The Paraclete as a “replacement Jesus” and the Doctrine of the Trinity (John 16; Trinity Sunday, Year C)

This coming Sunday is designated as Trinity Sunday. It’s an unusual occurrence, for two reasons. First, it’s the only time in the Christian calendar that a Sunday is named for a doctrine, rather than for a biblical story. And second, it is unusual in that it presents problems for the shapers of the lectionary, since (in my view) the Doctrine of the Trinity is not actually proclaimed in the biblical texts.

Yes, there are passages that canvass some aspects of the Doctrine—how the Son relates to the Father, what is the essential character of God, how the Spirit was experienced and understood, and how Son and Spirit might relate. But there is no biblical passage which articulates the full scope of the Doctrine of the Trinity: God is three, God is one, Father, Son, and Spirit, consubstantial, co-eternal, while unending ages run (as it were).

That’s quite understandable, since the full expression of this Doctrine took a number of centuries to develop, after the period in which the texts of the New Testament were written. If the latest NT text comes from the end of the first century, the earliest form of the Doctrine of the Trinity is found in the Apostles’ Creed, adopted by the Council of Nicea in 325 CE, and a more fulsome and complex form is to be found in the Nicene Creed, adopted by the Council of Constantinople in 381 CE.

So we should not expect the lectionary to provide any texts which set out the Doctrine of the Trinity. What we do find, however, is that certain texts are offered, in which some, or all, of the three persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Spirit—are in view.

In fact, two texts name all three persons in a quasi-formulaic way: the benediction at the close of 2 Corinthians 13, and final words of Jesus in Matthew 28. Indeed, these two passages are set for Trinity Sunday in the first of the three years of the lectionary, Year A. Associated with these two passages is a text that expounds something of the nature of one of these persons, God the Creator, in Genesis 1.

In Year B, two texts are offered which focus somewhat on the third person of the Trinity, the Spirit: Romans 8, where Paul wrestles with the role of the Sprit, and John 3, the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, which includes reference to the Spirit. The Hebrew Scripture offering in Year C draws from the wonderful depiction of Wisdom in Proverbs 8; while the epistle in Year C, from Romans 5, appears to be included because it manages to refer to each of the three person of the Trinity within the space of five verses.

The Gospel offered in Year C (the current year) is just a short section (John 16:12–15) from the last chapter in the lengthy “farewell discourses” of Jesus (chs. 14–16), which John reports as being given to the disciples at the last meal that Jesus shared with his followers (from 13:1 onwards). It contains the fourth of four brief references in these “farewell discourses” to the Spirit, identified as “the Spirit of truth” (14:17; 15:26; 16:13), the parakletos (14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7) and “the Holy Spirit” (14:26).

These passages are considered to provide some biblical material for the Doctrine of the Trinity relating specifically to the third person, the Holy Spirit. In particular, I am interested in how the Spirit is defined in relation to the other two persons of the Trinity.

There are three ways in which the Spirit is defined in relation to Jesus. First, the Spirit is identified as a parakletos—a word with multiple translation options. It could mean one who advocates for, one who provides counsel, one who offers help, or one who gives comfort.

See https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/07/the-paraclete-in-john-15-exploring-the-array-of-translation-options/

Whatever option we take in translating this word, it is striking that Jesus says that the main role of the Spirit (at least as we encounter the explanation in this gospel) is to be “another parakletos” (14:16). The implication is that Jesus himself has been a parakletos—an implication that is confirmed when we read the statement in 1 John, that “we have a parakletos with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1–2).

This first statement about the Spirit thus places the Spirit in the position that Jesus had whilst living in human form amongst the people of Israel. The Spirit is the present manifestation of the role that Jesus of Nazareth had all those centuries ago. The Spirit is, in effect, a “replacement Jesus”.

Indeed, this is strengthened by the affirmation that this figure will “abide with you … and be in you”, precisely the same terminology used of Jesus in the earlier parable of the vine (“abide in me and I abide in you”, 15:4) and in the final prayer that Jesus prays before his arrest (“may [they] be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one”, 17:22–23]). The reality of the presence of the Spirit is the same as the reality of the presence of Jesus when he was with the disciples.

This idea is confirmed by the second statement about the parakletos, who is the one “whom the Father will send in my name” (14:26), the one “whom I will send to you from the Father” (15:26). Indeed, Jesus makes it clear that “if I do not go away, the parakletos will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (16:7). This seems to suggest that the Spirit is unable to take up the role assigned to it until Jesus has departed from his followers—the Spirit is a “replacement Jesus”.

Indeed, at an earlier point in the narrative, on “the last day of the festival, the great day” (7:37; the festival referred to was Booths, 7:2), Jesus was speaking about the Spirit, and portraying the “rivers of living water” that the Spirit would give, as something still to come. The narrator informs us that he was speaking “about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (7:37–39).

This, of course, is directly contradicted by the many references in Hebrew Scripture to the activity of the Spirit in Israel (Gen 1:1–2; Job 33:4; Ps 104:30; Isa 42:5, 44:3, 48:16, 59:21, 61:1, 63:11–14; Num 11:16–17; Deut 34:9; 1 Sam 10:6, 19:23–24; Ezek 37:1; Joel 2:28–29). Nevertheless, the definitive arrangement of things that is held to quite firmly in the book of signs, is that the Spirit comes only after Jesus has returned to the Father.

The language of sending is used frequently in the fourth Gospel, in describing the relationship between the Father and the Son. The Father is regularly described as the one who sent the Son (3:34; 4:34; 5:23, 30; 6:29, 39, 44, 57; 7:16, 18, 28–29, 33; 8:16, 18, 26, 29, 42; etc). In the final prayer of Jesus, the Father is “him who sent me” (17:3, 8, 18, 21, 23, 25). Amongst the final words of the risen Jesus, we hear Jesus say again, “as the Father has sent me” (20:21).

So, when Jesus refers to the parakletos as the one “whom the Father will send in my name” (14:26), he is reinforcing the notion that the Spirit is the “replacement Jesus”. This is further strengthened by the affirmation that the parakletos will “teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (14:26). The language of teaching also recalls a key function of Jesus, who “went up into the temple and began to teach” (7:14), who “sat down and began to teach” the people in the temple (8:2), who characterises his ministry as “I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together” (18:20).

Further, Jesus describes the role of the parakletos as “he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (16:15). Jesus has already declared that “my teaching is not mine but his who sent me” (7:16) and “the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me” (14:24); now he passes that divinely-given material on to the parakletos, clearly stating that “he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (16:14–15). The teaching function that the parakletos performs is to replicate the teaching role that Jesus has already enacted.

The content of the teaching provided by the parakletos is also evocative of the teaching that Jesus has provided. The parakletos will teach “about sin and righteousness and judgment” (16:8, expanded in 16:9–11). In relation to sin, what Jesus does as “the lamb of God” is to “take away the sin of the world” (1:29); he provides freedom from the slavery of sin (8:34–36), and the final commission that he gives his disciples (who are sent just as he has been sent) is to decree that they have the authority of grant forgiveness of sins (20:23).

Likewise, in relation to judgement, Jesus has stated, “as I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (5:30), and again, “even if I do judge, my judgment is valid; for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me” (8:16)—although later, Jesus asserts that “I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge” (12:47–48).

Thus, as the parakletos teaches about sin, and about judgement, the teachings of Jesus on these matters are repeated. (On the matter of righteousness—apart from a single reference to God as “righteous Father”, 17:25—this Gospel is silent.) Again, we see that the parakletos is a “replacement Jesus”.

Finally, the distinctive term used in this Gospel to describe the Spirit, “the Spirit of truth”, also reinforces this way of viewing the relationship between the Son and the Spirit. The Johannine Jesus is “the Word became flesh” who “lived among us … full of grace and truth” (1:14). It is through Jesus Christ that “grace and truth came” (1:17). Jesus describes himself to the leaders in Jerusalem as “a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God” (8:40), and to the Roman Governor, Pilate, he declares, “for this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (18:37).

So Jesus tells his followers that “if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (8:31–32), and even affirms unreservedly that “I am the truth” (14:6). Again, the language applied to the Spirit links in with key terminology that describes Jesus and his role. The Spirit of truth now teaches “the truth that will make you free”, that the one who is the truth had taught.

