EXPLORING THE GOSPEL OF JOHN
By the Rev. Dr. Michael Petty [Fr. Michael Petty]
St. Peter’s Anglican Church
The Prologue to the Gospel
I. What is a Gospel?
In including four gospels into the canon of Scripture, the Church made a significant decision: that no one gospel [by itself] could be taken to provide an adequate portrait of Jesus. One of the earliest Christian theologians, Irenaeus of Lyon, spoke not of four gospels but of a fourfold gospel, the one gospel presented by the fourfold witness of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
The early Church was not at all embarrassed by the fact that the gospels were all slightly different. The gospels seem to have followed the pattern of ancient biography, the purpose of which was not to present a complete account of the subject’s life, arranging details in chronological order, but to provide an account of the subject’s character and significance. A major element in this effort was the portrayal of the subject’s death. Note that John 1:19-12:50 is an account of Jesus’ public ministry, sketched in terms of significant events, and John 13:1-19:42 is an extended account of Jesus’ death. For John, Jesus is revealed through the signs he performs in the first section and in the way he dies in the second section. The Prologue to the gospel (1:1-18) is the interpretive key to the whole work.
II. John 1:1-5
1. While Mark begins his account of Jesus with his baptism and while Matthew and Luke begin their accounts with Jesus’ birth, John begins his account of Jesus with the very life of God before Creation. The reason for this is that Jesus’ relationship to God is one of his primary themes. The gospels are never concerned with simply providing information about Jesus but they are always concerned with Christology: with understanding who Jesus is as both a person and as one in whom God acts.
2. John’s gospel begins in the very same way that the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) version of Genesis 1:1 begins. A. Lincoln offers this translation of John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was at God’s side, and what God was, the Word was.” Right from the start, we are given what John considers to be the most important fact about the story of Jesus: The story of Jesus did not begin in first century Palestine but actually had no beginning at all because he was eternally present with God. This gospel is going to recount the intersection of time and eternity, human history and the eternal God.
3. “Word” in 1:1 is the English rendering of the Greek word “logos,” a very rich word. As “Word,” logos is not simply a conveyor of information but has to do with self-expression. The Word is God’s own self-expression. While God and his self-expression are distinct, they are not separable. The basis of John’s Christology is that God expresses himself in the person [of] Jesus.
4. Two things are in the background here:
One is the fact that, in Genesis 1, God, through speaking, creates realities into existence; God’s speaking does not merely convey information but actually effects things. Creation is a Word-formed reality.
Another thing is the role of Wisdom in Proverbs 8, which also is before Creation and is with God. For the Old Testament, Word (as in Psalm 33:6 and Isaiah 55:11) expresses God’s immanence in Creation, without compromising his transcendence. In Psalm 119: 93, 109, God’s life-giving Word and Wisdom can be identified with Torah, meaning that God’s Torah, given to Israel, was a source of both life and wisdom. By speaking of Jesus as the Logos, John makes it clear that what is given in Jesus far surpasses what has been given in Torah. It is not merely that Jesus simply fulfills Scripture (Torah) or completes it but that he surpasses it.
5. The point being made here is not that the Christian revelation is “better” that Judaism. The purpose of John’s Gospel is not to compare two distinct “religions” called Judaism and Christianity, with a view to showing the superiority of Christianity but to make the case that faith in Jesus as the Word of God is the only true response to Israel’s God, open to both Jews and Gentiles. Contrary to recent opinion, John is neither anti-Semitic nor anti-Jewish.
6. The relation of the Logos to the created order is both simple and complex: simple in the sense that “all things were made through him” (1:3) but complex in the sense that the human response to the Word is not uniform (as in 1:9-12). Colossians 1:15-17 provides a helpful point of comparison: This gets at the mystery of the person of Jesus, who is both a human being and God’s own self-expression, who gives form and sustenance to the created order. On one hand, all of creation has a relationship to the Word through its very being; on the other hand, human beings are invited into a relationship to the Word in the person of Jesus through belief. As 1:4 indicates, the Word is both the source of life (zôe) and light. God creates through his [Word] and gives revelation through his Word. Already, we have established the theology, which later Church Councils will have to work out: that of how the Word is both identified with God and distinct from him.
III: John 1:6-8
1. We abruptly leave eternity to enter into the realm of time and history, so that the coming of the Word can be related to the witness of John (this gospel does not refer to John as “the Baptist”). Notice that the work of John the forerunner (distinct from the author of the gospel) has its origin in God, as does the work of the Word.
