John: The Man and His Gospel
In some scholarly circles, this message would not be considered worthy of a hearing. Leon Morris cites A. M. Hunter, who says, “‘For these and other reasons, scarcely a reputable scholar in this country nowadays is prepared to affirm that the Fourth Gospel was written by John the Apostle.’”1
Liberal scholarship has tended to the view that this Gospel was not written by John the Apostle, but by some anonymous second century Christian who “never set eyes on Jesus.”2 If this were true, of what value could a study of John the Apostle be to the study of this great Gospel? I would like to explain why I believe it is of great value.
To begin, I believe the Gospel of John was written by the Apostle John.3 There are a number of reasons we should accept the Johanine authorship of this Gospel. This was the conviction of the second century church fathers, who first addressed this matter.4 This has always been the view of truly evangelical scholarship.5 Morris comments, “The basic reason for holding that the author was John the Apostle is that this appears to be what the Gospel itself teaches.”6
In reading through the four Gospels, one finds that Matthew refers to the Apostle John by name three times; Mark ten times; Luke seven times, and John not at all. John does refer to the “sons of Zebedee” in 21:2, and there are allusions to himself in 13:23; 18:15-16; 19:26-27; 20:1-10; 21:7, 20-23, 24. It is not at all surprising that John would refrain from directly referring to himself by name. Neither does he specifically refer to the “inner three” (Peter, James, and John—see Mark 5:37; Matthew 17:1; Mark 14:33) in his Gospel. Of the four authors of the New Testament Gospels, two (Mark and especially Luke) were not present with our Lord as one of His 12 disciples. Matthew was not one of the inner three. And so while Matthew can write about our Lord’s ministry from the perspective of one of the nine “outside” disciples, it is only John who can describe certain critical events from the perspective of one of the inner three. Each Gospel thus has its own purpose, its own perspective, its own audience, and its own unique contribution.
John: The Man
The Gospels give us a fairly clear picture of the Apostle John. For us to understand John’s Gospel, we should consider the biographical sketch the Scriptures give us of this man.
Our first introduction to John may come in John 1:35-40. Here, John the Baptist looks upon Jesus and declares, “Look, the Lamb of God!” (John 1:36, NET). Immediately, two of John’s disciples leave him and attach themselves to Jesus. We are told that the name of one of these two men is Andrew (verse 40); the other disciple of John the Baptist is not named. I doubt that it was Peter, Andrew’s brother, because Andrew will find Peter and inform him that they have found the Messiah (verses 40-42). Since Peter and Andrew were partners of James and John, there is a fair chance that John the Apostle may be the second disciple of John the Baptist. It is interesting that John’s Gospel quickly turns our attention to “John the Baptist,” who is never called by this title in the Gospel of John; he is always referred to simply as “John.” This may be because the Apostle John knew him so well, as his former disciple.
Next, we read of the call of John and his brother James, right after the call of Peter and Andrew (Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:19). Jesus is walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. He first comes to Peter and Andrew, to whom He says, “Follow Me,” Jesus said to them, “and I will have you fish for people” (Mark 1:17). Next, He comes to James and John, who were sitting in the boat with their father mending their nets. He called them, and these two brothers immediately left their nets to follow Him. This does not appear to be a permanent leaving and following, which will take place later. It is a calling to leave their occupation for a time so that they can be with Him. John appears to be one of the first to follow our Lord as a disciple. If so, he was with Him from the beginning.
John, along with his brother James, accompanied Jesus to the home of Simon Peter and Andrew, where Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law, and then many others (Mark 1:29-31f.). According to Mark, this happened after Jesus taught in the synagogue of Capernaum. The people who heard Jesus were amazed because He, unlike the scribes and Pharisees, taught with authority (verses 22, 27). The authority which Jesus possessed was demonstrated by His ability to heal and to cast out demons. If anyone was a witness to the authority of our Lord, it was John who, along with Peter and James, witnessed more miracles at the hand of our Lord than nearly anyone.
