Today we begin the Gospel according to John.1 This is the last Gospel written, probably in the 80s A.D. This Gospel has a stated purpose: “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31). It has been said that this Gospel account is easy to understand yet the most theologically deep: “John’s Gospel is deep enough for an elephant to swim and shallow enough for a child not to drown.”2 Whereas Matthew focuses on Christ as the King Who fulfills the covenants, Mark on Christ as sacrificial servant, and Luke on Christ as man, this Gospel account clearly presents Christ as the eternal Son of God.
John begins with his description of “the Word” (1:1). While many assume John is pulling from Greek philosophy to call Jesus the “logos” (the one overarching first principle of everything), I do not think so. I think that John is simply calling Christ the God Who appeared to His people in the Old Testament (see Gen 15:1 where the Word appears in a vision and 1 Sam 3:21 where the Lord appears by “the Word of the Lord”). John is also saying that the Word is eternal (He already was in the beginning, a callback to Gen 1:1), that He is somehow distinct from another Person(s) Who is God, and yet that He was God Himself from the beginning.3
John then develops Christ’s eternality. He again says that the Word was “in the beginning with God,” another callback to Genesis 1:1 (v. 2). Not only that, but the Word is Who everything was made through (v. 3). This would exclude any heresy that claims Christ was created. He is the sovereign giver of life (v. 4). The use of “light” is multi-faceted. It is another reference back to creation, as light was the first “let there be…” command of God (Gen 1:3). Light is also used in the Bible as a metaphor for salvation, the truth of God, and God’s glory. Jesus eternally and forever is all of these for the world (v. 5).
John then introduces John the Baptist to point out that he was sent by God to bear witness to Christ (vv. 6-8). Why was he sent to do this? Because the light was coming into the world (v. 9). God became physical man! He came into the world He made (v. 10). He came to Israel – His chosen physical people – and they rejected Him (v. 11). So the spiritual children – those who believe in Christ – the elect who were chosen! – they alone have the right to called children of God (vv. 12-13). Can this be said any more clearly???
And for this to be the case, the Word – the eternal God – took on flesh and dwelt among us (v. 14). John uses tabernacle language (“dwelt” is literally “pitched a tent”). In other words, the glory (light) of God dwelt bodily in Christ Who took on flesh. And through His “fullness” or “completeness,” we (the true children of God) have received grace upon grace (v. 16). Grace and more grace. Grace and nothing but grace. The Law (works) came through Moses. Grace and truth (light) came through Jesus (v. 17), Who is the Son Who reveals the Father (v. 18).
In addition to a description of John the Baptist’s ministry (which we already know – vv. 19-28), we are told that John the Baptist specifically pointed to Jesus as the One he prepared the way for. He calls Him “the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world” (v. 29 – see Gen 22:8, Ex 12:3, Isa 53:7, Rev 5:6). He is the God-provided atonement for sin Who saves us from death. John says that God told Him that the One upon Whom the Spirit falls when he baptizes Him is the Son of God (vv. 33-34).
Two of John’s followers, upon seeing John point out Jesus a second time, follow Jesus (v. 37). This is Andrew and (believed to be – see v. 43 below) Philip. Andrew goes to get his brother Simon (v. 41), and when he is brought to Jesus, He renames him Peter (Cephas is a transliteration of the Aramaic name for “Peter”) (v. 42). Jesus then goes to Galilee to call Philip (v. 43) who finds his buddy Nathanael to come to Jesus (v. 44). It is widely believed that Nathanael (not mentioned in any other Gospel account) is Bartholomew. Bartholomew means “son of Talmai,” so Nathanael may just be the son of Talmai. In addition, Bartholomew is always listed with Philip in the list of Apostles (Matt 10:3, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:14). While this doesn’t need to be doubted, it is also possible that Nathanael is a different man that followed Christ but not named an apostle.
