Universalistic Style of the Gospel of John

The readers of the Johannine story can identify with the characters either positively or negatively, and thus enters into the symbolic portrayal of the history in a deeply personal way.  We can even consider some of the characters as prototypes of identity for Christ-followers.  In that sense, it is more viable to understand Johannine characterization as a merge of symbolism with historicity. This feature of the Gospel makes it universalistic in its narrative master plan.

By Johnson Thomaskutty
Faculty of New Testament Studies
Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India
June 2019


The Fourth Gospel is framed with the help of multiple linguistic and literary features. One of the peculiar aspects of the Gospel is its usage of the universalistic or gnomic linguistic and literary framework to make its meaning beyond the time and space aspects. The narrator’s peculiar usage of the present indicatives, aorists, and present participles and other literary features make us to think about its intended readers beyond the First Century CE socio-religious and politico-cultural contexts. In the process of reading the Gospel, a reader can raise the following questions: Can we construe that John uses language in his own idiom? Do we need to think that the Fourth Evangelist frames his language and literary artistry with a universal intent? What are the ways and means through which the Fourth Evangelist takes the attention of the reader toward universality? The task here is threefold: first, analyzing some of the peculiar linguistic and literary aspects of the Gospel; second, understanding some of the aspects of the Gospel in relation to the universal linguistic phenomena; and third, interpreting the Gospel from a global perspective.


A Bird’s Eye-view of Universalistic Language


Universalistic language is global in scope and timeless in duration, sense, and meaning contrary to the temporal and descriptive linguistic phenomena found either within an oral discourse or in a literary unit.[1] Although the author/narrator may use a tense in the indicative mood, the time indicated by that tense may be other than or broader than the real time of the event. The text through the context, lexeme, and other grammatical features will normally give sufficient clues to signal for such suggestions.[2] In that sense, universalistic utterances direct the attention of the reader even beyond the space-bound and time-bound facts. Wallace distinguishes between two predominant situations of meaning in which the universalistic present occurs: first, instances that depict deity or nature as the subject of the action.[3] Such gnomic presents are true all the time. There is a second kind of universalistic style, slightly different in definition: the use of the present in generic statements to describe something that is true any time.[4] The above description amply explains that gnomic presents function both in all and any time with a general sense.

Universalistic present statements are usually absolute and axiomatic in sense.[5] Many substantial participles in the NT are also used in generic utterances. Most of these instances involve the present participle.[6] In narratives, aorists are also used with a universal intent (John 1:12). Gnomic or parabolic rhetoric is one of the peculiar speech-patterns of Jesus within which he uses generic metaphorical/figurative style to convey some global truths (see John 10:1-21; 15:1-11).[7] The present indicatives and present participles have their own peculiar functions in the process of interpretation. The universalistic aspect of the speaker or narrator may be understood mostly on the basis of the verbal meanings involved in their speech patterns.


Universalistic Linguistic References in John’s Gospel


In universalistic present expressions, the natural realities are usually used to identify and explain some of the divine axioms. In John 1:5, the narrator expresses a universal factor that occurs all the time: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The usage of three aspects such as a universal element (i.e., the light) in the form of a subject, a present indicative (i.e., shines) as the verb, and another universal aspect (i.e., the darkness) as the object qualifies the expression all the features of a universalistic utterance.[8] In the first clause, the subject the light refers to Jesus (v. 4), the present active indicative shines functions as a universalistic verb, and the darkness functions as the opposite to the subject.[9] As the Fourth Evangelist interchanges Word (John 1:1, 14), Light (John 1:4-5; 3:19-20; 8:12; 9:5, 39), and Life (John 3:15-16; 6:33, 48; 11:25; 14:6) throughout the Gospel, a reader is able to see the universal significance of the Word at the core of the discussion.[10]

The sequence of eternal Word/Light as the subject, a gnomic verb as the guiding semantic element, and a universal object as the opposite reality direct the utterance into a complete circle. It is a unique expression to introduce the universality of Jesus as the light with a global effect. The same is repeated in v. 9 where Jesus is introduced as ‘the true light,’ his action is stated again in the present indicative format (i.e., ‘enlightens’), and the object is ‘everyone’ (yet another general maxim to address the universal effect beyond time and space).[11] As the prologue of the Gospel sets a universalistic framework that integrates both the divine and the natural elements, the rest of the narrative has to be understood within this interpretative principle.

