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The Gospel of John

Christian D. von Dehsen. Ph.D.
Carthage College, Kenosha, WI

Background

The Gospel of John portrays Jesus as the preexistent Word (1.1, logos) descended from heaven (1.51; 3.13; 6.62 ) to bring light and life into a world trapped in darkness (1.2–5).

By tradition, the Fourth Gospel was written by John, the son of Zebedee, often thought to be the mysterious "Beloved Disciple" who appears in the later chapters of the gospel (13.23; 19.26, 38; 20.2; 21.7, 20, 24 ). Most contemporary scholars, however, view the author as anonymous.

Unlike the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), John does not depict Jesus as speaking in parables, performing exorcisms, or proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God. Instead, in Jesus, God is present in the world and offers the gift of eternal life (e.g., 3.15–16, 36; 4.14; 5.24; 6.40; 10.10; 12.25). In these passages the johannine Jesus assures believers that the resurrected life is a present reality, not just a hoped for future event. Sometimes this kind of promise is identified as "realized eschatology". (Compare with "Reading through John", for example, John's appeal to future eschatology—the concept that believers will receive the full benefits of faithfulness at some later date (5.25–29; 14.1–8; 17.20–24).

The Gospel of John is thought by many scholars to have four major sections: The Prologue (1.1–18), The Book of Signs( 1.19–12.50), The Book of Glory (13.1–20.31), and the Epilogue (ch. 21).

The Prologue (1.1–18)

This is one of the most recognizable passages in the entire New Testament and functions as the "overture" for the gospel by introducing its major themes. Jesus is the preexistent Word, who, like the figure of Wisdom (Prov 8; Eccl 24) assisted in the creation of the world. Yet, the world reveals itself as a hostile place to the Word taking on flesh and dwelling among human beings (7.7; 15.18, 19; 16.33; 17.14, 25). Interspersed in these comments about the Word are references to John the Baptist, whose disciples formed the core of Jesus's own inner circle (1.35–42).

The Book of Signs (1.19–12.50)

This section of the Gospel of John is characterized by seven "signs," which may have been based on a written source: turning water into wine (2.1–11); curing the official's son (4.46–54); curing the paralytic (5.1–5); multiplication of loaves (6.1–15); walking on water (6.16–21); healing a blind man (9.1–41); the raising of Lazarus from the dead (11.1–44). Thus, scholars have labeled this early source the "Signs Source". (Curiously, the author never uses the expected word "miracle" to describe these supernatural events.) According to John 20.30–31, the purpose of these signs is to engender faith.

Later stages of the development of the gospel elevate Jesus from a purveyor of signs, to being the incarnate Son of God (5.18; 10.30) Jesus is the incarnate Word whose presence in the world creates a dualism among people (cf. 9.40–44). Using a pairs of opposites such as light/dark (3.19; 8.12), life/death (5.24), from above (heavenly)/from below (earthly) (3.31; 8.23–24), not judged/condemned (3.17–21; 5.39–47; 12.48; 18.31), the author distinguishes those who believe in Jesus from those who reject the divine presence.

In contrast to the Synoptic Gospels, there are no parables in the Gospel of John, though there are a number of extended metaphors or illustrative tales (e.g. John 10.1–6, John 15.1–6). Instead, the author develops major themes through extended discourses between Jesus and others (including the reader). In these discourses the author uses the literary devices of symbolism, irony, and misunderstanding to convey the various levels of understanding these persons have about who Jesus is. For example, Nicodemus interprets Jesus's words about the necessity to be "born again" literally. However, this misunderstanding leads to the greater understanding that true faith is "begotten from above" (3.1–15). Some other significant discourses involve the Samaritan woman at the well (4.1–30), and the discussion about the bread of life (6.1–14, 25–71). In several instances, Jesus comes into heated conflict with "the Jews" (5.1–46; 7.1–52; 9.1–41). (In the Fourth Gospel the term "Jew" is sometimes used as a general reference but more often refers to the Jewish authorities, perhaps those associated with the Temple or with those from the synagogue during John's own time.

The Book of Signs concludes with the raising of Lazarus from the dead (11.1–44). This story prepares the reader for Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection in the Book of Glory.

The Book of Glory (13.1–20.31)

John 13.1 announces a turning point in the gospel. To this point, the reader has learned at several points that Jesus's "hour" had not yet come (2.4; 7.30; 8:20). Now comes the declaration that Jesus's hour to depart from the world and go to the Father is at hand (13.1). The account of the crucifixion does not portray Jesus as one who suffers, as for example in Mark 15.25–39, but as one who is exalted ("lifted up"—3.14; 8.28; 12.32, 34) in his moment of glorification (12.16, 23; 13.32; 16.14; 17.1, 5).

The section opens with the longest discourse of the entire gospel, in which Jesus prepares his disciples for his imminent departure (chs. 13–16), followed by Jesus's "high priestly prayer" (ch. 17). As noted above, Jesus warns the disciples of the world's continued hostility. He promises to send them the Paraclete (14.15–16, 26; 15.26; 16.15), John's special term for Jesus's continued presence with the community in the form of the Holy Spirit.

The final chapters of the Book of Glory contain the account Jesus's trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. (The Gospel of John does not have a narrative of the Lord's Supper and differs from the Synoptic Gospels in that the crucifixion occurs on the day of preparation of the Passover (19.14) rather than on Passover holiday itself. Here Jesus prepares himself for the departure to the Father and ironically seems to be in complete control of his destiny, even to the extent of commending his mother to the Beloved Disciple (19.26–27).

The Book of Signs concludes with the discovery of the empty tomb by the women and disciples (20.1–10), Jesus's appearance to them (20.11–18), and the narrative of "Doubting" Thomas (20.24–29). The last two verses (20.30–31) contain what many scholars think may have been the ending to the Signs Source.

Epilogue (21.1–25)

Many scholars consider this chapter to be a later edition to the Gospel of John. Not only does it contain resurrection appearances in Galilee, but it also demonstrates the authority of the Beloved Disciple, who likely died a normal death in contrast to Peter's martyrdom (21.15–23). Perhaps this text reflects a controversy among the second or third generation of believers who considered the Beloved Disciple inferior to Peter, as evidenced by the fact that the former did not die a martyr's death, but presumably expired from natural causes. Jesus's authentication of the Beloved Disciple's authority reinforces his role as the authorized witness of the Jesus tradition for the johannine community.

Conclusion

In effect, John presents Jesus as the divine figure who descends from above to bring God's presence in to a hostile world to the gift of eternal life to all who believe.

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