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Introduction to John’s Gospel

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Related articles:

Introduction Prologue (1:1-18) - Jesus as the Logos
Important Themes in John's Gospel Jesus as the Fulfilment of the Jewish Festivals
Jesus' Teaching about the Holy Spirit - Paraclete Reclining at Table during the Last Supper
Understanding Gospels
Herod Family Jewish Religious Groups
Herod's Temple Annas and Caiaphas
Pontius Pilate Fall of Jerusalem - AD 70
Taxation in Israel Gnosticism

Difference from the other three gospels

John's Gospel is clearly very different from the other three Gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke are called the synoptic Gospels because of their similarities in content and structure. 'Synoptic' means they can be seen together. All three have a similar geographical structure, starting in Galilee, moving south through Samaria, and ending in Jerusalem. Many events are described in very similar ways. In John's Gospel, many significant events in the other three gospels are omitted, and many stories and interviews with people are unique.

In the synoptic Gospels, most of Jesus's ministry takes place in Galilee. In John, Jesus is mostly in Judea and Jerusalem. From the synoptic Gospels, we would conclude that Jesus's ministry lasted less than a year. In John's Gospel, either two or three Passover's are mentioned, which would indicate that his ministry extended up to three years.


The gospel is anonymous, as the other three gospels are. John's name is not mentioned in the gospel, and John the Baptist is just called John. Other expressions are used to refer to the author, without ever naming him: the disciple who Jesus loved (13:23, 19:26-27, 20:2, 21:7,20), the sons of Zebedee (21:2), the two disciples of John the Baptist (1:35,37), another disciple who was known to the High Priest (18:15), the other disciple (18:16, 20:2,4,8), this disciple (18:15-16, 21:23,24). In 20:2, the 'other disciple' is clearly identified as the 'one whom Jesus loved'.

There is great debate over whether 'the disciple who Jesus loved' was John the apostle, or someone else. At the last supper, in the upper room, “one of his disciples, the one who Jesus loved, was reclining next to him” (13:23). The disciple who Jesus loved is again identified as the one who reclined next to Jesus at the supper in 21:20.

This literally means that he was reclining in the chest of Jesus. For eating the Passover, they lay on the floor or low benches on cushions. John would then rest his head on Jesus's chest when he asked him about the betrayal. For more details on the seating arrangements at the last supper, please see the article on Reclining at Table. There is an interesting connection here, that Jesus was the only son who was close to the Father’s heart (literally, the one in the chest of the Father) (1:18). He had the closest fellowship with the Father. Then John was the disciple with the closest fellowship with Jesus (13:23), the disciple who Jesus loved.

According to Mark, Jesus and the twelve disciples were alone in the upper room, so the author has to be one of the twelve (Mk 14:17). Five of the twelve disciples are mentioned by name: Simon, Andrew, Philip, Thomas and Judas Iscariot. The sons of Zebedee (James and John) are mentioned in (21:2).

There is an interesting statement during Jesus’ trials, that, “the disciple was known to the high priest” (18:15). He was known to the door keeper, and could arrange for Peter to enter the courtyard of the high priest’s house. Because of this, many people question whether the disciple who Jesus loved was John the apostle. It is difficult to see why the fisherman of Galilee would be known by the high priest, unless his family supplied the high priest with fish.

Internal evidence for authorship

The gospel ends with this statement, “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and who has written them; and we know that his testimony is true.” (21:24). The 'we' are probably the elders in the church at Ephesus, testifying about John. These elders possibly edited the gospel and acted as John's secretary, bringing the gospel into its final form, possibly after his death. Even though the author of the fourth gospel was the apostle John, there may have been editorial changes made before the final form of the gospel came into being.

The comment about the rumour about John not dying, and its correction (21:23) was probably also added by others. It may also be that references to 'the disciple who Jesus loved' may also have been added by people after the death of John. John may have just referred to himself as “another disciple” (20:2). More liberal scholars say that these people formed a community of disciples, called the Johannine community, and were the true authors of the Gospel.

John was closely associated with Peter, in John and Acts chapters 3,4,5 and 8. The author was the beloved disciple, an eyewitness and participant in the stories, the only disciple at the cross and witness of the death of Jesus (19:35). James and John, were the sons of Zebedee, who Jesus surnamed Boanerges, sons of thunder (Mk 3:17). John was one of the inner circle: Peter, James and John, who had a particularly close relationship with Jesus. It would not be surprising that one of these would be called 'the disciple that Jesus loved'.

