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Fall 1988 · Vol. 17 No. 2 · pp. 3–17 

Literary Features in the Gospel of John: An Analysis of John 3:1-21

Bryan Born

In many ways the Gospel of John remains a mystery—it hints at who its author is and yet never explicitly tells us. The story seems simple and straightforward, and yet one feels as though the author is often hinting at still deeper truths. In the New Testament it stands alone, distanced from the Synoptics by its unique presentation of the Christ-event. John is exceptional; and thus it seems appropriate that the symbol of the eagle has been attached to it. Commenting on this symbolism, Paul Duke writes: “The thought of this Gospel reaches dizzying heights, its majestic language spirals and soars, presenting a Christ ‘lifted up’ to a glory more elevated than we might otherwise have seen” (1985:1).

. . .this Gospel will always engage the reader in the quest to understand. . .

Duke zeros in on a most significant aspect of this Gospel—its language. According to John, not all of Jesus’ words and actions are recorded, but “these are written that you may believe Jesus is the Christ” (John 20:31 NIV). The written words of this Gospel are intended to persuade the reader to make a commitment to Christ. With this understanding, one discovers that knowing how John crafted his Gospel may have almost as much importance as what he wrote. As {4} Gail O’Day has recently argued, “Any study of Johannine revelation that ignores the form, style, and mode of Johannine revelatory language will always miss the mark” (1986:47). Since John conspicuously points to the written word, there appears to be warrant for a closer look at the literary devices he employed.


To deal adequately with all the literary techniques utilized within this Gospel is simply too large a task. Therefore this study will narrow the field by focusing on the implicit commentary contained within the narrative. In R. Allen Culpepper’s valuable study on Johannine narrative style, he helpfully describes the distinction between the narrator’s explicit and implicit commentary. The narrator communicates explicitly through character development, events, settings, and narrative asides—the obvious features. In contrast, implicit commentary is information conveyed “between the lines” through such literary features as multiple allusions, misunderstandings, irony and symbolism (1983:6,7). A closer analysis of these techniques may provide a clearer picture of the Johannine message.

The first of these techniques is the use of multiple allusions. Frequently John uses words that are polyvalent in meaning. On other occasions he chooses certain words, which clearly have one meaning, to allude to something else. When used in dialogues the words often have one meaning for the listener (lower or earthly), and quite another meaning for Jesus (higher or heavenly). One example of this literary devise is Jesus’ reference to his body as the temple in 2:19-21. In this case the narrator explains what Jesus meant by his words. However in other instances he does not, as in 7:8 where Jesus speaks of “going up” (to Jerusalem or the Father?).

John uses these multiple allusions for two reasons. First, they often allow him to set up the misunderstanding/understanding literary device (4:10ff.), or engage in irony (12:50-52). Second, they also make it possible to make an implicit theological statement in a provocative manner. An excellent example is the fourfold use of “follow” in 1:37,38,40,43. The reader is led progressively to the higher meaning of “follow” as one realizes that these men will become disciples (Shedd 1975:256-57). These multiple allusions do not negate {5} the lower level of meaning but rather they extend and elevate that meaning.

Turning to the literary technique of misunderstanding, we find it occurs whenever a character misunderstands the meaning of Jesus’ words, leading Jesus to communicate fuller and deeper truths about himself. Upon noting that it is a literary device, one must also recognize that it represents a historical reality (see Excursus). The most frequent sequence is an ambiguous statement by Jesus, a misunderstanding by the hearer, then clarification by either Jesus or the narrator. Jesus’ discourses on living water (4:10ff), food (4:32ff) and bread (6:33ff) furnish excellent examples.

Culpepper delineates three effects of the misunderstandings upon the reader. The first is the enlargement of the gap between the “insiders” and the “outsiders.” The narrator makes the reader feel superior to the obviously less intelligent characters in the story. The misunderstandings cast judgmental shadows on those who ignorantly rejected Jesus, the “outsiders.” This, in effect, nudges the reader into the privileged circle of those who understand the implications of Jesus’ words, the “insiders.” Second, this device allows John to clarify and expand theological truth. The final effect is that they teach one how to read the Gospel. They help one recognize the two levels of language, and they warn that failure to understand identifies one with those foolish characters who did not rightly interpret Jesus’ words (Culpepper 1983:164-165).

