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Month 9:30, RC Preparation Day, Year:Day 5940:266 AM
2Exodus 3/40, Yovel - Year 50/50
Gregorian Calendar: Thursday 29 December 2016
The Word Made Flesh
II. John to the Greek Ephesians

    Continued from Part 1

    A Mystical Gospel

    The apostle John, unlike the other Gospel authors, writes in a mystical vein because he knew his audience was steeped in mysticism and would therefore be able to relate. The Gospel is clearly the work of a mystic, trained in the allegorical method of interpreting the Scriptures, and expecting his own work to be interpreted in a like manner. Clement of Alexandria (200 AD) writes:

      "John, having observed that the bodily things (i.e. the bare historical facts) had been sufficiently set forth by the [earlier Synoptic] Gospels...produced a spiritual (i.e. allegorical) Gospel" [1].

    Allegorical and Heavenly

    That does not mean, of couse, that all of the Gospel of John is allegory (as Origen claimed) but it is reasonable to conclude that the author's choice of historical material is dominated by an allegorical or didactic purpose. He sits down to write, not a biography like the Synoptists, but an interpretation of the life of Messiah, and since his method is that of allegory, we are justified in seeking a mystical meaning not only in every saying and in every incident, but even in minute details which at first sight seem trivial. It is this persistent symbolism which gives to the Fourth Gospel much of its mysterious charm and produces on the mind an effect not unlike that of a fine painting. Even those who do not at first understand John feel that far more is suggested than is expressed on the surface [2]. Those, therefore, who are seeking to understand the mortal, human Messiah in the Fourth Gospel will necessarily be disappointed, then, because the emphasis is most definitely - as pointed out in the first part of this series - on His heavenly origin.

    For Greeks and Gnostics

    We saw last time also that John's immediate audience was Greek-speaking and that he was addressing a particular heresy that has crept up again and again, more or less without interruption, throughout the entire history of the Messianic Community (Church): Gnosticism. We have seen that in order to captivate the attention of his audience he writes in their kind of 'language'.


    That said, I am not at all saying that John was a 'Hellenist' or (the 'crime of crimes' for a Hebrew supramacist). At early as 1839, English theologian and the Anglican Bishop of Durham, J.B.Lightfoot (1828-1889), concluded that John's Gospel was "perhaps the most Hebraic book in the New Testament" [3]. Since the Fourth Gospel was (rightly, in my view) considered to be an interpretative work, written after the Synoptics and based on them, it was understood as a theological and sacramental work which reflected the developed doctrine of the Messianic Community (Church), perhaps as late as AD 85 or even later. Its developed Christology, and particularly its appreciation of the Deity of Yah'shua (Jesus), should therefore come as no surprise to us, nor should we be surprised to see how heretics denying the Deity of Messiah relentlessly attack it and twist it. The qadoshim (saints, set-apart ones) had been chewing over Messiah's heavenly origins for around half-a-century. John's writings represent the apex of apostolic and early messianic Christological understanding.

    Ephesus as the Locus for John's Gospel

    By the time of the Gospel's writing, John would have been living in Ephesus, an early Greek colony (from about 900 BC) in the Ionian area, for some considerable time. It was the largest commercial city in of the Roman Province of Asia [Minor] with a very large population (for those days) of about 200,000 to 250,000. Here the believers lived and witnessed to a predemoninantly pagan Greek populace. There is little evidence of any prior Judaism in the city during the Hellenistic and Roman periods even though a single synagogue is mentioned there in Acts 18:26 and 19:18. A substaintially large Jewish population did not appear in Ephesus until at least four to five generations later [4].

    The Ephesian Cultural Mindset

    Understanding the setting of where a writing is produced is very important. The believers in Ephesus, along with their spiritual leader, the apostle John (who was by then the senior apostle and only member of his fraternity not to be martyred), would have been surrounded by Greek culture and thinking at every hand. And when you witness to a culture not your own (remembering John was a Hebrew), you need to get into the mindset of that culture to be effective. John's Gospel does just that, presenting the Besorah (Gospel) in a way that would have been readily understood and appreciated by a Greek pagan mindset. As every missionary who has travelled and lived abroad to share the Besorsah (Gospel) knows, you cannot witness from your own cultural mindset. Successful missionaries first live amongst the people they wish to reach and observe them, learning their language, in order to understand them and then present the Besorah (Gospel) in the language and in terms that will make sense.