The author was an eyewitness of Jesus

John's gospel is the testimony of an eyewitness. Many details are remembered, including: the four consecutive days (1:19,29,35,43), the capacity of the water pots (2:6), the distance rowed across the lake (6:19), the weight and value of the ointment (12:3), the blood and water at the cross (19:34), the number of fishes and the nets not tearing (21:11), which would particularly impress a fisherman.

In the synoptics it is easy to get the impression that Jesus's ministry only lasted one year, as only one Passover is mentioned. However, there are three or four Passovers in John's gospel (2:13, possibly 5:1, 6:1, 12:1). John contains the only information we have on Jesus's first year of ministry. John describes the previous encounter of Peter, James and John with Jesus (Jn 1:35-42), so they were not strangers when he called them to be his disciples (Lk 5).

Other books by John

John also wrote three letters. People question whether 2 and 3 John are by the same person as the gospel and 1 John, as the author introduces himself as 'the elder'. Papias, a disciple of John, refers to John the elder as the author. The Book of Revelation was only accepted in the NT in the fourth century. The gospels and letters are in a polished Greek style, where John probably used a secretary and the elders of Ephesus. Revelation uses poorer quality Greek grammar, written on the island of Patmos, where John had no access to a secretary.

Some important words and concepts are only found in books by John. Jesus is called the Lamb only in John and Revelation, and only called the Word only in John, 1 John and Revelation. In only the gospel and in Revelation does it refer to Jesus being pierced (Jn 19:37, Rev 1:7). It is possible that Revelation was written earlier than the gospel. Rev 19 is a revelation of Jesus as the Word of God, a theme which was later brought into the gospel, but it very difficult to be certain of the order of the books.

External evidence for authorship

Writings from the church fathers say that John lived to an old age in Ephesus, being the last of the apostles to die, around the year AD 100. According to Irenaeus, John lived into the reign of Trajan, who became emperor in AD 98, right at the end of the first century. “those who were conversant in Asia with John, the disciple of the Lord, [affirming] that John conveyed to them that information. And he remained among them up to the times of Trajan.” (Against Heresies 2:22:5).

“Then, again, the Church in Ephesus, founded by Paul, and having John remaining among them permanently until the times of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles”. (Against Heresies 3:3:3)

Clement of Alexandria wrote this
“For when, on the tyrant's death (probably Domitian - AD 96), he (John) returned to Ephesus from the isle of Patmos, he went away, being invited, to the contiguous territories of the nations, here to appoint bishops, there to set in order whole Churches, there to ordain such as were marked out by the Spirit.” (Rich Man’s Salvation 42)

Polycrates, Bishop of Ephesus, wrote this (AD 190), clearly identifying John as the beloved disciple
"John, moreover, who reclined on the Lord's bosom, and who became a priest wearing the mitre, and a witness and a teacher - he rests at Ephesus.” (Epistle to Victor)

Irenaeus, in AD 170, the Bishop of Lyons, said that the gospel was by the apostle John. He had been a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of John, so Irenaeus's words have authority.
"John, the disciple of the Lord, who leaned on his breast, also published a gospel while living in Ephesus in Asia". (Against Heresies 3:3:1).

Clement of Alexandria quoted by Eusebius
"John perceiving that the bodily facts have been made plain in the gospel, being urged by his friends and inspired by the Holy Spirit, composed a spiritual gospel". (Eusebius Ecclesiastical History VI.14)

Tradition seems to indicate that John, late in life, was asked by elders of Ephesus to write down his reminisces of the life of Christ as the last surviving apostle. He included events and teaching which was omitted from the Synoptic gospels, especially the first year of Jesus's ministry in Judea during the ministry of John the Baptist, so John wrote extra material, supplementary to the synoptics.

