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                                  THE FOUR GOSPELS


                                      John 1:1-18

       I’ve always been pretty much of a loner when it comes to studying for a test

or preparing a sermon. There was one exception, when I was in seminary taking the

big theology course. There was so much reading to do that it was overwhelming.

So my best friend and I decided to do some studying together. We got together the

first night and started comparing notes, and it was hilarious. On a page of text,

between our two books, we would have virtually the entire page highlighted, but

almost never did we highlight the same sections. He would highlight one paragraph

and I would highlight the next. That was the only time we ever tried that.

       That memory came to mind this week as I was wondering how to explain

how the Gospel of John can be so entirely different than the other three gospels and

yet be about the same Jesus. It is certainly possible for different people to be

captivated by different parts of a story, and for them to find the meaning that they

want to share with others in different places. 90% of John’s Gospel is unique to

John. Some say he knew the other gospels and assumed people were aware of

what they taught, others don’t think so. Early church father Clement of Alexandria

says that John set out to write a “spiritual gospel.”

       This gospel is attributed to the disciple John and the community he became

part of in Ephesus. There is similar confusion about when to date it, but the

majority opinion is probably around 100 A.D. It’s doubtful that John himself would

have written it, but that disciples of his would have taken his memories and put

them to paper. The early church struggled with whether to include John in the New

Testament, but eventually decided the risk of including such a different account was

worth taking because of the value and beauty of the book. There is much that

would have been lost if the church had not reached that decision.

       The purpose of this gospel is explicitly stated in 20:30-31: “Now Jesus did

many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.

But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the

Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” The purpose

holds true from beginning to end – what is written is intended to lead us to believe

in the pre-existent, eternal Christ who has been glorified and exalted and is the

source of life eternal.

       Celia Brewer Marshall writes a good description of the transition into John.

She writes, “Entering the world of John’s Gospel is disconcerting at first. The

exuberant, hurried pace of the Synoptic Gospels slows to a stately promenade.

Jesus the teacher/rabbi becomes Christ the philosopher/king. The pithy language

of parable is replaced by the symbolic and often convoluted language of theological

discourse. There is no messianic secret for John; from the very beginning Jesus is

the Man from heaven who knows exactly what his business is, and makes it known

to all who will hear.” (A Guide Through the N.T., p. 63)

       Instead of Luke’s human interest birth narratives, John immediately

launches into this: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and

the word was God. The word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and

truth, and we have seen his glory. He came to his own people and they did not

receive him. But to all who believe in him he gives power to become children of

God.” There is the story in a nutshell, and the rest of the gospel will flesh it out.

       John chooses only seven miracles of Jesus to recount. He calls them signs,

which means that they point to something important about Jesus. They are the

changing of water into wine at the marriage in Cana; the healing of the Gentile

nobleman’s son from a distance; healing a lame man on the Sabbath; feeding the

5,000; walking on water; healing a blind man; and raising Lazarus from the dead.

       The seven signs are complemented by seven discourses by Jesus which

feature the great “I am” statements which are unique to John. “I am the bread of

life; I am the light of the world; I am the gate for the sheep; I am the good shepherd;

I am the resurrection and the life; I am the way and the truth and the life; and I am

the vine, you are the branches.” These are all unique to John.

       Frequently the signs lead into the sayings. The sign is a window which opens

up some aspect of who Jesus is. For instance, the feeding of the 5,000 leads into

Jesus’ discourse about how he is the bread of life. Giving sight to the blind man

leads into the “I am the light of the world” discourse. Raising Lazarus from the dead

is the occasion for the “I am the resurrection and the life” discourse.

       William Barclay writes about the role of miracles in John’s gospel: “To John

the miracles were not simply single events in time; they were illustrations,

examples, insights into that which God is always doing and what Jesus always is;

they are windows into the reality of God. Jesus did not only once raise Lazarus from

the dead; He is for ever and for all people the resurrection and the life. To John a

miracle was never an isolated act; it was always a window into the reality of that

which Jesus always was and always is and always did and always does.” (John, p.


       Some other interesting observations about how different John is among the

gospels. There is nothing in John about the birth of Jesus, the temptations, the

garden of Gethsemane, or the ascension. It is not stated that he was baptized,

though it may be implied. There are no healings of people possessed by demons.

Jesus tells no parables or stories. Turning over the tables of the moneychangers in

the Temple takes place at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in John, while the other

gospels place it during the last week of his life. John has the majority of Jesus’

ministry taking place in and around Jerusalem, while the others only show him

coming to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and following. There is a last supper, but

there is no institution of the Lord’s Supper on that occasion, no explanation of “this

is my body, broken for you; this is my blood, shed for the forgiveness of sins.”