During the time he spent with the Lord, John became increasingly aware of just how great and awesome Jesus was. In Luke 5:1-11, John’s grasp of who Jesus was takes a quantum leap. Jesus had been teaching the crowds beside the lake of Gennesaret (the Sea of Galilee). Two boats were nearby; one belonged to Simon and Andrew and the other to James and John. As Jesus taught, these men were in their boats, washing their nets after having fished all night without success. Jesus taught from one of the boats, and then instructed Peter to put out into deep water and to let down the nets for a catch. Peter momentarily protested, but then relented and let down the nets, which encompassed a very large catch. The catch was so large he had to call to his partners, James and John (verse 10), to help bring in the nets. They filled their boats until they began to sink. Seeing this, Peter fell trembling before our Lord with the words, “Go away from me, for I am a sinful man, Lord!” (verse 8). But the text also tells us that Peter’s partners, James and John, did likewise. Jesus’ words, “Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching people,” were spoken to all three men, not just to Peter (see verse 10). John was on his way to understanding the majesty and power of the One he would follow.
John was chosen by our Lord to be numbered with the twelve (Matthew 10:1ff.; Mark 3:13-19; Luke 6:12-16). Mark informs us that at this time Jesus nicknamed James and John “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17). This certainly squares with what we see of these two elsewhere. These two fellows were an ancient version of movie stars John Wayne and Clint Eastwood—they were a rough and tumble pair. John does not seem to have talked as much as Peter, but he was certainly one who could hold his own. He was the strong, silent type, the kind of fellow you would not want to make mad at you.
John was one of the “inner three” disciples of our Lord. Only Peter, James and John were allowed to accompany Jesus into the house of the synagogue official, whose daughter had already died before Jesus arrived (Mark 5:35-43; Luke 8:49-56). Here, apparently, John first witnessed our Lord’s power over death.
John was present at the transfiguration of Jesus, along with James and Peter (Matthew 17:1ff.; Mark 9:2ff.; Luke 9:28ff.). Here, John had a foretaste of the glory of our Lord and His kingdom. While Peter did not hesitate to speak on this occasion, John seems to have remained silent, perhaps having been dumbstruck by what he saw.
It was John who confessed that he and others had come across a man who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name and forbade him to do so again (Mark 9:38; Luke 9:49). John and others (which must have included at least Peter and James) had somehow concluded that they owned the “Jesus franchise,” and thus had the right to license or to prohibit others from acting in His name. Jesus did not agree, and He went on to warn them about causing “little ones to sin [stumble].”
It was James and John who asked Jesus for permission to call down fire from heaven and “torch the place” when some Samaritans did not want Jesus to come to their village (Luke 9:54). These two brothers were ready and willing to use God’s power to punish the pagans.
At a most inappropriate time, John, along with his brother James, asked Jesus for prominent positions in His coming kingdom (Mark 10:35). When Jesus was approaching Jerusalem, He told His disciples He was soon to be condemned to death there (Mark 10:32-34). As the time of our Lord’s death draws near, He takes His disciples into His confidence by telling them what is about to happen. It is as though James and John did not even hear what Jesus had just said. They took Jesus aside and asked Him privately to grant their request that they be given positions of prominence in the kingdom, above the other disciples. Naturally, the other disciples were incensed. James and John had no idea what they were asking, or what true discipleship really was.
Peter, James, and John, along with Andrew, privately asked Jesus to reveal to them details concerning the last days (Mark 13:1-4). Jesus and His disciples were in Jerusalem, and the disciples were awe-struck by the beauty of the temple. Jesus cautioned them not to become too attached to the temple since it was to be destroyed. The two sets of brothers waited until they could get Jesus alone, and then asked Him to tell them the “inside story” of what was going to happen and when. Actually, they were not so concerned with “what” would happen as “when” it would happen. They had the “what” figured out, they thought; they just needed to know “when.” Their seeking to obtain secret knowledge from Jesus, apart from the rest, was just another form of one-upmanship. There have always been—as there will always be—those who seek to obtain “inside” prophetic knowledge which is unknown by others. This inside knowledge enables some to think of themselves as superior to others.
When Jesus sent two of his disciples to make preparations for the Passover, one of these men was John and the other was Peter (Luke 22:8). Among other things, it seems these two (who would spend much time together in the Book of Acts) were the most trusted disciples. Judas could certainly not have been trusted to do this task. There was a certain mystery about the location of this meeting room, but these two were able to find it just as Jesus had indicated. There is an almost prophetic element in the way Jesus both informed and instructed these two, so that they could make preparations for celebrating the Passover, yet without allowing Judas to know where.
