The Gospel of John, a favorite book of the Bible, gives us the story behind the stories of the Gospels. Though it is one of the easiest books to read, John is also one of the most profound books to understand.
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It is generally assumed that the Gospel of John is easy to understand. Often you hear the cliche, “The Gospel of John is the simple Gospel.” And the simplicity of the language has deceived a great many folk. It is written in monosyllabic and disyllabic words. Let me lift out a couple of verses to illustrate. Notice how simple these words are: “He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name” (John 1:11–12).
We have no problem with the words themselves, but actually we’re dealing here with the most profound Gospel. Take an expression like this: “ye in me, and I in you” which appears in John 14:20. Seven words—one conjunction, two prepositions and four pronouns—and you could ask any child in the fourth grade the meaning of any one of those words and he could give you a definition. But you put them together—“ye in me, and I in you”—and neither the most profound theologian nor the greatest philosopher has ever been able to probe the depths of their meaning. “Ye in me” we know means salvation; “and I in you” means sanctification, but beyond that none of us can go very far. We think, sometimes, because we know the meaning of words that we know what is being said. The words are simple, but the meaning is deep.
Jerome said of John’s Gospel, “John excels in the depths of divine mysteries.” And no truer statement was ever made. Dr. A. T. Pierson put it like this, “It touches the heart of Christ.”
Though it is assumed that John is the simple Gospel, it’s not always assumed that the apostle John is the author of it. The Baur–Tubingen School in Germany years ago began an attack upon the Gospel of John. And this has been a place where the liberal has really had a field day. I took a course in seminary (even in my day) on the authorship of the Gospel of John. The professor finally concluded the course by saying he thought John was the author. A wag in the class remarked, “Well, I believed John wrote it before I started the class and I believe it now, so I just wasted a semester!” Let me assure you that we are not going to waste time here relative to the authorship of this Gospel other than to mention two statements that make it quite obvious that John is the writer of it.
One of the reasons it was felt that John might not be the writer was because Papias (I’ve quoted him now for each of the Gospels) was thought to have never mentioned the authorship of John. But Professor Tischendorf, the German who found the Codex Sinaiticus, which is probably our best manuscript of the Old Testament, down in Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinaitic peninsula, was working in the Vatican library when he came upon an old manuscript that has a quotation from Papias in which it was made clear that John was the author of this Gospel. I personally wouldn’t want any better authority than that. Also, Clement of Alexandria, who lived about A.D. 200, makes the statement that John was persuaded by friends and also moved by the Spirit of God to write a spiritual Gospel. And I believe that the Gospel of John is that spiritual Gospel. In my mind there’s not a shadow of doubt that John is the author.
However, the more significant question is: Why did John write his Gospel? It was the last one written, probably close to A.D. 100. All the other apostles were dead, the writers of the New Testament were all gone, and he alone was left. In an attempt to answer this question we find again a diversity of theories. There are those who say that it was written to meet the first heresy of the church which was Gnosticism. The Gnostics believed that Jesus was God but not man at all, that the apostles only thought they saw Him, but actually did not. And Irenaeus expressly makes the statement that the purpose of John was to confute the Gnostic Cerinthus. But Tholuck makes it very clear that this is not a polemic Gospel at all and he is not attempting to meet that issue. Also, there are those who say that it is a supplement to what the others had written, that he merely added other material. But Hase answers that by saying, “This Gospel is no mere patchwork to fill up a vacant space.”
You see, these theories do not give an adequate answer to account for all the peculiar facts that are in this Gospel which a true explanation must do. And, in my judgment, the only satisfactory explanation is that John wrote at the request of the church which already had three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke were being circulated) and wanted something more spiritual and deep, something that would enable them to grow. That’s exactly what Augustine, the great saint of the early church, said:
In the four Gospels, or rather in the four books of the one Gospel, the Apostle St. John not undeservedly with reference to his spiritual understanding compared to an eagle, has lifted higher, and far more sublimely than the other three, his proclamation, and in lifting it up he has wished our hearts also to be lifted (Gregory, Key to the Gospels, pp. 285–286).
That is the purpose of the Gospel of John. That is the reason that he wrote it.
Accordingly, therefore, when we come to the Gospel of John, we find that he does not take us to Bethlehem. We will never grow spiritually by singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” umpteen times at Christmas. John won’t take us to Bethlehem because he wants you and me to grow as believers. John takes us down the silent corridors of eternity, through the vast emptiness of space, to a beginning that is not a beginning at all. “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1). Some say that this world came into being three billion years ago. I think they’re pikers. I think it has been around a lot longer than that. What do you think God has been doing in eternity past, twiddling His thumbs? May I say to you, He had a great deal to do in the past, and He has eternity behind Him. So when you read, “In the beginning,” go as far back as your little mind can go into eternity past, put down your peg—and Jesus Christ comes out of eternity to meet you. “In the beginning was [not is] the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Then come on down many more billions of years. “All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). Then John, in the fourteenth verse, takes another step: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
The Greek philosophers and the Greek mind for which Luke wrote would stop right there and say, “We’re through with you. We can’t follow you.” But John was not writing for them, and he goes even further. “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him” (John 1:18). “Declared him” is exegeted Him, led Him out in the open where man can see Him and come to know Him. The Man who had no origin is the Son who comes out of eternity.
Luke, who was a medical doctor, looked at Him under a “microscope.” Though John’s method is altogether different, he comes to the same conclusion as did Luke. You could never call John’s method scientific. The Christian who has come to a knowledge of Christ and faith in Him doesn’t need to have the virgin birth gone over again; he already believes that. Therefore, when he comes to the Gospel of John, he finds sheer delight and joy unspeakable as he reads and studies it.
Unfortunately, though, he thinks the unbeliever ought to have it also. And you’ll find it is used in personal work more than any other Gospel. After all, doesn’t the average Christian consider it the simple Gospel? Is it simple? It’s profound. It’s for believers. It enables them to grow.
When I was a pastor in Pasadena, I had a doctor friend who, because of his position, was able to get together students at Cal Tech for a Bible class. Do you know what he taught? You’re right, the Gospel of John. He told me, “You know, I really shook that bunch of boys with the first chapter.” I met him several weeks after that and asked him how the class was getting on. “Oh,” he said, “they quit coming.” Well, after all, they had been in a school where you pour things into a test tube, where you look at things under a microscope. I said, “Why didn’t you take the Gospel of Luke?” “Because,” he said, “I wanted to give them the simple Gospel.” Well, he didn’t. John is not simple; it’s profound. It is for believers.
Also there was a seminary professor in this area not long ago who was asked to teach the Bible to a group of businessmen at a noon luncheon. Guess what book he taught. You’re right! He said, “They don’t know very much, so I’ll give them the Gospel of John.” I wish he’d given them the Gospel of Mark. That’s the Gospel of action, the Gospel of power, the Gospel for the strong man. But he gave them the Gospel of John.
The Gospel of John is for those who already believe. When you come to chapters thirteen through seventeen you can write a sign over it, For Believers Only, and you could put under that, All Others Stay Out. I don’t think that section was ever meant for an unbeliever. Jesus took His own into the Upper Room and revealed to them things that enabled them to grow. And no other Gospel writer gives us that. Why? Because they’re the evangelists who are presenting Christ as the Savior of the world. Somebody asks, “But doesn’t John do that?” Yes, he does, but he is primarily writing for the growth of believers.
John gives more about the resurrected Christ than does any other Gospel writer; in fact, more than all the others put together. Paul said that, though we have known Christ after the flesh, we don’t know Him that way anymore. Rather, we know Him as the resurrected Christ. For this reason John attempts to give the appearances of Jesus after His resurrection, and he mentions seven of them.
