Among the four canonical Gospels, John’s account has long been seen as distinctive. His narrative is suffused with poetic symbols, dualistic language, and vivid imagery. The parables we find Jesus telling throughout the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are for the most part nowhere to be found in John. Instead, we find extended discourses from Him exploring the various dimensions of His relationship with the Father and the rest of the world. John’s Gospel also has a number of unique stories about Jesus. These episodes include the “I am” statements of Jesus (ex. “I am the light of the world” or “I am the bread of life”), as well as Jesus’ nighttime conversation with Nicodemus and His wedding miracle at Cana. All of these things help make John’s written portrait of Jesus unique and valuable, but they can also make reading John a disorienting experience, especially for those used to the language and rhythms of the Synoptic Gospels. Craig Koester’s book, The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel, is a great introduction that helps perplexed readers familiarize themselves with the major themes and distinctive features of John.
In the preface, Koester explains that reading John theologically means having the courage to ask questions. Questions like, “Who is the God about whom Jesus speaks? Who does the Gospel say that Jesus is? And how does the Gospel understand life, death, sin, and faith?” (p.ix). Because these sorts of questions get raised repeatedly throughout the narrative, thinking through them necessitates reflecting on the Gospel as a whole, rather than just focusing on one or two single passages and extrapolating from there. This is what Koester attempts to do throughout the book, looking at the entire Gospel to investigate how John’s portrayal of Jesus forms answers to these questions. In this post, we’re going to spend our time exploring Koester’s perspective on the life of discipleship in John, looking especially at some of the lesser known stories and metaphors used by Jesus to help His disciples get a clearer picture of what following Him is supposed to look like.
Metaphors for Discipleship
Koester begins his discussion by noting that:
Jesus’ first words in John’s Gospel are a question, “What are you looking for?” and an invitation, “come and see” (1:38-39). The two people who hear this go with him, and a relationship is formed. At the end of the Gospel, when Jesus speaks for the last time, he says, “Follow me,” and the implication is the same (21:22). To relate to Jesus is to go with him. The call to faith is a call to a way of life…The life of a disciple is not discussed in abstract terms, because it is so thoroughly bound up with Jesus himself (p.187).
Readers will search in vain for a long list of virtues and vices or detailed situational commands about how to live as Jesus’ disciples in John. What they will find, however, is a command from Jesus that makes expansive claims in very few words: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (15:12 NRSV). Koester affirms the central place that this love command occupies in the majority of studies looking at John’s perspective on issues like discipleship, moral formation, and ethics. However, he also takes an extended look at some of the lesser known images of discipleship painted by Jesus. We’re going to look at two of them.
In John 8:12, Jesus declares that “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (NRSV). In commenting on this verse, Koester brings out two main relevant features:
Walking is a vivid metaphor for a way of life that involves the whole person and is dynamic rather than static. The saying assumes that all people will live or “walk” in some way—the question is whether it will be in light or darkness (p.188).
Jesus’ metaphor speaks both to the dynamic quality that describes following Him and also the dichotomy of light and darkness that defines the way in which people “walk.” Walking is a dynamic activity, not an unchanging category. In John, light is associated with God, Jesus, faith, and life, while darkness is associated in turn with sin, evil, and death (p.189). Koester writes that the challenge facing disciples as they walk through life is whether it will be light or darkness that they allow to pull them in.
It’s easy for John’s contrast between light and darkness to feel excessively simplistic. Pick the light. Don’t pick the darkness. Problem solved. However, Koester writes that, “John’s use of the imagery is more complex…The contrast between light and darkness identifies different directions of action without eliminating the need for discernment” (p.189).
He shows how the complex nature of this simple-seeming duality plays out in John by using Jesus’ healing of the man born blind in chapter 9 as an example. Jesus is the light of the world, and light is associated with the truth of God revealed in Jesus. The formerly blind man determinedly tells the truth about Jesus’ miraculous healing when others question him, but Koester is quick to add that this doesn’t mean that everything about Jesus was perfectly clear to the man. In 9:25 he even admits that he doesn’t know whether or not Jesus is a sinner. However, the man refuses to be silent about the fact that he did indeed receive sight from Jesus. Koester writes that, “The man born blind speaks in the light of what he knows even when this costs him his place in the community (9:31-34)” (p.190). Thus, walking in the light is a progressive, ongoing activity of being in relationship with Jesus and attempting to live out the consequences of that both in relation to God and others.
