The Spiritual Gospel: The Gospel of John in the Early Church

Given its theological sublimity, the fourth gospel was the most significant for early Christian understanding of the person of Christ and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. As Augustine put it: “John spoke about the Lord’s divinity in a way that no one else ever did.”

This article is adapted from a chapter which first appeared in John: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators, eds. Bryan A. Stewart and Michael A. Thomas (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), xxii-xxxii.

By Bryan A. Stewart
Professor of Religion
McMurry University
April 2018

The Gospel of John held a cherished place in the minds and hearts of early Christian interpreters. It was for them, the “spiritual gospel,”[2] or in the words of Origen of Alexandria, “the first-fruits of the gospels.”[3] Using the fourfold creature of Revelation 4 (lion, ox, human, eagle) as a picture of the four gospels, early Christians routinely ascribed the image of the eagle to the Gospel of John. As one anonymous fourth-century commentator explained, “the eagle flies higher than any other birds and alone sets its unblinking gaze upon the rays of the sun.”[4]

Trinitarian and Christological Considerations

Given its theological sublimity, the fourth gospel was the most significant for early Christian understanding of the person of Christ and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. As Augustine put it: “John spoke about the Lord’s divinity in a way that no one else ever did.”[5] In particular, the exalted theology of the prologue was a gold mine for early Christian Trinitarian thought, beginning with the first verse: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and was God.” Because Christ, the Word, was explicitly named God, his full divinity was unquestioned. Yet because this same Word was also with God, the church maintained a distinction between the Father and the Son. Tertullian of Carthage, more than a century before the Council of Nicea, explained it this way: “There is one who exists from the beginning and another with whom he existed—one is the Word of God; the other is God. Of course the Word isGod, but only as the Son of God, not as the Father.”[6] Over two hundred years later, Cyril of Alexandria maintained a similar logic: “By being with God he might be known as another person alongside the Father, and the Son might be believed to be separate and distinct. By being God, he is understood both as having the same nature as the Father and as existing from him, as both being God and coming forth from God.”[7] In the same way, other Johannine passages were used to identify the full divinity of Christ, such as John 10:30 (“I and the Father are one”), John 14:9 (“He who has seen me has seen the Father”), and Thomas’ confession in John 20:28 (“My Lord and my God!”).

Yet, early interpreters also wrestled with understanding the central Christian confession that Christ was both divine and human. While the Gospel of John is often described as having a “high Christology,”[8] the fourth gospel records the human side of Christ as well. Naturally, the declaration of John 1:14 (“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”) was an essential Christological passage for early Christian thinkers. But other passages pointed in a similar direction. Before his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, we are told that Jesus was “wearied with his journey” (4:6). Likewise, in the account of the raising of Lazarus, Jesus was twice “deeply moved” (11:33, 38) and himself “wept” (11:34) at the sight of the mourning crowds. After predicting his coming passion and betrayal, Jesus twice confessed to being “troubled” in “soul” and “spirit” (12:27; 13:21). The reality of Christ’s physical body is also emphasized in his resurrection appearances, as when he instructed Thomas: “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side” (20:27). For early Christian readers, all of these episodes were clear indications of Christ’s full humanity, and they became the basis for reflection upon the salvific consequences of Christ’s incarnation. As John Chrysostom observed: “God’s own Son became the Son of Man that he might make the children of humans into children of God.”[9]

Sacramental Theology

In addition to Trinitarian and Christological matters, early Christian interpreters also discovered a rich sacramental theology in the fourth gospel.[10] As priests and bishops of communities of prayer and worship, these ancient Christian interpreters routinely perceived allusions to the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist in John’s text.

Christ’s pronouncement to Nicodemus that, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (3:5), was, for ancient interpreters, an obvious reference to the sacrament of Christian baptism. Other references to water, like the “living water” of John 4 and 7, and the flow of “blood and water” from Christ’s side in John 19, were also interpreted in light of Baptism. In a more figural way, the washing of the blind man’s eyes in the pool of Siloam (John 9), and especially the healing of the lame man at the pool by the Sheep Gate (John 5), also pointed early Christians to Baptism. John Chrysostom, for example, drew a parallel between the healing powers of the pool waters and the healing waters of Baptism. The latter, he said, “are portrayed beforehand by the pool as in a figure.”[11] Likewise, Ambrose of Milan observed that just as an angel gave healing powers to the pool (John 5:4), so too the Holy Spirit effects spiritual healing at the baptismal waters.

