I was especially helped by D.A. Carson’s “The Gospel According to John” (Pillar) and Edward Klink’s “Exegetical Commentary on the NT,” vol. 4, John (Zondervan) in preparing this introductory sermon. Although I only quote them once, their fingerprints are all over this sermon.
In grad school, before you can write your final thesis or dissertation, you have to turn in a prospectus and have it approved. A prospectus typically includes your paper’s rationale, a brief survey of relevant scholarship, the basic game plan for your paper, and a comprehensive bibliography. While a thesis or dissertation can be hundreds of pages, a prospectus is usually pretty short—just a few pages. What really caught me off guard when it came time to write mine was how much work needed to be done in advance. For the most part, you have to gather all the books, do all the reading, form your arguments, determine your structure, and even have a tentative conclusion. Basically, you have to do all of the work except the actual writing. For someone like me, who wasn’t really expecting that, it’s a pretty overwhelming starting point.
As I’ve mentioned to a few of you, beginning to preach through a new book of the Bible is a lot like that. It takes a lot of work to get your head (and heart) around the whole, so you’re in a good place to preach the parts. I’ve spent the past two weeks doing just that. This week’s sermon is a prospectus of sorts. Having read and listened to John many times, having read hundreds of pages in commentaries, and having prayed a great deal for myself and all of us, I’m eager to share with you all the background of John, its relationship to the other gospels, its basic structure, its distinctiveness, and John’s aim in writing it. And all of that is meant to serve as guiding lights as we work our way through John in the coming months. Thanks for loving God and valuing His Word enough to free me up to share all of this with you.
Let’s pray and then we’ll dive in.
The title given of the book I’ll be preaching on for the foreseeable future was given to it all the way back at the beginning of the second century: The Gospel According to John.
Gospel (with a capital “G”) is a specific title given to the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life found at the beginning of the NT. One commentator notes that it indicates the book’s “message, its subject matter, and even its purpose—to ‘evangelize’ or ‘announce good news’” (Klink, ECNT, 43). The Gospel according to John, therefore, tells the story of Jesus Christ and the good news it is for the world. In that sense, it is profoundly historical and theological. What a gift!
On a deeper level still, John’s Gospel, wherever it describes the nature, teaching, and works of Jesus, is in its truest sense, an autobiography. Since God is the ultimate author of all Scripture, every passage that speaks directly about God is autobiography, and the Gospels are in many ways the purest version of that. What a remarkable realization that is for us to make. How much more carefully and eagerly and humbly will we read and listen if we can keep this in mind—it is ultimately God’s telling and interpreting the story of God? What a gift!
With all of that, it is good to get our heads around the human author of this Gospel. Given the title, it might seem like an obvious answer: John! But even that needs some explanation as there were a number of Johns in the NT. I’ll save you countless pages of reading and cut straight to the chase. Both by the internal evidence in the Gospel itself, and by every noteworthy account, it seems that the Gospel According to John was written by the Apostle John, the author of 1, 2, and 3 John, and Revelation, the brother of James (not the same James who wrote James), the son of Zebedee, and the “beloved disciple” described in John 21:24-25, “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true. 25 Now there are also many other things that 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.”
We’ll consider the internal evidence for John’s authorship more as we work through the Gospel. Regarding the accounts of John’s authorship, it goes about as far back as possible. One of the church fathers named Irenaeus knew well another, earlier Church Father named Polycarp, and Polycarp knew the apostle John and wrote of his authorship of the Gospel.
That John the Apostle wrote this Gospel is important because it means that it was written by one of Jesus closest disciples. John (along with Peter and James) certainly had a front row seat to the most significant events of Jesus’ ministry. There is, perhaps, no greater witness to call on concerning the nature, character, teaching, actions, and implications of Jesus, than John. What we have here, therefore, is (once again) truly a gift.
It is also helpful, as you’ll see as we move through John, to have a decent sense of when this gospel was written. While there is some debate as to the date, most scholars who hold to inerrancy believe that John’s Gospel was written somewhere between 80-95AD; after the martyrdom of Peter and the destruction of the Temple.
Finally, in the way of background, it’ll help us to best make sense of what we have in John if we know who he had in mind when he wrote his Gospel. Without getting too far ahead of myself, from John’s stated purpose (in chapter 20), as well as the focus, language, and perspective within the Gospel, it seems clear that John primarily had a skeptical (skeptical of Jesus) Jewish audience in mind. This too, we’ll look more closely at as we move through the John.
JOHN AND THE SYNOPTICS
As you all know, there are four Gospels. Three of them—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—are very similar. They follow a common chronology and have most of their stories in common. For that reason, we refer to them as the “Synoptic” Gospels (synoptic means “able to be seen together”). The fourth Gospel, John, is different. Even a casual reader will almost immediately notice a dramatically different style and structure in John than the others.
The more I read over the past two weeks on the background of John, the more I became convinced that it’s good to say a few words on the relationship between John’s gospel and the other three. Sifting through it all, there are four things that rise to the top.