Finally, it is noteworthy that nowhere in the book of signs is there any direct statement about the relationship between Father and Sprit. Although Jesus states that “God is spirit” (4:24), the relationship is always, apparently, mediated through the Son: the Father sends the Son, the Son sends the parakletos; the Son teaches what the Father provides, the parakletos continues the teaching of Jesus; the Father incarnates the Word “in truth”, the Son teaches and is “the truth”, so the Spirit is named as “the Spirit of truth”.

In summary, the relationship between Son and Spirit reads to me as a quite hierarchical style of relationship—not at all a relationship of equals who abide in each other, who are of the same nature and share the same substance with one another, who exist co-eternally and inherit co-equally. Indeed, in the relationship between Father and Spirit/Parakletos, there is no direct link, as there is in the classic Doctrine of the Trinity; all is mediated through the Son, as we have seen. The fourth Gospel offers a different, distinctive—we might even say, unorthodox—theology of Father, Son, and Spirit/Parakletos.

The Trinity is a complex idea, a doctrine with many subsets and dimensions and component parts. Although there are passages in scripture which many say point to this doctrine, nevertheless gaining a full understanding of this doctrine really means entering into the world of metaphysics, philosophy, and linguistics of a later age.

All of this is beyond the capacity of the lectionary to provide, nor can it be done in a relatively brief reflection time within a Sunday worship service—and it runs the risk of charging away from the world of ideas in which the biblical texts were written, and opening up the danger of imposing later ideas, anachronistically, onto those texts.

The little passage from the Gospel of John that we encounter in the lectionary this coming Sunday actually points us in quite another direction!

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See also

Father, Son, and Disciples (I): the *real* trinity in John’s Gospel (John 17; Easter 7A,B,C)

“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” is a familiar phrase within the Christian Church. (“Holy Ghost” is used in more antiquated contexts.) The triune formula is uttered frequently, consistently, in all manner of church contexts (liturgical, catechetical, instructional, devotional), by all manner of church people (ordained and lay, stipended or voluntary, intensely devout or loosely affiliated).

This coming Sunday is the seventh Sunday in the season of Easter. Each year, on this Sunday, the lectionary takes us back to the long prayer attributed Jesus, recorded in John 17, and (by my reckoning) created by the anonymous author of this “book of signs” quite some decades after the lifetime of Jesus. In Year A, we read the first 11 verses. in Year B, we hear verses 6–19. In Year C, we are offered verses 20–26.

It’s a creative and insightful prayer, even if somewhat repetitive (as, indeed, is so much of this Gospel!). However, in my view, it draws together many key ideas that are peppered throughout the narrative of the preceding 16 chapters. And—also in my view—it offers another way for us to conceive of the relationship between Father, Son, and disciples; and because of that, it sets up the groundwork for a new take on “the trinity”.

This section of the book of signs—which we know as the Gospel according to John—that is offered by the lectionary each year, on the Seventh Sunday after Easter, is often called the Great High Priestly Prayer of Jesus (John 17:1–26). It is a prayer reported only in this Gospel, in a style that is distinctive to this Gospel. In this work, it represents the final climactic prayer of Jesus for those who are following him.

This prayer, I contend, sets before us a different trinity. Not the trinity of orthodox doctrine and liturgy. Rather, it is quite another trinity!

Let me explain. My argument has three main parts to it—not surprisingly, because it is, after all, about a three-part entity!

I The Spirit in John’s Gospel

First, let us note that references to the Spirit are few and far between in this Gospel. The Spirit is noted in John’s testimony about the baptism of Jesus (1:32–34) and then is referred to in passing in later statements by Jesus (3:34; 6:63; 7:39; 20:22), but no more expansive exposition of the role or significance of the Spirit is offered in this Gospel.

In three brief discussions during his farewell discourse with the disciples, Jesus refers to the Spirit as the Advocate (parakletos) (14:15–17, 26; 15:26: 16:12–15). In each instance, it is clear that the Advocate steps into the place that will be left empty after the departure of Jesus.

The role of the Advocate is a replacement role, rather than being one of the three personae in interrelationship within the triune Godhead. Other than these brief references, there is no indication of the Spirit as a personal entity in relationship with God or Jesus in this Gospel.

(For more on this figure in this Gospel, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/07/the-paraclete-in-john-15-exploring-the-array-of-translation-options/)

So the third person in the trinity in John’s Gospel: who is it?

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II The relationship between the Father and the Son

To get to that point, first, we need to observe the way that this Gospel sets out the intimate relationship between the Father and the Son. There are ten ways by which this relationship is described in this prayer; and indications of these ten ways of connecting can be found scatted throughout the long narrative about Jesus constructed by the author.

The central affirmation about Jesus in this Gospel is claiming the unity of the Son with the Father. “The Father and I are one”, Jesus has dramatically, and provocatively declared (10:30). (These words provoked “the Jews” to pick up stones to stone Jesus, 10:31.)

This affirmation is reiterated as Jesus prays to God: “we are one” (17:22). It is also expressed in the language of intimate and mutual interrelationship: “you, Father, are in me and I am an in you” (17:21; “you in me” is repeated in 17:23).

The intimate relationship of the Father and the Son has been noted already in the chapter where Jesus speaks about the vine and the branches, when he declares that “I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (15:10). The language of abiding recurs in the first letter attributed to John—although most likely from a different author (see 1 John 2:24, 28; 3:6, 24; 4:13–16).

The second way in which the Father and the Son are related is that the Father knows the Son, just as the Son knows the Father. “The world does not know you; but I know you”, Jesus prays (17:25). This mutual knowledge of one another has been affirmed earlier in controversies in Jerusalem (7:29; 8:55). Jesus is perfectly clear: “the Father knows me and I know the Father” (10:15).

Third, the Father loves the Son just as the Son loves the Father. This is expressed three times in this prayer (17:23, 24, 26). This again is a motif that has been expressed earlier, when Jesus affirms that “the Son loves the Father” (14:31) and that “the Son loves the Father” (15:9).

Fourth, there is a persistent theme running through the prayer, that the Father gifts the Son with a number of different gifts. These gifts include “authority over all people” (17:2), work to do (17:4), words to speak (17:8, 14), and glory (17:22, 24). The prayer also twice references “your name that you have given me” (17:11, 12). God’s gifts in the earlier chapters have included, most famously, “his only Son” (3:16), as well as “living water” (4:10), “bread in the wilderness” (6:31), the “true bread from heaven” (6:32), another Helper” (14:16), and “whatever you ask from God” (11:22; 15:16; 16:23)—although these are all directed towards believing humanity, rather than directly to the Son.

Fifth, the Father sends the Son into the world. This is another strong thread running through this prayer (17:3, 8, 18, 21, 23, 25). The motif of sending is equally strong in this Gospel; “him who sent me” is a description of the Father that frequently recurs (1:33; 4:34; 5:23, 30, 36–38; 6:38, 44; 7:16, 28–29; 8:16, 18, 26, 29, 42; 9:4; 10:36; 11:42; 12:44–49; 13:20; 14:24; 15:21; 16:5). The famous verse about God sending the Son (3:16–17) is later alluded to in one of the final words of the risen Jesus: “as the Father has sent me” (20:21).

Sixth, the Son makes known the Father to the world (17:7–8). This function of revealing, or making known, is integral to the role that Jesus has throughout the book of signs. This function is introduced in the majestic opening prologue: “the Father’s only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:18).

This theme continues in affirmations that Jesus healed the man born blond “so that the works of God might be manifest in him” (9:3); to those who love the Son “I will love him and manifest myself to him” (14:21); and in the affirmation that those formerly called servants are now called friends, “for a servant does not know what the master is doing” (15:15).

The root word underlying the verb “to make known” (gnōridzō) is the noun gnōsis, which in itself does not appear in the book of signs; however, many interpreters regard this book as being heavily influenced by the emerging movement we label as Gnosticism. In this movement, salvation is attainable not by trusting in a sacrificial action, but rather by gaining knowledge (gnosis). The insight and knowledge that is conveyed by Jesus as he teaches (6:59; 7:28, 35; 8:2, 20, 34; 18:20) is the key for those who follow him.

Seventh, the Father indicates to the Son that he has sanctified the Son him by sending him “into the world” (10:36). Whilst he was “in the world” (17:11), the Son prays to the Father that he has “made your name known” to those he has gathered (17:6), by giving to the Word (1:1-3) the words that are from God (17:8,14). Through this process, the Son is sanctified (17:19).

