“In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…
And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory.”
John 1:1, 14
John is probably the toughest gospel to read. Written in a symbolic and paradoxical style, it seems like a chain of misunderstandings between Jesus and nearly everyone else. Jesus tells Nicodemus to be “born from above,” (or some translations “born again”) (3:3), so Nicodemus protests that he’s too old (3:4). Jesus and the Samaritan woman argue over the meaning of a drink of water (4:7-15). Mary Magdalene finds Jesus risen from the dead but thinks he’s the gardener (20:11-18). Misunderstandings erupt so frequently it feels like a Monty Python movie. What we’re dealing with here is the author’s love of metaphor and double meanings. Jesus does not intend birth literally when he’s talking to Nicodemus, the Samaritan’s drink of water figuratively means baptism, and Jesus is the metaphorical gardener who makes all rise.
John’s gospel begins with Jesus as the divine Word (Greek Logos), the cosmic entity that is Source— God speaks this Word and everything comes to be. The rest of the gospel takes several major “signs,” miraculous symbolic events, and follows them with mystical explanations of deep spiritual truths. Signs include the water changed to wine at Cana (2:1-12), Jesus telling the Samaritan woman all she ever did (4:1-42), the feeding of five thousand (6:1-15), the healing of a blind man (9:1-41), and Lazarus being raised from the dead (11:1-44). John’s gospel also gives us such favorites as the woman caught in adultery (8:2-11) and the washing of the disciples’ feet (13:1-20). The Gospel stretches to an end with the Last Supper, the crucifixion, and a selection of odd stories about Jesus risen from the dead.
Two additional things are hard to understand in John— the various “I am” statements and the constant negative references to “the Jews.” Click on either phrase to see how scholars explain them.
This last gospel written is said to be authored by “the beloved disciple” who is never named (21:24). In history he is associated with John the brother of James, but some scholars think that he is like a “stand-in” representing all beloved followers of Jesus for all time. Whoever the writer was, he wrote the whole thing down “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have [eternal] life in his name” (20:31).