The first was one of the most dramatic as He appeared to Mary Magdalene there in the garden. The second was to the disciples in the Upper Room, Thomas being absent. The third appearance was again to the disciples in the Upper Room with Thomas present (these three appearances are recorded in ch. 20). Then we see Him appearing by the Sea of Galilee. Several disciples were out fishing. He called to them from the shore, “Do you have any fish?” (see John 21:5).
He is going to ask you that some day, and He’s going to ask me. Have you been doing any fishing recently? Well, you catch them only the way He tells you. You have to fish by His instructions.
And then He prepared breakfast for them. I wish I had been there for that outdoor breakfast. That was a real cookout. And, friend, He still wants to feed you in the morning—also during the day and in the evening—with spiritual food. Then He commissioned Simon Peter: “Simon, do you love Me?” (see John 21:15–17). Jesus did not say that you have to be a graduate of a seminary to be able to serve Him. He asked, “Do you love Me?” That’s the one condition. Don’t misunderstand me. If you love Him, you will want training to prepare you for the ministry He has for you, but He wants to know that you love Him. The reason multitudes of folk are not serving Him today is that they do not love Him. And then Peter was told that he was to be a martyr; but John, no, he will live on in order to write this Gospel, three epistles, and the Book of Revelation. There are the seven appearances that John records, and all of them are for believers; they minister to us today.
At the time of the birth of Christ there was a great expectation throughout the heathen world. That was a strange thing.
Suetonius relates that “an ancient and definite expectation had spread throughout the East, that a ruler of the world would, at about that time, arise in Judaea.” Tacitus makes a similar statement. Schlegel mentions that Buddhist missionaries traveling to China met Chinese sages going to seek the Messiah about 33 A.D. (Life of Vespasian, c. iv.).
There was an expectation throughout the world at that time that He might come. And it was out of the mysterious East that the wise men came to Jerusalem, “Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? …” (Matt. 2:2).
The marvel is that this Gospel of John, so definitely designed to meet the need of believers, is also designed for the oriental mind as is no other. Whom do I mean by Orientals? The Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the uncounted millions in India and in China. Even to this good day we know so little about that area of the world. What about Tibet or Outer Mongolia? It is still the mysterious East. We do know this: there is fabulous wealth there, and right next to it is abject poverty. Out of this land of mystery came the wise men. They were bringing gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh for Him. There are a lot of questions to be answered there. Out of that land of mystery they came. That Oriental splendor that we’ve heard so much about reveals unbelievable wealth, and it is still there—ornate palaces, gaudy grandeur, priceless gems. It has so entranced the West that, when Columbus started out for this country (we give him credit for discovering America, but he wasn’t looking for our continent), he was trying to find a new route to the East in order to bring back something of the wealth that was there.
However, by the side of that wealth there is extreme poverty of the basest sort, dire destitution, millions living in squalor and misery. Their worldly goods consist of the rags they have on their backs. One hundred million will die of starvation in this next decade, we’re told. You may ask, “Well, why don’t we send food for them?” There’s not enough to go around. Our decision is what hundred million will starve? Will it be these or those? But the thing that arrests us is that the poor were crying for help, and the wealthy had found no solution to the problems of life. The Orient gave freest reign to human desires. Although they had this freedom, there was no satisfaction. They’ve had the great pagan religions—Buddhism, Shintoism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Mohammedanism. Yet out of that area, with all that they had, their wise men came asking, “… Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him” (Matt. 2:2). They needed salvation. They had none; no religion ever gave that to them. And this is the reason people in the mysterious East have reveled in the Gospel of John as no others have. It is a mind today that will revel in the Gospel of John. The Lord Jesus can meet the need of this type of mind, as John reveals.
