St. John's Gospel~Divine truths contained in literal meaning.

The Rylands Papyrus also known as the St. John's fragment,
 is perhaps the earliest New Testament fragment; dated from its handwriting to about 125.

The Gospel According to St. John terms itself a Gospel. It is a proclamation of the Good News of Salvation (Jn 20:31). It starts like the others, with John the Baptist’s preaching and recounts miracles and teaching from the life of Jesus, His Passion, the empty tomb, and the Apostolic mission. Indeed, it retains the structure and the key points if the Christian kerygma. This means, according to Fuller, that it belongs to the traditional teaching of the ancient Church (see: Fuller, R., et al, A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (Nelson, USA, 1975), p. 1022). However, John’s Gospel stands alone for numerous reasons. According to Brown, it contains a Jesus conscious of having pre-existed with God the Father prior to His Incarnation (17:5); a public ministry which concentrates on Jerusalem, rather than in Galilee; the absence of the Kingdom of God motif (It is only mentioned in 3:3,5), long discourses and dialogues as opposed to parables, a distinct lack of diabolic possessions, and only seven miracles, some of which are unique (e.g. the wedding at Cana, the healing of the man born blind and the raising of Lazarus) see Brown, R., An Introduction to the New Testament, (Doubleday, New York, 1997), p. 364-5.

There are several theories regarding the similarities, Brown posits a shared pre-Gospel tradition between John and Mark, and that the fourth evangelist had not seen the final form of Luke, he did posses a familiarity with the traditions incorporated into Luke later (Ibid). Perhaps the biggest difference is the long homiletic discursive style, which is very different to the Synoptics, This is painstakingly argued by Rucksthul, E., Die literarische Einhert des Johannesevangelium, (NTOA 7, Göttingen, 1987), p. 9. It is argued that these words in John are the style of the Evangelist rather than the ipsissima verba (the very words of Christ). Some would use this argument to suggest that the words of Jesus in John’s Gospel should be discounted simply because they are not the ipsissima verba, but it seems to me that this conclusion is a non-sequitor result common in modern reductionist critical methodology. Surely no reasonable person would expect the Evangelist to record the very words of Jesus as if he had a tape recorder there? John recorded the truth of the story, preserving its sense and the truth as is expressed clearly in the Instruction of the Pontifical Biblical Commission Concerning the Historical Truth of the Gospels. It is important therefore, to understand that the author of John’s Gospel was not writing a scientific biography of Jesus in the modern sense, but an account which is intended to demonstrate “that you may believe Jesus, the Messiah, is the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (Jn 20:30-31).

John’s Gospel is sharply distinct from the Synoptics in that it is far more concerned with the significance of the events of Jesus Christ’s life, His actions and sayings. The Gospel explains the things that Christ did as signs which contained a hidden meaning and could only be properly understood in the context of Christ’s life after His glorification (cf. 2:22; 12:16; 13:17). 


Kreeft makes the point that it has been a touchstone of acceptable ideology in modern theological circles that the “johanine Community” wrote this Gospel and not John himself (see:  Kreeft, P., You Can Understand the Bible, (Ignatius, San Francisco, 2005), p. 198). Fuller asserts that the Gospel implies its’ author is an apostle-witness who was with Jesus throughout His ministry, from His initial revelation of glory (2:11) to its final manifestation in His “Hour”. As it becomes increasingly obvious who Jesus is, He becomes increasingly surrounded by darkness and rejection. Although John records the historical actuality of the life of Jesus with great care, it is obvious that his concerns run to a greater depth of meaning, which he intends to be decisive for his contemporary readers and for us. The Word has become flesh and dwelt among us, enlightening every man (1:9); whosoever believes in Him has eternal life, but he who rejects Him is condemned (3:16-19). John claims knowledge under the retroactive influence of the Spirit, things not understood by the Apostles at the time (e.g. 2:22; 12:16; 20:9), things which they could not know until they had seen Christ glorified and the Spirit had been sent. For this reason, John offers his secret insight only at the end, combining his insights with the words of Jesus and projecting on Jesus’ actions and words experience from the life of the Church. (Fuller, op. Cit, p. 1022)

We can say with confidence then, that the Gospel does present a work which holds Apostolic authority. There are good reasons to conclude that a good deal of the substance of the work goes back to John the son of Zebedee; The author demonstrates a familiarity with Jewish customs and opinions. He shows a knowledge of Palestine before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, for example, he mentions the five-porticoed pool mentioned in 5:2,7, also he notes small details in the manner of an eye witness, like the smell of the ointment in 12:3. Further evidence comes from the Gospel’s own association with the beloved disciple (21:24). There is no example of the fourth Gospel without this epilogue, so one could conclude that the tradition was always present in the final redaction.

