Studies in John (Lesson 1: Introduction and Prologue)
I. The Purpose of Johnâ€™s Gospel
When one begins to read the gospel of John, after he has read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he quickly realizes that this gospel is, in several ways, different from the other three. The first three are called the â€œsynopticâ€ gospels (from a Greek term which indicates a â€œlooking togetherâ€), because they have basically the same point of view. They all talk about many of the same events and time periods in Jesusâ€™ life. But most of the miracles and discourses that John includes are not found in the other three. The synoptics emphasize Christâ€™s Galileean ministry, but John talks mostly of his time in Jerusalem. The synoptics emphasize Christâ€™s parables, his teaching on the Kingdom of Heaven, and his eschatological (end-times) discourses. John emphasizes his teaching on who he is, and the related sign-gifts which demonstrate his claims about his own person. So the question must arise, â€œWhy is John so different from the other three gospels?â€. â€œWhat specific purpose did he have in mind that the first three had not already accomplished?â€
There is a famous assessment of the difference between Johnâ€™s gospel and the synoptics, made by Clement of Alexandria, an early Church father. He said, â€œLast of all John, perceiving that the bodily facts had been made plain in the gospel, being urged by his friends, and inspired by the Spirit, wrote a spiritual gospel.â€ This idea that John was written to explain more fully the â€œspiritualâ€ or theological truths to which the events of the synoptic gospels already testified may have some truth in it. It is likely that John wrote his gospel late in life, long after the first three had been written. By the time of the writing, certain heresies had already begun to spring up in the Church, notably those of Ebion and Cerinthus, who denied that Jesus is truly God. So John may have written, at least in part, to refute these heretical claims, and to show that the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke is indeed the eternal Son of God, truly God and truly man.
But what does John himself say? We are fortunate in that Johnâ€™s gospel actually has a very clear purpose statement already written out for us. We can find it in John 20:30-31 â€“ â€œAnd many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you might have life through his name.â€ Why did John choose to record the miracles and teachings that he did, most of which had not yet been recorded in the other gospels? It was so that, in spite of the heresies that had already begun to arise, the Church would continue to believe in the true Jesus; and that so this true teaching of Jesus would spread throughout the world, so that many others would come to believe in him, and so have life (whether you see the preserving of true doctrine for the church or the evangelization of the world as Johnâ€™s primary purpose has much to do with a very interesting textual variant in 20:31 â€“ did John mean to imply, â€œthat you might come to believe,â€ or â€œthat you might keep on believingâ€? But either way, it is likely that both purposes were in mind to some degree). So then, the major purpose of Johnâ€™s gospel was to reveal what the words and works of Jesus reveal about who he truly is; and so that this unveiling of Jesus might lead to genuine faith, which leads to eternal life.
II. The Structure of Johnâ€™s Gospel
We have looked at the purpose of Johnâ€™s gospel; but how did he arrange the material so as best to facilitate that purpose? How did he structure and arrange his work, to lead us progressively into a greater knowledge of and admiration for this man who is eternally and truly God? Once we have considered Johnâ€™s own purpose statement, it becomes very apparent how he has purposely framed his gospel to accomplish his intention. Consider the prologue (John 1:1-18): there, John immediately gives us his thesis statement (the eternality and deity of Christ, the â€œWordâ€ of God); and from there, begins speaking of the effects of his advent as they pertain to the subject of believing. Remember, John was writing so that people might believe the Jesus is the Son of God. He talks about how the â€œlightâ€ that Christ brought gives â€œlifeâ€. As darkness blinds the understanding of the unbelieving heart, so the light of Christâ€™s words and works shine out in the heart to produce true belief and understanding (cf. II Corinthians 4:4-6). Seeing the life of Christ produces the light of faith, which leads to everlasting life â€“ which is just Johnâ€™s point, as we read at the end of the book. And from the prologue, the book unfolds along similar lines. First is a very significant and foundational segment in which the forerunner, John the Baptist, proclaims the imminent coming and substitutionary/sacrificial role of the Christ, in whom men must believe and produce fruits of true repentance. Then, the question at the heart of Johnâ€™s purpose statement immediately arises (in fact, it is even in the prologue): â€œHow faith can be wrought in a heart of darkness?â€. After the wedding in Cana and the symbolic temple-cleansing, which indicate that Christ has brought the new age, with all of its rich benefits for those who believes, Christâ€™s first significant discourse, with Nicodemus, addresses the topic, â€œhow can a man see the things of the Kingdom, that is, have a faith which apprehends eternal life?â€. And so throughout the rest of the gospel, Christâ€™s miracles are always wedded to teachings which reveal where faith comes from, how that faith perceives Christ, and what results it brings, in this life and the next.