This is recorded by Jerome
“John, the apostle whom Jesus most loved, the son of Zebedee and brother of James, the apostle whom Herod, after our Lord's passion, beheaded, most recently of all the evangelists wrote a Gospel, at the request of the bishops of Asia, against Cerinthus and other heretics and especially against the then growing dogma of the Ebionites, who assert that Christ did not exist before Mary. On this account he was compelled to maintain His divine nativity. But there is said to be yet another reason for this work, in that when he had read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he approved indeed the substance of the history and declared that the things they said were true, but that they had given the history of only one year, the one, that is, which follows the imprisonment of John and in which he was put to death. So passing by this year the events of which had been set forth by these, he related the events of the earlier period before John was shut up in prison, so that it might be manifest to those who should diligently read the volumes of the four Evangelists. This also takes away the discrepancy which there seems to be between John and the others.” (Lives of Illustrious Men 9)

Many of the New Testament books are associated in some way with Ephesus and the province of Asia, being either written to Ephesus or from Ephesus. These include: Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, 1 and 2 Timothy, 1,2,3 John, Revelation, John's Gospel, 1 and 2 Peter and Jude.

John the Elder

Some of the early church writers thought the elder John wrote some of the books ascribed to John. The author of both 2 and 3 John calls himself 'the elder'. Papias (bishop of Hieropolis) wrote 'Expositions of the Lord's Oracles' in early second century. He names two different Johns. One, a member of the twelve disciples, and another he calls the 'elder John'. These may be two different people, or may refer to the same person.
“If, then, any one who had attended on the elders came, I asked minutely after their sayings, - what Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the Lord's disciples: which things Aristion and the presbyter (elder) John, the disciples of the Lord, say.” (Papias Fragments I, in Eusebius Ecclesiastical History)

Date of writing

Most people believe that John wrote his gospel in the last part of the first century, from Ephesus. Therefore a date of the mid-nineties would be a good suggestion.

The earliest manuscript of the NT

A small fragment of John’s gospel, called P52 has 18:31-33 on front, and 18:37-38 on the back. It was originally part of a codex (book). It was found in upper Egypt, dated in the early second century, around AD 125. It is now kept in the John Rylands Library, Manchester. This fragment is extremely significant as it shows that a book written late in the first century, one of the last books of the NT. had been copied and distributed over a wide area, hundreds of miles from its original location within thirty or so years of its writing.

The Purpose of the book

John clearly defines his purpose in writing the book
"Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book, but these are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name". (20:30-31)

Notice that he was aiming to convince his readers that Jesus is the Messiah. This would indicate that his readers were unbelieving Jews, who were probably Greek-speaking, as he wrote the gospel in Greek. This indicates that John knew about other signs, which he did not include in his gospel, and had carefully selected the signs for a specific purpose. The other signs were not written this book, indicating that they were in other books, including the synoptic gospels.

The gospel was written for two reasons: One is explanation, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ”, that Jesus is the promised Messiah, the Son of God. The gospel demonstrates the deity of Jesus. The second is evangelism, “that through believing you may have life in his name”. The gospel is evangelistic, written for the purpose of bringing the reader to a personal faith in Jesus, so they may have eternal life.

The signs are used by John to carry information and a message, and to gain a response from the reader, not just to describe a supernatural act for its own sake. A sign is evidence that the claims of the one performing it are true. John wrote about the signs "that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ" (20:31). The signs point to and confirm who Jesus is, so that men may believe and have eternal life. The word 'sign' is used seventeen times in the gospel.

John states this purpose of bringing people to faith in many other places as well: John the Baptist testified to the light, so that all might believe through him (1:7), to those who believed, he gave power to become children of God (1:12), everyone who believes may not perish but have eternal life (3:15-16). Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever disobeys will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath (3:36). Anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgement, but has passed from death to life (5:24). This is the will of the father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life (6:40). Very truly I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life (6:47). Jesus prays for those who believes in him through the words of the disciples (17:20).

John records how individual people who responded to Jesus in faith: Nathaniel (1:47-51), many Samaritans (4:39-41), his disciples (6:69, 16:30-31), the man born blind (9:35-38), Martha (11:27), Thomas (20:28), and records Jesus’ blessing on those who believe without seeing (20:29).

Some people only believe after seeing his signs: the disciples after turning water to wine (2:11), the royal official after his son was healed (4:53), the crowds in Jerusalem (7:31), many Jews after raising of Lazarus (11:45, 12:11), and Jews who believing in secret (12:37-43).

Other people make different responses: Nicodemus believed that Jesus had been sent by God (3:2). After 5000 were fed, they believed that he was the prophet Moses spoke about (6:14). Others believed he was the Messiah (7:31). However, many who saw the signs did not believe. Many Jews did not believe him even though he performed many signs in their presence (12:37). The Pharisees were divided over his signs (9:16). The Sanhedrin recognised that he performed signs, but were afraid the Romans would come and destroy the temple and nation if people believed him (11:47-53) The challenge in the book is to respond to the signs and receive eternal life.

