Circular* Reasoning in John


The Johannine books (John; I,II, III John) share a number of characteristics in style.  This is why John the Apostle was held until modern times as the author of all of them.  Of course there are as many other theories as there are scholarly treatises on that.

I’ve been struggling in John’s Gospel with the discourse sections.  There are two that are fairly easy to track: John 3 with Nicodemus, and John 4 with the Woman of Samaria.  But the discourses in chapter 5 Miracle at Bethesda; Chapter 6, Feeding the 5000; Chapter 7, at the Festival of Booths; John 8; John 9 with the healing of the man born blind are all more difficult.

Even the discourse in chapter 4 is rambling – Jesus and the woman talk about water and worship and the holy spirit before all is done.

I’ve struggles to make sense of the shape of these discourses.  They seem to ramble or on occasions bounce between Jesus and some opponent or opponents.  So there is no neat or linear way to represent the discussion.  You know that outline method you learned in school? throw it out!

In desperation I went to my library.  There I found a book I had not spent much time with.  “John: Evangelist & Interpreter” by Stephen S. Smalley.  Smalley made some helpful observations. In the “first act” of John, there are a number of sign/miracles which are followed by discourses.  He describes their structure as being “spiral” in nature.

“John…structures his discourse material so as to advance his subject, almost in spiral fashion, through a series of dramatic disclosures towards a climax.” p. 147

So we have this: a sign/miracle followed by a discourse or disputation with Jesus and another party or parties. The theme of the discourse tends to be repeated in some way in each division in the discourse.

In John 9, the man blind from birth is healed by Jesus who anoints his eyes with mud and asks him to go and wash.

Then there these sub sections, each one except the concluding two repeating something about the man born blind: (p. 143)

  • v. 8-12 Man and Neighbors
  • v. 13-17 man and Pharisees
  • v. 18-23 Man’s parents  and “Jews” (i.e. Authorities)
  • v. 24-34 Man and “Jews”
  • v. 35-38 Jesus and Man
  • v. 39-41 Jesus and Pharisees

The last two parts leave to two conclusions: The man comes to believe in Jesus as the Son of Man and even worships him.  the Pharisees reject Jesus as a sinner because he healed the man on the Sabbath.

Through this we have woven themes of sin (was the man or his parents responsible for his blindness, Did Jesus sin by breaking the Sabbath, are the Pharisees sinners for rejecting Jesus?) and blindness (the man’s physical blindness which is cured, his spiritual insight. the Pharisees who see Jesus’ works but are blind to his light.)

“For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind”  v. 39

*This is misnamed “circular reasoning” because a circle returns on itself. A spiral however is circular but it also moves from beginning to end.  One has to hang with all the turns and not get lost.

I am still figuring out how to preach such a passage.


One at a time: Reading about Jesus, Judas and Peter in John

JohnThe temptation is to always read the gospels together.  There is nothing wrong with that, and much to be gained by seeing side by side how each Gospel tells a story. However, we can miss their distinct voices if we only read in parallel or harmony.

So while riding the bike that goes nowhere at the gym, I was looking again at the text.  This is by the way a good place to study because there are fewer interruptions at the gym than at the office.

What I saw was that there is in John 18 an interplay between Jesus, Judas and Peter.

In John 13, the foot washing passage  when Peter said, “wash all of me” Jesus said that had all been bathed (forgiven) except for one (Judas – John 13:11).Shortly thereafter Jesus predicts his betrayal, and Judas leaves (v. 18ff). Immediately after that there is a discussion between Jesus and Peter where Peter says, “I will lay down my life for you” and Jesus answered, “Will you really…?” and predicts Peter’s triple denial.

In John 17, Jesus was praying for the disciples and said, “None of them has been lost except the one doomed to destruction…” (17:12)

In John 18 there is a comparison set up.  In 18:1-12, Jesus seems to initiate his arrest. As the soldiers came with Judas to the garden, he went them.  At the same time he sought to defend his followers from trouble (v. 8)  This was so “the words he had spoken would be fulfilled, ‘I have not lost one of those you gave me.'” (v. 9)

Then Peter draws a sword – fulfilling his own imagined role as hero and defender.  Jesus rebuked him.  Then follows Jesus arrest.  Verses 15-17 alternate between Jesus defense before Annas and Caiaphas and Peter’s denials.

  • Jesus and Annas – v. 12-14
  • Peter and his first denial v. 15-18
  • Jesus at Caiaphas – v. 19-24
  • Peter and his second and third denials – v. 25-27

In the center of all of this – and while Jesus himself is under trial and death looms – he shows concern not to lose any of those who have been given to him.  Highlighting his own obedience vs the weakness of Peter and the lack of faith of Judas.

