Thoughts of a Living Christian

Musings of an amateur theologian and hopeful writer

Christology in the Fourth Gospel

Introduction

The Fourth Gospel presents a more explicit Christology than do the Synoptic Gospels, with several unique contributions to New Testament Christology, and, having the background of the historical presentation of Jesus, John expounds and furthers theological themes. As shall be seen throughout this essay, a major concern for John is the identity and origin of Jesus, who is presented as having the very identity of God, as emphasized in his “I Am” sayings and reference to the “Word” in the prologue. Titles given to Jesus, such as “Son of God” and “Messiah” infer both his messianic and divine characteristics, and John’s emphasis on Jesus as envoy, sent from God further discusses Jesus’ identity and messianic mission. Also, John portrays Jesus as having the right to prerogatives reserved to God alone. This essay shall analyze each of these major themes,[1] discussing the significance of this Christology, as well as its significance in comparison to the Synoptics, discussing major differences between the two traditions.

The Christology of the Fourth Gospel

Keener states that John’s Gospel presents a “radical Christology,” which “enabled the Johannine Christians ‘to undertake their radical commitment to God in the face of dire risk.’”[2] It was so radical, in fact, that the evangelists’ Christology is virtually inseparable from his theology.[3] Barrett further notes that when in looking at or hearing Jesus, you see and hear the Father.[4] In John’s missionary purposes to present Jesus as Christ to the Jews, he used familiar themes (Messiah, “Son of God,” “I Am,” etc.) before applying a Christocentric theological evaluation of these, in light of the new covenant, in which Jesus is savior and way to God the Father. Furthermore, through doing so, Jesus is presented as the glory of God (1:14; cf. 2:11; 11:4; 12:23).[5]

The prologue, the first eighteen verses of the Gospel, often called a hymn, present a unique Christology. The logoV (logos) is unique to this passage, not mentioned elsewhere,[6] and carries several connotations. In Jewish literature, it represented God’s creative self-expression,[7] in Greek philosophy, the Word often referred to divine truth, and also linked to Jewish Wisdom traditions. Wisdom, commonly personified, was present in creation, and in the Wisdom of Solomon, this Wisdom labors alongside humanity to bring them toward God.[8] Hence, by labeling Jesus as the Word, John argues that Jesus’ identity is not to be found in creation itself, but in the very identity of God, and thus does not contradict Jewish monotheism.[9] Furthermore, where Genesis’ account of creation states that in the beginning was God, John states that in the beginning was the Word, and that Word became flesh.[10] Whilst this logoV is unique to this prologue, the themes presented in these initial verses are present throughout the Gospel,[11] and Mlakuzhyil argues these themes are repeated in the conclusion, thus “all the other theological themes must be seen in relation to the Christocentric themes given in the introduction and the conclusion.”[12]

Several titles are ascribed to Jesus through the Gospel, such as “Messiah” (or “Christ”), “Son of God,” “King of Israel,” and “Lord.” Where the Jews were expecting the Messiah to come as a powerful warrior and political leader to relieve them of oppression, Jesus’ messiaship is presented as the Suffering Servant. It was only in light of the resurrection that the disciples could remember and discern the spiritual power of his earthly ministry, and spiritual anointing.[13] Carrying messianic implications, “Son of God” connoted intimacy.[14] This phrase was not unique to Jewish tradition,[15] but John presented Jesus not as a son of god, rather, the Son of God, uniquely begotten of the one, true God.[16] “Son of Man” and “King of Israel” carried both messianic and eschatological overtones, and “Lord” (KurioV) was used in the LXX to translate titles referring to God alone.[17] However, Kӧstenberger argues that the titles themselves are not as important as the idea that Jesus has come as the fulfillment of these titles. He is the Messiah and promised King, i.e. rather than simply bringing bread, he is the heavenly bread (John 6).[18]

Another very prominent theme in John’s Christology is that of envoy and divine messenger. The verbs pempein and ajpostellein (lit. “To send”), are used 42 times in the Gospel, and is thus an important Christological element, detailing Christ’s nature as having been sent from God. In Greco-Roman culture, an envoy carried full authority of the one who sent him, a theme brought through.[19] As messenger, Jesus:[20]