Some responded to his signs, but not with genuine faith. People saw signs and believed, but Jesus would not commit himself to them because he knew all men (2:23-24). He probably saw through them to see their faith was not genuine. After feeding 5000, Jesus rebuked those who followed him to get a free lunch (6:26).

Jesus also rebuked people who wouldn’t believe without the evidence of signs (4:48, 20:29) Ideal faith is to believe in Jesus without the need for signs, like Nathaniel (1:49-50), the obedience of Jesus’ mother and the servants at the wedding at Cana (2:5-8) and the Samaritan people’s belief on hearing the testimony of the woman at the well (4:42).

The seven signs and seven 'I am's'

Only seven signs (miracles) are described in the book. John was very selective, Jesus did many other signs, which are not written in this book (20:30). There is one extra one, the miraculous catch of fish in chapter twenty-one. Only two of the signs are parallelled in the synoptics, the feeding of the 5000 and the walking on the water. These are the seven signs: water turned into wine (2:11), healing the official's son (4:54), healing the lame man (5:8-9), walking on the sea (ch 6:14) (this may not be a true sign, as there is no discourse following), feeding the 5000 (6:16-20), giving the blind man sight (9:13-16), and raising Lazarus from the dead (11:43-44).

Jesus made his claims to deity though the seven 'I am' statements: the bread of life (6:48), the light of the world (8:12, 9:5), the door to the sheepfold (10:7,9), the good shepherd (10:11,14), the resurrection and the life (11:25), the way, the truth and the life (14:6), and the true vine (15:1).

Other claims of the deity of Jesus were made by John: the Word was God (1:1), Jesus called God his father, making himself equal with God (5:18), Thomas said, "My Lord and my God" (20:28). Jesus also makes claims about himself: “Before Abraham was, I am” (8:58), “I and the Father are one” (10:30), and “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9).

Some of the signs and I am's are linked: After feeding the 5000 he claimed to be the bread of life (ch 6). He giving sight to the blind man and said he is the light of the world (ch 9). He raised Lazarus from the dead and is the resurrection and the life (ch 11). For some of the signs, a pattern can be observed: Jesus performs a sign, John records the response by the eye-witnesses, then Jesus gives an extended discourse or conversation, giving explanation of the sign and showing how the sign reveals Jesus’ glory, and finally some respond in faith and others with rejection.

After the first sign, turning water into wine (2:11), his disciples believed in him (2:11). After the second sign, the healing of the official’s son (4:46-53), he believed, along with his household (4:54). Jesus healed the lame man by pool (5:1-17), but the Jews sought to kill him because they did not believe (5:18). After feeding the 5000 (6:1-13), there is a long discourse on bread of life (6:25-58), which ends with rejection by many, but the disciples believe (6:66-69). Following both the giving of sight to the blind man (ch 9), and the raising of Lazarus (ch 11), there is a long dialogue.

Other possible purposes for writing

John’s main purpose was almost certainly evangelistic, but various different purposes have been suggested. Some should definitely be seen as secondary purposes, others are merely interesting ideas.

For encouragement of persecuted Jewish believers

Towards the end of the first century there was increasing hostility and a separation of the believers in Jesus from the Jews, when they were explicitly expelled from the synagogue. After AD 70 and the destruction of the temple, Judaism had to be reorganised around the synagogue. One of the blessings recited in each day in the synagogue was re-worded, making it impossible for Nazarenes (Jewish Christians) to participate in synagogue worship. The blessing originally included a curse on the enemies of God, “let all wickedness perish as in a moment”, was revised to say, “let Nazarenes and heretics perish as in a moment; let them be blotted out of the book of life and not be enrolled with the righteous.” This revision was approved by the Sanhedrin around AD 90, and recited by the congregation in every synagogue service. Jewish believers (Nazarenes) would not be able to join in this recitation, and would therefore give themselves away. It was a terrible thing for a Jew to be expelled from the synagogue, they would lose their identity, and all family ties.

John probably refers to this situation several times in his gospel: The parents of the man born blind were afraid of being expelled from the synagogue (9:22-23). Jesus predicts the time when the believers will be put out of synagogues, by those who think they are offering worship to God (16:2). Many of the authorities believed, but were afraid of being put out of the synagogue (12:42). Nicodemus came by night (3:2, 19:39), and Joseph of Arimathea was a secret believer (19:38).

