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Benson's Commentary of the Old and New TestamentsBenson's Commentary

- John

by Joseph Benson


THE author of this gospel, JOHN, the apostle and evangelist, was a native of Bethsaida, in Galilee, and the son of Zebedee and Salome, as appears by comparing Matthew 27:56, with Mark 15:40; Mark 16:1. He was younger brother of James the Greater, or Elder, (there being two apostles of that name,) with whom he exercised the trade of a fisherman, on the sea of Galilee. These brothers were among the first that became Christ’s disciples, being called the same day that Peter and Andrew were chosen to that honour. John is supposed to have been about twenty-five years of age when he began to follow Christ, by whom he was peculiarly loved, and honoured with his most intimate confidence, being chosen, with his brother and Peter, exclusive of the rest, to be a witness of the raising of Jairus’s daughter, of Christ’s transfiguration, and of his agony in the garden. And he and his brother James, on account of their zeal in their Master’s service, and their fervent manner of preaching, were distinguished by the title of Boanerges, or sons of thunder. He was the only apostle who followed Christ to Calvary, and stood under the cross when he was crucified; and to him Jesus left the care of his mother, to whom, in pursuance of the trust thus reposed in him, he showed all the testimonies of the profoundest veneration and respect, granting her, after the death of her husband Joseph, all the accommodations his house afforded, John 19:27. He saw our Lord expire on the cross, and the soldier pierce his side with a spear, John 19:34-35; and was one of the first of the apostles who visited the sepulchre after Christ’s resurrection; and the first of them, it seems, that believed he was risen, John 20:8. He was present when Christ showed himself to the disciples on the day he rose, and likewise eight days after, John 20:19-29; as also when Jesus appeared as a stranger to some of them, at the sea of Tiberias; and was the first that discovered, and gave notice to the others, that the person appearing was the Lord. After Christ’s ascension, he continued with the other apostles at Jerusalem, and took part with them in all their transactions, till the day of pentecost, when, with all the others, he was endowed with the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit, and was thereby fully qualified for the important offices for which God designed him. He, in conjunction with Peter, with whom it appears he had contracted a very intimate friendship, had the honour of being made the instrument of working the first miracle after the day of pentecost, namely, of curing, in a moment, a man who had been lame from his birth; and the still greater honour of suffering imprisonment for Christ and his gospel, before any of the other apostles were called to give that proof of their faith in him, and attachment to his cause, Acts 3:1-10. We find him afterward sent with Peter to Samaria, in order that through their prayers, and the laying on of their hands, the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost might be conferred on some who had been converted there by the preaching of Philip the deacon, Acts 8:5-25. And some years after this, he is mentioned by St. Paul, (Galatians 2:0.,) as one of the members of that council which was held at Jerusalem, to consider whether the observation of the ceremonial law should be required of the Gentile converts, Acts 15:0. From all which things it appears, that he was well qualified to give to the church and the world an authentic and accurate history of the life, doctrine, and miracles of Christ; having been an eye and ear witness of most or of all the facts which it was of importance he should relate. It is thought, that after the events referred to above, he continued in or near Judea till the time approached for the accomplishment of Christ’s predictions respecting the destruction of Jerusalem and the dissolution of the Jewish state; when, according to Irenæus, Eusebius, Origen, and others, he went into Asia, that being his peculiar province by allotment, where he founded the churches of Smyrna, Thyatira, Pergamos, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. His principal place of residence, however, was Ephesus, of which he was bishop; though Paul had planted a church there long before, and constituted Timothy the bishop thereof. Soon after he had settled affairs to his satisfaction in Asia Minor, he is supposed to have removed thence more eastward, and to have preached the gospel among the Parthians; to whom, as some imagine, his first epistle was anciently inscribed.

