The Gospel According to John
When studying a book of the bible it is important to always put the book in context. The ask questions like: Why was the book written? What was the purpose or intent of the author? Who is the intended audience? When was it written? What was going on at the time? And finally, who wrote it? Answers to these question help us to not read our agenda into the text.
Why was John Written
In John 20:30-31 the author tells us why he wrote the book. “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
The book is an edited version of Jesus life. The author chose the parts of Jesus life he included so we might believe Jesus is the Son of God. In other words, the purpose of the book is evangelical. The book is about Christ. The book contains little about discipleship or community. That is one reason why this is a good book for sharing the gospel with others. That also makes it a good starting point for a new Christian’s Bible study.
John’s Intended audience
Unlike the epistles, John does not have an opening like Paul does in Galatians. Paul says right up front,”To the churches of Galatia.” John only gives us literary markers to let help us out.
- John 5:2 “Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades.” Who would need an explanation that there was a pool in Jerusalem and where it was? It would be someone unfamiliar with Jerusalem.
- John 6:4“Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand.” Who needed to have an explanation of Passover? It was not a Jew.
- John 6:1 “After this, Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias.” Tiberias was a Roman name. Who would have needed to understand where the Sea of Galilee was? It was not the Jews. Who would have called the sea the Sea of Tiberias rather than the Sea of Galilee? It would be the Romans or non-Jews.
- John 11:18 “Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off,” Who would not know Bethany was only 2 miles from Jerusalem? It would not be people from around there. Two miles is not that far off. It would have been people who did not know the geography of the area.
So John was writing to non-Jews i.e. Gentiles who were not from Judea. And he was writing so non-Jews who were not from Judea might believe. That is, the author wrote the book of John so you and I might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. By believing, we may have life in His name.
Who Wrote the Book of John
The author does not identify himself. We know him only as the disciple Jesus loved. (John 21:24-25). The title The Gospel According to John the son of Zebedee” does not occur until 181 AD. That would be over well 100 years after the author wrote the book. So we need to look for literary hints about the author. The author is someone who is almost likely from Jerusalem. He is familiar with Jerusalem and has access to the Jewish high society.
The author is writing from a Judean perspective. He is writing to people who do not live in Judea. They do not have an understanding of the geography, customs, and traditions.
He was an individual of influence. After Jesus arrest, he accompanies Jesus all the way to the high priest home. It is clear this disciple was well known in 1st-century Jewish high society. The high priest knows who he is. When Jesus is on trial he walks right in. The guards at Caiaphas home knew him. So it appears he had been a frequent visitor to the home of the high priest. He is connected well enough to be able to vouch for Peter. John 18:16 “but Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the servant girl who kept watch at the door, and brought Peter in.” This disciple is likely the writer of the gospel. There are things written here that do not appear in any of the other gospels. Only the unnamed disciple would have known them. So while the author’s name may have been John it almost certain it was not John the fisherman from Galilee.
The argument against the ideas of a well educated, well placed Jew being the author is that the Greek is simple. The argument goes that it is simple Greek because the writer was not well educated. The simpleness of the language may not be a sign of the writer but of the audience. Since John’s gospel is evangelical it is simple so everyone can read and understand it.
Structure of the Book of John
One of the things that commentators have noted about John is the pattern of the text. The structure of John is like the basic temple or tabernacle structure.
The temple had a large outer court. One of the first things one would see when entering the outer court was a large altar. That is the altar where the sin offering in took place. Also in the outer court was a large bowl containing water for cleansing.
Then you went into the temple itself. The temple had two sections, the inner court or the holy place and the holy of holies.
In the holy place was a table with shewbread or the bread of the presence. The bread sat on the table in the presence of God for a week. Also, there were candle stands or menorahs. Just before you went into the holy of holies there was a small golden altar. This was an altar for incense. Then there was a veil separating the holy of holies from the holy place. The veil had a couple of angels on it.
Inside the holy of holies was the ark of the covenant. The ark was a large rectangular box. The ark had a lid on it. This was the mercy seat. On the day of atonement, the high priest carried the blood from the altar in the outer court into the holy of holies. The chief priest would sprinkle the blood on the mercy seat.
On top of the mercy seat at either end, were a couple of angles. The angles are facing each other. The priest sprinkles the blood between them on this long slab.
The temple walls had carved palm trees and pomegranates and open flowers. It resembled a garden. It was a representation of the garden where God communed with Adam and Eve.
If we look at the end of John 19:41 – John 20:18 we see they buried Jesus in a tomb. A Jewish tomb of this era had different compartments. As you enter the tomb there was a long slab carved into the side of the tomb. They would lay the body the slab. It would lay there until it decomposed. Once the body decomposed they placed the bones in a small box called an ossuary. Following this custom, they wrapped Jesus’ body and placed on this long slab.
The Tomb was in a garden. Jesus laid in a garden on a long slab. Notice what Mary sees when she looks into the tomb. “But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet.” (John 20:11-12)
What did Mary see? She saw a long slab with blood on it. At each end of the slab was an angel. In a Jewish mind, what would that remind you of? You would be reminded of the ark of the covenant. Mary was looking at the ark of the new covenant. This imagery is prominent throughout John’s gospel.
John does not lay out Jesus’ story in a chronological manner but in a theological manner. John uses Old Testament imagery. He takes us from outside the presence of God, all the way to the cross and the new covenant. John takes us all the way to the Holy of Holies. The author wrote for people who are coming from outside the kingdom to inside the kingdom.
John is usually divided into four parts. Chapter 1 is a prelude. Chapters 2 through 11 are called the book of signs. It covers 3 years of Jesus life. Chapters 12-20 is referred to as the book of passion. It covers the last week of Jesus’ life. Chapter 21 is an addendum.
There are also subdivisions Chapters 2- 5 have an emphasis on water.
- Jesus turns the water into wine (John 2:1-12).
- Jesus walks on water (John 6:16-21).
- Jesus tells Nicodemus you must be born of water and spirit (John 3:5).
- The woman at the well in John 4, Jesus tells her he has living water.
- Healing the lame man by the pool in Jerusalem. (John 5)
Chapters 6-7 have and emphasis on bread.
- Jesus is the bread of life.
- The feeding of the 5000.
Chapter 8 talks about light.
- Jesus is the light of the world.
- Jesus opens the eyes of a blind man.
Chapter 17 emphasizes prayer. It contains Jesus high priestly prayer.
Chapter 21 appears to be an addendum. It appears to be a later addition. There are two reasons for this. First, the end of Chapter 20 sounds like the end. Second, there is what appears to be an explanation of the death of the author.
Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’ 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.” (John 21:22-24)
Why would there need to be an explanation about what Jesus said about the author? He must have died. It looks like someone is putting final touches on the gospel. The “we know” indicates there is a group of people working on the text. V25 “I suppose that the world…” appears to be a final note from an individual.
The author is the person in the text known as the beloved disciple, the disciple Jesus loved. He had these things written down. Then, after death, there is a final composition, editing and put together as the gospel. It could be the author original disciple wrote and or preached this message. And a community of his followers compiled his teaching after his death. And the official secretary of the group then added a note at the end.
When was John Written
We do not know for sure for when the author wrote John. But John chapter 5:2 gives us a hint. “Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades.” Notice the tense, “Now there is in Jerusalem…” It is not, “Now there was in Jerusalem…” This little detail suggests the author wrote before the fall of Jerusalem. That is, he wrote it before 70 AD. Many scholars have suggested that the gospels were not written until 90 or 95 AD. The final configuration may not have been until then. But it is clear the original text was penned before 70 AD.