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Home > Fathers of the Church > The Harmony of the Gospels (Augustine) > Book IV, Chapter 10

The Harmony of the Gospels, Book IV

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Chapter 10. Of the Evangelist John, and the Distinction Between Him and the Other Three.

11. John remains, between whom and others there is left no comparison to be instituted. For, however the evangelists may each have reported some matters which are not recorded by the others, it will be hard to prove that any question involving real discrepancy arises out of these. Thus, too, it is a clearly admitted position that the first three — namely, Matthew, Mark, and Luke — have occupied themselves chiefly with the humanity of our Lord Jesus Christ, according to which He is both king and priest. And in this way, Mark, who seems to answer to the figure of the man in the well-known mystical symbol of the four living creatures, either appears to be preferentially the companion of Matthew, as he narrates a larger number of matters in unison with him than with the rest, and therein acts in due harmony with the idea of the kingly character whose wont it is, as I have stated in the first book, to be not unaccompanied by attendants; or else, in accordance with the more probable account of the matter, he holds a course in conjunction with both [the other Synoptists]. For although he is at one with Matthew in the larger number of passages, he is nevertheless at one rather with Luke in some others. And this very fact shows him to stand related at once to the lion and to the steer, that is to say, to the kingly office which Matthew emphasizes, and to the sacerdotal which Luke introduces, wherein also Christ appears distinctively as man, as the figure which Mark sustains stands related to both these. On the other hand, Christ's divinity, in virtue of which He is equal to the Father, in accordance with which He is the Word, and God with God, and the Word that was made flesh in order to dwell among us, in accordance with which also He and the Father are one, has been taken specially in hand by John with a view to its recommendation to our minds. Like an eagle, he abides among Christ's sayings of the sublimer order, and in no way descends to earth but on rare occasions. In brief, although he declares plainly his own knowledge of the Lord's mother, he nevertheless neither unites with Matthew and Luke in recording His nativity, nor associates himself with all the three in relating His baptism; but all that he does there is simply to present the testimony delivered by John in a lofty and sublime fashion, and then, quitting the company of these others, he proceeds with Him to the marriage in Cana of Galilee. And there, although the evangelist himself mentions His mother by that very name, He nevertheless addresses her thus: Woman, what have I to do with you? In this, however, [it is to be understood that] He does not repel her of whom He received the flesh, but means to convey the conception of His divinity with special fitness at this time, when He is about to change the water into wine; which divinity, likewise, had made that woman, and had not itself been made in her.

12. Then, after noticing the few days spent in Capharnaum, the evangelist comes again to the temple, where he states that Jesus spoke of the temple of His body in these terms: Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up: in which declaration emphatic intimation is given not only that God was in that temple in the person of the Word that was made flesh, but also that He Himself raised the said flesh to life, in the veritable exercise of that prerogative which He has in His oneness with the Father, and according to which He does not act separately from Him; whereas it will perhaps be found that, in all other passages, the phrase which Scripture employs is one to the effect that God raised Him: neither is there any such expression found anywhere else as that, when God raised Christ, Christ also raised Himself, because He is one God with the Father; which is the import of the passage now before us, in which He says, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.

13. Then how great and how divine are the words reported to have been spoken with Nicodemus! From these the evangelist proceeds again to the testimony of John, and brings before our notice the fact, that the friend of the bridegroom cannot but rejoice because of the bridegroom's voice. In this statement He gives us to understand that the soul of man neither has light derivable from itself, nor can have blessing, except by participation in the unchangeable wisdom. Thereafter he carries us on to the case of the woman of Samaria, in connection with which mention is made of the water, whereof if a man drinks, he shall never thirst again. Once more, he brings us again to Cana of Galilee, where Jesus had made the water wine. In that narrative he tells us how He spoke to the nobleman, whose son was sick, in these terms: Unless you see signs and wonders ye believe not: in which saying He aims at lifting the mind of the believer high above all things mutable, so that He would not have even the miracles themselves, which, however they may bear the impression of what is divine, are yet wrought in the instance of what is changeable in bodies, made objects of seeking on the part of the faithful.

14. Next he brings us back to Jerusalem, and tells the story of the healing of the man who had an infirmity of thirty-eight years' standing. What words are spoken on this occasion, and how ample is the discourse! Here we are met by the sentence, The Jews sought to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath, but said also that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God. In this passage it is made sufficiently plain that He did not speak of God as His Father in the ordinary sense in which holy men are in the habit of using the phrase, but that He meant that He is His equal. For, a little before this, He had said to those who were impeaching Him with violating the Sabbath day, My Father works hitherto, and I work. Then their fury flamed forth, not merely because He said that God was His Father, but because He wished it to be understood that He was equal with God, when He used the phrase, My Father works hitherto, and I work. In which utterance He also shows it to be matter of course that, as the Father works, the Son should work also; because the Father does not work without the Son. And this is in accordance with what He states a little further on in the same passage, when these parties were incensed at His declaration, namely, For whatever things He does, these also does the Son likewise.