John’s approach is unique (as are each of the evangelists), he proclaims Jesus as the Word of God made flesh, come to give life (1:14) and this mystery of the incarnation clearly dominates John’s thought. God, as is explained in the parables of the lost sheep and the missing goat in Luke 15, has followed humanity into the desolation which sin had ripped open in the fabric of reality. God did not merely glance down and lovingly summon humanity to return; rather He personally entered into the vacuous, dark, visceral, reality of our sinfulness. This is powerfully expressed in the opening of John’s Gospel.

Literal Meaning- Divine Truths.

Having gone some way to establishing the veracity of the authorship of this Gospel then, in an attempt to add authority to its message and to show how the Gospel was more than an account, but the experience of a witness—a man soaked in revelation we can begin to consider its content and therefore import, in more depth.

Clement of Alexandria’s comment, that John's Gospel reveals the divine truths contained in the literal meaning, points to a concealment of the truth within the outward acts which are reported to us in this Gospel. In the full text of that quote, Clement suggests that John was aware of the other Gospels and that they dealt with what was “corporeal”; the birth of Jesus had already been set out in the Gospels which frees John, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to recount the Heavenly origins of Christ. We can see how Clement is arguing from the diversity of the Gospels, for the human origins of Jesus on a physical level and for the validity of divinity on a spiritual level.

The complexity of the fourth Gospel is profound. It is undoubtedly related to the earliest Christian kerygma, and yet it simultaneously presents obvious evidence of a quest, completed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, for a deeper and more rewarding apprehension of the mystery of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is almost difficult to start to illustrate how this is so, because there is so much depth, so many layers to the Gospel, once you start to delve deeper into the meaning, it really is quite difficult to stop. Pope Benedict XVI expresses this in Jesus of Nazareth:
 “…the Gospel itself opens up a path of understanding, which always remains bound to the scriptural word, and yet from generation to generation can lead, and is meant to lead, ever anew into the depth of all truth.” ~Ratzinger, J., Jesus of Nazareth, (Bloomsbury, London, 2007), p. 234.
 The Gospel is not arranged strictly chronologically, but topically with the identity of Jesus as the central topic. It begins with a bold assertion of Jesus’ divine heritage in the prologue, locating Jesus, the λόγος in the work of creation, repeating the first words of the Bible (Gen 1:1). What John is saying is incredible, The eternal Son of God, who is equal to the Father, actually entered time and history and came to exist as a man without ceasing to be truly God.

Wrapped around Jesus the λόγος are the main themes of the Gospel: light (1:4), life (1:4), darkness (1:5), testimony (1:7), faith (1:12), glory (1:14), and truth (1:17), all of which are developed in subsequent chapters. These ideas are then unfolded by Jesus words through which He claims divinity in an increasingly explicit manner, and by his actions, particularly His miracles.

Jesus’ words are arranged around seven “I AM” statements through which we can observe the growingly clear claim of Jesus’ divinity:

  1. “I AM the bread of life” (6:35, 48);
  2. “I AM the light of the world” (8:12; 9:5);
  3. “I AM the door” (10:7,9);
  4. “I AM the good shepherd” (10:11,14);
  5. “I AM the resurrection and the life” (11:25);
  6. “I AM the way the truth and the life” (14:6) and
  7. “I AM the true vine” (15:1-5).
 These statements, egó eimi in Greek, constitute a direct reference to the Tetragrammaton; the sacred name for God that no Jew would pronounce. The words in context have an obvious metaphorical meaning, behind which lies an astounding claim. The understanding reader of John’s Gospel would be expected to recognise that the absolute “I AM”, which is the cause of those listening to Jesus to conclude He is blaspheming, is the claim of the Fourth Evangelist that Jesus of Nazareth was truly God, the Word become flesh. This is even clearer when considered along with John 10:30 “The Father and I are One.”

