Gospel of John: Christ’s return is now
This post covers a number of different aspects of John’s gospel. I especially like what is called John’s realized eschatology, his theory of the end time. We should not and need not wait for Advent. It appeared when Christ appeared. If we have faith in Christ and follow his commandments then we have already been saved. I’ll cover some other topics as well
Almost everyone agrees that John is unique among the gospels. While the other three gospels indirectly refer to each other or a common source, often using almost identical language, John doesn’t. For this reason, the gospels are often divided into the three synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke), and John. The opening of John’s gospel resembles none of the other gospels. Nor does John’s Jesus speak in parables. There are other differences.
John’s gospel was written no later than 90 AD, and possibly a decade or two before. It is sometimes argued that the apostle John was the author, but while this is possible (Christ was crucified around 30 AD), the main argument against it is that there is an intellectual complexity to John that seems unlikely in a fisherman with no formal education, even if he had learned to read and write Greek. John’s Greek is simple, but his story is not.
It is also argued that the Gospel was written in layers, often called form criticism. It’s probably true, but I’m not going to go into that.
God’s relationship with Jesus
God is identical with Jesus, but Jesus stands in a relationship to God. In which case they can’t be identical. I think this summarizes chapter 1, verses 1-14 pretty well. And it’s confusing.
In the beginning (en arche) was the word (Logos), and the word was with (pros) God (Theon), and God (Theon) was the word (Logos). He was with God in the beginning. vs 1-2
Some people seem to believe that the word (Logos) was separate from God. But pros (πρὸς) can be translated as “because,” or “according,” so that the first verse could be translated as “the word was according to God.” This would be an unconventional translation, but it is worth remembering how much depends on translation from the ancient Greek.
The tough question is Jesus’ relationship to God. Both his unity with God and his relationship with God (there is no relationship without difference) are asserted in the same verse.
No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. v. 18
I like Carson’s explication.
In the beginning God expressed himself . . . And that Self-Expression, God’s own Word (Logos), identified with God yet distinguishable from him, has now become flesh, the culmination of the prophetic hope. (Carson, p 96)
As in Genesis, where everything that came into being because of God’s word, so in John.
High and low Christology
The Gospel of John is generally seen as a work of “high Christology,” which means one in which the similarity, sometimes the virtual identity, of Jesus and God is emphasized. Certainly that is present in chapter 1 as Carson’s explication reveals.
Less emphasized is the “low Christology,” which means the closeness of Jesus to all that is human. One sees this most clearly in Mark’s gospel, yet, it is in John’s Gospel that Jesus’ soul is troubled at the prospect of the cross (12:27), his spirit is distressed at the prospect of betrayal (13:21), and Jesus is thirsty on the cross (19:28). Together the high and low Christology seem a full and fair representation of Christian thought.
Eschatology refers to the end times, when Christ makes his reappearance. Realized eschatology, the teaching of John’s Gospel, argues that Christ’s appearance has already happened (Kruse, pp 41-43). Believers already have eternal life (3:36; 4:14; 5:24; 6:47, 54), have passed from death to life (5:24), have received the promised Spirit (7:39; 14:16–18, 26; 16:13), and have escaped condemnation/judgment (3:18; 5:24).
Rudolf Bultmann, who I wrote about a couple of posts ago, puts it this way.
This conclusion [the future is now] is drawn most radically by John, who eliminates apocalyptic eschatology altogether. The judgment of the world is not a cosmic event that is still to happen but is the fact that Jesus has come into the world and issued the call to faith (John 3:19; 9:39; 12:31). (p19)
Add to Bultmann’s list 12:32. In a way it’s simple. The Book of Revelation (which some mistakenly attribute to John) is a dream, or nightmare. Advent is now.
Faith sees the birth of Jesus as the advent of the eschatological Lord, who comes to judge the living and the dead. (Congdon, p 148)
Advent is not something to anticipate, but something to live up to. The first coming is already the second coming, though history will have its end.
To be sure, there are traces of futurist eschatology. For example, Jesus refers to the “last day,” when all who believe in him will rise up. (6:39–40) The concept isn’t absent, just undeveloped in comparison to the thesis that Advent is now.
The Holy Spirit
John develops the doctrine of the Holy Spirit more thoroughly than the other three gospels. John calls the Holy Spirit the Paraclete (παράκλητος), or companion and counselor. The other gospels generally call the Holy Spirit pneuma, or breath, the usual translation of spirit. John’s term is more down to earth. The Holy Spirit is the living spirit of Christ, which remains to guide his followers (you and me) after Jesus left. John (14:16) quotes Jesus as saying “another Paraclete” will come to help his disciples after his departure. The only conclusion to be drawn is that Christ is the first Paraclete. Since then the Paraclete is the presence of Jesus in his absence (14:26). (Brown)
Emphasizing the Holy Spirit enables John to claim that the end of the age is now, for Christ will always be with us, guiding those who are receptive to his silent voice. John doesn’t develop the doctrine of the trinity. That comes later. But he puts all the pieces in their place: God the father, God the son, and God the Holy Spirit or companion. John isn’t the first to put them together; but he is the first to make the Holy Spirit a developed stand-in for Christ.
A new commandment
The synoptic gospels refer to loving God with all your heart, and loving your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-28). This is often referred to as the Great Commandment. John, as usual, is different. Says Jesus,
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (12:34-35)
The other 3 gospels say love others as you love yourself. John says love others as Christ has loved you. Not only does this set the bar infinitely higher, but it’s impossible. Nevertheless, it remains the goal. Kruse comments wisely,
Knowing the truth about Jesus is vital, but so also is believers’ love for one another. This love is not sentimental, but real self-sacriﬁcing love by which they place other believers’ needs above their own. Lovelessness among believers nulliﬁes their witness to the world, and reveals them as hypocrites. (p 289)
This perfects the Book of John. I’m all for high Christology, but in the end we are measured by how we love each other.
John is the most simply written but intellectually ambitious of the four gospels. But in the end, intellectual ambition falls before this simple statement. Love one another with a self-sacrificing love, as I have loved you. It’s not really as simple as that. Or is it?
Raymond Brown, The Gospel according to John, v. 2. Anchor Bible, 1970.
Rudolf Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology, trans. Ogden. Fortress Press, 1984.
A. Carson, The Gospel According to John. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991.
David Congdon, Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2015.
Colin G. Kruse, John. Tyndale, Inter Varsity Press, 2003.