The Gospel of John might well be the most amazing thing ever written.  Most people assume it is easy to read and understand, which is why new Christians are encouraged to read it and often given copies of it upon their conversion.   John’s simple way of writing—often using very short, simple words—is deceiving, however.  Consider the very first verse of John’s Gospel—

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

There is not one complicated word in that verse.  Taken individually, even a child can tell you what each word in verse 1 means.  But when we put them together the way John did, we come up with one of the most profound verses in the entire Bible.  St. Jerome observed:

John excels in the depths of divine mysteries.

St Jerome was, I think, making an understatement!

This Gospel was probably the last of the Gospels to have been written.  Its readers would have been second or third generation Christians and what they knew about the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ they gleaned from what John and the other Gospel writers wrote, what Paul and others wrote in letter form, and what they heard by word of mouth, either from their parents or from wandering, itinerant preachers.  There were no seminaries at this time, preachers were not taught by theology professors and they did not have racks of commentaries to study from or, in fact, a standardized Bible from with to teach.  Understandably, then, as some historical evidence suggests, there were some common misconceptions about Jesus circulating among the members of the early Church.  It was essential to set the record straight for future generations.  This was John’s burden.

Who exactly was John, the man behind the Gospel?  Biblical information tells us that he was the son of a man named Zebedee, a fisherman by trade, whose wife was named Salome (Mark 15:40; 16:1; also Matthew 27:56).  Most scholars believe that his older brother was named James.  It seems that the John’s family was a family of means; they had hired servants (Mark 1:20), and according to John 19:27, he took Mary in and cared for her after the death of Jesus.

He was probably a disciple of John the Baptist before becoming a follower of Jesus (John 1:35—40).   The Apostle John was a member of Jesus’ inner circle, along with his brother James and Peter.  On numerous occasions during the last half of Jesus’ ministry, these three men alone were drawn closer to Jesus in a relationship not enjoyed by the other disciples (Matthew 17:1—8; Mark 9:2—8; Luke 9:28—36, 49ff; 22:8).   Peter and John were the only disciples to follow Jesus to the place of judgment (John 18:15, 16); John alone went with Jesus to Golgotha (John 19:26); and it was John and his friend Peter who raced to the tomb on the first Easter morning (John 20:3—4).

The apostle is mentioned in the book of Acts nine times and there he is overshadowed by the leadership of Peter, though Paul names John as one of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:9)

The Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, a letter really, was written by the same John and is the only other book in the New Testament to reference the apostle.  Exiled on the rocky island of Patmos for a time, John is seen not only as an apostle, but as a prophet.

From bits and pieces of history, we know that John did not die on Patmos, but spent his declining years in Ephesus.  Early Church father Jerome mentions that in his “extreme old age,” John was helped to and from worship services by his loyal “disciples.”  To his dying day, John’s message was one of love; loving one another and loving God.

While most conservative Bible scholars place this Gospel’s composition around 95 AD, the events it records took place between 30 and 36.  That means it took John some 60 years to get around to writing his Gospel.  In fact, the other three Gospels, like John’s, were all written decades after the events they recorded.  The epistles or letters, even though they are located after the Gospels in our New Testaments, were mostly written long before the Gospels were.  Why did it take Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John so long to write their accounts of the life and times of Jesus Christ?  There were two main reasons:

  • The disciples and members of the first century Church took literally the promise made by Jesus Christ that He would return soon.   If a couple of angels came up to you and told you that Jesus Christ would return the same way He left, as they did the followers of Christ in Acts 1:11 at the time of His Ascension, you would probably go about your days keeping an eye open for this to happen.  We can imagine that as the first century drew to a close, the disciples, the eyewitnesses to the life of Christ, were getting old and feeble and they realized that they needed a permanent record of the things they saw, experienced, and subsequently taught.  So John and Matthew wrote their Gospels as old men.  Mark, who was not a disciple and considerably younger than any of the Twelve, wrote his Gospel and Luke, who traveled with and cared for Paul, and who spent years interviewing the men and women who knew Jesus personally, wrote his Gospel to “set the record straight” for a generation who never saw Jesus personally.
  • To correct false impressions and false teachings about the facts surrounding the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  By the mid-first century there were all kinds of myths and legends swirling around the Man called Jesus Christ.  Some of these false teachings were perpetrated in ignorance by men who were genuinely saved but preaching wrong things because they themselves had been mistaught.  Other false teachings were spread by Judaizers and Gnostics who sought to disrupt and eventually destroy the Church of Jesus Christ.

John in his Gospel helps the reader understand exactly why he wrote his Gospel by stating his reason in John 20:30—31,

30Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

There are at least four key ideas expressed by John in these two verses that need to be examined in order to grasp why he wrote what he wrote and why what he wrote is so different from what Matthew, Mark, and Luke wrote.

