The Gospel of St. John
19 February 1906, Berlin
Today and next time I am going to speak about the Gospel of St. John. I would mention that what I have to say will only really be comprehensible to those who are already somewhat familiar with spiritual science. It would, however, take us too far out of our way if we went into everything unfamiliar to non-theosophists. You are probably aware that latterly New Testament textual criticism has discredited the John Gospel as an historical source. It is said in theological circles — at least in advanced circles — that the first three gospels, the synoptic gospels, are the only documents relevant to the life of the founder of Christianity. They are called synoptic because they can be taken together to form a general picture of the life of Christ Jesus. On the other hand modern theologians try to interpret the John Gospel as a sort of poetic work, a confession of faith, the writings of a person portraying his feelings, his intimate religious life as it was born in him through the impact of Christianity. Thus the John Gospel could be considered as a devotional work, a deeply felt confession of faith, not as anything that could be taken as Christian historical facts.
But for everyone who immerses himself in the writings of the New Testament, one fact is indisputable: an immediate life flows from the John Gospel, and there is a conviction, a source of truth of a different nature to that proceeding from other religious writings. There is a certainty, which needs no outer confirmation. There is a feeling that comes over one when one meets the John Gospel if one is sensitive to inner soul life and spiritual devotion. Only with the help of spiritual science can one understand why this is so. Many a time have I told you how spiritual science helps towards a more intimate connection with religious documents.
You all know that when one first meets the scriptures one adopts the attitude of a simple person and takes the facts as they are described, without criticism; one takes the bread of religious life from these sources and is satisfied with it.
Many people of our day who had this naive outlook and then became “clever”, became “enlightened”, noticed the contradictions in the gospels. Then they rejected the gospels and lost faith. They said: We cannot reconcile remaining faithful to these writings and seeking wisdom in them with our conscience and our sense of truth. This is the stage of the “clever” ones, the second stage.
Then there is the third way that people approach religious documents. They begin to explain them symbolically. They begin to see symbols and allegories in them. This is the way of free-thinkers, especially in recent times.
Bruno Wille, the editor of the paper “Der Freidenker” (The Free Thinker), has now chosen this way. He has taken to explaining symbolically the Christ myth and the Bible in general. The really necessary way of development that man needs, an inner turning point, cannot follow from this. Those who are less ingenious will explain the scriptures less ingeniously. Others who are more ingenious will be better. Much will be read into it that springs from human ingenuity. The third way is thus a half believing, but arbitrary, attitude.
Then there is quite a different standpoint. One learns that there are realities pertaining to higher worlds, that besides our world of the senses, there are soul-spiritual things, and that religious revelations are not concerned with the sense world but present facts of a higher world. Those who have gotten to know the realities of the astral world which lies behind our sense world, and of the devachanic (or mental world) which lies even deeper, will come to a new and higher understanding of religious sources. It is impossible to understand the John Gospel without rising to such higher worlds. The John Gospel is not a poetic work, nor a writing arising from mere religious fervour, but sets forth revelations from higher worlds that the writer of the gospel has received. It is something like this — I will briefly describe it. The supporting evidence I will not deal with today; perhaps I can go into it next time. The writer of the John Gospel learned, through experience in higher worlds, what took place at “the beginning of our era“ that related to the life of the founder of Christianity, and his acts.
Let me give you an example of the difference between just knowing, and truly comprehending. We have recently mentioned here that someone can be next to us, we can see what he looks like, but we need not necessarily really know him for what he is. I have told the story of the singer who, at an evening party sat between Mendelsohn and someone else she did not know. She got on very well with Mendelsohn, but towards the other guest, though he was very courteous, she felt an aversion. Afterwards she asked, “Who was that bore on my left?” The answer was, “It was the famous philosopher Hegel”. If the lady had been told previously that the great philosopher Hegel would be present at a party, that alone would probably have been enough for her to have accepted the invitation. But because he sat beside her unknown, he was a bore. This is the difference between seeing and understanding, between just knowing and comprehending.
