrections of them that we glimpse more easily the spirit behind the words. When Jesus talks to the Samaritan woman, he tells her about “living water” (John 4:10). While she imagines that he is talking about water that will not run out, Morna D. Hooker points out that Jesus is in fact referring to spiritual truth (Morna D. Hooker . Studying the New Testament. London: Epworth Press. page 192). A similar theme is found in chapter 6: “Do not labour for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life.” (John 6:27) Swedenborg points out that wherever food is mentioned in the Word, spiritual food is meant, namely goods and truths, which nourish our mind – Arcana Caelestia 680 refers to both of the above passages.
Of course, there are times when Jesus’ meaning is abundantly clear. In John 8:58 he said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” This is sometimes mistranslated to remove the connotation of Jesus Divinity. However, the reaction of the Jews who seek to stone him as a result of this saying is evidence enough of its intent.
Each of the miracles recorded by John has a point to it. It is possible to follow them through in sequence, tracing the spiritual growth of the human mind, but that would take too long here. He calls the main miracles “miraculous signs”, the point being that they are testimony of the power and purpose of Jesus’ ministry. But they fulfil a second purpose. They illustrate the lack of true spiritual power present in the religious institution of his time. This is most noticeable in the healings which took place in and around Jerusalem (chapters 5, 9 & 11). Not only did two of these three take place on the Sabbath, offending the religious officials’ strictly literalistic reading of the law, but they fulfilled the purpose which they were unable to fulfil – healing of the soul. Take as an example, the healing at the pool of Bethesda (John 5).
The sick and disabled gather at the Pool of Bethesda, waiting for the stirring of waters which will heal them one at a time. Here we have a picture of the Word, stored in the mind as a pool of mere knowledge and quite inert (it is worth observing the prominence of water in the teachings and miracles throughout the gospel). In the spiritual climate of Jesus’ time, the influx which these poor souls wait for would surely have been a long time coming! Jesus meets a paralysed man, whose helpless state prevents him taking advantage of even those rare occasions. Jesus heals him. The man is interrogated, after which, Jesus finds him again and urges him to “sin no more.” These people who gathered around the Pool of Bethesda ought to have found healing in the Lord’s presence through his instrument on earth – the Jewish religion. But its utter failure rendered His physical coming essential. Thus he exposed their incapacity to facilitate those spiritual healings for which the Sabbath was intended. Whether conscious of it or not, it is this exposure which so enrages the authorities.
Is John the anti-semitic gospel? On the surface it certainly seems so. From chapter 5 to the end of the book, Jesus is constantly in trouble with this group, and it is “the Jews” who accuse Jesus before Pilate (chapter 19). But as I suggested above, this group changes. This label is generally applied to anyone who opposes the message of Jesus, but throughout the gospel there are those among “the Jews” who begin to believe. After the healing of the man born blind, we read, “Therefore some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, because he does not keep the Sabbath.’ Others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner do such miracles?’ And there was a division among them.” (John 9:16). See also John 11:45 & 46.
Of course, this is really only a brief treatment of John’s gospel. There is so much here worth thorough study – the opening verses, the ‘I am’ sayings, the public and private miracles, the great conversations, the trial and crucifixion narrative, John’s little commentaries that litter the eyewitness account… Mysterious and puzzling as the book can be, it will nevertheless reward the patient reader.