Bibliotheca Sacra 120 (July 1963) 117-125.

          Copyright © 1963 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.

 

 

 

 

1. LITERARY KEYS TO THE FOURTH GOSPEL

 

                           The Symphonic

                          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

Jesus.

            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

 



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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

 



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separately identifiable.

            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 Galilee as a

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

woman of Samaria (4:28-29) follow the principle latent in

this miracle.

            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 Capernaum and Cana,

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 Bethany it involved the most rigorous

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

entry into Jerusalem (12:12-19), the washing of the disciples'

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,

 



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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-

salem during the Feast of Tabernacles. Impressed by the

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 Galilee?" (7:41). The first question

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 Galilee. He must be a descendant of David

and originate from Bethlehem, as the prophet Micah (5:2)

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

world" (4:42).

            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 Israel. John

unites it with Jesus' sonship in the function of saviorhood.

The difference is more apparent than real, since the nation of

Israel was created to be the vehicle of salvation for the world

(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

 



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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 Capernaum Jesus discoursed on the

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

to them.

            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

with Him.

            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.

 

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Dallas Theological Seminary

            3909 Swiss Ave.

            Dallas, TX   75204          

www.dts.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu