Seeing God more clearly through the Gospel of John
Last Sunday Renée wrapped up NCF’s eight-month teaching series on the Gospel of John. All of our teaching series have been sparked by some personal element, but I have to admit our series on John began with my feeling of lack. We kicked off the new teaching series in January, at a time when the many transitions taking place at NCF had left me tired and empty, with little energy left for trying to decide what to teach on Sundays. Honestly, if we hadn’t taught through the Gospel of Luke so recently, I would very likely have fallen back on this favorite book of mine, one that I already had spent a great deal of time researching.
As I began thinking about the work I had done on the Gospels, however, I realized there was a major lacuna in my knowledge. Because I’ve focused on attempts to understand the Historical Jesus, I had primarily been focused on the synoptic gospels, often entirely to the exclusion of the Gospel according to John! Most Historical Jesus scholars ignore the Gospel of John, either dismissing it as “too theological” or using it occasionally to bolster arguments for the historicity of the handful of events recorded in all four gospels (“it must be historical, even John includes it!”). I took this lack of knowledge on my part, and the recently renewed interest in the academic world, as a challenge for both myself and NCF. Perhaps it was inspiration.
In preparing to teach—and in teaching through John—I was surprised to find that, in many senses, this gospel is not nearly as different from the synoptic gospels as it has often been made out to be. Richard Horsley and Tom Thatcher (in John, Jesus, & the Renewal of Israel) discuss the many ways the Gospel of John presents a very familiar story:
- Jesus appears in a very familiar context: an oppressed nation under the power of the Roman Empire, a multitude of religious movements with varying degrees of connection to Jesus’ budding movement, and a strained political atmosphere.
- Jesus takes on a similar mission: to renew and restore the nation of Israel, by peaceful means, with the symbolically chosen twelve disciples, beginning with the lowest and the least, those who had been overlooked or ignored by other movements.
- Jesus carries this mission out in familiar ways: performing miraculous signs, teaching, and (pen)ultimately by surrendering his life to the political and religious authorities to be executed. Along the way, he makes familiar friends (the disciples, Mary, etc.) and familiar enemies (the Pharisees, priests, scribes, and so forth).
- And, most significantly, the story ends with a risen Jesus appearing to his disciples and handing down his mission to them.
At the same time, we noticed that John presents these familiar elements in unique ways:
- As John tells it, Jesus’ ministry lasts over the course of as many as three years, marked by regular visits to Jerusalem to celebrate various feasts and festivals.
- In John, Jesus exchanges pithy, short parables for more extended expositions, employing a wide variety of metaphors and imagery from the scripture and theology of Israel.
- In John, instead of language about the “Kingdom of God” (as in the Gospels according to Mark and Luke) or the “Kingdom of Heaven” (as in the Gospel according to Matthew) Jesus favors language about “eternal life,” a parallel but distinct idea.
- And in John, Jesus goes almost immediately to the Temple to carry out the symbolic, prophetic action of driving out the money-changers and sacrificial animals, the event that serves as the “last straw” in the synoptic gospels. John describes Jesus continuing his ministry for years after this incident, and instead places the miraculous sign of raising his friend Lazarus from the dead as the event that pushes Jesus’ enemies to take action against him.
- John also connects Jesus’ story to the very biggest version of God’s story (Mark includes no genealogy, Matthew’s only goes back to Abraham, and Luke’s goes back to Adam but no further), looking back all the way before creation, and looking forward to a final resolution seemingly more distant than the other gospels.
In order to make these connections as strong as possible, John relies heavily on the Hebrew Scriptures, especially the book of Genesis. Many of the images John uses paint Jesus’ ministry as the beginning of a “New Creation,” which in many ways mirrors the original Creation. Jesus’ words function as though they are God’s own, bringing peace in the midst of chaos. Jesus’ presence serves as a light in dark places, belief in Jesus presents the possibility of a new birth, and connection to Jesus’ ministry is a life-giving, sustaining reality, like water or bread.
Ultimately, however, the Gospel of John gives us a clearer picture of who God is as revealed in Jesus. Without denigrating Jesus’ own tradition, John presents Jesus as offering a truer interpretation of the law, as offering a purer form of what was being offered by the Temple establishment, and, ultimately, as a better and more final sacrifice on behalf of God’s people.
In listening to John as a fellowship over these past several months, we have been challenged to see God more clearly, to listen more carefully to God’s Word in Jesus, and to be a part of the mission of bringing a little more light into the dark places around us.