John seems to be the “disciple whom Jesus loved” in John 13:23, and the one who leaned on Jesus’ breast during the Passover celebration. Jesus and His disciples were in the upper room celebrating Passover. During the meal, Jesus told the disciples that one of them would betray Him. The disciples could hardly believe their ears. They had no idea whom He referred to as His betrayer. Peter was a close friend of John. They were not only partners in fishing but appear to have been close friends as well. It seems that John must be “the one Jesus loved” (verse 23), who was leaning on Jesus’ breast and to whom Peter signaled, hoping John would be able to press Jesus for more details.
John was there when our Lord agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane, along with Peter and James (Mark 14:33).
After our Lord was arrested, Peter followed Jesus, along with “another disciple” who appears to be John. It was this “other disciple” who was known to the high priest, and thus was able to enter the court of the high priest and bring Peter with him (John 18:15-16).
As our Lord was hanging on the cross, the “disciple whom Jesus loved” was there at the foot of the cross. From the cross, Jesus entrusted the care of His mother into this disciple’s hands. It seems that this man almost has to be John (see John 19:26-27).
John was one of the first to see the empty tomb and to believe that Jesus was indeed risen from the dead (John 20:1-10). After Jesus had been crucified, buried, and resurrected, Mary came to the tomb early in the morning on the first day of the week. When she found the stone already taken away, she ran to tell Peter and the “other disciple whom Jesus loved” about it. The “other disciple” (John) outran Peter, arriving first at the empty tomb. Looking in, he saw the linen wrappings, but he did not enter. When Peter arrived (huffing and puffing, I imagine), he barged right in and saw the grave clothes neatly arranged, but without the Lord’s body. John then entered the tomb, appraised the situation, and believed. John was not only one of the first to witness the resurrection, he was one of the very first to believe it.
John appears to be the “other disciple” about whose future Peter is inordinately concerned after our Lord’s resurrection (John 21:20-23). In John 21, we read of our Lord’s words to Peter, with the three-fold question, “Do you love Me?” After charging Peter to tend His sheep, our Lord informs Peter that he will be led away against his will, a veiled prophecy of his death as a martyr. Peter immediately looks in the direction of “the disciple whom Jesus loved” and asks, “What about him?” Our Lord replied that this was none of Peter’s business. Some seem to have mistakenly understood our Lord to mean that this “other disciple” would live until the Lord’s return. The Apostle John corrects this misconception, and then goes on to say that this same fellow is the one who witnessed the things recorded in his Gospel and who was the author of it (John 21:23-24). This “other apostle” is the one whom Jesus loved, the one who leaned on Jesus’ chest at the Passover meal, and who wrote the Book of John. This “other apostle” is almost certainly John.
We have not seen the last of John when we reach the end of the Gospels, for (apart from the Apostle Paul) John and Peter are the dominant apostles in the Book of Acts. John is one of the disciples gathered in the upper room (1:13). He accompanies Peter on his way to the temple at the hour of prayer and thus participates in the healing of the lame man (3:1ff.). John and Peter are arrested and instructed to cease preaching Christ by the Sadducees, but they refuse, insisting they must obey God rather than man by preaching that Jesus has been raised from the dead (Acts 4:1-22). When the Gospel is proclaimed in Samaria and many come to faith, Peter and John are sent there, and when they lay their hands on these new believers they receive the Holy Spirit, just as the apostles did at Pentecost (Acts 8:14-17). James, the brother of John, was killed by Herod, who intended to kill Peter as well, but God delivered Peter so that he could continue to preach the Gospel (Acts 12:1ff.).
In Galatians 2:9, Paul refers to John as one of the “reputed pillars” of the church in Jerusalem. John is, of course, the author of the Johanine Epistles (First, Second and Third John) and of the Book of Revelation. This one who once “leaned on Jesus’ chest” in the Gospel of John is also the one who “fell as a dead man” at the feet of his resurrected and glorified Lord in the Book of Revelation (1:17).
Learn From the Life of John
The “John” of Acts and the epistles is a very different “John” from the Gospels. The changes we see are not a credit to John, but rather to his God. John’s life is applicable to us in some areas that we would do well to ponder. Allow me to share some lessons which can be learned from the life of John.
