Importance of the Gospel of John
In order to begin to penetrate a little the mystery of the word of God, we must never forget that the principal author of Holy Scripture is the Holy Spirit. All the Fathers of the Church stated this, Thomas Aquinas says it emphatically, and in the Creed we proclaim, "He has spoken through the Prophets." It is the Holy Spirit who has spoken through the Prophets. He used varied instruments, but it is always he who inspired them. Saint Augustine likens the word of God to a rich and wonderful musical composition composed by the Holy Spirit as well as conducted by him, for he directs the various instruments. We must, therefore, understand that there is a profound unity in the word of God, for there is one main author. If we want to discover the deep meaning of Scripture, we must then return to the Source and discover the intention of the Holy Spirit speaking to us. A believer can and must do this. According to Saint Thomas, the literal meaning of the word of God consists in discovering what the Holy Spirit wants to say to us through John, through Luke, through Isaiah, through all the books of Sacred Scripture. Outside of this perspective, we do not directly grasp the mystery of the word of God. We look at secondary, contingent things and do not grasp what is essential in the word of God. It is important to keep this in mind, otherwise we risk wasting a lot of time.
The Ultimate Revelation: The Johannine Writings
If there is a profound unity in all of Scripture, then there is a beginning and an end, or term, for the Holy Spirit wished to reveal the mystery of God through a history. Now what brings the Scriptures to completion? Saint John, in the Johannine writings. God wished, particularly in the Old Testament, to use various instruments with very different styles to enable us to understand better the extent to which the mystery is above particular modalities, modalities in which we risk remaining. The mystery is beyond; it goes much further. It wishes to attain to our heart, to transform it and render it capable of loving God and neighbour. It is impressive to see that the body of official public Revelation is completed by the writings of John. Consequently, if we are intelligent for God and respond to his instruction, we ought to read Scripture and understand Revelation in the light of John. It is always in its completion that reality is most perfect; hence, it is always the perfect which helps us understand the imperfect - and not the reverse. The Old Testament, therefore, does not lead us to understand the New; rather, the New Testament sheds light on the Old.
John: Instrument Par Excellence
But why did the Holy Spirit choose John to transmit the last secrets? Because John is the beloved disciple. I believe this to be the chief reason. "No longer do I call you servants.... I have called you friends." Thus John is not only an instrument but a friend. The best instruments, the best servants, are indeed friends. One can ask a friend anything; no need for a labor contract. One can call upon him in moments of crisis; he is there. A servant who is only a servant leaves as soon as his contract is completed. He says, "Time to punch out! A contract is a contract. A fixed number of hours... that's it." This is not the language of a friend. A friend does not keep track of time. "Do you still have work to do? Fine, you can count on me." It is marvelous to see that the last instrument the Holy Spirit uses is a friend, the beloved disciple, with whom there is wonderful flexibility. The Holy Spirit must have enjoyed John. He really "plays" with instruments such as John, for John is docile.
There were instruments much less docile. One need but consider the calling of Moses, of Isaiah, of Jeremiah - all of them seem to resist some. Jeremiah weeps a great deal, such that the Holy Spirit does not dare share much with him for fear he might not cease weeping! An instrument who continually weeps is not the best of instruments and most probably saddens the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.... But with John such is not the case. John is always there, totally docile; he is a friend and the Holy Spirit therefore makes use of him in a wonderful manner.
John and the Cross
John, the beloved disciple, the witness of the Cross brings Revelation to a close. The pinnacle of all Revelation is the Cross of Christ, and the wound in the heart of the Lamb. Only John could reveal it to us, as he was a witness. It is for this reason that, when in his Gospel he reveals to us the mystery of the piercing with the lance, he says he was a witness. He understood it to be the culmination: the mystery of the Cross brought to completion in the wounded heart of the Lamb.
Revelation is completed in the wounded heart of the Lamb;
and we can understand why. Revelation is given to us that we might
discover that God is love, that we might understand what it is to
go beyond justice and omnipotence, that we might understand
what is most wonderful in our God: his mercy and his love. Love, however,
cannot be spoken. As soon as we are in love, we begin to stutter.
When not in love, we can fall back on rhetoric. But as soon as we
are in love, we stutter and can no longer speak well - at least to
the person whom we love! With others, it does not matter, but with
someone we love.... How difficult it is to declare love! It always
seems silly from the outside. It is only understandable to those who
love. Ultimately, love cannot be spoken. The final Revelation of love
illustrates this well for it is not expressed in a word but in a gesture:
the piercing with the lance, the wounded heart of the Lamb. Gestures
reveal love more than words. There is a need to develop a theology
of gestures, and John helps us understand this in a powerful fashion.
Words express thought—or light. But "God is light" and
"God is love." This is why the ultimate moment of Revelation
is the wound in the heart of the Lamb. The person to come last, the
person to communicate the secrets, therefore, had to witness the wounding
of the Lamb.
