The Gospel According to John contains some of the best known words and phrases used in the Christian church. It is unique among the four canonical Gospels in that it focuses more on the spiritual aspects of the life of Jesus rather than on the historical events of His life. John, far more directly than the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, clearly establishes Jesus as the messiah for whom the Jews have been waiting and identifies Jesus’ purpose and reason for becoming an incarnate man.
The Gospel of John is not only interesting in terms of what the author decided to leave out of his account. John makes no mention of the Nativity of Jesus and provides a different account of Jesus’ baptism compared to the other Gospels. The Last Supper account found in the other three Gospels is given only a single passing sentence in John and is instead replaced with an account of a foot washing ceremony. Among other notable differences in the text, the call of the disciples, cast as a call and immediate response elsewhere, is presented as more of a gradual evolution in John.
Authorship & Date
Traditionally, the author of the Gospel of John has been said to be the disciple John, the son of Zebedee and the brother of fellow disciple James. The final two verses of the Gospel would seem to indicate that the disciple John was in fact the author:
“This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true. Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:24-25).
The statement above follows a discussion between Peter and Jesus about the disciple John. Clearly here, the author refers to himself as the disciple in question and uses the word “I” in his writings. Almost from the very beginning of the church, authorship of the Gospel was assigned to an aged John, writing not just the facts that existed in the other Gospels, but the meaning behind those facts. Irenaeus, an early church bishop who lived in what is now France and is believed to have died around the year 202, was an important voice in the creation of the New Testament canon, particularly as it involved the Gospels. He advocated for the inclusion of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the canon, arguing in part that John’s authorship by an eye-witness to the life and teachings of Jesus made it an essential piece of Scripture.
More modern scholarship casts doubt on John’s authorship and instead points to an anonymous redactor who may have been a follower of John. These current scholars point to changes in the nature of the original Koine Greek in the John text and suggest that there is a shift between third person and first person between John 21:24 and v. 25. As the Gospel of John is typically dated to having been written somewhere in the range of 90-110 A.D., the argument that the disciple himself did not write the original text is bolstered by those who suggest it unlikely that he would have still been alive at that time. Countering this though, are others say that the Gospel makes sense to have been written by an aged and reflective disciple, looking back at the most important events of his – or any one else’s – life.
Absent of any absolute, definitive proof of authorship, I tend to side with the original school of thought and favor the idea of the disciple John as the original author. In any case, it is clear that the author of this Gospel had the insight of a disciple, either having been one of the Twelve himself or a later student of a disciple.
Portrayal of Jesus
John is unequivocal in his portrayal of Jesus as the son of God and as the awaited Messiah. In addition, the theme of love is prevalent throughout the Gospel, even in the way in which John refers to himself as the “disciple whom Jesus loved” or the “beloved disciple” (depending on the translation.) This phrase appears four times in John — in 13:23, 19:26, 21:7 and 21:20 — but does not appear in any other Gospel. There are three key passages in John which showcase the distinct nature of John’s Gospel: the pre-beginning story found in John 1; the discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3; and the reinstatement of Peter in John 21.
John’s Pre-beginning (John 1:1-3, 14)
“In the beginning was the Word…” is how John begins his account of Christ. This is markedly different from what appears in the three Synoptic Gospels. Matthew and Luke both begin with the nativity story and a genealogy of Jesus. Matthew and Luke begin the story of Jesus’ official period of ministry with Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist and an announcement by God that Jesus is indeed the son of God. Mark bypasses both the nativity and the genealogy and begins directly with the baptism.
John’s Gospel starts in a very different way. Rather than giving an account of a physical birth, as do Matthew and Luke, John instead reaches back and parallels the opening of the Genesis story and informs us that Jesus is the Word that was not only with God from the very beginning, but that the Word was actually God. He tells us that the Word, aka God, then became flesh (as Jesus) and walked among us. John is stressing that Jesus is the same God who created the heavens and the earth. Just as Matthew and Luke take pains to connect Jesus to the ancient Jewish tradition by pointing out that his genealogy goes through David and all the way back to Abraham (and even to Adam in the case of Luke), so too does John. Only John slams the point home even harder – Jesus isn’t just from the line of Abraham and David, he is the very God of Abraham and David.
