My Journey Through John’s Gospel- Day 1

Day 1: John 1:1-51 “My Flesh and Blood God”

The key to unlocking the meaning of John’s Gospel is the first 14 verses, often called the prologue. The prologue begins with those famous words “In the beginning…” This isn’t my beginning or even the world’s beginning. This is the beginning of anything other than God, even time itself. John says that at the beginning, there was the Word who was with God and indeed was God. Word to me means ultimate truth- the source of all that is true, all that is known, all wisdom, all ideas, all concepts. Indeed, in Genesis 1, God brought order to the chaos of nothingness by speaking. The universe was formed by God through Word.

This Word is light and life for all people and for me. This Word through whom all things were made, this word of ultimate light which gives life, came to the world in which I live. He came, John said, to a particular people, implying Israel, and the Word was not entirely received. And then I read what I believe to be some of the most scandalous words ever uttered: the Word became flesh and– as Eugene Peterson once translated it– “moved into the neighborhood.” Of course, this Word is Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, God’s anointed, the Messiah, Savior, and Lord.

A Paleontological Sketch of Jesus

I think I’ve lost touch with the reality of what John wrote here about Jesus. I think that for me, the Word became flesh and then I’ve turned around, and in my own heart and mind, made him “word” again. It’s a jarring, intriguing theological treatise. I love teaching it and preaching it and getting others excited about their Lord with this concept. But that’s the problem. Jesus as the Word of God made flesh makes the word “concept” mere chaff to be blown away. Some idea in abstraction doesn’t cut it. Tangible flesh and blood, boots on the ground, God in my home, church, and neighborhood– now that’s Word made flesh.

I think the part of John’s message I’m going to cling to is in verse 14, “We have seen his glory…” John and his fellow disciples saw, heard, and touched Jesus, finally understanding him for who he was and is- God made flesh. They touched his skin, shared meals with him, smelled his morning breath… They tell me nearly 2,000 years later about this flesh and blood reality of God. Skeptics will say what they may, but let me put all that aside and give these personal testimonies the benefit of the doubt. To see, hear, touch, and move around with God himself, the Word of God made flesh…

That’s just jaw dropping to think about.

But could I live with more confidence in God himself and with more confidence in God’s love and good purpose for me knowing that he is not an abstraction? Anyone who believed in Jesus was given the right to become a child of God. I’m not just living to uphold a religious doctrine. I’m not just maintaining an intellectual ascent to a creed. I’m not a propagator of words. I am a beloved child of God, a flesh and blood being who lives to love, serve, and live the ways of God shown to me in a very flesh and blood way by Jesus himself.

But in stating this conviction, have I gone back to being led along by an idea, by words? How do I avoid that?

The Scriptures are about as flesh and blood as it gets, really. This is living testimony of flesh and blood people. It tells the story of real flesh and blood people– John the Baptist, the Jewish leadership, Peter and Andrew, and Philip and Nathanael. They all were seeking after God like I am. They all struggled at various times to get it and to truly latch on to God. They struggled like I struggle. John the Baptist admitted that he didn’t know at first about the One he was preparing for… until he saw him. The Jewish leadership were struggling to sort out who John was and who Jesus was. Peter and Andrew and Philip and Nathanael had to be shown.

I see myself in someone like Nathanael. Here was a devout Jew who was seeking God and faithful to study and learn (as implied in the “under the fig tree” image). He was a seeker. And when he was told that Messiah had been found and that he was from Nazareth, he balked at even the idea of it. Good, Nathanael. Don’t take anything for granted. You’re a seeker, but you’re not naively gullible, either. Push the buttons and ask the questions.

The Word made flesh saw all of this in Nathanael and praised him for it. He looks at me with my questions and doubts and my struggles to find life and light. He sees how I smash the buttons and shove the envelopes all in my quest to really live and to really know. And these flesh and blood people from thousands of years ago tell us through their message that Jesus doesn’t shirk from revealing himself, calling, and embracing even the Nathanaels of the world.

I choose then to reincarnate their message now by trusting that Jesus’s words are for me, too: “Here you are, truly a child of God who shows your honesty in your struggles to know, learn, and live. I’ve seen you. And I’ll show you even glory than what you’ve seen so far.” Thank you, Jesus.

Oh God, especially in my darker, moments when I’m tired, frustrated, rejected, or alone, show me more than words. I want a flesh and blood reality of who you are- not just pleasant thoughts religious dogma. You became flesh and blood and “moved into the neighborhood” 2000 years ago. Jesus, move into my neighborhood, my home, and my life in a tangible way, too. Amen.


