John’s Gospel is Hard
We look at how John's gospel was the most spiritually profound and insightful of all the four.
On hearing [Jesus], many of his disciples said, ”This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’”(John 6:60).1
The Gospel of John is the most “spiritual” of the gospels. The first three gospels tell us what Jesus did and what he said, but the last gospel is different. It moves beyond the obvious facts of Jesus’s life and ventures into deeper, more profound meanings. In contrast to the others, John offers a unique portrait of Christ cherished by believers through the ages. It is this spiritual character of John’s gospel that is the foundation of its authority and distinguishes it from the others in style and in content.
John concentrates on Jesus and what he taught in private—most likely explaining matters to John himself, who may have been Jesus’s cousin and the youngest of the Twelve. There are several reasons for this:
- In his gospel account, John says that he ran faster than Peter when they both hurried to the tomb of Jesus (John 20:4), implying that John was the younger of the two.
- John was the brother of James, the son of Zebedee (Matt 4:21), and the two are always mentioned in the same order, first James and then John, as though James were the older of the two.
- Like a younger brother, John seems to have had a special relationship with Jesus. This may be because Salome, the wife of Zebedee and mother of James and John, was a sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus (Matt 27:56, Mark 15:40, John 19:25).
- This may account for a special closeness between the two and a good reason why Jesus took his younger cousin under his wing.
- This explains why the other disciples never seemed jealous of this friendship. Indeed, most, if not all, might have looked upon John as their younger brother, too—so how could they hold it against their Master if he did the same?
All this may explain how John’s gospel was the most spiritually profound and insightful of all the four. The other three gospels are straightforward—giving just the facts, we might say—but John’s gospel shows Jesus as a real human being, not an icon.
John writes with a simple vocabulary, but his words are charged with symbolism. Words like believe, love, truth, world, light, darkness, name, witness, sin, judgment, life, glory, bread, and water… are the keywords of this gospel. They are simple words, but our task is to discern the extraordinary in the simplicity.
John’s gospel contains a clear statement of purpose:
As John sees it, and writes it, the sole purpose of life is to know the Father and to experience life eternal through faith in the Son. John sees the Son sent from his Father above, with the mission to glorify the Father (John 17:1) through his suffering on the cross (John 12:23; 13:1).
In the first chapter, John introduces Jesus by seven key titles, a perfect echo to the Book of Revelation: Jesus is “the Word,” “the Lamb of God,” “Rabbi,” “the Messiah,”, “the king of Israel,” “the Son of God,” and “the Son of Man,” Every title is another golden thread to lead the reader through the whole of the Gospel.
The gospels have been arranged in their current order—for a purpose:
- Matthew comes first, with numerous references to the Old Testament. In Matthew, we find the characteristic phrase: “that it might be fulfilled as was spoken in the prophets.” Matthew is the “bridge” between the Old and the New Testaments. It was specially written for the Jews, who were well versed in the Old Testament, as if to say: “Here’s the next logical step… Jesus Christ!”
- Mark is the briefest of the four Gospels, probably written first (according to many scholars, anyway). In Mark, Jesus is a simple man of action, a servant who is always doing something to help others—performing miracles, healing the lame, blessing children, and cleansing lepers while standing up to the leaders of Israel. Mark’s gospel has very little emphasis on what Jesus said—and much more on what he did!
- Luke was a Gentile (some think he was a Samaritan), and he wrote a gospel that is especially attuned to the needs of Gentiles. Many of Christ’s encounters with Gentiles are reported by Luke. Luke was a companion of the Apostle Paul and spent much time with him, preaching the gospel to Gentiles. Certain commentators have suggested that the Gospel of Luke might have been intended as a legal brief prepared by Luke to present to the Roman authorities on behalf of Paul and the Christian cause. This could explain, from one point of view, the abundance of references to Gentiles, as if Luke (and Paul) wanted everyone to know that this “new religion” was not exclusively for Jews but for Gentiles also.
And then comes John, most likely written later and evidently written to supplement the other gospels by filling in some gaps here and there. John reports many actions and sayings of Jesus and many discourses of Jesus reported by John, which are not mentioned in the other three gospels.
The Jews who heard Jesus speak said, “This is a hard teaching.” They were right. Today, we may hear this same “complaint” from some who read John’s gospel. Let me suggest this: John’s Gospel is not supposed to be easy. Instead, it is intended to be read as a challenging, uplifting, awe-inspiring “heaven’s eye view” of the good news after mastering the other three gospels.
John helps us to soar into the heavenly places.
For example, Matthew and Luke tell us about the birth of Jesus in an ordinary, straightforward (although miracle-filled) factual story. An angel appears to a young, engaged woman, and she conceives a child by the power of the Holy Spirit. As a result, Jesus is born (the Son of God Himself, and the son of Mary)—a small wisp of life in the womb, then a fully formed baby, a child, and finally a young man.
An extraordinary human being with the stamp of divinity upon him, a prophet and more than a prophet, the Messiah, the anointed one of God. But still, for all this, a human being born and living among other human beings—tempted in all points like his fellows.
And then comes John, who summarizes the other accounts in a very few words:
Extravagant, heavenly language. The language of eternity, but also true. Matthew, Mark, and Luke give us the facts. Then John helps us to soar into the heavenly places. All in all, it’s a good combination.
Austin Leander Ecclesia, TX
- All Scriptural citations are taken from the New International Version.