Background Notes on John’s Gospel

The Four Gospels

  • We call the first three gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – synoptic, which means “seeing together.”
  • Whereas the synoptic gospels focus on the identity of Jesus and the nature of His earthly ministry, the gospel of John emphasizes theological and eternal truth about Jesus in a heightened way.

Authorship

  • The book does not name the author.
  • Irenaeus provides the earliest statement of John as the author.

“Afterwards [i.e., after the other three Evangelists had written their work], John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence in Ephesus in Asia” (Haer. 3.1.1).

Historical Insight: Who is Irenaeus? A leading pastor and theologian in Southern France (135-202 A.D.), raised in a Christian family in Smyrna, Asia Minor and mentored by Polycarp, who was mentored by the Apostle John.

The author was probably a Jew.
  • He understood and quoted from the Old Testament (John 12:40; 13:18; 19:37).
  • His knowledge of the various Jewish religious feasts seemed to be very natural (John 2:23; 5:1; 6:4; 7:2; 10:22; 13:1).
  • He was aware of the minute details within the Jewish customs: wedding feasts (John 2:1–10), ceremonial purification (John 3:25; 11:55), and manner of burial (John 11:38, 44; 19:40).
  • He was acquainted with the Jewish expectation of the coming Messiah (John 1:19–28) and perceived the religious differences between the Jew and the Samaritan (John 4:9, 20).
The author must have been a resident of Palestine.
  • He knew that the pool of Bethesda had five porches (5:2).

Archeological Insight: Only in 1888 did the site of the pool of Bethesda become known (John. 5:2), and excavations demonstrated that it contained five porticoes as described by John.[i] Until this discovery, unbelieving secular scholars denied the historical credibility of the existence of this pool and the accuracy of John’s detailed description of five separate porticoes (pillars).

  • He knew that Bethany was only fifteen furlongs away from Jerusalem (John 11:18).
  • That Ephraim was near the wilderness (John 11:54).
  • That the Garden of Gethsemane was on the other side of the brook Cedron (John 18:1).
  • That there was a paved area outside of the Praetorium (John 19:13).
  • That Jacob’s well was located in Sychar (John 4:5–6) and that the well was deep (John 4:11).
  • He knew that the nearby mountain was a sacred place of Samaritan worship (John 4:20–21).
  • He described cities (John 1:44, 46; 2:1) and terrain (John 2:12) in Palestine with detail.
The author must have been an eyewitness of many events in the ministry of Jesus.
  • He witnessed the Transfiguration or miracles of Jesus, or both (John 1:14, 2:11).
  • He witnessed the Crucifixion, observing that Christ’s side was pierced, but His legs were not broken (John 19:33–35).

Exegetical Insight: This verse, John 19:35, is especially important, because it tells us that the disciple who observed the crucifixion of Jesus was the author of this gospel.

  • He knew the number and size of the water pots used in Christ’s first miracle (John 2:6).
  • He remembered the approximate value of the perfume Mary used to anoint Jesus (John 12:5).
  • He remembered the distance from shore of the apostles’ boat (John 21:8), and the exact number of fish the disciples caught (John 21:11).
The style, vocabulary and theme(s) of this book resemble the three Johannine epistles.
  • External witnesses to John as the author of 1 John appears to be unanimous.
  • Many words, phrases and expressions appear in both the Gospel of John and 1 John.

Expanded Insight: Father, Son, Spirit, beginning, Word, believe, life, keep, light, commandment, love, abide, and paraclete. In addition, these phrases are found in both volumes: to do truth (1:6; cf. John 3:21); to walk in darkness (2:11; cf. John 8:12); children of God (3:2; cf. John 11:52); to be born of God (3:9; cf. John 1:13); children of the devil (3:10; cf. John 8:44); to pass from death to life (3:14; cf. John 5:24); the Spirit of truth (4:6; cf. John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13); the only begotten Son (4:9; cf. John 3:16, 18); no man has ever seen God (4:12; cf. John 1:18); the Savior of the world (4:14; cf. John 4:42); and the water and the blood (5:6; cf. John 19:34).[ii]

Date

  • Liberal (secular) scholars suggest dates as early as A.D. 40 or as late as A.D. 140-170.
  • Conservative (evangelical) scholars generally agree on a date later than the Synoptics, probably between A.D. 85-95.

