Bibliotheca Sacra 120 (July 1963) 117-125.
Copyright © 1963 by
1. LITERARY KEYS TO THE FOURTH GOSPEL
Structure of John
Merrill C. Tenney
THE UNIQUE character of the Fourth Gospel is recognized
by all students of the New Testament. In spite of the
fact that it describes the same Person as the Synoptic Gospels,
it narrates new episodes in His life, places Him in other
geographical surroundings, reports different discourses, and
employs another type of vocabulary. Because of the radical
difference between John and the Synoptics, many scholars
have concluded that it is unhistorical, and cannot be utilized
as a reliable basis for information concerning the life of
Divergence of presentation does not necessarily imply con-
flict, for the variations may be explained in terms of purpose.
The writer affirmed that he had a much broader knowledge
of the person and work of Jesus than he expressed in his
book, but stated that "these signs are written that ye might
believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that
believing ye may have life in his name" (20 :31). His attention
was concentrated on the main objective of fostering belief.
Around this theme he wove others, important in themselves,
and so interrelated that they could be expressed in inter-
changeable terms, i.e., "the life was the light of men" (1:4).
These interwoven themes, fluctuating in emphasis but always
progressive in development, lead steadily forward to the cli-
max which consummates them simultaneously, and creates
the cumulative incentive to faith.
This type of structure may be called symphonic, from its
likeness to the form of a symphony. A symphony is a musical
118 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA April, 1963
composition having several movements related in subject, but
varying in form and execution. It usually begins with a domi-
nant theme, into which variations are introduced at intervals.
The variations seem to be developed independently, but as the
music is played, they modulate into each other until finally
all are brought to a climax. The apparent disunity is really
part of a design which is not evident at first, but which ap-
pears in the progress of the composition.
Symphonic structure is difficult to analyze because of its
nature. A logical argument, marked by steps of reasoning,
can easily be reduced to a categorical outline like a lawyer's
brief. While it is possible to outline the Fourth Gospel on the
basis of its geographical, chronological, and psychological
order, it contains also an elusive element that cannot be com-
pletely captured by rigid structural analysis. On the other
hand, without an orderly investigation the symphonic ele-
ments will never be discerned, because they will remain
indistinguishable in the complex mass of the narrative.
It is not within the province of this study to attempt a
survey of all the subordinate themes in John which could be
included in the symphonic structure. Such an essay might be
wearisome or trivial, or both. The main purpose is to demon-
strate the nature of symphonic structure, with sufficient de-
tail to illustrate the method and results of the investigation.
The basic clues may be found in the direct statement of
purpose appended to the close of the twentieth chapter. Here
the main narrative ends, and the author concludes by saying:
"Many other signs therefore did Jesus in the presence of his
disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are
written, that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son
of God; and that believing ye may have life in his name"
(John 20:30-31).These words indicate that the central person
of the Gospel is Jesus; that the main argument is to prove
that He is the Messiah; that the chief support of the argu-
ment is in the "signs" which He performed; and that the
dominant purpose of writing is to inculcate belief in the
readers that they may obtain life in Christ. From these impli-
cations are derived the trends of thought that appear in the
structure of the Gospel. They are interwoven so that they
constitute a unit; yet they are sufficiently distinctive to be
THE SYMPHONIC STRUCTURE OF JOHN 119
The signs come first in the order of the themes suggested
by the two verses cited above. Signs are miraculous works
performed or mentioned to illustrate spiritual principles. In
the development of the Gospel they implement Jesus' words
to Nathanael: "Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the
fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than
these" (1:50). Jesus' initial introduction to the disciples, and
to Nathanael in particular, had revealed that He exercised
supernatural powers of discernment. Because of Jesus' casual
remark that he had seen Nathanael under the fig-tree—pre-
sumably at his house--and knew what he was doing, Nathan-
ael confessed Jesus to be the Son of God (1:51). The "greater
things," which would be even more convincing, must refer to
the miracles, which the disciples witnessed afterward, and
which fixed their faith in Him.
