THE STUDY OF JOHANNINE SYMBOLISM TAKES US TO A PROBLEM THAT LIES at the heart of all theological reflection: How do people know God? In the language of the Fourth Gospel, God is “from above” and people are “from below,” and to ordinary human eyes God’s presence is veiled, his activity elusive. John’s prologue says that “no one has ever seen God” (1:18a), a comment on the human condition that provides no exceptions. Throughout the Gospel Jesus will address listeners who do not know God, who have never heard God’s voice and have never seen God’s form (5:37; 7:28; 8:19). A cleft separates the human from the divine. Yet the Gospel also says that Jesus made God known (1:18b). He could reveal God because he came from heaven and did not speak on his own authority, but uttered the words of God in God’s own name (3:34; 5:43; 8:28).1
The Son of God descended to bear witness to what he had seen and heard above, but when he crossed the chasm and entered the world he spoke with human beings who found him to be as inscrutable as God himself. The prologue acknowledges that “the world knew him not” (1:10), and the first scene ends with John the Baptist’s unsettling declaration that the one God has sent now stands in your midst “and him you do not know” (1:26). Jesus’ divine origin was hidden from human eyes; it could not be discerned “by appearances” (7:24). In the peculiar economy of the Gospel, Jesus must make God known, but God must also make Jesus known. No one comes to the Father except through Jesus (14:6) and no one comes to Jesus without being drawn by the Father (6:44).
1. On revelation or knowledge of God as the central question in Johannine theology see D. M. Smith, Theology of the Gospel of John, 75; Ashton, Understanding, 632–63. The importance of the distinction between the “above” and the “below” for understanding Johannine symbolism is widely recognized. See Meeks, “Man from Heaven”; Culpepper, Anatomy, 200; Barrett, Essays on John, chaps. 1 and 5; Resseguie, Strange Gospel, 27–59. On the relationship of this cleft to religious symbolism generally see Wheelwright, Metaphor and Reality, 130.