St John's Gospel - revealing the life of God



The Gospel according to St John is a mature and profound work of theology, containing subtle thought and careful links and interconnections. It deals with such great themes as light, life, witness, judgement and glory, and is devoted to the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. Its avowed aim (20:31) is to engender or strengthen belief in Jesus as the Son of God - so that its readers, holding this belief, may receive a new birth and become children of God. It was in existence by around 100AD, and though it was not fully accepted by the church until about 175AD it then became the cornerstone of the New Testament canon in the doctrinal controversies of the third and fourth centuries.


Since the second century there has been a strong tradition that the evangelist was John the son of Zebedee, one of the Twelve (and possibly Jesus' first cousin). Although other authors have been proposed (about whom almost nothing is known) there is no compelling reason to suppose that this tradition is wrong. It is thought that this son of Zebedee lived to a great age and became head of the church at Ephesus where the gospel was probably written. He is also likely to have been "the other disciple" and "the disciple whom Jesus loved" who is mentioned several times within the Gospel. This reverential title may have been substituted for John's "I" in the early stages of the Gospel's composition, by his disciples.



The Gospel may be divided up into the following sections:-

  • Prologue (1:1-18)
  • Preparation for the ministry (1:19-2:11)
    (testimony of John,wedding at Cana)
  • "The Book of Signs" (2:12-12:50)
    (the Lord's public ministry)
  • "The Book of the Passion" (13:1-20:31)
    (the Lord's passion and exaltation)
  • Epilogue (21:1-25)
    (by the sea of Tiberias)

The "Book of Signs" can be further divided into six parts:-

  • The New Order seen against the background of the Old Order
    (2:12-4:54) (the cleansing of the Temple, Jacob's well)
  • The New and the Old Orders in conflict (5:1-47)
    (the pool of Bethesda)
  • The Lord as life-giving bread (6:1-71)
    (the feeding of the five thousand)
  • The Lord as giver of living water, Light of the world, the Door, the Good Shepherd (7:1-10:39)
    (the giving of sight to a beggar blind from birth)
  • The Lord as the Resurrection and the Life (10:40-11:53)
    (the raising of Lazarus)
  • The Lord as the Messianic King through death (11:54-12:50)
    (the anointing by Mary, entry into Jerusalem)

Each section, except the sixth, contains both works (actions) and words (discourses) of the Lord (usually in that order) in which the Lord's words explain the inner meaning of the work(s). They all deal with the theme of light or life offered through the incarnate Lord, and each section is connected with a festival of the Jewish sacred year. Moreover each section is a "Gospel in miniature" since the Passion is referred to, and is present in some measure, within it. Throughout this section of the Gospel the Lord's manifestation of himself in work and word becomes steadily clearer, greater and more personal, while opposition and rejection of him by the Jewish religious authorities grows pari passu. But the truth is present from the very beginning, so the climax of the Passion should come as no shock to the reader.

The "Book of the Passion" may be regarded as a seventh section in that it too contains word and work, which are both of highly concentrated character. First comes the great exposition of the Lord to his disciples in private (chapters 13 to 17), then his death and resurrection itself (chapters 18 to 20).

Signs and ironies

In his Gospel, John selects certain historical actions of the Lord and treats them as "signs". These are not necessarily miraculous, for John deprecates belief based on miracles alone (e.g. 4:48 - "except ye see signs and wonders, ye will in no wise believe"), but are external events which point to an internal truth. So for example the Lord being lifted up on the cross is a sign of his exaltation. To do this John makes extensive use of irony (including metaphor, double meaning, misunderstanding and irony proper). In each case there is a surface level of meaning and a deeper alternative level, which provides a higher estimation of Jesus. A fine example of John's ability to see the inward in the outward occurs in the last four words of 13:30, as Judas Iscariot leaves the Last Supper:-

He then having received the sop went out straightway: and it was night.

The Person of the Lord

The depiction of Jesus in John's Gospel is very different to that given in the other three, the so-called Synoptic Gospels. His knowledge of men is complete, he can read their hearts, he knows what is to happen to him and what he must accomplish, there is a majesty about his person, he is always in command of the situation, and speaking with a solemn assurance of truth he can say "before Abraham was, I am" (8:58). In short, we see the divine side of Jesus' nature. John is concerned to show him as a full and complete revelation of the Father, whereas in the Synoptic Gospels Jesus says little about his own person. In John he is a static or timeless figure who does not change throughout his ministry, so that what had seemed to be in the future is shown to be already in men's hands, if they can receive it. In the Synoptics by contrast, he is shown as having a goal before him which is not realised during his ministry, and the relation of his future triumph and glory to his ministry on earth is not made clear.

