Understanding the Gospel of John
- Wednesday, April 14, 2004
During the latter part of the 1st Century, the disciple John recounted the story of Jesus Christ and His debates with the Jewish authorities. Based on the recollections of his most trusted followers, The Gospel of John was likely composed two generations after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
“Gospel” is the name given to early accounts of the story of Jesus’ life, teachings and activities. The New Testament incorporates four “gospels” into its text. Although John was the last to be written, a fragment of this gospel is the earliest piece of the New Testament to have been recovered archaeologically, during the second quarter of the 2nd century; a mere 30-50 years after the story was written.
The Gospel is set in a politically turbulent time, when The Roman Empire controlled Jerusalem, and the surrounding area. Under Roman rule, the Jews autonomy and political rights were limited, but they were still allowed great measure of religious freedom. Generally, they adhered to a set of common beliefs and practices, including dietary laws, the observance of the Sabbath and the belief in one God.
However, profound disagreements existed amongst the various groups and factions within the Jewish community about other elements of Jewish life, including interpretation of the Torah, the calendar, the role of the Temple and disdain for Roman governance. Jesus and His disciples contributed to the growing controversy. In doing so, they, like the Pharisees, who believed in living by the tenants of Moses’ law, laid claim to an exclusive relationship with the God of Israel and vied for the adherence of their fellow Jews.
It is important to note that Jesus and all His early followers were Jewish. As the Gospel attests, despite the sometimes antagonistic language, Jesus and His followers always considered themselves to be an integral part of the Jewish community as whole, and not in opposition to it.
Smaller movements attempted to renew Judaism from within, as the Hebrew prophets had done years before. One of those figures seeking the religious renewal of Judaism was John the Baptist, who called himself a “voice crying in the wilderness.” His message called the Jewish people to prepare for the coming of “the ‘Lamb of God’ who would take away the sin of the world.”
There was little indication at the time that Jesus’ philosophy would survive after His death. But His small sect of loyal followers, having failed to impact Judaism significantly, took His message into the Roman world with remarkable success.
In John’s day, Christianity had become a major Greek religion and was completely independent of its Jewish roots. Precisely because of its Jewish roots, however, Christianity became Judaism’s major competitor. Both groups claimed to be “the people of God” and to have the same collection of Holy Scripture, the Hebrew Bible — which Christians called the “Old Testament.”
The Gospel of John is a product of its time and place in the life of the emerging church during a tumultuous social and political era. It is also a deeply moving expression of Christian belief, reflecting the convictions of the community of faith that created it.
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