Filed under Bible, Spiritual Growth and Practice

19 Responses to My Journey Through John’s Gospel- Day 1

  1. For me, John is like the guy who seemed like the perfect boyfriend, only to let you down in the hardest way. I love the poetry of the text, there is beautiful imagery in there and I reread it more often than any of the other gospels. But unfortunately I eventually had to admit to myself that this required spending a lot of time trying not to see the antisemitism of the text. The perfect boyfriend turnrd out to have an Aryan Nation mambership card…
    And stil, still, I loved the writing. How I wish I could still enjoy it with the same eyes.

    • This is admittedly a very difficult, often misunderstood topic. I think the appearance of anti-Semitism in John elucidates two things: 2) the time period the Fourth Gospel was compiled; and 2) historical anti-Semitism read back onto the text and seen through our post-Holocaust eyes. Most likely, John was written after the formal split between the synagogue and the church. After the destruction of Jerusalem, both communities were having to redefine themselves in a post-Jerusalem, post-temple era. As you can imagine, that precipitated a drastic split between Jews who believed in Jesus as Messiah and the majority of Jews who did not. John has some words found nowhere else in the NT, one of them being the verb for “being put out of the synagogue”. A Christian Jew who professed Jesus at this time was almost guaranteed to be be put out of the synagogue community. In large part, John 9, where that verb is found, illustrates this.
      “The Jews” language for modern post-Holocaust readers is very jarring. It had been for me, too. Contextually speaking, however, most often when John references “the Jews”, he is talking about the Jewish religious leadership, not the Jewish people as a whole. You have to read carefully to see that. Also, not all references to “the Jews” are in a negative light. Again, it’s all in the context. Most important to remember, however, is that the authorship is thoroughly Jewish, not Gentile. (The only Gentile biblical author was Luke, and there’s no hint of anti-Jewish sentiment in his portrayal of things.) Interestingly, the writers who take non-Christian Jews to task the most vigorously are those whose writings are the most intensely Jewish in their use of the Hebrew Bible, specifically Matthew, Paul, and I’d say, John, too.
      If you look at some newer modern translations, you’ll see “the Jews” in John translated as “the Jewish leadership”, to make this point. That’s certainly a translation technique for us post-Holocaust readers! John’s community would have been really confused about the necessity and shocked to know why.

      • Chris, contortions to justify ugly things post-facto is exactly the kind of mental exercise I can’t abide anymore. Everything is backwards — we must read only good things in the book and therefore there must be an explanation, and if I squint just right, it doesn’t really look too bad. And if it does, then it must be “poorly understood.”
        When I was younger, Marvel Comics offered a “No-Prize” for readers who spotted a continuity error but also identified a rationalization for why it really wasn’t an error. Exegesis in general, and this in specific, sounds very much like collecting No-Prizes.
        My words are harsh because finding excuses for stuff I would like to like is a trap I particularly hate falling into — it’s so attractive, so easy, and so hard to dig myself out of.

        • Ed, let me say that I always appreciate your no-BS approach to things, especially to things that the faith community neglects, fudges, and hedges on. I embrace that from you because… well… it keeps me honest! At the end of the day we may still fundamentally disagree on what is true and what is reality, but at least we can do that with integrity.
          Having said that, Ed, I don’t like efforts to sanitize the Bible, and interestingly enough both theological/ideologically conservative and liberal people both do it to serve their purpose, often to make the Bible more palatable to their modern sensibilities or to justify their cause. In that way, I suppose they’re no different from people of any time and tradition.
          In this case, Ed, I still do hold that our post-Holocaust perspective along with a misunderstanding of John’s Gospel’s cultural/historical setting wrongly colors the negative way we read the Johannine use of “the Jews”. It certainly does look like Christian smoke and mirrors revisionism in an effort to protect the text, but I think a look at the historical/cultural facts along with an honest assessment of ourselves reveals that this isn’t a cover-up scheme.
          Now you are correct that passages from John, especially things like John 8:44 and also Matthew 27:25 have been used to propagate Antisemitism, but I think that is a case of people badly misusing Scripture. Intentionally or unintentionally, it doesn’t matter. These passages and the Johannine texts were not anti-Semitic polemics. If they were, Ed, you would hear me saying that! My job is not to defend the Bible but to teach and interpret it. The Bible can stand on its own to be picked apart and scrutinized, and it it should. In many cases such scrutiny has not destroyed the Biblical witness but has rather helped us to understand the Bible more authentically and then to discover more faithful interpretations.