After John had been thus employed in his apostolical function for some years, the persecution of the cruel Domitian took place, in the 15th year of his reign, A.D. 95, in which so eminent a minister of Christ as John could not fail of being a sufferer. He was, accordingly, represented to the emperor as a professed atheist, and a public subverter of the established religion of the empire; whereupon, by his imperial orders, the proconsul of Asia sent John bound to Rome, where he met with the most barbarous and inhuman treatment. He was cast into a caldron of boiling or burning oil; but was as miraculously preserved from being injured thereby, as Shadrach and his companions had been, long before, from being hurt by the flames of a fiery furnace. The stupid and obdurate Domitian, regardless of the miracle, still persecuted this holy man, and banished him into the island of Patmos, in the Archipelago, where, toward the latter end of the emperor’s reign, he wrote the Apocalypse. Domitian being slain in A.D. 96, Nerva, his successor, by an especial edict recalled him, and several others, from their state of exile; in consequence of which he returned to Ephesus, being then about ninety years of age. Here, it is said, he wrote his gospel, but whether before he was sent into exile, or after his return from it, is not quite certain. The general current of ancient writers, however, assure us, that he wrote it at an advanced time of life; though some learned moderns are of a different opinion, supposing it was written before the destruction of Jerusalem. “The question,” as Mr. Scott observes, “is perhaps rather a matter of curiosity than importance. Yet certainly several passages become far more interesting, by supposing that it was written long after the destruction of Jerusalem, and the martyrdom of the other apostles. This evangelist alone mentions Peter as the apostle who smote the high-priest’s servant, and Malchus as the name of that servant. Now it is obvious to conclude, that he disclosed what the others had purposely concealed; because Peter was, at the time when he wrote, out of the reach of all his enemies. He alone records the resurrection of Lazarus; a miracle so stupendous and notorious, that one can hardly account for the other evangelists passing it over in silence, unless by supposing that, inasmuch as the Jews had consulted to put Lazarus also, as well as Christ, to death, the publicly recording of it by the evangelists, while the Jewish priests and rulers possessed authority, might needlessly have exasperated them, and exposed Lazarus and his sisters to much hatred, and even to imminent danger; and that the first Christians, knowing this, judged it proper in their public writings to observe a profound silence on this subject, till Jerusalem was destroyed, and Lazarus deceased, when the whole was circumstantially related. The other evangelists record our Lord’s predictions concerning the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and the dispersion of the Jews; but this writer is entirely silent in respect of them. Nor can a more satisfactory account of this be given, than by supposing that many of the predicted events had by that time received their accomplishment.” In addition to these arguments, which certainly are of considerable weight, some have observed that it is probable St. John could not have interpreted the words of Christ, which he has recorded John 21:18: “Thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shalt gird thee,” concerning the manner of St. Peter’s death, if his gospel had been written before the crucifixion of that apostle; because, before that time, the words were ambiguous. Now this limits the writing of it to the year 69, a year expressly specified by an ancient writer. Others give it a much later date, some even so late as A.D. 97.

But at what time soever it was written, it is probable that it was undertaken in consequence of the entreaties of the Christian people and pastors of Ephesus, and other parts of Asia Minor, where John had his residence in the latter part of his life; and if so, Dr. Campbell thinks it must have been toward the close of the first century when it first appeared in the church. It was, doubtless, published before the beginning of the second; for we find evident references to it, though without naming the author, in some epistles of Ignatius, written about that time, the authenticity of which is strenuously maintained by Bishop Pearson, and other critics of name. There are also in Justin Martyr both references to this gospel, and quotations from it, though without naming the author. Tatian used it, along with the others, in composing the Diatessaron. It is scarcely necessary to mention the notice that is taken of it in the epistle of the churches of Vienne and Lyons, or by Irenæus, who names all the evangelists, specifying something peculiar to every one of them whereby he may be distinguished from the rest. To these may be added, Athenagoras, Theophilus of Antioch, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and the whole current of succeeding ecclesiastical writers.