Jesus then amazes Nathanael by telling him that He saw him under a fig tree, a show of His omniscience (v. 48). Jesus assures Nathanael that he is going to see greater things (v. 50) and then invokes an image of Jacob’s vision of the stairway to heaven (see Gen 28:12) and applies it to Himself (v. 51). Jesus is saying two things. First, He is the way to the Father (see 14:6). Second, Jacob interprets his vision to mean that God was present in that place. Jesus is saying that He is God Himself, present on Earth. He is Immanuel!
Chapter 2 begins with the wedding at Cana (2:1-11). Jesus here performs His first public miracle (v. 11). We can already see Jesus’s hesitance to call too much attention to Himself this early in His ministry (v. 4). We also need to understand the miracle. First, Jesus did not make unfermented (as in, non-alcoholic grape juice) wine (as teetotalers would have us believe). If that is the case, then my Nutribullet works miracles. Second, the miracle is not that water became wine. There are countless wineries that can do that, as long as they have grapes and enough time. The point is that, first, Jesus made wine without grapes. He can create ex-nihilo (out of nothing). Second, Jesus is Lord over time. Fermentation takes a long time. God works outside of time.
Next, John tells us of Jesus’s cleansing of the Temple, and statement about the destruction of the Temple, during Passover (vv. 13-20). The other Gospel accounts place this at the end of Jesus’s ministry, which is also the only time those accounts put Jesus in Jerusalem. John places Him in Jerusalem multiple times. So there are two interpretive options. First, Jesus was only in Jerusalem once at the end of His ministry and John has split that into three visits for theological reasons (I don’t know what those reasons would be, personally). If that is the case, then we have to place the events of chapter 3 (among others) during the last weeks of Jesus’s life, too. The other (better) option is that Jesus visited Jerusalem multiple times during His ministry, and the other three evangelists only record the last for theological reasons. I favor that view.4
What Jesus says here when He overturns the tables (“…house of trade”) is different than the other accounts (“…house of prayer…den of robbers”). Here, His statement about the Temple being destroyed and rebuilt is His answer to the question of verse 18, whereas in the other accounts Jesus only speaks about the destruction of the Temple when His disciples ask Him about the Temple (Matt 24:1-2, Mark 13:1-2). This saying here is also what is likely referred to in Matthew 26:61, 27:40 and Mark 14:58, 15:29. John also uses this to speak of the Temple of Jesus’s body (v. 21) to round out the imagery begun in 1:14. He is the true Tabernacle and the true Temple. Note that Jesus’s answer to the question of verse 18 is His resurrection. That is the sign He will show them.
In verse 23, we are told that many believed in Jesus. In verse 24, the same word for “believe” is used – literally it says “Jesus Himself did not believe them.” Based on John’s explanation that Jesus knew all people and what was in them (vv. 24-25), it is likely that verse 23 speaks of a superficial trust in Jesus because of the signs.
Chapter 3 may be the most famous chapter in all the Bible. Verse 16 is certainly the most famous verse! One of the best known Pharisees, Nicodemus, came to Jesus under the cover of darkness to peak with Him (3:1-2). Nicodemus (and others: whoever the “we” is) knows that Jesus is a teacher sent by God. This can mean that he believed Jesus to be a prophet or nothing more than a teacher empowered by God. Either way, Jesus teaches Nicodemus that one needs to be “born again” to see the kingdom of God (v. 3).5 Jesus, however, doesn’t say born “again.”6 This word is nowhere else translated “again” in the entire Bible. It means “from above” (like in Jas 1:17) or “from top to bottom” (like in Matt 27:51). Jesus is talking about God’s sovereignty in salvation. Nicodemus’s question to Jesus (“a second time”) may influence the English translation here.
Jesus then expounds His statement: one must be born of “water and the Spirit” to be part of the kingdom (v. 5). The word for “and” can be (it is over 100 times) translated as “even.” It is a word of clarification. One needs to be born of water, that is, the Spirit. Jesus is pulling imagery from Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 36:25-26, God uses the metaphor of water for the cleansing from sin that accompanies the indwelling of the Spirit (see also Isa 44:3). This is right before Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, where the same word is used for “Spirit,” “breath,” and “wind.” Jesus is about to use that same word play.
