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Studies in John’s Gospel – Series Index

Reta Halteman Finger began her Bible study blog, Reta’s Reflections with a study of 1 Corinthians, and then for her second Bible study series took up the Fourth Gospel— the Gospel according to John. Learn more about CFT’s Reta’s Reflections Bible Study blog.

At the conclusion of the 1 Corinthian series we put the question to our Facebook community, “What book would you like Reta to take up next?”  The Gospel of John was one of the top choices, and Reta provided another reason that it would be appropriate for the next study. She says:

“I chose the fourth Gospel for our second lesson series because I think it is the most thoroughly feminist writing in our New Testament. Most Christians don’t know that—but all the more reason to get acquainted with this tough, tender, mothering Jesus who befriends women as well as men.”

(Posts are in reverse order of publication, with the first of the series at the bottom.)

Postscript: The Reception of John’s Gospel

“The biblical canon—the list of books that comprise the Bible as we know it today— was not fixed until the mid or late 4th century. Long before that, however, churches developed lists of texts appropriate for reading in their assemblies. The Synoptic Gospels were a shoo-in from the beginning, since Jesus was the central authority figure for Christians. But some, especially Jewish Christians, questioned John’s Gospel because it portrayed Jesus as more divine and less human than did the Synoptics.”

The Rehabilitation of Peter—John 21:15-25

What does the author intend by using two different words for ‘love’ in John 21:15-17? ‘Agape’ is the all-encompassing love from God that enables disciples to be kind and accepting toward everyone, whether or not they are lovable. ‘Philos’ is the warm affection friends have for each other.

A Fish Story:  Mother Jesus Serves Breakfast—John 21:1-14

“By the time everyone arrives, Jesus is making breakfast, just as he did back in John 6 when he fed 5000 people. Like an ordinary housewife, he fries flatbread and cooks some of the fish they had just caught. I can see the disciples standing around awkwardly, unused to helping with women’s work, and not knowing what to say (v 12).”

A “Touching” Group Appearance—John 20:19-31

"Within our current Western worldview, a dead body that becomes alive again cannot be explained by biology or physics. Thus, some Christians see Jesus’s resurrection as less a physical reality and more as a metaphor for new life and new spiritual insight. However, it is quite clear that Jesus’s disciples and the early church were totally convinced that Jesus had been bodily raised from death; some claimed to have seen and touched him! Otherwise, he would have been a failed messiah, and everyone would have gone back to their former lives and hoped for the real one to show up."

A Pivotal Reunion in the Garden—John 20:1-18

“As a feminist reader, I page back through this Gospel looking for people ‘in the know,’ and I find they are mostly women! Mary Magdalene’s knowing in today’s lesson parallels that of other prominent women in this Gospel: Jesus's mother, the Samaritan woman at the well, Martha of Bethany, and Mary of Bethany."

Jesus’s Burial and the Meaning of the Empty Tomb—John 19:38-20:10

"If they could afford it, Judeans buried their dead in a lengthy process. The first stage happened quickly, however. Between the last breath and sundown, the body was washed and anointed with spices, usually by women, and then laid on a shelf in a tomb cut out of the limestone bedrock around Jerusalem. Rites of mourning would begin at that time and continue for a full year. During that time, the flesh would rot away, leaving only the bones by the end of the year. This decomposition was necessary as a way for the person’s sins to be expiated. "

Crucified, Dead, and Buried—John 19:16b-42

"There was nothing romantic about crucifixion. The victims had been stripped naked, their 10-level pain laced with public humiliation and shame. Many lingered for days, covered in their own excrement. From the onlookers’ mocking point of view, they got what they deserved. After they died, corpses were usually left hanging for birds and other predators to pick their bones clean. Crucifixions were Rome’s most dramatic advertisements to occupied peoples: 'We’re in charge. Don’t mess with us, or you’re next!'”

Jesus, Pilate, and “The Jews”: The Empire Strikes Back—John 18:28–19:16a

"Scene 1 is an honor challenge. The elite Judeans have decided in 11:47-53 that Jesus must die. But stoning him for religious reasons will only turn the common people against them. Rome must view him as a political threat and crucify him for rebellion. Hence the Judeans’ smart alecky retort in John 18:30, indicating that, of course, Jesus is a criminal. Why else would they have brought him to Pilate?"

