From its earliest history, the church has treasured and safeguarded
the fact that it has one Gospel in four editions--Matthew,
Mark, Luke, and John--four very different portraits
of Jesus to expand and enrich its reflection on his significance
for Christian life, faith, and renewal. Three of those Gospels,
for all their differences, are interrelated. Matthew, Mark,
and Luke share certain similarities in outline, contents,
order, and wording, and thus are called "synoptic"
(which means that they "see together"). John, however,
is in a class by itself. It has been aptly described as the maverick
Gospel, for its perspective runs free of those found in Matthew,
Mark, and Luke.
Moving from the Synoptic Gospels into the Gospel of John,
we enter a very different landscape. The scenery is not entirely
unfamiliar, because all four Gospels narrate events related to
the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Still, the Gospel of John is remarkably different from
the others in its ordering, selection, and interpretation of
the events; and most notably in its portrayal of Jesus, who speaks
and acts in a highly distinctive manner. We find that in John,
for example, Jesus is exceedingly verbal. He does not habitually
speak in brief sayings or parables, as in the other Gospels;
nor does he have much to say about the Kingdom of God or the
moral behavior expected of his followers. Instead, in unusually
extended dialogues, and occasionally in monologues, he talks
about himself. His divine identity is no secret, and he does
not urge silence on those who discern it. He speaks openly and
repeatedly about who he is and what his coming means for the
life of the world. In fact, he speaks far more than he acts,
and performs fewer wondrous works than in the other Gospels.
For all of these reasons and more, when we enter the Gospel
of John, we find ourselves in different surroundings--in
a Gospel with a unique perspective on the life and ministry of
As John's portrait of Jesus is unique, so also is its
portrayal of women. The Gospel of John is remarkable for
its intentional presentation of women as models of faith. They
have central roles to play in John's story of Jesus' life
and ministry, appearing at all the crucial places: they are present
at both the inaugural and concluding events of Jesus' public
ministry (John 2;19--20), and at pivotal moments in between
(John 4;11--12). One of the most intriguing aspects of
John is its utterly egalitarian view of the community
This Bible study will give special attention to the women
who appear in the Gospel of John and Jesus' relationship
to them. It will also provide an orientation to the Gospel
of John as a whole by engaging readers with other scenes,
images, and themes distinctive to John and central to
a grasp of its message. There is room for all to engage this
intriguing and beloved Gospel, whether one is new to Bible study
or a seasoned veteran. Its language is simple and elegant, yet
plumbs astonishing depths. John has been memorably, although
anonymously, described as "a book in which a child can wade
and an elephant can swim." Jump in!
Postscript: The Language of John
In recent years, many Christians have become increasingly
sensitized to the ways in which the words that roll off our tongues
can limit imagination and understanding of the divine presence
in our lives. The scriptures use myriad images in referring to
God, and it is clear when reading the Bible that God is above
and beyond human gender. Yet many in their prayer and praise
still speak of God in exclusively male terms, especially as "Father."
For those who are concerned about inclusive language, the
Gospel of John presents a dilemma in that it refers to
God as Father far more than any other New Testament document
(more than 100 times). There is no easy solution, but it may
help to understand the significance of this language. John's
point is not that God is male, but rather that God is
intimately related to us in Christ. As New Testament scholar
Gail O'Day has pointed out, "Father language in John
is essentially relational. . . . This language then is not the
language of patriarchy, but is instead the language of intimacy,
relationship, and family." It is used not to reinforce patterns
of male domination, "but in order to evoke a new world in
which intimate relations with God and one another are possible."4
For this reason, substituting God for Father is problematic,
for it runs the risk of obscuring the relational and familial
imagery that is central to John's understanding of what God has
made available to us in Christ. Some may wish to substitute the
word parent, others will not. My own decision has been to limit
the use of father language in my own commentary on the text and
retain it when quoting from the Bible. This is not an entirely
satisfactory solution, but it attempts to respect diversity within
a diverse church. Let us be patient with each other, and patient
also with the Gospel of John, so that we do not miss the
clarity with which it depicts the one who grants us power to
become children of God.
