It is not enough to tick off the series of events and learn lessons from them.
Teaching and Testimony
First, we must imagine John, writing this account as an old man. The gospel you and I hold in our hands is the final collated and edited version of John’s testimony and teaching. Some sections—most notably, the prologue and epilogue—are additions to the core testimony that comprised his gospel. This story, these chapters, are part of the first draft, which (the scholars I follow) believe was first published somewhere around 80 AD, about fifty years after these things happened.
This was John’s testimony, so that his listeners might come to know and believe in Jesus. This is the testimony he preached as John and Peter together evangelized throughout Jerusalem, in those early days.
The version you and I have includes more material, the continued teaching John did of what Jesus had given the disciples. John also included a response to how the other gospels were landing on their readers, he wanted to clarify the timeline, and some of the events that appear in the other gospels.
After the first edition of John’s gospel was published, persecution of Christians had become more severe. Paul comforted and encouraged the assemblies in each place where he had brought the gospel. You and I read about his bracing words of courage to those suffering believers in such letters as 1 and 2 Thessalonians.
John and Peter also sent letters of encouragement and teaching during that time, to those who had learned the gospel from them. We have some of those letters in 1, 2 Peter, and in 1, 2, and 3 John.
When John died (as the epilogue to his gospel indicates), it became clear to the one who posthumously published the gospel you and I now have, that the rest of Jesus’ teaching, which John had surely previously already written down for those in his care, needed to be combined with John’s testimony.
For many of the people now reading John’s gospel were believers in great peril and anguish. They needed the courage and comfort Jesus had given his disciples that first night, so long ago, before they had entered into their own anguish.
And there is one last piece to this.
John had already been preaching his testimony, and teaching the things of Christ, for fifty years before he set pen to paper. So, when he wrote his testimony down, he wrote it in a very particular way, to convey a feeling, a sense, as well as intellectual knowledge. One of my favorite commentators put it this way,
The story of Jesus’s arrest, interrogation by the priests, trial before Pilate, and crucifixion is traditionally called the Passion Narrative. The word “passion” comes from the Greek word pathos. Aristotle describes pathos as “an action resulting in destruction or distress such as death on stage, agony, or other forms of affliction” (Poet.1452b. 12), and tragic pathos as an action that arouses pity and fear (1453b. 32). The Gospel of John contains a Passion Narrative only insofar as it ends in Jesus’s death since Jesus expresses no distress. The story is told in a way that prevents the audience from pitying Jesus or fearing and thus seeking to avoid a similar fate.Jo-Ann A. Brant, John (italics are mine)
John, as an old man now, wanted Christians who were facing terrifying circumstance, the constant threat of gruesome deaths, of being cast out of their synagogues and communities, of being shunned and vilified by those who had once loved them, of being arrested, imprisoned, of their belongings confiscated, turned out of even their own homes, to know that Jesus lived what he taught.
- Theirs was heavenly shalom.
- Theirs was victory over the world, over sin and death, in Christ.
- Theirs was indwelling God, for the Father and the Son had made their home within each believer, and were present in a particular way among every gathering of believers.
- Theirs was eternal life in Christ.
So as we experience Passion week through John’s pen, we imagine these true events in all their clamor and alarm, the followers of Jesus thrown into confusion and despair, each event, with Jesus’s dignity and authority at the center, the eye of the hurricane, the powerful convergence of all forces so fearsome there is silence.
In fact, every time Jesus is silent, I think it helps to picture him this way. He is The Power, and all other powers buffet helplessly in their frantic zeal to make him move from the center.
Secondly . . .
I said there was a first, so here is the second.
There is such a thing as telling a story from 10,000 feet in the air, rather than be on the ground, inside the story. Imagine a reporter riding along with tornado chasers, or hurricane evacuation teams. They are inside the story as it is happening. For those of us who have experienced such extreme events, we remain glued to our news stations, hoping that reporter will show us what is going on, as the wind whips around them, the sleet and hail fall, the walls of water crash against the cliff, or the earth bucks and heaves beneath them.
Reading the same account in a news column does not convey the same story. Certainly the events and aftermath are accurately reported. But it is a far different thing to see and hear towering trees fall amid the flying sparks of a roaring fire, the volcano belching black clouds of smoke and white mists of ash behind them. How much more so to sense the scorch of the heat and stinging eyes, smell the acrid odor of burning, and feel the flood of terror and horror weakening every muscle.
So, to truly read John’s account, it is better, I think, to try to get down from our usual 10,000 feet, and attempt to get inside the story, to experience it, to be among the disciples and soldiers, to watch Jesus and watch Judas.
See if you can do it before I give you my own imagined sense of the scene on Monday.
This is a paid link to two commentaries I highly recommend, if you would like to dive deeper into the Gospel of John:
[Tornado, Lightning, Sky | pixy.org]