Johannine theology organizes the unifying theological subjects belonging to the NewTestament literature traditionally attributed to John. While some critics would say that acomprehensive, coherent theology may not be within reach, still we can outline thoseunifying themes that undergird these writings. The Johannine literature includes theFourth Gospel, three letters, and the Book of Revelation. While they no doubt share acommon background, the Book of Revelation is quite different in terms of genre and purposeand should be left to another discussion. This leaves the Gospel and three letters (two ofwhich are very short and of limited theological importance). Johannine theology,therefore, has been anchored in the Fourth Gospel and the First Epistle of John.
The Structure of the Gospel. The Fourth Gospel is organized into two principlesections and these are framed by a prologue ( 1:1-18 ) and anepilogue ( 21:1-25 ),each of which were likely added at some later date either by the Gospel's author or one ofhis followers. The prologue introduces the incarnation of the preexistent Word andpoetically sets the stage for all that is to follow: God discloses his Son in the world ofdarkness; he is popularly rejected; a select group of followers discover life; and eventhough the darkness tries, it cannot defeat this Son.
The first section is commonly called the Book of Signs (1:19-12:50) in order todescribe how Jesus appears within Judaism replacing its institutions (the temple, sacredwells, teachers) and festivals (Passover, Tabernacles). He offers overwhelming messianicgifts that exploit images intrinsic in the Jewish setting in the narrative (wine, wisdom,water, healing, bread, light, life). The final event is the raising of Lazaruswhichutterly discloses Jesus' identityas well as seals his fate. But even though Jesusexperiences hostility among the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, still he discoversreceptivity in Galilee ( 2:11 ; 4:45 John 45 ; 7:1 ; etc.) and atthe end of this section, Greeks from Galilee eagerly line up to follow him ( 12:20-26 ).
The second section is called the Book of Glory (13:1-20:31) because now Jesus takesaside his followers, washes their feet at his final Passover meal ( 13:1-20 ), andexhaustively explains to them who he is and what will happen (13:31-17:26). But hintedthroughout the Gospel is the notion that the impending cross of Christ will be no tragedy,but a time when his glory will become visible to all ( 3:13-15 ; 13:31 ; 17:1-5 ). Thecross is one more sign given to disclose that Jesus has been sent by the Father and is nowreturning to him. For John, this cross is voluntary ( John 10:11 John 10:17 John 10:18 ).Christ is departing, having completed the work he set out to do. But before he goes, hedistributes gifts to all among his followers ( 20:19-29 ),blessing them one more time.
Most scholars think that the earliest ending of the gospel is in 20:30-31 and thatchapter 21 is a later addition no doubt from the same Johannine sources that supplied theoriginal Gospel. If it is secondary, it nevertheless has the ring of historicity and theecho of Johannine language. Jesus makes a resurrection appearance and commissions hisfollowers in anticipation of his permanent absence.
Theology. Christology. Both the Fourth Gospel and First John begin with aprologue that establishes the importance of incarnational Christology for salvation. Whena reader completes the Gospel, he or she has had a compelling, informed exposure to theperson of Jesus Christ in the context of first-century Jewish messianism. Jesus figuresprominently in every scene as one sent directly from God for our benefit.
Jesus as the Revelation of God. Jesus is able to disclose the identity of Godbecause he alone originates from God ( 1:18 ), has beensent by God ( 17:3 ),and has shared God's glory ( John 17:5 John 17:24 ).Therefore, on earth he is capable of revealing the glory of God unlike any other ( 1:14 ). This revelationof glory is a key to the Gospel. In the Book of Signs (chaps. 1-12) Jesus' miraclesare aimed to show glimpses of God's glory ( 2:11 ) and those whobelieved could see it ( 11:40 ). In theBook of Glory this revelation comes on the cross. But at no time did Jesus glorify himself( 7:18 ; John 8:50 John 8:54 ). In asimilar manner, the Johannine Christology concerns the revelation of truth. Jesusbrought "grace and truth" from the Father ( John 1:14 John 1:17 )alongside God's glory. In a world of falsehood and error, Jesus cuts a path, a way, to Godthat is true and life-giving ( 14:6 ). Indeed he isthe incarnation of truth and thereby confronts those who promote lies ( 8:31-32 ). Henceright knowledge about Jesus is essential. The Johannine portrait of Christ outlinesvarious titles to make this knowledge clear. Even at the Gospel's first call todiscipleship ( 1:35-51 )reads like a catalog of christological titles picked up later in the story.
