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The Death of Jesus: Four Gospel Accounts

Profile: The Gospel of John

This Gospel reached its final form toward the end of the first century. It is quite different from the other three Gospels, copies of which were probably not available to its writer(s). Although Jewish, this writer is steeped in Greek culture and likes to thinks in terms of polar opposites. Such dualities as light/darkness, truth/falsehood, spirit/flesh, and life/death permeate the text. The author’s idea of the universe is also dualistic. He conceives of existence as divided into two realms: the world above and the world below. The world below is the world of earth and humanity, of darkness, fleshiness, and sin. The world above is the world of God and heaven, of light, spirit, and holiness.

For this Evangelist, Jesus comes from the world above, has traversed the chasm which separates the world above from the world below, has testified to the truth from above, has been “lifted up” [3:14; 8:28; 12:32] in order to return to his home above, offers the chance for those who believe this to become animated by the life of the world above, and, ultimately, to abide in the world above with Jesus. This Gospel’s icon thus depicts the Son bringing the light of the world above into the darkness of the world below. This theme of the Son descending from heaven and ascending back there is encountered throughout the Gospel. Jesus tells Nicodemus that “no one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” [3:14]  He tells Pharisees that “you are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world.” [8:23]  At the Last Supper, he declares, “I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father.” [16:28]

As the One from Above, Jesus discloses to the ignorant world below the things of the world above. In particular, he reveals the Father so thoroughly that those who have seen Jesus have seen the Father [14:7]. Through a series of rich metaphors, the writer exalts Jesus as the revealer who makes the Father accessible and is “the way, the truth, and the life.” [14:6]  Thus, Jesus is the “bread of life . . . that came down from heaven” [6:35,41]; the “gate” [10:7, 9]; the “good shepherd” [10:11, 14]; the “light of the world” [8:12; 9:5]; “the true vine” [15:1, 5]; and “the resurrection and the life” [11:25].

Those who believe that Jesus has been sent by the Father are those who are “born from above” [3:3 - a wordplay on being “born again”]. They are born of the water [a baptismal reference] “and the Spirit . . . which blows where it chooses” [3:5, 8].  “Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water,” by which Jesus refers to the Spirit [7:38-39].  This Spirit is unleashed at Jesus' death, as symbolically shown by the blood and water gushing from Jesus' side, a detail unique to John's Gospel [19:34]. He is the “Lamb of God” [1:29, 35] who dies as the lambs are being sacrificed for Passover.

Believers perceive that Jesus and the Father are “in” each other [14:11]. Consequently, the love which the Father has for Jesus comes into believers [17:26]. The Father and the Son [14:23] and the Spirit [14:17] come to dwell in believers. Thus, believers live according to Jesus’ only commandment in this Gospel, “Love one another” [13:34; 15:12, 17]. This is what John means by eternal life.  It is a sharing in the love-relationship between the Father and the Son in the Spirit. It is a love/life which transcends human death.  It is a relationship with the Father made possible because the Son came down from above and has returned to his home above “to prepare a place” and take believers there [14:3].

The Johannine church was apparently traumatized at some point by the ouster of its Jewish members from the local synagogue community [9:22; 12:42; 16:2]. Angered by this expulsion, the author persistently uses the term “the Jews” in the Gospel, despite that fact that almost every character, including Jesus, is Jewish. This routine sarcastically conveys the alienation experienced by Johannine Jewish-Christians who feel deprived of their Jewish heritage by so-called Jews. The factor which precipitated the expulsion was probably what Johannine Jewish-Christians were saying about Jesus. The exalted picture of Jesus as the One from Above was understood in the synagogue as asserting the existence of two Gods: the Father and the Son [10:33]. Such a perceived breach of Jewish monotheism was intolerable to the synagogue and difficult for the Evangelist to defend against in pre-Trinitarian times.

The main christological point in John, then, is that Jesus comes from above and brings the eternal life of the world above; namely, the love between the Father and the Son in the Spirit, to those who believe. Authentic discipleship, therefore, is defined by the bond of love which unites believers [13:35].