In verse 6, Jesus clarifies that this birth from above is not physical, and clarifies that He is speaking of the Spirit. Jesus’s statement about not knowing from where or to where the wind goes (v. 8) is a metaphor for the sovereignty of God in salvation. He gives the Spirit to Whom He will. And Jesus believes Nicodemus should already know this (vv. 9-10). Jesus believes the Old Testament makes this clear. Jesus tells Nicodemus that “you” do not receive “our” testimony (v. 11). The “you” is plural. This is the Jews. The “our” is God – the Word and the Holy Spirit. He is speaking of the inspired Old Testament Scriptures. He is saying: “You Israelites do not understand what God’s Word says.” In verse 12, He tells Nicodemus that the physical points to the higher spiritual reality. In verse 13, Jesus is making another allusion to Jacob’s Ladder – He is God in the flesh from heaven. And as the serpent was lifted by Moses to heal those who were dying because of their sin (see Num 21:9), so all who look to Christ for salvation will be saved from death (v. 14).
Here is a good point to remind you not only that the chapter and verse designations were added far after the fact, but that the whole red-letter idea is relatively new. It is an interpretive choice by the translators to tell us what Jesus said. In most cases, it’s obvious. In others, not so much. Jesus’s words end at verse 15, even if your Bible is red in verses 16-21. John is expounding/clarifying what Jesus said to Nicodemus. And in most modern translations, the “only begotten” language is abandoned in verse 16. Why? Because modern scholarship has corrected the earlier belief that the Greek word monogene used here comes from the root gennao, which means “to give birth to.” Discoveries of other writings reveal that the root word is ginomai, which means “to be.” The word does not mean “only begotten,” but “the only one that is” – Jesus is God’s Son in a unique way.
The point is, there is one way to be saved. It is Jesus. And that God loved “the world” and that “whoever” believes is brought from death to life is not espousing Arminianism in any way. John is saying that what Jesus told Nicodemus is that the whole world – not just Israel – is included in Christ’s salvation. God doesn’t love only Israel. He loves the whole world (see 1:11-13)! Contrary to Israel’s faulty expectation, the Messiah did not come to save them and condemn the rest of the world, but to save the whole world (v. 17). It is about who is part of the spiritual people of God – who believes (v. 18)! John now refers back to his prologue. The light (the Word) has come into the world, but people prefer darkness over light (v. 19). People prefer sin over salvation! So there are two types of people: those who rely on their own works (v. 20), and those who rely on Christ’s work (v. 21).
John now offers another event in the life of John the Baptist that we get nowhere else. This is further expansion on everything in this chapter. John is baptizing in Judea, and so were Jesus’s disciples (vv. 22-24) Though the “was baptizing” is singular and refers to Jesus, John clarifies in 4:2 that the disciples were carrying out the work. John’s own disciples are curious as to what’s going on with Jesus. He is now baptizing and gaining followers while John is losing followers (vv. 25-26). Now keep in mind the water metaphor (v. 5) and the “from above” idea (v. 3). John, in a discussion about baptism, says a person can receive nothing unless it is given to him from heaven. John’s baptism was an act-prophesy about the Spirit wrought salvation from above worked in Christ (vv. 27-28 – see Matt 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16)!
John’s remaining disciples are a little jealous for him, but He is thrilled that Jesus is now giving the real thing (v. 29)! John’s typological pointer needs to be forgotten, and the real thing embraced (v. 30). Why? Because He Who comes “from above” (same word as v. 3) is above everything (v. 31). He speaks of what He has seen (v. 32). And what has He seen? Well, He is from heaven (v. 31) so He has seen heavenly things. So Jesus speaks of heavenly things (see v. 12). And since He is from above/heaven, He – Jesus – is the One Who gives the Spirit (v. 34). He has been sent, but He will be the sender of the Spirit (foreshadowing!). And note, believing in the Son is contrasted with disobedience (v. 36). In other words, obedience to God is believing in Jesus! All men are commanded to believe! Those who don’t will face the wrath of God.