One of the most implicit of John’s literary techniques is that of irony. Although it is a difficult device to master, John exercises it with great effect to further his purpose. In fact it can be said that the author “smiles, winks, and raises his eyebrows as the story is told” (Culpepper 1983:165). Thus John records statements that the speaker thinks are correct and the reader knows are correct, but in a different and often higher sense. It once again emphasizes the two levels within the Johannine text and the opposition between those two levels. To exegete the text properly one must deal with both the meaning of the words as intended by the characters as well as the meaning the author wished to convey (Wead 1974:38).

Paul Duke has analyzed Johannine irony under two headings. The first, local irony, is situated at a particular point in the text, such as Caiaphas’ prophecy that Jesus would die for the people (11:49-50). Extended irony, the second type, is the {6} development of an ironic theme through an episode or through the whole Gospel. The prime example, and the ultimate irony, is that Jesus was rejected by the world (1:10), and even more pointedly, by his own (1:11), the very people he came to save (Duke 1985:43-46,95-98,111-114).

What then is the effect of irony in John? Primarily, it draws the reader into union with the author. The reader is never the victim of irony and although he/she will probably miss the irony at some points, this will only strengthen communion when it is recognized during subsequent readings. Even those unsympathetic to the views of the author will find themselves being gently led toward the goal of the book (20:30-31). Through irony, “the author subtly welds a union between himself and the audience who will read the gospel. This unity is a delicate means to bring them to the faith John knows” (Wead 1974:40).

The final literary technique to be discussed is symbolism. Almost all would agree that abundant use of symbolism is one of the primary literary features of John’s Gospel. On one level this symbolism appears to be explicit instead of implicit commentary. But upon closer observation, it becomes obvious that not all symbolism in John is easily identified or interpreted. Symbolism has been defined as “the sensible expression of a present reality” (Schneiders 1977:372). The symbol’s function is to enable the reader to subjectively experience the reality of the transcendent. Using this definition one is able to treat Jesus himself, his words and his works as symbolic, for Jesus is the symbol of God (1:14,18).

If symbolism is so prominent in John, what is its theological purpose? C.H. Dodd has recognized that the author has presented the very narrative as both historically accurate and symbolic of a deeper truth. It seems that once again the symbols can act as ladders to help the reader up to a higher level of reality, encouraging the reader to encounter the transcendent. Dodd notes this about the author: “He writes in terms of a world in which phenomena—things and events—are a living and moving image of the eternal, and not a veil of illusion to hide it, a world in which the Word is made flesh” (1953:142-143). {7}


As we turn to deal with a specific text from John, the focus will remain on the implicit commentary. However, it is unavoidable, as well as unwise, to neglect the more explicit markers contained within the text. Immediately preceding our text is a narrator’s comment on the inadequate faith of the people who saw Jesus’ signs. The link between this passage and our text is the double repetition of “man” in 2:25 and the ensuing reference to “man” in 3:1. Clearly John desired his readers to see the connection between Nicodemus and the multitudes whose faith was based on signs. In a deliberate manner he has cast doubt on the credibility of the character he is about to introduce.

Our text begins with a description of Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Jewish ruling council. His representative nature emerges immediately from the repetitive use of “man,” his designation as a Pharisee, and his use of the first person plural in 3:2 (“we know”). The author also supplies information which will guide the reader’s perception of Nicodemus. He is identified with those who have an insufficient faith based only on the signs. Second, he is a Pharisee, and they have already been critical of both John the Baptist (1:24,24) and Jesus (2:18).

The third and very significant clue is the inclusion of the detail that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. This seemingly insignificant remark says much considering John’s symbolical usage of light and darkness throughout the Gospel (1:5,9; 3:19-21; 9:4; 11:10; 13:30). One can see the explicit character development of Nicodemus while the author’s use of implicit commentary sets the stage for the following dialogue with Jesus.