Apart from this basic method of proceeding, it is very easy to detect two major parts of Johnâ€™s gospel: the first, chapters 1-12; and the second, chapters 13-21. Raymond Brown has helpfully labeled these for us as â€œBook of Signs,â€ and â€œBook of Gloryâ€. The first of these is a series of sign-miracles, coupled with discourses, which reveal to us something of who Jesus is. The second is an extended treatment of Christâ€™s death and resurrection, together with his final teachings related to the topic of his death and the glory which should follow.
We will mention one more interesting analysis of the structure of Johnâ€™s gospel before we move on. In Hebrews 9:1-5, the author indicates that the entire structure of the tabernacle, and all of its furniture, had a symbolic meaning which was fulfilled by the person and works of Christ. In this vein, it has been noted that the major symbolic signs and discourses of Jesus, in Johnâ€™s gospel, are presented in the same order that one would encounter the tabernacle furniture. At the beginning, with John the Baptistâ€™s proclamation of the sacrificial Lamb, the reader encounters the brazen altar, in the tabernacle courtyard. When Jesus tells Nicodemus of the need to be born of water and the Spirit, and speaks to the Samaritan woman of the water of life, he is calling to mind the great laver, in which the priests washed themselves, and became ritually clean. One must be cleansed of his sin before he can approach a holy God, and only Jesus can provide this cleansing. Then, when one enters the tent, he sees the table of shewbread, indicating ongoing spiritual nourishment and festive fellowship with God. So Christ proclaims, â€œI am the Bread of Life, etc.â€ When one reaches the golden candlestick, Christ teaches, â€œI am the light of the world,â€ and gives sight to the blind. In Jesusâ€™ high priestly prayer, in John 17, he is demonstrating the true function of the altar of incense, and finally, in his death on the cross, he is accomplishing the real meaning of the sprinkling of blood on the mercy seat, on the day of atonement. Then he rises victorious, with the resurrection life that the true worshiper, who approached God through these divinely-ordained means, was granted through faith in the substitutionary work of Christ. Lord willing, we will mention some of these parallels in a little more detail, in future lessons on those specific passages.
III. Major Themes in Johnâ€™s Gospel
We have already touched on some of the major themes of Johnâ€™s gospel, but it may be helpful to list a few here. John emphasizes
* The Deity of Christ
* The Lamb-Work of Christ
* The â€œWord/wordsâ€ of God
* The Nature of True Faith
* The Necessity of Regeneration
* The Sheep/Children who have been given to Jesus
* The Way to Eternal Life
* The Coming Ministry of the Holy Spirit
* The Glory that Comes through Christâ€™s Death
We will encounter many of these themes all throughout the gospel of John. But for now, we will just summarize: these themes are all about who Jesus is, the nature of the salvation that he has accomplished for his sheep, and how one might experience this marvelous salvation. In other words, these themes are the perfect topics for fleshing out his purpose statement in John 20:31.
IV. An Outline of this Course
If God allows it, we hope to approach our fifteen weeks together as follows:
* Week 1 â€“ General Introduction and Prologue (John 1:1-18)
* Week 2 â€“ The Brazen Altar; The Witness of John the Baptist (John 1:19-51)
* Week 3 â€“ The Laver; The Announcement of the Messianic Age; The Water to Wine; The Discourse with Nicodemus (John 2:1-3:36)
* Week 4 â€“ The Temple-Cleansing; The Woman at the Well (John 2:13-22; 4:1-42)
* Week 5 â€“ The Need for Faith; The Healing of the Noblemanâ€™s Son; The Healing at the Pool of Bethesda (John 4:43-5:47)
* Week 6 â€“ The Table of Shewbread; The Feeding of the Five Thousand; The Walking on Water; â€œI Am the Bread of Lifeâ€ (John 6:1-71)
* Week 7 â€“ The Golden Lampstand; The Feast of Tabernacles; â€œI am the Light of the Worldâ€ (John 7:1-8:59)
* Week 8 â€“ The Healing of the Blind; â€œI Am the Doorâ€; â€œI Am the Good Shepherdâ€ (John 9:1-10:42)
* Week 9 â€“ The Raising of Lazarus; â€œI Am the Resurrection and the Lifeâ€ (John 11:1-57)
* Week 10 â€“ The Anointing of Jesus; The Triumphal Entry; â€œIf I be lifted up...â€ (John 12:1-50)
* Week 11 â€“ The Passover; The Final Supper; Washing the Disciplesâ€™ Feet (John 13:1-38)
* Week 12 â€“ Jesus Final Teachings on his Death and the Way of Salvation; â€œI am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; The Ministry of the Spirit (John 14-16)
* Week 13 â€“ The Altar of Incense; Jesusâ€™ High-Priestly Prayer (John 17)
* Week 14 â€“ The Day of Atonement; Jesus Death and Burial (John 18-19)
* Week 15 â€“ Jesusâ€™ Resurrection; His Breathing the Spirit into the Disciples; His Teaching them from the Old Testament; His Sending Them Out; His Purpose Statement (John 20-21)
V. Johnâ€™s Prologue
The Prologue to the Gospel of John is one of the most rich and beautiful passages in all of scripture. It is a precisely crafted work of art that not only introduces all of the major themes that the rest of the book will unpack, but also indicates the relative emphasis and inter-relationship of each of the themes introduced. For instance, consider verses 4-5:
In him was LIFE,
and the LIFE was the LIGHT of men,
and the LIGHT shines in the DARKNESS,
and the DARKNESS does not comprehend [overcome] it.
