Editor’s note: All Scripture references are from the Gospel of John unless otherwise noted.
The Gospel of John was written after the followers of Jesus had been expelled from the synagogues (AD 85) and continued to be persecuted by the Jewish authorities (Pharisees and scribes). Hence the hostility toward “the Jews.”
This gospel is very different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke (synoptics). While having some basic facts in common, John’s gospel stands alone in its literary style, much of its content, and theological emphasis (read: What are the Gospels?).
At one time the Johannine literature (gospel, letters, Revelation), were assumed to be the product of one author. Today’s Bible scholars are virtually unanimous in agreeing that the author of Revelation which ends “I am coming soon” was radically different in style and theology than the gospel with realized eschatology, (Jesus is here) and that the letters came from a different writer.
The gospel and letters reveal that a schism had occured (1 Jn.2:19) in the community in Ephesus and pinpoints the dissidents as anti-Christs. As a result the gospel was delayed in getting canonical recognition because it was used by groups whose doctrines were suspect.
The gospel is similar to the synoptics in that it begins with John who is not called the “baptist” followed by the call of the disciples, the order and their identity is different. The cleansing of the temple is at the beginning of Jesus ministry. In the synoptics it is at the end.
There are three Passovers in John indicating a ministry of 2-3 years – only one in the synoptics. Both have in common the healing of an official’s son, feeding the 5000, Jesus stilling the storm, the anointing of Jesus’ feet by a woman, Palm Sunday event, and Peter’s betrayal.
There are no parables, demonic exorcisms, or pronouncement stories in John. John has two allegories on the shepherd (10:1ff) and the vine and branches (15:1ff). Missing from John are the many miracle stories and the short pithy sayings of Jesus.
Jesus speaks in a more elevated, theological, and oratorical style. We have the encounter with Nicodemus (3:1ff), the Samaritan woman (4:1ff), and the long discourse with Pilate (chs.18-19). At the last supper there is a foot washing ceremony.
The eucharist theme is moved to follow the feeding of the 5000 where Jesus preaches a long sermon on the “Bread of Life” (6:25-59).
The phrase “I am” which Judaism considered the name for God is used 54 times. I am the bread of life, living bread, light of the world, door of the sheep, good shepherd, resurrection and the life, and the true vine. “You will surely die in your sins unless you come to believe I AM” (8:24b).
The Gospel’s Outline
The prologue (1:1-18) which many believe was a pre-existant hymn used in the Johannine community opens with the words from Genesis, “In the beginning.” Following this there are two clear divisions, the Book of Signs (1:19 to 12:50) and the Book of Glory (13:1 to 20:31).
The Book of Signs begins with Jesus revealed over a period of seven days (1:19 -2:11). The water is changed to wine at Cana (2:1-12). “This was the first of his signs.” Here and at the foot of the cross his mother is called “woman.” Of the early Church fathers, both Justin the Martyr (c.AD 155) and Irenaeus (c.AD 180) saw Mary as the second Eve.
The Nicodemus (3:1ff) and the Samaritan woman (4:1-42) discourses are followed by the healing of the official’s son (4:46-54). “This was the second sign that Jesus performed…” (v.54).
The third sign took place with the healing of the cripple at the Pool of Bethesda on the Sabbath (5:1-15). “Pick up your mat and walk.” The man broke the law that specifically prohibited carrying one’s mat on the Sabbath. However Jesus commanded him to do so thus showing his superiority to the law.
The feeding of the 5000 (6:1-15) was the fourth sign. “Jesus took the loaves of bread, gave thanks (Greek - eucharistein) and passed them around…” (6:11). Jesus actions suggest eucharistic overtones.
Jesus walking on the sea is the fifth sign (6:16-24) which manifests his glory. Only God has power over the elements of nature.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Eucharist
After the multipication of the loaves we have Jesus’ prophetic sermon on the bread of life (6:25ff). “I myself am the living bread come down from heaven…the bread I give is my flesh for the life of the world.” The Jews asked: “How can he give us his flesh to eat?” (6:51-52). As the reformers in the sixteenth century, “From this time on many of his disciples broke away and would not remain in his company any longer” (6:66). They refused to accept the real presence of the Lord in the eucharist!
In the sixth sign Jesus restored the sight of a man blind from birth. First the man’s neighbors question him (v.8); next the Pharisees (vv.13-17); then the man’s parents are questioned by the Jews (vv.18-22); finally the Jews question the man the second time (vv.24-34). He then was bodily ejected from the synagogue.
The final sign is the raising of Lazarus (9:1-54). Lazarus came forth still bound with the burial clothes because he must die again. Jesus came forth from the tomb without them which symbolizes eternal life as a promise to all who serve him (3:16).
The Book of Glory
The Last Supper with the washing of the feet emphasizes the need to serve one another. Jesus’ farewell discourse promised the divine indwelling of the Paraclete. It concludes with the priestly prayer (ch.17). Jesus, passion, death and resurrection follow.
Jesus breathed on the disciples: “and they received the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven.” The original ending of the gospel is the twentieth chapter (20:30-31).
The appendix (ch.21) was added by the final editor (AD 110) to show Peter as the shepherd and martyr (vv.15-19). Just as he denied the Lord three times he was told to feed the sheep three times!