In the Gospel are seven signs which bear directly upon the
development of thought: the changing of water into wine
(2:1-11); the healing of the nobleman's son (4:46-54); the
healing of the impotent man (5 :1-15); the feeding of the five
thousand (6 :1-14); the walking on the water (6:15-2:1); the
healing of the blind man (9 :1-41); and the raising of Lazarus
(11:1-44). Although these signs occur at irregular intervals,
they serve as mileposts in Jesus' career, and are the explicit
foundation of belief.
The changing of water into wine brought Jesus into public
prominence. He had not hitherto been known in
preacher or prophet, and had not exercised miraculous powers.
His disciples had accepted Him largely because of John the
Baptist's recommendation, confirmed by their personal con-
tacts and observation. Jesus' ability to control the chemical
processes of nature induced them to believe on Him with new
understanding and fervor. This capability of transforming
material substance may be an indication of His ability to
change spiritual life. The promise that He would alter Peter's
character (1:42), the prescription of new birth for Nicode-
mus (3:5), and the profound alteration in the attitude of the
Immediately following the discussion of the first sign, John
120 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA April, 1963
records Jesus' prediction of His own resurrection. His stress
on the Jews' inquiry at the cleansing of the temple, "What
sign showest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these
things?" (2:18) implies that the miracles were related to
substantiate Jesus' authority. Jesus' reply to the Jewish query
by the enigmatic statement, "Destroy this temple, and in three
days I will raise it up" (2:19), provides a contrast between
the first sign and the final great manifestation of power in
the resurrection. The first confirmed the disciples' personal
allegiance; the last provided a rational theological basis for
faith. Between these two poles of demonstrated power are
ranged six other miracles, each of which demanded an ad-
vance of faith and marked the solution of a new problem.
The healing of the nobleman's son showed that Jesus'
powers were not limited by distance, for
where the interview with Jesus took place, were twenty miles
apart. The important aspect of the second sign is its demand
for choice of an alternative. The first sign required repose
while waiting for Jesus to act; the second required an instant
decision to trust Him on the basis of His word.
The healing of the impotent man called for a positive act
of volition. Asking an invalid who had been confined to his
bed for thirty-eight years to stand and carry away his bedroll
seemed absurd. Nevertheless Jesus commanded precisely what
seemed impossible. When the sick man complied voluntarily,
the impossible occurred. The third sign was important be-
cause it precipitated the controversy that defined both the
claims of Jesus. and the position of His enemies. It crystallized
the unbelief of His opponents.
The feeding of the five thousand, and the walking on the
water, occurred in close sequence. Both were pivotal to the
narrative of John, for they marked a crisis in the faith of the
disciples. Convinced of Jesus' power to control the laws of
nature, they confessed Him as the Son of God, and avowed
lasting belief in Him (6:68-69).
The healing of the blind beggar involved man's relation to
"fate." His affliction could not be traced to accident or to
misbehavior that would make him directly responsible for his
adversity. The disciples could not understand why so unusual,
a malady should be causeless, and they asked Jesus whether
THE SYMPHONIC STRUCTURE OF JOHN 121
the man himself or his parents were to blame. Jesus' reply
and His accompanying action indicated that He was more
interested in correcting the man's state than He was in ex-
plaining it. Having challenged the blind man's faith by action
and words, Jesus restored sight by an act of creative power,
and transformed his life and destiny.
The raising of Lazarus proved that Christ was able to
reverse the current of death and to impart vitality even to a
corpse. For the casual crowd of spectators this miracle was
the greatest possible evidence of Jesus' supernatural charac-
ter; to the family at
test of faith that they had ever faced. Both in its inherent
quality and in its demand this sign was climactic.
These seven signs culminating in the resurrection of Jesus,
the eighth and greatest of all, carry the theme of the power
of Christ as it penetrates and dominates the adverse forces
of human existence. They illustrate every aspect of Jesus'
sovereignty over the world and the methods by which he
exercised that sovereignty to evoke faith, or in response to it.
Two aspects of the life of Jesus are prominent in this
Gospel: what Jesus did, and what He was (20:30-31). The
first aspect concerns His action; the second, His character.