  • Show’s God’s intentions (4:34; 7:28-9; 8:29).
  • Is the human equivalent of divine sender (10:36; 12:45; 17:3).
  • Will return to God, upon completing his mission (7:33; 16:5).
  • Acts not on his own initiative, but on that of God (5:30; 7:16; 8:16; 12:49).
  • Comes from above (3:31; 8:23), heaven (3:13; 6:33, 41, 42) and from God (3:2; 8:42f; 13:3; 16:27, 28; 17:8).
  • Is not of this world (8:23; 15:19; 17:14).
  • Makes the Father known (3:32; 8:38; 1:18; 5:37; 6:46; 15:15).
  • Speaks as though he has been taught, told and commanded (8:28; 7:16; 12:49, 50).

Furthermore, to respond to Jesus was to respond to the Father (5:23-24, 38; 12:44; 13:20).[21] Loader states,

The Son has come as revealer, sent by the Father and authorized by him to speak and act in accordance with what he has been shown and been commanded. He does this in the power and authority given him by the Father and in unity with him.[22]

Two other prominent themes prevalent in the Fourth Gospel, regarding Christology, are the “I Am” sayings and the divine prerogatives. There are two sets of seven “I Am” (ejgw eijmi) sayings, those followed by nouns (6:35; 8:12; 10:7; 10:11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1), and those without (considered “absolute”, 4:26; 6:20; 8:24; 8:28; 8:58; 13:19; 18:5).[23] This links back to the prologue, in that Jesus’ identity is within God – he bears the name of God.[24] McGrath comments that “I Am” does not equal “I Am Yahweh,” but asserts that Jesus bears the very name of the one God.[25]

Regarding the divine prerogatives, there are instances where Jesus acts, receives or says he participates, in what is reserved for God alone. For example, the man born blind and is then healed by Jesus (ch.9) returns to Jesus, and worships him. Jesus, then, did not stop nor rebuke him. Bauckham asserts that worship was intimately connected with a monotheistic recognition of the one, true, divine identity.[26] Thus, he states, “the worship of Jesus indicates his inclusion in the identity of this one God.”[27] In the prologue, Jesus is called the “life” and “light” (1:4), of which Kӧstenberger interprets, “Being “life” puts Jesus on par with God, who alone is the life-giver; and being the “light” has both messianic overtones and sets Jesus against the dark moral backdrop of a reprobate, rebellious world that has rejected God’s law and therefore will also reject his Messiah.”[28] Furthermore, Jesus says he is the giver of life and judge of all (5:21, 22, 26).[29] What is important to note, however, that the issue the Jews had with Jesus’ activity was not with his actions per se, but with his claiming to be more than simply God’s agent. According to McGrath, “God could appoint agents, who would represent him and bear his full authority…It was only when someone had not been appointed by God tried to put himself on a par with God (like Adam, Pharaoh or the king of Babylon in the Jewish Scriptures) that equality with God became problematic and even blasphemous.”[30]

One traditional view of John’s relationship with the Synoptics is that John relies on the historical portrayal of Jesus prevalent in Matthew, Mark and Luke, using this as a presupposition for his more theological approach to Christology.[31] This view was criticized in 1938, by Percy Gardner-Smith, who received much support at the time.[32] However, it seems most contemporary commentators agree John advanced the presentation of the Synoptics, and thus the Fourth Gospel did not develop completely independently.[33] Three unique contributions John’s Christology make to New Testament Christology include Christ’s pre-existence, exaltation (even in his humanization) and Christ’s relationship to the Father.[34] His pre-existence is a major contribution, unique to John’s Gospel.[35] Furthermore, John makes explicit reference to Jesus’ divinity (1:1; Thomas’ confession), whereas the Synoptics do not.[36] Robert Kysar coined the phrase “Maverick Gospel” when referring to John,[37] yet subtle similarities abound. For example, some miracles are common to both traditions, as are titles,[38] and Kӧstenberger discusses “interlocking connections,” where John’s Gospel fills in details in the Synoptics.[39] In sum, John’s Christology relies on the historical portrayal of Jesus in the Synoptics, but fills in details, and then further develops theological themes, as discussed above.