Peter appears again at Easter, at the report of the empty tomb, he and John race to the tomb.  In chapter 21 there is an encounter between the Lord and Peter where the three-fold denial is made a three-fold affirmation.

The question is not for us, “Am I to imitate Jesus?” because he stands when all fall away.  It is rather “Am I his or not?”  John’s gospel emphasizes that the connection to Christ must be by belief – and that alone explains the difference between Peter and Judas.

John Calls his Witnesses


There is a theme about witnesses in John.  And as I wandered through a rather dry space in an analytically commentary (check the link to Commentary Soup) I found this bit:  There are 10 Witnesses to Jesus in the Gospel (Talbert, Reading John, p. 217)

  1. John the Baptist – 1:7,8,15,19,32,34; 3:26; 5:33
  2. Jesus – 5:31; 18:13-14
  3. His Works – 5:36; 10:25
  4. The Scriptures – 5:39
  5. The Father – 5:37, 8:18
  6. The Samaritan Woman – 4:39
  7. The Crowd – 12:17
  8. The Paraclete (Holy Spirit) – 15:27
  9. The Beloved Disciple – 19:35; 21:24
  10. The Disciples- 15:26

John 8:12-18 – ESV –  12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” 13 So the Pharisees said to him, “You are bearing witness about yourself; your testimony is not true.” 14 Jesus answered, “Even if I do bear witness about myself, my testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. 15 You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one. 16 Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me. 17 In your Law it is written that the testimony of two people is true. 18 I am the one who bears witness about myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness about me.”

John 15 – syntactical analysis

I attach my worksheet – it is easy on the computer to plug in the text and then to use indentions or notations (ABCC’B’A’ – for example) to lay out the text.  This is largely from Raymond Brown in the Anchor Bible Series, vol 29a  with an assist by Charles Talbert in Reading John.

I will use arrows sometimes to show relatinships of sub clauses to major clauses.  but the indentions themselves show the “shape” of the text.

John 15 syntactical

Commentary Soup

give it time

give it time

So it is a funny thing.

I like to find the academic commentaries  from the UW library, which slice, dice and analyze the biblical text.   I don’t agree with the frequent theorizing about editors, redactors, schools and emendations that they do suggest.   Also there is very little of pastoral value – that is, what can help the people keep the word.  But for analyzing the text itself, these kinds of books, typified by the Anchor Bible series are very helpful.  My motto: take what I can, leave the rest.  This is for me the soup stock.

In the case of John’s gospel, the Anchor volumes are very helpful for the ebb and flow of the book. Raymond Brown suggests that the first 12 chapters really have to do with Jesus interactions with the major festivals of the Jewish calendar.   I found that the book Reading John, by Charles Talbert does a nice job of literary analysis.  Neither of these books are that helpful on connection to life.

I like to peruse the classic evangelical commentaries, but until recently, most of these are weak in the area where the academic texts ares strong   For example, Young’s commentary on Isaiah (3 volumes) is a classic, but it is mostly a series of verse by verse comments with lots of word meanings.   I much prefer Motyer’s Isaiah commentary, thought shorter, it gives the shape and flow of the book, and there re little sermonic nuggets in the text.   In John, Leon Morris’ work is a lot like Young’s in Isaiah – words discussed by verse, but not a lot of literary structure.   F. F. Bruce is helpful at a less analytic level.  These books are the diced carrots and potatoes.

Sometimes a historic commentary such as Luther’s Works or the like adds a bit of flavor to the sermonic soup.   Consider this the herbs and spices for the soup.

I like to read someone who is or was a pastor and who gives the word a work over from a sermonic standpoint.  Lot’s of books by John Stott fit in this category, I still think his commentary on I John is the most helpful on that book.  I don’t have a good book in this category to name.  This is the meat for the soup.

Finally, what is needed is time for the soup to simmer lowly on the back of the stove.   Don’t start your reading on Saturday.  Start ahead and let it simmer and stew.

What does it mean to abide? – John 15

colored pencils

colored pencils

What does “abide” mean? says,

1.  to remain; continue; stay 
2.  to have one’s abode 
3.  to continue in a particular condition, attitude, relationship, etc.;  

Greek Dictionary says, of the verb meno

1. to stay, live, dwell, lodge

2. Figurative, not to leave the realm or sphere where one finds oneself

3. remain, last, persist, continue to live.