In 1:12, the narrator states that accepting Jesus enables people to get the unique status of ‘becoming his children.’[12] Here John uses a universalistic aorist at the heart of the statement. Universalistic aorists are reckoned as punctiliar tenses with generic maxims. Alongside of the present indicatives, aorist tenses also indicate beyond time-bound and space-bound facts. The universalistic aspects of the Fourth Gospel are not restricted to the utterances of Jesus and the narratorial voice. But some of the truths revealed to the followers are also declared in universalistic present forms. For example, Nathanael declares that “Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel” (v. 49). Nathanael’s utterance reveals Jesus’s eternal sonship and Kingship to the world.[13]

Another example we see in 3:8, where a natural phenomenon (i.e., the wind/the spirit) appears as the subject, the verb blows is in the present indicative form, and the spatial expression is where it desires.[14] Here the work of the Holy Spirit is explained in universalistic idioms (that is, “The wind [the Spirit] blows where it chooses”) that demonstrates the universal work of the Holy Spirit.[15] In most of the cases, the work of the Holy Spirit develops in closer alignment with the work of Jesus. The paradigmatic maxims of the narrator, the parabolic utterances of Jesus the protagonist, and the divine declarations of the interlocutors together foreground the global linguistic phenomena within the Fourth Gospel. This tendency further attributes a universalistic narrative framework for the Gospel as a whole. This is very clear when the divine maxims are explained in relation to the natural phenomena.

The statement of Jesus in 3:16 is both universalistic and continual that explains: “everyone who [continually] believes in him should not perish.”[16] Global aspects are introduced not only through the present indicatives and aorists, but also through the use of the present participle (see 3:16), especially in soteriological contexts in the NT.[17] The obvious symbolic structure and universal language of the story of the woman at the well foreground its symbolic nature. When John uses the expression everyone who drinks (4:13), it may be that the evangelist does have a habitual idea in mind.[18] Similar expressions with universal maxims are expressed in 1:38; 2:10; 4:14, 24; 14:17, and in other places.[19] The Fourth evangelist employs three methods with prime focus to make the universal aspects foregrounded: first, through narrative statements (1:1-18; 3:31-36); second, through the utterance of Jesus the protagonist (3:8; 4:7-26); and third, through the means of the revelatory utterances of the interlocutors (1:29, 33, 49; 4:7-26).


Dialogue as a Universalistic Literary Aside


It is not only the linguistic aspects but also the literary asides contributed toward the universal framework of the Fourth Gospel.[20] Within the gospel, the dialogues are foregrounded as the major component of the narrative sections. It helps the narrator to tell the story artfully and to communicate it performatively.[21] The narrator engages the modern readers through the means of dialogues with contemporaneity. The first and second person language of the dialogues sustains the dramatic and live demonstration of the events. The character dialogue in the Gospel functions as a major narrative link to facilitate a wider dialogue between the narrator and the modern reader.[22]

Though dialogue is a distinguishable literary category, its interaction with the narratives is strong within the Gospel. In most of the cases, dialogue remains cryptic if not linked to the narrative expositions. Similarly, the narratives themselves are incomprehensible apart from the dialogue. This mode of interlocking of the narratives and the dialogue is a conspicuous phenomenon within the text.[23] This mode of transaction facilitates a dialogue between the narrator and the modern readers through the means of character dialogue within the text.

