Understand the God Who Speaks

John’s Theology

Dr. Andreas Köstenberger joins the Understand the God Who Speaks podcast to discuss the theology of John.

The following is not a transcript of the podcast but written answers to the questions addressed in this podcast.

What is the relationship between the Word and God?

The prologue says in its opening verse that the Word was with God, and the Word was God. So, that means that there is a second person within the Godhead: the Word was both with God (so the two persons are distinct) and yet the Word also was himself God (so there is union or unity). Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus declares, “The Father and I are one” (10:30), and the Jewish authorities promptly get set to stone him on account of blasphemy, because they fully understood that Jesus was claiming to be God.

Second, the Word is the agent of creation. God created everything there is through the Word. As we read repeatedly in Genesis, God spoke, and the universe came into being. Later, we see Jesus is also the agent in salvation; the Father sent the Son, and he accomplished his earthly mission and subsequently returned to the one who sent him. So here is John’s entire sending Christology, which, in turn, I believe, comes from Isaiah 55:11 which depict God’s word as coming down to earth, accomplishing its purpose, and returning to its sender. So, the Word shares God’s identity and the Word is related to God in terms of agency.

For listeners who are interested in this topic, may I point out that in my book Father, Son and Spirit the very first chapter is devoted to Jewish monotheism and Jesus’s claim to deity in John’s Gospel. You know, we look at that claim and think of the Trinity, comprised of three persons, yet constituting one God, but first-century Jews would have looked at Jesus’s claim to deity against the backdrop of monotheism, the foundational Jewish confession enunciated in the book of Deuteronomy: “Hear O Israel, the LORD your God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6:4).

So you can see that for a first-century Jew, Jesus’s claim to deity would have appeared to violate the oneness of God. That’s why it’s so remarkable that John, who of course himself was a devout Jew, came to conclude that Jesus was God, and yet managed to reconcile that belief with the conviction that there is one God. In this we find the seeds for what later would become the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

John’s explanation of the Father is He is light, life, love, and Spirit. What does each one mean? How does each one work in our lives?

OK, so now we’re expanding our scope from John’s Gospel also to John’s first letter, as some of the things you mentioned that are said about the Father are actually found in 1 John. The Father is light means that he is morally pure and holy. As a result, he exposes our sin and moral impurity. He is life, he is the life-giver. That means that he is the Creator and also that he is the one who grants believers eternal life on the basis of their faith in his Son. He is love; God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. Love is part of God’s essence, along with his righteousness and his holiness.

In 2 John, John exhorts his readers to love the truth, so love is not independent of truth but integrally related to it. But God’s purpose for his creation, in his love, is for good, and for blessing and salvation, not evil, or judgment, or hell. Finally, God is spirit; he is invisible, and he is immaterial rather than physical. We can’t see God; he dwells in unapproachable light. So we shouldn’t make any images of God because we cannot accurately or adequately depict him in visual form. We also need to engage in spiritual worship because God is spirit. That means that what matters in worship is not the location but the spirit of the worshipper.

John 1:14 takes several OT passages and blends them together (Ex. 34:6–7; 33:12-34:10 LXX; ch. 40). Explain John’s meaning of the verse.

John 1:14 says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” When you look at the phrase “grace and truth,” in the Greek, the words used are charis for grace and alētheia for truth. Now in Exodus 34:6 it says, “The Lord passed before him [Moses, when giving him a second copy of the ten commandments] and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.’”

In the Hebrew, the words for “love” and “faithfulness” are hesed and emet, which refer to God’s faithfulness to his covenant with his people. Now many believe that “love and faithfulness” in Ex. 34:6 is roughly equivalent to “grace and truth” in John 1:14, because “truth” in the Hebrew is very close in meaning to “faithfulness,” and “grace” is related to “love.” Also, in Ex. 33:18, Moses asks God, “Show me your glory.” In response, God replies enigmatically that no one can see him and live, but while his glory passes by, he will place Moses in the cleft of a rock and cover his face with his hand, and when he has passed by, he will remove his hand so Moses can see his back.

