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Important Themes in John's Gospel

Julian Spriggs M.A.

This page gives some explanation of the more important themes found in John’s Gospel. In his writing John tends to weave together a number of distinctive themes, which are found throughout his gospel. Many of these are unique to his Gospel, or to the rest of John's writings. This list is not intended to be exhaustive, and other themes could be added. Some of these are listed at the end of this page.

The ‘I am’ Statements

The Greek words ‘ego eimi’ can be translated ‘I am’ or ‘I am he’. It is one of the most characteristic and most significant expressions in John's gospel. In Greek, the word ‘eimi’ on its own means ‘I am’. The addition of ‘ego’ adds emphasis, emphasising the ‘I’.

The most important and well known use of ‘I am’ is in the seven ‘I am’ statements of Jesus.
1. The bread of life (6:48)
2. The light of the world (8:12, 9:5)
3. The door to the sheepfold (10:7,9)
4. The good shepherd (10:11,14)
5. The resurrection and the life (11:25)
6. The way, the truth and the life (14:6)
7. The true vine (15:1)

These describe who Jesus is, and make his claim to deity as the Son of God. They also describe his ministry, and the spiritual blessings he came to bring through his death and resurrection.

This claim to being God has its roots in the Book of Exodus. God met Moses at the burning bush and called him to bring the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses wanted to know the name of the God of their fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The name given was ‘I am who I am’ (Ex 3:14). The Hebrew expression is timeless. The NRSV has the footnote, “Or ‘I am what I am’, or ‘I will be what I will be’”. God also says, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you’”. This the personal name for God, Yahweh, which is based on the Hebrew verb ‘to be’. This is the God who is always there, past present and future, and the God who has seen the suffering of his people in Egypt and wants to save them. In the Book of Revelation, God is frequently described as the one who is and who was and who is to come (Rev 1:4). It is used on its own as a name for God in Isaiah, “I, I am He ...” (Is 42:25, 51:12). In the Greek Septuagint, this is translated ‘ego eimi ...’, the same words used by Jesus in John’s Gospel. So when Jesus said, ‘I am’, he identified himself as being one and the same as the God of the Exodus and Old Testament covenant, the ‘I AM’. Jesus brought a new exodus and a new covenant.

Several of the ‘I am’ statements are associated with one of the seven signs of the deity of Jesus in John's gospel. The physical sign, or miracle, points to the greater reality of who Jesus is. “I am the light of the world” (Jn 9:5) was said by Jesus when he gave the man born blind his sight. Jesus brought light to this man in a physical way, but this pointed to the greater spiritual reality that Jesus brings light into the spiritual darkness.

After feeding the 5000, Jesus said, “I am the bread of life” (Jn 6:35). He had given relief to their physical hunger, but Jesus is the bread of life who believers feed on to receive eternal life, to satisfy spiritual hunger. Jesus also called himself the living bread (Jn 6:51), compared with the manna in the wilderness. Manna gave temporary relief from physical hunger, whereas Jesus gives eternal relief from spiritual hunger. Before raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life” (Jn 11:25). Lazarus was given back his life, although only temporarily. Jesus promises an eternal resurrection from the dead, spiritually now and physically in the future.

Perhaps the most significant ‘I am’ is when Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I am” (8:58). The response of the people shows that they understood what Jesus was saying. They picked up stones to throw at him, the punishment for blasphemy, because he had taken the sacred name for God as his own. He was not only saying the holy name of God, but even worse, he was claiming to be God. He was not merely a descendant of Abraham, but was an eternal being who pre-dated Abraham.

The words ‘I am’ are used several other times in John's gospel as a statement of Jesus being God. For example, at his betrayal, the soldiers asked for Jesus. Jesus replied, “I am” (‘ego eimi’) (Jn 18:5). Their response was to draw back and fall to the ground, the normal response when meeting with God himself.

Eternal life

We normally associate the ministry of Jesus with salvation. However, Jesus only rarely used the word salvation. It is never used in Matthew or Mark, and is only recorded once in Luke, when Jesus declared that salvation had come to the house of Zacchaeus (19:9), and once in John, when Jesus said that salvation is of the Jews to the woman at the well (4:22). Salvation is essentially a negative word. We are saved from something, this being the judgement of God as the penalty for our sins, which is eternal damnation. However we are saved from something, to something. And the words of Jesus as recorded in the gospels give greater emphasis to what we are saved to.

In the synoptic gospels, Jesus preached the message that the Kingdom of God had come (eg Mk 1:14-15). In John, Jesus brought life or eternal life. This is the blessing of eternal life in the kingdom of God, under the rule and authority of God. The word 'life' is characteristic of John, but is also used in the other gospels, although not so frequently.