Now when we read the word in the context of John 15 we find an internal definition

  • “remain in me and I in you” compared to a branch remaining in a vine
  • “if you remain in me, you will bear much fruit”
  • “if you don’t remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away…”
  • “if you remain in me and my words remain in you.”
  • “remain in my love” 
  • “if you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.”
  • “This is my command; love each other.”

Thus the metaphor is of a branch that derives its life from the vine – so our life is in connection with the Lord.

The application seems to indicate a personal connection and a knowledge connection: “remain in me“, “my words remain in you,” “keep my commands and remain..”

The result is “fruit”, which harks back to the vine metaphor.  This fruit is defined as “love” in the following paragraph, love is the word that dominates:  “Love each other” is at the top and the bottom of the paragraph.

A working definition: To abide is to  remain in a vital connection with the Lord by hearing and keeping his word, especially his command to love one another.

Note that the 1st and 2nd commandment (love God; love neighbor) are not separable.

Feed My Sheep – an allegory

fleecingWhen the Lord called me to be a shepherd, I was told to feed his sheep.  I thought I knew pretty well what that meant.   I was to bring them to the good water where they could drink.  I was to bring them to the good pastures where they could graze.   I was to watch out for wild animals and to keep them from falling off cliffs and into brambles which they are inclined to do.

Others are also working with my sheep  One man came by and said that if I gave him just a little fleece from each of the sheep, he would tell me how to best organize them.   It seemed a small price to pay for some good advice so I agreed.  He said that it was a mistake to keep all the sheep together in one pen.  I needed to divide them into groupings of similar sheep.  That would of course involve building separate pens for each group, and an assistant shepherd to help keep an eye on them.  If I did this, the sheep would like it better and my overall flock would increase.

A second man came by a few months later.  He said that for a similar price of some fleece from the sheep, he could give me more up to date advice.  He was a shepherd consultant, he said.  He asked many questions.  How many sheep did I have? What ages were they?  He said that was important because each generation of sheep is different and the shepherds need help in noticing these things.  He wanted to know how many sheep I had in previous years.  This was so he could estimate how quickly the flock would grow.  After getting all of this information he put it into a computer data base and produced some remarkable graphs.  His suggestion was that I needed to bring in a water source from the water utility and that I should build a barn for storing the food for the sheep.  He had sample water and sample hay from some of the largest providers.  Now, I would have to pay for this service with a little more fleece from each sheep, but it would be much more efficient than the antiquated shepherd techniques I was using.  This seemed like a good idea.

One month later a third man came by.  He said that what I had been doing was good, but there was one part I had missed.  I had not considered the shepherd.  He showed me some pictures of different shepherds and how they did their shepherding.  He pointed out that the shepherds who were like me tended to have smaller flocks of contented sheep, and the flock growth while significant was smaller than others.  He then pointed out three shepherds who had the largest flocks with the most contented sheep.  Their flocks grew faster than anyone else’s.  The only trouble was that I was not that kind of shepherd.

I said, “but the Lord called me to this job.”

“Yes,” he said, “but it takes more than a calling and standard shepherd skills to do the kind of shepherding that  really excels.”

“Should I quit?” I asked.

“No, just give me another small portion of fleece from each sheep, and I will show you how to become like one of the big flock shepherds.”

So for the next month he showed me all the new ways to shepherd sheep.

I found over time there were many helpful men such as this who had shepherd training to offer. One sold better shears.  Another had better songs to sing while lulling the sheep to sleep.  Others kept lists of types of wolves, and better designs for sheep pen building.

After many years of listening to these shepherd trainers, this is what happened.  Because each one had asked for a little fleece, my sheep where without any fleece.  I had to quickly build a large modern sheep barn with automated water and feed, as well as a heat source to help the fleece-less sheep weather the winter.  The only way I could pay for this was to keep shearing the sheep and using the fleece to pay for the overhead.

I have since decided to leave them in the care of hired help

I have taken all the things I had learned and began to go to other shepherd’s fields to share my knowledge.  I am such a better shepherd than I once was, that I decided to join the band of traveling shepherd teachers.  Did I mention that I am paid better than before?  Now that I work regular hours, I have taken up some hobbies when I am not working on my book.  The Shepherds Network is giving me an award, and a trip to New Zealand to study Southern Hemisphere Sheep Herding in the 21st Century.

Sheep operations are an amazing sight these days.  The sheep, as they are constantly fleeced all look alike,   Without any fleece, only the numbered tag on their ears can identify them.  It does bother me sometimes that I no longer know their names, but who can argue with progress?

©David E. Carlson 2000

Links in John 11 and 12


John links his stories together in interesting ways.

