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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

The article is written (Sept 2009) as a section of our Introduction to the Gospel of John, which contains general information,  a brief survey, key verses, historical background, author and date info, purposes, themes, outlines and more on John's Gospel.  In this article, we'll explore some general and special interpretation methods.

Basic Interpretation Info

All Scripture within John’s Gospel should be interpreted within its main purpose, so that its readers may believe in Jesus as the Christ (or Messiah), and that by believing, have life (salvation and eternal life) in his name (20:31).  A major question is whether John is writing with an evangelistic emphasis for an audience made up primarily of unbelievers, or an audience of believers in order to strengthen them in their faith.  In reviewing the context of the book, the latter appears most evident at first glance.  All miracles were performed in the presence of His disciples, and John makes special mention of the effects of the first sign (Jn 2:11).  John also assumes his readers are familiar with the background to his narratives (possibly even the accounts of the Synoptic Gospels), so he omits many details of the characters and events which are present in the other Gospels.  Finally, most of the material in chapters 13-17 (His final instructions to His disciples, the last supper, and His high priestly prayer) would have little meaning to unbelievers.  That said, we must also note that John’s purpose statement (20:31) clearly has strong evangelistic overtones.  We also observe a continued emphasis on witnessing throughout the book (John the Baptist, the Samaritan woman at the well, the disciples including the author, and the testimony of Jesus Himself).  In view of this evidence, we can say that John probably wrote with the dual purpose of witnessing to unbelievers and strengthening the faith and understanding of believers.  In either case, John provides ample evidence for the deity of Jesus, both in the signs (miracles) and in Jesus’ own claims.

The Gospel of John should primarily be interpreted according to the rules of genre governing gospels and narratives.  It is not a biography as we would tend to think of in the modern form, since if all the things Jesus said and did were recorded and interpreted, the world itself could not contain the books that would be written (21:25).  Instead John purposely selects certain material to illustrate his purpose and themes.  His splendid discourses are much longer and detailed than the other Gospels, that cover more varied material but with less details.  John also mixes these discourses, comments and explanations with the narratives of Jesus.  In some passages, it is somewhat difficult to determine whether it is a direct quote from Jesus or part of a discourse by John.

As with the other Gospels, this book should be interpreted in the context of the remainder of the New Testament and the OT promises.  See Introduction to the Gospels for additional general information.

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Literary Techniques in John

Understanding the genre and the use of language is important to the proper interpretation of any of the Bible books, but perhaps none more critical than with the Gospel of John.  The manner in which John employs language is a very significant aspect of the book.  On the surface, the narratives appear simple and straightforward, yet much deeper meanings often lie underneath.  Many of these instances are explained by the author, but in other occurrences, we must do our own investigation.  To adequately deal with all the literary techniques utilized by John would require many volumes, so we’ll briefly touch upon a few very significant and related techniques employed within the various discourses.

The most common literary technique that permeates John’s writing is the above mentioned "dual" or "deeper" meaning.  For example, a casual reading of the "lifted up" narrative in 3:14-15 would lead us to interpret the quote as referring only to Jesus’ death.  John tells us in 8:28 and 12:32 however, that this allusion to Num 21:9 also refers to His resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of the Father (see also Acts 2:33 and 5:31).  Other good examples are found at 4:10, 8:24, 11:50-51, and 19:19.  This deeper meaning technique is not limited to the narratives of Jesus.  The high priest Caiaphas, believing that Jesus’ popularity would draw the attention of the Roman government (11:45-53), makes the statement to the Jewish Council that "it is better that one man [Jesus] should die for the nation than the whole nation perish".  This is also a great example of John’s use of irony, another literary device within itself but in this case, related to the deeper meaning and significance of Jesus' death and resurrection.

The dual meanings associated with Jesus’ sayings are frequently interrelated to the misunderstanding technique.  In these cases, a character misunderstands a statement made by Jesus (usually by applying an improper or excessive literal meaning when Jesus is speaking allegorically), which leads to a clarification and explanation of the deeper meaning by Jesus or the author.  The first instance of this technique occurs in 3:3-8, where Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again.  When Nicodemus misunderstands by taking the proclamation literally, Jesus explains that He means "born of the Spirit" or "born from above".  Other examples of misunderstood dialogues include the "living water" by the woman at the well (4:10-15), which Jesus explains as the Holy Spirit indwelling believers, and the "bread of life"(6:47-58), which spiritually referred His flesh, or belief in his death and resurrection as the means of salvation.  These allegories are also a form of symbolism, another popular literary technique found in John, and the Bible as a whole.

