One of my favorite classes in my undergraduate studies at Simpson University was one that covered the Johannine Literature with Dr. Painter. This class mostly focuses on the Gospel of John but also looked at the Epistles of John. Dr. Painter has published a book on the Gospel of John through Wipf & Stock Publishers, which covers this same relevant class material. Anyone who studies John should have a copy of Painter’s book at hand. It is easy to follow, it does not require any reading knowledge of Greek, and it is a relatively short book at about 140 pages. This book,The Gospel of John: A Thematic Approach, is not a commentary, but, rather, a survey of themes. As such, it is not oriented towards scholars and is readily accessible by laypeople. But what is a thematic approach?
Painter argues that the Fourth Gospel is infused with 7 themes and has 2 meta themes that permeate throughout. There is the theme of identity, which explains the origin of Jesus as fully divine. There is the life theme, which tells of Jesus as the Savior who gives life. The festival theme shows Jesus as the fulfillment of all things Jewish. The witness theme shows Jesus is both the One who is sent and the One who sends. The Gospel of John also has a theme of believing; to believe is not merely to have faith but to have whole-hearted devotion and faithfulness to Jesus. In addition to the “signs” that are commonly referred to in this Gospel, there is also the theme of signs, which are basically signposts that point to Jesus and are intended to evoke belief. Finally, the last of the seven themes is that of destiny, which is truthfully all about God’s love that also encompasses judgment, so that those who believe will have eternal life while those who do not remain in their judgment. But the meta themes of revelation, the declaration of Jesus, and response, the call to respond to the revelation, streams throughout these 7 themes. No part of John can be understood correctly without considering these meta themes, and no portion of this Gospel can properly be understood without considering it in relation to the 7 themes and their developments throughout.
The book discusses each of the 7 themes and shows how the meta themes are involved. After discussing these themes in a survey format, Painter provides three case studies of these texts in John and shows how this thematic approach is essential for studying them: John 3:1-21; 6:26-58; and 17.
While he did not set out to replace any commentaries or write the definitive analysis on the Gospel, Painter did accomplish his goal of creating an accessible supplementary tool to commentaries for studying the Fourth Gospel. While not without typographical and grammatical errors, it is a delightful book as it is concise in form and rich in content. The vocabulary of the Gospel of John is “deceptively simple,” because it is truly a theologically deep and complex book. Understanding the themes greatly helps unpacking the theology of John, and this book helps with that important process, which supplements the technical aspects of the existing commentaries.
If you want to read the Gospel of John with new eyes, pick up this book, read about the themes, and then re-read this Gospel. Do as Painter suggested in class and in his book–color your Bible in John with the 7 themes. You might find that reading and coloring gets to be quite fun. Ultimately, through this practice, you will better understand John’s gospel, and, more importantly, you will have a deeper understanding about Jesus’ life and ministry.