In verse 2, Nicodemus makes his representative affirmation (“we know”) of Jesus as one “come from God.” One must recognize Nicodemus’ statement as being explicitly Christological. The author begins the dialogue in this manner because he is about to challenge the reader to move to a higher level of understanding, primarily of Jesus but also of the nature of faith. The terminology of the confession itself is not wrong, as parallels in 7:16f., 7:28-29, and 9:16 would indicate. Certainly, Jesus came from God (3:13,16,17). Nicodemus, however, simply does not recognize the implications of his words, making it {8} necessary for Jesus to clarify and challenge his understanding (de Jonge 1971:347-50).

In the following section, verses 3-8, we will encounter three excellent examples of different kinds of implicit commentary. One of the more obvious devices is John’s use of the literary technique of misunderstanding. Jesus responds to Nicodemus’ statement with an assertion that one must be born “from above” or “again/anew” to see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus responds incredulously because be overlooks the first of these meanings and takes the second literally. Nicodemus’ gross misunderstanding revolves around the use of a double allusion contained within the polyvalent term “born again” (another), still a misunderstood term today. Neither of the two meanings mentioned above should be eliminated; rather the reader needs to discover the higher level of meaning. “By means of this literary device, John is able to synthesize two fundamental truths of the Christian experience: the believer must be born again, from above” (Richard 1985:103). Both ideas are included in a proper understanding of the term.

Moreover this device allows the reader to feel superior to Nicodemus as one realizes that Jesus’ words are to be heard on a higher level. However, the clarification is in some ways almost as troublesome as his original statement to Nicodemus. The difficulty stems from Jesus’ use of symbolic language. In Jesus’ clarification he states that one must be born of both water and the Spirit. The reference to water is clearly a symbol, but of what? Some have argued that it symbolizes physical birth, while the majority of commentators believe it refers to baptism. In either case there has probably been too much attention placed on “water,” for in the following verses only the Spirit is mentioned. The Spirit gives birth to spirit (3:6), referring to a higher, heavenly reality. Also the parable or proverb in verse 8 dwells on the Spirit’s activity.

The possible solution to this puzzle is found in 7:37-39 where water clearly refers to the Spirit (cf. 4:10-14). Thus it seems that the matter of import here is not baptism per se but rather a baptism which incorporates the power of the Spirit and so results in one being born from above. Thus, water is really a reference to the cleansing and life-giving power of the Spirit.

The dichotomy between flesh and spirit described in verse 6 should also be noted. In this instance, flesh symbolizes {9} earthly reality while Spirit symbolizes the divine. To enter the kingdom of God one must partake of the divine, and this is accomplished only through the Spirit. Nicodemus’ astonishment is reintroduced in verse 7 when Jesus reiterates the fact that one must be born from above (another). A highly significant detail in this verse is the use of “you” in the plural, not singular. This feature will have jumped out at those who read the text in Greek. By merely switching a pronoun from the singular to the plural, the reader is forced to consider the words of Jesus. The dialogue has appeared to be between two individuals. However at this juncture the author implies that at some point the reader will have to respond to Jesus’ challenge. The reader cannot gloss over this message—the “you” includes him or her.

In verse 8 the dialogue returns to the singular and we also find a compact parable. The parable is carefully constructed, containing three words with double meanings: “pneuma” (Spirit/wind), “Pneo” (breathe/blow) and “phone” (voice/sound). Thus it can be translated: “The wind blows where it wills and you hear its sound” or “The Spirit breathes where he wills and you hear his voice.” To take either translation by itself would be a mistake. Rather one affirms that an earthly phenomenon points to a spiritual truth. Just as the origin and final direction of the wind cannot be observed so it is with the Spirit and the one born of the Spirit.