Eighth, the Father glorifies the Son, just as the Son glorifies the Father (17:1, 4, 5). This has been declared earlier by Jesus, that “my Father is glorified by this” (15:8), and prayed for when Jesus cries out “Father, glorify your name”, to which a voice from heaven responds, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify him at once” (12:28).

Still earlier in the Gospel, Jesus notes that “it is my Father who glorifies me” (8:54). This motif has also been signalled very early on, in the poetic prologue, in which the author claims that “we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son” (1:14). The signs that Jesus performed “revealed his glory” (2:11; 11:4, 40).

The moment in which the full realisation of the glory of Jesus actually manifests in its fullness in the cluster of events that take place in his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension (12:23–24; see also 13:31–32).

Ninth, the prayer indicates that the Son returns to the Father (17:10, 13). Jesus had foretold this quite directly to his followers (14:18–19, 28). This leads to the tenth, final, line of connection and relationship between the Father and the Son: that the Son is now with the Father (17:5, 11, 14, 16, 22), bringing fulfilment to the words uttered earlier by Jesus (14:10–11, 20).

Each of these lines of connection between the Father and the Son are clearly expressed in the prayer of Jesus in John 17. Each of them is signalled at various points earlier in the narrative. And many of them are found within the prayer, and elsewhere in the Gospel, as characterising the relationship between the Son and the Disciples.

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III The relationship between the Son and the Disciples

I will offer my considerations of this third part in a subsequent blog …

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For other considerations relating to the Trinity, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/10/do-you-believe-in-the-triune-god/

Father, Son, and Disciples (II): the *real* trinity in John’s Gospel (John 17; Easter 7A,B,C)

“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” is a familiar phrase within the Christian Church. (“Holy Ghost” is used in more antiquated contexts.) The triune formula is uttered frequently, consistently, in all manner of church contexts (liturgical, catechetical, instructional, devotional), by all manner of church people (ordained and lay, stipended or voluntary, intensely devout or loosely affiliated).

In a previous blog, I began an analysis of the content of a section of the book of signs—which we know as the Gospel according to John—which is offered by the lectionary each time the seventh Sunday of Easter comes around (John 17:6–19). It is often called the Great High Priestly Prayer of Jesus (17:1–26).

This prayer is reported only in this Gospel, in a style that is distinctive to this Gospel. In this work, it represents the final climactic prayer of Jesus for those who are following him. The prayer, I contend, sets before us a different trinity. Not the trinity of orthodox doctrine and liturgy. Rather, it is quite another trinity!

My argument has three main parts to it—not surprisingly, because it is, after all, about a three-part entity! Parts I and II were set forth in that earlier blog.

I The Spirit in John’s Gospel

References to the Spirit are few and far between in this Gospel. When Jesus refers to the Spirit as the Advocate (parakletos) (14:15–17, 26; 15:26: 16:12–15), it is clear that the Advocate steps into the place that will be left empty after the departure of Jesus. The Advocate replaces Jesus, rather than being one of the three personae in interrelationship within the triune Godhead.

II The relationship between the Father and the Son

There are ten ways in which this relationship is described. The central affirmation about Jesus in this Gospel is claiming the unity of the Son with the Father: “we are one” (17:22), “you, Father, are in me and I am an in you” (17:21; “you in me” is repeated in 17:23). Second, the Father knows the Son, just as the Son knows the Father. “The world does not know you; but I know you”, Jesus prays (17:25); “the Father knows me and I know the Father” (10:15).

Third, the Father loves the Son just as the Son loves the Father (17:23, 24, 26). Fourth, the Father gifts the Son with a number of different gifts: “authority over all people” (17:2), work to do (17:4), words to speak (17:8, 14), and glory (17:22, 24). Fifth, the Father sends the Son into the world (17:3, 8, 18, 21, 23, 25).

Sixth, the Son makes known the Father to the world (17:7–8). Seventh, the Father has sanctified the Son; while he was “in the world” (17:11), the Son prays to the Father that he has “made your name known” to those he has gathered (17:6), by giving the words that are from God (17:8,14). Through this process, the Son is sanctified (17:19).

Eighth, the Father glorifies the Son, just as the Son glorifies the Father (17:1, 4, 5). Ninth, the prayer indicates that the Son returns to the Father (17:10, 13), and tenth, it is clear that the Son is now with the Father (17:5, 11, 14, 16, 22).

Each of these lines of connection between the Father and the Son are clearly expressed in the prayer of Jesus in John 17. Each of them is signalled at various points earlier in the narrative. And many of them are found within the prayer, and elsewhere in the Gospel, as characterising the relationship between the Son and the Disciples.

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III The relationship between the Son and the Disciples

So the next step in my argument is to propose that the third element in this Johannine trinity is, not the Spirit, but rather—the Disciples. The Disciples relate to the Son as the Son relates to the Father. Seven of the ten ways by which the Father and the Son relate to one another are mirrored in the way that the Son relates to the Disciples.

The first way is that the Son and the Disciples are unified as one: “so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me” (17:22–23). This unity is expressed also in that the Son abides in the Disciples, and the Disciples abide in the Son (17:21). This intimate interrelationship leads Jesus to pray “I in them and you in me, that they may be perfectly one” (17:23). The unity of Father and Son is exactly paralleled in the perfect unity of Son and Disciples.

The language of “abide” has earlier been used by Jesus to refer to his relationship with his disciples as he expanded the imagery of the vine and the branches (15:6, 7, 10). “I am in my Father and you are in me and I am in you”, he has also declared (14:20)—a striking expression of trinitarian interrelationship!

The second connection is that the Disciples know who the Son is (17:21, 23, 25). “If you know me”, Jesus has earlier taught the Disciples, “you will know my Father also” (14:7). The way by which the Disciples then demonstrate what they know about the Son is through their deeds: “if you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (13:17).

Third, the unity of Son and Disciples results in knowledge about the Son spreading amongst others: “I in me and you in me … so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them, even as you love me” (17:23). This, then, mirrors what we identified as the sixth way of connecting, as the Son makes known the Father; now, Jesus affirms, the Disciples make known the Son.

The fourth way that there is connection is that the Son loves the Disciples and thus the Disciples can love the Son (17:23). The love of the Son for the Disciples is articulated in a very strong statement that introduces the second half of the gospel (chs. 13–21), namely, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (13:1).

Jesus references his love for the Disciples as well as their love for him again at 13:34; 14:21; 15:9–10. He also affirms that “those who love me will be loved by my Father” (14:21) and “the Father himself loves you because you have loved me” (16:27). The three-way interconnectedness of mutual love strengthens the notion of a trinity of relationship involving Father, Son, and Disciples.

The fifth manner of relationship is that the Son gives gifts to the Disciples. These gifts are identified as words (17:8, 14), glory (17:22), and love (17:26). Earlier narratives in this Gospel have likewise noted that the Son gives the Disciples “power to become children of God” (1:12), “the food of eternal life” (6:12), eternal life (10:28), peace (14:27), and “another Advocate” (as already noted, 14:16). This mirrors the fourth element in the relationship between the Father and the Son.

The sixth way is that the Son sends the disciples into the world (17:18), in the same way that the Father has sent the Son into the world (see the many references cited above). The parallelism is also evident in the word that “whoever receives anyone I send, receives me” (13:20), and in the command of the risen Jesus, “as the Father sent me, so I send you” (20:21). As with the Father sending the Son (the fifth way of connecting), so the Son sends the Disciples.

The seventh way of relating is that the Son is glorified in the Disciples (17:10). This, too, parallels one of the ways by which the Father relates to the Son (listed above as the eighth way). “The glory that you have given me, I have given them”, says Jesus (17:22). And more than this, in the story of the vine and the branches, Jesus affirms that “in this, my Father is glorified; that you bear much fruit and prove to be my disciples” (15:8). Once again, the three elements of the Johannine trinity are drawn into intimate relationship.

The final, eighth, line of connection is that the Son sanctifies the Disciples. Jesus prays, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth” (17:17-19). This mirrors what we identified as the eight way of connection between Father and Son.

These eight lines of connection between the Son and the Disciples directly parallel the way that the Father relates to the Son. Only the final two means of connection between Father and Son are absent from the way the Son relates to the Disciples; and there are clear reasons for this, since they relate to the post-ascension state of Jesus, who has returned to the Father and is now with the Father.

