The Book of Signs (
1, 19–12, 50
John uses the word “signs” to emphasize the symbolic role of Jesus' miracles in pointing to Jesus' true, divine origin. In order to understand the truth revealed by the signs, a person must think of their symbolic reality, not of the literal words or events. The “Jews” will be portrayed as persons who are unable to see the symbolic truth of Jesus' words.
Gathering Witnesses to Jesus ( 1, 19–4, 54 )
The Prologue told us that the Baptist was sent to testify to Jesus. He opens this section with that testimony ( 1, 19–34 ). Although there are hints of hostility to come, the first four chapters are generally positive. Jesus gathers followers who believe in his divine mission.
John Testifies to Jesus ( 1, 19–34 )
The Baptist testifies on different occasions to two different groups of officials that he is not the Messiah. He is simply preparing the way for the one who is coming ( 1, 19–28 ). The Synoptic Gospels contain a scene in which Jesus is baptized and hears God announce that he is God's beloved Son (see Mk 1, 9–11 ). Jesus has no need of such a revelation in the Fourth Gospel. The evangelist transforms the traditional scene into another example of testimony about Jesus. The Baptist sees the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove and remain on Jesus. God has given him that sign to identify the Messiah, who will baptize with the Spirit and will take away the sin of the world ( 1, 29–34 ).
Jesus Gathers Disciples ( 1, 35–51 )
A series of brief scenes shows us how Jesus gathered the rest of his disciples. They follow a set pattern. Persons who come to Jesus through the testimony of others have their own experience with Jesus, which makes them true disciples. The Baptist sends Jesus the first disciples (vv. 35–37 ). Notice that this chapter is collecting all of the titles that early Christians used to speak of Jesus: Lamb of God (v. 36 ); Messiah (v. 41 ); the one redicted by Moses and the prophets (v. 45 ); Son of God (v. 49 ); King of Israel (v. 49 ); and Son of Man (v. 51 ). The final verse is very enigmatic. It hints at the story of the ladder, which Jacob saw in a dream vision (Gn 28, 12 ). But Jesus as the heavenly figure, the Son of Man, has replaced the ladder. According to John, no one sees God except through Jesus (see 1, 18 ).
Cana Miracle Manifests His Glory ( 2, 1–12 )
Now that he has gathered the disciples, Jesus' first miracle reveals his divine glory to them. The real revelation of Jesus' glory, however, cannot come until the Crucifixion. Therefore, Jesus first appears to reject his mother's request (vv. 4f ). A wedding feast was often used as a symbol for the time of rejoicing that would follow God's judgment. Jesus has provided the wine for such a feast. We will see that Jesus replaces some of the most important Jewish feasts and customs. Christians no longer follow traditional patterns of worship. Here, Jesus replaces the water, which was to be used for ritual purification.
Cleansing of the Temple ( 2, 13–25 )
Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, which include only one visit to Jerusalem in Jesus' ministry, John has three different Passover visits as well as episodes during other feasts. The other Gospels link the cleansing of the Temple with the Passover of Jesus' death. John puts that episode much earlier. It enables him to tell the Christian reader that Jesus will also replace the Temple. The evangelist reminds readers that Jesus' disciples could not have understood the saying until after the Resurrection ( 2, 22 ). The end of the chapter warns against faith that is based simply on miracles (vv. 23–25). Many attracted by Jesus' miracles will not remain faithful.
Dialogue with Nicodemus ( 3, 1–21 )
The next two dialogues, with Nicodemus and with the Samaritan woman, employ the technique of misunderstanding in which the person to whom Jesus speaks takes Jesus' words literally and thus provokes further comment. You will notice that Jesus always responds with an even more difficult statement than the one that provoked the original misunderstanding. In this case, Jesus' words appear to leave Nicodemus behind, but he will reappear as someone sympathetic to Jesus ( 7, 50–52 ). Since Jewish writings of the period also speak of a cleansing of the righteous by the Holy Spirit, Nicodemus might have been expected to understand that Jesus was speaking about a rebirth “from above,” that is, through the Spirit rather than “again” (see note to 3, 3 ). John's Christian readers probably saw an allusion to baptism in the insistence that people had to be reborn to enter the Kingdom. The episode marks a clear distinction between the teacher of Israel who cannot even understand the idea of spiritual rebirth, and Jesus who is, in fact, the very source of life.
