The Fourth Gospel begins with the story of “a man whose name was John” (v. 6) who is not identified by parentage or place of origin, only by the fact that he was “sent from God.” Later in the story it will come to light that he is baptizing in water (v. 26) beyond the Jordan (v. 28) in what he himself describes as “the wilderness” (v. 23), the desert. The place of John’s activity is named: Bethany (v. 28). It is not the Judean village just east of Jerusalem on the way to Jericho but a town of the same name in Perea. Perea is the province east of the river which lies opposite the southerly part of Samaria and northern Judea. Later still, the baptizing activity of this John will be situated in Aenon near Salim, “because there was much water there” (3:23). The added detail would be needless for a readership familiar with a Semitic language since Aenon is recognizable as a transliteration of “springs.” Whatever this writer’s intended audience, since he is composing a Gospel in Greek, he feels required throughout to give the meaning of Semitic terms (cf. 1:38, 41; 4:25; 11:16). When he returns briefly to John’s career (3:22) he will add that John “had not yet been put in prison” (3:24), as if the fact of his imprisonment were well known to the readership. At 4:1, but for two brief references back to the mysterious John as a witness to Jesus (5:33–36; 10: 40–42), all mention of him ends.
That, indeed, is what the baptizing prophet chiefly is in this Gospel—not a preacher of repentance moving vast crowds to change their ways but a witness to Jesus, one who gives testimony to him (1:7–8, 15, 19–20, 29–34). If Jesus or the community of believers who came after him are conceived by the author as somehow on trial in this narrative, clearly John is being summoned as a leading witness on Jesus’ and the community’s behalf. One can know by heeding the testimony of this desert-dweller that Jesus is the Light (v. 8). More than that, he is the authentic or true Light (v. 9). He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (v. 29). Jesus is the Son of God (v. 34) who baptizes with Holy Spirit (v. 33). John will prove to be the first in a series of witnesses in this Gospel giving testimony to Jesus. As the story develops, this is so much the case that some see in John’s Gospel a protracted judicial process (the Hebrew term is ribh), in which favorable witnesses like John and later a series of things and persons like Jesus’ “works” (5:36), the Father (5:37), and the Scriptures (5:39) are pitted against accusatory witnesses. The latter will say that Jesus breaks the sabbath and makes himself equal to God (5:18), that he has a demon (7:20; 8:48) or is a Samaritan (8:48) A few students of this Gospel go so far as to say that Jesus’ appearance before Jewish priestly authority (18:13–24) is muted in the way it is because a judgment of condemnation to death has already been passed (see the repeated vocabulary about “killing” Jesus: 5:18; 7:19–20; “stoning” him 8:59; 10:31; “arresting” him 7:30). All of this his opponents were unable to achieve, the Gospel explains, “because his hour had not yet come” (7:30). It is unquestionable that, at the very least, the Evangelist will bring his narrative to a climax in Jesus’ hour of testing after many witnesses have been summoned. Before Pilate, Jesus will give what the Evangelist thinks is the final, irrefutable testimony on his own behalf.
Portions of 1:1–18 occur only on Christmas (Catholic and Common) and the first (Episcopal) and second (Catholic and Common) Sundays after Christmas. The infrequent use should not prevent two important things from happening: preaching solidly on Johannine Christology (which is at the same time its soteriology) in the season when the incarnation is especially being observed and treating the Jesus of John solidly in the spirit of the prologue whenever the polemical exchanges of this Gospel are featured, since those earliest verses are the key to all.
The opening eighteen verses of this Gospel are often set apart in writings about it as “the prologue” as if they were totally different in kind from all that is to follow. Since they are nothing of the sort, we have tried to situate them in the total fabric of the Gospel. An alternation between a description of the ordinary or everyday and the transcendent that gives it meaning is a standard feature of this Gospel. This is first found in 1:1–18, which oscillates between the origins of Jesus in the deepest recesses of godhead and the events in the life of an apocalyptic prophet, John. Usually in this Gospel an incident will be described first as it occurs in a certain time and place. It is then followed by a religious reflection of the author which illumines it.
Here at the start the order is reversed. The setting in the innermost reaches of deity comes first. The activity of John the prophet is placed in relation to it. A man in time witnesses to a heavenly “Word” and “Light” who likewise has become a man in time. The usual order in John first sets down a miraculous deed of Jesus or a conversation he engages in, often expository but sometimes polemical in nature. The Gospel then goes soaring into the farthest expanses of deity, situating Jesus somewhere there because it is his proper sphere. The reversal of the technique that will later prove usual in this Gospel, as found in its opening narrative, should not put us off. The story features an ascetic figure in the desert who wishes to downplay his own importance and testify to what is true about “the Son of God” (v. 34). In actual history, the memory of the prophet John was probably still strong in Palestine (and farther east) at the time the Gospel was written. Many must have had the problem of setting him and Jesus in relation in this new age of prophets. Like the other evangelists, John lets history serve his purpose by placing the son of Zechariah in a subordinate position to Jesus. His technique is to make the Baptist a witness to him, that and nothing more. John’s testimony, basically, is that Jesus is the sacrificial Lamb of God who will take away (or bear upon himself) the world’s burden of sin (1:29, 36). The Evangelist is sure of this and has no problem in making John say it.
