Characteristics of the Fourth Gospel

John's Gospel has perhaps been the most popular of all the Gospels for many centuries. It has probably had the most influence on the way Christianity develeoped right from the earliest days of the church. It is, however, not the easiest Gospel to understand!

The following ideas will aid tremendously in getting to grips with the Gospel according to John.

  1. MISUNDERSTANDING: Jesus frequently uses figurative language or metaphors to describe himself or to present his message. In an ensuing dialogue the questioner will misunderstand the figure or metaphor, and take only a verbal or material meaning. This allows Jesus to explain his thought more thoroughly and thereby to unfold his doctrine. Part of this may be a studied literary technique on the part of the author or of the earliest Christian catechesis. In a sense, too, these figures or metaphors are the Johannine equivalent of the Synoptic parables, for in John the kingdom of heaven stands in our midst in the person of Jesus. In the synoptics the parables are frequently misunderstood, just as the metaphors are in John. (See Jn 2:19-21; 3:3-4; 4:10-11; 6:26-27; 8:33-35; 11:11-13)
  2. IRONY: The opponents of Jesus are given to making statements about him that are derogatory, sarcastic, incredulous or, at least, inadequate in the sense that they intend. However, by way of irony these statements are often true or more meaningful in a sense that they do not realize. (See Jn 3:2; 4:12; 6:42; 7:35; 9:40-41; 11:50)
    • There is often a play on various meanings of a given word that Jesus uses, meanings based on either Hebrew or Greek. (See Jn 3:3, 8, 13, 17; 7:8; 13:1; 15:21; 19:30.)
    • In the Fourth Gospel the author frequently intends the reader to see several layers of meaning in the same narrative or in the same metaphor (figurative language). This is understandable if we think back to the circumstances in which the Gospel was composed: (1) there is a meaning that stems from the historical context in the life of Jesus. The audience that listened to Jesus and witnessed his actions would necessarily understand his words and analyse his works according to their own religious background and ways of thinking. We may call this the historical meaning of the passage. Yet there is a more profound meaning of Jesus' words and actions that would be seen by the believing Christian community. As the message of Jesus was preached and taught in the early church, as it was prayed over in the liturgy, all its implications would gradually unfold; and the Christians would come to understand much more of what Jesus had meant than did those who had first heard him in Galilee and Jerusalem. Sometimes it is a question of deeper insight into Jesus' mission, for instance, the realization that the Temple that he said would be destroyed and raised up in three days was his own body (Jn 2:20). Other times it is a question of understanding ideas about the church and the sacraments (especially about baptism and the eucharist). A community that had received these sacraments could see the profound meaning of Jesus' "living water" and "bread of life." See Jn 1:29, 31; 2:8, 20; 3:5; 4:11; 6:35-58; 9:7; 11:4; 13:1-17; 19:36. (2) Jesus is from another world, from above; yet he speaks the language of this world, from below. Inevitably those who meet him, whose experience is on the lower level, misunderstand his meaning from above when he speaks of water, bread, flesh, etc. Readers, while challenged to recognize a higher meaning, will also be puzzled by the stranger from above and so invited to believe in the person of Jesus.
  4. INCLUSION: Ideas in John are often "sandwiched" between two related events. John often mentions a detail (or makes an allusion) at the end of a section which matches a similar detail at the beginning of that section. This is a way of packaging sections by tying together the beginning and the end. (See Jn 1:1 & 20:28, 1:28 & 10.40, 1:19 & 1:28, 2:11 & 4:54, 9:2-3 & 9:41, 11:4 & 11:40)
  5. REALISED ESCHATOLOGY: "Eschatology" is the study of what is likely to happen when time ends and the "kingdom of God" is completed. There are two main ides. "Future Eschatology" talks about what will happen in the future. Literally, at the end of time when Christ comes again (an event we call the "parousia" or "second coming". "Realised Eschatology" relates to events that have already happened and will, in time, lead to the fulfillment of the Kingdom. The synoptics situate at the end of time such things as judgment, the return of Jesus, and becoming sons of God (Mt 25:31; Lk 6:35; 20:35-36). John, without denying the truth of this, emphasizes that these things have already begun; his eschatology (doctrine of the last things) is in part already realized. (See Jn 3:18; 5:24-25; 7:12; 9:16; 10:19-21; 12:31-33; 14:1-3, 18-20; 17:3.)
  6. DIALOGUE BECOMING MONOLOGUE: Jesus may begin a conversation with a given person or audience; yet as the speaking continues, the hearers fade away and at the end his words seem to have taken the character of a discourse in universal terms. Part of this may be the editorial combining of several speeches. The effect, however, is to free Jesus' words from the limitations of circumstance and to make them eternally and universally valid. (See 3:16; 10:1-18; cc. 14-17.)
  7. DUPLICATE SPEECHES: Occasionally a speech of Jesus seems to say essentially the same thing as a speech already recorded, almost to the point of verse-to-verse correspondence. The solution we offer is that the speech had been presented on various occasions with minor variants. This could easily happen if the final Gospel redactor (a word that means an editor or one who pulls together separate ideas into a complete document), finding in the Johannine tradition (John's followers and disciples and those who were most greatly influenced by him in the 1st and 2nd centuries) two different versions of the same topic, did not want to lose either version; and so, editing the Gospel after the evangelist died, he incorporated the second version at an appropriate place, often close to the first. Other times it may be a case of Jesus' words containing a twofold meaning; John draws attention to both by giving one sense in the first version and the other in the second. (See Jn 3:31-36; 5:26-30; 6:51-58; 8:13-18; 10:7, 9 and 10:11, 14; 12:44-50; 13:1-30; 16:4-33.)
    • Events that are presented as units in the synoptics (the "synoptics" are the Gosples of Matthew, Mark and Luke) are often found dismembered and dispersed in the Fourth Gospel. It is difficult to decide which situation is more original: the synoptics may have assembled isolated features for the sake of a unified picture; or John may have distributed fragments of an original unit throughout the Gospel to show that the lesson of that unit was true during the whole of Jesus' life. Or we may have coincidental similarity between two distinct events (this simple solution is not always possible or feasible). In other words, each Gosple writers has taken the verbal accounts of events in Jesus life and interpreted them in different ways.(See Jn 6:51-58, 67-69, 70-71; 10:24-25; 11:52; 12:27etc; 14:31; 18:1-12, 24.)
    • Occasionally the opposite is true: events that are a unit in John are found separated in the synoptics. (See Jn 1:38-49; 2:13-19; 11:1etc; 15:1etc.)