February 17, 2013
I’ve often said that the most crucial question that any person needs to answer correctly is the one that Jesus asked His disciples (Matt. 16:15), “Who do you say that I am?” On that occasion, Peter by divine revelation answered (Matt. 16:16), “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
If Jesus is who the Bible portrays Him to be and who He claimed to be—the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the living God—then the only sensible response is to trust Him as your Savior from sin and judgment and to follow Him as your Lord. If He is not who the Bible portrays Him to be, then you’re wasting your time being a Christian, because you’re following a fictional character. “Who do you say that I am?” is the crucial question in life!
The apostle John was perhaps thinking of Peter’s confession when he told us why he wrote his gospel (John 20:30-31): “Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”
John is not trying to persuade you to believe in some general notions about Jesus, such as, He was a good man, a great teacher, or even a prophet of God. John wants you to believe specifically that Jesus is the Christ—the Jewish Messiah (Anointed One)—who was prophesied of in the Old Testament. And he wants you to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, which means, He is God in human flesh (5:18-29). The pinnacle of faith in John’s gospel is when Thomas sees the risen Jesus and proclaims (20:28), “My Lord and My God!”
John wants us to know that in Jesus, we see the unseen God. In John 1:14, John declares of Jesus, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” In 1:18 he adds, “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” Or, as Jesus tells Philip (14:9), “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”
So John wants his readers to know who Jesus is and to believe in Him as He is. The result of believing in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, is that you will have life in His name. By “life,” John means “eternal life.” Since the alternative to eternal life is eternal judgment, it is crucial that you know who Jesus is and that you put your trust in Him as Savior and Lord.
I’m going to use John’s purpose for writing as the framework to give an overview of the book. There are thousands of pages of background information on John, which I encourage you to read if you want more depth and detail. Here, I’m going to limit our study to this statement:
The Gospel of John is a selective, symbolic, eyewitness account of the person and ministry of Jesus, written so that you may believe in Him as the Christ, the Son of God, and thus have life in His name.
There are many different ways to outline John’s gospel, but here is a broad outline that gives the flow of the text:
1. 1:1-18: Prologue: The Son of God, the object of belief: “The Word became flesh and dwelled among us” (1:14).
2. 1:19-12:50: Testimony for belief in the Son of God: “We have found the Messiah” (1:41).
A. 1:19-4:54: Initial belief in the Son of God
B. 5:1-12:50: Subsequent unbelief in the Son of God
3. 13:1-17:26: The teaching of the Son of God for His followers: “He loved them to the end” (13:1).
4. 18:1-19:42: The tragedy of unbelief in the Son of God: “We have no king but Caesar” (19:15).
5. 20:1-31: The triumph of the Son of God: “My Lord and my God!” (20:28).
6. 21:1-25: Epilogue: The restoration of Peter and the role of John: “Tend My sheep” (21:17).
Many authors mention that the Gospel of John is like a pool in which both a child can wade and an elephant can swim. It is both simple and profound. On one level, a child can understand and respond to John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” But on another level, scholars have written articles and even books that grapple with some of the issues in John. So wherever you’re at spiritually there will be something for you in John. If you’ve never investigated who Jesus is or put your trust in Him, John writes for you so that you will believe and have eternal life. If you’re a new Christian, there is much in John to strengthen your faith. And if you’ve been a Christian for many years, there are deep pools for you to dive into.
Maybe you’ve wondered why we have four gospels rather than one. None of the four are what we would call biographies of Jesus (in the sense of covering all of His life from birth to death), but rather are selective and interpretive accounts of His person and ministry. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the synoptic (presenting the same view) gospels, because they have much that is similar, although each has a different slant. Matthew, one of the twelve, wrote primarily to Jews, emphasizing that Jesus Christ is the King of Israel. Mark, the shortest gospel, probably wrote from Rome under Peter’s influence. He emphasizes Jesus as the Son of Man who came to serve and give His life a ransom for many (10:45). Luke (the longest book in the New Testament by volume) was written by a physician and a co-worker with the apostle Paul, who also wrote the Book of Acts. His gospel is aimed at Gentiles and emphasizes Jesus Christ’s humanity.
But John has 93 percent original material in comparison to the synoptics (Edwin Blum, The Bible Knowledge Commentary [Victor Books], ed. by John F. Walvoord & Roy Zuck, 2:269). As we’ve seen (20:30), John acknowledges that there were “many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book.” John ends his gospel by stating (21:25), “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.” So John is selective. Most scholars think that he wrote his gospel sometime in the 80’s or early 90’s A.D., and so he most likely knew about the other gospels and did not feel the need to duplicate what they had written.
