“In the beginning was the word…”
“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, God said…”
Reading the sacred Hebrew Scriptures through the lens of the Christ brought John to startling new insights. In his understanding, in some unfathomable mystery, the eternal creative energy and wisdom of Divinity had been enfleshed in Jesus of Nazareth. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…”
John’s Jesus is always both-and. Both human and divine. Both mortal and eternal. Both limited and infinite. In their own ways, the other three gospels also tell the Christ story with this both-and perspective but John weaves heaven and earth together in a unique and intriguing narrative.
John’s Jesus can tell the future and reads people’s minds. He is fully in charge of his own death, walking determinedly to the cross; the Good Shepherd “laying down his life” for his flock. Even so, The Gospel of John most pointedly speaks of his humanity: this Jesus becomes tired and thirsty; he bleeds and dies like any other human who is placed on a cross.
M. Eugene Boring’s recent New Testament text describes how John uses double entendres to help communicate this both-and reality of John’s Jesus. In the story of Nicodemus, for example, Jesus explains that one must be “born again/born from above.” The Greek phrase means either-or/both-and; Jesus and Nicodemus were using the same words but comprehending different aspects of reality. Later in that same conversation, Jesus says he will be “lifted up” – the meaning of which, we come to discover, is both lifted up on a cross and lifted up by God in exaltation.
Boring says: “There are numerous such cases in which the pre-Easter characters in the story understand Jesus’ words at one level, when the narrator, with a knowing look and stage wink at the post-Easter reader, intends them in the other way.”
We “post-Easter readers” must always keep in mind the dual vision of the gospel storytellers in order to read appropriately. The Jesus of the gospels is always both-and: always both human and divine, always both the Jesus of Nazareth and the exalted Christ.
The Gospel according to John is different from the other gospels in chronology, geography, theology and style. We call Matthew, Mark and Luke the “synoptic” gospels because their vision and version is similar to one another (syn = similar + optic = seeing).
Probably Mark laid out the original chronology which Matthew and Luke borrowed, but John maps out the life of Jesus in a completely new way. It is John who suggests a three-year ministry based on his description of three different trips to Jerusalem for Passover; the other three gospels speak only of the one final Passover in which Jesus’ passion occurred.
While the Synoptics locate most of Jesus’ ministry in the northern province of Galilee, John’s Jesus teaches mostly in the southern realm of Judea.
The Gospel according to John has no birth narrative, no shepherds (Luke), no wise men (Matthew) and significantly, no story of a miraculous virgin birth. There are no parables in John and all of Jesus’ teaching is concentrated in the final chapters before his passion. There is no talk of the coming “kingdom of heaven;” rather John’s Jesus points to himself as the present presence of God, doing the works of God in order to accomplish the “glory” of God. There is no last supper with breaking the bread and taking the wine in remembrance; instead John’s Jesus spends his last supper with the disciples washing their feet. “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (13:14).
John’s early chapters are sometimes referred to as the “book of signs” because it is in these stories that the narrator designates Jesus’ acts of wonders as “signs” rather than “miracles.” A sign points to something. A sign signals something that is coming or symbolizes something unseen. And the signs John highlights, the acts of wonder he describes delve into the core of Jesus’ identity and the nature of the Christ. For John, the signs demonstrate the Creator’s remarkable, hands-on intersection with creation. The signs suggest the mystery of God’s being present in the being of Jesus. “I Am” – John’s Jesus tells us repeatedly.
I Am the Light of the world – spoken in the context of the healing of a blind man.
I Am the Resurrection and the Life – spoken to Mary grieving the death of her brother Lazarus.
I Am the Bread of Life – spoken to those whose stomachs were filled with the multiplied loaves and fishes.
The very use of “I Am” is theologically bold, hearkening back to Moses’ encounter with the bush that burned but was not consumed when the voice of the Holy One spoke its own name: I AM. (Exodus 3) Ever since then, among the descendants of Israel, The Name is held to be too holy for humans to utter. Yet here is John’s Jesus, again and again, speaking the piercing words: “I Am.”
The “I Am” sayings accomplish something else: Gentiles could also relate to the Christ whose very being provided “a comprehensive metaphor designating the human quest for life and salvation.” The concepts of Word and Wisdom, Logos and Sophia, communicated a multilayered complex of meaning to those from the Hellenistic religions. “The Christ event, which is celebrated throughout the world is presented [by John] as the fulfillment of the universal human longing for authentic life, however it is expressed.” (both quotes from Boring).
Early on in John’s story, there is an intriguing account of Jesus countering the Pharisees who questioned his credentials.
You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life… Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?” (5:39-47 edited)
Here again is what Richard Hays terms “reading backwards:” Jesus claiming that the patriarch Moses had written about him.
We recall that Luke’s Jesus had a similar understanding of his relationship to the Hebrew Scriptures: the Scriptures give witness to Messiah, to the Christ, to himself. In his parting gift to his disciples, Luke’s Jesus said: “…everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures… (Luke 24:44). This explicit connection between Torah, Psalms, Prophets and Jesus is the brilliant interpretive work of our earliest Christian theologians.
I think many Christians don’t understand the significance of this hermeneutic of reading the Christ into the Old Testament. This particular interpretive approach was not a given. Early Christian communities pondered deeply how the faith that had been handed down to them from Israel might now connect and collaborate with their new found faith in a living Lord. Discovering, discerning, describing the compatibilities was the work of a faithful, prayerful people.
Remember Paul wrote his version of the good news of Jesus Christ first. His letters to congregations proclaimed the gospel not in story, but rather in practical, lived theology. Paul wrote mostly to Gentiles and, although he understood Jesus to be the Christ, the Messiah of Israel’s hope, he talked about that Christology in ways which those who were not Israel could grasp. It wasn’t necessary for Paul to argue from the Hebrew Scriptures in order to convince Gentiles that Jesus was Son of God and Lord of all.
