THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JOHN
Suggested Readings: John 1:1-14, John 3:1-21, John 4:4-42, John 6:22-71, John 8:1-20, John 8:31-59, John 10:1-6, John 11:1-44, John 13:1-20, John 13:31-35, John 17, John 19:16b-37, John 20, John 21:15-19
The Gospel According to John is the fourth Gospel, the last to be written and the last in order in the New Testament. The apostle John was credited as the author of the fourth Gospel because John became identified with the Beloved Disciple, who is mentioned in the Gospel as the “disciple who testifies to these things and has written them” (21:24). The Beloved Disciple appears at the Last Supper (13:23), the crucifixion (19:26) and the Resurrection (20:2; 21:7, 20), but is never named. He is simply called, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”
How did John come to be identified with the Beloved Disciple? According to all four Gospels, Jesus was especially close to three of the disciples: Peter, James and John. The Beloved Disciple could not possibly be Peter, because Peter is accompanied by the Beloved Disciple at the Resurrection. James is known to have been martyred in the middle of the first century, around the year 40, well before the Gospel was written. That leaves John. The Gospel never mentions John by name. Christians have come to see that “the disciple whom Jesus loved” was John’s way of anonymously referring to himself when he wrote the Gospel. Modern scholars do not necessarily conclude that it was the apostle John himself who wrote the Gospel, but many think that a school of John, that is, a Christian community that was drawn together by John and influenced by his understanding of Jesus’ identity and mission, may have brought stories about Jesus together, reflected on them, and finally gathered them into a written Gospel.
Why was the Gospel written? John gives a reason in 20:31: “These are written that you may [come to] believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.” So, John was written to bring others to faith in Jesus, and also to encourage those who believe in Jesus to hold on to their faith in the face of persecution.
John famously begins with a hymn to the Word of Life (1:1-18), a beautiful hymn to the Incarnation. The Word, Who is with God from the beginning, becomes a human being and lives among us. Those who are His own, who should accept Him, instead reject Him. But those who do accept Him receive a great gift, “power to become children of God” (1:12). While the Law was given to Moses, this greater gift was given by Jesus Christ, “The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side” (1:18), and Who has made God the Father known to us. The genealogy of Jesus that opens the Gospel According to Matthew traces Jesus’ ancestry back to Abraham, the father of the Jewish people (Matthew 1:2-16). Luke traces Jesus’ lineage back to Adam, the father of the human race (Luke 3:23-38). John makes it clear that the origin of Jesus is in the very heart of God:
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
John credits the Word with the Creation. Life is a gift from God, and this is the gift that the Word gives to all of Creation:
What came to be through him was life,
and this life was the light of the human race.
A powerful theme in the Gospel According to John is that of light versus darkness, or the Light that is Christ overcoming the darkness of sin and evil. Those who reject God’s plan of salvation through His Son remain in darkness, while those who “believe in the light” become “children of the light” (12:36). Jesus, God’s light, came into the world, but He was rejected because people preferred the darkness, “because their works are evil” (3:19). The one who does evil hates the light because the light exposes his wickedness. The one who loves the truth has nothing to hide, so he comes out into the light, “so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God” (3:21). “I am the light of the world,” Jesus says. “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (8:12).
Perhaps the most amazing claim John makes in the hymn that opens his Gospel is that,
The Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us.
That God became man speaks to the dignity of human life and human nature. Gaudium et Spes (“Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”), a document of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) says, “He [Jesus] who is the ‘image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15), is himself the perfect man who has restored in the children of Adam that likeness to God which had been disfigured ever since the first sin. Human nature … has been raised in us also to a dignity beyond compare. For, by his incarnation, he, the son of God, has in a certain way united himself with each man. He worked with human hands, he thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will, and with a human heart he loved. Born of the Virgin Mary, he has truly been made one of us, like to us in all things except sin” (GS, n. 22).
In light of the Incarnation, it makes sense that Jesus would take things like water and bread, objects so much a part of the experience of being human, and lift them up as instruments through which God pours out His grace to us. Water and bread as source of divine grace are powerful themes in John. In chapter 4, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well and asks her to give Him a drink. She is surprised by this, because Jews do not associate with Samaritans. “The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How can you, a Jews, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?’ … Jesus answered and said to her, ‘If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water’” (4:9-10). The woman thinks Jesus is talking about drinking water. She misses the deeper, spiritual meaning of the water Jesus is talking about. Jesus, pointing to the water, tells her, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4:13-14). “Baptism indeed is the seal of eternal life,” St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, would preach in the middle of the second century. Certainly he had in mind the words of Jesus at Jacob’s well.
In chapter 6 of John, Jesus speaks of His flesh as the bread of eternal life. Jesus and His disciples cross the sea to Capernaum after feeding the five thousand with only a handful of loaves and fish. Jesus challenges them to “believe in the one [God] sent” (6:29). The people ask for a miracle so they can regard Jesus as worthy of their belief (of course, He just fed five thousand with a handful of loaves and fish, so what more do they want?). The crowd reminds Jesus that their ancestors ate manna in the desert. Jesus says He will give them the real bread from heaven, and that He is the bread that came down from heaven. When they complain and grumble against Him for calling Himself the bread from heaven, Jesus makes it clear for them: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world. … Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day” (6:51, 54). Many of Jesus’ followers left Him over this teaching, saying it was too hard to accept. When Jesus asked the twelve apostles if they, too, would leave, Peter replied, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (6:68).
“The Word became flesh” (1:14). “The bread that I will give is my flesh” (6:51). So, the Word that was made flesh, descending from heaven to live among us, was lifted up in glory on the cross and at the Resurrection. Those who eat the flesh of the One Who descended, lived among us, and was raised up will themselves be raised up to eternal life on the last day!
Notice that Jesus says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day” (6:54, emphasis added). Yes, the raising up will be on the last day, but the person already has eternal life. Eternal life does not begin in the after life, but in the here and now. Jesus pours out His grace using the objects of this world, water and bread. So, Christians are not to reject this world, or the things of this world, waiting for the far off hope of eternal life. Eternal life is not far off. It is here and now. Just as Jesus descended from heaven and was lifted up on the cross, descended into the tomb and was raised again at the Resurrection, we are to follow His example in our reception of Baptism and Eucharist: to be sent, descending into the world, given for the sake of the world, and to be raised up to the Father in virtue of our sacrifice of obedience to the Father’s will. This is the challenge we receive at the end of every Mass: “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.” How do we glorify the Lord? By staying in our comfortable, warm homes, counting our blessings? No! Rather, having received the Lord in this place of worship, we are sent from this place into the world to consecrate the world in His Holy Name.
WHAT DOES THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JOHN TEACH US ABOUT JESUS?
- Jesus is the Word made flesh, the Incarnation of God.
- While Moses gave us the Law, Jesus was sent to us from the Father to give us an even greater gift: the gift of eternal life, which begins in the here and now and not only after we die.
- Because Jesus became human, human life and nature are raised up “to a dignity beyond compare.”
- Jesus took the objects of human life and experience, water, bread and wine, and made them instruments of God’s grace in Baptism and Eucharist.
- As Jesus was sent to give His life for the sake of the world, and was raised to the Father, so we are sent into the world to make the world holy, and by virtue of doing so, we will be raised up to the Father.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.