He who was the founder of Christianity could not readily be recognised if one only possessed the ordinary intellect employed in the sense world. It needed that which the Christian mystics so often expressed in profound and beautiful language. This was what Angelus Silesius meant when he said:
Christ were born in Bethlehem a thousand times
There is an inner experience of Christ — there is the possibility to realize inwardly what took place outwardly as events in Palestine between the years 1 and 33 A.D. He who came into this world from higher worlds must be understood from a higher world. And he who portrayed Him most deeply had to raise himself to the two higher worlds we have mentioned, the astral and the devachanic, or mental worlds. This elevation of John, if we so name him, was the elevation into these two higher worlds. His Gospel reveals this to us.
The first twelve chapters contain John's experiences in the astral world. From chapter thirteen onwards it is his experiences in the devachanic, or mental world. He who wrote it down says of Christ (the words are not to be taken literally): Here on this earth He lived, here has He worked with divine powers, with occult powers. He has healed the sick, he has gone through everything from death to resurrection. It is impossible to understand these things with the ordinary intellect. Here on earth there is no science or learning by which one could really understand what occurred. But there is the possibility of rising to the higher worlds. There one can find the wisdom to understand Him who walked here on earth among us. Thus did the writer of the John Gospel rise to the two higher worlds and become initiated. It was an initiation, and the writer describes his initiation into the astral world and the devachanic, or mental world.
In olden times, in regions where man's body was still suited to these things, such an initiation took place as follows. The person had to go through a sort of sleep-state. What now takes several years in a modern European initiation — because the modern European can no longer go through the process I will describe — what today is achieved through long exercises of meditation and concentration, was achieved in a short time by some individuals, after the appropriate exercises of meditation and concentration. I particularly emphasise that anyone who really wishes to receive initiation must, in some form or other, face the two important experiences about to be described — though in a somewhat different way. He must go through a sort of sleep condition. To understand the nature of sleep, let us remind ourselves what takes place when one sleeps. One's higher bodies are then separated from one's lower bodies. Man consists of a physical body, which one can see with one's eyes. The second member is the etheric body which surrounds the physical body and which is much finer than the physical body. Currents and organs of wonderful variety and splendour are active in it. The etheric body contains the same organs as the physical body. It has a brain, heart, eyes etc. They represent the forces which formed the corresponding organs. It is as if one cooled water in a vessel until it becomes ice. In this way you should picture the arising of the physical organs through the densifying of the etheric organs. The etheric body extends only a little beyond the physical body.
The third member is the astral body. It is the bearer of desires, wishes, passions, etc. It permeates the physical body in the form of a cloud. There are colours — violent passions appear as lightning flashes. The peculiarities of temperament glide through the body in glowing points of varying intensity.
The whole inner man is expressed in a luminous form. This is the real ego of man, the bearer of the higher centre of his being. In normal sleep the physical and etheric bodies are lying in bed. They are closely united. The astral body and all the rest is separated. As long as one does not do anything particular one is unconscious when the astral body is outside the physical body. One is as unconscious as one would be in the physical world without eyes or ears. One could live as long as one liked in the physical world; if one had no eyes there would be no colours, if one had no ears there would be no sound. So it is when the astral body is outside the physical body. It is spread out in the soul world, but one does not see this world or become aware of it because one has no astral sense organs. They must gradually be formed. If a person does not practice exercises he remains unconscious in higher worlds. But if he does practice then he can attain consciousness in these higher worlds. When his astral body acquires organs he begins to see the astral world around him. Those of you who have often attended these lectures will know that there are seven such organs. They are called wheels, chakrams or lotus flowers. The two-petalled lotus flower lies between the eyes — between the eye-brows, the sixteen-petalled lies in the region of the larynx, the twelve-petalled lies in the heart region. If these organs are gradually developed one becomes clairvoyant in the astral world.
