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Bible Commentaries

Dummelow's Commentary on the BibleDummelow on the Bible

- John

by John Dummelow


1. General characteristics. Few books have exercised so wide an influence as this. Not only has it a message for believers, for whose edification it was primarily intended, but it casts a mysterious spell even over readers whose religious standpoint is furthest removed from its own. There is nothing like it in literature except the three Epistles attributed to the same source. The attempt to analyse the effect produced by a unique work of genius like the present is never successful—the effect is the product of the author’s personality, and personality is unanalysable—but, without attempting this, it may be possible to draw attention in a helpful way, at the outset, to two of its leading characteristics.

(a) The writer possesses the unusual gift of clothing the profoundest ideas in language of childlike simplicity. His ideas are far deeper than St. Paul’s, but are much more simply expressed. Take, for example, his descriptions of the nature of God: ’God is [a] spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth’; ’He that loveth not, knoweth not God, for God is love’; or of the preexistence and divinity of the Word, ’In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’; or of His oneness with the eternal Father, ’I and the Father are one’; ’Before Abraham was, I AM’; or of the Incarnation, ’And the Word was made 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’; or of Christ as the Life, ’I am the Resurrection and the Life: he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live, and whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die’; or of true faith, ’Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’ In these and many other passages the peculiar union of simplicity and profundity produces the effect of sublimity, a characteristic often noted by the ancients, who expressed it by the figure of a soaring eagle, which became the accepted symbol, even as early as the second century, of the Fourth Evangelist.

(b) The Gospel is not only a history, but an allegory. It is the work of a mystic, trained in the allegorical method of interpreting the Scriptures, and expecting his own work to be interpreted in a like manner. ’John,’ says Clement of Alexandria (200 a.d.), ’having observed that the bodily things [i.e. the bare historic facts] had been sufficiently set forth by the [earlier] Gospels,.. produced a spiritual [i.e. an allegorical] Gospel’ (Euseb. ’H. E.’ vi. 14). We must not, however, press the idea of allegory too far. We are not to suppose, with Origen, that some of the incidents in the Gospel are not history at all, but only allegory. But we may assume that the author’s choice of materials is dominated by an allegorical or didactic purpose. He sits down to write, not a biography, but an interpretation of the life of Christ, and since his method is that of allegory, we are justified in seeking a mystical meaning not only in every saying and in every incident, but even in minute details which at first sight seem trivial. This persistent symbolism gives to the Fourth Gospel much of its mysterious charm. It produces an effect on the mind not unlike that of one of Holman Hunt’s pictures. Even the uninitiated feel that far more is suggested than is expressed on the surface. Specially clear and striking examples of the author’s symbolism occur in John 1:51; (the open heavens), John 2:1-11; (the good wine of the gospel), John 2:21; (the temple of Christ’s body), John 3:5; (water and the Spirit), John 3:14; (the uplifted serpent), John 4:10; (the living water), John 4:36; (the fields white for harvest), John 6:31; (the true manna and the bread from heaven), 7, 8 (the symbolism of the feast of tabernacles), John 9:1-8; (the opening of the eyes of the man born blind, symbolising Christ as the Light of the world), John 10:9, John 10:11; (Christ as the Door of the sheep and the Good Shepherd), John 11:25; (the raising of Lazarus, symbolising Christ as the Resurrection and the Life), John 11:51; (the mystical meaning of the high priest’s utterance), John 12:7; (the anointing, symbolising Christ’s death and burial), John 12:24; (the corn of wheat), John 13:15; (the symbolical feet-washing), John 13:30; (’and it was night’), John 14:6; (Christ ’the Way’), John 15:5; (the Vine and the branches), John 16:25; (Christ’s words are ’in proverbs,’ i.e. allegorical), John 19:34-35; (the symbolism of the blood and water: cp. 1 John 5:6, 1 John 5:8), John 19:36; (’a bone of him shall not be broken’), John 20:5; (the symbolism of the grave clothes), John 20:17; (’Touch me not,’ etc.), John 21:5-14; (symbolism of the draught of fishes and of the meal), John 20:18; (the ’girding’ of Peter).

