The sojourn of Jesus in Lebanon with his closest disciples marked the end of his Galilean ministry. The incident at Dan, with its apparent element of self‑questioning, was not completely answered by Peter’s confession— indeed, if that particular declaration of faith took place at that occasion. Or even if it did, it is clear from the rest of the conversation that the apostles still did not understand the full implications of Jesus’ messiahship.
The event to which we now turn is even more problematic. Historically speaking, it is impossible to verify. As we shall see, some believe that it represents a post‑resurrection experience of the apostles that has been transposed to this location in the synoptic gospels. Yet, psychologically speaking, the timing is perfect. If the sojourn in Lebanon represents the reaction to defeat, and the question at Dan represents the articulation of the crisis, the transfiguration experience, whatever else may be said about its reality, represents the definitive resolution of the conflict within the mind of Jesus.
The Answer on Mt. Tabor
The Transfiguration, as it is called, like the Baptism‑Temptation story, and like the questioning of the apostles at Dan, to which it is closely connected, forms one of the pivotal points of all three synoptic gospels. In fact, it is in more than one way central to the whole narrative.
According to Matthew and Mark, “after six days” (Luke says “about eight”) after the previous incident, Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him up a high mountain to pray. There is no certainty that the site of this experience was Mt. Tabor in southeastern Galilee. Some commentators suggest that Mt. Hermon, directly to the east of Dan, might be more probable, even with its high slopes covered with snow much of the year. Yet wherever the experience may have taken place, we are told that there Jesus was transformed before their eyes. According to Matthew (17:2-3), “his face shown like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white.” Then “suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him”. The conversation was, according to Luke (9:31), “of his departure which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem”. Then, just as suddenly, after Peter blurted out his own impulsive reaction, “a cloud came and covered them with its shadow ... and a voice came from the cloud saying ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to him’.” (See Mark 9:7-10 and Luke 9:34‑35. The reader is also urged to compare this with Matthew 17:18, where the additional phrase appears, “with him I am well pleased”. In addition, in one ancient Syriac version of Luke there can be found, instead of “Beloved”, the “Chosen One” of Isaiah 42:1.)
Just as suddenly, the whole episode was over. On the way down the mountain, Jesus explained to them that Elijah had returned in the person of John the Baptist. However, “…they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands” (Mt 7:12). Then he cautioned them to be silent about the whole affair.
What are we to make of this event? Many modern commentators act as if the whole thing never took place. Even such a theological moderate as Walter Kasper (Jesus the Christ, 1976) refers to the Transfiguration narrative as simply a “pericope”—a literary unit involving a story and message—without giving any opinion as to its historicity. Others, like Norman Perrin (The New Testament: An Introduction, 1974), see it as a transposition of a post‑resurrection experience placed here, at the end of the Galilean ministry, for symbolic reasons. As such, it would represent the answer to the problem posed by the Matthean injunction (Mt 28:10) that the disciples must journey to Galilee to encounter the risen Christ, something that fails to harmonize with the rest of the synoptic post‑resurrection appearances.
On the other hand, John L. McKenzie, writing in the 1968 Jerome Biblical Commentary (43:118‑119), held that a central mystical experience, equal to importance to the baptismal revelation to Jesus, did occur, but that its reference is not so much to the Resurrection and Parousia (Second Coming), as found in Matthew, but, as in Luke’s rendition, to his “departure” or “passing” (exodon) which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. At the same time, the visionary appearances of Moses and Elijah identify Jesus as being the present fulfillment of the Law as represented by Moses, and the prophets, represented by Elijah. Jesus is seen as bringing to an end that past era, with the Greek word pleroun translated here as “accomplish” literally meaning, “to fulfill” or “complete”. Even Peter’s apparent gibberish about building three “booths” or “tabernacles” has its own Old Testament overtones, because the Jewish feast of Tabernacles—originally a harvest feast—had by then become understood primarily as a commemoration of the forty years that the Israelites had spent wandering in the Sinai desert after their own exodus from Egypt.
