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The Modern Reader's Guide to the Gospels by William Hamilton


William Hamilton is Associate Professor of Theology at Colgate Rochester Divinity School, and a Baptist minister. Before joining the Colgate Rochester faculty, he was Dean of Chapel, Hamilton College. The Modern Reader’s Guide to the Gospels was published by the Association Press in 1960. It was copyrighted by National Board Of Young Men’s Christian Association in 1959. He is the author also of The Christian Man. This material prepared for Religion Online by Paul Mobley.


Chapter 3: The Passion of Jesus Christ


1. The farewell discourses, 13:1-17:26

These chapters contain discourses given by Jesus to his disciples that prepare them for what is to follow. For Christians they are John's profound interpretation of this central event for the life of the church in any day.

a. The footwashing and its meaning, 13:1-30

John 13:1-3 gives the theological context for the story. The time has come for the disciples to he prepared. The synoptic gospels record at this point the Lord's Supper; John has chosen another way to make his point. There are reflections both of baptism and of the Lord's Supper here, but we are likely to recall primarily the description of Jesus in the other gospels as servant of all (Luke 22:27, for example). But this is not merely an example of humility (girding with a towel is the action of a slave, 13:4); the deeper point is that the disciple's real cleansing from sin will be consummated in an even greater act of humility than this one -- in the death of Christ itself. "To the end" (13:1) thus means "to the end of his life, unto death."

John 13:12-17 interprets the act of foot-washing. The disciples must show the same humility to all men that Jesus has just displayed to them. In verses 21-30, the betrayal is predicted. Jesus is portrayed here with a special kind of foresight into Judas' treachery, and the only "explanation" of that treachery is that Satan entered into him. The "beloved disciple" -- presumably John -- is explicitly mentioned in verse 23, and he alone is told the identity of the betrayer. Verse 23 also reminds us that the disciples do not sit at table, but recline on couches, generally resting on the left elbow; John, on Jesus' right, would thus be described as "close to the breast of Jesus" (13:25).

b. the first discourse: Christ's departure and the security of the disciples, 13:31-14:31

This section, apparently concluding with the dismissal of the disciples from the upper room (14:31) is sometimes called the first discourse. But there is some evidence that 13:31-14:31 is a version of the same discourse that we have in longer form in Chapters 15-17. The structure and many of the themes are repeated in the second and longer passage. This is the most adequate explanation for the otherwise puzzling words at the end of 14:31 which seem to indicate a full break.

With 13:31 the hour of glorification has now fully arrived. It had partly been coming up to now (2:4, 7:30, 8:20, and see also 17:1) but the last hour is decisively present and the disciples can now receive it fully. However, it will mean Jesus' separation from his disciples, a separation that the disciples cannot now overcome. Why? Because the "hour" for their death has not yet arrived. Their function now is not to die, but to love one another. In this "not yet" interval between Jesus' death and their own, the love commandment must be put to work. To love one another is not a narrowing of the universal love of neighbor found in the Sermon on the Mount. It is a mutual love in the church that has as its purpose the salvation of all. What we do not find here is the command to love the neighbor "as thyself" (Matthew 19:19, 22:39).

Peter (verses 36-38) does not entirely understand this departure of Jesus, just as he partly misunderstood the footwashing (13:8). He is still too proud to follow Jesus in his humility, but verse 37 suggests that Peter's way may ultimately involve martyrdom, as 21:18-19 clearly states. His denial is predicted.

Chapter 14 is a word of consolation to the disciples facing the loss of their Lord; their security must be firmly based so that they can face the coming events without fear or despair, and so that they can serve the Lord in his absence.

Their security rests on Christ, and on his preparing a place for them with God. "I will come again" in John 14:3 may mean the disciples' death, and it may mean the new union with Christ in the resurrection and gift of the Spirit. This point on the goal of human life is so important that John moves into a dialogue forrn to clarify it. Thomas tells Jesus that he does not know either the way or the goal; and the answer is that the way is Jesus in his humility and death, and that God is the goal. Philip wants a miracle to render this goal as clear as possible (verse 8) and he is told that he has already had all the miracle he is ever going to get, Jesus Christ himself.

With John 14:12 we are reminded that belief or faith in Christ involves both works and prayer. The greater works of the disciples (verse 12) may refer to the conversion of the Gentiles and the expansion of the church in the world. These greater works of love require Jesus' departure before they can begin, but God's presence will be with them, now in a different form from that of the historical Christ: the Counselor, the Spirit of Truth. Verses 15-17 are the first of the sayings on this subject, which we also find in John 14:25-26, 15:26; 16:5-11, and 16:13-15.