Suggestions for Leaders
Using Suggestions for Leaders
The Gospel of John contains some of the most beloved
passages in the New Testament. For that reason, many people often
cite it as their favorite among the Gospels. This study provides
an opportunity for a deeper understanding of the unique perspective
offered by this Gospel on the life and message of Jesus Christ.
Your challenge is to help your group use that deeper understanding
as a key to a richer and fuller commitment to the one who is
truly the light of the world. Approach this task prayerfully,
asking for God's guidance and help, as you seek to lead others
into this commitment. You have been given a precious treasure.
Each suggestions page contains five parts: Opening, Presenting
the Lesson, Exploring the Lesson, Applying the Lesson, and Closing.
You may not have time to use all of the suggestions, so choose
those which are most suitable for your group. It is important
to encourage participants to read both the lesson in the study
book and the suggested scripture references before each meeting.
All of the following segments appear in each of the nine lessons.
Begin each lesson with prayer asking for God's guidance. Lead
in prayer yourself or ask a member of the group to pray. Suggestions
for prayers are provided in this section.
It you choose to sing, it would be helpful to have taped music
of the hymns as accompaniment.
Presenting the Lesson
The purpose of this section is not only to examine the scripture,
but to experience it as vital and contemporary. A variety of
ideas are offered for presenting the scripture material: reading
aloud, pantomime, dramatized reading of scripture, silent reading.
Exploring the Lesson
This is a time to reflect on some of the deeper meanings of
the scripture, by probing difficult passages and discussing the
information given in the study. Various methods are suggested,
such as picture study.
Applying the Lesson
What does it mean for us? This is a key question in Bible
study. How do we connect our stories and The Story? Suggestions
are given for exercises, questions, and activities to make the
lesson come alive for each participant.
Allow time for an unrushed and worshipful close to the lesson,
using prayer, creative summaries and song.
The Word Became Flesh--
Jesus' incarnation makes possible
for us a new
The Incarnation of Jesus
and intimate relationship with God.
The Gospel of John's distinctive landscape emerges in its
opening verses. Entering it, we find that we are not at the banks
of the river Jordan where Mark begins with the story of
the adult Jesus' baptism (Mark 1). Neither are we in Bethlehem
years earlier in the company of Luke's shepherds or Matthew's
magi, pondering the birth of the holy child (Matt. 1--2; Luke
1--2). John pushes the beginning of the story back further
still, transporting us to the dawn of time. We have stepped onto
a cosmic plane. Fortunately, a road map is provided for our travel-a
hymnic prologue (1:1--18) that becomes a lens through
which John's entire Gospel is to be read.
"In the Beginning Was the Word . . ."
"In the beginning," God created the heavens and
the earth by uttering a word (Gen. 1:1--3). John's
opening verses take us back to that beginning and give a glimpse
behind the curtains of creation: "In the beginning was the
Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was
in the beginning with God" (1:1--2). From the outset,
we are given to understand that we have entered a Gospel narrative
of cosmic scope and significance. Although it will be the story
of a human being in history, at the same time, it will be the
story of one who comes from beyond the world and from the beginning
of all existence--the story of one who preexisted with
God before creation. That eternal one, referred to as the Word
(Logos in Greek) was distinct from God and in communion
"with God," yet also identified with God ("was
God"). This profound mystery, which is confessed rather
than explained, gives expression to the early Christian community's
ever-deepening reflection on the absolute significance of Jesus
Christ: "Christ is so important that he could not have come
into being like any other person or object."
Thereupon follows another affirmation that is equally profound:
"All things came into being through him, and without him
not one thing came into being" (1:3). In other words,
the preexistent Christ/Word is the agent of divine creation as
well as redemption. Surely this affirmation, too, arises from
early Christian conviction about the absolute significance of
Christ for human life: "So fundamental to the sense and
purpose of existence is the revelation in Christ that he must
be conceived as the shaping force in the very beginning of existence!"