John 1:18 likely alludes to this incident when John writes that “no one has ever seen God. The only God, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” Then later, in Exodus 40, we see Moses build the tabernacle, and the glory of the LORD fills it. So, we see how John in his prologue juxtaposes God’s limited revelation to Moses with his final, full, and definitive revelation in the Lord Jesus Christ.

John 10:34 links to Psalm 82:6 (Ps. 81:6 LXX). John 10:34 needs the context of vv. 36-38, esp. verse 38 before any interpretation of it can be applied. Do you agree that “the Father is in me and I in the Father” (v. 38b) is the proper context of interpreting John 10:34? If not, how do you interpret it? If so, what did Jesus have in mind for us to understand?

So this comes at the climax of an interchange between Jesus and the Jewish authorities, who are ready to stone him on account of blasphemy because he claimed to be God. Not so fast, Jesus says. “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken—do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?” (John 10:34–36). I believe what Jesus is saying here is that in the Old Testament there are times when the writer calls humans (or possibly angels) “gods,” so a claim to be god does not necessarily amount to blasphemy.

Of course, Jesus was no mere human, but this is merely a shot across the bow, telling the Jewish authorities to be more cautious in their judgment regarding Jesus’s true identity. Jesus goes on to offer his works as proof that he is who he says he is and then declares, “the Father is in me and I in the Father” (v. 38). In other words, he says that he is not doing his works independent from God the Father but in a very real sense it is the Father working through Jesus doing the works. In this sense, Jesus and the Father are united in their mission: Jesus and the Father are one as Jesus had asserted in John 10:30.

John 19:1 says, “Then Pilate therefore took (Greek lambanō) Jesus and flogged (Greek mastigoō) him.” I have two questions. Lambanō appears in passages such as Matthew 24:40, 41. Many evangelicals have mistaken those passages for the rapture of the church. They have assumed those taken are the righteous while those left behind are the unrighteous. But based on the Greek word “taken” it is the reverse. Lambanō appears in the Bible referring to something taken to judgment by force. The use of “taken to judgment by force” is the context of John 19:1, 6, 18:31. Am I right in my assumption?

Well, a word doesn’t “mean” anything apart from context, and in different contexts a word can mean different things. Words generally have a range of meaning. So, to your point, lambanō generally means “take,” but “take by force” is not part of the lexical meaning of the word; the word simply means “take,” and then, the context fleshes out what kind of taking is in mind in a given instance. So I believe it would be improper to take the meaning of lambanō in one context, where it means “take by force,” and then mandate that it must mean that everywhere else, because it is the context that supplies the “by force” idea, not the word itself.

Does that make sense? Of course that still doesn’t necessarily settle the question whether or not Matthew 24:40–41 refers to the rapture; I’m simply saying that the meaning of lambanō would not be a legitimate part of the argument in settling that question. Rather, you need to look at the context in Matthew 24 to investigate the meaning there.

John uses the Greek mastigoō in John 19:1. This word is the same used in the LXX version of Isaiah 50:6. Do you believe John willfully made this connection between the two passages? If so, was John showing Jesus had fulfilled the Isaiah passage?

Yes, I would think that this a possible allusion, especially in light of John’s use of Isaiah elsewhere. And, yes, if so, this would show that John believed Jesus fulfilled what it says in that passage in Isaiah about the striking of the servant of the LORD.

Water imagery pervades the Gospel of John in first nine chapters. It too interacts with many of the larger themes of the book including the revelation of Jesus as the Christ. Does John take us back to Genesis 1:1–2, Genesis 7:6ff, Exodus 14:21ff, and Numbers 20:9ff for his interpretation of water? If so, what does John wish telling us with his use of water imagery? Is it only one view or several views John is conveying? If several views are meant, what are they?

Certainly, creation, the flood, the parting of the Red Sea, and Moses bringing out water from the rock during the exodus are all part of the biblical water motif, but, again, I think it’s best to look at a given instance to determine which is the most likely background in that case. So, for example, in John water is mentioned at the Cana wedding, in Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus when Jesus speaks of being born of water and spirit, and in Jesus’s conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, where Jesus talks about giving the woman living water. Then, at the feast of Tabernacles, Jesus says that water will flow from the innermost being of those who believe in him.

