Introduction to the Gospel of John
Unlike the synoptic gospels, John does not proceed chronologically with the events in the life of Christ, but rather focuses on Christ being the eternal Lamb of God. This book is for the mature believer as well as a newborn babe in Christ. This gospel not only contains the basic fundamentals of Christianity, but also contains profound truths that every believer can grow in. And of course the Gospel of John was written “that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name” (20:31).
Several early church fathers, such as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertulian and Origen, have agreed that John wrote not only the Gospel, but also the three epistles that bear his name. According to Clement of Alexandria, close friends came to him in Ephesus, to write a Gospel that would supplement the Synoptic Gospels (MacDonald 279). Also Theophilus of Antioch (circa 170 A.D.) is the first known church father to cite John as the author.
The most compelling witness to Johannan authorship is Irenaeus. Irenaeus used to be a disciple of Polycarp. Since Polycarp was once a disciple of John, it is likely that he knew who wrote the gospel; thus he passed this knowledge onto Irenaeus.
Based on the text we know that the author had to fulfill six conditions:
1. He was a Jew based on the style of writing, vocabulary, and familiarity with Jewish customs and characteristics as well as a working knowledge of the Old Testament.
2. He lived in Palestine (1:28; 2:1, 11, 14-16; 4:46; 8:20; 10:22; 11:18, 54; 21:1-2).
3. He had an intimate knowledge of the Temple (2:14-15; 5:14; 7:14, 28; 8:20; 10:23; 11:56).
4. He was en eyewitness to the events. There are numerous details of places, people, time and manner (4:46; 5:14; 6:59; 12:21; 13:1; 14:5, 8; 18:6; 19:31).
5. He was an apostle because he had intimate knowledge of the inner circle of disciples and the Lord Himself (6:19, 60, 61; 12:16; 13:22, 28; 16:19).
6. He must also be the unnamed apostle since the author names all of the disciples except the disciple “whom He loved”. Thus, the author must be the unnamed disciple in 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20. The only disciple not mentioned by name is John.
John was the son of Zebedee and is the younger brother of James the Apostle. He was a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee along with his father and brother (Matt 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20). Matt 27:56 and Mark 15:40 clearly indicate that Salome is the mother of James and John. Many theologians feel that Salome was the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus (see John 19:25 for this possibility). If this is true, then these brothers were also the cousins of Jesus.
The Zebedee family grew up on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, in the city of Capernaum (Mark 1:21). It is possible that the Zebedee family was affluent since they were able to afford servants and owned their own boat (Mark 1:19-20). James and John were the first two disciples called after Jesus was baptized (Mark 1:19-20). According to Mark 1:16-18 Jesus had just selected Andrew and Peter to be his followers as well. Since Peter had a partnership with these brothers (Luke 5:16), They were already intimately acquainted with each other. This partnership may have contributed to the “inner circle” comprised by the three disciples.
A Zealous Temperament
Jesus nicknamed the Zebedee brothers the “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). Luke 9:51-56 tells us that when Jesus sent messengers to a Samaritan village to prepare a place for Him, the Samaritans did not welcome him. Demonstrating their unforgiving spirit, they asked Jesus “Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did?” (v. 54). There is no doubt that these disciples were not only quick to become angry, but they also were very zealous for the Lord.
After the Ascension
After Christ ascended to the right hand of the Father, John was still in a position of authority (Acts 1:13). Not only was John with Peter when he healed the crippled beggar (Acts 3:1-10), but John, along with Peter, was a bold witness to the crowds (Acts 3:11-26). These two disciples served as an uncompromising light to the Sanhedrin. John continued his ministry “filled with the Holy Ghost, and [he] spake the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31).
An Attitude Change
Acts 8:14-25 is an excellent testimony to the power of the Holy Spirit to change one’s attitudes and beliefs. Before the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4), John disliked the Samaritans, wanting to call fire down from Heaven (Luke 9:51-56). However, In Acts we see a man that is filled with compassion and concern rather than prejudice as he goes to Samaria with Peter. Not only does he “pray for” (v. 15) and “lay hands” (v. 17) on the new converts, but John along with Peter also preached the gospel in many Samaritan villages (v. 25).
