How to read John


    • Content: the story of Jesus, Messiah and Son of God, told from the perspective of post resurrection insights; in his incarnation Jesus made God known and made his life available to all through the cross

    • Author: the beloved disciple who "wrote [these things] down" (21:24; cf. 13:23; 19:25-27; 20:2; 21:7) most likely refers to John the apostle, son of Zebedee (otherwise not named in this Gospel); the "we" of 21:24 suggests another person is responsible for the Gospel in its final form

    • Date: unknown; probably ca. A.D. 90-95

    • Recipients: see 1 John, to which this Gospel is closely related

    • Emphases: Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God; in his incarnation and the crucifixion, he both revealed God's love and redeemed humanity; discipleship means to "remain in the vine" (Jesus) and to bear fruit (to love as he loved); the Holy Spirit will be given to his people to continue his work


John's Gospel is one of the great treasures of the christian faith. Intentionally telling the story from a perspective after Jesus, resurrection and the gift of the Spirit (see 2:22; 12:16; 14:26; 16:13-14), John writes to reassure believers of the truth of what they believe ( in light of defections and rejection)-that through the Incarnation God is fully and finally known. Here is God's love in full and open display.

In so doing, John puts the story of Jesus into the broadest biblical framework: The Incarnate One is none other than the Word, present with God from the beginning and responsible for creation (1:1-4,10). But the incarnate One is also the Crucified One, who, as God's Lamb, "takes away the sin of the world" (1:29). John is also concerned to demonstrate that the incarnate Son of God is in fact the long-awaited Jewish Messiah; thus Jesus bursts onto the world's stage, fulfilling every imaginable Jewish hope, white at the same time becoming "the Savior of the world" (4:42). Since he is the Son of (the living) God, what he gives is life (: the life of God himself)- eternal life (: the life of the coming age available now).

John begins with a prologue that puts much of this in poetic form ( 1:1-18), weaving theology and history together as he sets the stage for his telling of the story. The story itself is in two major parts (1 :19-12:501. l3:l-20:31); it concludes with a commissioning epilogue and explanation of the (not-expected) death of the "disciple whom Jesus loved" (21:1-25).

In part I Jesus first manifests himself as Son of God to his disciples (l:19-2:11), who thus see "his glory" (l:14) and "put their faith in him" (2:11). He is then revealed to "the world" (2:13-12:50) as both the Messiah and the Son of God. John brings this off by telling the story in the setting of the Jewish feasts, where Jesus acts and speaks in ways that fulfill the rich messianic expectations expressed (especially) through the ceremonies connected with these feasts (Passover, 2: 13 -4:54; Sabbath, 5:1-47; Passover, 6:1 -71; Tabernacles, 7:1-10:21; Dedication, 10:22- 42; [prelude to the final] Passover, 11:1-12:36). Also in this section one finds the seven "signs" (John's significant word for miracles) and the seven "I am" sayings (Jesus' self-identification). Part 1 ends with a double conclusion, narrating first Jesus' rejection by some of the Jews (12:37-43) and then the meaning of Jesus and his mission (12:44-50).

The two narratives connected with the Passover (2:13-4:54;6:1-71 ) also anticipate the final Passover narrated in part 2. Here the interest focuses first on the disciples as those who will carry on Jesus' mission (chs. 13-17) and then on the crucifixion itself (chs. 18- 19), where the Son of God cries (triumphantly) about his work, "It is finished" ( 19:30). The narrative proper concludes with the resurrection (ch. 20), focusing especially on the commissioning of the disciples (20:19-23) and using Thomas's need to see as a foil for those who believe without seeing (w.24-31).


The thing that should most strike you when coming to John's Gospel from having read the Synoptics is how different it is. Not only is the basic scene of Jesus'ministry different (Jerusalem instead of Galilee), but the whole ministry looks quite different. Here you find no messianic secret

(Jesus is openly confessed as Messiah from the start); no parables (but rich use of symbolic language); no driving out of demons; no narratives of the testing in the desert, the Transfiguration, or the Lord's Supper. Rather than placing emphasis on the kingdom of God, the emphasis is on Jesus himself (the Life who gives eternal life); rather than short, pithy, memorable sayings, the teaching comes most often in long discourses. As one scholar put it. "John seems to belong to a different world."

The reason is that John deliberately sets out to tell Jesus' story from the perspective of what he had come to know about him after the light had dawned (brought about by Jesus' resurrection and the gift of the Spirit). Moreover, John's interest in Jesus at his point in history (ca. A.D.