First, there are significant differences, and even apparent contradictions between events in John and that of the other three. There are no story parables in John, while they are staples in the Synoptics. John is also missing any account of the transfiguration, any account of an exorcism, and even of the institution of the Lord’s Supper.
What’s more, in John’s Gospel, John the Baptist denies being Elijah while Jesus teaches that he is in Mark. In John the disciples almost immediately call on Jesus as Messiah in John, while it isn’t until much later in the other Gospels. In John, Jesus cleanses the Temple right at the beginning, while that isn’t recorded in the Synoptics until the very end of Jesus’ ministry. There are three Passovers mentioned in John and only one in the Synoptics. Even the time of Jesus crucifixion seems to be different in John from the rest. The simple point I’m trying to make here is that it is good to pay attention to these things as we move through John (for reasons I’ll explain in the fourth point).
The second thing to note concerning John’s relationship to the rest of the Gospels is that John provides remarkably helpful details that explain parts of the other Gospels that we wouldn’t otherwise understand. For instance, John reports much more of Jesus’ ministry in the south (Judea) than the other three. When we get there, we’ll see how truly helpful this is in making sense of some of the things we read in the Synoptics concerning Jesus’ ministry in the north (Galilee). Likewise, John helps us understand the charges against Jesus concerning His promise to destroy the temple. The Synoptics record the charges, but only John records the things Jesus actually said to bring them upon Himself (2:19). And although John records no exorcisms, he does explain the nature of the demons in a way the Synoptics (which do record exorcisms) don’t. Again, the simple point is that John fills in and explains a number of things that are hard to make sense of with only Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
Third, there is a lot of discussion in the commentaries about whether John had read or otherwise been exposed to the content of any/all of the other three gospels. There’s a lot of discussion, but no agreed upon conclusions. Many of the arguments on both sides make sense and seem to have some merit. The main reason it matters is in relation to the first two points. If John had read any of Matthew, Mark, or Luke, it would almost certainly prove that any apparent contradictions were just that (apparent) (1) and the manner in which John fills out some of the other Gospel accounts (2) was intentional. If John didn’t have access to the other Gospels, we’d need to look elsewhere to explain those things, which many have done convincingly, but the consistency we find would be an even greater attestation to the divine origin of all four. In other words, knowing definitively whether or not John had access to the Synoptics might be interesting, but not necessary.
And fourth, there are noticeable differences between all the Gospels, and especially between the three and the one. Combined, however, the four Gospels tell a unified story of the life, ministry, teaching, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. Combined, they tell a fuller and richer version of the story than any would on their own. Combined, they create a sense of awe and wonder that is more colorful and textured than if any were missing. In other words, by God’s design, we get the fullest and sufficient picture of Jesus life on earth not through any one, two, or three Gospels, but through (and only through) the combination of all four. For God’s glory and our good, I’ll do my best to point these things out as we work our way through John.
Having briefly considered John’s background and relationship to the other three Gospels, it’s good to be aware of two important things concerning the structure of John’s Gospel.
First, while there are certainly more subdivisions that could be made, it seems plain that the Gospel of John is made up of four main sections. There is an introduction in John 1:1-18, a long description of Jesus ministry on earth in 1:19-12:50 (sometimes called “The Book of Signs”), an account of the passion week (probably only the last two days) in 13:1-20:31 (sometimes called “The Book of Glory”), and then a sort of conclusion in chapter 21.
In the introduction, John makes some startling claims about who Jesus is (more in a minute). In the section on Jesus’ ministry, John organized his stories to best verify the shocking claims he made in the introduction. And within each major story, Jesus performed a sign or made a claim that forced people to make a decision about whether they would follow him or not. In John’s account of the final week of Jesus life, everything came to a head and Jesus fully and finally proved Himself to be the long-promised Messiah in His teaching, prayers, death, and resurrection. And finally, in the epilogue, Jesus presented Himself to His followers in His glorified body and commissioned them again; Peter specifically.
The second thing that we ought to have a firm grasp on concerning the structure of John’s Gospel is the fact that John was least concerned among the Gospel writers with structuring his Gospel chronologically. For the most part this is tied to his purpose in writing (more on that in the final section of this sermon). For Luke, who was mainly interested in faithfully recording the facts of Jesus’ life, chronology was critical. But for John, who was mainly interested in demonstrating that Jesus was the long-promised Messiah and that eternal life was found in Him alone, chronology wasn’t nearly as important as was describing the events in Jesus’ life and ministry that most clearly demonstrated that.
The structure is relatively simple, but there is unimaginable glory within it. Keeping in mind which of the four sections we are in will be an important part of truly understanding and rightly applying the truths of John’s Gospel. I’ll try to regularly remind you of where we are within the Gospel as we move through it.