 John 10

 “The thief comes in to steal, kill and destroy. 10:10

  • Compare with v. 31, 39; 11:8-9

“The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”  10:11(also 15, 17)

  • Compare with 11:50; 12:7-8; 12:23ff
  • “The sheep listen to his voice.” 10:3, 4, 8, 16.
  • Compare with 10:25-31; 11:43-44

 John 11

This Mary…was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair…”   11:2

  • Compare with 12:1-8

The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face…” 11:44

  • Compare with 19:38-20:9

“You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”  11:50

  • Compare with John 3:16

Note: This is the John style.  The Letter of I John has a circular structure where several themes are stated, repeated and developed over the book, like a rope woven of strands.

Dividing a Chapter – John 8

oldest fragment of John

oldest fragment of John


Here are 7 ways to divide a chapter.

John 8 is a complex “discourse” that involves an extended interaction between Jesus and both seekers and opponents.

John Talbert in Reading John (Crossroad, 1992), sees this pattern.  In each of the five sections we have the following pattern

  1. Jesus makes a provocative statement
  2. Someone in the crowd replies or argues
  3. Jesus gives an answer.
  • v. 12-20 – I am the light of the world
  • v. 21-30 – I am going away
  • v. 31-40 – The truth will set you free
  • v. 41-50 – If God were your father
  • v. 51-59 – …will not see death.

Leon MorrisThe Gospel According to John – NICNT (Eerdmans, 1971).  He notes that this seems to happen at the conclusion of the Feast of Tabernacles (ch 7) and involved Jesus and his opponents.  (however note v. 30). He offers no reason for his breakdown except at v. 20.

  • v. 12-20 – The witness of the Father
  • v. 21-24 – Dying in sins
  • v. 25-30 – The Father and the Son
  • v. 31-47 – Slaves of Sin
  • v. 48-59 – The Glory the Father gives the Son

Philip Comfort and Wendell HawleyOpening the Gospel of John, (Tyndale, 1994) put the focus on seven “I am” statements.  (This is to be distinguished from the Messianic “I AM” Statements in other chapters.)

  • v. 12 – I am the Light of the World
  • v. 16 – I am not alone
  • v. 18 – I am the one who testifies for myself…
  • v. 23 – I am from above
  • v. 23 – I am not of this world
  • v. 24, 28 – I am he (the Christ)
  • v. 58 – I am!

Translations usually provide divisions with headings, this reflects a kind of commentary on the text.

NIV  (i.e. New NIV)

  • v. 12-20 – Dispute over Jesus’ Testimony
  • v. 21-30 – Dispute over Who Jesus is.
  • v. 31-47 – Dispute over Whose Children Jesus’ Opponents Are
  • v. 48-59 – Jesus’ Claims about himself

NIV – 84   (i.e. Old NIV)

  • v. 12-30 – The Validity of Jesus’ Testimony
  • v. 31-41 – The Children of Abraham
  • v. 42-47 – The children of the Devil
  • v. 48-59 – Jesus claims about Himself

ESV – (Bible Gateway)

  • v. 12-29 –  I am the Light of the World
  • v. 31-38 – The Truth will set you Free
  • v. 39-47 – You are of your Father the Devil
  • v. 48-59 – Before Abraham was, I Am

ESV – Literary Study Bible (Leland and Philip Ryken – Crossway, 2007).  This version of the ESV does not give headings in the text.  They provide a small box with notes before each section.  Here they note that chapter 8 is a collection of stories, they divide the text into three sections

  • v. 12-20
  • v. 21-30
  • v. 31-59
  • Then they noted that one can “comb through the passage looking for the following motifs:  1. Jesus as controversialist, 2. evidence that Jesus is Divine, 3.  The story line of hostility between religious leaders and Jesus, 4. teaching on sin and forgiveness and 5 the authority of Jesus.  It is unusual that they do not attempt to discern a larger structure.


The ESV seems to agree with Talbert that the passages revolves around strong statements by Jesus, however they divide the text differently   In my version of the ESV, there is a space added at v. 20.

The variety from this small sample shows how fluid this text is.  Talbert is the most interested in internal grammatical structure.  The NIV was on to the idea of  this being a dispute, but they did not label the last section that way, which is odd because it ends with opponents wanting to throw stones at Jesus.  The Old and New NIV’s did not agree on divisions or headings.

Talbert and Hawley’s seven  “I am” statements give one a handle, but I am not sure they reflect the internal structure of the passage.  It is also confusing with the more typically cited “I AM” statements that are claims to divine status.

The Rykens give little hope of finding a structure.

For a preacher this is too much to cover in one sermon – I plan to speak on verses 12-40