There is no explicit doctrine of the Trinity in the gospels, but these sayings about the Counselor became important material for the formation of that doctrine when, because of certain external pressures in the fourth century, the relation between God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit needed to be made explicit. The early Christians found that God was present with them in a special way after the death and resurrection, but in a way that was closely dependent on Jesus' actual life and ministry. They came to formulate this unique presence in terms of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and these sayings about the Counselor bear directly on that later formulation. The church became Trinitarian not because of some speculative interest in the number three, but because certain events had happened in their midst which they could interpret only by saying that Father, Son, and Spirit, though one God, are somehow three distinguishable forms of his presence.

But the final and deepest assurance of all is the resurrection of Christ. This is the meaning of John 14:18; it does not refer to a future second coming. Through the resurrection the mutual involvement of Father, Son, and disciples will be consummated, but this involvement still requires the obligation of love.

Thus the disciples are prepared to face the coming tragedy with the security and peace (14:27) that only Christ can give them. It is not the absence of conflict, which the world calls peace, but the peace of confidence in God's rule and his promise of life to those who believe in him.

c. The second discourse, Christ and his church, 15:1-16:33

1. The relation of the Christian to the risen Lord, 15:1-17

In 6:56 the relation between the disciple and Christ was described as eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Chapter 6 itself dealt with Jesus as living bread; here we come (in the upper room, notice) to the second half of the Lord's Supper symbolism: Jesus as the true vine.

Vineyard imagery is familiar in both the Old and the New Testament; see Mark 12:1-9. There the vineyard was Israel; its rejection of Christ and its unfruitfulness was the point. Here the vine is Christ himself, and the context is not the rejection of Christ by the Jews (John has already dealt with this extensively) but the life of the church and the presence of Christ in the church to the true believer.

Here the true believer is simply defined as one in union with Christ. The details of the allegory are not difficult to apply. From this union a number of consequences flow: in Christ, the believer serves Christ (bears fruit, John 15:2, 4, 16), finds his prayer answered (verses 7, 16; compare 14:13-14), knows the meaning of obedient love (verses 9-13, 17), and has his very life (verse 6) and true joy (11). All this is not an achievement of the believer, it is the gift of Christ himself (16).

Verse 6 is unlike John's usual idea of judgment, and reminds us of the older emphasis in Matthew 5:13.

2. The Christian and the hostile world, 15:18-16:15

15:18-25 relates the world's hatred of the Christians, as shown in the persecutions of John's own day, to the hatred of Christ that led to the crucifixion. The love of the disciples is in sharpest contrast to the hatred of the world. Hatred from the world is to be expected; when it is a hatred and a rejection that proceeds from a knowledge of Christ it is morally culpable and sinful (verse 22). Indeed, the world's knowing rejection of Christ and his disciples is hatred of God himself.

Verses 26-27 introduce another saying about the Counselor, who will bear witness with the disciples in the midst of their struggle with the hostile world.

In 16:1-4 the hostility of the Jews is made even more definite: it will involve excommunication from the synagogue and even death for the disciples. But even so (verses 5-11 continue in another saying about the Counselor), joy and not sorrow should be the response of the disciples. The Counselor is the new form of the presence of Christ in the Church; so it is essential that Christ himself depart to the Father. The work of the Counselor must involve a stern judgment of the world.

The final Counselor saying in verses 13-15 really sums up the content of the preaching of the church; it is to be a proclamation utterly dependent on God, and it will declare the true meaning of the new age, ushered in completely by the death and resurrection. (This is the meaning of "the things that are to come" in verse 13; it does not refer to the ability to foretell the future.) The Counselor, here called the Spirit of truth, is the very presence of Christ in the midst of his people, bringing to them the riches of God himself and empowering them to claim it and to declare it to all.

3. The disciples and the death and resurrection of Christ, 16:16-33

The "going" is probably the death of Christ and the "coming," the resurrection, with "the little while" the interval between, though this may be deliberately ambiguous, so that the interval between the ascension and the second coming may also be suggested. Verse 20 describes the joy of the world over Christ's death that will turn into the sorrow of judgment, and compares this with the disciples' sorrow that will turn to joy. Verse 22 again refers to the resurrection; after this climax there will be no more anxious questions to Jesus, but only faithful prayer to God.