2. Notice that in 1:7 that John “came as a witness, to bear witness.” Here, we have two of the most important words in this gospel: witness (marturàia) and bearing witness (marturein). The noun form is used 14 times in this gospel and the verbal form occurs 33 times. The purpose of John’s witness is clearly indicated in 1:7.
3. The meaning of witness and bearing witness have a strong meaning in this gospel. What is envisioned is not simply oral testimony but the totality of one’s life. It also has a forensic meaning, as in giving testimony in a court.
IV. John 1:9-14
1. While John the forerunner was to bear witness to the light, Jesus is the light. The point being made here is that the light Jesus brings is not simply some bit of “religious” knowledge, which is quite nice but which one could do very well without. The enlightenment brought by the Word is the light of the Truth, the Truth about God, the Truth about human beings, and the Truth about the world. The Word does not add a bit of religious varnish to a world that is already just fine but, rather, the Word enters into a dark and dying world into order to give light and life.
2. It is worth noting that enlightenment becomes a word for baptism within the New Testament (Ephesians 1:18; Hebrews 10:32) and the writings of the early Church fathers.
3. One type of response to this enlightenment is ironic in 1:10-11. While the world came into being through the Word and is what it is because of him, it did not know him. While the Word came to his own people, those most prepared for his coming, they did not recognize him. This emphasizes the depth of the human predicament: human beings no longer know who they really are nor do they understand the world for what it really is.
4. 1:12-13 shows another type of response, the response of John’s church. The Word comes not merely to grant some type of generic enlightenment but to authorize the creation of a new people of God, a people who are children of God, by themselves being reborn. Being a child of God is not simply a matter of birth (being born into the right people) but a matter of rebirth. Just as the Word comes from God, so must the rebirth of God’s people. Note that the problem with Jews, from the standpoint of this gospel, is not that they are Jews (this would be anti-Semitism or anti-Judaism) but the problem is that they have refused what the God of Israel wishes for them.
V. John 1:14-18
1. In this section, we have the confession of John’s community about the Word. It begins with the shocking affirmation that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (1:14).” Here we are at the heart of the mystery of Christ who is God’s Word en-fleshed. In order to begin to understand the mystery of Christ, we have to understand that he is the embodiment of God’s self-expression. Notice that two seemingly different things come together here: God’s self-expression and the created order. In affirming the Incarnation (the en-fleshment of the Word), John affirms that God and creation are not simply opposites.
2. The Word “dwelt among us” (1:14). This is related to the Old Testament notion of God dwelling among his people, particularly in the tabernacle or Temple (see especially Exodus 40). It was this dwelling of God that made the Jerusalem Temple so important, in that it was a sacramental sign that God was present to his chosen people. John holds that Jesus replaces the Temple as God’s place of dwelling.
3. As the new Tabernacle, Jesus the Incarnate Word also reveals God’s glory: God’s splendor or radiance. In Exodus 40, it is the glory of God that descends into the tabernacle and dwells. Glory can also refer to God’s reputation — the weight of God’s name. In John, it is precisely Jesus’ death [which] reveals the glory of God. God is glorious, in revealing himself and, in his faithfulness, manifested in his action in Christ.
4. The glory of the Son is that of a Father’s only son (1:14). In this culture, honor was tied to heredity and a person’s status was tied to that of his father. The only son in a family had a place of unique honor. The Son is affirmed to have a unique status because of his unique relationship to his unique Father.
5. “And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (1:16): This statement is looking forward to v.17 and, thus, means that Christ adds to, completes, and surpasses the grace given in the Mosaic Covenant. The point is not that Jesus and Moses are in competition and that we now have to choose sides nor that “good Jesus” has come to replace “bad Moses” but that what happens in Jesus encompasses Moses but [also] surpasses him. This, of course, would be the dividing line between Judaism and Christianity.
6. 1:18 refers back to Exodus 33:12-34:9 and the well-known fact that Moses did not see God on Mt. Sinai. According to Exodus 33:20, it is impossible for human beings to behold God. And yet, this is precisely what the Son does, by virtue of his very being. The Son is “at the Father’s side” (or “in the Father’s lap”) and so his vision of God is not an event but part of his very being. Because the Son knows the Father intimately, he, and he alone, can make him known. In the Son, we have real revelation, that is God making God known.
