This Gospel is my favourite of the four, if I am allowed to pick a favourite. It is unlike the others, because it’s very construction is unique. It provides a more personal description of Christ, which is appropriate, for it was written by the Apostle who called himself the Beloved Disciple of Christ. He undoubtedly enjoyed a special relationship with the God-man, and we know from the Old Testament and also generally that God does indeed have favourites. If Saint John had enjoyed a special closeness to Christ, he would have had a deeper insight into the mysteries of the Faith. And there’s certainly evidence of that in the Gospel and in the first letter of Saint John also. But let’s jump right into the Gospel.
Traditionally, Saint John wrote his gospel long after the others had, and he intended his effort to be supplementary to the other gospels. This is why he adds much new material, even eye-witness testimony from one who was there and witnessed everything. Additionally, Saint John was already reacting, at the end of the first century, to Christian heresies about the nature of the Person of Christ made by such people as Cerinthus and the Ebionites, who were very strong in the region of Ephesus, where John was, and who denied the divinity of Christ and the virgin birth. We see hints of this gnostic challenge to the Church in the first letter of Saint Paul to Saint Timothy, and John (being an eyewitness to and intimate with Christ) was the perfect person to refute the heretics; from him we get the wonderful hymn at the top of his Gospel:
“At the beginning of time the Word already was; and God had the Word abiding with Him, and the Word was God. He abode, at the beginning of time, with God. It was through Him that all things came into being, and without Him came nothing that has come to be. In Him there was life, and that life was the light of men. And the light shines in darkness, a darkness which was not able to master it. A man appeared, sent from God, whose name was John. He came for a witness, to bear witness of the light, so that through him all men might learn to believe. He was not the Light; he was sent to bear witness to the light. There is One who enlightens every soul born into the world; He was the true Light. He, through whom the world was made, was in the world, and the world treated Him as a stranger. He came to what was His own, and they who were His own gave Him no welcome. But all those who did welcome Him, He empowered to become the children of God, all those who believe in His Name; their birth came, not from human stock, not from nature’s will or man’s, but from God. And the Word was made flesh, and came to dwell among us; and we had sight of His glory, glory such as belongs to the Father’s only-begotten Son, full of grace and truth.”Gospel of S. John, 1: 1-14
‘We had sight of His glory…‘ There is that sentiment of providing eye-witness testimony throughout this Gospel, and rightly so. At the very end of the Gospel, John signs it off, saying, ‘It is the same disciple that bears witness of all this and has written the story of it; and we know well that his witness is truthful.’ (Gospel of S. John, 21:24) The rest of this post contains some of the unique elements of Saint John’s Gospel, which give a better picture of Christ than the other Gospels. But, before that, John describes Saint John the Baptist as something of a mystic: not only did he see the vision of the Holy Spirit coming down upon Christ, but he had been told by God Himself that he would see that vision and so be able to identify Christ.
“Next day, John saw Jesus coming towards him; and he said, ‘Look, this is the Lamb of God; look, this is He Who takes away the sin of the world. It is of Him that I said, One is coming after me who takes rank before me; He was when I was not. I myself did not know who he was, although the very reason why I have come, with my baptism of water, is to make him known to Israel.’ John also bore witness thus, ‘I saw the Spirit coming down from heaven like a dove, and resting upon him. Till then, I did not know him; but then I remembered what I had been told by the God who sent me to baptize with water. He told me, The man who will baptize with the Holy Spirit is the man on whom thou wilt see the Spirit come down and rest. Now I have seen him, and have borne my witness that this is the Son of God.'”Gospel of S. John, 1: 29-34
That is not made as clear by the other Gospels. John certainly got the story from Saint Andrew, who was originally a disciple of John the Baptist, and is a part of this narrative in the first chapter. In chapter two, John also tells us of the story of the Wedding at Cana – one of the great epiphanies of Christ – which is followed almost immediately by the expulsion of the businessmen in the Temple and the great prediction that would reappear in Christ’s trial for blasphemy much later on: ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again.’ The next few chapters speak of the growing number of Christ’s disciples, and also the increasing difficulty the Jewish people had with Christian doctrine. In chapter three, Christ has a dialogue with the Pharisee Saint Nicodemus about baptism and about the true mission of the Messiah (so different from the secular expectations of the time):
“The Father loves His Son, and so has given everything into His hands; and he who believes in the Son possesses eternal life, whereas he who refuses to believe in the Son will never see life; God’s displeasure hangs over him continually.“Gospel of S. John, 3: 35-36
The original description of the Christian doctrine of salvation, which is often mentioned by Saint Paul in his letters – that the figure of the Messiah is central to the whole concept of being saved. With the other Gospels, it could be claimed that Christ never directly claims to be the Messiah. Not with Saint John, though, for in the next chapter, about the conversion of a whole community of Samaritans, He makes a complete disclosure.