I mentioned in the introduction that, even if you have no idea why, it’s easy to tell that John is different than the other three Gospels. John’s somewhat unique purpose (again, more on that at the end) helps explain some of it. That he focuses on Jesus’ ministry in the south plays a role also. So too does John’s use of extended speeches, emphasis on signs and wonders, contrasts (light/dark, good/evil, etc.), distinctly Jewish focus, and his different style of language. Above all of these, however, two of the most distinct aspects of John’s Gospel are that (1) It is more theological than any of the other Gospels, and (2) Within that, it is more Christological than the others.
Of course, the entire Bible is filled with theological insights; including the Synoptic Gospels. Certain books of the Bible, however, are especially theological in content. John’s Gospel is one of them. To give you a taste of what I mean, please listen carefully to some of the introduction and the tremendous amount of theology it contains.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
… 9 The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth… 16 For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
In these few verses alone, we find significant and explicit teaching (theology) on creation, sin, salvation, and the nature of the Father and Son. Throughout the rest of the Gospel, we’re given even more on all three persons of the Trinity and the relationship between them. We are given remarkable clarity on how God views prayer, what happens when we pray, and how to pray—including the greatest example of prayer in the Bible (in chapter 17). In addition, John gives much concerning the theology of miracles, regeneration, the devil (as I mentioned earlier), discipleship, and the purpose for which Jesus came to die.
Again, John’s Gospel is remarkably theological—certainly far more than the other three Gospels. Above all other theological points of emphasis, however, is its decidedly Christological focus; which is where we’ll turn to now.
It might sound strange to suggest that John is distinct in having a Christological focus when the whole point of all four Gospels is clearly Jesus. By Christological, though, I don’t simply mean that John’s aim is to talk about Jesus. I mean that his aim (which we’ll see more clearly in the next and final section), is to explain and prove who Jesus is; and within that burden John’s Gospel is distinct in both (1) the emphasis it puts on the fact that Jesus is God, and (2) in the way it explains that in specific categories.
- Jesus is God. More than any other Gospel, indeed, more than any other book in the Bible, perhaps, John makes it crystal clear that Jesus is God, the second person of the Trinity.
John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.John 1:3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.
John 1:23 “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
John 5:18 This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.
John 8:58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”
John 10:30 “I and the Father are one.”
John 20:28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”
Some of the verses I just read are clearer than others, but collectively (along with others in John) they make an airtight case for the divinity of Jesus. John’s Gospel is distinct in its focus on the fact that Jesus is God. And under that banner we find specific expressions of what this means.
- Jesus and the “I am” statements. As we just saw, in John 8:58, Jesus assumed for Himself the most holy name of God—first revealed to Moses from God Himself in Exodus 3:13-14, “Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?’ 14 God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’’”. Again, then, when Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Before Abraham was, I am,” He was clearly claiming this title for Himself. As remarkable as that is, John made sure to go a step further still. In His Gospel he carefully recorded seven specific “I am” statements of Jesus—seven aspects of Jesus’ divinity.
John 6:35 I am the bread of life.
John 6:41 I am the bread that came down from heaven.
John 8:12 I am the light of the world.
John 10:7 I am the door of the sheep.
John 10:11 I am the good shepherd.
John 10:36 I am the Son of God
John 11:25 I am the resurrection and the life.
John 14:6 I am the way, and the truth, and the life.
John 15:1 I am the true vine
John 8:58 …before Abraham was, I am
What an awesome gift this is for the people of God. Grace, as we move through the Gospel, let’s keep in mind that John is not presenting Jesus merely as an interesting person to be considered or admired. He’s not even merely presenting Jesus as a savior to be trusted in. He’s presenting Jesus as a God to be worshiped and obeyed. We certainly cannot sit through John, therefore, with indifference. We cannot sit through it merely interested. To sit through John with a genuine understanding of what John is claiming, is truly an invitation to take your every care, concern, treasure, possession, relationship, accomplishment, failure, hurt, sickness, and hope to Jesus and hear His words (21:22), “what is that to you? You follow me!” John gives us a Jesus who is more than able to receive all of those things and completely overshadow them with an infinite and eternal glory!
Finally, then, everything we’ve covered so far leads us to the very purpose for which John wrote his Gospel.
THE AIM OF JOHN’S GOSPEL
Beyond the date and authorship of John’s Gospel, beyond its relationship to the other three Gospels, beyond its structure, and even beyond its distinctives, is John’s aim in writing it.
The main thrust of John’s first letter (1 John) is that his readers might know that they have genuine faith in Jesus. But that begs the questions of who is Jesus, what exactly do we need to believe about Him, and why. That’s where John’s gospel comes in. It was written, John tells us in chapter 20, “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.” As we just saw, John was not interested in merely conveying facts or information about Jesus. His main aim was to help his readers understand and accept the shocking fact that Jesus is the Christ that God had long promised to send, in order that they (we) might believe upon Him and have life.
John wrote that his reader might believe. That they might believe what? That He is the Christ that God promised to send. Send for what purpose? That through Him all who would receive Him might have life in His name!
In the end, then, and in conclusion, that’s my hope for all of us as well as we make our way through the fourth Gospel; that everyone of us would become convinced, or further established in the fact that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and through that to find everlasting life in the love and redemption of God.