I still recall my first Scripture class in college. The professor spent the entire first class telling us how “dangerous” it is to study the Bible because it would destroy many of our preconceived (and immature) notions about Christ and his Church. “Most people,” he maintained, “function from what their parents and pastors have told them about the real Jesus rather than what the texts actually say . . . and to do so is not only dangerous but woefully short-sighted.” He invited us to shed the “water wings” and the “kiddie pool” of spoon-fed biblical study, bidding us into the deep of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). By the end of the first class, I was ready to tear into my own (oft unopened Bible). However, upon exiting it occurred to me to ask one glaring question, “Professor, why are we stopping with only the Synoptics and not also studying the Gospel of John?”
He pointedly quipped, “Ah, you must learn to swim before you attempt to scuba dive.”
This response left me wanting to know more, so I did what any normal brat of God would do. Rather than perusing my assigned reading in the Synoptics, I read the entire Gospel of John in one sitting. It was long and deep, but nice. Several passages of dialogue were confusing and several details went right over my head. In the end, it was as though I was watching a foreign film with only sporadic subtitles. I knew nothing about St. John, his history, nor the fact that he, himself, was most likely the “disciple whom Jesus loved” that he kept referring to throughout his own writing.
Truthfully, I had no background to help me navigate this deep sea of God’s grace that we call the fourth (and final) Gospel. My professor was right, this was like scuba diving and to experience the depths of the Holy Spirit’s inspired brilliance, the average swimmer needs some training and some tools. So, if you’d like to go even deeper into the Gospel, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- St. John is often referred to as “the beloved disciple” because he was Jesus’ closest friend. The younger son of Zebedee, John was the one who rested upon Christ’s breast at the Last Supper (John 21:20), the one entrusted with the ongoing care of Christ’s (and our) Mother, Mary, from the Cross (John 19:25) and the only apostle not to die a martyr’s death (John 21:20-23). Early traditions maintain, too, that following Pentecost, the Blessed Virgin Mary went to live with St. John in Ephesus, where he served as bishop.
- St. John’s Gospel was probably written for Jewish Christians, and it is filled with verses from the Old Testament. It was most likely written after the other Gospels; St. John fills in a lot of the details left out by the others, and shares unique stories and moments not previously recorded.
- Imagine for just a moment where we’d be without John’s Gospel contribution: The Wedding Feast at Cana, the Samaritan Woman at the Well, the Bread of Life discourse, the raising of Lazarus, the washing of the feet, the extended dialogue with Pontius Pilate, the episode with Mary and John at the Cross, and the Resurrection appearance on the Sea of Tiberias. These are but a few examples of gorgeous and poignant passages we would not have had it not been for the Spirit breathing through St. John’s blessed pen.
- St. John emphasizes the fact that Jesus is not “just another guy.” Christ is both God and man. God became man so that human beings could live with God in heaven. God created the world in Genesis 1, and now Jesus is working a new “spiritual creation” in the lives of his followers. His entire Gospel is highly symbolic, rooted in the Old Covenant all the while pointing toward the New. It is only when we comprehend the dual nature of Christ that we can come to comprehend the purpose of his mission and the glory of the Church he instituted on earth.
- John’s Gospel is a constant invitation for the reader to advance forward from the “simple” reading and plunge into the sacramental waters. For St. John, everything points us back to the Church and her Sacraments. Different types of biblical writing try to accomplish different things: sometimes writing is historical; sometimes it’s symbolic. John, however, weaves together both the symbolic and historical into an unprecedented and gorgeous tapestry of faith. Take the story in John 9 of the man born blind, for instance. This story is both historical and symbolic. In this episode, Jesus literally heals a blind man (historically true) while teaching us about baptism (sacramental and symbolic) at the same time. The fourth Gospel is much like an iceberg, where ninety percent of its greatness is below the surface. (Pack your scuba gear!)
Perhaps my “favorite” verses in all of John’s Gospel, however, are the final two:
“This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” – John 21:24-25
First, not only are we being given a behind-the-scenes, eye-witness testimony about the second person of the Trinity, but we are getting it from one of his “inner circle” disciples. Assuredly you remember how many times Jesus allowed only Peter, James, and John to accompany him without the other nine (the Transfiguration, the raising of Jairus’ daughter, and into the haunts of Gethsemane, to name just a few).
Second, here we have scriptural proof that even though the Bible is holy and inspired, it does not explicitly state every single thing Jesus ever said and taught. The Bible itself admits this point! On a basic level, Sacred (or Apostolic) Tradition is the teaching that the apostles passed on orally through their teaching and preaching. St. John attests to the fact that he was sharing stories not written elsewhere but even with this addition, the fullness of Christ’s teaching is incomplete. He attests not only to the existence but necessity of Apostolic Tradition here. This is the same stance echoed by the great missionary apostle, St. Paul, who commanded Christians to “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us [apostles, evangelists, and later the bishops of the Church], either by word of mouth [Tradition] or by letter [Bible]” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). Thus, we must pay close attention to both the Bible and the Church’s Tradition—the official teaching of the Church.
So the Holy Spirit inspired the human authors of Scripture, and the Holy Spirit guides the Magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church—the pope and the bishops—so that they will speak and teach the truth (John 16:13). This is an important point. God never intended the Bible to be separated from the Church. The Holy Spirit continues to guide the Church in interpreting and understanding the Bible. The Bible reveals God’s inspired truth, and the Church protects and serves the saving truth found in the Bible.
It is that same Holy Spirit who led and inspired St. John to pen his New Testament letters and his climactic book of Revelation (which we don’t have sufficient time to treat here but great Ascension Press studies do exist to aid you in its “unveiling”).
If St. Mark’s Gospel is considered the “easiest,” then St. John’s is the deepest. It will immerse you into the Church’s tradition by inviting you ever deeper into the heart of the Sacraments. It will offer you a glimpse at the One who came with power and purpose, at the appointed time, to save us from our sins and from ourselves. It will invite you into the deep, where you might “scuba dive” for years to come and never exhaust the depths of the Spirit’s sea nor tire of its beauty. It’s fitting that such a journey should begin in St. John’s boat . . . where Christ taught and, through St. John’s pen and the Spirit’s inspiration, still continues to do so. Dive in!
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