1.  Miraculous signs

These verses are really the conclusion of the Gospel, summarizing the author’s strategy, subject, and purpose in writing it.  Thomas’ glorious confession in verse 28 gives John’s purpose power.  Thomas realized who Jesus Christ was after seeing our Lord’s resurrection, the greatest miracle or sign of all.  The resurrection and subsequent appearances of Jesus to His followers and others led credence to the fact that Jesus Christ was who He claimed to be.  John realized how powerful the miracle of the resurrection was and in similar measure, how powerful the other miracles of Jesus were, and so he wrote about them in his Gospel, preserving them for all time for others to read about.

The Greek word John used in verse 30 was semeion, and in classical Greek literature usually meant:

  • A mark or sign by which something is known;
  • An omen or a sign from the gods;
  • A sign or signal to do something; ie., a signal for battle.

In Koine Greek, or the common Greek the New Testament was written in, semeion came to mean “miracle” or “wonder” and “a sign.”   As John used it in his statement of purpose, the word carries two distinct ideas.  First, John meticulously recorded many, but not all, of the miracles Jesus performed during His earthly ministry.  In fact, John records some miracles not mentioned in the other Gospels.  Second, John indicates why he recorded so many miracles:  That you many have faith that Jesus is the Christ, to Son of God (literal).  In John’s mind, the miracles of Jesus were really a “call to action,” and that action was the act of placing faith in Christ Jesus.

2.  Believe (or faith)

Even though “faith in Christ” is the key ingredient in all Christian preaching and teaching, it is odd that John never uses that word, “faith” (pistis)  in his Gospel.  However, he does use the verb pisteuo, “believe,” a derivative of pistis (the noun “faith”) almost 100 times.  In fact, “believe” is the key word in John’s history of Jesus Christ.  As far as John was concerned, “faith” had to be an action—a verb and not a noun.  Belief in Christ was to be the only appropriate response to the Son of God.  Faith or belief in Jesus Christ is really made up three ingredients:

  1. Belief
  2. Trust
  3. Loyalty

L.H. Marshall makes an interesting and helpful observation:

Just as gunpowder is not gunpowder if any of its three elements—carbon, saltpeter, or sulphur—is missing, so is faith a genuine faith only if all of its elements are present.

3.  Jesus is the Christ

He is the chief subject of the Gospel, not the signs and wonders.  John artfully presents Jesus as “the Christ,” or “the Messiah” and the “Son of God.”  The word “Christ” properly means “Anointed One,” and in Jewish literature always refers to the One chosen by God to be Israel’s Deliverer, who would come to free the nation from bondage and to restore the David Kingdom.  As recorded by John, Jesus was given this title very early on in His earthly ministry by the men He would later refer to as His Apostles—

41The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ).  (John 1:41)

Interestingly, all of Jesus’ disciples knew who Jesus was, but in John’s Gospel, he seldom refers to Jesus as “the Christ” and, in fact, Jesus did not refer to Himself as “the Messiah.”  This was a shrewd calculation of our Lord’s part.  That appellation carried with it extreme political connotations that Jesus would not and did not fulfill during His first coming.   Jesus was very careful not to portray Himself as some kind “Jewish” political savior, leading some kind of political revolutionary movement.   Jesus made it clear to Pilate that His kingdom was “not of this world” (John 18:36).

However, in their zeal to find their political savior, the Jews of John’s day completely missed the spiritual aspect of their coming Messiah:  that of a spiritual deliverer.  This aspect of the Messiah’s mission Jesus fulfilled completely at His first coming.   John tells his readers in no uncertain terms their Savior had already come.  He does this by his style of writing; carefully choosing and ordering his words and the events of Christ’s ministry to show that God’s Son—the Incarnate Word—is the complete and final fulfillment of centuries of their own prophet words.

4.  Life

Zoe, “life,” is another favorite word John uses over 30 times.  Not only does he use it often, but “life” is a major theme of his Gospel.   It frequently means “the life of believers which proceeds from God and Christ” (Arndt and Gingrich).  As John used the word frequently, “life” designated the “new life” that an individual experienced as a result of faith in Jesus Christ even as they lived in this world.  Sometimes John wrote about life and eternal life, blurring them together, not distinguishing between the two!   In Johannine theology, the moment a person placed their trust and faith in Jesus Christ, they received a new life that they would carry into eternity.


John’s Gospel is not only amazing; it is beautiful.  We see Jesus Christ, the Word, in His pre-incarnate glory, so that we may appreciate His love in coming to earth with the sole purpose of saving sinners.  During His earthly ministry, we see Jesus revealing Himself to more and more people, yet rejected by His own.  Nevertheless, the all-powerful Son of God did not lash out in anger, but tenderly appealed to them, sinners all, to accept Him by faith.   Despite His messages of peace, militant forces marshaled against Him in bitter opposition.  By the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, He manifested Himself to be precisely who He claimed to be.   Mathew, Mark, and Luke all record the same story, but John’s account is most touching and most assiduous.

(c)  2010 WitzEnd

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