First, John’s life is an illustration of the grace of God. We can safely say from what we see of John in the Gospels that our Lord did not choose him for all the fine qualities he possessed. John had no status in life as a fisherman nor was he an educated man, even by the standards of that day (see Acts 4:13). He certainly did not possess any qualities or education that impressed the scribes and Pharisees. He was a volatile fellow, a “son of thunder.” He is not represented as a magnetic personality or charismatic leader. He was self-centered and self-serving, an opportunist who did not hesitate to get the jump on his peers. The fact that our Lord chose John is testimony to the grace of God. The Apostle Paul pretty well sums it up when he writes,
26 Think about the circumstances of your call, brothers and sisters. Not many were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were members of the upper class. 27 But God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong. 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something, 29 so that no one can boast in his presence. 30 He is the reason you have a relationship with Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).
Who would ever have imagined that this rough and tumble fisherman would become the apostle of love? If God can change a man like the “John of the Gospels” into the “John” we see later in the New Testament, He can surely transform us as well.
Second, John’s life is an illustration of divine sovereignty. We see the sovereignty of God in choosing to save John, in making him one of the twelve, and selecting him to be one of the inner three (Peter, James, and John). We can especially see the sovereignty of God when we compare John with his brother, James. These two brothers grew up in the same home and had the same shaping experiences. Both brothers followed Jesus for the same length of time, and both were included in the inner circle of three. In spite of all these similarities, James was the first to die as a martyr for the cause of Christ; John seems to have been the last of the twelve to die. James did not write any New Testament books; John wrote five. How can this be explained? I am not sure it can be, but we can acknowledge this as an illustration of the sovereignty of God. God does not operate in the ways men expect. God raises up one and puts down another. God is sovereign.
Third, I see from the life of John an illustration of the love of God, a prominent theme in this Gospel,7 and in John’s Epistles. John frequently refers to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (13:23; 20:2; 21:7, 20). Believe it or not, some scholars feel this is one of the strongest arguments that can be made against John as the author of this Gospel. Morris writes, “The biggest objection to this identification, in my opinion, is the contention that a man is not likely to refer to himself as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved.’ I agree.”8 For some, this may be the biggest objection to John’s authorship of this Gospel, but in my estimation, it is a most noteworthy title, given himself by John. What better epitaph than to be known as a man whom Jesus loved? If David was a man after God’s heart, it was John who saw himself as a man after whom the heart of God sought.
“Love” is one of the great themes of the Bible and certainly the theme of the Gospel of John. In the New King James Version, some form of the word love appears 57 times in the Gospel of John. It is no wonder that men come from a study of John with an overwhelming sense of being “loved” of God: “In this Gospel the love of God is dramatically mediated through Jesus Christ—so much so that Karl Barth is alleged to have commented that the most profound truth he had ever heard was ‘Jesus loves me, this I know / For the Bible tells me so.’”9
Some years ago I was actively involved in prison ministry with Prison Fellowship. One seminar I conducted was in a maximum-security prison in the State of Texas. It was a tough prison. During a break, one inmate came up to me and said he had heard that some of the volunteers at the seminar were themselves former offenders. He asked if it would be possible for some of these ex-offenders to share their testimony during the seminar. I thought it was a great idea and asked if any of the volunteers wished to share their testimony. One of them told this story, as best as I can remember the details:
I was an inmate in this prison some years ago. I was a member of a motorcycle gang, living in a house with other gang members. In fact, I served time for stealing a motorcycle. My life was not going well at all, and someone told me that I should read the Bible, so I got one—well, actually, I stole one. I began to read the Gospels. As I read of the person of Jesus Christ and His love, I was so overwhelmed that I began to weep. I wept so loud I had to go into the bathroom to read, where I could turn on the shower to cover the sounds of my crying. …
There is something about our Lord in the Gospels which draws men and women to Him. The disciples who heard Him say, “Follow Me,” could do nothing but follow Him. Men and women guilty of shameful sins drew near, somehow assured that He would not reject them, sensing that He had come to forgive them. I believe a significant part of that magnetism which drew men and women to our Lord was His love.
I believe one of the things about Jesus which overwhelmed John was the love which He had for him. Like Karl Barth, John believed, “Jesus loves me, this I know. …” This was also more than enough for John. And so John referred to himself in those terms which meant the most to him. John knew he was “the one whom Jesus loved,” and in this he reveled. What label would John rather have than this: “the one whom Jesus loved”? How could anyone view John’s referring to himself in this way as a problem? My mind is boggled by the possibility that anyone would think that referring to himself in this way could be an argument against his authorship of this Gospel.
