Seeing the Literary Structure of John 2–4

close up shot of bible text

The first step in understanding any book of the Bible is to see what is there and especially how the biblical author has arranged his material. In the case of the Gospels, for instance, it is important to remember Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did not turn on their iPhones and hit record. While we have plenty of quotations from Jesus, nearly all of them have been translated from Aramaic and brought to mind by the Holy Spirit (John 14:26). This means we do not have Jesus’s spoken words in red letters. What we have are the Spirit-breathed words of God penned by the apostles.

In each book, the Spirit leads the authors to present Jesus in a coherent fashion. In Matthew’s Gospel, for example, Jesus is the Son of Abraham, the Son of David, the true Israel, and the prophet like Moses, to name a few ways he is presented. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is introduced as the true tabernacle (John 1:14), in whom the fullness of God dwells bodily. Throughout John’s Gospel, this theme of Jesus as the true and better temple will repeat (see e.g., John 2:19–22; 14:1–3).

Reading the Gospels on their own terms, therefore, becomes imperative for understanding their message. Harmonizing the Gospels (i.e., comparing Matthew to Mark to Luke to John) has its place, but it is far better to let the Evangelist speak each in his own way. When we do that, and stop strip-mining the text to find sources behind the Bible, we see how the Evangelists made their case for Jesus as God’s the Son, the long-awaited Messiah. To that end, this blogpost will consider one section of one Gospel—John 2–4.

Seeing John’s Literary Structure

In John’s Gospel, I have been amazed at how much effort he puts into organizing his material. Far from just presenting a different view of Christ (different from the Synoptics), John arranges his material with precision and literary skill. For starters, this is seen in the way he employs a chiastic structure in John 1:1–18. It continues in the way John introduces Jesus with seven days in John 1:19–2:25. And in John 2–4, we also find further evidence for literary structure. In particular, we find a geographical arrangement in the locations where Jesus travels, and this regional outline is combined with a personal comparison between Nicodemus and John the Baptist.

Without getting into all the details, let offer two charts that outline these structures. The first follows the location where Jesus is; the second highlights the way John compares the unbelief of Nicodemus to the faith of John.

So, first, in chiastic fashion, Jesus begins his ministry in Cana, then travels through Galilee, and passes through Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria (the same order that Luke employs in Acts 1:8), before going back through Galilee and landing in Cana. Here is the outline with a few notes.

2:1–11 2:12 2:13–3:21 3:22–36 4:1–42 4:43–45 4:46–54
Cana in

Galilee

Capernaum

(in Galilee)

Jerusalem Courts Judea Samaria

The Well

Galilee Cana in

Galilee

Jerusalem House Samaritan Homes
Wedding with family + disciples

Levitical city (?) – purification jars

Mother

Brothers

Disciples

Pharisees and the Ds (2:13–25)

Nicodemus (3:1–21)

John the Baptist Samaritan Woman
(4:1–24)

Samaritans & Disciples (4:25–42)

Hometown Raised son Gentile (?) Official
Night (3:2) Day Midday (4:6)
Passover (2:23) Passover (4:45)

The second literary structure, found in John 3, is personal, and it contrasts Nicodemus and his response to Jesus (3:11) with John the Baptist and his response to Jesus (3:30). Ironically, both of these priestly figures are going to lose their ministry because Jesus has come, but only one responds in faith. By the end of the Gospel Nicodemus will respond in faith, but not at the beginning. And this can be seen most clearly when we compare Nicodemus to John.

Nicodemus and Jesus

The New Birth

The Pharisees and the Baptist

Baptism in the Spirit

John 3:1–15

Night

Nicodemus: Asking a Rabbi (v. 2)

The Ruling Priest Who Doesn’t Understand

“How Can These Things Be” (v.9)

John 3:22–30

Day

John’s Disciples: Asking a Rabbi (v. 26)

The Prophetic Priest Who Does Understand

“He Must Increase, I Must Decrease” (v. 30)

A Theological Explanation of the Son

John 3:16–21

16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

A Theological Explanation of the Spirit

John 3:31–36

31 He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. 32 He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. 33 Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. 34 For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. 35 The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.

In addition to the two responses in John 3, we can also see the way regeneration (new birth) and baptism in the Spirit relate to one another. Theologically, regeneration and baptism in the Spirit are concurrent, even if distinguished by different economic roles in the Trinity. Yet, here in John, by reading John 3:1–21 in parallel with John 3:22–26, we find an exegetical reason for bringing these two ideas together.

Indeed, there is a lot more we can draw out from these verses, but it begins by seeing the structure of text. Perhaps you have seen even more in John 3 or in John 2–4. If so, let me know in the comments. Sunday, I will, Lord willing, preach John 3:22–26, and this outline of John 3 is where I will begin and then move to see, hear, and learn all that God has for us in John’s Gospel.

To that end, let us continue to read the Bible on its own terms and proclaim it as the good news that it is.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Post Script: More Structural Help from Jim Hamilton

After posting this blog, I read Jim Hamilton’s commentary on John. In his section on John 3:22–36, he offers another informative chart. Here it is, showing even more the way John has organized his chapter to compare and contrast Nicodemus and John the Baptist.

TABLE 1.3: Parallels between John 3:25–36 and 3:1–21[1]

John 3:25–36 John 3:1–21
3:25: Dispute over purification between John’s disciples and a Jew. 3:1–2: Nicodemus comes to Jesus.
3:26: All going to Jesus for baptism. 3:5: Jesus tells Nicodemus of the cleansing birth of water and spirit.
3:27: The Baptist says a man cannot receive anything unless it is given him from heaven. 3:11: Jesus charges Nicodemus with not receiving his testimony.
3:28–29: Christ the bridegroom will initiate the new covenant. 3:3–8: The new covenant will be marked by regeneration and cleansing of the Spirit.
3:31: Contrast between what is from earth and what is from heaven. 3:12: Contrast between what is from earth and what is from heaven.
3:31: Jesus is the one who has come down from heaven. 3:13: Jesus is the Son of Man descended from heaven.
3:32: Jesus testifies to what he has seen and heard, and none receive his testimony. 3:11: Jesus testifies to what he has seen and knows, but his testimony is not received.
3:33: Those who receive Jesus’ testimony set their seal that God is true. 3:21: Those whose works are wrought in God do what is true.
3:34: Jesus utters the word of God because God gives him the Spirit without measure. 3:3–8: Jesus describes the new birth that the Spirit brings about (cf. 6:63).
3:35: The Father loves the Son. 3:16: God loves the world.
3:36: Those who believe Jesus have life; those who disobey Jesus have the wrath of God remaining on them.  3:15–21: Those who believe Jesus have life; those who do wicked things are condemned.

[1] Jim Hamilton, John in The ESV Expository Commentary, 80.

Photo by Joshua Hurricks on Pexels.com