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Bible Commentaries

Barclay's Daily Study Bible

John

- John

by William Barclay

JOHN

INTRODUCTION TO THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO SAINT JOHN

The Gospel Of The Eagle's Eye

For many Christian people the Gospel according to St. John is the most precious book in the New Testament. It is the book on which above all they feed their minds and nourish their hearts, and in which they rest their souls. Very often on stained glass windows and the like the gospel writers are represented in symbol by the figures of the four beasts whom the writer of the Revelation saw around the throne ( Revelation 4:7). The emblems are variously distributed among the gospel writers, but a common allocation is that the man stands for Mark, which is the plainest, the most straightforward and the most human of the gospels; the lion stands for Matthew, for he specially saw Jesus as the Messiah and the Lion of the tribe of Judah; the ox stands for Luke, because it is the animal of service and sacrifice, and Luke saw Jesus as the great servant of men and the universal sacrifice for all mankind; the eagle stands for John, because it alone of all living creatures can look straight into the sun and not be dazzled, and John has the most penetrating gaze of all the New Testament writers into the eternal mysteries and the eternal truths and the very mind of God. Many people find themselves closer to God and to Jesus Christ in John than in any other book in the world.

The Gospel That Is Different

But we have only to read the Fourth Gospel in the most cursory way to see that it is quite different from the other three. It omits so many things that they include. The Fourth Gospel has no account of the Birth of Jesus, of his baptism, of his temptations; it tells us nothing of the Last Supper, nothing of Gethsemane, and nothing of the Ascension. It has no word of the healing of any people possessed by devils and evil spirits. And, perhaps most surprising of all, it has none of the parable stories Jesus told which are so priceless a part of the other three gospels. In these other three gospels Jesus speaks either in these wonderful stories or in short, epigrammatic, vivid sentences which stick in the memory. But in the Fourth Gospel the speeches of Jesus are often a whole chapter long; and are often involved, argumentative pronouncements quite unlike the pithy, unforgettable sayings of the other three.

Even more surprising, the account in the Fourth Gospel of the facts of the life and ministry of Jesus is often different from that in the other three.

(i) John has a different account of the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. In the other three gospels it is quite definitely stated that Jesus did not emerge as a preacher until after John the Baptist had been imprisoned. "Now after John was arrested Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God" ( Mark 1:14; Luke 3:18; Luke 3:20; Matthew 4:12). But in John there is a quite considerable period during which the ministry of Jesus over-lapped with the activity of John the Baptist ( John 3:22-30; John 4:1-2).

(ii) John has a different account of the scene of Jesus' ministry. In the other three gospels the main scene of the ministry is Galilee and Jesus does not reach Jerusalem until the last week of his life. In John the main scene of the ministry is Jerusalem and Judaea, with only occasional withdrawals to Galilee ( John 2:1-13; John 4:35 through John 5:1; John 6:1 through John 7:14). In John, Jesus is in Jerusalem for a Passover which occurred at the same time as the cleansing of the Temple, as John tells the story ( John 2:13); he is in Jerusalem at the time of an unnamed feast ( John 5:1); he is there for the Feast of Tabernacles ( John 7:2; John 7:10); he is there at the Feast of Dedication in the winter-time ( John 10:22). In fact according to the Fourth Gospel Jesus never left Jerusalem after that feast; after John 10:1-42 he is in Jerusalem all the time, which would mean a stay of months, from the winter-time of the Feast of the Dedication to the spring-time of the Passover at which he was crucified.

In point of fact in this particular matter John is surely right. The other gospels show us Jesus mourning over Jerusalem as the last week came on. "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!" ( Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34). It is clear that Jesus could not have said that unless he had paid repeated visits to Jerusalem and made repeated appeals to it. It was impossible for him to say that on a first visit. In this John is unquestionably right.

It was in fact this difference of scene which provided Eusebius with one of the earliest explanations of the difference between the Fourth Gospel and the other three. He said that in his day (about A.D. 300) many people who were scholars held the following view. Matthew at first preached to the Hebrew people. The day came when he had to leave them and to go to other nations. Before he went he set down his story of the life of Jesus in Hebrew, "and thus compensated those whom he was obliged to leave for the loss of his presence." After Mark and Luke had published their gospels, John was still preaching the story of Jesus orally. "Finally he proceeded to write for the following reason. The three gospels already mentioned having come into the hands of all and into his hands too, they say that he fully accepted them and bore witness to their truthfulness; but there was lacking in them an account of the deeds done by Christ at the beginning of his ministry.... They therefore say that John, being asked to do it for this reason, gave in his gospel an account of the period which had been omitted by the earlier evangelists, and of the deeds done by the Saviour during that period; that is, of the deeds done before the imprisonment of John the Baptist.... John therefore records the deeds of Christ which were performed before the Baptist was cast into prison, but the other three evangelists mention the events which happened after that time.... The Gospel according to John contains the first acts of Christ, while the others give an account of the latter part of his life." (Eusebius, The Ecclesiastical History 5: 24.)

So then according to Eusebius there is no contradiction at all between the Fourth Gospel and the other three; the difference is due to the fact that the Fourth Gospel is describing a ministry in Jerusalem, at least in its earlier chapters, which preceded the ministry in Galilee, and which took place while John the Baptist was still at liberty. It may well be that this explanation of Eusebius is at least in part correct.

(iii) John has a different account of the duration of Jesus' ministry. The other three gospels, on the face of it, imply that it lasted only one year. Within the ministry there is only one Passover Feast. In John there are three Passovers, one at the Cleansing of the Temple ( John 2:13); one near the Feeding of the Five Thousand ( John 6:4); and the final Passover at which Jesus went to the Cross. According to John the ministry of Jesus would take a minimum of two years, and probably a period nearer three years, to cover its events. Again John is unquestionably right. If we read the other three gospels closely and carefully we can see that he is right. When the disciples plucked the ears of corn ( Mark 2:23) it must have been spring-time. When the five thousand were fed, they sat down on the green grass ( Mark 6:39); therefore it was spring-time again, and there must have been a year between the two events. There follows the tour through Tyre and Sidon, and the Transfiguration. At the Transfiguration Peter wished to build three booths and to stay there. It is most natural to think that it was the time of the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths and that that is why Peter made the suggestion ( Mark 9:5). That would make the date early in October. There follows the space between that and the last Passover in April. Therefore, behind the narrative of the other three gospels lies the fact that Jesus' ministry actually did last for at least three years, as John represents it.

(iv) It sometimes even happens that John differs in matters of fact from the other three. There are two outstanding examples. First, John puts the Cleansing of the Temple at the beginning of Jesus' ministry ( John 2:13-22), the others put it at the end ( Mark 11:15-17; Matthew 21:12-13; Luke 19:45-46). Second, when we come to study the narratives in detail, we will see that John dates the crucifixion of Jesus on the day before the Passover, while the other gospels date it on the day of the Passover.

We can never shut our eyes to the obvious differences between John and the other gospels.

John's Special Knowledge

One thing is certain--if John differs from the other three gospels, it is not because of ignorance and lack of information. The plain fact is that, if he omits much that they tell us, he also tells us much that they do not mention. John alone tells of the marriage feast at Cana of Galilee ( John 2:1-11); of the coming of Nicodemus to Jesus ( John 3:1-15); of the woman of Samaria John 4:1-54; of the raising of Lazarus ( John 11:1-57); of the way in which Jesus washed his disciples' feet ( John 13:1-17); of Jesus' wonderful teaching about the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, which is scattered through John 14:1-31 John 15:1-27 John 16:1-33 and John 17:1-26. It is only in John that some of the disciples really come alive. It is in John alone that Thomas speaks ( John 11:16; John 14:5; John 20:24-29); that Andrew becomes a real personality ( John 1:40-41; John 6:8-9; John 12:22); that we get a glimpse of the character of Philip ( John 6:5-7; John 14:8-9); that we hear the carping protest of Judas at the anointing at Bethany ( John 12:4-5). And the strange thing is that these little extra touches are intensely revealing. John's pictures of Thomas and Andrew and Philip are like little cameos or vignettes in which the character of each man is etched in a way we cannot forget.

Further, again and again John has little extra details which read like the memories of one who was there. The loaves which the lad brought to Jesus were barley loaves ( John 6:9); when Jesus came to the disciples as they crossed the lake in the storm they had rowed between three and four miles ( John 6:19); there were six stone waterpots at Cana of Galilee ( John 2:6); it is only John who tells of the four soldiers gambling for the seamless robe as Jesus died ( John 19:23); he knows the exact weight of the myrrh and aloes which were used to anoint the dead body of Jesus ( John 19:39); he remembers how the perfume of the ointment filled the house at the anointing at Bethany ( John 12:3). Many of these things are such apparently unimportant details that they are inexplicable unless they are the memories of a man who was there.

However much John may differ from the other three gospels, that difference is not to be explained by ignorance but rather by the fact that he had more knowledge or better sources or a more vivid memory than the others.

Further evidence of the specialised information of the writer of the Fourth Gospel is his detailed knowledge of Palestine and of Jerusalem. He knows how long it took to build the Temple ( John 2:20); that the Jews and the Samaritans had a permanent quarrel ( John 4:9); the low Jewish view of women ( John 4:9); the way in which the Jews regard the Sabbath ( John 5:10; John 7:21-23; John 9:14). His knowledge of the geography of Palestine is intimate. He knows of two Bethanys, one of which is beyond Jordan ( John 1:28; John 12:1); he knows that Bethsaida was the home of some of the disciples ( John 1:44; John 12:21); that Cana is in Galilee ( John 2:1; John 4:46; John 21:2); that Sychar is near Shechem ( John 4:5). He has what one might call a street by street knowledge of Jerusalem. He knows the sheep-gate and the pool near it ( John 5:2); the pool of Siloam ( John 9:7); Solomon's Porch ( John 10:23); the brook Kidron ( John 18:1); the pavement which is called Gabbatha ( John 19:13); Golgotha, which is like a skull ( John 19:17). It must be remembered that Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70 and that John did not write until A.D. 100 or thereby; and yet from his memory he knows Jerusalem like the back of his hand.