The reader of the text can configure its fullest meaning only through adopting interactive reading techniques. The Johannine phenomenon of placing the dialogue within the narrative framework persuades the reader to associate these two component parts in an integrated way.[24] This nature of the text suggests that the readers (i.e., both inside the text and with the text) should be watchful not only of the interlocutors within the story but also of what the narrator suggests, where he guides, and how he makes movements. There develops a dialogue between the narrator and the readers both inside and with the text.[25] This peculiarity of John’s text is universalistic in style with an ‘everywhere and ever’ effect in the interpretative processes.[26]


The Usage of Universal Metaphors


The usage of metaphors, imageries, and figurative language, and their symbolical application provides the readers a universal effect in the initiative of reading the text.[27] The metaphors in John represent one of the most significant elements in the totality of the communication process.[28] Metaphors are used to produce new meanings in new contexts. They transfer the meaning of the text to new situations. The metaphorical expressions and their symbolical meanings take shape in the emerging life situations. John makes use of imageries in 10:1-11 and 15:1-15 in order to convey the divine truths in worldly idioms. He often uses events and objects from everyday life to communicate a message in natural ways.[29] Moreover, the metaphors and imageries he uses are mostly familiar to the universal audience and they can create a new effect in the life situations of the contemporary reader.

John begins his Gospel as a whole with a Christological metaphor, the Word in 1:1-5. He uses Word not only as a title for Jesus but also as a metaphor to denote the pre-existent nature and incarnation of the Son.[30] The Word eternally existed with God, both in close communion and oneness with Him (1:1).[31] The temple of Jesus’ body in 2:21 is a genitive metaphor that states that the body (of Jesus) is the Temple.[32] The theme of water appears continually throughout the Gospel (see 1:26; 2:1-11; 3:5; 4:7-15; 5:1-9; 6:16-21; 7:37-38; 9:1-12; 13:1-20; 19:34; 21:1-3). This universal metaphor is mostly used to refer regeneration and transformation in human life.[33] Similarly, the usage of ‘food’ as a metaphor in 4:31-34 and 6:41-59 is obvious.[34] As Jan G. van der Watt considers ‘the family of God’ (God as Father; Jesus as Son of God; and believers as children) is a metaphor to be considered with universal effects.[35] The expressions like “Son of God” (1:14, 18; 3:16, 18), “eternal life” (1:4; 3:15; 4:10; 7:38; 11:25), “water” (4:14-15, 26, 39, 42), “bread” (6:27, 33, 35, 51), “light” (8:12; 9:5; 12:46), “darkness/night” (1:4-5, 9-11; 8:44) and others are universally significant metaphors in order to decipher divine realities.


The Universalistic Aspect of the “I AM” Sayings


The Greek formula I am or I exhibit a unique authority and identity of Jesus. His self-revelatory aspects are potentially reflected through his “I AM” sayings (see 6:35, 48; 8:12; 9:5; 10:7, 9, 11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1, 5).[36] His saying “I am the bread of life” (6:35, 48) is stated after giving thanks and distributing the bread, and feeding the five thousand people (6:1-15).[37] While he utters that he is the “light of the world” in 8:12, he appears as the fulfiller of the festival of lights (or the festival of Tabernacles) described in chapters seven and eight.[38] His second usage of the expression in 9:5 is described in the context of giving sight to a blind person (9:1-41). The utterances “I am the gate for the sheep” (10:7, 9) and “I am the good shepherd” (10:11, 14) are expressed immediately after the expulsion of the healed man from the synagogue (9:34). In his response, Jesus implies that while the Jews expel people from their assemblies on account of him, he is right there to accept them as a “gate for the sheep.”[39] While the Jews are unable to solve the lifelong problems of the man who was closely associated with them in their assemblies, they are reduced to “hired hands.” Jesus’s significance as the “good shepherd” through his involvement in the life of the person is brought to the notice of the reader.[40] While the dialogues/discourses are presented in relation to some significant local events, Jesus’s self-revelatory aspect is the highlight through these “I AM” Sayings.”[41] The “I AM” Sayings in all these cases appear as indicative utterances with universal significance.  

