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.


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.


It’s just not fair! An Easter special

Due to circumstances in our lives we haven’t really been able to enter into the whole Lent thing with any great enthusiasm this year, but I did enjoy going as is our custom to Canterbury Cathedral for the Palm Sunday Eucharist, which included the singing of the whole Passion Narrative according to Matthew. We’re so used to hearing Scripture in little bits that it can have real impact from time to time to listen to a much larger chunk: like standing back from a view you can see some very different things. As I heard again the familiar story of Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution I was struck very strongly by one thought: it’s just not fair!

Now maybe I particularly heard that this year because I’m still recovering from a period where I felt misunderstood, bullied and persecuted, or because I’ve had cancer, but this sense of injustice, the unfairness of it all is what I’ll take home from Easter this year. Maybe there are things in your life, too, which just don’t feel fair. Maybe Jesus can help.


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First of all, this whole sorry mess occurs because Jesus is misunderstood. He has come from God to save the world, for goodness’ sake, but instead he is hounded by the very people he has come to do good to. They see him as a threat to their status quo, which of course he is, but only because they are so blind that they can’t see what he is really about. When people don’t get what we’re trying to do, especially when we’re trying to help them, and try to portray us as villains, it can really hurt. Jesus has had this sense of being misunderstood and therefore opposed for three years now, and I guess it must have got a bit wearing.

Of course his Father didn’t help. Why wouldn’t he take this cup away and find some other method for the salvation of the human race? All that agonised prayer didn’t change a thing. That can’t have seemed fair either.

Jesus’ arrest demonstrated their misunderstanding even further. Did the one who had healed the sick and welcomed children really need swords and clubs, and did those who were with him need to try to fight back with the same weapons? ‘What have I been trying to teach them for three years?’ Jesus must have wondered. ‘Have they grasped anything of what I’m about?’

Then to be betrayed and denied can’t have helped. These were his friends, those who ought to have been for him, but in the end sheer cowardice turned them against him, not because he had done anything to harm them, but because they were just too weak. That hurts too: that just isn’t fair.

The trial is of course a travesty, and when the legal process becomes unfair there is something seriously wrong. And would the crowds really want to choose a murderer in preference to the Prince of Life? Maybe, or maybe not, but the authorities soon stirred them up: it isn’t hard to work a crowd if you know what you’re doing.

But maybe the final cut must have been to be accused of blasphemy when you’re actually telling nothing but the truth. Of all the manifestations of unfairness, this must take the biscuit.

So how do we react when life is unfair, when others misunderstand or persecute us; when they call evil what we are trying to do for good? I see in Jesus a total lack of any surprise at all this injustice, no attempt at all at self-justification or point-scoring, no apparent self-pity or even anger. He knows, as we do, that he is after all the master of his own destiny, having chosen to accept his Father’s will. He believes that he will be vindicated, and he seems content to let people rant on all around him while he retains a quiet dignity. Now that is one area where I could do with being a bit more Christlike.

Here might I stay and sing,
No story so divine;
Never was love, dear King!
Never was grief like Thine.
This is my Friend, in Whose sweet praise
I all my days could gladly spend.