15. Then at length John descends to bear company with the other three, whose course is with the same Lord, but upon the earth, and joins them in recording the feeding of the five thousand men with the five loaves. In this narrative, however, he is the only one who mentions, that when the people wished to make Him a king, Jesus departed into a mountain Himself alone. And in making that statement, his intention appears to me to have been just to communicate to the reasonable soul the truth, that Christ reigns over our mind and reason purely in a sphere in which He is exalted above us, in which He has no community of nature with men, and in which He is verily by Himself alone, as He is the Father's only fellow. This, however, is a mystical truth, which escapes the cognizance of carnal men, whose life creeps upon the lower soil of this earth, just because it is so sublime a mystery. Hence Christ Himself also departs into the mountain from the men whose habit is to seek for His kingdom with earthly conceptions of it. Thus is it that He expresses Himself elsewhere to this effect, My kingdom is not of this world. And this, again, is something which is reported only by John, who soars high over earth in a kind of ethereal flight, and delights himself in the light of the Sun of righteousness. Then, on passing from the narrative connected with this mountain, and from the miracle of the five loaves, he still keeps company with the same three for a little while, until the notice of the crossing of the sea is reached, and the occasion on which Jesus walked upon the waters. But at this point he at once rises again to the region of the Lord's discourses, and relates those words, so grave, so lengthened, so sustainedly lofty and elevated, which had their occasion in the multiplying of the bread, when He addressed the multitudes to the following effect: Verily, verily, I say unto you, you seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled. Labour not for the meat which perishes, but for that meat which endures unto everlasting life. After which sayings, He continues to discourse in similar terms for a very long period, and in the most exalted strain. At that time, some fell away from the sublime teaching of such words, namely, those who walked no more with Him afterwards. But there were also those who did cleave to Him; and these were they who were able to receive the meaning of this saying, It is the spirit that quickens, but the flesh profits nothing. For surely it is true, that even through the flesh it is the spirit that profits, prodest. Some editions read et carni, etc. = the spirit profiteth even the flesh. [The erroneous view of the term flesh leads to this explanation. It has already in this passage an ethical sense, which Augustine ignores.—R.] }--> and the spirit alone that profits; whereas the flesh without the spirit profits nothing.

16. Next we come to the passage where His brethren — that is to say, His relations according to the flesh — urge Him to go up to the feast-day, in order that He may have an opportunity of making Himself known to the multitude. And here, again, how supremely elevated is the tone of His reply! My time is not yet come, but your time is always ready. The world cannot hate you; but me it hates, because I testify of it that the works thereof are evil. So it is the case, then, that your time is always ready, because ye desire that kind of day to which the prophet refers when he says, But I have not laboured following You, O Lord; and the day of man I have not desired, You know: that is to say, to soar to the light of the Word, and to desire that day which Abraham desired to see, and which he saw, and was glad. And again, how wonderful, how divine, how sublime are the words which John represents Him to have spoken after He had gone up to the temple, at the time of the feast! They are such as these: that where He was about to go, there they could not come; that they both knew Him, and knew whence He was; that He who sent Him is true, whom they knew not, which is much the same as if He had said, You both know whence I am, and know not whence I am. And what else did He wish to be understood by such utterances, but that it was possible for Him to be known to them according to the flesh, in respect of lineage and country, but that, so far as regarded His divinity, He was unknown to them? On this occasion, too, when He spoke of the gift of the Holy Spirit, He showed them who He was, inasmuch as He could hold the power of bestowing that highest boon.

17. Again, how weighty are the things which this evangelist reports Jesus to have spoken, when He came back to the temple from Mount Olivet, and after the forgiveness which He extended to the adulteress, who had been brought before Him by His tempters, as one deserving to be stoned: on which occasion He wrote with His finger upon the ground, as if He would indicate that people of the character of these men would be written on earth, and not in heaven, as He also admonished His disciples to rejoice that their names were written in heaven! Or, it may be that He meant to convey the idea that it was by humbling Himself (which He expressed by bending down His head) that He wrought signs upon the earth; or, that the time was now come when His law should be written, not, as formerly, on the sterile stone, but on a soil which would yield fruit. Accordingly, after these incidents, He affirmed Himself to be the light of the world, and declared that he who followed Him would not walk in darkness, but would have the light of life. He said, also, that He was the beginning which also discoursed to them. By which designation He clearly distinguished Himself from the light which He made, and presented Himself as the Light by which all things have been made. Consequently, when He said that He was the light of the world, we are not to take the words to bear simply the sense intended when He addressed the disciples in similar terms, saying, You are the light of the world. For they are compared only to the kindled light, which is not to be put beneath a bushel, but to be set upon a candlestick; as He also says of John the Baptist, that he was a burning and shining light. But He is Himself the beginning, of whom it is likewise declared, that of His fullness have all we received. On the occasion presently under review, He asserted further that He, the Son, is the Truth, which will make us free, and without which no man will be free.

