New Testament Survey
The Gospel According to John
Occasion and Purpose
The evangelist himself expresses his purpose in writing this Gospel: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” (20:30-31) In light of the content which precedes this concluding statement, one should not interpret it narrowly, suggesting that its purpose is solely evangelistic. It undoubtedly also had an educational purpose, being written to instruct, confirm, and strengthen believers in their faith in Jesus as the Messiah, or Christ. The Greek allows this understanding of the word, “believe” in verse 31.
If, as tradition affirms, and the Gospel’s content seems to corroborate, the first recipients of this Gospel were likely Christians living in the Roman province of Asia (Minor, our modern day Turkey). As the letters to the church in Smyrna (Rev. 2:8-11) and Philadelphia (3:7-13) suggest, they were dealing with Jewish opposition to the Christian message. The Jews in these two communities were not seen as true Jews, who saw the truth of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the ancient revelation given to them. They were called a “synagogue of Satan” (2:9; 3:9). Satan was the master of deceit, a liar from the beginning (John 8:42-47) who opposed Jesus. As one reads this Gospel, he reads of people being afraid of the Jews. Excommunication from the synagogue was a genuine possibility. Jesus was sharply opposed by “the Jews”; they refused to recognize the claims which he made for himself as the Messiah and Son of God. His clash with them was most intense and led to their determination to execute him. (John 11:53)
Even though the opposition from “the Jews” was virulent, this Gospel is not anti-Semitic. One receives the impression that this term, “the Jews,” could be defined as “unbelieving Jews,” and did not include all Jewish people, but represents those who opposed Jesus. The non anti-Semitic character of the Gospel is indicated by Jesus’ assertion to the Samaritan woman at the well, “Salvation is from the Jews.” (4:22) Jesus is identified as “the King of Israel” (1:47) and executed as “the King of the Jews.” (19:19-22) He welcomes the Jew to his home with a warm, “Come and see” (1:39) and the call to discipleship, “Follow me.” (1:43) The Gospel reaches out to all, certainly including the Jew.
In response to this Jewish opposition, the Gospel is at pains to demonstrate that Jesus has come in fulfillment of the revelation given to his ancient people. As Raymond Brown points out in his commentary on John, in chapters five through ten, particularly, Jesus is presented as filling full Jewish festivals and rituals with transcendent meaning and blessing. On the Sabbath he does what only God can do–grant healing and new life.(ch. 5) At the Passover festival he gives himself as the bread of life that supersedes the manna God provided in the wilderness.(ch. 6) At the Festival of Tabernacles he transcends the water and light ceremonies.(chs. 7 and 8) He himself is the Water of Life and the Light of the World. At the Feast of the Dedication of the Temple(10:22-39, especially v.36), Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, who describes himself as “consecrated by the Father,” and thus the focus of worship (see also 4:19-26); as such his consecration replaces the dedication of the altar celebrated at the feast.
Another facet of the Gospel’s presentation seems to be to clarify the proper relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist. In Acts 19, at Ephesus, which is located in the province of Asia, Paul encountered people who knew only the baptism of John, a baptism of repentance and promise, but not the eschatological baptism authorized by the Lord Jesus. John the Baptist may have had followers who had not transferred their allegiance to Jesus the Christ. The witness of John in John 1:19-36 is unequivocal and clear. Jesus is the Messiah, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (1:29,36) Since the Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism, John knows he is the Son of God. Jesus is the one to be followed, not John. John the Baptist’s witness in 3:22-30 further re-enforces this. “He (Jesus) must increase, but I must decrease.” (v. 30) Chapter 10 concludes with “John did no sign, but everything John said about this man [Jesus] was true.”(v. 41) John’s role was to point to Jesus as the Son of God and away from himself.