The Circumstances In Which John Wrote

We have seen that there are very real differences between the Fourth and the other three gospels; and we have seen that, whatever the reason, it was not lack of knowledge on John's part. We must now go on to ask, What was the aim with which John wrote? If we can discover this we will discover why he selected and treated his facts as he did.

The Fourth Gospel was written in Ephesus about the year A.D. 100. By that time two special features had emerged in the situation of the Christian church. First, Christianity had gone out into the Gentile world. By that time the Christian church was no longer predominantly Jewish; it was in fact overwhelmingly gentile. The vast majority of its members now came, not from a Jewish, but an Hellenistic background. That being so, Christianity had to be restated. It was not that the truth of Christianity had changed; but the terms and the categories in which it found expression had to be changed.

Take but one instance. A Greek might take up the Gospel according to St. Matthew. No sooner had he opened it than he was confronted with a long genealogy. Genealogies were familiar enough to the Jew but quite unintelligible to the Greek. He would read on. He would be confronted with a Jesus who was the Son of David, a king of whom the Greeks had never heard, and the symbol of a racial and nationalist ambition which was nothing to the Greek. He would be faced with the picture of Jesus as Messiah, a term of which the Greek had never heard. Must the Greek who wished to become a Christian be compelled to reorganize his whole thinking into Jewish categories? Must he learn a good deal about Jewish history and Jewish apocalyptic literature (which told about the coming of the Messiah) before he could become a Christian? As E. J. Goodspeed phrased it: "Was there no way in which he might be introduced directly to the values of Christian salvation without being for ever routed, we might even say, detoured, through Judaism?" The Greek was one of the world's great thinkers. Had he to abandon all his own great intellectual heritage in order to think entirely in Jewish terms and categories of thought?

John faced that problem fairly and squarely. And he found one of the greatest solutions which ever entered the mind of man. Later on, in the commentary, we shall deal much more fully with John's great solution. At the moment we touch on it briefly. The Greeks had two great conceptions.

(a) They had the conception of the Logos. In Greek logos ( G3056) means two things--it means word and it means reason. The Jew was entirely familiar with the all-powerful word of God. "God said, Let there be light; and there was light" ( Genesis 1:3). The Greek was entirely familiar with the thought of reason. He looked at this world; he saw a magnificent and dependable order. Night and day came with unfailing regularity; the year kept its seasons in unvarying course; the stars and the planets moved in their unaltering path; nature had her unvarying laws. What produced this order? The Greek answered unhesitatingly, The Logos ( G3056) , the mind of God, is responsible for the majestic order of the world. He went on, What is it that gives man power to think, to reason and to know? Again he answered unhesitatingly, The Logos ( G3056) , the mind of God, dwelling within a man makes him a thinking rational being.

John seized on this. It was in this way that he thought of Jesus. He said to the Greeks, "All your lives you have been fascinated by this great, guiding, controlling mind of God. The mind of God has come to earth in the man Jesus. Look at him and you see what the mind and thought of God are like." John had discovered a new category in which the Greek might think of Jesus, a category in which Jesus was presented as nothing less than God acting in the form of a man.

(b) They had the conception of two worlds. The Greek always conceived of two worlds. The one was the world in which we live. It was a wonderful world in its way but a world of shadows and copies and unrealities. The other was the real world, in which the great realities, of which our earthly things are only poor, pale copies, stand for ever. To the Greek the unseen world was the real one; the seen world was only shadowy unreality.

Plato systematized this way of thinking in his doctrine of forms or ideas. He held that in the unseen world there was the perfect pattern of everything, and the things of this world were shadowy copies of these eternal patterns. To put it simply, Plato held that somewhere there was a perfect pattern of a table of which all earthly tables are inadequate copies; somewhere there was the perfect pattern of the good and the beautiful of which all earthly goodness and earthly beauty are imperfect copies. And the great reality, the supreme idea, the pattern of all patterns and the form of all forms was God. The great problem was how to get into this world of reality, how to get out of our shadows into the eternal truths.

John declares that that is what Jesus enables us to do. He is reality come to earth. The Greek word for real in this sense is alethinos ( G228) ; it is very closely connected with the word alethes ( G227) , which means true, and aletheia ( G225) , which means "the truth." The King James and Revised Standard Versions translate alethinos ( G228) true; they would be far better to translate it "real." Jesus is the real light ( John 1:9); Jesus is the real bread ( John 6:32); Jesus is the real vine ( John 15:1); to Jesus belongs the real judgment ( John 8:16). Jesus alone has reality in our world of shadows and imperfections.

Something follows from that. Every action that Jesus did was, therefore, not only an act in time but a window which allows us to see into reality. That is what John means when he talks of Jesus' miracles as signs (semeia - G4592) . The wonderful works of Jesus were not simply wonderful; they were windows opening onto the reality which is God. This explains why John tells the miracle stories in a quite different way from the other three gospel writers. There are two differences.

