Bibliotheca Sacra 121 (Jan. 1964) 13-21.
Copyright © 1964 by
IV. LITERARY KEYS TO THE FOURTH GOSPEL
The Imagery of John
Merrill C. Tenney
THE EXACT expression of truth in intelligible fashion is
always difficult. General truth is best formulated in
abstractions which will encompass any given situation, but
abstractions are not comprehensible to the uninitiated. Ein-
stein's famous formula, E=MC2, embraces a wide range of
mathematical and physical principles, but it is meaningless
to those who do not instantly recognize the significance of its
terms. The truths by which men live must be specific to be
understandable, and they become so only through imagery
which will embody abstract principles in common objects or
The Gospel of John contains some of the profoundest truth
in the New Testament, but there are no other writings which
express it more simply. The imagery is clear, concise, and
rather limited. The author employs a restricted vocabulary to
convey his thought, but each word is filled with spiritual sig-
nificance. His metaphors are frequently repeated, and some
of them become technical theological terms because of their
constant occurrence in his teaching.
The main truths with which this Gospel deals are trans-
mitted by less than two dozen terms, each of which has some
definite symbolic meaning. Among the most important of these
are "light," "darkness," "bread," "water," "birth," "sleep,"
"flesh," "eating," "drinking," "shepherd," "sheep," "vine,"
"Father" (God), "Son of God," and "Son of man." Others
like "bride and bridegroom," "thieves and robbers," "dwelling-
places" (A.V. "mansions"), "grain of wheat," and "road"
(way) are used only once. No conclusions can be drawn from
their distribution in the text, for most of these appear irregu-
14 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA January, 1964
larly, and do not represent a complete continuum of thought.
Except for "Father," the title of God, and the corresponding
titles of Christ, "Son of God," and "Son of man," they are
illustrative rather than didactic.
Certain characteristics of this imagery are immediately
apparent. Whether judged by present standards or by those
of the day in which the Gospel was written, these metaphors
are familiar to all peoples and places. Some of them, like
"sheep," "shepherd," and "vine," belong essentially to a pas-
toral civilization; a few, like "bridegroom," "thief," or "bond-
servant," concern social position; "birth," "sleep," "eating,"
and "drinking" are common human actions; "water" and
"bread" are staples of sustenance in any culture; "light" and
"darkness" are concepts with universal connotations of good
and evil ; and the titles "Father," "Son of God," and "Son of
man" are fairly obvious in meaning though they may have
theological overtones. There are numerous other terms that
are peculiar to the Johannine vocabulary, but they cannot be
classed as figures of speech.
With a few exceptions such as the new birth, which per-
tains to a phase of individual experience, the majority of these
figures are applied to Christ Himself. He is the light of the
world (8:12), the living water (4:14), the bread of life (6:35),
the good shepherd (10:11), the true vine (15:1), the Son of
God (10:36). Each explains some aspect of His ministry to
men and enhances the understanding of the incarnation.
The figures of light and darkness define the plot of the
Gospel, for they represent the opposing powers of righteous-
ness and evil, and the contrasting results of belief and un-
belief. In the introductory words of the Prologue the light is
the life that was manifested in Christ. Through Him the divine
radiance was focused on the world as a searchlight plays on a
dark landscape (1:4-5). That light, although in some corners
it might be dim and undefined, was nevertheless the light of
men. However vague and distorted truth might become, even
in perverted form it owed its origin to the primal revelation
of God. Sin and its consequent estrangement may have pro-
duced a twilight in which the way of life had become obscure,
but Christ had provided the illumination necessary to lead
men back to God.
THE IMAGERY OF JOHN 15
If the light did not reach them, it was because they rejected
it. "Men loved the darkness rather than the light, for their
works were evil" (3:19). Jesus, however, claimed that He was
the light of the world, and that those who followed Him should
not walk in the darkness (8:12). The chief example of this
principle is the healing of the man born blind. Jesus said as
He confronted the helpless victim of fate, "When I am in the
world, I am the light of the world" (9:5). By the cure that He
effected the man was delivered from the darkness of futility
and ignorance, and acquired a new purpose.