A sudden shift to the plural “we” and “you people” echoes the confrontation between Christians and their synagogue opponents in the evangelist's time (v. 11). Verses 12–15 follow a pattern similar to 1, 50f. Belief on the grounds of some “earthly” sign is challenged by the heavenly reality, which is to be revealed in Jesus. In both cases a saying about the Son of Man represents the higher truth. Drawing upon the story of Moses lifting up a bronze serpent in the wilderness (Nm 21, 9 ), the evangelist asserts that Jesus will have to be lifted up (on the cross) to become a source of eternal life for all believers. Verses 16–21 speak to the Christian reader about the coming of Jesus. Elsewhere in the Gospel “world” is a negative symbol for those who are hostile to the Word. Here the world refers to all humans as the object of God's love. Though darkness did not overcome the light ( 1, 5 ), humanity can still reject the light. The passage offers one explanation for the tragic fact that people will prefer darkness to light; they would rather hide their evil ways than “live the truth,” a Semitic expression for following the will of God revealed in the Law.
We should remember this human tendency to “prefer darkness to light” when we confront issues of moral or personal reform today. When we are faced with situations in which people are addicted to drugs or alcohol, we find that the most difficult step is overcoming the denial of the problem. We may become frustrated in our efforts to help such people because it seems that they would rather destroy their lives and those of others than accept available help. Certainly, we should not write off people who need our help, but this passage shows us that we cannot always expect easy results.
Jesus and John the Baptist ( 3, 22–4, 3 )
John once again testifies to Jesus as the one to come. The saying about the Bridegroom appears in the Synoptic Gospels as part of an exchange over fasting. John's disciples fast while Jesus' do not (see Mk 2, 18–19 ). In John's Gospel the emphasis lies on the identity of the two men. The Baptist's role ends once he has given witness to Jesus. Verse 27 points to the importance of grace in the Gospel: no one can have anything that God has not given to that person. Verses 3, 31–36 seem to be the evangelist's summary of the entire chapter. The Son is the one who has been given “everything” by the Father (v. 35). His mission is to give the Spirit—or eternal life—to those who believe (vv. 33f.36). The contrast between the “one from heaven,” who testifies to the truth and speaks the words of God, and those who belong to earth, who reject the Son, once again demonstrates that the coming of the Son also brings judgment (v. 36b).
The Samaritan Woman ( 4, 4–42 )
John has divided this story into a series of scenes that progressively reveal the truth about Jesus and his mission. Jesus comes to be known as greater than the patriarch Jacob, who met his future wife at a well. Legend had it that in the new age, the water would bubble to the top of Jacob's well so that people did not have to labor at drawing water. Jesus is more than a messiah figure who would vindicate the Jews by exalting Jerusalem. Jesus is more than the prophet like Moses whom the Samaritans expected to establish their version of the Law and place of worship against the claims of their Judean neighbors. Readers know that when Jesus speaks of a gift of living (that is, flowing) water, he speaks symbolically of the gift of the Spirit ( 3, 8 ). The woman persists in treating Jesus' words literally until the enigmatic reference to her marital status persuades her that Jesus is a prophet. When Jesus responds to her challenge to settle the old dispute between Jews and Samaritans over where to worship God by speaking of worship in “Spirit and truth,” Jesus is alluding to himself as the replacement of the Temple (see 2, 13–22 ). The woman finally accepts Jesus as Messiah. Like the disciples in chapter 1 , she puts that insight into action by bringing others to Jesus (v. 29 ).
Jesus' dialogue with his disciples about mission and harvest ( 4, 31–38 ) indicates that, like the woman, they too are sent to preach to others. Along with the previous episode, in which Jesus was said to be baptizing more people than the Baptist, this story makes it clear that Jesus was able to convert people with his preaching. The hostile controversies of the next section might otherwise give the impression that Jesus' mission was largely a failure. The large numbers of Samaritans who come to Jesus indicate the truth of Jesus' words to the disciples about the rich harvest. The story concludes with the ringing affirmation that Jesus is “Savior of the world.”
Healing the Royal Official's Son ( 4, 43–54 )
The section on gathering followers concludes with a second miracle in Cana. Jesus' word spoken at a distance is enough to heal the official's son ( 4, 53 ). Now that Jesus' identity as the Son sent from God to save the world has been established, we are ready for the confrontation between Jesus and those who do not believe.
