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Gospel of John Bible Study Notes, Week 1

Background of John’s Gospel

The Gospel of JOHN is traditionally thought to have been written by the apostle John, one of the sons of Zebedee, who was one of Jesus’ closest disciples. JOHN is notably different to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. It was written much later[1] than these synoptic[2] gospels and has different objectives. John left out important information about Jesus’ ministry which Matthew and Luke recorded, and John included events and teaching not recorded by the other gospel writers. This has led to the suggestion that John’s gospel may have been written as a supplement to the other gospels

John had about 70 years to think back on Jesus’ earthly ministry: the teachings, the miracles, Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. John did not merely record Jesus’ ministry, he interpreted it.

John had also seen the powerful work of the Holy Spirit in changing lives, spreading the gospel, establishing churches and elucidating Jesus’ teaching.  John’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit in his gospel has caused some to label it “the Gospel of the Holy Spirit”.

JOHN was written from Ephesus, possibly around 100 AD.[3] By this time Christianity had spread to most regions of the Roman Empire and was being embraced by many Gentiles. The centre of Christianity had moved away from the city of Jerusalem, to cities such as Rome and Ephesus and Alexandria.[4] Christianity itself was moving away from its Jewish roots, towards a Gentile expression.[5]

Several ancient sources tell us that the Apostle John was encouraged to write his account of Jesus’ ministry by the Ephesian Church, of whom John was a beloved leader.[6] John wrote his Gospel in collaboration with his Ephesian colleagues. He was almost 90 years of age when he wrote his gospel[8], and he wrote it primarily for the churches of Asia Minor, mainly with the Gentiles in mind.

Content of John’s Gospel

JOHN begins with a well thought out prologue, rich in theology, which effectively tackled several common heresies[9] of the day. The remainder of JOHN is made up of several carefully constructed lessons that include (1) a miracle, (2) related teaching and (3) events surrounding the miracle or teaching.  John selected only a few miracles to record in his gospel and he always referred to them as signs.[10] He regarded Jesus’ miracles as signs because they give a glimpse into the supernatural and spiritual nature of Kingdom life. John followed up the retelling of a miracle with teachings of Jesus to back up his point. John does not merely tell us what Jesus said, he tells us what Jesus meant. Interestingly, John does not include any parables in his Gospel.

Key Terms in John’s Gospel

Several terms appear repeatedly in JOHN and we will be looking at defining some of these words as we go through the gospel. (It is a good idea to begin highlighting these terms as you read.) These key terms include belief,[11] life, sign and true. (How would you define “life”?)

Logos is a term used in a unique way in John’s Gospel. We will look at how and why John used it for both his Greek and Jewish readers in the next session. Some other important terms and concepts in JOHN include love, light, oneness/unity, witness/testimony and world.[12] (How would you define “light”?)

Approaching and Applying John’s Teaching

The Gospel of John contains some of the most profound theology found in the Scriptures as well as some of the most challenging commands (e.g. John 13:34). To get the most out of reading John, it is beneficial if we try to approach it with new, fresh “eyes”. We do not want to “dumb down” or explain away the spiritual concepts or commands presented. Rather, it would be great if we could try to embrace the fullness of what is written. We do not want to simply rehash and apply well-worn theology to explain some of the concepts. Ideally, we want to discern what the Holy Spirit is showing us, without preconceived ideas, while still being aware of what respected theologians have said.

John had one overriding objective in writing his Gospel—he presented his material so that those reading it would believe in Christ, and in doing so, would find life (John 20:31). JOHN has been called “the Gospel of Belief” by some, and throughout, his audience is urged to put their trust, faith, belief and commitment in Jesus, and in the Father who has sent Jesus to earth.  Simply by believing this Gospel and entrusting our lives more fully to Jesus, we are effectively applying it! (See John 6:29.)

All human behaviour is based on belief.[13] Moreover, the values and attitudes which motivate and shape our behaviour are formed from our beliefs. By embracing Jesus’ teaching and trusting in his words there should be a corresponding change or adjustment in our behaviour. JOHN has tremendous power to transform and sanctify lives. Personally, I like to think of JOHN as “the Gospel of Life!”