Jesus’s Trial before Pilate: Not What You Expect—John 18:29-19:16a

"Then add to this complicated political system another category: the Jewish rebels and messiahs who believed God wanted them to violently overthrow the Romans. Such unrest pushed the priestly caste more strongly toward cooperation with the Roman governor and against the peasants, who comprised 90 percent of the population."

Arrest and Trial by Night—John 18:1-27

"Jesus is in control of the situation. He knows 'all that was to happen to him' (v 4). He steps forward and questions first: 'Whom are you looking for?' When they reply, 'Jesus of Nazareth,' he identifies himself. The NRSV quotes Jesus saying, 'I am he,' but the Greek text uses the name we’ve heard many times before in this Gospel—egō eimí—'I AM.' When Jesus says this, all the officers step back and ignobly fall to the ground! (v 6). As they scramble to their feet, the question and the replies are repeated again: 'I told you that I AM!' Taking charge in this way is a matter of honor. Only the inferior are controlled by those above them."

Praying for Myself, Us, and Them—John 17:1-26

"Although the patron-client relationship is used between humanity and God, Jesus is clear that this should not be practiced among believers. The goal of Jesus’s work with his disciples is not to act superior to them (remember the footwashing in John 13?). Instead he asks God to 'protect them…so that they may be one as we are one' (v 11). Later, he asks 'also for those who will believe in me through their [the disciples’] word, that they may all be one' (vv 20-21). The level of intimacy between Jesus and his Father/Mother is to be the pattern for all believers. No more pulling rank over others because of higher social status. That is how 'the world' works."

Living in a Hostile World—John 16:1-33

"The suffering Johannine communities are symbolized by a woman in labor (16:20-22). Earlier we noted how Jesus’s role in John’s Gospel is similar to an idealized Mediterranean woman who is given complete authority over her household and children. This is another example of Jesus’s (and the Spirit’s) understanding of women’s concerns. We can imagine Jesus as an older woman ministering to her daughter who labors to bring forth a child. In this way the Advocate stands with the marginalized community, making the reassuring promise that, in Jesus’s words, 'You have pain now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one can take your joy from you' (16:2-24)."

A Vineyard of Friendship—John 15:1-17

“Agape love, of course, does not have to mean liking another person—it is wanting the best for them as you want the best for yourself. It is taking others on their own terms and accepting them the way they are, understanding that hurtful behavior can come from personal insecurity or even mental illness. It may sometimes mean confrontation and ‘tough love’ that can easily be misinterpreted. Agape love demands a lot of humility. It is not surprising that Jesus called this kind of loving a ‘command’ (v. 17)—something you do rather than something you necessarily feel.”

Questions and Misunderstandings—John 14:1-31

"The 'key verse' in this section is verse 6, which many Christians know by heart: 'I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.' Unfortunately, this is often used as a doctrinal statement meant to exclude non-Christians. 'Unless you believe in Jesus you can’t be saved,' some will say. Instead of 'not letting hearts be troubled' (14:1), this verse has troubled Christian hearts and those from other religions alike.

Loyalty and Betrayal among Beloved Friends—John 13:18-38

“But in this Gospel, Judas’s action is so reprehensible it is as if the devil himself possessed him (vv. 2, 27). As further evidence, Jesus quotes an apt line from Psalm 41:9—‘Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me.’ (See Jn 13:18.) In that Mediterranean culture, to ‘lift the heel’ means showing the sole of one’s foot to another. It is a great insult, a wish to utterly shame another.”

The Way Up Is Way Down—John 13:1-17

"Actually, there’s a lot going on under the surface of this special Passover meal, but only Jesus and Judas are aware of it. Judas is part of a devilish plot that Jesus strongly suspects, and he realizes this will be his last meal with 'his own.' It is 'during supper' (v. 2) that he gets up and takes off his outer robe to strip down to the knee-length tunic that characterizes a slave. He ties a towel around his waist, pours water into a washbasin, and starts washing the other men’s feet (13:2-5). This is his last chance to demonstrate the kind of humble caring that members of the family of God need to have for each other."

Gethsemane in a New Setting—John 12:20-50

"Unlike the Synoptics, however, this fourth Gospel does not describe Jesus as pleading for God to rescue him from death. As we saw in Lesson 25 on the 'noble shepherd,' a characteristic of nobility is the voluntary laying down of one’s life for others (John 10:11). In this spirit, Jesus accepts his destiny: 'It is for this reason that I have come to this hour'(12:27)."

