Lesson 4 of 5
In Progress

Introductory Issues in John

Beloved disciple

One of the most enigmatic figures in John’s Gospel is the disciple whom Jesus loved. This disciple appears beside Jesus at the Last Supper and at the foot of the cross (13:23; 19:26). He visits the empty tomb and recognizes the risen Jesus by the Sea of Galilee (20:2-10; 21:7). Traditionally, the beloved disciple is identified as the apostle John, the son of Zebedee. Nevertheless, the Gospel never gives the name of this disciple, which makes it difficult to identify him with certainty. The beloved disciple’s testimony is preserved in the Gospel of John, though the Gospel was apparently completed after his death. The final chapter assumes that the beloved disciple has died (21:20-23). What is most important is not the identity of this disciple, but the testimony that he gives concerning Jesus.

Chronology of Jesus’ ministry

The sequence of events in John’s Gospel differs from those in the other Gospels. The temple cleansing occurs in John 2 rather than at the end of Jesus’ ministry, and Jesus is crucified on the day before the Passover meal, rather than on the day after the Passover meal, as in the other Gospels. Some assume that the first three Gospels always preserve the correct order of events and that John changes it. It is better to recognize that all four Gospels preserve historical tradition, yet each tells the story of Jesus in a distinctive way. On the historical level, many think it probable that Jesus cleansed the temple at the end of his ministry rather than at the beginning, as John tells it. Yet many also find it plausible to think that John’s placement of the crucifixion on the day before Passover is historically accurate.

Fulfillment of Scripture

John’s Gospel sometimes says that something in Jesus’ ministry was done “to fulfill the Scripture.” What is surprising is that the Old Testament passages that are quoted rarely sound like predictive prophecy. For example, Jesus says that his opponents fulfilled the Scripture that says, “They hated me without a cause,” something that other people also experienced (John 15:25; Psalm 35:19). In John’s Gospel the fulfilling of Scripture often means that something discloses the full meaning of Scripture. In the case just cited, opposing the Son of God reveals the full extent of human hatred. The quotations of Scripture help to show the meaning of something, rather than simply functioning as predictions that are fulfilled.

Jesus’ crucifixion

John’s account of the crucifixion differs in some ways from those of the other Gospels. Mark’s Gospel, for example, tells of the darkness and mockery surrounding Jesus’ death and records his final words as, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” By way of contrast, John tells of Jesus entrusting his mother to the care of his beloved disciple and says that his final words were, “It is finished.” John’s account may not dwell on the brutality of the crucifixion, but it does take its painful reality into account. John tells of Jesus being scourged, forced to carry his cross in public, and having his side pierced with a spear. Since John’s readers would have understood the horror of the process, the Gospel does not emphasize it. Instead, it tells the story in a way that helps to disclose the meaning of the crucifixion as a gift of divine love.

Jesus’ humanity and divinity

John’s Gospel gives special attention to the divinity of Jesus, identifying him with the Word that was with God and was God (1:1). In conversations, Jesus calls himself the “I Am,” echoing the name of God given in Exodus 3:14, and even says, “The Father and I are one” (10:30). At the same time, the Gospel is also clear that Jesus is a human being, for in him God’s Word became “flesh” (1:14). Jesus becomes tired and troubled; he weeps and dies (4:6; 11:35; 13:21; 19:30). The Gospel writer did not need to emphasize Jesus’ humanity, since everyone took it for granted, but he did have to argue that Jesus truly was from God and embodied the Word of God, since that was the disputed issue. When reading the Gospel, it is important to keep in mind that the humanity of Jesus is assumed throughout the story.

The Jews

John’s Gospel often refers to Jesus’ opponents as “the Jews,” which can give the impression that the Gospel speaks negatively about Jews in general. Nevertheless, it is clear that Jesus himself is Jewish. Jesus is called a rabbi and he teaches in synagogues and the temple (1:38; 18:20). Since Jesus is Jewish and brings salvation, he can say that salvation is from the Jews (4:22). It is also clear that many of his followers are Jews, who know the Jewish Scriptures (1:45). According to the Gospel, some Jews responded favorably to Jesus and others did not. This was also true of non-Jews, since some Greeks wanted to see Jesus, whereas a Roman like Pilate had Jesus put to death (12:20; 19:10).

Lord’s Supper

The other Gospels and 1 Corinthians say that on the night of his betrayal Jesus gave his disciples bread and wine, saying, “This is my body,” and, “This is my blood.” These are called the words of institution. John’s Gospel does not include this in its account of the Last Supper but focuses instead on Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. Earlier in John, Jesus calls himself the bread of life, and speaks of people consuming his flesh and blood (John 6:32-35, 48-58). Many assume that this alludes to the words of institution, since the theme is similar. Others do not think this is the case, interpreting the passage as a vivid way to speak about believing in the crucified Christ.

Post-Easter perspective

John’s Gospel tells the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection from a post-Easter perspective. The Gospel is not simply a record of what Jesus said and did, but an account that includes insights from the time after Jesus’ resurrection. In the account of the cleansing of the temple, Jesus speaks about the temple being destroyed and raised up. The Gospel says that the disciples did not understand this at first, but later realized that he was speaking about the temple of his body, which would be crucified and resurrected (John 2:18-22). Similarly, they did not understand what it meant for Jesus to ride toward Jerusalem on a donkey, but after his resurrection they understood it in light of the Old Testament passages concerning a ruler of Israel coming on a donkey (John 12:14-16; Zechariah 9:9). These later insights are included in order to help readers understand the meaning of what Jesus said and did.

Seeing and believing

At the end of John’s Gospel, a disciple named Thomas demands proof of Jesus’ resurrection, and when Jesus appears to him, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Seeing miracles or resurrection appearances is not a necessary basis for faith. The first disciples follow Jesus when they hear others speak about him. Later, they respond favorably to the miracles, but the miracles are not the basis for their faith. Moreover, the Gospel recognizes that people easily misunderstand the meaning of miracles. For example, Jesus heals a blind man on the Sabbath, which reveals the power of God, but many argue that doing this breaks the law of God and shows that Jesus is a sinner. Seeing does not guarantee believing.