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Introduction to the Gospel of John

Roger Hahn

Approach to the Study

There are almost an infinite number of ways to study the Bible. Each of them offers certain strengths and certain weaknesses. This Bible study is written to be used in the following format: personal, daily reading and reflecting on a selected portion of the Bible and answering questions on the passage through the course of a week, followed by a small group review and discussion of the week's questions, followed by a lecture-type presentation on the passages covered during the week. Each week of personal study begins with a written summary of the material of the previous week. Lesson 1 provides a general introduction.

This lesson begins a series of 21 lessons on the Gospel of John. The fourth gospel will be the primary focus of this study. Other passages of the Bible will be referred to and occasionally non-Biblical material from the time of the Bible will be cited. But, the focus will be John's gospel. Our goal will be to let the fourth gospel speak to us on its own terms. We will be interested in how John relates to the other gospels, but our purpose is not the construction of a harmony of the life and teachings of Jesus.

The Gospel of John was written to particular concerns of a specific group of Christians in the last part of the first century. In other words, it comes from a specific historical context. That suggests that its background and its basic meaning is determined by its purpose in that historical context. Every piece of literature has a historical context - the environment from which and to which it speaks. However, the gospel of John is part of the Christian Bible. That does not mean that its historical context did not exist and is not still important. It does mean that Christians firmly believe that John's gospel has meaning far beyond its historical context. It means that the Holy Spirit can speak a message from God to us today from the words written about nineteen hundred years ago.

As we seek to hear from God through the message of John we will pay attention to the words, the flow of thought, and the literary ways John used to express his message. (Technical Bible scholars call this literary exegesis.) We will try to understand that message in its historical context (historical exegesis). We believe that there is a message from God and about God and His will for our lives in the gospel of John. We will be trying to find what John says about that (this is called theological exegesis). Finally, we are trusting God to speak to us personally and as a part of the body of Christ. We are confident that the Holy Spirit will take information that we learn from literary, historical, and theological studies, and speak a word to us. That requires spiritual listening on our part.

The Approach to John

The Gospel of John was probably the last of the four gospels in our New Testament to be written. It very quickly became the favorite gospel of most Christians and has long been the most influential gospel and one of the most influential books of the New Testament. By the end of the second century both heretics and the orthodox made special use of John. The view of Christ presented in this gospel became the basis for the unfolding Christological debates in the second through the fourth centuries. To this day John's gospel is the one most often recommended to new converts.

The traditional chronological outline of Jesus' life is primarily influenced by John. The understanding of Jesus that emerges from the fourth gospel is the most profound of all the New Testament books. By reading this gospel the Christian finds deeper fellowship with, as well as deeper insight into, our Lord Jesus. That is why William Barclay noted that the more we know about the fourth gospel the more precious it becomes to us.

The Historical Background: Author

The fourth gospel, like all the gospels, does not name its author. The first clear statements about the author of the fourth gospel from early church tradition come from A.D. 180. In a work by Irenaeus called Against Heresies John the Apostle, the son of Zebedee, is identified as the author. This has been the general tradition of the church since then but questions and debate have gone on since the time of Irenaeus.

Careful analysis of the gospel has caused many people to question whether John the Apostle was the author. The Logos (Word) idea of John 1:1, 14 seems to reflect a sophisticated understanding of Greek philosophy that we wouldn't expect from a Jewish fisherman. Several other sections suggest that the author was highly educated in Greek circles. Yet, other portions of the gospel are very Jewish and almost require an eyewitness account.

Also, though Irenaeus was the first to claim John the Apostle as the author, he based his claim on second hand information. One of his sources, Papias, mentions John the Elder as well as John the Apostle. Papias is not always clear in keeping them separate. Other church traditions from a few years later suggest that several disciples worked together on the fourth gospel.

All the conflicting evidence of both early church tradition and the internal structure and content of the gospel must be considered. Many scholars now believe that John the Apostle collected (either orally or in written form) a group of teachings and events from Jesus' ministry in Palestine. He moved to Ephesus and collected a group of students or disciples - young followers around him. One of those younger followers wrote the first edition of the gospel under John's supervision. Later another student produced a second edition which is the form of John we now have. Since John was the underlying authority for the book in all its forms, we shall refer to the gospel as John's gospel.

