Sometimes we lose the forest for the trees. Though I believe firmly in the benefits of expository preaching (explaining Scripture verse by verse), I think sometimes when we go a chapter or so at a time, we are in danger of losing the bigger picture in the structure and themes of the book being studied.
We are nine sermons into our study in the Gospel of John, pacing about half a chapter a week. I sometimes feel that our pace is too quick for all that could be said in this marvelously deep Gospel. But my hope is that it will help us keep the message of the Gospel together instead of just seeing it as a bunch of individual stories.
There were a few structural things that I did not emphasize from the pulpit that may help readers see how the Gospel was carefully put together to form one big story. The Gospel began with a chapter that emphasized the witnessing role of John the Baptist. John’s testimony leads others to Christ, who in turn testify and lead others to Christ. Though we treated it all over the course of three weeks, the first chapter of John is a very tight unit.
We also saw that John 1:19-2:11 connected by means of certain time elements (see my sermon on John 2:1-12 for more on this). But chapters 2-4 seem to be somewhat of a larger unit as well. 2:1-11 narrates the “first sign” that Jesus did while in Cana in Galilee (2:11). The end of chapter 4 also takes place in Cana in Galilee, and John describes it as the “second sign” (4:54). This is what scholars call an “inclusio.” It’s like two bookends that mirror one another and sandwich the material in between as a unit.
We saw that the bulk of material in between these two miracle stories consisted of a contrast between Jesus’ meeting with the well-respected religious ruler Nicodemus (chapter 3) and the despised social outcast Samaritan woman at the well (chapter 4). Last week’s sermon mentioned a few of the similarities and contrasts that tie these two stories together.
So far we can say that John 1 functions as a prologue and introduction to the theme of witness/testimony. John 2-4 is a second unit that demonstrates this witness in action, bookended by two miracles that begin to reveal Jesus’ identity to the people.
John 5-10 is also a unit. Many scholars have pointed out that each chapter takes place during a different Jewish “feast” (some call it the “Festival Cycle”; see Borchert, John, 226). 5:1 begins, “After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem” (ESV). We don’t know which feast this is, and there is no way of telling. Much of the chapter focuses on the Sabbath, and some scholars guess that Passover is in view, but there is no real way of knowing.
Chapter 6 is more specific. 6:4 tells us, “Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand.” Indeed, much of John 6 reflects the theology and imagery of the Passover and Exodus from Egypt. Chapter 7 is also specific: “Now the Jews’ Feast of Booths was at hand” (7:2). This heading likely encapsulates both chapters 7 and 8 (excluding 7:53-8:11, which is another topic for another day!). Just like John 7’s Passover was the backdrop to much of the theology in that chapter, John 8-9’s’ Feast of Booths/Tabernacles also provides backdrop for many of Jesus’ statements.
John 9 is the oddball out (the healing of the blind man), without mention of a specific feast. It may fit with John 7-8 as a mini-unit within the “Festival Cycle,” or may simply illustrate much of what has already been taught. John 10 picks back up on the feast theme: 10:22 tells us that this chapter takes place during Hanukkah.
If these feasts indeed tie together these chapters, it gives us a nice structure to work from. I see John 11 functioning as a type of “hinge,” since the end tells us that this particular story led to the death of Christ (11:53). The rest of the book (John 12-21) all takes place within the course of a week – the “Passion Week” of Jesus.
So overall, the book can be divided into two main parts: John 1-11 and John 12-21. The first part sets up some of the major theological themes and teachings about Jesus, but ultimately it all leads to the “glorification” of the Son of Man in the latter half (Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection).
This brief study illustrates why there is great wisdom in working through a book of the Bible cover to cover. John specifically ties together themes in the first half that are incomplete until the second half. The second half builds upon the themes of the first. And even within smaller units, chapters play off other chapters, mirroring them and contrasting with them to give the reader an even more edifying experience than if the chapter was only read in isolation.
So read your Bible, book by book, from the first chapter to the last. Each book is structured through themes, motifs and stories that work together to proclaim a single message. And each book of the Bible works together with the others to produce the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.