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The Significance of the Cross in John’s Gospel

Every year The Living Church’s student essay contest draws several excellent submissions. The first-place essay will be published in the October issue of The Living Church, but several other essays were of such quality that we have decided to publish them here on Covenant.

The cross is an omnipresent reality in the Gospel of John. Rather than the explicit passion predictions employed in the synoptics, the entire symbolic landscape of John operates, through narrative and discourse, to inexorably crescendo toward the image of the cross.[1] When the cross finally does become explicit in the narrative of the passion, both it and the image of the crucified body of Jesus have accumulated a vast breadth and depth of significance, due to the operation of the signs of the first half of the Gospel, and the thematic focus on life and glory built up through them. The result of such a culmination of symbolic threads means that when the Gospel is viewed as a whole, the cross is extraordinarily multivalent in its significance and depiction. In Jörg Frey’s elegant phrasing, “the individual beams of light let varicoloured aspects emerge.”[2] These aspects engage dynamically with one another, becoming neither indistinct nor competitive. For example, in the healing imagery associated with the cross, John is able to bring light, judgment, and healing into symbolic interaction.

The Evangelist so skilfully manipulates the field of symbolic association of the cross and the preceding “signs” that no single “significance” of the cross can be articulated in isolation. It is not adequate to state a direct correlation between one sign and one straightforward meaning. A sign, by its very nature, remains at least partly irreducible: “the metaphorical medium is itself the message.”[3] A sign both invokes and transcends a whole host of associations, conveying more meaning than a description operating only at a literal level could. This is certainly not to say, though, that the meaning of signs is arbitrary, subjectivist, or merely individualistic. Rather, the narratives, dialogues, and theological reflections of the signs, in which the cross is prefigured, work to establish a set of rich meanings, which come to fullest expression in the event of the cross. These meanings gravitate in a complex and dynamic interplay around ideas of glory, suffering, healing, and new life.

The Hour and the Other Signs

The event of the crucifixion does not enter the narrative only at the point when it is narrated, but is prefigured and present in the text from the outset. Furthermore, unique to John’s Gospel, the event of the cross is not distinct from the whole event sequence of passion-death-resurrection-ascension, the great clutch of Easter events that are enfolded in the phrase “the hour,” toward which the narrative’s impetus moves throughout the Gospel.[4] This term appears as early as 2:4, which can be read as already looking ahead to the cross. As Marianne Meye Thompson points out in her commentary, this utterance is in the context of Jesus’ first sign, the miraculous turning of water to wine at the wedding at Cana. The invocation of the hour in conjunction with the signs foreshadows that the glory of Jesus, revealed in the signs, is the same glory that will be most fully manifest on the cross.[5]

The cross is the climax and the vantage point from which the rest of John’s narrative is viewed and toward which the other events recounted in the Gospel are drawn. Deolito Vistar argues persuasively that the cross-and-resurrection event is the “supreme” and “greatest” of all the signs.[6] This is argued based on an understanding of what “signs” are: literary images that function to point away from themselves and reveal truth about something, or someone, else. The Johannine signs are first and foremost Christological, an understanding that helps to integrate the more explicitly “miraculous” signs of the first half of the Gospel with the event of the cross-and-resurrection(-and-ascension): the ultimate sign.

There are other pre-echoes of the cross throughout the Gospel, and these are not limited to the named signs: for Judith Kovacs, for example, the cross is present from the opening passage of John. Kovacs reads “the darkness did not overcome [the light]” (1:5) as “an allusion to the cross … suggest[ing] a specific event in which the forces of darkness unsuccessfully tried to extinguish the light.”[7] Francis Moloney also acknowledges the importance of this interplay when he notes that “earlier indications in the narrative […] point forward to that event [of the cross] and give it content and anticipated meaning.”[8] There seems to be almost no limit to the Johannine passages that can be read in a cruciform way: the light of the cross illuminates, and creatively and dynamically interprets the whole Gospel.