In verses 29-33 the disciples think they see it all. They suspect that Jesus' going to the Father can be consummated without his death, and they decide that he did indeed come from God because of his Omniscience. Jesus rudely shatters their self-confidence and predicts their flight after the crucifixion. But, in the final verse which can be taken as a summary of the whole second discourse, even their despair is seen as a temporary tribulation that will be put aside because of Jesus' victory over the world. Note that "tribulations" are not Overcome; these still come to every disciple. But Jesus' victory makes it possible for the disciple to meet every tribulation with faith in Christ as God's Son.

d. The prayer of Christ, 17:1-26

In this final prayer, the meaning of "the hour" of glorification is revealed. The teaching is completed; the truth has been given the disciples, and they will receive it fully through the power of the Spirit after the resurrection. One thing remains to be done: Christ consecrates himself in the presence of the disciples (17:19). He prays first for himself (verses 1-5), then for the disciples and their future in the church (6-18), and finally for the whole church in time and in eternity (20-26). Nearly all the themes of the Johannine theology are contained here: obedience unto death as the meaning of God's glory in Christ; the disciples' being in, but not of, the world; the revelation to the disciples of the true character ("name," verse 6) of God in Christ; their mission, their unity in love, and their present and future relation to God and to Christ.

In 17:1-5 we discover that the chief result of the Father's glorification of the Son, and the Son's of the Father, is the gift of eternal life to the disciples here and now. This life is defined clearly as the knowledge of God who sent Jesus into the world.

In 17:6-18 Jesus describes what he has done for the disciples. Note that his chief work is not teaching or healing but the calling of a distinctive community to bear witness to God by making known His "name." He asks God that the disciples be kept faithful, in but not of the world, bearing witness to what they know, united to each other as Son is united to the Father. The reference in verse 12 is, of course, to Judas; and in verse 14 John is apparently thinking of the world's hatred in terms of the persecutions in the midst of which he is living. In verse 17 Jesus prays for the sanctification of the disciples: that they be dedicated and empowered to bear witness to the truth. This dedication is not based on anything they have of themselves; it is based on Jesus' own consecration. "Consecrate" in verse 19, the climax of the prayer, is a sacrificial term; it refers directly to his death, and it means "I dedicate myself as a sacrificial offering."

Finally, in John 17:20-26, Jesus prays for the church present and to come. This is a prayer for the church's unity, based on the unity of Son with Father, that the church may be so bound to God and to Christ that the world will believe its witness. In verse 24 we pass from present to future, and we catch a glimpse of the eschatological hope of the church. The three stages of Christian existence are thus sketched out: first is the time of the manifestation of God's glory through Christ to the disciples; second is the new form of presence of Christ in the church after his death and resurrection (this is where John was, and where we are now); finally, there is the consummation of the church in the perfect love of the presence of God.

2. The narrative of the Passion and resurrection, 18:1-21:25

a. The Passion, 18:1-19:42

1. The arrest, 18:1-11

The scene suggests Gethsemane; note "garden" in John 18:1 and the reference to the cup of suffering in verse 11. There are some new features that we do not find in the synoptic accounts; no kiss from Judas; the identification of Peter as the one who cuts off the slave's ear; the emphasis on Jesus' moral authority and courage in verse 6; and Jesus' concern for the safety of the other disciples in verse 8. The main impression we receive from this account is that Jesus, and not Judas or the soldiers, is in control. The arrest, the suffering, the death must come, for it is all God's will and the means He uses to glorify Himself through the Son. But it would be wrong to conclude from this that all death and suffering can be fully described as being simply God's will. This particular suffering and death is just that, for it is the center of God's gift of salvation to sinful men. But human suffering and death are often due to human evil, to disease, to accident; and suffering is an enemy that must be fought and, whenever possible, removed. God's will is present to us in every suffering, but it is too easy to explain suffering away by saying only that it is God's will.

2. The trial before the high priest and Peter's denial, 18:12-27

There is some difficulty about Annas and Caiaphas here. It is the latter who is high priest (see Matthew 26:57 and John 11:49), yet Jesus is taken to Annas, and there is only a hint of a trial before Caiaphas in verse 24. The other disciple in verse 15 is probably the beloved disciple.