The next metaphor for discipleship comes from John 12, where Jesus speaks of the seed falling to earth. John records His words, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24 NRSV). Koester acknowledges that at one level this verse describes Jesus himself. Despite appearances, Jesus is profoundly alone in some respects. He may be surrounded by crowds of admirers, but they fail to understand the true nature of His vocation, leaving Him as a “single grain.” Koester comments that “Jesus’ ministry will come to fruition through his death, for in being lifted through crucifixion he will draw people to himself. By laying down his life his work will bear fruit by creating a community of faith” (p.191).
At another level, though, Koester asserts that this metaphor describes what it means for people to follow Jesus. John 12:25-26 serve as a commentary on this seed image:
Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor” (NRSV).
The word translated as “life” (psyche) typically refers to the soul or the self. Koester explains that, “Those who make themselves the focus of their love are like the seed in Jesus’ saying. They are alone. Their love is self-directed” (p.191). The final lines of John 12:25-26 complete the explanation. Those honored by the father are those who serve Jesus. Koester suggests that the episodes surrounding this passage help clarify John’s conception of what it means to serve. “Mary anoints Jesus feet, much as Jesus washes feet and directs others to do the same (12:2-3; 13:14). To serve is to convey extraordinary love in the contexts of ordinary life” (p. 192).
This brings us back around to the famous love command of Jesus that we mentioned earlier. After Jesus’ symbolic washed the feet of His disciples, demonstrating for them the radical self-giving nature of His love, He told them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35 NRSV).
To call this a “new commandment” seems a bit paradoxical. The importance of love was not new, even within the Judaism of Jesus’ day (p.194). The command from Leviticus 19:18 to “love your neighbor as yourself” (NRSV) is one of the most familiar and important commands in the Hebrew Scriptures. So how is it new? Koester comments that:
First, the basis and norm for love changes. The traditional commandment makes self-love the standard. People are to love others as they love themselves. In the new commandment, the basis and standard is the love that Jesus gives. This is the cruciform love that disciples receive from Jesus and extend to others (p.194).
He also adds that while the traditional Leviticus commandment emphasizes love for neighbor, the focus in John’s version is on love “for one another.” This adds a mutual emphasis that helps propel disciples to life in ongoing community. Koester raises the question of whether this “new commandment” of Jesus is in fact less radical than the command to love the neighbor or even one’s enemies in Matthew 5. Out of context, he says, it can indeed be sentimentalized in a way that creates a closed circle of like-minded followers. However, in its context it speaks into John’s footwashing scene, which assumes that one’s enemies might exist even within the community of faith. More importantly, the love that disciples are commanded to embody towards each other means that “Christians bring to the world not only a doctrine about love but an alternative society, a counterculture in which the message of Jesus takes lived form” (p.195).
So how do these two not-quite-so-famous metaphors (walking in the light and the seed fallen to earth) clarify what “love one another as I have loved you” looks like for disciples? I suggest that they help us understand that living out this command involves a dynamic, ongoing way of life and includes everything we do. It necessitates a turn from self-centered love towards those around us, whoever they are. The footwashing scene in chapter 13 preceding the love command adds to this picture in by forcing faithful readers to see showing love needs to be done in concrete, visible actions. It cannot be tamed into a sentimentalized, vague ideal.
This post has really only looked at one of the questions explored by Koester in his book. Other chapters are just as interesting, and it’s clear that Koester writes out of a deep wealth of knowledge regarding the world of John’s Gospel. If I had to be critical and find a weakness to point out, it would be the lack of explicit interaction in the text with Koester’s colleagues on points of interpretative disagreement. Most of my (admittedly amateur) reading experience comes from the world of Paul, and I’m well aware that for almost any Pauline claim there is some well-respected scholar that just sees things differently. I can’t imagine that it’s terribly different in the world of Johannine studies. Maybe that would make Koester’s book too stuffy and inaccessible for newcomers, though. In the end, I really enjoyed The Word of Life, and think it’s well worth the time of anyone who wants to know why John’s Gospel is so wonderfully unique. I definitely recommend it.