Perhaps the most powerful exposition of this title comes from an understanding of the Tetragrammaton in relation to the sign hung above the crucified Christ. On numerous occasions, Jesus refers to His being “raised up”. For example, in 8:28 we have an “I AM” statement without any accompanying image; “When you lift up the Son of Man you may believe that I am”. This is a repetition; in 3:14, Jesus couples the prediction of His paschal sacrifice with the relic of the bronze serpent from Numbers 21:4-9. Just as those who were bitten by the fiery serpents in the desert were saved when they looked upon the bronze serpent, so Jesus’ own Crucifixion will bring healing to a rebellious world (CCC 2130). When Jesus is Crucified in 19:17, Pilate writes a sign and puts it on the Cross in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. We are very familiar with this sign’s acrostic in Latin; INRI which stands for IESVS·NAZARENVS·REX·IVDÆORVM. The Hebrew would have read HaYehudim vMelech HaNazarei Yeshua, the acronym would then be:
י ה ו ה
This is the sacred name for God; YHWH; “I AM” which no Jew would say out loud. They Crucified Him and hung the sacred name for God above Him. No wonder then, that the chief priests wanted the sign changed (19:21).

We can see Jesus using this name and its effect in 18:5-6. Here Jesus unleashes the power of the divine name, causing His enemies to fall back. ‘The name’ evokes the sanctity and transcendence of God, as we can see from Isaiah 43:10. In the context of the arrest at Gethsemane, we can see our Lord’s threefold ‘I AM’ as a manifestation of divine power and majesty. When contrasted with the Synoptic account, John’s Gospel clearly focuses on Christ’s majesty, His complete composure and willingness to undertake the task that the Father has given Him (18:11). Jesus knows that it is through the Passion that the Father’s work of salvation is to be achieved. He has determined the time and the place; this can be gleaned also from the Synoptics, earlier in His ministry, when the Jews had tried to stone Him, He went His way, the way of the cross, and no one could seize Him.

Double significance.

Many of the themes and ideas in John’s Gospel are recurring, and hold a double significance. As we have already discussed, the Gospel does not merely record an exact account of what took place, but take us on a journey through the witnesses’ recollection, so that on our journey of faith with him, we might reach “understanding-through-remembering”.(Ratzinger, op. Cit., p. 235.). 

A good example of this “double significance” is the first miracle recounted in John’s Gospel—the transformation of the water set aside for the ritual purifications (c.f. Numbers 19:11-22). In some ways this sēmeion seems anomalous; Jesus produces about one hundred and twenty gallons of fine wine for a private party. We don’t have to meditate to long to begin to see the deeper meaning—the double significance here however.

Firstly, if we consider the chronological implications of this event, we note that the marriage occurs on the third day after Jesus’ encounter with Nathaniel (1:43-52), but theologically this is the seventh day of Jesus’ opening week of ministry. The evangelist delineates the successive days in 1:29, 35,43 & 2:1 pointing towards this fact. This implies that creation (cf. Genesis 1:1-2,3) is being transformed and renewed through Jesus (2 Cor 5:17; Rev 21:1-5). The double significance is that the third day is also the time of theophany in the Old Testament (cf. Exodus 19:16-18). John points at Cana as a revelation of God, continuing the events of the Old Testament whilst also pointing forward to history’s decisive theophany; Jesus rising from the tomb on the third day:

“…when God’s former encounters with man become His definitive irruption on earth, when the earth is torn open once and for all and drawn into God’s own life.” ~Ratzinger, op. Cit., p. 250.

In fact, throughout John 1-4, Jesus is presented as the new tabernacle and the new Temple, as the one who replaces the waters of Jewish purification and the locus of Jesus worship. Indeed, Raymond Brown goes further and suggests that these institutions are not so much fulfilled as replaced by Jesus (see: Brown, R., An Introduction to New Testament Christology, (Paulist Press, New Jersey, 1994), p. 199). 

However, I think that it is Joseph Ratzinger who seems to capture the full sense of what John is saying in His Gospel. John, after all, acknowledges the significance if past institutions (cf. Jn 4:22; 1:16-17). Ratzinger explains that Jesus brings the inner expectation of the Law to fulfilment (Ratzinger, op. Cit., p. 253), the theme that pervades his book Jesus of Nazareth. Ratzinger explains how the ritual purification is a gesture of hope, mere ritual and is thus ultimately insufficient of making man really pure for God. When Jesus intervenes at Cana, changing the water into wine, he infuses man’s efforts with the gift of God. This wine is in no way ordinary, as we learn from the steward of the feast (2:10). Once again we find rich symbolism. An abundance of wine is a sign of the Messianic age (Is 25:6; Joel 3:18; Amos 9:13). At Cana, Jesus creates about one hundred and twenty gallons of fine wine, overflowing generosity, and a recurrent theme throughout the Gospel, which finds its climax on the cross, when Christ pours Himself out in abundance for us (Ratzinger, Ibid, p. 252). The transubstantiation of water into wine anticipates the transubstantiation of wine into blood, when Jesus gives Himself to the world in the Eucharistic liturgy (6:53; 1 Cor 10:16). It seems very correct that there is some Eucharistic significance in the Cana miracle. I think this is the link which ties together all the theological threads.

The climax of John’s Gospel is reached with the story of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. This account lacks the agony in the garden spoken of in the Synoptics, although de la Potterie suggests that 18:11 indicates John’s awareness of this tradition albeit in a completely different context; what is revealed here is that Jesus chooses the hour of His passion. We can see this more clearly in the context of Jn 8:20 and identify the same theme in Luke 4:30. Jesus cannot be arrested because His hour had not yet come. This idea of the “hour” of Jesus is mentioned seventeen times in John’s Gospel and first, drives the narrative forward (2:4; 4:21; 5:25; 7:30; 8:20). In the second half of the Gospel we discover that Jesus’ “hour” only comes at the end of His life (12:23,27; 13:; 17:1 Pére Augustin George, in his commentary on this chapter describes the sacerdotal prayer as “the prayer of the hour.” A. George, L’heure de Jean 17, (Revue Biblique 61; 1954), pp. 392-397, as cited in De la Potterie, I., The Hour of Jesus, (Alba House, New York, 1997), p. 4.). 

Historically speaking, the “hour” of Christ is the appointed time of His Passion, the climactic phase of His mission when He mounts the Cross out of love for the Father and as a sacrifice for our salvation. In John’s Gospel, this “hour” of humiliation and death is revealed as actually being the moment of His victory and exaltation that becomes the source of everlasting life for the world.

The Hour of Jesus

The “hour” of Jesus also reaches far beyond the historical events of His Passion however, into their liturgical commemoration in the life of the Church. In Jn 2:4 Jesus alludes to the liturgy, as we have seen, the abundance of wine, a visible sign of Christ poured out for us in the Eucharist. In Jn 4:21-23 Jesus associates His coming hour with worship of a spiritual nature, superior to Israelite worship, confined to a single sanctuary or ritual sacrifice and untainted by the errors of idolatry which plagued the Samaritans since the days of the divided kingdom. In Jn 5:25-29, Jesus looks forward to a time when those who follow Him will hear Him speak through the Scriptures and He will awaken souls deadened by sin. In Jn 12:20-24 Jesus explains how, through His death and Resurrection, He will gain a harvest of believers from every nation through His risen and glorified humanity, the wheat which becomes for us the “bread of life” in the Eucharist (cf. Jn 6:48). This has further significance in conjunction with Isaiah 52:13, which is often taken as a reference to the Resurrection. Both dimensions of the “hour” of Jesus are part of the unified Paschal Mystery of Christ, as was understood by the Fathers of the Church who recognised how the “hour” related to both His suffering and death, but also to the re-presentation of the Passion in the Eucharistic celebration.

