The gospel According to John is a fascinating document. There is little doubt that of the four gospels, it is the one that since antiquity has inspired Christians the most. According to Mark shines for its sharp focus on the one who came to give his life a ransom for many and will appear triumphant at the imminent Parousía. According to Matthew, with the Sermon on the Mount and the promise that Jesus is always present among his disciples, has informed Christian norms of conduct through the centuries. According to Luke and Acts of the Apostles trace the advance of the kingdom of God from Galilee to Jerusalem and from Jerusalem to Rome, demonstrating that God has a plan that is being accomplished in history. According to John is the gospel that has inspired Christians to see Jesus as the One Sent by the Father who has opened access to eternal life for all human beings. According to John allows us to contemplate the world of the Spirit that gives life.
What makes According to John fascinating, moreover, is its simple language. This aspect, however, is deceiving. The reader who does not take note of the different levels in which words have meaning does not get the full rhetorical impact of its message. I have already in previous columns directed attention to the use of words like “signs”, “world”, “Jews”, etc. The semantic richness of its vocabulary, however, is evident especially in the verbs. In previous columns I also noticed, for example, how “to lift up”, “to glorify” and “to crucify” are used indiscriminately to refer to the Son’s return journey to the Father.
To elaborate somewhat further on this aspect of the gospel I will point out the way in which some verbs are used to shape a well conceived theological framework. To begin with, let us note references to the verb “to hear”. In previous columns I have emphasized that this gospel, more than any other, presupposes good knowledge of the Old Testament. In Hebrew “to hear” is shamea. This word means both “to hear” and “to obey”. That is, he who hears, obeys. He who does not obey has wax in his ears and does not hear. He who does not obey has “a stiff neck”. He cannot turn his head from one side to the other to take directions. In Hebrew it is understood that those who hear act on the basis of what they heard. He who hears and does not obey, has not heard. As is commonly said, it went “in one ear and out the other”. The message made no impact on the person.
The characteristic of the Hebrew language is evident in the use of the verb “to hear” in According to John. For example, “Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word” (8: 43). “Every one who is of the truth hears my voice” (18: 37). “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (10: 27). Finally, “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me” (6: 45). He who hears, comes. He who does not come has not heard. Or, as Jesus explains, “the Jews” do not come to him because they think that what Jesus is offering them is to be found in a different source.
In one of the most severe indictments Jesus says that the problem of “the Jews” is that they search for eternal life in the Scriptures. But to attain to eternal life they have “to come” to him instead (5: 39). On another occasion Jesus says: “He who comes to me shall not hunger,” and the parallel sentence explains: “he who believes in me shall never thirst” (6: 35). “To come” is “to believe”. Referring to certain Jews who had witnessed the resurrection of Lazarus, the narrator uses the following verbal sequence: “Many of the Jews therefore, who had ‘come’ with Mary and had ‘seen’ what he did, ‘believed’ in him” (11: 45).
To hear and to come result in seeing, and those who see become witnesses. In the Prologue the Johannine community confesses: “we have beheld his glory” (1: 14). John the Baptist proclaims: “I have seen and have born witness” (1: 34). On the other hand, “the Jews” ask: “What sign do you do, that we may see, and believe you?” (6: 30). Their apparent interest in Jesus’ claims, however, is not considered sincere by Jesus. Their use of the Scriptures to declare Jesus a sinner reveals that they are blind, in spite of the certainty with which they claim to have good sight. They are not different from those with wax in their ears. On this account, Jesus declares: “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind” (9: 39). In other words, he came to transform the senses and equip them to recognize the work of God, that is, equip them to believe.
The request of the Greeks who plead with Philip, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (12: 21), is sincere. It is this request of the Greeks, who disappear as soon as they have delivered they scripted lines, that causes Jesus to confront his destiny. His hour has come (12: 23, 27).
Those who wish to see must have a definite object on which to focus their sight. The sign that “the Jews” asked for with dubious intentions and the Greeks asked for with much interest was to be made available. Jesus had to be “lifted up”. On the cross faith finds the object that justifies it. As Jesus says: “He who sees me sees him who sent me” (12: 45). Surely it is not merely a matter of seeing a material object.
We have already noticed that “to come” and “to believe” are used synonymously. It is obvious in the parallelism between “to eat” and “to drink” (6: 35, but food and drink in this gospel are not what one normally imagines. They serve to emphasize the dualism that characterizes the gospel. In this case, however, it is not a vertical dualism, but a horizontal one. Instead of contrasting the “above” to the “below” it contrasts “that which perishes” to “that which endures”. To think that one lives to work for the food that perishes is to live deceived on the basis of false premises. To the contrary, in life one should work for the food “which endures to eternal life” (6: 27). When the disciples who have left Jesus seated on the rim of Jacob’s well return from the nearby town with food for Jesus’ lunch, he explains to them that his food is not material. To eat is not to nourish the body; it is to hear, to obey. Jesus says to them: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work” (4: 34). This declaration is the premise of the words of Jesus in his priestly prayer (17: 4) and on the cross: “It is accomplished” [it is finished] (19: 30). For humans to eat the food that endures to eternal life is to accomplish “their work”, and the work that they must accomplish is to believe in the One Sent by the Father (6: 29). This work is “to eat” and “ to drink”. “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (6: 56). In other words, to eat and to drink, “to believe”, is to have the word of Jesus abiding inside (5: 38).
We have arrived to the central verb in the gospel According to John. The Greek verb is menein. Unfortunately most modern readers fail to realize its frequent use. In English (RSV) it is translated with seven different verbs which cover the semantic field of the Greek verb. Menein is translated “to be”, as in “to be with you forever” (14: 16); “to stay” as in “saw where he was staying” (1: 39); “to remain” as in “it remained on him” ( 1: 32); “to rest” as in, “rests upon him” (3: 36); “to continue” as in “the slave does not continue in the house forever” (8: 35); “to endure” as in “endures to eternal life” (6: 27), and “to abide” as in “unless it abides in the vine” (15: 4). The core idea is “to dwell”, “to be comfortable at home”, “to have roots in time and space”, “to abide”. It is not by chance that the story begins with two disciples of John the Baptist who, having heard the testimony of John, decide to follow Jesus. Noticing that he is being followed, Jesus turns and asks them: “What do you seek?” They respond with another question: “Rabbi, where are you staying [abiding]?” (1: 38). In effect, this is the question that the gospel asks to all its readers.
The answer to this question is decisive. The true disciple is the one who abides in the word of Jesus (8: 31). Those who abide in Jesus and the word of Jesus abides in them have direct access to God’s will (15: 7). Christians must be organically united, comfortable at home, rooted in space and time with Jesus, just as the branch is in the vine (15: 4 – 6). To those who believe in him and in God, Jesus invites to the “abodes” [mansions] in the house of his Father (14: 1 – 2). The gospel’s promise is that the Father has many abodes for those who believe, those who abide in Jesus, in whom his word abides. This promise may be fulfilled immediately. Jesus says, “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home [abode] with him” (14: 23). To the question, “Where do you abide?” Jesus’ answer is “Come and see”. The narrator then relates that they “came and saw where he was staying [abiding] and they stayed [abode] with him” (1: 39).
To read According to John is an act of contemplation. It is an invitation to abide in the word of Jesus. Those who hear it, come to him; those who are comfortable at home with Jesus and the Father have eternal life.
With this column I conclude my series on According to John as well as my very satisfying stint as a regular columnist at spectrummagazine.org.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4942