The strange thing about the trial before Annas is its brevity, compared to Pilate's extended examination. Jesus is questioned only about his disciples and his teaching. There are no messianic questions, no mention of this threat to destroy the temple. No accusations are made and no charge is established or even defined. Jesus refuses to testify against himself (18:21) which is in fact illegal in any case: evidence must come from witnesses, not from the accused. So the examination is inadequate, illegal, and, in verse 22, brutal.

3. The trial before Pilate, 18:28-19:16

Jesus is taken into Pilate's residence, the praetorium; the Jews remain outside for fear of ritual defilement. The discussion that follows between Jesus and Pilate takes place inside, and Pilate goes outside to consult with the Jews when necessary. If the Jews here represent those who reject Christ, Pilate stands for the world that needs a Christ, half-convinced, half-skeptical.

Pilate returns to Jesus (18:33) and asks him if he is the Messiah. We may well wonder where Pilate picked up this accusation, and indeed we perhaps ought to be somewhat skeptical of the historical accuracy of these private conversations between Pilate and Jesus. It is hard to see how they could have come to be known. Jesus penetrates to the heart of the theological issue and discusses the nature of kingship, affirming his true kingship, denying that he is a king in Pilate's sense. Verses 33-38 are really a study of the relation of the church and the empire, and their relevance to John's own day can easily be seen.

After the half-ironic, half-sincere question "What is truth?", Pilate again tries to avoid action by citing to the Jews the custom of releasing a prisoner on the Passover. The Jews refuse to accept Jesus' release.

Verses 1-6 are difficult to understand. Perhaps Pilate is trying to appeal to the pity of the Jews. He whips Jesus, making him appear so powerless that they would conclude he could not be dangerous. Pilate's scornful "Here is the man!" in verse 5 is an indirect witness to the truth; here is the man indeed, the very word made flesh, the Son of man himself.

But Jewish sympathy cannot be aroused, and they make their second accusation: he has made himself the Son of God. Here the Jews blurt out their real charge against Jesus, though up to now they had doubtless been afraid to admit to Pilate that their objections were religious and not political. This accusation upsets Pilate, and he questions Jesus again, in verses 9-11. Jesus answers with a discussion of the nature of authority.

Again Pilate tries to free Jesus, and the Jews openly threaten Pilate with being friendly with an enemy of the imperial authority. The final charge they bring is rebellion, and to make their accusation convincing they utter a word of blasphemy and final apostasy: "We have no king but Caesar" (19:15). Pilate finally gives in, and consents to have him crucified. Verse 16 does not mean that the Jews crucified him. Verses 17, 18, and 23 remind us that the soldiers of Rome were the actual agents of the execution. Pilate's actual responsibility remains: for John the Son of man must be "lifted up," crucified, so the Roman means of punishment is essential. But the author certainly minimizes Pilate's actual involvement.

4. Crucifixion and burial, 19:17-42

The details of the crucifixion are more carefully related to fulfillment of scripture here than in the synoptics, and the symbolic meaning of these details is brought to the fore. The story of the seamless robe, verses 23-24, becomes a parable of the unity of the church.

Mark 15:40 and Matthew 27:56 mention these women near the cross, but there the third is Salome and not Mary the wife of Clopas. This is the first mention of Mary Magdalene in the gospel, and she comes in later as a witness of the resurrection. She is also a witness of the resurrection in the other gospels, and Luke 8:2 briefly mentions her. This is all the real information we have of her. There is no good evidence to identify her with Mary of Bethany in Mark 14:3-9 or with the sinner in Luke 7:37.

John reports three sayings from the cross; in the first, Jesus gives the care of his mother to the beloved disciple. It is hard to see any important symbolic or theological meaning for this; perhaps it is merely a touch describing the church as a new kind of family. "I thirst" is a fulfillment of Psalm 69:21. Hyssop is an herb. A twig of hyssop may be meant here, and this would relate the death again to the Passover, for hyssop is used in some of the Passover ceremonies. But it is hard to see how a sponge could be placed on a small branch and offered to Jesus. The Greek word for soldier's spear or javelin is very similar to the Greek word for hyssop, and there may be a scribe's error here. Putting the sponge on a javelin would be more intelligible in this context.

The breaking of the other criminal's legs is a detail peculiar to John, as is the reference to the Old Testament to explain why Jesus' legs were not broken. The point of John 19:31-37 is mainly to insist on the reality of Jesus' death (verse 33) on the day before Passover, to emphasize that his death coincided with the killing of the Passover lambs. He really died, in accord with God's will and the scripture. Verses 34-35 state that this death gives life and cleansing for all (the witness is again the beloved disciple).

