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In the gospel According to John the word “world” is, without a doubt, semantically rich. This word appears more than sixty times in the text, and if one does not pay attention it is relatively easy to misinterpret its message or conclude that the gospel contradicts itself. It is necessary, therefore, to do an analysis of its usage.
To begin with, we may note that this word in several places is used to refer to a multitude, the masses, the people. Because of the wide publicity given to the raising of Lazarus, the Pharisees worry that “the world has gone after him” (12: 19). When Jesus’ brothers advise him to go up to Jerusalem for the feast of Tabernacles, they say; “show yourself to the world” (7: 4). Being interrogated by Pilate about his disciples and his doctrines, Jesus answers: “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together; I have said nothing secretly” (18: 20). In these instances the world is the public space where people come together. It is the opposite of a secret place.
“World” is also used in the more literal sense of the Greek word kosmos, refering to creation. In the beginning verses we read that the world “was made through him” (1: 10). The one who made it also became flesh so, it is said, he “is coming into the world” (11: 27). “Before the world was made”, however, the Son already had glory in the presence of the Father (17: 5, 24). With characteristic double meaning, Jesus reminds his disciples that the day has twelve hours and it is necessary to walk during the day, seeing “the light of this world” in order not to stumble. It is clear that he is not talking about the sun when he adds: “If any one walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him” (11: 9 – 10).
“The world” is also a reference to humanity, that part of creation with which God has a special relationship. In this relationship the love of God plays a decisive role. As is well said by the best known text in this gospel, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should . . . have eternal life” (3: 16). In order to make points in an implicit debate, the narrator adds: “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (3: 17). While verse sixteen affirms that only those who believe in him receive eternal life, verse seventeen affirms that he came to save the world, that is, humanity. As Jesus says to Pilate: “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world” (18: 37). The tension between these two affirmations is left unresolved.
In his final prayer Jesus envisions those who will believe through the word of his disciples after his return to the Father. It is necessary that the believers of future generations be united in the same way in which the Father and the Son are united. The unity of the disciples is to cause the world to believe that he is the One Sent by the Father (17: 20 – 21). The unity of the Father with the Son, of the Son with his disciples and of his disciples with those who believe through their word will cause the world to “know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me” (17: 23). The love of God for humanity (the world) that is manifest in the unity of the Father, the Son and those who believe will cause humanity to know that he is the One Sent by the Father.
The love of God for humanity is particularly anchored in those who believe. This is expressed well by means of the image of the Son as the bread that descended from heaven. While those who ate of the manna provided by Moses received earthly life, those who eat of this bread “will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (6: 51, cp. 6: 33). Granting that Jesus will give his flesh (his life in the world below) “for the life of the world”, only those who eat of this bread will live forever. Thus, the ambiguity noticed above remains in place.
The sad truth is, however, that many human beings refuse to eat the bread from heaven. They are unbelievers, and this cohort is also referred to as “the world”. Already in the first verses we read that “the world knew him not” (1: 10). When Jesus promises to send the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, to his disciples, he concedes that “the world cannot receive [him], because it neither sees him nor knows him” (14: 16 -17). Later he warns them, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (15: 18). In his final prayer Jesus laments, “O righteous Father, the world has not known thee” (17: 25). It is clear, then, that the world in which God is not known and which rejects both the Son and the Paraclete is not the world of those who believe and receive eternal life.
Even if the Father did not send the Son to condemn the world of humanity (3: 17; 12: 47), the world of those who do not know the Father, and hate the Son and those who believe has been judged and condemned. The presence of the Son in the world of humanity makes him the agent of judgment (5: 22). “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (5: 24). On the other hand, he who refuses to believe (ho apeithon) in the Son “shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him” (3: 36). The lifting up of the Son on the cross is the crisis of the world. At this event humanity is divided into two worlds. As Jesus tells the Pharisees who accuse him of breaking the Sabbath by making mud to heal the man born blind: “For judgment I came into this world” (9: 39). Later, when the Greeks request to see Jesus, he announces: “Now is the judgment of this world” (12: 31).
Sometimes the word “world” is used to refer to the human condition in the sphere “below”, where biological death is a fact of life. Jesus, however, demoted this death to just “sleep” (11: 11). In his polemic with “the Jews” Jesus says to them: “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world” (8: 23). The life of the incarnate Logos is his passage through the world below. “I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and going to the Father” (16: 28). While he is leaving the world below and returning to the world above, his disciples remain in the world below. On their behalf, Jesus asks the Father: “I do not pray that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from the evil one” (17: 15).
Here a distinction is being made between the world below, in which Jesus lived and his disciples will continue to live even while in possession of eternal life, and the “fallen” world that is under the power of the Evil One. In the case of Judas, the Evil One is identified as the Devil (13: 2) or Satan (13: 27), but on three occasions he is named “the ruler of this world”. As Jesus points out, however, this ruler “has no power over me” (14: 30), and has been “cast out” or “judged” (12: 31; 16: 11). This is the ruler of evil and eschatological death. On this account Jesus concludes his second Farewell Discourse declaring, “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (16: 33).