Light is also a direction. After Lazarus' death, Jesus
turned back to
He would jeopardize His life by appearing in the environs of
situation, and that He was taking a foolish risk. Jesus replied:
"Are there not twelve hours in the day? If a man walk in the
day, he stumbleth not because he seeth the light of this world"
(11:10). Confident that He was walking in the light of God's
plan for His life, He did not deviate from the path of duty,
even though it involved peril.
To a bewildered multitude who could not properly assess
His claims Jesus said: "Yet a little while is the light among
you. Walk while ye have the light, that darkness overtake you
not: and he that walketh in darkness knoweth not whither he
Although the figure of the Prologue (1:4-5) reappears only
sporadically in the rest of the Gospel, the underlying concept
is apparent on every page. Silently but pervasively in every
contact that Jesus made, He penetrated the dark recesses of
the human spirit and revealed its true character. The light of
His holiness disclosed hidden hypocrisy and sin in sharp relief,
banished the shadows of ignorance, superseded confusion by
understanding, and dispelled sorrow. Every sign that He per-
formed was a manifestation of the light that was in Him
illumining the darkness of the world.
The parallel figure of darkness (1:5) represents uncer-
tainty, ignorance, and separation from God (12:35, 46). The
conflict of light and darkness constitutes the plot of John. The
early chapters of the Gospel describe the shining of the light
into the lives of different persons whose darkness is pierced
16 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA January, 1964
by the revelation of God in Christ. Resistance to this revela-
tion is the reaction of darkness that does not wish to be dis-
turbed or convicted. The rising hostility of Jesus, culminating
in the crucifixion, seemed to mark the triumph of the dark-
ness, for justice was frustrated, and evil prevailed over good.
The death of Jesus apparently involved the denial of His
claims and the defeat of righteousness.
If the cross had been the conclusion of the Gospel, a philos-
ophy of despair would be warranted. One would be forced to
conclude that virtue is unrewarded, that selfishness and malice
can strike their victims with impunity, and that there is no
everlasting standard of righteousness. The universe would
dissolve into moral chaos, and pessimism would be the inevit-
able mood of all reasoning men. The resurrection, however,
brought the vindication of the claims of Christ, and once for
all confuted His enemies. The life in Him, which overcame
death, proved to be "the light of men."
Two common staples of life, water and bread, are illustra-
tive of the indispensability of Christ to the believer. According
to the words of Jesus, both were emblematic of eternal life
(4:14; 6:51, 54). On two occasions He used the metaphor of
water to convey this truth: once to the woman who came to
the well of Sychar to draw water for her household (4:10-15)!
and once to the crowd at the Feast of Tabernacles when they
assembled at the temple for the ceremonial pouring of the
libation. To the Samaritan woman water was a physical
necessity which Jesus used as a picture of the satisfaction
for her spiritual dearth. She had vainly tried to compensate
for an empty life by emotional indulgence, and had gained
only discontentment and bitterness. Jesus offered her an un-
failing spring of joy, constantly pouring out refreshing life.
In contrast to the external religiosity which she had acquired
by hearsay, she could receive a spontaneous joy by believing
The symbol of the libation at the Feast of Tabernacles
memorialized God's provision for His people in the wilder-
ness. The ritual celebration had become an empty tradition
which conferred no individual spiritual potency. The pilgrims
went home from the feast without a consciousness of reality;
they were still "thirsty." To those who craved an inward
THE IMAGERY OF JOHN 17
sufficiency in place of an empty and unproductive life, Jesus
promised the gift of the Holy Spirit. Like the streams of
water that turn the empty watercourse into a powerful river,
and that make wasteland fruitful, the Spirit of God imparts
energy and usefulness to barren souls.
The metaphor of the bread of life was taken from the
feeding of the five thousand, which immediately preceded the
discourse in the synagogue of
the topic was restricted to this one occasion (6:31-35, 41, 48-
51, 58). Unlike the manna given by Moses, which afforded
temporary sustenance for the Israelites during the wandering
in the wilderness, Jesus asserted that He could impart eternal
life to those who partook of Him. By insisting that He must
be "eaten" (6 :53) He expanded the concept of belief. Bread
must not only be appropriated, but must be assimilated to
provide nutriment. In like fashion, He must participate in the
believer's life to make His vitality effective.
