John is the most distinctive of the four Gospels because of its unique perspective. He paints a portrait of Jesus designed to illustrate conclusively that this Bethlehem-born Jew, raised in a modest home by working-class parents was, indeed, the long-expected Messiah. His perspective is described in vv. 30-31 in chapter 20. More concisely the view of this grand Gospel can be summed up in a single word—Christology. What this means is that John’s whole purpose was to set about to proclaim who Jesus is Messianicly. And in order to do this, he set forth the meaning of Jesus in ways and in power unparalleled in the other Gospels. Some of the ways that John’s Gospel is distinct from the Synoptics include:
What it omits. There is no mention of:
Distinctive in what the Gospel adds:
In Mark, for example, it does not occur until chapter 8 with Peter’s confession.
A thorough review of the Gospel reveals the absence of several of the Great Themes that appear in the Synoptics. At least three of these themes include:
The major question is “why”? Why are these characteristics unique to or absent from the Gospel of John? The most plausible answer to that question is that John wished to provide a different portrait of Jesus, a more spiritual interpretation of His life. Whereas the Synoptics took a more human view of Jesus, John wished to emphasize his divinity. In order to achieve this mission, he tended to heighten the supernatural aspects of Jesus, such as His omniscience and His power.
John preserves a valuable body of traditional sayings, parables, and dialogues which were drawn from the same general reservoir as those of the Synoptic Gospels. So it is likely that John is using authentic material found elsewhere and has drawn out its spiritual and Messianic meaning for the Christian faith. This approach is what gives the Gospel its distinctive value. John is not interested in setting forth a chronology of the life of Jesus. He chooses his material and places it where he does in order to set forth plainly who Jesus is and the difference he makes. John is not governed by chronology but by meaning.
The author states his specific reason for writing this Gospel in 20:30-31, “These are written,” he says, “so that you may believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.” One cannot fully understand the perspective of John without a complete grasp of these verses. He implements this purpose within a Hebrew framework, i. e., by employing the Greek χριστὸς (christos) which is derived from χρίω (chriō), to anoint. This term occurs thirteen times in the Gospel, more than any of the individual Synoptics. From the beginning, John did not intend to write a biography or a chronological accounting of Christ; he selected certain events of Jesus’s ministry that would identify Jesus as the Christ. Then he arranged them into episodes in such a way that the final result is a drama, in epic proportion, of the Word becoming flesh (1:14).
In a genuine sense, the Gospel of John is a classic study in Christology from beginning to end. It is a convincing argument, based on personal experience, in favor of the Messiahship of Jesus. Dr. A. T. Robertson wrote, “John gives us his deliberative, mature, tested view of Jesus Christ as shown to him while alive and as proven since his resurrection.” Alfred Plummer wrote, ““It was not John’s purpose to write a complete ‘Life of Christ;’ it was not his purpose to write a ‘Life’ at all. Rather he would narrate just those facts respecting Jesus which would produce a saving faith as the Messiah and Son of God.” Since the author is concerned to set forth the meaning of Jesus to eyes of faith, he does not find it necessary to include as many details or as many episodes as do the Synoptics. John is interested not so much in the God who sent Jesus as he is in the Jesus whom God sent. The tenor of his objective permeates the words of 20:30-31.
A consensus of scholars attributes this gospel to John, the Beloved disciple. Evidence from the church Fathers of such authorship is quite convincing. Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons, in his Against Heresies, affirms that John wrote this Gospel while in Ephesus in Asia. Irenaeus had heard the stories from Polycarp, a contemporary of John who had heard these accounts personally from John. Tertullian, in Against Marcion, wrote that John was the author, and Clement of Alexandria, basically took the Johannine authorship for granted. Eusebius wrote in his History of the Church that “John wrote a spiritual gospel.”
A renowned professor of mine, with whom I both studied and for whom I taught Greek and New Testament as a graduate assistant, Dr. Edward A. McDowell, based his conclusion on the authorship of the Gospel upon the tradition of these church Fathers. He held that John, the son of Zebedee, also known as the Beloved disciple, and the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” may perhaps not have personally authored the Gospel. Rather he may have shared with a younger man his reminiscences of Jesus and collaborated on the Gospel, especially as to what would be its purpose and format.
In three passages of the Gospel, the author testifies to the fact that he was a witness to the life about which he writes. In 1:14 he asserts the authority of an eyewitness; 19:35 supports that declaration just as strongly; and at 21:24 he declares that his words are first-hand, not hearsay.
The author of this Gospel was likely a Palestinian Jew by birth and was familiar with the Law and the observances of the faith. Plummer writes, “The form of the gospel, especially the style of the narrative, is essentially Jewish. The language is Greek, but the arrangement of the thoughts, the structure of the sentences, and a great deal of the vocabulary are Hebrew.” The writer's familiarity with the geography of the region also supports an authorship by a Palestinian Jew. Examples of his awareness of the territory can be found in 1:28, 11:18, 11:54, and 21:2.