90-95) is shaped in particular by the false prophets who are denying the Incarnation and the saving significance of Jesus'death and resurrection, and who are marked by a failure to love others (see "Specific Advice for Reading 1 John,"). So part of the reason for his postresurrection perspective may be traced to this historical setting. You should note how often John emphasizes that Jesus is rooted deeply in flesh-and-blood history (he grows weary, thirsts, weeps at death; blood and water flow from his side while on the cross). The point is that the one whom John and his readers know as the exalted Son of God lived a truly human life on planet Earth and did so within the context of historical Judaism.

John's special perspective accounts for two other phenomena peculiar to his telling of the story-(1) the nature of many of his narratives and (2) the use of double meanings of words, closely related to the rich symbolism. You need to be ready to hear some things at two levels. John often starts with a narrative, which then evolves into a discourse-and at times you cannot tell where Jesus stops talking and John himself is interpreting (this Gospel is especially problematic for red-letter Bible editions !). For example , in 3:1-21 he starts with a straightforward narrative of Jesus'encounter with Nicodemus, but at its heart are word-plays on the Greek word anothen (which can mean either "again" or "from above," which Nicodemus hears as "again" while John clearly intends both) and pneuma (the same word means "wind" and "Spirit"). And at verse 11 the "I/you [singular]" shifts to "we/you [plural]" and then moves into straight discourse, which from verses 15 to 21 comes in the language and style of 1 John. This has all the earmarks of Christian

preaching, and it recurs throughout John's Gospel.

John's passion in this "preached" retelling of the story is threefold two parts of which occur in his statement of purpose in 20:30-31. First, he cares especially to demonstrate that Jesus is deeply rooted in history as the Jewish Messiah, which is explicitly confessed by the disciples

(1:41, 45 cf . 11:27) and confirmed by Jesus (4:25-26; 5:46; 10:24). Thus some of the "I am" sayings are full of Old Testament allusions-shepherd (Ezek 34), vine (Isa 5:l-7), bread (Exod 16:4; Ps 78:24)- where Jesus steps into the role of Israel itself (vine), as well as Israel's kingly Messiah (shepherd). Most significantly, John sets the entire story in the context of Jesus'being the fulfillment of Jewish messianic hopes associated with various aspects of the festival celebrations, matters often hidden to us but well known to him and his readers.

For example, at the Feast of Tabernacles there was a special water-pouring rite in the temple (described in the Talmud). This rite was related first to the giving of water from the rock in the desert (Exod 17:1-7); it came to be interpreted in a messianic way as pointing to the giving of

the Spirit by the Messiah. It is on the "greatest day" of this feast that Jesus cries out, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink," which John then interprets in light of the gift of the Spirit (John 7:37-39). You are not necessarily expected to catch all of this as you read (a good commentary will guide you as to the details), but it is important to point out that there is often more than meets the eye in the reading of this Gospel. We will call your attention to some of this as you read along.

Second, John is concerned to demonstrate that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, is none other than the Son of God (the Jewish messianic title from Ps 2:7 now understood as the Second Person of the Trinity). In Jesus, God himself has become present by incarnation. John takes every opportunity he can to press this point over and over again (cf. I John).

These two matters lead to the third-the "pathos" of the Gospel, which is to be found in Jewish rejection of their Messiah, precisely because of his claims to divinity. This emerges first in the prologue ( 1:10-13) and becomes a subtheme throughout the whole Gospel, but specially in 2:13-12.50. This is not anti-Semitism, as is often claimed (any more than when Jewish prophets even more fiercely denounced their fellow Jews for failure to follow God); rather it is expressed out of a heart broken over the failure of the people to follow their Messiah. Those who were best positioned to understand Jesus rejected him because they were unwilling to risk letting go of their own safe categories. But whatever else, John clearly believes that Jesus died for the Jewish nation, as well as for the world (11:51-52).


Prologue (1:1-18)

This wonderful passage you will want to come back to again and again. Here John emphasizes both the prehistorical and historical aspects of Jesus as the Word, the Son of God. Beginning with the Word before creation (w. 1-2), John then tells of the Word's role in creation (w. 3-5) and of the twofold response to his coming into the world (vv. 9-13), concluding with a confession (note the shift to the first-person plural) about his incarnation (v. 14) and deity (v. 18). Here also the new exodus motif begins: Believers in Jesus are the true "children of God" (cf. Exod 4:22-23), while Jesus is presented as greater than Moses (w. 16-17), who led the first exodus. Interspersed is a contrast with John the Baptist (w. 6-8, 15), which anticipates the beginning of the story itself.

The Messiah/Son of God ls Manifested to His Disciples (1:19-2:12)

Picking up from 1:1, John tells the beginning of the new creation in a seven-day scheme (five actual days; the last deliberately specified as three days after the fourth [2:1]), which in turn anticipates the seven days of the final week (12:l). What starts with the ministry of John the Baptist-some of whose disciples follow Jesus-climaxes at the wedding of Cana, where his disciples "put their faith in him" (2:11).