The Identity of Jesus. John's first christological title comes in theintroduction, where Jesus is described as the Word (logos [lovgo"]) ofGod ( 1:1 ). Thisis unparalleled in the other Gospels. Debate continues whether this is a Jewish or Greekidea, but the evidence points to a meaningful link for both. Judaism had alreadypersonified God's Word (and wisdom) as distinguishable from God. Hellenism (especiallyStoic philosophy) saw the Logos as an eternal principle of order in the uNIVerse. Philo,in some respects, even allegorizes God's Word in the Old Testament to wed his Jewish faithwith pagan ideas. But what John says is shocking to both. The Word eternally existed withGod in eternity and was God's agent in creating this world. But most shocking is that thisvery Word became flesh and spoke directly for the first time ( 1:14 ). The highdivinity implied in this concept is wed to genuine humanity in Johannine Christology andis never compromised. This is a Word "that we have seen with our eyes, what we havelooked at and touched with our hands" ( 1 John 1:1 ; 5:6 ).
When John describes Jesus as the messiah we are firmly in a traditional Jewishframework. Christ (which translates "messiah" in Greek, 1:41 )is almost always used as a title of identity, not a proper name ( 1:17 and 17:3 are the onlyexceptions of eighteen uses). For the Jewish authorities, Jesus' identity as the messianicking ( 1:49 ; 6:15 ; John 12:13 John 12:15 ) is amajor concern ( 7:26-27 ; 10:24 John 24 ). He isthe one who fulfills the Old Testament expectation ( 1:45 ) and belief inhis messiahship is inherent in discipleship ( 4:29 ; 9:22 ; 11:27 ; 20:31 ).
The Son of Man is Jesus' favorite self-description in the Synoptics. However theusual synoptic theological meanings (suffering and humiliation, hiddenness, apocalypticjudgment) seem absent in John. Perplexity shows up in 9:35 and 12:34 as inquirers wonderwhat Jesus means. John's use (13 times) emphasizes the "lifting up" of Jesus,his glorification and return to the Father ( 3:14-15 ; 8:28 ; John 12:23 John 12:34 ; 13:31 ). It alsosignals the ultimate authority the Father has given to Jesus (5:27; 9:38). John's portraithere avoids futurist eschatology but this does not mean necessarily that he is at oddswith the synoptic tradition.
No doubt Son of God is central to John's theology. It reflects John's primarychristological assertion that Jesus, once preexistent with the Father, has been sent byhim to us. Unlike in the Synoptics, in John Jesus speaks of God as his Father frequently(106 times) and sonship language is commonplace (over 25 times). This is a relationshipthat is exclusively reserved for Jesus and cannot be shared by others. As God's Son, Jesusenjoys God's love ( 5:20 ; 10:17 ) andshares it with his followers ( 15:9 ). As God'sSon, he can do God's works ( 5:17-19 ) becauseall his deeds come from the Father ( 10:32 ; 14:10 ). In thesame way, his words are God's words: he listens to the Father ( 8:26 ) and utterswhat he hears ( 8:28 ).Thus, Jesus' words are not his own. They belong to his Father who sent him ( 14:24 ).
Sonship expresses the ultimate authority of Jesus. He is not a prophet representingGod, but in fact bears divine authority itself. As Son, he has an exclusive knowledge ofGod ( 6:47 ; 10:15 ; 17:25 ) andtherefore enjoys equal glory with God among people ( 5:23 ). Jesus caneven say that he and the Father are one ( 10:30 ), not inpurpose, but in being ( 10:38 ; 14:20 ). And yetthis oneness does not negate Jesus' utter dependence on the Father at every turn ( 4:34 ; John 5:19 John 5:30 ; 17:2 ).
John's suggestion of oneness leads to a final thought. The Fourth Gospel describesJesus with terms reserved for God. In passages such as the Sabbath debate of John 5, Jesusassumes divine prerogatives in his argument ("if my Father is working, so mayI"). But the Gospel text goes further, making him not just the son but God. Thishappens at the opening of the Gospel ( 1:1 ) and at theGospel's closing frame when Thomas names Jesus "my Lord and my God" ( 20:28 ).
Jesus' Self-Disclosure. As Jesus moves through Israel his identity is graduallyunveiled throughout the Gospel story. First, this is done with signs and works(John does not use the synoptic word, "miracle"). Seven signs not merely displaythe miraculous power of Jesus, but reveal his role as the Son of God and savior of theworld. Lengthy discourses accompany these signs to expand on their meaning and leadobservers to faith. Among these discourses are seven separate "I am" sayings ( 6:35 ; 8:12 ; 10:7-11 ; 11:25 ; 14:6 ; 15:1 ), whichfunction like spoken signs to describe Jesus more fully or to give a concealed referenceto his deity ( 10:30-39 ).