If we may believe Irenæus, (Advers. Hæres., lib. 3. cap. 11,) this gospel was written with a view to “extirpate the errors sown in the minds of men by Cerinthus, and, some time before, by those called Nicolaitans;” in opposition to which errors, “he acquaints us, that there is one God, who made all things by his Word; and not, as they say, one who is the Creator of the world, and another who is the Father of the Lord; one the Son of the Creator, and another the Christ from the super-celestial abodes, who descended upon Jesus the Son of the Creator, but remained impassible, and afterward flew back into his own pleroma or fulness.” Again: “This disciple, therefore, willing at once to cut off these errors, and establish a rule of truth in the church, declares, that there is one God Almighty, who by his Word made all things, visible and invisible; and that by the same Word, by which God finished the work of creation, he bestowed salvation upon men, who inhabit the creation. With this doctrine he ushers in his gospel, ‘In the beginning was the Word,’” &c. “This testimony,” says Dr. Campbell, “is of great antiquity, having been given in less than a century after the publication of the gospel.” Clement of Alexandria, who wrote not long after Irenæus, has, as we learn from Eusebius, (lib. 3. cap. 24,) added some particulars, as what, in his opinion, together with the entreaties of the Asiatic churches, contributed not a little to induce John to compose his gospel. The first he mentions is, that the evangelists who had preceded him, had taken little notice of our Lord’s teaching and actions, soon after the commencement of his ministry, and before the imprisonment of John the Baptist. One consideration, therefore, which induced him, though late, to publish a gospel, was, to supply what seemed to have been omitted by those who had gone before him. For this reason he avoided, as much as possible, recurring to those passages of our Lord’s history of which the preceding evangelists had given an account. There was no occasion, therefore, for him to give the genealogy of our Saviour’s flesh, as the historian expresses it, which had been done by Matthew and Luke before him. The same Eusebius says in another place, (lib. 6. cap. 14,) quoting Clement, “John, who is the last of the evangelists, having seen that in the three former gospels corporeal things had been explained, and being urged by his acquaintance, and inspired of God, composed a spiritual gospel.” Thus, it appears to have been a very early tradition in the church, that this gospel was composed, not only to supply what had not been fully communicated in the former gospels, but also to serve for refuting the errors of Cerinthus and the Gnostics.

“It deserves our particular attention, that the whole strain of the writing [of this gospel] shows it must have been published at a time, and in a country, the people whereof, in general, knew very little of the Jewish rites and manners. Thus those who in the other gospels are called simply ‘the people,’ or ‘the multitude,’ are here denominated ‘the Jews,’ a method which would not have been natural in their own land, or even in the neighbourhood, where the nation itself, and its peculiarities, were perfectly well known. As it was customary in the East, both with Jews and others, to use proper names independently significant, which, when they went abroad, were translated into the language of the country, this author, that there might be no mistake of the persons meant, was careful, when the Greek name had any currency, to mention both names, Syriac and Greek. Thus, ‘Cephas, which denoteth the same as Peter,’ John 1:43; ‘Thomas, that is, Didymus,’ John 11:16. The same may be said of some titles in current use, ‘Rabbi, which is, being interpreted, Master,’ John 1:38; ‘Messiah, which is, the Christ,’ John 1:41. In like manner, when there is occasion to mention any of the religious ceremonies used in Judea, as their ‘purifications,’ or their ‘festivals,’ it is almost invariably signified that the ceremony, or custom spoken of, is Jewish. Thus the water-pots are said to be placed for the Jewish rites of cleansing, chap. John 2:6. The passover is once and again (John 2:13; John 6:4; Joh 11:55 ) denominated the ‘Jewish passover,’ a phrase used only by this evangelist; and even any other religious feast is called (John 5:1; Joh 7:2 ) by him, εορτη των Ιουδαιων , ‘a Jewish festival.’ This style runs through the whole. The writer everywhere speaks as to people who knew little or nothing about the Jews: see John 4:9; John 4:45.

“Though simplicity of manner is common to all our Lord’s historians, there are evident differences in the simplicity of one compared with that of another. One thing very remarkable in John’s style is, an attempt to impress important truths more strongly on the minds of the readers, by employing, in the expression of them, both an affirmative proposition and a negative. Thus, John 1:20, ‘He acknowledged, and denied not, but acknowledged.’ Repetitions, pleonasms, and tautologies, are also very frequent in this gospel: see John 1:0. l, 2, 7, 8.