Towards the end of his gospel, John describes his purpose in writing, that the signs that Jesus performed are described so that the readers may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and may have life in his name (20:31). There is a close connection between seeing the signs and receiving eternal life, which is the heart of the purpose of John writing his gospel.

Jesus defines the nature of eternal life, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (17:3). So eternal life is knowing God, not just knowing about God, but having an intimate relationship with him. This involves responding to him in faith and obedience, and so enjoying fellowship with him.

John uses several metaphors drawn from everyday life to describe eternal life. The first is birth, being born of the Spirit, or born from above, or being born again (3:3-9). The second is water, living water which quenches thirst forever (4:14), and the third is bread, living bread which satisfies hunger forever (6:27ff).

In the OT and in Jewish writings, life or eternal life described the future hope, the life in the Kingdom of God in the age to come. In John's gospel, that life is available now. “Anyone who believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgement, but has passed from death to life” (5:24). In Christ, the future has come into the present. Eschatology has come now, in Christ. The future hope has become available to us now, within history (3:36, 4:14, 6:47, 17:3). The life that Jesus brings is the life of the Father (5:26), which is made available to humanity through the death and resurrection of the Son (3:15-16).

However, like the Kingdom of God, eternal life still has a future element. It is a now but not yet. Eternal life in the future contrasts the physical life in this world with eternal life, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live ...” (11:25). Also, “This is the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day” (6:40). Eternal life begins now and continues forever, having no end. The future begins in the present. The life we have in Christ is eschatological.

Jesus also spoke about a future resurrection in the last day (5:28-29, 6:39,40,44,54). There is life now, as well as a future resurrection to life in the last day. In the same pattern, there is judgement in the present (12:31-32), and in the future on the last day (12:47-48). Jesus is coming in the future (14:3), but also in the present experience of the believer (14:23).

Jesus stated that his mission was to bring life. “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (10:10), and “The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (5:33). To achieve this, Jesus had to lay down his own life (6:51, 10:11,15). This eternal life comes to people through his word. Peter declared, “You have the words of eternal life” (6:68).

In the prologue, in the Logos, the Son, is life (1:4), the life was the light of all people. The Logos has been the light to mankind right from creation. The incarnation of Jesus brought the life of heaven to the world. This life is the life of the new creation, which restores, renews and fulfills the life given to humanity in creation, as people are being born from above, or of the Spirit (3:3). This life was made available to mankind through the death and resurrection of Jesus, which was the reason he was sent into the world (3:14-21). When a person hears the good news of life in the Son and believes, they have been transferred from the realm of death to life, and do not come under judgement (5:24). The dead hear the voice of the Son of God and come to life under the saving rule of God in his kingdom.

Jesus the king

The kingship of Jesus is declared repeatedly in John’s Gospel. Nathaniel declared Jesus as King of Israel (1:49). At his triumphal entry, the crowd said, “Blessed is the King of Israel" (12:13). Pilate asked whether he was the king of the Jews, and Jesus said that was right (18:33,37). The soldiers mocked him as king (19:3). Pilate repeatedly referred to Jesus as the king of the Jews to the Jews, probably to annoy them (18:39, 19:14-15), and insisted against objections that the sign on the cross read ‘The king of the Jews’ (19:19). The Jews refused to accept Jesus as their king (19:15-21), even making the most blasphemous statement that they have no king but the emperor (v15), thus rejecting God as their true king. John declares that Jesus is the true king, even though his kingship is not of this world (18:36)

Jesus the Saviour of the World

This title for Jesus is only found once in John’s Gospel and once in his first letter (1 Jn 4:14). It is used by the people of Samaria who believed the testimony of the Samaritan woman, “They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world’” (4:42). They declared that Jesus was the saviour of all people, not just Jews, but including Samaritans and Gentiles. Jesus came to the world to bring life to the world (3:16). ‘Saviour’ was a politically loaded term as the Roman emperors were addressed as ‘Saviour of the world’. Jesus was the real saviour, not the emperor, just as Jesus was the real king of Israel and the real king of the Jews.

My hour has not yet come, my hour has come.

There are nine references to Jesus’ hour. The ‘hour’ means the time of his glorification, his passion, death and resurrection and finally his exaltation. The hour is the time set by the Father.

The first three say that his hour has not yet come. In the early part of the gospel, everything is moving towards this hour. At the wedding at Cana, Jesus says to Mary that his hour has not yet come, when asked about the wine running out at the wedding (2:4). He was telling his mother that he was working only according to his Father’s timetable, his eyes were fixed on his hour to come.

