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Introduction to the Gospel According to John

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General Info

John’s Gospel is the most unique of the four gospels, with over ninety percent of his material having no corresponding accounts in the other three.  He accents the deity of Jesus, presenting Him as the Word or Logos, the promised Messiah, the Son of Man, the Light of the World, the Bread of Life, and equal to the Father as the great "I Am".  Much of these presentations take place during the various Jewish festivals, thus underscoring Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of the subject of the celebrations.  The gospel was 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 (Jn 20:31).

John writes relatively little about the "kingdom promise" when compared with the Synoptic Gospels, preferring the term "eternal life" to express both the length of time and superior quality of life in the kingdom.  While the Synoptics portray the "Messianic Secret", John openly confesses Jesus as the Messiah from the beginning.  We are also indebted to John for the unique material concerning Jesus’ early ministry and His final instructions to His apostles during Passion Week, which included His promise to send the Holy Spirit to guide them (and us) after He had left them to return to His heavenly home.

The Gospel of John is probably the best loved and most influential book in all of Scripture, containing some of the most memorable sayings of Jesus.  For many, it is the book which introduced them to the Bible and for some, the only one that they have ever read.

See our Introduction to the Gospels for additional information on its relationship with the other gospel books.

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Brief Survey

The Gospel of John opens not with a genealogy of Jesus the Christ (Messiah) or His birth, but from "the beginning" as "the Word" (logos) who eternally exists with God, is God, and has now come in the flesh.  The first section (chapters 1-12) sets about depicting Jesus’ public ministry, centering around seven signs (or miracles) pointing to the fact that He is the promised Messiah.

After the prologue, Jesus begins His ministry be being baptized and calling his first disciples.  The remainder of the first four chapters highlight Jesus’ early revelation of himself to the Jews by turning water into wine (the first sign), clearing the Temple, and His conversation with Nicodemus.  We also see his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, to whom He reveals His identity as the Messiah.

In chapters 5-10, Jesus visits several Jesus festivals, revealing Himself as the fulfillment of several associated OT types (see Typology in Leviticus) and promises. We see additional signs, including the feeding of the 5000.  The first section, sometimes referred to as the "Book of Signs", closes with the final miracle of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and initiating the preparations for His own death and resurrection.

The final section, chapters 13-21 has been called the "Book of Glory".  It begins with Jesus’ final teachings to His disciples (ch 13-16), preparing them for his departure at His final Passover meal.  He assures them and promises the gift of the Holy Spirit until His return.  He then offers His High Priestly Prayer for them (and us) in chapter 17.

The scene then moves east of the city to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is arrested by a large detachment of Temple Guards and Roman Soldiers, guided to the site by His betrayer Judas (ch 18).  Jesus is then taken before the Jewish high council for interrogation before being turned over to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor over Judea.  Pilate, although convinced of Jesus’ innocence, is pressured by the Jewish leaders to crucify Him (ch19).

In chapter 20, we see the climax of the Gospel of John (and of Christianity) in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  This event convinced even the most doubting of His disciples that He was Lord and God.  In the final chapter (ch 21), Jesus re-instates Peter (after his denial during Jesus’ trial) and re-commissions His disciples for their coming missions.

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Key Verses

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. (1:1,14a)

The next day John [the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and said, "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!  I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God." (1:29,34)

Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days." (2:19)

Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. (3:3)

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son. (3:16-18)

The woman said, "I know that Messiah" (called Christ) "is coming.  When he comes, he will explain everything to us."  Then Jesus declared, "I who speak to you am he." (4:25-26)

Then they asked him, "What must we do to do the works God requires?"  Jesus answered, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent."  Then Jesus declared, "I am the bread of life.  He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. (6:28-29,35)

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, "I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." (8:12)

"You are not yet fifty years old," the Jews said to him, "and you have seen Abraham!"  "I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "before Abraham was born, I AM!" (8:57-58)

I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.  "I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. (10:10-11,27-28)

Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this?" (11:25-26)

"A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." 13:34-35)

Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me…  Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father." (14:6.9)

"I am the vine; you are the branches.  If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing." (15:5)

"Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent...  I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them.  I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world.  My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.  They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.  Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. (17:3,13-17)

Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here; see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it into my side.  Stop doubting and believe."  Thomas said to him, "My Lord and my God!"  Then Jesus told him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."  Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.  But 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. (20:27-31)

This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down.  We know that his testimony is true.  Jesus did many other things as well.  If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. (21:24-25)