Clearly, whatever the historical basis may have been for this whole episode, its message is central to the unfolding drama of God’s plan. It is only through the passion of Jesus, understood as a “Passover”—or more exactly, a “passing through” death—that redemption will be accomplished. Despite such an experience being to some degree, like the Resurrection, “metahistorical” (that is, reaching beyond a specific moment in history) in content and mode, or at least interpreted by the evangelists retrospectively in the light of that event, this still does not automatically exclude the possible, or even probable, occurrence of such an experience in the life of Jesus precisely at this time. Instead, it is hard to explain his determination to go to Jerusalem to almost certain death except in the light of such an experience. However, if the apostles’ faith and determination were to be similarly strengthened by sharing this revelation, as has been sometimes supposed, it seems hardly born out by their behavior at the time of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution. This in turn indicates that not only was their understanding of the episode post‑resurrectional, but possibly, as a mystical experience, even their full sharing of its meaning was possible only long after the event.
It is in the light of this determination of Jesus to go ahead with his mission—cost him what it might—that we might hazard the guess that for him this occurrence contained the final answer to the great problem posed by his baptismal experience and which was only partially answered by his retreat into the desert. If the Old Syriac variant of Luke that uses the Isaian phrase “my chosen one”, which begins the first of the four “Suffering Servant” songs in Isaiah (42:1) instead of “my beloved” as in the other versions of Luke, is any indication, then it was precisely in the role of God’s suffering servant that Jesus was able to understand the mounting tragedy of his life and mission. In any case, it is here that the synoptic gospels represent Jesus as putting it all together. His messiahship and his rejection are two sides of the same coin. To be called “Son of God”, as he is in Matthew’s version of the Peter’s confession at Dan, may seem to contradict, but it in no way avoids the paradox tied up in his role as the mysterious “Son of Man”.
Whether Jesus used this latter title of himself is still widely debated. Some who believe that he did use it also hold that he attached no particular significance to it other than to emphasize his common humanity. Yet would that in turn not seem to imply that he was conscious of something else? On the contrary, it probably makes more sense to see this title as derived from the mysterious apocalyptic figure in Daniel, and whether used by Jesus or not, was eventually recognized to be fulfilled in him.
It appears that the insight provided by the transfiguration experience was some kind of mystical confirmation of what was becoming increasingly evident by any practical assessment of the situation. The Messiah of popular expectation (the royal Messiah/Son of God), the mysterious apocalyptic Son of Man figure of the last days and the Isaian Suffering Servant were both one and the same who Jesus now knew himself to be.
There is a curious parallel to this same paradox found in some of the Essene literature. There we find described a messiah‑like “Teacher of Righteousness” who is to meet a martyr’s fate, only to be vindicated shortly after by a victorious royal Messiah. Of course, this contrast in roles could be seen in the missions of John the Baptist and Jesus—except that Jesus himself meets the same bloody fate. Jesus hardly meets the expectations of a conquering messiah‑king, except in the post‑resurrection elaborations of Christian teachings.
Moving back into the realm of Jesus’ own consciousness, it could be that what we have here, in terms Jungian analysis, is true “individuation” in the fullest sense of the word, one which is more fully integrative or “conjunctive” in the Fowlerian terminology of our faith development scheme. As I see it, the difference in Jesus’ self‑awareness after this event is striking—which also explains my uneasiness with Fowler’s use of the term “individuative‑reflective” instead of simply personal as contrasted to a merely conventional faith. True, the mission and the self‑understanding of Jesus from the time of his baptism was truly and highly individualized in its contrast with Jewish piety in general and to the pharisaic movement as generally understood. Jesus was clearly his own man as much as he was God’s spokesman. He taught on his own authority, unlike the prophets and teachers who invoked God’s name. In this he was different from the rest of God’s spokesmen and he knew it. Moreover, he made no apologies for it.