Instead, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples and tells them to serve one another

in this way, and the focus during the meal is on the betrayal by Judas. The more

Eucharistic setting is the feeding of the 5,000 and explanation about being the

bread of life.

       John is a tough gospel to read all the way through because of the long

discourses, the emphasis on theology, and the sort of superiority complex the

attitude Jesus is portrayed with sometimes projects on us. But most of us have

snapshots of segments of John that are very, very important to us, snapshots that

we wouldn’t have without this gospel.

       For instance, the magnificent prologue about Jesus as the Word made flesh;

how about the fact that Jesus not only went to a wedding, he turned water into wine

so the celebration could continue; the encounter with Nicodemus is an important

one in introducing the concept of being “born again,” and it was to Nicodemus that

Jesus offered what Karl Barth called “the gospel in miniature,” John 3:16 – “for God

so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not

perish but have eternal life.

       There is the story about the Samaritan woman at the well, whom Jesus

struck up a conversation with despite cultural barriers. He told her, “Everyone who

drinks of the water in this well will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water

that I give them will never be thirsty. The water that I give will become in them a

spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said, “Sir, give me this

water,” and she ended up bringing her whole community to him.

       There is a story about another woman, who had been caught in the act of

adultery. Jesus was asked whether he agreed with the law of Moses that she

should be stoned to death. He drew on the ground for a minute, then looked up and

said, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.” The

crowd gradually dispersed and he told the woman to go and sin no more.

       There is the story about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and this is

clearly the final straw for the religious authorities which leads to the arrest and

crucifixion of Jesus. Only John records Jesus saying about his upcoming crucifixion,

“When I am lifted up I will draw all people to myself.”

       There is a long section in which Jesus talks to the disciples, called his

farewell discourse, which includes favorite sections like these: “Do not let your

hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there

are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place

for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you

to myself, so that where I am, you may be also.” “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit,

whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of

all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” “As the

Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” “This is my

commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater

love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus also offers a lengthy

prayer in this section for the unity and protection of those who follow him.

       More stories unique to John come at the end. While Jesus is dying on the

cross, he entrusts the care of his mother to “the beloved disciple,” presumably John

himself. After the resurrection Mary Magdalene encounters Jesus and thinks he is

the gardener until he speaks her name. Only John tells us about Doubting Thomas

and the resolution of his doubts. Only John tells us about Jesus’ resurrection

appearance to the disciples who are fishing on the Sea of Galilee and how he fexed

them breakfast. Only John tells us of Jesus asking Peter three times if he loved

him, as if to allow him to atone for the three times he denied knowing him, and

them commissioning Peter to “feed my sheep.”

       So John’s is a very unique gospel which still holds a lot of mystery for us. It is

directed toward inspiring belief in Jesus as the Christ, and sees things in black and

white, dualistic terms. There are frequently opposing forces spoken of – darkness

vs. light, death vs. life, truth vs. lies, Spirit vs. flesh. “The Jews” is a term which

lumps together the opponents of Jesus and may indicate that John’s congregation

was having the same problem with being excluded from the synagogue as

Matthew’s congregation had. This kind of language in John’s gospel has

unfortunately been used in anti-Semitic ways in modern times.

       Gerard Sloyan writes, “There is a constant struggle over religious truth going

on in the Fourth Gospel between Jesus and his protagonists and those who actively

resist them. Its colors are primary; there are no pastels or shadings. The author is

totally self-confident. The modern preacher (or teacher) of the Fourth Gospel has a

powerful weapon in hand but needs to avoid self-righteousness.” (Interpretation, p.


       Fred Craddock summarizes, “It may be said with some confidence that the

Gospel of John was written and read in a church with problems within and without.

A new generation of believers seeks assurance that the word they received is

indeed in continuity with Jesus and that it is no less effective for succeeding

generations who have not seen and yet believe.” (Knox Preaching Guide, p. 3)

       And that’s where I’m stopping today. Craddock says that one of the early

church fathers named Origen started out to write a commentary on John in the early

200’s. His notes on chapters 1-13 exceeded 32 books. (p. 1) I don’t know if he

gave up or died, but I’m not willing to take it that far.

       As John’s gospel says in its concluding verse, “There are also many other

things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the

world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

               David J. Bailey

               August 23, 2009

               Central Presbyterian Church

               Anderson, SC

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