John (Part 1): Introduction

10/15/2013 07:01


The headings of most manuscripts give the title to this book (in Greek, of course) as The Gospel According to John. In fact, the earliest record of this title is from AD 125, only about 40 years after the book was written. Yet still, many of the last century’s higher criticism scholars have questioned who wrote the book. The book itself does not state that John (or anyone named John) wrote it (as do his other canonical writings). And stylistically, it does, in places, differ from John’s letters and Revelation. But recent scholarship indicates that it was quite common in first century Greek writing for authors to intentionally change styles among their works. There is then no compelling evidence for not accepting this Gospel as the work of John, the disciple, the son of Zebedee. In fact, Irenaeus, a 2nd century church father, wrote that John was the author. This declaration carries significant weight since Irenaeus was the student of Polycarp, who was a disciple of John himself.

One point of interior evidence is found in the last chapter of the book. There Jesus meets with some of the disciples at the Sea of Tiberius (aka Sea of Galilee). Verse 2 of the chapter lists the disciples that were there, and the list does include John. After bringing in a great haul of fish through Jesus’ direction, they eat breakfast on the shore. Jesus has his conversation with Peter regarding feeding and shepherding his sheep. After Peter finally affirms wholeheartedly his love for Christ, Jesus indicates to Peter that he will have to die for his witness just as Christ did for his ministry. Peter turns and sees “the disciple Jesus loved following them. That disciple was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and asked, ‘Lord, who is the one that’s going to betray You?’” And Peter asks about this disciple—about what fate he would suffer. Jesus replies that that is not a concern of Peter’s. Jesus says, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?” The text then makes the point that Jesus did not say the disciple would not die, but only that if Jesus wanted him to remain, it should not concern Peter. Finally, the book ends with a declaration that the incidents of the book were testified to and written down by this same disciple.

The passage doesn’t state that this disciple whom Jesus loves is John. Looking back to chapter 13 in which Jesus speaks of his betrayal, we read, “The disciples started looking at one another—uncertain which one He was speaking about. One of His disciples, the one Jesus loved, was reclining close beside Jesus. Simon Peter motioned to him to find out who it was He was talking about. So he leaned back against Jesus and asked Him, ‘Lord, who is it?’” (13:22-25). Again, no one is named. Some people have suggested this beloved disciple was Lazarus, since Lazarus is the only one named in the book in conjunction with Jesus loving him (11:3). But it is unlikely Lazarus would be the person in question in chapter 13 without being named. It is even less likely that Lazarus would be with the disciples up at the Sea of Galilee fishing when his home is in Bethany. And, in fact, Lazarus is not mentioned in 21:2 among the disciples gathered there. But John is mentioned in 21:2, and John was one of the inner circle with Peter and James. Thus, the one that Jesus loved seems likely to be either James or John. Since James is beheaded in the mid 40s (Acts 12:1-2) and the Gospel is likely not written until 40 years after that, John seems to be the unnamed disciple in the passage who is said to be the author of the book.

I believe that John did write this Gospel, and that is the presumption I’ll take as we work our way through it. But I do wonder about the last chapter of the book. It appears that the book would have a natural ending at the close of chapter 20. It may be that chapter 21 was added by the disciples of John at his death. It may have been that Jesus’ words to Peter and the evidently long life of John had grown into a rumored assumption that John would not die, but remain until Jesus returned. When John did die, his disciples may have felt the need to correct that false assumption. So they added the last chapter to give the detail of that day when Jesus told Peter that John’s end was no concern of his. In verse 23, then, they give special emphasis to the fact that Jesus did not state John would live on, but only used the possibility as a means to tell Peter that it shouldn’t concern him. Verse 24, then, states that John did write the book, and “we know his testimony is true.” The “we” seems to indicate the followers of John. This is indeed speculation, but, for me, it seems to fit.  

The order of the writing of the Gospels was probably Mark first, then Matthew and Luke, and finally John. One of the interesting things about this order is that the Synoptics were probably all written within a 10-year period from the late 50s to the early 60s AD. John, the last, was probably written in the mid 80s, a good 20-something years later and, significantly, after the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple. In fact, all the Johannine writings, and only the Johannine writings, were written after the fall of Jerusalem. I say this is significant because I happen to think that part of John’s reason for writing his Gospel was precisely because Jerusalem had been destroyed as a center of Jewish life.

Taking a broad view as to purpose for the book, we can simply quote John 20:30-31. There John says that though there could be much to tell concerning the life of Jesus, John wrote of the specific incidents in his Gospel for the purpose that “you may believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and by believing you may have life in His name.” But that same purpose could probably be ascribed to many of the Bible’s other books, including the other Gospels. Yet, John’s Gospel is different from the others and intentionally so. Certainly, John had access to the others—if not immediate access to manuscripts, surely he had heard or read them previously. His motivation was not merely to offer another biography because he believed the previous ones were deficient. I think he had a greater purpose in mind. Jerusalem had fallen. With the putting down of the rebellion, the Romans seemed to have swept away the centrality of the Jewish culture. Of course, synagogues and Jewish communities remained across the known world, but the temple was gone. The daily sacrifices were gone. The high priests, the Sanhedrin, the feasts, the temple pilgrimages—all that which constituted the life of the old covenant Jews—was gone. Hebrews, written just before Jerusalem’s fall, mentions in 8:13 God’s intention by revealing that the old covenant was obsolete and about to disappear. And with Jerusalem’s destruction, in a real and felt way, it did disappear.

How do you think the world of that time would have reacted? Of course, to the Jews, the temple destruction was a calamitous snuffing out of hope. To the world, the Jews and all their religious framework had been trampled. Jewish religion—and perhaps anything spawning from it—seemed dead. Paul had spent much of the 50s and 60s and into the 70s preaching Christ. He had done so by going to the Jews first, preaching in their synagogues and explaining the new covenant as the fulfillment of the old. So this new covenant—was it to be discounted and slung aside as the world (Rome) had done to the old?

I think, perhaps, for this reason—the tying of the new covenant not merely to the old but to the firmer foundation of the overall purpose of God from the very beginning—John decides to write. And so he begins, “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1a). John concentrates on the One who carries purpose from the very beginning on to the current circumstance and all the way forward to the blessed hope. John’s Gospel is intent on explaining who Jesus is so that “you may believe” and “that believing you may have life in his name.” The old covenant was gone. It had been passing away for the 40 years of what was properly known as the apostolic period. After the temple’s destruction, it was gone. But covenant with God—Isaiah’s Zion purpose—was not gone. It was alive in Jesus!

John 1:1-18 contains the prologue for John’s Gospel. Contained in this prologue is the intent of everything John provides in the detail of the rest of the book. So then, if we understand the prologue, we will understand the book. The prologue presents the Second Person of the Trinity as God, the Word, Life, and Light, and, in his incarnation, as Son.