This astral vision is something quite different from physical sight. You can get some idea of astral vision if you think of the flow of dream life. In dreams we have symbolic pictures — true symbols. One sees symbols. One loses consciousness of what takes place here in the physical world, but one can experience in symbolic pictures such events as the life of Christ Jesus as John describes it from his own experience in the astral world. Descriptions of this nature form the content of the first twelve chapters of the John Gospel. Don't misunderstand me. I know many will say: If all this is astral experience, then it is nothing real and what is told us of the founder of Christianity is not authentic. But this is not the case. It would be as if one denied that a man of flesh and blood could be a genius, because one cannot see genius. Although one learns the truth of Christ Jesus only on the astral plane, it is still a fact that he lived his life on the physical plane. We are dealing with symbols on the astral plane and outer reality on the physical plane. Nothing is taken away from the facts when we understand them more deeply in the sense of the John Gospel.
Initiation in the astral world is preceded by, and depends on what is called meditation. This means that the soul sinks into itself — I have often described it here. To reach a meditative experience one must make oneself blind and deaf to all sense impressions. Nothing must be able to disturb one. Cannons can go off without one being aware of it in one's inner life. One does not achieve this at once, but through constant practice one can attain this capacity. One must empty oneself also of all past experiences. Memory must be wiped out. The soul must be concerned only with itself and then out of its inner being there arise the eternal truths which are able — not only to awaken our understanding — but to release capacities which lie slumbering under a spell in our souls. These great eternal verities will rise up in man according to the maturity he has attained through his karma — the one, as Subba Row says, in seven incarnations, another in seventy years, another in seven years, others in seven months, seven days or seven hours.
John sets forth the means whereby his soul was led to perception on the astral plane. The formula he used for meditation stands at the beginning of his gospel. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was a God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without this Word was not anything made that was made. In it was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.”
In these five sentences lie the eternal verities which loosed the spell in John's soul and brought forth the great visions. This is the form of the meditation. Those for whom the John Gospel is written should not read it like any other book. The first five sentences must be taken as a formula of meditation. Then one follows John on his way, and attempts to experience oneself what he experienced. This is the way to do it; so it is meant.
John says: Do what I have done. Let the great formula, “In the beginning was the Word” work in your souls and you will verify what is said in my first twelve chapters.
This alone can really help towards understanding the John Gospel. Thus is it intended and thus should it be used. I have often spoken of what the “Word” signifies. “In the beginning” is not a good translation. It should really read: Out of the primal forces emerged the Word. That is what it means: The Word came forth, came forth out of the primal forces. Thus “in the beginning” means: coming forth out of the primal forces.
When man is in this sleep condition he is no longer in the sense world. He moves into a soul world and in this soul world experiences what the sense world really is. The truth of the sense world is revealed. He starts out from these words derived from the sense world leading back to the primal forces, and rises up to the words of truth. Every truth has seven meanings. For the mystic, immersed in contemplation it has however this meaning: The knowledge, the Word which emerges, is not something that merely applies to yesterday and today, but this Word is eternal. This Word leads to God because it was ever with God, because it is the very essence that God has planted into all things.
There is however, still another way of understanding this, and one acquires it if one returns day after day to the momentous words: “In the beginning was the Word”. When one begins to understand, not with the intellect, but with the heart, so that the heart becomes one with these words, then the power begins to work, and there begins the state of mind of which John speaks. He says it with great clarity: “All things were made by Him and without the Word was not anything made that was made”.
What do we find in this Word? We find life. What do we perceive through this life — through this light? We must take these religious texts quite literally if we want to attain higher knowledge. Where does this light shine? In the darkness of night. It comes to those who sleep. It comes to everyone who sleeps. But the darkness comprehended it not — until the ability develops to perceive it on the astral plane. Thus is the fifth verse to be understood literally. The astral light shines into the darkness of night but man does not normally see it, he must first learn to see.