Political Street Theater—John 12:9-19

"Does it matter who came up with the parade idea? Probably not, except that John’s Gospel portrays a logical cause-and-effect. Jesus is already popular among the common people in Jerusalem, and his raising of Lazarus is the final sign of his right to be king in Israel (John 12:18). What better time to show him off than to a city crowded with Passover pilgrims!"

Mary the Anointer—John 12:1-8

"The name 'Bethany' means 'house of affliction' or 'house of the poor,' which had to be outside of Jerusalem for purity reasons. Brian Capper, an Acts scholar, suggests that Martha, Mary, and Lazarus may have had Essene connections and have sponsored a poorhouse close to their home. Perhaps Jesus originally met these siblings through his concern for the poor. If Mary’s ointment was poured out in the presence of poor people who were more used to smelling bad odors, a 'house filled with the fragrance of the perfume' (John 12:3) would have been a treat. In their presence, Jesus’s statement would have denoted compassion rather than callousness.

A Tomb with a View—John 11:38-57; 12:9-11

"The miracle of raising the dead is the last and greatest of Jesus’s 'signs' in this Gospel. But can it be literally true? In our experience, dead people do not come to life again. And if it did happen, why do the other Gospels omit such a dramatic event?"

A Household of Beloved Disciples—John 11:17-37

"The other unanswered question is how Jesus came to know and love this family. Was he a cousin or other relative? Did the sisters run a hostel for pilgrims coming to worship at Jerusalem, and he stayed with them when he came? Whatever brought them together, it was such a loving, intimate friendship that both sisters felt free to reproach Jesus for not coming sooner. Only these three siblings are known in this Gospel as 'beloved disciples.'"

An (Un)Fortunate Illness? — John 11:1-16

"Leaving Thelma, I knew I would never see her again in this life. I did not expect Jesus to raise her as he had raised Lazarus. If we are older than 8 or 9, we know that dead persons do not come to life again. What then can we learn from a story about a man pulled out of his grave alive after four days? Is it a story of hope? Or is it only a legend conveniently omitted by the Synoptic Gospels?"

Feeding Sheep or Eating Them? — John 10:1-21 and Ezekiel 34

"Ezekiel’s description of the false shepherds translates all too well into the 21st century, as large corporations extract resources from powerless people and regions, leaving them worse off than before. 'Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not the shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep.'"

The Noble Shepherd versus the Thieves— John 10:1-18

"Jesus then names himself as the shepherd, the 'good shepherd' who lays down his life for the sheep (10:11-18). How is Jesus 'good'? There are two common Greek words for 'good': kalos and agathos. According to Jerome Neyrey, a New Testament social context scholar, agathos belongs to the realm of ethics and virtue, but kalos to the cultural world of honor and shame. Kalos, used here, is better translated as 'noble' or 'honorable.'"

Sheep Parables and Temple Festivals—John 10:1-42

"This Gospel’s emphasis on the Jewish calendar and its festivals demonstrates the author’s deep roots in the Hebrew Bible and the events that the festivals commemorate. Unlike the Synoptic Gospels where Jesus remains in Galilee until the spring festival of Passover, here Jesus travels to Jerusalem over several years of ministry. He is faithfully Torah-observant as he immerses himself into these events. He becomes water and light; he is the gate that protects the sheep. He will—even more literally—become the Passover lamb."

“What Really Happened?”: Story Becomes History— John 9:1-41

At first, Jesus-believers saw their movement as Jesus had understood himself—as part of a renewal movement within Judaism. But as the decades went by, tensions were increasing. Our Fourth Gospel, probably written in the 90s CE, may be chronicling the fatal split.

Who Is Blind and Who Can See? A One-Act Comedy in...

"In this case, the sign weaves through such a thicket of ironies and misunderstandings that it rivals some of Shakespeare’s comedies. The antagonists work hard to prove that white is black and black is white, making this chapter the most hilarious in the whole New Testament! As you read it, ponder these questions: Who is blind and who can see? Who is a sinner and who is righteous? Who is an insider and who is an outsider? Who knows where Jesus 'comes from,' and who knows nothing?"

Stones of Humiliation for Adulterers—John 7:53-8:11

"Perhaps this delectable story was passed on orally, independent of the four Gospels, but was too juicy not to eventually insert into a canonical document. In any case, it is consistent with Jesus’ other evasion of verbal traps and his respect for women and their equal rights with men."