A View from Tradition
After his brother James was executed (Acts 12:1-2), John is no longer mentioned in the Book of Acts. According to tradition, John moved to Ephesus in Asia Minor, no doubt as the elder of the church there. It is believed that he penned this gospel and the three epistles that bear his name in this city (Lockyer 581-582). From Ephesus he was exiled to the Island of Patmos, where he received the Revelation (1:9).
Date and Place
A few church fathers, such as Irenaeus, feel that the gospel was written before the destruction of Jerusalem right after John arrived in Ephesus. However, tradition states that the gospel was written much later. Many scholars feel that John was asked by the elders in Ephesus to write a gospel which builds on and supplements the synoptic gospels; as a result, this gospel would have been written after the first three. The fact that the destruction of Jerusalem is not mentioned in John’s gospel may be due to the fact that it was written up to 20 years after the fact, when the shock had worn off (MacDonald 280). Therefore, the gospel was penned circa A.D. 95.
Repetition of Key Terms
Even though John’s gospel was written in basic Koine Greek, the meanings of some terms are very profound. As a result, John repeats important terms and concepts. The following list is a summary of the terms and the frequency in which they appear:
As previously mentioned, this gospel was written with sentences that are short and simple using well known words. However, the concepts are rich in meaning. Leon Morris describes John’s gospel as “a pool in which a child can wade and an elephant can swim. It is both simple and profound. It is for the veriest beginner in the faith and for the mature Christian. Its appeal is immediate and never failing” (3).
Using basic syntactical construction, John also gives the reader analogies (Bread of Life, Living Water, etc.) that are filled with deep theological significance. The author also assists his readers by contrasting some of these key terms:
Light and darkness (1:5);
Truth vs. error (8:42-47; et. al);
Life vs. judgment (3:18-19; 16:8-11).
Since the gospel was most likely written after the synoptic gospels to supplement them, 92% of the material found in this gospel is unique (i.e. Cana wedding, Nicodemus, Samaritan woman, Raising of Lazarus, washing the disciples feet, etc.). Since the first three gospels were already written, John also omitted material found in the synoptic gospels (Mount of Transfiguration, the Parables of Jesus, healing of demoniacs, Last Supper, Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane, etc.). Truly this gospel completes the earthly ministry of Jesus by complementing the other gospels.
Christ uses seven metaphors to describe himself, also known as the seven “I am” statements:
The Bread of life (6:35, 41, 48, 51);
The Light of the world (8:12; 9:5);
The Door (10:7-9);
The Good Shepherd (10:11-14);
The Resurrection and the Life (11:25);
The Way, the Truth, and the Life (14:6);
The Vine (15:1, 5).
The Son of God
While every Gospel focuses on a certain aspect of Christ (i.e. Matthew focuses on Christ as “the King”, Mark as “the Suffering Servant”, Luke as “the Son of Man”), John presents Christ as the Son of God. In 1:1-4 the apostle does not record the events in Bethlehem, but rather demonstrates the deity of Christ and his eternal existence. The gospel also proves that Jesus was the Messianic fulfillment (Matt 5:17) through his signs and miracles (2:1-12:50).
Belief in the Messiah
John himself states that his purpose for writing the gospel is so that “ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name” (20:31). While the Greek noun “pistis” (faith) is not found in this gospel, the verb “pisteuo” (belief) is used over 94 times. In order to be saved a person needs to believe in Christ or have faith in him. Faith is an act of total, personal response to the One whom God has sent, the Incarnate Word (Mayfield 22). To further clarify this issue John contrasts this belief with unbelief (3:18; 5:46; 7:5). In Chapter 11 he teaches that saving faith has three elements; belief, trust and loyalty.
