It would be hard to overestimate the influence of John’s Gospel on the history of the Church. Over the centuries of Christian history, individual followers of Jesus Christ have turned to the Fourth Gospel for encouragement, edification, and reassurance in their faith. Theologians have found in the elevated christology of John’s Gospel one of the highest and fullest expressions of who Jesus is in the entire Bible. Historians who study the early Church have debated whether and to what extent the Johannine Christians formed an isolated community, and whether or not they differed substantially in belief and practice from early mainstream Christianity.
Above all this, and sometimes in spite of it, the Fourth Gospel stands as a monumental literary work of incredible genius in its own right. Any Bible student who has taken more than a superficial glance at John’s Gospel realizes it is filled with language, metaphor, and imagery which grips the readers and transports him or her to the world of the Evangelist. At the same time the text engages the reader with a subtle pressure to adopt the viewpoint of the Evangelist about who Jesus is, forcing the reader to see the decision for or against Jesus Christ as an either/or which ultimately determines one’s eternal destiny. As the characters in the narrative choose to follow Jesus Christ and thus choose eternal life (like the Samaritan woman and the royal official from Capernaum in chapter 4 and the man born blind in chapter 9), or reject him and choose eternal darkness (like the obtuse paralytic in chapter 5 or the Pharisees at the end of chapter 9), so the reader of the Gospel is also drawn to make this incalculable choice.
The Gospel of John has fascinated me for years, since as an undergraduate student I committed to memory the entire Fourth Gospel in the New American Standard Bible. Later, as a faculty member at Dallas Seminary, I taught an elective course in the Fourth Gospel for the first time in the spring semester of 1980. One thing led to another, and the need to provide class notes for my students in this elective course, which has been offered about every two years since, led to the ever-growing file of information I have collected on John’s Gospel. The present work, in fact, owes its origin to those class notes, edited and improved through countless revisions and updates. Since the course was originally taught from the Greek text, the present work still bears some traces of that, and I beg the reader’s indulgence if it gets a bit technical at times. Someone (I have never been able to determine with certainty who) once compared the Fourth Gospel to a pool of water, so shallow at the edges that a child could wade, and yet so deep at the center that an elephant could swim. This is an appropriate illustration, because the Gospel of John is easy to understand at the surface, but has a depth to it that scholars who have spent their entire lives in the study of it have not fully exhausted.
Special thanks are due to my wife Ursula and my children Mark and Rebecca for patiently tolerating my work on this volume over the years. To Hampton Keathley IV and Todd Lingren, who have helped immensely with formatting and technical issues, I would also like to express my heartfelt thanks. Finally, I would like to thank the President of Biblical Studies Foundation, who prefers to remain anonymous, for his vision and commitment in making it possible to offer resources for Bible study and teaching on the Internet for free. It is my hope that the present work will help others to see some of those depths to John’s Gospel that they have not previously known, and will encourage them to pursue further study of it with the same enjoyment, edification, and sense of wonder that I myself have known.
W. Hall Harris
October 31, 2001