The Gospel of John – Abundant Meaning, Abundant Love.’ David Ford

David Ford is Regus Professor of Theology at Cambridge and I was just privileged to hear him speak on ‘The Gospel of John – Abundant meaning, Abundant love.’ Here are my unedited notes.

John’s is a gospel of abundance. He’s studied it for 19 years and still feels he has had a cup from a huge barrel. 

John 3:16 sums up the gospel – it’s all about love!

It’s the latest to be written, and we think John knew the synoptics. So we can make connections with them. He may have written it in Ephesus, and even knew the Pauline tradition so here you have the gospel narrative and the theology so he was known as ‘ho theologos’in the Eastern church. 

Hans Urs von Balthasar “Most saint’s lives can be summed up as the exegesis of one scripture.” 

John wants you to think in terms of abundance. How many fish? How much wine? How much glory! He wants us to think differently about big concepts, about time, and about love. 

1 John is the first commentary on John – a Johannine community had its problems, and the answer over and over – is LOVE. You are loved, and you are to love, and God is love.

The Spirit is absolutely inseparable here. Ancient writers did not have bold, underline etc – so they used REPETITION to say ‘Draw in closer to this.’ He writes waves, over and over, waves of meanings, repetitions with variations as in music. 

The Spirit is given without measure

As close as breath

As universal as air. 

Q – what reality are we in? Can you love in line with this love? 

The Spirit is the abiding abundance of God’s love. 

How do the Spirit and the Word go together? There is meaning with the breath. 

‘The words that I have spoken are spirit and life’- That happens if you let these words abide in you.  

John was writing scripture. He knew that, and was conscious of it. So he wrote not just to be read, but to be reread. He believed he was being led into all truth. Selecting from a mass of stories and traditions. So what he omitted is interesting. Why did he miss this or that? Because it was in the synoptics? 

Do you think it would be possible to be a Christian with just this gospel? He says he’s writing this so you’ll have life. It’s the simplest but the deepest, most radical. When he leaves out stuff to do with divorce, controversial ethical issues, is he doing so in order to form the unity of a church around knowing Jesus? 

Chapter 17 – the radical desire of Jesus = UNITY. It’s not tied to lots of things except loving Jesus and loving people.

This gospel is for straightforward enough beginners, and most challenging for insiders. 

Literary scholars show how John carefully wrote. So you have to pay attention to the language. Simple, but deep. The ‘deep plain sense’. Eg John 1. Life, light, Father, Son… ordinary – yet drawing you into God. 

ABIDE – is in Jn 1 – abiding on Jesus 

Then the disciples are called to abide with him. 

10 times in 10 verses in Jn 15! The word abides in us, and we abide in his love. 

The most important chapter in Bible? John 17 

Ask – what does ‘IN’ mean here? 

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

IN is the mutual indwelling 

And AS – ‘You have to go deeper – into how the Father sent Jesus…. ‘As the Father sent me…’ How was he sent? ‘As I have loved you…’ How has he loved? Endless meaning! 

Little words, going deeper and deeper…

The IN gets you deeper 

The AS gets you wider. (universal horizon!) 

Do you ever get to the end of thinking what light, darkness, bread mean? 

John is also wanting me to read other things too. Like the Septuagint. And Paul. He has less direct quotations from the OT but the most echoes, in every chapter. So you have to read slowly. 

cf. Paul Griffiths on reading. ‘I have always been able to read … I read mostly as a consumer… but how to read with careful slow attentiveness… to read as a lover instead?’

Follow up reading John – by reading Isaiah. Like this. Slowly.

John 1= He wants to shape our thinking. 

Starts quoting Genesis.

Barth said Theology = ‘always beginning.’  We must have a fresh encounter day by day. 

John has several beginnings in the first chapter (as well as several endings!)

The basic prayer = ‘Come Holy Spirit.’ 


Why logos? John wanted to express the self giving of God. Who He is. Freedom to love. 

In the Sept it’s used in all three sections of the OT. Logos is in Torah, Prophets and Wisdom literature. So identifying Jesus with the logos means ‘If you want to understand Jesus you have to get into the OT.’ 

And Logos is also an ordinary word in Greek, word and also a philosophical word. So he is connecting with the culture too. Stretching us to engage with every dimension of reality. Openness to learning everywhere. All over the world and history. 

Light and darkness

You have to use your imagination now. The arts. 

Have conversations around such texts. 

Father and Son 

Time – ‘he was before me’

Grace upon grace – endlessly open to more and more grace. Be open to abundant grace. 

