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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

John

- John

by Thomas Constable

Introduction

WRITER

The writer of this Gospel did not identify himself as such in the text. This is true of all the Gospel evangelists. Nevertheless there is evidence within this Gospel, as well as in the writings of the church fathers, that the writer was the Apostle John.

The internal evidence from the Gospel itself is as follows. In Joh_21:24 the writer of "these things" (i.e., the whole Gospel) was the same person as the disciple whom Jesus loved (Joh_21:7). That disciple was one of the seven disciples mentioned in Joh_21:2. He was also the disciple who sat beside Jesus in the upper room when He instituted the Lord’s Supper and to whom Peter motioned (Joh_13:23-24). This means that he was one of the Twelve since only they were present in the upper room (Mar_14:17; Luk_22:14). The disciple whom Jesus loved was also one of the inner circle of three disciples, namely, Peter, James, and John (Mar_5:37-38; Mar_9:2-3; Mar_14:33; Joh_20:2-10). James died in the early history of the church, probably in the early 40s (Act_12:2). There is good evidence that whoever wrote this Gospel did so after then. The writer was also not Peter (Joh_21:20-24). This evidence points to John as the disciple whom Jesus loved who was also the writer of this Gospel. The writer claimed to have seen Jesus’ glory (Joh_1:14; cf. Joh_1:1-4), which John did at the Transfiguration. There are several Johns in the New Testament. This one was one of Zebedee’s sons who was a fisherman before Jesus called him to leave his nets and follow Him.

"To a certain extent each of the Gospels reflects the personality of its author, but in none of them is there a more distinctive individuality manifested than in John." [Note: Merrill C. Tenney, "The Author’s Testimony to Himself," Bibliotheca Sacra 120:479 (July-September 1963):223.]

In the article just quoted, the writer showed how John projected his personality into his writing of this Gospel.

The external evidence also points to the Johannine authorship of the fourth Gospel. Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons (ca. A.D. 130-200), wrote that he had heard Polycarp (ca. A.D. 69-155), a disciple of John. It was apparently from Polycarp that Irenaeus learned that, "John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, had himself published a Gospel during his residence in Ephesus in Asia." [Note: Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3:1.] Other later church fathers supported this tradition including Theophilus of Antioch (ca. A.D. 180), Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian of Carthage, and Tatian. [Note: See Edwin A. Blum, "John," in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament, p. 267; Merrill C. Tenney, "John," in John-Acts, vol. 9 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, pp. 5-6; and George R. Beasley-Murray, John, pp. lxvi-lxxv.] Eusebius (fourth century) also specifically mentioned that Matthew and John among the apostles wrote the Gospels that bear their names. [Note: Eusebius, The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius Pamphilus, 3:24:3-8.]

Some scholars have rejected this seemingly clear evidence and have refused to accept Johannine authorship. This criticism generally comes from those who hold a lower view of Scripture. Answering their objections lies outside the purpose of these notes. [Note: For treatment of these views, see Donald A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, pp. 68-81, and books on Bible Introduction.]

PLACE OF WRITING

Eusebius also wrote that John ministered to the church in Ephesus, which Paul had founded (Act_19:1-20), for many years. [Note: Eusebius, 3:24:1.] The Isle of Patmos, where John spent some time in exile, is close to Ephesus (cf. Rev_1:9-11). Eusebius wrote that John composed his Gospel when he was at Ephesus. [Note: Ibid., 3:24:3-8.] During the first century, that city was one of the largest centers of Christian activity in the Gentile world. Antioch of Syria and Alexandria in Egypt have been suggested as sites of composition, but they do not have as good support as Ephesus. [Note: For discussion, see Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John: Revised Edition, pp. 54-55.]

DATE

A few scholars believe John could have written this book as early as A.D. 45, the date when Saul of Tarsus’ persecutions drove many Christians out of Jerusalem (cf. Act_8:1-4). [Note: E.g., Edwin R. Goodenough, "John: A Primitive Gospel," Journal of Biblical Literature 64 (1945): Part 2:145-82.] There are two main problems with such an early date. First, John seems to have assumed that the Synoptic Gospels were available to the Christian public. There is some doubt about this since it assumes an assumption, but most scholars believe, on the basis of content, that John selected his material to supplement material in the Synoptics. This would put the fourth Gospel later than the Synoptics. Second, according to early church tradition the Apostle John lived long into the first century. This would make a later date possible even though it does not prove a later date. Some students of the book believe that Joh_21:18-22 implies that Peter would die before John did, and Peter died about A.D. 67. In general, most authorities reject a date this early for these and other reasons.