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So, in this wonderful prayer, the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus, we have the foundational elements set out for this somewhat distinctive trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Disciples, bound together in intimate unity, inter-relating, distinct and yet overlapping.

The prayer draws together many elements in the way that the relationship between the Father and the Son is expressed in this Gospel. The prayer also incorporates many of the ways by which the Son is connected with the Disciples. In fact, the interconnected nature of this threeway relationships actually appears to be highly developed, well thought through, and clearly articulated in this Gospel.

As Father and Son are one, so Son and Disciples are one. As the Father is glorified in the Son, so the Disciples are glorified in the Son. As the Father sanctifies the Son, so the Son sanctifies the Disciples. As the Father sends the Son, so the Son sends the Disciples. As the Son makes the Father known, so the Disciples make known the Son. As the Father abides in the Son, and the Son in the Father, so the Son abides in the Disciples, and the Disciples abide in the Son.

Father, Son, and Disciples. This is what I call, the real Johannine Trinity.

Now, let the accusations of heresy begin ………

*****

For other considerations relating to the Trinity, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/10/do-you-believe-in-the-triune-god/

Scriptural resonances in Revelation 21–22 (Easter 6C)

The section of Revelation provided by the lectionary for this coming Sunday (21:10, 22–22:5) is the final vision from a long sequences of visions, in which the writer, carried “in the spirit” to “a great, high mountain”, sees “the holy city Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (22:10).

The top of a mountain is significant in biblical narratives; we only need to remember Moses atop Mount Sinai, receiving the commandments from God (Exod 19:1–25) and viewing the promised land, which he would not himself enter (Deut 34:1–4); and Jesus on the mountain in Galilee, teaching his disciples (Matt 5:1–7:28), being transfigured in the presence of Moses and Elijah (Matt 17:1–8), and giving his last instructions to his followers before departing from them (Matt 18:16–20).

Visions in Scripture

There are many accounts of visions being seen by people on earth, as God reveals guidance to them; noteworthy are the visions of Abraham (Gen 18:1–16), Moses (Exod 3:1–6), Balaam and his donkey (Num 22:22–35), Joshua (Josh 5:13–15), Eli (1 Sam 3:2–18), and the visions of various prophets (Isa 6:1–13; Ezek 2:1–10; Ezek 40:1–44:31; Dan 7:1–14; Dan 8:1–14; Amos 7:1–9; Amos 8:1–14; Zech chapters 1–6).

In early chapters of the Gospels, visions experienced by key figures shape the course of the story—Zechariah (Luke 1:8–20), Mary (Luke 1:26–38), shepherds (Luke 2:8–14), and Joseph (Matt 1:19–21; 2:13; 2:19–20). Paul experienced “visions and revelations of the Lord” (2 Cor 12:1–7a); according Luke’s account of the journey he took towards Damascus, it was the visions to both Ananias and to Paul himself (Acts 9:10–12) that brought Paul into the community of believers, in a life-transforming moment.

However, the most notable vision is surely that experienced by Peter, in Joppa: “he saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’” (Acts 10:11–13). This vision not only changes Peter’s understanding of things; it sets forth the rationale for the fundamental nature of the movement founded by Jesus, as an inclusive community of Jews and Gentiles.

Visions in Revelation 19–22

The vision that the author of Revelation sees is part of an extended sequence of visions which are introduced by the same phrase that is used in Acts: “then I saw heaven opened” (19:11; cf. Acts 10:11). God’s opening of the heavens is recognised by the psalmist (Ps 78:23) as the means by which manna was provided in the wilderness; and perhaps this resonance is picked up in the Gospel accounts of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, when Jesus “saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mark 1:10 and parallels). God tears open the heavens to bless and to commission.

More pertinent, however, is the statement by Isaiah, in an oracle describing incredible devastation wrought in divine judgement over Israel, when “the earth shall be utterly laid waste and utterly despoiled … the earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers; the heavens languish together with the earth [for] the earth lies polluted under its inhabitants” (Isa 24:3–4). The prophet declares that “the windows of heaven are opened, and the foundations of the earth tremble; the earth is utterly broken, the earth is torn asunder, the earth is violently shaken” Isa 24:18–19). This is a fearsome rending apart of the heavens!

So, too, in Revelation, where the opening of the heavens (19:1) reveals a series of seven visions. There is a vision of an intense, violent battle (19:11–21), a vision of the binding of a dragon and “the first resurrection” (20:1–6), and two visions of judgement (20:7–10, 11–15); followed by a vision of “a new heaven and a new earth” (21:1–8), a vision of “the holy city Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (21:9–27), and then the final vision of “the river of the water of life, flowing … through the middle of the street of the city” (22:1–5).

Scriptural resonances in the visions of Revelation 19–22

In the initial vision of a cataclysmic battle, “the beast and the kings of the earth”, along with their armies, are confronted by a fiery, blood-soaked rider on a white horse, with “the armies of heaven” (19:11–16). The description of this particular figure, as is so often the case on this book, draws from biblical imagery (eyes like a flame of fire, sharp sword, rod of iron, treading the winepress). Indeed, each of the visions that follow are themselves thoroughly shaped by biblical language and imagery. As the author looks forward, he draws heavily on the traditions and stories of his own faith, as expressed in the scrolls of Hebrew Scriptures with which he is intimately familiar.

An angel steps forward to issue the call to battle—yet his call is an invitation to “the great supper of God” (19:17). The image of a supper had been utilised by the prophet Isaiah, who saw the final gathering of the nations in terms of a lavish feast (Isa 25:6–10; see also 55:1–5). This time, however, the supper is a feast for cannibals—turning the imagery upside-down, in a manner reminiscent of a grisly oracle uttered by Ezekiel (Ezek 39:17–20).

The beast and his false prophet are thrown alive into a lake of burning sulphur, evoking the punishment visited upon Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:24–25; Deut 29:23; 3 Macc 2:5; Luke 17:28–30). The armies of the kings of the earth are slain by the sword, and Satan is cast into a locked pit for one thousand years (19:17–20:6). This recalls an oracle delivered by Isaiah, in which he declared that God, in judgement, would imprison “the host of heaven and the kings of the earth” (Isa 24:21–22).

But for a thousand years? The Psalmist says that “a thousand years in [God’s] sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night” (Ps 90:4), and a late New Testament book affirms that “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (2 Pet 3:8); however, we should note that the period of one thousand years is nowhere associated with divine punishment elsewhere in biblical texts.

After the release of Satan, one further battle takes place, against “the nations … Gog and Magog” (20:8). The account in Revelation 20 is brief, but the distinctive names (Gog and Magog) evoke a reference to an older battle against invaders from the north, described by Ezekiel (Ezek 38:1–39:20). This decisive encounter effected the definitive punishment of God and paved the way for the promised restoration of Israel to the land (Ezek 39:21–29) and the vision of a restored temple (Ezek 40:1–46:24). The same pattern is followed in Revelation 20. After the battle against Gog and Magog, the devil is also cast into the lake of burning sulphur, all the dead are judged, and Death itself is destroyed (20:7–15).

This is followed by the establishment of a new heaven and a new earth, a place devoid of death, bathed in light, sustained by the water of life, a city dazzling with jewels and home to “the throne of God and of the Lamb” (21:1–22:5). The vision appears closely related to the final visions reported at the end of the book of Isaiah (Isa 65:17; 66:22–23).

The imagery used in these verses relates particularly to various sections of the book of Isaiah. The bride prepared for her husband (21:2) recalls the scene of Isa 61:10; the wiping away of tears (21:4) evokes the banishing of sorrow (Isa 35:10). The gift of water from the spring of life (21:6) is suggestive of the way that water functions as an image of life (Isa 35:6–7; 41:18), and the prominent place of the river of the water of life in the new Jerusalem (22:1–2) evokes Isaiah’s link between “the new thing” and “rivers in the desert” (Isa 43:18–21).

Likewise, the description of the spectacular beauty of the city and the careful itemizing of its measurements (21:10–21) imitates the section of Ezekiel where the Temple of his vision is carefully described and numerous measurements are provided (Ezek 40–42). What is noteworthy, of course, is the pointed declaration that “I saw no temple in the city” (21:22) and the insistence that the divine presence will provide more than enough light for the whole city (21:23– 25; 22:5).

