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Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

260. Symbolism in John's Gospel

It is hardly possible to read the Fourth Gospel without being impressed with the symbolic character of its language. This is true, of course, of every book in the Bible to a greater or less extent. But the variety and subtlety of John's use of symbolic phraseology is in a class to itself. And it comes in all shapes and sizes as this survey will attempt to show.

Such expressions as "the Light shineth in darkness" (1:5), "living water" (4:10,14), and "I have meat to eat that ye know not of" (4:32), "Are there not twelve hours in the day?" (11:9) - this in response to a warning about the danger of arrest. All such phrases embody ideas that the reader feels he can take in his stride, for the basic notions seem to be obvious. It is only after long experience that suspicions arise that there is more profundity here than was at first suspected. The last two examples just cited (both from John 4) should go some way towards persuading the alert reader that there is a fair degree of important allegory in the rest of this detailed account of Christ's encounter with the women of Samaria. In chapter 26, an attempt has been made to bring out some of the underlying meanings.

There are plenty of instances of this kind of thing right through this Gospel.

OT Allusion

More than this, it soon becomes obvious that many of these examples of symbolic language have their roots in the Old Testament; whereas Matthew likes to gear up his Lord's work to explicit citation of the Old Testament, John delights in reporting how his Master made copious passing allusion to a wide variety of Scriptures - a practice which he himself indulges in to a quite remarkable extent.

"Behold an Israelite indeed in whom is no guile...angels ascending and descending upon the Son of man" (Jn.l:47,51).

"Bread from heaven" (Jn.6:41), but how many pick up also the allusions (in 6:27) to uncorrupting manna in a golden pot (Ex.16:33)?

"As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness..." (Jn.3:14).

It was according to Old Testament prophecy (Ps.22:18) that Roman soldiers were unwilling to rend the robe of Jesus (a priestly garment - chiton, Heb: ch'toneth), this in marked contrast with the robe of Caiaphas, rent by its owner — an impressive dramatic irony!

"Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world" (1:29) immediately sends any Bible-familiar mind enquiring restlessly whether this is an allusion to the daily burnt-offering, to the Passover Lamb, or to Isaiah's peerless prophecy.

Old Testament links of this kind are relatively easy to pick up. But how many more there are of a more subtle character. For instance:

When the risen Lord was first seen by Mary Magdalene, there in a Garden, she — a woman, alone — called him first the Gardener, and then teacher (John 20:15,16). What a contrast, in this last detail with the woman in the first garden who set herself to teach her gardener husband, who was her lord!

Just before that, Mary had seen in the empty tomb, two angels sitting one at the head, and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. How like cherubim in the Holy of Holies guarding a blood-anointed mercy seat!

It was this Mary also who anointed the head and feet of Jesus, as though he were a Passover Lamb ("his head with his legs;" Ex. 1 2:9). And this was done six days before the Passover (Jn. 1 2:1), on the tenth day of Nisan (Ex. 1 2:3). Jesus understood all this instantaneously, even though so many of his disciples do not: "Against the day of my burying hath she kept this (commandment)" (12:7). And the trial and condemnation of Jesus took place on "the Preparation" (19:14). Why did John not write "the day before the Sabbath"? Did he want to remind his readers that that day, all Jewry were preparing their Passover lamb?

On the night of his arrest and humiliation, Jesus went forth from Jerusalem over the brook Kidron (1 8:1). Why this unusual geographical detail, except to remind the reader (if he wants to be reminded) of how, a thousand years earlier, David must needs leave his holy city, despised and rejected (2 Sam. 15:23; see fuller details in chapter 214).

Was it important that John should record that the temple was "forty and six years in building"? No, not necessary. But how effective a reminder to discerning readers that it had needed forty years in the wilderness followed by six years of conquest before a Joshua-Jesus had established c House of God in the Land of Promise.

Again, why does John mention, in chapter 2, that Jesus "went down" to Capernaum (2:12), and then says nothing about Jesus in Capernaum until four chapters and two years later (6:59)? But an Old Testament-trained mind catches there the echo of the ancient idiom which describes a manifestation of God among His people, as God "going down" (Gen. 11:5,7; Ex. 19:18,20). The words are so appropriate to the Lord's first public act of authority — the cleansing of the temple (2:11 uses the word "manifested").