(a) In the Fourth Gospel we miss the note of compassion which is in the miracle stories of the others. In the others Jesus is moved with compassion for the leper ( Mark 1:41); his sympathy goes out to Jairus ( Mark 5:22); he is sorry for the father of the epileptic boy ( Mark 9:14); when he raises to life the son of the widow of Nain, Luke says with an infinite tenderness, "He gave him to his mother" ( Luke 7:15). But in John the miracles are not so much deeds of compassion as deeds which demonstrate the glory of Christ. After the miracle at Cana of Galilee, John comments: "This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory" ( John 2:11). The raising of Lazarus happens "for the glory of God" ( John 11:4). The blind man's blindness existed to allow a demonstration of the glory of the works of God ( John 9:3). To John it was not that there was no love and compassion in the miracles; but in every one of them he saw the glory of the reality of God breaking into time and into human affairs.

(b) Often the miracles of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel are accompanied by a long discourse. The feeding of the five thousand is followed by the long discourse on the bread of life ( John 6:1-71); the healing of the blind man springs from the saying that Jesus is the light of the world ( John 9:1-41); the raising of Lazarus leads up to the saying that Jesus is the resurrection and the life ( John 11:1-57). To John the miracles were not simply single events in time; they were insights into what God is always doing and what Jesus always is; they were windows into the reality of God. Jesus did not merely once feed five thousand people; that was an illustration that he is for ever the real bread of life. Jesus did not merely once open the eyes of a blind man; he is for ever the light of the world. Jesus did not merely once raise Lazarus from the dead; he is for ever and for all men the resurrection and the life. To John a miracle was never an isolated act; it was always a window into the reality of what Jesus always was and always is and always did and always does.

It was with this in mind that that great scholar Clement of Alexandria (about A.D. 230) arrived at one of the most famous and true of all verdicts about the origin and aim of the Fourth Gospel. It was his view that the gospels containing the genealogies had been written first--that is, Luke and Matthew; that then Mark at the request of many who had heard Peter preach composed his gospel, which embodied the preaching material of Peter; and that then "last of all, John, perceiving that what had reference to the bodily things of Jesus' ministry had been sufficiently related, and encouraged by his friends, and inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote a spiritual gospel" (quoted in Eusebius, The Ecclesiastical History 6 : 14). What Clement meant was that John was not so much interested in the mere facts as in the meaning of the facts, that it was not facts he was after but truth. John did not see the events of Jesus' life simply as events in time; he saw them as windows looking into eternity, and he pressed towards the spiritual meaning of the events and the words of Jesus' life in a way that the other three gospels did not attempt.

That is still one of the truest verdicts on the Fourth Gospel ever reached. John did write, not an historical, but a spiritual gospel.

So then, first of all, John presented Jesus as the mind of God in a person come to earth, and as the one person who possesses reality instead of shadows and able to lead men out of the shadows into the real world of which Plato and the great Greeks had dreamed. The Christianity which had once been clothed in Jewish categories had taken to itself the greatness of the thought of the Greeks.

The Rise Of The Heresies

The second of the great facts confronting the church when the Fourth Gospel was written was the rise of heresy. It was now seventy years since Jesus had been crucified. By this time the church was an organisation and an institution. Theologies and creeds were being thought out and stated; and inevitably the thoughts of some people went down mistaken ways and heresies resulted. A heresy is seldom a complete untruth; it usually results when one facet of the truth is unduly emphasised. We can see at least two of the heresies which the writer of the Fourth Gospel sought to combat.

(a) There were certain Christians, especially Jewish Christians, who gave too high a place to John the Baptist. There was something about him which had an inevitable appeal to the Jews. He walked in the prophetic succession and talked with the prophetic voice. We know that in later times there was an accepted sect of John the Baptist within the orthodox Jewish faith. In Acts 19:1-7 we come upon a little group of twelve men on the fringe of the Christian church who had never gotten beyond the baptism of John.

Over and over again the Fourth Gospel quietly, but definitely, relegates John to his proper place. Over and over again John himself denies that he has ever claimed or possessed the highest place, and without qualification yields that place to Jesus. We have already seen that in the other gospels the ministry of Jesus did not begin until John the Baptist had been put into prison, but that in the Fourth Gospel their ministries overlap. The writer of the Fourth Gospel may well have used that arrangement to show John and Jesus in actual meeting and to show that John used these meetings to admit, and to urge others to admit, the supremacy of Jesus. It is carefully pointed out that John is not that light ( John 1:8). He is shown as quite definitely disclaiming all Messianic aspirations ( John 1:20 ff; John 3:28; John 4:1; John 10:41). It is not even permissible to think of him as the highest witness ( John 5:36). There is no criticism at all of John the Baptist in the Fourth Gospel; but there is a rebuke to those who would give him a place which ought to belong to Jesus and to Jesus alone.

(b) A certain type of heresy which was very widely spread in the days when the Fourth Gospel was written is called by the general name of Gnosticism. Without some understanding of it much of John's greatness and much of his aim will be missed. The basic doctrine of Gnosticism was that matter is essentially evil and spirit is essentially good. The Gnostics went on to argue that on that basis God himself cannot touch matter and therefore did not create the world. What he did was to put out a series of emanations. Each of these emanations was further from him, until at last there was one so distant from him that it could touch matter. That emanation was the creator of the world.

By itself that idea is bad enough, but it was made worse by an addition. The Gnostics held that each emanation knew less and less about God, until there was a stage when the emanations were not only ignorant of God but actually hostile to him. So they finally came to the conclusion that the creator god was not only different from the real God, but was also quite ignorant of and actively hostile to him. Cerinthus, one of the leaders of the Gnostics, said that "the world was created, not by God, but by a certain power far separate from him, and far distant from that Power who is over the universe, and ignorant of the God who is over all."

The Gnostics believed that God had nothing to do with the creating of the world. That is why John begins his gospel with the ringing statement: "All things were made through him; and without him was not anything made that was made" ( John 1:3). That is why John insists that "God so loved the world" ( John 3:16). In face of the Gnostics who so mistakenly spiritualized God into a being who could not possibly have anything to do with the world, John presented the Christian doctrine of the God who made the world and whose presence fills the world that he has made.

The beliefs of the Gnostics impinged on their ideas of Jesus.

(a) Some of the Gnostics held that Jesus was one of the emanations which had proceeded from God. They held that he was not in any real sense divine; that he was only a kind of demigod who was more or less distant from the real God; that he was simply one of a chain of lesser beings between God and the world.

(b) Some of the Gnostics held that Jesus had no real body. A body is matter and God could not touch matter; therefore Jesus was a kind of phantom without real flesh and blood. They held, for instance, that when he stepped on the ground he left no footprint, for his body had neither weight nor substance. They could never have said: "The Word became flesh" ( John 1:14). Augustine tells how he had read much in the work of the philosophers of his day; he had found much that was very like what was in the New Testament, but, he said: "'The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us' I did not read there." That is why John in his First Letter insists that Jesus came in the flesh, and declares that any one who denies that fact is moved by the spirit of antichrist ( 1 John 4:3). This particular heresy is known as Docetism. Docetism comes from the Greek word dokein ( G1380) which means to seem ; and the heresy is so called because it held that Jesus only seemed to be a man.

(c) Some Gnostics held a variation of that heresy. They held that Jesus was a man into whom the Spirit of God came at his baptism; that Spirit remained with him throughout his life until the end; but since the Spirit of God could never suffer and die, it left him before he was crucified. They gave Jesus' cry on the Cross as : "My power, my power, why hast thou forsaken me?" And in their books they told of people talking on the Mount of Olives to a form which looked exactly like Jesus while the man Jesus died on the Cross.

So then the Gnostic heresies issued in one of two beliefs. They believed either that Jesus was not really divine but simply one of a series of emanations from God, or that he was not in any sense human but a kind of phantom in the shape of a man. The Gnostic beliefs at one and the same time destroyed the real godhead and the real manhood of Jesus.

The Humanity Of Jesus

The fact that John is out to correct both these Gnostic tendencies explains a curious paradoxical double emphasis in his gospel. On the one hand, there is no gospel which so uncompromisingly stresses the real humanity of Jesus. Jesus was angry with those who bought and sold in the Temple courts ( John 2:15); he was physically tired as he sat by the well which was near Sychar in Samaria ( John 4:6); his disciples offered him food in the way in which they would offer it to any hungry man ( John 4:31); he had sympathy with those who were hungry and with those who were afraid ( John 6:5; John 6:20); he knew grief and he wept tears as any mourner might do ( John 11:33; John 11:35; John 11:38); in the agony of the Cross the cry of his parched lips was: "I thirst" ( John 19:28). The Fourth Gospel shows us a Jesus who was no shadowy, docetic figure; it shows us one who knew the weariness of an exhausted body and the wounds of a distressed mind and heart. It is the truly human Jesus whom the Fourth Gospel sets before us.

The Deity Of Jesus

On the other hand, there is no gospel which sets before us such a view of the deity of Jesus.

(a) John stresses the preexistence of Jesus. "Before Abraham was," said Jesus, "I am" ( John 8:58). He talks of the glory which he had with the Father before the world was made ( John 17:5). Again and again he speaks of his coming down from heaven ( John 6:33-38). John saw in Jesus one who had always been, even before the world began.

(b) The Fourth Gospel stresses more than any of the others the omniscience of Jesus. It is John's view that apparently miraculously Jesus knew the past record of the woman of Samaria ( John 4:16-17); apparently without anyone telling him he knew how long the man beside the healing pool had been ill ( John 5:6); before he asked it, he knew the answer to the question he put to Philip ( John 6:6); he knew that Judas would betray him ( John 6:61-64); he knew of the death of Lazarus before anyone told him of it ( John 11:14). John saw in Jesus one who had a special and miraculous knowledge independent of anything which any man might tell him. He needed to ask no questions because he knew all the answers.

(c) The Fourth Gospel stresses the fact, as John saw it, that Jesus always acted entirely on his own initiative and uninfluenced by anyone else. It was not his mother's request which moved him to the miracle at Cana of Galilee; it was his own personal decision ( John 2:4); the urging of his brothers had nothing to do with the visit which he paid to Jerusalem at the Feast of Tabernacles ( John 7:10); no man took his life from him--no man could; he laid it down purely voluntarily ( John 10:18; John 19:11). As John saw it, Jesus had a divine independence from all human influence. He was self-determined.

To meet the Gnostics and their strange beliefs John presents us with a Jesus who was undeniably human and who yet was undeniably divine.

The Author Of The Fourth Gospel

We have seen that the aim of the writer of the Fourth Gospel was to present the Christian faith in such a way that it would commend itself to the Greek world to which Christianity had gone out, and also to combat the heresies and mistaken ideas which had arisen within the church. We go on to ask, Who is that writer? Tradition answers unanimously that the author was John the apostle. We shall see that beyond doubt the authority of John lies behind the gospel, although it may well be that its actual form and penmanship did not come from his hand. Let us, then, collect what we know about him.

He was the younger son of Zebedee, who possessed a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee and was well enough off to be able to employ hired servants to help him with his work ( Mark 1:19-20). His mother was Salome, and it seems likely that she was the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus ( Matthew 27:56; Mark 16:1). With his brother James he obeyed the call of Jesus ( Mark 1:20). It would seem that James and John were in partnership with Peter in the fishing trade ( Luke 5:7-10). He was one of the inner circle of the disciples, for the lists of the disciples always begin with the names of Peter, James and John, and there were certain great occasions when Jesus took these three specially with him ( Mark 3:17; Mark 5:37; Mark 9:2; Mark 14:33).

In character he was clearly a turbulent and ambitious man. Jesus gave to him and to his brother the name Boanerges, which the gospel writers take to mean Sons of Thunder. John and his brother James were completely exclusive and intolerant ( Mark 9:38; Luke 9:49). So violent was their temper that they were prepared to blast a Samaritan village out of existence because it would not give them hospitality when they were on their journey to Jerusalem ( Luke 9:54). Either they or their mother Salome had the ambition that when Jesus came into his kingdom, they might be his principal ministers of state ( Mark 10:35; Matthew 20:20). In the other three gospels John appears as a leader of the apostolic band, one of the inner circle, and yet a turbulent ambitious and intolerant character.

In the Book of Acts John always appears as the companion of Peter, and he himself never speaks at all. His name is still one of the three names at the head of the apostolic list ( Acts 1:13). He is with Peter when the lame man is healed at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple ( Acts 3:1 ff). With Peter he is brought before the Sanhedrin and faces the Jewish leaders with a courage and a boldness that astonished them ( Acts 4:1-13). With Peter he goes from Jerusalem to Samaria to survey the work done by Philip ( Acts 8:14).

In Paul's letters he appears only once. In Galatians 2:9 he is named as one of the pillars of the church along with Peter and James, and with them is depicted as giving his approval to the work of Paul.

John was a strange mixture. He was one of the leaders of the Twelve; he was one of the inner circle of Jesus' closest friends; at the same time he was a man of temper and ambition and intolerance, and yet of courage.

We may follow John into the stories told of him in the early church. Eusebius tells us that he was banished to Patmos in the reign of Domitian (Eusebius, The Ecclesiastical History 3 : 23). In the same passage Eusebius tells a characteristic story about John, a story which he received from Clement of Alexandria. John became a kind of bishop of Asia Minor and was visiting one of his churches near Ephesus. In the congregation he saw a tall and exceptionally fine-looking young man. He turned to the elder in charge of the congregation and said to him: "I commit that young man into your charge and into your care, and I call this congregation to witness that I do so." The elder took the young man into his own house and cared for him and instructed him, and the day came when he was baptized and received into the church. But very soon afterwards he fell in with evil friends and embarked on such a career of crime that he ended up by becoming the leader of a band of murdering and pillaging brigands. Some time afterwards John returned to the congregation. He said to the elder: "Restore to me the trust which I and the Lord committed to you and to the church of which you are in charge." At first the elder did not understand of what John was speaking. "I mean," said John, "that I am asking you for the soul of the young man whom I entrusted to you." "Alas!" said the elder, "he is dead." "Dead?" said John. "He is dead to God," said the elder. "He fell from grace; he was forced to flee from the city for his crimes and now he is a brigand in the mountains." Straightway John went to the mountains. Deliberately he allowed himself to be captured by the robber band. They brought him before the young man who was now the chief of the band and, in his shame, the young man tried to run away from him. John, though an old man, pursued him. "My son," he cried, "are you running away from your father? I am feeble and far advanced in age; have pity on me, my son; fear not; there is yet hope of salvation for you. I will stand for you before the Lord Christ. If need be I will gladly die for you as he died for me. Stop, stay, believe! It is Christ who has sent me to you." The appeal broke the heart of the young man. He stopped, threw away his weapons, and wept. Together he and John came down the mountainside and he was brought back into the church and into the Christian way. There we see the love and the courage of John still in operation.

Eusebius (3 : 28) tells another story of John which he got from the works of Irenaeus. We have seen that one of the leaders of the Gnostic heresy was a man called Cerinthus. "The apostle John once entered a bath to bathe; but, when he learned that Cerinthus was within, he sprang from his place and rushed out of the door, for he could not bear to remain under the same roof with him. He advised those who were with him to do the same. 'Let us flee,' he said, 'lest the bath fall, for Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within."' There we have another glimpse of the temper of John. Boanerges was not quite dead.

