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The Key to the Gospel of John: Part Five

March 18th, 2006 | 5 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

In my last post, pointed out that Jesus's authority as witness of the Father is unique in that He and the Father are one.  In this case, the thing being witnessed about (the Father) and the one who witnesses (Jesus) are 'in' each other.  When Phillip asks Jesus to show them the Father, Jesus replies,

"Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip?  Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.  How can you say, 'Show us the Father'?  Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?  The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.  Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves" (14:9-11).

But what bearing does this have on our interpretation of the Gospel of John?  The marks of Jesus's union with the Father are twofold:  his 'works' (which I take to include the 'signs') and the words that he says.  Jesus is the Word (John 1:1) who from the beginning 'was with God' and 'was God.'  His mission is to make manifest the very charachter and essence of God the Father, a mission that can be fulfilled because of his union with the Father.

John writes his gospel 'so that you may believe.'  But what are the grounds for belief that John offers?  Clearly John offers eye-witness testimony to the events that transpired--he was, after all, "the beloved disciple."  But his retelling is clearly very different from the Synoptic Gospels--the language Jesus uses sounds more like 1 John than Matthew or Mark (except for occasional instances, of course).  While it's easy to overstate the differences between the Gospel, some differences do exist.

The Gospel ends with a remark about the author:  "This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true."  John is not merely witnessing to the life and words of Jesus Christ as a bystander witnesses a crime--rather, he is witnessing to the authority of Jesus because he has been brought into the unity of the Father-Son relationship through the Spirit (i.e. post-resurrection).  As Jesus says in John 14, "In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you inn me, and I in you."  Jesus prays in John 17, "I do not ask for [the disciples] only, but for all who believe in me through their word, that they may all e one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me."  The authority of a Christian's witness rests upon their union with the Father and Son through the Spirit.

John's abiding in Christ is related to his extensive familiarity with the words of Jesus.  As Jesus says in 15:7, "If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you."   Jesus' words bear the substance of His deity--hence, in John six, "the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life."  Through his fellowship in the Triune Divinity, John's own words and testimony become authoritative--they themselves bear the substance of the Divinity.

This is not to suggest that John's Gospel is not historical.  With Jesus, we are asked to believe on account of the works themselves as well if we cannot on the basis of his words.  When John recounts the Resurrection of Jesus, he does so with an eye for the historical details, so as to demonstrate the historical veridity of the works of Jesus as well.

This idea that John's authority as witness comes from his union with Christ and his subsequent ability to proclaim the words of Christ is not without historical precedent.  In his first commentary on John, John Chrysostom writes,

For the son of thunder, the beloved of Christ, the pillar of the Churches throughout the world, who holds the keys of heaven, who drank the cup of Christ, and was baptized with His baptism, who lay upon his Master's bosom with much confidence,1 this man comes forward to us now; not as an actor of a play, not hiding his head with a mask, (for he hath another sort of words to speak,) nor mounting a platform,2 nor striking the stage with his foot, nor dressed out with apparel of gold, but he enters wearing a robe of inconceivable beauty. For he will appear before us having "put on Christ" (Rom. xiii. 14; Gal. iii. 27), having his beautiful "feet shod with the preparation of the Gospel of peace" (Eph. vi. 15); wearing a girdle not about his waist, but about his loins, not made of scarlet leather nor daubed outside3 with gold, but woven and composed of truth itself. Now will he appear before us, not acting a part, (for with him there is nothing counterfeit, nor fiction, nor fable,) but with unmasked head he proclaims to us the truth unmasked; not making the audience believe him other than he is by carriage, by look, by voice, needing for the delivery of his message no instruments of music, as harp, lyre, or any other the like, for he effects all with his tongue, uttering a voice which is sweeter and more profitable than that of any harper or any music. All heaven is his stage his theater, the habitable world; his audience, all angels; and of men as many as are angels already, or desire to become so, for none but these can hear that harmony aright, and show it forth by their works; all the rest, like little children who hear, but what they hear understand not, from their anxiety about sweetmeats and childish playthings; so they too, being in mirth and luxury, and living only for wealth and power and sensuality, hear sometimes what is said, it is true, but show forth nothing great or noble in their actions through fastening4 themselves for good to the clay of the brickmaking. By this Apostle stand the powers from above, marveling at the beauty of his soul, and his understanding, and the bloom of that virtue by which he drew unto him Christ Himself, and obtained the grace of the Spirit. For he hath made ready his soul, as some well-fashioned and jeweled lyre with strings of gold, and yielded it for the utterance of something great and sublime to the Spirit. 

Seeing then it is no longer the fisherman the son of Zebedee, but He who knoweth "the deep things of God" (1 Cor. ii. 10), the Holy Spirit I mean, that striketh this lyre, let us hearken accordingly. For he will say nothing to us as a man, but what he saith, he will say from the depths of the Spirit, from those secret things which before they came to pass the very Angels knew not; since they too have learned by the voice of John with us, and by us, the things which we know.

There are various interpretations of the doctrine of inspiration--Chrysostom's suggests that the relationship between John's words and the Word of God is as a lute to the music played on it.  John sounds different from the other Gospels because John is a different person than the other Gospels and he has spent years preparing the lute to be played.

Through the Spirit the words of the Gospel can reveal to us the very essence of God in Jesus Christ because of John's ability to 'speak what he hears.'  This notion is obviously contentious and still under-developed, but defensible.  It also has profound implications for us as readers of the Gospel, implications that I will explore in my next post.

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 

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.