Living Water and Eternal Light—John 8:12-59

These rituals lie behind Jesus’ proclamation of himself as the Water of Life in John 7:37-39 and the Light of the World in 8:12. As light, Jesus claims not only to replace the law but to physically represent Lady Wisdom herself (see Lesson 2). As living water, his Spirit fulfills Zechariah’s prophecy of cleansing Jerusalem on that great “day of the Lord.”

The Trial before the Trial—John 7:1-52

"The offices of king and priest tended to reinforce each other, often leading to apostasy, economic oppression, and political disaster. Thus arose the prophetic tradition, challenging both priest and king, and often serving as a voice for oppressed people crushed by their elite overlords. Jesus stands in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets who suffered for speaking truth to power. "

Turning Back and Dropping Out—John 6:59-71

There are many Christians I have known or read about who like the Gospel of John. Sometimes what they like is a simplistic interpretation: all you have to do is believe in Jesus and then you’re saved and have eternal life. Put more crassly, it’s “fire insurance” for not going to hell. More thoughtful persons might observe that this Gospel puts less emphasis on morality and righteous behavior than do the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. However, the very fact that interested followers of Jesus are now deserting in droves implies that something more has been called for than mere head belief.

The Bread that Comes Down from Heaven – John 6:30-58

Jesus continues, pursuing the image of bread coming down from heaven. Just as manna came from heaven, so he has come from above to bring life to the world. This discourse on the bread of life is one of the clearest examples of the “descent of the Word/Sophia,” discussed in Lessons 1 and 2. It is a reminder of incarnation, the Word who descends to human level and lives among us (1:14). It echoes the “turkey theology” of the previous lesson, where a human becomes a wild turkey mother to provide life to chicks which otherwise would die.

The Word Became Flesh and Lived among Us

"Perhaps one reason I find this analogy meaningful is because I relate to Jesus more as a human and less as a divine figure whose feet rarely touch the ground. Becoming flesh is the point of 'Immanuel—God with us.' Too often Christians see primarily the inaccessible divinity of Jesus, and thus cannot follow him in life. As a result, they miss the point of the downward thrust of Incarnation."

“It’s me. Don’t be afraid!”—John 6:16-29

Alas, the crowd reminds us of Nicodemus (Lesson 7) who always interpreted Jesus’ words on an earthly level and thus missed their true significance. In this case, “works” and “food” have double meanings. The crowd asks, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” no doubt thinking of how they might earn their next meal of bread and fish. Yet all they need to do is put their trust in, and give total loyalty to, the One whom God has sent (6:29).

A Meal (Almost) Fit for a King—John 6:1-15

If John’s Gospel were a stage play, a dramatic scene shift would occur between chapters 5 and 6. Acting as his own lawyer in Jerusalem (5:30-47), Jesus now dons a Red Cross hat as he heals many on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee (6:2). This draws a huge crowd, who, out of need or curiosity, forget to pack a lunch. In 6:3-15, the Great Physician becomes Mother Jesus as he personally distributes food to his dependents. For once in their lives, these peasants eat until they can eat no more. For once, there are leftovers.

Jesus Judges the Judges at His Trial—John 5:30-47

"Susanna’s trial illuminates this second part of Jesus’ defense against the Jewish leaders (John 5:30-47). In the previous lesson (5:19-29), he refutes the charge of being “equal to God” by taking the role of a wife and mother in a patriarchal household. Here he declares 'not guilty!' to the charge that he broke the Sabbath by telling the man he healed in 5:1-18 to pick up his mat and walk. As Jerome Neyrey’s New Cambridge commentary points out, Jesus poses as his own lawyer, marshaling five witnesses to testify on his behalf before the elders who are serving as his judges (5:16).

From Sentence of Death to Androgynous Rebuttal—John 5:17-29

Jacobs-Malina says that “Jesus’ primary role was to create and maintain the household of God on earth.” In this way, he acts most like “the wife of the absent husband” (p 2). If we read John 5:19-29, this is exactly what we see. Using “Son” rather than “wife/mother” to this audience, Jesus insists that he can do nothing on his own except what he sees the Father doing. At the same time, the absent husband/father grants him enormous power, even raising the dead and judging all people.

Doing Good Can Get You in Trouble!—John 5:1-18

"Scholars differ on how the pool was used, but its reputation of having intermittent healing properties when the water bubbled up suggests it may well have been used by Romans and Jews alike as an Asclepion. The son of the Greek god Apollo was Asclepius, worshiped as a healer and 'savior.' His cult developed healing complexes in many cities of the Empire, such as Corinth and Pergamum. Here in the heart of the Holy City came the desperate sick. Whether through Yahweh or Asclepius, all they wanted was health and wholeness."