2. Date and Authorship.

(1) External evidence. That the Gospel, by whomsoever written, probably falls within the first cent. a.d., appears from the following quotations or references to it by early writers.

St. Ignatius, 110 a.d., reproduces John 3:8 almost verbatim, ’He knoweth whence he cometh and whither he goeth.’ He speaks of the Lord’s Supper as Christ’s ’flesh’ (not ’body’) and blood (cp. John 6). He calls Christ the ’Logos’ (’Word’) of God, the Door of the Father, and the Living Water. He calls Satan ’the prince of this world.’ All these phrases are peculiar to St. John.

St. Polycarp, 110 a.d. (a personal disciple of St. John), quotes St. John’s First Epistle, a work most closely connected with the Gospel, and almost certainly by the same hand.

Basilides, the Gnostic, 120 a.d. ’And this is what is meant in the Gospels, “There was the true light which lighteth every man coming into the world”’ (see John 1:9).

’ That everything has its own proper seasons is sufficiently proved by the words of the Saviour, “Mine hour is not yet come”’ (see John 2:4).

Aristides, the Apologist, cirJohn 130 a.d., uses the characteristic expression, ’came down from heaven,’ in connexion with the Incarnation (see John 3:13; John 6:33.), and calls our Lord’s sinless human nature ’flesh’ (cp. John 6).

Papias, 130 a.d., according to very ancient evidence, named John as the author of this Gospel. He certainly used the First Epistle of John, for which see above.

Valentinus, 140 a.d., quotes John 10:8, ’All that have come before me are thieves and robbers.’

The Gospel of Peter, 150 a.d., or earlier, uses all four Gospels.

St. Justin Martyr, 150 a.d. ’As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For in the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Now that it is impossible for those who have been once born to enter into their mothers’ wombs, is manifest to all’ (cp. 34, 6). He also often speaks of the Word becoming flesh in language evidently suggested by the Fourth Gospel.

Tatian, 160 a.d., compiled a harmony of the Four Gospels called Diatessaron.

Theophilus of Antioch, 180 a.d. ’And hence the holy writings teach us, and all the spirit-bearing men, one of whom, John, says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,” showing that at first God was alone, and the Word in Him’ (see John 1:1).

St. Irenaeus, 177 a.d., a disciple of Polycarp, a disciple of John, speaks of this Gospel as St. John’s again and again, and even argues that there can be only four Gospels, viz. those that we at present possess.

The Muratorian Fragment, 200 a.d. ’The author of the Fourth Gospel is John, one of the disciples.’

Clement of Alexandria, 200 a.d., Tertullian, 200 a.d., and Origen, 220 a.d., speak of the apostolic authorship as undoubted.

Eusebius, the Church historian, 330 a.d., classes it without hesitation among the ’undisputed’ writings.

So far as is known, its authenticity was denied by no one, orthodox or unorthodox, in ancient times, except the obscure sect of the Alogi. Even these acknowledged its antiquity, for they ascribed it to St. John’s leading opponent at Ephesus, Cerinthus.

(2) Internal evidence. It is a characteristic of writings which are forged, or issued without fraudulent intent under another name (pseudepigraphical), to indicate the supposed author prominently and clearly (Ecl John 1:1; Esdr John 1:1-4; Tobit 1:1; Wisd 7-9; Baruch 1:1, so also Gospel of Peter, Apostolic Constitutions, etc.), and had this been the character of the Fourth Gospel, St. John’s name would without question have been unmistakably prominent. As a matter of fact, the author has so carefully concealed his identity, that it requires considerable research and reflection to discover who he was. A careful reader, however, will discern, (1) that he was a Jew. His accurate acquaintance with Jewish laws, customs, and opinions, is enough to establish this (John 1:21; John 4:25; John 6:14.; John 7:40.; John 12:34; John 4:27; John 7:15, John 7:35; John 4:9; John 7:49; John 7:22; John 18:28; John 7:37; John 18:31). Moreover, the author’s style and syntax are rather Hebraic than Greek, and he occasionally shows knowledge of the original Hebrew of the OT. (John 6:45; John 13:18; John 19:37). (2) That he was a Jew of Palestine. This is shown by his knowledge of unimportant Palestinian localities such as ’Cana of Galilee’ (John 2:1, John 2:11), ’Bethany beyond Jordan’ (John 1:28), Ephraim ’near the wilderness’ (John 11:54), ’Mnon near to Salim’ (John 3:23), Sychar (John 4:5). (3) That he lived before the destruction of Jerusalem. This is clear from his accurate acquaintance with the topography of Jerusalem, and especially of the Temple. He knows, for example, the intermittent spring of Bethesda with its five porches near the sheep-gate, Solomon’s porch, the distance from Jerusalem to Bethany, Kidron, the pool of Siloam, Gethsemane, the treasury, the pavement called Gabbatha, Golgotha ’nigh to the city where there was a garden.’ He is well acquainted with the current views about the Messiah among the Samaritans and Jews of the period. He shows an exact knowledge of the ritual of the feasts—e.g. Passover, Dedication, Tabernacles, and of other religious customs, e.g. ablutions before meals, and purifications before the Passover. He is familiar with the relations between the Jews and the Samaritans, with rabbinical ideas about being ’born in sins,’ with the impropriety of a rabbi addressing a woman in a public place, with Jewish reluctance to enter a Gentile house, or to let dead bodies remain unburied on the sabbath, and altogether invests his narrative with a verisimilitude which can hardly be accounted for except on the supposition that he was a contemporary. (4) That he was an apostle and an eyewitness. That he was an eyewitness is three times stated: John 1:14; ’we beheld his glory’; John 19:35 ’and he that hath seen hath borne witness, and his witness is true, and he knoweth that he saith true, that ye also may believe’; John 21:24; (appendix) ’this is the disciple which beareth witness of these things and wrote these things, and we know that his witness is true’ (cp. also 1 John 1:1, written by the same author). In John 21:20, John 21:24 the writer is expressly identified with the disciple whom Jesus loved, the son of Zebedee (John 21:2), who was present at the Last Supper leaning on Jesus’ breast (John 13:23), stood by the cross (John 19:26), received into his house the Blessed Virgin (John 19:27), ran with Peter to the tomb (John 20:2), and was present at the sea of Tiberias (John 21:7). He was not James the son of Zebedee, for James was martyred 44 a.d. (Acts 12:2). Tradition, therefore, seems to be right in asserting that he was John. It is a confirmation of this view, that the writer shows a closer acquaintance with the inner life and sentiments of the apostolic circle than any other evangelist (see e.g. John 2:11, John 2:22; John 4:27; John 6:66.; John 9:2; John 11:8.; John 12:16 John 13-17, John 18:2; John 20:19. John 21).

3. Difficulties. We can only briefly allude to the chief objections which have been brought against the Johannine authorship of the Fourth Gospel.

Objection 1. The Synoptic Gospels, which mention only one Passover, obviously limit the ministry to one year, while the Fourth Gospel which mentions three (John 2:13; John 6:4; John 12:1), and perhaps four (John 5:1), extends it to three or four. Reply. The Synoptists nowhere state or even hint (not even in Luke 4:19, q.v.) that the ministry was confined to a single year.

Objection 2. The Synoptists confine the ministry to Galilee and Peraea, but the Fourth Gospel locates a large portion of it in Judaea. Reply. The Synoptic Gospels (for whatever reason) are written from an exclusively Galilean point of view, but even they hint at a ministry in Judaea (Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34; Luke 4:44 RV).

Objection 3. The Synoptists date the last Passover on Thursday evening, but the Fourth Gospel on Friday evening. Reply. The discrepancy is perhaps only apparent, but if it is real, the account of the Fourth Evangelist is the more credible (see on John 18:28).

Objection 4. The style of the Gospel differs in such a marked degree from the style of the Revelation, that the same writer cannot have written both. Reply. If this is so, the Johannine authorship of the Revelation, which is a much more disputable book than the Gospel, may require to be given up. We may suppose, however, that the Revelation was written in the reign of Nero, and the Gospel a quarter of a century later, in which case the difference of style can be sufficiently accounted for (see Intro, to Revelation).