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Author, Date and Recipients

Like the other Gospels, the Gospel According to John does not explicitly name its author.  Internal evidence verifies that the author was an eyewitness to the events (1:14, 2:11, 19:35, 21:24-25) and is writing from personal experience.  In addition, the author refers to himself as "the disciple whom Jesus loved" on several occasions (13:23, 19:6, 20:12, 21:20).  We also see the many associations of this disciple with the Apostle Peter (13:23-24, 18:15-16, 20:2-9, 21:20-23).  Luke and Paul also wrote of the connections between the two apostles.  John, his brother James, and Peter formed an inner circle of disciples around Jesus.  Regarding external evidence, many leaders in the church as early as 125AD held the author to be the Apostle John (Eusebius, Church History 3.23), including Irenaeus (Against Heresies 3.1.2).  John’s notable reserve to identify himself explicitly is probably out of humility and a desire not to be overly exalted by the Christian community.  His intention instead is to lift up and esteem the Name of Christ.

John was a fisherman by trade, and was one of the Apostles in Jesus inner circle (along with his brother James and Peter).  He was also known as the “Sons of Thunder” (long with his brother James – Mk 3:17), “the disciple that Jesus loved” (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20), and the one to whom Jesus entrusted the care of His mother Mary from the cross (Jn 19:26-27).  It is possible that Mary’s sister, standing beside her at the cross (Jn 19:25) , might have been Salome, the wife of Zebedee and the mother of John (Mt 27:56,Mk 15:40).

The Gospel was probably written after the destruction of Jerusalem (70 AD) and certainly before the end of John’s lifetime (~100 AD), most likely around 85-90 AD.  Clement of Alexander stated in the late second century that John wrote to supplement the accounts found in the other Gospels (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 6.14.7).  In addition, the author also refers to the Sea of Galilee as "the Sea of Tiberias" (6:1, 21:1), a name not typically used until near the end of the first century.  Tradition states that the Church fled Jerusalem around 67 AD, a few years prior to her destruction.  John eventually migrated to Ephesus (modern-day Turkey), the most likely place for the writing of his Gospel (Antioch and Alexandra are sometimes suggested as alternate locations).

The initial recipients of John’s Gospel were probably Jewish Christians scattered about the Mediterranean world, although his message transcended any one group (see discussion at Interpretation of the Gospel of John).  He assumes that his readers were familiar with both Jewish traditions and the basic narratives of the other Gospels.  At the same time, he explains certain particulars in relation to Jesus, such as rabbi being a Hebrew word meaning "teacher".  This also indicates a late first century date for his Gospel since, at that time, dispersed Jews were likely to be more fluent in the Greek language than in their native Hebrew.

See Author and Date of the Gospels for more information.

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Historical Background

See the Historical Background for the Gospels.

The events in the Gospel of John took place in Palestine, which was incorporated into the Roman Empire in 63 BC.  In Jesus’ day, the area had been divided among the descendants of Herod the Great after his death in 4 BC.  The early ministry of Jesus took place in Judea, primarily in and around Jerusalem.  Jesus then spent some time teaching and ministering in the Decapolis (Ten Cities), a loose confederation of semi-autonomous cities located around the Sea of Galilee north of Judea (present day Syria).

At the time and place of writing in the late first century AD, the early church at Ephesus had become a strong center of faith under the leadership of the apostles Paul and John.  It was in this setting that John wrote the fourth Gospel based upon his eyewitness experiences and recollections under the influence of the promised Holy Spirit.

It was also a time of mounting tension between the growing local churches and the Jewish synagogues, particularly because many new members of the church were converted Jews.  The Apostle John (a Jewish Christian) skillfully and courageously stood with the church and guided them through such debates as "was Jesus the Messiah and the Son of God", "which group was the legitimate children of Abraham", and many other issues during persecutions of the church.

Later, when many false teachers brought controversy and discord to the churches, John responded by writing his three epistles (1st, 2nd and 3rd John) to rebuke these threats, and to encourage and exhort the Christian community.

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Timeline

John’s gospel spans the time period from the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry (~28-30 AD) though His post resurrection appearances (30 or 33 AD).

