The ancient symbol for the Gospel of John is the eagle. This Gospel was always recognized as a different kind of writing from the other three, the Synoptic Gospels. Like an eagle soars high into the sky, surveying its terrain and searching for prey, John sweeps readers up into the stratosphere of reflection. Its simple language is deceptive. This Gospel is not for those who fear heights!
This article proposes a bird’s-eye view of the Fourth Gospel, in order to provide an orientation for the use of readings from John throughout the liturgical year.
Contrast with the Synoptics
The most obvious reason that John was viewed differently from the other Gospels was that its primary characteristics were unique. Where the Synoptic Gospels contain many narratives about the deeds and teachings of Jesus, John has fewer narratives and more dialogues and monologues of Jesus. Also, where the Synoptics recount many “miracles” Jesus performed in His public ministry, John has fewer of these stories and speaks of them as “signs.”
Even the content of Jesus’ message in the Gospels is somewhat different. Whereas, in the Synoptics, Jesus speaks most often of the “kingdom of God” (or, for Matthew, “the kingdom of heaven”), Jesus in John’s Gospel speaks more often of Himself and His relationship to His heavenly Father. The effect of this latter change is to make John much more obviously “christological” in its teaching, focused as much on the person of Jesus Christ as on His message.
Naturally, there is considerably overlap in all the Gospels. All of them concern Jesus of Nazareth and His public ministry. All of them lead to the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem. Even in this detail, though, there is a contrast. The Synoptics portray Jesus’ ministry in almost telescopic fashion, with only one trip of Jesus to Jerusalem, to celebrate the Passover feast and to embrace His crucifixion. John, on the other hand, recounts Jesus’ multiple trips to Jerusalem for various Jewish feasts, giving the impression of a ministry that lasted several years.
These differences do not so much raise questions of historicity as they pose questions of theology. John is noticeably different. His simple language — seen in concepts like light and darkness, spirit and flesh, life and death, bread and wine, vine and branches, and so on — belies the depth of profound theological reflection in this Gospel.
Structure and Theology
Taking a brief look at the structure of John yields some clues to its teaching. The outline is fairly simple. A prologue (1:1-18), which combines both narrative and poetic sections, sets forth the cosmic dimension of the Gospel. The stark line that opens the Gospel harks back to the very day of creation, with an allusion to Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1). It signals the pre-existence of the Eternal Word with the Lord of the Universe, who nonetheless deigns to enter human history by taking on flesh and dwelling in the midst of human beings (1:14; see also 2:25).
Then begins the first of two major divisions of the Gospel, the Book of Signs (1:19–12:50). This first section describes numerous encounters between individuals and Jesus. Each of these encounters affords an occasion for teaching, through dialogues that ultimately flow into monologues, in which Jesus explains the mystery of salvation unfolding before their very eyes.
The second major division of the Gospel is usually termed the Book of Glory (13:1–20:31). It begins with Jesus’ intimate act of washing the feet of His disciples, a sign of the kind of serving ministry they too are to perform (13:15). The discourses in this last section become more extensive and complex. Jesus prepares His disciples for His ultimate fate in Jerusalem. The passion, death and resurrection — really Jesus’ greatest “sign” — climax this section of the Gospel. This is why the Word had become flesh and entered human history. It concerned bringing people to faith in Jesus as the Messiah. The text explicitly says, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written 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” (20:30-31).
Just as there was a Prologue, so there is an “Epilogue.” Scholars are agreed it was added to the original Gospel, but it is thoroughly Johannine and fits the entire story. It contains several stories of the appearance of the risen Jesus to various disciples, especially to Simon Peter and the “Beloved Disciple,” who is never named in the Gospel. It concludes with an affirmation of the trustworthy nature of the testimony contained in the Gospel (21:24-25), because it goes back to the Beloved Disciple himself, who had accompanied Jesus in His ministry.
This brief summary shows us the goal of the Gospel: to bring people to faith and to sustain them in their faith.
Some Key Themes
Several themes are played out throughout the Gospel of John. Most apparent is a series of contrasting notions: above and below, light and darkness, life and death, acceptance and rejection, blindness and sight, love and hatred, belief and disbelief. These contrasts are evident from the beginning of the Gospel. The Word, Jesus, is from “above.” He descends into the realm of human history “below” in order to lead humanity to eternal life with the Father “above.” The Prologue also notes that this eternal “Word” is true light. He is not just a little lamp but a light that can overcome any darkness. He came to bring life, but many human beings prefer to stay in the darkness. They refuse to believe that God would walk in their midst or would condescend to our level. Only those who can truly accept the difficult message of the Gospel can come to faith. Only those who see the “truth” can believe and accept God’s love.
The effect of these contrasts, of course, is to place an emphasis on decision-making. Faith in Jesus Christ in the Gospel of John always involves a judgment or a decision. People must choose to follow Christ. They must choose to believe. Many readers of the Gospel find this perspective somewhat uncomfortable. While many of us like to view reality in such stark, dualistic terms, making a firm decision on the basis of the stark choices before us is not easy. This is one reason why John recounts a series of personal encounters between Jesus and individuals. Think of Nicodemus (Ch. 3), the Samaritan woman (Ch. 4), the man born blind (Ch. 9), or Mary, Martha and Lazarus (Ch. 11). Each of them represents the diverse level of choices that must be made in order to accept Jesus. Some individuals are bolder than others. Some accept Jesus more readily, while others are more hesitant or do so with some trepidation.
Are these not challenging images of Christian faith even today? John’s message is rather direct. Both Peter and the Beloved Disciple run to the empty tomb and peer inside, but it is only the latter who sees and believes (20:9). Yet another of Jesus’ disciples, Thomas “the Twin,” cannot quite fully accept the reality of the resurrection until he touches the risen Lord by placing his hand in Jesus’ pierced side or his finger in the nail wounds in Jesus’ hands (20:27-28). Only then does he express his faith in his Lord and God.
The Primacy of Love
Of the many principal themes of John, the most dramatic is that of love. While it is true that St. Paul waxes eloquent about love being the primary virtue (1 Cor 13:13), the Gospel of John portrays this value narratively. It begins with the bold line, often announced on billboards in the Bible Belt: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son. . .” (3:16). The rest of the story essentially shows how God’s love is embodied in His Son. Jesus’ frequent teachings about love, and the fact that He identifies love as the primary commandment for His disciples (13:34), reinforce the primacy of this value.
It is also embodied in the image of the Beloved Disciple. Ancient tradition identified him with John, son of Zebedee, despite not being named in the Fourth Gospel. (Neither is Jesus’ mother!) Rather, he receives Jesus’ love and, as a disciple, is also called to put it into action. He thus serves as a model for believers of all time.
In our day, given that Pope Francis has drawn particular attention to the need for love, we could not find a better Gospel to encourage us. Love is the very reason Jesus came into the world.
FATHER WITHERUP, S.S., is Superior General of the Society of St. Sulpice. His most recent books is Saint Paul and the New Evangelization (Liturgical Press, 2013).