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THE FOURTH GOSPEL by John Shelby Spong

March 10, 2013

In Spong’s new book on the Gospel of John, he shows that the author is speaking to a specific community of Christians as they try to understand the Jesus story in terms of their current experience as a Jesus community around 100 A.D. Originally a synagogue-related Jewish sect in Jerusalem, worshiping in the Temple, they saw Jesus as the long expected Messiah. They experienced rising hostility from the leaders of the synagogue, especially at the claim that there was a oneness with Jesus and God. This hostility became more acute after the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. followed by mass resettling of Jews elsewhere. One synagogue which included the Johannine group of Jews very possibly settled in Ephesus, but the Jesus group were finally expelled from the synagogue no later than 88 A.D. No wonder that John’s Gospel reflects this hostility to those Jewish synagogue leaders by referring to them as, “The Jews.” (How tragic for later Christian history when this became interpreted to mean all Jews.)

So the Fourth Gospel was written for that Johannine community to interpret the Jesus story in their current situation. They have been separated from their Jewish roots. They are being persecuted. And the expected return of Jesus together with God’s Kingdom has not happened. So John is writing to those who are becoming disillusioned, some of whom may even be contemplating return to the synagogue – maybe some have already returned. But John’s writing reflects a popular first-century form of Jewish mysticism. It is not biography, it is not history. He tells the story of Jesus by introducing a series of characters, some named from the other three Gospels, others who are new, using them not as historical figures, but symbolically to introduce a series of discourses presenting Jesus as he must now be seen in these new circumstances of 100 AD.

In Spong’s earlier book, Eternal Life: A New Vision he described John’s resulting vision of Jesus.

“John’s Gospel read through the eyes of a mystic or viewed through the eyes of mysticism is . . . the story not of a divine life invading the world, but of a human life named Jesus of Nazareth. Yet the gospel portrays this Jesus as revealing a deeper and freer self-consciousness that is so profound that the usual human barriers disappeared. John portrays Jesus as having a relationship with the holy that is of indistinguishable identity. Jesus is not absorbed into the holy. Jesus is rather alive with the holy. Jesus, for John, is the life through which the voice of God is heard speaking, the being through which the Ground of Being is experienced as present. God from outside does not enter the human Jesus, as Mark suggests happened at baptism and as Matthew and Luke say occurred at the moment of conception. There is rather in this gospel a kind of intrinsic, inseparable unity, the result of which does not make Jesus more than human, but it does make him fully human and thus fully one with all that God is.” [p. 167]

“Jesus was a human life so deeply lived, a human life through which love flowed without barrier or interception, a being so courageously present that he was open to the ultimate ground of all being. He had stepped from self-consciousness into a universal consciousness that brings us into a profound oneness with all there is. He had become one with God.” [p. 168]

“By the time John’s Gospel was written near the end of the first century . . . the language of mysticism, of human oneness with the divine, of a life that knew no boundaries, had transformed the earlier language of miracle and magic, of angels that sing and stars that wander. When John relates the account of the feeding of the five thousand it has ceased to be a miracle story and has become a symbolic eucharistic meal in which Jesus becomes the infinite Lamb of God that can feed all the lives of the world that hunger for meaning. . . . Even the story of the crucifixion, as told by John, is the story of the transforming gift that comes when one lives in the face of rejection and gives life to those who think they are taking it away. The ability to give oneself away is the mark of having touched the transcendent. [ p. 170]

“John’s mystical approach to Jesus shouts the reality that we share in the life of God, just as Jesus did. We share in the being of God, just as Jesus did. Does that mean that our consciousness shares in the consciousness of God? I think it does, and as we become more deeply and fully conscious, we move from the being of survival to the being of love, and we participate in and reveal the reality of God. . . . What the mystics seem to grasp almost intuitively is that God is not a being external to life. . . The mystical perception, more experienced than believed, more intuitive than doctrinal, is that God is the ultimate being which our beings share. . . . This is what it means to be human and what it means to be one in whom the life of God lives, the love of God loves, and the being of God is made manifest. That is the doorway into freedom, into maturity, into, as the epistle to the Ephesians says, ‘mature manhood [and womanhood] . . . the measure of the stature and fullness of Christ’ where we will ‘no longer be children, tossed to and fro . . . We are to grow up in every way’  (John 4:13-17) ” [p. 171]

Loren Bullock
June 30, 1912, revised August 25, 2013

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