Conclusion

In summary, John’s Gospel presents a rich theological narratological and biographical sketch of Jesus that neither contradicts Jewish understanding, nor the historiography of the Synoptics. The Gospel’s poetic prologue asserts Christ’s pre-existence and identity in the very nature of the monotheistic God of Israel, present and active in creation. The titles further assert this and his messianic characteristics, but rather than focusing on the titles, one must recognize Jesus’ fulfillment of these titles. Jesus is the messenger of God, sent from the Father to present the Father, and Jesus’ “I Am” sayings further portray his identity. Jesus’ identity, a major issue for John, is then further discussed in relation to Jesus and the prerogatives of God, such as giving of life and judging of sins, both of which Jesus claims authority to. John’s portrayal of Christ’s pre-existence and referring to Jesus as the logoV are unique to the Fourth Gospel, but similarities, such as some titles used of Jesus, have drawn the gap between the two traditions closer. John is written, presupposing the historical presentation of Jesus in the Synoptics, adding detail and advancing theology. His Christology is radical and drastically advances New Testament Christology.

References

Barrett, C. K. Essays on John. London: SPCK, 1982.

Bauckham, Richard. The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007.

deSilva, David A. An Introduction to the New Testament. Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

Harrison, Everett F. “The Christology of the Fourth Gospel in Relation to the Synoptics.” Bibliotheca Sacra October (1959): 303-309.

Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary. Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003.

Kostenberger, Andreas J. A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009.

Kysar, Robert. “Christology and Controversy: The Contributions of the Prologue of the Gospel of John to the New Testament Christology and Their Historical Setting.” Currents in Theology and Mission 5, no. 6 (1978): 348-364.

Lincoln, Andrew T. The Gospel According to Saint John. London: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005.

Loader, William. The Christology of the Fourth Gospel. Germany: Verlag Peter Lang, 1989.

McGrath, James F. John’s Apologetic Christology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Mlakuzhyil, George. The Christocentric Literary Structure of the Fourth Gospel. Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1987.

Smith, T. C. “Christology of the Fourth Gospel.” Review & Expositor 71, no. Winter (1974): 19-30.

Sundberg, Albert C. Christology in the Fourth Gospel. Chicago: Chicago Society of Biblical Research, 1976.


[1] These themes are not a conclusive list of Christological motifs in the Fourth Gospel, but are, arguably, the major themes. Much literature has been written on this Gospel, and a complete discussion on these motifs would, due to the great richness and theological depth of this Gospel, take much more space than is permitted for this essay. When approaching a discussion on the Fourth Gospel, one can easily sympathize with John’s feelings in 21:25. The purpose of this essay is to give a brief overview on the more prominent Christological themes, particularly in relation to the Synoptics.

[2] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003). 280. Keener further states that this radical Christology is the focus of the Gospel, and that, contrary to common ancient biographies, expounded no negative perspectives of Jesus.

[3] Cf. Andrew T. Lincoln, The Gospel According to Saint John (London: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005). 59. Also, Andreas J. Kostenberger, A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009). 316. Lincoln states,

“As would be expected from an ancient biography, the Fourth Gospel’s focus is on the subject, Jesus of Nazareth. What would not necessarily be expected from an ancient biography, but what immediately becomes clear, is that its subject is so closely related to the God of Israel that the focus on Jesus of Nazareth also becomes a focus on God. What are reflected in the narrative’s actions and symbols are convictions not only about Jesus but about God, so that Christology and theology are intimately interwoven.” (p. 59).

[4] C. K. Barrett, Essays on John (London: SPCK, 1982). 16.

[5] Kostenberger. 294. Also, T. C. Smith, “Christology of the Fourth Gospel,” Review & Expositor 71, no. Winter (1974). 23.

[6] Richard Bauckham, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007). 241.

[7] Lincoln. 60.

[8] David A. deSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2004). 418. Sundberg states that the Gospel, having “developed in more intimate, personal terms, this material has as its background the heavenly servants-of-God and Wisdom motifs of the Jewish scriptures. It features full, total obedience and subservience to God but with such personal intimacy as is totally lacking from the more sedate, heavenly throne-room of the Jewish literature.” (Albert C. Sundberg, Christology in the Fourth Gospel (Chicago: Chicago Society of Biblical Research, 1976). 29.)