Cassian tells another famous story about John. One day he was found playing with a tame partridge. A narrower and more rigid brother rebuked him for thus wasting his time, and John answered: "The bow that is always bent will soon cease to shoot straight."

It is Jerome who tells the story of the last words of John. When he was dying, his disciples asked him if he had any last message to leave them. "Little children," he said, "love one another." Again and again he repeated it; and they asked him if that was all he had to say. "It is enough," he said, "for it is the Lord's command."

Such then is our information about John; and he emerges a figure of fiery temper, of wide ambition, of undoubted courage, and, in the end, of gentle love.

The Beloved Disciple

If we have been following our references closely we will have noticed one thing. All our information about John comes from the first three gospels. It is the astonishing fact that the Fourth Gospel never mentions the apostle John from beginning to end. But it does mention two other people.

First, it speaks of the disciple whom Jesus loved. There are four mentions of him. He was leaning on Jesus' breast at the Last Supper ( John 13:23-25); it is into his care that Jesus committed Mary as he died upon his Cross ( John 19:25-27); it was Peter and he whom Mary Magdalene met on her return from the empty tomb on the first Easter morning ( John 20:2); he was present at the last resurrection appearance of Jesus by the lake-side ( John 21:20).

Second, the Fourth Gospel has a kind of character whom we might call the witness. As the Fourth Gospel tells of the spear thrust into the side of Jesus and the issue of the water and the blood, there comes the comment: "He who saw it has borne witness--his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth--that you also may believe" ( John 19:35). At the end of the gospel comes the statement that it was the beloved disciple who testified of these things "and we know that his testimony is true" ( John 21:24).

Here we are faced with rather a strange thing. In the Fourth Gospel John is never mentioned, but the beloved disciple is and in addition there is a witness of some kind to the whole story. It has never really been doubted in tradition that the beloved disciple is John. A few have tried to identify him with Lazarus, for Jesus is said to have loved Lazarus ( John 11:3; John 11:5), or with the Rich Young Ruler, of whom it is said that Jesus, looking on him, loved him ( Mark 10:21). But although the gospel never says so in so many words, tradition has always identified the beloved disciple with John, and there is no real need to doubt the identification.

But a very real point arises--suppose John himself actually did the writing of the gospel, would he really be likely to speak of himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved? Would he really be likely to pick himself out like this, and, as it were, to say: "I was his favourite; he loved me best of all"? It is surely very unlikely that John would confer such a title on himself. If it was conferred by others, it is a lovely title; if it was conferred by himself, it comes perilously near to an almost incredible self-conceit.

Is there any way then that the gospel can be John's own eye-witness story, and yet at the same time have been actually written down by someone else?

The Production Of The Church

In our search for the truth we begin by noting one of the outstanding and unique features of the Fourth Gospel. The most remarkable thing about it is the long speeches of Jesus. Often they are whole chapters long, and are entirely unlike the way in which Jesus is portrayed as speaking in the other three gospels. The Fourth Gospel, as we have seen, was written about the year A.D. 100, that is, about seventy years after the crucifixion. Is it possible after these seventy years to look on these speeches as word for word reports of what Jesus said? Or can we explain them in some way that is perhaps even greater than that? We must begin by holding in our minds the fact of the speeches and the question which they inevitably raise.

And we have something to add to that. It so happens that in the writings of the early church we have a whole series of accounts of the way in which the Fourth Gospel came to be written. The earliest is that of Irenaeus who was bishop of Lyons about A.D. 177; and Irenaeus was himself a pupil of Polycarp, who in turn had actually been a pupil of John. There is therefore a direct link between Irenaeus and John. Irenaeus writes:

"John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leant upon his breast,

himself also published the gospel in Ephesus, when he was living

in Asia."

The suggestive thing there is that Irenaeus does not merely say that John wrote the gospel; he says that John published (exedoke) it in Ephesus. The word that Irenaeus uses makes it sound, not like the private publication of some personal memoir, but like the public issue of some almost official document.

The next account is that of Clement who was head of the great school of Alexandria about A.D. 230. He writes:

"Last of all, John perceiving that the bodily facts had been made

plain in the gospel, being urged by his friends, composed a

spiritual gospel."

The important thing here is the phrase being urged by his friends. It begins to become clear that the Fourth Gospel is far more than one man's personal production and that there is a group, a community, a church behind it. On the same lines, a tenth-century manuscript called the Codex Toletanus, which prefaces the New Testament books with short descriptions, prefaces the Fourth Gospel thus:

The apostle John, whom the Lord Jesus loved most, last of all

wrote this gospel, at the request of the bishops of Asia, against

Cerinthus and other heretics."

Again we have the idea that behind the Fourth Gospel there is the authority of a group and of a church.

We now turn to a very important document, known as the Muratorian Canon. It is so called after a scholar Muratori who discovered it. It is the first list of New Testament books which the church ever issued and was compiled in Rome about A.D. 170. Not only does it list the New Testament books, it also gives short accounts of the origin and nature and contents of each of them. Its account of the way in which the Fourth Gospel came to be written is extremely important and illuminating.

