Gospel of john Essay

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gospel of john

The genius of the Apostle John resides in his ability to penetrate to the theological
foundations that undergird the events of Jesus' life. He reaches to the deeper
baptism and the calling of the Twelve are doubtless presupposed, they are not
actually described. Even themes central to the Synoptics have almost disappeared:
in particular, the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven, so much a part of the
preaching of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels and the central theme of His narrative
parables, is scarcely mentioned as such (cf. 3:3, 5; 18:36).
meaning of the events, to the relationships of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit
in the work of redemption, and to the Trinitarian love for humanity which generated
that work and which seeks through the gospel to bring within that sublime circle of
indwelling love all who respond by faith to Jesus as the great "I AM."
John deals with the same revealed truth as Mathew, Mark, Luke and Paul. But
his way of approaching that truth is different--very different. Like waters from the
same source, Johannine, Pauline and the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and
Luke) all flow from the same historical Jesus, but flow through different lands,
picking up different textures, and emerge as observably different rivers.
The Johannine river, as a preceptive reader will quickly realize, flows through
a profoundly different world of its own: a world with its own language, its own
symbolism, and its own unique theological view point. The reader who enters this
world senses immediately how different it is from the world of Paul and the Synoptic
Gospels. And thus, a few words are needed to help to guide our way.
First, John's Gospel leaves out a great deal of material that is characteristic of
the Synoptic Gospels. There are no narrative parables in John, no account of the
transfiguration, no record of the institution of the Lord's Supper, no report of Jesus
casting out a single demon, no mention of His temptations. There are fewer brief,
pithy utterances, but more discourses; but even here some major discourses found
in the Synoptics (e.g. the Olivet Discourse) are not found in John. Although Jesus'.Page 2 Introduction
Second, John includes a fair amount of material of which the Synoptists make
no mention. All of the material in John chapters 2 thru 4, for instance, including His
miraculous transformation of water into wine, His dialogue with Nicodemus and His
ministry in Samaria, find no Synoptic counterpart. Further, the resurrection of
Lazarus, Jesus' frequent visits to Jerusalem, and His extended dialogues or dis-courses
in the Temple and in various synagogues, not to mention much of His private
instruction to His disciples, are all exclusive to the Fourth Gospel.
No less striking are the forcefully presented themes that dominate John but that
are largely absent from the Synoptics. Only in John is Jesus explicitly identified with
God (1:1, 18; 20:28). Here, too, Jesus makes a series of important "I am" statements
which are qualified: I am the light of the world, the resurrection and the life, the good
shepherd, the vine, the living water, the way, the truth and the life. These culminate
in a series of absolute (unqualified) "I AM" statements that are redolent of God
Himself (cf. 6:20; 8:24, 28, 58). Furthermore, the Fourth Gospel maintains a series
of "opposites," dualisms if you will, that are much stronger than in the Synoptics: life
and death, from above and from below, light and dark, truth and lie, sight and
blindness, and more.
Third, these themes become still more problematic for some readers when,
formally at least, they contradict the treatment of similar themes in the Synoptic
Gospels. Here, for instance, John the Baptist denies that he is Elijah (1:21), even
though according to the Synoptists Jesus insists that he is (Mk. 9:11-13). What shall
we make of the bestowal of the Spirit (Jn. 20:22) and its relation to Acts 2? Above
all, how do we account for the fact that in the Synoptics the disciples seem to grow
from small beginnings in their understanding of who Jesus is, with various high-points
along the way, such as Caesarea Philippi (Mk. 8:27-30), while in John the very
first chapter finds various individuals confessing Jesus not only as Rabbi, but as
Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man, Lamb of God and King of Israel?
Fourth, there are several chronological difficulties that must be addressed. In
addition to the obvious questions, such as the relation between the cleansing of the
Temple at the beginning (Jn. 2:14-22) and at the end (Mk. 11:15-17) of Jesus' public
ministry, or the length of that ministry as attested by the number of Passovers it
embraces (John reports at least three, the Synoptists only one); there are one or two
questions of great difficulty that are precipitated in part by a knowledge of
background ritual and circumstance. In particular, the chronology of the Passion in
the Fourth Gospel, as compared with that of the Synoptics, seems so idiosyncratic
that it has generated complex theories about independent calendars, or about.Introduction Page 3
theological motifs that John is self-consciously allowing to skew the naked chronol-ogy.
Did Jesus and His disciples eat the Passover, so that He was arrested the evening
of Passover and crucified the next day, or was He crucified at the same time the
Passover lambs were being slaughtered? And how does one account for the fact that
the Synoptics picture Jesus being crucified about the third hour (9:00 a.m.), while in
John Pilate's final decision is not reached until the sixth hour (19:14)?
