Both early tradition and evidence from the Bible itself indicate that ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ was John the son of Zebedee, and that this John was the author of John’s Gospel (John 21:20,24).
The other Gospels mention John by name frequently, as he was one of the three apostles who featured prominently in much of the activity of Jesus. But his name never appears in John’s Gospel. The writer, following a common practice of not mentioning his own name, used instead the descriptive name by which he was well known (John 13:23; 19:26; 21:7; see JOHN THE APOSTLE). Perhaps John’s use of this title showed his unending gratitude for all that Jesus had done for him.
The apostle at Ephesus
John was very old at the time he wrote his Gospel, and was probably the last survivor of the original apostolic group. Some even thought he would never die (John 21:23). Records from the period immediately after the New Testament era indicate that he lived his later years in Ephesus in Asia Minor, where he fought against false teachers. He probably wrote his Gospel within the last decade or so of the first century. Wrong teaching about Jesus had appeared over the years (Col 2:4,8,18-19; 1 Tim 6:3-5), and was to become very destructive with the Gnostic heresies of the second century. John was already dealing with early stages of these errors at Ephesus. Certain teachers had come into the church and denied that the divine and the human were perfectly united in Jesus. Some denied that Jesus was fully divine, others that he was fully human. John opposed both errors.
His book, however, was not intended merely as an attack on false teaching. He had a positive purpose, and that was to lead people to faith in Christ, so that they might experience the full and eternal life that Christ had made possible (John 20:31; cf. 1:4; 3:15; 4:14; 5:24; 6:27; 8:12; 10:10; 11:25; 14:6; 17:3). From the opening words of the book, John asserted that Jesus was truly God (John 1:1) and truly a human being (John 1:14). As to his divinity, he was the eternal one who created all things (John 1:2-3) and who came from the heavenly world to reveal God (John 1:18; 3:13; 5:18-19; 6:62; 14:9,11) As to his humanity, he had a material body that possessed the normal physical characteristics (John 4:6-7; 9:6; 19:28,34) and that experienced the normal human emotions (John 11:35; 12:27).
Characteristics of John’s
Gospel By the time John wrote his Gospel, the other three Gospels were widely known. Since John and his readers were no doubt familiar with them, there was no point in John’s producing a similar narrative-type account of Jesus’ life. John was concerned more with showing the meaning of incidents in Jesus’ life. The stories he knew were beyond number (John 20:30; 21:25), but from them he made a selection, around which he built his book. He used this material to teach spiritual truth by showing what the chosen incidents signified. For this reason he called the incidents ‘signs’ (e.g. John 2:1-11; 4:46-54; 6:1-14; 11:1- 44; see SIGNS). Because the signs were designed to show that Jesus was the messianic Son of God (John 20:30-31), they were often followed by long debates with the Jews (e.g. John 5:1-15 followed by 5:16-47; John 9:1- 12 followed by 9:13-10:39). These and other debates that Jesus had with the Jews provided John with his teaching material. He used the words of Jesus to teach the Christian truths he wanted to express (e.g. John 7:1-52; 8:12-59).
The contrast between John and the other Gospel writers is seen when one of John’s ‘signs’ is recorded also in the other Gospels. The other writers did little more than tell the story, whereas John followed the story with lengthy teaching that arose out of it (e.g. cf. Matt 14:13-21 with John 6:1-14 and the teaching that follows in v. 26-65). John’s concern with the interpretation of events showed itself also in the way he recorded some of Jesus’ lengthy conversations with people (e.g. with Nicodemus in John 3:1-15 and with the Samaritan woman in John 4:1-26). Likewise he used his account of the Last Supper, reported briefly in the other Gospels, to provide five chapters of teaching on important Christian doctrines (John 13:1-17:26). In John’s Gospel, more than in the others, there is an emphasis on the reason for the Jews’ hatred of Jesus. They considered that his claim to be God in human form was blasphemy, and they were determined to get rid of him (John 6:42; 7:28-30; 8:57-59; 10:33,39; 11:25,53). The strongest opposition to him was in Jerusalem, and John’s Gospel shows that Jesus spent more time in Jerusalem than is recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke (John 2:13; 5:1; 7:14,25; 8:20; 10:22-23; 11:1).
Summary of contents
In the introduction Jesus is presented as the eternal Word who became flesh (1:1-18). John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus (1:19-28) and then baptized him (1:29-34), after which Jesus called his first disciples (1:35-51), presented his first ‘sign’ to them (2:1-11), then went to Jerusalem and cleansed the temple (2:12-25). Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about new birth (3:1-21), and John the Baptist spoke to the Jews about Jesus (3:22-36). Upon leaving Judea, Jesus met and taught various people in Samaria (4:1-42) and performed a healing miracle in Galilee (4:43-54). Back in Jerusalem a further healing miracle resulted in a dispute with the Jews about Jesus’ divine sonship (5:1-47). After a miracle in Galilee that provided food for a multitude, people wanted to make Jesus king (6:1-21). Jesus taught them that the only ‘food’ that could truly sustain them was himself (6:22-71).