Second, witnesses step forward to identify him and validate his claims as ifJesus were on trial. John the Baptist, the Samaritan woman, the disciples, witnesses atthe cross, and even the evangelist bear testimony. In chapter 5 Jesus' signs, the Father,and God's Word are likewise witnesses in his defense. This accumulation of"evidence" for Jesus has led many interpreters to think that John's Gospel isusing a trial motif. Jesus is on trial in Judaism. Those who read the Gospellikethose who appear in the storyare forced to make a judgment of the truth of Jesus'claims.
Third, Jesus appears in the Book of Signs at prominent Jewish institutions andfestivals, using their symbols to identify his person or mission. The religious valueof ceremonial water ( 2:9-11 ), thetemple ( 2:20-22 ),rabbinic teaching ( 3:1-15 ),and Jacob's well ( 4:13-15 )are all replaced by Christ. Likewise Jesus appears at the festivals of Sabbath (chap. 5),Passover (chap. 6), Tabernacles (chaps. 7-8), and Hanukkah (chap. 10), displacing theblessings they offer.
The Gifts of Christ. Those who truly know Jesus and embrace him by faith areoffered divine gifts. And no doubt, we are to see these things as constituent parts of theChristian life. These are gifts possessed exclusively by those who belong to Jesus' flock( 10:1-10 ) andwhich remain mysterious to those in the world, whose domain is darkness. One function ofliterary irony in the Gospel is to illustrate the utter misunderstanding of unbelievers:they cannot comprehend Jesus, his mission, or what he can give ( 3:4 ; 4:11 ; 6:52 ; John 7:15 John 7:35 ; 8:22 ; 9:39 ; 11:50 ). If theSamaritan woman had known "the gift of God" ( 4:10 ) she wouldhave seen that Jesus possessed the superior supply of water.
Eternal Life. The premier gift in Johannine thought is undoubtedly eternallife. The world is dead ( 5:24 ), but Jesusoffers life to those who believe ( 1:4 ; John 3:15-16 John 3:36 ; 4:14 ; 5:24 ; John 6:35 John 6:47 ; 8:12 ; 10:10 ). Jesus'emphasis on eternal life (mentioned over twenty times) is without parallel in theSynoptics and almost replaces the synoptic "kingdom of God." Jesus even callshimself "life" ( 11:25 ; 14:6 ). Sometimesthis gift is placed in metaphor, such as "living water" ( 4:14 ) or"living bread" ( 6:33 ); in eachinstance it means a faithful consumption of who Jesus is and what he offers. To eat anddrink of Christ ( 6:33 which may be an allusion to the Lord's Supper) is to gain life. In the case ofNicodemus the metaphor is rebirth, a powerful engagement with God that again islife-giving ( 3:15-17 ).
Light. A similar idea is found in the metaphor of light. In 8:12 lightand life are juxtaposed: "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will neverwalk in darkness, but will have the light of life." As the world is in death (andneeds life), so, too, it exists in darkness and needs light ( 1:5 ; 11:10 ; John 12:35-36 John 12:46 ; 1 John 2:8 1 John 2:11 ).Jesus is even called the light ( 1:9 ; 3:19-21 ; 12:46 ; 1 John 1:7 ).
Salvation. Jesus is also the giver of salvation. This is implied in theoffer of life. Christ presents an opportunity accept him and to pass from death to life orto continue in sin until judgment ( 12:46-48 ). Lifeis not simply knowledge or enlightenment; it is the result of Jesus' sacrificial death.Jesus came to take away sins ( 1 John 3:5 ; cf. 1 John 2:2 ; 4:10 ). John theBaptist sounds this note when Jesus is introduced ( 1:29 ): "Look,the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." Even the short parable of 12:24makes this clear: "unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remainsonly a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds." Thus in 6:51b Jesussays, "This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world."Jesus understands that his mission is also sacrificial, costing him his life.
Again and again, Jesus refers to his "lifting up, " which is a symbolicreference to his cross and departure. It is "the hour" that he anticipates ( 2:4 ; John 12:23 John 12:27 ; 13:1 ; 17:1 ). Mostgraphically, the shepherd discourse of John 10 describes this voluntary death that willsave the life of the sheep.
The Holy Spirit. Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, the Johannine Jesus speaksfrequently about the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit permanently alights on Jesus at hisbaptism ( 1:32-33 )and continues as an important presence throughout his life ( 3:34 ; 6:27 ). Even Jesus'words are "spirit and life" ( 6:63 ). Jesus isdescribed as a vessel in whom the Spirit is welling up ( 7:37 ; the livingwater metaphor of 4:10 may be another reference), but we are consistently told that the full distribution of theHoly Spirit must await Jesus' glorification at the cross ( 7:39 ). When Jesusdies hints appear that in his death, when his life is poured out, the Spirit is released ( John 19:30 John 19:34 ). Andon Easter, Jesus seems to give his Spirit to his followers ( 20:22 ). John'sconceptual framework is that the Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus, forever continuing hispresence with his followers ( 14:15-31 ; 1 John 4:13 ).