Despite the author’s lengthy and intricate entwining with scriptural sources, in this final vision he points beyond the past, to a new form of the future. Yet still, he reaches back before the temple, to the times when the shining light signaled the divine presence (Exod 3:2; 13:21–22; Ps 78:14). In similar fashion, perhaps the prominence of the tree of life (22:2) is intended to supplant the many trees beside the river in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezek 47:12) and provide a reminder of the single tree in the creation story (Gen 2:9).

The closing scenes this provide assurance of God’s providential care of the people of Israel, and perhaps even of the whole earth. Indeed, the familiar patterns of this life, as we know it—night and day, light and dark, even life and death—will be transcended in this new order of reality. Written for a people in the midst of oppressive persecution, this glorious vision and triumphant conclusion provides assurance, reinforcing their faith with hope and certainty.

So it is no wonder, then, that the prayer of those who first heard these visions proclaimed to them, is simply: “Come” (22:17, 20). As we know, that coming was not, as was hoped for, “soon” (22:7, 12, 20). How we now apply these visionary words to our own times is the challenge that rests with us!

See https://johntsquires.com/2022/05/04/with-regard-to-revelation-and-rev-14/

*****

This blog draws on material in JOURNEYING WITH JOHN: an exploration of the Johannine writings, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014)

Love one another: by this everyone will know (John 13; Easter 5C)

The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday contains a well-known saying of Jesus: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34–35).

The command to “love one another” is a striking element in this Gospel. Unlike what we find in the Synoptic Gospels, in this Gospel there is very little in the way of explicit ethical instruction in John’s Gospel. The focus is much more on the revelatory task that Jesus undertakes, as “the one who comes from heaven” (3:31; 6:38) to declare “the truth” (8:45; 14:6; 18:37), to “speak plainly of the Father” (16:25), to “make known everything that I have heard from my Father” (15:15), to glorify the Father (17:1–5).

His task is to teach the people (7:14–16; 8:2) and so he is regularly addressed as Teacher (1:38; 3:2; 8:4; 11:28; 13:13–14; 20:16). Indeed, in this Gospel, Jesus is no less than the authoritative teacher, revealing God to those who have already been chosen (13:18; 15:19).

Consequently, the basic position with regard to ethics is that those who know Jesus, will do as God wills (13:35; 14:7). As for those who do not know him, they are condemned to the darkness (3:19; 12:35). As a result, there is no urgency about instructing believers how to behave; for they will surely know what to do.

Rather than providing believers with guidelines and resources for living faithfully in the world, the Johannine Jesus assures his followers, “I have chosen you out of the world” (15:19).

Following Jesus is not a pathway to faithful living in the world, but rather a journey towards the cosmic Christ, who leads believers into mystical unity with God.

Nevertheless there are some pointers, in this Gospel, to what is required of believers. The Synoptic Gospels report that Jesus commanded his disciples to perform various actions, including those which subsequently became sacramental (communion, Luke 22:19; baptism, Matt 28:19).

In John’s Gospel, at his last meal, Jesus commands his disciples to wash one another’s feet, following his own example (John 13:14–15). The ethics of the Johannine Jesus are summed up in similar fashion: “just as I have loved you, so you should love one another” (13:34b). This “new commandment” sits at the centre of this Gospel (13:34–35; 15:12–17) and will inspire subsequent literature in the Johannine tradition (1 Jn 2:7–11; 3:11, 23; 4:7–11, 16–21; 5:3; 2 Jn 5–6).

Yet in contrast to the scriptural commands to love God and neighbour, cited by the Synoptic Jesus (Mark 12:28–31) and Paul (Rom 13:8–10), the command of the Johannine Jesus focuses on love of God and love of “one another”. It is limited to those within the faith community, and does not include “neighbours” (let alone love of “enemies”, as in Luke 6:27).

Another Synoptic instruction which is echoed in this Gospel is the command to serve, but once again with a narrower scope. Jesus instructs his disciples to follow his example and serve one another (Mark 10:42–45; Luke 22:24–27), but the Johannine Jesus exhorts them simply to serve him (John 12:26). Later, he informs them that they are no longer to be called servants, but friends, for they know all that God intends them to know (15:15). Even this ethical category is now obsolete.

In John’s Gospel, there appears to be little need for specific instruction about particular ethical situations, such as we find in the letters of Paul, James, Peter, and the teachings of the Synoptic Jesus (Matt 5–7; Luke 6; and so on). Rather, belief in Jesus brings with it an inherent sense of what must be done for the good.

This is expounded, not through ethical instructions, but by means of images which offer glimpses into how the central quality of love is made possible. In the image of the vine and the branches (15:1–11), Jesus portrays the foundations of ethical awareness; because believers abide in the Son, he is then able to bear fruit in their lives and “become my disciples” (15:8). So, love is made possible for those who believe, because they abide in the love of Jesus (15:10).

Employing another image, Jesus declares that he comes as “the light of the world” (9:5), inviting those who believe in him to follow the light (8:12), walk in the light (11:9–10), and thus become “children of light” (12:36).

A third image with potential for much ethical exposition is the statement by Jesus that “I am the way” (14:5). This image has been developed in other New Testament books, and in the Dead Sea Scrolls, in this direction. However, the Johannine Jesus appears to see “the way” simply as the way to intimacy with God (14:6–7).

Each of these images provides a sense of certainty for the believer—who abides in Jesus, who walks in his light, who follows his way—without having to spell out particular attitudes or behaviours which must be followed. In the end, the Jesus of this Gospel invites his followers to walk into unity with him, and thus unity with the Father. Right behaviour, it is assumed, will simply follow on.

The Father and I are one (John 10; Easter 4C)

Each year, on the fourth Sunday of the season of Easter, the Revised Common Lectionary provides a section of John 10 as the Gospel reading for the Sunday. That chapter is where Jesus teaches about his role as “the good shepherd” who lays down his life for the sheep. The chapter is divided over the three years: 10:1–10 in Year A, then 10:11–18 in Year B, and 10:22–30 in the current year, Year C. For this reason, this particular Sunday is sometimes called the Good Shepherd Sunday.

The section offered in Year A concludes with the classic claim of Jesus, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (10:10). The passage set for Year B begins with the famous affirmation, “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (10:14-15).

Both passages develop the image of Jesus as the shepherd of the sheep, in intimate relationship with the sheep; the shepherd knows his own (10:15), calls them by name (10:3), shows them the way of salvation (10:9), and lays down his life for the sheep (10:11, 15, 17–18).

The third section from John 10, offered in Year C, is set at a different time. The earlier sections (10:1–10, 11–18) had followed on from the story of the man born blind (9:1–41), which itself has emerged out of the conflicts between Jesus and Jewish authorities (7:10—8:59), reported as taking place in Jerusalem during the Festival of Booths (7:2). That sequence of conflicts had culminated with the Jewish authorities picking up stones to throw at Jesus (8:59).

The second moment when Jewish authorities in Jerusalem prepare to stone Jesus (10:31) is at the end of the later part of John 10, in this Sunday’s reading (10:22–31). This section, still in Jerusalem, is set during the Festival of the Dedication (10:22), some time later than the earlier Festival of Booths (7:2). It includes a further statement about the shepherd: “my sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” (10:27–28).

However, the focus on this section is less on the shepherd and the sheep, and more on Jesus and his relationship with the Father. Indeed, the lectionary ends the section before the climax of the conflict, when Jewish authorities pick up stones (10:31). Rather, the final verse places the emphasis in quite another direction: “The Father and I are one” (10:30). This is one of a number of key verses in this Gospel where important claims about Jesus are placed onto his lips.

Wayne Meeks (in his classic article, “The Man from Heaven in Johannine Sectarianism”, JBL 91 (1972) 44–72) notes that the claims made about Jesus in the fourth Gospel function as reinforcements of the sectarian identity of the community. As this community had come into existence because of the claims that it had made about Jesus, so the reinforcement of the life of the new community took place, to a large degree, through the strengthening and refining of its initial claim concerning Jesus.

Claims made about Jesus, the Messiah (Christ) thus function as markers of the emerging self–identity of the new community, over against the inadequate understandings of Jesus which continue to be held in the old community (the synagogue), still under the sway of the Pharisees. This function can be seen in a number of other terms which are used of Jesus in the Gospel according to John.

As Meeks notes, one of the most common self–designations of the Johannine Jesus is that he is “the one sent from God”. This is another phrase which is unique to the Gospel according to John; the nearest Synoptic equivalent is found in the parable of the vineyard (Mark 12:1–8 and parallels).

