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Portraits of Christ: John’s Gospel, part 2

In John’s Gospel we have an emphasis on Jesus that is unique compared to the other gospels. John not only emphasizes his deity, but his mysteriousness. The reader is left with an impression of Jesus as a mystical teacher, in the sense that his words and actions are not only those of a profound religious teacher, but of one who is other-worldly. So often in this gospel we read of Jesus making statements that the crowds, the religious teachers, and even his own disciples sometimes could not fathom.

For starters, there are the “I am” statements (e.g., I am the bread of life; I am the living water; I am the good shepherd; I am the way, the truth, and the life), which were clearly claims to divinity, for these statements in the Jewish context referred to God’s title “I am,” given when Moses inquired of his name at the burning bush. Jesus makes much use of mystical metaphors like these and others, like all the ‘day’ and ‘night’ references in this book, which portrays him as mystical or mysterious sounding.

Jesus then makes some statements that are paradoxical, turning traditional religious language on his head. For example, he told Nicodemus that one must be born again to enter the kingdom of heaven, which left poor Nicodemus confused. While such expressions were novel at the time, they might make some sense to a religious person who has had some genuine personal encounter with God. Nicodemus’ lack of understanding is meant to show that he hadn’t, for he could not make any sense of Jesus’ metaphors. And we thus see that the religious teachers of that day as a whole did not really know or understand God.

Then there are statements from Jesus that are just enigmatic. For example, he proclaimed that one must eat his flesh and drink his blood to enter the kingdom of heaven - scandalous sounding to pious Jewish listeners who would avoid blood or unkosher food or dead bodies. He talks about God being his Father, or the kingdom, or what will happen when he goes to Jerusalem, but often in cryptic language. Even up to his last days before his crucifixion, the disciples cannot make sense of his enigmatic statements about where he is going.

Throughout the entire book, John repeatedly emphasizes how mysterious Jesus is, and how mystical he seems. This emphasizes his holiness, which means not only moral perfection, but ‘holy’ at its heart means ‘completely different from us or the world.’ He is not only on a completely different level morally, but in his essence, his personality, his nature, and his wisdom, for he is God. The other gospels emphasize his humanity, which we must embrace more than we have been willing to, but we must embrace his divinity in the full sense that John wishes to convey - that he is so different and beyond our understanding, that we are to respond with a sense of awe and wonder, as well as love, for who Jesus is.

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