John confines the action largely to the signs, which have al-
ready been discussed. In addition, he uses such episodes as the
feet (13:1-15), or His rebuke to Peter at the betrayal
(18:1-11) to reveal His nature. These deeds or works, as John
calls them, attested His competence as a Savior, and con-
firmed His claim to deity. His character was summarized in
the words, ". . . Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God" (20:31).
Both His office and His nature are involved in this statement.
The dual theme begins with the prologue, and continues
through the entire Gospel. "Messiah" (Gr. Christ) is an Old
Testament concept, and represents the person who the
prophets declared would become the redeemer and the teacher
of God's people. "Son of God" emphasizes the new revelation
of deity through the Son who bears God's nature in flesh, and
who speaks as a man, but with divine authority.
Unlike the Synoptics, which portray the Messiah mainly
against the Jewish background of political and social hopes,
122 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA April, 1963
John emphasizes the spiritual meaning of the title. He records
how John the Baptist refused to be regarded as the Messiah,
and focused the attention of his disciples on Jesus. John's
intent to present Him as the Messiah is confirmed by the
words of Andrew: "We have found the Messiah" (1:41). An-
drew was convinced after an interview that Jesus fulfilled the
claims of John the Baptist, and so called Him Messiah. Jesus
Himself affirmed His Messiahship when He told the Samari-
tan woman, "I that speak unto thee am he" (4:26). When she
announced to the village her tentative belief, they first listened
to Him, and then believed, saying, "Now we know . . . that
this is indeed the Saviour of the world" (4:42). Their equa-
tion of Messiah and Savior indicates that their estimate of
Him was theological rather than political.
Contrary to the certainty of the Samaritans is the con-
fusion of the Jewish multitude depicted in chapter 7:35-44.
In the last critical months of Jesus' life He appeared in Jeru-
depth of His teaching and by the magnitude of His claims,
the multitude debated whether He might be the Messiah. They
asked three questions: "Can it be that the rulers indeed know
that this is the Messiah (Christ)?" (7:26); "When the Mes-
siah (Christ) shall come, will he do more signs than those
which this man hath done?" (7:31); "What, doth the Mes-
siah (Christ) come out of
indicates their dependence on the interpretation of the leaders.
If their teachers maintained silence concerning Jesus, did
they do so because they knew Him to be the Messiah, but did
not want to acknowledge His claims?
The second question expresses popular feeling. Jesus had
performed so many wonderful works that the people could
scarcely expect the Messiah to be any greater. The third ques-
tion implies that the popular concept was defined by Scripture,
since they would not accept the suggestion that the Messiah
could come out of
and originate from
had declared. Ironically, the people did not know the truth
that He conformed to the prophetic requirements. The un-
certainty troubled them, for at a later date they asked Him
pointedly whether He were the Messiah or not (10:24). On
THE SYMPHONIC STRUCTURE OF JOHN 123
the very eve of the cross, the multitude expressed its mis-
giving by protesting that the Messiah (Christ) should abide
forever (12:34). How, then could He suffer death? Jesus made
His final claim in the prayer to the Father, in which He called
Himself the Messiah (Christ) (17:3).
The theme of Christ's sonship is a parallel to that of His
messiahship. The title, "Son of God," was first applied to Him
by John the Baptist (1:34), and was echoed by Nathanael
(1:49) in the opening paragraphs of the Gospel. The function
of Christ as Son of God is elaborated in the explanation
following Jesus' teaching on the new birth (3:16-18). He is
the Savior of the world, to whom men must commit themselves
in order to receive eternal life. This discourse to Nicodemus
parallels the verdict of the Samaritans, who declared after
listening to Jesus, "Now we believe . . . for we have heard for
ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Saviour of the
As Jesus' career progressed, a growing complexity of re-
action to His claims developed. During the last year of His
life He spoke more openly concerning His own person, yet the
bewilderment of the crowd increased. When they demanded
that He declare whether He were the Messiah or not, He made
plain that He had already demonstrated His Messiahship, and
He boldly asserted that He was the Son of God (10:36). The
two themes converge in the confession of Martha, who an-
swered His challenge to faith, "Yea, Lord: I have believed
that thou art the Christ (Messiah), the Son of God, even he
that cometh into the world" (11:27).