Objection 5. Our Lord’s discourses in the Fourth Gospel differ altogether in style and subject-matter from those in the Synoptics, and therefore cannot be authentic. Reply. The Fourth Gospel does not profess to represent the general tenor and style of Christ’s teaching. It is a didactic work, intended mainly to produce and enhance faith in our Lord’s Divine Sonship (John 20:31). The author, therefore, purposely collects and records mainly those sayings of Christ which illustrate the Divinity of His Person.

4. Date and Place of Composition. According to all ancient authorities, this Gospel was written by St. John in his old age at Ephesus, i.e. about 90 a.d., or a little earlier.

5. The Writer’s Purpose and Theological Position. (1) The main object of the Gospel is to produce faith in Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God (John 20:31), and in general to promote those views of our Lord’s person and work, which in the later Church were generally designated ’orthodox.’ As against humanitarian (Ebionite) tendencies, whether within or without the Church, the author lays the utmost stress upon our Lord’s true Deity (see especially John 1:1; John 1:18; (WH) John 5:20.; John 8:38; John 10:30; John 17:5), and concludes his Gospel (for John 21 is a later appendix) with St. Thomas’s great confession, ’My Lord and my God’ (John 20:28). On the other hand, as against Docetism, which, while confessing our Lord’s Deity, denied that He was truly man, great stress is laid on our Lord’s true humanity. The Word became ’flesh’ (John 1:14), and that flesh could be handled (John 20:20, John 20:27). The Incarnate Saviour possessed a true human soul (John 10:11, John 10:17; John 12:27), and a human spirit (John 11:33; John 13:21), and was subject to painful human experiences, e.g. He was weary (John 4:6), wept (John 11:35), groaned and was troubled (John 11:33). Further, as against Cerinthus, the Apostle’s opponent at Ephesus, who taught that Jesus was a mere man upon whom the heavenly Son of God descended at His baptism, St. John emphasises the unity of Christ’s person, and the unbroken stream of His consciousness reaching back beyond the Incarnation into eternity (John 1:1.; John 3:13; John 6:33, John 6:38, John 6:41-42, John 6:50-51, John 6:58; John 8:58; John 17:5).

(2) Among the leading religious ideas of this Gospel, most of which are peculiar to, or at least characteristic of, St. John, are ’eternal life’ regarded as a present as well as a future possession; ’judgment’ as a present act effecting a present separation between the friends and the enemies of God; ’abiding in’ (in a spiritual sense) ’flesh’ in the sense of human nature without the connotation of sinfulness; eating and drinking Christ’s ’flesh and blood’; the eternal predestination of events by God (John 6:37, John 6:39, John 6:44; John 10:28, John 12:39; John 17:9, John 17:12), which, however, is not identical with determinism or fatalism, because salvation is offered to all men (John 4:42; John 12:32); ’living water,’ by which the grace of the Holy Spirit is typified (John 4:10.); the ’new birth,’ or ’birth from above’ of water and the Spirit (John 3:3.); ’truth’ in the sense not only of veracity and correct belief, but also of that holiness which ought to follow from correct belief (John 8:44; John 16:13; John 17:17; John 18:37 cp. especially the phrase ’to do the truth,’ John 3:21; 1 John 1:6); ’the world’ in the sense of the wicked world, alienated from God, and under the dominion of Satan, ’the prince of this world’ (John 7:7; John 8:23; John 13:1; John 14:17, John 14:27, John 14:30; John 15:18; John 16:11; John 17:14 etc.); ’light’ and ’darkness’ in a moral and spiritual sense (John 1:5; John 3:20; John 8:12; John 11:10; John 12:35-36, etc.); ’witness’ and ’witnessing’ to religious truth, affirmed of the Father (John 5:32, John 5:37; John 8:18), of the Son (John 3:11; John 4:44; John 8:14,; etc.), of the Holy Ghost (John 15:26), of Moses and the prophets (John 5:46, etc.), of the Baptist (John 1:7.; John 1:32. etc.), of the Apostles (John 15:27), of the words and miracles of Jesus (John 5:36; John 10:25).