“Hebraisms are to be found in all the evangelists; though it may be remarked, that some abound more with one sort of Hebraism, and others with another. A Hebrew idiom, very frequent with this writer, is the repetition or introduction of the personal pronoun, in cases where it is perfectly redundant. See verses 33 and 27 in the original. The introduction of any incident with the phrase, καιεγενετο , generally rendered in the common translation, ‘And it came to pass,’ though common in the other gospels, never occurs in this. The introduction of either facts or observations, by the adverb behold, is much rarer in this gospel than in the rest. But in the change of the tenses, so frequent with the Hebrews, John abounds more than any other of our Lord’s biographers. He is peculiar in the application of some names, as of ο Λογος , ‘The Word,’ and ο μονογενης , ‘The only begotten,’ to the Lord Jesus Christ; and of ο Παρακλητος , ‘The Monitor,’ or, as some render it, ‘The Advocate,’ and others, ‘The Comforter,’ to the Holy Ghost. He is peculiar also in some modes of expression which, though inconsiderable in themselves, it may not be improper to suggest in passing. Such is his reduplication of the affirmative adverb, αμην , verily; for he always says, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you.’ It is never used but singly by the rest.”

“The style and character of St. John,” says Mr. Blackwall, in his Sacred Classics, “is grave and simple, short and perspicuous. As to his language, it is plain and sometimes low, but he reaches to the very heaven of heavens in the sublimity of his notions. The venerable plainness, the majestic gravity, and beautiful simplicity of this writer, will always, by men of judgment, be valued above all the pomp of artificial eloquence, and gaudy ornaments of sophistry, and the dec l amatory style. This glorious gospel completes the evangelical history, and enriches it with several most heavenly discourses and miracles of the world’s Saviour, not recorded by any of the three divine writers before him. The first five chapters give an account of his works of wonder before the Baptist’s imprisonment. He enlarges upon the eternal existence of our Saviour, and gives us a most edifying and delightful account of his conversation for many days upon earth, with his apostles and select disciples, after his victorious and triumphant resurrection.”

“Here,” says Dr. Campbell, “we have also the true sources of Christian consolation under persecution, and the strongest motives to faith, patience, constancy, and mutual love, in every situation wherein Providence may place us. From the incidents here related, we may learn many excellent lessons of modesty, humanity, humility, and kind attention to the concerns of others. Nor does any one of those incidents appear to be more fraught with instruction than the charge of his mother, which our blessed Lord, at that critical time when he hung in agony upon the cross, consigned to his beloved disciple, John 19:25, &c. Though the passage is very brief, and destitute of all artful colouring, nothing can impress more strongly on the feeling heart his respectful tenderness for a worthy parent, and his unalterable affection for a faithful friend. Upon the whole, the language employed in conveying the sentiments is no more than the repository, the case. Let not its homeliness discourage any one from examining its valuable contents. The treasure itself is heavenly, even the unsearchable riches of Christ, which the apostle observes, (2 Corinthians 4:7,) to be committed ‘to earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may,’ to the conviction of all the sober-minded, ‘be of God, and not of men.’ “The Apostle John, by the concurrent testimony of all Christian antiquity, after suffering persecution for the cause of Christ, lived to a very great age; and having survived all the other apostles, died a natural death, at Ephesus, in Asia Minor, in the reign of the Emperor Trajan.”


