How John Tells a Story

John’s gospel tells the story of Jesus in ways that often seem simple on the surface.

Yet a closer reading reveals complexities that many preachers find daunting. People in the pew often like John’s gospel because it makes simple statements of the gospel message, like the one found in John 3:16. Yet the preacher reading through all of John 3 finds that the story takes twists and turns that make preaching a real challenge. There are tools that can help bring clarity to one’s reading and preaching on John’s gospel.

John’s gospel often uses expressions that have more than one meaning, and the choice is either/or. For example, when Jesus tells the woman at the well about “living water” (4:10), he uses an expression that can mean different things. In ordinary usage, living water is flowing water, like that found in a stream or spring, as opposed to the water stored up in a cistern. But in the theological sense, living water is a metaphor for what brings life in relationship with God. The woman tries to understand the expression in the ordinary sense of flowing H2O, but that approach does not work. Instead, we must understand it as a metaphor for the gift of God’s Spirit.

There are also places in John where the choice is both/and. When Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Son of Man will be “lifted up” (3:14), he uses an expression that can mean being lifted up physically, like the serpent on the pole, and lifted up in the sense of honor or majesty. The point is that both meanings are true. For Jesus to be lifted up in crucifixion is the way he is lifted up in honor. The cross is where the Messiah’s kingship is announced. Both meanings must be taken together. When preaching, it is helpful to identify both meanings and to bring them together.

Irony is a major feature of John’s gospel. It can be useful in preaching if it can be made clear. Working with a good definition of irony is a first step: Irony is when, on one level, something appears to be true; yet on another level, the opposite is true. The heart of irony, for John, is the contrast between appearance and reality. If the preacher can make this distinction clear, it can be helpful in proclaiming the story. For example, Nicodemus initially appears to know who Jesus is (3:2). But in reality, he proves incapable of understanding what Jesus says (3:9-10). The irony shows us who someone really is. Similarly, the man born blind initially appeared to be the sinner, since his blindness seemed to be punishment for sin. But in reality, sin is manifested in the blindness of unbelief, not in a lack of physical eyesight (9:2, 39-41). Irony adds “edge” to preaching if one can say, “This is how something appears” but from the perspective of the gospel “here is what is really going on.”

Imagery is one of the most powerful aspects of John’s gospel, yet it too presents challenges for the preacher. Some of the Lenten texts make use of images of light and darkness. Each of these images has multiple dimensions of meaning. Try thinking about the imagery as you would think about a shaft of ordinary light. Ordinary light has a spectrum of colors within it. When the light shines through a prism, one can see each of the colors more distinctly. This is also true of the imagery.

The gospel narrative is like a prism in that it allows us to see some of the hues within an image. For example, note how light and darkness are linked to other contrasting pairs in 3:16-21:

   Light             Darkness
   Life              Perishing
   Belief            Unbelief
   Not judged        Judged
   God              Evil
   Love              Hate

The pairing in John 9 is similar but not identical. There, seeing is associated with life and faith, whereas blindness connotes unbelief.

The images of light and darkness have a kind of immediacy that can be appealing. They suggest all of the following meanings in ways that we can picture. The specific ideas associated with the image give clarity to the message. The challenge is to give some clarity to the imagery without flattening it out. This can be done by creating word pictures that are analogous to those in the gospel. We might depict scenes in which those who like the darkness do so because they think it shields them from judgment. A thief works during the night so as not to be seen. Those who have nothing to hide want to work in the day. The point is that the light of divine love has come in Christ. The light has come to draw us to God, like we are drawn to the light of a new day. To turn away from the light would be like retreating into the darkness.

The gospel does not use this imagery simply to describe the human situation. The imagery is designed to move people toward renewed faith. The categories of light and darkness are not static. Rather, the purpose of the sharp contrasts is to say that life is different from death, love is different from hate, and faith is different from unfaith. Jesus has come as the light to draw us into God’s light.

This is the second in a series of three articles about Preaching the Gospel of John.