(3) Among the titles of Christ peculiar to this Gospel or to the Johannine literature are, ’the Word,’ or ’Logos’ John 1:1, John 1:4; (elsewhere only in 1 John 1:1; Revelation 19:13); the ’Saviour of the world’ (John 4:42; 1 John 4:14); the ’Light of the world,’ or ’of men’ (John 1:4; John 8:12; John 9:5); the ’Manna,’ or’ Living Bread’ (John 6:31.); the ’Door’ (John 10:7); the ’Good Shepherd’ (John 10:11); ’the Way, the Truth, and the Life’(John 14:6); ’the Resurrection and the Life ’(John 11:25); ’the True Vine’ (John 15:1); ’the Holy One of God’ (John 6:69 RV). The idea of Christ as the Paschal Lamb (John 19:36,; perhaps also John 1:29, John 1:36) is shared with St. Paul (1 Corinthians 5:7), but the application of the OT. types of Jacob’s ladder (John 1:51) and of the brazen serpent (John 3:14) to Christ is peculiar to this Gospel. Peculiar also is the combination of Christ’s Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension into one complex conception of which the leading characteristic is ’glory’ (John 13:31-32,; etc.). The Passion is never contemplated in its native horror in and by itself, but always as interpreted and glorified by the Resurrection and the Ascension.

The doctrine of the Holy Spirit receives far more development in this Gospel than in the Synoptics. His personality is clearly implied by the masculine pronoun (John 14:16.), by the personal title ’Advocate ’peculiar to St. John (John 14:16, John 14:26; John 15:26; John 16:7), and by His functions (John 16:8, John 16:13-14).

6. Relation to the Synoptists. The author omits much of the matter in the Synoptics, and in a few cases seems to correct them or inferences drawn from them. He represents John the Baptist as giving more explicit testimony to the Messiahship of Jesus, and Jesus Himself as less reluctant to publish it. His attitude to miracles is also different. He records not a single example of the most frequent synoptic type of miracle, the casting out of devils, nor does he employ the synoptic term ’mighty works.’ To him Christ’s miracles, of which he records the mystic number seven, are ’signs,’ or ’works.’; They are recorded, not so much for their miraculous character, as for the sake of the doctrine or spiritual principle which they illustrate.

7. Relation to the Revelation. The Revelation may perhaps be by a different author from this Gospel, but, in any case, it belongs to the same theological school. The following are the chief words and ideas common to the two books—Christ as the Logos and as the Lamb, the Deity of Christ, and the duty of worshipping Him with the same worship as is due to the Father; the prominence, of Satan; the idea of ’keeping the commandments,’ and the emphasis laid on ’witness’ and ’truth.’

8. Analysis of the Gospel (after Archdeacon Watkins).

1.    The prologue (John 1:1-18).

2.    Early manifestation of Jesus (John 1:19 to John 4:54).

a.    Witness of the Baptist (John 1:19-40).

b.    Manifestation to individuals (John 1:41 to John 2:11).

c.    Manifestation in public (John 2:12 to John 4:54).

3.    The fuller revelation: growth of unbelief among the Jews (John 5:1 to John 12:50).

a.    Life (John 5:1 to John 6:71).

b.    Truth, light, love (John 7:1 to John 10:42).

c.    Fuller revelation of life, truth, light, love: more hostile unbelief of the Jews (John 11:1 to John 12:50).

4.    The fuller revelation: growth of faith among the disciples (John 13:1 to John 17:26).

a.    Love in humiliation (John 13:1-34).

b.    Last words of love to the faithful (John 13:35 to John 16:33).

c.    Love in the intercessory prayer (John 17:1-26).

5.    Climax of unbelief: surrender, and crucifixion (John 18:1 to John 19:42).

6.    Climax of faith: resurrection and proofs (John 20).

7.    Appendix (John 21).

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