We would make a bad mistake if we found in the prologue—and it is such both because it comes first and because it sets the tone for the whole—a poem about life in the heavens, not life on the earth. It is primarily a tale about John the prophet and Jesus; better, Jesus as illumined by the reflected glory ofJohn. But it comes at the beginning and is intended by all means as an account of Jesus’ beginnings. These are his absolute beginnings. The Bible’s opening in Genesis is a series of narratives about the earth’s origins and human origins from the creative hand of God. The beginnings of “the Word,” hence of Jesus who is that Word, are in God. Genesis in Greek translation begins with the phrase, “En arche,” “In the beginning.” The Fourth Evangelist chooses it for his opening phrase for evident reasons.
In an important sense the opening of the Gospel is as much about the origins of the believers to whom it is addressed as it is about the origins of Jesus. He came forth from God as Word or Life or Light (vv. 1–5), says the omniscient narrator, before he became flesh to dwell among us (v. 14). The Word’s coming as Jesus is important in our regard; it is not an isolated marvel touching the man Jesus only. The purpose was to come to his own home place and his own people (v. 11)—those prepared for such an event by centuries of God’s loving self-disclosure, that they might receive him, believe in him, and thereby be empowered to become offspring of God (v. 12). No less is envisioned than the new divine begetting of all who have already known God as Israel’s LORD. This is to be a sonship and daughterhood of God other than that achieved by the creation of humanity. It will even go beyond the covenantal bond that is sealed by Moses’ law (v. 17). This Gospel assumes at all points the truth of the Israelite revelation. It is a piece of writing that makes no sense apart from the chosenness of Israel, the people of God’s election through Abraham.
Something has already gone wrong with the plan: “His own … received him not” (v. 11). The author is convinced that a people prepared has not fulfilled its calling. Nothing, however, can put him off from telling what he has to tell. It may be the story of a plan that has in good part gone awry, but the plan has at least come to fruition among those the author knows best. The Evangelist has to tell of a Word that was with God in the beginning and has become a human being in the midst of other humans. He has to record the birth of many from God which will result from this unique divine birthing. All who have received and will receive the Word that became flesh were born not in the ordinary ways—the mixing of bloods, passionate desire, the ordinary will to conceive—but “of God” (vv. 12–13). This is to be a story certainly not of John, not of “Jesus Christ” only (v. 17), but of a new race of humanity. Just as Genesis startsout, “In the beginning” (1:1) to tell the origins of the cosmos and the human race, this Gospel of John will be a story about fresh beginnings, a new human race.
The idea has been widely entertained for three-quarters of a century now that the nameless Evangelist possessed a poetic rendition about a Light or Word that was the life of humanity—an account of human redemption—which had no special Christian or even Jewish reference. Into this cosmic poem the author inserted the details of a Jesus-John juxtaposition. There was, in this theory, already the myth of a redeemer whose origins were in the heavens and who came to earth to give those who would become his devotees the fullness of knowledge and wisdom. This was to be of a liberating kind, setting its possessors free from all earthly limitation. It would empower them to come back with the liberator to the heavens from which he had originated. Unfortunately for the theory, no exemplar of this pre-Christian myth has been found. A later gnostic baptismal sect called the Mandeans did have such a tale, but we first learn of them in the seventh century. We are right to presume that their myth was influenced by John, not vice versa. A host of Christian gnostic systems arose much earlier than the Mandeans. They had in common a profound appreciation of the divine Word which came from heaven and returned there as the exalted Christ. The earth-bound human character of John and Jesus in the Gospel prologue had no appeal for them. Most of this we know from the writings of church fathers like Irenaeus, who quoted these sectarians extensively.
There came to light in Egypt (beginning in 1945) a library of Christian writings cognate with one aspect of John’s Gospel that conceived of the redeeming Christ as largely (in some of the writings, totally) unbound by human limitation. Close parallels to the Johannine prologue and the soliloquies of Jesus in John were almost entirely lacking until these finds. Extant were the Christian or Christian-edited “Odes of Solomon” and the pre-Christian poems in which the goddess Isis was the speaker, making the claim in a sonorous chant: “I am this” or “I am that.” The Coptic monastic library of Nag Hammadi in upper Egypt, however, which is the one referred to above, revealed the Fourth Evangelist to be the unwitting poet-founder of a school that contrived great beauties of christological expression at the cost of losing its moorings on the earth. The “Word that became flesh” as Jesus, John makes clear, was a person who attimes, despite gifts such as knowing the Father intimately and knowing people’s thoughts, was thirsty and hungry and at other times was emotionally and physically exhausted. He went to a shameful death. Not so the central figure of some of these Christian gnostic tractates. Thus, “The Testimony of Truth,” 30–31 can say:
But the Son of Man [came] forth from Imperishability, [being] alien to defilement. He came [to the] world by the Jordan river, and immediately the Jordan [turned] back. And John bore witness to the [descent] of Jesus. For he is the one who saw the [power] which came down upon the Jordan river; for he knew that the dominion of carnal procreation had come to an end. The Jordan river is the power of the body, that is, the senses of pleasures. The water of the Jordan is the desire for sexual intercourse. John is the archon of the womb.
(The Nag Hammadi Library, p. 407).
The “Gospel of Truth” makes of the poetic seed sown by the Fourth Gospel the following:
The gospel of truth is a joy for those who have received from the Father of truth the gift of knowing him, through the power of the Word that came forth from the pleroma [fullness]—the one who is in the thought and the mind of the Father, that is, the one who is addressed as the Savior, (that) being the name of the work he is to perform for the redemption of those who were ignorant of the Father, while the name [of] the gospel is the proclamation of hope, being discovery for those who search for him.… This is the perfection of the thought of the Father, and these are the words of his meditation. Each one of his words is the work of his one will in the revelation of his Word. While they were still in the depth of his thought, the Word which was first to come forth revealed them along with a mind that speaks the one Word in silent grace. It (masc.) was called thought since they were in it (fem.) before being revealed. It came about, then, that it was first to come forth at the time that was pleasing to the will of him who willed. And that will is what the Father rests in and is pleased with …. Now the end is receiving knowledge about the one who is hidden, and this is the Father, from whom the beginning came forth, to whom all will return who have come forth from him. And they have appeared for the glory and the joy of his name.
(The Nag Hammadi Library, pp. 37–38, 46).
Those abstract and convoluted reflections are the work of a second-class mind. The evangelist John, who had a first-class mind, set the story of John’s testimony to Jesus against the background of biblical and post-biblical Wisdom speculation inwhich God achieves all that God plans through a companion of old: the divine Wisdom. This Wisdom in the Bible is both God and other than God, a partner in colloquy for the great Alone who has neither consort nor like but only the richness of the fullness of majesty:
Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth; …
When [the Lord] established the heavens, I was there, …
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master workman;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,. …
(Proverbs 8:25, 27, 29–30).
For wisdom … is a breath of the power of God,
a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty;
therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her.
For she is a reflecting of eternal light,
a spotless mirror of the working of God,
and an image of his goodness.
(Wisdom of Solomon 7:24–26).
If the Wisdom of God could so speak, was not this Wisdom clearly the Word who was with God in the beginning (1:1, 2) through whom all things were made (v. 3)? Had John and the community of faith that gave rise to him not known Jesus the Christ, the Wisdom of God in mortal flesh, the Evangelist would scarcely have made the claim. Only the experience of him brought on the affirmation, not speculation on Word and Wisdom after the manner of a geometric theorem. The Johannine community had known a person in the flesh—not immediately but by a chain of tradition—of whom it could say in faith, “without him was not anything made that was made” (v. 3). It could also say of him, “what God was, the Word was” (1:1c, NEB)—a better translation, given the Greek word order, than the familiar but confusing “and the Word was God,” which betrays John’s clear attempt to keep God and Word distinct. This Word who was in the beginning with God was the source of all light and life for humanity (v. 4). But life and light in the sense intended are attributes of deity itself. The Light that would shine in darkness in the person of Jesus is the Light to which the baptizing prophet John came to bear witness (vv. 7–8).
Experience precedes faith in this as in every case. The Evangelist proclaims what he has known. His proclamationconcerns the great reality of his life. Modern preachers of the biblical word likewise proclaim faith in Christ as Word of God become human. Have they known him? They knew him once, as idealistic but often untested youth. Much experience of life has intervened: disappointment, a few evangelical successes, and the always perilous venture of knowing the divine Word enfleshed in the believing community. That assembly is always made up of saints and sinners and the lukewarm in-between. Experience of it is not always edifying. The Christian preacher’s life is a constant mixture of experiencing a “world that knew him not” (v. 10), by painful paradox, often within the church, and others “who received him, who believed in his name” (v. 12), the ones who make the venture of faith credible to a person whose task it is to express it publicly. To look for a Word become flesh in Jesus only can be thwarting. He is nowhere available on those terms. In the glory of heaven, yes; on the pages of Scripture, perhaps, by a massive exercise of imagination; but in life-fact only in the believing community, which by definition is a mixed population. Yet, without knowing the enfleshed Word in those who have “become children of God” (v. 12), the preacher of Johannine incarnation has nothing to proclaim.