    Written in Ephesus Primarily for Ephesians

    The appearance of what has come to be the 'Logos Doctrine' in the Prologue of the Gospel, which the heretics make a great ado about, characterises John's work in making the Besorah (Gospel) accessible to Greek thought which this doctrine showed would be expected in the Ephesian Assembly (Church) where, according to Irenaeus, the Gospel was written. The first or primary audience of the Gospel of John was undoubtedly the great EPHESIAN metropolis with its 200,000+ people though obviously its Greek translation it would have been spread far and wide through the Greek-speaking world. Thus the religious witnessing environment of the Gospel of John was not at all Judaism but of a kind of Greek Gnosticism not unlike that of Ignatius' world and the Odes of Solomon [5].

    Liberal Ideas Debunked

    None of this means, as some scholars have insisted, that John became an 'anti-Hebrew' polemicist. Not at all. Nor is John heading up some sort of 'reform' movement that is drawing away from Hebraic roots and turning to Hellenism, of which his Gospel is supposedly the leading document (along with his three epistles, which were the very last chronolically, and therefore oldest, of the New Testament books). What we are looking at is the same emet (truth) tailor-made for a specific environment, namely, Greek Ephesus and therefore the late first century Greek world in general.

    Adolf Schatter

    The Swiss-German theologian, Adolf Schlatter (1852-1938) probably came closest, in my view, to understanding the Hebraic background of this Gospel presented for a Greek readership. He established that the Judahite writings of the first century and the Tanakh (Old Testament) reflect the Fourth Gospel's position on many matters [6]. He quotes from the Targums (to which we shall be returning later in more depth as these constitute a star witness to Judahite expectations of a Divine Messiah), the Judite historian Josephus and the Rabbinic writings to explain the language and thought of John.


    Finally, to underscore the Hebraic background of the author, Welsh New Testament scholar C.H.Dodd (1884-1973) believed that no other New Testament writer shows himself so fully aware of the Hebrew ideas associated with the Messiah as a kingly office [7] as did John in his Fourth Gospel, an important topic we shall be returning to and examining closely in a later part of this series.

    Understanding the Drama Presentation

    As we saw in Part 1, the Gospel of John reads like a drama and is prefaced, as all Greek dramas in the Roman Empire were, by a Hymn to the Divine Emperor. He uses sophisticated devices and techniques common to this genre of literature like Ambiguity, Misunderstanding, Irony, the double stage and the Elohim's (God's)-eye view. Characters are brought onto to play their part but when they have fulfilled their rôle in the plot, they disappear, often without further mention, because the reader is not intended to be interested in them for their own sake, but in the development of the theme. Thus the Greek seekers, who enter stage at John 12:10 asking to see Yah'shua (Jesus), are given their answer and are not heard of again.

    Paul's Experience in Lystra

    All of this is strong evidence that John is appealing to a Greek readership in his presentation of Yah'shua (Jesus). The oridinary Greek people had already been convinced that the apostles like Paul were like the Greek gods. While evengelising in Lystra the following response met the miracle-working of the apostles:

      "When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, 'The gods have come down to us in human form!' Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them" (Acts 14:11-13, NIV).

    The Eternal Elohim in Human Form

    The apostles as mere mortals, of course, refused worship, unlike the resurrected Yah'shua (Jesus) who did not refuse the worship which belonged only to Divine Being, 'the Eternal Elohim (God) come down in human form' to effect an eternal atonement to cancel men's sin and provide new chayaim - eternal chayim (life). John records in his Gospel:

      "A week later His talmidim (disciples) were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Yah'shua (Jesus) came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you!' Then he said to Thomas, 'Put your finger here; see My hands. Reach out your hand and put it into My side. Stop doubting and believe.' Thomas said to him, "My Master (Lord) and my Elohim (God)!" (John 20:26-28, NIV).

    John's Presentation of Monotheistic Divinity to a Greek

    A Greek reader would have immediately and unequivocably concluded that Thomas - and John - understood Yah'shua (Jesus) to be Divine. Perhaps only a 'god' like their own gods, at first, but heading slowly but surely in the direction of monotheism as the exciting story in the dramatic Gospel account unfolded. This would have been the first step in their understanding of who Yah'shua (Jesus) was. The evidence of His miraculous works proved it. And now, with the fact of the resurrection established (an idea unknown and unheard of in Greek mythology) and convincingly presented to them, the Greek reader would have been prompted to ask other questions above and beyond what his own paganism (as with the Lystrians) would have persuaded him of. He would have remembered the dramatic Prologue of John 1:1-18, the Hymn of Praise to the Divine Heavenly Emperor of the Hebrews, with Thomas' witness giving him added confirmation that this Messiah was the Divine, Eternal Logos (again, more of this in a later part of this series...this is just a primer for what is to come; I simply want, for now, to paint the bigger overall, general picture first - the cultural context of the Fourth Gospel).

