1. Title. Almost without exception the Fourth Gospel has, since the earliest Christian centuries, been known as the Gospel According to John. The name John means, “The Lord is gracious.” For the derivation of the name see on Luke 1:13. For the meaning of the word translated “gospel” see on Mark 1:1.
2. Authorship. This Gospel is anonymous to the extent that, for reasons best known to himself, the writer deliberately avoids naming himself directly. He does not identify himself as one of the two disciples who first followed Jesus (see ch. 1:37; cf. DA 138), and with obvious modesty refers to himself simply as “that disciple” (see ch. 21:23), “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (v. 20), “the disciple which testifieth of these things, and wrote these things” (v. 24). From the very first, Christian tradition has pointed to John the Beloved, not only as the source of information, but also as the actual writer of the gospel account that bears his name. For a discussion of the date of the writing of the Fourth Gospel, and the bearing of the date on the problem of authorship, see pp. 179-181.
John is distinguished above the rest of the Twelve as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (ch. 21:20). In his heart the flame of personal loyalty and ardent devotion to his Master seemed to burn purer and brighter than in the hearts of his fellows. Between him and Jesus there developed a more intimate friendship than the others knew (DA 292). As Christ alone could perfectly reveal the Father, being the only One who knew Him perfectly, so John was eminently qualified to present, in his Gospel, the sublime truths concerning Christ.
When John and his brother James first came to Christ they received the nickname “sons of thunder.” They were proud, self-assertive, ambitious for honor, impetuous, resentful under injury; they often harbored the desire for revenge, and took it when opportunity offered (AA 540, 541). These were serious defects indeed, and it is certain that John was not chosen to be a disciple because of a particularly winsome or noble character. But beneath this forbidding exterior Jesus discerned an ardent, sincere, loving heart. At first a rather dull pupil in whom the Master Teacher envisioned a dynamic apostle, John took upon himself the yoke of Christ, and as a result his entire life and character were transformed. As John beheld in Jesus the One altogether lovely, he felt a supreme longing to become like Him. He was younger than the other disciples (DA 292), and with the confiding trust and hero worship of youth he opened his heart to Jesus. He was ever close by the side of his Master, yielded himself more fully to the influence of that perfect life, and as a result came to reflect it more fully than did his fellow disciples. His was the most receptive, the most teachable spirit. As in the pure light of the Sun of Righteousness his defects were revealed one by one, he humbled himself and accepted the reproof implicit in Christ’s perfect life and explicit in His words of counsel and reproof. Divine love and grace transformed him as he yielded his life to the Saviour’s influence. John’s childhood home was Bethsaida, a fishing community on the northern shore of the Lake of Galilee. His father seems to have been a man of some means and social position, and his mother joined the group of devout women who ministered to the needs of Jesus and the Twelve on their journeys to and fro in Galilee and elsewhere in Palestine. John was a member of that inner circle of three whom Jesus made His most intimate associates and who shared with Him the deepest experiences of His life mission. It was to John that Christ entrusted His own mother as He hung upon the cross. Tradition has it that many years later she accompanied the apostle to Ephesus, where he supervised the Christian communities of the region. John was the first of the disciples at the tomb on the resurrection morning, and the first to grasp the glorious truth that the Lord had risen (ch. 20:8). Thenceforth he devoted his all to the proclamation of a crucified, risen, and returning Saviour, bearing witness to what he had heard, seen, and experienced “of the Word of life” (1 John 1:1, 2).
3. Historical Setting. For a brief outline of the historical background of the life and mission of Jesus see p. 272. For a more complete discussion see pp. 41-67.
4. Theme. When the Gospel of John was written, toward the close of the 1st century, three major dangers threatened the life and purity of the Christian church. Most serious of these was waning piety; another was heresy, particularly Gnosticism, which denied the reality of the incarnation and spawned libertinism; and the third was persecution. Some 30 years had passed since the writing of the Synoptic Gospels (see pp. 175- 179), and the aged John, lone survivor of the Twelve (AA 542), was impressed to set forth anew the life of Christ, in such a way as to counteract the evil forces that threatened to destroy the church. Men needed a vivid picture of the Saviour to strengthen their faith in the reality of the great truths of the gospel such as the incarnation, the true deity and the true humanity, the perfect life, the atoning death, the glorious resurrection, and the promised return of Jesus. “Every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he [Christ] is pure” (1 John 3:3). Only when the life and mission of the Saviour are preserved a living reality in the mind and heart can the transforming power of His grace become effective in the life. Accordingly, John announces that his account was “written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name” (ch. 20:31). He frankly admits that he might have told much more (v. 30), but that he has reported only such incidents as he considers best adapted to certify the great fundamental truths of the gospel. He proceeded on the conviction that what had convinced him would convince others also (cf. 1 John 1:1-3).
