Water of Life: Jesus, Temple, and Baptism in John 1-4

[This is an excerpt from a paper I wrote for Theopolis Institute. For the full paper, click here.]



The Fourth Gospel presents Jesus as the New Temple. John shows throughout his Gospel how Jesus fulfills and replaces the Old Covenant rites of purification, feasts, sacrifice, and sets himself up as the presence of God amidst humanity and the new center of the liturgical life of God’s people. The Temple was the place of God’s presence (Ps. 68:16); in it God “…chose to establish his name” (Deut. 16:2) and his glory (1 Kings 8:10-11).John establishes the Temple (or Tabernacle, in this case) theme in his prologue: “…the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us,” (1:14). Jesus entered into our humanity to be God’s presence with his people and to lift humanity up to God.

It is in the context of this Temple Christology that John presents the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. John gives his theology of the sacraments through the themes of water and meals which run throughout his gospel. He juxtaposes these themes with the cleansing and feasting rites of the Temple to show that Jesus is the intended fulfillment of the whole of the Old Covenant, particularly in his death and resurrection. Jesus’ teaching and signs are pointers to the cross, and the event of the death and resurrection continues in the life of the Church.

The sacramental references can, in some cases, be clear and direct or, in other cases, be more broad and thematic. I contend, though, that in most all of these cases, John’s use of water, bread, wine, and meals in general are intended to to be understood sacramentally. John presents Jesus as the New Temple, and the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist as the fulfillments of the Old Covenant rites. In this paper we will explore John’s sacramental theology in the context of Temple Christology primarily in the first four chapters of the Fourth Gospel.


Hermeneutical Considerations


The first issue to consider is one of hermeneutics: Is John’s language intended to be read symbolically in reference to the sacraments and life of the church, or merely in a straightforward fashion in reference to the historical events of the life of Jesus?

The early readers (or hearers) of the Gospels heard these symbols in a  context that was saturated with sacramental significance. That they might hear Jesus’ words about new birth by water and the Spirit, or of His flesh and blood as true food and drink, and not associate these with Baptism and the Eucharist seems very unlikely. Even the less direct instances, such as the wedding at Cana and feeding the five thousand, would likely bring the sacraments to mind in some degree.

John gives us a key to understanding his Gospel through his repeated references to the disciples remembering Jesus words and events after the Christ even. Oscar Cullmann, in Early Christian Worship, notes this theme of remembrance: “… the writer is constantly impressing on his readers that those who have seen all these events have grasped their true meaning only after Jesus’ death and resurrection.” These statements occur frequently in the Gospel: in chapter 2 John tells us that the disciples understood Jesus’ identification of his body with the Temple only after the resurrection (2:22); they understood the events of his entry into Jerusalem only after he was glorified (12:16); and Jesus tells Peter that understanding will come later while washing his feet (13:7).

The disciples cannot understand what Jesus is saying and doing because they need the help of the Holy Spirit. Jesus promises that he will send the Spirit, and “he will guide you into all truth” (16:13). The Spirit would open their eyes to the fullness of what took place in the life of Jesus.

If the disciples could not understand Jesus words and actions until after he was glorified and the Spirit was given, we ought not to suppose that the significance of the Fourth Gospel lies in the bare historical facts alone. It is only in the Spirit-formed community of the Church, in the liturgical context of the community of faith, that these things become clear. Oscar Cullmann, again, is insightful here. He points out the John’s Gospel is full of multiple layers of meaning. “…the Gospel of John indicates in so many places the necessity of a double meaning, that enquiry into the deeper unexpressed sense is to be raised, in this Gospel, to the status of a principle of interpretation.” In discussing signs in the context of the miracle at Cana, Cullmann presents a method for interpretation which we will employ throughout this paper: “… in a particular way the plain historical fact contains a reference to the Christ event which continues in the community of the Church.” The text of John’s Gospel, then, is to be read with three layers of meaning in view: the historical event described, the fulfillment of that event in the cross and resurrection of Christ, and the continuation of both the event and the Christ event in the life of the Church.

John establishes themes in his Gospel through use of symbolism. Craig Koester defines a symbol in John’s Gospel as “an image, an action, or a person that is understood to have transcendent significance.” Some of the common symbols in John are light, water, bread, and the vine. Koester distinguishes between “core symbols” and “supporting symbols”, the former occurring most frequently have holding the most significance in the narrative, while the latter occur alongside the core symbols but do not stand alone. “A recurring cluster of core and supporting images creates a motif (emphasis added). The recurrence of water imagery with the several effects it brings forms a baptismal motif in the early chapters of the Fourth Gospel, which we will now consider.

[…] For the rest of this paper, click here.


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