John begins in eternity, identifying Jesus as God and Creator (1:1-3). He omits many important things that the other gospels contain. There is no mention of Jesus’ birth, His baptism, or His temptation. There is no list of the twelve disciples. There are no stories of Jesus casting out demons and no parables (except perhaps 10:1-6). John tells us that he saw Jesus’ glory (1:14), but he doesn’t mention the transfiguration, even though he was one of the three eyewitnesses. He includes Jesus’ promise that He is preparing a place for us in heaven and that He will return for us (14:1-3), but he omits Jesus’ lengthy prophetic discourses. John gives us the longest and most detailed account of events in the Upper Room on the night Jesus was betrayed, but he never mentions the Lord’s Supper. He doesn’t tell us about Jesus’ agony in the garden, although from John we learn that it was Peter who whacked off Malchus’ ear. And, although John records the risen Jesus telling Mary to tell the disciples that He will ascend to the Father (20:17), there is no account of Jesus’ ascension.
Some of the features that are unique to John include his direct assertion that Jesus is the eternal God who created all things (1:2, 3). He alone says that Jesus is the only begotten Son of God (3:16, 18). John tells us of the first miracle of turning the water into wine (2:1-11). He alone includes the interviews with Nicodemus and the woman at the well (3 & 4). He tells us of Jesus’ healing the nobleman’s son (4:46-54), the lame man by the pool of Bethesda (5:1-15), and the man born blind (9:1-41). John alone records Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead (11:1-44). John tells us of Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet (13:1-20) and of His teaching in the Upper Room, where He gives the promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit (14-16). John records the longest prayer of Jesus (17). He tells us of Thomas’ doubts (20:24-29) and of the disciples’ encounter with the risen Lord on the beach in Galilee (21). John carefully chose all these events and much more to give us this selective insider’s portrait of our Savior.
John is full of symbolic language that makes you stop and think about the deeper meaning of what he is saying. This does not mean that John bends the historical truth into fiction for the sake of his story. What John reports actually happened (21:24), but there is often a deeper significance behind the historical facts. Rather than referring to Jesus’ “miracles” or “wonders” (terms the other gospel writers use), John calls them “signs,” as we saw in 20:30: “many other signs Jesus also performed.” A sign points to something beyond itself. John wants us to perceive the deeper meaning behind the miracle itself.
Out of hundreds that he could have chosen, John picked seven signs, not counting Jesus’ resurrection and the miraculous post-resurrection catch of fish (21:1-14): (1) Changing the water into wine (2:1-11); (2) Healing the nobleman’s son (4:46-54); (3) Healing the lame man by the Pool of Bethesda (5:1-9); (4) Feeding the 5,000 (6:1-14); (5) Walking on the water (6:16-21); (6) Healing the man born blind (9:1-12); and, (7) Raising Lazarus from the dead (11:1-46).
In at least three of these miracles, we don’t have to guess as to their significance, because Jesus tells us. After He feeds the 5,000, Jesus proclaims (6:35), “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.” Before opening the eyes of the man born blind, Jesus asserts (8:12), “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.” Before He raised Lazarus from the dead, Jesus told Martha (11:25), “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies.”
By the way, these are three of seven “I am” claims that Jesus makes in John. The others are, “I am the door of the sheep” (10:7); “I am the good shepherd” (10:11, 14); “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (14:6); and, “I am the true vine” (15:1, 5). In each case we need to think about the symbolism of what Jesus is saying about Himself and how it relates to us.
John also uses a number of key words that have symbolic significance. John wrote so that you may have life in Jesus’ name (20:31). Life is in Jesus (1:4) and He Himself is the life (11:25; 14:6). Related to that is the concept of the new birth, which Jesus presents to Nicodemus (3:3-7). Physical life is a picture of the spiritual life that Jesus came to give to those who believe in Him. The opposite is that those who do not possess new life in Jesus are spiritually dead. They need Jesus’ resurrection power to receive life.
Another symbolic picture is that of light and darkness. John says (1:4) that the life in Jesus “was the Light of men.” Jesus is “the true Light” (1:9). He is (8:12) “the Light of the world.” But (3:19) “men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.” Jesus proclaimed (12:46), “I have come as Light into the world, so that everyone who believes in Me will not remain in darkness.” When Judas left the Upper Room to betray Jesus, John was obviously reporting more than the time of day when he adds (13:30), “and it was night.” And yet oddly, John does not mention the three hours of darkness as Jesus hung on the cross (Matt. 27:45; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44)!
Another key symbolic word is world, which occurs 78 times in John. John 1:10 states, “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him.” In the first two uses, it refers to the earth and all that is in it, including the people. But in the third instance, it carries the nuance of sinful people who rejected Jesus. These people are under the dominion of Satan, “the ruler of this world” (12:31; 14:30; 16:11). In this sense, the world hates both Jesus and His disciples (7:7; 15:18; 16:20). “World” can also refer to the people of the world in general, as when John states (3:16) that “God so loved the world,” or when the Pharisees express their frustration (12:19), “the world has gone after Him.” Jesus asks the Father (17:15) not to take His followers “out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one,” adding (17:16), “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.”