There is a particular text I especially appreciate in the Gospel of John:
Just before the Passover feast, Jesus knew that his time had come for him to depart from this world to the Father. He had loved his own who were in the world, and now he loved them to the end (John 13:1).10
Some of the other versions read:
It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love (NIV).
It was before the Passover festival. Jesus knew that his hour had come and he must leave this world and go to the Father. He had always loved his own who were in the world, and now he was to show the full extent of his love (New English Bible).
It was before the festival of the Passover, and Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to pass from this world to the Father. He had always loved those who were his in the world, but now he showed how perfect his love was (New Jerusalem Bible).
The “full extent” of our Lord’s love was shown on the cross of Calvary. It was there that He took upon Himself the sins of the world. It was there that He bore the wrath of God for our sins. Have you experienced this love personally by accepting His sacrificial death for your sins? I urge you to simply sit down and read through this marvelous Gospel of John, and sense the love God has for you in Christ, and then to receive it by trusting in Him. There is no greater love. There is no greater gift than the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ.
John: His Gospel
I played the trumpet in our high school band, which frequently marched in parades, and we had a trombone player named Pete who was painfully predictable. Whenever anyone took a picture of the band, Pete was out of step. He was always out of step. Now mind you, it wasn’t that he didn’t try. Not only did he know he was out of step, he constantly tried to get back in step. And so he was persistently doing a strange kind of shuffle, trying to synchronize his feet with the music and with the rest of the band members. By the time the shuffle was over, Pete was back out of step.
A number of scholars seem to look upon John and his Gospel like my friend Pete—out of step. Some scholars would say that the Gospel of John is out of step with the three other gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. These three gospels are often referred to as the Synoptic Gospels, because these Gospels all tend to approach the life of Christ from the same perspective. John, on the other hand, approaches the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ quite differently. I would like to point out some of these differences and the impact this has on our study of the Gospel of John.
What Is Missing in John’s Gospel11
It is possible to compare John’s Gospel with the synoptic Gospels by simply consulting any harmony of the Gospels. These “harmonies” place the events described in all four Gospels side-by-side. When you compare John with the other three (Synoptic) Gospels, you discover that John does not include many of the elements contained in the other Gospels. Let me identify some of these “missing” items. When compared with the Synoptic Gospels, John’s Gospel does not include …
- Jesus’ genealogy
- an account of our Lord’s birth
- any events in our Lord’s childhood
- our Lord’s baptism
- our Lord’s temptation
- the Sermon on the Mount
- the account of John the Baptist’s doubts
- any casting out of demons
- any healing of lepers
- any parables of our Lord
- an account of our Lord’s transfiguration
- the selection and sending out of the 12, or of the 70
- any eschatological (prophetic) address
- a pronouncement of woes on the religious leaders (e.g. Matthew 23)
- the institution of the Lord’s Supper
- an account of our Lord’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane
- the giving of the Great Commission
- an account of our Lord’s ascension
What Is Found Only in John’s Gospel?
Lest we feel short-changed by a reading of John’s Gospel, I should also point out that there is much in John which is not found in any of the other Gospels. Allow me to identify some of the unique contributions of John’s Gospel. In John’s Gospel only we find …
- Jesus as the Creator (John 1)
- Jesus as the “only begotten” of the Father (John 1)
- Jesus as the promised “Lamb of God” (John 1)
- Jesus revealed as the great “I Am” (see “I Am” texts on page 11)
- Jesus turning the water into wine (John 2)
- Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus (John 3)
- Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well (John 4)
- Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (John 8)
- the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11)
- Jesus washing the disciples’ feet (John 13)
- the Upper Room Discourse of our Lord (John 14-17)
- Jesus’ teaching on the coming of the Holy Spirit (John 14-16)
- Jesus’ high priestly prayer (John 17)
In summation, over 90% of the material found in the Gospel of John is unique to his Gospel.12 John has avoided the unnecessary repetition of those things the other Gospel writers have already told us, choosing to devote his attention to that which we have not yet been told. In the process of doing this, we find that the teaching of John’s Gospel provides us with much “inter-locking” truth, which not only goes beyond what we are told elsewhere, but which helps to make better sense of what we are told elsewhere in the Gospels.
