Allusion. Numerology. Metaphor. Personification. For some, these words conjure a spinal chill from the scratch of chalk on a green English Composition chalkboard. Few enjoy analyzing texts for poetic devices. It’s what English majors do. And Biblical scholars. I, in unabashed nerdom, am both. I could swim in the ocean of the fourth Gospel’s literary layers for days and not once miss the prudence of texts that are far more plainspoken.
John however, was a writer-a literary giant who has been compared to Homer. John did not only seek to write that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name (20:31), but John sought to get you to that place of faith by experiencing life with Jesus through the power of the written word at its finest. If inspired writing is God writing through the best of one human’s ability, inspiration is brought to a whole other level in the fourth Gospel.
Well, that’s my opinion anyway. You might be the type who prefers Mark.
Every word is ruminated in John; every weave is intentional. Themes come back around and symbols recur. Sevens dance and metaphors collide.
For example, in John 10:3 Jesus compares himself to a shepherd and explains He [the Shepherd]calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
In the Hebrew Bible, God called a few people by name. He yelled, “Abraham!” to test a man’s faith who would father nations (Gen. 22:11). When a humble man from a broken home paused to look twice at a burning bush in the wilderness God shouted, “Moses! Moses!” (Exod. 3:4) It’s rare, but when God had big plans for people-revolutionary plans- He called them by name.
Many years later, in John 20, a woman goes on a walk in the darkness of an early Sunday morning searching for a dead savior.
John’s account doesn’t explain why this woman seeks Jesus’ tomb. Joseph of Arimathea had already prepared the body for burial. Yet, even so, any grieving person can imagine the scene. Here is a woman plundered by a fallen acacia tree of grief that is resting on her lungs. She’s not sleeping; she’s wandering the streets of Jerusalem, numb. Empty. Unable to remember to gasp for air.
Then, after wandering all night a homing dove in her soul leads her to the tomb of her beloved where she can at least collapse onto the cold stone that seals his body. Her fingertips can desperately clutch the granite that encases him.
Yet, as she reaches out in the night to grasp the stone, her hand meets air, and she stumbles into the darkness. More emptiness. There is nothing there to steady her. It’s as barren in that tomb as it is in her heart, and this realization breaks her in two. She collapses back out of the hole in the wall, and weeps (John 20:11).
Two angels, who she is too soul shattered to recognize, ask her why she’s crying and she answers in desolate monotone, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where to find him.”
This is a woman incapable of functioning because of separation from God.
She’s driven to irrationality, braving the first century night alone, a woman, in search of a dead body. She’s desperate for Him. The living Him. She’s aching for his touch. Her heart is screaming to hear his voice. Her steps were set in the rhythm of his steps for years, and now that those footprints are swooshed from the sand she can’t find her way home.
All the men went home (John 20:10).
Then this woman, in a lineage of strong Biblical ‘daughters of….’, ‘second wives of…..’, and ‘beautiful in form and fair’ maidens, turns around and seeks God one more time.
She implores of the gardener, “Tell me where you have laid him!”
And her Jesus, the Shepherd, says to her, “Mary.”
Not, Mary, wife of John, or Mary, daughter of Elijah. Not Mary, beautiful in form and fair. Not woman.
(He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out-John 10:3).
Rabboni! She cried.
(They know his voice-John 10:4).
She clung to Him. Do not hold on to me, He said to her. Go to my brothers and tell them. Tell the brothers the Resurrection Story. Tell the brothers the first Gospel message.
Mary, you are the first called out by name. Go tell the brothers.
(There will be one flock, and one Shepherd-John 10:16).
Not one word in the 4th Gospel was penned without deep literary significance.
But it’s not just a well-written story. The Resurrection Story is Good News because this same Good Shepherd knows your name. Others may call you, “Jacob’s Grandmother,” or, “Alex’s Wife.” Your inner voice may label you, “Barren,” or “Broken.” The world may classify you as “The Black man,” or “Elderly.” But Jesus, Jesus knows your name, and He is calling you into something important. He’s calling you into the Resurrection story. Let us be called out and declare together, as we experience the Living Christ, in the words of Mary Magdalene, I have seen the Lord! (John 20:18).
"Mary!” Jesus said. She turned to him and cried out, “Rabboni!” (which is Hebrew for “Teacher”). “Don’t cling to me,” Jesus said, “for I haven’t yet ascended to the Father. But go find my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”Mary Magdalene found the disciples and told them,“I have seen the Lord!” Then she gave them his message. (John 20:17-19)
Tiffany Dahlman Spiritual Director and M.Div. student at Asbury Theological Seminary Worships with the Helen Street Church of Christ Fayetteville, NC