There are a number of other key words that John repeats for emphasis to make us think about their significance. John uses witness 14 times as a noun and 33 times as a verb (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 89), while the other gospels combined only use the noun four times and the verb twice. He begins by saying (1:7) that John (the Baptist; this gospel always calls him simply “John”) “came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe through him.” (See also, 1:8, 15, 19, 32, 34; 3:26; 5:33.) There are seven witnesses to Jesus Christ in this gospel (Morris, p. 90): (1) the Father; (2) Christ Himself; (3) the Holy Spirit; (4) Jesus’ works; (5) the Scriptures; (6) John the Baptist; and, (7) a variety of human witnesses, such as the disciples, the Samaritan woman, and the multitude. These witnesses establish the truth, another key concept that John hammers on (25 times, over against once in Matthew and 3 times each in Mark and Luke; Morris, 294).
Two further concepts that have significance due to their repetition are that Jesus was sent (33 times referring to Jesus’ mission from God) to this earth by the Father to do His will at the appointed hour (12 times with reference to the cross). He told the disciples (4:34), “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work.” He emphasized to the unbelieving Jews that the Father had sent Him and that His works testified to that fact (5:23, 24, 30, 36, 37, 38). But although these evil men refused to believe in Jesus and finally succeeded in killing Him, John emphasizes that it was all done in accordance with the Father’s sovereign timetable. When the hostile Jews sought to seize Jesus, they could not do so, “because His hour had not yet come” (7:30; 8:20). But as the crucifixion drew near, Jesus proclaimed (12:23), “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
If time permitted, I could also comment on other significant words, such as “flesh and spirit,” “love and hate,” and “knowledge and know.” I’ll comment on the key word “believe” in a moment. So John is both selective and symbolic.
John (20:30) states, “Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples….” John himself was an eyewitness to these events that he reports, plus many others whom John knew. This establishes the truth of these events. It’s not surprising that liberals dispute that John wrote John, just as they dispute that Paul wrote many of his epistles. J. Vernon McGee (John [Thru the Bible Books], pp. 5-6) in his humorous manner says that he took a class in seminary on the authorship of John. The professor finally concluded the course by saying that he thought John was the author. A wag in the class said, “Well, I believed John wrote it before I started the class and I believe it now; so I just wasted the semester!”
You can read many pages of arguments on the issue, which I don’t have time to recount here. Suffice it to say that there is credible internal and external evidence that John the apostle wrote the Gospel of John. The internal evidence refers to the many indicators in the book itself that it was written by an eyewitness and that the eyewitness was John, who refers to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (21:20, 24). The external evidence refers to the early church fathers, such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria, who attest that John wrote this gospel. Irenaeus said that in his early days he used to sit in Polycarp’s house and listen to him tell about his talks with John and others who had seen the Lord. So when Irenaeus declares categorically that after the other Gospels were written, John also wrote his while living in Ephesus, it’s pretty solid evidence that John wrote John (Everett Harrison, Introduction to the New Testament [Eerdmans], pp. 207-208). Finally,
John wants you to believe, not in generalities, but in specific, true content: that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God so that you will have eternal life in all that He is (His “name”). But John makes it clear that the proper response to the truth about Jesus is not automatic. In spite of the strong evidence, people divide over Jesus. Even after He raised Lazarus from the dead, many believed, but others went away to the Pharisees to report on what Jesus had done, with the result that they increased their efforts to kill Him (11:45-53). The raising of Lazarus clearly proved that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, but that didn’t stop the Pharisees from wanting to kill Him! Sin is not rational!
John uses the verb, believe, 98 times, but strangely he never uses the noun. For John, faith must have content that is true. You must believe certain truths about Jesus. But faith is also personal commitment to the person of Jesus Christ, where you enter into a relationship with Him. To believe in Jesus is to trust Him as your Savior and Lord and walk in obedience to His commands. As we’ll see, it’s possible to have a superficial belief in Jesus that does not result in eternal life (2:23-25; 8:31-59).
For John belief in Jesus is both initial and ongoing as a person learns more about who Jesus is. The disciples initially believed in Jesus when they first met Him, based on the testimony of John the Baptist (1:7, 49-50). But they also believed when they saw Jesus perform His first miracle, turning the water into wine (2:11). But they (11:15; see, also, 13:19; 14:1, 10, 11, 29; 16:27, 30-31) and Martha (11:27, 40) still needed to believe before they saw Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead. Yet John reports that when he went into the empty tomb and saw Jesus’ grave clothes, he believed (20:8). Obviously, Thomas had believed in Jesus before the resurrection, but his faith was shaken by the crucifixion. He had to see the risen Savior so that he would not “be unbelieving, but believing” (20:27).
So the first crucial question is, “Who do you say that Jesus is?” After you’ve answered it, the second crucial question is, “Have you believed in Him so that you have eternal life?” If not, why not? If so, you still need to believe further in Him as you get to know more of who He is. Ask God to reveal more of Jesus to your heart as we study the Gospel of John.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation