Johannine theology organizes the unifying theological subjects belonging to the New Testament literature traditionally attributed to John. While some critics would say that a comprehensive, coherent theology may not be within reach, still we can outline those unifying themes that undergird these writings. The Johannine literature includes the Fourth Gospel, three letters, and the Book of Revelation. While they no doubt share a common background, the Book of Revelation is quite different in terms of genre and purpose and should be left to another discussion. This leaves the Gospel and three letters (two of which 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 principle sections and these are framed by a prologue ( 1:1-18 ) and an epilogue ( 21:1-25 ),each of which were likely added at some later date either by the Gospel's author or one of his followers. The prologue introduces the incarnation of the preexistent Word and poetically sets the stage for all that is to follow: God discloses his Son in the world of darkness; he is popularly rejected; a select group of followers discover life; and even though the darkness tries, it cannot defeat this Son.
The first section is commonly called the Book of Signs (1:19-12:50) in order to describe how Jesus appears within Judaism replacing its institutions (the temple, sacred wells, teachers) and festivals (Passover, Tabernacles). He offers overwhelming messianic gifts 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 Lazaruswhich utterly discloses Jesus' identityas well as seals his fate. But even though Jesus experiences hostility among the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, still he discovers receptivity in Galilee ( 2:11 ; 4:45 John 45 ; 7:1 ; etc.) and at the 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 takes aside his followers, washes their feet at his final Passover meal ( 13:1-20 ), and exhaustively explains to them who he is and what will happen (13:31-17:26). But hinted throughout 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 ). The cross is one more sign given to disclose that Jesus has been sent by the Father and is now returning 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, he distributes 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 that chapter 21 is a later addition no doubt from the same Johannine sources that supplied the original Gospel. If it is secondary, it nevertheless has the ring of historicity and the echo of Johannine language. Jesus makes a resurrection appearance and commissions his followers in anticipation of his permanent absence.
Theology. Christology. Both the Fourth Gospel and First John begin with a prologue that establishes the importance of incarnational Christology for salvation. When a reader completes the Gospel, he or she has had a compelling, informed exposure to the person of Jesus Christ in the context of first-century Jewish messianism. Jesus figures prominently 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 God because he alone originates from God ( 1:18 ), has been sent 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 revelation of glory is a key to the Gospel. In the Book of Signs (chaps. 1-12) Jesus' miracles are aimed to show glimpses of God's glory ( 2:11 ) and those who believed could see it ( 11:40 ). In the Book 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 a similar manner, the Johannine Christology concerns the revelation of truth. Jesus brought "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 God that is true and life-giving ( 14:6 ). Indeed he is the incarnation of truth and thereby confronts those who promote lies ( 8:31-32 ). Hence right knowledge about Jesus is essential. The Johannine portrait of Christ outlines various titles to make this knowledge clear. Even at the Gospel's first call to discipleship ( 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 the introduction, where Jesus is described as the Word (logos [lovgo"]) of God ( 1:1 ). This is unparalleled in the other Gospels. Debate continues whether this is a Jewish or Greek idea, but the evidence points to a meaningful link for both. Judaism had already personified God's Word (and wisdom) as distinguishable from God. Hellenism (especially Stoic 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 faith with pagan ideas. But what John says is shocking to both. The Word eternally existed with God in eternity and was God's agent in creating this world. But most shocking is that this very Word became flesh and spoke directly for the first time ( 1:14 ). The high divinity implied in this concept is wed to genuine humanity in Johannine Christology an dis never compromised. This is a Word "that we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked 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 Jewish framework. 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 only exceptions of eighteen uses). For the Jewish authorities, Jesus' identity as the messianic king ( 1:49 ; 6:15 ; John 12:13 John 12:15 ) is a major concern ( 7:26-27 ; 10:24 John 24 ). He is the one who fulfills the Old Testament expectation ( 1:45 ) and belief in his 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 the usual synoptic theological meanings (suffering and humiliation, hiddenness, apocalyptic judgment) seem absent in John. Perplexity shows up in 9:35 and 12:34 as inquirers wonder what 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 also signals the ultimate authority the Father has given to Jesus (5:27; 9:38). John's portrait here avoids futurist eschatology but this does not mean necessarily that he is at odds with the synoptic tradition.