To preach John’s kind of faith it is as necessary to believe in a solid, sooty, sinful creation as it is to believe in a God who utters a creative Word. Flight to gnostic categories is much more attractive. It is no wonder that many pulpit practitioners take such flight. The author of “The Gospel of Truth” is a man for all seasons. John—the real John, not his gnostic interpreters through rhetorical abstraction—is a man of few seasons. But the few seasons speak. They speak to real people who are trying to live the gospel, not to the large donors whose names are found on the brass plaques of a world-denying, gnostic Christianity. It is the faithful poor, those who have suffered grievous loss and who yet believe, those who have been sorely tried and who cling to faith, those who are patient endurers of life’s injustices that are those in whom the Word becomes flesh along with Jesus the Son. To have been intimately in their midst is to be able to preach the truth of an incarnate Word.
The true Light was in the world—an enlightening Light for whoever would let it be such (v. 9). John came to give testimony to the Light “that all might believe through him” (v. 7). Some would not in Jesus’ day, in John’s day, or now admit this Light (vv. 10–11). A tragic question that needs facing constantly is,Are the self-professed children of the Light in fact children of darkness, not consciously evil but in their self-absorption closed to the light of God’s truth? How do preachers ask that question of themselves? Of the people who support them by their contributions? How do they pose it publicly to a world that gives every evidence of being a darkened world unfriendly to the divine Light?
Directly, is the answer. Point blank. If they ask it regularly of themselves, they may be able to put it to congregations and to the world at large. No one can ever be sure of one’s fitness to throw this challenge. The only way to find out is to try—and to ask oneself (in the next pulpit assignment?) whether one would have the courage to do it again. The Light that is Christ means something only when the attempt is made to dispel the prevailing darkness.
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (v. 14a). The verb chosen means “pitched his tent.” It is redolent of God’s desert-dwelling with Israel (cf. Num. 35:34; Josh. 22:19, combined with descriptions of the cloud of glory that covered the tent of meeting, e.g., Exod. 40:34). The “full[ness] of grace and truth” was evident in the human face of Jesus, this ardent Jew whose glorification empowered believers to see in him the enfleshed Word of God. “We have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (v. 14b; but cf. 7:39). We have beheld it in those whom the Father has begotten through their belief in the glorified Son or we have not seen this glory at all. It is through a chain of tradition—believers begetting believers—that any can presume to say over the ages that they have beheld the glory “as of the only Son from the Father.”
John testified to Jesus—on what ground we do not know (v. 15). Simply upon seeing him, as the Evangelist tells it. It would have to be the work of God. He looked and he saw someone who though he came after him ranked before him. And he gave testimony. Whoever sees the Word enfleshed in an individual, a congregation, even in a segment of a larger communion, has to give testimony to that Word by the power of God. It is a law of the Spirit.
The Gospel to follow will be a book of testimonies, for the witness of the Evangelist is immediately appended to that of the prophet John. John the evangelist will proclaim too who Jesus is, namely someone from whom people have received a genuine, not a spurious, “fullness” described as “grace upongrace” (v. 16). Believers in Jesus are those who have been made full with the gift of deity itself. It has been delivered to them in the person of the enfleshed Word. There is probably a quiet polemic here against claims for a pleroma (“fullness”) of godhead on other terms. “Grace upon grace” seems to be an answer to the claim (we can only know this because of the arguments reported later in the Gospel) that the divine gift follows upon each successive fulfillment of a commandment. The law given through Moses is a great gift (v. 17a), as the Fourth Evangelist acknowledges. He will never deny this, no matter how bitter the debates may be between Jesus’ followers and the protagonists of Moses and the law (5:45–47; 6:32; 7:22–24; 9:28–29; 12:34; 19:7). But the author will declare at every point in his Gospel that God has done something new in making himself known through “the only God [the easier, hence less likely to be authentic reading, says ‘the only Son’], who is in the bosom of the Father …” (1:18). This Gospel declares a new epiphany of the God whom no one has ever seen. Jesus Christ has revealed him. That is the whole meaning of the document before us. It records a struggle between those who acknowledge Jesus as the revealer of God and those who will not. The struggle will go on until the end of time: in every Christian assembly, in every pulpit occupied by proclaimers of this gospel, at times in open engagement between professed believers in Jesus and deniers of him in deed.