The Emphasis of John’s Gospel
There are certain points of emphasis in John’s Gospel which we should also keep in mind as we begin our study of this great Gospel. John’s emphasis includes …
- the ministry of our Lord in Jerusalem and Judea, as opposed to His Galilean ministry
- more precise indications of time, especially in relationship to the Jewish feasts
- Christ’s teaching (though not in parables)
- emphasis on the “King,” rather than on “the Kingdom of God”
- Jesus’ private conversations with individuals (Nicodemus, woman at the well, Peter)
- Jesus’ ministry to His disciples
- Jesus’ teaching in the upper room, especially related to the coming of the Holy Spirit
- the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life
- belief 13and unbelief14
- “My Father” occurs 35 times; “Verily, verily” (KJV) appears 25 times
There are several other areas of emphasis which require a little more discussion. The first is John’s use of the Old Testament. It might appear that John places less emphasis on the Old Testament, since he quotes it less frequently than any other Gospel writer—a mere ten times. In fact, John’s Gospel is steeped in Old Testament allusions, as D. A. Carson points out:
Although John’s use of the Old Testament is not as frequent or as explicit as that of Matthew, it is not slight (despite charges to that effect), and it is enriched by an extraordinarily frequent and subtle number of allusions to the Old Testament. One of the features of these allusions is the manner in which Jesus is assumed to replace Old Testament figures and institutions. He is the new temple, the one of whom Moses wrote, the true bread from heaven, the true Son, the genuine vine, the tabernacle, the serpent in the wilderness, the Passover. Rarely articulated, there is nevertheless an underlying hermeneutic at work, a way of reading the Old Testament that goes back to Jesus himself.15
A second important emphasis of John is his highly developed theology. Ironically, some use this fact to argue against the Apostle John as the author of this Gospel:
The highly developed theology of John is thought by many to indicate a late date.16
I am reminded of years ago when I was a sixth grade school teacher, and I showed a movie to my students. It has been awhile, but I believe the title of the movie was, “The Mystery of Stonehenge.” Those highly committed to the theory of evolution had presumed that ancient men had to be primitive, fresh from the cave, so to speak. When the amazing pattern of rocks was discovered at Stonehenge, some scientists adamantly refused to believe that there could be anything sophisticated here. Primitive men were incapable of such things. But the more Stonehenge was studied, the more men were amazed at the way in which these rocks related to the heavenly bodies and perhaps in a way that made it a very simple computer. Let us beware of letting our presuppositions cloud our vision. If John wrote by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, why should we expect his theology to be primitive and undeveloped?
The content of John’s theology is of interest as well. He certainly has certain doctrines that he wishes his reader to grasp. Christology is one major area of theological emphasis. In the Synoptic Gospels, we see our Lord’s deity gradually dawning upon the disciples. They begin wide-eyed at what Jesus says and does. In Luke 5 (see verses 1-11), Peter, James, and John marvel at the miracle of the great harvest of fish. In Luke 7, the widow’s deceased son is raised from the dead (see verses 11-17). In Luke 8, Jesus stills the storm on the Sea of Galilee, and the disciples marvel (see verses 22-25). The great watershed of the Synoptic Gospels is the great confession of Peter, followed by the transfiguration of our Lord. In John, there is no suspense. The reader had already been told, at the very outset of the book, who Jesus is …
- He is God, the Creator of the Universe, who has no beginning—1:1-3
- He is God come in human flesh—1:14
- He is vastly greater than John the Baptist, the greatest prophet—1:19-28
- He is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world—1:29-36
- He is the Son of God, the Messiah, the King of Israel—1:40-51
One of the other major theological thrusts of John is the doctrine of the sovereignty of God:
12 But to all who have received him—those who believe in his name—he has given the right to become God’s children 13—children not born by human parents or by human desire or a husband’s decision, but by God (John 1:12-13).
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:44).
So then they tried to seize Jesus, but no one laid a hand on him, because his time had not yet come (John 7:30).
27 “My sheep listen to my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; no one will snatch them from my hand. 29 My Father who has given them to me is greater than all, and no one can snatch them from my Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one” (John 10:27-30).
“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that continues to exist, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you” (John 15:16).
