Opening observations: The Gospel According to John differs in several ways from Mark, Matthew, and Luke in style and content. John’s Gospel omits a large amount of material found in the Synoptic Gospels like the temptation of Jesus, Jesus’ transfiguration, and the institution of the Eucharist. The sermon on the mount and the Lord’s prayer are not found in John’s Gospel. Nor do we see proverbs and parables. We see, rather, symbolic discourses. John uses the language of symbolic “signs” to talk about Jesus’s miracles because they point beyond themselves to provide insight into Jesus’ identity.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus is clearly the Wisdom of God, the source of eternal life, and, very importantly, still continually living with us in the community of faith.
According to the Gospel of John, Jesus’ public ministry appears to extend over a period of at least three years. During that time, he went, several times from Galilee to Jerusalem. The Synoptics, on the other hand, have Jesus making just one journey to Jerusalem — his final one.
The Gospel of John also includes a considerable amount of material not found in the Synoptics. All the material in John chapters 2 to 4, Jesus’ early Galilean ministry, is not found in the Synoptics. Visits of Jesus to Jerusalem before his passion week are mentioned in John but not found in the synoptics. The raising from the dead of Lazarus, in John 11, is not mentioned in the Synoptics, and the extended Farewell Discourse, in John 13 – 17, is not found in the Synoptic Gospels.
The Gospel of John uses a “post-resurrection” point of view. The author looks back on the Jesus events and emphasizes the inability of his disciples to understand the things that were happening at the time they occurred. See for instance: John 2:17-22, where there are obvious references to Jesus’ Resurrection, “He was speaking of the sanctuary that was his body, and after he rose from the dead his disciples remembered.” See John 12:16-17, “At the time his disciples did not understand this but later, after Jesus had been glorified, they remembered…” And see John 20:9, “Until this moment they had failed to understand the teaching of scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” Perhaps we today do not always clearly understand? We do indeed, like the early disciples, grow in our faith and understanding.
The Gospel of John’s prologue (John 1:1-18) is most likely an elaboration of an early hymn. Interestingly, the rest of John’s Gospel does not speak of Jesus as the pre-existent, creative Word. Many biblical scholars suggest, therefore, that the prologue was added after the Gospel of John had been completed.
Authorship and locality: The old tradition, from the second century, was that the author of John’s Gospel was the apostle John, son of Zebedee. Most contemporary scholars are not of this opinion. Scholars such as Raymond E. Brown (1928-1998) believed that the original author of an oral tradition, that evolved into the Gospel of John, was a companion of Jesus. That author was the “Beloved Disciple,” who formed a community, most probably in Ephesus. Scholars call this “the Johannine community.” An oral tradition of eye-witness recollections of the Beloved Disciple evolved in that community and began being written down around 90 CE. The final redaction occurred ten to twenty years later, giving us a gospel composition date of between 90 and 110 CE. We don’t know who the “Beloved Disciple” was. There is quite a variety of scholarly opinions: a truly unknown disciple, the Apostle John, James the brother of Jesus, or even Mary the Magdalene.
Scholars like Pheme Perkins, at Boston College, emphasize, that the author of John’s Gospel presumes that much of the narrative about Jesus and its people and places was already well known to the Johannine audience. They would have been familiar with the various titles for Jesus, with Baptism, Eucharist, and the Spirit. They were already Christians, entering the second century of Christian life and experience.
The Fourth Gospel then is a call to early Christians to re-examine their lives as followers of the Risen Lord. That challenge of course rings true for us today as well.
John 13:1-4 is the big turning point in this gospel. Jesus’s “hour” had come “for him to pass from this world to the Father…he had come from God and was returning to God.” The occasion in John 13 is the Last Supper. Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of John has no mention of Eucharist, but Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. “I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.” (John 13:15) (Perhaps we forget that people wore simple sandals back then and people’s feet got really dirty. Hebrews did not wear sandals indoors. They removed them upon entering the house and washed their feet.)
Rereading this scripture, I think we sometimes forget that Jesus also said: “Whoever welcomes the one I send, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” (John 13:20) This is the key.The author of John’s Gospel did not mention the Eucharistic bread and wine because he wanted to emphasize that Jesus is present in the Community of Faith. Jesus promises that his Spirit (the Advocate) will be with them. (John 14:15-16, 15:26, 16:15)
For centuries, in my Roman Catholic tradition, people have debated about Jesus’s eucharistic “Real Presence.” John’s Gospel is very clear: the primary real presence of Jesus is in the community. Jesus is the vine and we are the branches (John 15); and we are to love one another. The branches cannot survive without the vine. But the vine cannot survive without the branches. The profound mystery of life. No one can do it alone.
In Mark, Matthew, and Luke the stress was on divinity taking on humanity. That is true in John as well, of course. In John, however, we see another emphasis: humanity taking on divinity. God is truly with us: in the very heart of our being.
Some of the old images of God might no longer speak to contemporary people; but God has not abandoned us. We should not abandon God. We simply need to reflect on better ways of conceptualizing and speaking about our experiences of the Divine. We all have a theological task, because theology is faith seeking understanding.
I find it especially noteworthy that John’s account of the crucifixion does not stress Jesus as one who suffers, as we saw for example in Mark 15.25–39. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is the one who is exalted, “lifted up” in his moment of glorification. Jesus in the Gospel of John is courageous and confident.
In John 13 to John 16, Jesus prepares his disciples for his imminent departure, followed by his “high priestly prayer” in John 17. Here we see a very strong and confident Jesus. “I have glorified you on earth and finished the work you gave me to do. Now, Father, it is time to glorify me…” (John 17:4-5)
John’s final chapters contain the accounts of Jesus’s trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. The Jesus who stands before Pilate is courageous and strong. On the way to Golgotha Jesus carries his own cross. He does not need the help of a Simon of Cyrene as we saw in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Also in John, unlike the other three gospels, Jesus’ crucifixion occurs on the day of preparation of the Passover (John 19:14) rather than on the Passover holiday itself. Here Jesus prepares himself for the departure to the Father and seems to be in complete control of his destiny, even to the extent of commending his mother to the Beloved Disciple (John 19:26–27).
The Gospel of John concludes with the discovery of the empty tomb by the women and other disciples (John 20:1–10), Jesus’s appearance to them (John 20:11–18), and the narrative of “Doubting” Thomas (John 20.24–29). The last two verses of John 20 contain what many scholars think may have been the original gospel’s ending: “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)
Appendix: Many scholars consider John 21 to be a later addition to the JohannineGospel. It not only contains resurrection appearances in Galilee, but it also emphasizes the authority of the Beloved Disciple, who likely died a normal death in contrast to Peter’s martyrdom (see John 21.15–23). Quite possibly, this appendix reflects a controversy among the second or third generation of believers’, who may have considered the Beloved Disciple inferior to Peter. Chapter 21 clearly reinforces the Beloved Disciple’s role as the authorized witness of the Jesustradition for the Johannine community.
I subtitled today’s For Another Voice reflection “Courageous and Confident Jesus.” That is how I perceive Jesus in John’s Gospel. With courage and confidence, Jesus approached the end of his life. And with the same courage Jesus spoke out against the hypocrisy of the religiously self-centered and arrogant. In conflicts with Judean religious leaders he stressed that religiosity is not faith.
Today we encounter the same kinds of hypocrisy. We are confronted with unChristian religiosity from religious and political leaders.
As members of Jesus in the community of faith, may we sustain each other with courage and confidence.
That is John’s message as we prepare for Easter 2023.
Next week, because people have asked me, some brief observations about historical-critical biblical understanding.