Yet the picture was still incomplete, even for him. If we are to take him at his word, he could not say for sure when the end‑time, the visible coming of the Kingdom, would occur. It would be soon, he said, the signs of its consummation would begin even during the lifetime of some of his hearers, yet no one, “not even the Son of Man” could know for sure when it would begin (Mk 13:32; Mt 24:36). And note that this ambiguity is attributed to him after the revelation on the mountain, even during the last week of his life! If anything, Jesus seems less sure than ever about God’s plans for the future, except for one thing—his own suffering and dying, and, we must add, his belief in his own resurrection.
What we are perhaps seeing, at this phase in Jesus’ short career, is the beginning of the end, but at the same time, the beginning of his final integration as a person and even of his role as the Christ. Jung tells us that it is the characteristic of the last half of one’s life to come to better terms with one’s “shadow”, that is, one’s neglected or even repressed side. Perhaps Jesus had already done this in his desert retreat and that this was what marks his style, especially his compassion for sinners, for the downtrodden, and for women, as so different from the stern baptizer. Yet he still had to come to terms with his own fate, and this is what could be signified in the accounts of the question to the apostles at Dan and the revelation on the mountain. It is not for mere dramatic effect that each of these events is followed by a prediction of his death and resurrection. In many ways, the questioning and the vision are only prefaces to the predictions themselves.
The full individuation of Jesus’ own faith in his Father could only come about through an integration of what God had in store for him together with what he had already hoped to accomplish for God. What had begun in Galilee in a whirlwind of activity, sometimes so intense that he and his disciples had scarcely time to eat or sleep, now was to be completed by a firestorm of suffering, by a enduring of the taunts and insults, the scorn of indifference, accusations of bad faith, the machinations of authorities, and even betrayal by his disciples. Yet even these were only words, attitudes, and plots. He knew that these would take some time to have their full effect. There was still time to carry on the mission. Not much time, but some. There were still many people eager to hear the good news, especially in and around Jerusalem, among both natives of the city and visitors from other parts. Despite the danger of a premature closure of his already threatened mission, he knew he would have to take the risk of conveying his message right into the heart of the capital.
The Power of Vision
It would seem appropriate at this moment to probe a bit deeper, if we can, into the extraordinary power or influence that such a vision or similar phenomenon can have on a person’s life.
Abraham Maslow is justly famous for his emphasis on what he called “peak experiences” and their potential to transform one’s consciousness, even though, later in his career, he also began to investigate more fully what, in contrast, he called a “plateau experience” or really, state of consciousness.
The former peaks are seen as momentary, even interruptive episodes that may occur as rarely as once or twice in a lifetime, although there are some who would claim to have them much more often than that. A plateau, on the other hand, suggests a more or less steady state of peace and deepened awareness, usually the result of long and arduous discipline involving asceticism, concentrated prayer and meditation. However, it may very well be that the two phenomena can coexist, with someone who lives on a plateau on occasion being transported beyond what has become his or her normal state of awareness. This is what might have been the case with Jesus—the transfiguration being the most outstanding and remarkable incidence of this state attributed to him.
Despite the popularity of Maslow’s original term, we are not talking here about mere moments of bliss, whether they are a deepened sense of the beauty of the world or of another person, or a vague but comforting sense of oneness with all reality. What has been pictured in this episode is an extraordinary rapture, one so astounding that the details, as witnessed by the three specially chosen apostles, Peter, James and John, are repeated in all three of the synoptic gospels with only the slightest variations and is mentioned yet again, in the much later Second Epistle of Peter—the authorship of which has been much disputed, yet which may be even more a sure indication of a major tradition. Yet, as in so many other central points, it is again strangely missing in John, the most “mystical” of the gospels. Still, there can be no question of the significance that the New Testament places upon this episode.
