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Introduction to the Book of John


I. Writer

         The Gospel of John is the fourth book among the four gospels. In this book, there is no record of the author’s name, but only a brief mention at the end of the whole book. (21:24) “The disciple” is “the disciple whom Jesus loved” and is also the disciple who “leaned on His breast at the supper, and said, Lord, who is the one who betrays You?”(21:20) The ecclesiastical tradition and most Bible scholars believed that the disciple who leaned on the Lord’s breast was the apostle John.

The content of this book can prove the authorship of Apostle John:

         1) The author of this book must be a Jew:

               a) Who had a deep-rooted Messianic conception (1:21; 4:25; 6:14; 7:40; 10:34).

               b) Who knew well about the thoughts of the Jews (4:9-27; 7:15, 35, 49; 9:2).

               c) Who knew well about the Jewish customs and ceremonies. (2:1-10; 7:37-38; 18:28).

               d) Who knew well about the Old Testament (2:17; 3:14; 7:22; 10:34 etc.).

         2) The author of this book must be a native of Palestine:

               a) Who was very familiar with the environment of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple (2:14-16; 5:2; 8:20; 9:7 10:22; 18:1; 19:13,17,20,41 ).

               b) Who was very familiar with the geography of Palestine(1:28; 2:1,11; 4:4,6; 11:18,54; 21:1,2).

         3) The author of this book must be an eyewitness:

               a) Who had personally seen the things he described (1:14; 19:35; 21:24).

b) Who gave elaborate description of many places, characters, times and actions (4:46; 5:14; 6:59; 12:3,21; 13:1; 14:5,8; 18:6; 19:31).

               c) (Especially he is the one) who pointed out the exact times of the events happened, e.g.: “the seventh hour” (4:52), “the third” (2:1), “two days” (11:6), “six days” (12:1).

         4) The author of this book must be an apostle:

               a) Who were deeply acquainted with the thoughts of the disciples (2:11, 17; 4:27; 6:19 etc.)   

               b) Who were deeply acquainted with the secret talks of the disciples (4:33; 16:17; 20:25; 21:3-5).                   

               c) Who were deeply acquainted with the secret whereabouts of the disciples (11:54; 18:2; 20:19).

               d) Who were deeply acquainted with the faults of the disciples (2:21-22; 11:13;  12:16).

               e) Who were deeply acquainted with the thoughts of the Lord (2:24; 4:1; 6:60-61; 6:19).

         5) The author of this book is the apostle John whom Jesus loved:

               a) The three apostles the Lord loved most were Peter, James and John (cf: 17:1; 26:37 ;Mark9:2; Luke9:28).

               b) It is plainly indicated in the book that Peter was not “the disciple” (21:20), and James was an early martyr (see Acts12:2). Therefore the author can be none other than John.

               c) While the book accurately mentioned the names of other disciples, it intentionally ignored the name of Apostle John, and used “the disciple”, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” and “the son of Zebedee” (see13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:2,7 etc. ). Although the author tried to conceal his name in this book, it is still not difficult to find the deliberately hidden name----Apostle John, if the readers search the book carefully.

         Besides the foregoing internal proofs, there’re also some external proofs which prove John’s authorship of this gospel:

         1. It was unanimously acknowledged among the ancient churches, especially the seven churches in Asia Minor (see Revelation 1:4, 11) that the author of this gospel was the disciple whom Jesus loved. In his old age, Apostle John had been working in Asia Minor, so the churches there were familiar with John. No one among them raised any objection that somebody else pretended to be Apostle John to write this book when it was circulated among them.Polycarp (the elder of the church in Smyrna, and the disciple of Apostle John) often in his letters quoted from “the first Epistle of John” and “the Gospel of John”.

         2. Papias (the elder of the church in Hierapolis, and a fellow-workman of Apostle John in John’s old age) often cited from “the first Epistle of John”, which was truly the further development of “the Gospel of John”. They both agree in the tone, the literary style and the outline.

         3. Valentinus (another fellow-workman of Apostle John in his old age) admitted the validity of all the books in the New Testament, among which his favorite one was the gospel written by John.