Life in the Messiah
The Greek word life (zoe) appears 26 times. In true gospel fashion, John talks about life in Christ Jesus. Being the Son of God, “in him was life; and the life was the light of men” (1:4). Not only in him was light, but Jesus is the life (14:6). His whole purpose for coming to earth “that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (10:10). Through belief in Christ, one not only receives eternal life, but a present life of grace and holiness. The believer is the only one who has true purpose and meaning in this life on earth.
Structure of the Gospel
The Beginning of Jesus' Ministry
In this Gospel we see that the ministry of Jesus began “in the beginning” (1:1) before there was time. After a relatively short period of ministry, John the Baptist fades while Christ’s ministry flourishes (3:30). Also during this time the Lord assembles a core group of followers whom he trains to personally carry on the work when he returns to his Father. He not only performs two miracles (Cana wedding and the healing of the royal official’s son), but also focuses on witnessing one on one (i.e. Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman). During this period of time Jesus was beginning to grow in popularity.
After his third sign, the healing of the Invalid on the Sabbath (5:1-9), the opposition began to grow. Now the Jewish rulers were beginning to take notice of Jesus and his ministry. Claiming to be equal with God (5:17), the Jews wanted to kill Jesus. To further demonstrate his deity, he also performs two other signs (the feeding of the five thousand and walking on water). After forgiving the adulterous woman (8:3-11), Jesus continues to be bold with his teaching. After the sixth sign (healing of the blind man), the Pharisees refuse to believe the miracle, being infuriated over the power of Jesus. Finally the seventh sign (Raising Lazarus from the dead) was the last straw for the chief priests and Pharisees. Because of his growing popularity with the multitudes, combined with the fear of losing political security with Rome, they planned to kill him (11:53).
Discourses with His Disciples
It is at this point that Jesus knows that his time has come. As a result, he begins to focus his ministry on the disciples and gives them his final words. Through his teaching he stresses that a mark of being a disciple is loving service to each other (13:1-17). He also encourages them by telling them about the Holy Spirit (14:26), as well as urging his disciples to abide in him as the only source of spiritual strength (15:1-11). Finally the Lord himself intercedes in prayer not only for the twelve disciples, but also “for them also which shall believe on me through their word” (17:20).
Victory through Death
Finally the religious leaders thought they had the perfect plan to destroy Christ. For only thirty pieces of silver (Matt 26:15), Judas would betray the Lord and turn him over to the religious authorities (18:2-11). After being falsely accused by Annas and Caiaphas, Jesus was brought before Pilate. After being brutally beaten and tortured, he was brought before the crowd. But rather that claiming him as their Messiah, they cried out “crucify him, crucify him!” (19:6). Fearing a revolt, Pilate had Jesus lead away to be crucified.
The religious leaders thought that they had solved everything by having Jesus crucified. However, Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week (20:1) and made personal appearances not only to Mary Magdalene and his apostles, but also appeared to a crowd of five hundred (1 Cor. 15:6).
Caiaphas the high priest never realized how prophetic his statement was to the religious leaders when he said, “it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not” (11:50). Through one man’s death for the people, every person who places their faith in Jesus Christ will not perish eternally, but rather will have their sins forgiven and the hope of eternal life.
1. Prologue (1:1-1:18)
2. The Beginning of the Ministry (1:19-5:9)
3. Controversy and Conflict (5:10-11:57)
4. Jesus’ Ministry to his Own (12:1-17:26)
5. Arrest, Crucifixion, and Burial (18:1-19:42)
6. The Empty Tomb (20)
7. Personal Affirmations (21)
Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible. Vol. 5 of Matthew Henry’s Commentary. 6 vols. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers Inc., 1992.
Lockyer, Herbert. Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986.
MacDonald, William. Believer’s Bible Commentary: New Testament. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, Inc., 1990.
Matlack, Gary, and Bryce Klabunde. Matthew through 1 Thessalonians. Vol. 4 of God’s Masterwork: A concerto in Sixty-Six Movements. 5 vols. Anaheim: Sinclair Printing Company, 1997.
Mayfield, Joseph H. John. Vol. 7 of Beacons Bible Commentary. 10 vols. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1964.
Vine, W.E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers.
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