The fourth and most theological of the gospels of the New Testament. The first three gospels portray mainly what Jesus did and how He taught, but the Gospel of John is different. It moves beyond the obvious facts of Jesus’ life to deeper, more profound meanings. Events and miracles are kept to a minimum in the Gospel of John. They are used as springboards or “signs” for lengthy discussions that reveal important truths about Christ. On the other hand, John uses a host of key words that symbolize who Jesus is and how we may know God. John is a “spiritual” gospel-not because it is more spiritual than the other three-but because it expresses spiritual ideas in spiritual language. Among the gospels, therefore, John offers a unique portrait of Christ that has been cherished by believers through the centuries.
For an outline of the gospel see John
Structure of the Gospel. The fourth gospel consists basically of two parts: a book of “signs” and a book of “glory.” The signs reveal Jesus’ person (chaps. 1-12), and the glory results from Jesus’ passion (chaps. 13-20). A prologue (1:1-18) and epilogue (chap. 21) serve as an introduction and conclusion to the gospel. Within this two-part structure, the gospel follows a pattern already presented in the prologue: revelation (1:1-5), rejection (1:6-11) and reception (1:12-18). The corresponding divisions of the gospel are: revelation (1:19-6:71), rejection (chaps. 7-12), and reception (chaps. 13-21).
Authorship and Date. Like the other gospels, John comes to us as an anonymous book. The question of authorship can be resolved only by observing clues within the gospel and by the tradition of the early church. Tradition agrees that the author was John the apostle, who was exiled to the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea and who later died in Ephesus sometime after Trajan became emperor of Rome in  A.D. 98. The gospel claims to come from an eyewitness (1:14; 1:1-4), and the author is familiar with the geography of Palestine. These external and internal evidences suggest that “the beloved disciple” (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7,20), which appears as a title or nickname for John the apostle, composed the fourth gospel.
Other clues within the gospel and epistles of John, however, point beyond the apostle to another author. In 2 and 3 John, verses 1, the author identifies himself as “the elder.” The similarities between the gospel and the epistles of John are too strong for us to conclude that the gospel was written by John the apostle and the epistles by John the elder. Early church tradition referred to an elder who was a disciple of John. Moreover, certain passages in the gospel of John tend to suggest that the writer was not the beloved disciple (19:35; 21:24).
Taking the evidence as a whole, it appears that the gospel was composed by a John the elder (presbyter), who was a disciple of John the apostle and who depended directly on the apostle’s testimony for the content of the gospel. Both Johns are reputed to have lived in Ephesus. Some scholars identify John the Elder with John the Apostle and view the gospel as composed by the Apostle. Ephesus therefore, becomes the most likely place for the gospel’s origin, sometime around the close of the first century.
Historical Setting. It is difficult to say with certainty to whom this gospel was addressed. Unlike Luke (1:1-4), the author mentions no addressee. Unlike Matthew and Mark, he gives few hints of his intended audience. The gospel uses both Jewish and Greek thought forms in its presentation of Christ.
For John, Jesus goes beyond the bounds of Judaism. This gospel reports a fiercer conflict between Jesus and the Jews than the other gospels do. The gospel begins before time (1:1), and it shows that Jesus is timeless. Jesus speaks not to any one nation or ethnic group, but to the human condition. John portrays Jesus for the widest possible readership. This is one reason why the fourth gospel has spoken so deeply to Christians in all ages.
If there is doubt to whom John writes, there can be little doubt about why John writes. The gospel contains a clear statement of purpose: “These [signs] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (20:31).
For John, the sole purpose of life is that “you may know and believe that the Father is in me and I in Him” (10:38). Thus, John writes that we might know the Father and experience life eternal through faith in the Son.
Theological Contribution. John writes with a modest vocabulary, but his words are charged with symbolism. Terms like believe, love, truth, world, light and darkness, above and below, name, witness, sin, judgment (eternal) life, glory, bread, water, and hour are the key words of this gospel. In John 3:16-21, a passage of less than 150 words in Greek, seven of these terms occur.
The world is where God reveals truth (8:32), light (8:12), and life (14:6) in His Son Jesus Christ. The world is also where persons must decide for or against the witness of Christ, and the decision is judgment (3:18). Sin is to misjudge Jesus-to fail to receive Him as the bread of life (6:35), or not to walk in Him as the light of the world (8:12). The Son has come from above to glorify the Father (17:1); and He does so in His “hour” (12:23; 13:1) through His suffering on the cross.
