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Bible Commentaries

Preacher's Complete Homiletical CommentaryPreacher's Homiletical

- John

by Editor - Joseph S. Exell

The Preacher’s Complete Homiletic


St. John

By the

New York






(1. The authorship of the Gospel;
2. The time of writing and place of publication;


As this volume is mainly homiletical, the controversies in New Testament criticism which have raged round the questions of the authorship and date of St. John’s Gospel need not be dwelt on here. They are fully dealt with in works like the commentaries named at the end of this Introduction, and will be briefly referred to here under the heading The Evangelist. It will be sufficient to state now that the critical discussions of the last half-century have in no way undermined the credibility of the Johannine authorship of the Fourth Gospel, but, on the contrary, have more clearly and firmly established it (see Godet, Pref. to 3rd Ed., pp. 29–32).

John, the son of Zebedee and Salome (Mark 3:17 : compare Matthew 27:56 and Mark 15:40), the brother of James, was one of the three disciples admitted to closest fellowship with our Lord during His public ministry. At the time when the public ministry of our Lord began John’s home was in Galilee. With his elder brother James he was engaged in his father’s calling as a fisherman on the Galilean lake. It is not certain that he was born in Galilee, however. His intimate acquaintance with Jerusalem and its topography would almost presuppose a prolonged residence in the holy city. He was also known in the high-priestly circle in the capital (John 18:15). His connection with the family of Caiaphas may have been one of distant relationship; for it is interesting to note that his name is one which appears among the members of the high priest’s family (Acts 4:6). He also had a home in Jerusalem (John 19:27), it would seem. Indeed Zebedee’s family were evidently in good circumstances, as we see from Mark 1:20; and during the greater part of Christ’s public ministry Salome is found among the band of pious women from Galilee who “ministered to the Saviour of their substance” (Matthew 27:55-56; Luke 8:3). Zebedee must have died, apparently, soon after the Saviour began His public work (see Matthew 20:20; whilst Zebedee is not spoken of in John 21:1-14). Thus Salome was able to devote herself to the work of ministering to Jesus. In connection with this it is interesting to remember that it is now believed that Salome was the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and that she it was who, under this designation, formed one of the group of women who stood near the cross on Calvary (John 19:25 : compare Mark 15:40-41). Salome was one of the company of women who came early on the resurrection morning to the tomb in the garden, bearing sweet spices to anoint the body of Christ, who, though they yet knew it not, had risen from the dead (Mark 16:1, etc.).

Although Zebedee and his family had some close connection with Jerusalem (probably a “commercial” connection, or in relation to property—John 19:27), yet John and his brother had evidently been brought up in Galilee. In Jerusalem such a youth as John would have sat at the feet of some great Rabbi; and the reproach of the want of a training in the schools would not have been brought against him later (Acts 4:13). But at the opening of our era good public schools existed in all the towns and villages of any importance in Galilee. At one of these, taught no doubt by some one trained in the rabbinical schools, John and his brother would receive an education adequate to their position in life, as sons of a well-to-do middle-class citizen. For the future apostles such a training would be less narrowing than that received in the famous schools in the capital. Prolonged visits to Jerusalem at the great feasts and at other times would give John that acquaintance with the holy city which the Gospel shows he possessed.

His school-days over, with his elder brother James he followed his father’s occupation. He would probably be about twenty-five years of age when the whole country began to be stirred by the preaching of one who in words and manner brought to mind the old prophets of Israel. John the Baptist came forth into the wilderness of Judæa, clothed in shepherd garb, sternly preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins (Luke 3:3). So earnest and convincing was his preaching that from all the region round about Judæa, as well as from the capital, men flocked to his baptism. His appearance after the long interval of prophetic silence led many to think he was Elijah, come according to the promise of the closing prophetic word (Malachi 4:5); whilst others “mused in their hearts whether he were the Christ” (Luke 3:15). The two young, pious, and ardent sons of Zebedee were attracted to the Baptist, and were numbered among his disciples. But when the latter pointed his followers to Jesus as the Lamb of God, John was one of the first to obey the Baptist’s prompting, and thenceforward with his brother followed the Redeemer (John 1:35-42). Their direct call to discipleship came later, when at the word of Jesus they left their occupation and home to become His constant followers, apparently with the full consent of Zebedee and Salome (Mark 1:19-20; Matthew 4:22). They may for a time have still occasionally returned to their calling, and may have received a second call (Luke 5:11); but at all events they were soon found in the inner circle of the twelve, chosen by our Lord to be with Him (Matthew 10:1-4; Mark 3:14-19; Luke 6:13-16).