This discussion of verses 3 through 8 has highlighted three excellent examples of implicit commentary. The misunderstanding/understanding device is used in its customary manner as Jesus begins by issuing an ambiguous statement. Nicodemus misunderstands the term “born again” (a classic multiple allusion), allowing Jesus to clarify the first statement. In the clarification, “water” is used symbolically to focus on the work of the Spirit. Finally in verse 8, we looked at three words (“pneuma,” “pneo,” and “phone”), each of which incorporates symbolism and multiple allusion. Even in such a short section, one can soon discover a wealth of implicit commentary.

With the end of the parable, Nicodemus responds one last time, with an incredulous question: “How can this be?” The four words of his statement demonstrate his complete lack of understanding. The reader may look at him with sympathy, for Jesus’ words have been somewhat opaque. As we shall see, {10} however, this clearly is not what the author intends when one considers the following verses.

Paul Duke has ably demonstrated that Jesus’ words in verse 10 are full of irony. First, the emphatic use of the pronoun “you” (placed at the beginning of the sentence) effectively focuses all attention on Nicodemus, the representative figure. Note the use of the definite article; he is not “a” teacher but “the” teacher. Second, Jesus uses Nicodemus’ own language to parody his position. Whereas earlier Nicodemus had referred to Jesus as a teacher, now Jesus calls Nicodemus the teacher, and he continues this thought by noting this Pharisee’s lack of knowledge in spite of his claim (“we know” v. 2). Finally Jesus ironically calls him “the teacher of Israel” when many of the readers will recognize the “Israel” refers to the faithful in Israel (see 1:31,47,49,12:13) (Duke 1985:45-46). The irony is clear—here stands Nicodemus, the so-called teacher of Israel, claiming to have knowledge, and yet he cannot comprehend the words of the King and true Teacher of Israel.

John wants the reader to see that although Nicodemus and the Pharisees he represents claim to have knowledge (3:2, 7:27, 9:24,29,31), they are really in darkness. The reader is instructed to consider carefully the words of Jesus. This becomes all the more obvious in verse 12 where Jesus scolds “you people” (Nicodemus and those with insufficient faith?, the Jews?, the unbelieving reader?) for not accepting “our testimony.” The reason for the shift to the plural in verse 11 has occasioned numerous explanations. The most plausible of these is that the narrator has a “retrospective point of view” (Culpepper 1983:28). The author writes from a faith perspective, and thus can include the witness of the believing community in Jesus’ statement. This change in pronouns marks the transition from a private conversation to a general teaching in which the reader is included. Therefore this verse provides Jesus’ condemnation of those who did not believe during his lifetime and the author’s warning to the reader.

Verse 12 has given almost all commentators difficulty, for in it Jesus speaks of “earthly things” and “heavenly things.” Interestingly, we find that Jesus’ speech returns to the singular (“I have”), while those to whom he speaks remain in the plural. In the second half of the verse we find that Jesus is about to impart “heavenly things,” while it is implied that {11} those not believing, not looking for the spiritual significance, will be unable to understand these “things.”

To what then do “earthly things” and “heavenly things” refer? These terms must be understood, for they not only say much about Jesus’ teaching but they also shed further light on Johannine style. John’s profound dualism has already been noted in our discussion of flesh and Spirit in verse 6. This dualism is both actual reality as well as a guide for reading the Gospel. Earthly realities symbolize heavenly realities. Thus earlier, when Jesus spoke of being born anew/from above and of the movement of the wind/Spirit, he spoke of heavenly things in an earthly manner. If Nicodemus would have believed, he would have been able to “see” the higher heavenly meaning in the earthly symbolism (cf. 9:35-41). Since he did not “see” the heavenly reality in the “earthly things,” he will certainly be unable to believe and comprehend the “heavenly things.”

These words of Jesus also prepare the reader for what is to come. Jesus goes on to speak of the Son of man who is the only one who has descended from heaven. Thus Jesus is the one to impart heavenly truth to those who are able and willing to understand.