Finally, we’ll mention the recurrent use of contrasts by John.  Scattered throughout his Gospel, we find the contrasting of two competing conditions such as life vs death, light vs darkness, the temporal vs the eternal, love vs hate etc.

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Important Elements in John

We now offer some brief comments on a few elements found in John’s Gospel with the goal of aiding in the overall interpretation of the book.

In the very first verse of the Gospel, we find the remarkable description of Jesus as "the Word" (Gk logos).  This would have an immediate recognizable and profound meaning to both Jewish and Gentile readers in the first century.  Jewish readers would associate this term with God creating the world in His wisdom by His word (Gen 1, Ps 33:6,9).  Greek readers would have thought of the forces (think Star Wars) which shape and sustain the universe.  Thus, in identifying Jesus as the agent of creation (1:3), John affixes His divinity in the OT Jewish concept of Wisdom.  This Wisdom has now become flesh (1:14) and is now revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ.

The major element in the first half of the book used to portray Jesus as the promised Messiah is the miraculous sign.  In recording the miracles, the Synoptic Gospels use the Greek word dunamis meaning "power" or an amazing raw force.  In his Gospel, John refers to the miracles as "signs" (Gk sēmeion) or "works" (Gk erga).  He chooses to document seven miracles that reveal the divinity of Christ.  The first was water changed to wine (2:1-11), followed by the healings of an officials son (4:46-54), a paralyzed man (5:1-17) and a man born blind (9:1-41).  We also witness Jesus feeding the 5000 (6:1-15), walking on the water (6:16-21) and raising the dead (11:38-44).  We should pay special attention to the surrounding discourses of Jesus since His main intent for the miracle was for us to understand the message relating to each sign.

Another major component in John’s Gospel is the "I AM" statements of Jesus.  We’ll give a more detailed treatment to this subject in another article, but these statements can be broken down into two categories, the "explicit" or "absolute" proclamations, and the "metaphorical" declarations.  The absolute statements are those in which Jesus explicitly claims "I AM He", that is the Messiah, the Son of God, and the Second Person of the Trinity.  The words "I am" use the same Greek expression (Egō eimi) found in the Septuagint in the first half of God's self-identification to Moses in Ex. 3:14, "I AM Who I AM."  The best known occurrence is Jesus’ assertion that "before Abraham was, I AM" (8:58), but we also find similar expressions in 6:20, 8:24, 8:28 and 18:5.

Jesus also makes seven metaphorical "I AM" statements, proclaiming Himself as the bread of life (6:35,48-51), the light of the world (8:12, 9:5), the door of the sheep (10:7-9), the good shepherd (10:11-16), the resurrection and the life (11:25-26), the way, the truth and the life (14:6) and the true vine (15:1).  As the bread of life, Jesus satisfies the spiritual hunger within our souls as He provided manna to feed the Israelites in the wilderness (Ex 16).  As the light of the world, He fulfills many OT promises from the prophet Isaiah (Is 9:2, 42:6-7, 49:6, 60:1-3) by bringing the light of salvation and the light of the knowledge of God, as opposed to darkness (1:4-5).  As the door of the sheep and the good shepherd, Jesus is our entrance into the kingdom and our security (10:28).  As the resurrection and the life, He is the cause of our resurrection and as a result, believers will experience eternal life rather than spiritual death (3:16-18, 5:24).  As the way, the truth and the life, Jesus is our High Priest who fulfills the OT promises of life and provides our only access to the Father.  As the true vine, Jesus is the Lord of the "true Israel" (Rom 9:6-8) and all who are in Him will bear spiritual fruit.

Another concept occupying a dominant place within John’s Gospel is faith.  Unlike most of the other NT writers who use the noun "faith", John prefers to use the verb "believe" (Gk pisteuō, meaning to place confidence in or to trust) in order to highlight that faith is not a static doctrine, but something requiring action.  John also chooses this term to stress that, to "believe" is more than just intellectually agreeing that Jesus is God.  We must place our hope, trust and confidence in Him as our only means of salvation and spiritual growth.  So, faith to John is not so much a positional state or status, but a commitment to the Person of Jesus Christ, and an acceptance of who and what He claims to be.  Faith is the primary "work" that God desires for us (6:29), that we abide in Jesus (15:4-11) and obey His commands (8:31).  This is not to say that our position in Christ is not important to John.  In fact, when we see the phrase "believes in Christ", he typically uses the Greek preposition eis for "in", which ordinarily means "into".  Thus, John is saying that to have faith in Jesus is to believe into Christ, that is to become united with Christ.