Fifth, students of Greek, perhaps more readily than those who read John's
Gospel only in a translation, observe that the style of writing is quite different from
that of the Synoptics. For instance, the vocabulary is smaller, there is frequent
parataxis (the use of co-ordinate clauses instead of subordinating expressions, which
elegant Greek much prefers), peculiar uses of pronouns (e.g. "that one"), and many
instances of asyndeton (simply laying out clauses beside each other, without
connecting them with particles or conjunctions, as Greek prefers). More impor-tantly,
there is little discernible difference in style between the words that are
ascribed to Jesus and the Evangelist's own comments (Jn. 3:16 ff.).
With all these examples of the differences between the Synoptics and John's
Gospel, the Gospel of John has been used by Christians in every age, and for the
greatest array of purposes. University students distribute free copies to their friends
in the hope of introducing them to the Savior. Elderly Christians on their deathbed
ask that parts of this Gospel be read to them. Very often, this Gospel is the first of
all Scripture to be translated in a newly evangelized part of the world. Children
memorize entire chapters, and sing choruses based on its truth (e.g. "For God So
Loved The World"). Countless Bible courses and sermons have been based on this
Book or on some part of it. It stood near the center of Christological controversy in
the fourth century. And perhaps the best known verse in all the Bible is John 3:16:
a toddler can even recite it. In this Gospel the love of God is dramatically mediated
through Jesus Christ, so much so that Karl Barth is alleged to have commented that
the most profound truth he had ever heard was "Jesus loves me, this I know/For the
Bible tells me so."
Before entering this world, something must be
said about the date and the author. In addition,
something must be said about the audience and
purpose of the author, and especially his literary
techniques, and the structure of his Gospel. These
points belong to what is known as introduction. The
better they can be established and described, the easier it is to understand and
appreciate the Gospel.
Internal evidence suggests that the Gospel was written after 85 A.D. External
evidence points to a date no later than 110 A.D. The allusion to Peter's martyrdom
in 21:18-19 demands a date after 64 A.D. Three references to excommunication
from the synagogue (9:22; 12:42; 16:2) allude to the Birkat ha-minim, a "Test
Benediction" used by the rabbis to exclude from the synagogue all heretics and
perhaps especially Christians. Since the "Test Benediction" was instituted in the mid
eighties, it is reasonable to conclude that the Gospel was composed sometime after
85 A.D.
How long after is impossible to determine. But external evidence in the form
of papyrus fragments found in Egypt suggests some ten or fifteen years later, i.e.,
between 85 and 100 A.D. The Rylands papyrus, the papyrus Egerton 2, P66, and
P75 all date to approximately 150 A.D. These papyrus finds prove that the Gospel
existed in Egypt in the first half of the second century. If one allows forty or fifty years
for the Gospel to become known and copied in Egypt, one comes on the basis of
external evidence to the same conclusion suggested by the internal evidence, i.e., 85-
100 A.D. for the date of the Gospel.
By the end of the second century, the Fourth Gospel was accepted, along with
the three Synoptics, as canonical in Gaul (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1-2), in
Egypt (Clement of Alexandria, so Eusebius, Church History 6.14.5), in North Africa
(Tertullian, Against Marcion 4.2), and in Rome (Muratorian fragment).
The Author
Whoever the author of the Fourth Gospel was, one thing is certain: he wanted
to remain anonymous. He wanted only to be known as the disciple whom Jesus
loved. He speaks about himself in 13:23 as the one who at the Last Supper "was
reclining on Jesus' breast . . . whom Jesus loved."; in 19:23-26, 35, as the disciple
who stood beneath the cross, was given the care of Jesus' mother, and witnessed the
death of Jesus; in 20:2-10, as the disciple who ran with Peter to the tomb on Easter
morning and, upon seeing the burial cloths, believed; in 21:7, as the disciple who
alone recognized the stranger on the shore as Jesus; and in 21:20-23, as the disciple
about whom Jesus said to Peter: "If I want him to remain until I come, what is that
to you? Follow Me!".Introduction Page 5
It is probable that he is the "disciple . . . known to the high priest" who spoke
to the maid and had Peter admitted to the court of Annas (18:15-16). It is quite
probable that he was one of the two unnamed disciples of John the Baptist who
followed Jesus at the beginning of His public life (1:35-39), and equally probable that
he was one of the two unnamed disciples who accompanied Peter in the boat on the
Lake of Galilee after the resurrection (21:2).
