The gospel text for this Sunday [John 16:23-33] contains the last few words of what has been called the ‘farewell discourse’ of Jesus. The very next words of Jesus are his so-called ‘high priestly prayer’, and that is directed toward his heavenly Father (but we get to ‘listen in’). These words in the previous chapters are directed to Jesus’ disciples, his followers.
Jesus gives his followers some pretty amazing words. He had just told them that, although he would be leaving, they would see him and, more importantly, that he would see them. And he also told them that the Holy Spirit will speak the words that Jesus wants to be spoken. For Jesus to continue these connections with his followers is to show his great love for them.
Since this is the last look at his ‘farewell’, it is not at all inappropriate to look at the bigger picture of this gospel account and how it fits with the others. The Gospel according to John is very different from the others. When you go to any library, the number of books devoted to this gospel account is always more than the others. There is no institution of the Lord’s Supper in the Gospel according to John, but there are things which make us think about it (see John 6). There is no institution of Holy Baptism in this gospel account, but, again, there are things which make us think about it (see John 3 & 4). Much more could be said because it is so different.
If you want to talk chronologically, some people think that this account was the last one of the four to be written. Traditionally, John was the last of the original twelve disciples to be alive on earth. Others think that this gospel account was the first to be written. Perhaps both are true, and it just took a very long time to write!
The chronology would be important if this were a history lesson. The gospel is so much more than simply information. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in the place of sinful humanity is unbelievably important, so much so that even Jesus is ultimately the messenger and not simply the message. As the important stories of the Old Testament are sometimes given again in a slightly different way, the facts about Jesus are repeated, with slightly different emphases on the special type of authority that he has.
The four accounts have noticeably different emphases. Each account can be connected to one of the four living creatures (man, lion, ox, eagle) of God’s throne, the throne being a symbol of authority. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus is a man, and, as a man, he spends a lot of time teaching with authority. In the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus is like a lion, and as a lion, he has a lot of ‘difficulties’ with those who have authority around him—and sometimes that includes even his disciples! This is a significantly different authority from the Gospel according to Luke. There the living creature is an ox. And an ox is a powerful creature, like the lion, but an ox will easily work with others. Very frequently in scripture, an ox is described in a group, as oxen. In this account, Jesus easily—and with a significant amount of authority—deals with the large variety of people who come up to him. And, as was mentioned above, the Gospel according to John is significantly different, and the living creature connected to that account is the eagle. And the eagle flies overhead and provides a significantly different perspective. And it is easy to see the authority in such a perspective.
Connections like these have been made for centuries. And when you start to view the gospel accounts as having slightly different, one-idea themes—instead of simply containing a huge amount of historical information—it is not too difficult to make other connections of these ‘themed’ gospel accounts to other signs of authority in scripture. For example, when there are four prohibitions that are put forward as important for the Gentiles in the early church to follow (see Acts 15), those prohibitions could be connected to Jesus’ actions while on earth. For the Jews, laws provided some structure in their lives, and having different aspects of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus emphasized in four different ways provided a firm gospel foundation upon which anyone, Jew or Gentile, could build. (For more detail, you might want to compare the four prohibitions in Acts 15 to the commands in Leviticus 17 &18, which is in the center of the central book of the Pentateuch; that these are commands include the 'sojourner' or non-Jew are pretty rare.)
What makes this connection even more interesting is that these four prohibitions are basically in two different orders (see 15:20; 29). The second time they are given, in their written form, the second and fourth prohibitions switch places. This switch is also what happens in some ancient manuscripts of the New Testament with the order of the four gospel accounts. Sometimes the four accounts are in a ‘Jewish’ order in which their authority is emphasized: first, the disciples; and then, the secretaries, with the longer account being first. So, sometimes, the order is ‘Matthew, John, Luke, Mark’.
Now with such an order, it makes sense that this last account has a longer ending (see Mark 16:9-20; who would want such a huge, literary masterpiece to end with absolutely no appearance of the resurrected Jesus?). But this order also fits with the outline of the Farewell Discourse. Some people think that the discourse has been pieced together from other discourses (again, a chronological or historical answer).
The farewell discourse is certainly not your typical discourse. While talking, Jesus says, ‘Rise, let us go from here (14:31b).’ And then he starts talking about vines and branches. Some people think that this was the topic because he happened to be walking by Herod’s temple at this time (and there was huge golden vine there).
There could be another reason for such a structure. There are two action verbs that Jesus connects to the work of the Holy Spirit before this ‘break’ in the discourse—teach and remind (or ‘bring to remembrance’; 14:26). Those two verbs make me think of the Gospel according to Matthew and the Gospel according to John. And then, with the mention of vines, this could be thought of in terms of wild and rapid growth, and this is basically what vines do if not pruned. A growth like this happens in the book of Acts. And, then, there are two more verbs connected to the work of the Holy Spirit—witness and convict (15:26 & 16:8). Those two verbs make me think of the Gospel according to Luke and the Gospel according to Mark. Those were written by the secretaries and not the disciples. In this way, I am reminded of the four accounts in their special, ‘Jewish’ order.
In the end, it is all from the same source. This structure of this discourse may be pointing to something bigger and more important, the structure of a fourfold gospel that fits together well and does its job extremely well (note the singular of the word ‘gospel’).
The Gospel according to John is certainly different from the others. And this is just an example of how broad a perspective this can be. God knew what he was doing. And he still knows what he is doing. And he still knows what YOU are doing!
Would you mind if Jesus would be watching you? Would you mind if Jesus would start talking to you through his texts, through his Spirit? I certainly hope not. Within the scriptures we see the great extent of his love, and the person with that love has very good eyesight.