Suffering and Solidarity: Incarnation

The crucifixion as depicted by John is the visceral, full participation of God in human pain in the ultimate expression of divine solidarity. This is a corrective to the misguided idea of John as “spiritual gospel” that has sometimes proliferated,[9] an idea that fails to take into account the fact of John’s complete dependence upon the immense significance of the Incarnation. The Johannine account of the crucifixion is not ethereal or “spiritualized,” but deeply embodied.

The Gospel of John takes as its starting point, both theologically and narratively, the incarnation of the divine Word into mortal human flesh, and this incarnational focus is sustained throughout the text.[10]

The Glory

It is deeply paradoxical that the glory of God is most fully manifested for John in the action of the cross: in the defeat, suffering, and death of Jesus.[11] The cross, as an image and site of meaning, was not a tabula rasa onto which the biblical authors could project any association they wished: it was already deeply embedded in the mentality of those living under the Roman Empire, already replete with symbolic meaning: of the emperor’s brutal authority and might, of the humiliation, shame and torture, and the political obliteration of the bodies of those crucified.[12] The cross’s symbolic function was utterly transformed by John in his presentation of this as the moment of Jesus’ exaltation. This transformation is not an overwriting. Instead, all of these meanings remain symbolically active in the cross, and yet are recontextualized entirely by the whole Easter event.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to articulate the entirety of the symbolic function of every element of John’s depiction of the cross, but it may be worthwhile to mention briefly one or two others that interact with the meanings discussed above. The Johannine articulation of God’s offering of life to all people through the event of the cross (as with all elements of Jesus’ ministry) has a particularly universal tone. This is gestured toward in symbolic form in 19:20: the inscription set on the cross with Jesus’ royal title, which is also his charge of blasphemy, in delicious Johannine irony, is written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. The trilingual inscription proclaims the universal kingship of Jesus over all nations, exalted and glorified by God. The irony and the parody of this scene is the recognition of Jesus’ kingship by humanity as represented by Pilate. The cross is thus reinforced as a throne image in a variety of ways.


One of the most vivid symbolic prefigurations of the cross early in John’s Gospel is the invocation of the image of the fiery serpent lifted up in the account of the Israelites’ sojourn in the desert as narrated in the Book of Numbers (3:11-15). Jesus identifies himself with the serpent, replete with its offer of healing: of restoration to relationship with God after a breach in that relationship constituted by the sinful turning away of the people of God. Inherent within such healing is an honesty on the part of those who have turned away, an acknowledgment of both failure and suffering. Allison deForest examines this image as related to the Johannine use of light in terms of exposure to judgment, and we see here the fruitful but slippery interactions of John’s use of symbols, when they refuse to remain statically confined to one set of meanings. DeForest finds, therefore, that ideas of judgment, honesty, and healing within the image of the serpent, have symbolic resonance with the narratives of the woman of Samaria, and Simon Peter’s restoration after betrayal. For both of these figures, deForest finds, Jesus both asks for and offers honesty about what has gone before in their lives and relationships, with the promise that, having “been gazed upon,” they may be transformed and healed.[13]

Life and Birth

In the Fourth Gospel, the centrality of the motif of life cannot be overlooked. For John, the great purpose of the Father’s sending Jesus into the world is the giving of the gift of eternal life by God to his people.[14] When considering the symbolic crescendo of signs leading to the meaning of the cross, the most pertinent is that of the raising of Lazarus. This episode brings into explicit focus the language and images of death and life, and the new relationship between them. Sandra Schneiders finds that in the Lazarus narrative, “the finality of death lies not in what it terminates but in what it inaugurates,”[15] and the narrative placement of the raising of Lazarus prepares the reader for this extraordinary revelation that will be made most fully by the cross.[16]


John’s Gospel revels in irony as part of its sophisticated literary style. When the symbolic weight borne by the cross is taken into consideration, it is revealed as a site in which we encounter a criminal who is a king, a dying man who gives life to those who kill him, a snake that heals and forgives: a God who, in mortal flesh, wins his victory by being defeated, misunderstood and mocked. The cross is a fountain of life, a throne, and the very path to heavenly glorification.