John does add symbolic and interpretative touches to some of the incidents of the crucifixion. But at the same time he insists on the real historic character of the central event. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, really died and was really buried.

b. The resurrection, 20:1--21:25

1. The empty tomb, 20:1-29

There are two parts to this account, verses 1-18 concerned with Mary, 19-29 with Thomas. The vivid details are not difficult to grasp. The beloved disciple, hearing the report of the women, reaches the tomb first, but Peter goes in first. The description of the linen cloths that he sees (verses 6-7) suggests that the body was not disturbed or stolen, but that it dematerialized in some miraculous way. However, it is not Peter but the beloved disciple who is the first to believe. The faith of the beloved disciple who believed without seeing the risen Lord is the center of this part of the story. Mary sees the empty tomb but continues to weep. She does not believe until the one she takes for the gardener speaks to her and she responds to the risen Lord. This account is an interesting study of the relation of sight (facts) to faith. Mary, the beloved disciple, and, in the next section, Thomas -- each has the problem of facts and faith solved in a slightly different way.

Later that evening, John 20:19-25, Jesus appears to a group of disciples, shows them the marks of his victory over the world, and gives them their final commission to serve. John records the gift of the Spirit, the power to undertake the commission, as occurring on Easter Sunday rather than on Pentecost, six weeks later, as in Acts 2. Verse 23 defines the chief purpose of the church as forgiveness of sins and the withholding of forgiveness or judgment.

Thomas, whom we have met before as something of a pessimist and skeptic (11:16 and 14:5), hears the report of Jesus' appearance, and remains unconvinced. The next week Jesus comes to Thomas, who responds, not merely identifying the figure with Jesus, but affirming him as Lord and as God. In verse 29, Jesus mildly rebukes Thomas, or at least praises those who believe without seeing.

This chapter is very carefully written. Mary's tears and Thomas' doubts are parallel; in both parts, the problem of touching Jesus is raised; in the first part, Mary's tears are less important than the faith of the beloved disciple; in the second, Thomas' doubt is less important than the commission of the disciples.

Verses 30-31 conclude with a comment on the gospel John has written, and with a final word on its function. Many have felt that this marked the true ending of the gospel at one time, and that Chapter 21 represents a later addition, perhaps by the same hand as Chapters 1-20. To some, Chapter 21 seems anticlimactic; to others, the further explanation of the mission of the disciples and the comments on the faith of Peter and the beloved disciple are quite appropriate.

2. Epilogue, 21:1-25

a. The appearance by the lake, 21:1-14

This story reminds us a little of Luke 5:1-11, but it would be a mistake to read it simply as a story of a wonderful catch of fish. There are a number of touches that suggest a deeper meaning playing throughout the story, even if it is difficult to know just how far we should take the symbolism. The language reminiscent of the Lord's Supper in John 21:13 is clear; the untorn net of verse 11 may suggest the capacity of the church to hold all sorts of men. The number 153 has been a happy hunting ground for symbolic interpreters. Two points should be noted, which may or may not be relevant: 153 is the sum of the first 17 whole numbers, and 17 is the sum of 7 and 10-both supposed to be numbers symbolizing wholeness or perfection. It used to be thought that ancient Greek zoologists had estimated the number of types of fish to be 153, 50 that the number was said to symbolize a perfect and a complete catch.

b. Peter and the beloved disciple, 21:15-23

If the catch of fish represents the mission to the unconverted, the words to Peter perhaps represent the mission to the converted. to the sheep. Peter's threefold response of love is intended to suggest his threefold denial, and to indicate that it is overcome. Peter's death is hinted at in John 21:18-19; though verse 18 seems more like a prediction and 19 more like the statement of a fact already accomplished. Notice that Jesus' last word to Peter (verse 19) is the same as his first, in Mark 1:17 -- "Follow me."

Verses 20-23 are a slight rebuke to Peter for being concerned about the fact that the beloved disciple is to have a longer period of service than Peter himself. The chapter ends with a statement on the trustworthiness of the witness of the beloved disciple, and a remark, like that in 20:30-31, about the many things which the gospel has excluded. The "I" of "I suppose" in verse 25 is the author; but whether this is the beloved disciple or not we have no means of knowing. The author deliberately kept himself out of his gospel except for this brief allusion; his function was to witness to something far more significant than himself.

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