John's doctrine of the Messiah differs in its emphasis
from that of Matthew. Matthew connects it more definitely
with the fulfillment of the national destiny of
unites it with Jesus' sonship in the function of saviorhood.
The difference is more apparent than real, since the nation of
(Gen. 12:1-3; Acts 3:25; Gal. 3:8), and since its mission is
fulfilled in the person of the Messiah who is the Son of God.
The last great theme in this symphony is life. The Gospel
opens with the statement, "In Him was life, and the life was
the light of men" (John 1:4), and closes with the declaration
of its main objective, "That believing, ye may have life
124 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA April, 1963
through his name" (20:31). The term is defined in Jesus' final
prayer: "And this is life eternal, that they should know thee,
the only true God, and him whom thou didst send, even Jesus
Christ" (17:3). John regards life as both a dynamic and an
experience. As a dynamic it renews and refreshes the soul;
as an experience it enlarges the scope of understanding and
acquaints the believer with God.
This concept permeates the entire book. The life is like a
light which shines in darkness, for it manifests the radiance
of the divine glory to men (1:14). The two chief characters
of the early chapters, Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman,
were both recipients of this revelation. To the cultured and
learned rabbi Jesus said that life would be attained by the
new birth, which involved repentance and the inner work of
the Holy Spirit. For the outcast Samaritan woman He de-
scribed it as an inward supply of living water, refreshing
and always plentiful. In both cases, life was conditioned on
faith in Him.
The concept of eternal life is expanded with the develop-
ment of the Gospel. It involves superiority to physical death,
for it is linked with the resurrection of the last day (5:21, 25).
Yet this life is not simply an award or condition to be ex-
pected in the future; it is a present possession of all who have
truly believed (5:24), guaranteeing to its possessor exemption
from condemnation, and triumph over death.
In the synagogue at
bread of life. He emphasized sustenance rather than destiny,
though He asserted that those who believed on Him would have
eternal life, and would be raised at the last day (6:40). The
crux of His message lay in the declaration that unless His
hearers would eat His flesh and drink His blood they would
have no life in them (6:53). Contrary to His intention, many
took his words literally, and turned away from Him because
they did not understand His meaning. His figurative language
was an obstacle which they could not surmount. He meant
that they must absorb Him into their lives as they assimilated
their food, in order that the life in Him might be transmitted
In a later discourse He announced that He had come as the
Good Shepherd to bestow life, and to give it abundantly, (10:-
THE SYMPHONIC STRUCTURE OF JOHN 125
10). The context emphasizes the aspect of safety and protec-
tion which the sheep enjoy under the guidance of the shep-
herd and in the shelter of the fold. "I give unto them eternal
life; and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them
out of my hand" (10:28).
In His final discourse to the disciples, Jesus reiterated the
importance of eternal life. To the incredulous and pessimistic
Thomas, who could see only failure and death in Jesus' im-
pending fate, the Lord said, "I am the way, and the truth, and
the life: no one cometh unto the Father, but by me" (14:6).
If life consists in the knowledge of the Father, the introduc-
tion to that knowledge comes only through the Son. A similar
idea appears in the metaphor of the vine, for fruitfulness,
which is a product of vitality, depends upon direct union with
Christ, the true Vine (15:1, 4). "Because I live," He said,
"ye shall live also" (14:19).
The fulfilment of eternal life is implied in Jesus' prayer.
In his petitions for the disciples He spoke of revelation (17:6),
preservation (17:11), joy (17:13), sanctification (17:17),
unity (17:21), and glory (17:24). In the resurrection of
Christ completeness was manifested, and the immediate effects
exemplified. Consolation, peace, and certainty were imparted
to the desolate disciples as they entered into a new experience
These themes of the signs, the sonship and messiahship of
Christ, and eternal life run concurrently through the Gospel
like the melodies of a symphony. They interweave with each
other, sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly where their
connections are openly expressed. They are related to the key-
note of belief, for the signs are the basis of belief; the person
of Christ is the object of faith, and eternal life is the result
of belief. By the interrelation of these topics the Gospel is
constituted a coherent whole, conveying the message of God's
love and saving power to men.
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