From Messiah to Son of God

The Jewish religion is one of hope, that when God reveals himself through his Messiah the future will be much better than the present. The first Christians, who came from this religious background, saw Jesus in terms of the Messiah. His earthly ministry, death and resurrection were all preparatory to his forthcoming permanent Presence (or "Parousia") upon earth. In the Synoptics, Jesus is primarily concerned to teach and proclaim the forthcoming Kingdom of God. But in John the Lord is seen as not just the Jewish Messiah, but the Son of God. Hope plays a less prominent part in this Gospel, for the evangelist emphasises that with the coming of Jesus the obedient believer already has eternal life, so the future will be different to what he has now only in degree.

The Jewish background

Although John's Gospel records much hostility from the Jewish religious authorities (who refuse to believe in the Lord), there is nothing but respect in it for the Judaism of the past and the Old Testament. It is written in Greek, but its author appears to be at home with Aramaic thought and idiom, and to be familiar with the thought of contemporary Jewish rabbis. Those rabbis used to speak of the Torah (the law given by Moses) as water, bread and light for the world, so John presents Jesus as the living fulfilment of that Law. But the Jewish Law is also to be made available to all men by means of the Lord's coming and death (12:32 - "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself").

The Logos doctrine

There are both Jewish and Greek elements within Christianity, and it is in John's Gospel that we see these skilfully fused together. Whereas the Jews valued will and action and looked for progress to a glorious future, the Greeks valued thought and looked for the inward reality of outward things. The "Logos" or "Word" was a Greek idea meaning the way in which God expresses his nature and purpose to his creatures, the quickening Spirit of all creation and the life of all that lives. Although the word "Logos" only appears in the Prologue, the dominating idea of John's entire Gospel is that this Word has become flesh and dwelt among us (1:14).

The Father and the Son

So the Father has sent his Son, and John tells us about the relationship between them (5:19-47). The Father loves the Son unreservedly, and has entrusted all things into his hands. The Son obeys his Father completely, and in all matters he does not his own will but the will of his Father who sent him. In this way the Son dwells in the Father and the Father in the Son, and Jesus can say to Philip: "he that hath seen me hath seen the Father" (14:9).


In the Prologue, John tells us (1:4) that the life given to mankind by and through the Logos takes also the form of illumination - the possibility of seeing and understanding. This understanding has been available even before the Incarnation from those who have given witness to the Light, like John the Baptist - but men have chosen not to recognise their Maker, to live according to their own law, and thus to "walk in darkness". Some have received the Light and become children of God without knowing Jesus of Nazareth, but in the life of Jesus men can at last see the full glory of the divine Word. (As is typical in John, verses 1:9-13 can be read in two ways - as a summary of the reception of Jesus by "the world" during his ministry, but also of how men have responded to the Light throughout history.)


In John's Gospel, all those who come into contact with Jesus come ipso facto into judgement - by their attitude to him and to his words they pass judgement on themselves (5:24 - "Verily verily I say unto you, he that heareth my word, and believeth him that sent me, hath eternal life, and cometh not into judgement, but hath passed out of death into life"). But since all love, life, light and truth has its source in the divine Word, those who reject or disbelieve in him are inevitably accepting and identifying with hatred, death, darkness and falsehood (3:19 - "And this is the judgement, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil"). In no other book of the New Testament is there such a contrast between good and evil, life and death, light and darkness.


For John "belief on the Name of the Lord" is an active process which implies not just giving his claims credence but complete obedience and wholehearted devotion. It may begin by seeing signs or hearing testimony, but must pass beyond that stage to a deeper belief which may be called knowledge (14:20). And John's Gospel invites us to share in the very life of God: "If a man love me, he will keep my word: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him" (14:23).

It is noteworthy that John never speaks of belief or knowledge, but uses the verbs "to believe" and "to know". (Indeed, the verb "pisteuein" (to believe) occurs nearly a hundred times in his Gospel.) This strongly implies that for John religious belief is not a passive state, a formal adherence to a set of unchanging propositions, but a life of energy and growth in which, though the end is implicit in the beginning, there is always more to be discovered. The foundation of truth has been laid once for all (14:6 - "I am the way, and the truth, and the life") but the truth itself is always on in advance of our current understanding (16:12 - "I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now").


The glory of the Incarnate Word is not only his union with the Father, but the fact that he has stooped to become man in order to carry out his Father's will. But that glory can only be seen by those who believe (to others Jesus is seen simply as a man making blasphemous claims). In their response to his ministry men have aligned themselves with either darkness or light, represented by Judas and the other disciples at the Last Supper. After dismissing Judas, Jesus is left alone with those he has chosen (13:31) and his glorification as "Son of man" is complete. (In John's Gospel the term "Son of man" has the Jewish implication of a judge and the Greek implication of a perfect man.) He has glorified God, and is now to be glorified as Son of God by his Father in the events of the Passion. By the lifting up of Jesus on the cross in loving obedience to his Father, those who believe in him are through him raised up to fellowship with the Father and receive the divine life.


An independent "tradition"

Until quite recently the common view was that John presumed a knowledge of the Synoptic Gospels in his readers, and had presented the story of Jesus differently for the sake of deeper understanding. Clement of Alexandria wrote:-

Last of all John, perceiving that the external facts had been made plain in the gospels, being urged by his friends and inspired by the Spirit... composed a spiritual gospel.

