The Presentation of Jesus in John's Gospel
Created | Updated Jun 30, 2020
The Bible's New Testament consists mainly of the four gospels, telling four different authors' versions of the life of Jesus. John's gospel is very different from the other three, written by Matthew, Mark and Luke. These three are known as the synoptic gospels – synoptic meaning 'seeing together' – as they are similar in style, purpose and theology. The author of John's gospel, traditionally taken to be the Apostle John, approached things from a different angle, however.
This Entry will not be a direct step-by-step comparison between the synoptic gospels and John's gospel, but instead it will describe the main ways in which Jesus is presented in John's gospel, while pointing out some of the ways in which this presentation differs from that in the synoptic gospels.
The synoptic gospels were written as historical accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Events are described, sayings are recorded and Jesus's teachings are shared with the world. The authors of the synoptic gospels wanted to
show that Jesus was the Messiah of Jewish expectation and to show how He lived among people on earth.
- AE Harvey
They are content to record Jesus's life and work and to see this as enough to convince people of his status as the Messiah.
The author of John's gospel goes much further. He wants his audience to see Jesus as the Messiah of Jewish expectation, but he also wants them to see Jesus as having been an
integral element in the created universe from the beginning.
- AE Harvey
He wants to emphasise Jesus's divinity. John is clear about his aims, stating them towards the end of his gospel:
But these [miraculous signs] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
- John 20:31
It could be said that the synoptic gospels are basically descriptive in style and tone, whereas John's gospel is reflective. Although John's gospel is, like the synoptic gospels, written in the third person, it is more than just a record of events – the author is looking back on events that happened and is guiding the audience to see events, and especially the person of Jesus, in a particular way. This reflection is evident in passages where the disciples themselves reflect on Jesus, his life and its relation to the Hebrew Scriptures:
His disciples remembered that it is written, 'Zeal for your house will consume me'
- John 2:17
...Only after Jesus was glorified did they realise that these things had been written about him...
- John 12:16
In terms of structural comparisons between John's gospel and the synoptic gospels, one of the most obvious differences is that John both omits material used in the synoptic gospels and adds other material which is not used by Matthew, Mark or Luke. Significant omissions include the temptation of Jesus, the Lord's Prayer and the Sermon on the Mount. Additions include all of the material in John chapters 2 - 4 and the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1 - 12:19).
John's gospel appears to be much more deliberately structured than the synoptic gospels, which are written as narratives. John uses a prologue and epilogue to sandwich a central narrative structure based around the introduction of and expansion on new, key ideas.
One scholar, Stephen Smalley, argues that the work is divided into four parts:
- The Prologue (Chapter 1)
- The discourses, signs and sayings (Chapters 2 - 12)
- The Passion narrative (the trial and crucifixion of Jesus) (Chapters 13 - 20)
- The Epilogue (Chapter 21)
He argues that each part of the gospel is carefully used by John to convey the significance of the person of Jesus.
Theology and Christology in John's Gospel
The theology and Christology1 in John's gospel is considered to be much higher, or more complex, than that of the synoptic gospels. To see the difference in theology and style, compare the beginning of John's gospel with the beginnings of the synoptic gospels. In John, Jesus is presented as the logos – pre-existent and divine, whereas the synoptic authors present him in an earthly context – with his birth (Matthew and Luke) or baptism (Mark).
The Word, or Logos
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning
- John 1:1-2
...the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us
- John 1:14
The idea of Jesus as the Word appears in the first chapter of John's gospel, regarded as the prologue to the rest of the gospel. The prologue can be seen as John's gospel in miniature, in terms of the way in which John uses it to illustrate the divinity of Jesus and His place in the universe. The prologue introduces many Christological ideas that are repeated throughout the gospel, for example: Jesus as the word (verses 1 and 14), Jesus as the son (verses 14 and 18), the Christ (verses 17 and 21), Jesus as the lamb of God (verse 36), Jesus as son of God (verses 34 and 44), Jesus as king of Israel (verse 49), Jesus as Son of Man (verse 51).