John 11:49,50 has a mysterious passage about Caiaphas making pronouncement that "one man must die for the people, and the whole nation perish not... Caiaphas prophesied, being high priest that year." The last phrase appears to be a sublime irrelevancy, until it is observed that only once a year did the high priest "prophesy", that is, declare the will of God to the people; and that was when he cast the divine lot on the Day of Atonement to decide which goat should die as a sin-offering for God's people; "and not for that nation only", but for the Gentiles also, as Lev. 16:29 pointedly declares. Thus only very indirectly does John intimate that he is harnessing Old Testament symbolism in his message concerning the death of his Lord.

Double Meanings

What is surely the most remarkable expression of the apostle John's symbolic mind is his frequent inclusion in his narrative of small, apparently unimportant, factual details which, when the record is read just as a bald narrative, seem to add little or nothing to the religious value of this Gospel. It is the easiest thing in the world to throw together a number of examples of this kind of thing:

"Judas went out (from the Last Supper), and it was night" (1 3:30). But of course it was night. Was it not a supper that was in progress? Yet who has not sensed the double meaning here —of the darkness of night descending on the soul of Judas as he left the fellowship of the Light of the World?

Again, "these things spake Jesus in the treasury, as he taught in the temple" (8:20). Does that mention of the treasury add anything at all to this record? Is this detail there to suggest the divine value of what the people were hearing? In the light of other examples this seems distinctly possible: The overturning of money tables during the cleansing of the temple was not only a protest against such mercenary activities in God's House, but also an open demonstration of the worthlessness of the practices and teaching dispensed by these 'holy' men; and the scourge of small cords in Jesus' hand, useless as a weapon, told them that they must choose between leaving the House of God and staying to endure the scourge of the disciples he would wield against them.

On a later occasion "Jesus walked in Solomon s porch." Here was the Son of God dispensing the wisdom of Solomon. "It was the feast of dedication, and it was winter," (Jn. 10:22,23). He was calling to men to dedicate their loyalty to himself, but the response given him was as frigid as the weather.

When Mary anointed her Lord at the meal-table, "the house was filled with the odour of the ointment' (1 2:3). Truly a fragrant detail to include in the story. But there is more to it than this. The parallel records in Matthew and Mark give the Master's pronouncement that "wheresoever the gospel is preached, this that this woman hath done shall be told for a memorial of her" (Mt. 26: 1 3). And so it has been. The House of God has been Oiled with the aroma of that ointment from that day to this.

The gospels tell of only one occasion when Jesus went to Gethsemane. Bur if is John who odds: "Jesus at oft-times resorted tfrfher" (1 8:2), thus so delicately implying that those visits to Jerusalem involved many Gethsemane experiences!

How trenchantly John mentions that Nicodemus came to Jesus "by night", fearing lest he be thought sympathetic to the teaching of the Nazarene: But then, when Jesus was only a corpse waiting to be thrown out into Gehenna, Nicodemus came boldly into the open as an avowed disciple. And John briefly but warmly fells the story for wherever the gospel is preached this story also must be told for a memorial of him.

One of the most pleasing of all the symbolic vouches in John's narrative is the careful detail about the two resurrections in this gospel. At the Lord’s command Lazarus “came forth bound hand and foot with grave clothes” (11:44). By contrast, Peter and John entering the Lord’s sepulchere found the wrappings apparently undisturbed, but without a body; yet the napkin that was about his head “not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together (as though folded away) in a place by itself.”

Thus is represented the great resurrection truth: “Christ the firstfruits, afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming: (1Cor 15:23) – an assigned interval between the resurrection of Christ the Head and the resurrection of his Body. Also, whereas Lazarus , the Lord’s disciple emerges from the tomb with all the trappings of mortality about him, in Christ ‘s experience these are left behind – the disciple must needs be mortal in that Day, until he receives from his Judge and Lord the blessing of Life, but not so Christ.

John surely does not need to bid is reader set alongside these pregnant details that which Luke twice mentions about Jesus when he emerged from the womb, that Mary “wrapped him in swaddling clothes” (Lk. 2:7, 12). In what more sensitive way could a gospel writer hint at the true humanity of the Son of God.

Jew-Gentile Problems

It has to be remembered that all the time when John was writing, the crucial questions agitating the growing church of Christ were two related problems concerning the Gentiles. Was the gospel to be preached to them as well as to Jews? and if so, what sort of fellowship was to exist between the two communities? The early brethren were never far away from these headaches. Matthew had his own special way of setting out his Lord's will concerning these worries (see chapter 171). John says the same (of course!), but in his own characteristic fashion. He inserts such incidental details as these:

"Jesus left (abandoned) Judaea, and went into Galilee (of the Gentiles). And he must needs go through Samaria." (4:3,4). But he did not need to go through Samaria; there was another road, much more used by the Jews. But there was a spiritual necessity to take both himself and his message (and his disciples) to the Samaritans, as the rest of the chapter shows in much detail.