            Jesus’s self-revelatory statement that he is the “resurrection and life” (11:25) appears in the context of Lazarus’ raising from death. In 14:5 Jesus’s revelation that “I am the way, the truth, and the life” is in a local situation when the disciples are perplexed. The one who was able to turn water into wine (2:1-11) appears in 15:1-5 as the “True Vine.” The Father appears as the gardener and the followers appear as branches.[42] In John, Jesus’s utterances go beyond their literal meanings and actually do something. John develops his narratives and discourses in his own idiom and persuades the reader with a personal punch. This narrator-and-reader interaction is poignantly presented through the medium of Jesus’s “I AM” statements.

Jesus’s utterances in John enable us to derive the following situations of meaning in the process of interpretation: first, Jesus’s utterances, mostly the “I AM” Sayings, function as universalistic in sense over against the particularistic and temporal senses; second, the narrator and the reader interaction is designed to facilitate various other dialogues within and beyond the text; and third, the metaphors attached to the statements of Jesus demonstrate their significance beyond the time- and space- realities.


Characters as Universal Figures


It is important to look at how the characters of the Gospel are perceived. There is a growing consensus among the Johannine scholars that the characters of the Gospel represent some ideologies and thus they are figurative within the narrative framework. Raymond F. Collins published two essays in 1976 indicating that Johannine characters as symbolic or representative types rather than historical persons.[43] While the mother of Jesus (2:1-11; 19:25-27) is introduced as a type of the Church,[44] the Beloved Disciple (13:18-30; 18:15-18; 20:3-10; 21:20-23) represented either the disciple par excellence or an ideal response of faith to Jesus. The characters such as Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the invalid person by the pool, Nathanael, Thomas, the blind man turned healed, and others were perceived from this perspective.[45]

Pamment’s discussion also relies heavily on a representative understanding of character. She notes that Nicodemus represents the secret admirer rather than the open advocate. In her view, calling him ‘the Pharisee who came to Jesus by night’ would have emphasized his representative character.[46] But, based on the textual clues in John and other NT writings, it is not feasible to consider the characters as merely representative figures. Rather it is more convenient to argue that the narrator of John uses history symbolically. The readers of the Johannine story can identify with the characters either positively or negatively, and thus enters into the symbolic portrayal of the history in a deeply personal way.[47] We can even consider some of the characters as prototypes of identity for Christ-followers.[48] In that sense, it is more viable to understand Johannine characterization as a merge of symbolism with historicity. This feature of the Gospel makes it universalistic in its narrative master plan.


Concluding Remarks


As symbolism is the hermeneutical key of the Fourth Gospel, the events and utterances are recorded to address readers of/beyond the time and space realities. As John employs language in his own way, he attempts to describe history symbolically. John’s peculiar linguistic and literary aspects attune the modern readers toward universalistic maxims. The Fourth Gospel features some of the following interpretative principles: first, the present indicatives, the aorists, and the present participles of the Gospel have the potential to point us toward general maxims; second, the narrative statements, the utterances of Jesus the protagonist, and a large number of the revelatory utterances of the followers of Jesus usually point the reader toward universal truths; third, through the means of dialogue the narrator facilitates a narrator-and-reader interaction based on global principles; fourth, through the means of metaphorical, figurative, and symbolical linguistic framework, the story world of the gospel absorbs the realities of the modern reader; and fifth, as the narrator encodes the historical realities through the means of symbolism, the modern readers of the story can decode the message into their own life situation. Thus the narrative master plan and literary artistry of the Gospel attune the attention of the readers toward ‘everywhere and ever’ realities.


[1] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 523.

[2] Wallace states that, “Examples of time other than what the tense (in the indicative) signifies include the historical present, futuristic present, proleptic aorist, epistolary aorist.” Similarly, “Examples of time broader than what the tense (in the indicative) signifies include gnomic present, extension-from-past present, gnomic aorist, gnomic future.” See Wallace, Greek Grammar, 498.