John would encourage his Jewish readers to were being persecuted by the unbelieving Jews, showing that Jesus experienced similar persecution (1:11), and warned his disciples they would experience the same. This is particularly found in the Upper Room Discourse (ch 13-16), when he prepares his disciples for his departure, warning them of the hostility they will receive from the world, and promising the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Helper, who will strengthen them, teach and guide them, and enable them to witness to him in a hostile world. The temptation facing his readers would be to renounce Jesus and to return to the safety of the synagogue and acceptance by the Jewish community.

To counter false teaching

John probably also had a purpose to affirm the truth again gnostic teaching, which was beginning to become prominent, particularly the teaching of Docetism, which was a form of Gnosticism, that Jesus only appeared to have a physical body. Apart from demonstrating the deity of Jesus, he also continually emphasised his humanity. For example, he arrived in Samaria, tired, sent his disciples to buy food, and asked a Samaritan woman for a drink (Jn 4:6-8). On the cross the soldier pierced Jesus with a spear and out flowed blood and water (Jn 19:34). Doubting Thomas insisted that he would not believe unless he touched the wounded hands and side of Jesus (Jn 20:25), and after the resurrection Jesus joined the disciples for breakfast by the Sea of Galilee (Jn 21:13).

In his letters, John strongly counters the Gnostic false teachers. He mentions some who have left the church “They went out from us, but they did not belong to us ...” (1 Jn 2:19). He calls those who deny that Jesus had a physical body antichrists (1 Jn 4:3, 2 Jn 7).

Distinctive features of John's gospel

There are twenty-seven personal interviews recorded in the book, showing John's concern for individuals. Thirty-four individuals are mentioned in the book, twenty-three are named, eleven are unnamed.

John's characteristic vocabulary

John uses very characteristic vocabulary, which is found in the gospel, his three letters and in Revelation. This includes: life and eternal life, light and darkness, believe, abide, witness and testimony, truth, Jesus as the Son of God, the Word (Logos), glory and glorified, Jesus the one sent by God, and Jesus describing God as the Father.

John makes great use of contrast. He is very black and white, with no grey areas between. A person is either in the darkness or in the light. His contrasts include: light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death, love and hatred, faith and unbelief, the world and the disciples.

He also uses imagery, often taken from everyday life, to communicate spiritual truth: the temple for Jesus' body (2:19), the new birth (3:3), the wind for the Holy Spirit (3:8), the bride and bridegroom, used by John the Baptist (3:29), the harvest (4:35), the lamp = John the Baptist (5:35), the bread of life (6:35), the living water, the Holy Spirit (7:37-38), night and day (9:4), the shepherd (10:1-18), the door (10:7-9) and the vine (15:1-7).

John, like Mark, puts in explanations for non-Jewish readers: Rabbi, which means teacher (1:38), Messiah, which means Christ (1:41), Cephas, which means Peter (1:42), and Jews have no dealings with Samaritans, not using same vessels (4:9).

John also makes other comments and explanations. It is often difficult to distinguish the words of Jesus from John’s explanations. He explains the words of Jesus to the reader, from the perspective of looking back after the crucifixion (2:21-22, 7:39, 12:33). He comments on what Jesus knew (2:24-25, 6:61,64). He points out the misunderstanding of the Jews (7:22, 8:27), and of the disciples (11:13). He comments on the motives of Judas and the Pharisees who would not confess their faith publicly (12:6,43).

Confusion between the physical and the spiritual

John records many conversations Jesus had with various individuals. In these the conversation often continues at two different levels. Jesus is speaking spiritually, but the person is understanding him physically. The result is confusion!

To Nicodemus (ch 3), Jesus says, “You must be born again” (or from above) (3:3), but Nicodemus understands this as being born physically (v4). To the woman at the well (ch 4), Jesus speaks about living water (v10), but the woman is thinking about water from the well (v11); then to the disciples he says (ch 4), “I have food to eat that you do not know about” (v32), when the disciples have just been shopping for food (v31). The Jews are confused over where Jesus comes from (ch 7:25ff), and where he is going. When Judas left the upper room, “it was night” (13:30), both physically and spiritually. The figure of darkness goes out into the darkness. During the trials, Pilate cannot understand the kingship of Jesus (18:33,36, 19:12,15).