Many would deny the objectivity of the experience, or would locate it entirely within the imagination of the three witnesses who would also remain suspect because of their near total agreement on what they each “saw”. On the other hand, there are those who credit Jesus with a plateau‑like sense of constant divine self‑awareness, and would conclude that the phenomenon, if it occurred at all, only took place for the sake of the apostles and would have left Jesus psychologically unmoved. Contrary to the totally skeptical as well as pious “docetists”—those who continue to see Jesus’ humanity as merely a holy show put on for our sake—it is hard to explain the importance the New Testament places on this episode unless something happened that affected Jesus himself as well.
No doubt, the apostles were greatly impressed by something. However, just what it was, that is, what they actually saw with their eyes, as against what they may have imagined in their minds, whether individually or collectively, or even when the meaning of the experience impressed itself upon them; all this is open to question.
However, we could miss the point entirely if we fail to see this as an experience primarily of Jesus as well. Again, from a psychological perspective, it all fits. This episode was born out of a time of crisis, a point where not only the question—“Who do you say I am?” and the self‑doubt it portrays—but even the answer as well (“You are the Messiah”, including the Matthean addition, “the Son of the Living God”) are forebodings of a coming disaster. They point to a kind of martyrdom that goes far beyond the possibility or even certainty of death. They also point to a coming test of faith that cannot ever be fully resolved until it is too late to reverse the process already set in motion.
This new test of faith is, in a way, even more difficult than a simple but painful matter of accepting one’s fate. In the light of such a vision or experience, faith, in at least one sense, disappears. Those who undergo such a thing can be said to no longer “believe”, but instead truly know (or think they now know) what before they only “took on faith”. Their convictions, which up to this time may have been merely projected analogies—suppositions made about God on the strength of ideas and feelings taken from others, from parents, from other authority figures, or other influences—are replaced by first‑hand experience of the transcendent. They no longer “believe” that God exists. They have “seen” God or have been “touched by God” directly. And more often than not, what they have experienced is, and remains, indescribable.
One would think that to have reached such a pass would be entirely enviable. To the contrary, this is where a new kind of martyrdom begins, that is, if one has the strength to act on the basis of such an experience. A “martyr” in the original sense of the Greek word martyros means a “witness”, one who has spoken out or acted in testimony to what one believes or knows to be true. That many or most such martyrs end up being killed for their convictions is a secondary, though hardly minor, detail. Alive or dead, a martyr must proclaim a faith. The more significant question is whose faith in whom—in God or in one’s own self?
Here we have repeated what is the crucial transition from a merely conventional faith to a truly personal faith, but this time on a whole new level. In the first transition, one usually exchanges an inherited set of beliefs for a new personally chosen set of beliefs, or else, through a truly personal commitment, makes this given set of beliefs one’s own. However, the beliefs or convictions, in a sense, are exterior to oneself: they have been received from elsewhere, or perhaps acquired from serious study or after long experience with life. The next stage, conjunctive faith, normally results from a combination of increased experience and study with perhaps, not infrequently, a certain mellowing or wisdom that often, but unfortunately not always, comes with age.
This time, in the wake of such experiences, the personal element reaches a new depth in a whole new, and sometimes frightening, way. My personal faith can no longer be in God as someone else defines, presents, or mediates God, or God’s image, to me. Instead, once one experiences God directly: no one else’s description or image of God can be substituted for my own. At best, it can only strengthen my own impression—or else, make me doubt myself and my experience all the more!
In a very real sense, then, the experience of God will either destroy faith as we have known it, or will end up destroying all faith in ourselves as well. For faith can no longer merely worship the image of God given to us from elsewhere, but must be able to incorporate our own experiences of God or else become alienated from our deepest intuitions.
The possibility of self‑alienation goes deeper yet. Faith, taken in its most radical and original gospel sense can no longer be trust in a God who speaks to you from “outside”. It must now be a trust in a God who has spoken to you, or touched you in the deepest recesses of your own mind or heart—a God whom you believe has spoken to you from “within”.
