Water, Bread and Light are three important symbols in John’s Gospel. How do these symbols help the Johannine community to understand the identity of Jesus? The Gospel of John addresses the Johnannine audience’s journey of faith with theological reflections on the origin and identity of the “Word”. The author uses universal symbols of the light, the bread and the water to represent the identity of Jesus to the Johnannine community, thus reinforcing a high Christology. The signs performed by Jesus also assure the readers of his divine identity and sonship.
The Prologue (1:1-18) serves as introduction to the central themes of the Gospel through the “theological, philosophical and anthropological” (R. Brown) exploration of Jesus’ public ministry. The major themes explored are faith and unbelief and the identity of Jesus using the symbols of the “light” and “darkness” (1:5). The “light” is a symbol of belief and the revelation of Jesus to the world (1:9). The symbol of light is influenced by Gnostic philosophies introduced by the Hellenistic influences of the Gentile converts in the Johnannine community.
The Gnostic philosophy believes in the existence of contrasting dualities to represent parallel existence of the two worlds: the spiritual and the material worlds. This symbol assures the Gentile converts that the universal symbol of light represents Jesus who had come as the salvation for the world, not just the “Jews”. The emphasis on belief is intended to address the Johnannine audience who faced hardship and persecution from the Romans and the Jewish religious leaders.
The members of Johananine community were excommunicated from the synagogues due to the introduction of the benediction, birkhat ha minim that forced people to deny their Christian faith. Those who refused to deny their faith were ostracized and isolated from their Jewish faith. This made many Johannine followers question their belief in Jesus, creating a crisis of faith. The author asserts that the light overcoming the darkness is a perfection of their Jewish faith. In the Prologue “the appearance of the World of life brought light” (F. Moloney).
The Gospel introduces a variety of characters who model the different levels of faith; the scholar R. Brown argues that attitudes and reactions of the other characters in the Gospel to the Son mirrors their attitude and reaction to the Father. Those who lack faith such as “the Jews” are in darkness. It is easily identified by the readers when the author sets their interaction with Jesus, in the Gospel, at “night. ” There are also characters of partial faith who recognizes Jesus as a “Rabbi” but do not accept “what they cannot observe or control” (F.
Moloney) such as Nicodemus who visits Jesus in the death of the “night” and fails to grasp the intrinsic meaning of Jesus’ statement (3:1-21). There is also Mary Magdalene who did not recognise Jesus at the tomb until he reveals himself to her (20:11-18). Mary Magdalene’s resurrection account typifies the coming to faith as recognizing Jesus in the full “light” of day. The Johnannine community is encouraged to model their faith on John the Baptist and to come “to testify to the light” (1:6-8) and become “children of God” in order to achieve authentic faith.
The author proclaims Jesus as the “the true light” (1:9) who had come to overcome the darkness of disbelief. As a result the Johannine readers are provided with a distinct choice to live in darkness and refuse the gift of “eternal life” or in unity with the Father and the Son. The author utilizes light symbolism that was familiar to his readers; not only as a means to encourage the Johannine audience toward a decision about the person of Jesus, but also as a literary technique illustrating the gradual process of coming to belief.
The Water in John’s Gospel is used to symbolize the Jewish purification rituals and to ensure the nourishment of those who believe. In the Gospel, Jesus performs his first sign at the Wedding at Cana (2:1-12) when he performs a nature miracle: an act that transgresses the laws of nature by transforming water into wine. According to the scholar R. Brown nature miracles are understood to be acts of power establishing the kingdom of God against Satan’s dominion. The water was stored in the six stone jars which were used for the Jewish “rites of purification” (2:6).
The miracle “sets up the scene for a high Christological and ecclesiological outlook” (R. Brown) by establishing the divine identity of Jesus and the close pre-existing relationship between Jesus the Father and the Son. The Jewish law had outlined the requirements for physical and spiritual cleansing in order to be clean and pure before God. The purification rites were introduced by the Mosaic Law at the Wedding at Cana (2:1-12) and this link is established in this scene and it reinforces the divine origins of Jesus and outlines his mission as the “word” to give testimony to God.
Jesus did not fulfil the limited messianic expectations held by many Jews because he was not a military leader who was to drive out the foreign rulers and was not of Davidic origins. The allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures by acknowledging the Jewish purification rites reinforces the belief that Jesus is the long awaited Messiah that has been prophesized to bring forth judgment when the eschatological concerns are realized. To the scholar F. Moloney, the question of Jesus’ origins betrays the usual misunderstanding that greets Jesus as the revealer.
The author uses the nature miracle to emphasize that correct belief in Jesus as the revelation of God is the perfection of their Jewish faith because Jesus is the “living water”. Therefore everyone who drinks from the water will “never be thirsty” (4:13-15). Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman (4:1-42) shows that Jesus is omniscient, as no one can hide from him, which assures the Johannine community of his divinity and his pre-existence with God. During Jesus’ public ministry the “Jews” and the Samaritans did not associate with each other due their conflicting ideologies on how to worship God.
By showing Jesus reaching out to the Samarian woman, to whom he reveals himself as the messiah (4:26), the author of the Gospel shows that Jesus did not ascend from heaven as for the “Jews. ” Thus Jesus invites all the people of faith to witness the revelation of God through Jesus and become “children of God. ” The “bread of life” offers spiritual nourishment to those who believe; the Gospel employs the literary technique of symbolism to represent the person of Jesus.
Those who achieved correct faith understood the transcendent meaning of the bread and heed Jesus’ warnings not to work for the bread that perishes (6:27). The “bread of life” is the allusion to the manna from Exodus 3:14 when the manna had come from heaven to feed the Jews who were wandering in the desert. The Gospel reassures the audience that “the divine word and wisdom are often presented under the symbolism of bread in the Hebrew Scriptures” (R. Brown). However the manna could only physically nourish the people and it would perish (v. 27), unlike the revelation of God in Jesus.
Jesus’ offering of the bread was the sign that wisdom has come to give food to all who seek because he is the revealer of truth (4: 1-42) as the divine teacher of the people. As he proclaims, “I am the living bread” (6:25). These ego emi statements reveal significant information about the identity of Jesus by symbolically referring to the gift of God which “makes those who believe see natural hunger, thirst and death as insignificant” (R. Brown). Consumption of the “bread of life” promises those who believe that they shall achieve eternal life and become hildren of God who will share the close bond between God, the Father and Jesus. The universal symbols of light, water and bread recur throughout the Gospel of John as they unveil the identity of Jesus; the one who had descended from heaven on a mission from God as the salvation of all people. The author instructs the Johannine audience through the use of the three symbols is the key to the correct faith and provides support and encouragement in their journey of faith. The “living bread” and the “living water” reveal the divine identity of Jesus, who as the light can overcome the darkness of disbelief.