Beckett: Review – Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel

Author: Craig R. Koester
Publisher: Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review

One of the factours that sets the Gospel of John apart from the Synoptics is the evangelist’s extensive use of symbolism: light vs. darkness, belief vs. unbelief, knowing God (through Jesus) vs. not knowing God, water, bread, and others. Koester’s Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel presents an impressively detailed explication of these symbolic motifs indicative of John’s Gospel. The question John aims to answer is: How do people know God? Koester pedantically details John’s presentation of who God is through Jesus as the light of the world in a way that is enlightening to the reader (pun intended), as well as with a certain grain of salt.

John’s Gospel presents Jesus as one who addresses people who do not know God, have never heard God’s voice, and have never seen God (5:37; 7:28; 8:19). Contrary to the pagan setting in which Jesus came, and even contrary to much of mainline Christianity’s thinking, human creatures cannot approach God of their own volition to know Him. Therefore, God must make Himself known, which He does through Jesus.

In this way, Jesus is the light of the world (1:4) as the one who enlightens people with the knowledge of who God is in Jesus’ own personhood and speaking; but at the same time, the light of Christ may further blind people just as one can become blind by looking too long at the sun. Just as the sun gives light in the darkness and can blind someone when stared at for too long, so Jesus also gives light in the darkness (who God is) and can cause further blindness to someone (remaining in unbelief despite Jesus’ display of Godhood, e.g. 9:39b-41 when the Pharisees still did not believe when Jesus healed a blind man on the Sabbath).

Koester defines a symbol as “an image, an action, or a person that is understood to have transcendent significance” and are “things that can be perceived by the senses, such as light and darkness, water, bread, a door, a shepherd, and a vine” (p. 4). John utilises these symbols Jesus both performs and speaks to present to the readers of the Gospel who God is, particularly revealed in Jesus Christ.

Throughout his book, Koester delineates what he calls “core symbols” and “supporting symbols.” He writes, “Core symbols occur most often, in the most significant contexts in the narrative, and contribute most to the Gospel’s message” (p. 5). For example, the first core symbol we come across in the Gospel is John’s presentation of Jesus as “the light of the world” (1:9; 3:19; 8:12; 9:5; 12:46). This is a core symbol that appears frequently throughout the Gospel and is fundamental to understanding who God is in Jesus.

Supporting symbols, as the name might suggest, “help to reveal the significance of the core symbols” (p. 6). For example, Nicodemus speaking to Jesus can be understood as a supporting symbol of those living in darkness, that is, those who are “in the dark” about who Jesus is and lack understanding. Koester details this more fully, but it should suffice to say that when Nicodemus approaches Jesus alone, he uses the first person plural, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (3:2), therefore representing (symbolically) those who have not been enlightened by Jesus’ light.

A caveat on these supporting symbols: The reader must be careful not to read too much into these symbols lest they begin allegorising the text, but more on that later.

Some Helpful Things from Koester

Several times, Koester provides further historical background to particular events in the Gospel that are extremely helpful. One such event is Jesus’ cleansing of the temple in 2:13-25. Preachers often and erroneously preach on this as an example of Jesus’ righteous anger that is an example of “human” righteous anger for us, but this is an erroneous interpretation of the text (see Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs’ “The Myth of Righteous Anger” for more). The historical significance of this event is vital for Christians for an entirely different and more wholesome reason, as Koester writes:

First, the text suggests that the function of sacrifice, which was integral to the temple, is fulfilled by Jesus. The animals and birds mentioned in 2:14 were prescribed by the Levitical code for sacrifices used for atonement and purification (Lev 1:3-17). Because transporting livestock was difficult, pilgrims regularly purchased animals for sacrifice when they arrived in Jerusalem. The daily sacrifices made on behalf of all Israel were paid for by the half-shekel tax levied on all Jews, and the money changers in the temple provided proper coinage to facilitate payment of this tax (Exod 30:11-16). By temporarily disrupting the trade necessary for sacrifice, Jesus foreshadowed the permanent cessation of sacrificial worship in Jerusalem and its replacement by his own death. His action took place during the Feast of Passover, when lambs were slain to commemorate Israel’s deliverance from death and bondage; Jesus would be crucified at Passover two years later as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29).

pp. 87-88, emphases mine

Did Jesus exercise righteous anger here? Certainly, for His Father’s house was being desecrated. Is this an example of human righteous anger? Absolutely not, for the text does not deal with how humans are to properly exercise anger but, as Koester delineates, to foreshadow the atonement Jesus would make once for all (cf. Hebrews 10:1-18).

