The Gospel of John is the latest-written of the four biographies of Jesus that have been preserved in the New Testament. Written by a Christian named John, the contents of the book indicate quite clearly that the author was not the John who was one of the twelve disciples of Jesus, for it contains no direct personal references of the type that one would expect from an intimate associate of Jesus. On the contrary, it presents an interpretation of Jesus that reflects ideas and situations that prevailed in the Christian community toward the end of the first century of the Christian era, a time when Christianity was under attack from several different quarters, including Jews, Romans, skeptics, and others making charges against it. The author of the Gospel of John was evidently aware of these attacks and knew that some of the accounts given in earlier gospels were interpreted in a manner that seemed to support these charges. Because he believed so firmly in the new Christian movement, he wanted to write a gospel that set forth its essential truth in the best possible manner. His hope was that he might write one that was not only true but that offered a presentation of the Christian faith that would overcome the objections of its critics and gain the respect of the educated and cultured people of his day. This objective helps us to understand many of the unique characteristics of John's gospel, especially the ones that sharply contrast the Synoptic Gospels. It explains the omission in the Gospel of John of many items found in the earlier accounts, and it also explains, at least in part, the different attitude about Jews, the allegorical interpretations of certain miracle stories, the absence of apocalypticism with reference to the second coming, the subordinate role of John the Baptist, and a new concept of the Messiah.
The purpose of this gospel, as stated by John himself, is to show that Jesus of Nazareth was Christ, the Son of God, and that believers in him might have eternal life. This purpose was one that John had in common with the men who wrote the Synoptic Gospels, but his method for achieving it distinguishes his gospel from the earlier ones. The central theme in the Synoptic Gospels is the coming of the kingdom of God, and it was in relation to this event that the accounts were given of the life and teachings of Jesus. The messianic character of Jesus' mission was described in terms of the miracles that he performed, his kindly attitude toward the poor and the oppressed, his power to cast out demons and to heal the sick, and his instructions concerning the way people should live in view of the imminence of the coming kingdom.
In the Gospel of John, the central theme is the divine Logos, the word that was with God and that was God. This Logos became flesh and dwelt among men in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. John says nothing of a supernatural birth. He regards Jesus as a human being who possessed actual flesh and blood, the same as other people. The most significant thing about Jesus is that the divine Logos was present in him, and all of the marvelous things that he accomplished were by virtue of the power of God. In this way, John conceives the relationship between the divine and the human. Because God was present in Jesus, it is appropriate to refer to Jesus as the Son of God, which is an example of what can happen in the life of anyone else in whom the power of God dwells. In this connection, John says, "Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God."
John's account of the ministry of Jesus consists of two parts. The first twelve chapters describe Jesus' public ministry, beginning with his meeting John the Baptist and closing with the visit of the Greeks who came to worship at the Feast of Passover. The remaining chapters deal with the closing days of Jesus' earthly ministry, when he gave instruction to his disciples and explained the meaning of his life and approaching death in a number of lengthy discourses. This division of the gospel into two parts follows the pattern used by the Synoptic Gospels' writers, but the contents of the two sections differ widely from the earlier accounts. According to John, Jesus' public ministry can be summarized in connection with a number of miracles that John reports and then follows with interpretations that point to their spiritual significance.
John records only seven miracles, considerably less than the number reported in the Synoptic Gospels. But John's use of the miracle stories is different from that of his predecessors. John does not regard the stories' miraculous elements themselves as having great significance but rather the spiritual meanings that he finds implicit in them. The miracles are signs not of the imminence of the coming of God's kingdom as that term is used in the Synoptic Gospels but of the presence of the Logos, or the power of God, which brings about a transformation in people's lives.
The seven miracle stories recorded in John are, first, the turning of water into wine at a marriage feast in Cana; second, the healing of a nobleman's son who was at the point of death; third, the healing of a man at the sheep-gate pool; fourth, the walking on water; fifth, the feeding of five thousand; sixth, the healing of the man born blind; and seventh, the raising of Lazarus. Each of these stories is used as an introduction to a discourse concerning the significance of Jesus and his message in relation to the quality of a person's life. This use of the miracle stories for the purpose of teaching spiritual lessons is made possible by analogies and, in many instances, by allegorizing the materials found in the stories. For example, the story of Jesus' turning water into wine is interpreted to mean the contrast between the old and the new dispensations. The water symbolizes a cleansing, and the transformation that takes place when a person's life is filled with the spirit present in Jesus sharply contrasts with the rites and ceremonies performed in the Jewish Temple. This meaning of the story is given special emphasis in the narratives that follow. In one of these, Jesus drives out the buyers and sellers from the Temple. In the Synoptic Gospels, this event is placed toward the close of Jesus' ministry, but John situates it toward the beginning because to him it represents the goal of Jesus' entire earthly career. He quotes Jesus as saying, "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days," which is a reference to John's belief that Jesus' death and resurrection have brought about a new and more meaningful conception of salvation. The point is illustrated even further in the story of Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus, in which Jesus says that unless a person is born of the water and the spirit, that person cannot see the kingdom of God. The same point of view is expressed again in the account of Jesus' conversation with the woman at the Samarian well. In reply to her questions concerning the proper place and manner of worship, Jesus explains that external forms of worship are not as important as worshipping the Father "in spirit and truth."
