“Why I Wrote Love in the Gospel of John”
Francis J. Moloney, SDB
“From my earliest encounters with the Gospel of John, it was clear to me that while this story might be about the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus, its message was really about what God has done in and through Jesus. Reading the prologue (John 1:1–18) left me no doubt, as it begins with God (vv. 1–2), and ends informing the reader that no one has ever seen God, but the Son, who always gazes on the Father, has told the story of God (v. 18). The remaining twenty (or twenty-one) chapters are that story. If the Evangelist wrote this gospel so that readers and hearers of the story might have life through belief in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God (20:30–31), then the words found in the prayer of Jesus involve God again : “This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (17:3 NIV).
As time went by I became further fascinated by the question, what sort of God does Jesus make known? That was easy, I thought at first. John 3:16, the verse famously displayed on sporting signs in the U.S., makes it clear: “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” (NIV). God loves so much that the later letters would declare, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). Jesus’s command that his disciples must love one another as Jesus had loved them was but a logical, and even missionary, consequence of Jesus’s task to make known a God of love (see John 13:34–35; 15:12, 17; 17:21–26).
Only lately have I become aware that the concept of the loving process from God to Jesus to the disciple was all too easy. I began to run into a strong critical rejection of the long-held admiration among Christians for John’s development of the theme of love. Indeed, a veteran and highly esteemed Johannine scholar (Wayne Meeks) has suggested that the Gospel of John has enjoyed its position as a much-loved book in the Christian tradition only because it has been misinterpreted for almost a thousand years! I was part of that history of misinterpretation.
A number of scholars, especially (but not only) in the U.S. began to see that the Fourth Gospel’s message on love was increasingly introspective. Jesus, and then Matthew, Mark, and Luke, teach love for God, for neighbor, and even for one’s enemies! Yet in John, the believer is never commanded to love God, neighbor, or enemy. Believers must love Jesus and one another. Only when this is in place will they be swept into the love that has always united Jesus and his Father (John 17:24–26). The Gospel of John was thus judged as the first and clearest indication that early Christianity was tending toward sectarianism: believers only look after one another and have a mission to draw outsiders to belief but not into a relationship of love. As Jack T. Sanders puts it: “‘If you believe you will have eternal life,’ promises the Johannine Christian, while the dying man’s blood stains the ground” (Ethics in the New Testament: Change and Development [London: SCM, 1985], 100).
It was time to look again; Love in the Gospel of John is the fruit of that long, hard look. Years of association with the Johannine story led me to look beyond what Jesus teaches and commands about love in the Fourth Gospel. All those words (and there are a lot of them) have their place within a narrative. The problem with so much analysis of the Gospel of John (and biblical texts in general) is that we often forget the whole story as we focus on particular words and commands. I was as guilty of that as anyone, as I had been trained that way. But love is best communicated by loving actions, not loving words. We all know that! I have thus tried to interpret what the Fourth Gospel teaches about love by situating the words within their narrative context. Both words and actions must go together. In the end, actions really count when it comes to making love known.
This intuition has produced a study that features the unique Johannine message of the revelation of God in the lifting up of his son, so that all who gaze on him may find love and life (see 19:37). “Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (15:13 NIV). Christians and non-Christians experience loving self-gift most days of their lives. Perhaps it is there that we should be seeking the face of God.”
Francis J. Moloney, SDB (DPhil, University of Oxford), is a Senior Professorial Fellow of Australian Catholic University at its Melbourne campus, Australia, and member of the Department of Biblical Studies. He is also a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, a Member of the Order of Australia, and the author of more than forty books.
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