“‘Believe me, woman,’ Jesus said to her, ‘the time is coming when you will not go to this mountain, nor yet to Jerusalem, to worship the Father. You worship you cannot tell what, we worship knowing what it is we worship; salvation, after all, is to come from the Jews; but the time is coming, nay, has already come, when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth; such men as these the Father claims for His worshippers. God is a spirit, and those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.’ ‘Yes,’ said the woman, ‘I know that Messias (that is, the Christ) is to come; and when he comes, he will tell us everything.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I, who speak to thee, am the Christ.’“Gospel of S. John, 4: 21-26
It becomes even more clear in the next chapter, when a cripple is healed on the Sabbath, when Jews are forbidden to work, and Christ has a chance to defend His work of mercy:
“And Jesus answered them, ‘My Father has never ceased working, and I too must be at work.’ This made the Jews more determined than ever to make away with Him, that He not only broke the sabbath, but spoke of God as His own Father, thereby treating Himself as equal to God. And Jesus answered them thus: ‘Believe me when I tell you this, The Son cannot do anything at His own pleasure, He can only do what He sees His Father doing; what the Father does is what the Son does in His turn. The Father loves the Son, and discloses to Him all that He Himself does. And He has greater doings yet to disclose to Him, for your astonishment; just as the Father bids the dead rise up and gives them life, so the Son gives life to whomsoever He will. So it is with judgement; the Father, instead of passing judgement on any man Himself, has left all judgement to the Son, so that all may reverence the Son just as they reverence the Father; to deny reverence to the Son is to deny reverence to the Father Who has sent Him. Believe me when I tell you this, the man who listens to My words, and puts his trust in Him who sent Me, enjoys eternal life; he does not meet with rejection, he has passed over already from death to life.”Gospel of S. John, 5: 17-24
So they understood well, and very early, that He was making the blasphemous claim to be God Himself, the Holy One in their midst. And he predicts the raising of Saint Lazarus, which would so terrify them later on. Chapter six, following, begins the doctrine of the Holy Eucharist, as still taught by the Church, prefacing it with the miracle of the feeding of the multitude. Even then there were protestors (good Jews, undoubtedly) against the doctrine, and He let them go their way. It’s worth repeating the whole thing in full:
“But Jesus told them, ‘It is I who am the Bread of Life; he who comes to Me will never be hungry, he who has faith in Me will never know thirst. (But you, as I have told you, though you have seen me, do not believe in me.) All that the Father has entrusted to Me will come to Me, and him who comes to Me I will never cast out. It is the will of Him who sent Me, not My own will, that I have come down from heaven to do; and He who sent Me would have Me keep without loss, and raise up at the last day, all He has entrusted to Me. Yes, this is the will of Him who sent Me, that all those who believe in the Son when they see Him should enjoy eternal life; I am to raise them up at the last day.’ The Jews were by now complaining of His saying, I am myself the bread which has come down from heaven. ‘Is not this Jesus,’ they said, ‘the son of Joseph, whose father and mother are well known to us? What does he mean by saying, I have come down from heaven?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Do not whisper thus to one another. Nobody can come to Me without being attracted towards Me by the Father who sent Me, so that I can raise him up at the last day. It is written in the book of the prophets, And they shall all have the Lord for their teacher; everyone who listens to the Father and learns, comes to Me. (Not that anyone has seen the Father, except Him Who comes from God; He alone has seen the Father.) Believe me when I tell you this; the man who has faith in me enjoys eternal life. It is I who am the bread of life. Your fathers, who ate manna in the desert, died none the less; the bread which comes down from heaven is such that he who eats of it never dies. I Myself am the living bread that has come down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he shall live for ever. And now, what is this bread which I am to give? It is My flesh, given for the life of the world. Then the Jews fell to disputing with one another, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ Whereupon Jesus said to them, ‘Believe me when I tell you this; you can have no life in yourselves, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His blood. The man who eats My flesh and drinks My blood enjoys eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. My flesh is real food, My blood is real drink. He who eats My flesh, and drinks My blood, lives continually in Me, and I in him. As I live because of the Father, the living Father who has sent Me, so he who eats Me will live, in his turn, because of Me. Such is the bread which has come down from heaven; it is not as it was with your fathers, who ate manna and died none the less; the man who eats this bread will live eternally.’ He said all this while He was teaching in the synagogue, at Capharnaum. And there were many of His disciples who said, when they heard it, ‘This is strange talk, who can be expected to listen to it?’ But Jesus, inwardly aware that His disciples were complaining over it, said to them, ‘Does this try your faith? What will you make of it, if you see the Son of Man ascending to the place where He was before? Only the spirit gives life; the flesh is of no avail; and the words I have been speaking to you are spirit, and life. But there are some, even among you, who do not believe.’ Jesus knew from the first which were those who did not believe, and which of them was to betray Him. And he went on to say, ‘That is what I meant when I told you that nobody can come to Me unless he has received the gift from My Father. After this, many of His disciples went back to their old ways, and walked no more in His company.“Gospel of S. John, 6: 35-67
Talk about repetition! How many times did He repeat in the Gospel that the HE IS the Bread of Life? Five times? It was that hard, and it’s just as hard today, to get the message across. John seems to suggest that even the Apostle Judas did not believe it here, and it may be wondered if he ever did. The chapter ends with a very sad Jesus asking the Apostles if they wanted to leave, too. All of them must have been shaken by the sermon, too, but as at Caesarea Philippi, it is the impetuous Saint Peter who made profession and declared that there was nowhere else to go. From chapter seven, and it is probable that since he had chased the businessmen out of the Temple (and so questioned the authority of the Sadducees in Jerusalem), there clearly emerges that there was a plot against His life. The people themselves were afraid to make allegiance to Him, because of the probable retribution they would face from the religious authorities, who could (at least) maliciously banish them from the synagogues (Gospel of S. John, 9:22) and perhaps even from the Temple – Saint John calls this motive a fear of the Jews. The further dialogues with the Pharisees strengthen the case for blasphemy, as Christ now claims to be far older even than the patriarch Abraham.
“And the Jews said to Him, ‘Now we are certain that thou art possessed. What of Abraham and the prophets? They are dead; and thou sayest that a man will never taste death to all eternity, if he is true to thy word. Art thou greater than our father Abraham? He is dead, and the prophets are dead. What dost thou claim to be?’ ‘If I should speak in My own honour,’ Jesus answered, ‘such honour goes for nothing. Honour must come to Me from My Father, from Him Whom you claim as your God; although you cannot recognize Him. But I have knowledge of Him; if I should say I have not, I should be what you are, a liar. Yes, I have knowledge of Him, and I am true to His word. As for your father Abraham, his heart was proud to see the day of My coming; he saw, and rejoiced to see it.’ Then the Jews asked Him, ‘Hast thou seen Abraham, thou, who art not yet fifty years old?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Believe Me, before ever Abraham came to be, I AM.“Gospel of John, 8: 52-58
And the miracles did continue on, all this time. Chapter nine is a long, long retelling of a old story of the man born blind, who recovered his sight marvellously, and was probably one of the earliest Christians, able to tell his story to such people who would record it – like Saint John, here. And once more, Christ reveals His identity to this poor man, now banished from the synagogue. Where could he go now, to fulfil his religious duties?
“And they cast him out from their presence. When Jesus heard that they had so cast him out, He went to find him, and asked him, ‘Dost thou believe in the Son of God?’ ‘Tell me who He is, Lord,’ he answered,’ so that I can believe in Him.’ ‘He is One Whom thou hast seen,’ Jesus told him. ‘It is He Who is speaking to thee.’ Then he said, ‘I do believe, Lord, and fell down to worship Him.’ Hereupon Jesus said, ‘I have come into this world so that a sentence may fall upon it, that those who are blind should see, and those who see should become blind.’“Gospel of S. John, 9: 34-41
In chapter ten, Christ calls Himself the Good Shepherd, and reinforces the blasphemy claim again by declaring that He and the Father are one, and that He is in the Father and the Father in Him. And this after they asked Him to state clearly that He was the Christ. Pathetically, they kept picking up stones to stone Him, and each time He slipped away. It doesn’t help that He now raised Lazarus to life, and the spectacular nature of the miracle, which took place on the fourth day after the man died, caused even more conversions to the Christian movement and confounded the attempts of the religious authorities to side-line Christ (Gospel of S. John, 12: 17-19). Everything was now building up towards the formal charge and the trial. Now the Sadducees, the Temple priests themselves, plotted his execution.