    The Tableaux

    Back to the structure of the John's written material. Because of the Gospel's unique construction you cannot really speak of any 'connection' between the 'scenes' (for example, between chapters 5 and 6). The events are a series of tableaux, that is to say, pauses on stage when the performers briefly freeze in position, and it is in such moments that you are supposed to absorb and ponder deeply on what they have done and said. The events follow one another without a causal link. We're not even supposed to ask questions about the motives and intentions of the minor characters - they are only there to carry the plot along, for this is their sole function.

    The Message is the Gospel's Purpose

    In some respects, this is also true of the character of Yah'shua (Jesus) - He is there for what He says and what He does - He is not described as a human being and so there is absolutely no attempt to portray His personality. If you try to use the Gospel for this purpose it is both illegitimate and fruitless. Indeed, the only questions we can ask with this kind of literature must be those which are in accordance with the Evangelist's purpose, and to understand what that is, we must first consider the Message of this Gospel.

    An International Objective

    Now it here that John's writings are commonly misunderstood and in consequence abused. His message is at the same time simpler and more complex than the Synoptists' (Matthew, Mark and Luke). It is the complexity which causes Hebrew supremacists in particular to misread him and to try and make him do what he does not intend to do. John's Gospel is more complex inasmuch as it uses ideas, like I hinted at last time, which come from a wider and more 'international' background than those used by Matthew, Mark and Luke. And that 'internatural background' is the lingua franca of the Ronman Empire (Greek) and its religious culture. For instance, John uses such contrasting thoughts as:

    • 1. The two worlds, above and below;
    • 2. The "Word" (Davar, Memra, Logos) through which all things were made;
    • 3. The descent and ascent of the Son of Man; and
    • 4. Rebirth from above.

    A Complex Gospel With a Unique Purpose

    You can find these these ideas, and others like them in his Gospel, that can be traced back into earlier Hebrew and pagan circles, whereas the background of the Synoptic Gospels is almost entirelly 'Palestinian', which in scholarly jargon means from the geographic area which is the Promised Land. Because John uses ideas common to all the cultures of the known [Roman] world it may rightly be said to be an International Gospel designed to be read and understood in a first century AD Greek-speaking Roman world and ultimatelty for global consumption. The Fourth Gospel is therefore uniquely inspired for this task, and brilliantly so.

    A Simplified Gospel Too About Faith Only

    So that makes John's Gospel more complex. But it may also be seen as a simplification of the Synoptists too. Why? Because part of the the Synoptists' purpose is to show Yah'shua (Jesus) as the teacher who proclaims the Derech (Way) into the Kingdom of Elohim (God) which is coming, and to give the answers which Yah'shua (Jesus) gives to practical questions arising for talmidim (disciples) of Yah'shua (Jesus). But John, you will note, includes none of their ethical teaching because he is only concerned in conveying one thing to his primarily Greek: emunah (faith) in the Divine Elohim (God), Yah'shua the Messiah (Jesus Christ).

    The Rich Young Ruler and the Marcan Approach

    Let me give you an illustration to show the two different approaches. Mark, you will remember, records a story in which a rich man asks Yah'shua (Jesus), "What must I do to inherit eternal chayim (life)?" (Mark 10:17, NIV). First, Yah'shua (Jesus) reminds the man He must obey the mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah (Law), "Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honour your father and mother" (Mark 10:19, NIV). The man says he has been doing this since he was young - and then, you will recall, Yah'shua (Jesus) reminds him, "One thing you lack...Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me" (Mark 10:21, NIV).

    The Johannine Approach to Obtaining Eternal Life

    Now John's Gospel, which draws from incidents and teachings from the Master's ministry, is written as a drama with a single purpose - to pursuade (mostly Greek) people to exercise emunah (faith) in the Divine Son of the Heavenly Emperor. He answers the same question in a much simpler way when the Judeans ask: "What must we do to do the works Elohim (God) requires?" (John 6:28, NIV), in other words, the works Yahweh requires of us in order that we might have eternal chayim (life). What is Yah'shua's (Jesus') reply? "The work of Elohim (God) is this: to believe in the one He has sent" (John 6:29, NIV).

