Truth in the dock, the Spirit at the bar: John’s distinctive themes

This post is in the series Rite Reading. (2 of 2 posts on John)

In the first of these two posts on John’s gospel, I looked at some of the ways he differed from the other gospels. We saw how much he organised his writing around Jewish festivals in Jerusalem, and also took a look at the problems his language created for Christian attitudes to the Jewish people. Today I want to go on to explore, especially, two key themes that are have a significant impact in the life of the church and are well reflected in the lectionary’s choices.

John the Evangelist as represented by François-André Vincent. Via Wikimedia Commons

One is the way John deploys the language of the courtroom. This begins in the prologue, with the description of John as a witness. Normally, a witness, when giving evidence, confesses what they did do or who they are, and denies what they didn’t do, or who they aren’t. The evangelist turns this on its head for emphasis:

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.

John 1:19-20

What we shouldn’t miss is that this introduces a metaphorical trial context to the whole gospel. The problem is that some Christians have got so used to “testimony”, “confession” and “witness” being used as religious language, that they overlook the legal origins of the language. The question finally posed by Pilate at Jesus’ actual trial – “What is truth?” (John 18:38) – runs through the whole gospel. What is the true meaning of the law? What does true obedience to God look like? What does it mean to give true worship and glory to God? Above all, who is Jesus?

Jesus, in the synoptic tradition, has a very characteristic way of speaking when he wants to ram home his point. Highly unusually he begins his sentences with the words “Amen. I tell you …” English translations hide this, by translating by words like “truly, I tell you …”. John emphasises this unusual way of speaking, by doubling up on it: his Jesus begins solemn declarations of truth “Amen. Amen. I tell you …” In English, John’s use is typically represented by “Very truly, I tell you,” or the older “Verily, verily …”1

Jesus is the truthteller. Anyone who follows him will know the truth of his words, and that he is the one to whom the scriptures point. To follow Jesus is to find the way, the truth and the life they lead to (John 14:6). Truth will set people free. Jesus is true bread and true vine, and will give the not only real meat and drink (John 6:55) but also the Spirit of truth (John 14:17) to those who believe in him. The role of those who receive this Spirit is to be co-witnesses with the Spirit to Jesus (John 15:26-27).

(We should note in passing that “truth” does not correspond very easily with “fact”. The truth is a deeper thing than simple facts. Jesus is neither factually a loaf nor a vine, yet his words, his life, are presented by the evangelist as the true source of nourishment and life.)

The Spirit is another key theme of John’s writing, and again this gospel has a distinctive line of thought. Part of John the Baptist’s evidence about Jesus is the vision he saw at Jesus’ baptism: the Spirit coming down and remaining on Jesus (John 1:32-33). “Remain” is another key word in this evangelist’s vocabulary; often also translated “abide”, it regularly signifies a degree of permanence. It could almost be translated “take up residence”.

There is, from the beginning of the gospel, a degree of identification between Jesus and the Spirit. What Jesus does in the gospel he does as the person in whom God’s Spirit uniquely – without measure (John 3:34) – dwells, so that Jesus’s words are “spirit and life” (John 6:63). So strong does John the Evangelist make this identification that he can even say of the promise of living water that Jesus “said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:39 – my emphasis).

When we reach the long speeches at the Last Supper, Jesus talks about the coming gift of the Spirit. This Spirit is an Advocate (John 14:16,26; 16:7) – that is, to return to the trial metaphor, a person to help the witness give their true testimony in court. This helper will only come to others when Jesus goes to the Father – that is, in his death and resurrection. So, as Jesus speaks his last words, John says, “he handed over the Spirit” (John 19:30) .

The phrase the gospel uses does double duty. It is a euphemism for death, which is how most translations interpret it, But it is also a theological affirmation about the meaning of Jesus’ death, which is what I want to stress here. The language is also the word used of passing on a tradition: handing on the truth. This last moment of Jesus’ earthly life is then developed in the resurrection appearance to the group of apostles. He greets them with peace, breathes on them (an echo of God breathing into the clay figure of Adam) and says: “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22).

Jesus is now the giver of the Spirit that was previously presented as his exclusive possession. There is a close identity between the Spirit and Jesus, just as there is between Jesus and the Father. John’s narrative offers a profound resource for the flowering of later Trinitarian theology.

The last aspect of John’s language I shall draw attention to in this post is his vocabulary of “glory”. In daily life, it meant something like reputation and honour. In biblical usage, which John inherits from the Old Testament, it meant something like the indescribable magnificence of God’s presence. John, who loves to layer on multiple meanings in his words, draws on both the secular and the religious significance. In doing so he complements the theme of a trial: the person who is in the right, at the end of a fair trial, should go free with their honour vindicated and their reputation intact. Jesus’ glorification will be the final proof that it is he who is telling the truth about God.

Yet it is also much more than this: Jesus’s glory is intertwined with the Father’s glory. He reveals who God is, and God reveals who he is. To experience the presence of one is to experience the presence of the other. Jesus is how God chooses to be present with his people.

This is more startling when we see that John most specifically refers to the cross as the time when Jesus is glorified. A key point of crucifixion in the Roman world is that it should humiliate and dishonour the one being crucified. John’s insistence that the cross is the moment when Jesus receives ultimate honour and glory from God is a defiant assertion of a theological reality that turns every social convention about honour upside down. The cross becomes the meeting point of heaven and earth, the truest declaration of who God is, and the place where the life-giving presence – the glory – of God is to be found.


Notes

  1. For example, John 3:3,5,11 – the phrase occurs 25 times in the gospel (as counted in a modern critical edition of the text). The phrase is odd in any language, and I suspect we have should have followed the example of the gospel writers and kept Jesus’ idiosyncratic use of “Amen” to begin important sayings in our English translations.

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