It was in Cana of Galilee where he made the water into wine (4:46).

When Jews in Jerusalem rejected him, taking up stones to stone him for his "blasphemy', he "hid himself, and went out of the temple... and so passed by (by-passed them)" (8:59).

After a similar rough rejection in Jerusalem Jesus "went away again beyond Jordan... and many resorted unto him" (10:40,41).

Beginning to be desperately worried, "the Pharisees said among themselves . . the World is gone after him" (12:19). So Caiaphas was not the only prophet.

The same passage now continues more explicitly: "Certain Greeks (not Grecian Jews) ... came to Philip,. Sir. we would see Jesus" This development gave the Lord great satisfaction, a real refreshment of spirit: "The hour is come that the Son of man should be glorified'' (12:20-24) John doesn't trouble to say that Jesus acceded to their request; but of course he did.

There is a specially eloquent passage in John 11, after the hostility of the rulers crystallized out into vicious scheming to destroy him: “Jesus therefore walked no more openly among the Jews, but went thence unto a country near to the wilderness into a city called Ephraim (which means Double Fruitfulness) and there continued with his disciples (11:54). Can if be doubted that here is a neat symbolic prophecy of Jewish rancour to be meted out to the early church and to the encouraging reception given to the Gospel in the wilderness of the Gentiles (e.g. Acts 13:46)?

When Jesus was arrested in Gethsemane, Peter’s stout effort to defend his Master resulted in Malchus, the high priest's servant, losing his right ear. This man was there as the representative of the high priest who had been consecrated by being touched on his right ear, with the holy oil. Then would not this episode be seen as a de-consecrating of Caiaphas, the end of his priestly office? The same thing was foreshadowed in the Lord's trial when Caiaphas rent his own robe. Of course he merely intended a melodramatic gesture; but others saw more meaning in it than that! and also in the later episode when, at the crucifixion, the robe of Jesus was not rent. The Greek word there means 'a priestly robe.' So this unrent robe expresses a precious truth to those who know Jesus as their High Priest.

The recurrence of narrative features such as these can hardly be written off as coincidence.

Now the long detailed account of Christ's encounter with the woman of Samaria can be readily seen as a directive to the early church in Jerusalem not to disdain the hated Samaritans but to make an earnest effort to gather them into the fold of the gospel. Not only does the main theme of John 4 point such a lesson but also a variety of details in that chapter now light up with double meaning. The trouble is that any attempt to bring out, by words of explanation, the subtle flavour of some of these, can lead only to a flat rather insipid interpretation of such meaningful phrases. One needs the apostle's symbolic spectacles, and a perceptive insight to malch that of this beloved disciple.

Jesus' begging for a drink (4:7) suggests right away the Lord's need for spiritual refreshment springing from a ready response in these Samaritans to his message of truth (cp. also v.32)

"How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me...?" Was not the barrier between Jew and Samaritan quite insuperable? Jesus did not answer this expression of perplexity, for the explanation lay within his own soul and its yearning to save these people from their own religious ignorance. Was he not sitting there by the well of Jacob to whom God had made a great Promise that "in thy seed shall all families of the earth (the Land?) be blessed" (Gen. 28:14)?

When Jesus suggested that she share his "living water", and yet he had no pitcher, she saw at once that the symbolic had become more important that the literal: "Thou art not greater, art thou, than our father Jacob...?" She clung in faith to her descent from the great patriarch. Was not this well God's token of the promise given to Jacob? He drank of it, and his children (the Jews), and his cattle (we Samaritans are at least on that level).

All the time the conversation was on this discerning level. She really wanted this "living water," and was prepared to let go dependence on Jacob's well and Jacob's Promise, for "living water" promised fulfilment. She even disallowed her five husbands (the Mosaic books which Samaritans pinned their faith in), and also her current enthusiasm for one who was no husband at all (but only a contemporary bogus Messiah). Instead she now recognized this stranger as the Prophet like unto Moses.