    The Johannine Gospel's One Overarching Point

    Thus the whole of the teaching of Yah'shua (Jesus) is narrowed down to one overarching point, and this point is that Yah'shua (Jesus) is the one to be believed. Why? BECAUSE HE IS THE ETERNAL DAVAR ELOHIM, THE WORD OF GOD, the One from His own immediate Family (the Elohimhead/Godhead) whom the Heavenly Emperor, Yahweh the Father, has sent from Heaven to give chayim (life) to the world. More than the other three Gospels, the Gospel of John is a drama to persuade those of a non-Torah background to believe in Yah'shua (Jesus) because He is Elohim (God) like Yahweh the Father. That's why you must believe Him. And if you miss that, as the heretics do (sometimes deliberately, I might add, because they are in rebellion), then you don't understand the purpose of the Gospel of John at all.

    The Story Line

    The teaching of Yah'shua (Jesus) in the Gospel of John is not a distortion (as detractors accuse) of what is given as His teachings in the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke) but a concentration or focussing on one part to the exclusion of almost everything else arranged in the form of a Greek-type drama to penetrate the Greek mind with the sublime truth of Yah'shua's (Jesus') Divinity in whom one must have emunah (faith) for salvation and thus eternal chayim (life). The drama tells the story that Yah'shua (Jesus) associated talmidim (disciples) with Himself, as His followers, and promises them eternal chayim (life) in the Kingdom of Elohim (God) as the reward for such following; and he works out the implications of such a relationship in his own terms.

    The Use of Synonymous Expressions

    In order to fully appreciate this, we must first notice an aspect of John's style, namely, synonymous expressions. John has a passion for saying the same thing in different words. For example:

      "I am the lechem chayim (bread of life). He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty" (John 6:35, NIV).

    Synonyms for Believing and Right Relationship for Eternal Life

    In other words, 'coming' to Yah'shua (Jesus) is a synonym for 'believing' in Him. Other synonyms are 'following' Him (common usage in the Synoptics), 'abiding in' Him, 'loving' Him, 'keeping His Davar (Word)', 'receiving' Him, 'having' Him and 'seeing' Him. All of these expressions are used by John to describe the relationship between the talmid (disciple) and Yah'shua (Jesus), and this relationship, as John sees it, is the whole of the message which his book is written to convey. He does this by taking the historical fact that talmidim (disciples) followed Yah'shua (Jesus) believing that in doing so they would enter eternal chayim (life).

    Messiah as Creator and Saviour

    What John is saying is that if Yah'shua (Jesus) is regarded in this way, if He is the one who makes unconditional demands upon His followers as only Elohim (God) can, and offers them eternal rewards based on His own identity as an Eternal Being (which only Divinity possesses), then we must say of Him that He is the One through whom we receive all the gifts of Elohim (God) that we seek; He is our Maker/Creator and our Deliverer/Saviour. Thus the quotation from John 6:35 which was used to illustrate the parallelism between 'coming' and 'believing', begins:

      "I am the lechem chayim (bread of life)".

    Five of the I AM Sayings

    Many of the other "I am" sayings are of this kind, in that a claim made by Yah'shua (Jesus), based on the assumption of His Divinity (because Yahweh the Father is the Great I AM), is followed immediately by a promise to the believer. For example:

    • 1. "I AM the light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of chayim (life)" (Jn.8:12, RSV).
    • 2. "I AM the door; if anyone enters by Me, he will be saved" (Jn.10:9, RSV).
    • 3. "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep" (Jn.10:11, RSV).
    • 4. "I AM the resurrection and the chayim (life); he who believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die" (Jn.11:25).
    • 5. "I AM the Derech (Way), the Emet (Truth) and the Chayim Life); no one comes to the Father, but by Me" (Jn.14:6, RSV).
    • 6. "I AM the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit" (Jn.15:5, RSV).

    The Shepherd, Greek and Hebrew

    A small book could be written on the "I AM" sayings alone so we'll just take one:

      "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep" (Jn.10:11, RSV).