What is certain is that the Gospel itself declares the Beloved Disciple to be "this
is the disciple who bears witness of these things, and wrote these things; and we
know that his witness is true" (21:24). The meaning of this statement is hotly
debated. It asserts at a minimum that the Beloved Disciple is the author of at least
chapter 21; at a maximum, it asserts that he is the author of the entire Gospel. The
reasons for these conclusions will be explained in the commentary on 21:24-25.
However much the Gospel says about the Beloved Disciple, it nowhere
identifies him by name. Tradition, via
Polycarp, Polycrates, and Irenaeus, tes-tifies
to the belief of the Church in the
early second century that John, the son
of Zebedee, was the Beloved Disciple.
This belief perdured until the twentieth
century and was defended as recently as
the sixties by such renowned Johannine scholars as R. Schnackenburg and R. E.
Brown. Brown, however, in his more recent The Community of the Beloved
Disciple, has abandoned it and now goes along with the modern trend of dissociating
John, the son of Zebedee, and the Beloved Disciple.
Contemporary scholars see the Beloved Disciple as a disciple of Jesus, but not
one of the Twelve, a disciple who formed and led his own Christian community
sometime after the resurrection and became for that community a living link with the
teaching of Jesus. They see him also as the leading figure in a school of interpreters
who preserved his teaching and expanded it as the years went on, until a genius
member of the school at the end of the first century authored the Gospel as we know
it now. His identity, however, remains a mystery. Considering the paucity of the
evidence, it will probably always remain a mystery.
supports an evangelistic purpose: that you may come to faith, come to believe. The
former, then supports and edificatory purpose: that you may continue in faith,
continue to believe. In fact, it can easily be shown that both expressions are used
for both initial faith and continuing in faith, so that nothing can be resolved by the
appeal to one textual variant or the other.
It is worth comparing these verses with the stated purpose of 1 John: "These
things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that
you may know that you have eternal life" (1 John 5:13). This verse was clearly
written to encourage Christians; by the contrasting form of its expression, John
20:30-31 sounds evangelistic.
This impression is confirmed by the firm syntactical evidence that the first
purpose clause in 20:31 must be rendered literally, "that you may believe that the
Christ, the Son of God, is Jesus." Thus the fundamental question the Fourth Gospel
addresses is not "Who is Jesus?" but "Who is the Messiah? Who is the Christ? Who
is the Son of God?" In their context, these are questions of identity, not of kind: i.e.
the question "Who is the Christ?" should not here be understood as "What kind of
'Christ' are you talking about?" but "So you claim that you know who the Christ is.
Prove it, then: Who is he?"
Support for this is simply common sense. Christians would not ask that kind of
question, because they already knew the answer. The most likely people to ask that
sort of question would be Jews and Jewish proselytes who know what "the Christ"
means, have some sort of messianic expectation, and are perhaps in personal contact
with Christians and want to know more. In short, John's Gospel is not only
evangelistic in its purpose (which was a dominant view until this century, when only
a few have defended it), but aims in particular to evangelize Jews and Jewish
proselytes. This view has not been popular, but is gradually gaining influence, and
much can be said for it. It may even receive indirect support from some recent studies
The Purpose and Audience of the Gospel
The proper place to begin when we discuss John's purpose for writing his Gospel
is with his own statement: "Many other signs therefore Jesus also performed in the
presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been
written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that
believing you may have life in His name" (20:30-31). The words rendered "that you
may believe" hide a textual variant: either hina pisteuete (present subjunctive) or
hina pisteusete (aorist subjunctive). Some have argued that the latter expression.Introduction Page 7
that try to interpret the Fourth Gospel as a piece of mission literature.
The commentary that follows occasionally pauses to show how one passage or
another fits nicely into this purpose. Some have argued, for instance, that John
chapters 14--17 cannot possibly be viewed as primarily evangelistic. Such judgment
is premature, for at least two reasons. First, the evangelism of the early church was
not merely existential. It had to explain, as it were, "how we got from there to here,"
especially if the targeted audience was Jewish. Second, the best evangelistic
literature not only explains why one should become a Christian, but what it means
to be a Christian. John chapters 14--17 addresses those concerns rather pointedly,
and numerous details within those chapters likewise suggest an evangelistic thrust
(e.g. 14:6).
In addition, the Gospel seems to be polemic. But who would need such
warnings, refutations, encouragement, and strengthening? We come to one reason-able
conclusion from looking at the question from a historical perspective: John
wrote his Gospel primarily for Jewish Christians whose faith was wavering, who
were under attack by the synagogue for believing in Jesus, and who, because of
Jewish persecution, were tending to either remain in or return to the synagogue and
thereby apostasize from their faith in Jesus (i.e. in Paul's terminology, "fallen from
grace," Gal. 5:4). In brief, John's primary audience among Christians was that group
of Christian Jews who were straddling the fence between the Christian community
and the Jewish synagogue (cf. the Book of Hebrews).