Mark came next, writing to Jewish Christians instead of Gentile believers; then Matthew; then Luke. Their way of proclaiming the gospel was different from Paul’s; it was crafted into story. It was a new and distinctive narrative theology that told the Jesus story by making connections back to the story of Israel. Some of the connections are explicit (direct quotations and claims of “fulfillment”); much of the connection is more subtle, heard as suggestions and allusions.
Then finally, around the turn of the century, John wrote his gospel. Hays notes the striking difference in how often John quoted the Old Testament as opposed to the three other gospel writers: “Matthew 124 times; Mark 70; Luke 109; John 27.” John’s way was to tell fewer stories and to go deeper. There are not as many explicit quotations but John’s is a rich and complex application of the Hebrew Scriptures to the life of Jesus the Christ.
“Even more explicitly than the other Gospel writers,” Hays explains, “John champions reading backwards as an essential strategy for illuminating Jesus’ identity. Only by reading backwards, in light of the resurrection under the guidance of the Spirit, can we understand both Israel’s Scripture and Jesus’ words.” (85-86)
So each gospel writer demonstrated his own way to “read backwards” into the Jewish Scriptures and apply a Christ hermeneutic. God’s work of grace and salvation was now seen to continue in Jesus. God’s redemptive work for Israel was now understood to find its climax in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Such thoughtful, prayerful reflection is the origin of Christian theology.
But there is definitely a challenge to such a christocentric hermeneutic because there is a temptation to read the Old Testament as if it only has significance and meaning through Jesus. Of course, as a Christian, I read all the Bible with my Jesus-lens; I can’t help it. But my Jewish cousins who read the same texts also find significance and meaning for their faith without reading Jesus into it. A good Bible student will challenge herself to read the ancient text within its own historical and social and theological context and let it stand there. We can learn a great deal about its meaning and about the faith of the Jewish people who produced these texts by letting it stand within its own time and place for awhile before moving on to a christological application.
I point out these challenges of biblical interpretation in part because of the way the Gospel of John has been misused throughout Christian history to vilify the Jewish people. Several times throughout the story, John’s Jesus speaks harshly and accusingly to “the Jews” as if there were an ethnic and religious difference between them. But of course everyone in the story is a Jew, even Jesus himself. So we must understand that John’s telling is multi-layered; he is telling a story about Jesus of Nazareth sparring with the Temple leaders at the same time he is layering a story about Jesus’ disciples who, a generation later, were being ousted from their synagogues because of their Christian faith. There was a deep rift in this painful family feud and the bitterness of excommunication becomes obvious as John tells his story.
When we listen in to these sharp conversations, modern Christian readers need to remember 1) these stories are set in another time and place; 2) the stories articulate the tensions between opposing factions within the same ethnic and religious family; 3) the name calling and demonizing reveals the deep pain of those who had suffered damaged relationship with their family, their friends and their religious community. Christians who misapply the internal conflict of this complex family group to justify their own anti-Semitism have misunderstood how to respond to God’s gospel of love and grace. Honoring our joint Scriptures, acknowledging our common heritage, recognizing our mutual connection to the Creator of all by way of the Bible with both its Old and its New Testaments can support respectful relationship between Jews and Christians.
Richard Hays offers many helpful insights in his Reading Backwards book; I recommend it.
One thing in particular Hays has helped me see anew is John’s brilliant and creative use of figural speech and metaphorical action. The opening prologue of Logos sets the tone: we know this one who is Word will mystify and astound us. Then very quickly, in chapter 2, John has Jesus in the Temple, challenging the merchants and the moneychangers. (Each of the other three gospels place this story near the end of the gospel alongside the Passion.) Situating the Temple story here at the beginning introduces John’s understanding that this one, Jesus, is now – figuratively – the new Temple.
The Living Temple – where God’s glory dwells.
The Living Temple – where heaven and earth meet.
The Living Temple – where redemption happens.
In the story of the cleansing of the Temple, John quotes Psalm 69 as if the eternal Word, the Logos was the speaker of the words of the Psalmist: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Hays elaborates:
When John tells us that Jesus was “speaking of the Temple of his body,” a light goes on: the Evangelist…is teaching his readers how to read. He is teaching us to read figurally, teaching us to read Scripture retrospectively, in light of the resurrection. Only on such a reading does it make sense to see the Jerusalem Temple as prefiguring the truth now definitively embodied in the crucified and risen Jesus.” (86)
Readers learning how to read.
This is always true of all our work within the pages of the Bible. There is no such thing as reading without interpreting. The Bible never “says what it means and means what it says;” it always requires wisdom, reason, discernment and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And this principle of “learning how to read” is especially true of the Gospel according to John.
Jesus is Temple.
Jesus is Bread.
Jesus is Light.
Jesus is Door.
Jesus is Shepherd.
Jesus is Life.
Jesus is Truth.
Jesus is Vine.
Jesus is Word.
As we post-Easter readers continue to learn how to read; as we Enlightenment rationalists continue to rediscover figures and symbols and poetry; as we the Church continue to embody the presence of the Holy in our own flawed way – The Gospel according to John is rich resource indeed.
Charlotte Vaughan Coyle developed Living in The Story during her Doctor of Ministry studies at Brite Divinity School. She lives in Paris TX where she blogs about Intersections of Faith and Culture and progressive interpretations of Scripture.
Richard B. Hays, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2014).
M. Eugene Boring, An Introduction to the New Testament: History, Literature, Theology (Louisville: Westminster, John Knox Press, 2012).
Interested students may also appreciate John Shelby Spong’s recent commentary, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic (HarperOne, 2014).