In Jesus' farewell discourse in the upper room, he speaks at length about the comingSpirit whom his followers would enjoy. It is sometimes called "the Spirit oftruth" ( 14:17 ; 15:26 ; 16:13 ), no doubtbecause Jesus himself is the Truth. Jesus also gives the Spirit a new name, the Paraclete( John 14:16 John 14:26 ; 15:26 ; 16:7 ). Thisdescribes the Spirit as an advocate, a defender who will stand with the disciples,strengthening them before the world ( 15:18-27 ; 16:8-10 ). TheParaclete will recall to mind what Jesus has said ( 14:26 ) as well aslead them prophetically into new truths ( 16:12-13 ). Thisdynamic presence of the Spirit was well known among the followers of John ( 1 Jo 2:20-21 )and became a hallmark of Johannine discipleship ( 1 John 3:24 ; 4:13 ).
The New Community. Those who believe in Christ and follow him are recipients ofthe gifts listed above. Moreover, they belong to a community that has stepped out of theworld and its darkness and built a refuge for others who seek community. This is Jesus'flock and he is the shepherd (chap. 10). Jesus is the vine and these are his branches(chap. 15). This community is a place of love, obedience, faithfulness, and worship. And,to no one's surprise, it experiences conflict with the world.
The Command to Love. John understands that the love shared among disciplesshould have the same quality as that between the Father and the Son ( 3:35 ; 14:31 ). Thiscommand is repeated frequently ( 13:34-35 ; John 15:12 John 15:17 ).First John emphasizes this command repeatedly ("love" occurs thirty times) andimplies that love is the foremost feature of being a believer. First John 4:12 seemscharacteristic of the Johannine imperative: "No one has ever seen God; but if we loveone another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us."
Obedience and Discipleship. In the Johannine ethic, love is meaningless if it isnot expressed in tangible form. In John's thought, love is obedience. Jesus says ifwe love him we will keep his commands ( John 14:15 John 14:21-24 ).In fact, his commands become opportunities to exhibit love ( 15:17 ). Thus, inJesus' discussion with Peter ( 21:15-19 ) thequestion of Peter's love is tested against the call to nurture and love Christ'sfollowers. Such obedience becomes proof of discipleship: "We know that we have cometo know him if we obey his commands" ( 1 John 2:3 ).
John anticipates a life of spiritual and moral dedication that is completely devoted toGod ( 10:36 ) andconscious of its separation from the world ( 1 Jo 2:15-17 ).Believers are not removed from the world; they live in it ( 17:15-19 ) andtherefore are subject to temptation and evil. They must not neglect confession as a meansof renewing their dedication to God ( 1 John 1:8-10 ).
Faith and Perseverance. The Johannine literature only uses the noun"faith" once ( 1 John 5:4 ) butemploys the verb "to believe" many times (107 times). Faith is a relationship,not an initial act of intellectual consent. It is a personal investment in the personhoodof Christ. This intimate union of ongoing trust is expressed in a variety of ways. Johnstresses how the believer must abide in Christ as a branch abides in the vine ( 15:1-11 ). Thismeans that discipleship is an intimate union or fellowship with God. First John describeshow the believer should abide in him ( John 2:24 John 2:28 ; 3:6 ). But this doesnot leave us on our own. Jesus abides in us ( 15:4 ) so that thereis a mutual coming together, a mutual embracing. The language of indwelling moves easilybetween Jesus and the Father. The Father also abides in us and we in him ( 1 John 2:24 ; 3:24 ) as well asthe Holy Spirit ( John14:17 ). In fact, the Johannine language of indwelling is expressed in categories thatanticipate the Trinity.
Worship. The worship of the church gains little attention in the Johannineliterature although certain passages are often viewed as windows into community worship.The exhortation in 4:23-24 anticipates an hour when true worship will be localized neitherin Samaria nor in Jerusalem. It will be worship in Spirit and truth. The Johannine churchlived within this hour and likely pursued such worship.
