Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psych.
THE GOSPELS OF Matthew, Mark, and Luke are remarkably similar, while John is quite different. This does not mean there are four “versions” of the Gospel. Through the four gospels the Good News is told from the perspective of four different writers. Why four unique explanations of the Gospel? Each of the writers had a specific audience in mind as they addressed the ministry of Jesus. Also, each gospel shows a unique relationship or experience with Christ. The writers expressed that element through targeted arrangements of the historical data of Jesus’s life. Given the immense amount of information in the Gospel of John, I will divide this article into two parts.
A Brief Look at The Synoptic Gospels
Matthew, Mark, and Luke are considered synoptic, meaning they include many of the same stories, often in a similar sequence, with similar or sometimes identical wording. The Greek word for “synoptic” is συνοπτικός, which means “seeing all together.” Regardless, the priority of each of the gospels was to focus on the message of the Good News. For example, Luke’s gospel correlates with the Book of Acts. There are seven corresponding themes in Luke and Acts: (1) salvation to the Gentiles; (2) progression of the Gospel throughout the ancient world; (3) the Holy Spirit; (4) the importance of prayer; (5) wealth, poverty, and marginalized society; (6) Christianity as the true Israel; and (7) treatment of Christians under the Roman Empire.
Why Did John Write His Gospel?
The Gospel of John presents an amazing exposition on Jesus Christ, and is perhaps the most succinct and elevated view of God found anywhere in literature. John presents a record of our Savior’s profound teaching, convincing arguments, and declarations of His divinity and relationship with the Father. This differs from Matthew, Mark, and Luke in that there is no genealogy of Jesus’s birth or childhood; nor does John list the numerous miracles, parables the ascension, or the Great Commission.
While some New Testament scholars believe the purpose of John’s gospel was to combat Docetism—the doctrine, important in Gnosticism, that Christ’s body was not human but either a phantasm or of real but celestial substance, and that therefore his sufferings were only apparent—and to oppose those who retained loyalty to him. John clearly states, “…but these 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, RSV). John tells about how Jesus dealt with individuals, what He preached to the crowds, how He trained the disciples, His debates with the religious leaders in Jerusalem, and a wonderful explanation of the gift of eternal life. John also describes the gathering storm Jesus would face soon as a result of his confrontation of “established religion” and its leaders. John’s gospel account has been received by believers worldwide as the best recitation of the way of Jesus—not just the way in which we are able to come to the Father, but also the way we are to interact with the fallen world in which we live.
At the outset, John chose to introduce Christ as the Word. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1-3, RSV). John tells us, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (v. 4). He is clear that Jesus is the Word incarnate who brings truth, grace and salvation. Jesus is God.
John was a personal witness to the ministry of Jesus. His gospel is an inspired record of the teachings, miracles, and crucifixion of Jesus as he saw them. His purpose was to set forth the evidence that Jesus is the Messiah, and that it is only through faith in Christ alone that we are saved. John repeatedly cites events that support this claim, often using words such as “witness” and “testimony.” He identifies many who can corroborate the acts of Jesus: Andrew, Philip, Nathaniel, Thomas, and Nicodemus to name a few. John’s gospel also provides details on Jesus’s arrest, trials before Pilate and Caiaphas, the scourging, His crucifixion and resurrection, and accounts of those who saw the risen Jesus before His ascension.
A Detailed Exposition
The first eighteen verses are sometimes referred to as the prologue—a somewhat misleading designation in that it tends to suggest the material covered in these verses is more introductory than substantive. John’s presentation of the Logos in the opening paragraph serves as an historical and theological summary of the entire book. He tells of Jesus’s preexistence (prior to creation), His work in Creation, His incarnation, and His rejection by the world. John teaches of Jesus’s gift of eternal life to all who will receive Him. The Gospel of John is a sound and critical foundation on which to begin building our relationship with Jesus. The prologue is a poetic overture that combines the major theological principles that form the foundation of the entire Gospel.