         4. Irenaeus, a godfather in the history of the church, was the first one to point out the authorship of John. He said “John, the disciple of the Lord, was the disciple who leaned on his breast”, and again, “To refer to the true source of all things, John the disciple of the Lord said ‘in the beginning was the Word…”

The points above-mentioned are only a few among the many external proofs, and yet are sufficient to verify John’s authorship of this book.

II. The Apostle John

         The apostle John was the son of Zebedee (Matthew10:2), the brother of James. His mother Salome (Matthew 27:56; cf: Mark15:40; 16:1), one of the sisters who followed and served Jesus from Galilee (Matthew 27:55), was possibly the sister of the Lord. John and his brother James were therefore possibly the Lord’s cousins(Matthew 27:56; cf: John19:25). No wonder that the two brothers asked their mother to seek favor in the face of the Lord, so that they could sit in His kingdom, one on His right hand and one on His left (Matthew 20:20-21).

         Probably, John was born in a wealthy family: his father, possessing boats and hired servants (Mark1:20), was a great fisherman. And John also knew the high priest (18:15). Apart from his house in Galilee, it appears that he had another house in Jerusalem (19:27).

         Originally, he was the disciple of John the Baptist. When John the Baptist testified to his disciples: “Behold, the Lamb of God”, two of the disciples followed Jesus and abode with him. One of them is Andrew, and the other unnamed is Apostle John (1:35-40), for he had never mentioned his own name in the gospel written by himself.

         It seems that he had been called by the Lord more than once. In the first time, the Lord said to them: “Come and see.”(1:39) But after following the Lord for a time, he returned to his fishing business. Later, the Lord called him the second time by the Sea of Galilee and he left his father, partners and the boat, thus becoming a fisher of man (Matthew4:18-22). Still later on, the Lord called him out of the disciples to be one of the twelve apostles (Luke 6:13-14).

         Of the twelve disciples, there were three who were especially intimate with the Lord----Peter, James and John (Luke 8:51; 9:28; Mark 14:33). Of these three, John was the one nearest to the Lord. John had leaned on the breast of Jesus (13:25); he was the one whom Jesus loved(13:23); he was the only disciple witnessing the Lord’s suffering below the cross(19:26); and he was the one who was entrusted by the Lord with the responsibility to take home the Lord’s mother (19:27).

         John and his brother were called Boanerges, which is, the son of the thunder (Mark3:17). It was therefore imaginable that John was an irritable man. When he saw someone casting out demons in the Lord’s name, who did not follow together with them, John was provoked to jealousy for the Lord and forbade his work (Luke 9:49). When the people in Samaria refused to receive the Lord, John and James asked the Lord to permit them to replay the story of Elijah----to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them (Luke 9:54). However, his disposition as son of thunder was melted by Lord’s love and gradually became an apostle of love (or “an apostle who specialized in preaching love”).

         After the Lord’s ascension, he left and dwelt in Jerusalem. Knowing that the Lord had given Peter the key of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:18-19), John held his proper position and assisted Peter to build the churches under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. He cooperated with Peter closely: they prayed with one accord in that upper room; they stood up on the Day of Pentecost to announce the gospel, they healed the born lame at the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful and testified the Lord’s resurrection to the people. They were both put in custody by the rulers afterwards, and both preached Jesus of Nazareth before them, and they had been fellow-workers in Samaria (Acts1:13-14; 2:14; 3:1-4:22; 8:14).

         Before the fall of Jerusalem, Apostle John had moved westward to minister the Lord in the churches in Asia Minor (Paul was martyred in that days.). He abode in Ephesus, from which he was exiled, in the reign of the Roman despot Domitian, to the island of Patmos----a desolate island in the Aegean Sea----where he saw the vision of the Lord of the glory and wrote the book of Revelation.

John lived a long life of almost 100 years on earth. It was then spread among the disciples that John would not die, but John himself clarified the rumor (21:23). We knew from his disciple Polycrates that Apostle John was martyred for his Lord in his old age.