Jesus’ unbelieving brothers urged him to go to Jerusalem and perform his wonders at a festival that was about to take place (7:1-13), but when Jesus went he taught the people and aroused much opposition (7:14-8:11). He met more opposition when he taught that he was the light of the world (8:12-30) and the one who could set people free (8:31-59). Jesus’ healing of a blind man in Jerusalem brought him into further conflict with the Jewish leaders (9:1-41). This resulted in Jesus’ contrasting himself as the good shepherd with them as worthless shepherds (10:1-30). After being further attacked, he went to the regions around the Jordan River, where many believed (10:31-42). At Bethany, just outside Jerusalem, he raised Lazarus from death, declaring himself to be the resurrection and the life (11:1-44). This was the event that finally stirred the Jews to plot his death (11:45-57). After an anointing at Bethany (12:1-8), Jesus entered Jerusalem triumphantly (12:9-19) and gave his final public teaching (12:20-50). At the Passover meal with his disciples he demonstrated the nature of true service by washing their feet (13:1-20) and warned of the betrayer among them (13:21-38).
In the teaching that followed, Jesus told the disciples that as he had come from the Father, so he would return to the Father, after which he would send his Spirit to indwell them (14:1-31). They had to abide in him (15:1-17) and bear persecution for his sake (15:18-27). Jesus spoke further of the Holy Spirit’s work (16:1-15), but in their confusion of mind the disciples scarcely understood him (16:16-33). He then prayed at length to his Father, not only for himself and his disciples, but also for those who would yet believe (17:1-26). Upon going to Gethsemane to pray again, Jesus was arrested and taken to the high priest (18:1-27). From there he was taken to the Roman governor (18:28-40), humiliated before the people (19:1-16), crucified (19:17-30) and buried (19:31-42). On the third day he rose from the dead, appearing first to Mary and then to his disciples (20:1-25). The next week he appeared to the disciples again (20:26-31). Some time later he appeared to seven of the disciples at the Sea of Galilee (21:1-14), where he delivered a final challenging message to Peter (21:15-25).
Various names have been used of John the apostle. Many of the people of his time referred to him as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, perhaps because of his special relationship with Jesus (John 13:23; 19:26-27). But Jesus himself often referred to John and his older brother James as ‘sons of thunder’, perhaps because they were sometimes impatient and over-zealous (Mark 3:17; 10:35-40; Luke 9:49-56). John was one of the most highly respected leaders in the early church, and later generations knew him as ‘the elder’ (2 John 1; 3 John 1). (For his writings see JOHN, GOSPEL OF; JOHN, LETTERS OF.) He has traditionally been regarded as the writer of the book of Revelation (Rev 1:1,9; 22:8; see REVELATION, BOOK OF).
In the time of Jesus
John’s father was a fisherman named Zebedee (Matt 4:21). His mother, Salome, appears to have been the sister of Mary the mother of Jesus (Matt 27:56; Mark 15:40; John 19:25-27). The family lived in a town on the shores of Lake Galilee, where James and John worked as fishermen in partnership with another pair of brothers, Peter and Andrew (Matt 4:18-21; Luke 5:10). Most likely all four men had responded to John the Baptist’s preaching. They became disciples of the Baptist and were part of that minority of true believers who looked expectantly for the promised Saviour. John was probably one of the two disciples (the other was Andrew) whom the Baptist first directed to Jesus Christ (John 1:35-40). Soon both pairs of brothers had become followers of Jesus (Matt 4:22), and later all four were included in Jesus’ group of twelve apostles (Matt 10:2). Peter, James and John developed into an inner circle of disciples who were particularly close to Jesus (Mark 5:37; 9:2; 14:33). As the ministry of Jesus progressed, Peter became increasingly more prominent. James and John, with their mother, tried to outdo Peter by going to Jesus and asking him to give the top two positions in his kingdom to them. They received no such guarantee from Jesus; only a rebuke for their selfish ambition and a promise of persecution ahead (Matt 20:20-28). By the time Jesus’ ministry had come to an end, Peter and John were clearly the two leading apostles (Luke 22:8; John 19:26-27; 20:2-9; 21:20).
In the early church
After Jesus’ return to his Father, Peter and John provided the main leadership for the Jerusalem Christians. Their boldness amid persecution was an example to all (Acts 1:13; 3:1-4,11; 4:13-20; 5:40). They were the first Christian leaders to show publicly that God accepted non-Jewish converts into the church equally with Jewish converts (Acts 8:14-17). John’s willingness to preach in Samaritan villages was in marked contrast to his hostility to Samaritans a few years earlier (Acts 8:25; cf. Luke 9:52-56). With James the Lord’s brother they formed a representative group who expressed the Jerusalem church’s fellowship in the mission of Paul and Barnabas to the Gentiles (Gal 2:9). The Bible contains little information about John’s later activities, though there are early records outside the Bible that refer to him. According to these, John lived to a very old age (as Jesus had foretold; John 21:20-23) and spent most of his later years in Ephesus. From there he wrote his Gospel and the three letters that bear his name. It seems also that he was imprisoned on Patmos, an island off the coast from Ephesus, from where the book of Revelation was written (Rev 1:9).