John is also the one who received Mary. The word of God is indeed a living word linked to "good earth"; that is, to Tradition. And Christian Tradition was born in the heart of Mary. Mary is the Christian Tradition in its source. Thus it is fitting that the person to transmit lastly the mystery of the word of God be intimately linked to the mystery of the "good earth." John is, therefore, joined to the heart of Jesus and to Mary. He is bound to Mary because he received her as she stood by Jesus and lived the mystery of the Cross.
And so John is the beloved disciple, the witness of the Cross, the one who received Mary. As such, he is the one most prepared to be the Holy Spirit’s instrument in giving us this final Revelation. We must understand these things in order to grasp better the Gospel of John.
The Last Revealed Book
According to the findings of the best exegetes of John (such as A. Feuillet, M. Braun, and C. Spicq), this Gospel was written very late. It is the last revealed book. In all Bibles one sees the Apocalypse placed at the end. In reality, though, it is not the Apocalypse that comes last but the Gospel of John - which is beautiful as it helps us understand that the Apocalypse must be read in the light of the Gospel of John. If we often misunderstand the Apocalypse, it is because we read it as though it were the ultimate light. The last light is the Gospel of John - which indicates that John was not in a hurry to write the Gospel. In fact, I believe that he did not feel like writing it at all, and it is understandable. When one has witnessed certain things, whenever one has been intimately bound to someone - the bond between Jesus and John! - one has absolutely no desire to write. Moreover, how could John, during the lifetime of the disciples, have written, "I am the beloved disciple"? As regards the other apostles, especially Peter and James, it would not have been very tactful. He can only call himself the beloved disciple after the death of the other apostles - because in heaven they all agree upon this. This is a small detail, but it is here where we see the signature of the Holy Spirit. John remained, and had no desire to write while the others were still alive. The secrets had to be communicated in another manner.
The Gospels of John and Luke
It is possible that John met Luke about the year 50. Luke was an intellectual, an artist with a refined intellect. He wrote perfect, very beautiful Greek, while that of John was much more chaotic. So John met Luke, and Luke was to write everything that John communicated to him. The relationship between John and Luke evokes the relationship God realized between Moses and Aaron following the calling of Moses. Moses is the one inspired and Aaron the one who speaks. God likes to associate his instruments, to make them work together....
Is there not something similar between John and Luke? John does not stutter, but he loves "too much" which is another manner of stuttering. When we love much, we do not feel like writing. We only want to love. John certainly preached. He founded the church of Ephesus. He preached, yes, but to write was something he really did not desire to do. And when he meets Luke, he thinks he is relieved of the task. Luke transmits what John has to say, and what Mary transmitted to John. This explains the proximity of Luke’s Gospel to that of John. Most sound exegetes are attentive to this dependence of Luke upon John. I believe that most of what Luke shares with us was communicated to him by John. Consider what Luke tells us about the beginning of Jesus’ life: the Annunciation, the Visitation, Bethlehem, the Nativity, the hidden life.... Who witnessed the hidden life? Luke is an historian and very intelligent, and he tells us in the Prologue of his Gospel that he writes his account "after investigating everything carefully from the very first." Thus he wants to have witnesses. Who witnessed the beginning? There is only one witness: Mary. And who received Mary? John.
It is easy to understand that Luke received a great deal from John. I am not saying that Luke obtained everything from him, but that John is nevertheless his principal source. If we were in Luke’s position and as intelligent as he, we would have done the same thing. Let us place ourselves in Luke’s shoes for a moment. Mary is undoubtedly still alive; she is with John. And Luke wants to write a more complete Gospel than those of Matthew and Mark. What should he then do? Seek out the source, naturally. Nowadays intellectuals know well how to find old manuscripts. If one of them hears of a wonderful old manuscript in a library that no one has yet consulted he will not hesitate to travel hundreds of miles or spend a considerable amount of time and trouble to understand the manuscript! And what if it is not a document but a hidden source? Mary's heart is not a document! Her heart is a source. "She kept in her heart the word of God."
God Pursues John
And thus John considered himself as freed. There was no longer any need for a Gospel since Luke had already written it. John was happy about this. But God was waiting for him. The Holy Spirit always acts in this way. He has incredible flexibility and never "sulks." This is one of the things that strikes me most whenever I read the Old Testament. God never sulks. He accepts. "You don’t want to do it? Okay, you are free...." God’s permissions, what a mystery. God’s permission is God allowing us to be free. God accepts without sulking. And he is always there to take us back, to "catch" us. The infinite Mercy of God! He draws us to him again in amazing ways, for he looks upon us with a loving intention. He leaves us free, and when we abuse our freedom, he is always there to repair our foolish mistakes.