The author, or his collaborator, was at least an eyewitness of the events about which he wrote historically. He was well acquainted with Palestine, and so it is not difficult to assume that John the Apostle, who was both a disciple of Jesus and a Palestinian Jew, was most likely the author or co-author (collaborator) of the Gospel which bears his name.
Modern archeological finds such as the John Rylands Fragment provide evidence of a fairly early date. The Rylands Fragment 457 contains a small portion of the Gospel of John in Greek and has been dated about 135 ad meaning that the Gospel was actually in circulation in codex or book form in Egypt as early as 125 ad. With the early development of the Jewish ideas found in these archeological fragments likely having taken place during the first century and their inclusion in the Gospel of John supports an early date.
Another scholarly position on the date is that the Gospel was written late in the life of John, perhaps 85-90 ad. Such a theory is based upon the belief that the author gives a “reflective account” of the ministry of Jesus and seems to look back on those experiences with Jesus after a long lapse of time. The Gospeler creates becomes a kind of picture album of the life of Christ as an expression of His Messiahship demonstrated through “signs.”
The Dead Sea Scrolls also contribute to the dating of the Gospel. They contain descriptions of a type of Hellenistic Judaism that existed in the early first century. These writings provide evidence of the development of Greek thought in Judaism sufficiently early to have allowed the writer of the Gospel to be familiar with it. The date of authorship likely occurred in the decade of 70-80 ad, written with the aid of a collaborator from Ephesus, the home of the Apostle John.
The elders and disciples of the churches in Asia may have requested that John write the account of Jesus and his ministry which he had preached many times. After the destruction of Jerusalem, Christianity needed a new interpretation of the message of Christ. Pagan-Christian philosophy, namely Gnosticism, was quickly infiltrating the early church. This heresy demanded a clear, authoritative statement of Christianity which presented Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God.
While it is my supposition that John was familiar with the writings of the Synoptics, nevertheless, he produced an independent account of the life of Christ. An example can be found in the comparison of John 1:19f with Mark 19:17f that reveals two contradictory versions of the identification of Elijah. A reading of John 6:5f indicates that Jesus precipitated the feeding of the five thousand, a fact which Matthew and Mark corroborate but Luke describes as having been initiated by the disciples. No detailed account of the Last Supper appears in the Gospel of John (13:1f). While he mentions that a “supper” occurred, John’s version is short on details simply because he wishes rather to emphasize the washing of the disciples’ feet. In John, this event occurs just before Passover, and if the Synoptics are correct, then John actually moved the crucifixion up by 24 hours. Numerous other examples could be given, but these are sufficient to support the independent nature of the writing.
There appears also to have been an Ephesian tradition associated with this Gospel. By a reading of the Epistle to the Ephesians there seems to exist a body of teaching provided to the Ephesian church by an eyewitness. Some scholars postulate that the eyewitness might have been John the Beloved, natural to conclude since John was a native of Ephesus and had preached there often.
Two well-defined strands of tradition developed at Ephesus. One was the distinct teachings of Paul, especially those respecting the wisdom of God and the spirit. The second tradition was Paul’s interpretation of Christ. Paul considered Christ to be the ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ (ho huios tou theou), the “son of God,” the one who is pre-existent with God. The Fourth Gospel acknowledges these two strands of tradition and interprets Jesus Christ on the basis of them. The author, as an interpreter, expressed his authority by using the sources available to fit his individual purpose.
What may we then conclude so that a proper direction and acceptable interpretation may be reached? First, it is critical that one accepts the emphasis upon the human Jesus. He was the “divine-man,” as much human as he was divine, as much divine as he was human. Second, accept the validity of the claims that the Gospel is the testimony of an eyewitness. By acceding to this claim, speculation and digression are avoided.
Third, recognize and acknowledge that the writer of this Gospel was a poet, a dramatist and a theologian. By doing so, the heightening of the supernatural colors in Jesus is allowed. Although John acknowledged the historical Jesus, he was more focused the heavenly Christ of Paul with the man Jesus.
Fourth, accept the irrelevancy of the historical and non-historical properties of the events. John did not involve history for the sake of history or to prove a point. His was an interpretation of history and the facts of a particular event only provided him with a framework within which to tender his interpretation.
Which was written first, the Gospel or the Epistles? Any conclusion is speculation, however, because the content of this Gospel was transmitted through an oral tradition before it was written, it is possible that the Epistles were actually penned before the physical writing of this Gospel. It is likely safe to conclude that both the Gospel and the Epistles were written within just a few years of each other.
While a study of both the Gospel and the Epistles reveals minor similarities and differences, the major difference is their perspectives. The purpose of the Gospel was to “create a conviction” that the human Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. The Epistles, rather, declare that the Messiah is Jesus. Plummer describes the difference by writing, “The Gospel starts from the historical human teacher and proves that he is divine; the Epistle starts from the Son of God and contends that he has come in the flesh.” Since the Epistles were probably written by the same person, alike yet different is one’s best conclusion.