Excursus on The Opening Hymn’s Pervasiveness Throughout the Gospel
It is essential to grasp at the start the insight that the entire Gospel will be a disclosure of God by the one in the bosom of the Father who could say, “… I know him” (8:55), and, “I speak of what I have seen with my Father …” (8:38). The conviction that Jesus is the Word of God become human is never returned to in so many words, but it underlies all that will later be said. What Moses cannot do through the promulgation of law-observance can be done through Jesus Christ in grace and truth (v. 17). For while the lawgiver came down from the mountain having heard but not seen God (v. 18a; cf. 6:46), Jesus “who is from God … has seen the Father” (6:46). He is “from above” (8:23) and declares to the world what he has heard from the one who has sent him (8:26b; cf. 16:28).
The Fourth Evangelist nowhere attempts to prove themarvelous allegation that underlies his Gospel, namely that Jesus is sent from the God with whom he has always enjoyed unspeakable intimacy (12:44; 13:20). This is already the faith of the Johannine community. John merely enunciates it. He is in a condition of seeing and knowing through witnesses who give their testimony, and have done so going back to Jesus’ day. The chain of testimony is what matters; it is unbroken. Consequently the burden of the first twelve chapters will be the many persons and events that testify to who Jesus is. The best witness, however, is Jesus’ own person, the words that he speaks (4:41–42; 5:47). Jesus gives the supreme testimony on his own behalf. The Evangelist can do no better than relay it.
The chief mistake one could make about the Jesus of John’s Gospel is to conclude that the Christology of epiphany denies or diminishes Jesus’ humanity. It does not. Numerous heresies, gnostic and other (notably the second-century Docetists or “seemists”), have supposed that the Fourth Gospel gives them warrant to place the redemptive deed of God firmly in mid-air: more elegantly, in the heavens from which Jesus came. The manifestation of the Word as Jesus in John is as indisputably an occurrence of the land of Israel—the lakeshore of Galilee and the hill of Golgotha—as it is in the other Gospels. The Jewish Jesus is as much a reality of this Gospel as of the Synoptics. Here, as in other Gospel places and Acts, he is made to distance himself from certain elements in the Jewish community by speaking of “your” or “their law” (8:17; 10:34; 15:25). He argues with his law-observant opponents passionately. He takes the pains to avoid a premature, violent death because his mortality awaits demonstration only when it is “his hour” (13:1; 19:27), an hour that previously “has not yet come” (2:4; 7:30; 8:20). Jesus is not a mere marionette in this Gospel, but he does do things only on his Father’s schedule. He is, one must say, supremely in charge of his destiny (see 10:18), Witness the preternatural dismay that overcomes the soldiers at the sight of him in the garden (18:6) and the lordliness with which he conducts the exchange with Pilate (vv. 33–38). In that chapter it is Pilate and not he who is on trial. He fulfills the Father’s plan, but he does it in sovereign freedom.
The Evangelist has taken the traditions he has received and read them, so to say, from God’s side. Call it if you will the theologizing of a human drama. This Gospel tells how a man speaks and acts who is literally inebriated with the divine. Thetwo, human and divine, are distinct realities in John. Jesus is not God and God is not Jesus. Word of God he surely is, but this causes him to engage in no recorded internal conversations with God or to experience any confusion over what is man and what is God in him. Jesus is an integrated human being throughout. He has a lively consciousness of God as uniquely Father to him. He is by that fact “the Son.” Later reflections in the church on the mystery of this intimacy, going back to Jesus’ origins in God as Word, would yield the statement in faith that he “is very God of very God.” Yet nowhere does John state this in its Niceno-Constantinopolitan clarity. The creedal affirmation is the deeply reflected-upon faith of the church.
Is the theological construct of a Word become human real, or does it exist only in the Evangelist’s mind? The glorification of Jesus, a matter long believed in at the time of the writing, has made the unique sonship of Jesus eminently real to the Johannine community. This final flowering in the Jesus Christ of glory had its roots in the divine being, John is convinced, or it could never have been manifested in him as it was. “Glory,” a divine reality, does not, cannot overtake a mere human being in its fullness. It must have been Jesus’ condition from the beginning or it could not have been given him at the end. On such a premise the writing proceeds.
John 1:19–28 (and vv. 6–8) is the choice of all the lectionaries on the Third Sunday of Advent in Year B (2). This provides an excellent opportunity to stress the difference the Johannine perspective makes. John’s treatment of John the Baptist and his role is quite unlike that of the Synoptics despite his use of common motifs. He makes John a witness, the first to bear testimony to Jesus the Light, and not the baptizer of Jesus. John affirms who Jesus is by denying who he is not. The proximity of Mark’s development of the Baptist’s place in the story of salvation on the previous Advent Sunday is an advantage. The way Johannine thought functions should be made clear at every opportunity. It is a distinct treasure of the church, not something to be incorporated carelessly with the various (likewise mutually distinct) Synoptic theologies.
John’s testimony to Jesus in the Fourth Gospel occurs on the Second Sunday of the Year (or after Epiphany) in Years A (vv. 29–34) and B (vv. 35–42) in the Catholic and Common lectionaries, while the Lutheran and Episcopal use verses 29–41 for Year A, verses 43–51 for Year B.