    Why is this germaine of the discussion on the divinity of Yah'shua (Jesus)? Because John would have known, as we know through scholarly research, that the figure of the shepherd was common in hellenistic writings, where it is used of GODS AND KINGS and great men. Thus the Greek reader would immediately have understood that Yah'shua (Jesus) the Shepherd was Divine (Elohim/God), Royal (the King of Israel) and Great.

      "Your ways, O Elohim (God), are qadosh (holy, set-apart). What god is so great as our Elohim (God)?" (Ps.77:13, NIV).

    The Shared Divine Titles

    John's teaching about Yah'shua (Jesus) (i.e. his Christology) is the working out of the implications of the emunah (faith) by which believers live, and that emunah (faith) is in Yah'shua (Jesus) in all of His "I AM's" testifying unequivocably of His Divinity. All the I AM sayings and all the titles of Yah'shua (Jesus) which John uses ('the Messiah' or 'Christos' in Greek, 'the Word' or Logos in Greek, 'the Master (Lord)', 'the King of Israel', 'the Son of Elohim (God)', 'the Son of man') express this one idea: Yah'shua (Jesus) is the Divine Son through whom Yahweh, the Father, has sent sent salvation into the world. And as we shall see in a later part, all the titles applied to Elohim (God) the Father (Yahweh) are applied to Elohim (God) the Son (Yahweh) who, though separate personages, as both Yahweh - a Greater and a Lesser (subject) Yahweh.

      "You have forgotten Elohim (God) your Saviour (Deliverer); you have not remembered the Rock, your fortress" (Isa.17:10, NIV; cp. Yah'shua/Jesus as Saviour and Rock in Jn.4:42 and 1 Cor.10:4, for example).

    In Summary

    Thus for all his variety of expression, and for all the apparent complexity of his thought which the Greek mind would have loved, John's message is extremely simple: he writes his Gospel in Ephesus to Greek-speaking Ephesians (and ultimately to the whole Greek world and by extention to the whole planet...including fellow Judahites), by means of a Greek-like drama, as he says himself "that you may believe that Yah'shua (Jesus) is the Messiah (Christos/Christ), the Son of Elohim (God), and that believing you may have chayim (life) in His Name" (Jn.20:31, RSV).


    In the next part we shall look even deeper and more rigorously into the general historical picture, though this time almost exclusively through the eyes of Paul, before dissecting the individual 'sound bites' of the heretics whose strategy, like that of flat-earthers, is to pick out words and verses out of context, here and there, without any comprehensive system in view.

    Continued in Part 3


    [1] Clement of Alexandria in Eusebius, H.E. vi.14
    [2] J.R.Dummelow, The One Volume Bible Commentary (Macmillan, New York: 1975), p.770
    [3] J.B.Lightfoot, Biblical Essays (1839), p.135
    [4] David Noel Freedman (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan: 2000), pp.413-415
    [5] A collection of 42 odes attributed to Solomon. Various scholars have dated the composition of these religious poems to anywhere in the range of the first three centuries AD., so they are obviously pseudepigrapha, even though they were included in some editions of the Greek Septuagint (LXX), a Greek translation of the Tanakh (Old Testament). The original language of the Odes is thought to have been either Greek or Syriac.
    [6] A.Schlatter, Der Evangelist Johannes: Wie er spricht, denk und glaubt (1930)
    [7] C.H.Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (1953/60) and Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel (1963)


    [1] Ben Witherington III, John's Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel (The Lutterworth press, Cambridge, England: 1995)
    [2] J.C.Fenton, New Clarendon Bible Commentaries, The Gospel According to John in the Revised Standard Version (OUP, Oxford, England: 1970)
    [3] J.L.Houldon, Black's New Testament Commentaries, Johannine Epistles (Adam & Charles Black, London: 1973)
    [4] Sydney Temple, The Core of the Fourth Gospel (Mobrays, London & Oxford: 1975)
    [5] N.T.Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God, Parts III & IV (SPCK, London: 2013)

    Comments From Readers

    [1] "Was so blessed by the Ruach through this article. It just highlighted elements of the Book of John I never fully understood before, and so much more appreciating its place in the Gospels and New Testament! These last two articles have resonated deeply with me - deeper than most sermons have done for a while now. And I fully believe it is the Ruach, helping me to see and appreciate again Yah'shua as Elohim with the Father, and salvation in and though Him. Short version - I loved it!" (DP, South Africa, 30 December 2016)

    This series is dedicated to my son Josef on the occasion of his 22nd birthday

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