Confrontation with the World ( 5, 1–12, 50 )
The sharp confrontation with unbelief that makes up this section of the Gospel does not represent failure, since it leads to the hour of Jesus' exaltation and return to the Father. Jesus succeeds in gathering as children of God those persons who believe his words despite all the obstacles that others put in their way.
Healing on the Sabbath: Jesus Gives Life and Judges ( 5, 1–47 )
The tradition that Jesus provoked hostility among religious leaders by healing a paralyzed man on the Sabbath and associating that healing with the forgiveness of sins is well established in the tradition (see Mk 2, 1–12 ). John uses the discourse that follows the miracle story to draw out what the real issue is: Jesus' claim to equality with God ( 5, 16–18 ). Opposing teachers could appeal to the Law of Moses to argue that no human being can claim to do things which are God's alone, to give life to the dead and to judge (see notes to 5, 21.22 ). We have already seen that in John's view the decisive encounter with Jesus is the moment of judgment (see vv. 24–26). Jesus defends his claim to give life and judge by appealing to the special relationship he enjoys with God. As “Son,” Jesus does what the Father has given him to do. He does not act on his own authority (v. 30). Furthermore, those who question his behavior should look to the witnesses he can bring forward: the Baptist (vv. 31–35), the deeds which God has enabled him to do (v. 36), and the witness that God has given through Scripture (vv. 37–39). Jesus accuses his opponents of failing to recognize that he is from God because they are not really concerned with the glory that belongs to God. They are only interested in the human glory they receive from other people. He warns them that their confidence in Moses is misplaced. Moses witnesses to Jesus and will condemn anyone who rejects that testimony (vv. 40–47).
Jesus Is the Bread from Heaven ( 6, 1–71 )
Chapter 6 is based upon a traditional cycle of material that included the feeding of the multitude, calming the storm at sea, a demand that Jesus give people a sign, a challenge to Jesus based on his human origins, and Peter's confession of faith in Jesus as Messiah. John reshapes this material by including a lengthy discourse on Jesus as the bread of life, which has come down from heaven (vv. 22–59). Those who fail to see the symbolism of the feeding miracle or who focus on earthly facts about Jesus will not receive Jesus as the bread of life. Just as Jesus had promised the Samaritan woman a gift of water that would lead to eternal life, he promises bread that will give life to the believer. But the “Jews” are going to copy the behavior of their ancestors, who murmured against Moses. John explains that those who do come to believe in Jesus have been brought to him by God (vv. 37–39.44f). The comment that Jesus will not cast out those who come to him (v. 37) probably refers to the members of John's church who had been expelled from the Jewish community by officials. That experience is prefigured in the story of the blind man ( 9, 22 ).
Jesus' words are the source of eternal life in the first part of the discourse. Christian tradition associates the manna and the “bread of life” with the Eucharist. This tradition appears in 6, 51–59. It is necessary to eat the life‐giving bread and wine, the flesh and blood of Jesus. This meal establishes a special relationship between Jesus and the believer: they “abide in” one another. Just as the Father is the source of Jesus' life, so Jesus becomes the source of life for the Christian. In this episode we learn that receiving eternal life is not the result simply of thinking that Jesus is God's Son. It really involves an entirely new relationship with God that is possible in Jesus. John 6, 51–58 places the Eucharist at the center of that relationship. If Jesus' words about eating his flesh and blood were taken literally, they would be a blasphemous participation in a human sacrifice. Even if Jesus' audience understood that Jesus was speaking symbolically, they might be horrified at the idea that Jesus could identify himself with God so closely.
The chapter concludes with a reaction among Jesus' followers, which shows that these words were too difficult for many to accept. Faced with the possibility of abandoning Jesus, Peter confesses that there is no one else to whom they could turn. Only Jesus has the words of eternal life.
Conflict and Division at the Feast of Tabernacles ( 7, 1–8, 59 )
The episodes in this section occur at the Feast of Tabernacles and at an unnamed feast that follows it. The symbolism of light and water were part of the Tabernacles ritual, and Jesus uses them to express his identity ( 7, 37–39; 8, 12 ). Throughout the section we are reminded that officials are seeking Jesus' death even when they deny that fact ( 7, 1.19f.25; 8, 39f ). Jesus is accused of “leading the people astray.” He is also accused of being possessed by a demon. Since it is not yet Jesus' hour, however, attempts to arrest ( 7, 32.44 ), legally condemn ( 7, 45–52 ), and stone ( 8, 59 ) Jesus fail. Several scenes picture the divided opinion among the crowd. These scenes may also provide answers to Jewish objections against Jesus: (a) Jesus did not keep the Law in healing on the Sabbath, but the Law permits activities like circumcision on the Sabbath ( 7, 19–24 ); (b) Jesus' origins make it impossible for him to be the Messiah, yet Jesus' real origins are “from heaven,” and the signs he has done testify to that fact ( 7, 25–31.40–44 ); (c) Jesus is not an established teacher of the Law, yet Jesus has received his words and teaching from God so that he does not seek personal glory as human teachers do ( 7, 15–18 ).