So, I think on the broadest level, water signifies life. This fits in with John’s “eternal life” terminology. The new birth by water and spirit signifies the cleansing and renewing properties of water, a likely allusion to Ezekiel 36:25–26. Cleansing and purification are also in view at the Cana wedding, I believe, but there Jesus turns water into wine, which signifies the messianic joy he came to bring as the heavenly bridegroom. So the water motif is very versatile in Scripture, and the instances of the water motif in John’s Gospel are given against the backdrop of that motif in the Old Testament.

One more broader comment, Dale, if I may. When interpreting passages utilizing water symbolism, or any other common theme or metaphor, we need to be careful not to commit what the British scholar James Barr has called “illegitimate totality transfer.” By that he means that we use an “all of the above” method of interpretation when only one of the options is applicable. Let me give a couple quick examples. Sheep are used in the Bible to illustrate both people’s waywardness and obstreperous nature as well as their trust in the shepherd. In Isaiah 53:6, it says, “We all like sheep have gone astray.” Obviously, there the image is negative.

But then, in John 10, we read, “My sheep hear my voice, and they follow me.” Clearly, here the image is positive, and conveys sheep’s trust in their shepherd’s voice. So, you need to look at the specific use in context and then interpret the metaphor appropriately. Another example would be babies or infants. There are several places in Scripture where the image of an infant occurs in a negative sense, and the biblical writers exhort believers no longer to be spiritual babies but to grow up. But in 1 Peter 2, we see a positive use of the same metaphor when Peter writes, “Like newborn babies, long for the pure spiritual milk of the word.”

So, again, we need to be careful not to jump to conclusions and to look at the context to see if a given metaphor occurs positively or negatively rather than committing the interpretive sin of “illegitimate totality transfer.”

John 17 is what I call the “prayer of perseverance.” As the Father kept Jesus from falling, Jesus prays the Father keeps the disciples from falling prey to the Evil One. Verses 12–13 make the exception with Judas Iscariot. We are watching many church leaders fall prey to apostasy by denying God and the truths of Christianity. We could say, “They were never believers from the start.” Is there such a person in the Bible who truly was a believer and fell into apostasy? I am thinking of Demas in Philemon 24, Colossians 4:14 and 2 Timothy 4:10.

Good question. Demas is a possible example. While he sends greetings to Philemon and the Colossians during Paul’s first imprisonment, during Paul’s second imprisonment, he writes, “For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica” (2 Tim. 4:10). So, clearly, he left Paul, and Paul remarks wistfully that he is “in love with this present world,” which makes you think of John’s words, “Do not love the world or the things in the world” (1 John 2:16). At the same time, the evidence is insufficient to conclude that Demas apostatized (fell away) from the Christian faith altogether and lost his salvation. More likely, he was still a believer but succumbed to some of the world’s attractions, at least temporarily (remember, we only have a couple snapshots here).

How do we reconcile “perseverance of the saints” and those fallen to apostasy?

Well, of course you realize there is a difference of opinion here. I believe Scripture teaches eternal security, that is, once God has genuinely saved a person, and the Holy Spirit has regenerated them, they cannot be unsaved or unregenerate, because salvation ultimately doesn’t depend on them but on what Christ has done for them on the cross. Also, regeneration is a work of God, and irreversible, and, like it says in Scripture, “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29).

By contrast, I take apostasy to refer to those who were never truly saved or regenerated in the first place, though they may have appeared to be so. An example of this, I believe, is mentioned in 1 John 2:18–19 which says, “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. They [referring to the false teachers or apostates] went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”

Conversely, John writes later in the same letter at 5:11–13, “And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.”

Earlier, in John’s Gospel, at 10:26–30, Jesus is recorded as saying, “you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” So here we see that Jesus clearly taught that genuine believers cannot perish because Jesus and God the Father who keep them in the faith are stronger than anything that might wrest them out of it or, as Jesus put it, “snatch them out of” his or his Father’s hand.

Or is “perseverance of the saints” a term needing redefining considering new findings of biblical research today?

Well, anytime we use certain labels for what the Bible teaches, we may lose a certain amount of needed nuance, but I don’t believe there has been any recent finding in biblical research that should cause us to give up the notion of eternal security or the belief that true believers will go to heaven when they die because salvation doesn’t depend on them but on God and on Christ.

