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by Donald C. Fleming
INTRODUCTION TO JOHN
An associate of Jesus
Early tradition and biblical evidence indicate that ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ was John the son of Zebedee, and that this John was the author of John’s Gospel (John 21:20,John 21:24). Although the other Gospel writers mention John by name often, his name does not appear in John’s Gospel. This is no doubt because the writer follows the common practice of using the descriptive name by which he was known rather than his real name (John 13:23; John 19:26; John 21:7). His use of the name may also have indicated his gratitude for all that Jesus had done for him.
The family of John lived in a town on the shores of Lake Galilee. He and his brother James worked with their father Zebedee as fishermen, along with Peter and Andrew, brothers from another local family (Matthew 4:18-21; Luke 5:10). John’s mother, Salome, appears to have been the sister of Mary the mother of Jesus (Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40; John 19:25).
Both pairs of brothers seem to have responded to the preaching of John the Baptist and looked expectantly for the promised Saviour. When Jesus arrived, they were among the first to join him (Matthew 4:22; John 1:35-40). All four were later included in Jesus’ group of twelve apostles (Matthew 10:2), and Peter, James and John developed into an inner circle that was especially close to Jesus (Mark 5:37; Mark 9:2; Mark 14:33).
Jesus called James and John ‘sons of thunder’, probably because they were sometimes impatient and over-zealous (Mark 3:17; Luke 9:49-56). As Peter became increasingly more prominent among the twelve, James and John tried to outdo him by seeking from Jesus the top two positions in his kingdom. The only guarantee Jesus gave them was of coming persecution (Matthew 20:20-28). By the time of Jesus’ ascension, Peter and John were clearly the two leading apostles (Luke 22:8; John 19:26-27; John 20:2-9; John 21:20).
A church leader
In the early days of the church, Peter and John provided the main leadership and bore the main persecution (Acts 1:13; Acts 3:1-11; Acts 4:13-20; Acts 5:40). They were among the first to show that the church must accept non-Jews equally with Jews (Acts 8:14-17,Acts 8:25) and they encouraged the evangelization of the Gentiles (Galatians 2:9).
The Bible contains little additional information about John’s ministry. Non-biblical writings indicate that he lived to a very old age (cf. John 21:20-23) and spent most of his later years in and around Ephesus, from where he wrote his Gospel and Letters. He was known as ‘the elder’ (2 John 1:0; 3 John 1:0) and has been traditionally regarded as the writer of Revelation. If that is so, he probably spent his final years as a prisoner on the island of Patmos, off the coast from Ephesus (Revelation 1:9).
Battle with false teachers
Churches of the Ephesus region had long been troubled by false teaching (cf. Acts 20:17,Acts 20:29-30; Revelation 2:2). The teaching was an early form of Gnosticism, a heresy that became very destructive during the second century. The Gnostics tried to explain some of the mysteries of the universe - such as the relation between good and evil, spirit and matter, God and people - by combining Christian belief with pagan philosophy. Because they denied there could be a perfect union between things that appeared to be opposites, some denied that Jesus was fully a human being, others that he was fully God.
John firmly opposed both these errors. But his writings were more than merely a defence against false teaching. He had a positive purpose, and that was to lead people to faith in Christ, so that they might experience the full and eternal life that Christ made possible (John 20:31; cf. 1:4; 3:15; 4:14; 5:24; 6:27; 8:12; 10:10; 11:25; 14:6; 17:3; see also 1 John 1:1-3; 1 John 5:13). (For the relation of John to the other Gospels see earlier section, ‘The Writing of the Gospels’.)
The uniqueness of Jesus
From the outset of his Gospel, John asserted that Jesus was divine (John 1:1) and human (John 1:14). He was eternal (John 1:2), he created all things (John 1:3) and he came from the heavenly world to reveal God to the human race (John 1:18; John 3:13; John 5:18-19; John 6:62; John 8:23,John 8:26; John 14:9,John 14:11). He was also fully human. He had a material body with normal physical characteristics (John 4:6-7; John 9:6; John 12:3; John 19:34), and he experienced normal human emotions (John 11:35; John 12:27; John 19:26-27).
If the heretical Gnostics of the AD 90s had trouble accepting Jesus’ uniqueness, so did the orthodox Jews of the AD 30s. John’s method of teaching the confused people of Ephesus was to recount the stories and teachings of Jesus. He had many stories of Jesus available to him (John 21:25), but he chose to use only a few. He did not just recount incidents from Jesus’ life, but showed the significance of the incidents. For this reason he called them ‘signs’ (John 20:30; cf. 2:11; 4:54; 6:14; 7:31; 12:18,37).
Jesus’ signs showed not only that he was the Messiah, but also that he was the Son of God (John 20:31). The Jews considered it blasphemy that a person who had grown up among them should claim to be God (John 6:42; John 8:53-59; John 10:33; John 19:7). As a result, the signs that Jesus performed were usually followed by long debates with the Jews (e.g. the miracle in John 5:1-15 followed by the debate in 5:16-47; the miracle in John 9:1-12 followed by the debate 9:13-10:38). These and other debates that Jesus had with the Jews provided John with much of his teaching material. He used the actual words of Jesus to teach Christian truth (e.g. John 7:1-39; John 8:12-58).
When John and one of the other Gospel writers recorded the same miracle, they treated the material differently. The other writers did little more than tell the story, whereas John followed the story with lengthy teaching that arose out of it (cf. Matthew 14:13-21 with John 6:1-14 and the teaching that follows in John 6:26-65).
Since John was concerned with the meaning and significance of events, he recorded some of Jesus’ conversations with people at length (e.g. with Nicodemus in John 3:1-15 and with the Samaritan woman in John 4:1-26). In a similar way he used the account of the Last Supper, which the other writers recorded only briefly, to provide four chapters of teaching on important Christian doctrines. Again the teaching came direct from the lips of Jesus (John 13:1-33).
At the centre of all the doctrinal discussions was the fact that Jesus was God in human form. The Jews had always considered Jesus’ claim to divinity as a reason to get rid of him (John 7:28-30; John 10:33,John 10:39) and in the end they had their wish (John 11:25,John 11:53; cf. Mark 14:61-64).
Jerusalem was the centre of this opposition to Jesus and consequently was the place where many of his debates with the Jews occurred. Because of John’s usage of these debates for his teaching material, much of John’s Gospel is set in Jerusalem (John 2:13; John 5:1; John 7:14,John 7:25; John 8:20; John 10:22-23; John 11:1). This is in sharp contrast to the other Gospels, which are concerned more with Galilee and make little mention of Jerusalem, apart from the few days leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion.
the First Week of Advent