Jesus begins to prepare the reader for his departure. He speaks of it in a symbolic way, which the crowd cannot fully understand. Jesus will go to a place where they cannot follow him ( 7, 32–36 ). The crowd thinks that Jesus will go to the Jewish communities outside Palestine. There is a symbolic truth in that statement: Christianity will spread in those communities. Or, perhaps, Jesus intends to commit the blasphemous act of killing himself ( 8, 21f ). The ironic truth of that statement is that Jesus will give up his life on behalf of others. He predicts that when his enemies have executed him, they will find that Jesus is the one who comes from the Father. Jesus even bears the divine name “I am” ( 8, 28 ). The bitter conflict between Jesus and the Jewish leaders in chapter 8 repeats this identification of Jesus with God's I am in a dispute over descent from Abraham. Those who seek to kill Jesus cannot be descendants of Abraham, since what Abraham saw and rejoiced in was Jesus. Therefore, they are branded children of Satan ( 8, 39–59 ). The story acknowledges the difficulty of Jesus' words. He is asking us to identify a human being with the God revealed to Abraham and to Moses.
The Blind Man Believes in Jesus ( 9, 1–41 )
This story shows that it was possible for the blind man to move from the miracle by which Jesus restored his sight to true faith in Jesus. He does so as the religious authorities pressure him to condemn Jesus. He comes to recognize more and more clearly that Jesus cannot be a sinner, and therefore Jesus must have come from God. The fear that “Jews” (= authorities) will drive them out of the synagogue keeps the man's parents from testifying ( 9, 22f ). This story may represent the experience of members of the Johannine community. Jesus returns at the end of the story to show the man his identity and condemn the blindness of the Jewish leaders (vv. 39–41).
True Shepherd Gives His Life ( 10, 1–42 )
We already know that Jesus' death is an expression of God's love for the world ( 3, 16 ). Religious authorities have said that Jesus deserves death for leading people astray ( 7, 45–52 ). Here, parables of the shepherd and his sheep demonstrate that Jesus is the true leader of the people—at least for those whom God has enabled to respond to his call ( 10, 1–30 ). Jesus will even give his life for the sheep, something that none of the hired hands who claim to lead the people will do. Offended by his claim to identity with the Father (vv. 30–39), the crowd again tries to stone Jesus. We are reminded that Jesus' death is a free offering on his part, not a victory for those allied against him (vv. 17f).
Raising Lazarus: Gift of Life Means Death ( 11, 1–57 )
John has used the raising of Lazarus to bring out the irony of what the religious leaders are seeking to do. Jesus is the source of life (vv. 24–26), yet they think that they can silence Jesus by killing him. The Lazarus episode also serves to remind Christians that if they truly believe that Jesus is resurrection and life, then they should not mourn physical death as others do. Jesus often seems remote from others, but here Jesus displays his love for Lazarus and his sisters. Ironically, the following that Jesus gained from his greatest sign led to the formal decision of the Jewish Council to arrange his death ( 11, 45–57 ). Although the high priest does not know the truth of his words, it will turn out to be a good thing that one person dies for the people, and, as the evangelist points out, for all the peoples of the world (vv. 50–52).
The Light Is Departing ( 12, 1–50 )
John locates the traditional story of Jesus' anointing at Bethany (Mk 14, 3–9 ) in the home of Lazarus and identifies the anonymous woman as his sister Mary. She recognizes the approach of Jesus' death. Ironically, the traitor, Judas, is the one who protests (vv. 1–8). Hints of the future Christian mission are evident in the Pharisees' response to the entry, “the whole world has gone after him,” (v. 19) and the coming of some Greeks to seek Jesus. Their arrival marks the hour of Jesus' death. He prophesies that when he is lifted up on the cross, he will draw all people to himself (vv. 20–32). The “Book of Signs” concludes with reflections on the tragedy of disbelief (vv. 39–43 and 44–50).