Am I correct with saying “darkness” or “night” and “light” link to moral evil and goodness? When Nicodemus, came to Jesus at night (Jn. 3:2), he came under the “wrath of God.” Or when Judas went out at night to betray Jesus (Jn. 13:30), he too was under God’s wrath. Or, when the soldiers carrying torches, lanterns, and weapons came at night to arrest Jesus, they represented darkness taking the light of the world by force (Jn. 18:3). Please give us a fuller explanation of John’s meaning of darkness and light?

Generally, yes, but not necessarily always. Is there a connotation of moral evil when Judas steps into the darkness to betray Jesus and John adds the aside, “And it was night”? Absolutely.

Is there a connotation of moral evil when Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps he just came to Jesus by night because there was more privacy and leisure for conversation. Maybe he was a sympathizer of Jesus, and a fair-minded individual, and he didn’t want to be identified as a sympathizer, since he was a member of the Sanhedrin. Apart from a Johannine comment, it’s hard to be certain. In Nicodemus’s case, we have two later references, one where he speaks up in favor of Jesus at a Sanhedrin meeting and toward the end when he buries Jesus’s body along with Joseph of Arimathea. So he is no Judas, I would argue, but actually stands out from the negative portrayal of the Jewish authorities as a whole as one, while being a member of the Sanhedrin, was more fair-minded and open-minded toward Jesus (though he was clearly unregenerate when he first came to him).

The instance of the soldiers coming at night to arrest Jesus may be somewhere in between; again, they probably came then because it was easier to arrest Jesus while attracting less public attention, though, again, I don’t think there is an explicit Johannine aside linking their coming at night with moral darkness, though it is possible that this is part of the connotation. There are other places in John’s Gospel, such as 3:19-21, where it is clear that light and darkness do have moral connotations, of course, so I prefer to interpret these various instances on a case-by-case basis.

Was the water which flowed from Jesus’ side in John 19:34 linked to Ezek. 47:1–12? My line of reasoning goes like this: As Jesus was enthroned by humans as “king of the Jews” (John 19:19–22), and crowned with thorns (vv. 2, 4), the river of the Spirit began flowing in a symbolic sense of fulfilling Ezekiel’s prophecy (Ezek. 47:1–12). If this view is not correct, what was John’s point of including it in the crucifixion?

In John 19:34, John writes, “But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.” As you know, there are different interpretations as to what that means and what John’s purpose was here. The passage is alluded to in 1 John 5:6–7 which says, “This is he who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.”

In the latter passage, I believe John likely refers to Jesus’s baptism and crucifixion, which mark the beginning and the end of his public ministry. In the former passage in John’s Gospel, I think the reference to water and blood points to the genuine humanity of Jesus. Jesus was not merely a phantom as later Gnostics held; he was truly human, and his death was a real death. Because he, the sinless God-man, died a real death for sinners, we can be saved. Ex. 17:6 may be in view as well, where God tells Moses to “strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” There may also be a Passover lamb allusion in the reference to the mingled blood.

Is Psalm 22 and Psalm 68 alluded to at the cross (John 19)? If so, how?

Psalm 22 is alluded to at John 19:24. Psalm 22 is the psalm that starts out with the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But in John 19:24, the part of Psalm 22 that is quoted is v. 18: “they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” According to John, that’s exactly what the Roman soldiers did with Jesus’s clothing: they divided it, and cast lots for his seamless garment. Just before that, in vv. 16 and 17, by the way, Psalm 22 says, “they have pierced my hands and feet—I can count all my bones,” envisaging Jesus’s crucifixion. Then, in John 19:28, Jesus said, “I’m thirsty,” and those standing by gave him sour wine to drink, which alludes to Psalm 69:21, which says, “for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.” John shows how a cluster of Old Testament passages, especially in the Psalms, were fulfilled at Jesus’s crucifixion, that depict him as the righteous Davidic sufferer.

Note: For a detailed presentation of John’s theology, see A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters: The Word, the Christ, the Son of God. For Dr. Kostenberger’s many other publications on Johannine topics, see his complete list of publications on this website.

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