The doctrine of the Trinity is clearer in the Gospel of John than in any other Gospel. Jesus often spoke of God the Father, of Himself as God, and of the Holy Spirit of God. The Trinity is everywhere you turn in John’s Gospel.
John makes a great contribution by the use of “signs” which attest to our Lord’s deity and claims to be Israel’s Messiah. These signs are …
1. Turning water into wine in Cana (2:1-11)
2. Healing an official’s son in Capernaum (4:46-54)
3. Healing an invalid at the Pool of Bethesda (or Bethsaida) in Jerusalem (5:1-18)
4. Feeding the 5,000 near the Sea of Galilee (6:5-14)
5. Walking on the water of the Sea of Galilee (6:16-21)
6. Healing a blind man in Jerusalem (9:1-7)
7. Raising dead Lazarus in Bethany (11:1-45)
In addition, there are the “seven witnesses” of John …
1. John the Baptist
“This is the Chosen One [literally, “Son”] of God” (1:34)
“You are the Son of God” (1:49)
“You are the Holy One of God!” (6:69)
“You are the Christ, the Son of God” (11:27)
“My Lord and my God!” (20:28)
“Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (20:31)
“I am the Son of God” (10:36; see also 4:26; 8:58)
Finally, there are the seven “I am’s” of John …
1. “I am the bread of life” (6:35)
2. “I am the light of the world” (8:12)
3. “I am the door for the sheep” (10:7; cf. v. 9)
4. “I am the good shepherd” (10:11, 14)
5. “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25)
6. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6)
7. “I am the true vine” (15:1; cf. v. 5)
The Gospel of John
and John’s Other Works
I have not seen this subject addressed to any great extent in any of the commentaries, and this may tell the reader all he or she needs to know. Yet one cannot overlook the fact that John was used of God to pen five books in all. These include this Gospel, the three Epistles of John (First, Second, and Third John), and his grand finale—the Book of Revelation. There is a certain sense of unity and of completeness in these five books. (This is not at all to imply that John’s works are all we need and that the other books of the Bible are unnecessary.) In the Gospel of John, for example, Jesus spoke to His disciples about loving one another and about the marks of a true disciple. In his Epistles, John has much to say about the outworking of love toward the brethren.
Summarizing some of the points of continuity between the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation may be helpful:
In the Gospel of John, John begins with Jesus at creation, as the Creator. He begins, as it were, in Genesis, at the beginning of recorded biblical history. In Revelation, John focuses on the close, the consummation of history.
In Genesis, we have the fall; in the Gospels, we have a new Genesis, a new beginning, where a new faithful “son” comes in the image of God, and where sin is dealt with by His sacrificial death. In Revelation, this salvation is fully realized with a return to the Garden, but now it is a perfect Garden.
In John, we have God coming down from heaven to earth, not to condemn, but to save men. In Revelation, we have God coming down from heaven, to bring heaven down for the saints, and to judge the wicked.
In John, we have John leaning on Jesus’ breast; in Revelation, we have John fallen at the feet of Jesus as a dead man.
In John, we have God tabernacling among men, with His glory veiled. In Revelation, we have God seen in Christ, unveiled, in all His glory and splendor, so great that the sun is no longer needed, for the light of the glory of the Father and the Son.
In the Book of Revelation, John writes of the difficult times ahead and the need for perseverance and endurance, followed by a description of the blessings which come to those who overcome. There is a “river of the water of life” (22:1), and a “tree of life” (22:2). There is no temple, nor is there any sun or moon, because the Father and the Son are the temple, and the “Lamb” is its “light” (21:23). The very things John has highlighted in the first chapter of his Gospel are also highlighted in the closing chapters of his last work—Revelation. As you study through the Gospel of John, you may wish to think about how what is said in John’s Gospel is picked up elsewhere in John’s later writings.