In The Beginning
John begins with a majestic announcement regarding the very essence of Jesus Christ: “In the beginning was the Word.” Jesus was, is, and forever will be the Word—existing before time itself. The Word was not a created being. Rather, the Word is God and was with God at the moment of Creation. Heraclitus of Ephesus mentions “the Word” in his secular writings. He lived near Miletus, the birthplace of philosophy, and is best known for his belief that things are constantly changing (universal flux), that opposites coincide (unity of opposites), and that fire is the basic material of the world. He stated that God was always present: “Having harkened not to me but to the Word (logos) it is wise to agree that all things are one. Greek philosophers specifically believed that logos was the principle of reason or order in the world” [emphasis added]. This dovetails quite nicely with the doctrinal principle that Jesus was the Logos, co-creator with God the Father, and that He sustains (orders) all things.
John states that it was through the Word that all things were made. Remember, Genesis 1 tells us “God said” and it came to be. Words were spoken. Jesus (the Word) was the active agent in Creation. Paul writes in Colossians 1:15-17 that Jesus is is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; that in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, adding, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (RSV). Hebrews 1:2 reminds us that through Jesus God created the whole world. Life (zôê) is one of John’s favorite words. Zôê refers often to the supernatural life that comes from God, and which Christians share through faith in Jesus Christ. John says God (in His relationship with believers) is both the “bread of life” (6:35) and the “light of life” (8:12). John wants us to see Jesus as the light of men.
The True Light
It is important that we see Jesus as the light of men. It enables us to see God at work in the world. God gives “light” in the sense that He has endowed mankind with reason, intelligence, and the ability to discern between right and wrong. But the coming of the true Light has a far more important purpose. This light is given that we might comprehend the difference between life in the flesh and life in the Spirit. Had Jesus not come, bringing light to all, the human race would still be wandering the earth in spiritual darkness, cut off from fellowship from the Father following the expulsion of our first parents from the Garden of Eden. Some biblical scholars believe the primary meaning of “bring to light” includes illuminating man’s true nature outside of Christ.
John 1:14 says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (RSV). This a remarkable assertion of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. I would not be surprised if this is the point where most secular philosophers of the First Century took exception. Although these learned men believed in logos as a representation of eternal Reason, a claim that this eternal concept became flesh would give them much pause. By declaring that “the Word became flesh,” John answered the Docetics who, while acknowledging that Jesus was divine, could not bring themselves to accept the fact that He was also fully human. They would claim that Jesus only appeared to be a real man.
There is a critical explanation in John 1:18—”No one has ever seen God.” Jesus made Him known. The Old Testament states that God appeared to man at various times, but such appearances were always partial and incidental. God said to Moses in Exodus 33:20, “No one may see Me and live.”) While no one has seen God Himself, John tells us that Jesus is “at the Father’s side.” Some scholars see this verse as “close to the Father’s heart” or “in the intimate presence of the Father.” This is precisely why Jesus could say that when the disciples saw Him they saw the Father. Jesus was a living interpretation of the Father—the means by which the heart and the will of Father was made known.
The second chapter of John’s gospel brings us to a wedding in Cana of Galilee where Jesus turns water into wine. This act has become a bone of contention among many atheists, scoffers, and doubters. They see it as a cheap parlor trick. This miracle is provided to set forth a sign—Jesus performed a wondrous deed that points beyond itself to reveal some aspect of the person of Jesus and to evoke faith on the part of those to whom it is given. The Greek word sêmeion (“sign”) indicates that the miracle at Cana showed Jesus’s “self-manifestation.” Hillsong Worship performs a song called “New Wine.” I believe some of the lyrics provide an insight regarding Jesus’s miracle at the wedding. Lyrics include, “In the Crushing, In the Pressing, You are Making New Wine… Make Me Your Vessel, Make Me an Offering, Make Me Whatever You Want Me to Be… Cause Were There is New Wine, There is Power.”
