The Symbolism of John’s Gospel

Sermon by David Rawlings 5th August 2018
Last Sunday we were reminded of the story of the feeding of the 5000, as outlined in John Chapter 6. The description by John of the miracle leads to the section in today’s gospel lesson, in which Jesus indicates that he is the ‘true bread from heaven’ and ‘the bread of life’ (John 6.24-35). While I will discuss the Gospel lesson later, I first intend to provide some general background about the Gospel, which I think helps our understanding of the reading itself.
The first general point I’ll look at concerns what seems to be John’s major goal or purpose in writing the Gospel. His major focus was to support Jesus’ claims to be the Messiah; the incarnate Son of God, or ‘Word’, as he calls Jesus.
The Son of God took on human form to die, so that we may become children of God. Much of this is spelled out by John in his first chapter; and the rest of the Gospel tries to support this idea, and to show its implications for us. Here are the verses in the first chapter particularly relevant to this point.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (1.1)
But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God (1.12)
And the Word became flesh and lived among us (1.14)
I’ll now say a little bit about John’s use of symbols.
As I’m sure most of you know already, the first three gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke) are called the ‘synoptic’ gospels. ‘Synoptic’ simply means ‘see together’ (syn means together – as in synchronise, for example; optic is obviously related to vision and seeing). We tend to see these three gospels together because they use a lot of the same material and take a broadly similar approach in telling their story of Jesus. John, on the other hand, uses a lot of different material and often takes a quite different approach in putting his message across.
For example, unlike the synoptic gospels, there are no parables in John. Instead, John puts particular emphasis on symbols.
A symbol, according to the dictionary, is something that represents or stands for something else; especially when something material stands for something abstract. I’ll give a few examples, that will make this point clearer, specifically in relation to John’s use of symbols.
I’ll first mention personal symbols, as they are used by John. God is called ‘Father’, Jesus is called ‘Son’, we are his ‘children’. The Holy Spirit is called the ‘paraclete’, meaning councillor, or advocate. The use of these human terms are ways of helping us understand certain aspects of God, Jesus, etc.

Usually, when we talk about symbols in John’s gospel, however, we are thinking about the many impersonal symbols that he uses. There is, for example, the list of “I am” statements of Jesus, providing symbols that help the reader understand some aspects of Jesus’ special nature.
As you can see, there are 7 of these, which are presented in the order in which they occur in the gospel:
‘I am’ statements
I am the bread of life [6.35] – the last verse of our gospel reading today
I am the light of the world [8.12]
I am the gate (or door) for the sheep [10.7,9]
I am the good shepherd [10.11]
I am the resurrection and the life [11.25-6]
I am the way, the truth and the life [14.6]
I am the true vine [15.5]
Jesus uses these statements about himself. Most of them describe him in terms of some well-known material object. He then shows how each statement has some higher, more profound meaning.

To understand what is going on here, it is useful to understand that there is a strong ‘dualism’ in the gospel which can be understood in spatial terms. In other words, John talks a lot about down here and up there; lower and higher levels of reality.
There are earthly matters and heavenly matters (3.12);
Jesus is from above, his opponents from below (8.23) or from the earth (3.31)
The higher plane is associated with truth, the lower with falsehood, deception & error.
At various times, he contrasts Spirit with flesh; light with darkness.
The lower level is the plane of superficial appearance; the higher level the perception of right judgment. As Jesus says, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (7.24).
So, when Jesus uses symbols, he often mentions something on the lower plane of reality, something earthly (like bread, or light, or shepherds); and then shows the person or people he is addressing something about the higher, heavenly plane.
The distinction between the earthly world of appearances and the spiritual world of a higher reality is illustrated in many of the misunderstandings described in the gospel, where other characters misunderstand Jesus. This becomes a way for Jesus to reveal something about who he really is.
Generally speaking, the misunderstandings go something like this:
Jesus makes a statement which is somewhat ambiguous and metaphorical or has a double-meaning.
A person or group of people with Jesus misunderstand the true meaning of his words; often this is because they take the meaning literally.
Usually, though not always, Jesus (or occasionally, John, the writer) then gives the true, ‘higher’ meaning of Jesus’ statement.
One book I read said there are 18 misunderstandings of this kind in the gospel, though I must admit I didn’t count them.
I’ll mention two examples, so you’ll get the gist of what is meant, and then look at today’s reading. The first two examples are well-known stories from gospel readings you’ve heard in recent weeks.