The Beloved Disciple

The traditional view that John the Apostle was the author of the fourth gospel has often been tied to the identification of the "beloved disciple" with John. One of the unique features of John's gospel is the mention of "the disciple whom Jesus loved." This phrase is first used in John 13:23 at the occasion we believe to be the Last Supper. He is mentioned again at the cross in 19:26 where he is given responsibility for Jesus' mother. He is next mentioned in John 20:2 and in the events described in the following verses he became the first to believe the Resurrection. He is mentioned again in 21:7 and 21:20. 21:24 indicates that "this disciple" is the one who wrote "these things". It is not clear whether "these things" referred to the whole gospel of John, chapter 21, or just the conversation between Jesus, Peter, and the beloved disciple. Some people also believe that he is the un-named disciple in 1:35 and the "other disciple" mentioned in 18:15 and 19:35.

The traditional view is that this beloved disciple was John the Apostle who was too humble to mention himself by name. However, the fourth gospel never identifies the beloved disciple with John. One must also question how humble it is for a person to call himself the disciple whom Jesus loved. John makes it very clear that God and Jesus loved all the world.

Those who do not identify John the Apostle and the beloved disciple propose various alternatives. Lazarus (see 11:5), John Mark (Acts 12:12), Paul (Galatians 2:20), and Mattias (Acts 1:23, 26) have all been suggested. However, the effort to determine the identity of the Beloved Disciple violates the design of the fourth gospel. John obviously wished for the disciple whom Jesus loved to remain anonymous. We should respect his desires. Without the conflict, embarrassment, or pressure it would cause by naming any one of the twelve John has presented us with a model disciple. That disciple is one who is faithful to Jesus in the face of death. He is so reliable that Jesus can entrust to him his most precious human relationship. He is the first to believe the resurrection. The Beloved Disciple is, in fact, everything John wishes that you and I might be.

The Historical Background: Date

The traditional and most common position on the date of John is that it was written between AD 90 and 100. There are some scholars who argue for a date before AD 70 and many scholars of the past generation believed John came from the second century.

Those who believe John was written prior to AD 70 believe that all four gospels were written between AD 55 and 70. Those who see John coming from this time frame point to certain very Jewish aspects of the gospel. John uses the Jewish words "rabbi" and "messiah" far more often than the other gospels. The temple receives more attention in John than in other New Testament books. The relationship of Jesus and John the Baptist appears more competitive in the fourth gospel. John frequently seems to use the language of Qumran, the Dead Sea Scroll community that ceased to exist in AD 70. Some scholars feel that these Jewish aspects of the gospel "fit" better in the time prior to AD 70 than in the years following.

The view that John was written in the second century arose from the position that John was not quoted by the early Christian writers until late in the second century. Approximately AD 160 to 170 is the earliest provable use of John by another writer. In fact there is considerable debate about whether or not writers as early as Ignatius (d. AD 117) quoted John or not. The other main reason for a late date was the assumption that sophisticated theology like that found in John must have "evolved" slowly and later in the early church's history. An archaeological find in the mid-twentieth century produced a piece of a copy of John from about AD 125. Since that find hardly any scholars now date John in the second century.

The date of AD 85 or 90 to AD 100 fits both the church traditions of John being the final "spiritual" gospel and the most common view of the gospel's setting. The anti-Jewish tone of the gospel and the focus on Pharisees fits with these years of history. As a result most scholars date John between AD 90 and 100.

The Historical Background: Place

The tradition of the early church was that John was written from Ephesus. There is really no evidence that would give us a clear indication of where the gospel was written. However, the sophisticated use of Greek philosophical categories in John fits with what we know about Ephesus and the thought patterns of that city. As a result there are very few scholars who try to argue that John was written anywhere else.

Relation to Synoptics

One perplexing problem with which Bible scholars deal is the relationship of John to the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The first three gospels are called synoptic (from a Greek word meaning with [the same] eye) because they share a common outline and perspective. The differences between John and the Synoptics are noteworthy. In John much of Jesus' ministry takes place in Jerusalem and Judea. In the Synoptics Jesus' ministry is only described in Galilee until his final trip to the cross in Jerusalem. As a result the Synoptics give no evidence that Jesus' ministry lasted more than nine months to a year. However, John's gospel requires a ministry of at least two years, and more likely, three years.