The first eighteen verses of chapter 1 largely take care of the testimony rendered by the Baptist (who is never so designated in John) to the one who “was before me” even though he “comes after me” (v. 15). It continues briefly, however, by wayof a grilling of this witness. In verse 19 priests and Levites are sent as emissaries of Jerusalem’s “Jews”/“Judeans” (Ioudaioi), here the power class that serves John in the way the “scribes and Pharisees” do the Synoptics. But the Evangelist also knows of John the Baptist’s “testimony” (v. 19). The desert-dweller denies being “the Christ”—John uses the Greek term here—and then, on direct challenge, Elijah or “the [end-time?] prophet” (vv. 21–22). The prophet like Moses whom God will raise up (Deut. 18:15) is widely understood to be spoken of here. John is a “voice” crying out prophetically with Isaiah for a straight way for the Lord (v. 23). The Isaian passage is made by the Evangelist to begin: “Make straight the way …,” more or less as in the Synoptics. Both are unlike the Hebrew which reads: “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way. …’” (v. 23)
John possesses the testimony-tradition common in Christian circles, but his abbreviated version of what follows is his own. Like the other evangelists he uses the Scriptures not slavishly but magisterially—that is, to say what they mean in Christ. The Baptist’s right to function as a baptizer has been challenged in the familiar threefold way (vv. 19–22, 25). He denies that he is the Christ or Elijah or the prophet, then points to an unknown of the future to whom he stands in the relation of a subordinate, even a servant (vv. 26–27).
“Among you stands one … the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie” (v. 27). An Indian Christian of the writer’s acquaintance raised in Kuwait, although his roots are in Kerala, is having trouble coming to terms with the new church he has encountered in the cultural West, specifically at a university program in computer studies in Arizona. Picking a volume of Christian “spirituality” off a shelf randomly—a work of the thirties by a French Dominican friar once read widely in Europe and elsewhere—he says: “I was raised on this.” He only half expects the person near him to believe it. “This was the faith of my youth. I was taught to think everyone superior to myself, to prefer everyone’s will to my own.” Old, worn-out Flemish Christianity redolent of Bishop Jansenius of Ypres or the pietiest strain in Protestantism? Or the sentiment of the Baptist who saw God in Jesus but not in his own ascetic self? “I baptize with water; but among you stands one whom you do not know, even he who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie” (v. 27). “… You are slaves of the Lord Christ”(Col. 3:24b). “… In humility count others better than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3).
The Evangelist knows the veneration in which John is held as late as his own lifetime. He knows the lure of the ascetic and the capacity of a Jesus who converses publicly with women (4:27) to put off the pious. He must make the case for Jesus and against the Baptist. “You sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth. … He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice a while in his light. But the testimony which I have is greater than that of John; for the works which the Father has granted me to accomplish, these very works which I am doing bear me witness that the Father has sent me” (5:33, 35–36).
The Baptist’s testimony to Jesus is delivered piecemeal as the Evangelist describes a series of days in which John gives his witness on the first (vv. 19–28), second (vv. 29–34) and third (vv. 35–36). It peaks in verse 34: “… I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” On day two John knows Jesus as the redeeming “Lamb of God” without having heretofore seen him. The God who sent him to baptize with water identifies to him, as the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit (v. 33), the person on whom the Spirit descends as a dove. The testimony concerning the Lamb is repeated to two of John’s disciples “the next day” (day three). With the transfer of these disciples to the new teacher Jesus thus achieved, John the Baptist slips away.
Is the Evangelist trying to construct a symbolic week? He has started his account with the phrase, “In the beginning.” The Genesis narrative which opens in this way shortly begins to describe a symbolic week. The Gospel can be discovered to be doing the same, however, only by a manipulation of its data. The attempt is interesting, if not convincing, and is as follows: Day four would begin after sundown (“the tenth hour,” i.e., 4 P.M. “that day,” v. 39). The events surrounding Andrew’s seeking out Peter and bringing him to Jesus would then absorb a fifth day (vv. 40–42); the “next day” on which Jesus decides to go to Galilee and finds Philip (and in turn, Nathanael) would be the sixth day; and the seventh or final day would be the mysteriously designated “third day” of the marriage feast (2:1). Aside from the impossibility of the literal northward journey on foot in one day, there is the more basic problem that John seems to have abandoned any symbolism—if he ever intended it—bymid-week. His, “On the third day” (2:1) may be the fulfillment of a biblical third day (cf. Hosea 6:2) of the prophecy of 1:51 about angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man. It may be the more prosaic day of celebration after three hard days of travel. Or again, it may be the way the Cana story began in John’s source, transmitted untouched.