1Though this Gospel is almost universally attributed to the Apostle John, I do not believe he is the author. While the Bible reveals none of the Gospel writers’ identities, unless there is good reason to question the tradition and early attributions, we should accept the names provided in our modern Bibles. However, I believe that there is internal evidence in the Bible that excludes John from being the author, and even points to the true author.
First, let’s address the belief that only the Twelve were present in the upper room the night before Jesus’s death. As we have seen, Jesus had many disciples. The Gospel of Luke says that Jesus reclined at table with the Apostles (Luke 21:14) after John and Peter go prepare for the Passover meal (Luke 21:8). Matthew says that “the disciples” prepared the meal (Matt 26:17-19), and Jesus reclined at table with “the Twelve” (Matt 26:20). Mark tells us that two “disciples” of Jesus prepared the meal (Mark 14:13-16) and after that Jesus “came with the Twelve” (Mark 14:17). In addition, Mark tells us of a young man that “followed” Jesus that was with Him and the Apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:51:52) after “they all left him and fled” (Mark 14:50). Also note that none of the Gospel accounts say Jesus ate with only the Twelve or only the Apostles.
There are differences in number across the Gospel accounts (How many angels were at the tomb? How many blind men did Jesus heal coming into Jerusalem?) depending on the author’s focus. Luke speaks of two angels (Luke 24:4) and Matthew of one (Matt 28:2-5). Matthew’s focus on one does not exclude there being two present. So that the Twelve Apostles were there doesn’t exclude others from being there. On top of that, the Gospel of John doesn’t record the Last Supper, so it is also possible that even if that was only done with the Twelve, that there were others there eating the Passover meal with them, or joined them later. Point is: nothing grammatically excludes others from being there.
Second, the Gospel of John excludes the calling of the Twelve Apostles, which proves nothing but strengthens an argument against one of the Twelve writing the book.. Third, it has much to say about Jesus’s friends from Bethany: Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. That includes the raising of Lazarus that is nowhere else recorded.
Fourth, there is a focus on an unnamed disciple that “Jesus loved” in this account. Note two things about this. First, an unnamed disciple comes with Peter to the courtyard of the High Priest (John 18:15). If this was John, why not name him, if even as a son of Zebedee (as in 21:2). In addition, this disciple was “known to the High Priest” and is how Peter gets into the courtyard. It would be odd for the youngest Apostle who was a fisherman to have a relationship with the High Priest. Even more odd would be the events of Acts 4 if John was a personal friend of the High Priest. There, the High Priest, among others, question the two Apostles and “perceived (or “realized”) that they were uneducated, common men.” If John was a friend of the High Priest (which a common man would not be, by the way), why did he only realize then that John was uneducated?
The second thing to notice about this unnamed disciple that “Jesus loved” is that he is not mentioned until the narrative involving Lazarus. The first time we are told “Jesus loved” a specific person is in 11:3. We are told again in 11:5 that Jesus loved this family. Only after this do we get references to “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” If someone read this Gospel not knowing who tradition says authored it, they would surely assume that the disciple whom Jesus loved is the one introduced in 11:3. And I believe he is. A well-to-do man like Lazarus from just outside Jerusalem is much more likely to know the High Priest. He is also a much more appropriate choice if Jesus is going to entrust the care of his mother to someone (19:26-27). It also explains the assumption that he would not die (21:23). He already had died and had been raised!
All that said, for convenience, I will refer to the author as “John” throughout our consideration of this account.
2 This saying is often attributed to St. Augustine.
3 And don’t let a heretic tell you that since the definite article is missing, John is saying that Jesus was a god. That is grammatically impossible. Both “Word” and “God” are in the nominative case. This clause is a predicate nominative (go look that up). Which means that the writer is saying that God and the Word are one and the same thing.
4 Also note that if Matthew, Mark, and Luke meant to say that Jesus was only in Jerusalem once during His ministry, we must either compress Jesus’s ministry into one year, or agree that He did not observe the feasts, which would be breaking the Law.
5 It was upon reading this very verse for the first time that God changed my life. In a moment, I was saved and everything was different. Praise God!
6 Peter does say “again” in 1 Peter 1:3, 23.