Though the Synoptics describe many miracles and use several terms to describe the miraculous works of Jesus, John only describes seven or eight miracles and he consistently uses the word "sign" to describe them. In the Synoptics Jesus' favorite mode of teaching was the parable. Hardly any parables are to be found in the fourth gospel where Jesus gives long, philosophical discourses unlike anything found in the Synoptics. Jesus' identity as Messiah and Son of God is not clearly spelled out in the Synoptics and the reader is left in the dark about whether Jesus himself even believed that he was Messiah and Son of God. In contrast, the first chapter of John clearly proclaims Jesus as both Messiah and Son of God. Scarcely a chapter passes without this claim being repeated in John and Jesus clearly uses the titles for himself.

There are explanations for all these differences between John and the Synoptics (though not everybody is satisfied with every explanation). What is fascinating when one thinks about these differences is how similar John is to the Synoptics. Both John and the Synoptics are clearly "gospels." When compared to the apocryphal gospels the similarity is even more striking. All four gospels introduce Jesus' ministry by means of John the Baptist. All four note the descent of the Spirit on Jesus in the form of a dove and the heavenly witness to Jesus' divine sonship. All four present Jesus teaching and performing miracles. All four describe the feeding of the five thousand. All four gospels devote approximately one third of their pages to the time following the triumphal entry. There is no question that John and the Synoptics are describing the same Jesus!

Given the remarkable similarities and differences between John and the Synoptic Gospels what is the literary relationship between them? Did the author of John have copies of any or all the Synoptic Gospels before him as he wrote his gospel? If not, had he read them in the past? Was he even aware that they existed and generally what they said? The Bible does not answer these questions but the way we interpret John will be influenced by what we think most likely to be the correct answers to these questions. We do have evidence of a belief in the third century that John was aware of the other gospels. Clement of Alexandria (c. AD 200) is quoted as saying, "John, conscious that the outward facts had been set forth in the Gospels, was urged on by his disciples, and, divinely moved by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel." We don't know whether Clement was completely correct or not. Scholars are divided on the question of whether John had a copy of the Synoptics or had read them. Most would say he did not.

But when Clement stated that John wrote a "spiritual gospel" he was recognizing a unique and intensely "theological" emphasis in John's gospel. All the gospels give theological interpretations of Jesus' life. Part of what that means is that the goal of the gospel writers was not to give us historical information about Jesus, but to present the truth of the meaning of Jesus' life, ministry, death, and resurrection. That is why the gospels are called gospels. They preach the good news of the gospel in story form. John's gospel very clearly preaches the meaning of Jesus.

The Purpose of John's Gospel

John gives the clearest statement of purpose of any book of the Bible in 20:30-31.

 "Therefore, Jesus performed many other signs which are not written in this book. But these are written in order that you might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in order that you might have life in his name because you believe."

The goal of this book is not information, but believing. Grammatically, one should say that John's goal is not information but faith so that a noun (faith) is contrasted with a noun (information). However, John never uses the noun, faith. He always uses the verb, believing (this is the same root word in Greek, although in English we do not have a verbal form of the noun "faith"). This is important. The fourth gospel is not calling us to a theological position, it is calling us to the life that arises from commitment to who Jesus really is. The Greek text of John 20:31 clearly identifies two purposes, believing and having life.

Our study of John will violate John's purpose if we do not become increasingly committed to Jesus the Messiah. The issue of knowing Jesus permeates the fourth gospel. Jesus is introduced in a variety of ways in chapters 1-6. Chapters 7-12 argue that the Jews didn't (and don't) really know Jesus although they have met him and interact with him. Chapters 13-17 present Jesus revealing himself more personally, more profoundly to the disciples and trying to convince them of whom he really is and what his mission was to accomplish. The issue of recognizing who Jesus really is returns in the resurrection scenes in chapters 20-21. Those who know who Jesus really is recognize him. For some people this single-minded focus on Jesus seems repetitious and even boring after several chapters. But for John (and for us) the repetition shows how important it is that we really know Jesus. If we don't we don't really live as God has designed for us to live.