18. Next, after telling the story of the giving of sight to the man who was blind from his birth, John tarries for a space over the copious discourse to which that incident gave occasion, on the subject of the sheep, and the shepherd, and the door, and the power of laying down His life and taking it again, wherein He gave token of the supreme might of His divinity. Thereafter, he relates how, at the time when the feast of the dedication was being celebrated in Jerusalem, the Jews said to Him, How long do you make us to doubt? If you be the Christ, tell us plainly. And then he reports the sublime words which the Lord uttered when the opportunity thus arose for a discourse. It was on this occasion that He said, I and my Father are one. After this, again, he brings before us the raising of Lazarus from the dead: in connection with which miracle the Lord said, I am the resurrection and the life: he that believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever lives and believes in me shall never die. In these words what do we recognise but the sublimity of the Godhead of Him, in fellowship with whom we shall live for ever? Once more, John joins Matthew and Mark in what is recorded about Bethany, where the scene took place with the precious ointment which was poured upon His feet and His head by Mary. And then, on to the Lord's passion and resurrection, John keeps by the other three evangelists, but only in so far as his narrative engages itself with the same places.

19. Moreover, so far as regards the Lord's discourses, he does not cease to ascend to the sublimer and more extended utterances of which, from this point also, He delivered Himself. For he inserts a lofty address which the Lord spoke on the occasion when, through Philip and Andrew, the Gentiles expressed their desire to see Him, and which is introduced by none of the other evangelists. There, too, he reports the remarkable words which were spoken again on the subject of the light which enlightens and makes men the children of light. Thereafter, in connection with the Supper itself, of which none of the evangelists has failed to give us some notice, how affluent and how lofty are those words of Jesus which John records, but which the others have passed over in silence! I may instance not only His commendation of humility, when He washed the disciples' feet, but also that marvellously overpowering and pre-eminently copious discourse which the Lord delivered to the eleven who remained with Him after His betrayer had been indicated by the morsel of bread, and had gone out. It was in this discourse, over which John lingers long, that He said, He that has seen me, has seen the Father also. It was in it, too, that He expressed Himself so largely about the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, whom He was to send to them, and about His own glory, which He had with the Father before the world was, and about His making us one in Himself, even as He and the Father are one — not that He and the Father and we should be one, but that we should be one as they are one. And many other things of a wonderfully sublime order did He utter in that connection. But who can fail to see that to discuss such themes in any manner that would be worthy of them, even if we were competent to do so, is at least not the task which we have undertaken in the present effort? For our object is to help those who are lovers of the Word of God and students of holy truth to understand that, in his Gospel, John was indeed an announcer and preacher of the same Christ, the true and truthful One of whom the other three who have composed Gospels also testified, and to whom the rest of the apostles likewise bore witness, who, although they did not take in hand the construction of written narratives, did at least discharge the kindred service in officially preaching of Him: but that, at the same time, he was borne to far loftier heights in the doctrine of Christ from the very beginning of his book, and that it was but on rare occasions that he kept to the level pursued by the others. These occasions were the following in particular, namely: first by the Jordan, in reference to the testimony of John the Baptist; secondly, on the other side of the sea of Tiberias, when the Lord fed the multitudes with the five loaves, and walked upon the waters; thirdly, in Bethany, where He had the precious ointment poured over Him by the devotion of a woman of faith. And so he proceeds, until he meets them at the time of the Passion, which, as matter of course, he had to relate in conjunction with them. But, even in that section, and on the particular subject of the Lord's Supper, which has been left unnoticed by none of them, he has presented us with a much more affluent statement, as if he drew his materials directly from the treasure-store of that bosom of the Lord on which it was his wont to recline. Then, again, [John shows us how] He astonishes Pilate with words of a sublimer import, declaring that His kingdom is not of this world, and that He was born a King, and that He came into the world for this purpose, that He might bear witness to the truth. [It is in this Gospel also that] He withdraws Himself from Mary with some deep mystical intention after His resurrection, and says to her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father. It is here, too, that He imparts the Holy Spirit to the disciples by breathing on them giving us thereby to understand that this Spirit who is consubstantial and co-eternal with the Trinity, should not be considered to be simply the Spirit of the Father, but should also be held to be the Spirit of the Son.

20. Finally, He here commits His sheep to the care of Peter, who loves Him, and thrice confesses that love, and then He states that He wills this very John so to tarry until He comes. In which utterance, again, He seems to me to have conveyed in a profound and mystical way the fact that this evangelical stewardship of John's, in which he is borne aloft into the most liquid light of the Word, where it is possible to behold the equality and unchangeableness of the Trinity, and in which, above all, we see at what a distance from all others in respect of essential character that humanity stands by whose assumption it occurred that the Word was made flesh, cannot be clearly discerned and recognised until the Lord Himself comes. Consequently, it will tarry thus until He comes. At present it will tarry in the faith of believers, but hereafter it will be possible to contemplate it face to face, when He, our Life, shall appear, and when we shall appear with Him in glory. But if any one supposes that with man, living, as he still does, in this mortal life, it may be possible for a person to dispel and clear off every obscurity induced by corporeal and carnal fancies, and to attain to the serenest light of changeless truth, and to cleave constantly and unswervingly to that with a mind thoroughly estranged from the course of this present life, that man understands neither what he asks, nor who he is that put such a supposition. Let such an individual rather accept the authority, at once lofty and free from all deceitfulness, which tells us that, as long as we are in the body, we are absent from the Lord, and that we walk by faith and not by sight. And thus, with all perseverance keeping and guarding his faith and hope and charity, let him look forward to the sight which is promised, in accordance with that earnest which we have received of the Holy Ghost, who shall teach us all truth, when God, who raised up Jesus Christ from the dead, shall also quicken our mortal bodies by His Spirit that dwells in us. But before this body, which is dead by reason of sin, is quickened, it is without doubt corruptible, and presses down the soul. And if, in the body, man is ever helped to reach beyond the cloud with which the whole earth is covered, — that is to say, beyond this carnal darkness with which the whole life of earth is covered — it is simply as if he were touched with a rapid coruscation, only to sink swiftly into his natural infirmity, the desire surviving by which he may again be excited (to what is evil), and the purity being insufficient to establish him (in what is good). The more, however, any one can do this, the greater is he; while the less he can do so, the less is he. And if the mind of a man has as yet had no such experience — in which mind nevertheless Christ dwells by faith— he ought to strive earnestly to diminish the lusts of this world, and to make an end of them by the exercise of moral virtue, walking, as it were, in the company of these three evangelists with Christ the Mediator. And, with the joy of large hope, let him in faith hold Him who is always the Son of God, but who, for our sakes, became the Son of man, in order that His eternal power and Godhead might be united with our weakness and mortality, and, on the basis of what is ours, make a way for us in Himself and to Himself. That a man may be kept from sinning, he should be ruled by Christ the King. If he happens to sin, he may obtain remission from Christ, who is also priest. And thus, nurtured in the exercise of a good conversation and life, and borne out of the atmosphere of earth on the wings of a twofold love, as on a pair of strong pinions, so may he be enlightened by the same Christ, who is also the Word, the Word who was in the beginning, the Word who was with God, and the Word who was God; and although that will still be through a glass darkly, it will be a sublime kind of illumination far superior to every corporeal similitude. Wherefore, although it is the gifts of the active virtue that shine pre-eminent in the first three evangelists, while it is the gift of the contemplative virtue that discerns such subjects, nevertheless, this Gospel of John, in so far as it also is in part, will so tarry until that which is perfect comes. And to one, indeed, is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom, to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit. One man regards the day to the Lord; another receives a clearer draught from the breast of the Lord; another is caught up even to the third heaven, and hears unspeakable words. But all, as long as they are in the body, are absent from the Lord. And for all believers living in the good hope, whose names are written in the book of life, there is still in reserve that which is referred to in the words, And I will love him, and will manifest myself unto him. Nevertheless, the greater the advance which a man may make in the apprehension and knowledge of this theme during the time of this absence from the Lord, all the more carefully should he guard against those devilish vices, pride and envy. Let him remember that this very Gospel of John, which urges us so pre-eminently to the contemplation of truth, gives a no less remarkable prominence to the inculcation of the sweet grace of charity. Let him also consider that most true and wholesome precept which is couched in the words, The greater you are, the more humble yourself in all. For the evangelist who presents Christ to us in a far loftier strain of teaching than all the others, is also the one in whose narrative the Lord washes the disciples' feet.

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Source. Translated by S.D.F. Salmond. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 6. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <>.

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