IN THE BYZANTINE Churches the Gospel according to John in read daily at the Divine Liturgy from Pascha to Pentecost. John has been called the most fully Paschal Gospel in the New Testament because the themes which it highlights are especially apropos of the mysteries celebrated in these days. Some of these themes are:
The Paschal Lamb –The image of Christ as the Lamb initially appears when Christ first approaches the Jordan: “John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’” (John 1:29). This image, evoking both the scapegoat who symbolically takes away sin at Yom Kippur as well as the Passover lamb, reappears in John’s narrative of the passion. There it is Pilate who points to Christ and reveals His true identity: “Now it was the Preparation Day of the Passover, and about the sixth hour. And he said to the Jews, ‘Behold your King!’” (John 19:14).
John reinforces this image, placing the time of Christ’s condemnation and crucifixion at the same hour in which the paschal lambs would be sacrificed. Many events in this Gospel are described in the context of the Jewish liturgical cycle.
Water and Life in the Spirit – This theme also appears near the beginning of John. In John 3 Jesus astonishes Nicodemus with this assertion, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (v. 5). The Churches in both East and West under-stand baptism as this new birth, required for entry into the Church.
The connection between water and spiritual life is also mentioned during the Lord’s encounter with the Samaritan woman: “… the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14). The water here does not simply admit a person into the Christian community but into eternal life.
Finally, this living water is identified with the Holy Spirit Himself: The Lord said, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:37-39). Jesus’ glorification – His death and resurrection – would be the occasion for the sending of the Spirit, the focus of our Pentecost feast.
The Resurrection and the Life – The event of Christ’s resurrection is found in all four Gospels. John, however, emphasizes Christ as our life and resurrection with the story of Lazarus whom Christ raised before entering Jerusalem (John 11). In that passage Christ is depicted as telling Lazarus’ sister, Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die” (v. 25). The defeat of death comes through faith in Christ.
The New Creation – Unlike the other canonical Gospels, John begins at the very beginning, with the creation. The first words of John 1:1 are the same as the first words in Genesis 1:1, reinforcing the apostle’s teaching that “All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made” (v. 3).
In his book The Holy Gospel>, a Byzantine Perspective Fr. John Custer suggests that John also subtly implies that all things are recreated in Christ. John frequently specifies when certain events took place (next day, after two days…, etc.) This is especially evident at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry which is described in the format of seven days, again recalling the story of creation in Genesis. Thus in:
- Day 1 – Jewish leaders question John the Baptist (John 1:19)
- Day 2 – “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
- Day 3 – “Again, the next day, John stood with two of his disciples. And looking at Jesus as He walked, he said, “Behold the Lamb of God!” (John 1:35, 36)
- Day 4 – “The following day Jesus wanted to go to Galilee, and He found Philip…” (John 1:43)
- Day 7 – “On the third day [after that] there was a wedding in Cana…” (John 2:1). The seventh day ends with “…and His disciples believed in Him” (John 2:11). This “seventh day” is blessed by the foundation of the Church.
Christ in the Gospel of John
The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) portray the identity of Christ as Messiah and Son of God as perceived only gradually by His closest followers and hidden from people in general. John, the last Gospel written, reveals how the first-century Church’s view of Jesus had developed. Its first verses depict Christ as the eternal Word of God (the Logos), through whom all creation was made, to be incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory…” (John 1:14). Titles like Son of David could be applied to a prophet; only a divinity could be called Logos.
Other expressions in John which describe Jesus as more than a man are the Bread from heaven (cf., John 6:22-60), the Light (John 1:9), the Good Shepherd (John 10:1-16), and the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6). In John Jesus affirms His unity with the Father – “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30) – and the reality of His union with us: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit” (John 15.5). This Gospel thus witnesses to the faith of the first-century Church to the humanity and divinity of Jesus.
What Do We Know about John?
All the Gospels describe the apostle John as a son of Zebedee, as a brother of James and as one of Jesus’ closest companions. There is little further personal information about him in the Scriptures. How, then do we know that John wrote this Gospel?
After describing a scene involving Jesus, Peter and John we are told about John that: “This is the disciple who testifies of these things, and wrote these things; and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24). This editor or scribe thus affirms John as the author of the reminiscences recorded in the Gospel. The earliest testimonies, from the second century, attributes the Gospel to “John, one of the apostles of Christ” (St Justin the Philosopher, Dialogue with Trypho) and “a disciple of the Lord” (St Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Haereses). While many have challenged this attribution, no one has convincingly disproved it.
Because of the theological depth of this Gospel St John has come to be known as “the Theologian,” referring to his personal experience of the vision of God reflected in his writings.
The scribe is traditionally identified as Prochoros, one of the first seven deacons, who became John’s companion in Ephesus and accompanied him in his exile to the island of Patmos. He is thought to have recorded John’s memoirs (the Gospel) and the Book of Revelation.
May 8 – Feast of St John the Theologian
St John’s repose is commemorated in the Byzantine Churches on September 26. He was buried near Ephesus and for about 1000 years, pilgrims would visit this grave on May 8 when a fine ash dust, which believers called “manna,” would rise from the site. The sick to which it was applied were healed. A feast of St John is still kept on this date as a result. In the sixth century a large basilica was built over his grave. The shrine became a mosque in 1330 and was razed by Tamerlane’s Mongol army in 1402.