Some conservatives date the Gospel slightly before A.D. 70 because John described Palestine and Jerusalem as they were before the Roman destruction (cf. Joh_5:2). [Note: E.g., Morris, p. 30; and Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, pp. 531, 177-205.] This may be a weak argument since John frequently used the Greek present tense to describe things in the past. Some who hold this date note the absence of any reference to Jerusalem’s destruction in John. However there could have been many reasons John chose not to mention the destruction of Jerusalem if he wrote after that event. A date of writing before the destruction of Jerusalem is also a minority opinion among scholars.

Many conservative scholars believe that John wrote his Gospel between A.D. 85 and 95. [Note: E.g., Tenney, "John," p. 9; Blum, p. 268; Carson, p. 82; and Mark L. Bailey, in The New Testament Explorer, p. 154.] Early church tradition was that John wrote it when he was an older man. Moreover even the early Christians regarded this as the fourth Gospel and believed that John wrote it after the Synoptics. It is not clear if John had access to the Synoptic Gospels. He did not quote from any of them. However, his choice of material for his own Gospel suggests that he probably read them and chose to include other material from Jesus’ ministry in his account to supplement them. [Note: R. V. G. Tasker, The Gospel According to St. John: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 32.]

The latest possible date would be about A.D. 100, though some more liberal scholars date this Gospel in the second century. The Egerton papyrus, which dates from early in the second century, contains unmistakable allusions to John’s Gospel. [Note: Tenney, "John," p. 9; Carson, p. 82.] This seems to rule out a second century date.

It seems impossible to identify the date of writing precisely, as evidenced by the difference of opinion that exists between excellent conservative scholars. However a date sometime between A.D. 65 and 95 is probable. I favor a date in the 90s.

CHARACTERISTIC FEATURES AND PURPOSE

John’s presentation of Jesus in his Gospel has been a problem to many modern students of the New Testament. Some regard it as the greatest problem in current New Testament studies. [Note: E.g., Blum, p. 268.] Compared to the Synoptics, which present Jesus as a historical figure, John stressed the deity of Jesus. Obviously the Synoptics present Jesus as divine also, but the emphasis in the fourth Gospel is more strongly on Jesus’ full deity. This emphasis runs from the beginning, with the Word becoming flesh (Joh_1:1; Joh_1:14), to the end, where Thomas confessed Jesus as his Lord and "God" (Joh_20:28). John’s purpose statement (Joh_20:30-31) explains why he stressed Jesus’ deity. It was so his readers would believe that He is the Christ, the Son of God, and thereby have eternal life.

The key word in the book is the verb "believe" (Gr. pisteuo), which appears 98 times. The noun form of the word (Gr. pistis, "faith") does not occur at all. This phenomenon shows that John wanted to stress the importance of active, vital trust in Jesus. Other key words are witness, love, abide, the Counselor (i.e., the Holy Spirit), light, life, darkness, Word, glorify, true, and real. [Note: Tenney, "John," p. 12.] These words identify important themes in the Gospel.

John’s unique purpose accounted for his selection of material, as was true of every biblical writer. He omitted Jesus’ genealogy, birth, baptism, temptation, exorcizing demons, parables, transfiguration, institution of the Lord’s Supper, agony in Gethsemane, and ascension. He focused on Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem, the Jewish feasts, Jesus’ private conversations with individuals, and His preparation of His disciples.

John selected seven signs or miracles that demonstrate that Jesus was the divine Messiah (chs. 2-12). He also recorded the discourses that Jesus gave following these signs that explained their significance. Moreover he stressed Jesus’ claims that occur in the seven unique "I am" statements (Joh_6:35; Joh_8:12; Joh_10:7; Joh_10:9; Joh_10:11; Joh_10:14; Joh_11:25; Joh_14:6; Joh_15:1; Joh_15:5).

About 93 percent of the material in John’s Gospel does not appear in the Synoptics. [Note: Blum, p. 269.] This fact indicates the uniqueness of this Gospel compared with the other three and explains why they bear the title "Synoptic" and John does not. For example, John recorded no story parables of Jesus, though he did include many extended discourses and personal conversations that the other evangelists omitted. All four Gospels are quite similar, and the three Synoptics are very similar, though each Gospel has its own distinctive features. John, on the other hand, is considerably different from the others. Specifically, it stresses Jesus’ deity stronger than the others do. It is, I believe, impossible to determine for certain whether or not John used or even knew of the Synoptic Gospels. [Note: For discussion of this issue, see Morris, pp. 43-45, and James D. Dvorak, "The Relationship Between John and the Synoptic Gospels," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 41:2 (June 1998):201-13.] I suspect that he did.

Another difference between the Synoptics and the fourth Gospel is the writers’ view of eschatology. They all share the same basic view, namely, that the Jews’ rejection of their Messiah resulted in the postponement of the messianic kingdom. However the Synoptic writers stressed the future aspects of eschatology more than John, who put more emphasis on the present or realized aspects of eschatology. This is not to say that John presented the kingdom as having begun during Jesus’ first advent. He did not. He did stress, however, the aspects of kingdom life that Christians currently enjoy as benefits of the new covenant, which Jesus inaugurated with His death. These include especially the Holy Spirit’s ministries of indwelling and illuminating the believer. Such a shift in emphasis is understandable if John wrote later than the other Gospel evangelists. By then it was clear that God had postponed the messianic kingdom, and believers’ interest was more on life in the church than it was on life in the messianic kingdom (cf. chs. 13-17).

"It is . . . quite possible that one of John’s aims was to combat false teaching of a docetic type. The Docetists held that the Christ never became incarnate; everything was ’seeming.’ That the docetic heresy did not appear in the first century seems clear, but certain elements that later were to be embodied in this heresy seem to have been quite early." [Note: Morris, p. 31.]

The Greek word dokein, meaning "to seem," is the origin of the name of this heresy.

"We have suggested that the Fourth Gospel was addressed to two groups within the Johannine community, each of which represented an extreme interpretation of the nature of Jesus: one which did not accept him as God, and the other which did not accept him as man (see the introduction, xxiii; also Smalley, John, 145-48). The perfectly balanced christology of the Fourth Gospel was intended, we believe, to provide a resolution of this theological crisis: to remind the ex-Jewish members of the group, with their strong emphasis on the humanity of Jesus, that the Christ was divine; and to insist, for the benefit of the ex-pagan members (with their docetic outlook), that Jesus was truly human." [Note: Stephen S. Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, p. 101.]

The context of Jesus’ ministry accounts for the strong Jewish flavor that marks all four Gospels. Yet John’s Gospel is more theological and cosmopolitan and less Jewish than the others.

"It has . . . a wider appeal to growing Christian experience and to an enlarging Gentile constituency than the others.

"The Synoptics present him for a generation in process of being evangelized; John presents him as the Lord of the maturing and questioning believer." [Note: Tenney, "John," p. 4.]

As a piece of literature, John’s Gospel has a symphonic structure.

"A symphony is a musical composition having several movements related in subject, but varying in form and execution. It usually begins with a dominant theme, into which variations are introduced at intervals. The variations seem to be developed independently, but as the music is played, they modulate into each other until finally all are brought to a climax. The apparent disunity is really part of a design which is not evident at first, but which appears in the progress of the composition." [Note: Idem, "The Symphonic Structure of John," Bibliotheca Sacra 120:478 (April-June 1963):117-18.]

Tenney identified the major themes as the signs, the sonship and messiahship of Christ, and eternal life. Tasker described the fourth Gospel as "the simplest and yet the most profound of the Christian Gospels." [Note: Tasker, p. 10.]

ORIGINAL RECIPIENTS

The preceding quotation (from Tenney’s commentary on John) implies that John wrote primarily for Christians. This implication may seem to be contrary to John’s stated purpose (Joh_20:30-31). Probably John wrote both to convince unbelievers that Jesus was the Son of God and to give Christians who faced persecution confidence in their Savior. [Note: Cf. Beasley-Murray, p. lxxxix.] The word "believe" in Joh_20:31 may be in the present tense to imply that Christian readers should continue believing. It could be in the aorist tense to suggest that pagan readers should believe initially. An evangelistic purpose does not exclude an edification purpose. Indeed, all 66 books of the Bible have edifying value for God’s people (2Ti_3:16-17). John’s purpose for unbelievers is that they might obtain eternal life, and his purpose for believers is that we might experience abundant eternal life (Joh_10:10).

