Exploring the Gospel of John: Part 1

gospel of john_ part 1

Doesn’t this time of year just make you want to learn something new?

It’s officially autumn (or, fawl, as we Southerners say) and for anyone enrolled in school–that means new classes! There’s a chill in the air so it’s finally appropriate to dig out that old college sweatshirt and wear it with your favorite pair of perfectly-broken-in jeans. While we’re at it, go ahead and fill up your travel mug with some fresh coffee and let’s hit the books, okay? If you’re hungry to learn, grab your Bible, a notebook, and something to write with and let’s get started.

If we want to learn about Jesus, a good place to start is in one of the four gospels…and John is my favorite. The gospel of John is the unique book of the four biblical gospels, standing out in a myriad of ways. John’s author is anonymous, it’s style unmatched, and the receiving audience is wildly broad. While the book has stood the test of time, it wasn’t without conflict. But before we analyze the many differences of John’s gospel, it is worthwhile to begin with the similarities between John and the synoptics (the other three gospels–Matthew, Mark, and Luke.)

A Bit of History

Fundamentally, all four books are historical accounts of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, told in a narrative form of ancient biography. In his book “The Gospel and Letters of John,” Alan Culpepper highlights the many similarities between the books, as follows:

  • stating the “significance of John the Baptist;”
  • describing the overall ministry of Jesus to his disciples, the crowds, and his response to the religious authorities;
  • by giving an account of Jesus’ demonstration in the Temple, his entry into Jerusalem, his last meal with the disciples, and his crucifixion;
  • and finally, how all four testify of the “the discovery of the empty tomb.”

Because of the consistency of each book’s account of Jesus, and of the unprecedented form of literature genre that is the “gospel,” it is reasonable to accept John among the synoptics (even taking into account it’s differences.)

Where there might be discussion about John’s particular style, we can turn now to examine the author’s exceptional approach and agree that there are also notable differences from the synoptic gospels. Here Culpepper categorizes the five main themes that distinguishes John: the journeys of Jesus, the chronology of the narrative, the signs (or miraculous works) of Jesus, his teachings, and the author’s overall Christology. As an example, the journeys of Jesus are structured around the Jewish festivals in Jerusalem in the book of John, lending a specific significance to the time of Jesus’ death by suggesting that he was/is the personified Passover lamb. Similarly, the gospel of John is distinct in the way that Jesus is portrayed as the Revealer, the one sent from heaven to reveal the truth of God.

It is not clear to the reader if the author of John had previous knowledge of the other three gospels. There isn’t conclusive evidence either way, but many held to the belief that the author had some acquaintance with the testimonies and chose to approach this account from a more “spiritual,” or theological, perspective. [1] Craig Koester, author of “The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel,” asserts however, that

“a more plausible alternative is that John is largely independent of the other gospels…may have been acquainted with one or more of the other written gospels…[but] he did not feel constrained to tell the story in the same way.”

It is clear that the account was written post-resurrection, as the reader has evidence for in 2:22, when the author gives an aside about the disciple’s understanding coming only later, after Jesus “was raised from the dead.”

Koester continues by agreeing that all four gospels “works with traditions about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and each of them reshapes the tradition theologically.” In this way, we can clearly see that each gospel has its own particular bent of the author’s style of writing and each follows the same basic themes. We can be confident then, as readers, that we are hearing the story of the same Jesus, from four unique points of view.

A Unique Gospel, Indeed

The impact of John’s gospel can hardly be overstated. Had John’s gospel not made its way into the canon, we would be poorer in our understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit in co-mission with Christ. John’s emphasis on pneumatology (the study or doctrine of the Holy Spirit) is another special element of the book; the gospel introduces the theme as early as chapter 3, in the account of Jesus and Nicodemus.

John is adamant in showing Jesus as on mission from the Father, empowered by the Spirit, for the sake of all people.

The presence of the Spirit in John as an active person of the Trinity was monumental in shaping centuries of theology to come…had the author downplayed or dismissed this element, our orthodox doctrine of the Trinitarian (Father, Son, AND Spirit) love of God for humanity could be virtually non-existent.

If you are curious to follow along, go ahead and read John 3:1-21, in both the Amplified translation and another widely accepted version (like ESV or HCSB.) Reading two versions like this will give you a better sense of the ideas being communicated.

While you are reading, make notes of the imagery that Jesus uses–what kind of adjectives does he use? What verbs? What can we gather about the context of Jesus and Nicodemus’ encounter? Jot down anything that stands out to you as strange, interesting, or confusing.

While you are reading, ask the Holy Spirit to teach you. We will continue with John next week!

[1] Clement of Alexandria (d. ca. 215) held this opinion, calling John the “spiritual gospel.”

Published by Sara Beth Longenecker

Sara Beth Longenecker is a writer and blogger based in Nashville, TN. She helps women sort through the noise of our culture by bringing them truth, beauty, and everyday theology.

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