Both brothers were originally of an ardent, enthusiastic, and even fiery temperament, and on this account were called Boanerges (Mark 3:17). The fire and force of their natural temperament, however, were to be turned into new channels by divine grace. They possessed the old prophetic zeal and wrath against unrighteousness; and sometimes they would have acted with the old prophetic severity (Luke 9:54). But they soon learned under the benign influence and teaching of the Redeemer that He came to save, not to destroy, that the law was no longer to rule, but grace, and that the Father desired men’s salvation (1 Timothy 2:3-4). They had their ambitions also (Matthew 20:20-24; Mark 10:35-41) founded on false Messianic expectations, which were difficult to eradicate (Acts 1:6).

John’s young and receptive mind and heart were quickly moulded, however, by the Saviour; and no one seems to have understood better our Lord’s higher spiritual teaching than John, who combined enthusiasm with contemplation. To our Lord he was the “beloved” disciple, and his gifts of mind and heart made him a fit instrument to be used by the Spirit to record and give forth his divine Master’s deeper teaching, and thus show forth His glory.

John was one of the disciples who accompanied Jesus during His Judæan ministry; and he was chosen to record the events of this part of our Lord’s work, probably because he was more fully able to understand the discussions of the deeper questions which characterised it. He was one of the three who witnessed the Transfiguration and the agony in Gethsemane. When the Supper was instituted he reclined nearest to our Lord at the table (John 13:23), and to him by a sign the traitor was revealed. He (Peter following afar off) followed the crowd of soldiers and others who bound Jesus in the garden and led Him away to the high priest’s palace (John 18:15). He was present at the trial of our Lord before the high priest and before Pilate, and stood with the mother of Jesus and her friends near the cross. To his care Jesus entrusted Mary (John 19:25-27). On the Resurrection morning, when Mary Magdalene announced to Peter and to him that the sepulchre was empty, he was the first to reach it, having outrun Peter, and was the first to rejoice believingly that the Lord had risen. His eye and ear also, quickened by love, made Him recognise in a seeming stranger his divine Master on the shore of the lake of Galilee (John 20:8; John 21:7).


After the Crucifixion John took Mary, the mother of Jesus, to his own home in Jerusalem, where he remained for a number of years—probably till the death of Mary. At the beginning of the book of Acts he is found closely associate with Peter, as in the closing chapters of his gospel. They were present at the Ascension, and in the upper room when Matthias was chosen in the place of Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:0). They participated in the Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit (Acts 2:0), when the promises so fully recorded in John’s Gospel (14–16) were marvellously fulfilled. He was associated with Peter in the miracle wrought at the gate of the Temple “called Beautiful” (Acts 3:0). When the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the Word of God they sent Peter, and along with him John, to aid in reaping those fields, at the first sowing of which he had been present (John 4:35-38). He had to endure the sorrow of his brother’s martyrdom (Acts 12:2), but still remained at Jerusalem, and was present at the apostolic council, the proceedings of which are recorded in Acts 15:0, although he does not seem to have spoken. St. Paul, however, speaks of him as apparently a pillar of the Church (Galatians 2:9). This would be about twenty years after the Crucifixion. No doubt during that time he was engaged in teaching and preaching, and in such missions as that to Samaria. Of his after-history there are but scanty reliable notices. No valid objection has been urged to the testimony of the early Church Fathers that he finally settled in the province of Roman Asia, where the apostle Paul had planted a Church at Ephesus, and perhaps in other centres, from which the truth spread into all the province. St. John fixed on Ephesus as a convenient place from which to oversee the Churches of the district; and considering the crowds that resorted to that city from all quarters of the then known world, it would thus also be a centre from which the truth might be widely spread abroad. He was banished to Patmos during one of the many persecutions that were directed by the Roman power against the nascent Church; and in that rocky isle the Book of Revelation was written (Revelation 1:9). Having been recalled from exile, he returned to Ephesus, and died, during the reign of Trajan, in extreme old age, sixty-eight years after the Crucifixion, Jerome says, and at the close, probably in the last year, of the first century of our era.