Even more this means, that not only you no longer have to “believe” in God, but that most of all you have to believe in yourself and your own experiences, to believe that your own intuitions are not crazy, that your mind has not slipped its moorings and that you are not adrift on a wild sea of self‑delusion. This remains a frightening and very real possibility.
Carl Jung, who of all psychiatrists and psychologists was the most open to mysticism and most insistent that mere belief had to be superseded by direct experience for the human psyche to grow and reach maturity, had no illusions about this. “Religious experience” he wrote “is extra ecclesiam [outside the church], subjective, and liable to boundless error” (C.G.Jung, Psychology and Religion, Collected Works, 74:1938). That Jesus, the most pious of Jews, already found himself regarded as “outside the church”, regarded as an anathema by both the Sadduccees as well as the Pharisees, is obvious enough from both the gospels of Luke and of John. Humanly speaking, he was becoming more and more isolated from all but his closest disciples—whose reliability he knew to be questionable at most. It is no wonder that by this point in his life, his faith, more than ever before, had to be a faith in his own unique experience of God.
This is not to imply that, up to this time, Jesus really had never had a fully in‑depth religious experience. Far from it. It has been argued all along that his consciousness of God as “Father” spoke eloquently of the extraordinary depth of his personal contact with God. From this point of view, what happened on Mt. Tabor, or wherever or however this experience took place, may only represent another in a long line of such revelatory encounters.
Nevertheless, this time, there was one big difference. Until then he could have still turned back and allowed himself to sink into relative obscurity. He had disappointed the masses in Galilee, but he had not alienated them. He could still have been careful to say nothing upsetting to the authorities and to heal the sick and still speak of the loving Father in heaven who looks after everyone, and they, in turn, would have let him sink slowly out of sight.
However, not after this: God had spoken not only to him but also to his most loyal companions, and even brought in the spirits of Moses and Elijah as witnesses to God’s plan. He must, if he is to be obedient, go through with his mission to the end. Now there can be no turning back.
The Mission in Judea
Jesus was no fool. He took his time and apparently planned his moves carefully. John’s gospel speaks of an undercover trip to Jerusalem for the fall feast of Tabernacles and again in December for the Feast of the Dedication. All this is hard to fit into the supposed chronology of the synoptics, but still seems quite plausible. For our purposes however, this renewed and broadened period of ministry serves an important purpose. It illustrates that full integration of faith, including the acceptance of the inevitable, still does not mean a premature capitulation of any sort. The approach of night, as Jesus observed, should spur us to greater activity while there is still the light to see by. Herein is the difference between a prophetic sense of destiny and commitment to action as contrasted to fatalistic cowardice. A mature faith is able to accept death as part of life. A lack of faith is characterized by a rejection of life that would, if it could, rob death of any significance.
To take John’s gospel as representing the historical facts with any accuracy has long been questionable in many scholars’ eyes. Nevertheless, there still may be some merit in Bishop J.A.T. Robinson’s claim that this gospel, at least in parts, despite its thematic structuring and theological embellishment, does contain some of the most accurate and detailed information about Jesus’ final months of ministry in and around Jerusalem.
We often see the objection that Jesus, as presented in the fourth gospel even sounds different, speaking especially of himself in a way that we rarely if ever find in the synoptic gospels. However, the distinction between the three layers of tradition found in the gospels largely solves this difficulty, especially if we think of the famous “I am” sayings as found in John—most particularly those expressing his union with God—as third level material cast into first person speech. It can be occasionally helpful to transpose these first person sayings in John’s gospel into the third person instead of trying to locate the point that divides between what we might conceivably imagine Jesus saying and what obviously ends up as a theological discourse in the author’s words put into Jesus’ mouth. The ancient world was not imperceptive when it called John the Evangelist “the Theologian”, even though such literary devices were still in vogue. As we shall soon see, there may be yet another reason for this language. Nevertheless, in the meantime, there is reason to believe, with Bishop Robinson, that some of the detailed descriptions in the Gospel of John, for example, of places, or of some of the customs, are uncannily accurate, or at least enough so that we can gain some interesting insights from these alone.