John's Method of Thinking

One of the distinctive characteristics of John is the way he sharply contrasts concepts with black and white opposites. Other New Testament writers occasionally use this technique of dualism, but John uses it almost constantly. John speaks of light and darkness as two completely opposite bases for living. Most of us do not experience life in such water-tight opposing categories. Most of us struggle with a mixture of light and darkness. The most wicked people we know (living in darkness) have at least some good influence or instincts (light). And most of the really good people we know have a dark side to their lives.

John's way of thinking helps us understand the bottom line. Though life may seem like a mixture to us, and may in fact be mixed, the bottom line is the choice between good and evil, between light and darkness. The ultimate end is either life or death. The gospel is either true or false. John helps us recover the most basic truths about our relationship with God. If it occasionally seems to be too simple, we should welcome the strengths of simplicity. John will keep us clearly focused on the bottom line of our relationship with Christ.

Probably John used these black and white opposites because many religious writings in his day and time also wrote that way. It is tempting to think that we were the audience John had in mind as the fourth gospel was written. We were not. John was writing to deal with some very real problems of the church of his time. If we are correct that John was written between AD 90 and 100 we can identify several specific problems John wanted to solve with the fourth gospel.

The Problems John Addresses

The people who first read the fourth gospel were struggling with several difficult problems. The relationship of Jew to Gentile in the church had arrived at a critical turning point. The idea that Jesus was only divine and not really human was beginning to appear among some churches. There is some evidence that John was also concerned with the delay of the second coming of Christ. The fourth gospel addresses these and other problems in the life of the early church. Many of those problems and John's solutions are still important for us today.

The problem of Jewish-Christian relations plays a major role in John. Jews and Christians had worshipped together in many places from the beginning of Christianity. Christians were seen by many Jews as just another sect of Judaism as were the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. However, historical evidence suggests that between AD 80 and 90 Judaism began an official anti-Christian movement. Christians were officially kicked out of the synagogues. The worship liturgy of the synagogue was changed to include a curse on Christians. In fact, around AD 90 a new word was coined to describe Christians who were excommunicated from the synagogue. It was a single Greek word, but it is often translated, "put out of the synagogue." It appears in the New Testament only in John where it is found in 9:22; 12:42; and 16:2.

The conflict with Jesus and the Jews is most sharply drawn in the fourth gospel. Some present day scholars believe that the roots of anti-Semitism are found in John. Certainly, the conflict is given more emphasis in the fourth gospel. It is likely that John makes this emphasis because of the conflict at the time of the final edition of the gospel between AD 90 and 100. To a church that is struggling because of increased hostility from the Jews John provides a reminder that Jesus had also suffered opposition. To a church that didn't always know what to say in response to Jewish criticism John provides a manual of instruction on how to answer Jewish critics.

Most of us do not face significant Jewish opposition to our faith. We are not hurt or confused by the idea that Judaism rejects us and our theology. Actually, a number of John's readers may have been Gentiles who didn't worry about these things either. In a very real sense, "the Jews" in the fourth gospel represent anyone who rejects Jesus. Thus John provides us with a set of arguments to use when we face people who reject Christ. He also encourages us that when a person leaves the ranks of those who reject Christ, there is welcome and acceptance from Jesus and the group of people who follow Jesus.

Another problem were people in the Greek world so enthralled with the idea of Jesus' deity and miracle-working power that they denied his humanity. These people came to be called Docetists from a Greek word meaning "seem." The Docetists believed that Jesus only seemed to be human. He was God in a human disguise, but he retained all the characteristics of a deity. He could not get tired, eat, or drink, and most importantly, he could not die.

John seems to be intentionally rejecting that point of view. In 1:14 he specifically states that the Word became flesh. In 4:6, he tells us that Jesus sat down to rest because he was tired. In 4:31 the disciples offer Jesus food which is not something they would do if he never ate. And, of course, John tells us of Jesus' death. In fact, Jesus' death is the death of a sacrificial lamb that takes away the sin of the world.

Few of us meet Docetists of the type that plagued early Christianity. However, some of their errors persist in surprising ways. Many evangelicals, reacting against liberal tendencies, have so emphasized the deity of Christ that there is no room for the humanity of Christ. Orthodox Christianity has always required allegiance to both ideas. When the deity of Christ is over-emphasized against the humanity, an awesome and powerful picture of Jesus emerges. But it is not a picture of a Jesus with whom we can identify. When that happens we miss the biblical understanding of Jesus put forth in John 1:14 and Hebrews 4:15.