A further dimension of John’s Gospel is to help his readers/hearers realize that the Greek understanding that matter is evil and spirit is good is a false notion, as is the understanding that salvation is experienced through “knowledge.” (gnosis) It could well be that the seeds of Gnostic heresy had already been planted and were growing in the churches of Asia Minor. John’s first letter, most likely written about the same time, does address the heresy that Jesus was not truly God in the flesh and instead that God joined the human being Jesus at his baptism and left him before his death. John knows that such thoughts are false. The Word (God) became flesh and dwelt among us. (1:14) In many ways, the fourth evangelist demonstrates that Jesus is truly God–by the signs [miracles] he performs; by the divine words which he speaks; by his self-identification–especially his “I am” statements which express his deity; and by his resurrection from the dead. His resurrection evokes Mary’s and the disciples’ response, “We have seen the Lord.” (20:18,25) and Thomas’ exclamation, “My Lord and my God!”(20:28)
Indeed the Gospel according to St. John has been written to witness that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (1:29), the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep and lays down his life for them, and takes it again, that he may given them eternal life and they come to know the security of his strong hand. (10:11-18, 27-30) Receiving that witness and believing it is truly life without limit!
Tradition dating back to the second century (Irenaeus and Tertullian) holds that the Apostle John, son of Zebedee, wrote this Gospel. According to tradition John moved to Asia from Jerusalem in the middle 60s after the Jewish rebellion against the Romans made staying in Judea/Jerusalem difficult. Much in the Gospel suggests that its author was someone who was familiar with the geography of Palestine (for example, the location of Bethany, the Pool of Bethesda, Cana), with Messianic expectations in the first century (see 1:20-21 and 7:40-42), with the hostility between Jews and Samaritans (4:9), and with Jewish customs. The impression is given that the Gospel was written by an eyewitness. While John is not mentioned by name in this Gospel, there are frequent references to “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” whom many identify with John. It cannot be Peter since he is mentioned by name together with “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” (See John 13:21-26 and 20:2-9.) James, John’s brother who was also one of the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples, is not a candidate for writing this Gospel since he was executed by King Herod Agrippa I in Jerusalem. Herod’s reign ran from 41-54. Further the text intimates that the “disciple whom Jesus loved” wrote the Gospel. He is present at the crucifixion with Mary, Jesus’ mother, (19:26-27) and in verse 35, it is written, “He who saw it has borne witness–his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth–that you also may believe.” This statement clearly anticipates the statement in 20:30-31 which links the witness of this Gospel with believing. In 21:24 we have another reference to “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (v. 20), “This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true.”
Some modern scholars question whether John the Apostle is the actual author of the Gospel, contending that the identification of John with “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is tenuous, that the possibility of sources being used to write the Gospel make John the fisherman an unlikely candidate for writing such a well-planned Gospel, etc. It is this author’s opinion, however, until stronger reasons are advanced for overturning the ancient tradition, it makes the most sense to abide by it.
In view of this Gospel’s content, and especially its address of issues arising in Asia Minor in the second half of the first century, the date generally assigned to the writing of the Gospel is between 85 and 95. Clement of Alexandria wrote that John wrote to supplement the accounts found in the other Gospels (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 6:14.7), an observation that would suggest that one also needs to allow sufficient time for the other Gospels to have been written. Normally the Synoptic Gospels are dated in the 60s to early 80s, which would suggest a date in the middle 80s to 90s.
More recently some scholars have suggested an earlier date for the writing of this Gospel–perhaps as early as the 50s but before the 70s. Central to this suggestion is the belief that John wrote independently of the other Gospels, and that therefore one does not need to posit a later date for the writing of this Gospel. This suggestion has not been widely accepted, however.
Whether one chooses the traditional date or not, the message of the Gospel remains the same: that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through faith in his name, one has eternal life. This reality calls us not to become overly concerned about the date of the Gospel’s writing but to devote our attention to learning and believing its message!
Integrity of the Gospel
It is generally recognized that the portion, 7:53 – 8:11 is not an original part of the text of the Gospel. The language and style are different; many ancient manuscripts omit this section; those who have it place it in different locations. This is not to say that the story is not true, but that is not originally part of the Gospel of John.
Some scholars suggest that Chapter 21 is not originally a part of the Gospel, especially since the Gospel does come to a natural conclusion at 20:30-31. However, the manuscript evidence here is unanimous in including it; the vocabulary and style are consistent with the first 20 chapters. In addition, the response to the final sign counters the improper or incomplete responses to the signs earlier in the Gospel. It also connects to the call of “follow me” found in the beginning of the Gospel with these same disciples. As a result, while it may seem to be an appendix to the Gospel proper, it appears that it is written by the author himself with impact on understanding the Gospel as a whole.