John explained Jewish customs, translated Jewish names, and located Palestinian sites. These facts suggest that he was writing for Gentile readers who live primarily outside Palestine. Furthermore the prologue seems addressed to readers who thought in Greek categories. John’s inclusion of the Greeks who showed interest in seeing Jesus (Joh_12:20-22) may also suggest that he wrote with them in view. Because of John’s general purposes it seems best to conclude that the original readers were primarily Gentile Christians and Gentile unbelievers. Carson argued that John’s purpose was specifically to evangelize Jews and Jewish proselytes. [Note: Carson, pp. 87-95.]

"By the use of personal reminiscences interpreted in the light of a long life of devotion to Christ and by numerous episodes that generally had not been used in the Gospel tradition, whether written or oral, John created a new and different approach to understanding Jesus’ person. John’s readers were primarily second-generation Christians he was familiar with and to whom he seemed patriarchal." [Note: Tenney, "John," p. 10.]

The writer did not indicate the geographical location of the original recipients of his Gospel. This was undoubtedly intentional since the message of John has universal appeal. Perhaps its first readers lived in the Roman province of Asia, the capital of which was Ephesus. [Note: See Donald A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, pp. 225-84, for extensive discussion of introductory matters.]

Summary of Gospel Introductions
GospelMatthewMarkLukeJohn
Date40-70
probably 40s
63-70
probably 60s
57-59
probably 50s
65-95
probably 90s
OriginPalestineRomeCaesareaEphesus
AudienceJewsRomansGreeksGentiles
EmphasisKingServantManGod

OUTLINE

I.    Prologue Joh_1:1-18

A.    The preincarnate Word Joh_1:1-5

B.    The witness of John the Baptist Joh_1:6-8

C.    The appearance of the Light Joh_1:9-13

D.    The incarnation of the Word Joh_1:14-18

II.    Jesus’ public ministry Joh_1:19 to Joh_12:50

A.    The prelude to Jesus’ public ministry Joh_1:19-51

1.    John the Baptist’s veiled testimony to Jesus Joh_1:19-28

2.    John the Baptist’s open identification of Jesus Joh_1:29-34

3.    The response to John the Baptist’s witness Joh_1:35-42

4.    The witness of Philip and Andrew Joh_1:43-51

B.    Jesus’ early Galilean ministry Joh_2:1-12

1.    The first sign: changing water to wine Joh_2:1-11

2.    Jesus’ initial stay in Capernaum Joh_2:12

C.    Jesus’ first visit to Jerusalem Joh_2:13 to Joh_3:36

1.    The first cleansing of the temple Joh_2:13-22

2.    Initial response to Jesus in Jerusalem Joh_2:23-25

3.    Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus Joh_3:1-21

4.    John the Baptist’s reaction to Jesus’ ministry Joh_3:22-30

5.    The explanation of Jesus’ preeminence Joh_3:31-36

D.    Jesus’ ministry in Samaria Joh_4:1-42

1.    The interview with the Samaritan woman Joh_4:1-26

2.    Jesus’ explanation of evangelistic ministry Joh_4:27-38

3.    The response to Jesus in Samaria Joh_4:39-42

E.    Jesus’ resumption of His Galilean ministry Joh_4:43-54

1.    Jesus’ return to Galilee Joh_4:43-45

2.    The second sign: healing the official’s son Joh_4:46-54

F.    Jesus’ second visit to Jerusalem ch. 5

1.    The third sign: healing the paralytic Joh_5:1-9

2.    The antagonism of the Jewish authorities Joh_5:10-18

3.    The Son’s equality with the Father Joh_5:19-29

4.    The Father’s witness to the Son Joh_5:30-47

G.    Jesus’ later Galilean ministry Joh_6:1 to Joh_7:9

1.    The fourth sign: feeding the 5,000 Joh_6:1-15

2.    The fifth sign: walking on the water Joh_6:16-21

3.    The bread of life discourse Joh_6:22-59

4.    The responses to the bread of life discourse Joh_6:60 to Joh_7:9

H.    Jesus’ third visit to Jerusalem Joh_7:10 to Joh_10:42

1.    The controversy surrounding Jesus Joh_7:10-13

2.    Jesus’ ministry at the feast of Tabernacles Joh_7:14-44

3.    The unbelief of the Jewish leaders Joh_7:45-52

[ 4.    The woman caught in adultery Joh_7:53 to Joh_8:11 ]