Of the many traditionary stories of incidents in the apostle’s life during his residence in Ephesus, the following may be noted. That of his refusing to remain under the same roof as Cerinthus is related by Irenæus, who heard it from Polycarp. The apostle one day, entering a public bath, saw, or learned, that Cerinthus was there. Immediately he left the building, saying: “Let us flee lest the house fall on us, since Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.” He is still a “son of thunder” this story would show, though he does not now call for fire from heaven to consume the adversary. But the story certainly reflects the spirit of 2 John 1:10-11. The following reflects the more gentle and tender side of his nature. A young convert in whom he was interested had, through evil companionship, fallen from grace, and, descending ever lower, had become the chief of a robber band. Braving all danger, the aged apostle penetrated to the haunt of the brigands, and led the young man back to repentance and faith. There is also the beautiful story of a huntsman finding the venerable man one day fondling a tame partridge—still a common pet in countries bordering the Levant. Being asked why he should occupy himself with so trivial an occupation, the apostle said, “What is in thy hand?” “A bow,” was the answer. “And why dost thou not ever carry it bent?” “Because,” said the huntsman, “in that case it would lose its strength, and would be useless when required for shooting, from the too continuous strain.” “Then,” said the apostle, “do not let this simple and brief relaxation of mine perplex thee, since without it the spirit would flag from the unremitted strain, and fail when the call of duty came.” But the most beautiful and characteristic of all these stories is that which tells how, when old and feeble, with all his senses becoming numbed, the apostle was wont to be borne, at his own request, into the presence of the assembled congregation, and spoke but these words: “Little children, love one another!” And when asked why he always said this, and only this, his answer was: “It is the command of the Lord, and if this only were done, enough were done.


From the end of the second century until the close of the eighteenth, i.e. for about sixteen hundred years, this Gospel was universally received as having been written by John the apostle. The criticism adverse to this opinion, which culminated about half a century ago in the conclusions of F. C. Baur and the Tübingen school, has been met and refuted. Later adherents of that school (e.g. Keim) have had to recede from the opinion of the great Tübingen critic, and to acknowledge that the date fixed by him for the composition of the Gospel cannot be defended, and indeed must be placed much earlier.

It may be useful from the homiletic point of view to see what the Gospel itself tells us as to its authorship. To what conclusion does the internal evidence lead?

1. It is evident that the Gospel was written by an eye-witness of the events recorded, and one who was intimately acquainted with the life of Jesus during His public ministry. Many of the instances which show this are mentioned in the Explanatory Notes. In many of the narrative passages there are minute indications that the writer is narrating what he has seen and heard, e.g. John 1:35-51; John 2:0, etc., John 4:52 (and other notes of time), 11; John 18:10, etc.

2. The author was also a Palestinian Jew, (a) intimately acquainted with the localities of which he speaks, and (b) the Jewish customs of his time [(a) John 2:1; John 3:23; John 5:2; John 9:7; John 18:1; John 19:13, etc.; (b) 7 and 8; John 3:22; John 4:9; John 4:27; John 19:40, etc.]. And although he wrote this Gospel in Greek, in style and structure his composition is frequently Hebraic, as a reference to critical commentaries will show. But although a Jew, he was evidently writing with a view to a foreign and in part Gentile community, as he gives frequent interpretations of Hebrew place names, and minute topographical notes, which would be unnecessary for Palestinian Jews. Extended lists of passages bearing out these statements will be found in various commentaries, e.g. in that of Archdeacon H. W. Watkins.

3. A careful examination of the Gospel leads to the conclusion that the writer was one of the disciples of Christ, most intimately acquainted with all our Lord’s sayings and doings, and the relations of the disciples to Himself and to one another. The discourse and prayer, e.g., 13–17, could have been reported only by one who reverently and eagerly heard them, and thus retained them in a memory no doubt originally good, but also trained to perfection as memory is trained in the East. And who but one intimately acquainted with the men could have given such a vivid conception of Thomas and Philip as this writer gives?