The Gospel of John contains no parables such as are found
in the Synoptics. There are only two extended metaphors that
resemble the teachings found in Matthew 13 and kindred
passages, the figures of the good shepherd and the true vine,
both of which deal with functions of Jesus' person rather than
with stories of others.
The likeness of the good shepherd depicts Jesus' authority.
He has the right to enter the fold at any time (John 10:2-3),
and He commands the attention of the sheep. They follow Him,
for they trust His leadership. In contrast to the thieves and
robbers, who represent enemies, and to the hirelings, who are
careless and selfish guardians, He is deeply concerned for the
safety of the flock, and lays down His life for them (10 :8-11).
Through this figure Jesus conveyed the concept of His atoning
work (10:11, 15). His death was not an accident, but a delib-
erate sacrifice to assure the defense and welfare of those
committed to His care by the Father. Although certain charac-
teristics of the sheep are mentioned, the primary purpose of
this imagery seems to be the explanation of the shepherd's
attitude and office. Both his compassion for them, and his
sovereignty over them are stressed.
Whereas the teaching on the good shepherd magnifies the
qualities and powers of the Master, the figure of the vine
18 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA January, 1964
places greater emphasis on the needs and responsibilities of
the disciples. The dominant position of Christ is stated in the
initial sentence, "I am the true [real] vine" (15:1). The
purity and vigor of the original stock is of prime importance,
for no vine can produce better fruit than its nature will create.
Christ is the ultimate source of the Christian life, since its
vitality and incentive are derived from Him. The greater part
of the discourse on the vine concerns the function of the dis-
ciples. In order to bear fruit they must maintain a direct
connection with the stock, which supplies their nourishment.
Dead wood, which can never be productive, and which may
harbor disease, must be removed, and even the live shoots
must be pruned in order that they may yield a larger crop.
The symbols of the shepherd and the vine summarize the
objective and subjective aspects of the Christian life. In the
parable of the good shepherd the prominent pronoun is "I,"
for the Lord is speaking of His work in guarding the sheep
whom the Father has committed to Him, and whom He has
purchased by the price of His own life. In the repeated asser-
tions, "I am the door . . .," "I know the Father," "I lay down
my life that I may take it again," "I have power to lay it down
and power to take it again," Jesus declared His competence
to effect the salvation of the disciples. He assumed sole re-
sponsibility for their welfare.
The discourse on the vine emphasies the duty of the
branches to maintain their union with the stem and to pro-
duce fruit in increasing quantity. By the use of the pronoun
"ye" the Lord taught the necessity of a conscious active rela-
tion with Him at all times, expressed in the verbs "abide" and
"keep" (my commandments). Fellowship and obedience, the
conditions of fruitfulness, must be fulfilled by the disciples
themselves. Without these qualities life is barren and useless.
Unlike the parables of the Synoptic Gospels which deal
with specific aspects of spiritual truth, such as prayer, the
growth of the
two Johannine parables are concerned with the general con-
cept of life in Christ. They embrace the totality of experience
by portraying Christ's redemption of the believer, and the
believer's service to Christ.
The physiological metaphors of birth, eating, and sleep
THE IMAGERY OF JOHN 19
cover the progression of Christian experience. The new birth
marks its beginning: "Except one be born anew, he cannot see
derived from the Holy Spirit, and granted in response to faith,
is the first step toward God. As one enters a human family
through birth, because life has been engendered by the par-
ents, so one enters the
imparted by the heavenly Father. Spiritual vitality is derived
from God, not developed by human initiative.
As already indicated above, the new life must be sustained
by "eating" Christ, which involves a constant feeding upon
Him as the bread of life (6:33). He becomes an integral part
of the believer's being, so that the elements of His personality
appear in the character of the Christian. As food sustains and
replenishes the tissues of the body, Christ renews the inward
spirit. The feeding is a constant process, for unless the spirit
is nourished continually, it will lose its vitality.
"Sleep" was Jesus' figure for the end of physical life, for
He announced the death of Lazarus by saying, "Our friend
Lazarus is fallen asleep; but I go, that I may awake him out
of sleep" (11:11). He regarded death as a temporary state
prior to a permanent awakening in the resurrection. While
His language denotes a cessation of communication by the
deceased person, it does not imply total unconsciousness nor
terminus of existence. "Sleep" describes death in terms of
appearance, not of reality, and as sleep presupposes an
awakening, so the death of a believer must be followed by a
return to life (John 11:25).