As all this became reality for the writer of the John Gospel, the light dawned and he saw who He was, He whose disciple and apostle he was. Here on earth he had seen Him. Now he had found Him again on the astral plane, and he knew that He who had walked the earth in the flesh only differed in one respect from what lived in his own deepest inner self. In every single man there lives a divine man. In the distant future this divine man will arise resurrected in every man. As man stands before us today he is, in his outward appearance, to a greater or lesser extent, an expression of the inner divine man, and this inner divine man works constantly on the outer man.
Last Thursday [Public Lecture, Berlin, 15 Feb, 1906. “Reincarnation and Karma”] I already pointed out how one can illustrate this by a simple comparison. Look at a child. One could be tempted to say that these innocent features came from the father or mother, an uncle or an ancestor. However, everything within the child expresses itself in the features, in the gestures of the hands and in all its movements. What slumbers in the child strives to come to expression. Finally the individual emerges and the physiognomy becomes an expression of the individual soul, while previously it showed more of a family type. In primitive man the individual soul is usually still slumbering and has but a meagre existence. In the course of many incarnations and efforts the individual emerges, the soul aquires more power over the physical body, and the physiognomy takes on the imprint, or the expression of the inner man. An immature person expresses little of the power of the soul. Gradually man matures, and full maturity is reached when the inner word has become flesh completely — when the outer has become an exact imprint of the inner, so that the spirit shines through the flesh. This however, John only understood once his higher self had appeared clearly before his astral eyes. It stood in front of his astral eyes and he knew: This is I. Today have I experienced it on the astral plane. However it will gradually descend as it did in Him, who I followed. This is the deep relationship between Christ Jesus and the divine man that exists in every man. This is the deep inner experience of John.
The inner soul lives unconscious in man and he only becomes aware of it through the processes we have described.
What does it mean to say: something becomes conscious. Can we become conscious of something which lives within us? As long as it only lives within us we are not aware of it. Man is not aware of what he carries within him, what is subjective. I will use a crude comparison to make clear what I mean. You all have a physical brain but you cannot see it. It would have to be taken out, and then you could see it. For the same reason, though there is a certain difference, you cannot see your higher self. It is the “I” within you. But it must come out if you are to see it, and this can only happen on the astral plane. When it is outside and confronts you, then spiritually, it is as if you had a physical brain on a platter and made it the object of your sense perception.
The writer of the John Gospel describes this process. His own higher ego appears before Him — his own higher ego, which in its fullness represents the Christ. When you know this you will be able to understand certain hints and truths in the John Gospel. You will be able to understand certain things quite well with the help of what I said up to now. In occult language one describes what this ego inhabits — the physical body, which it has built for itself to dwell in — as the temple. Thus one says: The soul dwells in the temple.
It is not altogether a painless procedure when for the first time the soul must leave the temple of the body so that it becomes visible outside of it. This leaving of the body is not without pain. All that forms this higher connection with the physical body are bands that are not so easy to loosen. Imagine that you are bound with fetters and you break loose. You would experience pain through this tearing apart. It is like a process of tearing apart when the astral body leaves the physical body when it leaves it, perceptibly. Leaving the body in sleep is different, one is not aware of it. If one leaves it consciously then one experiences pain.
When man begins to develop astral consciousness, things on the astral plane appear to him as in a mirror. The number 165 should not be read as 165 but as 561 — as reflected writing. Everything appears reversed on the astral plane. Even time is reversed. When you follow someone on the astral plane you start, to begin with, from where he is. Then you go back to his birth. You can follow him on the physical plane forwards; on the astral plane backwards. Leaving the physical body is like this: It is as though we were leaving the temple of the physical body and were laid hold of from all sides. This is the occurrence which John wants to describe. He left his body in order to experience the Christ, his own higher divine self, confronting him. People around him have their astral bodies bound strongly to their physical bodies as if with fetters. Had John remained like them he would have continued to be fettered to his physical body. Now let us read how this occurrence is described pictorially and symbolically in the John Gospel, chapter 8, verses 58 and 59: “Jesus said unto them, verily, verily I say unto you: Before Abraham was, I am. Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them”, through the hindrances. With this ends the eighth chapter. This is the passing out of the astral body from the physical body. The final act, leading to the leaving of the physical body and to higher vision, usually lasts three days. When these three days are up, one attains a consciousness on the astral plane comparable to that previously experienced on the physical plane. Then one is united with the higher world.
