Q&A: Overview of the Book of John

Overview of the Book of John

Question

Overview of the Book of John

Answer

Overview of the Book of John

Author: The author is the apostle John.

Purpose:

To present the life of Jesus so that unbelievers will come to faith in him and believers will grow in their faith in him as the Messiah and the Son of God descended from heaven.

Date: A.D. 85-90

Key Truths:

  • Jesus is the divine Word from above who became flesh.
  • Jesus came to the Jews, but only a few of them received him.
  • Jesus performed many public signs, demonstrating that he was the Messiah, the Son of God.
  • Jesus taught that salvation was in him alone.

Author:

Although this Gospel is anonymous, it contains some hints about its authorship. The author was almost certainly Jewish, for he displays an intimate knowledge of Jewish customs, festivals, and beliefs. His detailed geographical knowledge suggests that he was a native of Palestine, and it appears that he was an eyewitness of many of the events recorded in his Gospel (John 19:35).

Further, this is the only Gospel that refers to one of the apostles as "the disciple whom Jesus loved" (John 13:23) rather than by name. This disciple is the one identified as the eyewitness who "testifies to these things and who wrote them down" (John 21:24). Moreover, John son of Zebedee, who was one of the most prominent disciples, is not mentioned by name in this Gospel. It is difficult to explain this omission unless we assume that the Gospel was written by John and that modesty prevented him from identifying himself.

Early Church traditions (e.g., the writings of Irenaeus in the second century) explicitly and consistently attribute this Gospel to the apostle John. Modern doubts about the reliability of that tradition have led many scholars to reject the Johannine authorship of the book, but no other view accounts as satisfactorily for the facts.

Time and Place of Writing:

Early Church tradition suggests that John wrote this Gospel toward the end of his life, possibly around A.D. 85-90. Some scholars in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, having abandoned Johannine authorship, argued that the Gospel was composed as late as the middle of the second century. However, the discoveries of the Rylands Fragment (a piece of papyrus dated no later than A.D. 130 that contains a few verses from John 18) and the Dead Sea Scrolls (which enhanced our understanding of Palestine in the first century) have compelled most scholars to return to the Gospel's traditional date. Some specialists have gone further, dating it prior to A.D. 70.

The author himself describes his purpose: "These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:31). There has been considerable discussion, however, concerning whether the author had in mind initial or continued belief. Grammatically, both views are possible, and there is no need to press for one to the exclusion of the other, since the author himself did not do so.

Purpose and Distinctives:

Jesus' interaction with "his own [who] did not receive him" (John 1:11) supplements his central focus. Jesus appeared often in Jerusalem at various Jewish feasts, which took on special importance because of the way in which he related his own work to what the feasts signified (e.g., especially John 7:37-39). Despite this ministry, his own people did not receive him, a fact that John explains as symptomatic of human sin. Jesus was rejected not because he was a stranger, but because people love darkness rather than light.

It is characteristic of the style of this Gospel to emphasize contrasting concepts and themes: (1) light and darkness (John 1:4-9), (2) love and hatred (John 15:17-18), (3) from above and from below (John 8:23), (4) life and death (John 6:57-58), (5) truth and falsehood (John 8:32-47) and so forth. Other characteristics include: (1) the theme of misunderstanding (John 2:20; 6:51-58), (2) the employment of double meanings (John 3:14; 6:62) and (3) the inclusion of the "I am" sayings (John 6:35).

John highlights the reality and greatness of sin in various ways, but especially by emphasizing our total dependence on God for salvation. Just as our physical birth was not the result of our own effort or will, so, too, we owe our spiritual birth to God's will and the power of his Spirit (John 1:12-13; 3:5-8). Sinful men and women are simply unable to come to Jesus for salvation unless they are drawn by the Father (John 6:44, 65). Once they come to Jesus, however, they have "eternal life and will not be condemned" (John 5:24); they belong to the Father, and he will not let them perish (John 10:27-29).

One of the most striking distinctives of this Gospel is its prologue (John 1:1-18). Jesus is presented as the eternally existing Logos, or Word (i.e., the One who alone can reveal the Father). He can do so because, as the Son, he shares in the Father's deity. He is the One who made the universe (John 1:3). He met the needs of the Israelites in the wilderness, and now he provides spiritual water and bread (John 4:13-14; 6:35). In short, he is one with the Father, the great "I am" (John 5:18; 8:58; 10:30-33).

Moreover, John's Gospel presents Jesus as the Lamb of God who gave his life for his people (John 1:29; 10:11). Although he died for them, he did not leave them alone. Before his death, Jesus promised to make his home in their hearts through the Spirit, who would bring peace and teach them all things (John 14:15-18, 23-27). After Jesus' death, his disciples, empowered by the Spirit, were sent forth, as Jesus had been sent, to perform the great work of evangelism and to bear much fruit (John 14:12; 15:8; 20:21-23).

Notes from the NIV Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Dr. Richard Pratt, ed. (Zondervan, 2003).

Introduction Material:

Introduction to the Gospels and Acts

Copyright:

Copyright, Authors, and Theological Editors of the SORSB

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries who served as Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary and has authored numerous books.