Introduction to John
John wrote his account of Jesus’ ministry much later than the others, approximately 30-50 years later in the early A.D. 90s. By this time, the other three (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) had been widely circulated and their stories were probably well-known. This may partially explain why John’s record was so different than theirs.
Only in John do we read of the activities of the pre-incarnate Son of God. Only in John do we read of a Temple cleansing at the beginning of his ministry (2:12-22). Only in John do we hear Jesus make his seven great “I am” statements. Only in John do we find the Upper Room Discourse and its unprecedented Church-Age teachings (chapters 14-16). Only in John do we hear Jesus pour out his heart in Gethsemane (chapter 17). And only in John do we watch him gently restore Peter following his resurrection (chapter 21). All of these, along with several other unrecorded miracles, the Holy Spirit preserved for us through John’s pen as the first generation of Christians began to die off.
John’s style and language is often very simple, something beginning Greek language students thoroughly enjoy. Throughout his gospel and letters he used common themes such as light and darkness and truth and error. His writing is simple to understand yet complex in its depth and richness. A child can understand its message while a scholar meditates on its intricacies.
Unlike the other writers, John’s emphasis was not on Jesus’ humanity or his activities or even his suffering. John had one sole purpose: to present Jesus to the world as the eternal Son of God, proven by his bold miracles and even bolder teachings. After providing one account after another John came near the end of his book and presented this simple challenge to his readers:
“Now Jesus performed many other miraculous signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are recorded so 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 20:30-31)
Beyond anything else, John insisted on telling the story of the God who became flesh, not to condemn the world but to save it (John 3:17). Everything Jesus did and said pushed him a little closer to that day when he would accomplish the work given him by the Father in order to bring glory to him (John 17:4).
Chapter one immediately broke from the tradition of the Synoptics from the first verse. Because his focus was on Jesus’ deity, rather than beginning with Jesus’ human birth, John went all the way to eternity past, borrowing the language of Genesis 1:1, to state Jesus’ preexistence. “In the beginning…the Word was fully God” (John 1:1). Although groups such as the Jehovah Witness interpret this to mean that he was a created, god-like being, John’s precise use of the Greek language requires a reading that attributes deity to Jesus from the very start. Additionally, John revealed that, not only did “God create the heavens and the earth,” but Jesus, the Eternal Son, was the active creator of all things (John 1:2-5).
In order to accomplish the Father’s work (John 17:4), the Eternal Word “became flesh and took up residence among us” (John 1:14). Though that necessarily hid his eternal glory, John claimed to have seen it, though he never revealed when. (It was during the Transfiguration; see Matthew 17:1-8.) Ultimately, Jesus did the one thing that no one else could ever do: he revealed God to man (John 1:18).
John is more like Mark than Matthew or Luke in the sense that he skipped Jesus’ formative years, choosing to jump directly to John the Baptizer and Jesus’ introduction to ministry. John likely wrote from Ephesus, where John the Baptizer at one time had a following (Acts 19:1-7), which may explain his careful point that John “was not the light, but he came to testify about the light” (John 1:8). The Baptizer also made clear that he was not the promised Messiah, instead quoting Isaiah that he was simply the forerunner of the Christ (John 1:19-28). When Jesus came to have John baptize him, he boldly pointed to Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) Where he gained this specific revelation is unknown, but it seems that he had instructed his own disciples to follow the Messiah when he came, because two of them left John to follow Jesus (John 1:35-39). Interestingly, although all four gospels include the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism, John seemed to hint that only Jesus and the Baptizer heard it (John 1:32-34).
Although the second disciple who left the Baptizer for Jesus was not named, the first was “Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter” (John 1:40). The rest of chapter one indicates the word-of-mouth that helped build Jesus’ initial following: Andrew, unknown disciple (possibly John himself), Peter, Philip, and Nathanael (John 1:41-51). This time spent with Jesus early on explains their “quick” response to drop everything and follow him full-time as shown in the Synoptics.