Out of heaven’s glory He came, that One who was before any beginning that we can envision. “And the Word was made flesh” and walked down here among men. The Orient had religion. After all, Israel belonged to that area of the world. The Orient had all kinds of religion. They had temples—ornate, hideous, with degrading rituals. They had cults of the occult. And John tells us that the first public act of the Lord Jesus was to go into the temple of that day and cleanse it. By this He is telling them something, these people who worshiped in their degrading temples, that God is holy. If you’re going to worship God you’ll have to be cleansed; the temple will have to be cleansed; there can be no compromise with evil or wrong.
A religious ruler came to Jesus one night—John alone tells us this. Our Lord that night said to this religious ruler, who had everything and was religious to his fingertips, “You must be born again” (see John 3:3). He needed to have a new life and get rid of the old religion. Jesus said that He had not come to sew a patch on the old garment, but He came to give them the robe of righteousness that would enable them to stand before a holy God. This is what that area of the world needed.
Womanhood was degraded in the Orient. Our Lord ennobled womanhood because He came, born of a woman. He went to a wedding to answer the mockery that they’d made of marriage with the harems of the East. Christ went to a wedding and put His blessing upon it. Also Jesus sat down at a well and had a conversation with a woman of very questionable character. But she was a woman for whom He later died. The soul of a woman was as precious to Him as the soul of a man.
Christ fed the multitudes, followed the meal with a discourse on the Bread of Life, and then escaped because He did not want them to make Him king of their stomachs.
The oriental mind would understand Jesus’ discourse on the Bread of Life. It is unfortunate that the managers of our supermarkets don’t understand it—they think it’s bread and beans on the shelf that’s important, and He said it’s not. A man in the Orient who hasn’t bread and beans will understand that. I am afraid some of us miss it today.
The Lord Jesus said in this Gospel, “I am the light of the world; I am the bread of life; I am the way, the truth and the life.” And the Orient was wretched and perishing in that day, as it is today. John says, “And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name” (John 20:30–31). The thing that they needed above everything else was life. And, friend, this is what the whole world needs today—not religion, but life!
Now before we begin our study of this magnificent Gospel, let me call your attention to some striking features.
The first three Gospels are called the synoptic Gospels because they are written from the same viewpoint with a similar pattern. The fourth Gospel is different.
1. Matthew and Mark emphasize the miracles of Jesus, and Luke gives attention to the parables. John does neither.
2. The miracles in John are given as signs and were chosen with a great deal of discrimination in order to interpret certain great truths. (For example, the discourse on the Bread of Life follows the feeding of the five thousand.) There are eleven specific signs in the Gospel of John.
3. There are no parables in the fourth Gospel. The word parable does occur one time in John 10:6, but it is not the regular Greek word parabole but paroimia. This word ought not to be translated “parable” at all. The story of the Good Shepherd is not a parable; it is a discourse.
John gives us a chronological order which is well to note. The fact of the matter is, if you will follow it along, it will give you a ladder on which you can fit the three–year ministry of Christ. (For example, in John 1:29, 35 he says, “The next day … , the next day.”) He’s giving not only a logical but also a chronological sequence in his Gospel. He also gives attention to places and cities—for example, “Bethabara beyond Jordan” (John 1:28); “Cana of Galilee” (John 2:1).
The deity of Christ is emphasized in this Gospel and is actually in the foreground. But the humanity of Christ is not lost sight of. Do you notice it is only John who tells about His trip through Samaria, and that He sat down at the well, and that He was weary with His journey? Can you think of anything more human than that? Well, I can think of one thing—Jesus wept. And it is John who tells us that, by the way.
The name Jesus is used almost entirely to the exclusion of Christ in this Gospel. That is strange because the emphasis is upon the deity of Christ, and you’d think that he would use the name Christ. Then why does he use the name Jesus? It is because God became a man.
There is a mighty movement in this Gospel, and it is stated in John 16:28. “I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world: again, I leave the world, and go to the Father.” God became a man; this is the simple statement of the sublime fact.
(McGee, J. Vernon. Thru the Bible Commentary, Vol. 38: John (Chs. 1-10). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991.)