New Creation in John’s Gospel

st mary's episcopal church

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church of the Frescoes in West Jefferson, NC. Author’s photo.

New creation. It’s one of Paul’s more vivid ways of describing what has come about because of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection from the grave. In his second letter to the Corinthians, he told them, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (5:17 NRSV). 

In one of N.T. Wright’s books on Pauline theology, he argues that for Paul, Christ’s death and resurrection not only marked the decisive defeat of sin and death, but also accomplished nothing less than the launching of God’s long-awaited renewal of creation (2009, pp.34-38). Now of course, emphasizing new creation in Paul doesn’t necessarily entail minimizing justification or other important Pauline doctrines. Instead, the task is to integrate them. The same man who declared that Christ personally “loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20 NRSV) was also able to step back and, considering the accomplishments of Christ on a larger scale, write, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19 NRSV). 

Investigating the myriad of ways in which new creation fits into the larger whole of Pauline theology would be intriguing, but we are going to dwell this time on a slightly different, and maybe more interesting topic: is new creation a New Testament theme or merely a Pauline one? In order to begin developing something of an answer to this question, we are going to spend most of our time in the Gospel of John, a poetic and vivid text that at first blush bears little resemblance to Paul and his letters.

The Works of Jesus in John’s Gospel

It’s widely acknowledged that John’s Gospel is quite distinctive when compared to the Synoptic accounts (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). In Craig Koester’s 2008 book, The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel, he points out in the introduction that while John does indeed share much in common with the other canonical gospels, it also has much that sets it apart, including “distinctive content and ways of telling the story” (p.4).

Given John’s unique linguistic style, it makes sense that finding connections between it and the new creation language of Paul will mean reading attentively and looking for points of commonality that might otherwise be missed. Murray Rae’s remarkable essay “The Testimony of Works in the Christology of John’s Gospel,” is very helpful in this respect. Rae’s paper was originally delivered at the first St. Andrews Conference on Scripture and Theology in 2003 and was subsequently published in 2008 as part of The Gospel of John and Christian Theology.

Rae gets at the theme of new creation by considering the works of Jesus in John’s Gospel. Jesus is repeatedly presented by John as doing the works “of the Father” or “of him who sent me” (p.295). For example, in John 5:36, Jesus says, “The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me” (NRSV), and in 10:25 Jesus declares, “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me” (NRSV). What should we make make of these repeated assertions? Here is Rae’s contention:

[T]he work of Jesus is the work of creation. It seems to me, however, that in John’s Gospel the notion of creation must be broadly conceived. It refers not only to what is established at the beginning, but also to what is brought to fulfillment at the end. Creation includes consummation and embraces therefore what can be called redemption. (pp.295-296)

To begin building support for his argument, Rae turns to the three main parts of John that include extended consideration by Jesus on the nature of His works. We can find these passages in John 5:16-47, 10:22-39, and in 14:1-14 (p.296). A number of relevant themes emerge from these three discourses. In all of them, Rae explains, the works of Jesus are linked with the bringing of new life:

It is clear, however, that the life referred to here is not merely mundane. It is not mere existence. It is, rather, “eternal life,” life in its fullness—that form of life which is the consummation of God’s creative work. (p.296)

The discourse of John 10 brings the shape of the eternal life spoken of by Jesus into sharper focus. This life is understood especially as “life in intimate relation with God” (p.297). Jesus compares himself in these discourses with a shepherd, identifying those who receive the gift of eternal life as being those who know the shepherd’s voice (10:27; 10:4). This is language of intimacy and communion. Those who believe in Jesus pass as it were from death to life. In Rae’s words, “participation in the new creation requires belief in Jesus himself” (p.297). While the works discourses that we have discussed so far focus mainly on the Father and the Son, Rae notes that the Spirit enjoys significant prominence in other parts of John’s gospel. One powerful instance of this occurs in John 20:22:

In Genesis 2:7 man becomes a living being because God breathes into him the ruach of life. It is clear what is being claimed then when, in John 20:22, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, “receive the Holy Spirit.” Like the Creator of Genesis 2—indeed, precisely because he is the same one through whom all things came to be (John 1:3,10)—Jesus has the power to give life. (p.299)

The “Signs” in John’s Gospel

Rae also turns to the well known series of “signs” in the Fourth Gospel to uncover more support for his case. While the number of signs present in John’s gospel is usually understood to be seven, John doesn’t explicitly identify all of them. Therefore, there is slight disagreement among scholars regarding the identity of the seven signs. In their introduction to the New Testament, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown, Köstenberger, Kellum, and Quarles identify Jesus’ clearing of the temple (John 2) as the second sign, and interpret the final sign as being the raising of Lazarus (John 11) (2009, p.312). Rae, on the other hand, understands the restoration of the dying son in John 4:46-54 to be the second sign. This seems to make better sense of the verse, “Now this was the second sign that Jesus did after coming from Judea to Galilee” (4:54 NRSV). For Rae, the final sign is “the great hour of Jesus: his mother, the cross, and the issue of blood and water from Jesus’ side (19:25-37),” instead of the raising of lazarus, which he calls the sixth sign (p.304).