As noted on page 179, the Gospel of John was formerly charged with having Gnostic tendencies. Christian Gnostic thought revolved around the concept that, in essence, good and evil are to be identified with spirit and matter, respectively. Those men in whose souls resides a spark of the heavenly light are said to be prisoners in this world of matter. Salvation consists in the knowledge of how to escape from the realm of matter into the realm of spirit. Gnosticism denied the true incarnation of Christ, holding that the human form men thought they saw, was an apparition. The divine Christ was supposed to have entered into the human Jesus at His baptism, and departed prior to His death on the cross. These false concepts of sin and salvation John undoubtedly sought to meet, in part, by his account of the life of Jesus. Thirty years or so before this, Paul had written to the church at Colossae of the hidden dangers in what was then the new and intriguing cult of Gnosticism (Col. 2:8; cf. Acts 20:29, 30); John now faced a vigorous and increasingly popular philosophy that threatened the very life of the church.
With inspired good judgment John refrains from a direct attack on Gnosticism, and confines himself to a positive declaration of truth. It is noteworthy that—deliberately, it would seem—he avoids the use of certain Greek nouns such as gnōsis, pistis, and sophia, “knowledge,”“faith,” and “wisdom,” which were key words in the Gnostic’s vocabulary. He begins by stating in unmistakable language the true deity of Christ and the reality of His incarnation. It appears that his selection of incidents was guided by the desire to present those aspects of Christ’s life and ministry that reveal these fundamental truths most clearly. With a few notable exceptions—the marriage at Cana, the visit to Sychar, the healing of the nobleman’s son, the feeding of the 5,000, and the Sermon on the Bread of Life— John deals exclusively, and often at considerable length, with incidents that occurred in Judea and involved leaders of the Jewish nation. In this respect his Gospel supplements the Synoptics, which deal extensively with the Galilean ministry and pass over most of the incidents in Judea in relative silence. John differs from the Synoptics in other ways. Extensive sections of his Gospel consist of long, controversial discourses in the Temple at Jerusalem. Also, several chapters are devoted to counsel imparted to the disciples on the night of the crucifixion. On the other hand, John says nothing of such important incidents as the baptism, the transfiguration, or the experience in Gethsemane. Nor does he give an instance of the cure of a demoniac. The miracles of which he does take note are specifically presented as evidences of divine power and contribute to his announced purpose of proving Jesus to be the Son of God. He recounts none of the synoptic parables. His aim is not so much biographical or historical as it is theological, yet there is much of both history and biography. Whereas the synoptic writers present the Messiahship of Jesus inductively, John boldly announces it in the very first chapter and then sets forth the evidence. Other significant differences lie in the Johannine and synoptic chronology of the life of Christ. If we had no more than the synoptic accounts we would probably conclude that His ministry extended over a period of not much more than one year, whereas John requires at least 2 1/2 years and implies full 3 1/2 years. John and the Synoptics also differ in their correlation of the last Passover with the crucifixion (see Additional Notes on Matt. 26, Note 1).
The key term of this Gospel is “Word,” Gr. Logos (ch. 1:1), which, however, is used in its technical sense only in the introductory chapter. Logos, as a technical term, seems to have originated with the Stoics, who used it to denote divine wisdom as the integrating force of the universe. The Jewish philosopher Philo uses logos 1,300 times in his exposition of the OT. It has often been asserted that John uses the term logos in this philosophical sense. But John’s Logos is strictly Christian. He presents Jesus as the incarnate expression of divine wisdom that made salvation possible, of the divine character and will, and of divine power active in the transformation of men’s lives. John refers again and again to the fact that Jesus came as the living expression of the mind, will, and character of the Father, as in the 26 instances where he quotes Christ speaking of the Father as “him that sent me,” or equivalent words, or in his use of a synonymous verb in referring to Christ’s mission from the Father. He presents the Saviour of mankind as the Creator of all things, the Source of light and life. He also stresses the importance of believing the truth about Jesus, using the word “believe” or its equivalent more than 100 times. New and distinctly Christian in its concepts as the Gospel According to John is, 427 of its 879 verses are said to reflect the OT, either by way of direct quotation or by allusion.
5. Outline. In view of the fact that a full, chronological outline of the Gospel of John appears on pp. 196-201, the outline presented here covers only the major phases of the life and ministry of Jesus.