Understood this way, Jesus’ substitutionary atonement implicit in this section of John’s Gospel makes for much better preaching than “human righteous anger.” Rather than inappropriately allegorising the text, with Koester’s helpful commentary the pastor can properly preach on the salvific significance of the text and, indeed, the symbol of Jesus’ actions foreshadowing His substitutionary atonement.

One other helpful point of agreement with Koester is understanding why the Jews condemn Jesus as a blasphemer although Jesus defends Himself against such false claims. One such case is the historical backdrop of the Festival of Dedication (aka Hanukkah) in which Jesus says, “I and the Father are one,” after which the crowd prepares to stone Him for blasphemy (10:30-31). Koester writes:

In the traditions surrounding the Festival of Dedication, the blasphemer Antiochus Epiphanes had arrogated divine prerogatives for himself and had been violently opposed by the faithful (2 Macc 9:12). Jesus’ comments seemed to place him in the category of a blasphemer who should be resisted. Jesus’ response, like his discourse in John 5:19-30, attempted to show that his claim was not the blasphemous attempt of a human being to exalt himself to divine status but the opposite. Jesus insisted that he had come from God and was carrying out the work of God in unity with God’s own purposes.

p. 115

In other words, here as in 5:19-30, Jesus makes clear that He was not a mere human elevating Himself to Godhood. Rather, Jesus, who is God, lowered Himself to humanity.

What I Learnt from Koester

One interesting consideration I learnt from Koester was a new, supplemental understanding of what Jesus did on the cross, particularly Christus victor. According to the Christus victor view of the cross, we properly understand Jesus as conquering the Devil, especially in view of the proto evangelium (first Gospel promise) in Genesis 3:15 as Christ crushes the serpent’s head on the cross. The newly learnt view of the cross I gained from Koester is viewing it as Jesus’ final act of exorcism. Koester notes interestingly:

John’s Gospel mentions no exorcisms among the actions that Jesus performed during his public ministry, which sets it apart from the other Gospels, in which Jesus is frequently said to “cast out” (ekballein) demons from those who are possessed. Instead, John concentrates attention on Jesus’ passion, where the power of God will be revealed in order to “cast out” (ekballein) the ruler of the world by using divine love as a weapon against demonic hatred, divine truth against the world’s falsehood, and the power of life as the force that overcomes death.

p. 126

Jesus alludes to the Devil as being the ruler of this world, though he has no power over Jesus (14:30). Miraculously and unfathomably, by dying for the world, Jesus at the same time casts out (exorcises) the Devil from this world.

At the same time, however, this understanding can become problematic concerning other Scriptures. Some years later after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, Peter exhorts his hearers, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8), which both the Greek grammar and the exhortation itself suggests is a continuous action of the Devil. So, if Jesus “cast out” the Devil by His crucifixion, how can it be that the Devil still prowls around like a roaring lion in the world seeking someone to devour?

From this first reading of Jesus’ crucifixion as exorcism, it becomes difficult to understand it that way. A second reading might be helpful, which is Jesus’ crucifixion casting out the Devil’s rule over the world. This would seem to be the case considering Jesus’ closing words in Matthew’s Gospel post-resurrection, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me” (Matthew 28:18).

Still, however, even this understanding becomes problematic. If Jesus did not have authority over the earth until after His death and resurrection, does this mean that Jesus (= God) did not have authority over His creation until Jesus’ death? This would seem to conflict with the Hebrew Scriptures’ presentation of God’s sovereignty.

Perhaps a third and final understanding of this is even better, then. Perhaps, by faith in what Jesus did and who Jesus is on the cross, the exorcism He performs on the cross is casting out the Devil from those who believe in Christ.