Days 1 to 3: Not John, but Jesus, ls the Messiah

Note how these first three days pick up the three things said about John the Baptist in the prologue (1:7-8): He was not the light (w. 19-28); he came to bear witness to the light, in no less than four different messianic confessions (w.29-34); his witness was so that others-in this case, John the Baptist's own disciples-might believe in Jesus Christ (w. 35-42). Note especially how this series ends with the confession by some of John's disciples, "We have found the Messiah."


Day 4: Jesus ls Recognized by o True Israelite

Watch for the ways this fourth day anticipates the fulfillment of Jewish hopes motif that pervades the rest of the story: A genuine Israelite without guile (playing on the name of Jacob ["he deceives"], Gen 25:26) confesses Jesus in the most Jewish confession in the Gospel ("Son of God . . . King of Israel"; see Ps 2); he (and the others) will see the fulfillment of Jacob's ladder (Gen 28:10-22; "surely the Lord is in this place") come to pass in Jesus Christ.


Day 7 : Jesus ls Recognized As the Fulfillment of Jewish Messianic Hopes

And now for the climax on the seventh day of the new creation: The best wine ("saved . . . till now") is drawn out of six stone jars used for Jewish ceremonial washing ! This outpouring of the best wine is seen by his disciples as fulfilling a significant aspect of Jewish messianic hopes (e.g., lsa 25:6; Jer 31:12;Amos 9:13- 14). With this revelation of his "glory," the "first of his miraculous signs," his disciples "put their faith in him."

The Messiah/son of God ls Manifested to the World (2:13-12:50)

In this section John places each of the narratives in the context of Jewish festivals; and in each case Jesus fulfills some aspect of messianic expectations associated with that feast.


The First Passover

In the context of Passover, John first narrates the temple cleansing, the significance of which lies at two points: (1) Jesus' actions divide the world into those who believe and those who do not, and (2) Jesus himself replaces the temple as the locus of God's presence (cf. 1:51).

This is followed by a series of four narratives (Nicodemus, John the Baptist, the Samaritans, the official's son), which continue motifs already in place-the exaltation of Jesus as Son of God in the context of some who do and do not believe (3: 1 -36); Jesus, not Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim, as the place of God's presence; and the confession of Jesus as "savior of the world" (4:1-54). Note how the two narratives of chapter 4 also point toward the gathering of the nations-Samaria (vv. 1-42) and the "royal official" (w. 43-54)

5: l-47

An Unnamed Feast

The next feast is unnamed because John's interest is in the weekly feast day, the Sabbath (5:1-47). The whole narrative assumes a Jewish belief that God continued to work on the Sabbath in three areas of his special divine prerogatives, namely, birth, death, and rain-all of which could and did occur on Sabbath days, giving evidence of God's "working" on the Sabbath. Watch how John uses the healing of the invalid on the Sabbath as the basis for a discourse (vv. 16-47) on Jesus' assuming the divine prerogative of "work" on the Sabbath (giving life and judging [taking life]), which results in a confrontation with the Jewish leaders.


The Second Passover

As you read this second Passover narrative, you find Jesus functioning as the expected "prophet like [Moses]" (Deut 18:18) as he feeds the multitude and then offers them the bread of life. Playing on the Exodus theme of bread from heaven, which Jews expected to be renewed in the messianic age, Jesus offers himself as that bread by offering them his "flesh" and his "blood" (John 6:48-58), thus anticipating the final Passover (chs. 13-20). Note that this feast ends with a winnowing of disciples.

7:1 -10:21

The Feast of Tabernacles

For the Feast of Tabernacles John selects narratives where Jesus deliberately fulfills the three great symbols from Exodus celebrated in various ways during this feast in Jerusalem: (l) the water from the rock (Exod 17:1-7), (2) the light (pillar of cloud/fire) that guided the Israelites (Num 9:15-23),and (3) the giving of the divine name (Exod 3 : 1 3 - 1 5)- for background see especially Zechariah 14 :6 -9, 16 -1 9. The concluding narrative-giving sight to a blind man (John 9)-illustrates how Jesus is the Light of the World. The Jewish leaders now threaten to put out of the synagogue any who confess Jesus as the Christ (w.22, 34). As you read the whole narrative note how Jesus is regularly the cause of division in Israel.

This narrative climaxes with the formerly blind man and the Pharisees standing in marked contrast with regard to Jesus (9:35-41), to which Jesus responds (10:1-21) by telling the Pharisees that he himself is the great messianic shepherd foretold by the prophet (Ezek 34:11-16,20--31). Note how it ends (John 10: 19-21 ): Jesus as the cause of division.


