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Unique Ways We Learn About Jesus in John's Gospel
As we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Savior, John gives us some larger perspectives on the life and divinity of Christ
As we approach the joyous celebration of Christmas we Catholics typically focus on Luke’s Gospel; more specifically Luke 2, where we learn of the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, the birth of our Savior and the announcement of that birth to the shepherds in the fields as well as their visit to behold the newborn baby Jesus. In this season of preparation for the birth of our Lord, I would rather in this reflection turn to another Gospel, that of John; and his telling us about the Holy Spirit and other major themes that distinguish this Gospel from the other three Synoptic Gospels. We are therefore able to supplement our present focus on the birth of our Lord with reflections upon our re-birth in Jesus Christ and His glory, even in crucifixion and death.
An important early scene in the Gospel of John not found in the Synoptic Gospels concerns the visit of Nicodemus to Jesus. As Brown writes, “the Nicodemus scene (3:1-21) is the first of the important Johannine dialogues. This Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin, comes to Jesus ‘at night’ (i.e., because he does not yet belong to the light) and acknowledges him as a ‘teacher who has come from God.’ By that designation Nicodemus means only ‘raised up by God,’ whereas Jesus has actually come from God. Thus Nicodemus is a representative spokesman of an inadequate faith” (Kindle Locations 7158-7162). Here we see John developing an aspect of his theology concerning the spiritual – not physical – rebirth in Christ, the difficulties (and hence deficiencies in faith) experienced by the Pharisaic leader in coming to Jesus, who tells Nicodemus directly: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3).
Expounding upon this point, Sloyan makes an interesting observation concerning John’s use of the power of Jesus’ own words in making known to Nicodemus an essential element of faith:
At this point, the Evangelist chooses to introduce into his narrative the distinction between flesh and spirit. He does not have Jesus work a sign for the benefit of Nicodemus (who makes the connection which good will ought to make between the signs Jesus has done and God’s power in him, v. 2). John prefers to let the words of Jesus have their impact as testimony. The author portrays Nicodemus as resistant to this witness because of an incapacity for the obvious (v. 11). Here for the first time John employs the technique in which a conversation partner of Jesus’ responds uncomprehendingly as a means of encouraging Jesus to further exposition (43).
The raising of Lazarus and its aftermath represent another unique element in the Gospel of John in chapters 11 and 12 which, according to Brown serves as a bridge between the Book of Signs (1:19-12:50) and the Book of Glory (13:1-20:31). In other words, in John’s Gospel we encounter seven signs (not explicitly termed miracles): the turning of the water into wine (2:1- 11); the curing of the official’s son (4:46-54); the curing of the paralytic (5:1-5); the multiplication of the loaves (6:1-15); the walking on water (6:16-21); the healing of the blind man (9:1-41); and the raising of Lazarus from the dead (11:1-44). As John’s Gospel continues, the message becomes ever clearer that this worker of signs is in reality the Word Made Flesh, the incarnate Son of God. By John 13:1 we begin the Gospel journey of glory through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
Again, marking a divergence with these central events in the Synoptic Gospels, in John the focus of the passion and resurrection is not on suffering, but on exaltation (e.g., 3:14; 8:28; 12:32) and glory (e.g., 12:16, 23; 16.14; 17.1). As Brown notes, “Jesus gives life to Lazarus (11:1-44), even as he gave light to the blind man (see 11:37) and thus performs the greatest of his signs; yet paradoxically the gift of life leads to the decision of the Sanhedrin that Jesus must die (11:45-53), a decision that will bring about his glorious return to the Father” (Kindle Locations 7308-7311).
Another unique development in the Gospel of John concerns Jesus’ description of the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, or Advocate. Again in this section of John (focused upon 14:15-17), Jesus says: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” Of all of the Gospels it is in John that the Third Person in the Holy Trinity finds the most detailed description. As Jesus is about to depart this world and return to the Father, he will send the Paraclete to be with his disciples, the Spirit of truth, as Jesus has embodied truth in human form, Himself as a Paraclete (see 1 John 2:1). As Brown has noted:
Of particular interest is the designation of the Spirit as the Paraclete. Unlike the neuter word (pneuma) for Spirit, paraklētos, literally “the One called alongside,” is a personal designation picturing a Spirit called in after Jesus’ departure as “advocate” to defend Christians and “consoler” to comfort them. Just as Jesus received everything from the Father and while on earth is the way to know the Father in heaven, so when Jesus goes to heaven, the Paraclete who receives everything from Jesus is the way to know Jesus. Jesus, however, is the divine Word incarnate in one human being whose stay in this world with his followers is temporary; the Paraclete does not become incarnate but dwells in all who love Jesus and keep his commandments and is with them forever (14:15-16). Two features are characteristic: He is in a hostile relationship to the world which cannot see or recognize him (14:17) and he serves as a teacher explaining the implications of what Jesus said (Kindle Locations 7383-7391).
These three examples provide powerful testimony to how John’s Gospel presents and develops a theological perspective on the life and message of Jesus Christ that are not contained as such in the Synoptic Gospels. John’s focus is less on historical narrative, and more on the theological development of the central thesis that Jesus is the Word Made Flesh, “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31).
Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday, 1997. Kindle Edition.
Sloyan, Gerard. John: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1988.