The Gospel of St. John: Theology through Circumlocution

by Joyce Stolberg

Written much later than the three synoptic Gospels (likely between that year 90 AD and the turn of the first century), the Gospel of St. John presents a different approach to the life of Jesus from that given in the three synoptic Gospels. St. John, according to tradition, was believed to have been the youngest apostle, possibly still an adolescent during the public life of Jesus. He had cared for the blessed Virgin Mary, been miraculously preserved from martyrdom, and then lived to old age in Ephesus. Rather than narrate the life of Jesus in linear fashion as the other evangelists had done, St. John offers us a deep theological reflection on the person of Jesus as both God and man, and on his message of salvation and his teachings. Using literary devices such as circumlocution — part of the story is told, then there is a misunderstanding by someone, followed by a fuller explanation incorporating more material, etc. until the full theological point is manifest. St. John develops the theology of grace using the gifts of water, light, and life.

St. John introduces his Gospel by luminously affirming the preexistence of Jesus, and affirming that he is both God and man:

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God. (John 1:1)

And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only son,
full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

Rather than retell the narrative of Jesus’ baptism, St. John simply affirms through John the Baptist that Jesus is the “Lamb of God.” He comes to take away the sins of the world. While the Infancy narratives in the Gospel of St. Matthew in Saint Luke create for us the warmth of the Christmas season, this theology of St. John goes to the heart of what the Incarnation is all about. John the Baptist affirms about Jesus: “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.’ He is the one of whom I said, ‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.’” (John 1:29, 30. Now, John was born six months before Jesus: he means here that Jesus preexisted earthly life. Andrew recognizes Jesus as “Messiah” when he is called to be an apostle. (John 1:41) St. John then goes to the scene of the wedding feast at Cana, where Jesus changes the water used in Jewish cleansing rituals into the wine of the joy of Jesus’ message of salvation and new life. Yes, Jesus performed that first miracle at the request of Mary in order to save the young couple from embarrassment, but St. John shapes it into an introduction to the new covenant.

The miracles of Jesus are interpreted in St. John’s gospel as “signs” that Jesus has come as the light of the world to triumph over darkness and death. In our Liturgical Year A, on the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent we listen to the description of some of these signs. On the Third Sunday of Lent this year Jesus asks the Samaritan woman at the well for a drink: during the course of the interaction, Jesus teaches about the living water welling up to eternal life and true worship of the Father in spirit and truth. On the following Sunday, we witness Jesus curing a blind man and teaching us that he is the light of the world. We can see in this narrative a hint of the struggle and rejection of the early Christians by the Jewish establishment. The third narrative of St. John in Liturgical Year A gives us the sign of the resurrection of Lazarus. Here again, we see parts of the story told, then filled in with other parts to develop the teaching of Jesus. Jesus is the resurrection and the life: just as he raised Lazarus from the dead, so also Jesus will soon die and rise again. However, while Lazarus’ resurrection was incomplete — that is — he is raised to an earthly life and will die again, the resurrection of Jesus is complete, definitive, supernatural, and will perdure forever. We too will rise with Jesus on the last day. The resurrection of Lazarus served to strengthen the apostles’ faith as they witnessed Jesus being condemned to death and die on the cross.

St. John’s narration of the washing of the feet — again, this is full of symbolism — is read on Holy Thursday evening. Rather than describe the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, St. John gives a lengthy discourse containing Jesus’ teachings on love. Jesus compares his relationship with the apostles to the vine and the branches; he promises to send the Holy Spirit and he prays to the Father for the well-being of his apostles. The Passion narrative according to St. John is read on Good Friday: this narrative differs from the narratives in the three synoptic Gospels. In this narrative we see Jesus fully in charge of events: when Jesus is arrested, he uses the name “I AM,” the name God claimed in answer to Moses’ query. “When he said to them, ‘I AM,’ they turned away and fell to the ground.” (John 18:5) Jesus conducts a dialogue with Pilate and Pilate tries to save Jesus from execution. Jesus says, “It is finished” (John 19:30) and bows his head, handing over the spirit. John demonstrates how the Scriptures are fulfilled in Jesus’ passion, as he compares Jesus to the sacrificial lamb: “Not a bone of it will be broken.” (John 19:36) John interprets the events to develop the theology of Jesus as the Redeemer prophesied throughout the Old Testament.

St. John’s narrative of the resurrection is read on Easter Sunday and the following Sunday. St. John deals with the institution of the Eucharist, not in the context of Holy Week, but rather in the form of a prophecy. We find this part of St. John’s Gospel being read during the late summer of Year B. Truly, in St. John’s Gospel, rather than an event by event account of Jesus life, we receive an intense, deeply theological interpretation of his life and mission, which spirals upward, giving us a glimpse of heaven.