As the subject of the text shifts to the Son of man, the Christological import of this passage becomes apparent. Nicodemus’ affirmation of Jesus (v. 2) suggested this would be a Christological discussion. Here the text begins to build towards a climax. The author writes from the perspective of one looking back—with the cross, resurrection and ascension standing in between—and thus can affirm that Jesus has already ascended. This is most obvious from the use of the perfect tense (past action with abiding results) of “anabebeken” (has ascended). There is a blending of both Jesus’ and the narrator’s voice allowing the reader to better understand the content of Jesus’ words. This in no way detracts from Jesus’ words but rather strengthens the authority of the narrator, resulting in a greater willingness in the reader to listen to the particular message.

The message of verse 13 seems fairly obvious. The one who has descended from heaven has the authority to reveal heavenly things. Nicodemus, who could not even understand earthly symbolism, surely will not be able to receive heavenly wisdom. Further emphasis is placed on the fact that one, the {12} Son of man, has descended from heaven, from above (see “another,” v.3), and has become flesh (cf.1:14). Stephen Smalley has carefully studied John’s usage of the title Son of Man, and has noted its dual meaning:

He fills it with a content which points to his essential nature as the heavenly Man incarnate, humiliated and vindicated. It is the Fourth Evangelist in particular who has an eye to the ‘two-level’ character of this identity, earthly and heavenly; for it is he who draws out for his readers so clearly the conjunction between these two levels in the person of the Son of Man himself (1968/69:299).

By employing the title, Son of Man, John forces the reader to deal with the implications of the truth that Jesus is both man and God.

In verse 14, the topic of Jesus’ death is re-introduced (cf. 2:19-21), but in a manner which only the careful reader will understand. The links between verses 13 and 14 are the terms “Son of man,” and “ascending/lifted up.” The story of the Israelites who looked up at the serpent on the standard in the wilderness (Num. 21:9) is used as an illustration of the salvation that Jesus will effect for those believing in him (v. 15). For one carelessly reading the text, the reference to “lifted up” would appear to refer only to Jesus’ death. But in typical Johannine fashion the word contains a double allusion.

The narrator explicitly tells the reader in 12:32-33 that it refers to Jesus’ death as well as his exaltation (see also 8:28). As the serpent was set on the pole, so Jesus must be placed on the cross; and in so doing he will be glorified. With this double allusion, a significant theological point is communicated. Jesus’ exaltation was achieved through the cross; without it there can be no exaltation. In John’s very choice of words, he carefully tells the reader his theology of the cross. In this, the “crowning irony” of the Gospel, one finds that Jesus’ death could at the same time be his exaltation (O’Day 1986:112).

At this point we reach the climax of the text, and what has become for many the most significant portion of Scripture in their Christian lives. And well it should, for that is what the author intended. Verse 16 picks up the themes of descending, eternal life and belief. That this text serves to promote the views of the author can be seen from the introductory “for” {13} (gar), which in other places also points to the narrator’s comment (e.g. 4:8, 5:13). Another clue is the significant similarity of language in these verses (3:16-21) and other texts which betray the author’s influence, such as the prologue and the farewell discourses (e.g. love, light, darkness). Like these texts, this pivotal section can be regarded as the author’s summary, or the gospel “in microcosm.”

John begins with the affirmation that God loved the world, with “world” here having a neutral sense (cf. 1:10). This is an important statement, for it means that eternal life is for all, not just for the Jews (1:12). Interestingly, this is also the first time that love, “agape,” is found in the Gospel. Note that in its first use God is the subject who is loving. The rest of the Gospel, especially chapters 13 to 17, will develop the particular emphases of the author when he uses the word.

Verse 15 introduced the term “eternal life” and now its use is repeated. Once again one must carefully consider its meaning, for through its double allusion John is able to express his theology. The author uses this term to support an eschatology which is both realized and futuristic. This dual nature of John’s eschatology is clear from many texts, most notably 5:24-29. The believer possesses eternal life both in the present and in the age to come (Dodd 1953:364). The believer can enter a whole new existence as one experiencing a future blessing in the present. For John, Jesus marks the beginning of a new eschatological age in which believers participate by means of the Spirit (16:5-16).