For example, why did Jesus first decline to travel to Jerusalem (Jn 7:2‑13) and then, after the others had left, go up secretly, when the feast was half over, suddenly make an appearance in the temple, preaching not so much about the kingdom it seems, but according to what is reported in John, about his own authority to teach and this precisely on matters of interpretation of the Law? (See John 7:14‑24.) John then presents us with a series of theological discourses and debates with the authorities that Jesus seems unlikely to have expected to get away with, yet he as much as defies them to lay a hand on him (see John 7:14 through 10:51). Even the interruption of these discourses by the incident of the adulterous woman (Jn 8:1‑11—a passage judged by some to be from an independent non‑Johannine source) and the curing of the man born blind (the whole of Chapter 9) appear to be calculated to provoke the authorities. If so, these incidents seem to have been particularly effective.
However, we should notice that even these actions were not directed against the abuses of the temple and its ritual that so angered Jesus and which provoked him at an earlier date, according to John 2:13‑17. If this early passage truly reflects a different occasion than the Palm Sunday “cleansing of the temple”, and at the same time is distinct from “the feast of the Jews” (the Passover?) mentioned in John 5:1, then we also must conclude that Jesus was being very bold indeed. If so, the authorities were probably waiting for a repeat performance of that earlier hot‑blooded act. It would be hard to convict him on the basis of anything he was saying—particularly if we follow the synoptics as a more accurate record of the style of his speech. No doubt, some incident in the temple, where the Jewish authorities, as distinct from the Romans, had almost full jurisdiction, was probably eagerly awaited by those who would harm him. Most likely Jesus’ ultra‑cautious approach to Jerusalem, despite his apparent last‑minute change of mind, was really because of his awareness that real danger awaited him and that he would have to assess the situation carefully, in person, before making his final move.
If all this sounds too calculating and not spontaneous enough to qualify as abandonment to the inspiration of the Spirit, I will have to disagree. God rewards us for courage, not for stupidity. The “simplicity” recommended in the gospels is a straight-forwardness born of single‑mindedness or lack of ambivalence. Otherwise, it is hard to imagine it in combination with the wisdom or cunning of the serpent. It does not mean setting ourselves up to be a “pigeon”. A fully integrated faith can combine both qualities; both trust in God and prudential judgment. Fanaticism is neither the mark of true wisdom or true faith—at least not of a faith that has reached a more mature, “conjunctive” stage. No doubt if Jesus had shown up before and upset the moneychanger’s tables and the birdcages, the authorities would have written him off as some provincial fanatic. This time they would not, and Jesus decided to hold his tongue and bide his time. Besides, probably most people saw little harm in this supposedly “sacred commerce”. It was for the convenience of the worshipers was it not, so why not allow it in the temple? Certainly, there were more important issues than that at stake.
Something else is striking about Jesus’ words and conduct at that time. Not that it was different from before, but there seems to be a deeper awareness, not only of the workings of the Spirit within his own life, but within the lives of others as well. This is brought out especially in the long episode of the cure of the man born blind. Without repeating the whole story (Jn 9:1‑41) it is enough to simply point out one saying of Jesus about divine judgment and punishment that all too often even good people of sincere, but misdirected, faith are apt to overlook. “Who sinned”, asked the apostles, “this man, or his parents, that he should be born blind?” “Neither” replied Jesus: if there was a divine reason, he adds, it was so that God’s glory could be demonstrated by this cure—and even here this could be John’s added reasoning. Be that or not, Jesus now sounds a bit different from when he threatened divine punishment on Chorozain, Capharnaum, and Bethsaida for their unbelief. Even if God sometimes allows accidents to happen, he does not single out punishments for the guilty in the manner some people would like to imagine. (Compare this with a remark Jesus made on an earlier occasion about the Galileans executed by Pilate, or the victims of a collapsing tower, as reported in Luke 13:2-5.)