~ 6-4 BC Birth of Jesus
~ 26 AD Beginning of John the Baptist's ministry
~ 28 AD Jesus baptized by John the Baptist and begins His ministry
30 or 33 (1) Last Supper (Passover), Passion Week, Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection
~ 35 Paul's Conversion
~ 67 The Jerusalem Church flees to Pella
~ 70 John settles in Asia Minor (modern day western Turkey)
70 Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem
~ 80 - 90 Gospel of John Written
81 - 96 The Reign of Roman Emperor Domitian
~ 85 - 90 John writes his 3 Epistles (probably from Ephesus)
~ 95 John writes Revelation while in exile on Patmos
~ 100 John dies peacefully in Ephesus

(1)  These dates are either one or the other (Nisan 14 Passover falling between Thursday sundown to Friday sundown on the Jewish calendar).  The earlier date is the most popular, but there are good evidences and arguments to support either date.

~ Dates are approximated.

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

The author states his purpose for writing in the next-to-last chapter in that the reader may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (20:31).  This is evident from the beginning of the book with John’s magnificent prologue (1:1-18) in which he presents Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, the True Light, the Word (Logos) who exists eternally with God, and is God with us.  John’s endeavor included strengthening the faith of those a generation removed from the eyewitnesses, to bring others into the faith, and to counter and correct the false teaching that had begun to spread in the Church.  He also highlights and expands upon doctrine that was left undeveloped by the other Gospels.

The purpose of the book reflects its central theme, that Jesus is God who has come in the flesh.  John records many declarations and proofs to substantiate this main theme, each of which could also be considered a sub-theme.  A few of these include the proclamations that Jesus existed before creation, that He is the Messiah and Son of God, He is the exact reflection of the Father and united in purpose, He and the Father are One, He possesses supernatural knowledge, He has the power to forgive sins and grant eternal life, and He is the subject and fulfillment of OT Scripture.  Jesus Himself validates these statement by the seven signs and the "I AM" statements (see Ex 3:14-15), and God the Father also testifies that Jesus is the Christ (Messiah).

John’s Gospel also contains several themes related to revelation and redemption.  Jesus reveals the Father (1:4-5, 14:9) and whoever believes (trusts and relies on) the revelation that Jesus is the Christ and Son of God will gain eternal life (3:16).  The benefits of this salvation begin immediately (3:36) based upon the finished work of Jesus at the cross (14:6-7).

John also emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit in the ministry of Jesus.  Although Jesus was still Divine, He chose in His humanity to rely on the power of the Spirit.  Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit (14:15-31) contains eschatological language echoing the anticipation of His own second coming.  As Christians look forward to this glorious event, our reliance on the Holy Spirit is a characteristic of true discipleship.

By sending the Holy Spirit after His departure, Jesus calls and equips the Church to carry on His mission.  Jesus had a very keen sense of this earthly mission.   In the opening verses of His High Priestly Prayer, He notes that He has completed all the work that the Father gave Him to do (17:4).  We, as the Church of our time, should strive to be able to make this same acknowledgement.  Later in this prayer, Jesus petitions the Father to protect those He sends into the world to proclaim His truth (17:15-19).

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

In order to do justice to even an introduction to interpreting John's Gospel, we've written a separate article which examines interpretation elements and challenges such as literary techniques, the "I AM" statements and important elements in the book.  Please see Interpretation of the Gospel of John for this study.

See also Interpretation Hints for the Gospels for more information.

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Outline

The Gospel of John can be divided into two main sections.  The first section (chapters 1-12) tells of Jesus’ public ministry and centers around seven signs (or miracles) pointing to the fact that He is the promised Messiah.  The second section (chapters 13-21) concentrates on Jesus’ teachings to his disciples and on the events of Passion Week.  Due to their respective contents, the first section has been called "The Book of Signs" while the second section is sometimes referred to as "The Book of Glory".

1:1 - 1:18 Prologue: The Word (logos) becomes Flesh (Incarnated)
1:19 – 2:11 John the Baptist; the Beginning of Jesus’ Ministry; Calling of the First Disciples
2:12 – 4:54 Jesus' ministry in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to Gentiles
5:1 – 5:47 A Healing in Jerusalem; The Authority of Jesus
6:1 – 10:42 Additional Signs and Miracles; Growing Jewish Opposition to Jesus
11:1 – 12:11 Jesus Raises Lazarus from the Dead
12:12 – 12:50 Jesus’ Triumphal Entry in Jerusalem; Belief and Unbelief
13:1 – 16:33 Jesus’ Final Teaching to his Disciples; The Promise of the Holy Spirit
17:1 – 17:26 The High Priestly Prayer of Jesus
18:1 – 19:42 The Betrayal, Arrest, Trial, Crucifixion and Burial of Jesus
20:1 – 20:29 The Resurrection and Appearances of Jesus
20:30 – 20:31 The Purpose of the Gospel of John
21:1 – 21:25 Jesus Re-commissions the Disciples

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