Noting some of the key characteristics of this Gospel will help us grasp this Gospel’s message. Even a cursory reading of this Gospel helps us sense its differentness from the Synoptic Gospels. They present Jesus’ ministry taking place over roughly a one year period of time, with most of his activity concentrated in Galilee until he climaxes and concludes it in and around Jerusalem. John records Jesus ministry as taking place over a two and a half year to three year period of time, with more of Jesus’ activity taking place in Jerusalem and Judea, as well as Samaria. In contrast to the many parables Jesus told which are recorded in the Synoptics, in John we have Jesus teaching via means of lengthier discourses or dialogues. In John’s Gospel we have only seven signs recorded, whereas the Synoptics record many more. Just as the evangelists of the Synoptic Gospels have arranged their material to present their message, even so has the evangelist John carefully selected his material, both Jesus’ miracles [signs] and speeches, to make the case that Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Son of God. It is the same Christ as presented in the Synoptic Gospels, but different aspects of his Person and Mission are highlighted. It is a reminder that the Gospels are not attempting to chronicle a precise record of what has taken place, day by day, but rather to draw on the words and deeds of Jesus and present them in such a way that the manifold wisdom of the Spirit may help us address the variety of issues we face as the people of God. As we study all of the Gospels in all their richness, we will be equipped to live as Christ’s people and continue his work in whatever situations we find ourselves. Christ is sufficient for every situation!
In his notes introducing this Gospel, Dr. Franzmann suggests that what characterizes this Gospel is not a linear presentation of the material, such as one finds in Paul’s letter to the Romans, or Matthew presents in his Gospel, but rather a spiral development. The opening Prologue, 1:1-18, lays out the basic themes of the Gospel. The Gospel then revolves around these themes in ever widening circles, but always remaining over the same area marked out by the opening verse. To illustrate, 1:10, 11 suggests the rejection, the cross Jesus is to endure. “The world did not know him[the Word, Jesus]. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” John the Baptist’s comment, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” (1:29) emphasizes another facet of this theme. In John 3:14, the theme is re-iterated again as the Son of man is compared to the serpent which Moses raised on the pole for the people’s healing. In Jesus’ discourse on the Bread of life, he states, “The bread which I shall give for the life of the world is My flesh.” (6:51) In 8:28 he indicates that his cross is the sign which will reveal that he is God, the great “I am.” In the Good Shepherd discourse, he says, “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (10:11) When the Greeks want to see him in chapter 12, he asserts that he must go the way of a grain of wheat, dying that there might be new life (v.24). A few verses later, he again uses the language of “being lifted up,” to signify the meaning of his death. (12:31,32) In the Upper Room, Jesus enacts the meaning of the cross as he washes the disciples’ feet, a mark of his loving them to the end. The Upper Room discourses again circles around this same theme, first introduced in the Prologue.
In addition to this spiral development, keep your eye open to the fact that Jesus’ miracles of Jesus are called signs, suggesting that they are meant not simply to heal, help, or provide for people’s needs, but to communicate that Jesus is the Christ. Similarly Jesus’ “I AM” statements reflect his identity as “God in the flesh,” for one of God’s name is “I AM.” (See Exodus 3:13-15.) Reflecting on these “I am” statements will not only reveal who he is, but also his call for us to trust and follow him for who he is.
The following outline prepared by Dr. Franzmann will help you sense the richness of this Gospel for knowing who Jesus is and trusting him as Lord and God. It is taken from The Word of the Lord Grows, pp. 257-260.
“Theme: 1:1-18. Jesus the Word of God in the Flesh, the Word which Men Would Not Heed
The Explication of the Theme, 1:19-21:25: How the Word of God Was Spoken to Men
- The Word is Spoken to All Israel, 1:19-4:54 (“He came to His own home,” 1:11)
- The Witness of John the Baptist, 1:19-34. Jesus is the Lamb of God, the Giver of the Spirit, the Son of God. John’s witness points the first disciples to Jesus.
- The Confession of the First Disciples, 1:35-51. He is the Messiah of prophecy.
- The First Sign at Cana, 2:1-12. Jesus reveals His glory.
- The Cleansing of the Temple, 2:13-22. Jesus states His Messianic claim and points to His cross.
- The Conversation with Nicodemus, 2:23-3:21. Jesus is the Giver of life, by His cross and death.
- The Baptist’s Last Witness to Jesus, 3:22-36. “He must increase.”