In occult language this union with the higher world is called the marriage of the soul with the powers of the higher world. When one has left the physical body, this appears to one as a mother would appear to a new-born child, were the child able to be conscious at birth. Thus the physical body confronts one, and the astral body can very well say to the physical body: This is my mother. When one has celebrated this marriage one can say this. One can look back on the former union. This can happen after three days. This is the occult procedure on the astral plane. In chapter 2, verse 1, it is stated: “And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there”. This is the pictorial expression for what I have just said. It happened on the third day.
When a person enters the astral world, he finds himself in a region from which he can rise a step further into a still higher world — the mental, or devachanic world. This entry into the devachanic world can only be gained at the expense of the complete extinction, the death of the lower nature. He must go through the three days of death and then be awakened. Once he has attained vision of the astral plane and the pictures of the astral plane have confronted him, he is mature and ready to receive knowledge on the mental or devachanic plane. It is possible then to describe the awakening on the devachanic plane. To find oneself on the higher plane with conscious clarity of thought, this is the awakening of Lazarus.
John describes the awakening of Lazarus. Previously he has shown that through this chain of events one can enter the higher worlds. In chapter 10, verse 9, it is said: “I am the door: by me if any man enter in he shall be saved and shall go in and out and find pasture”. This is the awakening of what was wrapped in sleep and is now awakened on the devachanic plane. John goes through it. John is Lazarus, and John means nothing more nor less than what is described in his first twelve chapters. He describes as an astral experience that he was awakened on the astral plane. Then followed the initiation for the devachanic plane. Three days he lay in the grave, and then he received the awakening. The raising of Lazarus is the awakening of John who wrote the gospel.
Read everything up to the chapter on the raising of Lazarus and you will find no mention of John anywhere. Consider Lazarus and John. It is said of John (John, ch. 13, v. 23): “Now there was leaning on Jesus' bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved.” Regarding Lazarus, you find the same words — that He loved him. It is the same person. He is not mentioned previous to the awakening. He appears for the first time after he is “raised from the dead”. These are the enigmas hidden in the John Gospel. The disciple whom the Lord loved is he whom the Lord himself has initiated. The writer of the John Gospel was he whom the Lord loved. How was he able to say this? Because he had been initiated, first on the astral plane and then on the devachanic plane. If one is able in this way to find the deeper meaning of the John Gospel, then will one be able to understand it in its true profundity, and then it becomes one of the greatest texts ever written. It is the description of the initiation into the depths of the inner life of the soul. It has been written so that everyone who reads it can follow the same path. And this one can do. Sentence for sentence, word for word, one can find within oneself, by rising to the higher plane, what is described in the John Gospel. It is not a biography of Christ Jesus but a biography of the developing human soul. And what is described is eternal and can take place in the heart of every human being. This text is an example and a model. Hence it has this living and awakening power which not only makes people into Christians but enables them to awaken to a higher reality. The John Gospel is not a profession of faith, but a text which really gives strength, and a self-supporting, independent higher life. This springs forth from the John Gospel, and he who does not merely want to understand it, but to live it, has truly comprehended it.
With these few words I could only touch on the contents. Next time we will go into certain details. Then you will see how every single sentence confirms what we have said today in general terms. Step by step you will then see that the John Gospel is not addressed merely to the human intellect, but to man's entire soul forces, and that real soul experience springs from it.