Like every book in the Bible, the fourth gospel was uniquely inspired by God. He used a special human author to write an important message to a particular original audience, a message that he has carefully preserved to our day. Puritan William Perkins called John (along with Romans) one of the keys to unlocking the message of the rest of Scripture. Understanding the special characteristics of John’s gospel can prepare us to meet in a fresh way the One about whom he writes.
Who Wrote John?
The fourth gospel is technically anonymous; the heading According to John is probably not original. By simply reading the gospel we discern that the author was a Palestinian Jew who followed and trusted in Jesus as the promised Messiah. Church history identifies the author as the apostle John, the son of Zebedee, a fisherman who responded to Jesus’ call to become a fisher of people (Luke 5:1–11). The book itself supports this evidence; it is hard to explain why John’s name is never mentioned in the fourth gospel if he was not its author.
Instead of simply using his name John identified himself as the disciple Jesus loved (13:23; 20:2; 21:7, 20). If that title sounds boastful, it is the right kind of boasting (Gal. 6:14). He wasn’t bragging about his own love for Christ; he was magnifying Jesus’ love for him. If John knew Jesus loved him, and if he wasn’t claiming to be more loved than others, why not self-identify in this way? He is simply echoing what Paul wrote earlier: Jesus “loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
John invites believers to join him in identifying themselves as the “beloved of God” (Rom. 1:7). After all, what if the most important thing we can say about ourselves is that “the deep, deep love of Jesus…vast, unmeasured, boundless, free, [rolls] as a mighty ocean in its fullness over me.” How might it help us to say when we feel unloved by others and can’t imagine why anyone would love us, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Charles Wesley teaches us to borrow John’s language and sing, “Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly” (cf. John 13:23).
John’s self-designation is even more compelling given what we know of him from the rest of Scripture. John was theologically untrained in the eyes of the religious establishment (Acts 4:13). Yet it was clear to everyone that Jesus’ love had changed him. Mark calls John a Son of Thunder (Mark 3:17). Whether or not the title hints at John and his brother James’ volatile anger, it is probably not an accolade. But Jesus loved him. James and John sought Jesus’ permission to “command fire to come down from heaven and consume” a village of Samaritans who failed to believe the gospel (Luke 9:54). John could completely misunderstand Jesus’ mission. But Jesus loved him. The Son of Thunder tried to make Jesus promise him a special place in glory, totally missing his emphasis on service (Mark 10:35–45). How self-seeking! But Jesus loved him. How comforting that a man given to indiscretion, vindictiveness, and self-promotion could be known by Jesus’ love for him. Perhaps it’s because of John’s sensitivity to his own weakness that he used this title “beloved disciple” instead of his given name. John isn’t trying to argue people into the kingdom. He’s simply introducing to others who need to know Jesus’ love the Jesus who loved him.
In introducing Jesus John’s gospel records true history. The apostle Jesus loved was an eyewitness (1:14; 20:30) who wrote his gospel in the second half—probably the final third—of the first century AD. The church father Irenaeus recalled listening to his teacher Polycarp talk about his own conversations with the apostle John about his time with the Lord. This is important; John’s testimony could easily have been disproved by thousands of other eyewitnesses if his gospel was simply fake news. John’s eyewitness is part of a massive cloud of witnesses who have helped tell Jesus’ story throughout the ages. Like Luke, he is a careful historian. While Church tradition suggests he wrote from Ephesus after the destruction of Jerusalem, he adeptly names Palestinian topography. His record detailed features of Jerusalem years after it was leveled by the Romans, suggesting an eyewitness author. John isn’t writing a compelling novel. He isn’t simply telling a story that helps readers grapple with profound truths by recounting a history that is fundamentally true.
To Whom Was the Fourth Gospel Written and Why?
Why, when three gospels were already available, did John write another? He seems to have been aware of the other gospels; he felt no need to re-announce Jesus’ birth or detail his baptism. He left no record of Jesus’ calling of the disciples, or repeat his parables or the Lord’s Supper narrative. He left out certain details that had been passed along by other witnesses. He also added information and stressed themes that fit with his unique purpose. John explicitly identified Jesus as God (5:18; 20:28). He revealed Jesus through his “I am statements” (6:20; 8:24, 28, 58). He focused on Jesus’ signs (or miracles; 20:30) instead of parables. John’s record of Jesus’ passion gives the unique perspective of an eyewitness; John stayed after the other disciples fled. John and the other evangelists tell the same Jesus story the way a song can have several harmonious parts.
John Writes to a Distinct Audience
John was likely writing to Gentiles, or Jewish people who were living outside of Palestine and whose thinking and language had become Hellenized. They were familiar with the Old Testament, but John still translated Old-Testament-type terms like Rabbi (1:38; cf. 20:16), Messiah (1:41; 4:25), and others (5:2; 19:13, 17). John used plain grammar with a simple vocabulary. His message raises sufficient objections; his language presents no unneeded barriers. We too have become John’s audience. To those heavily influenced by the world John speaks a clear, simply message of Jesus as God’s gift to sinners.
John Warns against Misunderstanding Jesus
More than the synoptic gospels, John highlights how people misread Jesus. His first listeners failed to grasp the necessity of the new birth (3:3–5, 10). They mistook Jesus as an ordinary person instead of the bread that came down from heaven (6:32–35, 41–42). They failed to comprehend how Jesus is the good shepherd (10:1–6). They underestimated how radically they needed Jesus to wash them (13:6–10). They did not distinguish Jesus’ spiritual kingdom from worldly ones (18:10–11). They misunderstood the Scripture’s teachings about the resurrection of the Christ (20:3–9). We are in a better position than the disciples. We have their testimony and the Spirit of truth (16:13). But John cautions us too against overconfidence. If Jesus can no longer surprise us we have surely misunderstood him. If he cannot destroy our assumptions and shake us out of our routines we don’t know him. Knowledge that completely demystifies the Lord is more rationalistic than Christian. With the Spirit’s help, John’s gospel can challenge our ignorance and deepen our wonder of who Jesus is.
John’s Message Is Explicitly Evangelistic
“And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (20:30–31). His audience was more or less religious, but not convinced that true religion is completely fulfilled by Jesus of Nazareth. John confronts his readers with eyewitness testimony of Jesus and presses them to believe in him (3:36). Readers are encouraged by examples of faith (4:39, 53) and warned by instances of unbelief (6:66; 7:5); the book is set mainly in Jerusalem, the epicenter of Jewish unbelief in mid first-century Palestine. John’s gospel reads like the result of years of preaching the life and implications of Jesus. The book is like a lengthy sermon answering this question: Who is the Christ? John introduces the Son of God who became man to rescue the elect human race by his relentless service and unparalleled suffering and then asks: Do you believe this message? If so, how does faith change everything about your life?
Still, John persistently keeps his story about Jesus. In the first half of the gospel (ch. 1–12) Jesus reveals himself through service, signs, and sermons. In the second half he reveals himself through suffering and glory, through the cross and the empty tomb. By keeping the spotlight on Jesus, John invites us to leave the world’s darkness and follow the Son in the light of his grace.
But how can we believe in a Savior we have never heard, seen, or touched? How can we die to our selfish dreams? How can we learn to put others first even when we disagree with them? How can we be bold, not in demanding our rights, but in resting in the good news? God has given us a sure witness. John knew what he saw and heard (21:24). We have no reason to doubt his testimony. When Jesus’ promised Spirit warms our hearts and clears our minds we will “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,” and believing, have life in his name” (20:31).