Someone once said that John’s Gospel is “deep enough for an elephant to swim and shallow enough for a child not to drown.” I’ve never been able to conclusively verify the source of the saying (though many attribute it to Augustine), but there’s a reason why this quote is so popular: it captures a profound truth about John’s Gospel.
On the one hand, learned commentaries and theological treatises* have been written over the centuries, grappling with the sublime theological insights embedded in John’s deceptively simple language. On the other hand, every child knows (or at least used to know) passages such as John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” And when a new Christian asks me where he should start reading the Bible, I generally recommend that he or she start with the Gospel of John.
John’s Gospel is a literary and theological masterpiece. As the final Gospel to be written and included in the canon of Scripture, it climaxes the New Testament’s account of the life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus and the salvation he came to bring. The ending of the Gospel—”This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (21:24–25)—concludes not only John’s Gospel but the fourfold Gospel with which the New Testament begins.
From the Prologue to the Epilogue, John’s Gospel reveals careful literary composition and theological exposition. In the Prologue, the author—John the apostle, the son of Zebedee, one of the Twelve and Jesus’ closest follower during his earthly ministry—sets the stage for his magnificent drama of the Word become flesh, who took up temporary residence among us and revealed the Father definitively in both word and deed, and supremely in his cross-death and subsequent resurrection. In this Word—the Lord Jesus Christ—God effected a new creation of which Jesus’ disciples served as the first representatives.
Then, John casts the drama of God’s sent Son in the form of two major acts: The Book of Signs (chapters 1 – 12) and The Book of Exaltation, or Glory (chapters 13 – 21). In the first act, Jesus is shown to reveal himself to God’s people, Israel, during the course of two major ministry cycles—the Cana Cycle (chapters 2 – 4) and the Festival Cycle (chapters 5 – 10). John’s account of Jesus’ seven messianic signs culminates in the narrative of the matchless raising of Lazarus (chapters 11 – 12), by which Jesus reveals himself as “the resurrection and the life,” and signals that he himself will soon rise from the dead.
The second act, remarkably, adopts the vantage point of Jesus’ exaltation with God in heaven. From John’s vantage point, Jesus’ finished cross-work is a fait accompli: “It is finished” (19:30). Thus, Jesus shows his disciples the full extent of his love, incipiently at the footwashing and climactically at the foot of the cross. Three days later, Jesus appears to his followers a total of three times, and commissions them as his representatives to take the gospel of salvation to the unbelieving world: “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (20:21).
Indeed, even the feet of an elephant swimming in John’s Gospel wouldn’t touch the bottom, so deep and rich is its theology. And yet, every child can read the story of, say, Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel, and learn that he or she must be born again. To be sure, a child may not understand exactly what being “born again” means, but he or she will be able to relate to the illustration of the wind, whose origins are unknown but whose effects can be observed, and catch a glimpse of the spiritual transformation that is required for anyone to be able to enter the presence of the holy and righteous God when they die.
Now, because John’s Gospel is so deep and yet so simple, there’s a need not only for academic commentaries but also for accessible, spiritually sensitive treatments and reflections. Josh Moody has given us a stimulating and edifying exemplar of the latter. He hasn’t merely reported or repeated what John’s Gospel says; rather, he has creatively processed John’s teaching and relates it consistently and faithfully to people living in the real world today. As a Johannine scholar, I greatly welcome this because when writing academic works on the Gospel, there’s often little room for the much-needed application.
My invitation for you, therefore, is simple, echoing another (more easily verifiable!) quote by Augustine: “Tolle, lege!”—take up and read! Read this volume, and yet, as you do so, don’t forget to read also the Gospel which is so capably elucidated in the pages of the book you’re about to enjoy.
Note: This post is excerpted from Andreas Köstenberger’s foreword to Josh Moody, John 1–12 For You (The Good Book Company, 2017), 9–11.