The Prologue to John helps us to get a proper sense of perspective, by placing both Jesus and the Church in the larger context of God’s relationship to his creation. If Jesus is seen simply as a historical figure, questions about why he should be the only way to God immediately pop up and are finally impossible to answer. When Jesus’ unique relationship with God is set aside, it becomes impossible to justify Christian faith in him other than on the basis of personal preference. It is only when we make the connection between the historical figure of Jesus and the Son of God, the connection made by the Incarnation, that Jesus as God’s way to God becomes justifiable.
The Christian claim is both radically specific and cosmic at the same time: It is radically specific in that it insists that God’s Word became Incarnate in a specific, historical person and that this was a unique event. The salvation of the world does, in a sense, depend upon a Jewish prophet and upon the Israel that gave him birth.
This insistence that an equal opportunity for salvation does not present itself in Buddha or Mohamed is not the result of Christian “intolerance” or “exclusivism” but is the consequence of the way God has acted in his Son. At the same time, we have to remember that Jesus is not simply a historical figure, knowledge of whom is only available in Scripture or the Church since, as the Word, he is the one through whom the world was created and is the one in whom it is sustained.
The witness of the Church plays an important role but this role presupposes Jesus’ relationship to the whole created order. This means that the Gospel is not an “inside” story which Christians tell to themselves or a “religion” for those “who like that sort of thing.” It is, rather, a matter of declaring to the world the truth about itself, a truth which it does not yet know and against which it often unknowingly reacts. In light of the Prologue, we can see that much of the animus against Christianity is rooted in either the sting that it inflicts, by telling the truth, or the unfaithful way in which some Christians have carried out their task, either being slothful or overzealous. We can and should do nothing about the former; we are duty-bound to correct the latter.
The Testimony of John the Baptist
1. The atmosphere in this scene anticipates the atmosphere that will surround the whole of Jesus’ public ministry: that of hostility and interrogation. John 1:19-34 is about John’s marturía or testimony, where this word has a forensic meaning. “The Jews” have sent priests and Levites to investigate John’s ministry of baptism (1:25), since they are the experts in purity regulations and baptism had to do with purity. “The Jews” is used by this gospel to designate a very specific group: those Jewish officials who oppose Jesus.
2. John is asked about his identity (1:19). Several things need to be kept in mind, in this respect:
First, we are told that John’s ministry took place in Bethany across the Jordan. Bethany here is not the Bethany of Mary and Martha, near Jerusalem. By placing himself across the Jordan, John was signaling some kind of Messianic activity, by suggesting that he was gathering people to be led by the Messiah, across the Jordan into the Promised Land, as Joshua had done but, in this case, what was being symbolized was the creation of a new Israel.
Second, there was no standard Jewish expectation of a Messiah in the first century. Some Jews (the Sadducees) expected no Messiah at all while others (the Essenes) expected three: a prophet, a priest and a king.
Third, baptizing Jews was an eschatological action, suggesting some final action on the part of God.
3. John’s testimony begins with three denials:
(1) John denies being the Messiah very firmly in 1:20. “Christ” is simply the Greek version of the Hebrew “Messiah” and becomes the central designation for Jesus.
(2) John denies being Elijah. In 2 Kings 2:11, Elijah was taken up into heaven, without dying, and this created, with the help of Malachi 4:5, the popular expectation that Elijah would precede the Messiah. This denial is in some tension with Mark (1:2) and Matthew (6:14), who do identify John with Elijah. For theological reasons, John pushes the Elijah theme aside, to focus on John solely as one who bears witness to Jesus.
(3) John denies being the prophet. The prophet here is the one which Jewish interpretation took to be foretold in Deuteronomy 18:15-18, a prophet like Moses.
4. John’s testimony is not simply one of denial. In 1:23, he identifies himself with the voice of Isaiah 40:3. John’s ministry is nothing like that suggested by his interrogators but something far more humble: that of preparing Israel for God’s intervention. But this leads to another question: If John is not the Messiah, Elijah, or the prophet, why is he baptizing? The question here is not simply one of motive but of authority. The point of 1:26-27 is to show the subordination of John to Jesus.