John 13 evoked baptismal connections as well. The washing of the disciples’ feet with water echoed for them the spiritual washing at Baptism, and the removal of physical dust suggested the spiritual removal of the stain of sin. For example, the Venerable Bede saw in Christ’s actions an illustration of “the cleansing which was given once in baptism but also the washing away of the daily sins of the faithful.”[12]

Eucharistic imagery was readily available in the fourth gospel as well. The central Eucharistic passage naturally came from Christ’s bread from heaven discourse in John 6. The words of Christ clearly evoked the Christian ritual meal. When Christ proclaims that “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst” (6:35), the image of eating and drinking invited ancient commentators to think of the Eucharist. Christ’s invitation became, as it did for Cyril of Alexandria, a promise of “Eucharistic participation in his holy flesh and blood which restores humans wholly to incorruption.”[13] Later, when Augustine read Christ’s warning that “[y]our fathers ate manna, and they died” (6:49), he was reminded of the Christian version of heavenly food in the Eucharist, and Paul’s warning about eating and drinking judgment upon oneself (1 Cor 11:29).

An even more obvious link to the Eucharist was Christ’s pronouncement toward the end of the chapter: “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (6:53–54). For ancient Christians, references to eating flesh and drinking blood could mean only one thing: participation in the Eucharistic meal. Christ’s words were taken with utter seriousness. “He who does not take the sacrament, does not have life,”[14]said Augustine; and Cyril of Alexandria concluded that “those who do not receive Jesus through the mystery of the Eucharist will remain wholly bereft of any share in and taste of that holy and blessed life.”[15] As these brief examples show, early Christians discovered a full sacramental theology in the Gospel of John.

Figural Readings

Following the example of the apostle Paul,[16] early Christian interpreters found that the Gospel of John could also yield figural interpretations of Christ and the church. One example is the interpretation of Jesus’s discourse with Nicodemus in John 3. Drawing upon the Israelite narrative in Number 21, Jesus declared to Nicodemus: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (3:14–15). As Cyril of Alexandria noted, the serpent episode in Numbers could represent “the entire mystery of the incarnation.”[17] The ancient Israelites typified believers in Christ; the venom of the snakes signified the deadly poison of sin; and the lifting of the bronze serpent upon a pole evoked the lifting of Christ upon the cross. Taking these figures together, early interpreters like Augustine could proclaim: “Just as the Israelites fixed their eyes on that serpent and did not perish from the bites of the serpents, even so will those who fix their eyes with faith upon the death of Christ be healed from the bites of their sins.”[18] A typological reading of the text allowed the early church to discern deeper and richer meanings in the Gospel text.

Indeed, any number of details within the Johannine text could become the basis for allegorical readings. When Jesus cleansed the temple in John 2, each element of the narrative became for early Christians symbolic of something else, such as members of the church or the human soul. The Samaritan woman of John 4 evoked the gentile church coming to faith in Christ. The Good Shepherd discourse of John 10 allowed for figural interpretations of the shepherd, gate, sheep, thieves, and hirelings. Christ’s undivided tunic in John 19 became a symbol of the undivided church troughout the world. The final breakfast with the disciples in John 21 intimated the eschatological banquet to come in Christ’s kingdom. To modern ears, these kinds of figural readings may sound far-fetched and untethered to the authorial intent of the passage, but for the early church, all of Scripture was a divinely inspired and interconnected web. To those with eyes of faith, a deeper, spiritual meaning was there to behold.

John and the Unity of Scripture

Indeed, for early Christians the proper reading of Scripture was not simply a matter of focusing upon one particular book, chapter, or verse. Because the Bible was understood as essentially one single book, the interpretation of one passage was almost always considered in light of the totality of Scripture. For example, the chronology of the Gospel of John is seemingly framed around traditional Jewish feast days (Tabernacles, Dedication [i.e., Hanukkah], and especially Passover).[19] Because Christians believed that Christ was the final and perfect sacrifice, the frequent mention of feasts in John’s gospel encouraged early interpreters to explore the entire Jewish sacrificial system in light of the coming of Christ.

Other connections to the broader scope of redemption were made possible when ancient readers observed details of the passage echoing similar aspects of the biblical story elsewhere. Christ’s use of spit and clay to heal the man born blind in chapter 9 evoked for Irenaeus of Lyons God’s original creation of humanity from dust (Gen 2:7).[20] Irenaeus was not alone in connecting details of the Johannine text with the broader story of the Bible. When early Christians read about Christ’s arrest and subsequent burial in a “garden” (18:1; 19:41), the original garden of Eden came readily to mind. Cyril of Alexandria beautifully captured the interpretive mind of the early church when he declared: “This garden was a kind of summation of all places, a return to that ancient garden. The beginning of our sad estate occurred in paradise, while Christ’s suffering also began in the garden, a suffering which brought the restoration of all that happened to us long ago.”[21]