The phrase may well originate in the Jewish notion of the shaliach, or messenger (for the wordplay involved in this word, see 9:7). A recognisable form of this phrase occurs 42 times in this Gospel (for instance, at 1:33; 3:34; 4:34; 10:36; 11:42; 20:21).

This claim consolidates the link between Jesus and God, binding his mission to the mission of the Father, and making a claim for Jesus which transcends the kind of claim which could be made of a chosen messenger figure.

Jesus is clear that he belongs to the world “above”, the heavenly realm, where— according to the worldview of the time—God is to be found. He declares, “I am from above…I am not of this world” (8:23); this is in contrast to the Pharisees, who are “from below” and “of this world”.

As king, he informs Pilate, he rules over a kingdom which is “not from this world” (18:36). The distinction between Jesus and the earthly authorities of the day is firmly held; Jesus belongs with God. He comes to earth in order to bring into effect the judgement of God over “the ruler of this world” (12:30–33).

Another characteristic which dominates the Christology of this Gospel is the Father-Son relationship (3:35–36; 5:19–23, 26; 6:37–40; 8:34–38; 10:32–38; 14:8–13; 17:1–5). At the conclusion of the Prologue, the importance of this relationship is established: “it is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:18).

In one of his disputes with the Jewish authorities, Jesus declares that he does his works “so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I am in the Father” (10:38). This mutual interrelationship is brought to the pinnacle of its development in the lengthy prayer of chapter 17. The purpose of describing this relationship in this way is to strengthen the claims made for Jesus, to validate him as authoritative, in the context of debates with the Jewish authorities.

Finally, Jesus is perceived as being “equal with God” (5:18). At the narrative level, this is a polemical view of Jesus, attributed to the Jews. However, the author of the Gospel clearly wants the readers to agree with the claim. This is supported by further comments such as: it is clearly evident that he is the Messiah, for he is “doing the works of God” (10:24–25); he is one with the Father (10:30); he is “making himself a god” (10:33); “he has claimed to be the Son of God” (19:7); and he is acclaimed as “Lord and God” (20:28).

This is the strongest claim made about Jesus; it lifts him above the realm of human debate and, as a consequence, it also lifts the claims made by his disciples, in his name, above that human realm. By this means, the community of his followers lay claim to a dominant, privileged position, vis–a–vis the Jewish authorities.

The Christology which is proclaimed in the written Gospel has thus been developed and refined in the controversies and disputes of the community over the preceding decades, as each of these markers of the identity of Jesus were debated amongst Jewish groups, and as the community formed around Jesus differentiated itself in various ways from the dominant stream of Pharisaic Judaism (especially in the period after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE).

Later Christian theology developed the doctrine of the Trinity, in which God, Jesus and the Spirit relate to one another as equals. Whilst the Gospel of John provides biblical warrant for the equality of Father and Son, the role of the Spirit is less prominent. Jesus is endowed with the Spirit at his baptism (1:32– 33) and gives the Spirit to others through the words he speaks (3:34).

However, the Spirit is clearly subordinated to the Son in this Gospel. It is not until after Jesus is glorified that the Spirit is given (7:39; 20:22). The role of the Spirit is to be the Advocate of the Son (14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7), sent by the Son to testify on his behalf (15:26) and to represent what has already been spoken by Jesus (14:26; 16:13–15). As the Son testifies to the truth (1:14, 17; 8:32, 45–46; 14:6; 18:37), so the Spirit is “the spirit of truth” (14:17; 15:26; 16:13).

So the long, extended scene in Jerusalem ends as “they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands” (10:39). Jesus moves “across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing earlier” (10:40), where many expressed their belief in him. The next, more intense, conflict still lay ahead of Jesus—by raising Lazarus from the dead (11:38–44), Jesus placed himself firmly in the sights of the Jerusalem leadership; his own death was brought firmly into view (11:45–53; 12:10–11).

Back to the lake, back to fishing: a late resurrection story (John 21; Easter 3C)

The Gospel of John seems to come to a clear cut end with a summary and conclusion at the end of chapter 20: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30–31).

The addition of another chapter, featuring the scene beside the Sea of Tiberias in which Simon Peter figures prominently (21:7, 11), and the subsequent focus on Peter as Jesus affirms and commissions him (21:15-17), are curious. My view is that, together, they provide a later “corrective” to the Johannine focus on the Beloved Disciple, over and above Simon Peter. We have already noted this as being a distinctive perspective within this Gospel. See https://johntsquires.com/2022/04/28/the-third-time-that-jesus-appeared-to-the-disciples-john-21-easter-3c/

That is one reason for viewing this scene as a later addition to the Gospel, which has already come to a clear and definitive conclusion (20:30-31). Why was this chapter added?

In Mark’s earliest narrative, Peter is one of four disciples called at the start of Jesus’ activities in Galilee (Mark 1:16-20). Luke transforms this call narrative so that it both focusses almost exclusively on Peter, and also highlights his calling to a special vocation (Luke 5:1-11). This account briefly notes the presence of two other disciples (“James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon”, 5:10), and omits any mention of Peter’s brother Andrew, in maintaining a clear focus on Peter as the counterfoil to Jesus in what takes place.

John’s Gospel includes a story that is remarkably similar to this Lukan call narrative, but locates it at the very end of the narrative, rather than in the earlier stages of the story. The many similarities within the story include: the location, by the Sea of Tiberias (John 21:1) or beside the lake of Gennesaret (Luke 5:1); Simon Peter as a key character (John 21:3, 7, 11, 15–17; Luke 5:3–8, 10); a lack of fish after a night of fishing (John 21:3; Luke 5:5); an appearance of Jesus (John 21:4; Luke 5:3); a command to try again to catch fish, to cast the net to the other side (John 21:6) or to “put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4); a miraculous catch of many fish (John 21:6–8; Luke 5:6); and a confession of faith in Jesus as “the Lord” (John 21:7, 12; Luke 5:8).

Whereas for Luke, it is Peter who makes the confession of faith in Jesus (Luke 5:8), in John’s narrative it is “the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’” (John 21:7). This is reminiscent of the way that John reshapes the high christological confession of Peter, “you are the Messiah” (Mark 8:30), so that this high claim is spoken by Martha, sister of Lazarus: “yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (John 11:27). If the author of the book of signs knew the Synoptic traditions, he has apparently intentionally removed these confessional statements from Peter’s mouth.

The scene on the sea in Luke ends with the command, “from now on you will be catching people” (5:10), maintaining the earlier Markan report of the words of Jesus, “follow me and I will make you fish for people” (Mark 1:17). By contrast, the Johannine scene is extended with a potent vignette; the invitation to follow is delayed until the end of this extended scene (John 21:19).

In the extended vignette in John’s version, a threefold “rehabilitation” of Peter takes place (John 21:15–17). Three times, Jesus asks a question of Peter, to which he responds in the affirmative; each time, Jesus issues a command to Peter: “feed my lambs … tend my sheep … feed my sheep”.

This triple sequence of question—affirmation—command is often linked to the threefold denial of Jesus by Peter found in all three Synoptics (Mark 14:68, 70, 71; Matt 26:70, 72, 74; Luke 22:57, 58, 60) and also John (18:15, 25, 27). Indeed, the Synoptic accounts explicitly note that Jesus says to Peter, “you will deny me three times” (Mark 14:72; Matt 26:75; Luke 22:61), and each narrative indicates that this has fulfilled a prediction made by Jesus (Mark 14:30; Matt 26:34; Luke 22:34).

This precise prediction is missing from the Johannine narrative; nor does this version make anything of there being three denials. This account simply ends, “again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed” (John 18:27). There is nothing explicit in the account of John 21:15–17 to suggest that it is explicitly looking back to “three denials” by Peter and seeking to redeem him with the threefold question—response—command of the Johannine account.

If the source of chapter 21 of John’s Gospel is other than the context in which the body of the Gospel (chapters 1–20) was formed, then it could well be that the insertion of this short scene does intend to refer back, not to the way that the book of signs portrays the denial of Jesus by Peter, but to the Synoptic account with its explicit noting of the “three times”. The “primacy of Peter” is laid over the narrative which has accorded that place to the Beloved Disciple.