4. Who was this disciple then? “Assuming that he was an eye-witness and an apostle, we are sure he was not Andrew, who is named in the Gospel four times, nor Peter (thirty-three times), nor Philip (twice), nor Nathanael (five times), nor Thomas (five times), nor Judas Iscariot (eight times), nor Judas, not Iscariot (once). Of the five other apostles, Matthew is necessarily excluded, and James the son of Alphæus and Simon the Canaanite occupy too unimportant a position in the Synoptic narrative to bring them within the limits of our hypothesis” (Watkins). The sons of Zebedee are not named, they are relegated to an inferior place in the order of the disciples (John 21:2), (their mother even is not mentioned (John 19:25) by name), although in the Synoptists these two brothers occupy a prominent position, being, with Peter, of the number of the three who were favoured to accompany the Master when the others were not permitted to do so—e.g. to the Mount of Transfiguration. Of these two James could not have written the Gospel, for he was martyred not long after the Ascension. Thus John alone remains.

5. And whilst the internal evidence all points in this direction, the external historical evidence confirms it, as the following succinct statement by a recent writer will show:—

“In some respects the external evidence for this Gospel is stronger than for any of the others. It is specially quoted by such early Gnostic writers as Basilides (125 A.D.), Valentinus (145 A.D., whose favourite phrases were borrowed from its opening verses), and Heracleon (a disciple of Valentinus), who wrote a commentary on it—being the first known commentary on any part of the New Testament. Moreover, as John himself survived till near the close of the first century, a comparatively short interval was left between his death and the time when the four Gospels are known to have been universally accepted by the Church (185 A.D.); and for this interval it so happens that we have a direct chain of testimony consisting of a very few strong and well-connected links. At the lower end of the chain we have Irenæus, one of the most important witnesses to the general reception of the four Gospels towards the close of the second century. Born in Asia Minor, where John spent the last twenty or thirty years of his life, he became Bishop of Lyons in Gaul, which had a close ecclesiastical connection with his native land. Early in life he was brought into familiar contact with Polycarp (born 70 A.D.), a disciple of the apostle John, who was for more than forty years Bishop of Smyrna and was martyred 155 A.D. Among other allusions which he makes to Polycarp, he says, in a letter to his friend Florinus (177 A.D.): ‘I can describe the very place in which the blessed Polycarp used to sit when he discoursed, and his goings out and his comings in, and his manner of life, and his personal appearance, and the discourses which he held before the people, and how he would describe his intercourse with John and with the rest who had seen the Lord, and how he would relate their words. And whatsoever things he had heard from them about the Lord and about His miracles, Polycarp, as having received them from eye-witnesses of the life of the Word, would relate altogether in accordance with the Scriptures.’
“It is beyond dispute that this Irenæus accepted the Fourth Gospel as a genuine work of the apostle John. Is it credible that he would have done so, if it had not been acknowledged by his teacher, Polycarp, who had been a disciple of John? and if it was accepted by Polycarp as a genuine writing, notwithstanding its marked dissimilarity to the other Gospels, what better evidence could we have that John was really its author, and that it was accepted as his, from the very first, by the leaders of the Church in Asia Minor?”—J. A. McClymont, D.D.


As we have seen (vide under § III. 1), it has been and is generally held that this Gospel was written toward the close of John’s life. Later tradition is explicit, but cannot be entirely relied on. Looking, however, at earlier testimonies, both direct and indirect, we are justified in placing the date within the two last decades of the first Christian century. Alford places the limits between 70 A.D., i.e. some years after St. Paul’s martyrdom, and 85 A.D. But there seems to be no special reason for fixing 85 A.D. as the later limit.