We mentioned in our Introduction to the Gospel of John that John chooses several events from the various Jewish festivals to present Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of many rituals of the Jewish Holy Days.  Here, we want to touch upon the connection between Jesus’ work on the Cross and the Passover festival.  At Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of His ministry, John the Baptist introduces Him as the "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (1:29).  John is presenting Jesus as the Passover Lamb of Exodus 12 (see also 1Cor 5:7).  Just prior to the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt in the mid-fifteenth century BC, God sent an avenging angel to strike down the firstborn of all the Egyptian families.  The Israelites were able to avoid the same fate by sprinkling the blood of a lamb on the doorposts of their homes.

In the first century, the Jews made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem each spring to celebrate the Passover.  The associated sacrifice required an unblemished lamb (no disease, broken bones, or other defects).  At Jesus’ final Passover meal (chapter 13), He revealed that His sacrificial death would give a new meaning to the festival.  It was certainly no coincidence that Jesus was crucified during the Passover.  As the perfect, sinless sacrificial Lamb of God, he voluntarily shed His blood at the cross to exchange His life for ours (2Cor 5:21).  Just as the Israelites were able to avoid physical death by sprinkling the blood of a lamb on the doorposts, believers avoid eternal death by being covered by the blood of the Lamb of God (Heb 9:11-28).  Just as a lamb had to die to save the lives of the Jews at the first Passover in Egypt, Jesus as the Lamb of God had to die to offer salvation to the entire world. 

In promising the coming of the Holy Spirit as another Advocate (Gk paraklētos), Jesus speaks of the third Person of the Trinity as being our helper, advisor and encourager (14:16).  In the NT, the most common Greek word for "another" is hetero, which expresses a qualitative difference and denotes "another of a different sort."  Jesus in his promise however, chooses the word allos, which denotes "another of the same sort".  So, Jesus, as our first Advocate (1Jn 2:1), promises another (allos) Advocate just like Himself to continue His work in our lives.

Opposing Elements in John

We’ll now turn our attention to a few elements within John that were opposed to the ministry of Jesus, and by extension, to Christianity and the Church in general.  Throughout his Gospel, John uses the term "the Jews" in both a positive and negative manner.  The Greek term used can be translated either as "the Jewish leaders" or "the Jews", but the application of the term can usually be easily determined for each occurrence by the context.  In most cases, he speaks positively when referring to the Jewish people who believe in Jesus, and negatively when referring to the Jewish religious leaders, primarily members of the Sanhedrin (Jewish Council).  During His public ministry, Jesus experienced frequent conflicts with the Jewish leaders, who saw themselves as preserving the traditions of the Temple and the Synagogue, along with the associated sacrifices and teachings.  Over the years, the leaders had added numerous human traditions which they considered of equal authority to the sacred Scriptures.  It was over these traditions that Jesus clashed with the leaders.  The intensification of these arguments (Mt 23) in Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem greatly contributed to their case against Jesus, which led to His crucifixion when His time had fully come.  Some people consider John’s Gospel (and even the NT in general) to be anti-Semitic, but John clearly presents the opposition to Jesus (who was also Jewish) coming from the Jewish leadership, not from the Jewish people in general.

John speaks quite often of "the world" (Gk kosmos).  In Jewish thought during this era, the world consisted of the heavens and earth as created by God, but John expands the idea to include humanity.  Although the created world, including man, was originally good (Gen 1:31), the world became dark and hostile toward God, even hating the creator (7:7).  Despite our sin, God loves the world and sent His Son to die in order to take away its sins (1:29, 3:16-17).  Even though we’ll experience the same rejection from the world as Jesus (15:18-25), we are to carry forth the Good News of the love of Christ (17:14-19).

Finally, we’ll briefly mention that, although Gnosticism, a system of false teaching that claims a person achieves salvation by acquiring "special knowledge" (Gk gnosis) among other heresies, didn’t fully develop before the middle of the second century AD, its roots already existing at the time that John wrote his Gospel around the end of the first century.  It’s even quite possible that its early teaching had already infiltrated the church.  It’s further possible that some of the false teachings which John combats in his epistles were related to the Gnostic heresies.  We’ll explore this further in our writings on the Epistles of John.

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