John begins his Gospel with a brief passage which marks it off from the other gospels. This prologue is the foundation upon which the remainder of the Gospel is written. In fact, the story of Jesus, which formally begins in 1:19, is based upon the understanding of Jesus that is contained in the prologue. It sets forth major theological emphases which unfold in the interpretation of Jesus. This interpretation continues from verse 19 to the end of the book.
The great affirmation of the prologue is that ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ (ho logos tou theou), the “Word of God,” that is, God’s personal, creative and redeeming activity entered history to live a genuine historical life in the man Jesus. The prologue is written solely to introduce the logos. For the first five verses John deals with the logos in eternity. In verses 6-18 he describes the logos in history.
The term “logos” (logos), translated “word,” calls for special attention. It has been found among the Stoics as “rational principle” in the Hermetica, as divine power and the medium of salvation in Hellenistic religions and in Philo as the divine instrument by which the knowledge of God is revealed.
To Philo the logos was not a personality, but it was not impersonal either. In fact, Philo’s idea, which may have been derived from Plato, considered the logos to be the image of God from which man was created. However, Philo’s logos falls short of that of John because Philo never considered the logos to be a person. Philo’s idea of God precluded the possibility that he could become flesh.
Judaism, by John’s time, had come to the conclusion that logos referred to God’s self-expression in word and deed. The Jews understood Word or logos in terms of Wisdom and Law. John’s sense of logos went beyond any contemporary ideas because he looked upon the Word as God’s personal and creative activity manifested supremely when the Word became flesh.
Therefore, whether the reader of the Gospel were a Gentile familiar with the philosophies of the Greco-Roman world or a Jew conversant with wisdom, the Law and the Prophets, that reader would have been attracted by this term. You see, a Greek considered the logos as some impersonal, rational reality. A Jew considered the logos as God’s self-expression. John considered the logos as God’s personal creative activity, incarnate in a human life (1:14). Because of John’s use of this term, it is likely that he meant to present the claims of Jesus as fulfillment of both Jewish and Gentile hopes. And the use of this term would attract both.
John’s employment of the term is religious, not philosophical. He speaks only of the Word in reference to creation. Paul used it in reference to redemption in Colossians 1:13-20 and the writer of Hebrews used it in that same context in 1:1-4. But John focused on its theological significance.
In verse one of the Prologue, John offers three qualities of the logos.
Verses 6-13 describe the work of the “Announcer,” the “Forerunner.” Not one to draw attention to himself, John’s responsibility was to announce the arrival of the Messiah. Portraying the Messiah as “the Light,” the Announcer proclaimed first that he was not the Light, only the one bearing witness to the Light, thus avoiding the adulation of the multitudes.
In verse 11 John explained the tragic nature of Jesus’ coming. His advent was acknowledged neither by humankind in general nor by his people, the Jews. The words translated “own” are written in two different forms, the first a feminine, the second a masculine form. The first “own” connotes that the true Light came to his “own” humankind; the second “own” refers to His “own” people, the Jews, who rejected him. John emphasizes this fact here even as Paul struggled with the same rejection in Romans 9-11. Nevertheless, those who did receive and acknowledge Him, to them, by grace, He offered kinship as sons of God.
Verse 14 is John’s record of the Christmas story summed up in the most poignant yet profound declaration to be found in the entire Scriptures. The word translated here as “dwelt” is the Greek ἐσκήνωσεν (eskēnōsen) meaning “pitch a tent” or “tabernacle.” It is a reference to the shekinah of the Old Testament where God “dwelt” among his people in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. It can also mean “presence” and refer to the dwelling presence of God in Jesus. The profundity of its meaning is often lost, but it really denotes that God the Father saw fit to send Himself in fleshly form to experience life even as you and I experience life. John is stating in simple terms that the “logos was an act of Divine love.” But most important of all, it is the incarnation of Christ that becomes the meeting place of God and man.
John’s perspective of the logos was as an eyewitness. So not only did he identify Jesus as the logos, but he also witnessed Him as the glory of the Father. He employs doxa (doxa), “glory,” to point to the source of his Divine nature. He is the “glory of God.” While the “glory of God” can possess multiple meanings in the New Testament, John utilizes the term to refer to the self-revelation of God. He acknowledged that he had witnessed the “glory of God” in both the human form and ministry of Jesus. The “glory” about which he writes is a confession of faith in God’s fundamental being and revealed character.
Because he has witnessed the revealed “glory of God,” he can write with certainty that Jesus is the long-sought Messiah and the fulfillment of Jewish law. He acknowledges that fulfillment in verse 17.
What, then, can we conclude about the prologue?
The wisdom of John’s assertion in these first eighteen verses lies firmly and profoundly in the Incarnation. Hoskyns wrote: “Jesus has taken the place of the Temple, and His Sonship is ... greater than the Temple. Jesus gives men more than the Temple or the Jewish people ever had given, and His disciples take the place of the Jews. In the perspective of the gospel the abiding of the Word of God in flesh merges in the abiding of the Son of God in all those who believe in Him.” So now the dwelling of Jesus on this earth abides in us who believe that He is the Son of God and whose Spirit dwells within us eternally.