Cyril explains this early Christian approach to reading: “Nothing is placed in the writings of the saints without a reason. Even something which seems minor proves to be worth our effort, since it has value.”[22] For this reason, even a small detail in the text deserved further examination, especially if the wording echoed another passage in Scripture. Jesus being “wearied from his journey” (4:6) reminded early Christians of similar words in Isaiah 40:28: “The Lord . . . does not faint or grow weary,” and made possible a fuller exploration of the reality of Christ’s humanity at the incarnation. Christ’s references to “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4:14) and the Spirit being “rivers of living water” (7:38) compelled ancient readers to search for biblical references to water in the Psalms (“there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God” [Ps 46:4]), Isaiah (the righteous “will spring up like grass amid waters, like willows by flowing streams” [Isa 44:4]), and Jeremiah (“they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves” [Jer 2:13]). Christ’s claim to be “the light of the world” (8:12) came to be connected to passages like Isaiah 9:1–2: “Galilee of the nations, the people who dwelled in darkness have seen a great light”; and Psalm 36:9: “For with thee is the fountain of life; in thy light do we see light.” In a similar way, texts like Deuteronomy 24:16, “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children,” became important exegetical background to the disciples’ question about the blind man in John 9:2: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

The seemingly trivial details of Christ’s passion, likewise, became significant to the early church fathers. Christ’s silence before his accusers (Jn. 19:9) brought to mind the famous passage from Isaiah 53: “Like a lamb that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.” The soldiers’ treatment of Christ’s clothes became the fulfillment of Psalm 22:18: “They divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots.” Even a minor detail such as Christ’s “purple garment” held significance, for it connected the minds of ancient readers to a Christological reading of Isaiah 63:1: “Who is this that comes from Edom, in crimsoned garments from Bozrah?” The Bible was an interrelated tapestry of associated words, phrases, and theological meaning, and the Gospel of John was read within the context of the Bible as a whole.

John and the Synoptics

Early commentators also explored John’s relation to the other three canonical gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke; they recognized the differences between John and the Synoptics, and attempted to explain the dissimilarities.[23] Yet, the apparent discrepancies between John and the other gospels presented no serious challenge to their understanding of Scripture as God’s inspired word. As Hilary of Poitiers reminded his readers: “Each of the gospels completes what is lacking in the others. We learn some things from one, other things from another, and so on, because all are the proclamation of one Spirit.”[24]

Harmonization was often the first recourse, as seen most famously in Augustine of Hippo’s The Harmony of the Gospels in which each of the four canonical gospels was brought into agreement with the others. Other interpreters would often do the same in the course of a homily or commentary. John Chrysostom, for example, noted that Jesus’ temple cleansing in John 2 occurred near the beginning of his ministry, whereas the Synoptic gospels place the event at the end. Chrysostom concluded that there were two cleansings, “one at the beginning of his ministry and one near the very coming of his passion.”[25] For him, this also helped explain the difference in Jesus’s words. In John, Jesus declared, “you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade” (2:16). The Synoptics record a much more strident admonition: “Do not make my Father’s house a den of robbers” (Matt 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46), a stronger expression more fitting to the end of Christ’s ministry.

Origen of Alexandria, likewise, accounted for differences in the gospels based on the depth of meaning in the person of Jesus, and the various perspectives of each author. Yet, harmonization was not the only approach. Origen also allowed for certain historical differences within the gospels, as for example, when gospel authors changed the order of things “in order to aid the mystical meaning of those events.”[26] Because the biblical authors were divinely inspired, the deeper spiritual truth may be presented in a way that obscures the historical chronology. Nevertheless, says Origen, “Their aim was to present the truth spiritually and literally at the same time when possible, but when it was not possible to present both, they preferred the spiritual over the literal.”[27]

Moral Application

Whatever the perspective on John’s gospel, whether theological, sacramental, figural, or historical, the primary aim of all early Christian interpreters was to feed the Christian people and aid the soul in its spiritual journey. As a result, much of John’s gospel was employed for pastoral exhortation. The changing of water into wine (John 2) became for Chrysostom an illustration of the believer’s need for Christ to transform our weak and watery wills into the strong state of wine, “the cause of merriment to themselves and to others.”[28] The Samaritan woman of John 4 became a model of zealous faith, proclaiming the gospel to others. “Let us hear ourselves in that woman,” wrote Augustine, “let us recognize ourselves in her, and in that woman let us give thanks to God.”[29] Early Christians also used Jesus’s treatment of the Samaritan as an example of the way in which women should be treated in the church and home, with respect and dignity. The man who was “ill for thirty-eight years” (John 5) stood as an illustration of persevering in prayer, even when it seems that God does not hear. In a similar way, the ill man of John 5 and the dead Lazarus of John 11 became occasions for early Christian preachers to address the way suffering and dying challenge our faith in a loving God.