It is also important to mention how the theme of the hour of Jesus relates to a realised eschatology, where eternal life is something initiated in this life rather than something which comes at the end of our physical lives on earth. In 17:1 we see a link between the “hour” and Jesus being “lifted up” or exalted. The link comes from Isaiah’s prophecy in 52:13 which appears to allude to Resurrection. De la Potterie looks to the early kērygma to better understand this term—hypsõthenai (to be lifted up) and finds it used in connection with the Ascension of Christ (Acts 2:33; Philippians 2:9). Remarkably, this elevation is anticipated in John, although in connection with the cross (Jn 3:14-15; 12:32), where John adds the symbolic meaning of hypsõthenai to illustrate the kingship of Christ, to the material meaning of Jesus’ elevation on the cross. This ties in with the Ascension, which was regarded by the primitive Church as the royal enthronement of Jesus in Heaven (cf. Acts2:36; Philippians 2:9) by which He becomes Kyrios. Thus in Acts 2:36, Peter describes Jesus’ Ascension as His talking possession of the kingdom. From this moment then, the moment of “elevation”, the end of time is inaugurated. All the events described by the prophets for the end of time can be observed as being placed, kairologically imminent, at the crucifixion. For de la Potterie, this is illustrated by two prophesied eschatological events: the gathering together of the scattered children of Israel, and the judgement of the world.

For John, the judgement of the world takes place during Jesus’ life and is given very special significance. The world is under the dominion of Satan (12:31) whose rule began when Adam rebelled in the garden (Gen 3:1-19). He is now cast out when Christ mounts the cross and will be destroyed when He comes again in glory. This hypsõthenai indicates Christ’s reign over His own rather than Ascension, it is also the moment for the judgement of the world. In 16:11, the discourse after the Last Supper, Jesus’ judgement falls on the enemy. In the Synoptics, there is a clear sentence metered out on the evil with Christ as judge, who separates the good from the evil. John’s Gospel pronounces no sentence on the culpability or innocence of man. Rather man’s own rejection of Christ is what condemns him (5:26-29; 12:31; CCC 388, 1433). This theme is very important to John who describes Christ’s entry into the world as a great confrontation between Christ and men. While Jesus is condemned and dies on the earthly level, it is the world which condemns itself on the spiritual level.

The gathering of the scattered children of Israel is a theme rooted in the prophetic tradition of the Bible. The return to Jerusalem from the Diaspora is the subject of texts from many of the prophets a new ideal picture in messianic colours. Jeremiah paints this picture using the image of the shepherd who gathers his flock (Jeremiah 31:10) and this also is a theme we see used extensively in John’s Gospel. Jesus uses the image of the shepherd to explain His mission. The Shepherd in the Old Testament is God Himself, perhaps most beautifully expressed in Psalm 23 “The Lord is my shepherd…”. This imagery is further developed by Ezekiel, who expresses it in terms of God bringing back the lost, seeking them out and caring for them (Ezekiel 34:12, 15-16). Jesus is so committed to the welfare of each one of His sheep that He is willing to die for them (cf. Jn 10:17-18; CCC 609). He takes on Himself all the historical associations of the image of the shepherd in His discourse in Jn 10 and expands the Old Testament understanding of the shepherd providing good pasture (Psalm 23;2,5f; Ezekiel 34:14) and connects it with His bread discourse (Jn 6), both centring on man’s sustenance (see: Ratzinger, op. Cit., pp. 278-9f.). The Church Fathers considered the reference in Ezekiel as a reference to the life giving Word of God; Holy Scripture. Jesus then is not just shepherd, but also the true pasture who gives life by giving Himself, who is life (cf. Jn 1:4, 3:36, 11:25).


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Brown, R., An Introduction to New Testament Christology, (Paulist Press, New Jersey, 1994).

Catechism of the Catholic Church, (Doubleday, New York, 1995)

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De la Potterie, I., The Hour of Jesus, (Alba House, New York, 1997).

Fuller, R., et al, A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (Nelson, USA, 1975).

Guardini, R., The Lord, (Gateway, Chicago, 1982).

Hahn, S., et al, The Gospel of John, (Ignatius, San Francisco, 2003).

Komonchak, J., Collins, M., Lane, D., The New Dictionary of Theology (The Liturgical Press, USA, 1993).

Kreeft, P., You Can Understand the Bible, (Ignatius, San Francisco, 2005).

Léon-Dufour, X., The Gospels and the Jesus of History, (Collins, London, 1968).

Ratzinger, J., Jesus of Nazareth, (Bloomsbury, London, 2007).

Redford, J., Bad, Mad or God, (St. Paul’s, London, 2005).

Rucksthul, E., Die literarische Einhert des Johannesevangelium, (NTOA 7, Göttingen, 1987).

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