Archaeological Insight: The earliest scrap of the New Testament is a papyrus fragment located in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England, called P52. Since it contains only five verses of John (John 18:31-33, 37-38) and is dated about A.D. 125–35, this means that the Gospel had to be in circulation before the 2nd century began.[iii]

  • The last decade of the first century fits the timeline of John’s apparent age, life and ministry.

Audience

  • Most likely written with a Gentile (un-Jewish) audience in mind, though probably with both a Gentile and Jewish audience in mind, meaning the world in general.
  • The book provides descriptive details about the geography of Palestine and about Jewish feasts, which would already be common knowledge to a Jewish audience.

Purpose

  • Apologetic: to confirm the full truth about Jesus, that He was genuinely both human and divine. This would have been a pastoral concern, because heretical doctrine was circulating, some teaching that Jesus was God but only appeared to be a man, and others teaching that He was a man in whom the Spirit of God dwelled in a special way.
  • Evangelistic: to convince listeners to believe on Jesus to receive the divine gift of eternal life and deliverance from eternal condemnation.

“And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” (John 20:30-31)

Exegetical Insight: Notice the remarkable similarity between this purpose statement near the end of John’s Gospel and the purpose statement near the end of John’s first epistle.

“These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.” (1 John 5:13)

Style

Exegetical Insight: From the standpoint of style it might be difficult to tell whether a two- or three-verse excerpt from a Synoptic Gospel came from Mark, Matthew or Luke. It is the rare passage in John, however, that might be mistaken as the work of one of his canonical peers.[iv]

  • He uses distinctive vocabulary, giving special attention to both dualistic and symbolic words.
    • Examples of dualistic terminology: light and darkness, truth and lie, above and below
    • Examples of symbolic terminology: vine, door, bread, river, shepherding
  • He uses a distinctive style as well, especially with what He presents from the speech of Jesus.
    • The teaching of Jesus is frequently presented in the form of thought-provoking riddles and lengthy, repetitious discourses
    • He frequently speaks in a simple, poetic and rhythmic way, with an emphasis on antithetical ideas.

Vocabulary Insight: What does antithetical mean? It means something that is directly opposite of something else, such as yes and no, black and white and life and death.

  • He uses points of misunderstanding to highlight important insights (John 3:1-10; 4:1-42; 6:22-59; 7:33-35; 8:21-22).

Content

  • More than 90% of the material in this book is unique, not found in any of the other three gospels.

Expanded Insight: This is noteworthy, because by the time that John wrote His gospel, he would have been able to reference the other three gospels as resources. Yet he appears to rely very little, if at all, on the information they provide. John evidently wrote from the heart with a very distinct purpose in mind. I like to say that John shared the thoughts that had permanently lingered and fully matured in his heart after decades of meditating on the teaching of Jesus and of serving Him faithfully.

  • John selected His content carefully, choosing to leave out a large amount of available information.

“And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.” (John 20:30)

  • He presents eight miracles of Jesus, seven before His death and one following His resurrection.
    • Turning water into wine (John 2:2–11)
    • Healing the nobleman’s son (John 4:46–54)
    • Healing the impotent man (John 5:1–15)
    • Feeding the five thousand (John 6:1–14; also in Matthew, Mark and Luke)
    • Walking on the water (John 6:15–21; also in Matthew and Mark)
    • Healing the blind man (John 9:1–41)
    • Raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1–44)
    • Providing the catch of fish (John 21:6–11)[v]

Exegetical Insight: Around these miracles, John recorded a literary network of sermons, conversations, and his own editorial comments to give his book symmetry and unity. In some cases the miracle produced the sermon (feeding the five thousand provided the background for the sermon on the bread of life), while in others the sermon was illustrated by the miracle (His claim to be the light of the world was proved by giving sight to the man born blind).[vi]

