Chapter 17: The Gospel According to John

The Story of the New Testament
by Edgar J. Goodspeed

Chapter 17: The Gospel According to John

Christianity and Judaism had parted company. The Christian movement, at first wholly Jewish, had after a little tolerated a few Greeks, then admitted them in numbers, and at length found itself almost wholly Greek. The Jewish wing of the church withered and disappeared. The Jews closed up their ranks and disowned the church. Church and synagogue were at war.

It was plain that the future of the Christian movement lay among the Greeks, the Gentiles. To them it must more than ever address itself. Its message must be made intelligible to them. But the forms in which it had always been put were Jewish. Jesus was the Messiah, the national deliverer whose coming was foretold by Jewish prophets, and who was destined to come again on the clouds of heaven in fulfillment of the messianic drama of Jewish apocalyptic. The church was addressing a Greek world in a Jewish vocabulary. Was there no universal language it could speak? Was no one able to translate the gospel into universal terms? The Gospel of John is the answer to this demand.

Early in the second century a Christian leader of Ephesus, well acquainted with the early Gospels and deeply influenced by the letters of Paul, put forth a new interpretation of the spiritual significance of Jesus in terms of Greek thought. Paul had laid great emphasis upon faith in Jesus the risen Christ, glorified at God’s right hand, and had attached little importance to knowing the historical Jesus in Palestine. His Ephesian follower finds in Paul’s glorified Christ the divine "Word" of Stoic philosophy, and reads this lofty theological conception back into the earthly life of Jesus. The faith Paul demanded becomes with him primarily an intellectual assent to the messiahship of Jesus thus understood, that is, to the revelation in the historical Jesus of that absolute divine will and wisdom toward which Greek philosophy had always been striving.

The form in which this Christian theologian put his teaching was a gospel narrative. He did not intend it to supersede the familiar narratives of Matthew and Luke, but to correct, interpret, and sup- plement them The new narrative differs from the older ones in many details. In it Jesus’ ministry falls almost wholly in Judaea instead of Galilee, and seems to cover three years instead of one. The cleansing of the temple is placed at the beginning instead of at the end of his work. Nothing is said of Jesus’ baptism, temptation, or agony in the garden. His human qualities disappear, and he moves through the successive scenes of the Gospel perfect master of every situation, until at the end he goes of his own accord to his crucifixion and death. He does not teach in parables, and his teaching deals not, as in the earlier Gospels, with the Kingdom of God, but with his own nature and with his inward relation to God. In his debates with the Jews he defends his union with the Father, his pre-existence, and his sinlessness. He welcomes the interest shown by Greeks in his message, prays for the unity of the future church, and interprets the Lord’s Supper even before he has established it. His cures and wonders, which in the earlier Gospels seem primarily the expression of his overflowing spirit of sympathy and helpfulness, now become signs or proofs to support his high claims.

The long delay of the return of Jesus to the world had caused that hope which had been so strong at first to decline in confidence and power. The new evangelist at once acknowledges and explains this by showing that the return of Jesus has already taken place in the coming of his spirit into the hearts of Christian believers. He thus transforms the Jewish apocalyptic expectation into a spiritual experience. He foresees that under the guidance of this spirit the Christian consciousness will constantly grow into greater knowledge and power.

Toward the close of his Gospel the writer states his purpose in writing it to be to give his readers faith in Jesus as the Christ, and thus to enable them to have life through his name. This idea of the life to be derived from Jesus is prominent in the whole Gospel. Christ is the source of life of a real and lasting kind, and it can only be obtained through mystic contact with him. This is because Jesus is the full revelation of God in human life. This doctrine, which we call the Incarnation, is fundamental in the Gospel of John: "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory. . . . . I am come that they may have life and that they may have it abundantly."

While the Gospel of John contains no parables, in a sense it is a parable. It presents an interpretation of Jesus in the form of a narrative of his ministry. The writer feels that the Jewish title of Messiah does not express the full religious significance of Jesus, but by finding for it an expression in Greek philosophical terms he transplants Christian thought and the Christian movement into Greek soil. It was easy for persons of Greek education to understand the claim that Jesus was the divine Logos, or Word, of the Stoic philosophers, and a gospel which began with such a claim would be likely to arrest their attention. The writer still thinks of Jesus as Messiah, and retains his respect for the Jewish scriptures. Indeed, the idea of the revealing Word of Jehovah appears now and again in Jewish literature, and the Jewish philosopher Philo had already identified it with the Logos of Greek thought. This made it all the easier for the writer of the new Gospel to apply it to Jesus, but in this interpretation of Jesus as the divine Word he goes beyond previous Christian thinkers and takes a long and bold step in the development of Christian theology.