John retells the day when Jesus cleansed the temple. Arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus went to the temple courts. The Greek word hieron used by John refers to the entire temple area with its buildings and courts. This is where He found men selling animals for sacrifice (undoubtedly at a profit) and exchanging foreign money so visitors could pay the temple tax. This seems to be a type of forced tithe. In comparison, when the pastor at my church announces the collection of offerings and tithes, he says, “If you are visiting with us today for the first or second time, this is not for you. We just want you to enjoy your visit with us today.” Tradition during the First Century, however, was that, for any Gentile who came up to the temple to worship, prayer had to be offered in the middle of a cattle yard and money market. This entailed purchasing an animal to be sacrificed. Jesus was appalled by the commotion connected with the marketing of these animals and the changing of currency in His Father’s house. Accordingly, he chased the men and their animals from the temple and set their birds free.
The New Birth and Living Water
In the third chapter we are introduced to a Jewish Rabbi called Nicodemus. This Rabbi was among many who were attracted by Jesus’s miracles but not openly committed to following Him. The religious leaders saw Jesus as a heretic rather than the central figure of Christianity. Nicodemus was likely an honest seeker who wanted to know more about Jesus. He could have chosen to see Jesus at night because he didn’t want other rabbis to see him talking to this so-called heretic, or perhaps he wanted to meet with Jesus away from the pressing crowds in order to have His undivided attention.
Nicodemus addressed Jesus with the honorable title “Rabbi.” Regardless of his personal doubts about the ministry of Jesus, Nicodemus chose to be respectful. He correctly saw Jesus as a teacher sent by God. He intended to ask Jesus how he could inherit eternal life, but Jesus broached the subject first. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:5, RSV). Nicodemus was confused. This did not make sense. How could a man return to his mother’s womb and be born anew? Jesus explained, saying that which is born of flesh is flesh, but that which is born of Spirit is spirit. He told Nicodemus that man must be lifted up to the Father as the Son is lifted up. He told Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (v. 16). Jesus wanted Nicodemus to understand that the heart of the Gospel was not a philosophical observation about God’s character, but a declaration of redemptive love in action.
John sets forth further insight regarding eternal life in chapter four. When Jesus arrived at Sychar (possibly at ancient Shechem or the village of Askar), He stopped at a well where He met a Samaritan woman who was drawing water. Jesus asked the woman for a drink from her container. She was shocked that He would drink from her vessel because Jews were not to associate with Samaritans. They were considered to be “unclean.” Ignoring the woman’s comment about custom, Jesus said that if she knew who He was she’d have asked for “living water.” He spoke of “streams of living water” that will flow from within the believer, which we also know is the Holy Spirit we receive when we accept Jesus as the Christ.
Jesus’s Healing Ministry and Other Miracles
Jesus encountered a royal official in Capernaum whose son lay sick. When this man learned that Jesus had come to town he went and begged Jesus to come heal his son who was at the point of death. Jesus challenged the man, saying, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe” (4:46). The man insisted that unless Jesus came to his home right away his son would die. Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live” (v. 50). The man believed the words of Jesus and headed home. Amazingly, the man professed his believe (v. 51) to his servants before he saw evidence that his son was well. As a result of his faith, his son was healed.
John recalls Jesus’s healing of a paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda (5:1-18). Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead at Bethany where Mary and her sister Martha lived (11:1-44). Mary is the same woman who anointed Jesus’s feet with perfume. Admittedly, this is an incomplete listing of the healing and miracles of Jesus.
The account of Jesus feeding the five thousand (6:1-15) has been deemed as a “miracle” that took place in people’s hearts. They overcame basic human need and selfishness, choosing instead to share what they had. This meal is also considered by some New Testament scholars to be sacramental in nature. Each person received a fragment of the bread and fishes. It constitutes a miracle—something wonderful that actually happened. Those who are uneasy to accept this event as a genuine miracle are likely an example of the natural mind denying God as Creator’ One who has absolute authority to act within His own creation as He chooses.
