Last week’s post looked at the earliest writings about Jesus: the beginnings of the ‘New Testament’ as seen in the letters of Paul and the ‘synoptic’ gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. We saw how these gospels did not necessarily depict a Jesus who considered himself divine, and instead showed a teacher whose ‘millennialist’ beliefs led him to preach moral behavior in preparation for the ‘coming’.
This week we’ll take a look at the gospel of John, in which Jesus is depicted as not only as divine, but in some way, eternal.
The Second Perspective: John
John seems to have written the fourth Gospel as many as thirty years after Paul, and probably had access to both the letters of Paul and the synoptic gospels. While the synoptic gospels stressed the teachings of Jesus, his interpretations of the Torah and his millennialist beliefs, John delves into the nature of God and how it could be that Jesus himself was divine.
As we saw last week, Bart Ehrman doesn’t consider the concept of a ‘God-Man’ as necessarily audacious during Jesus’ time due to the many similar and familiar myths of antiquity. John, however, goes into detail of how Jesus was divine, indeed co-extensive with God, laying the groundwork for the doctrine of ‘the Trinity’ which would emerge later in church history.
With John we see a significantly different depiction of Jesus’ life and death from that of the synoptic gospels. Some examples:
– Jesus’ claims to divinity are much stronger, including self-identification with the ‘Son of Man’.
– There are more stories of miracles, and the nature of the miracles is more supernatural
– In the synoptic gospels, Jesus hesitates, often even refuses, to perform miracles as a sign of his identity. He even downplays miracles, and notes that they are also performed by others. In John, Jesus not only performs miracles frequently, but does so as signs to compel belief.
– Where Paul sees Jesus as a human who is ‘exalted by God’ as a reward for his sacrifice, John sees Jesus as having been ‘one with the Father’ from the beginning of time
– Where Paul and the synoptic gospels treat ‘love’ as the correct form of behavior, John goes on to depict ‘love’ as an aspect of God Himself
– Where Paul identifies Jesus as ‘the Christ’ prophesied in the Old Testament, John goes much further, stressing his eternal kinship with God and introducing the concept of Jesus as ‘The Word’.
The Cosmic Christ
This last new concept in John’s depiction of Jesus is the most important of all. Not only does it stress a close kinship between Jesus and God, it posits Jesus as eternal, as having always existing even as God has always existed, and being co-responsible for the act of creation itself.
John introduces the idea of Jesus, as the Christ, as “the Word”. As Ian Barbour says:
“The term word merges the logos, the Greek principle of rationality, with the Hebrew image of God’s Word active in the world. But then John links creation to revelation: “And the Word became flesh.” “
With this concept, John locates Jesus as part of the same ontology in which creation itself was effected. Jesus, as ‘the Christ’, had always existed, along with God, and collaborated with God in the act of creation. Jesus, in this context, represents the ‘blueprint’ for creation, in the same way that God represents the ‘act’ of creation. While the terms ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ are used to distinguish between these two facets, John doesn’t see this as reflecting an ontological ‘order’ in which one comes from the other, but an ontological ‘equality’ in which they are ‘co-temporal’.
So, in John’s view, Jesus ‘the man’ is simply the inevitable appearance of the human aspect of the ‘word’, the personal aspect of creation as it unfolds. Jesus is indeed, The “Word become flesh.”
John, Love, God and Jesus
The idea of love is generally addressed as a manifestation of emotion in human relationships. From this perspective, love is an ‘act’, or an emotion that underpins the act. John overturns this common approach by identifying love as the very nature of God. He does not say that God loves, nor even that God loves perfectly. John says that God is love; that the very nature of God is love itself. By distinguishing the phenomenon of love from an action of God (found in the many lines of scripture that describe God as ‘loving’), John goes one step further and describes God as love itself, which opens the door to an ontological engagement with God in the act of loving. From John’s perspective, we don’t love God so that we can earn a position in the afterlife, we love God (and we love in general) because it is ultimately essential to our growth as human persons.
To John, we ‘become’ through a relationship with God which effects our personal growth.
We have seen this passage from John several times, but it’s worth reviewing in light of this week’s post:
”God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God and God in him.”
The Next Post
We have seen in the last two posts how the person of Jesus has been depicted in the Christian ‘New Testament’, and how this depiction changes over the three (Paul, Synoptic Gospels, John) groups of texts. Next week we will take a look at how the emerging portrait of Jesus can be seen in light of our search for a secular God.