Debate has also centered on the Johannine interest in sacraments. For some scholars,sacramental language is found in abundance. Others see limited interest. In particular,the Nicodemus dialogue in chapter 3 and the Passover discourse of chapter 6 betray hintsof baptism and the Lord's Supper respectively. In each case, an allusion is made to therite (rebirth in water/consuming Christ's flesh and blood) but then a critique is given interms of the Holy Spirit. The description of Nicodemus's rebirth focuses exclusively onspirit, leaving water behind. Likewise 6:63 says that it is the Spirit that gives life andthe flesh to be consumed is of no avail.
Together these themes suggest a Johannine interest in pneumatic worship driven not by arigid sacramentalism, but a cautious critique of ritual. If the experience of worship nolonger brings the immediacy of the Holy Spirit, such worship is no better than that atSamaria.
Conflict in the World. The worldview of the Johannine literature is consistentlydualistic. Believers are reminded that they no longer belong to the world ( 15:19 ) because theworld is openly hostile to Jesus and his followers. The experience of Jesus becomes theparadigm for discipleship: "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated mefirst" ( 15:18 ).
That this outlook continued in the Johannine community is evident when we look atJohn's letters. The hatred of the world is everywhere ( 1 John 3:13 )because it is under the power of the evil one ( 1 John 5:19 ). Theworld brings theological falsehood through its religious corruption and false teachers ( 1 John 4:3-5 ; 2 John 1:7 ). It alsobrings moral conflict with its temptations ( 1 John 2:15-17 ).But the Christian who is diligent and faithful will conquer the world ( 1 John 5:4 ).
Eschatology. Eschatology concerns the "last things" and usually in theGospels refers to the events surrounding the second coming of Christ. However, seriousdebate surrounds Johannine eschatology because the futurist categories well-known in theSynoptics appear absent. Few verses describe the second coming as the final climactic endto history that inaugurates the judgment. Johannine eschatology is thus described as realizedeschatology. Among severe critics of John, the Gospel has reinterpreted futuristcategories so that everything anticipated in the eschaton is available now. In particular,Christ's second coming has been spiritualized in the coming of the Holy Spirit. When Jesussays the hour is coming and now is ( 4:23 ; 5:25 ; 16:32 ), he impliesa sort of fulfillment absent elsewhere in the New Testament.
However, the Johannine literature still expresses a futurist orientation. Not only doesJesus predict a time of suffering and persecution ( 15:18-25 ) but 1John 2:18-19 predicts the coming of an antichrist. Further, John anticipates theresurrection on the last day ( John 6:39 John 6:44 John 6:54 ; 11:24 ) as wellas the final judgment ( 5:25-29 ; 12:48 ). Jesuspromises us that he is going before us to make a dwelling place with him ( 14:3 ). At the endof the Gospel, the resurrected Christ dismisses a query about the Beloved Disciple'sremaining until the parousia ( 21:22 ).
While futurist eschatology can be demonstrated in John, still, Johannine theology has adecided emphasis on the present. John emphasizes the blessed presence of Jesus in Spiritand his gifts in the Christian community now. The church need not live troubled by Jesus'absence while it yearns for the future. Jesus promised, "I will not leave you asorphans; I will come to you" ( 14:18 ). The HolySpirit that gives the church life today is Christ's Spirit, present until he returns.
Gary M. Burge
Bibliography. J. Ashton, Understanding the Fourth Gospel; C. K. Barrett, Essayson John (1982):1-18; idem, The Gospel According to St. John; G. R.Beasley-Murray, Gospel of Life: Theology in the Fourth Gospel; J. M. Boice, Witnessand Revelation in the Gospel of John; R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to St.John, pp. cv-cxxviii; idem, The Community of the Beloved Disciple; idem, TheEpistles of John; idem, The Gospel According to John; G. M. Burge, TheAnointed Community. The Holy Spirit in the Johannine Tradition (1987); R. A.Culpepper, Rev and Exp 85 (1988): 417-32; C. H. Dodd, The Interpretation of theFourth Gospel; J. D. G. Dunn, The Gospel and the Gospels, pp. 293-322; R.Kysar, The Fourth Evangelist and His Gospel; G. E. Ladd, A Theology of the NewTestament; I. H. Marshall, ISBE, 2:1081-91; idem, The Epistles of John;W. A. Meeks, The Prophet-King; C. F. D. Moule, The Origin of Christology; J.Painter, Reading John's Gospel Today; S. Pancaro, The Law in the Fourth Gospel:The Torah and the Gospel, Moses and Jesus, Judaism and Christianity according to John;T. E. Pollard, Johannine Christology in the Early Church; J. A. T. Robinson, ThePriority of John; R. Schnackenburg, The Gospel according to St. John; E. M.Sidebottom, The Christ of the Fourth Gospel; S. Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John; idem,John: Evangelist and Interpreter; J. R. W. Stott, The Epistles of John.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'John, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".