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Fall 2004 · Vol. 33 No. 2 · pp. 225–227 

Book Review

God Among Us: Studies in the Gospel of John

Raymond Bystrom. Luminaire Studies. Winnipeg, MB and Hillsboro, KS: Kindred, 2003. 339 pages.

Reviewed by V. George Shillington

Raymond Bystrom’s commentary on the Gospel of John, God Among Us, is a welcome addition to the Luminaire Studies. This volume stands out as one of the more substantive works in that series. And no wonder: Bystrom focused on the Fourth Gospel during his doctoral studies in the 1970s. The real strength of this volume, however, comes in the subsections titled “Application, Teaching/Preaching Points.” Again, no surprise here: the author is an Associate Professor of Pastoral Ministry at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California. {226}

Like other volumes in the series, God Among Us follows a four-part analysis of each selected unit of text: “The Form and Flow of the Text,” “The Text Explained,” “Application, Teaching/Preaching Points,” and “Personal Reflection Questions.” This structure, together with accessible language, makes the commentary “suitable for personal study or group interaction” (back cover). Unfortunately, gender exclusive language did slip in, presumably from Bystrom’s use of the RSV (not NRSV), e.g., “all men” (301).

The division of the book into two principal parts of twelve chapters each is meant to accommodate a two-term study of twelve weeks each. This pragmatic division should not be confused with the distinctive literary structure of the Fourth Gospel.

The “Introduction to John’s Gospel” (1-11) covers the usual concerns of a modern introduction to a biblical book: “Who is the author of John?” (1-4), “What makes John unique?” (4-8), “When was John written?” (8-9), and “Why was John written?” (9-11). Noticeably missing from the introduction, however, are more recent, and very fruitful, ways of reading John: socio-rhetorical, literary-narrative, political, to name a few. Bystrom points to “the narrator” a few times (e.g., 84, 281), but mostly to “the author” (214), or simply “John” (214, 296). “Narrator” and “author” are hardly interchangeable figures!

While Bystrom compares John with the synoptic Gospels in the introduction (4-8), and also at various points in the commentary, happily he does not attempt a forced “harmony” of John with the Synoptics. The Fourth Gospel has its own portrait of Jesus as Revealer of divine wisdom (logos), and Bystrom admirably lets that portrait shine through in his exposition.

At points this commentary neglects to deal specifically with particular texts within a unit under review. For example, in John 4 (the narrative about Jesus and the Samaritan woman, 83-89), verse 22 is left unexamined: “You (plural) worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” Who are the “you” here? And who are the “we?” And what can we infer from the dictum on Jesus’ lips, “salvation is from the Jews?” As Bystrom affirms, John 4 is about the breaking down of barriers between peoples. Still we are left wondering how to understand the idea that salvation is from “the Jews” (who are elsewhere in John disparaged, belonging to “the world”). Likewise, at John 8:44 (149) the deeply troublesome word from Jesus is not cited in the commentary, and therefore not fully unpacked: “You (“the Jews”) are of your father the devil.” It is troublesome in our postholocaust culture, where anti-Semitism continues to {227} fester. Perhaps it is time to retranslate hoi Ioudaioi (“the Jews”) with another term: “Judeans” perhaps?

One can do only so much in a commentary of this nature. Professor Bystrom has done much. And I have no doubt that he could have done much more in exploiting the literary and theological potential of the Fourth Gospel, especially so if the Luminaire Studies allowed for short essays at the back. Great themes that make up the tapestry of John could have been laid out in a set of essays: symbolism such as light and water, the central theme of love, new community, transfer/translation motif, kingship, etc.

Without doubt, this is a good commentary on John. It stands within a long line of respectable traditional commentaries on John. Preachers will rejoice to find good sermon material in the sections devoted to preaching, including first class sermon titles: “Who is in charge here?” (296), “Religion without soul” (296), “Jesus’ presence in life’s struggles” (332).

I hope preachers and group leaders will place this commentary prominently in their library for ready reference in their ministry.

V. George Shillington
Professor Emeritus of Biblical and Theological Studies
Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Manitoba

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