Understanding the Christology of the Gospel of John: The Bread of Life
01 September, 2018 - 5 min read
The author of the Gospel of John compiled his narrative as an explicit revelation of the identity of Jesus: the Word of God. John’s unique narrative does not weaken Jesus’ capabilities as the Messiah. In many ways, John’s Jesus is more divine than in the other Synoptic Gospels. The implication of his divine origin and purpose are established from the outset, in the Johannine Prologue. The next section of the Gospel is marked by its focus on Jesus’ signs which he performs to reveal himself as “the Son of God,” “the Bread of Life,” and many other titles indicative of his voluntary and sacrificial purpose. Along with its three corroborating texts, John’s Gospel climaxes with its own Passion narrative which teleologically supports Jesus’ purpose as the savior.
The poetic verses which open John’s Gospel thrust Jesus’ divine nature upon the reader by associating ‘the Word’ with God. Although this title is not claimed by Jesus anywhere else in the Gospel, the message that he espouses, that he is the conduit by which humans can abide in God, parallels the divine genesis offered by the Johannine Prologue. The third verse: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being,”1 sets the tone of the subsequent narrative, in which Jesus recapitulates his unique relationship with the Father, as the Son of God with God, and the importance of that relationship for the salvation of man. Another notable phrase of this prologue which establishes the purpose of John’s Gospel occurs in the following verse: “In him was life.”2 This ‘life’ is referenced throughout Jesus’ public ministry and is expounded upon as “eternal life,”3 attainable only through Jesus. The Johannine Prologue lays the framework for John by establishing Jesus as the logos.
The next section of the Gospel holds the accounts of Jesus’ public ministry which are divided by signs, serving to reinforce his origin from the Father and his role as the savior. Use of the term ‘signs’ in reference to Jesus’ miracles is not unique to John’s Gospel, but the underlying purpose of the term as a sign of God, rather than a demonstration of power or an altruistic deed, is not emphasized as heavily in the other Gospels.4 Although Jesus claims to be the Son of God, his repeated attribution of the signs to “the one who sent [him],”5 balances the otherwise wholly divine figure, giving John a simultaneously high and low Christology.6 Each of John’s seven signs is performed so that witnesses might believe in Jesus. Before healing a Galilean official’s son, Jesus says: “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.”7 The official believes him, his son is healed, and his household then believes as well. The emphasis is repeatedly placed upon Jesus’ origin, the Father, and his motivation for performing the signs, to convince people to believe in him. This is explicitly stated in the last verse of John 20: “These are written so that you may come to believe … and that through believing you may have life.”8 The emphasis of Jesus’ role as a conduit for salvation is developed through his signs as well. His title as the “Bread of Life” is revealed in the 6th chapter, where Jesus tells a gathered crowd: “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh,”9 continuing the thematic necessity of Jesus for mankind to experience eternal life. He says: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”10 His ministry is centered around inviting mankind to share the communion with God that is described in the Prologue. There is no ambiguity about Jesus’ identity or purpose; John’s seven signs express Jesus’ purpose as the logos who confers eternal life.
Jesus undergoes his passion with a triumphant temperament indicative of his omnipotent understanding of his purpose. After entering Jerusalem, he rebukes himself, saying: “It is for this reason that I have come to this hour,”11 demonstrating acceptance of his fate, knowing he will be united with God. Furthermore, a voice from heaven responds, reinforcing Jesus’ missionary purpose: that they might believe.12 Before Judas betrays him, Jesus prays to God “on behalf of those whom you gave me,”13 that they might abide in God too. Finally, John describes Jesus’ death as a voluntary forfeiture of his spirit after declaring “It is finished.”14 Jesus’ death is a described as the completion of his mission rather than an unfair demise.
John’s Gospel characterizes Jesus as the forthcoming Messiah whose flesh and blood are the means by which mankind can partake in the communion with God described in the Johannine Prologue. It establishes that the Word, Jesus, was with God in the beginning, that his ministry ties him to the Father and invites other to share that communion, and that his passion was a culmination of purpose. John’s Gospel reveals Jesus’ identity as the logos.
1 John 1:3
2 John 1:4
3 John 3:15-16
4 Ehrman pp. 171
5 John 5:36
6 Ehrman pp.184
7 John 4:48
8 John 20:31
9 John 6:51
10 John 6:56
11 John 12:27
12 John 12:30
13 John 18:9
14 John 19:30
Ehrman, Bart D. “The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.” Sixth ed., Oxford University Press, 2015.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with The Apocrypha. Fourth ed., Oxford University Press, 2010.