I was planning on being finished with these reflections on John, but these excellent questions from Andrew have inspired me to write one more post.

If anything is clear in the Gospel of John, the thought that Jesus is both sign and thing signified is (see here, where I argue that Jesus’ special authority as “witness” to the Father comes from his unity with the Father). Is Scripture a sign only, or also a substance?

On the one hand, we must be wary of making the Gospel the fourth member of the Godhead. Yet on the other hand, we must acknowledge it’s special position within the economy of God’s salvation–namely, it is the means through which the Spirit of God communicates Christ to the world. Hence, I would agree with the latter of Andrew’s interpretations: “the Gospel of John is a sign AND a thing signified through the power of the Spirit in an analogous way to a sacrament.”

Andrew proceeds to ask which creates the crisis in man, Jesus or His words, and then points us to John 5:39-40: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” The point is clear: apart from the person of Jesus, the words of Scripture are merely words.

But when employed by the Holy Spirit, the words of God in Scripture become the very substance of Christ to us, imparting to us the life of Christ. Hence, it is our response to the words of Christ by which we are judged on the last day.

Consider John 6. While using such a controversial passage in this context is certainly unadvisable, if my interpretation holds it has bearing on this conversation. The broader context of John 6 indicates that the issue in question is Jesus’ authority as the one sent from the Father, and consequently his authority as the one in whom we put our faith: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” He is the “one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Two claims in the passage matter for our purposes: “The bread that I give for the life of the world is my flesh,” and “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

While Jesus is sometimes thought to be referring something like the doctrine of the real presence or transubstantiation in this passage as evidence by the scandal his words create, such an interpretation fails to recognize (I would content) Jesus’ followers repeated misinterpretations of his figurative statements (see John 2:21-22, John 3, John 4). Here, it seems Jesus is suggesting that his works and words have the same function and power: they bear witness to the power and love of God the Father, and it is through both that we receive life.

Interestingly, only in John is the last supper replaced by what amounts to a long sermon. Rather than the institution of communion, we are given words, which indicates the author’s identification of the words of Jesus as the bearers of the substance of Jesus when put to work by the Holy Spirit after his resurrection. Scripture is the exclusive witness of the reality of God in Jesus Christ, and it is the Holy Spirit that makes that reality effective and powerful in our lives and hearts, conforming us to reality in such a way that we image it, point toward it, and speak with an authority that comes not from ourselves but from the authority to which we point. As Jesus says, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”

See also:

The Key to the Gospel of John
The Key to the Gospel of John: Part Two
The Key to the Gospel of John: Part Three
The Key to the Gospel of John: Part Four
The Key to the Gospel of John: Part Five
The Key to the Gospel of John: Final Installment

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Matt,
    You won the bet, and I can’t locate your email. Go ahead an delete this post, but let me know what I need to do to pay up, essay or book review (and then book or topic and pov). :)


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