While all four Gospels begin with an account of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist and the Synoptic Gospels provide a mostly uniform account, the story in the fourth Gospel is a bit different. In John’s account, we don’t actually read about John baptizing Jesus, though one can infer that it takes place. Most importantly, there is no announcement from God that Jesus is the son of God. Such an announcement is not needed, however, in that John the author has already clearly established in the opening verses of his Gospel that Jesus is God.
It is worth noting that the beginning of the letter 1 John, generally attributed to the same author as the person who wrote the Gospel of John, begins with a very similar structure.
Jesus Conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:-21)
Placed early in the Gospel of John, the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a Pharisee who comes to see Jesus under cover of night, is not repeated anywhere else in the Bible. In fact, Nicodemus is only mentioned in John, though he plays an important role. Twice later in the Gospel, Nicodemus comes to the aid of Jesus, defending him before the chief priests and other Pharisees (John 7:49-51) and then assisting Joseph of Arimathea in preparing the body of Jesus for burial (John 19:38-40). Clearly this indicates that Nicodemus believed what Jesus told him in Chapter 3.
In Chapter 3, Nicodemus asks Jesus about Jesus’ role and purpose and about how one becomes “born again.” It is in response to this that Jesus provides an explanation that has become the central understanding of Christian theology ever since: 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. (John 3:16). As an aside, it is unfortunate that it seems the church often prefers to forget the next statement made by Jesus: For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:17).
John gives us direct and bold statements by Jesus here on exactly who he is and what he (and God the Father) are all about. Jesus explains that his role is to provide salvation. It is no surprise that John gives God a motive for taking all these actions: for God so loved the world… John returns to the theme of love throughout his writings. All the love that John later writes about can be traced back to the act of God first loving us to the ultimate extreme of sending us Jesus as the Christ.
While the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus does not appear anywhere else in the Bible, there are some rough parallels elsewhere in the Gospels. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount features a long discourse by Jesus in which he talks about his relationship to the Law. While not quite as developed as the Matthew version, Luke’s Sermon on the Plains also talks about Jesus’ relationship to the Law. In both of these cases, Jesus uses the existing code of Jewish law as a means to explain what Jesus is about and what he has come to do. Mark takes a much different approach and has Jesus make occasional comments as he is busy teaching and healing in his travels around the countryside. In Mark, it is often those opposed to Jesus or those who we would expect to be opposed to him, such as the demon Legion or the synagogue ruler Ja’irus, who provide the early explanation of who Jesus is.
The Reinstatement of Peter (John 21:15-19)
In another passage that is not repeated anywhere else, Jesus and his disciple Peter share a touching moment at the conclusion of John’s Gospel. On the night of Jesus’ arrest, in an account that appears in all four gospels, three times Peter denies knowing Jesus. Realizing his sin, Peter weeps bitterly realizing he had rejected his Lord not once, but three times – and just a few hours after Jesus had predicted this very action. How will Jesus respond to this rejection by Peter?
In Mark and in Luke, the Gospel writer specifically pointed out that Jesus wanted Peter to know about the resurrection (Mark) or that Peter was clearly among those who saw the resurrected Christ (Luke). Matthew makes no specific mention of Peter after the resurrection of Jesus.
In John, the resurrected Jesus takes Peter aside and pointedly asks him not once, but three times if Peter loves Jesus. It is not surprising that John uses the expression of love as the means to reconcile Jesus and Peter. Following the death and resurrection of Jesus, an act of love for all, Jesus follows up with a clear act of love for one, Peter, ensuring that Peter understands that he is back in the fold and in fact was never outside the love that Jesus had for him.
More spiritual in nature than the other Gospels, John provides an account that provides insight into the thinking of Jesus and his teachings in a way that the Synoptic Gospels do not. This does not make it superior to the others, only different. John stresses the love between God and his people and offers us the details about the choice available to us: believe in Jesus and accept eternal salvation or to go another path.
Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005