These nitty-gritty details are important because they impact how we view the structure of the signs that Rae, following the work of M. Girard, sees to be present in John’s text (p.303). In Girard’s chiastic arrangement of John’s signs, the central (fourth) sign is the multiplication of loaves and fishes in 6:1-71. Therefore:

The first sign is paired with the seventh, for instance, the second is paired with the sixth, and the third sign is paired with the fifth. Evidence in support of Girard’s arrangement is provided by the thematic and linguistic links apparent within each of the pairs. What is also striking—and here is the relevance for my argument—is that each of the pairs is concerned unmistakably with the redemptive transformation of the old creation and the ushering in of the new. (p.304)

In the sabbath healing of the blind man (John 9), Rae argues that, “The work that Jesus performs here is again the work of creation. Light and life are brought forth from darkness; blindness is replaced by sight” (p.306). The patristic theologian Irenaeus also saw in the mention of clay/mud in the healing narrative an allusion to Genesis and “confirmation of the creative agency of God” (p.306). Rae admits that the mere mention of mud/clay isn’t a strong enough foundation by itself to establish an allusion to creation. However, given the other allusions present in the narrative, “there does seem to be warrant for Irenaeus’s contention that we are to discern here again that Jesus is engaged in the work of creation” (p.306).

Lastly, Rae sees significant parallels between the first Johannine sign (changing of water to wine at Cana) and the final sign (crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus). John begins the story of the wedding at Cana with the words, “On the third day there was a wedding (2:1 NRSV), which Rae contends intentionally points forward to the resurrection of Jesus (p.307). He explains, “The turning of water into wine thus foreshadows the day when all things are made new because of Jesus’ resurrection” (p.307). Rae also notes that John 2 isn’t the first time in which wine has dried up or been insufficient. He points to a passage in Isaiah:

The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers; the heavens languish together with the earth. The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant… The wine dries up, the vine languishes… There is an outcry in the streets for lack of wine. (24:4-5,7,11 NRSV)

In light of these verses, Rae suggests that, “The turning of water into wine through the ministry of Jesus signifies the overcoming of this devastation and the beginning of a new creation” (p.307). While the lack of wine in Isaiah 24 was due to judgment upon humanity, Amos 9:13 shows the judgment of the Lord being followed by a beautiful time of restoration where the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it” (NRSV).

We finally turn to John’s Passion narrative. At one point in the account, John records that instead of breaking Jesus’ legs, a soldier pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, causing blood and water to pour out of Him (John 19:32-34). Rae gathers together the allusive connections between these two episodes for us:

Blood and water, water and wine. John is telling us of the transformation from old life to new, from the blandness of water to the richness of wine. Is it new life we want? In linking the first sign to the seventh John is telling us how we may have it. The new creation comes about because of the work of Jesus, brought to its climax on the cross. (p.308)

Conclusion

Paul N. Anderson, a Johannine scholar, terms John a “dialectical thinker” (2008, p.319). He brings up a number of examples to demonstrate this, but it reminds me of the now/not yet dichotomy that is present in Paul’s kingdom of God/new creation theology. The new creation has been inaugurated, but not yet consummated (Wright, 2009, p.137). While much of our time has been focused on the ways in which the works of Jesus in John’s gospel show new creation breaking in, John is also aware that the last day has not yet arrived. Rae himself highlights this, “The signs of the Gospel are to be understood… as a foreshadowing of this glory and a participation ahead of time in the new life that is to come” (p.303). This can be seen as early as John 4:23 when Jesus declares that “But the hour is coming, and is now here” (NRSV). Somehow, it’s both a present and future reality.

So is new creation a New Testament theme or just a Pauline one? I think we have established some good reasons to see that the idea of new creation, if not the language of it, is present throughout John’s gospel. While outside the scope of this essay, fully answering this larger question would also mean working through the the Synoptic gospels and considering other non-Pauline New Testament works like Hebrews, the Petrine letters, and of course the Book of Revelation. One way or the other, it’s an excellent exercise in reading attentively and better understanding the shape of the New Testament’s hope for creation to be at last redeemed and set right. In a world filled with injustice, grief, and death, that hope is something that we all should long for.

 

Bibliography

Anderson, Paul N. “On Guessing Points and Naming Stars: Epistemological Origins of John’s Christological Tensions.” In The Gospel of John and Christian Theology, by Richard Bauckham and Carl Mosser, 311-345. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008.

Koester, Craig R. The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008.

Köstenberger, Andreas J., Kellum, L. Scott, and Quarles, Charles L. The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2009.

Rae, Murray. “The Testimony of Works in the Christology of John’s Gospel.” In The Gospel of John and Christian Theology, by Richard Bauckham and Carl Mosser, 295-310. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008.

Wright, N.T. Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009.

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