None of these considerations of schedule is important compared to what is going on in the second part of the chapter. Jesus’ acquiring two new disciples from John (v. 37) and others in turn (vv. 41, 43, 45) is the matter of paramount concern. In a pattern different from his calling them to follow him in the Synoptics, they discover him. Each immediately gives witness to Jesus by ascribing a title to him. Jesus’ asking, “What do you seek?” (v. 38), is a surprisingly brief first utterance in light of all the lengthy discourses he will later speak in this Gospel.
Is it of any significance that Andrew’s companion is unnamed (vv. 35, 37, 40)? There are those who suppose that the disciple whom Jesus loved is already being introduced here, even as some think that “the other disciple who was known to the high priest” (18:16) is the same figure. Much more significant than that speculation would seem to be the dispatch with which the Gospel deals with the various titles Jesus is known by. It is as if John wishes to tell the readers that he knows well that some are hailing Jesus as the Messiah (v. 41), the one spoken of in the law and the prophets (v. 45). The entire sequence exists for the sake of these and other titles of Jesus and his bestowing the title of Rock (Cephas) on Simon (v. 42).
One almost concludes that John wishes to assemble the expressions of faith in Jesus that he knows are abroad: true but insufficient. Yet when the climax comes at the end it surprises us: Jesus is, on his own testimony, “the Son of man” (v. 51). That this is not the Son of man of the Synoptics must be noted. That figure is always a simple human being or a present sufferer or a future reigning apocalyptic figure. John’s Son of Man is a person on whom angels ascend and descend from the open heavens. He is God’s man, even as the Jacob of the ladder was the man who became “Israel” and gave that name to his people. There is already a sense of mystery about Jesus’ calling to which every phrase in the first chapter contributes. He is more than and greater than all the claims that are being made in his favor. Jesus is interchangeable with the whole Jewish people and they with him. He is the contact point on earth with the myriads ofheavenly messengers. This man who is “Son of man” must be heeded in his least utterance.
Already in the first chapter of this “spiritual Gospel,” as Clement of Alexandria was to call it, there is impenetrable mystery. One perceives human contacts of a most dramatic kind, but the terms are not the ordinary human ones. A man is sent from God with the sole purpose of testifying to another who will be the very Light of God. Those are the normal terms of a prophet, so there is no surprise in the John portrait—only in the immense claim made in behalf of the one who is to come after him. The Shekinah (Mishnah San. 6:5; Aboth 3:2), a post-biblical term for the divine light or presence, is a symbol of deity itself, yet it is a human being who is the object of the prophet John’s testimony. The outcome of the prophesied one’s appearance is told at the start. He endured rejection by the very “world” that was made through him (1:10). His own did not receive him, yet those who did receive him became offspring of the divine. To have known this man is to have beheld his glory, the glory of the “only God.” The forerunner of the one announced confesses that he does not know him, yet he is sure that a sign from God will disclose him. And so it happens. The confirming sign is the Spirit descending in the form of a dove.
Jesus is recognized as a teacher by two disciples of John before he has spoken a word, then shortly as Messiah and the long-awaited one to whom all Scripture has pointed. The pace of the narrative is not real. Little is explained. When Jesus first speaks he gives Simon the name “Cephas” (“Rock”) without explanation or background (v. 42). He exercises a preternatural recognition regarding Nathanael—“Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you” (v. 48b)—and views himself in terms of a well-known tale of the patriarch Jacob. What is going on here? How can this unabashed theology “from above” prove acceptable to a modern age which says it can only make sense of a theology “from below”?
The Fourth Evangelist in taking his narrative stance at the vantage point of godhead runs a risk that he thinks the entire biblical history of the people of Israel justifies. This people, 26 secure in its faith as the chosen of the God it called YHWH (Adonai or “LORD” being substituted in speech to avoid pronouncing the Name), assembled its writings after returningfrom exile and composed new ones in a spirit of perfect confidence. The action of this people’s God was assumed to account for its slightest adventure. The LORD accomplished what was done in Israel’s midst because it was the divine will to do so. Messengers were sent to express God’s bidding, prophets were illumined to speak, warriors were to do battle and win. When things went against this people, a series of increasingly sophisticated explanations was brought to bear. Nowhere, however, was there either apologia or excuse for the activity of God. It was simply the given which underlay all. The faith of Israel in its God was sufficient justification for the assumption.
Whatever John may have known of previous approaches to setting down the traditions about Jesus, the Gospel he composed was the option he took. He set himself to write a book fully in the biblical spirit in which God’s action in Jesus accounted for all that took place. How was that action so surely known? It had to be what was experienced in the community. Those who knew the ones who knew others who knew Jesus Christ glorified had always had this faith in him as indwelt by God. It was now being challenged; John knew that. It was being challenged unwarrantedly, he was convinced, even by those who professed themselves to be believers in Jesus Christ. This could not be let alone to continue. Some vigorous protagonists of Moses were setting themselves in opposition to the protagonists of Jesus, even to the point of violent challenge. Resistance seems to have been a matter of daily experience in the lives of John and his community.