Moreover, it has implications for Christian understanding of
the world and salvation. We can hardly think of the world as
evil, either by origin or nature, for "All things came into
being through him." Nor can salvation be envisioned as escape
from the world. As commentator Fred Craddock explains: "To
think of salvation as basically escape from this world of people
and things is to turn one's back on that which God, through Christ,
has created. To have a view of salvation that does not embrace
all that God created is too small and partial."
Thus begins the Gospel of John--with heady theological
affirmations. But John is not primarily concerned with
philosophical speculation. The thing that matters most is what
the Word means for our lives and for the life of the world. Why?
Because "What has come into being in him was life"
(v. 4)--the life God intended for us at the very beginning
of creation. Hence, that "life was the light of all people"
(v. 4)--illumining the meaning and purpose of our lives
in relationship to God. Though our travel with John begins
on a cosmic plane, we are promptly brought down to the realm
of human history (see v. 10), where "the Word became
flesh and lived among us" (v. 14). There, in the
midst of everyday human reality, the light continues to this
day to shine, for "the darkness did not overcome it"
"And the Word Became Flesh and Lived Among Us . . ."
The Gospel of John is almost unique in the New Testament
in referring to Jesus as the Word. In a day when we find ourselves
bombarded with words--literally up to our ears in junk-mail,
e-mail, and advertising jingles--we may underrate the significance
of words. But this was not so in the first century when words
bore sacred power. Readers of John who were familiar with
the Hebrew scriptures, would surely have associated the "word
of the Lord" as both the power of God that called creation
into being and the message of God for the human community conveyed
by Israel's prophets.
This is the staggering claim of John's prologue: the
Word has become a person! The eternal one, who is the very self-expression
of God, fulfills that function by taking on human flesh: "The
Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth"
(v. 14). This emphatic affirmation is the hub of John's
prologue and the New Testament's boldest expression of Christ's
incarnation. It is also at the heart of John's maverick perspective--a
difference that may be illustrated in graphic form. If we were
to graph the Synoptic Gospels, we would do so horizontally, for
Matthew, Mark, and Luke share a horizontal view
of God's saving activity:
creation prophets John the Baptist Jesus
According to the synoptic presentation, God works in and through
history, guiding the world toward a goal. John's Gospel
shares aspects of this point of view since it insists that the
Word became flesh in history. But by and large, we would have
to graph the Gospel of John vertically, for it sets forth
the descent and ascent of the cosmic Savior:
Gospel of John
The eternal Word, which became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth,
had a previous life with God before he came below--a life that
he manifests in human history. Then, at the end of his earthly
career, he returns from whence he came. His cross is referred
to as the moment in which he is "lifted up" from the
earth (3:14; 8:28; 12:32--34)--the moment in which he
departs from the world and returns to God and to the glory that
was his before creation.
A fascinating image in John 1:14 further illustrates
this distinctive perspective, though it is often lost in English
translation. Most translations convey that the Word became flesh
and "lived" or "dwelt" among us when, in
fact, the Greek verb employed (eskenosen) is much more
graphic. The Word quite literally "pitched a tent"
among us--the Word "camped out" among us. This striking
image is significant on two counts. For one thing, it conveys
that the Word's residence in the world is temporary--he is on
a journey. We are to keep in mind where he came from and where
he is going. For another thing, the image calls to mind the tent
or tabernacle in which God's glory was present with the Israelites
in their wilderness wanderings, long before there was a temple.
For John, the implication is plain: Jesus is now the place
where God is manifested to humanity, where God's glory is revealed.
"The Word became flesh and 'camped out' among us, and
we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son,
full of grace and truth" (v. 14). What does this
bold affirmation of incarnation mean for our lives and the life
of the world? It means that "human beings can see, hear,
and know God in ways never before possible"--they are given
"intimate, palpable, corporeal access to the cosmic reality
of God." Who among us has not longed for such access--for
a glimpse of the divine--one little peek at God! The disciple
named Philip voices this desire for all of us at a later point
in the Gospel of John when he says to Jesus, "Lord,
show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied" (14:8).
Jesus' response is this: Look at me. "Whoever has seen me
has seen the Father" (14:9). The prologue concludes
on this same note: "No one has ever seen God. It is God
the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made
him known" (1:18). Therein lies the Fourth Gospel's
central claim, elaborated on every page: Jesus is the fleshed-out
truth about God!