The idea of Jesus as the Word echoes Old Testament/Hebrew Bible Wisdom Literature (Psalms and Proverbs). For example Proverbs 8:22:
The LORD brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old; I was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began...
Jesus is shown to have been with God from before the beginning of creation. The idea of Jesus as the Word is also seen by some scholars to relate back to the idea of God creating through words in chapter one of Genesis:
And God said, 'Let there be light'
- Genesis 1:3
According to the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible God created the world by speaking words. As well as this, God's word was also the means by which he communicated with his people, whether directly or through his prophets. The Jewish readers of John's gospel would perhaps have picked up on these ideas, which would have reinforced for them the idea of Jesus's divinity.
John's use of the word logos2 would have been deeply significant for both his Jewish and Greek audience. The concept of logos was an important one in Greek thought and meant far more than just the idea of a 'word' as we would think of it in English:
It included articulate thought, any logical and meaningful utterance; it was that which gave order and shape to the process of thinking – proportion in mathematics, rational intelligibility in the study of the natural world, an ordered account of human affairs. It was almost equivalent to 'rationality'...
- AE Harvey
Stoicism, a Graeco-Roman school of philosophy, saw God as the logos, the
world reason [which] manifests itself in the order and beauty of the world
- EA Livingstone
and it is likely that the Stoics' use of the word logos had begun to be used in everyday speech of the ordinary Greek speaker, whether or not he or she was familiar with the ideas of Stoicism.
One way in which John seeks to illustrate Jesus's divinity and the relationship that exists between Jesus and God is to use the idea of the glory of Jesus.
Theologically, glory is regarded as being the outward expression of God's power. God is invisible, but his glory manifests itself on earth through such things as storms, fire and earthquakes. For example, God shows himself as a pillar of fire in Exodus 13:21 and 'the glory of the LORD' is described as settling on Mount Sinai 'like a consuming fire' in Exodus 24:17.
Right at the beginning of the gospel, the idea of Jesus being the Word shows Jesus in full glory. He is with God, and the ideas of him being present at the start of creation and even being the 'reason' that orders creation show him to be glorious – as full of glory as John's Jewish audience would have believed God to be. Jesus himself refers to the glory that He has as the Word:
And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began
- John 17:5
This reference to his glory at this point in the gospel gives a good illustration of one way in which John's presentation of Jesus is different to that of the synoptic gospels. Unlike the synoptic gospels, Jesus' death is seen as something that glorifies him. Jesus refers to his coming death in glory in several other places in John's gospel:
Father, the time has come. Glorify the Son, that the Son may glorify you
- John 17:1
Jesus replied, 'The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified'
- John 12:23
Jesus said, 'Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him'
- John 13:31
The Hebrew word moshiach (Messiah), meaning anointed, is translated into Greek as Christos (Christ), meaning the anointed one. In the Hebrew Bible, the term is most often used with reference to kings, who were anointed with oil as part of their coronation ceremonies (see Judges 9:8-15, 2 Samuel 5:3, etc). These kings were given the title 'the Lord's anointed' (see for example 1 Samuel 2:10). Eventually, the term came to refer less to actual existing kings, and was applied primarily to
a hoped-for future king, whose reign would be characterised by security, justice and peace (see, for example Isaiah 11:1-5, 32:1)
- John F. A. Sawyer
Jesus is seen as a kingly figure in John's gospel. He is crucified as an earthly leader – the so-called King of the Jews (John 19:19). However, John also clearly sees Jesus as the Messiah and as such as a spiritual/divine leader and is at pains to make clear to his audience the identity of Jesus.
In the synoptic gospels, Jesus's identity is kept a secret. Jesus does not want people to know who he is and his identity is only gradually revealed. However, in John's gospel, the identity of Jesus as the Messiah is revealed fairly early on. Jesus actually says that he is the Christ in John 4:26. John states that he wrote the gospel so that people would believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah (20:31).
