by Ed Gallagher
You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about me.John 5:39
The Old Testament serves as the foundation for the Gospel of John, so that one cannot understand this Gospel (or hardly any New Testament book) without deep familiarity with Israel’s scriptures. Every chapter of the Gospel interacts in some way with the Old Testament, even without direct quotations. The very first verse of the Gospel alludes to the very first verse of the Old Testament and makes sense only when the reader recognizes the reference. More explicitly than the other Gospels (though cf. Luke 24:27, 44), John’s Gospel insists that the true meaning of the Old Testament centers on Jesus (1:46; 5:39–47).
|Number of Old Testament Quotations|
The Fourth Gospel explicitly quotes the Old Testament far less frequently than the Synoptic Gospels do. A few of the Old Testament quotations in John are shared with the Synoptic Gospels.
|Old Testament Quotations in John Shared with the Synoptics|
|Isaiah 40:3||John 1:23; Mark 1:3|
|Psalm 118:25–26||John 11:12–16; Mark 11:9|
|Zechariah 9:9||John 11:12–16; Matthew 21:5|
|Isaiah 6:9–10||John 12:38; Mark 4:12|
Sometimes John supplies an explicit quotation where one of the Synoptics had only an allusion:
- Psalm 41:9. See John 13:18; cf. Matthew 26:23
- Psalm 22:18. See John 19:24; cf. Mark 15:24.
John quotes the Psalms most often (7x), then the Prophets (6x), and finally the Pentateuch (1x). Scripture appears in the mouth of Jesus four times: 6:35; 10:34; 13:18; 15:25.
Quotations in the First Part of John (the Book of Signs)
The first part of the Gospel contains nine quotations of the Old Testament.
- 1:23. John the Baptist quoting Isaiah 40:3
- 2:17, the narrator quoting Psalm 69:9
- 6:31, the crowd quoting Psalm 78:24
- 6:45, Jesus quoting Isaiah 54:13
- 10:34, Jesus quoting Psalm 82:6
- 12:13, the crowd quoting Psalm 118:26
- 12:15, the narrator quoting Zechariah 9:9
- 12:38, the narrator quoting Isaiah 53:1
- 12:40, the narrator quoting Isaiah 6:9–10
Each of these quotations is introduced with a formula such as “it is written” or “the Scripture says,” except for the final pair of quotations, near the end of ch. 12, which uses the term “fulfill” in the introduction: “this was to fulfill the word…” (12:38).
These quotations demonstrate in which sense the Old Testament is about Jesus (cf. 5:39). For instance, when Jesus cleanses the temple during the Gospel’s first Passover (2:13–25), the narrator explains that the disciples recalled the passage from Psalm 69:9, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” At the time, the disciples did not realize that the words of this psalm applied to Jesus; it is, after all, a psalm about suffering, and they did not anticipate that the Messiah would suffer. But Jesus tries to help them understand—to justify his temple cleansing, he offered only a single sign: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it up in three days” (2:19). Jesus was talking about his Resurrection, but also about his Suffering and Crucifixion. The disciples came to a proper understanding of these matters, and of the scripture, only after the Resurrection (2:22).
The other major example of how to read Scripture in this section of the Gospel is in chapter 6, where Jesus expounds on the true significance of the bread from heaven: the manna points to Christ.
Quotations in the Second Part of John (the Book of Glory)
This portion of the Gospel contains five quotations.
- 13:18, Jesus quoting Psalm 41:9
- 15:25, Jesus quoting Psalm 35:19
- 19:24, the narrator quoting Psalm 22:18
- 19:36, the narrator quoting Exodus 12:46
- 19:37, the narrator quoting Zechariah 12:10
These quotations are mostly introduced with a “fulfillment” formula: “that the Scripture might be fulfilled…,” or similar. As mentioned earlier, this formula also appears connected to the last set of quotations from the previous section (12:38), which signals the conclusion of Jesus’ public ministry. As the Book of Signs draws to a close, the narrator explains why Jesus’ ministry has apparently failed to attract the great following the might be expected of the Messiah: the rejection of Jesus by his own people (1:10–11) fulfills Scripture. Otherwise, it would be a mystery why his many signs would fail to generate belief among people looking for the Messiah. This situation precisely corresponds to the words of Isaiah (John 12:37–40).
The theme of “fulfillment” of Scripture continues through the Book of Glory, and each instance is tied to the Messiah’s (unexpected, but not un-predicted) suffering and rejection. Jesus explains his betrayal by Judas as a fulfillment of Psalm 41:9 (John 13:18). Jesus quotes Psalm 69:4 to explain why his own people hated him without cause (John 15:25). The narrator sees several features of Jesus’ Crucifixion as a fulfillment of Scripture: the division of his clothes (19:24), the fact that his bones were not broken (19:36), and even his cry of thirst (19:28), though he does not say which Scripture this act fulfills (he surely had Psalm 69:21 in mind). All of the scriptural quotations in this part of the Gospel clarify that the Suffering and Death of the Messiah should not have been unexpected for those who knew how to read Scripture properly.
As already mentioned, the portions of the Gospel that do not contain quotations still interact with the Old Testament extensively. Jesus seems to make an important theological point in his conversation with Nathanael by asserting that angels will ascend and descend “on the Son of Man,” apparently a reference to Jacob’s ladder (Gen 28:12) such that Jesus now becomes the ladder connecting earth to heaven. Without quoting a specific verse, Jesus explains the significance of his own Death by citing the story of the bronze snake in Numbers 21:9 (John 3:14–15). Jesus always respects the law. His healing on the Sabbath (cf. 5:9, 16) did not violate Moses’ law (7:22–24). He maintains the Mosaic principle that requires two witnesses (8:17–18; cf. Deut 17:6; 19;15).
Sometimes characters in the Gospel display confusion over what the prophets said about the Messiah, or about how these things apply to Jesus. The crowd is confused by Jesus’ insistence that he will go away, because the law says (they claim) “that the Messiah will remain forever” (12:34), perhaps relying on Ezekiel 37:25 (“my servant David shall be their prince forever”). Here are some other examples of confusion on the part of the crowd in regard to Old Testament testimony regarding the Messiah.
Yet we know where this man is from; but when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from.John 7:27
Others said, “This is the Messiah.” But some asked, “Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? 42 Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?”John 7:41–42
The Gospel of John shows that Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures, though often in unexpected ways. God speaks through the Old Testament, and he speaks about Jesus.
Questions for Discussion
Early in the Gospel, Jesus tells Nathanael that he “will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (1:51). What does Jesus mean? Does this statement have anything to do with the story in Genesis 28:10–22?
The “Bread of Life” discourse (6:24–59) interacts with the story of Exodus 16 and its retelling in Psalm 78. What point does Jesus want to make about these Old Testament texts? How does the crowd resemble their ancestors? Compare 6:52, 61 with Exodus 16:1–3.
At 12:37–41, John quotes two passages from Isaiah (53:1; 6:9–10) and asserts that “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke about him” (12:41). Whose glory did Isaiah see, and where did he speak about his glory? See especially Isaiah 6.
The Gospel of John uses Moses’ name 13 times: 1:17, 45; 3:14; 5:45–47; 6:32; 7:19, 22–23; 9:28–29. Does the Gospel present Moses positively or negatively in comparison with Jesus?
What does the crowd claim about Abraham in John 8, and how does Jesus respond?