John’s prologue presents the light coming into a world of darkness, and “the darkness has not overcome it” (1:5). Throughout John’s Gospel, we understand the Devil to be the agent of darkness, which, more concretely, consists of sin and evil that are manifestations of human rebellion against God (pp. 143-144). Thus, “those who believe in the light and become ‘children of the light’ [12:36] know where they are going and are saved from the powers of darkness for life with God” (p. 166). When a human believes in Christ, His light casts the darkness out of him and, therefore, the Devil. I believe this third understanding of Christ’s crucifixion as exorcism of the Devil to be far more helpful and congruent with the entirety of the Scriptures.

One final and somewhat humourous thing I learnt is the irony of Caiaphas’ words in 11:50. As the Jews once again began to plot to kill Jesus, Caiaphas says, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” As Koester comments, “Executing Jesus would eliminate the threat of Roman military action against the movement that the miracle-worker seemed to be generating. To prevent people from dying at the hands of the Romans, the chief priests determine to kill the one who raises the dead” (p. 123).

The humourous irony in the Jews’ effort to kill Jesus so that the nation of Israel might be saved from Rome is that in succeeding to kill Him, Jesus’ death saves Israel not from the forces of man but from the forces of sin, death, and the Devil! A further irony is that the Romans did advance against the Jews not for Jesus’ threat against Rome and its Emperor but against the Jews’ revolt, which was crushed in AD 70 decades later after Jesus’ death and resurrection! Thus, the Jews’ efforts to rid of Jesus for the supposed preservation of Israel was altogether feckless.

Critiques

At the beginning of this review, I mentioned how the reader of John’s Gospel needs to be careful with supporting symbols lest he or she allegorises a text. Koester does such erroneous allegorising on several occasions.

One of these is his commentary on John 11, the death of Lazarus. While the funeral customs of the Jews he covers on page 118 is extremely helpful, he gives a faulty allegory on Mary and Martha. Koester says, “The story of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus correlates well with the consternation felt by various Christian groups when believers died during Christ’s apparent absence (1 Thess 4:13-18)” and, therefore, Martha and Mary represent “two faces of grief” (pp. 65-66). While it may be true that the reader may share a similar experience and grief to the two sisters, is this the narrative’s purpose in its description of Martha and Mary? I do not think this is the case.

He puts forth other allegories whenever night and day appear in the text. For example, when Judas betrays Jesus and He meets the armed guards at night who are carrying torches, Koester says, “These sources of artificial light in the hands of Jesus’ adversaries could, perhaps, be understood as pathetic substitutes for the true light.” It is far more likely that they were carrying torches because, well, it was nighttime. However, he does say, “yet making Jesus’ advarsaries into bearers of light would be a twist not found elsewhere in the Gospel” (p. 165). Since this is not clearly the case, why even bring it up?

A time when he fails to acknowledge the impossibility of such night vs. day allegorising, however, is when he argues Nicodemus’ coming to Jesus during the night is symbolic of living in darkness, which is directly juxtaposed with the Samaritan woman of the well that occurs during the day, who is brought to faith (brought out of darkness into light). Are these truly symbols of being in the light and dark or is it more likely—and far more simple—that these are simply the times of day at which the events took place?

Koester’s treatment of the events taking place at night and day remind me of literary analysis while I was studying creative writing in college before I made the switch to Christian thought. I cannot recall whether it was a poem or a short story, but we had read a literary piece that described curtains as blue. Some interpreters said the blue curtains symbolised depression or melancholy. Others argued the author described them as blue simply because he/she wanted them to be blue. Objective analysis seemed to suggest the latter was truer than the former. As a poet and short story writer myself, I often choose a colour for an object simply because that’s how I imagine its colour to be rather than a deeper, symbolic meaning.

In the same way, is John the evangelist truly suggesting symbolic imagery with the events taking place at night and day or is it more likely and simpler that these are merely the times of day the events took place? I am privy to the latter, as the former tends to fall into false allegory.

One final and brief critique: Koester unnecessarily repeats himself frequently throughout the book, stating previously said points over and over again. These comments are equally superfluous as they are annoying.

Bottom Line

As I said at the beginning of this review, Koester’s presentation of the symbolism in John’s Gospel is enlightening, and the grain of salt it should be read with is the cognisance that Koester has a habit toward false allegories. I would not recommend the allegories for preaching and teaching, but the remaining material addressed in the book are extremely edifying and helpful to the reader. I have placed this book alongside my other Gospel of John commentaries for my sermon and Bible study preparations, and I recommend every pastor to do the same.

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