"At the request of his fellow-disciples and of his bishops, John,

one of the disciples, said: 'Fast with me for three days from

this time and whatsoever shall be revealed to each of us, whether

it be favourable to my writing or not, let us relate it to one

another.' On the same night it was revealed to Andrew that John

should relate all things, aided by the revision of all."

We cannot accept all that statement, because it is not possible that Andrew, the apostle, was in Ephesus in A.D. 100; but the point is that it is stated as clearly as possible that, while the authority and the mind and the memory behind the Fourth Gospel are that of John, it is clearly and definitely the product, not of one man, but of a group and a community.

Now we can see something of what happened. About the year A.D. 100 there was a group of men in Ephesus whose leader was John. They revered him as a saint and they loved him as a father. He must have been almost a hundred years old. Before he died, they thought most wisely that it would be a great thing if the aged apostle set down his memories of the years when he had been with Jesus. But in the end they did far more than that. We can think of them sitting down and reliving the old days. One would say: "Do you remember how Jesus said ... ?" And John would say: "Yes, and now we know that he meant..."

In other words this group was not only writing down what Jesus said; that would have been a mere feat of memory. They were writing down what Jesus meant; that was the guidance of the Holy Spirit. John had thought about every word that Jesus had said; and he had thought under the guidance of the Holy Spirit who was so real to him. W. M. Macgregor has a sermon entitled: "What Jesus becomes to a man who has known him long." That is a perfect description of the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel. A. H. N. Green Armytage puts the thing perfectly in his book John who saw. Mark, he says, suits the missionary with his clear-cut account of the facts of Jesus' life; Matthew suits the teacher with his systematic account of the teaching of Jesus; Luke suits the parish minister or priest with his wide sympathy and his picture of Jesus as the friend of all; but John is the gospel of the contemplative.

He goes on to speak of the apparent contrast between Mark and John. "The two gospels are in a sense the same gospel. Only, where Mark saw things plainly, bluntly, literally, John saw them subtly, profoundly, spiritually. We might say that John lit Mark's pages by the lantern of a lifetime's meditation." Wordsworth defined poetry as "Emotion recollected in tranquillity ". That is a perfect description of the Fourth Gospel. That is why John is unquestionably the greatest of all the gospels. Its aim is, not to give us what Jesus said like a newspaper report, but to give us what Jesus meant. In it the Risen Christ still speaks. John is not so much The Gospel according to St. John; it is rather The Gospel according to the Holy Spirit. It was not John of Ephesus who wrote the Fourth Gospel; it was the Holy Spirit who wrote it through John.

The Penman Of The Gospel

We have one question still to ask. We can be quite sure that the mind and the memory behind the Fourth Gospel is that of John the apostle; but we have also seen that behind it is a witness who was the writer, in the sense that he was the actual penman. Can we find out who he was? We know from what the early church writers tell us that there were actually two Johns in Ephesus at the same time. There was John the apostle, but there was another John, who was known as John the elder.

Papias, who loved to collect all that he could find about the history of the New Testament and the story of Jesus, gives us some very interesting information. He was Bishop of Hierapolis, which is quite near Ephesus, and his dates are from about A.D. 70 to about A.D. 145. That is to say, he was actually a contemporary of John. He writes how he tried to find out "what Andrew said or what Peter said, or what was said by Philip, by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the disciples of the Lord; and what things Aristion and the elder John, the disciples of the Lord, say." In Ephesus there was the apostle John, and the elder John; and the elder John was so well-loved a figure that he was actually known as The Elder. He clearly had a unique place in the church. Both Eusebius and Dionysius the Great tell us that even to their own days in Ephesus there were two famous tombs, the one of John the apostle, and the other of John the elder.

Now let us turn to the two little letters, Second John and Third John. The letters come from the same hand as the gospel, and how do they begin? The second letter begins: "The elder unto the elect lady and her children" ( 2 John 1:1). The third letter begins: "The elder unto the beloved Gaius" ( 3 John 1:1). Here we have our solution. The actual penman of the letters was John the elder; the mind and memory behind them was the aged John the apostle, the master whom John the elder always described as "the disciple whom Jesus loved."

The Precious Gospel

The more we know about the Fourth Gospel the more precious it becomes. For seventy years John had thought of Jesus. Day by day the Holy Spirit had opened out to him the meaning of what Jesus said. So when John was near the century of life and his days were numbered, he and his friends sat down to remember. John the elder held the pen to write for his master, John the apostle; and the last of the apostles set down, not only what he had heard Jesus say, but also what he now knew Jesus had meant. He remembered how Jesus had said: "I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth" ( John 16:12-13). There were many things which seventy years ago he had not understood; there were many things which in these seventy years the Spirit of Truth had revealed to him. These things John set down even as the eternal glory was dawning upon him. When we read this gospel let us remember that we are reading the gospel which of all the gospels is most the work of the Holy Spirit, speaking to us of the things which Jesus meant, speaking through the mind and memory of John the apostle and by the pen of John the elder. Behind this gospel is the whole church at Ephesus, the whole company of the saints, the last of the apostles, the Holy Spirit, the Risen Christ himself.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)