The world that has been overcome is “the world” of the ruler of evil, and those of faith do not live in that world. They have eternal life, even while living in the world below, where tribulations may persist. Jesus makes the point by telling his disciples “you are not of this world, but I chose you out of the world” (15: 19), that is, out of the fallen world. The fallen world is not the same as the world below. This differentiation also accounts for the observation, “he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (12: 25). The one who hates his life in the fallen world can continue to live in the world below enjoying eternal life.
Taking this distinction into account, Jesus can also compare the way in which the Father sent him to the way in which he is sending his disciples: “As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (17: 18, cp. 20: 21). Of course, while the Father sent him from the world above to the world below, he is sending his disciples from the world below to the world of unbelief, evil and eschatological death.
The fallen world is the world conceived by apocalypticism in order to maintain the doctrine of God’s retributive justice. In its literature, however, we find descriptions of mythological battles that culminate in the great battle of Armageddon. Only after this triumph can God deal with each one according to their deeds. Apocalypticism affirms that the justice of God will finally reveal itself in the life of the saints after the resurrection, not in the life of the saints who live in the world below.
According to John represents the Wisdom tradition best expressed in Job. Both Job and According to John have a cosmic view of reality. They view God in reference to creation, but they reject the apocalyptic vision, which is also universalistic. Theirs is not the apocalyptic God. Their God is the God of unity, confraternity, peace and life. Not the God of vengeance and battles that eliminate death. In this gospel we do not read about the separation of the sheep and the goats, a great Assize in heaven, the signs that announce a future Parousia, wars and rumors of wars and the desolating abomination. The parables of the kingdom that center on a prominent apocalyptic metaphor and are essential to the message of Jesus in the synoptic gospels are here absent.
While tacitly admitting that “the ruler of this world” has enjoyed freedom of action until now, the glorification of the Son has cast him out. Eternal life is lived now by the believers, and the wrath of God already rests on the unbelievers. Admitting that life in the world below has afflictions, those who believe have peace (16: 33) because the Son has achieved a definitive victory (“I have overcome” in Greek is in the perfect tense, as “It is finished” in 19: 30) over the fallen world where eschatological death reigns.
This Johannine perspective in its essence informs the way in which the tradition of Jesus’ walking on the sea is told:
Since it was getting late, the disciples went down to the sea, embarked in a small boat, and were coming from the opposite shore to Capernaum. It had already become dark and Jesus had not come to them, but the sea was agitated by strong winds. Having already gone between twenty-five and thirty stadia, they see Jesus walking on the sea close to the boat, and they become afraid. Jesus, however, says to them: ‘I am, do not be afraid’. They then wished to receive him in the boat, but immediately the boat had arrived at the land to which it was going (6: 16 – 21, my translation)
The theme of this account is not Jesus calming the storm. Here the disciples are in the middle of the sea of Galilee, between twenty five and thirty stadia from the eastern shore. It is night and a strong wind is fueling a storm in the sea, but the disciples are not afraid of the storm. They become afraid seeing someone walking on the sea as its master.
When Jesus identifies himself, “I am”, two things happen. 1) Their fear is gone, and they wish that Jesus would join them in the boat. 2) Their wish is frustrated because miraculously the boat has arrived to where they were going. This makes it unnecessary for Jesus to enter the boat. This story tells us that those who receive an epiphany of the one who triumphed over the prince of this world no longer find themselves in the sea of the fallen world. They have arrived to the harbor they wished to reach, even if they do not have Jesus in the boat with them. This version of the story reveals the theological perspective of According to John.
The disciples in the boat—which is the agent of salvation-- are in the darkness and in a stormy sea, the realm of death. As Jesus said to them, “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” The One who walks on the sea, the source and the power of evil and death, takes his disciples out of the sea. Jesus in his final prayer said that “they are in the world” (17: 11), but “they are not of the world” (17: 14, cp. 15: 19). They have the life and the peace that the Son came to give them. He says to them: “Do not be afraid. . . . Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. . . . I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace” (6: 20; 14: 27; 16: 33). They continue to be in the world below, but like Jesus, they are not part of the fallen world. Their faith has transplanted them to the land where they wished to go. They live in the peaceful world of the Risen One.
The eschatology of According to John is not apocalyptic. Instead of being at the service of the desire to understand God’s justice, and how the future will reveal it, its eschatology is controlled by its soteriology. Salvation is a reality now. The Son who came to all these worlds did not leave having accomplished only the first stage of his mission. With full assurance and sincerity he said: “I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do” (17: 4). Those who believe in him live the more abundant life (10: 10) in the world below in peace. In this gospel Jesus does not predict a great miraculous demonstration of power (dúnamis) to be performed by him at his future return in glory and majesty. Rather, Jesus predicts “greater works”, to be realized by his disciples in the world below after he has accomplished his work in that world (14: 12).
The believers commissioned to do these greater works continue to live in the world below, but not in the fallen world of eschatological death. They actually live in the world (kosmos) represented by the temple of the body of the Risen Christ (2: 21). As I said in my previous column, a new temple is a new cosmos. It is in the new world of the Risen body, where the life and the peace of Christ reign, that the believers live even as they are also in the world of humanity and the world of the human condition below. As witnesses to the Truth they live in several worlds. The gospel’s central doctrine, the incarnation, is an affirmation of the value of humanity and the world below. Since he descended and became incarnate in order to ascend, it also affirms that Jesus came to the world to create the new world of the Spirit, where worship takes place in the temple of the body of The Glorified.