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The Book of Books Book Club weekly blog

John 1-12

We move now (OK, a bit belatedly… sorry!) into the Gospel of John, and it is immediately apparent that we are reading something quite different from the preceding Synoptics. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, for example, all agree that Jesus does not go to Jerusalem (that is, during his public ministry; Luke, of course, has stories of Jesus in Jerusalem as an infant and as a young boy) until the triumphant entry we celebrate as Palm Sunday beginning the week leading to his death. John, on the other hand, has Jesus cleansing the Temple, driving out the merchants and money changers, as one of his first public acts. This difference in chronology reminds us that we are not reading documents meant to convey historical facts, but rather using history to make statements of faith.

John's gospel is generally agreed to have been written in the late first century, after the uprisings against the Roman Empire known as the Jewish Wars, and it manifests the effects of that turmoil. The followers of Jesus who still considered themselves Jewish (as opposed to the Gentiles Paul and others are converting) have been forced out of the synagogue during the time of war; our author here, reasonably assumed to be a student of the disciple John and one of those forced out, therefore sees "the Jews" (by which he means the leadership) to be a separate group from himself and his followers. This separation is then anachronistically put back into the gospel account of pre-separation times, leading to the strange picture of Jesus, a devout Jew, speaking of "the Jews" as though they were a different people. It is important to remember this anachronism as we read.

The focus of John's gospel is on Jesus establishing who he really is. This, too, is in contrast to the other three, where Jesus often forbade people (or demons) from making any claims until quite late in his ministry; John, however, has this issue of identity as a point of contention between Jesus and the religious leaders right from the start. It is the paramount question for John, and his belief is stated in the renowned opening prologue: the Word, the creative power of God that was with God and was God in the beginning of time, becomes flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. God is among us, John asserts, and he shows us in that same first chapter both John the Baptist identifying Jesus as the Son of God and Andrew declaring him to be the Messiah.

The Gospel divides fairly neatly into two main sections: the Book of Signs and the Book of Glory. Our reading this week takes us through the former section, while next week we'll cover the latter. The Book of Signs is primarily concerned with Jesus' agenda of establishing his identity.

There are seven "signs" that Jesus performs to demonstrate not his own particular powers but the power of God working through him:

  • changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana (2:1-12)
  • healing the son of the royal official (4:43-54)
  • healing of the paralytic at the pool of Beth-Zatha (Bethsaida; 5:1-16)
  • feeding of the five thousand (6:1-14)
  • walking on water (6:15-21)
  • giving sight to the blind man (9:1-41)
  • raising Lazarus from the dead (11:1-44)

One of my favorite parts of this gospel is when the crowd asks him in chapter 6, "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?" This would be after the first five signs have occurred, including walking on water! In John's portrayal, the difference between faith in Jesus and disbelief is quite starkly drawn.

The healing of the blind man (9:1-41) seems to encapsulate all of John's themes. The blind man comes to "see," both literally and figuratively, who Jesus is by stages of awareness, while the leaders of the people become progressively more belligerent in their refusal to accept what has happened. Miracles make us uncomfortable in the 21st century, with our ever-deeper grasp of the "laws of nature," the principles of the physical world; how might we approach the issue of believing in the miracles Christ performs in this gospel without leaving our rational mindsets behind?