[3] For instance, statements such as ‘the wind blows’ or ‘God loves’ fit within this category.

[4] See Wallace, Greek Grammar, 523.

[5] Wallace, Greek Grammar, 525.

[6] See Wallace, Greek Grammar, 615.

[7] Ian H. Henderson, Jesus, Rhetoric and Law, BINS 20 (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 71.

[8] Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, Sacra Pagina 4 (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1989/1998), 42-43.

[9] See George R. Bearley-Murray, John, WBC 36 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), 11.

[10] See Bearley-Murray, John, 11.

[11] Cf. Moloney, The Gospel of John, 43-44.

[12] Moloney, The Gospel of John, 44.

[13] Beasley-Murray, John, 27.

[14] Wallace, Greek Grammar, 524.

[15] Beasley-Murray, John, 49.

[16] See Wallace, Greek Grammar, 522.

[17] See Wallace, Greek Grammar, 620-621.

[18] Moloney, The Gospel of John, 122.

[19] See Wallace, Greek Grammar, 621.

[20] See Johnson Thomaskutty, Dialogue in the Book of Signs: A Polyvalent Analysis of John 1:19-12:50, BINS 136 (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2015), 461.

[21] See Thomaskutty, Dialogue in the Book of Signs, 466.

[22] See Thomaskutty, Dialogue in the Book of Signs, 474.

[23] Thomaskutty, Dialogue in the Book of Signs, 477.

[24] See Ben Witherington, John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995), 41.

[25] See Thomaskutty, Dialogue in the Book of Signs, 24-25.

[26] For more details read, Johnson Thomaskutty, “Re-reading the Gospel of John in the light of William Carey’s Linguistic Methods,” Serampore Mission: Perspectives in Contexts (Delhi: ISPCK, 2019), 109, 94-122.

[27] See Jan G. van der Watt, Family of the King: Dynamics of Metaphor in the Gospel according to John (Boston: Brill, 2000), 8.

[28] See Van Den Heever, “Theological Metaphors and the Metaphors of John’s Gospel,” Neotestamentica 26/1 (1992), 89.

[29] Craig Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 2.

[30] Beasley-Murray, John, 10-11.

[31] Jey J. Kanagaraj, “Use of New Testament Metaphors in Mission,” Transformation 23/2 (April 2006), 122.

[32] Moloney, The Gospel of John, 82-83.

[33] Stephen D. Renn, Expository Dictionary of Bible Words (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005), 1031.

[34] Renn, Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, 400.

[35] Van der Watt, Family of the King, 161-393.

[36] Anderson, The Riddles of the Fourth Gospel, 14-16.

[37] See Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, Sacra Pagina 4 (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1989/1998), 218.

[38] Anderson, The Riddles of the Fourth Gospel, 14-15.

[39] Thomaskutty, Dialogue in the Book of Signs, 450-451.

[40] Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel, 17.

[41] See Sandra M. Schneiders, Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (New York: A Herder & Herder Book, 1999), 74.

[42] See Thomaskutty, Dialogue in the Book of Signs, 452.

[43] See Raymond F. Collins, “Representative Figures in the Fourth Gospel, I and II,” The Downside Review 94 (1976), 26-46, 118-132. Cf. Christopher W. Skinner, “Introduction,” Characters and Characterization in the Gospel of John (London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2012), xix-xxii.

[44] See Raymond F. Collins, These Things Have Been Written: Studies on the Fourth Gospel, LTPM 2 (Louvain: Peeters Press, 1990), 30-33; cf. Skinner, Characters and Characterization in the Gospel of John, xix.

[45] Collins, These Things Have Been Written, 11-38.

[46] Pamment, “The Fourth Gospel’s Beloved Disciple,” 364. Also see W. R. Domeris, “The Johannine Drama,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 42 (1983), 29-35; R. Alan Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 104.

