Who wrote it? When was it written and why?
These are some of the important questions to answer as you explore any book of the Bible. To aid you in your study of God’s Word we’re adapting and posting some of the detailed book introductions found in The Reformation Study Bible.
Today, please allow The Reformation Study Bible to introduce you to…
The Gospel According to John
The author of this Gospel was almost certainly a Jew. He displays an intimate knowledge of Jewish customs, festivals, and beliefs. His detailed geographical knowledge suggests that he was a native of Palestine, and it appears that he was an eyewitness of many of the events recorded in his Gospel (John 19:35).
Any careful reader would notice that John is not mentioned by name in the Gospel. It is difficult to explain this omission unless one assumes that the Gospel was written by him.
Although the work is anonymous, it contains some hints about its authorship. This is the only Gospel that refers to one of the apostles with the expression the disciple “whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23) rather than by name. This disciple is the one identified as the eyewitness who “is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things” (John 21:24). Moreover, any careful reader would notice that John, son of Zebedee, who was one of the most prominent disciples, is not mentioned by name in the Gospel. It is difficult to explain this omission unless one assumes that the Gospel was written by John and that he refrained from identifying himself.
Early church tradition, such as the writings of Irenaeus in the second century, consistently and explicitly attributes this Gospel to the apostle John. Modern doubts about the reliability of that tradition have led many scholars to reject John’s authorship of the book, but no other view gives as satisfactory an account of the facts.
Early church tradition suggests that John wrote the Gospel toward the end of his life, around A.D. 90. Some scholars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, having abandoned authorship by John, argued that the Gospel was as late as the middle of the second century.
“that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” — John
The discoveries of the Rylands papyrus (a manuscript fragment dated to about A.D. 125, containing a few lines from John 18) and of the Dead Sea Scrolls (which improved our understanding of Palestine in the first century) have led most scholars to return to the Gospel’s traditional date. Some specialists have gone further and dated it before A.D. 70.
The author himself describes his purpose for writing: “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).
Great emphasis is placed on the unique significance of Jesus’ miracles, but some passages seem to suggest that belief based solely upon seeing signs is not a good thing.
A special challenge to interpreters of John’s Gospel is the relation between seeing “signs” and belief. The author places great emphasis on the unique significance of Jesus’ miracles because they reveal much about His Person and work (John 20:30, 31). But some passages seem to suggest that belief based solely upon having personally seen the signs is not a good thing. In John 4:48, for instance, Jesus rebukes His hearers, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” This passage brings to mind the statement of Thomas in John 20:25, “Unless I see … I will never believe.” Therefore, many readers have concluded that an ideal faith has no interest in miracles. The problem with this conclusion is twofold. First, if faith resulting from miracles is not good, why does Jesus perform miracles? Second, why does John link these signs to faith in Christ (John 20:31)?
To believe in Jesus means not only to acknowledge His ability to perform miracles, but also to accept what those miracles as “signs” reveal about His Person and work. The evangelist indicates that the written record of Jesus’ signs is sufficient testimony for those who are not eyewitnesses. This understanding is implied by what Jesus said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). Paul’s formulation gives a similar relation between faith and sight: “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7; cf. Rom. 8:24, 25).
Faith can be produced and encouraged by the signs Jesus performed. But the goal of this faith is to apprehend Jesus in His fullness, not merely as a miracle worker. Jesus is revealed by His “signs” as the eternal Word of God, one in glory with the Father and the Spirit. It is not necessary to be an eyewitness of the signs; the record of them is sufficient to convey their power for eliciting and strengthening faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God.
The teachings of Jesus recorded in John tend to be lengthy discussions of a single topic, in contrast to the pithy, proverb-like sayings usually found in the other three Gospels. The teaching material is often embedded in conversations, as Jesus interacts with individual people or groups in discussion. There are almost no parables in this Gospel.
John highlights the reality of sin in various ways, but especially by emphasizing our total dependence on God for salvation
Jesus’ interaction with those who did not receive Him although they were “his own” (John 1:11) is an important focus of the public ministry (John 1–12). Jesus appears often in Jerusalem at the time of the Jewish feasts. These feasts have special importance because of the way Jesus relates His own work to what the feasts signify (John 7:37–39). Despite this ministry, His nation did not receive Him, a fact that John explains as the result of human sin. Jesus is rejected, not because He is a stranger, but because people love darkness rather than light.
The Gospel of John makes use of sharp contrasts: light and darkness (John 1:4–9), love and hatred (John 15:17, 18), from above and from below (John 8:23), life and death (John 6:57, 58), truth and falsehood (John 8:32–47). Other distinctive features are the theme of misunderstanding (John 2:21; 6:51–58), the use of twofold or double meanings (John 3:14; 6:62), and the role of the “I am” sayings.
John highlights the reality of sin in various ways, but especially by emphasizing our total dependence on God for salvation. Just as our physical birth was not the result of our own effort or will, so our spiritual birth is not due to us, but to God’s will and the power of His Spirit (John 1:12, 13; 3:5–8). Sinful men and women are unable to come to Jesus for salvation unless they are drawn by the Father (John 6:44). But when they come to Jesus, they have “eternal life,” and do not “come into judgment” (John 5:24); they belong to the Father, and He will not let them die (John 10:27–29).
One of the most striking distinctives of this Gospel is the Prologue (John 1:1–18) that presents Jesus as the eternal Logos, or Word, the One who reveals the Father. Christ reveals the Father because He shares in the Father’s deity. He is the One who made the universe (John 1:3). He met the needs of the Israelites in the wilderness, and now He provides spiritual water and bread (John 4:13, 14; 6:35). In short, He is one with the Father, the “I am” (John 5:18; 8:58; 10:30–33; cf. Ex. 3:14).
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Adapted from The Reformation Study Bible, © 2005 Ligonier Ministries.