The feeding of the five thousand appears to be taken from the Synoptic Gospels, which present the story as evidence that Jesus is the Messiah because he worked miracles. John reports the story as it was customarily understood, but the use that he makes of it is quite different from that of the earlier writers. For John, the amount of physical food that came into existence was not of primary importance. Instead, the important meaning of the story is the spiritual food that alone can sustain the quality of living that characterizes true followers of Jesus. Accordingly, the account of the miracles is followed immediately by a discourse in which Jesus says, "I am the bread of life." In an obvious reference to the Christian practice of celebrating the Eucharist, or the Lord's Supper, John quotes Jesus as saying, "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him." It is the presence of the Logos, or Spirit of God, in human life that really nourishes the spiritual quality of a person's life. Just as Jesus, by virtue of this spirit, gives the living water that brings eternal life, so he gives the food that can bring a new quality of life to the world.
When Jesus heals a man who was born blind, his disciples inquire of him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" In reply, Jesus says, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the power of God might be displayed in his life." The discussion that follows this exchange makes clear that John's major concern in this narrative is not physical sight in place of physical blindness but rather the curing of men and women of their spiritual blindness. Those who fail to understand Jesus and the purpose of his mission in the world are spiritually blind. Only by coming under the influence of his spirit can we pass from darkness into light.
In the story of the resurrection of Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, John's interpretation of the signs reaches its climax. Lazarus was dead for four days, and at the call of Jesus he came back to life. For John, an event of this kind is a most appropriate symbol of what happens to spiritually dead people when they are receptive to the power of God made manifest in the person of Jesus. That this story is found only in the Gospel of John raises some questions concerning the historicity of the event, for it does not seem at all probable that the authors of the Synoptic Gospels would have failed to relate an event as important as this one if they had known about it. Whether John was recording a popular tradition or writing a sequel to the story of the rich man and Lazarus, recorded in the Gospel of Luke, we do not know. At any rate, the story in Luke closes with the statement that those who do not believe Moses and the prophets will not be convinced, even if a person raised from the dead should speak to them. In John's story, someone does come from the dead, and even then the Jews are not persuaded by what he says and does. As John interprets the story, its deeper meaning is disclosed in a statement that Jesus makes: "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die." Lazarus is typical of all human beings. Without the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God, all human life is meaningless. When the Spirit of God enters into our lives, we are no longer dead in a spiritual sense but are partakers of the life that is everlasting.
The remaining portions of the Gospel of John record incidents closely related to the closing days of Jesus' earthly ministry. Unlike the Gospel of Mark, the story of the anointing of Jesus by Mary is placed before rather than after Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the Passover meal with the disciples is said to have taken place one day earlier than in the account given in the Synoptic Gospels. These changes are quite in harmony with John's conception of Jesus as "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" Because the paschal lamb used as a sacrifice by the ancient Jews was always slain on the day before the Passover, it seemed most appropriate to John that the sacrifice of Jesus should be in conformity with the ancient tradition.
The major emphasis in this part of John's gospel is found in the discourses that are attributed to Jesus. Because John is interpreting the meaning of Jesus' earthly career from the perspective of the post-resurrection experiences and beliefs of the Christian community, these discourses are presented as though they were made in anticipation of the events that followed. This narrative device is exemplified in the story of the foot-washing that precedes the eating of the Passover meal. By performing the work of a servant, Jesus not only gives to his disciples an example of humility that they are to follow, but the water used in the service is a symbol of that spiritual cleansing essential for all those who become true followers of him. This symbolic washing is the meaning of Jesus' statement made to Peter: "Unless I wash you, you have no part with me." And when Jesus says to the group of disciples, "And you are clean, though not every one of you," he is referring to Judas, who betrays Jesus by contacting Jesus' enemies.
In one of the discourses, Jesus explains his relation to God the Father by using the parable of the vine and the branches. He shows in what sense it is true that the Son and the Father are one in spirit and in purpose without either of them losing their personal identities. The Father works through the Son for the redemption of the world, but the task must be continued after the earthly career of the Son has ended. In this connection, Jesus speaks of going to the Father in order that the Comforter or Spirit of God may be present in the hearts and minds of the believers and thus continue through the church the work that Jesus did while dwelling in their midst, which is John's version of the second coming. John replaces, at least in part, the apocalyptic expectations present in all three of the Synoptic Gospels. John, no less than the Synoptic Gospels' writers, believes that some day the forces of evil in this world will be overcome, and God's reign of righteousness finally will be established. But instead of being brought about by a sudden catastrophic event that will destroy the nations of the world and at which time Jesus will return to earth in power and great glory, John sees the return of Jesus whenever and wherever the Spirit of God enters into the lives of human beings. He believes that the function of the Christian church is to follow the guidance and direction of this spirit until the whole world has been transformed into a kingdom of God.
