John's gospel is the most theological of the four. What follows is my interpretation of some of that theology
"God is love;" states the author of the first epistle of John. In only three words the writer that penned this phrase (whom only extreme critics deny to be the same as that of the gospel of John) has disclosed an entire theology. But for his readers to understand the full implications of these words, for them to internalize his theology, John told a story.
John's gospel is an intricate web of "signs and wonders". Taken as a whole, it constitutes a literature both accessible and multifaceted. In the seventh chapter is Jesus' exhortation: "Judge not according to the appearance..." (7.24), for the book operates on a number of different levels, not all of which are quickly or easily grasped. The mysteries of John's gospel have been an obstacle to many readers over the centuries. A passage whose meaning may at first seem simple or obvious, can on reexamination become complicated or paradoxical.
Even among this tapestry of ideas and emotions, no thread is more colorful or woven more deeply than that of love. To wit, it is as "the disciple whom Jesus loved" that John would have himself known to the world. Love it seems, is never far from his mind at any place in the text. Indeed, John might not be understood at all without love in mind. So, as Paul writes, "with fear and trembling" it is good to attempt a critical reading of John's gospel with the goal of understanding what John meant by "love".
On the night of passover, in the quiet of the upper room, Jesus speaks these words to his disciples: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." (15.13) Spoken at that time, and in that place, the implications of these words were surely not appreciated. But to a reader familiar with the story of Jesus' death (as can fairly be assumed of John's intended audience), they are a key for understanding the character and extent of love in John's gospel. For John, love is an act, performed by one being, in one place, at one time, with one definite plan in mind. By returning to the beginning of the work with this key, as John himself may have returned to his memories of Jesus' words over and over again, we can retrace the development of this multifaceted notion of love.
Amid the prologue's flashes of light and shadows of dark, are these images of Jesus: "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us... full of grace and truth." (1.14). The word "grace" in the original Greek is "charitos", which might literally be taken as "favor". But here, favor is meant in the sense of lovingkindness or mercy. "Grace" then is understood as a notion similar enough to that of "phileo" or "agapao", the Greek words translated as "love" elsewhere in the KJV.
This is the first of John's many reminders that love (here "charitos") has physical or spatial dimension in the body of Jesus. Jesus had a human body (was incarnated), and lived with other humans. This is emphasized more by the synoptic gospel writers, and so it has been tempting to conclude from John's philosophical style and his emphasis on signs (chapters 2-12 are even referred to as "The Book of Signs") that the literal foundation of John's symbolic imagery might be removed without consequence for his message. But it is clear enough from this passage, from his inclusion of Jesus' bodily suffering in the Passion narrative of chapters 18-20, and above all from his attention to the trifling detail of eyewitness testimony (cf. 21.11), that John meant for Jesus' to be understood first as a physical human being.
For something physical to be properly located, it must not only be located in space, but also in time (except in frames moving at speeds close to c), and John does not neglect to address the temporal aspect of the events in his narrative. The first sign that Jesus performs is at a wedding in Galilee. When his mother appeals to him: "They have no wine." Jesus responds reluctantly "...mine hour is not yet come." (2.4) These words imply two things. First, that Jesus had a definite plan (a point to which I shall return). Second, that this plan had a definite temporal scheme.
From other gospels we know that Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his ministry, and that his ministry lasted only two or three years. How many Jews, frustrated in expectation of the Messiah, might have asked themselves as the governor of the feast in verse 10, "...thou hast kept the good wine until now?!" John had more than the literal wine in mind when he penned these words. It is true that the addition of "after the manner of purifying of the Jews" in verse 2.6 indicates that John was writing for Gentiles, but this does not change the implication that Jesus had a definite timing in mind for his ministry. The main point here is that John takes care to show that events (in his story of Jesus) take place at a certain time as well as place.
Nevertheless, recording events (both their times and places) is not John's primary role as a gospel. Having duly noted his attention to these facts, I must now move on to develop the purposive nature of love, as it is developed in John's gospel. A plan could not exist without a place and time for it to be executed. But places and times would not be meaningful without a significance imbued by their part in a grander scheme. With primordial ambiguity the prologue portends so much, but John takes his time in molding and shaping his idea of the plan in love.
What follows chapter two's introduction of "The Book of Signs" is a subsection containing three private interviews of Jesus with a Jewish ruler, a Samaritan prostitute, and a nobleman. These interviews collectively have implications that I hope to bring out later. For now, I would like to focus specifically on Jesus' first interview, with Nicodemus. It is here that John dramatically reveals love as a definite plan that God executes.
Jesus is whispering with Nicodemus in the quiet of night. He speaks of a god, God the Father, carrying out a definite plan by sending him (Jesus) into the world: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son..." (3.16) The meaning of these words is clear enough for them to have been immortalized in the minds of Sunday school children everywhere. Few human beings have suffered the loss of an only child, but most have lost a friend or relative. Yet, as Jesus explains to Nicodemus, God has willingly submitted to such an experience. Note that "so loved" here means both "loved in this way" as well as "loved so much" (as it is more commonly interpreted).
