An Introduction to the Gospel of John

This Sunday we begin a new sermon series in the Gospel of John. I thought I’d provide you with an introduction, which comes from the ESV Study Bible. I hope this will be helpful as we launch into a study that, while focusing on the person of Jesus, will help us move from the theoretical to the personal.


Author and Title

The title says that the Gospel was written by John, and other evidence identifies this John as the son of Zebedee. The internal evidence indicates that the author was (1) an apostle (1:14; cf. 2:11; 19:35), (2) one of the 12 disciples (“the disciple whom Jesus loved”; 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:20; cf. 21:24–25), and, still more specifically, (3) John the son of Zebedee (note the association of “the disciple whom Jesus loved” with Peter in 13:23–24; 18:15–16; 20:2–9; 21:2–23; cf. Luke 22:8; Acts 1:13; 3:1–4:37; 8:14–25; Gal. 2:9). The external evidence from the church fathers supports this identification (e.g., Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.2).

Date and Place of Writing

The most likely date of writing is the period between a.d. 70 (the date of the destruction of the temple) anda.d. 100 (the end of John’s lifetime), but there is not enough evidence to be much more precise. A date subsequent to a.d. 70 is suggested, among other things, by the references in 6:1 and 21:1 to the Sea of Tiberias (a name widely used for the Sea of Galilee only toward the end of the 1st century), the reference in21:19 to Peter’s martyrdom (probably between a.d. 64 and 66), and the lack of reference to the Sadducees (who ceased to be a Jewish religious party after a.d. 70). The testimony of the early church also favors a date after a.d. 70. Thus Clement of Alexandria stated, “Last of all, John, perceiving that the external facts had been made plain [in the other canonical Gospels] … composed a spiritual gospel” (cited in Eusebius,Ecclesiastical History 6.14.7).

The most likely place of writing is Ephesus in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), which was one of the most important urban centers of the Roman Empire at the time (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.2; cf. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.1.1). However, the readership envisioned by John’s Gospel transcends any one historical setting.

Theme

The theme of John’s Gospel is that Jesus is the promised Messiah and Son of God. By believing in Jesus, people can have eternal life (cf. 20:30–31).

Purpose, Occasion, and Background

The Gospel of John was written by the apostle John, the son of Zebedee, a Palestinian Jew and a member of Jesus’ inner apostolic circle during his earthly ministry. John’s original audience consisted of both Jews and Gentiles living in the larger Greco-Roman world in Ephesus and beyond toward the close of the first century a.d. He frequently explains Jewish customs and Palestinian geography and translates Aramaic terms into Greek (see note on 1:38), thus showing awareness of non-Jewish readers. He also presents Jesus as the Word become flesh against the backdrop of Greek thought that included Stoicism and early Gnosticism. But John also shows awareness of Jewish readers as he demonstrates Jesus to be the Jewish Messiah, the fulfillment of many OT themes, and the Son of God who was sent by God the Father to reveal the only true God and to provide redemption for humanity.

The purpose statement in 20:30–31 makes it appear that John wrote with an evangelistic intent. However, his depth of teaching shows that he wanted readers not only to come to initial saving faith in Jesus but also to grow into a rich, well-informed faith. John’s central contention is that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah and Son of God, and that by believing in him people may have eternal life. To this end, he marshals the evidence of several selected messianic signs performed by Jesus and of a series of witnesses to Jesus—including the Scriptures, John the Baptist, Jesus himself, God the Father, Jesus’ works, the Spirit, and John himself. It is also likely that John sought to present Jesus as the new temple and center of worship for God’s people, a concept that would be especially forceful if the date of composition (as seems likely) was subsequent to a.d. 70 (the time of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple).

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