Something far more subtle than a struggle between law-observant Jews and the followers of Jesus of Nazareth seems to have been going on. It appears that Johannine claims in favor of Jesus were being questioned by some who said they believed in him but could not relinquish Moses’ role in their lives as the conveyer of ultimate divine authority. We cannot tell whether they thought Jesus was a second revealer of God after Moses. We only know that his intimate position as the Word ever with God was more than their Israelite monotheism could endure. It is not easy to know with whom the Johannine church is locked in mortal combat, nor over precisely what issues. The answer is that they fought with some who are Jews—but nearly all in this Gospel may ethnically be Jews—and they fought over the identity of Jesus in a context of the ancient Mosaic deliverance of commandments.
This is a terribly contentious Gospel. Its polemical character is as strong as its mystical strain. Our modern tragedy is that we know fragments of what the struggle was about but not the whole story. This Gospel reports on thought worlds in collision. Exactly what positions were held by the Evangelist’s opponents, however, or what he thought they were and how legitimately they held them from their own standpoint, we cannot be sure.
All this makes the modern preacher’s approach to the Fourth Gospel precarious. The document expresses an important aspect of the church’s apostolic faith. More than that, it is the christological faith that came to prevail in the councils and creeds. The modern church of East and West is irrevocably Johannine. For that reason, to preach John’s Gospel is necessarily to take a stand on the faith of the subsequent centuries. Christian believers hear it with their minds made up as to its meaning. Their whole formation as Christians has ensured this. A prime difficulty is that one needs to have a genuine Johannine faith to preach in this Gospel’s spirit. That means there must be the unshakable conviction that God is at work in the community, in Jesus Christ through the Word and the Spirit Paraclete (cf. 14:16–17, 26; 15:26; 16:13–14). Without such a conviction, one had better fall silent.
It is easier to proclaim doctrinal positions with a confidence bordering on certainty than to profess the faith the Fourth Gospel demands. Mouthing its sonorous statements can be repulsive if Johannine faith is absent. Preachers are constantly being challenged by this evangelist as to whether they have the faith to proceed with the relating of a simple occurrence in Jesus’ career from the standpoint of God. For that is what John does constantly. The problem of John in the church, paradoxically, is that so many have exposed this Gospel so readily! Instead of silence after proclaiming it publicly, they went on with a cascade of words about “glory” and “testimony” and “this world” and “condemnation.”
They have done worse. Many have extracted from John a Christology that is formally heretical. Not taking the pains to struggle through the fourth and fifth-century debates, they have gone down the gnostic path of seeing a divine Logos 28 briefly held captive in a body of flesh. “This man is God” they have thundered from the pulpit, setting aside all Johannine, notto say Nicene and Cappadocian, subtleties. The Evangelist never makes that statement, even as the christological councils do not, but always something more nuanced. “This Word of God came to be the man Jesus,” is closer to the mark. But, immediately, more has been said that is incomprehensible than comprehensible.
A temptation even greater than the theological is provided by this graphic author. It is especially serious in an age when people who have attended seminaries are increasingly less attracted to theological matters. John tells engaging stories with such swift strokes that the modern homilist is inclined to take the disciples’ discovery of Jesus or the Cana wedding or his exchanges with the Samaritan woman and construct from them pulpit parables of psychological response. In a way, that is fair enough since the Evangelist was the first to play the game. But to rest on a human plateau of encounter with the human Jesus is surely to betray the Johannine intent. He is always operating symbolically and on the plane of deity as well. This does not mean that his symbolism must be ours in every case. Often we cannot be sure what his symbolism is or, discovering it, make it useful for contemporaries. That can settle the matter from the start. But the human in Jesus is always a parable of the divine; it is not a veil but a disclosure. Not to let the symbolism soar to the point where it discloses the divine glory in Jesus is to betray the Evangelist’s purpose.
An attractive route is the allegorical. You cannot choke it off. The Evangelist often gives evidence that he himself has an allegorical intent. His work is perverted only when a metaphysical principle is attributed to him other than the one on which he is operating. He does not have a matter-spirit opposition. Only a faulty hermeneutic can discover that in him. John’s “genuine” (or “authentic” or “real”) is, in fact, the divine. This is set against the inauthentically human, which is a bad copy of the “Light” or “Word,” the “Vine” or whatever it may be that is not demonstrably of God. John the Evangelist is not the enemy of the temporal or the material or the human. He is the friend of all that comes from God and, by way of belief in the Son, goes back to God. He interprets all human reality by asking, implicitly, the simplest question: How can it come to share in the divine glory proper to Jesus Christ for which it is intended?