John's purpose was that we know Christ, that we believe in him, and that we find life in that relationship with him. The gospel of John offers us the opportunity to pursue those very goals. Let us be open to what the Spirit will have to teach us from John about knowing Jesus, believing in Jesus, and finding life in Christ.

Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion

These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.

These are study and reflection questions to facilitate a weeklong devotional journey into the Gospel of John. As you begin each day pray that the Lord will speak to you through His Word and that the Holy Spirit will breathe spiritual life into your heart through your study and reflection.

First Day: Read the notes on the introduction to John. Look up the Scripture references given.

1. Identify one or two new thoughts that caught your attention.

2. Look up John 1:12; 2:11, 22; 3:15, 16, 18, 36; 4:42, 53; 5:24, 46; 6:35; 7:38 and 39. Based on these verses what would you say happens to a person who believes in Jesus? Which of the verses would be most helpful for a Christian to know if that Christian were trying to lead another person into a personal relationship with Christ?

3. Briefly summarize what you hope to get out of this study of the gospel of John.

Second Day: Read John 1:1-18. Then focus in on vv. 1-5.

1. List several key words or phrases that describe Christ in vv. 1-5. What meaning or insight comes to you when John uses the title "Word" to describe Jesus? (See Word of God and God's Word).

2. Read Colossians 1:15-20 as a commentary on John 1:1-3. What practical significance would it have for Christians to believe that Jesus participated in the Creation and that "all things hold together in him?"

3. Jesus is described as the source of light and life in v. 4. What are some of the functions of light that Jesus seems to fulfill in the life of believers?

Third Day: Read John 1:1-18. Then focus in on vv. 6-13.

1. John is said to have come as a witness to the light. In what ways did John bear witness to Jesus? (If you are not familiar with John the Baptist's ministry, you might read Luke 3:1-20; see Commentary on Luke 3:1-6  and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.)

2. Verses. 11 and 12 speak of receiving Christ. In your own words describe what you think John meant by "receiving" or "not receiving" Christ.

3. Verse. 12 tells us that those who receive Christ can become children of God. What are several aspects of a parent-child relationship that also describe the relationship of God the Father with one of His spiritual children? Which of those aspects would you most like to be true about your own relationship with God?

Fourth Day: Read John 1:1-18. Then focus in on vv. 14-18.

1. List at least three things about Jesus that we can learn from v. 14. Which of the things seems most important to you? Why?

2. In vv. 14, 16, and 17 grace is attributed to Jesus. a) How would you define grace? (If you are not sure, check a dictionary and then use your own words to define grace.) b) Vv. 14 and 17 connect truth with grace. How do you see the concepts of truth and grace being related to each other?

3. Though the original text and the translation of v. 18 are difficult the last phrase indicates that Jesus made God known. How did he make God known? Is Jesus still making God known in your life?

Fifth Day: Read John 1:19-34. Then focus in on vv. 19-28.

1. What are the three titles that John refuses to accept for himself?

2. John identified himself with a phrase from Isaiah 40:3. Read Isaiah 40:1-5. How does Isaiah 40:5 relate to John 1:14? What other concepts in Isaiah 40:1-5 seem to fit in with a testimony about Jesus? (See Commentary on Isaiah 40)

3. The emphasis of Isaiah 40:1-5 is on preparation. In what ways can we prepare a way for Christ to enter into our world and into the hearts of people we know and love?

Sixth Day: Read John 1:19-34. Then focus in on vv. 29-34.

1. John described Jesus as the Lamb of God. Read Isaiah 53:7-12; Revelation 5:6-14; and Exodus 12:22, 23, and 46 on the Passover lamb. What aspects of Jesus' life fit the description of these three sets of verses? (See Commentary on Isaiah 53).

2. How does John indicate that he knew who Jesus was? How important will the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives be if people are to see and come to know Jesus?

3. How does John contrast his baptism with the baptism that Jesus will provide?

-Roger Hahn, Copyright © 2011, Roger Hahn and the Christian Resource Institute
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