Each of the highlighted words is a major theme throughout the rest of the gospel; and so they are emphasized, by repetition; and also related to the other major themes, both before and after. A discussion of the beautiful literary craftsmanship could take the rest of our time; but for now, we will pass over it, and reflect on the essential truths that John was taking such great labor to convey. It should become apparent, as we walk through the text, just how perfectly Johnâ€™s prologue corresponds to his purpose statement.
Who Jesus Is (verses 1-2)
John immediately begins his gospel with an undeniable assertion that Jesus is truly and fully God. He has always existed, from eternity past; and, moreover, he existed in an inter-triune fellowship with God. Which leads to the necessary conclusion of verse one, that Jesus is God. Because of a certain rule of Greek grammar, it is to be expected that the word â€œGod,â€ would not have an article in this case; but that does not mean, contrary to the teachings of the Jehovahâ€™s Witnesses, that the word should be translated in an indefinite way, as â€œa godâ€. The clear meaning of the text is that Jesus is God, in the fullest sense of the word.
But why is Jesus referred to as the â€œWord,â€ and not just by his name, Jesus? The â€œWordâ€ of God, as the immutable expression and accomplishment of his eternal will, is a major theme throughout the writings of John. Through his word, God makes his will known to mankind, and accomplishes his designs. When God purposes to create the world, and to shed his light upon it, he did so through his word, â€œlet there be lightâ€ (Genesis 1:1). Similarly, when God purposed to have mercy upon mankind, he sent his word, which sanctifies, preserves, and draws men unto himself (John 17:14-20). But it was through Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, that the world was created, in accordance with the Fatherâ€™s will. It was through Jesus that redemption was accomplished, and the grace and goodwill of God was made known to his people. And so, because Jesus alone reveals the Father, and accomplishes his will, the perfect title for him is the â€œWord.â€ This both expresses who he is in relation to God the Father; and who he is in relation to bringing salvation to mankind; both of which are what John was writing his gospel to accomplish (John 20:31).
Jesusâ€™ Work of Creation (verse 3)
In verse 3, John goes on to relate in unmistakably clear terms that, as God, Jesus alone is the Creator of the world. There is nothing in all of creation that did not come into existence through him.
Jesusâ€™ Work of Redemption (verses 4-5)
But the work of creation is not the primary point John is getting at; he is just mentioning it to lay the foundation for this assertion: the work of redemption is through Jesus alone. Just as God said, â€œLet there be light,â€ and, through Jesus, light flooded the world; so, when God said, â€œlet there be the light of the knowledge of God, which leads to eternal life,â€ so, through Jesus, the light of Godâ€™s grace, which gives life to men, flooded the fallen world of mankind (cf. II Corinthians 4:4-6). Just as the light of creation shone triumphantly through the darkness, the light of redemption shines triumphantly through spiritual darkness and unbelief. At the end of verse 5 is a play on words: the Greek word can mean either â€œunderstand,â€ or â€œovercomeâ€. It seems as if John has both these words in mind: the unbelieving world-at-large does not understand the marvelous gospel of grace; but they can never conquer the powerful truth of the gospel!