      • thecrediblehulk

        The works of John, more than any other author in the Bible, are responsible for anti-Semitism within the Christian community stretching from the early church all the way down to modern times.
        The word John uses is “ioudaioß” – “Jews” in the sense of “Jewish in respect to origin, birth, nation”. John uses the term 72 times in the course of his gospel – nearly five times more often than Luke (15 usages). With such a big discrepancy, it seems pretty clear to me that John wanted to emphasize something regarding Jesus’ relationship to the Jews.
        The most generous explanation I have been able to find on the subject is that at the time of John’s writing the temple had been destroyed, and the classes of Jewish authorities that existed in Jesus’ time no longer existed. If one assumes that John’s author was writing for a primarily Gentile audience, he might have made the decision to write about “the Jews” simply because terms like “Pharisees” would be unfamiliar to his intended audience.

      • thecrediblehulk

        I’m going to have to disagree with you Chris. I don’t see how you can justify the antisemitic interpretation of John as a post-Holocaust reconstruction, given that John was used as the justification for discrimination against Jews from the time of the early church. Augustine, John Chrysostom, and Ephraim the Syrian all took anti-Jewish stances in the early church. Later in John, we will see the Jews portrayed as being of the devil, a theme that carried over through the early church, into the middle ages, and on into modern times. Martin Luther hated Jews and recommended their extermination, supporting his beliefs with the idea put forth in John that Jews were of the devil.
        But post-facto analysis may not be, and probably shouldn’t be, the last word on the book of John. Much evil has been done based on scripture, but we also need to ask whether that evil was the intent of the original author, or a later addition.
        There is no doubt in my mind that the author of John had an anti-semitic bias, but the question remains – why?
        At the time of John’s writing the question of whether Christianity was at its root a sect of Judaism, or whether it was a new thing available to gentiles without the necessity of conversion to Judaism, was hotly contested. Some groups thought conversion and adherence to Jewish law was required of Christians, and some groups did not. The author of the Gospel of John (and John’s epistles) was quite clearly of the opinion that conversion was not required, and that sentiment colors the documents that they produced. Part of their justification for this belief was that the Jewish people had rejected the Messiah, and had therefor broken their covenant with God, who then made a new covenant with all mankind through the death and Resurrection of Christ.
        With this in mind, it is easy to see why the author of John would portray the Jews in an unsympathetic light – they were covenant breakers, people who rejected the awaited Messiah, were hostile towards him, would not listen to him, tried to kill him as a false prophet. And for this reason the covenant that God had made with them was broken, not by God’s doing but by their own brazen rejection of His messiah..
        What John is trying to communicate here is a) that the Jews, of their own free will, broke the covenant they had established with God, and b) that because of that, God had made a new covenant that everyone – Jews and gentiles – could be a part of if they simply accepted Jesus Christ as savior.
        I don’t think that the author of John was trying to encourage people to round up Jews and exterminate them – I don’t think he was planning for the holocaust, or 2000 years of Jewish persecution. I don’t think that the author thought the return of the Messiah would take nearly that long.. But the idea of the Jews being God’s chosen people was one that needed to be revised if the word of Christ’s salvation was to become popular among the gentiles. It was also required that such a covenant not be broken by God, since that would make God look fickle and faithless. So if it was a theological necessity that the covenant be broken, and a further necessity that the covenant not be broken by God, who was left to be the oath-breakers but the Jews?
        This in no way should be taken as justifying 2000 years of Jewish persecution. In fact, to me it shows up one of the big fallacies of the manner in which the religious institutions of Christianity have interacted with their scriptures – the idea that the scripture can stand on its own. In some ways I feel that’s true – but looking at it through 2000 years of accumulated history, shifting languages, and changes in society, it is now necessary that we make an effort to understand the intent of the original authors. John was anti-Semitic, oh yes he was, but anti-Semitism was not his goal. That goal was to demonstrate that the old covenant had been broken (and remember, it couldn’t be broken by God – it had to be broken by the Jews themselves) and that a new covenant had been established.
        As for the idea of re-translating “Jews” to be “Jewish leadership” I suppose whether or not one considers that acceptable depends on whether one wants to remain true to the intent of the original authors, or remain true to the current state of the church. I think that the original documents are pretty clear. The Greek term used is an adjective, used to describe people of Jewish origin, and there is no noun denoting “leaders” or anything like it in the text. My own personal preference would be for church leaders to step up, embrace the issue, and actually put John in its proper historical context, explaining why John had an anti-Semitic tone and teaching the faithful why that anti-Semitic tone was a product of the time and place where the book was written, just like Paul’s statements about women in the church do not mean that women cannot take leadership positions in the church today. By ignoring the complexities of context and viewpoint in the works of the Bible I feel that church leadership is only making the complex issues surrounding the creation and interpretation of scripture more difficult for the laity to understand, and all Protestants know that is a bad thing.