But we have not as yet approached the topic of how one appropriates this eternal life. We are told that one must believe in the one whom God has sent, but not what this believing constitutes. In the interaction with Nicodemus one realizes that this belief must be based on more than just signs. Up to this point the reader has not been given much more enlightenment than Nicodemus, but in reading the rest of the Gospel one gains an appreciation of all that believing in Jesus entails. Robert Kysar in his fine study on this theme has argued that Johannine faith primarily involves a personal allegiance to Jesus. He then goes on to note that the author uses only the verb form “to believe,” never the noun “faith.” From this he can conclude: “Faith is not something one has. Faith is something one does. Faith is not a static being but a dynamic becoming” (1976:81). The life of faith is not an easy road but one full of {14} difficulties (e.g., being thrown out of the synagogue, 9:1-41).

John deliberately withholds some of the aspects of a complete faith to avoid bombarding the reader all at once. The reader sees some of the implications and then is pushed to explore more fully all the facets of the term. The reader is nudged to look beyond the obvious and move up to a higher level of understanding.

The last five verses of this text deal with the eschatological and soteriological implications of what has previously been said. Although Jesus was sent into the world to save it, his arrival still entails the judgment of all people; it is an eschatological event. The reader must make a decision, either remain in the darkness or move into the light. Here again we see the fundamental Johannine dualism between light and darkness (1:4-5,8). Jesus is the light that has come into the world; he has descended from above (3:13,31). To move into the light is to be “from above,” but to remain in the darkness is to be “from below.” Being in darkness is the same as continuing in ignorance and sin (cf. 9:41; 12:35).

Why then would one remain in darkness? Those who are evil have made a deliberate choice to continue in the error of their way. Thus, Jesus as bearer of the eschatological light renders judgment on all people. The reader of the text is also led to understand that believing contains an ethical element. The one who believes (3:16) and the one who does not believe (3:18) categorize themselves by their response to the Word (3:19-21). This symbolism challenges the reader to move beyond the things below. Just as Jesus and those in the light are from above (3:3,7), so the reader must grasp the higher meaning and respond to it.


In the discussion of our text considerable attention has been given to discovering the fuller meaning of the Johannine multiple allusions, misunderstandings, ironic comments and symbolic features. As a conclusion I would like to suggest the following purposes for Johannine implicit commentary.

First, the implicit commentary warns the reader not to mistake the superficial for the real. The Johannine misunderstandings point out that often there is more than meets the eye. This is also true of the double allusions and symbolism. {15} The reader is “taught” how to read the Gospel; one must look past the obvious and detect the fuller, higher meaning. Second, through the use of both misunderstanding and irony the author enables the reader to share in his elevated position. Both the author and reader can look down at those who were so foolish as to misunderstand the significance of Jesus, the living Word. The implicit commentary illustrates the central conflict within the Gospel, what is “from above” and what is “from below” Originally only Jesus is from above but as some of the characters begin to understand and respond, they too are “born from above” (Culpepper 1983:199-201).

Finally, I would suggest that these literary devices have an even more notable purpose for the author of this Gospel. They serve to build a bond between the reader and author, and in so doing they pull the reader to accept the faith of the author. The following quote from Paul Duke refers only to irony, but I would argue that it applies to all the implicit commentary.

Part of the power of the Johannine irony, then, is that it so powerfully engages us in what we read. Instead of setting out propositional arguments, it jolts us with incongruity or nudges us with possibilities—then grows silent, leaving us to choose a meaning or a value or a commitment (1985:155).

This idea becomes clearer when one reconsiders the passage studied.

The reader is drawn to the author’s point of view as one recognizes that Nicodemus is truly “in the dark.” John constantly pushes the reader to consider the higher meaning, since the text can be comprehended only when one adopts the perspective of those “from above.” The reader is not only drawn into the privileged circle, he/she is challenged to believe. The reader must be born again (v. 7), the reader must believe to understand the “heavenly things” (v. 12), the reader must believe to partake of eternal life (vv. 15-16), and the reader must believe to move out of the darkness and into the light (vv. 18-21). But even though one is challenged already in 3:1-21, the full implications of a commitment to believe will not be understood until the Gospel is finished (20:30-31). The strength of this Gospel is that it will always engage the reader in the quest to understand, to see and to know Jesus the Word, the one who in his “lifting up” was both humbled in death and {16} exalted as the Son of God.