Why does God leave us free? Because he respects our freedom more than anyone else, even more than those who love us very much. God has overwhelming respect for our freedom! We can understand the desire of the Little Flower, St Thérèse of Lisieux: "Lord, deprive me of my freedom to offend you!" - which is impossible, however, for God wants us to be free. He wants us to be entirely free so that we can love him; without freedom there is no love. Love is source of freedom, but freedom allows greater love. We are dumbfounded when we experience the extraordinary respect God has for our freedom, an experience we have whenever we love God or neighbour. We then understand how God desires that we be perfectly ourselves and perfectly free. It often happens that we do not act according to God’s will. This is what is called a permission of God: God permits that we make such-and-such mistake, that we waste a little time, or chatter when we ought to be silent. It is not a big deal, but nevertheless a distraction. We know that we ought to keep more silence, and yet we say to ourselves, "After all, what harm can it do?," and we begin to chatter. And God allows it.... he does not strike us with lightning to let us know that we ought to have kept quiet. God does not act like that; he is not an undercover policeman strategically hiding so as to catch us and give us a ticket. The hiddenness of God is not of that sort. He is present and he sees us. He is a "hidden God" in the sense that we are in faith, but we know that he is present and sees everything.
The Vision of the Apocalypse
And so God never sulks. He always takes us back in his mercy and love. John is a marvelous example of God’s merciful guidance. At the end of his life, John, an old man of eighty-five, seeks refuge on the island of Patmos, "because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus." The Holy Spirit, awaiting him there, takes hold of him; and John receives the amazing vision of the Apocalypse, a revelation given gratuitously to John, a revelation which overwhelmed him. The Apocalypse is indeed overwhelming. We have difficulty reading it because it shakes us. But we must read it, for it is the extraordinary revelation which led John to the realization that the entire Church is bound to Christ. It is the great revelation of the Holy Trinity, the great revelation of the Lamb. In fact, the two great visions of the Lamb: the first reveals the role of the Lamb in the divine government; and the second, that everything is fulfilled in him - indeed, the wedding feast of the Lamb closes the Apocalypse.
The Church Must Live The Mystery Of Jesus
When John receives this revelation he understands that the Church of Christ, born at the Cross, will have to live everything that Jesus lived. As Church of Christ she must follow Jesus,"follow the Lamb wherever he goes" (Rev. 14:4), and thus live everything that the Lamb lived. She must live the Agony, the Cross, and the Sepulchre. From this moment on, John looks upon the Church with completely new eyes. Prior to this - as André Feuillet points out - John had a perhaps critical view of the Church. As the last remaining apostle, John saw the first generation after the death of the apostles. Now after the death of the apostles, of those who knew Jesus and lived with him, the Church inevitably experienced a period of weakening. John witnessed this weakening, a weakening that was hard for him to bear. It is then that the Apocalypse revealed to him how intimately the Church is to be bound to the fate of Christ and with this revelation, John came to love the Church in an entirely new manner.
Consequently, we can understand that he wrote his First Letter after the Apocalypse. We should often read it - as well as the Apocalypse, a book of grandeur. The symbolism of the Apocalypse is stupendous though difficult. John must have been terribly shaken, "traumatized" as we would say today (with the Apocalypse there is reason to be!). But as it is divine "trauma" it makes him even more alert. This explains why, after the Apocalypse, he wrote the First Letter, his book about the spiritual life.
The First Letter is a book in which John gives an understanding of what is the Christian life and its great dimensions: light, charity, love. The essence of Christian spirituality is given to us in this First Letter. We must be children of light. A Christian loves light and seeks it - which is why he or she seeks the contemplative life. In our Christian life there must be a desire for contemplation, there must be an ardent desire for light. This light enables us to love our neighbour, and when there is this charity toward neighbour, we discover the source: "God is love." Thus we have the three major dimensions of Christian life.
Finally, John gives us the Gospel. The Gospel comes last and sheds tremendous light on all the rest. Today, we ought to reconsider all theology in the light of John, starting from his Gospel. I believe the Holy Spirit to be asking this of us today so to give the Church a mystical theology, a theology of life, of love, i.e., the profound theology of the Gospel of John.
Marie-Dominique Philippe, O.P., was born in 1912 in France and ordained as a Dominican priest in 1936. Author of numerous books on Thomistic metaphysics, spiritual theology and philosophy (including Retracing Reality, from T&T Clark), Father Philippe is the founder of a flourishing religious community called the Community of St John, which now has 41 houses on five continents. The above texts by Fr Philippe are taken with permission from Wherever He Goes: A Retreat on the Gospel of John, translated by Br Dominique Peridans, the Prior of the Community’s house in Laredo, Texas. (This book is also available in the UK from T&T Clark.) It appeared in the ‘Second Spring’ section of Catholic World Report in April 1998.