Nevertheless, it is striking, I think, that after this interaction between Peter and Jesus, we are offered commentary on the way in which Peter would die (21:18) and a final invitation, “follow me” (21:19). “Follow me” is what Jesus says to various people during his active public ministry: Peter and Andrew (Mark 1:17), Levi the tax collector (Mark 2:14), an unnamed rich man (Mark 10:21), an unnamed traveller on the road (Luke 9:59), and, in the initial scenes in John’s book of signs, to Philip (John 1:43). Indeed, in John’s account, Jesus explicitly tells Peter, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward” (13:36–37).

Immediately after this comes the prediction of his betrayal by Peter (13:38). Peter is unable to follow Jesus at any point in the story that follows—he denies him (18:15–18, 25–27) and then disappears from the story until he is drawn back into the narrative by Mary (20:2). His “redemption” is not complete until the explicit invitation from Jesus, “follow me”, beside the Sea of Tiberias (21:19). John has reworked and reshaped traditions that we can see in one form in the Synoptic tradition; his reshaping serves his own agenda in terms of the leadership of the Beloved Disciple.

It is that disciple who has the last word in this Gospel, with the curious interaction about his own death (21:20–23) and then the ultimate concluding claim by the author: “this is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true” (21:24). The claim provides a neat segue into the claims made by the author of the letter we know as 1 John: “we declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (1 John 1:1).

And the final, final word (John 21:25) hearkens back to the initial claims about God acting in and through Jesus as Word (1:1); concerning the full extent of what God does in and through Jesus, “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (21:25). The all-knowing author has knowledge beyond even what the present Gospel conveys.

Images drawn from the past, looking to the future, as a message for the present (Revelation; Easter, Year C)

During the season of Easter this year, we are following a short sequence of readings from the book of Revelation. The first such reading (Rev 1:4–8) was last Sunday, setting out the writer and the audience, as well as the key focus of the book: “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5).

The book begins with a striking opening phrase—in Greek, it reads apokalypsis Iesou Christou (1:1). The first word in this phrase can be translated in two ways, resulting in the two most common titles for the book—“Revelation” or “Apocalypse”.

The word revelation is related to a Latin word which means to disclose or make known; the word apocalypse is the Greek term which means to uncover or expose. This word sums up the distinctive nature of the book right at the start—this is an exposé of the highest degree!

The content of this exposé is declared to be “the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ” (1:2, 9). The book ends with a reminder that Jesus sent his angel to John with “this testimony for the churches” (22:16). All of this is being done in a context of some urgency: “the time is near” (1:3), for Jesus is coming soon (1:7; 22:7, 12, 20; see also 2:16; 3:11; 22:6).

The book was written to be read aloud (1:3; 22:18); it seems to invite the people listening to the story to envisage what is being described by using their own imaginations. This is already evident in the way that the dramatic tone builds in the opening sections of the work. First, in the section of the book set for last Sunday, there is a hymn in praise of Jesus, reminiscent of poetic sections in other New Testament books as well as in Hebrew Scripture (1:5–8).

Next comes a description of the author and the process of creating the book (1:9–11). This was apparently initiated by “a loud voice like a trumpet” (1:10) —a voice which belonged to a distinguished figure with an ominous presence (1:12–16), whose appearance caused the writer to “fall at his feet as though dead” (1:17). The scene is thoroughly biblical, in keeping with the pattern of portentous announcements in Hebrew Scripture as well as in the early chapters of some Gospels. This will be the first of a number of visions, in which startling creatures declare unnerving messages in vividly dramatic ways.

The Revelation of John was not the first book of this kind ever written; in fact, Jewish writers had been producing literature like this for some centuries, recounting visions of the heavenly realm and reporting teachings which have been passed on by ancient figures from the heavens. In the Hebrew Scriptures, there are sections of the prophetic works which have the same kind of tone, as prophets report the visions they have seen and the oracles they have heard from the Lord.

Indeed, within other parts of the New Testament, there are indications of similar interests and ways of viewing the world—a view that is often characterized as “apocalyptic”. The figure of John the Baptist can best be appreciated as an apocalyptic figure, declaring that the Messiah has come and the kingdom is at hand (Mark 1:7–8; Matt 3:2).

Jesus continued the apocalyptic message of John by announcing that the kingdom of God was near (Mark 1:15; Matt 4:17) or, indeed, present (Luke 17:20). Many of the parables of Jesus and not a few of his teachings reflect an apocalyptic view of reality (for instance, Mark 13:14–37; Matt 24:45–25:46, Luke 17:20–37).

The letters of Paul contain clear pointers to the way that Paul viewed the world through an apocalyptic lens, in which the return of Jesus would take place soon and the kingdom of God would be ushered in (1 Thess 4:13–5:11; 1 Cor 7:29– 31, 15:20–28; Rom 8:18–25). The view that “the last days” were to come was also held by other writers (Heb 1:2; James 5:3; 2 Tim 2 Pet 3:1–5; Jude 17–19).

The apocalyptic worldview had been developing in Israel for some centuries. From their origins, prophets had delivered oracles in the name of the Lord; over time, they also began to incorporate accounts of visions in their messages (Isa 6; Jer 24; Ezek 1, 2–3, 8–11, 37, 40–44; Dan 2:19; Joel 2:28–32; Amos 7–9; Obad 1; Hab 2; Zech 1–8).

In the later stages of the prophetic movement in Israel, this form of communication becomes dominant. The last half of two prophetic books (Daniel 7–12; Zech 9–14) contain interrelated sequences of visions in which contemporary events, and perhaps also future events, appear to be depicted in symbolic form.

This trend continues on in a number of books written through the second and first centuries BCE, many of which still survive today. In this period we find various works which use heavenly messengers to reveal insights about mysteries and provide predictions about the future.

Most widely-known are 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, and 2 Baruch; in addition, a number of works in the Dead Sea Scrolls are apocalyptic in nature. All these works contain literary features typical of apocalyptic works, as well as certain theological elements relating to the end of the ages.

As we read the book of Revelation, we can identify certain literary features which are quite characteristic of apocalyptic literature. The authority of the author is a key concern (1:9–10; 22:8–9) and the declaration is made that what is now being revealed is a mysterious secret (1:20; 10:7; 17:5, 7). This revelation comes direct from God through his authorized messenger (1:1–2, 11– 20; 22:8–10).

The warning not to change the text (22:18–19) is characteristic of apocalyptic, as is the regular reminder of the author’s expectation that the present era is coming to an end (2:26; 21:1, 4) and his description of a vision of the beginning of a new era (1:1; 7:9–17; 11:19; 21:1–22:7; 22:12, 20). The role of angels and visions reflects typical apocalyptic features.

Also typical of apocalyptic are the many coded depictions which are conveyed in numbers: four (4:6–8; 5:6, 14; 6:1–8; 7:1–3, 11; 9:14; 14:3; 15:7; 19:4; 21:16); ten (2:10; 12:3, 18; 17:3, 12–16); twelve (12:1; 21:12–14, 21; 22:2); twenty-four (4:4, 10; 11:16; 19:4); 144,000 (7:4–8; 14:1–4); and the intriguing 666 (13:18).

Of course, the number seven, which recurs in numerous places throughout the book, is very significant: there are seven letters, 1:11; seven golden lampstands, 1:12, 20; seven stars, 1:16, 20; 2:1; seven angels, 1:20; 3:1; 15:7; seven spirits, 1:4; 3:1; seven seals, 5:1; seven horns and eyes, 5:6; seven trumpets, 8:2; seven thunders, 10:3–4; seven diadems, 12:3; seven plagues, 15:1, 6; seven golden bowls, 15:7; 16:1; and seven heads, 17:3, 9–10.

Finally, there is the crucial appearance of Babylon as a coded symbol of Rome (17:5, 18). This is a code used also in Jewish apocalyptic works.

The reader (or listener) of this work is invited into a world of unfettered imagination, with evocative imagery, enticing language, and disturbing rhetoric. The book appears to be describing the events that will take place in the immediate future; these chapters set the scene set for what will later be revealed as a colossal, cosmic battle between good and evil.

However, the style of the work is never straightforward and the message is never declared in direct propositional form. Many of the scenes contain words, images, and ideas which are already familiar from the Hebrew Scriptures— although they appear to be arranged in inventive new ways. Making sense of this book requires an act of creative imagination alongside a process of careful exploration, investigation, and interpretation.

