The book of John is named after and attributed to John, the Apostle. There is much internal and external evidence to support this and it has never been seriously contested so we will not dwell on arguments concerning its authorship.
We do have a good profile of John from the Scripture itself:
- Son of a wealthy fisherman (Zebedee) – Mark 1:20
- Had a brother, James (not writer of the epistle) – Matthew 4:21-22
- Close to Jesus, inner circle (Transfiguration) and it is said Jesus loved him – Matthew 17; John 21
- Zealous, impatient, intolerant – Luke 9:54
- Jesus entrusted Mary to his care – John 19:26-27
- Worked with Peter in Jerusalem – Acts 3
We also have writers of the period referring to John in their letters that give us more information about him. Polycarp, bishop of Ephesus reveals that:
- He made his home and work in Ephesus after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, which was a key influence on him and his writings.
- From here he wrote this gospel and three of his epistles around 80 AD.
- He was eventually exiled to the Isle of Patmos by the Roman emperor Domitian around 94-96 AD and from here he wrote the book of Revelation.
Purpose of the gospel of John
Each gospel writer had a purpose in writing their books:
- Matthew writes with the Jew in mind in order to show that Jesus is the Messiah/King.
- Mark and Luke have the Gentiles in mind in order to show that Jesus is the Redeemer that the nations longed for.
- John wrote when the difference between Jew and Gentile had disappeared (after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD). He is writing from Asia Minor where false doctrines such as Gnosticism are challenging the claims of Christianity and so his purpose is to show Jesus as the Son of God and that salvation is found by faith in Him alone.
This purpose is summarized in John 20:30-31...
Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.
… and developed throughout the book by using 3 main themes (think of braiding someone's hair):
- Jesus is presented as a true man as well as the divine Son of God.
- The rise and development of belief.
- The rise and development of disbelief.
These themes are not presented in sequential order but rather, like three strands, they are braided together to form one single narrative.
1 strand: He demonstrates Jesus' humanity and divinity by alternately showing him as a man, doing human things (eating, weeping) and showing Him as divine (doing miracles).
The other 2 strands: He interweaves the two other strands, belief and disbelief by describing how people reacted to Jesus with faith or rejection as they witnessed His dual human/divine nature.
John's gospel describes the object of faith (Jesus Christ) and why He should be considered as such (miracles, resurrection). He also describes the development of belief or disbelief as people react to Him.
When we understand this idea of braiding these three themes the outline of the book makes sense.
Prologue – 1:1-18
In this opening section John introduces Jesus as the Son of God, the God/Man. He traces Jesus' existence from the pre-creation era to His incarnation as a human being.
Proof of His divinity through ministry – 1:19 – 12:50
The next large section of the book simply braids together the two strands of episodes of belief and disbelief around the description of His ministry. John presents accounts of His teachings and miracles with alternating responses of belief and disbelief.
Proof of His divinity through His death, burial and resurrection – 13:1 – 21:25
In the final chapters John uses the same technique of describing alternating responses of belief and disbelief, but this time they are set against the backdrop of His final days as He is arrested, tried, tortured, crucified, buried and resurrected.
John's focus was quite narrow in this gospel. Jesus Himself and who He was are presented along with a whole series of believing and unbelieving responses from people around Him. The idea is that the reader will see not only Jesus, but will also see himself in the reaction of the various people.
Prologue – 1:1-18
So we begin our study with what is called the "prologue" because it is not a narrative about Jesus' life or actions, but describes Him before coming to earth in human form.
This is where John is different. He begins with a statement clearly declaring Jesus' divine nature whereas the other three gospel writers allow the reader to conclude this from the evidence they present in their gospels.
There was a certain concept of the idea of "word/logos" that existed at that time:
For Jews: The Word/Logos (Greek) was a revelation from God. It was something to be understood and put into practice as well as respected.
For Gentiles/Greeks: Word represented the great "Reason" or "Power" or "Force" as we would say today. To be in accord with this Word/Power was to have a happy and balanced life.
John, in his prologue, explains that the full meaning of this concept is revealed through Christ: He is the Word, He is the Logos, He is the Force.
Vs. 1 – In the beginning…
This refers to the time before creation, that dimension that existed before the space/time continuum that we live in was created.
John takes the reader to that point where one is standing at the beginning of time and looking backwards into eternity.
…was the Word…
The "Word" is a title for Jesus. The Jews would see 'revelation from God'. The Gentiles would read – 'force/power.' John uses "Word" for Jesus because what you say is a reflection of what is in your heart and mind. This opening title for Jesus describes Him as being the perfect expression of the mind of God in human form.
…and the Word was with God,…
Not a power coming from God as in a created thing or an attribute of God. No, Jesus as person co-existing with God on an equal basis. In other words when God speaks, when the power is realized, Jesus is what is said, what is expressed.
…and the Word was God.
The Word was God/God was the Word.
John, a devout Jew, would never say, "…and the Word was a god.." as the Jehovah's Witnesses claim in their New World translations. This would violate his monotheistic belief, to him this would be idolatry. And so in the 1st verse, John asks and answers some basic questions:
- Who is the Word? God is the Word.
- Why is the Word God? It is eternal (before time); it coexists with God; its nature is divine.
John, therefore, gives substance to this idea of Word/Logos, far beyond what the Jews or Gentiles had thought:
- The Word is Almighty God.
- God expresses Himself in the Word.
- God and the Word are one.
Vs. 2 – He was in the beginning with God.
Once having made the connection between God and the Word, John now begins to connect Jesus with the Word.
He does not mention Him by name but uses the personal pronoun – He – to connect Jesus (who he will mention by name later) with the Word and ultimately to God.
