Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – John

The first three gospels are often referred to as the ‘Synoptics’ which means ‘seen together’. They tell largely the same story, although in their own unique ways, and, I have suggested, according to their own personality types. Sticking with the MBTI classifications, there is no doubt that John’s is the ‘N’ gospel, driven not by law, immediacy or human interest, but rather by a mystical desire to see the bigger picture.

Mark begins with Jesus’ public, ministry, Matthew and Luke start further back with different accounts of Jesus’ birth, but John goes further back still, to the beginning of creation. Deliberately echoing the language of Genesis 1, John’s Jesus is a cosmic figure who spans time. He tells the story in a very different way from the Synoptics, altering the order of events to suit his theological purposes. Luke tells us that he has carefully researched his evidence, while John has selected merely a few events from the almost infinite amount of material available (21:25). He structures his account around seven ‘signs’ or miracles, each of which reveals something more about Jesus and his purposes. Long teaching slots, such as Matthew’s sermon on the mount, are replaced with discourses in which Jesus teaches his disciples not about how to live in the present, but about what to expect in the future when the Holy Spirit will be given to the church. The book is full of symbolism, dramatic irony and poetry, and uniquely contains a chapter (17) in which we see Jesus in an extended period of prayer.

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For John the villains of the piece are clearly ‘the Jews’ rather than the Romans, although he intends this not as a racial group but as a religious system which promised much but is ultimately unfruitful and dangerous. It is the Jewish authorities who kill Jesus, with the romans playing only an incidental part in this trial, and Pilate actually wanting to show him mercy, and finally washing his hands of him under pressure from the Jews. Part of the irony is that it is these same hostile Jews, some of whom have tried before to make him king, are the ones who end up killing him and crowning him in the process.

It is when we come to the passion narratives that John’s distinctiveness is most clearly shown. The cross is a victory, not a defeat which needs to be reversed, and so the story is told to that end. Jesus is killed on a different day from the Synoptics, so that he is shown as the sacrificial Passover lamb. There is no mocking by soldiers, no darkness at the moment of his death; there is different vocabulary used of his crucifixion (hupsoo­ means ‘lifted up’, both physically but also in terms of exaltation), and of his death, where he does not give up his spirit but rather hands the spirit  over to the church symbolised by his friends below. Having told Nicodemus that he has to be born from above (a better translation than ‘born again’) of water and the spirit, Jesus pours out water from his pierced side and also pours out his Spirit on the waiting church below. The cross is the moment of crowning for the king. After his resurrection Jesus meets his disciples, stands by a charcoal fire and reinstates Peter who, whilst standing beside another charcoal fire, has denied his Lord. He recommissions his disciples, using an acted parable of fruitfulness in fishing, which he transfers here from the earlier position in the Synoptics.

John’s Jesus is the most mystical, fascinating and complex figure: this gospel has depths which it would take a lifetime to discover.

 

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