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Understanding the Gospel of John

  • Wendy Reid
  • Published Apr 14, 2004
Understanding the Gospel of John

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.


About the Biblical Text


For many readers, both ancient and modern, John is the “spiritual gospel,” signaled by the initial emphasis on Jesus as the one who descends from God at the beginning of the account and returns to God at the end.


The first half of the gospel consists of lively and well-crafted dialogues between Jesus and individuals, such as the Samaritan Woman; Nicodemus who came to Jesus by night; and the blind man, all of whom do not appear in other gospels.

It stands apart from Matthew, Mark and Luke in that when it records the same events, as in the case of the “cleansing of the temple,” the incident appears at a dramatically different moment chronologically. It includes long discourses by Jesus, whereas the other gospels tend to have Jesus speaking in short statements or parables. It weaves Jesus’ ministry around seven “signs” or miracles: the changing of water to wine; healing the nobleman’s son; healing the lame man; walking on water; feeding the 5000; healing the blind man; and raising Lazarus. Unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke, it records no exorcisms.

In these same gospels, Jesus goes only once to Jerusalem, implying a one-year ministry. In
 The Gospel of John, Jesus makes a number of visits spread over a three-year ministry. He is recognized from the beginning as the Messiah in John, while in the other three gospels, that recognition comes slowly.


The Gospel of John  is the only gospel that explicitly mentions why it was written. Toward the end, the author states that the purpose is to show that “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.” John’s gospel uses stylish literary techniques to communicate this conviction, making a limited range of points repeatedly, so that the gospel can be appreciated at a variety of levels. The author does not hesitate to use dramatic and emotional moments to drive home his core messages.


Perhaps what impresses most about The Gospel of John is its breathtaking sweep, which bridges from “before the world was created” to future generations who will “believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.”



Photo Credit: Brooke Palmer