[47] Schneiders, Written That You May Believe, 75.

[48] See Philip F. Esler and Roland A. Piper, Lazarus, Mary and Martha: Social-Scientific Approaches to the Gospel of John (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 17.

Article Comments

Submitted by Thawng Ceu hnin on Tue, 06/04/2019 - 00:33


I am glad that you have written this brief article on the fourth gospel. I am overwhelmed by the way you have developed your argument on how the gospel of John is universalistic in nature. It appears that you have developed your argument from Greek grammatical point of view which in deed is appreciated. A manuscript that was written almost 2000 years, you have helped me understand that how it is even applicable to this 21st century. You have made use of Daniel Wallace's Greek grammar beyond the basics. Excellent. Well, I am also curious about Stanley Porter's fundamental of new testament Greek in which he deals with the background, foreground and frontgroung. Thanks for your knowledge on the fourth gospel. Always learning from you.

Submitted by Khahring Maku on Tue, 06/04/2019 - 04:03


Very insightful for the study of the literary of the FG. The aspects of universality in the language and usage of characters by the author of the FG is unique and this article shows another level of the literary of the FG with the author specialization of universal/genomic language.

That is wonderful to know. It seems that this study can be taken further into the next level. My next book with 16 of my own articles deal this subject matter elaborately. I hope that you will make note of that as the book is going to be out by August/September 2019.

Submitted by Johnson on Tue, 06/04/2019 - 04:27


Dr. Thomaskutty has wonderfully highlighted the "universalistic style of the fourth gospel." Although the fourth gospel considered as a universal gospel this article has proved its universalistic aspects of the fourth gospel from grammatical, symbolical, metaphorical and characterization perspective. It sheds more light on Johannine scholarship and takes the scholarship to the next.
on the other hand, along with Daniel Wallace, Stanley Porter's dissection of time and aspect in the Greek verbs would have added more strength for the usage of Gnomic present in the fourth gospel. As a whole, someone satirically said that in the fourth gospel an elephant can wade and a toddler can play. The Johannine study is deep and simple, the more one dig into it the more spring comes out. It is an excellent effort to bring out this scholarly article it enlightens the reader. I'm personally blessed reading the article.

Thank you so much for your insightful response to my article. As you suggested, I will definitely use Stanley Porter's book to ponder deep into this subject matter. At the same time, I inform you to wait for my book entitled "A Gnomic Reading of the Gospel of John."

Submitted by Kusatolu Khusoh on Tue, 06/04/2019 - 09:02


Thank you Dr. Johnson Thomaskutty for this insightful article on the gnomic linguistic and literary framework of the Fourth Gospel. It is indeed another eye opener to look at the great Gospel. Looking forward to learn more about it.

When someone looks at the Fourth Gospel from a peripheral outlook many of the things seem hidden. But when someone looks at the Gospel with her/his astute eyes the concealed things shall be revealed. This is the beauty of this Gospel as it has capacity to lead the reader toward an entirely different world altogether.

Submitted by Sangpui on Wed, 06/05/2019 - 09:41


I have never thought in this way before. Now I am enlightened by this very insightful article 'Universalistic Style of the Fourth Gospel'. It gives us an inspiration to dig deeper especially to the Fourth Gospel. Thank you so much.

I am glad to learn that you are interested in this reading strategy. What I think is that John's Gospel, though looks simple in language and style, has many more things concealed in it. It is through specific literary and hermeneutical strategies we can unlock the grand narratives of this literary prodigy.

Submitted by R. Om Prakash on Tue, 06/11/2019 - 09:00


It's an interesting article to read. I am fascinated by the way you have used the tenses to support your argument (universalistic aspect). May be the author was also particular in using those tenses just to indicate his gospel as a universal gospel. You have highlighted some of the words such as light, shines, darkness, to demonstrate universalism in the fourth gospel. Looking forward to learn more. Thank you sir.

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