John’s Context and Setting
So how do we account for the differences? The likely answer is that John was written in a different context and a different time than the Synoptics, probably near the end of the first century. John is addressing issues of importance and concern for the church of his day. When the Synoptics were written in the 50s–70s, the burning issue for the church was to show that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, the fulfillment of Old Testament promises. How has the kingdom of God arrived if Jesus was crucified and the Romans were still in power? The Synoptics answer that the kingdom came in a different way than expected and that Jesus’ messiahship was vindicated and confirmed through his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God.
John is writing somewhat later when the church was confronting different challenges. False teachers have arisen in the church. Some are challenging the deity of Christ, claiming he is not fully God. Others are questioning his true humanity, denying that God could become a human being. From his opening lines, John confirms both the full deity and the true humanity of Jesus: “The Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1); “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14).
John has a clear statement of purpose near the end of his Gospel:
Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples that were not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. - John 20:30–31
John writes to provoke faith in Jesus, resulting in eternal life. “That you may believe” could also be translated “that you may continue to believe.” John is likely writing both to call unbelievers to faith in Jesus and to provide confidence for those believers who are struggling in their faith. Their primary opponents are (1) false teachers who have arisen in the church and are denying Jesus’ deity or his true humanity, and (2) unbelieving Jews, who have rejected Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah and self-revelation of God. John responds by demonstrating that Jesus confirmed through his teaching and his “signs” (see below) that he truly came from the Father to bring eternal life to all who believe. An examination of John’s structure will illustrate how he develops this theme.
John’s Gospel can be outlined simply into four parts: (1) An introductory Prologue (John 1:1-18). A main body consisting of two parts: (2) The Book of Signs (John 1:19–12:50) and (3) The Book of Glory (John 13:1-20:31). (4) A concluding Epilogue (ch. 21).
The Prologue (1:1–18).
John’s magnificent prologue contains the most exalted Christology (description of Christ) in the Bible. Jesus is identified as God’s “Word” (logos). This Greek word had a rich history both in Greco-Roman thought and in Judaism. In Greek philosophy, logos could refer to divine reason, the force that brings unity and order to the cosmos. In Judaism, God’s Word represented the dynamic power of God to accomplish his will. God merely speaks the universe into existence. With a word, he can judge and destroy, as well as redeem and save. That Jesus is God’s “Word” means he is God’s agent of salvation and his self-revelation to human beings.
The Word, John says, was both “with God” (distinct from God the Father) and “was God” (fully God). The Word’s true deity is confirmed through his identification as the Creator of all things (John 1:3; cf. Gen. 1:1). Though fully divine, Jesus entered human existence when “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). The reason for this incarnation was to bring people back into right relationship with God, to give them “the right to become children of God” by faith (John 1:12). John 1:18 forms the capstone to the Prologue: “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” Jesus, who is fully human and fully divine, makes known the invisible God.
The Book of Signs (1:19–12:50)
Following the prologue, the first half of John’s Gospel is often called the “Book of Signs,” since it recounts seven “signs,” or miracles, that Jesus performs. The miracles are called signs because they not only demonstrate Jesus’ power, but also point to who Jesus is and provoke faith in him. The signs are often linked in some way to Jesus’ teaching. For example, Jesus feeds the multitude with loaves and fish, and then teaches that he is the true manna from heaven, the bread of life.
The Seven “Signs”
- Water into wine (John 2:1–11)
- Healing a royal official’s son (John 4:46–54)
- Healing a disabled man (John 5:1–15)
- Feeding 5,000 (John 6:1–14)
- Walking on water (John 6:16–21)
- Healing a man born blind (John 9:1–12)
- Raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1–43)
The first sign, turning water into wine at Cana of Galilee (John 2:1–12), illustrates their purpose. The miracle, occurring as it does at a wedding celebration, carries symbolic significance. In the Old Testament, God’s salvation is described as a great party—the “messianic banquet” that God will throw for all people. It will be “a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines,” symbolizing God’s final salvation, when “he will destroy the shroud [of death] that enfolds all peoples” and will “swallow up death forever” (Isa 25:6–8; cf. Rev 19:9). By turning water into wine, Jesus indicates that God’s final salvation is arriving through his words and deeds. At the end of the episode, the author identifies this as “the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11). The purpose of the sign is to reveal Jesus’ glory and to provoke faith in him.
The seventh and climactic sign is the raising of Lazarus from the dead (ch. 11). This sign has two important functions in the Gospel. First, it is the precipitating event that provokes the religious leaders to act against Jesus. They recognize that if they “let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him.” So they decide they must destroy him. Second, the miracle serves as a preview and foreshadowing of the greatest sign of all—the resurrection of Jesus. Before raising Lazarus, Jesus tells Martha that “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die” (John 11:25). Jesus’ own resurrection will provide resurrection life to all who believe.
The seven signs illustrate the importance of symbolism in John’s Gospel. This use of symbols is also seen in seven metaphors, or “I am” statements that Jesus uses to describe himself:
Seven “I am” Sayings
- Bread of Life (John 6:35)
- Light of the World (John 8:12, 9:5)
- Gate for the Sheep (John 10:7–11)
- Good Shepherd (John 10:11–15)
- Resurrection & Life (John 11:23–26)
- Way, Truth, & Life (John 14:1–6)
- The True Vine (John 15:5)
In addition to these seven, on at least one occasion, Jesus identifies himself in an absolute sense as “I am,” an apparent allusion to the divine name Yahweh. When the Jewish leaders sarcastically ask if Jesus is greater than Abraham, Jesus replies, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). Jesus’ use of the absolute “I am” (egō eimi) seems to be an allusion to the burning bush episode in Exodus 3, where Yahweh tells Moses that his divine name is “I am who I am” (meaning “the self-existent one” and a play on the divine name Yahweh). Jesus’ opponents apparently understand this to be a claim to deity since they pick up stones to kill him (John 8:59).