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How to Read John's Gospel with New Eyes

By Chase Replogle | Posted In Studying the Bible

Scientists have long told us that most people in social situations aren’t really listening. We are capable of extended conversations in which neither side is actually considering what the other person is saying. Instead, we act out pre-established social scripts. We go through the motions. You know how they go.

“Good morning, how are you?”
“Good. How are you?”
“I’m doing good. You have a nice day.”
“You too.”

Neither person is really listening nor attempting to speak. We know what to say and what the responding person will say as well.

A famous 1978 Harvard study tested the power of these social scripts as participants attempted to cut in line at a copy machine. By simply asking, “Can I use the copier?” 60 percent of the requesters were allowed to cut to the front. But researchers also tested a variant form of the question. “Can I use the copier, because I have to make copies?” That is a nonsensical redundancy, but it is formulated as a familiar social script: request + “because” + reason. With that simple formula, 90 percent of those who made the request were able to cut the line.

No one was really listening. They heard the script and responded without hearing or thinking.

Reading Scripture as a Script

I grew up in a Christian home with early exposure to the Bible and the church. That was a gift, but it also meant I quickly learned all the Christian scripts. We have our own expected ways of speaking and speaking without having said anything.

I also know how easy it is to read Scripture and hear things so familiar you no longer really hear them. Even Scripture can turn into an expected formula. Perhaps you’ve seen the examples of Bible-sounding quotes which people assume are in the Bible. “God helps those who help themselves.” Sounds like something from the Bible. It isn’t.

I’ve recently been preaching through the Gospel of John and have been reminded of how familiar John’s language is. For many, John’s Gospel was the first text you were handed as a new believer. John’s language quickly becomes familiar: “I am the light of the world;” “For this is how God loved the world;” “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  

John’s Gospel contains some of Jesus’s longest discourses, long conversations filled with these familiar Christian words and phrases. Having heard them so frequently, it’s easy to assume we know what is being said and what it means. We read John’s words with the same focus given to those passing lobby greetings. We hear the words, but we’ve long stopped listening.

I’ve found familiarity breeds far less contempt than it does apathy. Familiarity risks diminished attention and weakened engagement. We find what we expect, not always what is actually there.

John’s Literary Breakthrough

As familiar as his words may be, John is not a cliché writer. Far from it. The starkness of his words must have struck the original readers of John’s Gospel. From the “I am” statements he alone records to the ways in which he recalls Jesus whipping up the crowds in confusion and offense, there is nothing sentimental or simple about John’s Gospel.

As a writer, I think John was aware of the challenges he faced in writing the fourth Gospel account of Jesus’ life.  Matthew, seeking to establish the important thread of Jesus’ ancestry, opened his Gospel with a genealogy. Mark opened with Jesus’ baptism and the public launch of His ministry. Luke explained his careful investigative approach and then began with the most comprehensive birth narratives.

John does something totally different. In language poetic and epic, John reaches back to before creation, to before time or space or form. “In the beginning the Word already existed.” John goes on to speak of light shining in the darkness, of flesh being formed, of mysteries unseen, and of revelation, rejection, and truth. He speaks of grace and rebellion, preparation and reception, things long past and soon to come. You would be hard-pressed to write a more dramatic opening than John offers.

The Christian novelist Flannery O’Connor once explained, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” How jarring it is when John abruptly shifts from the eternal and celestial heights of Christ’s pre-creation glory to the lone figure of John the Baptist standing before priests and Levites from Jerusalem, describing himself as “a voice shouting in the wilderness” As a film director punches in on a tight shot, so John takes us from the eternal throne to the dusty back corners of Israel’s borderland. He goes from things glorious and unseen to a camel-haired attired man in the desert preaching repentance and witnessing about the One about to come, a Man from Galilee.

John uses every technique of literary craft he can muscle to open in an unexpected way. He writes to shake us loose of our familiarity and forces us into the true stakes of this story—Jesus, the Word of God existent before creation; Jesus, born to earth and standing there in that Judean wilderness.

Most commentators refer to this opening section of John’s Gospel as a prologue.

My children were recently watching Beauty and the Beast, and I realized that it opens with the same literary technique John used in his Gospel. The movie begins with the dramatic telling of an old and spectacular story, an epic tale of man turned to beast and a kingdom all but lost in shadow. That prologue ends with the sudden transition to Belle, a poor girl from a poor provincial town. The tension is how these two opening images can possibly be related. What does a daydreaming girl from a small French village have to do with legendary tales of beasts and castles?

Something similar happens in John’s Gospel. How can it be that “no one has ever seen God,” and yet John can also write that “the Word became human and made his home among us. . . And we have seen his glory.” God is unseen and yet, juxtaposed in the next scene, John the Baptist points and boldly declares, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

John forces you to hold on to two very different images—the Word eternal and the Word in flesh, the Word of heaven and the Word with humanity. It is this conflict that carries us through John’s Gospel.

Read It Again but Listen

You face the risk that all of this has become too familiar to you. John’s opening words, “In the beginning the Word already existed,” have become so familiar as to not mean much to you anymore. Perhaps you never really understood it and have long since stopped trying. It’s easy for Scripture to become a script, lines once memorized and no longer packing the same punch.

I’ve found it helpful to try and read it all again as if I hadn’t before, asking of it the most basic questions. Why are these words written in this particular way? What are John and the other biblical authors attempting to do? What made John decide to open his Gospel this way? Why was this particular story included? Why was it put here?

Let familiarity breed a better curiosity.

What I routinely find is that the Bible is not only true but also well written, written by writers who cared about how they said things and how they used words to break through our complacency and familiarity. They used their craft and language to shake us loose of this world and open our eyes to things eternal. They offer us, by their words and testimony, Jesus and all that He came to do.

Let those who have ears to hear, hear, and let those who have grown too familiar with it discover it anew again.