Reading the Gospels - John
John: The Way of Giving Love
If the four gospels were compared to onions, Matthew might be a white onion, Mark a red onion, Luke a yellow onion, and John a shallot. All of these are in the onion family, but a shallot is significantly different than the others. John has very few of the stories and teachings we encounter in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. From one vantage point, John is almost entirely the “deleted scenes” that didn’t make the edited version. On the other hand, John is filled with its own content, almost like a completely different movie.
The Mysterious Taking on Flesh
John’s story begins with a poem about the “word” of God: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God…and the word became flesh and dwelt among us…” (John 1:1). This is not word in the sense of something written on the page. Nor does word mean Scripture. The “word” in John 1 is the Greek word “logos.” It’s what comes forth from the mind and being of God, sort of like “the force” in Star Wars. Logos refers to this mysterious active presence of God which finds its way into every created thing. This is not “everything is God,” but the active presence by which everything created reflects the maker (as Paul says in Romans 1).
John says this presence became real flesh, that God’s all permeating presence from the beginning is exactly what Jesus is. To look elsewhere to know or experience God’s life-sustaining presence is to look in the wrong place.
In John’s gospel, one of the ways this presence is communicated through seven “I AM” statements:
I am the bread of life (John 6:35)
I am the light of the world (John 8:12)
I am the gate (John 10:9)
I am the good shepherd (John 10:11)
I am the resurrection and the life (John 11:25-26)
I am the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6)
I am the vine (John 15:5)
Jesus uses all seven of these images to illustrate how his life exemplifies God’s active presence and how our lives relate to it. But each image must be understood properly: through the lens of love.
So, What is Love?
Above all, John’s Jesus enacts the love of God. The word “love” as a verb or noun appears in John 36 times. Twenty-two of these appearances refer specifically to God’s or Jesus’ love for someone or the world in general. By contrast, in the other gospels combined, the word “love” shows up only 20 times and none of them refers to God’s or Jesus’ love – a very interesting and often overlooked fact.
The famous passage about God’s love is John 3:16:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him might not die and fade out, but have eternal life.”
This passage is often misunderstood. The Greek word translated “so” actually means “thusly” or “in this way.” It’s not telling us how much God loved the world. That’s not in question. What John is trying to say is something about how God shows love. John 3:16 tells us God’s love is love that gives radically and is displayed in his son. John is about the kingdom of giving love. This is really important for understanding John’s gospel. Miss this, and you miss John.
Love Like a Slave
John is not done explaining how God gives love. In John 13, Jesus washes his disciple’s feet. This is Jesus’ final action on his last night. Foot-washing was done by slaves. Slaves put other people above themselves; their lives existed for the sake of giving life to others.
Peter, speaking for the disciples, naturally objects. He gets it. It’s not normal, it’s not right. Jesus is their teacher! He is Lord and God’s presence on earth! How can he take the position of a slave?! But, that’s how Jesus defines love. We still don’t get it. Love is not about feelings or what we get out of it. It’s action which puts someone else’s life above yours. Jesus even did it for Judas. And on top of this, Jesus said, “I’ve given you an example…do as I have done to you” (John 13:15). This foot-washing is also expected of Jesus’ followers. What was seen as dishonorable slavery becomes an example of giving love. Talk about turning things upside down!
Unity in Love
Later in John, Jesus gives a farewell speech to his disciples where He focuses on love. The crucial passage is John 15:8-10:
“By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love.”
Jesus gives them a new commandment: that they “love one another” (John 15:12). This is what the Holy Spirit is sent to remind them of.
Jesus concludes with a great prayer in John 17. The focus of this prayer is the unity in love:
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”
The glory of God is unity reflecting God’s love. It’s a unity of slaves of the kingdom. For Jesus, this way of love is a make or break deal. Jesus’ prayer is for his followers to live in the way of God’s radical giving love, united as slaves to one another, SO THAT the world will know God through this witness.
At the end of John there is a famous passage that reads, “These things were written so that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing have life in his name” (John 20:31). John is looking back on his whole story of Jesus, speaking of believing in the Jesus who was the incarnation of God’s giving love. It is a love defined by becoming a slave to the humanity who rejects him, to lift humanity up to eternal life. It is believing, entrusting our lives, to this Jesus that brings life. It’s not about debating with non-believers or proving something to an unbelieving world. John asks us for faith, entrusting our lives to living in the way of this love, because it is this way that is the truth that will bring us to the Father and bring life.
Read all of the “I am” passages in their context. How do these all help understand how Jesus brings God’s active presence into our lives? Which of these are comforting? Which are challenging?
Read all of Jesus’ farewell speech in John 14-17. What are important things Jesus says? How does this speech help you understand what is important to Jesus and to being his followers?
Jesus’ trial and death account in John is the longest among the gospels (John 18-19). In the events and the dialogue, there is an emphasis on Jesus as “king” and on his kingdom. How does this account lift up Jesus as king? How does it relate to “love”?
John’s gospel focuses on questions and seeking. Several stories highlight this theme. Read the following stories. What are people seeking? How does Jesus respond?
Jesus and the first disciples (John 1:29-51)
Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1-21)
Jesus and the woman at the well (John 4:1-45)