The idea of salvation through the Kingdom of God, which is used throughout the synoptic gospels, is not a major theme in John's gospel. The phrase 'kingdom of God' is only used twice in the gospel (3:3). John is more concerned about salvation through eternal life3:
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him
- John 3:17
... that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name
- John 20:31
Eschatology refers to
The part of systematic theology which deals with the final destiny both of the individual soul and of mankind in general
- EA Livingstone
The eschatology present in John's gospel is realised. Those who hear Jesus' words and believe in him have eternal life by doing so:
...whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.
- John 5:24
However, in other parts of John's gospel, even later in the same chapter of the gospel, the idea of future eschatology is the order of the day. Jesus is set to return to earth in the future and it is then that people will be judged:
...a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live...
- John 5:25
...a time is coming when all those who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out – those who have done good will rise to live and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.
- John 5:28-29
This tension between these two different 'eschatologies', realised and future, can be relieved to some extent. Jesus still talks about raising the dead, judgement and giving life - ideas which would have been familiar to John's Jewish audience. However, there is now more to the idea of life as contrasted to death. It could be argued that in talking about eternal life, Jesus is describing a new kind of life on earth, now, as opposed to a new life which is only given after death. In talking about death, Jesus is talking about a poor kind of life on earth. In this way, the traditional ideas of judgement after death is not made invalid, but the old imagery is used to describe the difference between new life for those who believe in Jesus and life for those who do not.
The Signs, Sayings and Discourses
There are considered to be six events in John's gospel, known as the signs, which are used to show that God and Jesus are fundamentally linked. They will be presented here in tabular form. According to John himself, the purpose of writing down the signs was so that people could believe and be saved (20:31).
Scholars see the signs as being connected to particular and significant 'sayings' of Jesus – Christological statements that he makes about himself – that are themselves contained in and explained by 'discourses' with other characters in the gospel. These discourses are used by John to bring out the true theological and Christological meaning of the sign and to help people believe.
The table below shows the relationship between the signs, sayings and discourses, and gives a brief description of the meaning scholars believe can be attached to each group of related passages from the gospel.
|Jesus turns water into wine (2:1-11)||'I am the true vine' (15:1)||Discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus (3:1-31)||The use of wine could be seen as a reference to the Eucharist|
|Jesus heals the officer's son (4:46-54)||Discussion between Jesus and the Samaritan woman about what is meant by water (4:4-26)||Jesus as the water of life. Jesus gives life - if you believe, you will have life. The officer believes in the words of Jesus (verse 50) and his son is healed.|
|Jesus heals the crippled man (5:2-15)||'I am the way, the truth, and the life' (14:6)||Discussion between Jesus and the Jewish authorities (5:16-47)||Jesus as life giver|
|Jesus feeds the 5,000 (6:1-15)||'I am the bread of life' (6:35)||Jesus is referred to as the bread and water of life - analogy of Jesus as bread and wine|
|Jesus heals the man born blind (9:1-7)||'I am the light of the world' (8:12)||Discussion between Jesus and the Jewish authorities. Antagonism between Jesus and the Pharisees (9:35-41 onwards)||Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) - light. The blind man is led to 'enlightenment'|
|Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead (11:41-44)||'I am the sheep gate' (10:7)/'I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep...' (10:11) 'I am the resurrection and the life' (11:25)||Discussion of Jesus as the shepherd of Israel (chapter 10)||Reference to the death and resurrection of Jesus.|
The style, structure and content of John's gospel are used by the author to reinforce John's theology and most of all his Christology. John wants his readers to recognise Jesus for who he believes Jesus is -the Messiah of Jewish expectation but, even more, the bringer of eternal life, the divine saviour. John's gospel presents a picture, not only of Jesus as John saw him, but also of John as a man struggling to convey the magnitude of what the coming of Jesus means to mankind. It is not enough for him to write the story of Jesus' life on earth, or even to tell of his miracles. John wants his readers to be perfectly clear about who Jesus is and does not shy away from using highly developed ideas in order to help them in their understanding.
Harvey, AE, The New English Bible Companion to the Gospels, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1972
Livingstone, EA, The Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1996
Metzger, B and Coogan, MD (editors), The Oxford Companion to the Bible, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1993
Smalley, SS, John: Evangelist and Interpreter, Paternoster Press: Carlisle, 1998