John’s use of irony

John makes very strong use of irony throughout his book. The man born blind seems to have greater spiritual insight than the religious leaders of Israel (9:30-33). The Jews are purifying themselves to celebrate the Passover, while concurrently plotting to kill their Messiah (11:55-57) who is foreshadowed by the Passover. They also were trying to remain ritually undefiled while attempting to destroy their Messiah, when they refuse to enter the house of the Gentile Pontius Pilate (18:28). The religious leaders planning to put Lazarus to death after Jesus raised him from the dead (12:10). Jesus’ death on the cross continually being described as being glorified (eg. 17:1).

A Gospel of paradox

John’s Gospel is simple but profound. It is easy to understand and simple enough for anyone to read it, but so profound and complex that it continues to puzzle scholars. It has been compared to a pool in which child can paddle, and in which an elephant can swim. It brings great comfort to every believer, however uneducated. But to those who have spent a life-time studying it, still find it remains a mystery.

The judgement paradox

The gospel of John presents the paradox of Jesus being on trial, but the world be being put on trial by Jesus. The judge of the world is on trial. The world opposed and tried Jesus, but the world is put on trial for its response to Jesus. It is like a giant court-room scene. This is re-enforced by the important theme of witness and testimony to Jesus from: God (5:37), the Spirit (15:26), his works (10:25), the Scriptures (5:39), John the Baptist (1:15), the crowds (12:17), and the disciples (15:27).

The balance between truth and grace

In the prologue, John describes Jesus as being "full of grace and truth" (1:17). In the account of the woman caught in adultery, the Pharisees were using the woman to trap Jesus, if he showed mercy he would break the law, if he did not show mercy he would disappoint the people. Again Jesus showed the perfect balance between grace and truth, by saying, "Go and sin no more" (v11), she had to acknowledge her sin, but was also given new life.

Quotations of Old Testament

John gives a number of OT quotations, showing the fulfilment of prophecy:
“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord" (1:23 / Is 40:3)
“Zeal for your house will consume me" (2:17 / Ps 69:9)
About the manna in the wilderness, "He gave them bread from heaven to eat" (6:31 / Ps 78:24)
"And they shall be taught by God" (6:45 / Is 54:13)
"Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water" (7:38 / Zech 14:8??)
“Fear not, daughter of Zion, behold your king is coming, sitting on an ass's colt" (12:15 / Zech 9:9)
They did not believe him, "Lord, who has believed our report, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?" (12:38 / Is 53:1).
They could not believe, "He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they should see with their eyes and perceive with their heart and turn for me to heal them" (12:40 / Is 6:9-10).
"He who ate my bread has lifted his heal against me" (13:18 / Ps 41:9)
"They parted my garments among them and for my clothing they cast lots" (19:24 / Ps 22:18)
"Not a bone of him shall be broken" (19:36 / Ps 34:20)
"They shall look on him whom they have pierced" (19:37 / Zech 12:10).


There is a great emphasis on the last week of his life. Chapter 1-11 cover 3 years, and chapters 12-21 cover one week. About half the book focusses on the passion week. Chapters 13 to 20 cover just over twenty-four hours.

Accounts unique to John's Gospel

John contains the only account of: the marriage at Cana (2:1-11), Nicodemus visiting Jesus (3:1-9), Nicodemus supporting Jesus (7:50) and bringing myrrh and aloes (19:39), the woman at the well (ch 4), the raising of Lazarus (ch 11) and the washing of the disciples' feet (ch 13).

Many of the most important events of the life of Jesus are omitted in John's gospel. Well-known material which was included in the synoptics was omitted (John probably had copies of them), as well as material which would not have helped his purpose in 20:30-31. John gives no account of: Jesus's birth, his baptism, the temptations, the transfiguration, the Last Supper, Gethsemane, and the ascension, although there are allusions to many of these events. There are also no recorded deliverances of evil spirits and no parables in the gospel,

Interaction with Jewish and Greek worlds

John's Gospel contains a combination of two incompatible thought worlds. John is the most Jewish of the Gospels, a fact even recognised by Jewish scholars, full of OT allusions, and describing Jesus interacting with Jewish customs and feast days. It is also very Greek, containing Platonic dualism between spirit and flesh, light and darkness; and describing Jesus as the eternal logos, characteristic of Stoicism. This dual thought world fits well with early church tradition connecting John's Gospel with Asia Minor, an area tolerant of many different religions and philosophies.