The question of why John is baptizing is answered by making it clear that it is simply preliminary — that John is not even worthy to perform for the “one you do not know” (1:26) a function performed by a slave. The preliminary and subordinate nature of John’s baptism is portrayed in Acts 19:1-6, where there is a distinct separation between “John’s baptism” and baptism “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
1. Having been rather tight-lipped about himself, John now has much to say about Jesus. This, of course, fits the pattern of John as a figure who only makes sense in relation to Jesus and is not an independent object of attention (note 3:30).
2. John’s positive testimony begins with the affirmation that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29). What does this affirmation mean? One possible meaning is that Jesus is being identified with the apocalyptic lamb portrayed in inter-testamental Jewish literature, where the lamb is a conquering figure who destroys evil. This would certainly make sense in light of Revelation 7:17 and in light of John 3:8, where the Son reveals himself to destroy the works of the devil. Clearly, John’s reference to “lamb” is not intended to designate Jesus as “mild.”
Another possibility is that John is referring to the Suffering Servant Song of Isaiah 52:13-53:12. This figure’s suffering purifies many (53:6, 11-12) and is described as being like a lamb (53:7).
Another possibility is that John is thinking of the Passover lamb. This makes sense, in that John alone tells us that Jesus was on the Cross, while the Passover lambs were being slaughtered (19:4). Of course, all of these images could be intended, putting them into the service of describing Jesus’ definitive role in God’s salvation.
3. 1:30-33 again clearly subordinates John. While Jesus follows John in the flow of temporal events, this in no way indicates theological priority because, in the sense made clear in 1:1, Jesus is John’s predecessor. In 1:31-32, we return to the theme of John’s baptism and two important things are made clear:
First, John does not recognize Jesus, until Jesus’ baptism, and only does so because he is told by God to watch for a specific sign. Notice that this gospel does not actually recount Jesus’ baptism by John but refers to it obliquely (the scene John mentions seems to be Jesus’ baptism, as recounted in Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, and Luke 3:21-22). Also important to notice is that, in this gospel, the baptism of John is not actually described as being for repentance but rather for the purpose of revealing Jesus to Israel (1:31).
These two things are not in conflict, but by describing John’s baptism in this way, it is made clear that John’s activity has no validity apart from Jesus.
4. In 1:32-33, we are also given an important insight into Jesus’ relation to the Spirit. In both verses, the Spirit descends upon Jesus and also remains on him. This sets Jesus’ relation to the Spirit apart from those of other figures who were given the Spirit but upon whom the Spirit did not remain. It is Jesus’ possession of the Spirit that gives his baptism its unique character (1:33) and enables Jesus to speak of sending the Spirit (16:7). John 1:32-33 is intimately connected with John 20:22.
5. The scene ends with John summarizing his witness to Jesus: Jesus is the Son of God. As Psalm 2:7 indicates, referring to someone as “God’s son” does not necessarily imply that they are divine: In the case of Psalm 2, the king of Israel is “God’s son.” But, in light of what John has said about Jesus in 1:29-34, the term takes on a different meaning: Jesus is the Lamb of God (in several senses), he precedes John in a theological / ontological sense, and he is the one upon whom the Spirit remains. These affirmations fill out what is meant by “Son of God” in this gospel: One whose actions are definitive, not simply because he acts on behalf of God (an important claim by itself) but because his actions are also the actions of God. In this brief scene, we have a summary of this gospel’s Christology.
This account of John’s witness (which will be continued in 3:12-36) provides us with a model for our own witness. John’s witness is powerful for several reasons:
First, John clearly shifts attention away from himself to Jesus. His witness is his witness but he is not the principal subject but points beyond himself.
Second, John focuses on conveying a truthful and understandable account of who Jesus is. The success of a witness depends less on the persuasive abilities of the witness than on the Truth it conveys. John appears less concerned with getting people to “appreciate” him than with telling the truth he knows.
Third, John appears ready to be questioned and disputed (as he clearly is in 1:19-28) without being discouraged. “Who Jesus is,” he realizes, is not obvious or a simple truth of common sense: (If this were the case, no witnesses would be needed!).
Finally, John is able to realize that there is a witness that is greater than his own, a witness which makes his own witness fruitful and this is, of course, the witness of God himself to himself. It is helpful to see the witness of John as manifesting the ideal balance of characteristics: It is spirited but does not presume to pound the truth into someone’s mind. It is convinced but realizes that success does not belong to it. It is concerned to convey the truth but knows that this truth stands beyond itself.