[1] Matthew, Mark and Luke were all written sometime between AD 50-70.

[2] Synoptic means “same view”. The Synpotic Gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—share many similarities.

[3] Eusebius claims that John was exiled on Patmos during the reign of Domitian (AD 81-96). If this is the case, the book of  Revelation would have been written sometime in the late 80s to early 90s. (John, possibly the apostle John, wrote “Revelation” when he was exiled on the island of Patmos.) John later settled in Ephesus and lived there for many years until his death. Jerome places John’s death at roughly AD 98; but it may have been later. The disciples were probably in their early 20s, possibly even in their late teens, when Jesus called them, so John may have been 85-90 years old in the year AD 100.

[4] Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70.

[5] Interestingly, most of the events in JOHN occur in Jerusalem and Judea, and centre around Jewish festivals. Perhaps John is trying to highlight Christianity’s Jewish roots to his predominantly Gentile audience. John mentions “the Jews” about 70 times in his Gospel. He uses this term to refer to the Jewish religious leaders and always presents them as opponents to Jesus.

[6] This information comes from Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria, quoted by Eusebius. (Barclay 1969:xxxvi-xxxvii)  Jerome also confirms this view.

“When [John] was in Asia, at the time when the seeds of heresy were springing up (I refer to Cerinthus, Ebion, and the rest who say that Christ has not come in the flesh, whom he in his own epistle calls Antichrists, and whom the Apostle Paul frequently assails), he was urged by almost all the bishops of Asia then living, and by deputations from many Churches, to write more profoundly concerning the divinity of the Saviour, and to break through all obstacles so as to attain to the very Word of God (if I may so speak) with a boldness as successful as it appears audacious. Ecclesiastical history relates that, when he was urged by the brethren to write, he replied that he would do so if a general fast were proclaimed and all would offer up prayer to God; and when the fast was over, the narrative goes on to say, being filled with revelation, he burst into the heaven-sent Preface: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God: this was in the beginning with God.’”

[8] The other Apostles had all been killed for their faith and died as martyrs when John wrote his gospel.  John was the only Apostle of the original Twelve who died of old age.

[9] These heresies include Gnosticism and Docetism. John also addresses the veneration of John the Baptist above Jesus in the opening chapters of his Gospel (cf. Acts 19: 1-5). The Clementine Recognitions reveal that as late as AD 250, John the Baptist still had disciples who regarded him as the Messiah.

[10] “While the use of this term [sign] as applied to a miracle is not confined to JOHN, it is the only word used for miracle in that Gospel.  JOHN, then, presented the miracles not merely as supernatural deeds nor as manifestations of supernatural power. . .but definitely as material witnesses to underlying spiritual truth.  The teaching attached to each miracle is designed to bring out it spiritual significance and conversely, the miracle is the concrete demonstration of the power being discussed in the teaching.”   (Tenney 1976:29)

[11] The Greek word for “belief” (in its various forms) appears 98 times in JOHN.  This word is also translated as “trust”, “faith” or “commitment”.

[12] The contrasting terms of belief and unbelief, light and darkness, love and hate, life and death, flesh and spirit, slavery and liberty, rejection and reception, illustrate various aspects and stages of the development of conflict within the plot of JOHN, which moves from a simple, rudimentary type of belief to the intelligent, lofty and worshipful belief exhibited by Peter (John 6:68), Martha John (11:27) and Thomas (John 20:28). (Adapted from Tenney 1976:51).

[13] In a 2001 interview, Rick Warren said that he had discovered a number of things that result in a changed behaviour and a changed life:

“The first one is that all behaviour is based on belief. . . change always begins in the mind. . . trying to change people’s behaviour without changing their beliefs is a waste of time. . . the biblical word for changing your mind is repentance, metanoia. . . Metanoia simply means changing your mind. . . you don’t change people’s minds, God’s Word does. . . changing the way I act is the result or fruit of repentance. . .” (Duduit 2006:213/5)

Next» John’s Prologue – John 1:1-18

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