Then, would this new loyalty mean abandoning Gerizim for Jerusalem? Not so! Jesus offered a Faith superior to anything Samaritan or Jew could rejoice in — a religion independent of outward forms but centring on the life of the spirit, a faith which did not need to cling to ancient types and shadows but one which saw their solid Truth in a God-given Man.

All these things (John saw with his unique faculty of spiritual insight) would have a Samaritan realisation in the message now so subtly spoken to this woman.

The rest of the Sychar story became a prophetic and symbolic extension. She left her waterpot and her attachment to Jacob's well and with an enthusiasm and assurance which the literal story hardly warrants, she bade her fellow-Samaritans believe. And they did, first believing her word and then much more emphatically believing Jesus after he had slept and risen again. But Jesus did not stay there. He had other work to do. So he left this mission to be completed later on by his disciples. Acts 8 tells how they did it.

Further examples

It should not be thought that the foregoing assemblage of examples of symbolism in John exhausts all the possibilities. Here is brief mention of more passages worth attention from this point of view:

Chapter 7, with its long account of one of Christ's encounters with his adversaries has a remarkable series of similarities with the antagonism and danger that Paul ran into in Jerusalem (Acts 21,22).

The brief mention of a loss of many Jewish disciples and of a secret apostolic defection (6:59,60,64-66) can similarly be read as an ominous prophecy of the problem created in the first century by Judaist unbelief within the fellowship of the early church, ("Acts" H.A.W Appendix 3).

The difference in appreciation of the sepulchre experience by John and Peter (20:4) has a meaning beyond the superficial fact (and so also, very markedly, in the diverse understanding in 12:28-30). Also, there is further significance in tife use of a most expressive word which describes how apostles and then Mary Magdalene and also angels stooped down to peer into the tomb (20:5,11; 1 Pet. 1:12).

In chapter 185 the record of the washing of the disciples' feet (Jn. 13) has been shown to have lovely symbolic overtones concerning the new priesthood to which the apostles were about to be appointed. And close to this in idea is the private inquiry made to Jesus about the guilty apostle, a question put by one who was in the bosom of Jesus. The links here with high-priestly judgement of guilt or innocence by means of Urim and Thummim are very striking (see "Samuel, Saul, David" Appendix 1).

There is double meaning also about the Lord's words: "Of them whom thou gavest me I have lost none" (17:1 2; 18:8,9).

The triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, certainly a dress-rehearsal of the Second Coming, was not understood by the disciples (12:16). Is there here an ominous anticipation of reprehensible incomprehension by disciples in the Day when their Lord comes into his Holy City, their expectations as to when and how being all awry?

Some place names and personal names seem to be used with specific allusion to their meaning. "Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews" is surely intended to steer the reader back to Isaiah ] 1:1 and its message about the Branch, the Messianic King, for Nazareth means the town of the Branch (note Jn. 7:52 also). Jesus himself made pointed play on the names Cephas and Peter. And 1 9:12 seems to ask the reader to note the echo in the name "Pilate" of a Hebrew word meaning "escape".

Bethabara (Jn. 1:28), Salim (Jn. 3:23), and Sychar (Jn. 4:5) are all worth looking at from this angle.

More abundant Material

Two of the obvious facets of the symbolism in John's Gospel, which together make up a very considerable element in this record of Christ's acts and teaching are:

  1. the parables, so different from those in the Synoptic Gospels; e.g. the True Vine, the Good Shepherd, ''my Flesh and my Blood;"
  2. the sequence of miracles described here; they are never called miracles, but always signs.
In the first of these two groups if would be absurd to claim that these allegories were intended to make only one main point. In these, every statement is of value. There is not one which does not have a special meaning.

And so also with the other group. In the relevant chapters in this volume attempts have been made, not as fully as they might have been, to treat each separate sign as an acted parable. In some the meaningful quality of each separate detail stands out clearly. In two or three instances such a point-by-point interpretation does not come quite so readily. But that may be due to the reader's inadequacy rather than to a difference in character, in any case the intensely symbolic quality of these miracles is not disputed. But readers would do well not to be fobbed off with the suggestion of "one main idea" to be discerned in this sign or that. For example, it is not sufficient to sum up the Feeding of the Multitude with "Jesus is the Bread of Life", nor will it do merely to describe the Bethesda healing as "a re-interpretation of the Sabbath Law", nor to sum up that powerful story about the man born blind with such a phrase as "Jesus the Light of the World". An acted parable like that about Jesus at Jacob's well should surely coax students to further effort and, please God, to fuller insight.


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