III. The Time and Location the Book was Wrote

         John wrote this book around 85-90 AD, when the first three gospels had already circulated throughout all the assemblies. It is said by the godfathers in the early church history that John in his old age shepherded assemblies at Ephesus in Asia Minor. The assumption that the book was accomplished at the end of the first century is quiet rational. Many scholars agreed with Irenaeus, Clement and Jerome, that this gospel was completed later than the other three gospels for John seemed to have made some supplement of the Synoptic Gospels. As to why the destruction of Jerusalem was not mentioned in this book, it was possibly because the book was finished 15-20 years after the event, when the repercussion of the city’s destruction had already fainted.

         Irenaeus mentioned in his book that when John died, Trajan was the Roman Caesar (He was enthroned in 98 AD.), so the Gospel of John should have been completed not long before his reign. The use of the words “the Jews” in this book also supports that this gospel was accomplished later. For in later period, the enmity of the Jews towards the faith of Christ had intensified and they even began to persecute Christians.


IV. The Background and the Recipients

         Owing to the urgent need of the assemblies, Apostle John started to write the fourth gospel in his old age. The disciples of his times had either been martyred for the Lord, or slept in the Lord. John was the only one remained. Earlier on, heresies had already emerged in assemblies (see Colossian 2:8), but they hadn’t gone so far to threaten the testimony of the assemblies. But till the last years of the first century, the churches were confronted with external persecution from the government of Rome and internal damages from the heresies (see 1John 4:1-3), particularly from those who doubted the Lord’s divinity (1John 2:18-27; 5:20; 2John: 7-11). From John’s epistles, we can easily perceive the chaos in that age. Someone held that Jesus was only a man but not God; some held that Jesus was a common person, and turned to be a vessel of God after his baptism when the Holy Spirit descended upon him; and some held that one can not obtain the eternal life by believing into Jesus for he was a creature, etc. Therefore, overseers of many local assemblies then asked John to write a gospel after the other three gospels to testify the divinity and works of the Lord Jesus. John alone, as the only remaining apostle who had ever seen the Lord and His works and heard the Lord’s truth personally (21:24; 1John1:1-4), could bear the witness.  

         To sum up, the recipients of this book are mainly churches effected by heresies, and the book was written to strengthen their faith in Jesus Christ.

V. Features of Literature Style

         Of the four gospels, the first three ones are roughly similar in respect of the synopsis, the arrangement of the content, as well as the views about the life of the Lord Jesus, so the Bible scholars called them “the Synoptic Gospels”. The Book of John, however, was distinct from the other three gospels in time, environment and the urgency of its mission. Therefore, it has originality of its own in the arrangement of the materials, the content and the literature style.

         Although this gospel is unsophisticated in form and simple in wording, the houghts therein are deep, lofty, direct and powerful, touching the depth of spiritual mystery and stirring the bottom of one’s heart. With only a small part of its material overlapped with other gospels, this book employs a great deal of new substance. In the selection of material, the author chose them purposefully instead of taking everything in.

. General Description

    The author clearly stated the main purpose of 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(20:31). This book is intended to convince us that Christ is the mysterious Son of God who came down from heaven and is in heaven. He exists from the very beginning, and He is God himself. As long as we believe into his name, we will obtain the divine life which carries all the fullness of Godhead. Believers can receive from his fullness, and grace for grace, unto the fullness ultimately.

VI. Special Points

         There are many special points in this book and stated below are the major ones:

         1) The book starts from “the beginning” in the past eternity and points out that the Lord (the Word) exists before His creation, abiding with God, and He is God. Note that the book omits the Lord’s birth, His genealogy and His being tempted by Satan, denoting that Christ Jesus is God.

         2) The book, from chapter two to eleven, depicts the person and works of Christ Jesus from various aspects, employing seven signs to form the main structure with adequate teachings inserted in each sign. Note that the word “miracles” in this book does not mean wonders or works of power in Greek, but means “signs” instead. This indicates that the signs enumerated in this book have special significance, from which we can know about the being and works of Christ Jesus.

         3) It is also called the Gospel of Testimony, for it contains the seven great testimonies: (1) the testimony of the Father (5:34,37; 8:18); (2) the testimony of the Son Himself (8:14; 18:37); (3) the testimony of Son’s work (5:36; 10:25) (4) the testimony of the Holy Spirit (15:26;16:14); (5) the testimony of the Holy Bible (5:39-46); (6) the testimony of the forerunner (1:7,29-34; 3:27-30; 5:35); (7) the testimony of the disciples (15:27; 19:35; 21:24).