Jesus goes on to explain in verse nineteen that the love of man is not at all like God's love: "...light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light...". Here the "light that is come into the world" is clearly God's son from verse 16. Indeed, man's love for darkness is hate of the light (2.20), i.e. hate of God's son. Also, there is Jesus in chapter 5: "But I know you, that ye have not the love of God in you." (5.42) Man is not a participant in the execution of God's plan. This is not to say that mankind is not at all involved with love as a plan, merely that love did not begin with man, but with God. Then specifically, Jesus incarnation is a part of the plan carried out to show love to man. But I will explain more after addressing a few ambiguities.
The astute reader may have noticed that John's picture of love as a plan carried out by "one being" has become ambiguous. In the verses above, not one, but two are at work: both God the father (who gave His son), and the son himself. To which single entity have I assigned the credit for carrying out the plan of love? The answer is both. What will become clear is that for John God the Father and Jesus are one and can serve as a proper model for explaining the nature of love. This problem in particular is a superlative example of the paradoxes of John's gospel - but I shall explain.
The separate identity of Jesus and God the Father are reaffirmed quickly in the text. The scene that immediately follows Jesus' interview with Nicodemus is that of John the Baptist answering the questions of the Jewish rulers (John knew his readers would be asking questions at this point.) In particular, they nag pathetically that he "to whom thou barest witness, behold, the same baptizeth and all men come to him..." (2.26) apparently in expectation that John will take offense.
Instead, John reaffirms Jesus role as the fulfillment of prophecy, and (!) manages to slip these words in: "For he whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God: for God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him. The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into his hand." (2.34-35) Verses thirty-four and thirty-five clearly identify both Jesus and God the father as "of God", reaffirming that notion appearing in Jesus' interview with Nicodemus (where Jesus speaks of the Spirit in v. 2.5-8, and of his father in v. 2.16-21). John the Baptist, who was accepted even by the Jewish rulers as a prophet, has recognized three persons in God's being.
Why has John (the writer) gone out of his way to have both Jesus and John the Baptist recognize two persons in God? This seems strained by over complication. But, as John points out later, again through Jesus: "Therefore doth my father love me, because I lay down my life..." (10.17) However contrived it may seem, the separateness of God is not simply a literary device for John. Rather, the idea is meant to reveal exactly how love (truly) exists. Jesus serves God the father by laying down his life. God the father serves Jesus by sending power and comfort. The notion of one being loving itself could never be as effective in communicating the nature of love.
Still, this does not explain my insistence that for John, love is a plan carried out by "one being". If the model for love is of a father and a son, why not just say that? Simply because that's not all John has to say. Observe Jesus' paradoxical exclamation: "I and my Father are one." (10.30) Later in chapter ten Jesus continues: "...the Father is in me, and I in him." (10.38). In chapter fifteen, he even discredits himself as the source of his teaching: "...the word which you hear is not mine, but the Father's which sent me." (15.24) The message of these passages is frustratingly clear: God is both one and three.
The reasons for this mystery are themselves mysterious. A curious mind might speculate eternally on their nature. But rather than "why", one might ask (with this essay's author) more succesfully "how". For after having established this enigmatic being - one God in two (or to be precise theologically, three) persons - one sees in John's gospel that this being is carrying out (in specific times and places) a very definite plan.
Love as a plan culminates in Jesus' death on a cross: "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me." (12.32) In these words, both the expression and purpose of God's plan are clear! At one time, in one place, God sacrificed himself so that man might share His love. Passages throughout the text confirm this notion, many of which I have cited already. But one further example should suffice: "For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world." (6.33) This is Jesus response to the Jews that demanded a sign like that given unto their father who "did eat manna in the desert." (6.31) In keeping with the image of Jesus physical death as the source of nourishment (both food and drink), he presents himself as manna. Except this manna is given to the whole world, rather than Israel only.
Love has moved from God to man. This much I have shown to be part of a plan. But also evident from Jesus' teaching of the disciples at passaver, is that this plan was meant to be carried one step further: "A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another." (12.34) For a group of Jews in first century Jerusalem, any new commandments were probably unwelcome - any except this one. John develops the idea of a "new commandment" more clearly in his first epistle, but all the richness of the idea is manifest in his gospel. Thus, love is a plan that God has been working out throughout the course of human history (or at least as it is described by the Old Testament). With Jesus' death, that plan has finally achieved its goal making love something possible for human beings two share together, and with God.
Cast in this light, these ideas may seem simple for someone familiar with Jewish and Christian ideas, but I have shown how difficult it is to even try to uncover the motivations behind this plan or the reasons for its specific embodiment.
John has many other things to say about love, and "if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written." (21.25) Instead, I will leave off here, hopefully having inspired reflection, both profound and true, on the nature of love.