The Gospel of John has long been my favorite of the four Gospels. Jesus has always been more attractive to me here, and he always felt more accessible to me here. Why? I don’t know. Something about the evangelist writing style, and depth speaks to me in way that the others do not.
In the past few weeks I have begun to study the John in a more formal fashion, and I have really enjoyed plunging myself into the depths of who Jesus is and how he is presented to us in this Gospel. So I plan on sharing a little bit of what I am learning and what I am awestruck with as I read this gospel.
Before we dive in and study the text in detail it is important to understand who the author is, who he wrote it to, and why he wrote the Gospel. We can not truly begin to understand the text until we understand these items. If we think John is simply trying to record some historical facts we will miss quite a lot. However if we see John’s true purpose a fuller, richer, and deeper picture of Jesus comes into view.
Who wrote it?
Okay so I am guessing you never really wondered who wrote the Gospel of John. It seems self-evident right? But maybe you are like me and wondered why we believe it was John the apostle? Well there is internal evidence, evidence in the book itself, and external evidence that presents a pretty strong case that the Apostle John wrote the book.
Unlike modern books we don’t get an introduction from the writer, nor do we get a nice picture on the dust jacket. However, the writer of this Gospel has given us more clues than other writers as to his identity.
John 21:24 identifies the writer as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, and earlier in the chapter tells us that he was one of the seven disciples who went with Peter to go fishing at the Sea of Tiberius. (Peter, Nathanael, Thomas the twin, the sons of Zebedee or James and John, and two other nameless disciples.) We can remove Peter as that disciple since Peter and “the disciple whom Jesus loved” interact with one another (Peter isn’t having conversation with himself). We can remove Thomas and Nathanael because it seems unlikely that the writer would give his name at one point and then write about himself cryptically again. It also seems unlikely that he is one of the “two other disciples” since he was “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” So he is most likely one of the sons of Zebedee.
The question then becomes whether it was James or John. James is widely believed to be the first disciple to be martyred. The writer of this book was alive to have seen Peter’s death. He was also old enough that rumors began to circulate that he would live until Jesus came back. These two items would rule out James, leaving us with John the son of Zebedee.
It is almost the unanimous voice of the early church that this was written by the Apostle John. We have two early sources that emphatically attribute the Gospel to John. The best being Irenaeus, who was bishop of what is now Lyon, France. He was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of John himself. He tells us that John wrote his Gospel while in Ephesus.
The Author expects you to pick up on subtle Old Testament references, and Jewish customs. When you do the book explodes with meaning and implication. Jesus conversations often make more sense, and point more to the reality of who he is when viewed through an Old Testament lens, and specifically through the lens of the prophets expectations of what happens in the messianic age. Given this expectation of the readers familiarity with the Old Testament, It is likely he had Jews as his target audience. Also given that he explained certain Aramaic terms, and where things were in Palestine, he most likely had Diaspora Jews specifically in mind.
John himself tells us his purpose. He wrote it to engender faith so that we may be saved. In John 20:30-31 he writes, “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.” In particular it seems John was seeking to evangelize Diaspora Jews, and convince them that Jesus was the promised Messiah.
Now that we know who the Author is, who his audience is likely to be, and his purpose we can begin our study of Jesus in the Gospel of John.