The church had a core of Jewish believers whose faith was an extension of their Judaism, with larger group of Gentiles converted from paganism, who mixed their Christianity with their pagan thinking. This gospel showed Jews that Jesus was truly the fulfilment of Judaism's hopes for the Messianic Age, and showed Greeks that their search for meaning in life and for immortality in their pagan past is realised in Jesus.

Groups of people in John's gospel

1. The world (79 times in John, 15 times in synoptics)

The world is the most general category of people, referring to unbelieving, sinful humanity. The mission of Jesus was to the world (3:16-19, 6:51, 8:12, 9:5, 12:47). However, the world at large rejected him (1:10, 3:19, 7:7, 14:17, 15:18, 16:20).

2. The Jews (71 times in John, 17 times in synoptics)

This is John's description of the Jews who did not believe in Jesus, particularly the Jewish religious leaders, and Jewish culture who rejected Jesus as their Messiah, so it is a very negative description. However, some Jews did believe in Jesus, including his disciples, and of course Jesus himself was a Jew.

Many people claim that John’s Gospel is anti-Semitic, having a more negative view of Jews than the synoptics. However Jesus, and John were Jews! John truthfully described the conflicts Jesus had with the Jewish leadership, particularly the Pharisees. However not all Pharisees were equally bad, and some befriended Jesus, like Nicodemus.

3. The disciples of John the Baptist

Some of Jesus's disciples were originally disciples of John the Baptist, including the apostle John himself (1:35). When John the Baptist pointed out the Lamb of God, they left him and began to follow Jesus.

John's role was to prepare the way (1:23), and then to fade out. He summarised his own position as "he must increase, but I must decrease" (3:30). However some people thought John was the Messiah (1:20), and some of these refused to change this belief, and continued to think of John as God's promised Messiah. They appear in the book of Acts (18:24-25, 19:1-4), and according to church writings, groups of John's disciples were still in existence towards the end of the first century. Later they became opponents of Christianity. Some suggest that John wrote his gospel to counter these groups who continued to support John the Baptist.

4. Secret believers

These were those who claimed to believe, but did not confess their faith publicly. They appeared to be more concerned about human opinion than God's opinion (12:42-43), fearful that they would be expelled from the synagogue (9:22). Nicodemus may also come in this category (ch 3).

5. People only attracted by signs and wonders.

They are often described as 'many'. Their faith was based primarily on witnessing miraculous signs (2:23, 11:45). They were happy to eat miraculous bread and fish, but were not willing to accept the exclusive claims of Jesus, and turned away and no longer followed him (6:60-66).

Jesus distrusted these people (2:24), and did not want people to believe in him just because he performed signs. True faith depended on believing his exclusive claims, not on admitting his works of power (20:29). There were even some Jews who are described as believing in Jesus (8:31), but whose faith was shown to be inadequate, when they later rejected Jesus and his outrageous claims (8:33-59).

6. Those with true faith.

These are the people who responded with faith, both after seeing the signs, but also they believed the claims Jesus made. These included eleven of the twelve disciples, and are described by Jesus as 'those whom the Father had given him' (6:67-69, 16:29-31, 17:6-10,20). It was this true faith which brought (and brings) people into eternal life (20:31). It was these who received him and became children of God (1:12). There is a blessing on those who believe without seeing (20:29).

Structure of book

John's Gospel can be divided into four main sections
1. Prologue (1:1-18)
2. The book of signs (1:19 - 12:50)
3. The book of passion and glory (13:1 - 20:31)
4. Epilogue (ch 21)

1. The Prologue

A hymn of the wonder and mystery of the incarnation, starting in heaven and moving to earth. The revelation of the Word to the world, and its response. For more about the prologue and Jesus being described as the Word (Logos) see the Prologue to John's Gospel page.

2. The Book of Signs

John structures his account of the ministry of Jesus around alternating miracles and discourses. Only seven of his many miracles are recorded in John's gospel, and these are called signs rather than miracles. These signs point beyond themselves to communicate truths about who Jesus is. The discourses or conversations following the signs explain their deeper meaning and significance in understanding who Jesus is. Normally following the discourse there is a response, either of faith by his disciples, or rejection by the Jewish leaders.

Another theme interwoven into the book of signs is the presence of Jesus at the Jewish feasts in Jerusalem. John's purpose here is to show that all that these Jewish feasts stand for is fulfilled in Jesus. Three separate Passovers are mentioned, as well as the Feast of Booths (Tabernacles), and the Feast of Dedication.

