The Art of John’s Gospel
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)
We’ve been talking a lot about why John wrote His Gospel, and this passage, coming at the end of the book, is where John himself tells us why. And, as I’ve been studying the structure of the book, I find this sentence to be more and more complex.
I told you before that this gospel is a series of stories, but that doesn’t even scratch the surface of John’s writing. Remember how I said that John’s gospel has many different types of divisions and threads woven through it – like a tapestry? Well, as I continue to study it I’m more and more impressed, and even overwhelmed by how intricate and complex that tapestry really is. This book is less a series of stories and more a work of art.
My family and I went to the National Gallery of Canada a little while ago and were specifically on the hunt for abstract and impressionist paintings.
Impressionist or Abstract art is designed not to show you a specific picture but to elicit a reaction. Impressionists are a little easier to understand because they usually have recognizable forms in them and just mess with the shapes and colours, but Abstractionists pretty much do-away with reality altogether and just try to convey, or “abstract”, the feeling or idea without presenting an actual form.
We sort of whizzed by the more realistic artwork full of old buildings and portraits because we really wanted to see some of the weirder stuff. And the National Gallery did not disappoint.
I had two favourites. The first was a huge room where the artist had set up four different living rooms from four different decades, complete with couches, tables and tv’s all playing the same show. I have no idea what it was meant to convey, but I liked that there were couches.
The other – and I promise you’re not prepared for this – was a video being projected on the wall of a dark hallway. I’m just going to play this one for you.
[Not Available – Just think of a really weird video of mice caught in a window with intense music playing on a loop]
I have no idea what that meant – but it definitely caused an emotional reaction.
I’m no art critic, obviously, but in my opinion the best art is something you can look at and study over and over and over and each time, still feel something special, discover new things about it and yourself through it, and come to new realizations about the artist, time-period, or whatever they were trying to convey.
A lot of people get that sort of thing from Vincent van Gogh in a painting like Starry Night. The first time they see it they feel a connection to the colours, see the beauty of the whole, start to feel the pull of the brush strokes. But then, as they look at it further they see more intricacies in the lines, more shapes, and things like the tree in front of the exaggeration of the church steeple. Then, as you read about the author you start to understand more. Van Gogh suffered greatly from depression but he knew God. He painted eleven stars in the sky and a great light. The windows in the town are lit, but the church is dark… the perspective is far from the town, but the sky is intensely close. A huge, dark tree stands blocking his view but points upwards to the lights of heaven. Is this how Van Gogh felt? Was this meant to point to Joseph’s vision from Genesis 37. Joseph was a dreamer, outcast from his family. Was Vincent an outcast because of his mental illness, unjustly suffering like Joseph did, but was also conveying his hope in God. Maybe? And I’m sure there’s more.
With that in mind, I want to read you what one commentator I read this week said about the gospel of John:
“The Gospel of John is a text that constantly creates the impression that more is going on than immediately meets the eye. The author deploys the power of metaphor and symbol in a masterful way, so that the stories and teachings of Jesus are constantly and mutually illuminated by referring to other texts within the book. Each story has been coordinated with other parts of the narrative, so that stories acquire more layers of meaning than the surface one. John is a master of irony, so that characters constantly say more than they intend, and sometimes even the opposite of what they mean. Jesus is consistently misunderstood, foregrounding the question of what is the true meaning of his words. The Gospel is also shot through with intertextual connections to the Hebrew Bible that expand the meaning of any given story when they are observed and then pondered. This book was written not only to make some sense to first-time readers, but it was also designed to be studied in order to yield it’s full cornucopia of meaning to only the most attentive of students. Its frequently riddling character… is meant to tease the intelligence and entice the readers into its world of multidimensional meaning.” (Richard Bauckham, The Gospel of Glory: Major Themes in Johannine Theology, 131-132)
As I’ve been studying it this week, and hopefully as you’ve been reading in preparation for this series, these “multidimensional meanings”, “symbols” and “intertextual connections” are all starting to come to light – and it’s fascinating.
Did You See the Signs?
Which brings us back to our main text today. When John gives the why he wrote the book he said,
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
This too has multidimensional meanings. John uses very specific words to address the mega-themes he’s been weaving through the book. Have you ever gotten to the end of a mystery novel or one of those movies with a twist ending, and immediately wanted to start the whole thing over just so you can see what you were supposed to be seeing all along? And then when you do, you’re like, “Wow, how did I miss this? It’s so obvious!”
I think this verse is like that. John says, “My book is arranged by ‘signs’, did you see them all? Do you know what they were pointing to? Do you know why they were there? Did you see how many people in the stories saw the same signs and yet didn’t understand them? Are you doing the same thing? Which side are you on? The side of seeing and believing or seeing and rejecting? And further, these signs weren’t just pointing out that Jesus is the Christ, but that Jesus is the Son of God! Did you notice that? Did you see that Jesus did things no one else can do? Did you realize you weren’t just reading a history book, but the story of the Word made Flesh, the Creator of the Universe, the Son of God walking the earth? And if you did see all the signs, and understand who I’ve been saying Jesus is… will you believe in Him as the only one who can give you the thing I’ve been pointing at over and over again – eternal life? I have written all these signs down so you can meet the real Jesus – but not just meet Him as an historical figure – but as the one who can bring you from eternal death to eternal life. Will you believe?”
The whole book is designed that way. It’s sign upon sign, layer upon layer, meaning upon meaning, revelation upon revelation – all culminating in the big question: Do you believe?
What I want to do now is play for you one of “The Bible Project” videos describing this. I think they do a great job of visualizing all of these intricacies and dimensions. They don’t cover them all, because there are many, but they do a really great job and I think you’ll appreciate John’s Gospel more after watching it.
I’ve spent so much time talking about the structure and themes of the Gospel of John because I want you really open your eyes when reading it – and to be inspired to sit down and read it in big chunks so you can get the whole story. I’ve provided the handout from The Bible Project so you can see all the divisions and get a general idea for what these sections are trying to convey.
And while you read. I want you to not only be studying the words with your mind but to be opening up your heart to what John is trying to say about Jesus. He’s not just showing you what Jesus did but wants you to identify with the characters in the story so you can be confronted by the person and works of Jesus and be forced to reckon with them. In what ways are you like Nicodemus? What if you were the Samaritan Woman? How have you been like the crowds coming to Jesus for bread, but refusing to accept His Words? What does it mean that Jesus, the Word of God became human, the Glory of God was housed in flesh, and that He laid down his life for you? And finally, in light of all this – do you believe? And has that belief shown itself in a changed life filled with thanksgiving and obedience to Jesus?
May you be blessed by the reading of God’s Word this week.