The incarnation and the new access to divine reality that
it provides are significant in one further respect: it makes
possible a new relationship with God. On the one hand, the incarnation
binds God to us. God did not stay distant from us, but chose
to live with us, to know our struggles and to identify with us
completely: "To become flesh is to know joy, pain, suffering,
and loss. It is to love, to grieve, and someday to die."
In the incarnation, God's own self has been bound to everyday
human experience. On the other hand, the incarnation binds us
to God and to each other in a new and intimate relationship as
God's own children. In John's view, this story has a tragic dimension.
Not all will receive Jesus as the revelation of God's own self
or accept the gift of life he offers (see vs. 10--11).
"But to all who received him, who believed in his name,
he gave power to become children of God" (v. 12).
John is convinced that everyone longs for an intimate relationship
with God. In fact, it is significant that the first words out
of Jesus' mouth in the Gospel of John are these: "What
are you looking for?" (1:38; see also 20:15).
This central question of invitation is asked of every one of
us who enters John's story calling us to discern and articulate
our deepest longings. St. Augustine once expressed much the same
sentiment when he prayed: "You have made us for yourself,
O God, and our hearts are restless still, until they rest in
you." Jesus' words of invitation summon us to travel further
into John's story in order to grasp more fully the light and
life he offers. Now equipped with a roadmap, a lens with which
to read everything that follows, let us take Jesus up on a second
invitation, uttered on the heels of the first: "Come and
- For many John is the most beloved of the Gospels. Would you
describe it as your favorite Gospel? Why, or why not? What stories
or passages in it are your favorites?
- John highlights Christ's divinity, but also insists on Christ's
humanity. Which presents the greater challenge to contemporary
Christian faith? Why?
- John is filled with intriguing word plays. One appears in
verse 5: the Greek verb katalambanõ can mean to
overcome, but also to comprehend. Thus, the darkness did not
overcome the light, or, perhaps, it did not comprehend it. Both
translations are acceptable. Which do you prefer and why?
- "What are you looking for?" Imagine a reporter
asking this question of passersby on the street. What responses
do you think might be given? What would be your response about
your own deepest longings?
- What new insights have emerged from your study of John's
O God, our hearts are restless
until they find their rest in you.
Bless our study of John's witness
to the One who brings us
face-to-face with your glory.
Open our minds and hearts
to your Word and to each other,
that we may know ourselves to be
your children, and sisters and brothers
in Christ. Amen.
Suggestions for Leaders
Ahead of Time
Pray for God's guidance as you study the lesson and make your
plans for leading the discussion. Read the entire lesson and
all of the scripture references. Decide which of the questions
are most appropriate for your group. Do not feel obligated to
follow the suggestions given below but choose those which will
work best in your situation. Keep your group in mind as you pray
- Pictures of the nativity of Jesus (Christmas cards, fine
art prints, Bible storybooks, etc.). Provide enough so that each
person will have one.
- Hymnals or songbooks with the words of the songs you will
use. A tape of the music will also be helpful.
- Copies of John (1:1--18) for the unison reading, so
that all will have the same translation.
- Begin with this prayer or use one of your own:
Light of the world,
You came into the world and
the world refused to accept you.
Often, we, too, refuse to let
your light shine in our hearts and lives.
Forgive us, renew us, and give us power to become the children
of God in word and deed. Amen.
- Sing the third verse of "Silent Night, Holy Night,"
Presenting the Lesson
- State the key idea for the lesson.
- Give a brief overview of the Gospel of John, using
information from the Introduction
- Share responses to question 1 of the study.
- Read in unison The Prologue of John (1:1--18) using
copies you have prepared.
- Ask the group members to repeat aloud the phrases in the
passage that are most meaningful to them.
Exploring the Lesson
- Discuss the charts in the study. What is the difference in
the view of God's saving activity found in the Synoptic Gospels
and in John?