- The Conversation with the Samaritan women, 4:1-42. Jesus is the Giver of living water, the Savior of the world.
- The Second Sign: The Healing of the Official’s Son, 4:43-54. Jesus gives the gift of healing and the gift of faith in His word.
(Note that this first sketch of Jesus’ activity covers all Israel: Judea, Samaria, and Galilee.)
- The Word is Rejected by Israel, 5:1 – 12:50 (“His own people received Him not.” 1:11)
Jesus reveals Himself amid a hostile and obdurate people.
- Healing at the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem on the Sabbath, 5:1-47. Jesus’ oneness with God, the Jews’ estrangement from God. [Third sign]
- Feeding of the 5,000 in Galilee, 6:1-71. [Fourth sign] Jesus is the Bread of Life; all forsake Him except the Twelve–and one of them is a devil. [Note the fifth sign of Jesus walking on the water.]
- Jesus and Jerusalem, 7:1 – 10:42.
- Controversy at the Feast of Tabernacles, 7:1-8:59. Jesus is the Water of Life and the Light of the World. The rulers of Israel determine to arrest Him. Of the crowd, some believe, while others seek to stone Him.
- Healing of the Man Born Blind, 9:1-41. [Sixth sign] Jesus’ gracious coming issues in a judgment on unbelieving men: “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind,” 9:39.
- Jesus the Door to the Sheepfold and the Good Shepherd, 10:1-21. Jesus claims sole authority as Teacher of the people of God, brands all teachers who oppose Him as false, and proclaims His will to die for His own.
- Are You the Christ? 10:22-42. Jesus points to the works which attest His oneness with God and points those who find His claim blasphemous to the God who has revealed Himself in the Old Testament.
- The Raising of Lazarus, 11:1-54. [Seventh Sign] Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life; Jerusalem’s leaders determine that He must die for His people.
- The Result of Jesus’ Ministry, 11:55-12:50. Jesus is anointed at Bethany, 12:1-8, hailed by the crowds at His Messianic entry into Jerusalem, 12:9-19, sought out by Greeks, 12:20-26; even in official circles there are many who believe in Him, though secretly, 12:42,43. But to Israel as a whole the word has been spoken in vain, 12:37-40: the chief priests and Pharisees, the most influential group in Israel, are hardened against Him, 11:57; cf. 12:19,42. Jesus knows that His Passion impends, 12:23-26,27-34. The Light of the world has but a little while to shine, 12:35,36; the word of God, spoken to save, will at the last day judge those who have rejected it, 12:44-50.
III. The Word Is Received by the Disciples, chaps. 13-17. (“To all who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave power to become children of God,” 1:12)
Jesus loves His disciples to the end. He enacts His ministering love for them in the footwashing, and by identifying His betrayer shows them the way His ministering love must go, the way of the cross; thus He imposes on them His commandment of love, 13:1-38. He prepares the disciples for the time when they shall be separated from His bodily presence, by showing them what they will gain by His departure: He promises them that the Father will send them the Spirit, who shall be their Counselor in their conflict with the world, lead them into all truth, and complete the presence of the Christ among them, 14-16. He prays for His disciples and for those who shall come to faith through their word, 17.
- The Word of God Speaks God’s Grace and Truth, chaps. 18-20. (“And from His fullness have we all received, grace upon grace,” 1:16).
In the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus His disciples behold His glory, the glory of the Good Shepherd who dies for His sheep, the glory of the King whose kingdom is not of this world, the glory of the ministering Lord who on the cross commits His mother to the disciple whom He loves, the glory of the Word made flesh in full reality, who cried, “I thirst,” the glory of the Savior of the world who said, “It is finished,” the glory of the risen Lord of life who breathed on them with creative breath and gave them the Holy Spirit for their apostolic task, the glory of the Lord and God who overwhelmed the stubborn doubt of Thomas and called them blessed who without seeing believe.
Conclusion: Jesus and Peter and John, chap. 21.
Once more Jesus admits His own to the fellowship of the common meal. They see Him once more in the glory of His Lordship: He restores Peter to his apostolic task and appoints for him the death by which he is to glorify God. He determines the fate of the disciple whom He loved, He alone. It is he, the apostle wholly determined by his Lord, who witnesses to the Word of God in written words, and his witness is true. Through it, men may behold the glory of the Christ, believe in Him and live.