Some time after the feeding of the five thousand the disciples set out for Capernaum by boat (6:16, 21). The trip was said to be about five miles. The crossing was extremely difficult. The Sea of Galilee lies approximately six hundred feet below sea level. Cool air often flowed over the Sea, displacing warm moist air hovering over the water. Violent weather conditions occurred rather quickly. The original Greek for the phrase “started across the sea” (6:17, RSV) is êrchonto, and is translated “they were trying to cross the lake” [emphasis added]. Jesus appeared on the water “during the fourth watch of the night” (Mark 6:48), which is between the hours of 3:00 and 6:00 a.m. The disciples had been attempting to sail the rough seas for at least nine hours. They had rowed three or four miles when they saw Jesus walking toward the boat on the surface of the raging sea. His appearance frightened them—they did not recognize Him immediately and perhaps thought He was a ghost. Jesus said, “It is I; do not be afraid” (John 6:20, RSV). Scripture tells us that immediately after Jesus declared His identity the boat reached its destination without further incident.
We’re told in John 21:25, “But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (RSV).
Jesus Claims Divine Authority
Jesus said in John 5:19, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever he does, that the Son does likewise” (RSV). He added, “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will” (verse 21). Jesus said He only did what He saw the Father doing. This does not mean that He merely imitated the Father. Rather, it shows the continuous relationship that exists between the Father and the Son. Jewish leaders believed the prerogative to raise someone from the dead belonged solely with God, and they did not see Jesus as God. Jesus claimed that the Son makes anyone live whom He chooses. This was not arbitrary, but is consistent with what we read throughout the New Testament (see Romans 9:18). Jesus later commissioned the disciples, and indeed all believers, to go forth and do these same things in the Name of Jesus.
Jesus said the Father had given to Him the authority to execute judgment. He adds, “And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness to me. His voice you have never heard, His form you have never seen” (v. 37, RSV). God turned judgment over to the Son because through His incarnation Jesus learned what it means to be human, faced with temptation. In addition, He had been given the authority to judge because He is God’s Anointed One. Jesus noted in verses 28 and 29 that the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear His voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.
Opposition in Jerusalem
It is clear from Scripture (7:1-52) that Jesus was aware the Jews wanted to take His life. We read in chapter five that the Jewish leaders held an intense hostility toward Jesus, and were eager to kill Him. Their indignation stemmed from Jesus’s claim that God was His Father, thereby equating Himself with God (5:18). The disciples thought that if Jesus wanted to carry out a public ministry He should go to the capital city and make Himself known (7:3-5). In response, Jesus said His time had not yet come. The word “time” in this verse is from the Greek word kainos, meaning “a right or favorable time.” It was not necessarily a moment in time from a chronological standpoint.
The Feast of Tabernacles began in Jerusalem (7:1). As crowds gathered, there was an undercurrent of discussion about Jesus. Some called Him “a good man,” and remarked that they believed His teachings were positive and helpful. Others claimed Jesus was a heretic who was deceiving the people and leading them away. Gonzalez (2010) said that Christianity was not deemed a new religion in the early days, but a heretical sect within Judaism. After the crucifixion of Jesus, many Jews believed Christianity was a heresy that was spreading from town to town, tempting “good Jews to become heretics” (p. 42). Sentiment among the Jewish population was that Christians might once more bring the wrath of God upon Israel. This attitude had really root during the latter part of Jesus’s ministry and played a part in His trial and execution.
Jesus waited until the Feast was well underway before He went into Jerusalem (7:14). It is possible He waited several days until the initial excitement of the Feast had subsided so His followers would not be as likely to put on a ceremonial demonstration. Such display would have been met with serious consequences, and it was not yet time for Jesus to be taken and tried. In any event, the crowds at the Feast marveled at the knowledge Jesus had concerning Scripture, especially because He had not received formal teaching. He publicly stated that His teaching came from God, adding that anyone who speaks on their own authority does so for their personal benefit. Of course these words came as a stinging rebuke to the Pharisees and high priest. Jesus reminded the crowd that even Moses did not speak for himself, but was a representative of God the Father.
