Bibliotheca Sacra 121 (Jan. 1964) 13-21.

Copyright 1964 by Dallas Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.





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.




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 Bethany, and His disciples warned Him that

He would jeopardize His life by appearing in the environs of

Jerusalem. They assumed that He was ignorant of the true

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

goeth" (12:35).

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

in Him.

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




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 Capernaum. The discussion 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 kingdom of God and the final judgment, these

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




cover the progression of Christian experience. The new birth

marks its beginning: "Except one be born anew, he cannot see

the kingdom of God" (3:3). The initial impartation of life,

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 kingdom of God because of a new nature

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



in Jacob's dream at Bethel (Gen. 28:22), He is the bridge

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

with Him.

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

(17:1-2, 24).

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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