His reasoning is quite mathematical:
- If A (God) = B (Word)
- And B (Word) = C (Jesus)
- Then A (God) = C (Jesus)
So in the next verse he will complete this equation.
Vs. 3 – All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.
The Jews attributed the creation to the power of God's Word. I.e. "Let there be light…" (Genesis 1:3). God literally spoke the creation into existence. The Gentiles also saw the power of the "force" as the agent for creation.
In this verse John is connecting the Word to the person of Jesus, making Him and the Word as One. The idea is that Jesus, in the form of the Word, was the agent of creation. This teaching is also presented by Paul in Colossians 1:16: "For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth…"
Vs. 4-5 – In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
Here John makes the bridge from divinity to humanity in three steps:
- God is the Word in eternity.
- The Word is Jesus creating the universe.
- Jesus is the life bringing light into the world.
John also summarizes Jesus' earthly ministry:
- He is life (the essence of God).
- His life brings light (the truth of God).
- His Word does not disagree with anything true but reveals the final answer to all questions about God and salvation, etc.
John briefly explains at the beginning of his gospel what happens at the end of his gospel: Jesus brings the truth and is rejected.
Vs. 6-8 – There came a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the Light, but he came to testify about the Light.
In these verses John describes the role of one of the major figures in Christ's ministry: John the Baptist. He will later describe John's work and connection to Jesus, but at this point he summarizes John's purpose. John was a witness, according to Scripture, to prepare the people for the coming of the light/truth. The majority of John's ministry was to alert the people that the Messiah was coming. In the end, after he baptized Jesus, he began to directly point to the Lord as the One who was to come. With his death, most of his disciples began to follow Jesus.
Vs. 9-11 – There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.
In this passage John reviews and expands on what he mentioned briefly in vs. 5.
He makes three major points:
- He brought with Him and within Him the capability to bring every person into the knowledge of the truth (light).
- Even with this ability the world, which He created, rejected Him.
- The people (the Jews) that He had especially blessed were especially hard and refused to accept Him.
Vs. 12-13 – But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
This is the gospel in capsule form.
It does not explain everything in detail but rather gives a bird's eye view of what Jesus did accomplish with some. For those who received (believed) Him, He transformed them into spiritual beings. Not created by normal reproductive means but by the will of God.
The details are spelled out later, for now he merely summarizes the fact that some rejected Him and others accepted Him. And for these, the blessing was to become a new creation he calls "child of God".
Vs. 14 – And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.
The Word becoming flesh is the Incarnation. From God/Word to Word/Jesus to Jesus/Man. Jesus = the God/Man. In a few words John proclaims that Almighty God took on a human body.
Now he speaks of his own experience of this. We (the Apostles/John) saw (experienced) this glory (God/Man) – a kind of glory that only the Son (God/Man) could radiate. And the substance of His glory (what it was about Him that made Him glorious) was His Godly nature, grace and truth (the mind of God clearly expressed).
The only begotten from the Father.
- Some never become sons of God.
- Others become sons by adoption as God forgives and cleanses them from sin and adopts them as His children.
- Jesus, however, is a Son by nature. He is the only one (only begotten) related to God by having an identical nature.
John is also reminding his readers of the incredible "presence" that Jesus had, which makes the rejection of Him a terrible sin.
Vs. 15 – John testified about Him and cried out, saying, "This was He of whom I said, 'He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.'"
Reinforcing this idea of the impact of Jesus' presence, the gospel writer reaches back and talks about John the Baptist's work again. He says that even John the Baptist, in his witness, testified to the eternal quality and preeminent position of the One who was to come. I.e. "… The One to come was before…" and John was conceived before Jesus. John the Baptist knew and preached about Jesus' God/Man status.
Again the implication is that their rejection was a grave sin because they had plenty of preparation of His coming from a credible source.
Vs. 16 – For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace.
Jesus is the Word and the Word is divine and for this reason the Word is completely full.
You cannot exhaust the supply of truth and grace coming from the Word/Jesus/God just like you cannot use up the supply of oxygen by breathing in the open air. You cannot exhaust the amount of grace and truth that Jesus/Word/God has towards sinners who breathe in God's grace and truth through faith in Jesus Christ.
Vs. 17 – For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.
Moses received the Law (which contained the promise of the grace and truth to come - Hebrews 10:1) and he administered this Law.
Jesus is the substance of the promises that were only contained in the Law. It is like the difference between having a picture of an item you have ordered from a catalogue or on the internet and finally having the product in your hands.
John speaks to Jews here by giving them a graphic illustration to show them the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament. One is of promise (Old Testament) and one is of presence (New Testament).
Vs. 18 – No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.
No man has ever seen God. Moses spoke directly and saw the back of His glory. But Jesus, the God/Man, gives us an experience of God not available until now. He is able to do this because of His intimate knowledge of God, having the same nature and being part of the Godhead with Him. Jesus is able to relate to man what He knows about God from firsthand experience as a divine being within the Godhead Himself.
John begins his gospel by establishing the fact that with his own eyes he has experienced God taking on a human nature in order to give man an intimate experience and knowledge of Himself. Since we could not transfer to His realm, He transferred to ours.
This knowledge he calls "truth"/"light". This experience he calls "life". He says that for the most part, men rejected this knowledge and experience. He also lists 3 witnesses that proclaimed this knowledge/experience but were not believed:
- John the Baptist and his witness of preaching.
- Jesus Himself and His witness of miracles and teaching.
- John the Apostle and his eye witness.
With the prologue John sets up the three braids of his gospel.
- The presence of Jesus the God/Man.
- Reactions of belief.
- Reactions of disbelief.
Beginning in verse 19, he will start to intertwine these three strands to make up his gospel record.