  • He includes 27 interviews with other people, most of which are not recorded elsewhere.
  • While John uses allegories, metaphors and poetic language, he records none of the parables of Jesus.
  • He presents several renowned sermons and discourses of Jesus:
    • The new birth (John 3:1–13)
    • The water of life (John 4:6–29)
    • The defense of His deity (John 5:19–47)
    • The bread of life (John 6:22–71)
    • The light of the world (John 8:12–59)
    • The good shepherd (John 10:1–30)
    • The Upper Room Discourse (John 13:1–16:33)
    • The high priestly prayer (John 17:1–26)

Historical Insight: Amazingly, John is silent about the famous Olivet Discourse (cf. Matt. 24–25), probably because he wrote after the destruction of Jerusalem and the dispersion of the Jews (A.D. 70).[vii]

  • He organizes his material around the chronological sequence of important Jewish holidays:
    • First Passover (John 2:23)
    • Unnamed feast (John 5:1)
    • Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:2)
    • Feast of Dedication (John 10:22)
    • Last Passover (John 13:1)
  • He repeatedly emphasized the deity of Jesus.
    • “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30)
    • “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (John 14:9).
    • “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58)

Exegetical Insight: In John 8:58, He makes a very significant point as a direct allusion to the divine name that God revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14). How do we know that this is one way that Jesus claimed to be God? Because the people attempted to stone Him to death for saying this.

  • He expands the point of John 8:58 in other allusions throughout the book, building on the Exodus 3:14 reference in relationship to other key Old Testament allusions to God:
    • I am the bread of life (John 6:35)
    • I am the light of the world (John 8:12; 9:5)
    • I am the door (John 10:7)
    • I am the good shepherd (John 10:11, 14)
    • I am the resurrection and the life (John 11:25)
    • I am the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6)
    • I am the true vine (John 15:1)
  • In a strategic and thoughtful way, He quotes from the Old Testament directly and refers to it indirectly.

Exegetical Insight: 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.[viii]

Study and Application

When you read, study and teach verses from the gospel of John, you should be sure to answer these two specific questions, though you may learn a variety of other things.

  1. What does this statement, quotation, discourse, miracle, event, or detail teach me about Jesus?
  2. Do I believe what it teaches (and what wrong idea do I need to stop believing as a result)?

Expanded Insight: For quite different reasons, many conservative preachers are so busy drawing applications for their own congregations that they skip the prior question, ‘What does this passage tell us about Jesus?’ This is not the question of unreflective pietism. It is the question that must be asked precisely because the material we are studying is a Gospel …. Preaching from the Gospels is above all an exercise in the exposition and application of Christology.[ix]

Simple Outline[x]

I. Christ and Individuals (chs. 1–4)

A. Christ the Word (ch. 1)
B. Christ the creator (ch. 2)
C. Christ the Savior (ch. 3)
D. Christ the water of life (ch. 4)

II. Christ and the Multitudes (chs. 5–12)

A. Christ the judge (ch. 5)
B. Christ the bread of life (ch. 6)
C. Christ the divider (ch. 7)
D. Christ the light of the world (chs. 8–9)
E. Christ the good shepherd (ch. 10)
F. Christ the resurrection and the life (ch. 11)
G. Christ the center of attraction (ch. 12)

III. Christ and the Disciples (chs. 13–17)

A. Christ the servant (ch. 13)
B. Christ the comforter (ch. 14)
C. Christ the vine (chs. 15–16)
D. Christ the intercessor (ch. 17)

IV. Christ and His Passion (chs. 18–21)

A. Christ the sacrifice (chs. 18–19)
B. Christ the victor (ch. 20)
C. Christ the chief shepherd (ch. 21)

Resources Cited

[i] C. L. Blomberg, “Gospels (Historical Reliability),” ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 292.

[ii] Robert G. Gromacki, New Testament Survey (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1974), 368.

[iii] Gromacki, 133.

[iv] deSilva, 408.

[v] Gromacki, 134.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid., 135.

[viii] D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 98.

[ix] Carson, 101–102.

[x] Gromacki, 136–137.

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