God in the Gospel of John

by Ed Gallagher

No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, he has explained him.

John 1:18
Rembrandt, Head of Christ, 1648, Wikimedia Commons

God “appears” in the Gospel of John only one time, when he speaks from heaven (12:28), which sounded to some people like the sound with thunder or the voice of an angel (v. 29).

Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”

John 12:28

But God can be described as the main character in the Gospel. The word “God” (theos in Greek) appears more than 100x, and the word “Father” in reference to God appears even more than that (about 120x). To be sure, the Gospel exists in order to tell us something about Jesus (20:31), but Jesus was sent by God in order to tell us something about the Father (1:14–18). 

God as Father 

The Gospel of John reveals God as Father. This theme is not unique to the Gospel among NT writings, but we find it here more than elsewhere. God is “Father” often in Matthew, occasionally in Mark and Luke, and everywhere in John.

God as Father in the Gospels
Matthew44 times
Mark4 times
Luke 17 times
John120 times

The Old Testament also described God as “Father,” but not very frequently (Deut 32:6; Isa 63:16; 64:8; Jer 31:9; Mal 1:6; 2:10; cf. Jer 3:19). Israel was the “son” of God (Exod 4:22; Hos 11:1; cf. John 8:41), and the Israelite king could also be described as God’s son (2 Sam 7:14; 1 Chron 28:6; Psa 89:26–27). Jewish prayers at the time of the NT sometimes addressed God as “Father.” 

The New Testament uses the term “Father” for God much more prominently than earlier literature. In John’s Gospel, “Father” first appears in the prologue (1:14, 18), and Jesus first uses the word at 2:16. Sometimes Jesus speaks about “the Father” (4:21, 23; 5:36–37; 6:37) and sometimes he speaks about “my Father” (e.g. 2:16; 5:17, 43; 6:32, 40). Various religions describe the deity in terms of fatherhood, just as Zeus was known as “the father of gods and men.” The concept of God’s fatherhood was, then, not strange to Jesus’ listeners, and they apparently understood who he was talking about when he mentioned the/my Father. 

Yet the prominence of this language on Jesus’ lips is unusual and caused some concern and confusion among his Jewish audience. They were confused and skeptical when Jesus said “my Father gives you the true bread from heaven” (6:32), identifying himself with this bread (v. 35) and claiming to have descended from heaven (v. 38). The Jews balk, because they know who Jesus’ (earthly) parents are (v. 42). Later they challenge Jesus: “Where is your father?” (8:19). But sometimes they know exactly who Jesus means by the term “Father,” and that’s the problem (5:17–18; 10:33). Jesus occasionally calls himself “Son of God” publicly (3:18; 5:25; 10:36), and others sometimes give him this title (John the Baptist, 1:34; Nathanael, 1:49; Martha, 11:27; the narrator, 20:31). Jesus also calls himself simply “the Son” (3:16–17; 5:19–23, 26; 6:40; 14:13; 17:1; cf. 3:35–36). Jesus’ listeners recognized in Jesus’ speech an exalted claim, which led to his death (19:7; cf. Matt 27:43). God is Jesus’ Father in a special way, but also God is Father to all who believe in Jesus, equivalent to being begotten from God (1:12–13; cf. 8:42, 47; 20:17).

God’s Actions 

John’s Gospel emphasizes a few things that God does.

  • God sends. The two Greek words for “sending” (pempō and apostellō) appear about 45x in this Gospel with God as the subject. In the prologue, God sends John the Baptist “to testify about the light, so that all might believe through him” (1:6–7), which in turn would give “them the right to be children of God” (v. 12). God also sends his Son into the world to save it (3:17). “The one whom God sent speaks God’s words” (3:34; cf. 12:49; 14:24). Jesus’ works demonstrate that the Father sent him (5:36–37). The Father sends in order to impart life (6:57). Later the Father will send “the Counselor, the Holy Spirit” (14:16, 26; cf. 15:26; 16:7). The Holy Spirit will remind the apostles of the words of Jesus (14:26), that is, the words the Father gave to Jesus, because the Father wants people to know him. 
  • God loves. Two Greek words for “loving” (agapaō and phileō) appear 12x in this Gospel with God as the subject. God loves particularly the Son (3:36; 5:20; 10:17; 15:9; 17:23–24, 26) and those who love the Son (14:21, 23; 16:27; 17:23), but God also loves the world (3:16). 
  • God gives. God gave the right to become his children (1:12), and he gave his Son (3:16) = life-giving bread (5:32–33), and he will give the answer to prayers (15:16; 16:23). He has given Pilate authority (19:11). But God especially gives to Jesus:
    • all things (3:35; 13:3; 17:7)
    • judgment (5:22, 27)
    • life (5:26)
    • works to accomplish (5:36; 17:4)
    • people/disciples (6:37, 39, 65; 10:29; 17:6, 9, 24)
    • a message (12:49; 17:8)
    • authority over all flesh (17:2)
    • a holy name (17:11–12)
    • glory (17:22)
    • a cup of suffering (18:11) 

God Revealed in Jesus 

Preeminently God makes himself known through Jesus, who came to reveal him (1:18). Seeing Jesus is equivalent to seeing the Father (14:7–9; cf. 8:19). This is because the Father is in the Son (10:38; 14:10–11, 20). Jesus is one with the Father (10:30), and Jesus’ followers can be one with them, as well (17:21). On the other hand, Jesus says, “the Father is greater than I” (14:28). These verses can be confusing. One should not press the language of “oneness” too far: the Son and the Father are distinct beings (against modalism). Jesus claims to be one with the Father in a way similar to how believers are “one” with each other (17:11, 21, 23). They are united in desire and intention. The Gospel consistently presents the Father as the origin of the Son, which is the very point of the Father/Son metaphor, or of the metaphor of God’s Word. The Father was unoriginated (no beginning), and the Son was begotten of the Father (Ps 2:7). In this way, Jesus could assert, “the Father is greater than I.” 

Conclusion 

Other things we learn about God in this Gospel is that he is spirit (4:24), he desires worshippers (4:23), he draws people to the Son (6:44), and he sanctifies (10:36; 17:17). The main point is that Father and Son will “make our home with” the one who accepts Jesus and loves him (14:23). The Father sent the Son to reveal himself to a world he loved. 

Questions for Discussion

What does the prologue to the Gospel of John (1:1–18) tell us about God? 

The Gospel of John refers to God as “Father” much more frequently than any other text of the New Testament. In this Gospel, who is God the Father of? See 1:12–13; 3:35–36; 4:21–24; 5:17–18; 20:17. 

What is the relationship between Jesus and the Father? See 10:25–30, 38; 14:11, 20, 28; 17:5. 

One of the things that God (the Father) does in the Gospel of John is that he “gives.” What does he give, and to whom does he give it? See 3:16, 35; 5:36; 10:29; 11:22; 13:3; 17:2, 4. 

What do we learn about God from Jesus’ prayer in John 17?

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