THUS endeth the History of the Life of Christ; a life, the greatest and best that ever was led by man, or ever was the subject of any history. The human character of Jesus, as it results from the accounts which the evangelists have given of him, (for they have not formally drawn it,) is entirely different from that of all other men whatsoever. For whereas they have the selfish passions deeply rooted in their breasts, and are wont to be more or less influenced by them in most of their actions, Jesus was so entirely free from them, that the narrowest scrutiny cannot furnish one single action in the whole course of his life, wherein he consulted his own honour or interest. The glory of God and happiness of mankind were what he had only at heart. And while his cotemporaries followed, some one kind of occupation, and some another, Jesus had no other business but that of promoting these great ends of living. He went about doing good. He did not wait till he was solicited, but sought opportunities of conferring benefits on such as stood in need of them, and always reckoned it more blessed to give than to receive; in which respect he differed exceedingly from the rest of mankind, and was much more like to God than man. In the next place, whereas it is common, even for persons of the most exalted faculties, on the one hand, to be elated with success and applause, and on the other, to be dejected with great disappointments, it was not so with Jesus. He was never more courageous than when he met with the greatest opposition and the worst treatment, nor more humble than when men fell down and worshipped him. He came into the world inspired with the grandest purpose that ever was or will be formed, even that of saving, not a single nation only, but the whole world; and in the execution of it went through the heaviest train of labours that ever was sustained, and that with a constancy of resolution on which no disadvantageous impression could be made by any accident whatever; calumny, threatenings, opposition, with the other evils befalling him, served only to quicken his endeavours in this glorious enterprise, which he pursued unweariedly till he finished it by his death. In the third place, whereas most men are prone to retaliate the injuries that are done them, and all seem to take a satisfaction in complaining of the injuries of those who oppress them, the whole of Christ’s behaviour breathed nothing but meekness, patience, and forgiveness, even to his bitterest enemies, and in the midst of extreme sufferings. The words, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do, uttered by him when his enemies were nailing him to the cross, fitly express the temper which he maintained through the whole course of his life, even when assaulted by the heaviest provocations. The truth is, on no occasion did he ever signify the least resentment by speech or action, nor indeed any emotion of mind whatever, except such as flowed from piety and charity, consequently such only as expressed the deepest concern for the welfare of mankind. To conclude, the greatest and best men have had failings which darkened the lustre of their virtues, and showed them to have been men. This was the case with Noah, Abraham, Moses, Job, Solomon, Paul, and the other eminent men celebrated in history. The same thing may be said of all the greatest geniuses in the heathen world, who undertook to instruct and inform mankind; for, omitting the narrowness of their knowledge, and the obscurity with which they spake upon the most important subjects, there was not one of them who did not fall into some gross error or other, which dishonoured his character as a teacher. The accounts we have in history of the most renowned sages of antiquity, and the writings of the philosophers still remaining, are proofs of this. It was otherwise with Jesus in every respect. For he was superior to all the men that ever lived, both in the sublimity of his doctrine, and in the purity of his manners. He was holy, harmless, and separate from sinners. Whether you consider him as a teacher or a man, he did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth. His whole life was perfectly free from spot or weakness, at the same time that it was remarkable for the greatest and most extensive exercises of virtue.

Such was the person who is the subject of the evangelical history. If the reader, by viewing his life, doctrine, and miracles, as they are here presented to him in the gospels, has obtained a clearer notion of these things than before; if he feels himself touched with the character of Jesus in general, or with any of his sermons and actions in particular, thus simply delineated in writings whose principal charms are the beauties of truth; above all, if Christ’s dying so generously for men strikes him with admiration, or fills him with joy, in the assurance or prospect of that pardon which is thereby purchased for the world, let him seriously consider with himself what improvement he ought to make of the divine goodness.

Jesus, by his death, has set open the gates of immortality to men; and by his word, Spirit, and example, graciously offers to make them meet for, and conduct them into, the inheritance of the saints in light. Wherefore, being born under the dispensation of his gospel, we have, from our earliest years, enjoyed the best means of acquiring wisdom, holiness, and happiness, the lineaments of the image of God. We have been called to aspire after an exaltation to the nature and felicity of God, set before mortal eyes in the man Jesus Christ, to fire us with the noblest ambition. His gospel teaches us that we are made for eternity; and that our present life is to our after existence, what childhood is to man’s estate. But, as in childhood, many things are to be learned, many hardships to be endured, many habits to be acquired, and that by a tedious course of exercises, which in themselves, though painful, and, it may be, useless to the child, yet are necessary to fit him for the business and enjoyments of manhood: just so, while we remain in this infancy of human life, things are to be learned, hardships to be endured, and a conformity to God, and a participation of the divine nature to be attained, to fit us for the employments and pleasures of our riper existence above. Our Father, ever mindful of us, sent down Jesus, the express image of his own person, to initiate us into, and carry us through, this course of education for eternity. Inflamed, therefore, with the love of immortality and its joys, let us submit ourselves to our heavenly Teacher, and learn of him those graces which alone can make life pleasant, death desirable, and fill eternity with ecstatic joys. See Macknight.

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