“So the chief priests and Pharisees summoned a council; ‘What are we about?’ they said. ‘This man is performing many miracles, and if we leave him to his own devices, he will find credit everywhere. Then the Romans will come, and make an end of our city and our race.’ And one of them, Caiphas, who held the high priesthood in that year, said to them, ‘You have no perception at all; you do not reflect that it is best for us if one man is put to death for the sake of the people, to save a whole nation from destruction.’ It was not of his own impulse that he said this; holding the high priesthood as he did in that year, he was able to prophesy that Jesus was to die for the sake of the nation; and not only for that nation’s sake, but so as to bring together into one all God’s children, scattered far and wide. From that day forward, then, they plotted his death…” – Gospel of S. John, 11: 47-53
Christ now entered into Jerusalem, and began to teach openly in the Temple, and a thunderous Voice from the sky declares for Him. Thereupon, He declares the prophesied and long-awaited Day of the Lord:
“‘And now My soul is distressed. What am I to say? I will say, Father, save me from undergoing this hour of trial; and yet, I have only reached this hour of trial that I might undergo it. Father, make Thy name known.’ And at this, a Voice came from heaven, ‘I have made it known, and will yet make it known.’ Thereupon the multitude which stood listening declared that it had thundered; but some of them said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ Jesus answered, ‘It was for your sake, not for Mine, that this utterance was made. Sentence is now being passed on this world; now is the time when the prince of this world is to be cast out. Yes, if only I am lifted up from the earth, I will attract all men to Myself.'”Gospel of S. John, 12: 27-32
For several chapters now, John focuses on the Last Supper, which stretches from chapter thirteen, to beyond chapter seventeen, and includes the office of humility called the Washing of the Feet and the desertion of Judas (chapter 13), the identification and the ministry of the Holy Spirit (chapter 14), the command of love within the Church (‘love one another as I have loved you‘) that Saint John never ceased to preach until his death (chapter 15), the final farewell (chapter 16), and what I consider to be part of the ordination prayer of the first priests of the Church (chapter 17). The narrative of the dreadful torture and death are quickly covered in chapters eighteen and nineteen, with another personal signature from the Apostle:
“And so the soldiers came and broke the legs both of the one and of the other that were crucified with Him; but when they came to Jesus, and found Him already dead, they did not break His legs, but one of the soldiers opened His side with a spear; and immediately blood and water flowed out. He who saw it has borne his witness; and his witness is worthy of trust. He tells what he knows to be the truth, that you, like him, may learn to believe. This was so ordained to fulfil what is written, ‘You shall not break a single bone of His.’ And again, another passage in scripture says, ‘They will look upon the Man whom they have pierced.”Gospel of S. John, 19: 32-37
We learn to believe through the eye-witness testimony of the Apostles and others, ordinary and practical men who saw extraordinary things that they could find not credit properly. This same phrase reappears when John arrives at the Tomb with Peter, to find the clothes that had covered the body, and probably the marks that had been left behind. Now, think of the Turin shroud.
“Upon this, Peter and the other disciple [whom Jesus loved] both set out, and made their way to the Tomb; they began running side by side, but the other disciple outran Peter, and reached the tomb first. He looked in and saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Simon Peter, coming up after him, went into the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there, and also the veil which had been put over Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths, but still wrapped round and round in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and saw this, and learned to believe.”Gospel of S. John, 20: 3-8
Peter’s dignity as first of the Apostles required that he enter the tomb first, but it is evidently John who believed in the resurrection before Peter. Saint Mary Magdalene and the Apostle Saint Thomas became the centre of the resurrection narrative, because of testimonies such as John gives in this chapter twenty of his Gospel, she for her extraordinary love and grief, rewarded with the first appearance of the risen Christ, he for his initial and rather scientific disbelief, rewarded with a blessing to bestow upon Christians of later ages:
“Thomas answered, ‘Thou art my Lord and my God.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Thou hast learned to believe, Thomas, because thou hast seen Me. Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have learned to believe.'”Gospel of S. John, 20: 28-29
This chapter is then all about learning to believe, and this last line is the reason for John writing his Gospel at all – that those who have not seen may yet learn to believe. The final chapter is a rather surreal return to the Sea of Galilee and the story of another miraculous catch of fish, with a connection to the Eucharist (Christ brought the bread again, and miraculously provided the fish), and then the triple requirement of Saint Peter to declare his love for Christ, Whom he had thrice denied to his shame. And there I shall conclude this supremely long post, with portions of my favourite Gospel. And here’s a nice picture of the Beloved Disciple reclining upon the breast of his Master, at the Last Supper.
“Jesus had one disciple, whom he loved, who was now sitting with his head against Jesus’ breast…“Gospel of S. John, 13: 23