We should also note the story told about him and the woman accused of adultery. Although Jesus hardly condones her sin—as some might think from his lack of rebuking her—he sees everyone to be sinful yet forgivable in God’s eyes. For the truly integrated personality which is typical of conjunctive faith, the law is written in the heart, and that law is above all one of love. The loving sinner is closer to God than the lukewarm “saint”.
Again—although this latter passage seems to have more affinity with Luke’s gospel, especially when it comes to the question of Jesus’ treatment of women—we are still brought back to the issue of the Johannine discourses and their disconcerting language. We have already seen the skepticism these passages elicit from the historical‑minded, as well as hinted how we might be better able to deal with them as theological meditations. However, if we treat them entirely in this manner we are in danger of loosing a something of great importance. True, they may represent an objectification of Jesus’ inner life with the Father by means of a style of language that is peculiar to the Johannine School. Some would see that this imagery, with its dualistic contrasts of light‑darkness, good as opposed to evil, spirit versus flesh, and other almost gnostic‑sounding phrases, as being possibly derived from the Essene literature of the period.
At one period in the history of critical scriptural scholarship, before anything was known about the Essenes other than their name, it was thought that the language of John’s gospel was too theologically sophisticated to belong to Palestinian sources and had to be ascribed to much later, even third or fourth century, Greek Christian writers. Then a fragment of this gospel (now known as the “P46” papyrus) was found in Egypt and carbon dated to the early second century, turning out to be the oldest surviving piece of New Testament manuscript that we presently have. This should be a warning about jumping to conclusions based on hypotheses that happen to explain certain similarities, or, on the other hand, would explain them away. There are even those who have even advanced a theory that John’s gospel also shows clear signs of Buddhist inspiration!
The possibility of John, or even Jesus, having been influenced by the Essenes or even more esoteric ideas is not as far out as some might think, at least if we begin to think more in terms of conjunctive faith. To rule them out as contaminating the simple, stark purity of the synoptics is perhaps to judge more from a cultural bias than strong evidence, one way or another. That the language of the Jesus presented by John is difficult to reconcile with the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke is obvious enough. Still, to ignore, on that account, the insights that the Johannine gospel provides could be a tremendous mistake. Not that the “sayings” of Jesus in John are the ipsissimi verbi—the actual words of Jesus. Instead, they may be better understood as the in‑depth interpretations of John the mystical theologian into the hidden consciousness of Jesus himself. Unless we understand them at least on this level, instead of dismissing them as “unhistorical”, hence valueless as far as trying to understand the “real” Jesus, we will be in great danger of misunderstanding or missing the significance of Jesus altogether. Only those who have failed to reach a more integrated or conjunctive faith could fail to see the deeper, existential realities that lurk beneath the surface of the Johannine narratives.
In a certain sense, Jesus knew himself to be “one” with the Father, existing in the mind of God, the great “I AM”—whose name Yahweh is believed to have been derived from the Hebrew root meaning, “to be”. Hence the frequency of the “I am” sayings found in John, or bold assertions like “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am” (Jn 8:58). So too, if he already sensed that if he was the Messiah‑Son as revealed in the mystical experience on the mountain, then he would also be “lifted up” as the bronze serpent in the desert (see Numbers 21:9). Yet at the same time, must fall into the ground in death to self, much as a single grain of wheat, before his life could bear fruit. The language is strikingly different from the simple aphorisms of the synoptics, no doubt. Still, for those who read the secrets of his heart, like John, the conclusions will ultimately be the same.
Truly, “Never has anyone spoken like this” (Jn 7:41). This was true of Jesus as the world saw him and heard him at the time. Yet for those who had those same eyes to penetrate the outer man or the ears to probe the secrets of his speech, a much deeper and more universal truth emerges. It is a truth that permeates all true religions, indeed, even the most fundamental, and the most profound philosophies of life. Indeed, it is only if we let go of our lives that we shall find them again. It is only in dying that we live.