[9] Bauckham. 240. There would only be a contradiction if Jesus was neither associated with the same God of Israel, nor associated with creation (i.e. was not himself created). John presents Jesus as having the very same identity of the one, true God.

[10] Kostenberger. 316.

[11] Ibid. 167-7.

[12] George Mlakuzhyil, The Christocentric Literary Structure of the Fourth Gospel (Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1987). 244.

[13] Smith. 23-4.

[14] Ibid. 25. Also, Lincoln. 65. Lincoln further notes the contrast with “Son of God,” and “children of God” when referring to believers, emphasizing Jesus’ unique sonship, and our adoption.

[15] In Greek literature, warriors were often called “sons of god,” the 70 Canaan gods were “sons of the chief god,” and in the Zhou dynasty in China, kings were called “sons of heaven.” (Keener. 291-2.)

[16] Ibid. 295.

[17] Ibid. 297. Thus, Lord was often reserved for divine titles. The vocative kurie was used elsewhere, usually translate as “Sir” or “Master,” but when nominative, was generally reserved for recognition of divine authority.

[18] Kostenberger. 316-18.

[19] According to Lincoln, “later rabbinic literature can speak of a person’s agent as the equivalent of that person.” (Lincoln. 60).

[20] Ibid. 60. And, William Loader, The Christology of the Fourth Gospel (Germany: Verlag Peter Lang, 1989). 30-32.

[21] Lincoln. 60.

[22] Loader. 33. He goes on to argue that “the most important and outstanding feature of the author’s Christology is the dominance of the pattern of the revealer envoy, the coming and going of the Son, from and to the Father,” (205). In light of the Father, Mlakuzhyil notes that pathr (father) is used 120 times, and, hence, a very prominent theme. (Mlakuzhyil. 243). As Loader further argues, the Father sends the Son, and authorizes the Son (Loader. 30-31).

[23] Bauckham. 243-44.

[24] Lincoln. 68. Cf. Exodus 3.

[25] James F. McGrath, John’s Apologetic Christology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001). 106.

[26] Bauckham. 243.

[27] Ibid. 243.

[28] Kostenberger. 317.

[29] Cf. Bauckham. 241.

[30] McGrath. 78.

[31] Lincoln. 60.

[32] Smith. 20.

[33] Cf. Kostenberger. Kostenberger states,

Indeed, the strategic decisions made by John in relation to the Synoptic pattern are bold. They represent a conscious and theologically sophisticated effort to interpret for the reader the significance of Jesus’ coming and ministry in a way that builds on and is compatible with the Synoptic portrait, but yet advances beyond it and thus is able to deepen the reader’s understanding of Jesus’ mission in many ways…it is hard to imagine John’s gospel apart from the Synoptic pattern, which looms large and remains discernible in the way in which John has chosen to interpret, develop, and supplement it. (p. 563).

[34] Robert Kysar, “Christology and Controversy: The Contributions of the Prologue of the Gospel of John to the New Testament Christology and Their Historical Setting,” Currents in Theology and Mission 5, no. 6 (1978). 356.

[35] Everett F. Harrison, “The Christology of the Fourth Gospel in Relation to the Synoptics,” Bibliotheca Sacra October, no. (1959). 306.

[36] Ibid. 309.

[37] deSilva. 409.

[38] Harrison. 304.

[39] Kostenberger. 551.

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2 thoughts on “Christology in the Fourth Gospel

  1. mydigitalseminary on said:

    Hello. Thank you for this post. I’ve been looking for information about Johannine Christology and this is one of the best posts I’d yet found. I was wondering if you’ve read Gordon Fee’s Pauline Christology? If so, is there a book you’d recommend for Jonanning Christology that is similar in style, or at least in depth? Thanks!

    • Hi! Thankyou for reading! I’m glad you liked it 🙂
      I haven’t read Fee’s book, but I’ll keep my eye out for it. I’ve found Kostenberger helpful in Johannine studies, but any of the referenced material helped.

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