Healing in Absentia: Can You Read Signs?—John 4:43-54

The conclusion is distinctly Johannine. After the first sign of water into wine, Jesus’ disciples believe in him (2:11). After the second sign, the little boy’s entire household believes (4:53). Many people witness a miracle but miss what it signifies. “To believe” means understanding what the miracle is pointing toward. Little by little, Jesus gathers believers who can read signs.

Man Meets Woman at a Well—John 4:1-42—Part II

But place does not matter, asserts Jesus. God is spirit; we must worship God within our spirits, for God is actively seeking such people to relate to (23-24). This is a bold assertion. “Place of worship” was what separated Samaritans from Jews. For a Jew, only the temple at Jerusalem was sacred. Now Jesus challenges place, just as he had Jewish ritual law at the Cana wedding! (Lesson 4). For a moment she pauses, uncertain. “Well, when Messiah comes, he’ll tell us the truth about everything!”

Man Meets Woman at a Well—John 4:1-42 (Part I)

The Samaritan woman is neither shepherdess nor virgin, and Jesus is no wife-hunter. We don’t know if the woman ever gave Jesus a drink from the well, but we do know that he reversed gender roles and offered her a drink instead. Once again, the author draws from the Hebrew Bible to portray Jesus not only as a prophet in the tradition of his people, but as the “One from Above” who relives Hebrew history—and then breaks its mold in shocking new ways.

Jesus and Nicodemus—Spiritual Direction or Verbal Sparring? John 3:1-21

"John’s Gospel is also dualistic in terms of belief or unbelief in Jesus as Word-become-flesh (3:17-18). But the physical, created world is never seen as evil. Rather, many aspects of our earthly life point the seeker to spiritual reality. A mother’s experience of the miracle of her child’s birth illustrates the action of Mother Sophia-Spirit giving us birth 'anothen'—from above. We cannot control the wind; likewise we cannot control the Spirit moving among us."

Jesus as Spiritual Director—John 2:23-25

As we shall see in the lessons that follow, irony pervades these accounts. Theologian Nicodemus never understands Jesus. Before long, dialogue vanishes into a monologue by Jesus as his client creeps away under cover of darkness. But the nameless woman is the real theologian, conversing longer with Jesus than anyone else in this Gospel. In the end she introduces this “Messiah” (4:25-26, 29) to her entire village.

Another “Sign”: Housecleaning the Temple—John 2:13-22

“'These are written so you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah…and through believing you may have life in his name.' In other words, all the events are signs pointing in one direction—calling the reader to an unswerving loyalty to and trust in this Son/Sophia who in turn points the way to a true understanding of God."

A Wedding Surprise—John 2:1-11

"Clearly, John’s Gospel shows through symbol and story what Matthew’s Gospel explains in plain language in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Instead of Moses, Yahweh’s Son/Sophia has come down 'in the sight of all the people' to introduce a New Age where human need and enjoyment trump overly-rigid Law (see John 1:17)."

Always Playing Second Fiddle? John 1:19-34

Throughout this chapter to verse 42, the persons and careers of the Baptist and Jesus are intertwined. John’s role is as witness, to testify to “the Light” (1:6-8). It is powerful, it is essential, but it is unrelentingly secondary. If you are studying this in a group, have different members read the antagonistic dialogue of verses 19-28 as a mini readers’ theater. Note how John forcefully defends his authoritative actions, yet asserts he is only an agent of someone else.

Gender Remixed: Sophia and Word

"What would Greek-speaking Jewish readers have drawn from this opening reflection on logos? [One of the possible interpretations of the meaning] was Wisdom. Hebrew sages of old were part of a movement that emphasized gaining wisdom through close observation of the natural world. See, for example, Proverbs 6:6-11, about observing the behavior of ants in order to live well. But these sages were not inventing wisdom; they were discovering it. For Wisdom was personified as a woman co-creating with God from the very beginning. Read her exquisite poem in Proverbs 8:22-31. Before all of God’s creative acts, 'I was beside him as a master worker, and I was daily his delight…' (v 30)."

Our Mothering Jesus: Studies in John’s Gospel

"I chose this Gospel for our second lesson series because I think it is the most thoroughly feminist writing in our New Testament. Most Christians don’t know that—but all the more reason to get acquainted with this tough, tender, mothering Jesus who befriends women as well as men."

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