  2. Carol

    There are three things that are driving people away from the Church today:
    1. Dogmatic absolutism
    2. Self-rightous moralism
    3. Sectarian triumphalism
    Over the last 20 years, God has taken me deeper and deeper into His own heart. He has transformed me (and has promised to continue that!) with revelation, by lavishing His Love, and sometimes by saying, “this one will now suffer for a season”. I know Him, trust Him, and love Him. So excuse me when I find it funny when some Facebook person questions my “salvation” because I don’t line up with their exact doctrine. ~ David Wilson
    Orthodoxy, or right opinion, is, at best, a very slender part of religion. Though right tempers cannot subsist without right opinions, yet right opinions may subsist without right tempers. There may be a right opinion of God without either love or one right temper toward Him. Satan is a proof of this. –John Wesley
    …for Paul faith is always faith in a person. Faith is not the intellectual acceptance of a body of doctrine; faith is faith in a person. –William Barclay
    The whole world seems to crave what Jesus has to give, and when Jesus is presented to them people can’t get enough. They don’t want to learn about the teachings of a church or an institution. They want to meet the real Jesus [Girzone speaks from experience] and learn what He is really like…. If we try to substitute the doctrines of an institution we are then teaching them the medium of the message and not the message. –Rev. Joseph E. Girzone
    Many have gone back because they are afraid of looking at things from God’s standpoint. The great crisis comes spiritually when a man has to emerge a bit farther on than the creed he has accepted.
    –Oswald Chambers

  3. thecrediblehulk

    Hi – Mr. Exegesis here:
    “I think the part of John’s message I’m going to cling to is in verse 14, “We have seen his glory…” John and his fellow disciples saw, heard, and touched Jesus, finally understanding him for who he was and is- God made flesh. They touched his skin, shared meals with him, smelled his morning breath… They tell me nearly 2,000 years later about this flesh and blood reality of God. Skeptics will say what they may, but let me put all that aside and give these personal testimonies the benefit of the doubt”
    I know this isn’t a question to the heart of your post, but what is your opinion on the authorship of John? It sounds like you believe that it was either a) the Apostle John himself, or B) The Apostle John through a scribe or C) the Apostle John indirectly through a community collecting and integrating his teachings?

    • Hello Mr. Exegesis :-)- Questions of authorship are always so tricky and trendy, too, especially concerning the gospels. On the one hand, you can rely on early traditional voices like Eusebius and Tertullian who site the Apostle John as the author, John the “beloved disciple.” But often, more modern biblical criticism challenges this view, and often with good reason. What’s important for me, however, is that questions of authorship add or detract nothing from the authenticity or authority of the text. The canonical gospels are the earliest, closest documents we have to Jesus and his disciples and in that sense are truly apostolic, whereas the later non-canonical gospels, while historically important and theologically curious, are not.
      So, after combing through quite a bit of scholarship on this issue, I tend to settle on your option C, which is also the general scholarly consensus, too. Keep in mind, there will always be fringe “cutting edge” scholars and scholarly groups who create splashy headlines and publish popular books, i.e. the Jesus Seminar. But a serious look at their work reveals some shady practices and theories which just create circular reasoning.
      But for the purposes of my devotion here, I’m going on the assumption that the Fourth Gospel is the Johannine community’s compilation of John’s experience and teachings of Jesus.

  4. I have a question about your interpretation of Nathanael.
    You seem to be saying that Nathanael is naturally skeptical of Jesus divinity. And yet, he seems convinced after Jesus mentions seeing him under a fig tree. Jesus’ response: “Do you believe because I told you I saw you under a fig tree? You will see greater things than that!” seems to say to me that even Jesus is a bit surprised that this was all it took to get Nathanael to believe – seeing someone under a fig tree does not require any divine intervention.
    Nathanael is skeptical about Nazareth being the origin of the Messiah, but it seems from the other gospels that Nazareth was a sucky place – sort of like “What do you mean the Messiah was born on the Mustang Ranch?”

    • Awesome origin story there.