No doubt Son of God is central to John's theology. It reflects John's primary christological assertion that Jesus, once preexistent with the Father, has been sent by him 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 relationship that is exclusively reserved for Jesus and cannot be shared by others. As God's Son, Jesus enjoys God's love ( 5:20 ; 10:17 ) and shares it with his followers ( 15:9 ). As God's Son, he can do God's works ( 5:17-19 ) because all his deeds come from the Father ( 10:32 ; 14:10 ). In the same way, his words are God's words: he listens to the Father ( 8:26 ) and utters what 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 representing God, but in fact bears divine authority itself. As Son, he has an exclusive knowledge of God ( 6:47 ; 10:15 ; 17:25 ) and therefore enjoys equal glory with God among people ( 5:23 ). Jesus can even say that he and the Father are one ( 10:30 ), not in purpose, but in being ( 10:38 ; 14:20 ). And yet this 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 describes Jesus with terms reserved for God. In passages such as the Sabbath debate of John 5, Jesus assumes divine prerogatives in his argument ("if my Father is working, so may I"). But the Gospel text goes further, making him not just the son but God. This happens at the opening of the Gospel ( 1:1 ) and at the Gospel'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 gradually unveiled throughout the Gospel story. First, this is done with signs and works(John does not use the synoptic word, "miracle"). Seven signs not merely display the miraculous power of Jesus, but reveal his role as the Son of God and savior of the world. Lengthy discourses accompany these signs to expand on their meaning and lead observers to faith. Among these discourses are seven separate "I am" sayings ( 6:35 ; 8:12 ; 10:7-11 ; 11:25 ; 14:6 ; 15:1 ), which function like spoken signs to describe Jesus more fully or to give a concealed reference to his deity ( 10:30-39 ).
Second, witnesses step forward to identify him and validate his claims as if Jesus were on trial. John the Baptist, the Samaritan woman, the disciples, witnesses at the 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 is using a trial motif. Jesus is on trial in Judaism. Those who read the Gospellike those 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 and festivals, using their symbols to identify his person or mission. The religious value of ceremonial water ( 2:9-11 ), the temple ( 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 the blessings they offer.
The Gifts of Christ. Those who truly know Jesus and embrace him by faith are offered divine gifts. And no doubt, we are to see these things as constituent parts of the Christian life. These are gifts possessed exclusively by those who belong to Jesus' flock( 10:1-10 ) and which remain mysterious to those in the world, whose domain is darkness. One function of literary 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 the Samaritan woman had known "the gift of God" ( 4:10 ) she would have seen that Jesus possessed the superior supply of water.
Eternal Life. The premier gift in Johannine thought is undoubtedly eternal life. The world is dead ( 5:24 ), but Jesus offers 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 the Synoptics and almost replaces the synoptic "kingdom of God." Jesus even calls himself "life" ( 11:25 ; 14:6 ). Sometimes this gift is placed in metaphor, such as "living water" ( 4:14 ) or"living bread" ( 6:33 ); in each instance it means a faithful consumption of who Jesus is and what he offers. To eat and drink of Christ ( 6:33 which may be an allusion to the Lord's Supper) is to gain life. In the case of Nicodemus 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 light and life are juxtaposed: "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." As the world is in death (and needs 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 the offer of life. Christ presents an opportunity accept him and to pass from death to life or to continue in sin until judgment ( 12:46-48 ). Life is 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 the Baptist 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 remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds." Thus in 6:51b Jesus says, "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 symbolic reference to his cross and departure. It is "the hour" that he anticipates ( 2:4 ; John 12:23 John 12:27 ; 13:1 ; 17:1 ). Most graphically, the shepherd discourse of John 10 describes this voluntary death that will save the life of the sheep.
The Holy Spirit. Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, the Johannine Jesus speaks frequently about the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit permanently alights on Jesus at his baptism ( 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 is described as a vessel in whom the Spirit is welling up ( 7:37 ; the living water metaphor of 4:10 may be another reference), but we are consistently told that the full distribution of the Holy Spirit must await Jesus' glorification at the cross ( 7:39 ). When Jesus dies hints appear that in his death, when his life is poured out, the Spirit is released ( John 19:30 John 19:34 ). And on 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 his presence with his followers ( 14:15-31 ; 1 John 4:13 ).