John: The Gospel of Belief
This Gospel of John is a marvelous work; it is a book to which some scholars have devoted much of their lives. Listen to what some of them have written of about this Gospel:
The Gospel according to John is the most amazing book that was ever written. ‘Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.’ This may well be the attitude of anyone who steps upon the threshold of the study of this book; for if its testimony is true, the faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God has received glorious confirmation.17
John was a poet; his Gospel, an elaborate poem. Its simplicity is deceptive. John specialized in double meaning, allusion, allegory, irony, and symbolism. His well-crafted work, like a symphony, advances new themes, drifts into others, then returns with similar sounds yet fresh and alluring. Most readings and commentators get lost in the sway. I have—again and again. It is difficult to step back and comprehend the greater movement of this work. But I am convinced that this book takes the reader on a designed journey led by Jesus himself and narrated by John. … And I am persuaded that this work was motivated by a writer who had been on a spiritual journey with Jesus all of his life, and was encouraging others to join him.18
The Gospel of John is deceptive in that it appears to be simple. When I was in seminary, John was the first New Testament book we were to translate because it was thought to be the simplest Greek. We often translate the Gospel of John into the language of an unreached people first, so that they will have access to the message of the Gospel. We encourage the lost and new Christians to read John first, because it is so clear and simple. In spite of this apparent simplicity, there is a depth of profound meaning that scholars note, even after years of study.
I like the comparison of John’s Gospel to a pool in which a child may 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 neverfailing.19
John was not written primarily for scholars; it was written for everyday men and women, in order to convince them that the Jesus of the New Testament is the promised Messiah of the Old Testament, the Savior of the world. By trusting in Him, men and women become God’s children, their sins are forgiven, and they come to possess eternal life. There is no more important question in all the world than this: “Who is Jesus Christ?” And there is no better place to find the answer than in the Gospel of John.
John’s presentation of who Jesus is lies at the heart of all that is distinctive in this Gospel.20
I will end this lesson with a story from my experience of the first time I ever taught through the Gospel of John more than 25 years ago. An unsaved couple from down the street began to attend the Bible study I was teaching on the Gospel of John. Somewhere around the third chapter of John, the wife suddenly blurted out, “Well, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think that Jesus was claiming to be God.” A few weeks later, I was walking down the street with her husband, as he made his way home after the Bible study. He told me that something had happened in his life somewhere in the last few weeks. (I knew he was telling me that he had been saved—that he had come to a personal faith in Jesus as his Savior.) I asked Charlie when this change took place. I shall never forget his answer, which went something like this: “Well, it was somewhere between John chapter 3 and John chapter 6.” Charlie did not think of his conversion in terms of time, but in terms of the progression of the argument of the Gospel of John. Charlie was ready. He didn’t need to wait until chapter 21 to trust in Christ. He was convinced and converted by the time he reached chapter 6.
I invite you to commit yourself to a study of the Gospel of John. I can assure you that it will change your life, just as Jesus changed the life of the Apostle John, and Peter, and all the rest of those who trusted in Him and followed Him in this Gospel. Join with me, will you, in a study of this great book? Make the message of this book your own. There is no more important message in all the world than the message of this Gospel.
3 Some evangelical scholars believe that John is the source of this Gospel, but that he may have had help writing it, something akin to Mark writing his Gospel, but with Peter as his source. I am not convinced of this view, but neither would I call it heretical.
4 “When we turn to the external evidence we are confronted by the fact that, while John the son of Zebedee is not named as the author of this Gospel in the earliest days, there is no other name in the tradition. The first person of whom we have record who definitely ascribes this Gospel to John appears to be Theophilus of Antioch (c. A.D. 180). Irenaeus also says it was written by John the Apostle, and his source appears to have been Polycarp, who knew John personally.” Leon Morris, p. 21.
5 “The Fourth Gospel has been designated since the second century ‘according to John’; and this has been taken to imply in Christian tradition that the authority of the apostle John, the son of Zebedee, lies behind it, and that it embodies his testimony to the life and teaching of Jesus. The present commentator is in full agreement with the dictum of the late Archbishop William Temple, who wrote: ‘I regard as self-condemned any theory about the origin of the Gospel which fails to find a very close connection between it and John the son of Zebedee. The combination of internal and external evidence is overwhelming on this point.’” R. V. G. Tasker, The Gospel According to St. John: An Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980 [tenth printing]), p. 11.
11 In dealing with the problem of the cleansing of the temple in chapter 2, Morris points out: “… nothing else in the first five chapters of this Gospel is to be found in any of the Synoptics.” Morris, p. 190.
12 “Thus John’s distinctive portrait of Jesus contains 93 percent original material in comparison to the Synoptics.” Walvoord, John F., and Zuck, Roy B., The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Wheaton, Illinois: Scripture Press Publications, Inc.), 1983, 1985. “John,” en loc.