New Book: John

by Mark Bonnington

The Gospel According to John is one of the glories of the New Testament. It begins with a bang: we are invited to understand Jesus not just from the beginning of his ministry (Mark), nor as the Messiah of Israel descended from Abraham (Matthew) nor in his status as Saviour of the whole world (Luke) but to see Jesus in the light of eternity. As one translation puts it: ‘when the beginning came, the Word already was’ (1.1). And that eternal Word took on flesh like yours and mine and lived among us. The revelation of Jesus, and his divinity in particular, is a major theme running through the Gospel. He shared the glory of his Father before the foundation of the world (17.5), he is the true bread from heaven (6.32f), he came from his Father and is returning to his Father (20.17) and at 8.58 he quite simply he says ‘before Abraham was, I am.’ This is perhaps the simplest and most powerful of a series of ‘I am’ sayings which reveal who Jesus is. Look out for these as your read and notice also the other places when Jesus says ‘I am’ or ‘I am he’ in the arrest story and at his trial. The reactions of the those hearing this is always noteworthy.

The basic shape of the Gospel story is well known but John mentions three Passovers, marking out Jesus’ public ministry as three years long. Jesus travels from Galilee to Jerusalem regularly in the first half of the Gospel and we know from the outset that he will die as the ‘lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (1.29). Jesus’ ministry is marked out by seven miraculous ‘sign’ stories which point to who Jesus is (2.11). The seventh and most important is the raising of dead Lazarus, which foreshadows Jesus’ own death and resurrection. Here Jesus says reassuringly ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ (11.25).

As Jesus draws near to Jerusalem the clock slows dramatically. His anticipated hour has come (13.1). Jesus teaches his disciples at the table for five chapters in the Farewell Discourse (Chs 13-17) carefully preparing his disciples for his departure and the coming of the promised Spirit after the resurrection (14.15ff; 15.26f; 16.5-15; 20.22). Jesus neither gets baptised nor shares bread and wine with his disciples in John. The readers are meant to know that these things happened. So it’s easy not to notice that we have missed them.

The final focus of the Gospel is on Jesus’ saving death. He travels purposefully to Jerusalem knowing his mission (12.27), carries his own cross (19.17) – for only he can deal with sin – and dies at the very moment that the Passover lambs are being sacrificed in the Temple (19.28-31). Then Jesus appears alive to Mary, the ten, then the eleven – with Thomas who, far from doubting, is the first to confess Jesus as ‘my Lord and my God’ (20.28). Finally he takes Peter back to a charcoal fire and commissions him with three confessions of love that restore the disciple broken by his three denials (21.15-17). All this comes from the purposeful witness of the Beloved Disciple, present at the crucial events of Jesus’ ministry and usually identified with John: ‘All this is written so that you may believe… and believing have life in his name’ (20.31).