In the synoptic gospels-Matthew, Mark, and Luke-Jesus utters short sayings. Longer discourses, such as the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7), are either collections of sayings on various themes, or, like Matt 13, mostly parables. John, on the other hand, records no parables and few of the brief sayings so common to the synoptics. Rather, he expands upon an incident; for example, Nicodemus (chap. 3), the woman at the well (chap. 4), the man born blind (chap. 9), Lazarus (chap. 11), or footwashing (chap. 13). Or he takes up an image; for example, bread (chap. 6), water (chap. 7), light (chap. 8), or shepherd (chap. 10). John then uses these words as symbols to reveal a fuller revelation of Christ. These discourses are blended so completely with John’s own style that frequently the reader cannot tell whether it is John or Jesus speaking (3:16).
Why does John present such a different picture of Jesus? John may reveal Jesus as He taught in private, while the other three gospels may recall His public method of address (Mark 4:34). This may be a partial answer. A fuller explanation may be that the other gospels retain the actual form of Jesus’ teaching, while John uncovers the essence of Jesus as a person.
This does not imply that John disregards historical truth. At some points his gospel probably preserves the facts of Jesus’ life more accurately than the other gospels do. For example, Matthew, Mark, and Luke leave the impression that Jesus ministered mainly in Galilee, making only one Passover journey to Jerusalem. This leads one to assume that Jesus’ ministry lasted less than one year. John, however, mentions at least three Passover journeys (2:13,23; 6:4; 12:1) and longer periods of ministry in Judea. The other three gospels do hint of previous visits by Jesus to Jerusalem (Matt 23:37; Luke 13:34). A longer ministry, therefore, as presented by John, is probably closer to the events of Jesus’ life.
Nevertheless, it is clear that John is guided more by theological than historical interests. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke begin by showing Jesus’ role as the fulfiller of the Old Testament promises of salvation. But John begins with the preexistence of Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word” (1:1). Jesus is divine (“the Word was God,” 1:1), but He is also human (“the Word became flesh,” 1:14). Only as such is He the revealer of the Father.
In the first chapter, John introduces Jesus by seven key titles: Word, Lamb of God, Rabbi, Messiah, King of Israel, Son of God, and Son of Man. Only in John do we find the “I am” sayings: “I am the bread of life” (6:35), “I am the light of the world” (8:12), “before Abraham was, I AM” (8:58) “I am the door of the sheep” (10:7), “I am the good shepherd” (10:11), “I and My Father are one” (10:30), “I AM,” the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6), and “I am the vine” (15:5). In each of these sayings the “I” is emphatic in Greek. It recalls the name of God, “I AM ‘ in the Old Testament (Ex 3:14).
In the Old Testament God’s words were to be reverently received. So it is with Jesus. In John He begins His messages by saying, “Truly, truly I say to you.” Just as in the Old Testament God alone was to be worshiped, in John people are to believe in Jesus alone. Here John stresses his concept of “believing.” The verb “to believe” is found nearly a hundred times in the gospel, though the noun “belief/faith” does not occur. For John, saving faith is a verb, carrying the sense of active trust in Jesus; it is not a static noun.
When one considers Jesus’ moral teaching, another key word emerges. In John Jesus does not enter into questions of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, swearing, marriage, or wealth as he does in the other gospels. Rather, one’s relationships to God others, and the world are summed up in love. The love which God has for his beloved Son (3:35; 15:9) is passed on by the Beloved to “His own” (13:1). As recipients of God’s love, Christians are to love God by loving one another (13:34). This love, which unites believers (17:1 f.), is also a testimony to the world. The key verse of John expresses the basic theological truth of the gospel: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (3:16).
The Gospel of John expresses the uniqueness of the Son’s relationship with the Father. The Son existed before the world with the Father; He was sent into the world by the Father; and He goes out of the world to the Father.
Special Considerations. Our present Gospel of John contains a story that probably was not written by the original author. The account of the woman caught in adultery (7:53-8:11) differs markedly in style from the rest of John. It is not found in the earlier and better manuscripts of the book. It was probably added at a later date by an unknown author under God’s inspiration to express an important truth about Jesus and His attitude toward sinful people.
(from Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Copyright © 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers)

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