The preceding discussion of Johannine literary technique has demonstrated that the author has shaped and impacted his description of the events in Jesus’ life. In so doing, he has provided the reader with a message which exists on two levels. This two-level schema affirms that the “Gospel was written from the perspective of faith. . .but it describes the situation of Jesus’ ministry” (Painter 1975:8). With this view, one can admit that the story the author tells is affected by his own acceptance of Jesus as the risen Son of God.

Upon noting that the author’s faith has definitely influenced his presentation of the material, the question of the historicity of the account is raised. Unfortunately, some have carried this discussion to the point where one doubts if anything the Fourth Evangelist records is accurate. But as has been forcefully argued by D.A. Carson, the widespread misunderstanding of Jesus stands as a fact of history. The Jews did not understand Jesus and neither did the disciples until after his death and resurrection. In the hands of the author this very truth becomes a vehicle for bringing the reader to faith and understanding. As Carson explains:

However worked over in Johannine idiom, they are grounded in the life-setting of the historical Jesus, whose death, resurrection and exaltation ratified the content of the Master’s teaching and personal claims while simultaneously and once for all shattering many enigmatic aspects of their form (1982:90).

This argument allows one to recognize that the author has shaped the material, not in such a manner that negates historical facts, but rather in a way which permits the reader to grasp their significance more fully.

But this explanation may not totally satisfy. What about those who object that to modify a part is to undermine the truth of the whole? To this charge one could respond by noting the author’s intent in writing this document. His express purpose is theological—to reveal the unseen God as the living Word (1:14,18)—and evangelistic—to bring others to a complete belief in Jesus Christ (20:30,31). The very nature of {17} this task demands that John use symbolism, for God is unseen and thus Jesus becomes the symbol for God. John’s usage of symbolic language and implicit commentary should not bother us, for through it he is able to explicate more completely the meaning of the Christ-event. John’s Gospel can be compared to a portrait in contrast to that of a photograph. Instead of merely presenting the bare facts of Jesus’ life, he interprets them and in so doing gives us a fuller portrait of who Jesus really was and is (Schneiders 1977:374-75). The events of Jesus’ life become the means by which the reader is confronted with the truth that Jesus is the Word in the flesh. In recognizing and responding to this truth, one is enabled to look beyond the surface and become one who is born from above.


  • Carson, D.A. “Understanding Misunderstanding in the Fourth Gospel.” Tyndale Bulletin 33 (1982): 59-91.
  • Culpepper, R. Alan. Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983.
  • Dodd, C.H. The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953.
  • Duke, Paul D. Irony in the Fourth Gospel. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985.
  • Jonge Martinus de. “Nicodemus and Jesus: Some Observations on Understanding and Misunderstanding in the Fourth Gospel.” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 53 (1971): 337-59.
  • Kysar, Robert. John, The Maverick Gospel. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1976.
  • O’Day, Gail R. Revelation in the Fourth Gospel. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.
  • Painter, John. John: Witness & Theologian. London: SPCK, 1975.
  • Richard. E. “Expressions of Double Meaning and Their Function in the Gospel of John.” New Testament Studies 31 (1985): 96-112.
  • Shedd, Russell. “Multiple Meanings in the Gospel of John.” Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation. Ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975.
  • Smalley, Stephen S. “The Johannine Son of Man Sayings.” New Testament Studies 15 (1968/69): 278-301.
  • Schneiders, Sandra M. “History and Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel.” L’Evangile de Jean: Sources, Redacation, Theologie. Ed. Martinus de Jonge. Gembloux: Duculot; Louvain; Louvain University Press, 1977.
  • Wead, David W. “Johannine Irony as a Key to the Author-Audience Relationship in John’s Gospel.” Biblical Literature: 1974 Proceedings. Comp. Fred O. Francis. Tallahassee: American Academy of Religion, 1974.
Bryan Born is a senior graduate student at the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California.

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