The Gospel is the story of Jesus’ gradual revelation of himself to his disciples and followers. The opening sentences present its main ideas in words intelligible and attractive to Greek minds. Over against the followers of John the Baptist, who still constituted a sect in the writer’s day as they had in Paul’s, the evangelist relates John’s ready testimony to Jesus as the Son of God and Lamb of God. With a few followers, some of them directed to him by John, Jesus visits Cana and in the first of his "signs" indicates his power to transform human nature. After a brief stay in Capernaum he goes to Jerusalem to the Passover, and there clears the temple of the dealers in sacrificial birds and animals who with their traffic victimized the people and dis- turbed places meant for prayer. The Jews demand a sign in proof of his right to do this, and he answers with a prophecy of his resurrection. In a conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus explains that a new birth of water and the Spirit, that is, baptism and spiritual illumination, must precede the new life of the Kingdom. Jesus comes near the place where John is baptizing and John gives fresh testimony to his superiority. To avoid overshadowing John, Jesus goes into Galilee and on the way explains the water of life to a Samaritan Woman and reveals himself as the Messiah and the source of eternal life. In Galilee Jesus is favorably received and performs the second of the seven signs that punctuate his earthly ministry. Soon another feast brings him to Jerusalem. There he heals an impotent man on the Sabbath and, in the discussions which ensue with the Jews, expounds his relation to God. Returning to Galilee, he feeds a great multitude by the Sea of Galilee and declares himself the bread of life, for everyone who beholds him and believes in him shall have eternal life. At the Feast of Tabernacles he is again in Jerusalem, teaching in the temple, although danger from the Jewish authorities threatens him. He declares that he is sent by God and offers his hearers the water of life, which the evangelist interprets to mean his Spirit, which was to be given to his followers after his resurrection. He proclaims himself the light of the world and when the Jews object claims the witness of God for his message. He promises truth and freedom to those who abide in his words, and declares his sinlessness and pre-existence. He restores a blind man’s sight on the Sabbath, and in the discussions that follow declares himself the Son of God and the Good Shepherd. Soon after at Bethany Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead and proclaims himself the Resurrection and the Life. The hostility of the Jewish rulers becomes so bitter that he conceals himself for a little while in Ephraim but as the Passover approaches he goes up to Bethany. Enthusiastic crowds go out from Jerusalem to meet him and escort him in messianic state into the city. Greeks ask to be presented to him, and Jesus answers that he is now to be glorified but that it must be through his death. In his last hours with his disciples he comforts them in preparation for his departure, and promises to send them his spirit to comfort and instruct them. Under the figure of the vine and the branches he teaches them the necessity of abiding in him, the source of life. As he has come from the Father so now he must return to him. Finally, in an intercessory prayer, he asks God’s protection for his disciples and the church they are to found, praying above all for its unity.

Leaving the city, he goes with his disciples to a garden on the Mount of Olives. There Judas brings a band to arrest him, but they are at first overawed by his dignity, and only after securing the freedom of his disciples does Jesus go with them. He is examined before the high priests and before Pilate, and on the charge that he claims to be the king of the Jews he is sentenced to be crucified. The evangelist is careful to show that Jesus retains his sense of divine commission to the last and dies with the words, "It is finished," on his lips, and he bears solemn testimony to the piercing of his side and the undoubted reality of his death. These details were important for the correction of the Docetic idea that the divine spirit abandoned Jesus on the cross. The writer also indicates that Jesus was crucified on the day before the Passover, so that his sacrificial death fell on the day on which the Passover lamb was sacrificed. On this point he corrects the earlier gospel narratives.

Early on the first day of the following week Jesus appears to Mary. The same evening he appears to the disciples, imparts his spirit to them, and commissions them to forgive sins. Eight days later he again appears to them when Thomas is with them and convinces Thomas of the reality of his resurrection. The Gospel closes with the evangelist’s statement of his purpose in writing it: that his readers may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that, believing, they may have life in his name.

To the Gospel of John an appendix or epilogue was afterward added, probably when John was combined with Matthew, Mark and Luke. It reports an appearance of the risen Jesus by the Sea of Tiberias, or Galilee, and his conversation on that occasion with Peter, in which he predicts Peter’s death, but seems to intimate that the beloved disciple may live until his own return. The Gospel never names this disciple, but by describing him several times in this way it makes him more conspicuous than any name could make him. The beloved disciple has perhaps died, for the epilogue explains that Jesus did not exactly say that the beloved disciple would survive until his coming. This epilogue may have been added to the Gospel to correct the popular misunderstanding about Jesus’ words to Peter, and to claim the beloved disciple’s authority and even authorship for the Gospel. There are indeed some points in the Gospel which seem to involve better information on the part of its writer than the earlier evangelists had. But the whole character of the narrative and its evident preference for the symbolic and theological, as compared with the merely historical, are against the assigning of its composition to a personal follower of Jesus. It is very probable that it was written by that Elder of Ephesus who perhaps after the publication of this Gospel wrote the three letters that bear the name of John.

The Gospel of John was wholly successful in what it undertook. It was not at first generally welcomed by the churches, but in the course of a generation it came to be accepted side by side with the earlier Gospels, and in its influence upon Christian thought it finally altogether surpassed them. Its great ideas of revelation, life, love, truth, and freedom, its doctrine of the spirit as ever guiding the Christian consciousness into larger vision and achievement, and its insistence upon Jesus as the supreme revelation of God and the source of spiritual life, have given it unique and permanent religious worth.