It was felt that John was untrustworthy historically because he was so concerned with theology. But opinion has changed more recently. John shows considerable accuracy over the geography of Palestine, Jewish customs, and social and other conditions of daily life. His account of several journeys to Jerusalem and the south is more likely to be accurate than those of Mark or Matthew, in which Jesus' ministry is almost entirely in Galilee and he only goes south to Jerusalem for his Passion. Many now think that John's Gospel is based on a separate oral tradition from that used by the Synoptics, which is at least as reliable historically as theirs.

A theory of composition

Whereas the Synoptic gospels appear to have been composed by "redactors" (editors) working on one or more sources of tradition, John's Gospel is now thought to have been composed differently. Many modern theologians think that the stages were something like this:-

  • An oral collection of traditional material about the words and works of Jesus, independent of the Synoptic tradition(s)
  • Oral preaching and teaching of this material, lengthy discourses written by the "Johannine school" with one principal preacher
  • First written edition produced by a master theologian
  • Second edition produced by the same theologian (to meet objections of certain groups, e.g. followers of John the Baptist)
  • Final editing, including addition of the Epilogue and other material

The son of Zebedee could well have been the source of the traditional material in stage one, and stages two to four may have been carried out by him or by one of his disciples (some have suggested John the Presbyter). The final editor was almost certainly a different person.

Theologians have long felt that the great discourses attributed to Jesus in the Gospel were in fact written within a Spirit-inspired post-resurrection community, either by the son of Zebedee (restating, rather than simply repeating the words he had heard long ago in Palestine) or by one of his disciples.

The "Gospel of Signs" as a source...?

John's Gospel contains a number of "misplacements" - inconsistencies and even contradictions of time and place in his narratives. By studying these, as well as differences in language, style and vocabulary (a process known as "source criticism"), some scholars have attempted to show that John's Gospel was based on an earlier source called the "Gospel of Signs". This proposed source is said to have consisted of an account of the works of Jesus and a Passion narrative, but none of his teaching. Further work has suggested that there may have been two editions of this Signs Gospel:-

  • A first, in which there is little hostility from the Jewish authorities, and Jesus is simply presented as "a prophet", "from God", and "the messiah" (a "low christology")
  • A second, in which there is great hostility from the Jewish authorities, and Jesus is identified as being no less than the Son of God (a "high christology")

However, source criticism tends to suppose that an ancient writer sits down in his study, surrounded by his reference manuscripts and numerous scraps of written-down oral tradition. An evangelist like John would have known how he had been accustomed to proclaim the gospel over decades, and would have called on these memories as well as the endless passages of the Bible he would have known by heart.

...or "The Priority of John"?

In 1985 Bishop Robinson published his book "The Priority of John" in which he claimed that not only does the Gospel of John represent a separate tradition, but that it does not depend on any other sources. This does not necessarily mean that John was written first, though Robinson has argued for the following rough stages of composition:-

  • 30-50 Shaping of the Gospel material in dialogue with Palestinian Judaism
  • 50-55 Preaching in the Ephesus area, the first edition of the Gospel
  • 60-65 The Epistles, responding to the challenges of false teachers
  • 65+ Second edition of the Gospel with Prologue and Epilogue

It does mean that John is not based on other sources as the Synoptics are, but comprises the evangelist's direct recollection and interpretation of what actually happened in history. So Robinson holds that John is more likely to be historically correct than the Synoptics, such as in his description of Jesus' ministry lasting two years, and his Passion narrative.



The final chapter of John's Gospel throws an interesting light on the relationship between the apostles John and Peter. While they are fishing, the former recognises the Lord (21:7) but it is Peter who throws himself into the sea to meet him. John has the greater understanding but Peter is the man of action. This is also shown earlier in the Gospel at 13:23 (when Peter asks John who Jesus means is to betray him) and 20:1 (where Peter enters the empty tomb first). This suggests that Peter had oversight of the practical life of the church while John was the witness and guardian of the Lord's revelation (21:24 - "This is the disciple which beareth witness of these things, and wrote these things: and we know that his witness is true").

In his Gospel, John both hints (2:22) and specifically states (12:16) that the disciples only understood the truth about Jesus after his resurrection. On the basis of the internal evidence of the Gospel it seems that it was John who best understood his master. He may have realised something of the true meaning of Jesus' teachings before his Passion, for he seems to have been the only disciple present at the crucifixion (19:26). If so, then he may well have taken more note of those teachings than the sources used by the Synoptics. In that case, the great discourses of Jesus in this Gospel, though undoubtedly later refined by John under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, may yet contain more of the actual utterances of our Lord than most theologians would currently allow.


Finally, let me urge you to read this remarkable book in its entirety - that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God; and that in believing you may have Life in his Name.


St John's Gospel - a commentary
R H Lightfoot, OUP 1957

What are they saying about John?
Gerard Sloyan, Paulist Press 1991

Michael Leuty

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Last revised 18th April 1998