    • I take it that Nathanael was skeptical of Jesus because of where he was from, Nazareth. A looming question all throughout John is origin. People often ask Jesus where he’s from and where he’s going. That’s key to his identity. The right answer: Jesus is from the Father and is returning to the Father. So you’re right that Nathanael wasn’t necessarily questioning Jesus’ divinity. That wasn’t the question.
      Jesus’ response to Nathanael wasn’t so much a surprise at his “quick conversion.” At that point, Jesus was beginning to point Nathanael to even greater things, i.e. “his glory”, which in John’s gospel is the cross. Whenever John references the “Son of Man”, “being glorified”, “glorification”, it’s always a pointer to the cross.
      I think Nathanael’s starting point, however, was an authentic, bold one. He was a seeker and a student and wasn’t about to get snookered into foolishness, hence his question. And of course, what he’s told about Jesus isn’t entirely correct, either. Jesus isn’t merely from Nazareth, according to John.

  5. Carol

    Considering that Jesus is Jewish (on his Mother’s side) and all of the Apostles (except Luke) including John are Jewish, I don’t see how it is possible to suspect the author of John of anti-Semitism.
    That the references to verses in the Johannine Gospel, like many other biblical passages, have been used to justify individual and collective racial and ethnic hatreds and persecution is undeniable.
    If God created man in his image, we have more than reciprocated.–Voltaire
    You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image
    when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.
    ~Anne Lamott

    • thecrediblehulk

      “Jesus said (to the Jews):’You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies’.”
      John 8, 43-44

      • Carol

        I interpret “the Jews” as a reference to those who were “cultural Jews” who understood their “Jewishness” to be a entitlement to Divine favor in the same manner as many cultural Christians consider Church membership and/or intellectual assent to Christian dogma to be a guarantee of Divine favor. This exclusivist cultural belief was perhaps the primary cause of the schism between mainline Judaism and the Christian sect that evolved out of the Jesus movement. It was certainly a front-burner item for Saul/Paul the Apostle to the gentiles.
        Group egoism/collective narcissism has been responsible for many dark moments in the history of the Christian Church and other religious Traditions.
        There are certainly many Christians who believe in Jesus as the Savior of the Church; but not the world in spite of the witness to the Cosmic Christ implicit if not explicit in Colossians and NT passages.

        • thecrediblehulk

          “I interpret “the Jews” as a reference to those who were “cultural Jews” ”
          What does the text say?
          Your interpretation of the text is certainly interesting, but what does the text say?
          You don’t give any basis for your interpreting the text in that particular manner. Is there something in the original Greek that indicates “cultural Jews”? What does the text say?
          I’ll tell you what the text says. It says “Jews”. Not “cultural Jews” or “Jewish leadership” or “Jewish authorities”, all of which concepts ancient Greek is perfectly capable of expressing. It says “Jews”. Just “Jews” – as in “people who are Jewish.” As in “People who are Jewish have the devil for a father and seek to carry out the devil’s desires.”
          It is, without doubt, the single most antisemitic statement in the whole of the New Testament.
          As I mentioned in my earlier post, the author of John had good reasons for casting Jews in a poor light. It fit with the emerging doctrine that the old covenant between God and the Jews was broken, and it cast the Romans in a better light by making the Jewish people responsible for the crucifixion, both of which made the emerging Christianity more palatable to gentiles.

          • Carol

            St. Paul plainly states that the covenant with the Jews was NOT broken on God’s part. The entire message of the OT is that, although the people of God repeatedly proved faithless, God is faithful:
            In Judaism it was possible simultaneously to ascribe change of purpose to God and to declare that God did not change, without resolving the paradox; for the immutability of God was seen as the trustworthiness of covenanted relation to his people in the concrete history of his judgment and mercy, rather than as a primarily ontological category. –Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition—Vol. 1.
            Scripture has been used to justify slavery, the oppression of women and, some of us feel, the persecution of homosexuals.
            Of course, if you are invincibly convinced or have an emotional investment in believing that John is an anti-Semitic Gospel rather than that it has been used (or misused) to justify anti-semitism, then I doubt any arguement will convince you otherwise.
            I cannot be convinced that the Holy Spirit would have permitted the inclusion of an early Church source document that is patently anti-Semitic to achieve canonical authority.
            It is not only the Sacred Writings of the Great Religious Traditions that have been used to justify the predatory pursuit of selfish individual or group interests. Darwin’s theory of Evolution has been used/misused to justify the domination and/or extermination of the “weak” by the “strong” in secularized societies.
            Human nature is human nature and egoism makes it impossible, apart from Grace, to tolerate the otherness of others.
            We’ve both had our say and will simply have to “agree to disagree” on this one.

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