         4) This book especially emphasized the relation of Christ Jesus to God the Father; as the Son of God, He came to do the will of the Father who sent Him (4:34; 5:19, 30; 6:38).

         5) This book includes the seven well-known sentences beginning with “I am”: ‘I am the bread of life.’ (6:35, 41, 48, 51); ‘I am the light of the world.’ (8:12); ‘I am the door of the sheep.’ (10:7); ‘I am the good shepherd.’ (10:11); ‘I am the resurrection, and the life’ (11:25 in Greek); ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’ (14:6); ‘I am the true vine’ (15:1). All these “I am”s above reveal that Christ is God Himself coming to meet every need of men.

         6) “Believe” is a vital word in this book. One can only receive and experience Christ as his all by believing. “Believing” means none other than “receiving Him (1:12)”; To believe into Jesus means to eat His flesh, and to drink His blood (6:53), that is, to receive the accomplished redemption by the Lord Jesus. By believing, people receive Christ into their heart and are united to Christ.

         7) In what way can we “believe into” Christ? In none other way than His manifestation of “grace and truth” among us (1:14-17). Grace is Christ becoming one’s enjoyment, and truth is Christ becoming one’s reality.

         8) To receive grace and truth is to receive life, light and love. These three words starting with “L” are three important words. The more one enjoys Christ, the richer he will become in life, light and love. And these three will grow together.

VII. Its Relations with Other Books in the Bible

         The Gospel of John, like other three gospels, depicts Jesus Christ. But the four books depict Him from different aspects: the Lord in the Book of Matthew is presented as the king, in Mark as the bondman, in Luke as the son of man and in John as the Son of God. The four living creatures in chapter four of the Revelation resemble the four aspects of the Lord in the four gospels. In Matthew the Lord is like a lion, in Mark a calf----firstly sowing and then being sacafised as an offering on the alter, in Luke a man, and in John an eagle. (see Exodus 19:4; Deuteronomy 32:11).

         The Book of Matthew regards Jesus as the “Branch of righteousness to grow up to David” (Jeremiah 33:15), coming to be king on earth, so he was called the son of Abraham (the Father of nations) and the Son of David (the first king of Israel) (Matthew 1:1). A king must have his genealogy on account of his royal pedigree (Matthew1:1-17). The Book of Mark presents Jesus as “my servant the BRANCH” (Zechariah 3:8), Jehovah’s “righteous servant” (Isaiah 53:11), “but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” (Philippians2:7-8); A bondman’s birth is too insignificant to be recorded, so there is no mention of the genealogy of Jesus. The Book of Luke shows us that Jesus is the son of man (a perfect man), so it traces back to Adam (Luke 3:23-38), the patriarch of mankind. The Book of John refers to Jesus as the Son of God (the perfect God), who has neither beginning of days nor end of life. Therefore, John dates back to the beginning (John 1:1)----the eternity without beginning.

         Note that the Gospel of Matthew ends in the Lord’s resurrection, Mark in His ascension, Luke in the promise of the descent of the Holy Spirit and John in His second coming.

VIII. Key Verses 

         And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. (1:14)

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (3:16)

         I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. (10:10)

         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. (20:31)

IX. Key Words

         “the Father” (118times), “believe” (100times), “the world” (78times), “love” (45times), “testimony” (47times), “life” (37times), “light” (24times).

X. Outlines of the Book

         1. Preface: the word----the Son of God----became flesh (1:1-18)

         2. The manifestation of the Son of God----His ministry in the first year(1:19-4:54)

         3. The rejection against the Son of God---- His ministry in the second and third years (5:1-11:57)

         4. The anointing and the triumphal entry of the Son of God into Jerusalem (12:1-22)

         5. The final teaching in public of the Son of God (12:23-50)

         6. The final exhortation to the disciples of the Son of God (13:1-16:33)

         7. The prayer of the Son of God before His departure (17:1-26)

         8. The suffering, death and burial of the Son of God (18:1-19:42)

         9. The resurrection and manifestation of the Son of God (20:1-21:25)


── Caleb HuangChristian Digest Bible Commentary Series

   Translated by Mary Zhou