- Give one of the nativity pictures to each participant. Ask
participants to share with the group how the picture shows the
divinity and/or the humanity of Christ. Discuss question 2 of
- Often the original languages of the Bible contain word plays
that are not easily translated. An example is found in verse
5. Discuss question 3 of the study.
Applying the Lesson
- Discuss this question: What do we learn from John 1:1--18
about Jesus' relationship with God that can sustain us in our
- The author of the study states that John believes that every
one of us longs for an intimate relationship with God. Jesus'
first words in the Gospel are "What are you looking for?"
How would you answer this? What are your deepest longings?
- What steps can we take to share "the light that is the
light of all people" (verse 4) in our own communities?
With the world?
- What new insights have emerged from your study of the prologue
- Sing the third verse of "O Little Town of Bethlehem,"
- Ask for prayer requests and close with the prayer at the
end of Lesson One, or with a prayer of your own.
About the Authors
Frances Taylor Gench is professor of New Testament
at Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian
Education in Richmond, Virginia. Prior to joining the Union PSCE
faculty in 1999, she taught for thirteen years at the Lutheran
Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. She is a graduate
of Davidson College in North Carolina (B.A.), and of Union Theological
Seminary in Virginia (now Union-PSCE, M.Div., Ph.D.).
Born in Bristol, Virginia, Frances grew up in Nashville, Tennessee,
and Atlanta. She currently resides in Baltimore, and is parish
associate at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church,
where her husband, Roger J. Gench, is the pastor. Frances has
served on the Presbyteries' Cooperative Committee of the General
Assembly, and authored the 1992--1993 Horizons Bible study, James
and the Integrity of Faith. She is also the author of Hebrews
and James in the Westminster Bible Companion series
(Louisville: Westminster John Knox press, 1996).
Sara Covin Juengst is a minister in the Presbyterian
Church (U.S.A.) and a certified Christian educator. She has served
as a local church educator, overseas missionary, campus minister,
General Assembly staff associate, and director of continuing
education at Columbia Theological Seminary. She is a frequent
speaker and workshop leader at Presbyterian gatherings.
Sara is currently the supply pastor of the Lincolnton Presbyterian
Church and is the author of numerous articles and curriculum
pieces. She has published eight books, including Breaking
Bread, Sharing Faith with Children, Like a Garden, and
Equipping the Saints: Teacher Training in the Church. In
1996 she wrote the Horizons Bible study for Presbyterian
Women, Encounters with Jesus: The Gospel According to Matthew,
and won an Award of Excellence from the Associated Church Press.
In 1994 Sara was presented with an honorary doctor of divinity
degree by Presbyterian College in recognition of her years of
service to the church and, in 1996, she was given a Life Achievement
Award by the Association of Presbyterian Christian Educators,
honoring her contributions to the field of Christian Education.
She and her husband, Dan, live in Willington, South Carolina.
They have four grown children and eight grandchildren.
About the Artist
Born in the North Indian village of Azamgarh, Frank Wesley
is a contemporary Indian artist and "respected guru"
in the community of Christian artists in Asia. He held his first
exhibition at the age of 12, and in 1947 his Blue Madonna was
used on the first UNICEF Christmas card. When Mahatma Gandhi
was assassinated, the government held a competition for the design
to be used on the urn that would hold his ashes and Frank's design
was chosen for this honor. In spite of such accomplishments,
Frank Wesley did not voluntarily sign any of his works until
after the death of his master teacher in 1973, considering all
he did to be attributed to his teacher.
Frank uses light from the person of Christ or the presence
of God to illuminate his paintings. He concentrates his thought
and prayer into the expression of biblical images, drawing on
the variety of artistic styles he has developed over the years.
Most of the art selected for use in this Bible study comes from
the book Frank Wesley: Exploring Faith with a Brush by
Naomi Wray (Auckland, New Zealand: Pace Publishing, 1993).
Women and the Word: Studies in the Gospel of John
English Large Print, HZN-00-150, $12.00
Spanish, HZN-00-110, $4.00
Korean, HZN-00-120, $4.00
Arabic, HZN-01-125, $4.00
Bulletin Covers (pkg; of 100), HZN-00-170, $6.90
Audiocassette, HZN-00-180, $8.00
To order this Bible study call 800-524-2612
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