We see in verses 21 through 24 that Jesus continued to speak out against the established “religion” of the day. He saw the Pharisees as hypocrites. John reminds us that the Jewish leaders were outraged when Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, telling him to pick up his mat and walk (5:8). However, these same religious leaders were known to break the Law when it suited them. For example, they performed circumcisions on the eighth day after the birth of the child (the age at which the procedure must be done) even if it fell on the Sabbath. Because the law regarding circumcision was given to the Jews as part of the Abrahamic Covenant, the church leaders thought circumcision took precedence over the regulation regarding “work” on the Sabbath.
It was on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles that Jesus boldly announced, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water” (7:37-38). This remark about the thirsty recounts Isaiah’s ancient summons: “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost… Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David” (Isaiah 55:1,3, NIV)). Jesus’s claim that He could supply those who were spiritually thirsty with streams of living water. This made quite an impression on the crowd gathered at the temple. When some in the crowd said Jesus must be a prophet, someone said, “‘This is the Christ.’ Still others were saying, ‘Surely the Christ is not going to come from Galilee, is He?'” (7:41). It was believed that nothing good could come from Galilee (see John 1:46).
Jesus Offends the Religious Leaders
When Jesus spoke again to the people, He said, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (8:12, RSV). This remark was made before a group of religious leaders. John 8:3 notes that the Pharisees brought before Jesus a woman accused of adultery. The NIV footnote indicates “the people” is an arbitrary interpretation of the Greek word autois, or “them.” The RSV translates autois “them,” referring to the Pharisees present when the woman was brought forth.
The Old Testament contains many examples of “light” as a metaphor for spiritual illumination and life. Psalm 27:1 says, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (RSV). Darkness was often thought to represent ignorance and death. Jesus essentially told the Pharisees, “I have come to be the light of the world.” The religious leaders decided that they must discredit the godly claims of Jesus. One of them said, “You are bearing witness to yourself; your testimony is not true” (John 8:13, RSV). In other words, they said Jesus’s claims were nothing but his opinion. Perhaps they were been concerned that Jesus might be right—stating a theological truth—but they believed He could not possibly prove it. This might be why Herod and the religious leaders taunted Christ: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself” (Luke 23:37, RSV).
When Jesus said, “I bear witness to myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness to me” (8:19), the Pharisees began to use ridicule to discredit Jesus. One of them sarcastically asked, “‘Where is your Father?'” Jesus answered, ‘You know neither me nor my Father; if you knew me, you would know my Father also'” (v. 20). In essence, they told Jesus, You’re living in a fantasy world. They did not understand that Jesus spoke to them of the Father (v. 27). Jesus further riled the Pharisees when He claimed to be the One who will set men free from the wages of sin (v. 31). He tells the crowd, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I proceeded and came forth from God; I came not of my own accord, but he sent me (v. 42). To know God as Father is to love the Son who was sent by Him. The religious leaders could not allow Jesus to stand before the temple courts and declare His divinity, so they challenged His pedigree. They said, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (v. 48).
The Pharisees thought it was incredulous that Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (10:10-11) [emphasis added]. He was basically stating that His entire life was sacrificial. Jesus was saying He was “the perfect sacrificial lamb.” This caused great division among the Jews, both the religious leaders and the crowds.
Jesus encountered His Jewish adversaries at the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem. The crowd asked, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly” (10:24). In response, Jesus said the works He does are done in the Father’s name, and they bear witness to Him [Jesus]. He told the crowd they do not believe Him because they are not His sheep. He said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand” (v. 27-28). Certainly, this enraged a number of Jews, especially the Pharisees. Jesus boldly remarked, “and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand” (v. 30). The crowd took up stones to stone Him. He went away again across the Jordan to the place where John at first baptized, and there he remained for some time.
Please join me in the next day or two for the second half of this crucial topic;
Gonzalez, J. (2010). The Story of Christianity Vol. 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. New York, NY: Harper Collins.