In the task of evangelizing and disciplining new believers, it is common to see and hear of new believers being directed to read the Gospel of John. As even John 20:31 says, the Gospel was written in order to move people to believe in Jesus. So, obviously, it would seem to be important for new believers to read John.
But there seems to be more to it than just that: On the surface, the Gospel of John seems so simple and basic. You read topics such as being born again, believing in Jesus, and the importance of loving one another in John 13-17 and it many of the basic norms of Christian faith seems to be laid our: believe and love.
Of course, this simplicity can cause us to overlook the deep complexity of much of the Gospel. For every statement and idea that seems to be simple, Jesus engages in some rather initially opaque or elusive statements. What does it mean to mean to eat his flesh and blood (John 6.56)? There there are the are the various metaphors such as Jesus being a good shepherd and being the true vine that
The point of this post isn’t to try to try to say “you don’t really understand the Gospel.” Rather, it is to state something more important, to understand the whole of the Gospel of John, one must understanding that the Gospel does not convey a simple message about belief, but it does something much more impacting: it invites people in the way to know God through Jesus Christ.
Allow me to start at the most well-known verse: John 3.16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life.” It seems simple on the surface to our modern Protestant
However, this idea is dissonant with the context that immediately precedes it: Jesus is engaging with Nicodemus in a dialogue about being born again/from above (in the original language, the word can be understood as both “again” and “from above”) to enter the kingdom of heaven. Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus to mean to be born again, to which Jesus explains refer to the Spirit and the metaphor of wind (both spoken of through the same word in Greek). However, Nicodemus still doesn’t understand this metaphor, to which Jesus explains in what is most likely a rhetorical question hinted with sarcasm: “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t understand this? Here, the status of Nicodemus as an educated Pharisee is in focus, suggesting his knowledge doesn’t equip him to understand this truth from God that Jesus is speaking.
It is here that Jesus combines two different images that seem to have little to do with each other, the idea of ascension into to heaven and the serpent in the wilderness. In the first image, by saying no one
In this light, to believe in Jesus isn’t about an exchange with God. Rather, it is about knowing the way to eternal life. To believe in Jesus is a change in our way of understanding, whether we trust and listen to Jesus and through this, we are lead to the way to eternal life. Jesus (nor John) never imagines the condition of entering of the final judgment determined granted on the basis of belief, but as in John 5.28-29, those who do good will receive the resurrection of life, but evil will be met with a resurrection to condemnation. Rather, as immediately follows in John 3.17-21, one’s belief in Jesus is reflective people’s own way of life in whether they are willing to be exposed to the light of Christ in’s one’s life or not. To believe in Jesus is to welcome the light of Christ to expose who we are. For the Gospel of John, there is a condemnation in the present world because one’s belief in Jesus or the lack thereof is a proxy for one’s own way of life.
However, it bears mentioning that John 3.20-21 is not speaking of something attainment of perfection. They are not described as perfectly righteous, but rather simply as people “who do what is true.” Jesus later goes on to state that it is those who are taught by the Father who come to Jesus (John 6.43-45). To do what is true is to be trying to align one’s life to the truth that God has made known, which makes room for a person to engage in repentance and seek to bring their present life into alignment with God’s truth. So, the John 3.20-21 isn’t saying “only those really good, really righteous, perfect people genuinely believe in Jesus.” Rather, if I were translate it a bit more dynamically and in an extended fashion, it would be “those who having been given truth genuinely seek to live life according to that truth.” It isn’t about avoiding sin enough or being righteous enough; it is matter of what we seeks to do in one’s life in accordance to the truth one has. We might contrast this genuinely seeking to live according to the truth one knows with being mere hears of the word that Paul and James both warn against (Romans 2.13; James 1.22).
However, at stake here is the understanding that believing in Jesus is not the condition of an exchange for eternal life, but rather the way God leads us through Jesus to find the way and the truth of eternal life (John 14.6). Our faith in Christ is the means by which God teaches us and leads us.
This brings the prologue of John 1.1-18 into view. Reference to the logos/Word, the act of creation, and the epistemic metaphor of light, all are themes that are consistent with the idea of wisdom, both in the Jewish Scriptures and Greek philosophy. To the original hearers of the Gospel of John, they would have heard some much richer and deeper than the idea of Incarnation that our orthodox Christian hermeneutic has trained us to rightly see. Because the Word has become flesh, the entire treasure of wisdom, God’s wisdom, has become available to people that goes beyond the Torah that Moses provides, but comes in all its fullness. The Incarnation is not the only significant expression, God’s wisdom has been made available to humans through a person just like themselves. The prologue does (meta)physics in order to ground an epistemology of God’s wisdom.
To read the Gospel of John is to be introduced and invited into a whole new way of knowing truth.
Of course, this thread runs much deeper through the Gospel of John than what I said. The theme of knowing pervades the whole Gospel, fleshing out an intricate view of knowing God. It is this form of coming into knowing that can then alter the way we read the Gospel and various of Jesus’ more opaque and easily misunderstood metaphors, because just as Nicodemus’ failure to understand what Jesus meant by saying “born from above” is represented by his interpreting Jesus to be saying “born again,” so
To be clear, this isn’t to say “here is the single key to rightly reading the Gospel of John. This idea explains everything.” That isn’t what I am saying. Rather, I am saying something must simpler and more intuitive: “by learning from Jesus, you will come to learn what Jesus means and so you will come to comprehensively know God in and through Jesus.”