Recently the Rev. J. J. Halcombe, M.A., in an able work, has advanced and defended the opinion that St. John’s Gospel was the first of the four to be written and published; that St. Matthew wrote his Gospel after St. John’s, and in view of the latter; and that these two records, as may be seen by an analysis of their contents, give a complete account of our Lord’s earthly life, whilst the two Gospels by non-apostolic writers do not add materially to the historical contents of the other two. St. Mark’s Gospel, he considers, constitutes an explanatory appendix to St. Matthew’s history, while St. Luke’s Gospel gives an ordered chronological account of the events of our Lord’s life, with supplementary information tending to make clear to his Gentile readers the records of the other three evangelists. This is the gist of Mr. Halcombe’s theory, which is set forth with great ability and learning. Whatever the final opinion may be regarding that theory, it must be taken into account, and the discussion of it will be certain to lead to fruitful results.

At all events this must be conceded—that as John the apostle evidently did his part in the work of the Church after Pentecost (Acts 8:14), as a missionary and teacher he would naturally present that phase of our Lord’s doctrine and those “signs” which made most impression on himself, and which were therefore fitted to lead others also to faith (John 20:30-31). Here then we have a Gospel in germ at all events. Nor are we to suppose that the apostle had not committed to writing (probably in his native tongue) those precious sayings of our Lord which had sunk so deeply into his mind and heart. It seems to me we are bound to think that he wrote down a record of the events in our Lord’s life in which the Saviour manifested forth His glory, and did not leave entirely to memory those discourses which he alone has preserved. These he would dwell on chiefly in his preaching and teaching; and his fellow-apostles would be well aware that he had been moved to preserve the record of that phase of our Lord’s ministry, and that no one else was better fitted to make it known.

But that this record was then published, given forth to the world, cannot be proved. For the infant Church the simple oral teaching of apostles and apostolic men would be deemed sufficient. When, however, the Church began to expand and to overflow its original boundaries; when the apostolic company in the parent Church became smaller through the death of some members and the removal of others to new centres of activity, the need of some permanent record of the things most surely believed would be felt. For the parent Church this would be supplied by Matthew’s Gospel, which sets forth the Messiahship of our Lord. John by this time was probably away from Jerusalem (§ II.), and if not actually settled in Ephesus, was being led towards that sphere of labour. When he came to Ephesus, after the death of the apostle Paul, probably some time before the year 70 A.D., Matthew’s Gospel would then be in circulation; and it may be that the Gospel of St. Luke, the friend and companion of the apostle to the Gentiles, was also known among the Churches in Roman Asia, as St. Paul first founded the Church in that province. The facts of Christ’s life and His simpler ethical teaching would thus be known. But when St. John began his ministry among the Seven Churches, none could fail to notice that in his teaching, and in what he reported of the Redeemer’s actual words, there were elements which appeared but infrequently in the other Gospels. At all events this is extremely probable, if his Gospel and first Epistle in any way reflect the ordinary material and style of his teaching.

And in the Churches of Roman Asia especially, at the time when St. John settled among them, there had arisen a necessity for giving permanent form to that phase of the truth revealed in the life and teaching of our Lord which the apostle, guided by the Spirit, had been led to grasp most firmly.


When the apostle settled at Ephesus, the Church in that region had been established for a number of years. Church life, like that of the individual, must grow if it is to be healthy. The simpler faith of the nascent Church would be sufficiently maintained by the more simple ethical Gospel of St. Matthew, and the chronologically arranged and ordered treatise of St. Luke. But when spiritual life advances it demands higher views of truth. Failing the presentment of these higher views, not a few in seeking for them will be apt to fall under the spell of error. In the Churches of Roman Asia a species of Judaistic Gnosticism had found a footing even in the time of St. Paul’s activity. Cerinthus, who propagated this error in Ephesus during the time of St. John’s ministry there, was no doubt only one sign of the deep movement of thought which culminated in later Gnosticism. St. Paul wrote an epistle to the Church at Colossæ, which was also to be read to the Church at Laodicea, confirming the truth he had preached, and that in such a manner as to meet and confute at the same time this growing error. But the error continued, and would be found there when St. John went to Ephesus. In this city the thought of East and West met as in Alexandria. It could not fail to be influenced by the questions debated in the Egyptian intellectual capital. And among the Jewish community the teaching of Philo could not fail to be in some degree influential. Nor would the Christian Church be exempted from the effect of such movements; and attempts would be made then, as they have been made since and to the present time, to amalgamate those errors with the truth. The second and third chapters of the Apocalypse show how far this danger threatened the Church, and how much need there was to purge away those errors by the completion of the gospel history in the record preserved by St. John. The primary purpose of his Gospel was to build up the members of the Christian Church in that faith which leads to life through Christ’s name (John 20:30-31). At the same time, by the exhibition of the full glory of Christ as the Son of God incarnate, St. John’s record struck at the roots of those errors which were leading men away from eternal life.

