SYMBOLISM IN JOHN’S GOSPEL CENTERS ON JESUS, THE PERSON IN WHOM God is revealed. The images in Jesus’ discourses and the actions he performs make known who he is; and he makes known who God is. Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me, believes not in me, but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me” (12:44–45). Because the unseen reality of God is made known in a person who can be seen and heard and touched, Jesus is the Gospel’s primary representative figure—he is God’s representative. The people Jesus encounters play a vital supporting role in the narrative. Alan Culpepper has called them “the prism which breaks up the pure light of Jesus’ remote epiphany into colors the readers can see.”1 The supporting characters rarely interact with one another, but draw out facets of Jesus’ identity through their responses to his words and actions. They present a spectrum of possible responses to Jesus, helping to attract readers to positive exemplars of faith, move them beyond inadequate faith responses, and alienate them from characters who reject Jesus.
Jesus is the one person in the Gospel who reveals and embodies God. The problem is the particularity of this claim. Throughout the Gospel everyone who meets Jesus recognizes that he is a flesh-and-blood human being, and they call him a rabbi, a Jew, or simply a man. What they persistently debate, however, is whether Jesus is the Messiah and whether he is divine. A major conflict was sparked when Jesus claimed that he could work on the Sabbath because God worked on the Sabbath. His Jewish listeners understood this to be an attempt to usurp God’s own prerogatives, and they persecuted Jesus for trying to make himself equal with God (5:1718). Later they demanded that he tell them plainly if he was the Christ, and
1. Culpepper, Anatomy, 104. Cf. Collins, “Representative Figures”; Brodie, Gospel according to John, 168–70, 174–75, 216–17, 386; Conway, Men and Women; Resseguie, Strange Gospel, 109–68.