[Here’s all the previous parts: Part 1 (Introduction–Construction of the Gospels), Part 2 (Incarnation and the Wisdom Literature), Part 3 (John and his community–The Jews), Part 4 (More on Community, Feasts, Doc. and Cov. 7), Part 5 (John and ecclesiology–Joseph Smith’s Struggle), Part 6 (John and Joseph Smith’s revelations and preaching–Holy Ghost–Election), Part 7 (John and the Historicity of Scripture).]
You can read the whole series here.
I’m summarizing a few things here, so there are spoilers for the previous posts if you haven’t read them.
I mentioned that in John, there are no apostles. He knows about the Twelve, but he never gives a list and they are among the disciples, never called apostles. The heroic character in the Gospel has no name, is utterly invisible to the other Evangelists, but Jesus loves him. The disciple whom Jesus loved. In John, Jesus’ ministry is in Jerusalem, his followers are in Jerusalem. John seems to narrate a different end of the ministry where followers have a different background from Galilee. The language is much more like that of the Dead Sea Scrolls compared to the other Gospels. Light and Darkness divides the world, the Prince of this World over against the Light of the World. Very like the people of the scrolls (and Joseph Smith’s Olive Leaf for instance). There were different Jewish theologies, and people understood Jesus against their own tapestry of background beliefs. John seems to give us the tradition of a different group of followers to be distinguished from the Galilean group.
John’s Gospel seems to differ from say Mark in the sense that Mark is surely a Gospel that arose from preaching and it’s cleverly organized for that. Instead, John seems to come from a different heritage. It’s the Gospel that uses the most legal language. It begins using the word “testimony” in discussing John the Baptist: “this is the testimony that John gave.” Jesus goes into his witnesses, “I don’t testify of myself.” John tells us that if you testify that Jesus was the Messiah, you will be tossed out of the synagogue. The blind man is an example. He’s excluded from the Jewish community. The Gospel is organized around testimony of Jesus’ actions and speech. They, the Johannine community, were subject to the Jewish court, and the Gospel reflects this judicial attitude. The Jews are liars and lack courage, for the writer. In John there are Samaritan converts and John seems to be shaped somewhat by Samaritan attitudes. This would have been very offensive to Jewish authorities. John’s articulation of Jesus’ divinity is alarming to “the Jews.” John’s Christology is the highest in the New Testament, only Hebrews comes close (see note 7 here).
John is not writing for the synagogue, or even against it, he’s writing so you may believe that Jesus is the Son of God. It’s not about the kingdom, it’s about Life, Eternal Life, Jesus has this gift and he can give it to others. Only if you understand Jesus’ origins can you have the faith to receive this gift, and Joseph Smith uses this in a number of ways: you have to know God, understand who God is, to be like him, to get the gift of Eternal Life. Joseph uses John 5 in a strange new way, at the same time linking it with John 17:
The apostle says this is eternal life, to know God and Jesus Christ, whom he has sent. If any man enquire what kind of a being is God, if he will search diligently his own heart, if the declaration of the apostle by true, he will realize that he has not eternal life, there can be eternal life on no other principle . . .
What did Jesus do? “why I do the things I saw my Father do when worlds came rolling into existence.”
You have to know this to understand your destiny and to inherit it. This all seems based around John.
For John, it’s this that makes you God’s children, you can call him Father, because you gain God’s own life. Jesus says to Mary, “go and tell my brothers I’m ascending to my God and your God, my Father and your Father.” John has great skill in dramatizing characters and events. He doesn’t appeal to the crowd stories and many miracles. He picks out a few, and makes them utterly memorable. The Samaritan woman, the blind man, Lazarus. If you contemplate carefully, the stories seem to be about you, and I think the Book of Mormon has this genius (and especially for nineteenth-century Americans) and it uses bits of John’s language to help show it in many cases. Nephi, Abinadi, Alma, Mormon, they all have elements of John’s thought. This year, as you read the Book of Mormon again, it’s a fun exercise to try to see it. Of course, you’ll probably have to read John too.
John shows Jesus is from another world by his mysterious language. With the woman at the well, there is this confusion about water. She asks for water, but he’s not talking about H2O. The blind man gets sight, but he doesn’t have true vision until he believes. Lazarus gets renewed life, but he will die again. The kind of life Jesus wants to give can’t be touched by death. When Lazarus comes out of the tomb, he has clothes on. When Jesus exits the tomb, he has left the clothing behind. He doesn’t need it now. And when you’re going to baptize someone, it seems only appropriate to site such examples (indeed, early Christians were baptized naked). It’s not a question of history exactly. And we can’t answer whether John’s presentation, or Matthew’s or Nephi’s is more accurate or important. They speak to us in different ways and there is this richness that can touch the heart in need. And I think if nothing else, Joseph Smith shows us some of the possibilities in the deep theological range of John. It’s there for us to mine for ourselves.