The events of John 6 held several moral applications. John Chrysostom used the feeding of the five thousand to rail against the sin of gluttony, while Cyril of Alexandria exhorted believers to put away all worries and fears, based on Christ’s words: “It is I; do not be afraid” (6:20). The death of Lazarus in John 11 and Jesus’s own death predicted in John 13 allowed early interpreters to exhort their audiences about how to grieve the loss of loved ones and how to face one’s own impending death. Likewise, Jesus’s proclamation, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (15:13), became the basis for encouragement in the face of persecution and martyrdom.

In the end, as the Venerable Bede tells us, the Gospel of John encourages each Christian to pursue one of “two ways of life in the church,”[30] the active or the contemplative life. The active life, represented by the apostle Peter, was for all. It involved a life of service to God and neighbor through ministering to the poor, visiting the sick, and caring for the dying or dead. The apostle John, however, Christ’s “beloved” who reclined upon his breast, represented the contemplative way. Such a life meant first practicing the active way and then learning “to be freed from all concerns of the world and to direct the mind’s eye toward love alone.”[31] Very few would ever ascend to such a life. Yet for the early church, the Gospel of John stood as the supreme exhortation toward such a life, as well as the shining example of it, for John’s alone was the “spiritual gospel.”



[1] This article is adapted from a chapter which first appeared in John: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators, eds. Bryan A. Stewart and Michael A. Thomas (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), xxii-xxxii. Used with permission.

[2] The phrase comes from Clement of Alexandria (as recorded by Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History 6.14.7). See also Maurice F. Wiles, The Spiritual Gospel: The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel in the Early Church (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960); and W. A. Smart, The Spiritual Gospel (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1946), esp. 37–61.

[3] Origen of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of John 1.23, SC 120:70.

[4] Anonymous, in Augustine of Hippo, Tractates on John, “Preface (by unknown author),” CCSL 36:xiv.

[5] Augustine of Hippo, Tractate 36.1 on John, CCSL 36:323.

[6] Tertullian of Carthage, Against Praxeas 21.2, CCSL 2:1186.

[7] Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John I.3, ed. P.E. Pusey, Sancti Patris Nostri Cyrilli Archiepiscopi Alexandrini in D. Joannis Evangelium, vol. 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1872), 31–32.

[8] For a thorough consideration of the Christology of the Gospel of John, including a helpful review of modern scholarship on the question, see Paul N. Anderson, The Christology of the Fourth Gospel: Its Unity and Disunity in the Light of John 6 (With a New Introduction, Outlines, and Epilogue) (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2010), esp. 1–47.

[9] John Chrysostom, Homily 11.1 on John, PG 59:79.

[10] Scholars today are quick to point out that the Gospel of John omits both Christ’s baptism in the Jordan and the institution of the last supper as found in the other canonical gospels. Yet, for early Christians, the Gospel of John was nevertheless laden with sacramental imagery. For a modern scholarly review of Johannine sacramentalism see Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John, vol. 1, The Anchor Bible 29 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966), cxi–cxiv.

[11] John Chrysostom, Homily 36.1 on John, PG 59:203.

[12] Venerable Bede, Homily II.5, CCSL 122:217.

[13] Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John III.6, in Pusey I:475.

[14] Augustine of Hippo, Tractate 26.15 on John, CCSL 36:267.

[15] Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John IV.2, in Pusey I:529.

[16] See Galatians 4 and 1 Corinthians 10.

[17] Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John II.1, in Pusey I:225.

[18] Augustine of Hippo, Tractate 12.11.5 on John, CCSL 36:127.

[19] See for example Aileen Guilding, The Fourth Gospel and Jewish Worship (Oxford: Clarendon, 1960).

[20] Cf. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 5.15.2.

[21] Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John XI.12, in Pusey III:15.

[22] Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John II.5, in Pusey I:291.

[23] For the definitive modern treatment of the relationship between John and the Synoptics, including a summary of the history of scholarship on the question, see D. Moody Smith, John Among the Gospels, 2nd ed. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001).

[24] Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity 10.42, CCSL 62A:495.

[25] John Chrysostom, Homily 23.1 on John, PG 59:139.

[26] Origen of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of John 10.21, SC 157:396.

[27] Ibid.

[28] John Chrysostom, Homily 22.2 on John, PG 59:136.

[29] Augustine of Hippo, Tractate 15.10 on John, CCSL 36:154.

[30] Venerable Bede, Homily I.9, CCSL 122:64.

[31] Ibid.

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