Thus in the prologue Jesus Christ is declared to be the eternal Logos, the Word of God, who was made flesh. All through the Gospel the report of Christ’s teaching, and the narration of the signs which Jesus did, contribute to show this forth. They all declare how He manifested forth His glory “as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The record shows that in Christ “dwells all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 2:9). The divine Spirit did not merely come into the man Jesus when He was baptised and tabernacle in Him, as Cerinthus taught; nor was the Logos merely the highest of angels, the primæval angel or second God (δεύτερος Θεός), etc., as Philo affirmed: the man Christ Jesus was the Word, and the Word was God (John 1:1; John 1:14). It can therefore be well understood how St. John’s fellow-presbyters and disciples might urge upon him the importance of giving to the world those truths which he taught, and which they saw would be so effectual in building up believers in the faith, and, at the same time, confuting insidious and growing error.

John has been compared, since the early Christian centuries, to the flying eagle (Revelation 4:7) who soars upward gazing on the Sun. His Gospel may be likened to the highest step on a heavenly stairway. The others proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, as the divine Son of man, as the Redeemer of the whole human race; the Fourth Gospel raises us highest when it declares that Christ was the Word, and the Word was God. And perhaps an idea held by some may be more than a mere fancy—that the last age of the Church will be the Johannine age, a period of deeper spiritual knowledge, of closer unity with God through Christ, and of a higher spiritual life informed and moulded by love.


In the preparation of the explanatory, etc., notes, the commentaries of these well-known scholars were frequently consulted and referred to: F. Godet, D.D. (Clark, Edinburgh); C. E. Luthardt (Clark); F. B. Westcott, D.D., D.C.L. (John Murray, London); H. R. Reynolds, D.D. (in Kegan Paul, Trench, & Co.’s Pulpit Commentary); Archdeacon Watkins (Cassell); J. P. Lange (Bielefeld, 3rd Ed.); Brown and Fausset (Collins); Jacobus (Oliphant & Co.); Alford, Greek Testament; Wordsworth, Greek Testament; Lange, Life of Christ; Farrar, Life of Christ. The explanatory, etc., notes, whilst somewhat full at times, have been always written with the homiletic purpose of the work in view.

In preparing the homiletic section of the work the commentaries of the above-mentioned and other writers have been most helpful. The illustrations and notes from English writers have the names of the authors appended. All students of this Gospel would benefit by the perusal of Dr. Parker’s brilliant volume in the People’s Bible Series, of the succinct but scholarly volume of Dr. Alexander Maclaren in his Bible-Class Expositions, and of Dr. Dods’ work in The Expositor’s Bible; whilst Rev. J. S. Exell’s Biblical Illustrator is a veritable mine of homiletic wealth for preachers and teachers.

The writer has to acknowledge his special indebtedness to noted German preachers, such as Gerok, Ahlfeld, Kögel, Arndt, Besser, Schleiermacher, and others, as the frequent occurrence of their names will show; and from J. L. Sommer’s (Erlangen) Die Evangelischen Perikopen he has drawn a number of outlines which are acknowledged in the body of the work. A few extracts from Bersier, Viguié, etc., are also included as illustrations to the homilies; whilst the outlines from Bourdaloue are given as specimens of the work of one who was a master in the homiletic arrangement of his sermons, and who trod with firm step when engaged in the exposition of pure Scripture truth. The writer is responsible for the homiletic sections, etc., without names appended, for the explanatory notes, and the translations (except a few from F. W. Krummacher), which are free, not literal, renderings. The design of the work does not permit of literary finish. Brevity, with fulness of homiletic suggestion, has been the end aimed at—the writer trusts successfully.

W. F. S.

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