The Gospel-Dawn Heralded (verses 6-8)
If Christâ€™s work of redemption is the most significant event of all history (as indeed it is), then it is fitting that his arrival be announced ahead of time. And, just as God promised long ago (Malachi 4:5), a forerunner came in the Spirit of Elijah to proclaim Christâ€™s advent. Even as the planet Venus (the â€œMorning Starâ€) shines brightly in the sky, just before the dawning of the sun obscures it with a far greater brilliance, so Elijah came just before the gospel-dawning of Christ our Savior; and, no sooner had he shone out, then the coming of a greater eclipsed his person and work â€“ as he himself proclaimed, â€œ[Christ] must increase, but I must decreaseâ€ (John 3:30). The theme of â€œwitnessing,â€ or â€œtestifyingâ€ to the truth of Christ is another one of Johnâ€™s emphases. Just as it was John the Baptistâ€™s job to testify to the coming of Christ, so it later become the task of John the apostle to testify to the historical truth of what he had seen and known about Jesus (see I John 1:1-4). If Christâ€™s life and work was not, in real human history, what the first eye-witnesses of him proclaimed them to be, then we are without hope. A historical Jesus that truly died and bodily rose from the dead is the non-negotiable foundation of the Christian religion (cf. I Corinthians 15:3-20).
The Recipients of the Gospel-Light Clarified (verses 9-13)
Just as John later made clear in his purpose statement, he was not just writing to proclaim who Jesus was; but he was writing so that people might have eternal life in believing on him. So it is fitting that, after describing Jesus and his great work, John then speaks of those who will benefit, and gain eternal life, because of him. Jesus, not John the Baptist, was the true Light (verse 9); and as such, he exposes, or makes all men manifest; he floods the hearts of those who are his with the light of true faith; and he exposes the evil works of men who still love darkness. In this way, Jesus, at his coming into the world, â€œenlightensâ€ or â€œbrings to lightâ€ every man in the world. The sad truth is that, the very world that he created does not believe in him â€“ they do not â€œcomprehendâ€ his light. But on the other hand, neither will they â€œconquerâ€ his light, because there will be some who will believe on his name, and they will become the true children of God.
But why are there these two classes of men? Why do some believe, and become Godâ€™s children, while others do not comprehend the gospel-light? Is it because of their physical lineage? Because their father was Abraham, and not a Gentile? Is it because they chose to believe in Christ, when others chose to reject him? No, verse thirteen tells us, it is none of those things; it is simply because God gave some a spiritual birth, bringing to life a new nature which does indeed believe the truths to which the whole natural world is opposed. It is not because of a human decision that God gives spiritual life; but it is because of Godâ€™s giving spiritual life that humans make a decision to believe on the name of Jesus. They have to be born spiritually before they believe; and they have to believe before they become the children of God. This emphasis on the primacy and necessity of the new birth, or spiritual regeneration, before a sinful man can come to Christ, is another major theme throughout the gospel of John.
The Nature of the Gospel-Light Explained (verses 14-18)
So now, before we leave the prologue, we just have this left to consider: What exactly is the nature of Christâ€™s gospel-light, and what is the eternal life that it brings to them who, by faith, are children of God? In verses 14-18, we see that the blessings of the gospel are summed up in experiencing a close, favorable fellowship with God. As John later makes even more clear, â€œthis is life eternal, that they might know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sentâ€ (John 17:3). And so we see here, that the essence of the work of redemption consists of Christâ€™s coming to reveal who the Father is to the world of mankind, and reconciling men unto him. Just as the Old Testament tabernacle signified Godâ€™s presence and blessing among his people, so Christ â€œtabernacled among usâ€ â€“ he brought the true presence of God down to man. This is why he is called â€œImmanuel,â€ â€œGod with usâ€ (see Matthew 1:23).
But not only does Christ reveal to us who God the Father is â€“ but more than that, he reveals a gracious Father! This is amazing beyond words; for by all that is just, God should only be eternally angry with all of us wretched sinners. But no, he is gracious to his children, with a grace that Christ came to purchase for us on the cross. This, as John makes clear by the end of his Gospel, is the sum of the good news, the light that Christ came to reveal. That God, whom to know is life itself and everlasting joy, is a God who is gracious and favorable to him who believes on Jesus and his work on the cross.
Finally, we have the incredible, staggering greatness of this truth emphasized for us by way of two comparisons: First, although John came first, to testify of Jesus, yet Jesus was eternally before John, and is eternally greater than he. And second, even though God revealed his will, his law, and many gracious promises through Moses, yet Christ alone revealed the reality of who God is, and the unfathomable riches of his grace in such a surpassingly greater way that the revelation of Moses is as nothing in comparison. Moses may have seen the back parts of Godâ€™s glory (Exodus 33:18-23); but only Jesus has seen God in all the fulness of his glory â€“ and only Jesus can reveal God to us, even the God whom to know is eternal life.