5.    The light of the world discourse Joh_8:12-59

6.    The sixth sign: healing a man born blind ch. 9

7.    The good shepherd discourse Joh_10:1-21

8.    The confrontation at the feast of Dedication Joh_10:22-42

I.    The conclusion of Jesus’ public ministry chs. 11-12

1.    The seventh sign: raising Lazarus Joh_11:1-44

2.    The responses to the raising of Lazarus Joh_11:45-57

3.    Mary’s anointing of Jesus Joh_12:1-8

4.    The official antagonism toward Lazarus Joh_12:9-11

5.    Jesus’ triumphal entry Joh_12:12-19

6.    Jesus’ announcement of His death Joh_12:20-36

7.    The unbelief of Israel Joh_12:37-50

III.    Jesus’ private ministry chs. 13-17

A.    The Last Supper Joh_13:1-30

1.    Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet Joh_13:1-20

2.    Jesus’ announcement of His betrayal Joh_13:21-30

B.    The Upper Room Discourse Joh_13:31 to Joh_16:33

1.    The new commandment Joh_13:31-35

2.    Peter’s profession of loyalty Joh_13:36-38

3.    Jesus’ comforting revelation in view of His departure Joh_14:1-24

4.    The promise of future understanding Joh_14:25-31

5.    The importance of abiding in Jesus Joh_15:1-16

6.    The warning about opposition from the world Joh_15:17-27

7.    The clarification of the future Joh_16:1-24

8.    The clarification of Jesus’ destination Joh_16:25-33

C.    Jesus’ high priestly prayer ch. 17

1.    Jesus’ requests for Himself Joh_17:1-5

2.    Jesus’ requests for the Eleven Joh_17:6-19

3.    Jesus’ requests for future believers Joh_17:20-26

IV.    Jesus’ passion ministry chs. 18-20

A.    Jesus’ presentation of Himself to His enemies Joh_18:1-11

B.    Jesus’ religious trial Joh_18:12-27

1.    The arrest of Jesus and the identification of the high priests Joh_18:12-14

2.    The entrance of two disciples into the high priests’ courtyard and Peter’s first denial Joh_18:15-18

3.    Annas’ interrogation of Jesus Joh_18:19-24

4.    Peter’s second and third denials of Jesus Joh_18:25-27

C.    Jesus’ civil trial Joh_18:28 to Joh_19:16

1.    The Jews’ charge against Jesus Joh_18:28-32

2.    The question of Jesus’ kingship Joh_18:33-38 a

3.    The Jews’ request for Barabbas Joh_18:38-40

4.    The sentencing of Jesus Joh_19:1-16

D.    Jesus’ crucifixion Joh_19:17-30

1.    Jesus’ journey to Golgotha Joh_19:17

2.    The men crucified with Jesus Joh_19:18

3.    The inscription over Jesus’ cross Joh_19:19-22

4.    The distribution of Jesus’ garments Joh_19:23-24

5.    Jesus’ provision for His mother Joh_19:25-27

6.    The death of Jesus Joh_19:28-30

E.    The treatment of Jesus’ body Joh_19:31-42

1.    The removal of Jesus’ body from the cross Joh_19:31-37

2.    The burial of Jesus Joh_19:38-42

F.    Jesus’ resurrection Joh_20:1-29

1.    The discovery of Peter and John Joh_20:1-9

2.    The discovery of Mary Magdalene Joh_20:10-18

3.    The appearance to the Eleven minus Thomas on Easter evening Joh_20:19-23

4.    The transformed faith of Thomas Joh_20:24-29

G.    The purpose of this Gospel Joh_20:30-31

V.    Epilogue ch. 21

A.    Jesus’ appearance to seven disciples in Galilee Joh_21:1-14

B.    Jesus’ teachings about motivation for service Joh_21:15-23

C.    The writer’s postscript Joh_21:24-25

End Maps

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_____. "Those Who Have Done Good-Joh_5:28-29." Bibliotheca Sacra 136:542 (April-June 1979):158-66.

_____. "Untrustworthy Believers-Joh_2:23-25." Bibliotheca Sacra 135:538 (April-June 1978):139-52.

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_____. "The Christological and Eschatological Significance of Jesus’ Passover Signs in John 6." Bibliotheca Sacra 164:655 (July-September 2007):307-22.

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_____. "The Significance of Jesus’ Healing the Blind Man in John 9." Bibliotheca Sacra 167:667 (July-September 2010):307-18.

_____. "The Significance of Jesus’ Raising Lazarus from the Dead in John 11." Bibliotheca Sacra 168:669 (January-March 2011):53-62.

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