During the feast of tabernacles, “They tried to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him, because his hour had not yet come.” (7:30). This was after Jesus claimed to know God and to have been sent by God, and that the Jews did not know God. This was blasphemy to the Jews, so they tried to arrest him. However the events of the passion could not happen until the time set by the father, and this time would not be changed by the efforts of the Jewish religious leaders. Jesus would not surrender himself to them until his hour had come. Later during the feast of tabernacles, there is a similar comment by John, “No one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come” (8:20). This was when Jesus said that the Jews did not know him or his Father. The time will be set by the Father, not by Jesus’ opponents.

The remaining six say that his hour has come. These all come during the final passion week (12:23,27,27, 13:1, 16:32, 17:1).

After the triumphal entry, when Greeks ask to see Jesus, Jesus replies, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (12:23). The Triumphal entry to Jerusalem marked the start of the passion week. Jesus uses figurative language to explain what his glorification means, a single grain of wheat dies and bears much fruit (v24). Jesus’ coming death will bring much fruit, a great harvest among Jews, but including Gentiles. Jesus will be glorified through his death and resurrection.

During John’s account of Gethsemane, Jesus said this, “Father save me from this hour. No it is for this reason I have come to this hour” (12:27). Jesus expressed a natural human reluctance to go to the cross, but he chose to obey his Father, because his death will glorify the Father. Jesus’ desire was always to bring glory to the Father.

Before the account of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples at the Passover meal, John comments, “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and to go to the Father” (13:1).

Before his arrest, Jesus predicts that when his hour comes, at his arrest, his disciples will abandon him, “The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered .. and will leave me alone” (16:32).

At the start of his prayer, Jesus knows the time has come, “Father the hour has come” (17:1), and asks the Father to glorify the son.

Jesus Being Lifted Up

During his conversation with Nicodemus , Jesus refers to an incident in the wilderness described in the Book of Numbers. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (3:14). This is when the Israelites complained, and the Lord sent poisonous serpents which bit the people and they died (Num 21:1-9). When they came to Moses in repentance, the Lord told him to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole, so everyone who was bitten could look at it and live (v8). Jesus tells Nicodemus that just as the serpent was lifted up, so must the Son of man be lifted up (3:14), with the consequence that everyone who believes will have eternal life. Just as the lifting up of the bronze serpent provided salvation from physical death for the Israelites in the wilderness, so the lifting up of Jesus on the cross will provide salvation from eternal death for all who believe. Just as the Israelites had to believe in God’s provision, so too those who put their faith in Jesus will receive eternal life.

Later in the gospel it becomes clear that Jesus was lifted up on the cross. It is John’s intention to show the irony that Jesus supremely showed his glory through his humiliation on the cross. He tells the Jews that when they crucify him, they will realise his identity as equal to the Father, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realise that I am he” (8:28). The ‘I am he’ uses the phrase ‘I am”, a claim to deity. In this passage, it is the Jews will lift him up. They will be responsible for his crucifixion. In the two other passages, the passive mood is used, the lifting up will be something done to Jesus, the people doing it are not identified.

“When I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”. (12:32). John adds a note to explain that this indicates the kind of death he was to die (v33), clearly showing that his lifting up is onto the cross. His death will draw people to himself and give them eternal life. This is also the time for the judgement of this world, when the ruler of this world will be driven out (v31). Jesus’ death will be a great defeat for Satan.

Jesus the One and Only

The Greek word used is 'monogenes', translated as 'the one and only', or 'the only', or 'the only begotten'. It is found nine times in the NT. The first four are used for people, the widow of Nain’s only son, who had died (Lk 7:12), Jairus had an only daughter, who was dying (Lk 8:45), a man had an only son, who was demon possessed (Lk 9:38), Abraham was about to sacrifice his only son (Heb 11:17). In each of these, someone has an only child, who had died, or was about to die. This would add to the sadness of the story, and to the joy when the child was restored. The emphasis in each was that the child was the only one, was unique. If the child died, there would be an unimaginable loss to the parents

The other times are used to describe Jesus as God’s only son. One is in 1 John, that God’s love revealed, that he sent his only son into the world (1 Jn 4:9). Again the emphasis is on uniqueness, that God only had one son, who he sent into the world. The other are all in John’s Gospel. “The word became flesh and lived among us, the glory of a father’s only son” (1:14). “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known”. (1:18). “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only son ...” (3:16). “Whoever who does not believe are condemned because they have not believed in the name of the only son of God” (3:18). The use of this word, often translated 'begotten' does not imply that Jesus was a created being, but instead the emphasis again on the fact that God had only one son. Jesus was unique in his relationship with the Father, and the Father gave up his only son to save us.

Other Themes

This page is not intended to be exhaustive, as there are several more important themes used by John in his gospel to describe Jesus and the life that he brought. These include
The Holy Spirit as the helper or paraclete.
Jesus being sent by the Father
Jesus being glorified
Jesus being the fulfilment of the Jewish festivals