It is worth contemplating, finally, the implications of this shimmering, eloquent, multifaceted image of the cross in the lives of those who seek to follow the one who was lifted up upon it. The cross is the fullest revelation of the glory of Jesus, full of enfolded associations with healing, birth, victory, solidarity-in-suffering: the whole identity of Christ as the incarnate Son of the God of love is revealed in the image of the cross. The cross therefore becomes suffering redeemed: a greater beacon of hope is hard to imagine. The cross of Jesus is unique, certainly, in its salvific power; and yet from it flows into the lives of all God’s people the potential for suffering to be transformed. To gaze upon the cross is to find healing, and to discover the power of the love of God, over which no darkness can prevail.

Cara Greenham Hancock is a final-year Master of Divinity student at Trinity College Theological School, and is engaged in the selection process for ordination in the Anglican Church of Australia. She works in parish ministry in a lay capacity.

[1] Andrew T. Lincoln. The Gospel According to John. Black’s New Testament Commentaries (London: Continuum, 2005), 153.

[2] Jörg Frey, The Glory of the Crucified One: Christology and Theology in the Gospel of John, trans. Wayne Coppins and Christoph Heilig (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2018), 171

[3] Dorothy Lee, Flesh and Glory: Symbolism, Gender and Theology in the Gospel of John (New York, The Crossroad Publishing Group, 2002), 18.

[4] Richard Bauckham, Gospel of Glory: Major Themes in Johannine Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic), 64-65.

[5] Marianne Meye Thompson, John: A Commentary. The New Testament Library (Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 2015), 68n.

[6] Deolito V. Vistar, The Cross-and-Resurrection: The Supreme Sign in John’s Gospel. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2019), 192.

[7] Judith L. Kovacs, “‘Now Shall the Ruler of This World Be Driven Out’: Jesus’ Death as a Cosmic Battle in John 12:20-36,” Journal of Biblical Literature 114, no. 2 (1995): 231.

[8]Francis J. Moloney, Love in the Gospel of John: An Exegetical, Theological, and Literary Study (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2013), 72.

[9] Frey, The Glory of the Crucified One, 199.

[10] Lee, Flesh and Glory, 29.

[11] Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel, 208.

[12] Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel, 212.

[13]Allison R DeForest, Lifting Up the Serpent in the Gospel of John: The Cross as Restorative Justice (Delhi: Christian World Imprints, 2020), 11.

[14] Lee, Flesh and Glory, 212.

[15] Schneiders, “Death in the Community,” 45.

[16] Schneiders, “Death in the Community,” 50.


Bauckham, Richard. Gospel of Glory: Major Themes in Johannine Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic.

Deforest, Allison R. Lifting Up the Serpent in the Gospel of John: The Cross as Restorative Justice. Delhi: Christian World Imprints, 2020.

Frey, Jörg. The Glory of the Crucified One: Christology and Theology in the Gospel of John. Translated by Wayne Coppins and Christoph Heilig. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2018.

Koester, Craig R. Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2003.

Kovacs, Judith L. “‘Now Shall the Ruler of This World Be Driven Out’: Jesus’ Death as a Cosmic Battle in John 12:20-36.” Journal of Biblical Literature 114, no. 2 (1995): 227-47.

Lee, Dorothy. Flesh and Glory: Symbolism, Gender and Theology in the Gospel of John. New York, The Crossroad Publishing Group: 2002.

Lincoln, Andrew T. The Gospel According to John. Black’s New Testament Commentaries. London: Continuum, 2005.

Moloney, Francis J. Love in the Gospel of John: An Exegetical, Theological, and Literary Study. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2013.

Schneiders, Sandra M. “Death in the Community of Eternal Life.” Interpretation 41 (January 1987): 44-56.

Thompson, Marianne Meye. John: A Commentary. The New Testament Library. Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 2015.

Vistar, Deolito V. The Cross-and-Resurrection: The Supreme Sign in John’s Gospel. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2019.


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