The law was giventhrough Moses, grace and truth camethrough Jesus. 

There is always mystery, and always more. 

John draws us into the bosom. The bosom of the Father. John leans on the breast of Jesus. Last chapter he says it too. 

Purpose of the whole gospel = draw us close to the Father’s heart. 

‘Who has made him known..’ = the pioneer who opens the way for others. Now we have to make him known. If we are sent as Jesus, we are sent with signs of abundant life. 

Then he gathers a community of learners. Mathetes = learners, as in mathematics. 

What’s the learning focused on? Questions

What’s the first q? 

Who are you?’ John says “I am not…”

This is the central question of the gospel – Who is Jesus

We have all these titles that then come along to help answer that. But keep that WHO question central. John has lived with this question for years now as he writes. He says, ‘Have who Jesus is central – if you want to grow a healthy community.

All those I am statements underline this. Nothing is more important than who Jesus is. 

Jean Vanier was asked, How do you pray? “I talk to Jesus.” 

Bonhoeffer lectures on Christology: The most important question in prayer = ‘Who are you, Jesus?’

And He asks you back, ‘Who are you?’ 

All those books that would never end… = the abundance of meaning

First Question = Who are you 

And you end it knowing there is no more important question.  

The next Question = ‘What are you desiring?”/ Seeking? Enquiring… this means he wants to know what we desire – and for us to have our desire educated. This is why worship is so important. It tells us we have someone to desire utterly. 

In the arrest, 3 times we hear, ‘Who are you seeking?

Then to Mary in the Garden it’s “WHOM are you seeking?”

What is Jesus most desiring? It is answered in John 17. ‘I desire that they may be with me where I am and see my glory…’ All our striving leads to our desires meeting his. Love is at the heart of it all. 

Question 3 – they ask ‘Where are you staying? Abiding?’ He shows them. 

Three questions then – 

Who are you? What do you desire? Where are you abiding? 

We never get to the end of that, but as we look at them together we have a deepening maturing faith.

So never be afraid of questions. John’s full of ‘What ifs.’ 

Know this: We are desired! We are loved by God. He loved the world so much… 

Chapter 14

12 Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.

15 “If you love me, you will keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever..

Notice the focus is on the name. The Question now is: “Is my desire in line with Who Jesus is?” That’s what praying ‘in his name’ means. The prayer is the depth of action, enabling greater things to be done. 

Chapter 15:15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.

Chapter 17. Have you ever prayed the Lord’s prayer in the light of Jn 17?

You get to the heart of the teaching here. It’s an improvisation on the Lord’s prayer. 

This says that The world will not believe, if we are not one. How challenging! What are the implications of divisions? If you do that, you’re not loving. You’re not representing. The lesson of church history = 100 years after every great theological fight, was it worth breaking the express desire of Jesus? So if you want to divide over something, wait 100 years. 

Jean Vanier had just received the Templeton Prize. He asked him what he thought about Jn 19 as he had finished his commentary:

Vanier replied that Here, Jesus has been humiliated. The people in L’Arche know that kind of humilation. He is flogged, stripped, nailed, in the position of maximum disability. What does he do there? He forms a community. ‘Here is your son, your mother.’ A community of blood, and beyond blood. 

If you have at the centre of your community the beautiful and the wealthy you cut so many out. But if you put the elderly, those with disabilities, the child, those not honoured at the centre – Jesus is there. 

The dying action of Jesus = ‘Then he bowed his head and he handed over the Spirit.’ The Spirit who was resting on without limit. This is not just saying ‘He died.’! This is the first giving of the Spirit! From the cross! Without boundaries. The Spirit came on that first community – at the cross.

Who else was there? The soldier who put the spear in. As water and blood came out. Baptism, communion? And the other women at the cross. The beginning of the new life is right there in the death. The glory is in the cross. 

Mary Magdelene was told, ‘Don’t touch me..’ Why not? ‘You’re going to relate to me in a way you can’t imagine yet..’ Because I am going to…

‘My God and your God, my Father and your Father” = new family. 

The footwashing = the strongest imperative of all in the gospel. The sign of loving to the end. What’s the first thing he does with those hands that have all power? He washes feet. Then he says, using the language of a debt that is owed- ‘AS I have done this for you..’

As = endlessly improvise on footwashing

There is a blessing if you DO this.  

‘Very truly I tell you…’ = NB! What? Whoever receives the one I send receives me. Radical receptivity to whoever God sends. Love in service.