In Jesus' farewell discourse in the upper room, he speaks at length about the coming Spirit whom his followers would enjoy. It is sometimes called "the Spirit of truth" ( 14:17 ; 15:26 ; 16:13 ), no doubt because 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 ). This describes the Spirit as an advocate, a defender who will stand with the disciples, strengthening them before the world ( 15:18-27 ; 16:8-10 ). The Paraclete will recall to mind what Jesus has said ( 14:26 ) as well as lead them prophetically into new truths ( 16:12-13 ). This dynamic 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 of the gifts listed above. Moreover, they belong to a community that has stepped out of the world 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 disciples should have the same quality as that between the Father and the Son ( 3:35 ; 14:31 ). This command is repeated frequently ( 13:34-35 ; John 15:12 John 15:17 ).First John emphasizes this command repeatedly ("love" occurs thirty times) and implies that love is the foremost feature of being a believer. First John 4:12 seems characteristic of the Johannine imperative: "No one has ever seen God; but if we love one 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 is not expressed in tangible form. In John's thought, love is obedience. Jesus says if we 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, in Jesus' discussion with Peter ( 21:15-19 ) the question of Peter's love is tested against the call to nurture and love Christ's followers. Such obedience becomes proof of discipleship: "We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands" ( 1 John 2:3 ).
John anticipates a life of spiritual and moral dedication that is completely devoted to God ( 10:36 ) and conscious 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 ) and therefore are subject to temptation and evil. They must not neglect confession as a means of 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 ) but employs 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 personhood of Christ. This intimate union of ongoing trust is expressed in a variety of ways. John stresses how the believer must abide in Christ as a branch abides in the vine ( 15:1-11 ). This means that discipleship is an intimate union or fellowship with God. First John describe show the believer should abide in him ( John 2:24 John 2:28 ; 3:6 ). But this does not leave us on our own. Jesus abides in us ( 15:4 ) so that there is a mutual coming together, a mutual embracing. The language of indwelling moves easily between Jesus and the Father. The Father also abides in us and we in him ( 1 John 2:24 ; 3:24 ) as well as the Holy Spirit ( John14:17 ). In fact, the Johannine language of indwelling is expressed in categories that anticipate the Trinity.
Worship. The worship of the church gains little attention in the Johannine literature 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 neither in Samaria nor in Jerusalem. It will be worship in Spirit and truth. The Johannine church lived 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 hints of baptism and the Lord's Supper respectively. In each case, an allusion is made to the rite (rebirth in water/consuming Christ's flesh and blood) but then a critique is given in terms of the Holy Spirit. The description of Nicodemus's rebirth focuses exclusively on spirit, leaving water behind. Likewise 6:63 says that it is the Spirit that gives life and the flesh to be consumed is of no avail.
Together these themes suggest a Johannine interest in pneumatic worship driven not by a rigid sacramentalism, but a cautious critique of ritual. If the experience of worship no longer brings the immediacy of the Holy Spirit, such worship is no better than that at Samaria.
Conflict in the World. The worldview of the Johannine literature is consistently dualistic. Believers are reminded that they no longer belong to the world ( 15:19 ) because the world is openly hostile to Jesus and his followers. The experience of Jesus becomes the paradigm for discipleship: "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first" ( 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 ). The world brings theological falsehood through its religious corruption and false teachers ( 1 John 4:3-5 ; 2 John 1:7 ). It also brings 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 the Gospels refers to the events surrounding the second coming of Christ. However, serious debate surrounds Johannine eschatology because the futurist categories well-known in the Synoptics appear absent. Few verses describe the second coming as the final climactic end to history that inaugurates the judgment. Johannine eschatology is thus described as realized eschatology. Among severe critics of John, the Gospel has reinterpreted futurist categories 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 Jesus says the hour is coming and now is ( 4:23 ; 5:25 ; 16:32 ), he implies a sort of fulfillment absent elsewhere in the New Testament.
However, the Johannine literature still expresses a futurist orientation. Not only does Jesus predict a time of suffering and persecution ( 15:18-25 ) but 1John 2:18-19 predicts the coming of an antichrist. Further, John anticipates the resurrection on the last day ( John 6:39 John 6:44 John 6:54 ; 11:24 ) as well as the final judgment ( 5:25-29 ; 12:48 ). Jesus promises us that he is going before us to make a dwelling place with him ( 14:3 ). At the end of the Gospel, the resurrected Christ dismisses a query about the Beloved Disciple's remaining until the parousia ( 21:22 ).
While futurist eschatology can be demonstrated in John, still, Johannine theology has a decided emphasis on the present. John emphasizes the blessed presence of Jesus in Spirit and 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 as orphans; I will come to you" ( 14:18 ). The Holy Spirit that gives the church life today is Christ's Spirit, present until he returns.
Gary M. Burge
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Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'John, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".