In Chapter 3, the Pharisee Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. Jesus tells him that, to see the kingdom of God, he must be ‘born anew’. Nicodemus takes this literally: “How can one enter the second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”, he asks. If he’d been a 21st century Australian guy, he might have said: “Eeerrr. Ya got me there, mate!” Jesus then explains that he is talking about being born ‘of the Spirit’, and goes on to say a few verses later that everlasting life involves belief in him.
A second well-known example involves the Samaritan woman at the well, in Chapter 4. Jesus says that he will give her ‘living water’; she misunderstands this, thinking he means actual water: “Sir, you have no bucket and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” Interestingly, although water is an important symbol in John’s gospel, it is not included in the previous list of “I am” statements. Jesus does not call himself ‘water’ here or elsewhere. It seems that water was so appropriate as a symbol of the Holy Spirit, because of its changing, fluid nature, that it is reserved for this purpose (see 7.37-39). However, Jesus does tell the woman that he is the source of this living water; that he will give her “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life”. He goes on to tell her he is the Messiah and, following her testimony, others from her city are said to believe in Jesus.

Jesus the Bread from Heaven:
In today’s gospel passage, the people who participated in the feeding of the 5000 follow Jesus to the other side of the lake. Jesus’ words to them imply that they are seeking him for the wrong reasons, because he was able to feed them; perhaps some of them feel they might be able to learn for themselves the very useful party trick of having a perpetual supply of bread and fish. When they bring up the topic of the manna from heaven given to the children of Israel, apparently by Moses as they were wandering in the wilderness, Jesus indicates that the Father gives them “true bread from heaven”. They misunderstand this to imply a permanent supply of bread.
Jesus goes on to indicate that HE is both the giver of the bread and the ‘true bread from heaven’ itself, and that “he who comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”.
The reference to water reminds us of the earlier meeting with the woman at the well. Jesus goes on to say, a few verses after the Gospel reading, that it is the will of the Father that “all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life”.
I think the parallels between the three situations I’ve outlined are pretty clear. Not all the misunderstandings in the gospel fit together quite so neatly, of course, but I think ours are pretty good examples. Jesus uses things from common experience as symbols – being born, water, and bread. He does, admittedly, use these in a somewhat unusual way: being born again, living water, bread from heaven. It’s not surprising, really, that they lead to misunderstandings. However, if we judge with what Jesus calls ‘right judgment’, the symbols point, though with quite different emphases, to the message that eternal life is found through belief in Jesus.
What does Jesus mean by ‘believe’?

Often when we talk about belief in everyday life, we are concerned with whether something exists or not. Do you believe in aliens? Do you believe in ghosts? For that matter, do you believe in God? In other words, do aliens or ghosts exist, or does God exist? This is NOT what the word ‘believe’ typically means in the New Testament.
The ancient Greek word for ‘believe’ is ‘pistseuein’. It also means ‘have faith in’. ‘Believe’ is the verb; ‘faith’ is the noun. I’ve given the verb form because John tends to have a strong preference for verbs. However, occasionally in the New Testament you’ll get one translation of the bible using ‘believe’ in a particular spot, while another translation will use ‘have faith in’. John uses belief in God and belief in Jesus pretty interchangeably; not surprising given his view that Jesus is God’s son.
‘Believe’, as used in the New Testament, and certainly by John, is not merely intellectual. To believe in someone implies commitment, dedication, faithfulness, discipleship. To believe in Jesus is to be his disciple.
As I’ve tried to show, many of the symbols referred to by Jesus in the gospel indicate the need for belief, meaning a relationship of discipleship and commitment.
In addition, the use of symbols like ‘born anew’, ‘the bread of life’, ‘water gushing up to eternal life’, point to the rich and multi-faceted nature of this relationship. This is, perhaps, one way of finding relevance in the ’rich food’ in today’s Scripture Sentence. I’ll chew over that on tonight’s roast!
[Scripture sentence: Why do you spend your money on that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Isaiah 55.2]
The Lord be with you.