The last three important images in the Gospel are related
to the personal revelation of God. They are properly titles
rather than metaphors, yet the metaphorical sense underlying
them demands definition. "Father" was Jesus' favorite name
for God. "The Father" as a title of deity occurs 109 times;
"My Father," 22 times. The word connotes oneness of nature,
source of origin, intimacy of fellowship, and sovereign direc-
tion, while the phrase "My Father" predicates a unique rela-
tionship between Christ and God that human experience
cannot duplicate. The resultant picture of deity differs from
that of any other religion. God is a sovereign, but not a despot;
He is transcendent, but not impersonal; He is holy, but not
20 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA January, 1964
hostile to sinners. Jesus said, "The Father himself loveth you"
(16:27), and asserted that God would be the Father of be-
lievers as well as of Himself. The establishment of this rela-
tion occurs in the new birth, by which men enter into the
spiritual family of God, and realize the kinship which this
Gospel describes (1:12-13).
The relationship of Christ to the Father is expressed by
the phrase, "Son of God." At the outset of His ministry John
the Baptist introduced Him in this fashion (1:34), and in
every succeeding section of the Gospel the same title appears.
It was applied to Christ by two of His disciples, Nathanael,
who saluted Him as "Son of God and King of Israel" at their
first meeting (1:49), and by Martha in her confession of faith
before the raising of Lazarus (11:27). Jesus' authority to
raise the dead (5:25), His position as the chosen messenger
of God (10:36), and the assurance that He would respond to
the petitions of His disciples (14 :13) are founded on His son-
ship. The condemnation of his enemies (19:7) and the final
creed of the author (20:31) are both summarized in this
This sonship implied a community of nature surpassing
any ordinary human ties. Between Jesus and the Father there
existed a specially close bond of mutual understanding and
love. Jesus never spoke of "our Father" as if His status with
God were identical with that of others. In addressing Mary
Magdalene He said, "I ascend unto my Father and your
Father, and my God and your God" (20:17). To both Jesus
and Mary God was the same person, but the fatherhood of
God had a different meaning for Jesus than it had for Mary.
While it is true that all believers are "children of God" (1:12),
only Christ could rightfully be called "the Son."
"Son of Man" is applied to Christ as the expression of
perfect humanity. He may have drawn the title from the
Psalms where it is used generically of any member of the
human race: "What is man, that thou art mindful. of him? and
the son of man, that thou visitest him?" (Ps. 8:4). In the
Gospel the title is connected with Jesus' mediatorial work
because He represents men as one of their company. Because
He is truly human, He is qualified to be the messenger through
whom the needs of men are reported to God. Like the ladder
THE IMAGERY OF JOHN 21
in Jacob's dream at
between man and God (John 1:51), and He will ascend into
heaven as the Son of Man to bring humanity into the divine
presence (3:13; 6:62) .
In the capacity of Son of Man he imparts eternal life to
believers. His flesh and blood become meat and drink (6:27,
53) for those who are spiritually impoverished. Like a blood
transfusion which flows from, the healthy to the sick, the life
of Christ is transmitted to those who enter into vital contact
As the Son of Man he is "lifted up" (8:28; 12:23-34) on
the cross to achieve victory over the prince of this world and
to draw all men unto Himself. In this climactic act He is
"glorified" (13 :31), for He thus opens a way into the presence
of God, and establishes the right of others to follow Him
The imagery of John, though limited to certain concepts
and expressed in a fixed vocabulary, is integrated with the
total theme of the Gospel. It expresses the conflict of good
with evil, culminating in the incarnation and death of Christ,
who brought light into darkness, and, though He suffered
death, was not overcome by it. He revealed the person of the
Father, and showed how through the new birth believers
might become members of His family. Christian experience
is summed up in the metaphors of the vitalism of the new
birth, the security of the sheepfold, the productiveness of the
vine, the termination in the sleep of death that is only tempo--
rary because there will be an awakening in the resurrection.
The water of life and the bread of life are emblematic of
Christ's sufficiency for all needs. Through these pictorial
media the Gospel of John explains the meaning of eternal life.
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