Literary Keys to the Fourth Gospel Part IV: The Imagery of John -- By: Merrill C. Tenney

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 121:481 (Jan 1964)
Article: Literary Keys to the Fourth Gospel Part IV: The Imagery of John
Author: Merrill C. Tenney

Literary Keys to the Fourth Gospel
Part IV:
The Imagery of John

Merrill C. Tenney

The exact expression of truth in intelligible fashion is always difficult. General truth is best formulated in abstractions which will encompass any given situation, but abstractions are not comprehensible to the uninitiated. Einstein’s famous formula, E=MC2, embraces a wide range of mathematical and physical principles, but it is meaningless to those who do not instantly recognize the significance of its terms. The truths by which men live must be specific to be understandable, and they become so only through imagery which will embody abstract principles in common objects or actions.

The Gospel of John contains some of the profoundest truth in the New Testament, but there are no other writings which express it more simply. The imagery is clear, concise, and rather limited. The author employs a restricted vocabulary to convey his thought, but each word is filled with spiritual significance. His metaphors are frequently repeated, and some of them become technical theological terms because of their constant occurrence in his teaching.

The main truths with which this Gospel deals are transmitted by less than two dozen terms, each of which has some definite symbolic meaning. Among the most important of these are “light,” “darkness,” “bread,” “water,” “birth,” “sleep,” “flesh,” “eating,” “drinking,” “shepherd,” “sheep,” “vine,” “Father” (God), “Son of God,” and “Son of man.” Others like “bride and bridegroom,” “thieves and robbers,” “dwelling-places” (A.V. “mansions”), “grain of wheat,” and “road” (way) are used only once. No conclusions can be drawn from their distribution in the text, for most of these appear

irregularly, and do not represent a complete continuum of thought. Except for “Father,” the title of God, and the corresponding titles of Christ, “Son of God,” and “Son of man,” they are illustrative rather than didactic.

Certain characteristics of this imagery are immediately apparent. Whether judged by present standards or by those of the day in which the Gospel was written, these metaphors are familiar to all peoples and places. Some of them, like “sheep,” shepherd,” and “vine,” belong essentially to a pastoral civilization; a few, like “bridegroom,” “thief,” or “bondservant,” concern social position; “birth,” “sleep,” “eating,” and “drinking” are common human actions; “water” and “bread” are staples of sustenance in any culture; “light” and “darkness” are concepts with universal connotations of good and ev...

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