In a long and remarkable prayer that John attributes to Jesus, the meaning and significance of Jesus' entire career are neatly summarized. We may be sure that the language used is that of John rather than of Jesus, for it contains the same type of statements used throughout the Gospels, and there are places where Jesus is referred to in the third person, but this is a relatively unimportant item. What is important is that the prayer contains that which John believes to be implicit in the life and teachings of Jesus. It is a fitting resume, as John sees it, of what Jesus has done for the Christian community and indeed for all those who at any future time will become members of it. The Christian community, at the time when John wrote, was experiencing a great deal of opposition, not only from Jews but from Romans and others who were skeptical of the claims that Christians were making. At times, this opposition led to severe persecution, and some Christians wanted to withdraw from direct contact with the people of the world. It is to these Christians that Jesus' words to God are addressed: "My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one."
Following the prayer, John describes the events that culminate in the crucifixion of Jesus and reports the words that Jesus utters while on the cross. Jesus' last words — "It is finished" — carry a double meaning, for they indicate not only that Jesus is about to die but that the whole purpose of the incarnation is now complete. The gospel closes with an account of the post-resurrection experiences that took place both in Jerusalem and in Galilee.
The importance of the Gospel of John can scarcely be overestimated. Throughout Christian history, it has been read and cherished far more than any of the other preserved accounts of Jesus' life. The genius of the gospel lies in the way in which John conceives of the relationship between the human and the divine. This relationship has always been a problem that has puzzled people. How can God, who is conceived as an eternal, omniscient, and omnipotent being, have any direct contact with that which is temporal, changing, and limited by the conditions of space and time? In other words, how can divinity ever be united with humanity unless one thereby becomes involved in a contradiction of terms? John's answer to this question is his statement, "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us." The Logos is identified with God and is the spirit that dwelt in the human being known as Jesus of Nazareth. This divine spirit motivated Jesus' activities and enabled him to meet triumphantly the temptations to which all human beings are subject. As John sees it, no human being using only his own strength can overcome the forces of evil. Only God can impart the power to human beings to do this. That it was done in the person of Jesus is all the evidence needed to assure that triumph over evil is a possibility for humans and that the ultimate overthrow of the forces of evil is something that has now been made certain.
Throughout John's gospel, Jesus appears in the role of a human being, which is especially important because it means that he is an example for other people to follow. As a typical human being, he possessed no extraordinary power that is not available to anyone else who asks for it and who meets the conditions for receiving it. Because Jesus' will is in complete harmony with the will of God, it is proper and right to refer to him as the Son of God; in this connection, we are to understand the statement "Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God."
John's treatment of the miracle stories is especially significant. In the Synoptic Gospels, the purpose of the miracles appears to be that of presenting evidence to support the claim that Jesus is the true Messiah. The evidence for this claim rests on Jesus' ability to do that which ordinary human beings cannot do. In this case, the historical accuracy of an event as reported would be crucial. In John's gospel, only seven miracles are reported, and in no one of these instances is the real meaning of the story dependent on its historical accuracy, which is not to say that John has any doubts about the events' historical accuracy. He does not discuss historicity, for he has something else in mind that he regards as far more important: the spiritual lesson that he derives from the stories, whether the details are reported accurately or not. One of the advantages of the Gospel of John is that it presents the meaning of Christianity in a way that makes its validity dependent on neither scientific accuracy nor historical verification. This position is a fortunate one for modern readers since we have no adequate means for determining exactly what happened in regard to any of the reported events. All of the evidence we have is what the individuals who made the records believed to have happened.
The interpretation of Christianity set forth in the Gospel of John may be characterized as mystical in the same sense that Paul's letters are mystical. In both instances, the essence of salvation is the mystical union of the human and the divine. The presence of God in the life of Jesus of Nazareth enabled Jesus to overcome the temptations that arise from contact with the flesh and the world, and this same presence can enter into the heart and life of any individual who allows this spirit to become the motivating life force. Paul expresses this conception in the words "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me." John says that just as the branch cannot bear fruit except that the fruit abides in the vine, so a Christian cannot live the good life unless Christ abides within that person. This type of mysticism unites the believer with God, yet it does so without destroying the individuality of either. In this respect, Christian mysticism differs from those types in which individual personality is destroyed by becoming wholly absorbed in the deity.