There are two distinct parts to the book of signs: his popular ministry to crowds (1:19 - 6:70), and the time of increasing conflict (ch 7-12). The turning point occurs at the end of chapter six, when many of his followers reject Jesus following his teaching about the bread of life and eating his flesh.

3. The Book of Glory

This is set exclusively in Jerusalem, and describes the events of the last week, leading up to the crucifixion and resurrection. Consistently through the gospel, Jesus speaks of his suffering and death as his glorification, the time when he would be lifted up on the cross and draw all men to himself (12:32-33). On arrival in Jerusalem, Jesus said, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified"(12:23). Before this, he repeatedly said, "My hour has not yet come" (eg: 2:4). When Judas left the last supper, Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him" (13:31). In his great prayer, Jesus prayed, "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you." (17:1). However glorification also implied resurrection, "Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed." (17:5).

The Book of Glory has a very carefully developed theology of the Holy Spirit, not found anywhere else in the New Testament. The teaching on the Holy Spirit as the Comforter or Paraclete, is quite different from the teaching in Acts or Paul's letters. In this Jesus is preparing the disciples for their mission to the world after Jesus returns to the Father.

The book of Glory also divides into two sections: the first is the upper room discourse (ch 13-17), when he is preparing the disciples for his departure. The second is the passion narrative (ch 18-20), the trials, cross and resurrection, which is similar to the synoptic gospels, but with a particular focus on the trial before Pilate.

4. The Epilogue

John's gospel appears to finish twice, once at the end of chapter twenty, with the post-resurrection appearances, and again at the end of chapter twenty-one, which forms a kind of appendix to the whole book.

Many scholars question whether chapter twenty-one was in the original, as the gospel has already come to a climax and conclusion in chapter twenty. However, no manuscript exists without it. It was probably added by members of the Johannine School, rather than originally being written by John. It is not quite consistent with the appearances in chapter twenty, as the disciples do not recognise him. Also, there are differences in the vocabulary and style from the rest of the gospel.

It may have been added to correct misunderstandings over Jesus’s comments about the beloved disciple. People may have thought that Jesus said he would return before the death of John.

1:11-12 gives a summary of the gospel. "His own people did not accept him", describes the rejection by the Jews described in the Book of Signs. "To those who believed in his name", shows the focus on his disciples we see in the Upper Room Discourse.

The Woman Caught in Adultery (7:51 - 8:11)

The well-loved story of the woman caught in adultery is missing in some of the most ancient manuscripts. This would suggest that it is a later addition, and not originally by John. The language has differences from the rest of the gospel, having more similarities with the synoptic gospels. Most manuscripts have it in this position. The debate with the Pharisees during the Feast of Tabernacles that started in chapter seven, continues at 8:12, making complete sense if this passage is omitted. However it does fit the context of increasing hostility while Jesus was teaching in the temple in chapters seven and eight. In later manuscripts it is included in various different places: Some have a few verses earlier, after 7:36, before the description of the events on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, or after 7:44, after they tried to arrest Jesus. Others place it at the end of the gospel, after 21:25, perhaps intended as an appendix to all four gospels. In some manuscripts it is even included in Luke’s Gospel, at the end of the Olivet Discourse (21:28). There are also significant differences in the text in the different manuscripts.

Because it is such a characteristic story of Jesus, and true to his character, the majority of scholars accept its authenticity. It almost certainly records a historical incident that happened in the temple, during the last week of Jesus’ ministry, probably around the same time as the conflict stories of Mk 12. It illustrates the statement of Jesus made a few verses later, "You judge by human standards, I judge no one" (8:15)

The footnote in the NRSV says the following
"The most ancient authorities lack 7:53 - 8:11; other authorities add the passage here, or after 7:36, or after 21:25, or after Luke 21:38, with variations of text. Some mark the passage as doubtful."

Related articles:

Introduction Prologue (1:1-18) - Jesus as the Logos
Important Themes in John's Gospel Jesus as the Fulfilment of the Jewish Festivals
Jesus' Teaching about the Holy Spirit - Paraclete Reclining at Table during the Last Supper
Understanding Gospels
Herod Family Jewish Religious Groups
Herod's Temple Annas and Caiaphas
Pontius Pilate Fall of Jerusalem - AD 70
Taxation in Israel Gnosticism