The Feast of Dedication

The Feast of Dedication celebrated the Maccabean restoration of worship in the second temple after it had been desecrated by Antiochus Epiphanes (see Dan 7 -12); it was therefore a feast where Jewish patriotism and messianism ran high. Note how Jesus in this context presents himself-in the temple courts-as Messiah and Son of God, which again brings division in Israel: Some would now seize him (John 10:39); others believed in him (v. 42).


Prelude to the Final Passover

This prelude to the final Passover (note 11:55-12:1) is full of events and sayings that anticipate chapters l3-20-the climactic sign by the one who offers eternal life is the raising of Lazarus, which (ironically) will lead to Jesus'death, where God's glory is fully revealed; as the Resurrection and the Life (11:25), he both gives life and will raise his own on the last day; the high priest "prophesies" that one man will die for the Jewish nation and the "scattered children of God" (= Gentiles; 11:51-52); Jesus is anointed for his burial (12:l-1 l); he enters Jerusalem as their long-expected King (vv. 12-19); and to Greeks who want to "see Jesus" he responds by pointing to his exaltation on the cross (w. 20-36).


Conclusion: The House ls Divided

Note that John now offers a double conclusion to Jesus' manifesting himself to the world (vv. 37 -43 , 44-50). You will not be surprised by now that the first one summarizes the mixed response to Jesus, as fulfillment of Isaianic prophecies. The second then summarizes what you have learned about Jesus in this section of the Gospel.

The Final Passover: The Messiah/Son of God Dies for the World (13:1 -20:31)

Besides the narratives of Jesus' crucifixion (chs. 18-19) and resurrection (20:1-10), watch for John's special emphasis during this final Passover on the disciples, who will continue Jesus' ministry (13 :1 -11 :26; 20:19 -29).


Jesus at Table with His Disciples

In this long table talk, you will find Jesus repeating three themes over and over: I am going; you are staying to continue my work; but you can't do it alone, so I am sending you the Spirit.

Note especially how chapter 13 sets up the whole-Jesus' servant action that symbolizes his whole ministry (coming from heaven [he strips off his outer garment], he takes the servant's place in their behalf and calls them to follow him). Watch how the two major players in the next two scenes (Judas, who will betray Jesus, and Peter, who will deny knowing Jesus) are already presented in the first scene (w. 2,6-11).

Now see how the three main themes are emphasized in chapter 14: Jesus is going back to the Father, whom he has now fully revealed (vv1-10); they are staying to continue his works (w. 11-14); he will return to them in the person of the Spirit (vv. 15-31). This leads to Jesus' applying Isaiah's vineyard parable (Isa 5:1-7) to himself and them (John 15:1-8), which leads to further expounding of the main themes (15:9- 16:33), which now includes the world's hatred of them as the world hated Jesus.

Finally, Jesus' prayer (17:l-26) not only echoes these same themes but also anticipates the success of the disciples' mission to the nations for whom Jesus also prays.


Jesus. Slain and Raised Lamb

Note how John's crucifixion narrative begins by narrating the fulfillment of the prophetic words from chapter 13-first Judas (13:18-30) in 18:1-14; second Peter (13:31-38) in 18:15-27. Thereafter John makes two special points: (l) Jesus is indeed the Jewish Messiah/King, but of a kingdom not of this world (18:28-40), and (2) Jesus dies at the same time as the Passover lambs (1 9: 14), as he is "lifted up" on the cross (cf. 3:14-15: 12:32-33) to God's glory (cf. 11:4). His last utterance, "It is finished" (19:30), is a play on the word fulfill and thus has intentional double meaning: Jesus now dies; his death fulfills the work he came into the world to do.

The resurrection narrative then focuses especially on the disciples, leading to the commissioning. Note especially the significance of the Thomas narrative for the readers of John's Gospel: Thomas believed because he saw; blessed are those (John's readers, now including us) who believe on the basis of this Gospel, without otherwise seeing.

Epilogue (21:1-25)

After the beatitude and statement of purpose in 20:29-31, the epilogue focuses especially on Peter and the "disciple whom Jesus loved," with concern over the longevity of the life of the latter, but whose death has now either taken place or is imminent-before the coming of Christ. So the epilogue explains what Jesus really said in light of some apparent misunderstandings.

If the Synoptic Gospels care about Jesus' place in the history of Israel and beyond, John cares about Jesus' place in the whole scheme of things-from creation to redemption and beyond (final resurrection). That the Messiah is none other than the eternal Son of God is the ultimate good news of the Christian story.