John's secondary audience was that group of Jewish Christians who belonged
to Christian communities but who were wavering in their faith because of persecu-tion
and the threat of death (16:1-4). For these he records the words of Jesus: "These
things I have spoken to you, that you may be kept from stumbling" (16:1).
Therefore, in conclusion, the Gospel as an edificatory piece, we may be
reasonably sure that John wrote his Gospel for weak Christians both in his
community and in the synagogue. His Gospel encourages Christian Jews who were
straddling the fence between Jesus and the synagogue (1) because they feared
excommunication from the synagogue (cf. 9:22; 12:37-43; 16:2); (2) or because they
found Jesus' teaching about the Eucharist a hard saying and could not accept it (cf.
6:59ff.) (3) or because they could not accept the high Christology of John and his
community (cf. 5:1-47; 7:--8:59, especially 8:31; 10:22-29; and perhaps 2:23-25;
11:46); (4) or, possibly but not certainly, because they had been disciples of John the
Baptist and could not easily accept Jesus as greater than the Baptist (cf. 1:19-34;
3:22--4:3). For all of these, the Gospel as a whole, with its massive emphasis on.Page 8 Introduction
witness to Jesus and response of faith in Jesus, provided a powerful appeal for a
definitive decision concerning the Messiah ("the Christ"). To all of these equally, the
words of Jesus would certainly apply: "These things I have spoken to you, that you
may be kept from stumbling" (16:1).
Literary Techniques
Few things are more helpful for readers of John's Gospel than an appreciation
of his literary techniques. These are for the most part the techniques of a dramatist.
They include the technique of using stories to set up scenes; the use of discourses,
dialogues, and monologues to expound Jesus' teaching; the use of misunderstanding
and double-meaning words to emphasize important elements of Jesus' teaching; and
the use of such other techniques as the rule of two, explanatory comments, irony,
foreshadowing, inclusion, and the chiastic arrangement of parts, sequences, and
sections of the Gospel. All of these call for a brief explanation.
1. Stories
John uses stories to set up scenes, discourses, and dialogues. The following are
good examples. In John 1:19-51, the story of Jesus' coming to John the Baptist at
the Jordan sets the scene for the parade of witnesses who testify successively to Jesus
as the Lamb of God, Messiah, King of Israel, Son of God, and Son of Man.
In 2:13-25, the story of the cleansing of the temple sets the scene for Jesus'
dialogue with the Jews concerning His words "Destroy this temple [He means His
body], and in three days I will raise it up." In 3:1-21, the story of Nicodemus' coming
to Jesus at night sets the scene for Jesus' dialogue with Nicodemus about being "born
again" (3:5), just as in 4:4ff., Jesus' meeting with the Samaritan woman sets the scene
for His dialogue with her about the water that will become "a well of water springing
up to eternal life" (4:14).
John uses the same technique in chapter 5, where the cure of the paralytic (5:1-
18) sets the scene for the long monologue of 5:19-47; in chapter 6, where Jesus'
discussion with the Jews about signs (6:22-31) sets the theme for Jesus' homily on
"the true bread from heaven" (6:32-58); in chapters 7--8, where Jesus' secret trip to
Jerusalem sets the scene for a series of debates with the Jews; in chapter 9, where
the cure of the man born blink sets the scene for the discourse on the good and the.Introduction Page 9
bad shepherds (10:1-21); in 10:22-39, where Jesus' appearance at the feast of the
Dedication leads to His final dispute with the Jews; and lastly in chapters 13--17,
where the washing of the feet (13:1-32) sets the scene for Jesus' Last Supper
discourse. In all these examples, the stories are secondary to the dialogues,
monologues, and discourses for which they prepare the way. They are clearly the
work of a superb dramatist.
2. Discourses, Dialogues, and Monologues
As C. H. Dodd has pointed out, the typical Johannine discourse (e.g., in 3:1-21;
4:4-38; 5:1-47; 6:22-58; 9:39--10:21; 10:22-39; 13:33--16:33) follows a distinctive
pattern: (a) it begins with a solemn declaration by Jesus, often in lapidary terms (e.g.,
3:3; 4:10; 5:17; 6:32; 7:16; 9:39; 10:25; 13:13); (b) it is frequently followed by an
objection or question based upon a misunderstanding of Jesus' words (e.g.3:4; 4:11;
5:18; 6:41-42; 7:20; 9:40; 10:6; 10:31; 13:36); (c) there then follows Jesus' discourse
clarifying the misunderstanding or the objection. The discourse is sometimes
interrupted by further questions and objections (e.g., 4:4-38; 6:33-58; 15:33--16:33)
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