The visions that are included in this spectacularly dramatic book evoke biblical language and imagery in various ways, as the author envisages the future by drawing from the scriptures of the past and reworking the images and ideas found within them as a message for the present.

“Worthy is the lamb that was slaughtered”: a paradoxical vision (Rev 5; Easter 3C)

The third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples (John 21; Easter 3C)

The Gospel passage which the lectionary offers for this coming Sunday (John 21:1–19) includes some distinctive features worthy of comment. The scene, like many of the scenes of the resurrection of Jesus, is found in this one place only. This contrasts with the empty tomb account, which is found in all four Gospels (Mark 16:1–8; Matt 28:1–10; Luke 24:1–12; John 20:1–18), albeit with variations and differences in each version.

Other resurrection accounts are one-off reports: to the eleven disciples in Galilee (Matt 28:16–20); to two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–32); to “the eleven and their companions in Jerusalem” (Luke 24:33–49); to a group (unnamed) of disciples meeting behind locked doors, presumably in Jerusalem (John 20:19–23); and to the disciples, including Thomas, a week later, behind closed doors (John 20:26–29). (This collection of appearances is bundled up into the Longer Ending which was added to Mark’s Gospel in a later century, as Mark 16:9–20.)

There are also claims, made by Paul, about appearances of the risen Jesus, “to Cephas, then to the twelve … then to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time … then to James, then to all the apostles; last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1 Cor 15:5-8). None of these correlate precisely with the appearances noted in the Gospels.

The location for this particular appearance of Jesus is “by the Sea of Tiberias” (John 21:1). It is only the book of signs that identifies Tiberias as a region which Jesus visits, and then only once, when he feeds to 5,000 (6:1–14, 23). In introducing that story, the author explicitly equates the Sea of Galilee with the Sea of Tiberias (6:1). This sea appears often as the location for stories in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 1:16; 7:31, both paralleled in Matt 4:18; 15:29; see also Luke 5:1, where it is called the “Lake of Gennesaret”). The story told in Luke 5 is important, as we shall explore below, in considering the John 21 narrative.

La seconde pêche miraculeuse
by James Tissot (1836–1902)

Seven Disciples by the Lake

The group of seven disciples present when Jesus makes his appearance are identified as “Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples” (21:2). This list of those gathered beside the sea is interesting for who is present, and who is missing.

The author of the book of origins has begun his account with an idiosyncratic list of the earliest followers of Jesus. The first named is Andrew, brother of Simon Peter, who is introduced as one of two disciples of John the baptiser (John 1:35–40). The other one with Andrew is unnamed. Andrew draws his brother, Simon, into the story (1:40–41), providing the first confession of Jesus as Messiah (1:41); although it is Andrew who makes this confession, Jesus bestows a new name upon Simon—to be known henceforth as Cephas, that is, Peter, the “rocky one” (1:42).

Peter figures in many stories in the Synoptic Gospels; Andrew, less often. By Paul’s own admission, “James and Cephas and John” were the “acknowledged pillars” of the Church in Jerusalem (Gal 2:9); James and Peter were key voices amongst “the apostles and the elders” in the gathering often known as the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:13–19).

Also amongst the earliest followers of Jesus in the book of origins are Philip, “from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter” (1:43–44) and Nathanael, whom Jesus declares to be “truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (1:45–47). Nathanael provides a triple declaration that Jesus is “Rabbi … the Son of God … the King of Israel” (1:49). Curiously, these earliest followers of Jesus have already made the key confessional affirmations about Jesus in their initial encounters with him—more a literary device than an historically-plausible event.

Icon of Philip and Nathanael with Jesus

Peter, of course, figures in the Johannine version of the story about Jesus—only once in the earlier narrative section (John 6:68) but a number of times in the final sections of the story (13:1–11, 21–30, 36–38; 18:10–11, 15–18, 25–27; 20:1–8). The lesser role of Peter, and the way he is contrasted a,onside “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, will be further explored below.

Philip and Andrew are noted as being present both in the story of the feeding of the 5,000 (6:8–14) and when “some Greeks” worshipping in Jerusalem ask Philip, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (12: 20–22). This request evokes a significant response from Jesus, speaking about “my hour”, the seed falling into the ground, and the familiar teaching, “whoever serves me must follow me” (12:23–26). Philip also poses one of the requests put to Jesus during his “farewell discourse”, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (14:8–14). Nathanael, by contrast, is absent from the story until this final post-crucifixion narrative (21:1–3).

So five of the seven who gather by the sea in this post-crucifixion time are clearly identical with individuals named in the Synoptic Gospels. Simon Peter was the earliest disciple called, along with his brother, Andrew (Mark 1:16–18; Matt 4:18–20) and always heads up the list of The Twelve whom Jesus “appointed as apostles” (Mark 3:14; see the list at Mark 3:18 and parallels, and Acts 1:13).

In Synoptic tradition, the sons of Zebedee were the next two disciples called by Jesus (Mark 1:19–20; Matt 4:21–22), where they are named as James and John; they also figure in the list of The Twelve (Mark 3:18 and parallels; Acts 1:13). These two sons are never named in John’s book of signs; nor do they appear anywhere else in the earlier stories of Jesus.

Thomas is named amongst The Twelve in Synoptic traditions (Mark 3:18 and parallels; Acts 1:13). He is noted on three occasions in the book of signs (John 11:16; 14:5; 20:24–29); see https://johntsquires.com/2019/04/23/in-defence-of-thomas-a-doubting-sceptic-or-a-passionate-firebrand/

Philip, introduced by John in company with Nathanael (1:43–51) is linked with Bartholomew in Synoptic traditions (Mark 3:18 and parallels; Acts 1:13). Bartholomew is not mentioned at all in the book of signs; could the Synoptic Bartholomew be the same as the Johannine Nathanael? The identification is often made by interpreters.

The Beloved Disciple and Simon Peter

Who were the other two, unnamed, disciples in that group of seven beside the Sea of Tiberias that early morning? The verses immediately after the section offered by the lectionary provide a clue. The narrative continues, “Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?'” (21:20).

The disciple whom Jesus loved has appeared earlier in the book of signs at two key moments: at the meal with the disciples that included the footwashing (13:23), and beside the cross (19:25–27). There is some question, also, that he may have been “the other disciple” with Simon Peter in the courtyard of the high priest (18:15–16; “the other disciple” is identified as “the one whom Jesus loved” at 20:2).

This disciple actually occupies a more prominent place in the book of signs than Simon Peter, who predominates in the Synoptic accounts. The Johannine narrative of the empty tomb places Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple at the tomb (20:1–10). Whilst the two disciples run to the tomb, the Beloved Disciple arrives first, ahead of Peter, and makes the first confession of faith (20:3–8).

The disciples Peter and John running to the tomb
on the morning of the resurrection
Painting by Eugène Burnand (1898)

There is a similar dynamic at work in the Johannine account of the final supper, as the Beloved Disciple reclines next to Jesus; at the request of Simon Peter, he asks Jesus about his prediction of betrayal (13:21–25). In both scenes, Peter appears to be in a subservient position to the Beloved Disciple: arriving second at the tomb, asking the Beloved Disciple to ask a question of Jesus.

This contrast is heightened in the Passion Narrative, as the Synoptic accounts of the threefold denial of Jesus by Peter (Mark 14:66–72 and parallels) are replicated in John’s book of signs (John 18:15–18, 15–17), whilst the Beloved Disciple stays close by Jesus, standing at the foot of the cross with his mother, in John’s narrative (19:15–17).

The “competition” between these two early disciples is one clue as to the origins of John’s book of signs. Raymond Brown has developed a complex hypothesis about multiple stages of development of this Gospel, with the figure of the Beloved Disciple providing a focal point of leadership and identity (and perhaps also serving as the earliest source for the distinctive Johannine traditions?). This is a counterpoint to the leadership accorded to Peter in Mark’s account (Mark 1:16-18; 8:29; 10:28; 14:29; 16:7) and the subsequent strengthening of his leadership role by Matthew (Matt 16:13-20).

I still find Brown’s proposal to be quite persuasive. There is a detailed summary and valuable critical analysis of Brown’s hypothesis by L. Jared Garcia at https://leejaredgarcia.com/2020/10/29/the-community-of-the-beloved-disciple-by-raymond-brown-a-book-review/

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See also https://johntsquires.com/2022/04/29/back-to-the-lake-back-to-fishing-a-late-resurrection-story-john-21-easter-3c/